How far? – Tuscany, Italy 2007

Six years ago I made my way around northern Italy with a friend of mine during the Christmas season. I was going through a bad patch of depression due to situations with a married girl I was leading astray, and with whom I actually worked as well (a double whammy), and felt that being around Kraków during this lonely holiday season whilst my ‘love’ interest was enjoying Christmas carp* with her husband was not in my best interest. Believe me, I know what you are thinking: “Well, it’s your own fault for screwing around with a married woman! What did you expect?” Yes, that is true, but I never claimed to always use my better judgement, and, you know, the fact that she had a nice ass was distorting my view of reality at that time. Hey, I’m a guy!

*(To this day, I still don’t understand the tradition in Poland of carp for Christmas. Why carp? Of all the fish you could choose from and are forced to eat due to Catholicism, why would you decide upon the greasiest, boniest bottom feeder of all Poland’s fair lakes and rivers? I don’t particularly like fish of any sort, so every Christmas, I usually end up cooking my own personal meal. Last year it was chicken curry!)

To postpone the realisation of the fact that I was do something so utterly stupid in my life, my friend and I drove down through Slovakia and Hungary to north-western Croatia then on into Italy for a few days of sightseeing and general “I’ve never been to Italy before” cruising about, stopping in San Marino, Siena, Pisa, Florence and Verona before making our way back through Vienna, my former home in Uherské Hradiště, Czech Republic for New Year’s Eve and then back to Kraków to start work again. I really enjoyed what I saw, but we were not able to take much in as time was limited so we just tried to squeeze in as much as possible.

The summer of 2007 finally brought me back to Italy, more specifically to the Tuscany region between Florence and Siena, for a week’s holiday at a lovely old villa in the small town of Marcialla. This time, though, I was accompanied by my wife (who has an exceptionally nice ass*) and my one year old daughter (the result of my wife having an exceptionally nice ass). We decided to split this lovely abode with another couple we know from Kraków, along with their daughter, who is roughly the same age as ours, and Jonathan, who would be gracing us with his presence for three days before he began leading a tour out of Rome.

*(At the time of writing this, my wife was mulling over whether she found this comment complimentary or insulting and degrading. Well, she agreed to let me post it, so it must have leaned more towards the ‘complimentary’ side, which is, of course, how it was intended to be.)

The two thirds of 2007 were a strange period in life when it concerns old friends. After nearly eight years, I had the chance to become reacquainted my my friend JuLes when he passed through Poland on his way around the world, and since May 2007, we haven’t been able to shake off Jonathan for more than a month! Prior to this year, the last time I had seen Jonathan was about five years before at my wedding, but his continuous reappearance on our doorstep, no matter which country we seem to be in, had even caused my wife and I to include him in our house hunting plans.

“So, dear, what do you think about this place?”
“It’s very nice, but what about Jonathan’s room? I think it needs to have a separate entrance from the outside and it’s own toilet. I mean, I would hate to have to share a bathroom with him, wake up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and find him sitting naked in the bathtub coated in smalec* with one of our cats and singing tunes from the Grease soundtrack whilst dancing an Irish jig.”
“Hmmm … I see your point. Let’s keep looking.”

*(Basically lard with gristle. Quite tasty on bread with a sprinkling of salt!)

Who knows how many places we passed up due to this recent conditional, so it is a good thing that we all get along well, and so far, my wife has never mentioned that I need to find a better class of friend or stop hanging out with Canadians as it might be a bad influence upon my character or damn my soul to the fiery pits of hell. Well, I guess it was too late for that, as I was already guilty of coveting my neighbour’s wife and committing adultery anyway, right?

Tuscany is a gorgeous region … undulating hills and curvy roads that make driving interesting (especially with Italian drivers careening around every corner without so much as a nudge of the steering wheel to get back into their own lane), quaint villages that seem lost in time, medieval cities that have apparently been cared for since their founding and have never slipped into decay, vineyards and olive trees more plentiful than the spots on a teenager’s gob … and the chianti made around here holds a wondrously tasty secret in every drop on the tongue. Even the cheap stuff is good enough to upgrade the town wino into a connoisseur. But when you look under the proverbial rug, there are a few specks of dust that have been left behind. Nothing major that would truly distract from the overall beauty, but just enough to irritate the nose and cause a sneeze from time to time.

This irritant mainly comes in the form of signs proclaiming the distance to other locales. Being the chianti region of Italy, maybe those responsible for printing and placing these markers overindulged before heading back to work after their afternoon siesta, because they all seemed to have been placed willy-nilly along their perspective routes. When trying to discover the location of our place of residence for the week, there was a sign at a roundabout claiming that Marcialla was just three kilometres down the road to the right, but as soon as you made that right, there was another sign claiming that our destination had magically gained a kilometre and was now four away. There did not seem to be any construction upon the road to have warranted this claim, and so far, the whole sci-fi time / distance phase shifting, wormhole, Star Treck-y alternate reality thing is just in films, so I have no idea where this extra kilometre came from. Maybe they just got the signs backwards and put the three before the four. That’s logical enough. Simple mistake, though easily corrected. I could have written the whole thing off and never let it cross my thoughts again. But then … on the way to San Gimignano, the first sign we came across said 11 km; after a bit further down the road, the next sign we came to said “San Gimignano 11 km”. Two kilometres further, the sign appeared again in exactly the same form! 11 km! Were we stuck in the Twilight Zone never to reach our destination, forever stuck on the same stretch of road never to reach our destination, or had the manufacturing plant just produced too many signs with the same number on them and didn’t wish to have anything go to waste? After what seemed to be a few dozen of the same 11 km signs, there was finally a change, and our fate did not seem to be so dire. Out of nowhere came a green sign with white reflective lettering proclaiming that we were now just 4 km from the medieval hilltop town that we had been seeking all afternoon for some an unknown distance. But we were wary at this point and would not believe this metal prophet of measures until we actually happened upon the solid city walls themselves. A collective sigh could be heard in the car as San Gimignano same into sight … well, a collective sigh could have been heard if it were not for the screaming and screeching of my daughter in the back seat who seems to treat every car ride as though she is being tortured by cruel and heartless parents who most surely brought her into this world for their own sick amusement by dragging her around picturesque countrysides, spoiling her with home cooked meals at every sitting and generally caring for her well-being.

It is a very odd trait of my daughter, but a gruelling 18 hours trapped within the confines of a metal box on four wheels spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere seems not to be a huge deal. We had decided to go by car, a task we shall not repeat again any time in the near future being that I am the only one with a licence and the ablity to drive in our family. On the whole, minimal fuss is made, and a few stops to stretch the legs, air out the nappy region (our daughter’s, not ours) and have a nose about in petrol station shops seemed to suffice. But if you just wish to make a quick 30 minute trek down the road, she howls like an irate banshee having her eyebrows waxed! This really is so off-putting when it comes to trying to make daily excursions to nearby locations of touristy goodness that we eventually resigned ourselves to just lounging around the villa, which suited our daughter just fine as it appeared that the high point of her day was a trip to the playground that graces the village market square; a playground that was still packed with kids at an hour before midnight, as I discovered one evening on the way back from collecting Jonathan from the train station in Siena. Needless to say, the high point of the day for my wife and I was when bedtime came for the little girl, and we could actually both sit down at the same time without having to chase our daughter down, stop her from stuffing rocks or rotten olives that had fallen on the ground into her mouth or prevent her from petting (or should I say ‘mauling’) one of the scabby local cats that seemed to be living out their final days at the same villa as us.

Aside from the inconvenient hours of siesta (though I am sure it’s not called ‘siesta’ in Italy, but I’ll be damned if I know what they do call it) that only occurred whenever you were hungry and did not wish to cook for yourself or really needed to get to a shop to purchase toilet paper, the only other real bother were the mosquitoes. Well, the only real bother for me and the husband of the other couple that shared the villa with us should I say. I have no idea what it is, but those damned little blood-sucking specks of pestilence never really went after my wife and her friend that much, only a few bites here and there as though they were taste-testing, and they left the young ones completely off their menu. But as for us guys ….

“Hey, Sam, you tried the kids yet?”
After making a sound reminiscent of a camel dislodging two months worth of phlegm from the back of its throat, Sam replies, “My advice: stay away, pal! Those things taste like sour milk, and there’s a constant funny smell around the buttock region. But have you tried the males? I gorged myself stupid last night! Give them a shot; you won’t regret it! Bon appetit, my friend!”

There must be a kind of scent or something that attracts these flying demons from Date’s Inferno to my pasty white flesh (I mean ‘delicate alabaster skin’), because any exposed region below the neck line was proclaimed as fair territory to extract my precious blood of life from. My feet and ankles especially received the worst of their plasma mining activities, and by the end of our vacation in Tuscany, these appendages looked as though I had developed end stage leprosy or an awful case of chicken pox that mysteriously confined itself only to specific areas. My poor daughter frequently has allergies that cause her to scratch herself silly in certain places, and we do our best to supply creams to soothe her and tell her not to scratch. Well, I guess I wasn’t much of a role model as I myself was going for broke and clawing at my feet and arms until they were raw. Eventually, we found out that the local shop had mosquito repellent, but the damage was done, and the scratching probably only attracted more of the little bastards with the smell of blood emanating from my open wounds.

The confusing distance signs, strange opening hours and airborne monstrosities in no way degraded the holiday into some sort of vile week of having bamboo shoots shoved under fingernails or anything like that, and by and large, it was a relaxing week (not taking into account that my daughter kept pointing at Jonathan and saying “Da-da”) filled with warm sun, excellent wine, good friends and astounding scenery. The villa where we stayed was built some time in the 15th Century and decked out with old relics, paintings and antique wooden furniture (which my wife had a tendency to leave wet bottles and cups upon, leaving a water ring that for 200 hundred years had never tarnished its surface. I think this is my soul mate’s unconscious way of marking her territory, similar to that of a cat rubbing the corners of its mouth against objects), and one of the rooms even contained a plaque claiming that Michaelangelo had once resided there for a time. Now, as to whether this is Michaelangelo the famous artist or Michaelangelo the local town gimp there are no discerning comments, but we’ll just accept it as the famous one, if it’s all the same to you. All in all, a lovely place with a spectacular view that I would happily recommend and return to again and again!

But, as with anything good, it must come to an end. The week drew to a close, and our week-long companions packed up early and rubbed salt into our wounds by heading to Naples for another week in the sun whilst we squeezed ourself back into the car for another two fun filled days of tarmac, discomfort and restlessness as we hit the trail once more for home. Holiday time was over, memories were created, friendships strengthened (after a DNA test proved that Jonathan did not sire our daughter), and as we pulled away from Marcialla, we discovered, with a smile, that we had even stolen the towels from the villa, though my wife swears this was purely by accident!