We are stopping for lunch at a recommended restaurant that is supposed to have very good meat. La bandita. We have not eaten much meat apart from what has been in a few sauces and the waiter recommends “hamburger” when I ask him what is best. When I repeat “hamburger” with a big question, he says “oh, madam, it is wonderful!” So that is what I order.
We have passed the morning in Pienza, a small walled city sitting on a hill. It was an ancient town reconstructed in the 1400’s by the then Pope Pius II. Pius was a great humanist who hired a bevy of architects and artisans to transform his humble town into a great renaissance city. It is still a jewel of a city which is now a tourist destination. There is no trains and few buses here and so the tourists are those who have rented cars or come in small vans. So, fewer pack backer and more couples of that certain age. The size of the streets begin at small and go down from there. Indeed, the via del amore has hardly enough to room for lovers to walk hand in hand although the that may be the point.
Before cars, trucks and when multi person transport was only for great distances, the rich rode in sedan chairs and there was no need for wide streets and smooth paving. The tiny streets and occasional steps are of such a human size and even Julia has no problems ‘crossing’ streets. How will the shape of towns and cities change again when personal automobiles are a dim memory. I would like to see that change but I doubt that it will be accomplished in my lifetime. In places like Pienza, cars or vans could move through the main street but could never park. Parked a car would block the road. Only a Vespa is possible on the cross street. I have heard people complain about narrow European streets. I love them.
We tour the home palace of Pope Pius II. It is the palace right next to the cathedral. It is large and has some very comfortable furniture from every century since the 15th. So many paintings whose artists can only be guessed at. Why are so many not signed? Was that typical of the time, of this place? Or does it have something to do with the artists not being notable? Whatever the reason, someone made art and his name is lost. The house was in the Piccolomini family until the 20th century when it was given to the city to make it a museum. Furniture is from every century until 1930 and the inside was renovated every hundred years or so.
Before the burger, there are stuffed zucchini flowers, this time with an herbed ricotta instead of melted pale yellow cheese we had in Torino, and ravioli with a carbonara filling served with a thick cut bacon and bits of zucchini. Then the fabulous burger which is indeed splendid. For dessert, we have peach thyme gelato with tiny flavorful miranges, pistachio soft cookies and raspberries. We split all of our dishes which leaves me plenty full. Alone I might have had two courses and not a dessert. I think Julia would have been satisfied with a big plate of ravioli but she is willing to have her palate stretched.
Between courses, I write while julia draws. I look up to see a very much older man who reminds me of David. I jump just a little inside, but if I was going to try to say what the resemblance is, I couldn’t. His eyes are deep set, like David’s, but smaller and blue not hazel brown. His face is not as long, his nose all wrong. His lips are closest but not quite as full. His hair is grey and there is actually a bit more than David had. His hands have the gentleness that I remember and his concentration on his partner’s conversation tips the scale. He looks away briefly, slightly distracted in thought, and then focuses once again on what the guy opposite him is saying. I wonder what I am remembering and what I am making up. David will never be as old as the man at the table, and my memory of him is a timescape of presents over 35 years. What is real and what have I filled in? In a few days it will be five years since I last saw him. What tricks and distortions of time and love and loss has my head and heart imposed on his image? Would I be sure it was him if he passed by me today?
Perhaps because of the upcoming death anniversary and perhaps because this part of our journey is something we deemed of together, I am recalling with more and more vividness how we were shaped by our time in Italy. We wanted to return with Cheshire in tow. We wanted to figure out how to be expats. David was getting his writing masters at Columbia. I was pregnant. We had almost given up theater and the wish that we had been less involved in the arts and had traveled much more widely was in the air. As I write I cannot remember what changed our plans. Simply law school and our desire to provide a middle class life for our child? I can wonder about a dozen things that we would have could have considered but didn’t. I simply don’t remember and there is no one else to ask.
Our final stop of the day was to a little church outside the walls of Pienza. When I ask directions to Pieve di Corsignano, the woman calls it the “old” town church. Umm, she could have meant the ‘old town’ church but which ever meaning, her designation suggests that the church built in the 1400’s is the new town church? Everything is relative. This is an unusual little church built on pagan ground, the front door decorated with sirens and dragons instead of saints. A statute of a woman divides the window over the door does not have the look of a saint. The inside is bare Romanesque probably from the 8th century. The two Pienza popes, Pius Ii and III were christened here. The side alters are bare of images. It is easy for me to imagine that the lady, the mother, was celebrated differently here in the parish in 900. Perhaps it is only the age and quiet of the place. I light a candle for the mother.
Our only company at the little church for some of our visit is a gaggle of priests and official looking men. I cannot understand a word they are saying although I do understand that one complains about the outside not being cared for. In my imagination . . . Well, it is sort of a Dan Brown novel with ancient secrets of the power of the mother which is on the verge of rising again. The signage on this building is completely inadequate, even in Italian, but that lack leaves the imagination room to expand.
And dream. So very, many dreams.