The Unexpected Benefits of Rain

(This post is from the evening of October 20th)

At breakfast in San Sepolcro, I was eating only with the other pilgrims in the TV room where the monks had watched the soccer game last night.  When I arrived, the others had already started, and they had left the only open seat in the middle of the table, awkwardly breaking up their group.  These people seemed to speak German to each other, and they certainly didn’t look Italian, but they spoke perfect Italian to the monks the night before.  They told me that they were from the northeastern part of Italy, where people speak German, just like the two women I had met in Ivrea.  They were enjoying a very hearty breakfast, eating much more bread and cookies than I.  The butter sitting in the middle of the table was nearly gone by the time I left, even though the package had initially been full.  My dining companions were spreading it on incredibly thick on their bread in a way that would make the inventor of the fried butter on a stick at the Iowa Republican Straw Poll proud.  One of the men told me that they had seen me at La Verna, three days ago and that they were also heading to Città del Castello today.  They were still eating when I had finished and got up to leave.  I wished them good luck on their journey, and the one man said, “See you later,” as if he was certain we would be staying in the same place again tonight.

I left the convent, and walked along the smaller roads of the upper edge of town.  Eventually the houses faded away, and the road curved towards a hill to begin—from what I could tell—the last major climb of the pilgrimage, to a hermitage that overlooks to the city.  Along this road, I saw only one other person—a man who passed me, riding up the hill on a horse, while leading another one behind him.  Finally I reached the hermitage and had a pretty good view of San Sepolcro below.  No one was around, and the only sign of life was a dog who was, of course, barking at me.  The door to the church was open, however, and I went in to find a beautifully decorated chapel.  In a box on one of the side wall was a collection of relics—mostly bone fragments of various saints—and there were several nice paintings and frescoes in the old building.

From the hermitage, the path really left civilization behind and led into a desolate landscape made only bleaker by the greyness of the sky.  It felt strange, walking through uncovered gravel paths in this environment, and my mind began to turn to scenes from apocalyptic movies and books, like The Road and Mad Max.  It just seemed like the land had been blighted somehow, and my being completely alone, with not so much as a building in sight, added to the feeling.  Little did I know how an actual disaster was about to strike.

The clouds grew thicker and thicker, and I turned around to see rain pouring down on parts of the trail that I had already passed.  Looking up at the sky, clouds were swiftly moving in the opposite direction from where I was walking, so I thought I’d be OK, but the beginning of a few drops of rain soon proved me wrong.  I upped my pace, and even ran when I could to try and make up some distance before things got too bad.  I knew I was very far away from Città del Castello, and I had no desire to walk through a deluge for hours.  I thought my tactic of running had worked, because the rain let up for a few minutes, but it returned with a vengeance, and I was forced to get out my poncho and bag cover before everything got absolutely soaked.  Just as I was pulling these out of my sack, the sky really opened up, and I knew that I had to get off the road.  Luckily, I was not far from an agrtiurismo that accepted pilgrims, so I decided I would call it quits for the day once I got there.  My guide told me that I would pass right by it on the path, so I made sure to keep an eye open when I eventually got to houses as I made my way down from the hills into the valley below.  None of the houses I passed looked like an agriturismo, however, and eventually I ended up by the highway, which my guide was clear enough in pointing out was after the refuge.  I took shelter under the stairway of a house by the side of the road while I figured out what to do, and an old man came outside and beckoned me to his garage where he gave me a chair to sit on.  Looking over my maps, I couldn’t figure out how I hadn’t seen the agriturismo on my way, so I decided to call and ask for directions from the owners themselves.  A woman picked up the phone, and after confirming that they had space for me, I asked her to describe where her house was in relation to the road.  After a lot of back and forth, she told me that she didn’t think I had passed it, but I was sure I must have, or else my guide was really wrong.  She got so frustrated with our inability to figure it out that she switched to broken English, not actually helping anything.  Eventually she told me to stay put and she would come and get me.  I thanked the old man for the use of his garage, and went outside to wait for the woman to come pick me up.

No one came for the next ten minutes, so I fished out my cell phone and called again.  A few more fruitless minutes trying to figure out where we each were led to nothing, and I began walking back up the hill to where I thought her house might be.  By the time I reached the middle of the hill, I was drenched, but no closer to finding shelter.  I turned back to look at the valley and saw something that made my heart skip a beat with excitement—a FIAT Panda.  FIATs, let alone Pandas, don’t generally get me very excited, but this one was yellow, and the woman on the phone had said that her car was that color.  I picked up my phone to call again.  “Did you just turn off the highway?” I asked, hopefully.  “Yes,” came the reply.  “OK, I’m on this road, but a bit above you.”  Up drove the Panda, and soon my bag was in the trunk, and I in the front seat.  “I’m sorry I switched to English,” she said.  “I didn’t realize you spoke Italian so well.  It’s impossible to give directions over the phone.”  “Especially when you think you’re someplace that you’re not,” I added.  She asked where I was from, guessing that it might be Germany or Holland, then said, “You don’t sound like an American with all those ‘errs’ and ‘arrs’.  You speak Italian slow with an open mouth, like a German.”  I wasn’t really sure if this was a compliment or not, and was sure that she also just didn’t expect me to be an American, given how few people from the U.S. do this pilgrimage.

In a few minutes, we arrived at her house, and I was instructed to leave my bag and wet things outside on the covered patio.  Just as I was getting everything out of the car, the rain stopped, of course, but it was too late to back out of staying there now, and, besides, I had already lost so much time that I would arrive at Città del Castello too late if I left now.  Shivering in my wet clothes, I asked if I could take a shower.  The woman relpied that she first needed to clean the bathroom, because she had used it the night before.  I was certain that the cleaning was unnecessary, but she seemed insistent, so I sat for a few more cold, damp minutes in the next room while she scrubbed the bathtub.  After she was done, I took over the room and did something that I hadn’t for years—I took an actual bath.

When I came downstairs, I found that my bag and clothes had been moved from the patio to a spot in front of a large fire that was burning on the other side of the house.  I checked through my bag to see if everything had survived the rain, and, aside from a little dampness, everything seemed to be alright.  I turned around and a man was standing there.  “Everything will dry out by the fire,” he said.  I guessed he was the woman’s husband, but didn’t get a confirmation before he went away.  I started to spread out the damp things on some chairs in front of the fire, and the man returned with three small apples.  “These are mine—totally organic,” he said, pressing them into my hands. Soon he came back with a large bottle full of water, and some more fruit.  “Do you have these in America?  Mandarini.”  I had always assumed that the tiny oranges were Chinese in origin, but maybe not.  “Yes,” I said peeling one.  After eating one of the sections, I added, “but not this good.”  I wasn’t lying, either.  The orange was delicious, as were the apples the man had brought.  Before I could realize it, I was having a long conversation with him, discussing anything and everything about our two countries.  A man who I originally pegged as a mere farmer knew about everything from the agricultural history of the Upper Tevere Valley—the first region in Europe to grow tobacco—to Italian art—Giotto and Piero della Francesca being among his favorites.  It turns out he also was a physics teacher at the local high school.  We talked long after it grew dark, and after going to the kitchen for a minute, he told me that they just announced the killing of Ghadaffi in Libya.  I think he was missing his son who was studying Economics in Trent and must have been around my age.  “Isn’t this great?” he asked.  “Sitting by the fire, chatting.  Do you all have fireplaces in America?  No fireplace, no home.”

It was getting late, and the man asked if I was hungry.  “Yes,” I replied eagerly.  Just then, the woman returned home, and the two of them went into the kitchen to make dinner.  I went over to the window to see if the clouds had lifted, and indeed they had, revealing the lights of the entire valley below.  The Upper Tevere Valley seemed like a bustling metropolis after days of tiny towns of a few thousand or fewer people.  Even with all the lights in the valley, I could still see stars, demonstrating that the light pollution here was much less than the places I know in America.

Dinner was ready after not too long.  First up was pastasciutta, basically pasta in tomato sauce.  This was quite good, and then we moved on to thinly sliced carrots marinated in vinegar, salt, and homemade olive oil, an intensely bitter leafy green, and delicious bell peppers.  All of this was accompanied by red wine made from the couple’s friend down the road.  After dinner, there was pitch black coffee made in a special Italian contraption that I’d seen around before, but never received an explanation of its workings until now.  Even though I’m not a huge coffee fan, I actually sort of enjoyed it served here.

I went up to a freshly made bed and reflected on my first day of real rain during my pilgrimage.  It wasn’t fun while it was going on, but it gave me the opportunity to meet these wonderful people.  It’s funny how things usually work out for the best.  Even difficulties lead to unexpected opportunities to enjoy the incredible hospitality that this country has to offer.

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~ by pminnig on November 15, 2011.

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