And Watch Your C’s and Q’s
Steve the Translator loves talking about linguistics and I love to learn. On the 15 minute or so drive back to Lucca from Pisa he would correct my mangled Italian as I tried out my new tongue. It struck me as a sound policy to learn some simple Italian but to also try to get the pronunciation right. I have zero idea of how much difference nuance and tone make and I don’t want to find myself subject to a body cavity search purely because my fricatives collide aggressively with my diphthongs when I innocently ask a police officer for directions to a bathroom. As demonstrated in this video, I can be a little slow sometimes.
It wasn’t long before we were skirting the city walls of Lucca. The town itself sprawls well past the walled city center but we took a quick detour to pass through the main gate into the old town for a quick look, then headed back out.
A quick aside in respect to the video above. I know blues harp, bottleneck slide guitar with a driving, punch n crunch rhythm section isn’t the obvious choice of soundtrack when driving through a a 2nd century medieval Italian town with impressive 11th century walls. In truth I just don’t have any Italian accordion pieces in the production pipe right now.
If you pretend the video is a low speed car chase shot in a documentary, cinema verite style it works. We’ll say the Italian police (or carabinieri as they’re properly known) chasing me for the many, many fashion felonies I’ve committed over the years. Work with me on this, willya? Anyway, within a couple of minutes after we’d passed through the gate we were at Steve’s house.
Home is Where the Wrought Iron is
Steve’s home was a lovely two story… house of the sort you’d expect to see in Italy. Look, I’m no architect. It has like, stucco walls painted one of the only four colors of exterior paint I assume are mandated by law in Italy. It was hard to make out the shape of the structure because they have so much flora and fauna inside their small, walled courtyard entry. It’s very Mediterranean and as we hadn’t been outside of Nova Scotia for one full rotation of the Earth yet, it was new and exotic. Black, wrought iron window grills are a nice touch and lend to that “old country” vibe. The “old country” vibe actually means hoping not to be caught inside if there’s a fire. Okay, I’m just jealous cause I live in a cardboard box. All I know is that it’s beautiful in a breath taking kind of way.
Anastasia, the Translator’s wife met us at the door with their two children. She’s a former swimsuit model from St. Petersburg, Russia. Did I mention Steve the Translator is an interesting fellow? I had met her on an earlier trip they’d taken to Canada, but this was Joanne’s first introduction and the ladies hit it off immediately.
Anastasia is a delightfully charming lady who speaks English, Russian and is learning Italian. Their two children Alisa five and Simon, two, are also multi-lingual. Alisa’s English is far superior to my Russian, Italian or even my French and I barely have a slight edge in respect to English. She knows three times the languages I do and she’s fifteen times younger than I am. During meals I had to wonder if this is how the cafeteria at the UN sounds.
Joanne and I slept for a couple of hours, but we didn’t catch our second wind. More like a .68 wind recovery. We had agreed before the trip that I was going to take The Translator family out to supper and as Steve and Anastasia felt a night out was overdue, a babysitter was found and and we headed in to the old city for supper.
Sliding through the narrow city gates, Steve parked the car and we started walking towards the central plaza as the sun began to settle behind the buildings and night crept in behind us. Walking through the narrow cobbled streets on a sultry fall evening in Europe for the first time felt utterly cinematic in scope. I’d seen this type of setting in so many movies which resulted in a warm familiarity associated with what I was experiencing. There was so much to command attention it resulted in a form of sensory overload and I was along for the ride rather than putting any thought or consideration into the significance of what I was seeing in the moment.
We turned a corner into a piazza and the San Michele Basilica exploded into view, the marble glowing rosy in the light of the setting sun and I had to stop and gawk as I was having a hard time processing it all. The size and intricacy of the inlay and sculptures on the facade make the construction process of this imposing structure impossible to imagine given the fact the main structure was rebuilt in 1070 and the facade was constructed in the 13th century.
Steve and Anastasia were offering a running commentary this entire time. Steve mostly on history with Anastasia offering insight into daily life as relative newcomers to Italy. She’d point out the apartment where they lived where they arrived, the playground where we would take the kids the next day. I was grateful for the focus both commentaries provided during the half hour or so walk to the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro which is a huge plaza designed around a 1st century Roman amphitheater. I think I saw one of those off the I-95 near Bangor, Maine on the during a trip on the way to Boston once.
On the way we catch a glimpse of Guinigi Tower, a local landmark. Bout 45 meter-ish tall… it is indeed, a tower. This one is a bit more innovative as it has oak trees growing out of the top in a kind of Mad Max: Fury Road motif. I can see Immortan Joe stepping up to the ledge at the top in his apocalyptic sleep apnea mask while water pours out the openings near the top. Yeah, technically Joe was on a butte in the movie, but my heart is in the right place with that comparison. The tower was actually built by wealthy Luinigi family during the great tower building craze amongst the local gentry in Lucca during the 14th century. Think of the tulip craze in Holland in the 17th century, except with towers and you get the idea. There were as many as 250 towers built in town by a number of wealthy families and nine remain today.
Mamma Mia! I’m so Hungry I Could Eat a Lippanzaner Stallion!
Continuing down the narrow, cobbled lane we came to an arched tunnel which led to the Piazza. Steve grounded us once again with historic context. In 1830 the place came under new ownership in the form of architect Lorenzo Nottolini who took the “open concept” to the extreme and razed all the buildings that occupied the area we were now strolling and laid out the piazza to the specs of the original 1st century Roman forum. I listened intently and all I could think of was meat.
I could smell it, I knew it was here somewhere… I just didn’t know exactly where yet. There were numerous ristorantes and trattorie dotting the periphery of the piazza and I kept stealing side-long glances at Steve hoping he would veer off in the right direction, but we went right out the other side of the plaza. D’oh! Fortunately, the restaurant was meters away on the other side of the archway. We would be eating at the Osteria Baralla which I believe is Italian for “McDonalds.”
We’re seated outside at a table and I feel like I’m in The Godfather. I find myself wondering if they have cannoli on the menu, just so I can order one so I can tell the waiter “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” at the end of the meal. A fellow comes by selling roses and I buy one each for the ladies. This was our first experience with “tourist table side service” for any number of souvenir hawkers. Tonight, it was nice and lent a fairy tale feel to the proceedings which enhanced the almost scripted, cinematic feel to the experience. By the time we’d get to Rome the fairy tales were the individual stories that the onslaught of vendors would pitch any time you ate outdoors at a sidewalk restaurant.
Fortunately, Steve the Translator translated the menu for us and we ordered our meals. I was starting with an antipasto as an appetizer for the table and ordered the steak tartare as my main course. The antipasto consisted of Salami Lucchese, pecorino cheese and fresh figs. Jo and The Translators all ordered the Chianini beef steak.
The food that night was scrumptious. The bread alone was fantastic. A beautiful, crispy, crunchy dark brown crust with an exceptionally soft and fluffy interior. The fresh sweetness of the figs complimented the earthiness of the pecorino cheese as cooling notes to the peppery cure of the Salami Lucchese. I had a bite of Jo’s beef when her head was turned and it was loaded with flavor.
I’d never had steak tartare before and thought I’d give it a whirl but I was somewhat = disappointed. It arrived in the form of a red ball with a raw egg yolk on top surrounded by crackers n condiments. Dijon mustard, red onion, tomato, cilantro and tangy mystery brown stuff all made for a very pretty plate. However, I found the tartare under seasoned and bland, but overall it would be one of the best meals I had while we were in Italy but that’s mostly because I generally loathe pasta dishes.
The service was excellent, the wait staff was attentive and engaging and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience with excellent company.
We stopped for dessert at the Gelateria Veneta on the next corner on our stroll back to the car. Gelato is an Italian ice cream that is less creamy than traditional ice cream, but is packed with more intense flavor. There’s an Italian saying I just made up using Google translate that goes: “Io urlo, tu urli, noi tutti gridiamo, per gelato” because “I scream, you scream, we all scream for gelato” falls kinda flat. It doesn’t look like this saying is going to work in Italian either. If the gelato industry could come together with a kick butt catchphrase I’ll bet they’d see a pop in the price of gelato futures on the NYMEX, maybe even overtake ice cream in the commodities markets.
No matter, it was the perfect end to what had been a marvelous first encounter with Europe. We were ready to sleep when we arrived back at Steve’s and we hadn’t even been in Europe for 12 hours yet. The next day would be a more leisurely and hopefully we would be able to take everything in at a more relaxed pace.
Previously on TTWTH: A Pisa My Mind after Arrival
Next Time on TTWTH: Lucca Both Ways Before You Cross the Cobblestone Part II