After a night in Rome the four of them rent a Fiat, and with Willie behind the wheel they head north on the via Aurelia. While gray clouds threaten rain at first, half an hour later they thin and as they near Cerveteri the sky turns blue and the sun shines bright.
In the passenger’s seat, Anne sits with the roadmap of Italy in her lap. In the backseat sit Martin and Virginia, friends from New York. The tour they’ve planned begins in the Cinque Terre and from there moves on through the provinces of Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Arezzo. The delight Willie feels, casting his sights on the visual and gastronomical pleasures ahead, he also detects in his travelling companions.
‘We get to wake up and look at the sea,’ Anne says.
‘Breakfast on our balconies,’ Virginia says.
‘I know it’s early to discuss dinner, but what do you think we’ll eat tonight?’ Willie says.
‘Whatever it is will be paired with a bottle of fine wine,’ Martin says.
‘You’re our sommelier,’ Anne says.
‘I am that, and lucky for you.’
The horn of a car behind them sounds out and with a shift of his eyes Willie sees he’s drifting into the passing lane. With a slight turn of the steering wheel he brings the Fiat back between the white lines and for the next hour they continue past the towns and lush farmland. Past the rows of fruit trees and the cattle nibbling in the green fields. A few miles beyond the walled city of Grosetto, Willie turns into a rest stop for gas and to use the bathrooms. When the tank’s full, he parks in a spot out front of the restaurant. Inside, they order expressos which they drink next to the Fiat in the glare of the bright sun.
‘Why are we drinking gas station coffee in Italy?’ Martin says. With a shaking hand he puts the small paper cup to his lips and finishes it off.
‘It’s not so bad,’ Virginia says.
‘Let’s call it drinkable,’ Willie says.
‘If by drinkable you mean it tastes like benzine, it is that,’ Martin says.
‘Livorno or Pisa for lunch?’ Willie says.
Anne says, ‘I say Livorno. A trattoria by the water would be nice.’
‘We’ve been, it’s a port town,’ Martin says.
‘It’s nothing special, you can miss it,’ Virginia says.
The chatter pauses as if a thought bubble needs to be filled in. Willie stares at the speeding traffic out on the highway. He turns his eyes to Anne, then to Virginia. ‘Pisa?’
‘I can do either,’ Virginia says with a shrug.
Willie looks up at the sky for a moment. ‘Okay, Pisa it is.’
‘I see I’ve been outvoted,’ Anne says.
‘You have at that,’ Martin says. ‘We’re still a democracy.’
‘I’ll check the guide for a place to eat,’ Virginia says.
Back in the Fiat, the highway turns toward the Ligurian Sea. Cars speed past them, their engines humming as they accelerate. The conversation among them dies down. Willie spots a sign for Pisa, a hundred kilometers away.
‘I should have peed when I had the chance,’ Anne says. ‘Take the next turnoff. I can’t wait that long.’
Their hotel in Bonassola is an ancient building a few minutes’ walk from the town centre. Their en suite room on the third floor is roomy enough for a queen-sized bed with a carved wood headboard and a small sitting area. Willie opens the sliding glass door and he and Anne go out to the balcony. Over the rooftops, the sea sparkles under the late afternoon sun. On the beach, people splash around in the water and stretch out under the cover of big umbrellas.
‘Do you think they like us?’ Anne says.
‘Of course they like us,’ Willie says. ‘If they didn’t, why would they ask us to go on this trip?’
‘They wanted company, and we’re more agreeable than a lot of others.’
‘Non-confrontational is how I’d put it. We don’t go out of our way to piss off people. Is that a bad thing?’
‘No, but sometimes I wish we stood our ground more that we do. We don’t have to give in to everything. I wanted to see Livorno. It’s a lot more interesting than Martin made it out to be.’
‘Either was fine with me. We had an excellent lunch in Pisa.’
‘It’s a fair point, but you did all the driving. If Virginia doesn’t drive we need to insist Martin does some of it.’
‘He didn’t look like he was in the best shape. You want him behind the wheel?’
‘You could have let me do some.’
‘It wasn’t a problem. It’s done. Let’s move on.’
‘We’re not going to be their chauffeurs, is all I’m saying.’
‘If that time comes, we’ll mention it. Let’s wait and see how it goes.’
‘I want to make sure we’re on the same page.’
‘That’s their balcony over there.’
‘We’re not talking loud.’
‘Look where we are, Anne.’ Willie extends an arm to introduce her the crisp, blue sea.
‘Let’s go inside.’
‘Why not sit out here?’
Anne smiles. ‘Why not go inside?’
At dinner time, the four of them meet out front of the hotel in light jackets. The sun’s down and the night air cool. After driving for much of the day, the breeze that blows in from the sea makes Willie feel he’s coming alive.
They stroll to the centre and sit on the veranda of a bar a little further down the hill from there. Around them, conversations go on in several languages: Spanish; English; an unidentified Eastern European dialect. At a table near them a man speaking German tells a story with large gestures.
A glass of brandy in hand, Martin has become animated. ‘I got a couple of bottles for the room. I had a glass on the balcony. Virginia wrote in her notebook.’
‘I hope nothing bad about us,’ Willie says.
‘What would I have bad to say about you?’ Virginia says.
‘A-hem, you know how writers have a way of twisting things around,’ Anne says.
‘I think she’s saying we’re too boring to write about, which might be worse,’ Willie says.
‘She’s saying she’ll use you like she uses everyone else. You have no say in it at all,’ Martin says.
‘Let me add one thing: if you are going to write about us, at least make it another award winner,’ Willie says.
‘I was taking notes, not writing,’ Virginia says.
‘You have something in mind?’ Anne says.
‘I don’t think so,’ Virginia says. ‘Maybe something will come of it.’ She looks away. When she looks back, she says, ‘I don’t force stories. I wait for an opening into one. Then I need a title before I can go on. It must be something like that for you with your painting?’
‘It is and isn’t,’ Anne says. ‘Some things I figure out while I’m working. I start in one direction and wind up going in an entirely different one. A title is the last thing.’
Willie says, ‘I’m like Virginia. I work on stuff hoping for an insight. It’s messy. I abandon two thirds of the things I start. Sometimes I finish a piece and wonder who the hell made it.’
‘And you Martin? Anything to add?’ Anne says.
‘I’ve become fascinated with pasta shapes,’ Martin says. ‘Vesuvio’s my new favourite.’
‘I look forward to seeing what comes of that,’ Willie says.
‘I’m going to need a lot of red sauce,’ Martin says. ‘That’s as much as I can tell you.’
‘I did sit outside with Martin,’ Virginia says. ‘The wine he bought is very nice.’
‘We were out for a few minutes,’ Willie says. ‘After that we slept a while and took showers.’
‘We love the room,’ Anne says. ‘Thanks for taking us along. I’m not sure we would have ever made it up this way.’
‘We didn’t take you, you decided to come with us,’ Virginia says.
Willie says, ‘Since you’ve done all this before, it’s like we have the best guides. We would have never known about this hotel. Or to stay in Bonassola.’
When Martin looks up, Willie notes his bloodshot eyes and the dark pouches under them. ‘We read about a fantastic restaurant not far from here.’
‘That’s the place we should go to eat,’ Anne says.
It’s two streets away. Inside, the smell of garlic and seafood sizzling in hot pans is agreeable. They wait by the door until a waiter leads them to a corner table with plates and silverware set up on a white cloth. The menu del giorno is printed on a big chalkboard over the counter. A waiter brings a bottle of mineral water and pours some into their glasses. He knows a great deal about regional wines and Martin engages him in a discussion that leads to the appearance of a red produced in a nearby vineyard. They drink the wine and stare at the day’s offerings on the chalkboard. When the waiter’s back they order plates to share: smoked tuna carpaccio; mussels with pepper and curry sauce; trofie with anchovies, raisins and pine nuts; spaghetti with an octopus ragout; grilled swordfish with a caprese salad. Another conversation between Martin and the waiter brings on a bottle of white.
‘Everything’s so good,’ Anne says.
‘I can see us here tomorrow,’ Virginia says.
‘The menu’s new every day, so why not?’ Willie says.
Later on, they go down to the beach and walk along the boardwalk. Off to their left, the water glitters with lights from the town. The sounds of the sea and voices of others come at them. Willie smiles at Anne. Neither regrets going along with Martin’s ordering a second bottle of wine and joining him in a grappa to finish off their meal. Yet, a little further along, the conversation among them is about where to get a nightcap on the way back up the hill to their hotel.
Not for me; Willie uses his eyes to send that telepathic message to Anne. He prefers to go to their room and sit out on the balcony in the fresh, cool night to take in the stars and the moon that’s a big gold plate in the sky.
When they come to the stone steps that lead to the street their hotel’s on, Anne says, ‘I don’t think I want to drink anymore tonight.’
‘It’s just for one,’ Martin says, a bewildered look on his face.
‘We’re going back,’ Willie says.
‘We’ll see you in the morning,’ Virginia says.
‘I don’t get it,’ Martin says as Willie and Anne start up the steps.
They wake up late. Anne pulls the curtains aside and light streams in across the floor and their unmade bed. They missed the buffet breakfast. In place of that Willie goes out for cappuccinos and cornettoes. On the balcony, they eat and drink at the small table. Overhead, the brilliant sun dominates the sky and water. Down at docks, a ferry pulls away and sets off in a northward direction.
‘I’m going to need more of this,’ Willie says. ‘Più caffè per favore, before we do anything.’
‘What will that be?’
‘What are you thinking?’
‘I think we explore the bike trails. Our hotel has rentals.’
‘What about Martin and Virginia?’
‘It might be too early. I don’t want to wake them if they’re sleeping.’
‘We still need to ask if they want to come along.’
‘Let’s get more coffee. We’ll call their room when we’re back.’
They make plans to meet up for drinks later in the afternoon. Up in their room, Willie throws a pack over a shoulder. At the desk downstairs, they rent three-speed bikes. From the hotel they follow the directions they were given and head off on the Passeggiata al Mare in the direction of Levanto.
In the backseat, Martin is in an expansive mood as he goes on about the region that grows the Nebbiolo grape that gives Barolo wine its bold taste. The high concentration of limestone in the soil is what makes it unique.
‘It has to be aged at least three years. The longer, the better it is. I’ve had a ten year. I can’t afford anything older than that.’
‘Then I can’t either.’ Willie smiles at Martin in the rearview mirror.
Day four of their trip. From Rapallo, Willie takes them through the rolling hills, curving roads and plentiful vineyards to the namesake of Italy’s most famous wine and one of the eleven villages that make up the government designated wine commune Barolo’s produced in.
The guest house they’ve booked is on a quiet street near the village centre. They check in at the desk and wash up in their room. An hour later they’re sitting in the shade of an umbrella outside an enoteca not far from a restored brownstone castle that under the intense sun shows clear as the moon on a cloudless night. The tables around them are filled with Spanish tourists, their big bus parked across the street. The Spaniards talk in heightened tones as they drink and pick at small plates of olives, zucchini blossoms, and crostini.
Seeing their waiter approach with a tray of four glasses and bottle of wine, Willie says, ‘The moment we’ve been waiting for is present tense.’
With a bit of flair, the waiter sets glasses on the table and pours the wine. Aged five years, the colour is deep red. After a sip they agree it’s excellent. Rich and complex. Fruity, but also a tad acidic.
‘I’m tasting chocolate,’ Anne says.
Virginia says, ‘Mine’s herby, I swear.’
‘I’m getting both,’ Martin says. His fingers hold the glass even as it’s on the table. ‘This is why we’re here.’
Anne raises her glass. ‘I propose a toast. To the north: may we conquer it until it conquers us.’
‘To the north,’ they say at once.
‘At these prices I’m afraid to drink up,’ Willie says. ‘It’s not what I call a generous pour. I could empty my wallet on this stuff real fast.’
‘Yes, we might be going home with empty purses,’ Anne says.
They continue to up the quality of their descriptions of the wine they bring to their lips and roll around their mouths before swallowing.
‘To summarise, it’s better than any cough syrup I’ve ever had,’ Willie says.
‘This is ten times the price and works for me,’ Martin says.
With the raise of a hand Martin summons the waiter. The waiter comes to their table and Martin orders another glass for himself. The waiter returns with a bottle of the same vintage and refills Martin’s glass.
‘Senoras, senor?’ he inquires.
‘Should we?’ Willie looks around.
‘How many times you plan on being here?’ Martin says.
‘There’s a lot of day ahead,’ Willie says.
‘Your point is?’ Martin says.
‘A lot of day and a budget to consider,’ Anne says.
‘Per favore,’ Virginia nods at her empty glass.
The waiter fills it. When that’s done Willie and Anne give in to the moment. The waiter pours more into their glasses until the bottle’s empty.
‘Grazie,’ Willie says, and nods.
They go on sipping the wine and talking. Willie sits back. He wants to stay there a while. He wants to gather his thoughts. He wants to run their plans for the rest of the trip through his head. He and Anne should set time aside for a morning hike, is a conclusion he comes to. There has to be some of that to pair with the drinking and eating. In fact, when that’s established, he realises he’s hungry. Very hungry. He hasn’t had anything since breakfast at their hotel in Rapallo. Some good cheap food at another place, he thinks. Pizza or a panino. He’s about to mention it to the others when a piercing squeak on the pavement startles him. He watches Martin push his chair back. On his feet, his face is white and he starts to cough.
‘Martin?’ Virginia says.
‘It’s nothing,’ Martin says. His voice is raspy. His eyes have the bulging look of someone being held by the throat. He coughs again. A violent hack.
‘Are you going to be all right?’ Anne says.
With a few quick steps Martin goes around the table and inside the enoteca.
‘What’s going on?’ Willie looks at Virginia.
‘Shouldn’t you check on him?’ Anne says.
‘You’re right, I should do that,’ Virginia says. She leaves them and goes inside.
‘What do you think?’ Anne says.
‘I don’t know what to think,’ Willie says. ‘Hope nothing bad is about to happen.’
Anne stares into Willie’s eyes. She taps her glass two times with a fingernail. A tink tink Willie understands to be a warning message.
They continue to sit there like spectators at a play until Martin and Virginia come out the door chatting in calm voices. They take their places at the table.
‘A thing that happens when I don’t eat,’ Martin says.
‘Martin has hypoglycemia,’ Virginia says. ‘He has to eat or he gets lightheaded.’
‘Do you need to see a doctor?’ Anne says.
‘No, I don’t need to see a doctor, Anne,’ Martin says. ‘I need some water. Why isn’t there any water on the table? Senta!’
Without a balcony to hang out on, they decide to take a walk before dinner. Past the desk and out the front door, the air’s warm and dry. The late afternoon sun fires down on the hilltop and highlights the streets and rooftops.
They go through the historic centre with the small square flanked by a church and municipal building, then past the restaurants setting up for dinner. From there, they go up a main street of houses with shuttered windows and small gardens, and further on a field of lemon and eucalyptus trees. At the edge of town they stop at a corner to look out at the vineyards of Nebbiolo vines that go on and on. In a dip in the valley they can make out the rooftops and church spires of another village.
‘I’m a little afraid of Martin,’ Anne says. ‘I don’t have a good feeling.’
‘You mean you think something’s going to happen to him?’
‘That was creepy, you have to admit it.’
‘I wasn’t sure he was coming back out on his own power.’
‘He’s not the most comfortable person to be around. He can be charming when he’s not drinking. But he’s drinking most of the time. I didn’t know he was like that. We’ve never been with them this much.’
‘Wine tour tomorrow. We’ll be with a lot of people. The pressure’s off us. It’ll be like a day off.’
‘You’re right. I may be making too much of it.’
‘Don’t worry, nothing like you’re thinking is going to happen.’
‘All right. I needed to say something. That’s it. It’s an amazing trip, I wish we were on it just ourselves.’
Willie points out at the valley. ‘How about we do this. After the tour we tell them we want some time alone. We hike over to that village. Just us. We’ll have dinner and hike back. They can do whatever.’
In the minibus the next afternoon, on their way to the second tasting room, Willie regrets he and Anne didn’t skip the tour and spend the day by themselves hiking under the warm, bright sun. That would have been better than any wine they might drink, no matter how complex the flavour or elaborate the description.
Yet there they were, in a bus filled with people like them. Tourists giddy on the fermented, macerated grapes they drank at the first stop.
A few miles on, the bus makes a turn and at the end of the road it stops next to a winery. With the rest of the passengers Willie steps out into the dirt parking lot and sharp sunlight. This part of the tour begins with a stroll through the vineyards, returns to the winery to view the production area, and ends in the cool, vaulted underground cellar where giant oak barrels sit on wood blocks and rooms of bottles are stored on long rows of wire racks. Along the way, a spokeswoman for the family that owns the vineyard tells them about the quality of the grapes and explains the steps and aging process required to produce the wine. After that, their guide leads them into a sunny veranda closed in with glass. They take their places at one of two long tables with a view of the vineyards. The single sheet three course menu lists the traditional Piedmont dishes: agnolotti del plin, beef tartare and a chocolate-hazelnut cake for dessert.
Anne sets her voice low and asks Willie, ‘Are you going to eat the tartare?’
‘Sure am,’ he says. ‘Check out those ingredients. Capers, mushrooms, garlic, fresh sage, rosemary, lemon. It’s not going to kill us.’
‘I’m pretty sure tartare’s made from young animals,’ Anne says.
‘Don’t think about it, it’ll taste better,’ Willie says.
From across the table, Martin says, ‘When in Piedmont, do what everyone else does.’
Anne says, ‘What if everyone jumps off a bridge, Martin, should I follow them?’ There’s a smile on her lips.
‘This is the wine tour experience,’ Martin says. ‘It’s safe to eat.’
‘I was like that,’ Virginia says. ‘Then I tried it and it was fine. Better than fine.’
A minute later the agnolotti del plin paired with one of the vineyard’s lighter red wines comes to their table. The rich flavour of the pasta mixes so well with the wine it has Willie tapping glasses with the British man sitting to his left.
Next, the beef tartare is served on round white plates with a glass of Barolo. With the others at their table, Willie digs in. The soft texture and earthy, robust flavour of the raw meat is pleasing to his palate. All the time he’s eating he watches Anne pick at hers. She brings another small forkful to her mouth, chews and swallows with a grimace.
‘I can’t,’ she says. She turns to Willie. Her face is pale. Her eyes distant.
‘What is it?’
‘Too much,’ Anne says. ‘I can’t do this day and night. I can’t look at this anymore.’
‘It’s a lot, for sure,’ Willie says.
Anne stands up. ‘I’ll be outside. I need to get some air.’
‘I’ll go with you,’ Willie says.
‘No, stay and finish,’ Anne says. She nods at the tour guide, on his feet and appearing concerned. ‘I’m okay, thank you,’ she tells him and heads off toward the door. Willie gets up and hurries after her, but Anne uses a hand to stop him. ‘Please, don’t bother. I’ll be fine.’
Ten minutes later Willie finds her sitting on a bench out front of the winery. The fresh air has helped settle her. Half an hour after that the group comes out. Martin’s one of the last out the door, an annoyed look on his face. It’s apparent the tour he booked for them didn’t go as smooth as he expected and it’s Anne who’s disrupted it.
In the evening they don’t hike to the village to have dinner. Instead, they eat by themselves and go back to their room. They’re quiet, reading, until Willie brings up the catastrophe that took place earlier out front of their hotel. He’s sure it will have a lingering effect for the rest of their trip.
He says, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have yelled at him.’
‘I definitely should have yelled at him. No, what I should have done was scream bloody murder.’
‘Well, you came this close.’ Willie separates a thumb and index finger.
‘It was over nothing. I didn’t like the tartare. So what?’
‘There was no way to know what was on the menu until we were there.’
‘I don’t want to drink so much. We’re supposed be taking in art and culture, not walking around in a stupor. They might be able to live like that, but I can’t.’
‘We’ve seen some pretty special things.’
‘We’ve missed a lot more. I want to see as much as I can while we’re here.’
‘We had to do a wine tour. Look at it that way. If we were by ourselves, we might have gone on one.’
‘What did I say that was so bad he had to start in on me like that? I didn’t want to eat another big meal. I didn’t want to drink. He got all bent out of shape. He likes having people around that drink as much as he does. It makes him feel better knowing they’re sloshed too.’
‘Virginia knew what was up. She understood.’
‘He wouldn’t accept it. I told him to chill. That’s what made him irate.’
‘It started before that. He wanted us to go to dinner with them. Was that so bad?’
‘I’m tired of his wine obsession. It’s expensive. When you’re an alcoholic you must not care how much your habit costs. No amount is too much.’
‘He’s not an alcoholic.’
‘Yes he is. You know it as well as I do. Virginia knows it. I guess she doesn’t care. If she does, she keeps it to herself. Or she just explains it away.’
‘I don’t know…’
‘Why do you think he’s always irritable? He only relaxes when he’s drinking. After he’s had a lot, he goes back to being irritable. Haven’t you noticed he’s starting earlier? It hits noon, he’s looking for an enoteca.’
‘He’s an obsessive personality. He’s like that with his art. It’s why he’s successful.’
‘You keep taking his side? Why?’
‘We have to live with them for the rest of the trip. And recall, we’re in the same business as Martin. He’s older. He knows people. A lot more than we do.’
‘We didn’t have to spend so many nights in Barolo and Alba. Two in each so we can spend all our money drinking his wine of the gods. We split the bill even when he and Virginia have an extra glass.’
‘It’s his thing. You knew that. You called him our sommelier’
‘I’m starting to wish we didn’t come with them.’
‘We did. We can’t bag it now.’
‘No way I want to be around if he has a stroke. The incident at the restaurant was very weird. Hypoglycemia my ass. Alcohol poisoning is more like it.’
‘Let’s lower the stress level.’
‘He’s been on my case since we left. He knows I disapprove of his habits. Have you noticed he doesn’t eat? All this great food, he leaves half of it on his plate.’
‘You’ve pointed it out several times.’
‘I’ll try to keep my opinions to myself. But I refuse to do everything he wants to.’
‘All right. It’s over.’
‘I feel better.’
‘Venting is good.’
‘We’re giving Virginia a lot of material. She must be filling up her notebook.’
Down at the desk the next morning they ask the manager to release them from their reservation. Something they don’t specify needs their attention.
The manager, a fortyish man wearing a white shirt open at the collar, understands matters come up that can’t be avoided.
‘It’s necessary we do this,’ Willie says.
‘You do not have to apologise,’ the manager says.
Willie counts out the cancellation fee and sets it on the desk.
Anne says, ‘Per favore, would you give this to the people in room fourteen. We don’t want to bother them right now. We’re sorry we can’t be with them tonight.’ The manager takes the sheet of stationary she’s folded in half. He turns away and inserts it in the room’s mail slot.
‘Grazie molto,’ Willie says.
‘Lo farò, prego,’ he says.
A day on their own.
With Willie behind the wheel the route to Turin takes them through Bra to the Autostrade. An hour later the Autostrade crosses the Po and Willie turns off into the city centre. Following Anne’s directions, he parks out front of the hotel she found in their guide. Willie waits while she goes in to see if a room’s available. It’s a while before she comes back out.
‘They had a few left. I saw it. It’s nice.’
They lock the car and leave their bags at the desk. On Via Milano they go into a packed bar, stand at the counter and drink espressos. The swell of other people’s spirits and laughter lifts them up. From there, they walk to the Cappella della Sacre Sindone where The Shroud’s on display. They want to see it even if they’re having a hard time coming up with a reason except it’s one of Turin’s main attractions.
Inside the Cappella, they stare at the climate controlled box sheltering the long, rectangular section of cloth with the image of a bearded, wounded man. Catholics and Protestants might believe it’s Christ’s burial cloth bearing his crucified image. The blood stains on it might be real. The scar marks on the forehead too. However its story is told, Willie doesn’t buy it. Neither does Anne. Whatever they think, they add it to their strangest-things-they’ve-seen list and go back out to the piazza.
With an afternoon and night ahead to do what they want without compromise, they’re overcome by a sudden flatness, of not wanting to do much of anything. Even in a city as fascinating as Turin, with the Alps giving it a postcard backdrop and the domed Mole Antonelliana rising above everything. Do they miss the tension and clamour of being with Virginia and Martin?
Anne shakes her head. ‘I think it’s the other way around. It’s our psyches telling us we need some down time.’
‘Let’s go to our hotel. We can walk around later. We’ll have plenty of time to sightsee tomorrow.’
‘How mad do you think they are we took the car and they had to take the bus to Alba?’
‘We’ll find out when we get there. It’s not like Martin was doing a lot of driving.’
‘Or any of it.’
Despite their apprehension, by the time they meet them at nine the next night at the wine bar across from their hotel it turns out all’s fine. Nothing is said about Anne’s and Martin’s argument. No questions are asked about their abrupt departure from Barolo. No disapproving looks on their faces about the shared rental car they took off with without asking if it was okay. The price of a taxi wasn’t prohibitive, so they took that from Barolo instead of the bus. It’s as if nothing unusual has happened. Martin’s irritable presence isn’t an issue. Virginia’s somewhat cool distance isn’t either.
Wednesday, the middle of week, the wine bar is not so crowded. Sipping glasses of the Barbaresco Martin suggested, Martin and Virginia are eager to hear about Turin.
‘So tell us what you did on your little side trip,’ Virginia says.
‘We saw The Shroud, of course,’ Willie says.
‘I knew it.’ Martin smiles. ‘I knew you left beautiful Barolo to see a fake piece of cloth.’
‘It wasn’t fake, we were looking right at it,’ Willie says with his own smile.
‘People will believe anything.’ Martin presses his lips together and shakes his head.
‘If they tell me it’s real, who am I to say otherwise?’ Willie says.
‘It’s a fake,’ Virginia says. ‘Let’s just put that out there.’
‘For the rest of our lives we can tell people we saw The Shroud of Turin,’ Anne says. ‘Not everyone can do that.’
‘Not everyone wants to,’ Martin says.
‘Yep,’ Willie says. ‘We can say we stared at a two-thousand-year-old stained bedsheet. Can’t take that away from us.’
They recap the tour of the city they made earlier in the day. The churches they went into and the piazzas they strolled around. The corner trattoria with delicious pasta they discovered in an out of the way neighbourhood.
‘Why didn’t we include Turin into our itinerary?’ Anne says.
‘You did,’ Virginia says.
‘We did, and we should have,’ Willie says. ‘It was like a vacation in a vacation. We got the urge, so we did it.’
‘We wanted to stay in Barolo,’ Virginia says. ‘We did what we wanted to.’
Martin signals to the waiter they need another round. ‘That’s if you don’t mind?’ he looks at Anne, then Willie.
‘I was only going to drink one glass, but your powers of persuasion have won me over,’ Anne says.
‘Martin can be like that,’ Virginia says.
A night away and some routine chatter were all that was needed to ease the tension. In their room later on, Anne talks about making another getaway if it becomes necessary.
‘Let’s avoid going there unless we have to,’ Willie says.
‘Yes, let’s all of us try to avoid it,’ Anne says.
After Alba they spend a rainy night in Parma. The bank of black rain clouds doesn’t recede the whole time they’re there. They do little walking around. Instead, their time is spent indoors. First thing they do is go to the cathedral. Then in the Palazzo della Pilotta they set their eyes on Leonardo’s ‘La Scapigliata.’
The next day the clouds lift, the sky clears, the temperature is mild. Before they leave the city they buy giant prosciutto sandwiches with cheese and toppings, containers of fresh fruit, bottles of mineral water and Lambrusco wine. Past Reggio Emilia, Willie turns off the highway and parks in a bucolic spot overlooking an olive grove. They sit on the grass in the pungent scent of fresh earth and fragrant wildflowers. Eating a picnic lunch, they chat and comment on the ceramic wonders they’re heading to see. Back on the highway, Willie continues past Modena and Bologna on the way to Ravenna.
By the time they arrive in Ravenna and locate their hotel, Willie feels a return of the infectious, itinerant spirit he had after they set out from Rome a week earlier. A desire to see, absorb and satiate himself in whatever they encounter. He gets the same feeling from Anne, and likewise Martin and Virginia. Maybe Anne was right. The airing of grievances by her and Martin was necessary to go forward. However it is, Willie’s sure the city of mosaics will inspire them.
At the hotel’s check-in desk, the clerk confirms the top floor rooms Martin booked for them back in Barolo.
‘You see, I am good for something besides wine recommendations,’ Martin says.
‘Who said you weren’t?’ Willie says.
Martin looks at Anne. ‘I would never,’ she says.
‘Yes you would,’ Martin says, and they all laugh on the way to the lift.
They meet in the lobby the next morning excited to start their tour of the Christian monuments with the celebrated Byzantine mosaics. It’s a pleasure to move about the streets without tension. To smell the clean spring air. To sit at an outdoor table and have a lunch of salumi, pasta, and wine and emerge from it a bit tipsy. It’s apparent, Willie sees, they’ve all made a conscientious decision to avoid areas of disagreement. The Barolo disaster is behind them. Willie trusts none of them wants to bring it back.
It’s six o’clock when they finish up at the Teodorico Mausoleum and start back to their hotel. They’re tired, yet uplifted by the vivid images they took in at each of their stops. The apostles. The magis. The animal and plant life.
On their way over the Ponte Teodorico, Willie says, ‘That, was one of the most amazing days I’ve ever had.’
‘Wow, and I’ll leave it at that,’ Anne says.
Virginia and Martin add their own superlatives. Fantastic. Exquisite. Magnificent.
‘San Vitale was my favourite.’ Virginia says.
‘Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was mine,’ Willie says.
‘I’m not sure, there was so much,’ Anne says. ‘Maybe the Baptistry di Neon?’
‘I go with San Vitale,’ Martin says, ‘and according to my math with two votes that makes it the day’s winner.’
The next morning Dante’s tomb is their only stop in the city. There isn’t much to contemplate. The monument. A garden. At the end of it, Willie tells the others he intends to read ‘The Inferno’ when they’re home.
‘It’s now on my books-to-buy list,’ he says.
From Ravenna they go south through Rimini. They disregard any aspirations they might have to make a detour to San Marino. Instead, they stick to their plan and continue to Urbino. On the coastal highway that runs next to the Adriatic, the conversation among them shifts from the fine weather, to the art they’ve seen, the rooms they’ve stayed in and food they’ve eaten.
In Urbino, they stroll from their hotel into an osteria on a side street off the centro. Eating and drinking at a white-clothed table, they rehash the day’s events. The paintings by Piero della Francesca and Raphael they saw in the Ducal Palace a few hours earlier. The near accident they almost got into past Rimini.
‘We were seconds from a crash,’ Virginia says.
‘It was a close call for sure,’ Willie says. ‘Backing up on the highway to turn on the exit he missed. I don’t know what’s up with some of these drivers.’
‘You were going too fast,’ Martin says.
Willie says, ‘Like everyone else, I was going a few kilometers an hour above the speed limit, that’s it.’ He looks around the table. ‘We’re here in one piece, aren’t we?’
‘You could try doing some of the driving, Willie’s getting tired of it,’ Anne says.
‘He keeps telling us he likes to drive,’ Martin says. ‘So we let him.’
‘Virginia doesn’t drive, so you let him, you mean,’ Anne says.
‘Who set up this trip?’ Martin says.
Anne’s face tightens. ‘You did, and you weren’t going to listen to anyone’s input.’
‘I don’t mind driving, it’s fine with me,’ Willie says.
‘See,’ Martin says.
‘Martin will drive if you want him too,’ Virginia says.
‘Kind of late for that,’ Anne says.
Not much longer after that the waiter comes by to clear the plates. Before he heads off Martin orders another glass of wine for himself. The dust seemed to have just settled on the previous quarrel when Anne tells the waiter to bring the check instead.
‘Do whatever you want after we pay, I don’t care, but I don’t want to hang around here any longer,’ she says.
The waiter hesitates. The plates stacked in his hand, he looks to Martin, ‘Senor?’
With a raise of a finger, Martin says, ‘Porta il vino della casa, per favore.’
The waiter smiles, nods his head and goes off to the kitchen.
Martin says in a calm voice, ‘Are we in a hurry? Is there somewhere you have to be?’
‘Don’t you see, we don’t want to sit here and watch you drink another glass of wine,’ Anne says.
Her response draws attention. Heads turn their way.
Willie gives his companion a look that wants her to let the matter pass. Virginia’s hand touches Martin’s forearm as if to calm him.
In a moment the waiter’s back with the check and the lidded paper cup of house wine he sets down in front of Martin. ‘Per te, in casa.’
Martin smiles up at him. ‘Grazie, grazie’
‘Prego,’ the waiter says. He places the check in the middle of the table. He looks at the four of them. Nothing more’s needed and he goes off to the kitchen.
The matter’s settled. Anne looks at the check, reaches into her purse and takes out a handful of cash. She counts some bills and leaves them on the table. ‘That’s enough for tonight,’ she says.
‘This is a restaurant,’ Martin says, ‘where people come to eat and drink. Eating and drinking are the centre of human contact.’
‘Don’t start, Martin,’ Willie says. He looks at Martin. ‘It’s a public place. No one wants to hear it.’
‘If you’re waiting for an apology it won’t come from me,’ Martin says.
‘I’ll be going,’ Anne says. She looks at Willie.
‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ Willie says.
The next morning they eat breakfast at their hotel. During the conversation they agree to skip the hill towns of Gubbio and Cortona. They’ll drop off the car in Rome and find their own rooms for the next two nights.
The weather’s good. The drive takes four hours with stops for gas and coffee. But to Willie, back behind the wheel, it feels longer. Not much is said along the way. Though some conversation has to take place, with the natural avoidance of touchy topics.
‘We did most of the trip we planned,’ Virginia says.
‘We saw what we wanted,’ Martin says.
‘Some amazing things, for sure,’ Anne says. ‘I took in a lot. I’m still trying to decide what my favourite was.’
‘Hard to do that,’ Willie says. ‘I’m not even going to try.’
Two years later, a prominent Boston literary magazine publishes a short story by Virginia Hill. Set in Sicily, it’s titled ‘The Italian Excursion.’ In it, two characters named Michael and Julie come off as grumpy, tiresome travelling companions that ruin a special anniversary trip for the narrator and her husband.
In their Brooklyn apartment, Willie reads the last line out loud. ‘At the end we knew we would have to go back to see it all over again through our own eyes.’
Anne says, ‘I knew she was going to write about us. I knew it all along.’
‘I recall you telling her to make sure it was one that got a lot of attention.’
‘I didn’t expect her to take my advice.’
‘It’s the only time that happened in our whole trip.’
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