“Road Trip!” he yelled, fists pumping the air as his foot pressed down on the accelerator and the car hit the open highway. “Road Trip!” they echoed gleefully, thrilled to be on the road and heading back to Italy, their home, their favorite place. Snuggled into their chosen seats, packed in amongst too many suitcases, umbrellas, rubber boots, crumpled, well-worn maps strewn around under seats and crammed down into side pockets and bags overflowing with boxes of cookies, bottles of water and bars of chocolate, they were on a great adventure, just the three of them, father, mother and son.
The long and winding road. Nantes, Angers, Clermont Ferrand, Lyon. Pull in quick quick to gas stations along the way, tank filled, dash in quick quick for a sandwich, a pop into the restroom then back into the car cradling cans of coke and tiny paper cups of steaming, bitter coffee, the better to stay awake during those long, tiring hours. Bursts of conversation punctuated by laughter, accompanied by the noisy crinkling of maps, chattering about their past life in that craziest of countries, Italy, trying to awaken memories of deep-dish pizza eaten da Marino, bustling Pace with the grilled swordfish, platters of antipasti and gooey crespelle eaten amid the noise of clattering cutlery, fussy waiters scurrying from table to table, clients loud and voluble as only Italians can be. Or schoolfriends, playmates, Ricky and Lorenzo, Fabio and Davide, Alessandro and Pietro; or their changing lives, moving out to the countryside, that rambling house nestled in the fields outside Villastanza and the tiny village school, or playing in the open spaces, free, with Kikka; Ettore, their adopted grandfather, Beppe and Nonna Anna, birthday parties outside with friends old and new. No, as much as he tries, those memories of days past, a young life, elude him, fly by quickly, blurry like the landscape swiftly rushing by now outside the car window.
The long and winding road. Lyon, Albertville, Torino, Genova. The rest of the time they are lost in their own worlds, their own thoughts; she dreaming of time past, the city she loved when the boys were small, dreaming of living there again among old friends, markets overflowing with lush produce, heady with the pungency of so many cheeses, heavy with breads and pasta, their own private manna. He, the son, possibly fearful of an uncertain future, not one memory of his early years to bolster and warm, a lost childhood haunting him; now stepping as a young man into the unknown, heavy with the weight of adult responsibility. And his father, joyful to be heading back to this much-beloved country, excited to visit his old stomping grounds, dine at favorite restaurants, stroll those streets they knew so well and spend time with still-dear friends, yet worried about the future and his own uncertainties, the questions it holds, unable to let go for even a week.
The long, interminably long and bumpy road. This exciting adventure, this pleasurable road trip turns into road trip from hell, pushing past Genova towards Pisa then Pistoia and news of flooding, a landslide, la frana, has them turning back, forced to retreat and head north, retracing their steps. Piacenza, Parma, Modena, Bologna, hour upon added hour, the time long and oppressive, exhaustion setting in, yet on they push, From Plate to Page waiting for her arrival. Bologna then news of roads closed due to the landslide, traffic jams on the autostrada down to Florence, so they cleverly turn down the Statale which will carry them straight to Pistoia, their final destination of the day, only to find that a mere 75 kilometers takes hours upon hours, traveling at a snail’s pace, and they arrive late, exhausted, bedraggled, struggling to recapture that lighthearted mood, yet relieved and excited to finally be there. And she flies into the waiting arms of Ilva, Meeta and Jeanne and finally, finally JP meets them face to face and all is well.
From Plate to Page come and gone, flown by all too fast, work done, friendships made and back in the car they go. Father and son had spent a glorious four days visiting, chatting, bonding, as hasn’t happened for a long, long time. Both passionate about history, together they trod on sacred Etruscan ground, stood in the shadow of towers and cathedrals, snaked up rocky passages into lost little villages perched atop stunning views, vines and trees spreading out forever at their feet. Pizza and pasta shared while talking of the past and the future, preparing the young man for his coming months immersed in this ancient, contemporary, vibrant culture.
Firenze to Milano, our old stomping grounds, a fast and breezy road trip and back in better spirits. The conversation flows, topics buzzing around our heads like bees on a summer afternoon, swatting one-liners and souvenirs back and forth, a verbal tennis game, punctuated by long, drowsy moments, each lost in our own thoughts, as the landscape flashes by and the cars dash madly around us. Milan looms larger than life, our eyes wide like children entering a fairgrounds, feeling our way forward from memory, pointing at sites and sights both familiar and new. The city has gone mad! Roadworks and construction projects trip us up at every corner, streets now closed off, only accessible by local residents; we get lost, find our way again only to be teased, entangled, tripped up once again until we finally make our way to our lovely little hotel in the center. And three days begin.
Settling Simon into his new home is top priority as is making a side trip to the grocery store. Then on to Pace, that bustling, family-style restaurant near our first apartment, where we would take the boys every Friday evening for dinner. Arriving just a smidgen too early, I peep in the window and excitedly announce that nothing has changed: the same waiters, albeit older, grayer, are setting up the tables and the trays of antipasti, the same old gentleman, the owner, stands guard, surveys, controls, while the other gentleman sitting behind the cash register counting out bills and making notes in a ledger is one and the same. We laugh, anticipating our meal even more, knowing that each plate of pasta, each serving of carpaccio will be just as it was almost fifteen years ago. And we are reminded that here, in Italy, nothing really ever changes, at least not the good things. Or politics.
And on and on goes the weekend: perfect slices of steaming pizza al trancio, by the slice, and thick squares of tender focaccia studded with olives eaten while standing on the sidewalk in front of our best takeaway Pizzeria da Gino; more pizza al trancio, this time dense, chewy, thick deep-dish slices dripping with gooey cheese slathered over spicy rich tomato sauce from da Giuliano; a wander through our favorite market on Piazza Wagner where nothing has changed except a few faces, yet there they are, my favorite men, Vittorio and Franco, behind the cheese counter and we greet each other noisily, happily, while Simon, grown now, tall and lanky, almost fifteen years later, stares on, bemused and embarrassed to be made much over! And they laugh and hand us heavy, pungent chunks of freshly cut Parmesan cheese, just like old times. Ah, the food of Italy, rich and warming, homey comfort food in every shape and form, clean, simple yet fragrant and flavorful, the best the Italian soil has to offer!
Movies! Let’s go to the movies! We press in among the crowd huddled together in the vast yet close plush lobby of the cinema after having pushed our way through the swarming throng around the Duomo and the Galleria on a gray Tuesday afternoon. Tin Tin! In Italian! We love going to the movies in Italy and Simon is pleased to prove to us that, yes indeed, he does understand every single word. And to complete the trip, a fabulous, steaming panzerotto around the corner da Luini, now gone upscale in their wild popularity. And a surprise visit to the old millinery studio where I trained, hugs and laughter and loads of chattering with Nadia and Laura. And I am so pleased to see that Gallia & Peter still remains.
And we hug Simon arrivederci, addio… until we see each other in just a couple of weeks. And we climb in the car and drive home, back to Nantes, feeling just a little lost, just a tad homesick. Nostalgia for those wonderful times past spent in a city, a country we love pushing us through the mountain tunnel, the violent winds and the heavy rains. To each his or her own thoughts, dragging us on, hour after hour, as night settles upon us and darkness swallows us up. We feel so at home in Italy and wonder when we will be able to go back again…for good.
Where to eat in Milan, Italy:
Panificio da Luini via Santa Radegonda, 16 Milano panzerotti pugliese fritti e al forno
Ristorante Pace via Washington, 74 Milano ristorante toscano
Pizzeria da Giuliano via Paolo Sarpi, 60 Milano pizza al trancio
Pizzeria da Marino via Lodovico Castelvetro, 6 Milano pizza al trancio e cucina toscana
Pizzeria da Gino corso Vercelli, 9 Milano pizza e focaccia al taglio e cucina take away
Gelateria Grom 5 delicious locations in Milano