Arrivederci Italia, Old Friend

Posted on: Sunday, June 24th, 2012
Posted in: Travelog, Blog | Leave a comment

Serious sunlight seared mercilessly from above and sweat glowed on everyone’s brow. But because this was our last day in bella Italia, my heart was stuck in a Minnesota snowstorm. The intense mid-June light had to penetrate a thick cloud of melancholy.

When traveling large, the day before departure means unwelcome hours of reality checklists. You’d rather wander, ponder, and soak in history (the world’s and your own). But instead you do laundry, finagle logistics, and clean up the mind-boggling mess that a family of four makes when habitating a foreign home for 14 days.

Luckily, I did break away from the grunt work and head to Barga below to run errands (an ubiquitous curse), take the kids swimming at Barga’s picturesque pool (a cool bonus), pick up a prepped dinner for 6 (an unusual challenge in Barga), and—most important—meet up with Keane.

  • Meet Keane

Keane.  He’s a BFF who landed in the valley from England decades ago to make art. That he did; his installation of hundreds of umbrellas painted with faces and positioned all over town was one of the first things I noticed on my first visit, long ago.  He has also made a life here, replete with wife, 3 children, and an ancient house in Old Barga.

Keane is the kind of friend you make only rarely, and even less so when on tour.

We’ve shared countless happy hours and adventures together—and solved nearly 95% of the world’s problems through the years. On this last day in Italy, I was stunned by how busy we’d both been during my two-week stay. We had run into each other, and certainly chatted, but barely squeezed in a string of complete sentences.

So we’d arranged an hour—one measly, literal happy hour—to sit and sip and catch up at a table outside Aristo’s Bar, the place where we first met.

That hour was to begin at 6. By then, I’d miraculously found my dinner solution—“take-away” roasted chicken and sides from a new rosticceria nearby that would be ready for pick-up at 7. I sent my kids off to meander the walled confines of Old Barga and have their 555th gelati.  And at 5:59 I arrived like a Swiss train, including ample puffing and steam.  And at that moment, everything was right on schedule.

That minute lasted exactly that, and then the hour evaporated like spilt wine on Aristo’s hot cobblestones. Naturally, Keane didn’t show. And the deafening duomo’s clock tower reminded me of that every 15 minutes—when the bells tolled a time that had passed 30 minutes ago.  The bells, like Keane, were not on time. Italy still has its own (or is it no?) sense of time.

  • Aristo’s: World’s Best Bar

The sign on the door reads, “Da Aristo: From wine what sudden friendship springs.”

I sat alone at a table outside that legendary place on this quiet, sweltering evening, while everyone else hid from the heat.  The slow-motion chisel of change kept carving in front of me. You can go back, I contemplated, but it’s never the same. One image of proof: In the late 90s, I’d given Aristo a a nicely framed, 11” x 14” perfect B&W picture I took of him tending bar. For years, it hung proudly on the wall directly behind him, surrounded by his collection of antique booze bottles.

For me, knowing my artwork stood behind him was like always being there. Now, that portrait is hidden away on a distant shelf; it’s still in the house, but a challenge to see.

Aristo has gone away too; he died 4 years ago—and I can guarantee you that, during that funeral day, every shop went shuttered and the Duomo filled with mourners. At the bar now, the next generation, his son-in-law, has taken over—the 6th generation to run the joint!

My favorite bar on the planet remains uniquely amiable, and given the chance, I would drop by routinely, like back in the day. But today the soul there is harder to find, rather like my picture.

When Aristo passed on, much of the bar’s joyful noise, music, passion, and crazed combustion went with him. Old patrons and neighboring proprietors have died too, or moved on from their own serendipitous stay in Barga.

Aristo loved running that bar as much as he loved his people, hospitality, and life. If there are saints, as Italy insists, he is playing piano among them.

Aristo’s evening hours were approximately 4 – 7, though that usually meant 3:30 until, oh, 8? Maybe 9? Sometimes later? Until the musical instruments had broken strings or his 94-year-old momma had called him to supper? You could buy a liter of vino locale to-go there for about 50 cents (if you hadn’t had enough, or were one of the moms and grand-moms heading home with fresh goods to make dinner for husbands and sons).

I occasionally left that place so giddy and tipsy that I was literally bouncing off those Roman walls which, fortunately in Old Barga, are only about as wide as a horse.

  • Still solo on the piazza

As I sat in the shade sipping, journaling, and secretly cursing Keane, those Aristo memories emerged in my head.  But I realized that, with the absolute inevitability of change, it’s impossible to relive even the simplest of life’s moments. So just be there—I suddenly remembered writing in a semi-profound post prepping my mindset for this trip.

Indeed, here I was—there!—counting down minutes on this precious piazza, alone with my ghosts and demons and saints, but surrounded by emotion and gratitude.  And feeling completely human. Italy isn’t better than the rest of the world. But it may be the most human culture around. And Aristo, a pleasant, peasant bartender, was my high priest and mentor. My friends there were apostles.

To drag me out of my thoughts, a red-faced, clammy couple trudged by toting a fat camera and a Tuscany guidebook in English. I averted their eye-contact. They looked lost, lonesome, and curious, but they wouldn’t understand.

  • Sad, sweet songs

Then, through one of the dozens of open windows that overlook the piazza, some melancholy Italian melodies came blasting out, echoing off the stone walls—right on cue. Perfect. Italy, you see, plays mostly American music, and mostly that one song that’s getting played to death everywhere and now feels rather like a death threat, “Tonight, we are young; so let’s set the world on fire…”

Tonight? Young? Sure. But tonight, thank God that song was nowhere to be heard. Instead, the soundtrack was bittersweet Italian schmaltz—an authentic genre that, even under normal circumstances, can shift me into a state that may involve loss of body control, shut eyes, and leaking at the edges.

Today, sitting solo, the songs worked that special effect as if Mr. Coppola and his masterful film scorer had arranged the whole scene.

  • Keane enters, stage right

When Keane did show up, brusque but witty as always, I blurted (like an blunt American would),

Dude!  You are 45 minutes late?!!”

“I woke up 45 minutes late,” he retorted in his Brit accent with palms to the sky, like a veteran Italian.  “And I’ve been 45 minutes late all day.” Okay, I thought to myself. That’ll do. I decided to pick up the food (and the kids) 20 minutes late, so Keane and I could catch up for a whole 35 minutes.  In Italy, that’s nothing.

So we did. We talked, straight from gut and heart, with little time for the small stuff, for exactly 35 minutes. It was frustrating, of course, yet perhaps worth the trip to Italy. Maybe you can go back. But only for 35 minutes. Every decade or so.

The whole point of this website is to encourage people to make and take time to step off the treadmill and see the world, realize a coveted mission, and spend quality time with family and friends. To Break Away:  for a whole year, if possible—or months, or weeks, or days if that’s what you can muster. Admittedly, sometimes 35 minutes is all you got.

The air was cooling off, so the piazza begin to buzz, and the people who could be my new friends joined our table. Everyone knows Keane, so I became briefly connected again. A police car pulled up; two officers lazily got out and started joking with we revelers. The bald, mustached guy, I forget his name, popped in with a jovial “Ciao!” on his way home from work—like he does every day. Then it was time for good-bye.

Keane and I did the Italian two-cheek-kiss that real men do there, and embraced each other and the past, and, God willing, a future reunion that lasts more than 36 minutes.

Then I raced to the rosticerria.

  • Up the mountain, then up in the air

The food was ready (and the salad had wilted). The kids had temporarily sated their gelati fix. And my coveted gathering had come to pass, if only for a moment so short-lived you must ask yourself, “Did that really just happen?”

I drove like a mad Tuscan up the skinny, zigzaggy mountain road and brought food by delivery—an extreme rarity in these parts—to my extended family. We enjoyed a Last Supper outside—delicious, luxurious, poignant.

Fine wine flowed, an apricot sky cooled the terrace, and the lights began to twinkle in the other mountain villages and valley below.

Then the party ended, and thus began the packing, the early morning alarm clock, and the drive to the Pisa airport (with a requisite stop for a photo opp at that one iconic landmark).

It’s no fun leaving Italy, but Denmark awaits. On the plane, I watched outside the window as the leaning tower, the terra-cotta rooftops, and the verdant hillsides of Tuscany faded into cloud vapors.


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