“You live near the palace of Barack Obama?”
(This post is from the evening of November 21st)
Describing Viterbo as a “dirty Milan” was a totally unfair representation of the city. This morning, I got up early enough to have a chance to wander around the city before I began the journey to Vetralla. Yesterday, only briefly, I entered the historic center before going off to find a place to stay the night, and I completely missed the beautifully preserved medieval portion of the city. This area, which I visited today, was much more like Siena than Milan. Twisting, narrow alleys made for difficult navigation, but beautiful photography opportunities. Old churches mixed in with palazzi comprised most of the quarter. In truth, though, surfaces were marred by a great deal of graffiti spread across every wall. This graffiti wasn’t the typical Italian “ti volgio bene Sylivia”—I love you, Sylvia—or “Marco tu 6 le mie stelle”—an Italian pun for ‘Marco, you are my stars’—but rather something more sinister. Swastikas were scrubbed out in some places, but not everywhere, and someone had turned a once-harmless painting of a giant smiley face wicked by adding a particularly offensive Hitler mustache and bangs.
Aside from the wall paintings, everything was lovely to look at. I found an especially old church from the 11th Century called Santa Maria Nuova. This was so well-preserved and beautiful that I wondered if the older Saint Mary’s was still standing. On my way out of the city, I stopped by the old Papal Palace that used to house the pontiffs when they were actually seated in Viterbo instead of Rome. Next door is the city’s cathedral—San Lorenzo. This was another beautiful church, with several popes buried in it. A man saw me walking around with my backpack and asked me if I wanted my pilgrimage credential stamped. I handed it to him and he went off to go fill it out. As I was waiting for him to return, the couple who had been examining the church while I was looking around approached me and surprised me by beginning a conversation in English. “So, how did you find out about the Francigena?”
It turns out the man used to be a professor of Italian at Middlebury and the couple now divided their time between Italy and the US—7 months in Europe and 5 months in the States. “Sounds good to me,” I said. “It’s worked very nicely for us,” replied the woman with a smile. They actually lived in Sutri, a town I am meant to stay in tomorrow. They told me about a convent there where they see pilgrims staying all the time. It was the place I had picked out, so hopefully there will be no trouble getting a room.
I left Viterbo and the route soon became ugly, following a gravel road running parallel to the highway. This had become a dumping ground for all sorts of trash that no one wanted to keep. Apparently in Italy it is acceptable to just abandon used appliances out here on the side of the road. I found a graveyard of refrigerators and a pile of old TV’s. There were also mounds of unused tiling and insulation along with messed-up couches. They had everything you might need to start a secondhand hardware store—including several kitchen sinks. Eventually, I left the main road behind and began a more pleasant section through fields and olive groves. The plentiful sign markings eventually ran out at a particularly confusing section and I made what I guess was a large detour in order to find the proper road again. This brought me into close proximity to a lot of vicious dogs, but they were—for the most part—behind fences, and if they weren’t, they were tiny and not much to be frightened of. Just as I was rejoining the right path, I came upon a farmer herding sheep with his dog along the road. It was funny to watch the two of them try to maneuver the sheep the way they wanted, and I was glad that losing my way had afforded me the opportunity to watch the spectacle.
Not too long after my encounter with the sheep, I got to Vetralla and began to look for the convent where I hoped to stay the night. The convent was a little bit out of town on top of a hill, and a black nun greeted me at the door. She showed me to a very nice room with its own recently-renovated bathroom and told me that dinner would be at 7:30. At 7:30, a knock came at the door and the same nun escorted me downstairs to the dining room. The table was set for seven, and the six other diners were already waiting for me at the table. The nun disappeared into another room and without introductions we began eating. I was ignored for most of the meal because I think that the others thought I didn’t understand Italian, despite my comprehension of and proper Italian responses to their offers of food. First, we had a very good soup of vegetables and pasta. Then the main dishes were brought out, consisting of deliciously buttered potato chunks, tuna from cans, collard greens, and cheese. Overall, it was a simple but good meal, and one I was glad to have, considering I wasn’t expecting the convent to feed me. At the far end of the table were three black children—two boys and a girl. The younger boy was the focus of much of the attention, making strange noises and occasionally wandering under the table. His well-behaved siblings seemed used to his shenanigans and were sort of amused by them, but the woman to my right—who I later learned was from Sardinia—proclaiming herself to be acting mother for the evening, took a dimmer view of the boy’s playfulness. Several times she would go over to him and forcibly place him back into his chair while threatening to throw him outside if he continued his bad behavior. Towards the end of dinner, the bearded priest—who had been translating random words from the conversation into English in order to impress me—decided to take matters into his own hands and lifted the boy into the air, pretending to throw him out the window. After setting him down, in his chair, the priest pushed it in close to the table so that the boy had no room to move. Apparently, this was enough excitement for one night, and the priest went off to bed.
After he left, the two women seemed more inclined to talk to me. One was from Romania, and she began asking me where I was from. “I’m American,” I said—a different reply to the one I usually give of “I’m from the United States,” because whenever I say that, the next thing that’s said to me is, “Oh, Americano.” “Which America?” asked the woman. I was confused and in my pause, the other woman definitively said, “South America.” Where on earth did she get an idea like that? “No, I’m from North America. I’m from Washington.” “Oh, Washington!” everyone exclaimed. At this point the Romanian woman began to ask me all these questions about American food, and she didn’t seem to believe me when I said that in America we eat everything and have cuisines from around the world. At this point the nun returned and the Romanian woman began excitedly explaining that in America people eat all sorts of food. “Brazilian too?” asked the nun. Again, confused, I paused and said, “Yeah, I guess so.” Then I understood the source of the question. They had seen the Brazilian visa in my passport and thought that that’s where I was from.
The kids began their own interview of me, practicing what was actually very good English. “How long have you lived in Italy?” asked the older boy. I was honored to think that he actually thought I lived here. At least my level of Italian is beginning to fool nine-year-olds. I explained to them that I wasn’t from Italy and that I lived near Barack Obama. “Oh, Barack Obama’s palace is in Washington?” “I wouldn’t call it a palace, but yes. His big, white house is close to where I live.” They were from Angola, and had been living in Italy since 2008. I think the nun may have been their aunt, but I wasn’t quite sure. They kept talking about their mother, but I think it’s safe to assume that the nun didn’t have children.
By this point, the two women had left, and the kids were told that they needed to go to bed in order to be ready for school the next day. I thanked the nun for the meal, said bye to the kids, and went upstairs to my surprisingly comfortable bed.