American voices in San Gimignano

(This post is from the evening of September 13th)

Today I took a bus from Poggibonsi—not on the Via Francigena, but on the Italian rail network—to the town of San Gimignano, about 20 minutes away.  Some alert Yale students may recognize the name “San Gimignano” as the inspiration for Ezra Stiles and Morse College’s architect Eero Saarinen’s rendering of the two facilities.  Of people I know who have seen both the residential colleges and the Italian town that serves as their inspiration, pretty much all of them have said that there’s no way that story can be true because they look nothing alike.  I beg to differ.

San Gimignano may or may not have been founded by two brothers who built castles atop this hill in AD 63.  San Gimignano was definitely a place in the 10th Century; it would later gain its independence from the nearby Bishopric of Volterra in 1199.  The town grew considerably during this period, as it became an important stopping point for Pilgrims on the Via Francigena, and also because of its position on the road to Pisa from Siena, a road that merchants from the more southerly town would have to take in order to avoid territory controlled by Florence.  San Gimignano thrived on this traffic.  At the height of its power it held five monasteries, six hospitals, and even a set of public baths within its walls, all meant to accommodate the travelling pilgrim and merchant populations.  The town had its troubles: it was devastated by the plague in 1348; and even offering its allegiance to Florence couldn’t help the community when the Via Francigena was diverted elsewhere.  San Gimignano fell into a steep decline, which, ironically, ensured its future success, since it remains perfectly preserved today, making it a popular destination for tourists.

San Gimignano is also famous for its towers which dominate the town’s skyline.  Built by dueling, wealthy families during the middle ages, 72 towers adorned the crest of the hill, but today only 14 remain.  Even so, San Gimignano is still quite a sight to behold, just as I witnessed through the trees on the bus ride up to the southern edge of town.

I arrived around one o’clock and had some time to kill, as I was told to arrive at the religious hostel at 3 PM.  San Gimignano is very small, so I had no trouble seeing most of the town before then.  There are two piazzas on the southern end of town that form the center of activity. When I arrived there were hordes of tourists—many in pairs or small groups, but some were part of a larger tour—walking around and eating gelato. No one—with the exception of shopkeepers and a few guides—looked Italian.  The piazzas are lined with café tables, and many people were sitting on the steps of the town Duomo in the shade cast by one of the towers.  I made my way north along a broad street lined with shops selling wine, and articoli tipici of Tuscany.  Walking by a cheese shop nearly knocked me off my feet from the smell, as did passing in front of a store selling leather goods.  There were tons of couples wandering along, holding hands, and looking in the shop windows to see what was for sale.

I came to a small pizza shop that sold by the slice and decided to get my lunch there.  When I walked up to the counter, a German boy was thoroughly frustrating the shop’s owner: even though she was speaking to him in English, he seemed incapable of providing a straight answer to her questions.

“What would you like?” she asked. “What this?” the boy replied, pointing in the general area of one of the platters.  “This, four cheese,” she said, pointing at one half of the plate.  “This one, tonno, um… tuna.” “OK,” mumbled the confusing customer.  “Which one?” asked the shopkeeper exasperatedly.  “Cheese or tonno?”  “This, the cheese,” said the boy.  She brusquely cut off a slice and stuck it in the oven before turning back to fiercely look at the next person who might annoy her–me.  I’m glad the boy had taken so long to figure out what he wanted, because in the meantime a fresh pie had come out of the oven.  It was covered in rings of red onion and had little bits of meat on it.  I’ve had great luck with fresh pizzas being delivered just in time for me on this trip.  I looked up at the woman and said, “Io prendo un taglio di questa pizza qui, con cipolle.”  She looked relieved that someone knew what he wanted and could ask for it in Italian, no less.  Quickly, my slice was handed to me; I paid, and headed out the door.  The pizza was delicious—thin, crispy crust, topped with crackling onion slices.  At 2.50 euros it was a pretty good deal, too, for an area as touristy as this one.

Munching my slice, I continued down the road and turned off at a sign reading, “Passage of the Wall.”  I arrived at the city wall and passed through the small portico onto a narrow pathway leading around the large edifice.  Walking beyond some trees revealed a stunning view of the Tuscan landscape to the west.  Rolling hills were covered with vineyards and tall Roman Pines; the bright blue sky adorned with large, billowing clouds served as the perfect contrast to the light tan landscape.  Even though this somewhat dry and dusty region of the country drives my allergies wild, I still love its incredible landscape.

It was nearly three o’clock, and I found my way back into town and discovered the Piazza di Sant’Agostino, home to the convent where I was meant to stay the night.  I called the number that had worked for me the day before and got who I thought was the same person on the other end of the line.  “Hi,” I said, “I’m the pilgrim who called yesterday.”  “Ah yes,” came the reply.  “Where are you?”  “I’m here in the Piazza di Sant’Agostino,” I said hopefully.  “Ok, well you have to wait until three.  Thank you.”  The man on the phone hung up.  I looked down at my watch and saw that it was seven past the hour.  Had I misunderstood?  Did he not know what time it was?  I walked over from the shaded side of the piazza, opposite the convent to look for a way in, or to see if there was someone there who could help me.  Suddenly, from around the corner came a short-haired woman, wearing hiking boots and carrying a backpack.  “Pelligrino?” she inquired.  “,” I replied, confused by what was going on.  Another, similar- looking woman came around the same corner as the first woman approached me and grabbed my wrist.  Looking at my watch she said, “Tre,” and I, forgetting for a moment that I had just been manhandled by a complete stranger, was relieved that I wasn’t the one in error when I called the convent.  “Deutcshe?” she asked, looking up at me again.  “English,” I replied, “or Italian.” “Ugh,” she said, as she turned to her companion and started to jabber away in something I couldn’t understand at all.  I thought it might be Dutch, but wasn’t sure.

They both walked up to the door of the convent and starting discussing something heatedly.  I think they were trying to remember the name of someone before ringing at the door.  They gave up on remembering and rang anyway.  Soon afterwards, there was a buzz at the door, but neither of them could get it open when they tried to pull.  I wanted to suggest that they push, but didn’t think they would understand me, so I kept my mouth shut.  Soon, the door opened inwards—again I was pleased that I had been right about that—and an Hispanic man beckoned us inside.  He welcomed us and asked us where we were from, but the two women didn’t seem to understand any Italian.  This is when I decided to speak up and explain what had happened.  I told the man we were not travelling together and I had just run into them at the door.  “Oh, ok,” he said.  “I can’t speak English after lunch so would you mind telling them what I say?”  I agreed to my role as interpreter and did the round of introductions for all of us, translating the man’s Italian into simple English that the first woman could understand, and then she would translate that into whatever language she was speaking with the other one.  I learned that the second woman was from Russia and the first, Amsterdam—again, I was right about something else!  It seemed as if they had just started their journey and they both had the Latin Pilgrimage Credential that had been given to me by the priest in Mortara.  The man explained the complicated key situation to me and I informed the women about which doors they could open to enter and leave the building.

The man took us upstairs and showed us our rooms.  Two of the four sides of the convent were filled with rooms that each held either two or three beds.  They all seemed unoccupied, but I heard some other voices echoing through the halls.  In the hallway outside the bathroom, there were materials, printed in English, with information on the Order of St. Augustine and the convent here in San Gimignano.  I picked up some of the flyers, and as I walked back to my room, saw one of the doors covered with bumper stickers of the Scottish flag.  This, I thought, was very odd and was something I’d have to investigate.

I went into my room and took my shirt off to cool down as I read some of the materials I had picked up outside the bathroom.  As I was reading, I heard voices echoing in the hallway outside my door, and as they came closer, I realized that they were American.  I quickly rummaged through my bag for a clean shirt, but by the time I had put one on and poked my head out the door, the voices were gone.  I went out and wandered through the convent, but there was nobody in sight.  Walking through the hallways, I noticed that my footsteps made loud echoes and realized that the voices I had heard might have been coming from the other side of the building.  I was surprised to hear familiar accents because I was sure that the man who showed me to my room would have told me if any of my countrymen were inhabiting the convent, too.

I spent the afternoon resting and learning more about the history of the Augustine Order and this particular convent.  Later, I went out again, this time to see the fortress at the summit of the hill.  There were still tons of tourists about, and I ran into a group on the fortress wall.  From up here, you had stunning views of the surrounding countryside.  Even without the perfectly preserved medieval architecture, San Gimignano would be worth visiting just for the panoramas.  I descended from the fortress and followed signs that pointed the way to San Gimignano’s medieval fountains.  These were at the very foot of the town’s hill, outside the surrounding walls.  On the steep descent, there was a cat—completely black, sitting on a wall on one side of the road.  The fountains were just past his perch, so I walked by, hoping he wouldn’t decide to walk across the road after I had passed, thereby blocking my return route.  These were very much like some of the fountains in Siena—brick and stone structures built over the source of the water.  Several fish were swimming in the bottom of the pool.  I didn’t think the water would be safe for drinking, but that didn’t stop me from putting my hands under the pipe and splashing my face with it.  It was cold and crisp, a welcome relief from the day’s heat.  I turned back around and the cat was still at his spot, so I headed back up the hill to the convent.

In all the things I’ve read about San Gimignano, authors recommend going out in the city at night.  They say it has a totally different feel from the daytime when all the tourists are around.  I was very tired and dressed in my pajamas, but had the feeling that if I didn’t at least take a walk around town, I would regret having missed the opportunity.  I threw on a shirt and shoes and marched out of my room.

The convent was pitch black.  I had to wait a minute outside my door for my eyes to adjust.  Even then, it was difficult to see.  As I edged my way to the stairwell, I again heard American voices echoing across the convent.  I tried to pinpoint where they were coming from, but just couldn’t, especially in the darkness.  I made my way to the door to the convent courtyard and a cat ran inside as soon as I had opened the door.  I found the passageway to the outside and began my walk about town.

Walking through the residential part of town I could hear sounds of conversation and clinking plates coming from the open windows above.  As I neared the central piazzas, though, I could see that there were fewer tourists around, but not by much.  The only difference between the afternoon and night time was that the tourists were now all seated at restaurant tables surrounding the piazza edges.  As I walked around, I heard more American voices cutting through the general murmur of chatter from the restaurants.  I wondered if my ears were just attuned to picking out familiar accents, or if they way we speak really is as loud as it seemed while I was walking around.

I hoped I didn’t look too odd in my sweat pants and t-shirt.  I certainly didn’t look like one of the many tourists, nor was my appearance Italian at all.  I figured it didn’t matter too much as everyone was probably more interested in their food than in watching me walk by in the shadows.  I felt I had seen enough and turned back to go to bed.  San Gimignano was certainly pleasant at night, but was it that much different from daytime?  No.  Thank goodness the town makes extensive use of right angles.

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~ by pminnig on September 17, 2011.

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