As I entered Silvana's kitchen I was inundated with beautiful aromas. With a warm greeting, she was curious to know how my first morning was going. Silvana is quiet, always with a smile on her face. This endless patience and warmth suits the work she started doing with the elderly after her mother passed away. Her hands are weathered from working with the land and flour for she is also a prolific baker. Brick ovens are hidden amongst her property ready to host a loaf of bread or batch of cakes and she is constantly sifting flour or kneading dough to prepare her next masterpiece.
The work I was helping Silvana with involved harvesting fruits and vegetables around her farm and maintaining the small garden. I would often stop from my work only to realize where I was, a magnificent view looming in front of me . The work was hard, but it was meaningful. Some days we would work in the fields until dark, picking strawberries and tomatoes by twilight.
Silvana is a strong member of her tiny community, from teaching kids to bake to donating her time raising money for town gatherings. She in turn is well loved and there is a constant stream of visitors to her farm stopping by for coffee and cake to break up their days. Though Silvana has many friends she lives alone in a 200 year old house which once housed 5 families. The house was purchased off an old man who grew up there named Carlo, who would still stop by at least once a day. He loved to talk, even if no one was there to listen and would routinely break into song. There was a constant barrage of questions from Carlo despite the language barrier. "Do American women like bald men?", "Is the food good there?" and "Can I come visit you to look for women?" After assuring Carlo that American woman loved bald men it was time for him to drive his old beaten up car back up the mountain.
Another character on Silvana's farm is Stefano, who stops by quite often to help with yard work. He is a quiet old man with wild, white hair and eye brows like Marti Scorsese. Originally from the mountains in Northern Italy, his dialect was very difficult to understand, so he laughed instead. Stefano, a jack of all trades, was a pivotal part in rebuilding parts of Silvana's house that were falling into disrepair which included the small chapel. He moved about the property, delicately picking things up with reverence, this place was dear to him. This place was his sanctuary.
While I was visiting, Prignano was hosting a weekend long festa which Silvana was helping to coordinate. Vendors lined the streets, wonderful food was being handed out everywhere and of course there was music. From teenagers covering "A whole new world" and "Highway to Hell" to the more traditional polka style music, the crowd loved every second. The local librarian came down with a cold and could not work at his booth selling books which opened up an opportunity. Silvana thought it would be a good idea for me to jump into this role and having worked several years in a library shelving books, I felt I was ready to accept the challenge. Armed with a handful of italian words, most of which were vegetables and farm tools, I was able to sell quite a few paperbacks to some very confused, elderly Italian women.
As I was helping Silvana pack up after the festa a voice from behind me shouted "Yankee, go home!" Walter, a member of the local Communist party,stood there in his army fatigues, Crocs with militaria stickers and crooked glasses. With a big smirk on his face he said "Hey Yankee, what part of America are you from." "Rhode Island, do you know where that is?" " NO, because I don't like America!" After telling me all the reasons he didn't like Americans, Silvana and I joined him in the cab of his beaten up truck and drove to his farm. A beautiful property set amongst the rolling hills with wild cherry trees perched atop a steep hill that overlooked the valley. As Walter climbed up to fill a basket for us, Silvana and I picked the low hanging fruit for a snack as the sun began to sneak behind the horizon.
While on Walter's farm I was introduced to the resident donkey who was named George Bush, who in my opinion was much more eloquent than "Dubya" had ever been. Walter had taken a trip to Texas with his wife, which spawned his dislike for the entire country. After picking my brain and trying to push my buttons I think he started to enjoy my company. When it was time to leave he gave me a pat in the back and ruffled my hair. "Ciao John" he said with a smirk then to save some face added "Now go home Yankee." With our giant basket full of grapes we walked past the menagerie of animals who were probably named after Russian dignitaries, and we were off on our next adventure.
Being a reserved person, I try and blend in with the surroundings but in this case there was not much option to blend in. I was the foreigner in a small town and stood out like a sore thumb. I came to appreciate the inability to disappear in a crowd and said yes to every opportunity that presented itself. To travel alone is a scary yet liberating experience. There is no safety blanket to rely upon, but rather you must make new connections in the absence of old ones.
Silvana opened the door into her world and let me, a stranger in. A stranger that she could understand needed a change, but was unsure of how to get there. Through her nurturing guidance she taught me the language and showed me how to bake. At the same time pushed me closer to the edge of comfort to test myself. I figured I was being tested when it was time for me to head back down from the mountains towards the next farm. I asked Silvana the night before if I could have a ride to catch an early train but it being her only day to sleep in she suggested I wake early and make the journey by foot. Challenge accepted!
I woke with the sun and said goodbye to my tiny house which I came to love so much. I started off down the winding road as the sun was still low in the sky, passing old farm houses and landscapes that rolled away into the horizon. Checking my watch I noticed I had better pick up the pace or I'd be forced to take the afternoon train which would throw off an entire day of travel. I waited for the empty road to be filled with the sound of an approaching car and held out my thumb. A black BMW came tearing around the corner and came to a screeching stop. After using the Italian Silvana had taught me, the man jumped out of the car, put my bag in the trunk and invited me in. As I held on for dear life Surin, who was originally from Romania, distractedly raced down the mountain. As he asked me questions he barely watched the road and the landscape blurred past my window with alarming speed. I arrived just in time to catch my train and watch Surin race off.
After a long, successful day of train rides and bus transfers I was picked up by my next farm host in this journey, a man named Maurizio. When we arrived at his home I asked if I could use his phone and Silvana answered like a mother worried about a child.
"John! Where did you go?!? I knocked on your door to bring you to the station and nobody answered. I thought you decided to sleep in."
"I was just joking!"
Although she felt terrible for the misunderstanding Silvana found the whole hitchhiking story funny. Perhaps she was proud I was able to put all her lessons to use. Leaving Prignano and Silvana was bittersweet, but it wouldn't be the last time I stayed in that tiny house.