Now that my days in Italy are very few, I am fulfilling promises of return trips and meet-ups, and one promise I would never break was to return to Spello for a visit before I left for home. I got my tickets about a week ago (along with my “Queen for a Day” tickets to Bologna for this weekend), and was off on the train on Tuesday after posting a couple of blogs and taking care of business here in Florence in the morning.
I boarded the train to Foligno, a direct train, with Spello the last stop before Foligno at the end of the line. That is a trip well out of Tuscany and into Umbria, south through Cortona and Arezzo, but the tiny hill town of Spello is my favorite place in Italy, and all because of Robespierre and his family there. Dee and I had planned to stay in Spello for two or three days in 2006, while Barbara was in art classes in Terni (near Rome), but we fell in love with our host and hostess, Robespierre and Mariella, and their extended family. We ended up there for twelve days, driving our rented car to our destinations each day and returning “home” at night. After our twelve days, we drove to Terni to pick up Barbara and bring her back for a night, so that she could meet our new “family.” Last year, Barbara and I visited Spello on a break from London, arriving only a month after Mariella’s death from ovarian cancer—a complete surprise to us. It was a pleasure to see Robespierre again, though, and try to cheer him a little with our visit.
I took Cheryl to Spello in October, and she got to meet all of the family, and spend time with Robespierre. He speaks only Italian, despite running a bed and breakfast in his home, and so Cheryl just had to hold on and wait for translations, although Robe is pretty good at acting out his “discorsos.” Once Cheryl declared her support for Obama, she was “in” with her host. Leonardo, Robe’s son-in-law who lives just below with Paola and their two daughters, spoke some English with Cheryl, and jumped right into the “Dario Cecchini” role the last night, after hearing about the famous butcher of Panzano and our planned trip to visit him there. Leonardo grilled a huge platter of meats and sausages for our last night there, declaring himself “Dario for a day,” and we had a wonderful visit.
I arrived at the station, and remembered that Robespierre had threatened me if I didn’t call from the station for a ride up the hill (probably about 2.5 km to the B&B, all uphill). The last few times I have visited, I arrived and walked, checking in with people I have met in their businesses along the steep road, and taking my time. So—I called Robespierre, who jumped in the car to come and pick me up, and greeted me with a hug and a big kiss—clearly glad to see me. Back to the house we went, where I had to turn down “something to eat” over and over, telling him I would wait for dinner. Paola arrived, and we all sat down in the kitchen, the heart of Robespierre’s existence, I think. Later Leonardo joined us, and we sat and talked and shared some wine as Paola and Robespierre prepared dinner.
I came with two gifts: one was prints of photos from the earlier trip with Cheryl, all photos that were posted on the blog from the visit to Spello, but I made copies for both Robespierre and Paola; the other was a little metal sign that Cheryl and I happened to find in Florence after my last visit, which said “Oggi Trippa” (“tripe today”). On the previous trip with Cheryl, having served me tripe once in the past, Robespierre was on the way preparing his tripe specialty for the two of us when Cheryl politely refused to eat tripe, and let Robe know that I didn’t like it, either. He was shocked—he thought I loved it. (I must be a tremendous actress!) I went to get the guest book, and translated the note that I had written in 2007: “There is no one else in the world that I would have eaten tripe for but Robespierre.” He had a good laugh, we had lamb instead of tripe, and that was the gist of the last trip with Cheryl. Finding this little sign was perfect, and I only wish Cheryl could have seen his face when he unwrapped it from the newspaper wrapping and started laughing. Later, when Leonardo was arriving, Paola hung it on the door with a ribbon, and we knew he had seen the little sign when we heard him laughing. It was worth every penny, and a perfect and funny little gift.
After dinner, we just hung around and talked at the table. I am trying to convince Leonardo and Paola to let Ariana, their younger daughter, come to California for a visit with me. She has been steaming since last summer, when her parents refused, and now they say that she can come when she is older—maybe this summer? I think they know and trust me more, and having the payment for our room returned tells me they are planning on sending her (I still insisted on paying with Cheryl, AND this time, too.)
Wednesday morning, after a late night waiting for a couple driving from Milano who had called to reserve a room, Paola fed us all breakfast, and later Robespierre appeared to meet the other couple. They left on their trip elsewhere, and Paola and I took a long walk in the olive groves, on a small road that leads to Assisi if you have enough hours to walk all the way. We walked to the “Madonnina,” a shrine of the Madonna on this gravel road in an olive grove, surrounded by flowers and floral offerings, and 2.5 km. from the B&B. When Mariella was well, long before her cancer, that walk was her regular exercise each morning. We passed by many people in the olive groves, picking frantically both because of all the weather delays, and because a storm was threatening to open up and stop the picking again. Cars were all askew along the small gravel roadway, with nets and ladder and crates of olives along the side of the road. We were walking on level terrain, but across a steep slope. Below us, we could see people on ladders picking the olives at the tops of the trees, but far below us although only a few trees away.
I met Giorgia, the older daughter, when Paula and I drove her to Assisi to pick up Leonardo’s car at the train station. He had business in Milano, and had taken a very early train, sorry that he would not be back before I left for Florence. We stopped at the cheese stores (two side by side) on the way to Assisi, and bought cheeses for lunch—some from each store. Apparently the mozzarella is softer at one, and favored by one daughter over the cheese of the other store.
The girls and Paola left to go downstairs, after Paola cleaned the room of the other guests, and Robespierre and I spent the rest of the afternoon talking in the kitchen. Later that evening, when Paola’s two daughters were ready to go into Foligno, we took them and a friend in for shopping, and Paola and I just window shopped and she gathered ideas for Natale (Christmas) for the girls and Leonardo. We got caught up in the beginnings of the rain, but it was on and off, and we were back to Robespierre and dinner before long.
It’s a comical struggle each night to watch Robespierre and Paola “cooperate” making dinner. Paola is clearly the efficient cook, but he has his ways, and they always clash over something. He cooks the pasta too long, she thinks. (He says it’s not done when she cooks it.) She covers pots that he uncovers, and they both dance around the stove and table, trying to get the meal prepared, despite the help of the other. Paola clearly has her hands full with three households to manage. She has her own with her daughters and Leonardo, then cooks and cleans for Robespierre, and also does the cleaning and booking and paperwork for the Fratello Sole B&B. Many of the pastries and desserts at the B&B are made by Paola, too. Robespierre continues to have problems with his knee, and is not able to move around much without having pain. It’s tough to see him wincing when he stands up, and limping when he walks. I’ll bet, however, that he is not following orders to rest and ice his knee, and I cross my fingers that his recent cortisone “infuzione” will help with the pain.
In the morning, my last, I was the only guest for breakfast, so I pushed it back to 8:30 to make it easier on Paola. She had one girl home studying for exams, and one to get off to school at 7:30. After that, she had to come upstairs and prepare breakfast for me, but knew that yogurt and cereal were perfect (and what she normally eats, too). When Robespierre joined us later, insisting that I have ANOTHER espresso with him, we sat and talked some more, and then Robespierre drove me to the station to see what times the trains to Florence came through. I chose the one at 3:09, and then we knew how much of the day we had left to plan.
From there, I got a tour of lower (newer, outside the old city walls) Spello, including his son’s home nearby, and then I went with him to the supermarket. He had his arm around my shoulder most of the way, and introduced me to his friends as we crossed paths. Over and over, he told them I needed to eat something, because I was pregnant. I did a lot of eye rolling, and called him a liar, but everyone laughed at the very idea, so he just kept telling the same story. Even to the two carabinieri at the coffee bar in the supermarket. Robespierre must deliver the notices of who is staying at the B&B to their office every day, so he knows them well. They each shook my hand, and Robe bought their coffee and pastries for them (and came back later to pay their bill).
I finally realized that I had not taken a single photograph, although my camera had been with me all along. The portraits I had given to Leonardo and Paola from the last visit were great, and also one of Robespierre and me together, but I just had settled in without a thought of taking any photos. So, in the grocery store I got out my camera.
I got an earful from Robespierre about this store and its Chianina beef. These are the big white cows from the Val d’Chiana that provide the bistecca fiorentina, huge Porterhouse steaks that are two inches thick and grilled over wood fires, and served very rare. Also, these are the huge beasts that bring the cart of fireworks into the Piazza del Duomo for the Easter celebration, with flowers and palm fronds woven into arrangements between their horns. It seems that carrying this type of beef exclusively means that higher prices can be charged, and I noticed both signs touting the special benefits of this beef, and huge sides of beef hanging in sight behind the butcher counter.
Robespierre was searching for something to serve for lunch, and chose chicken and peppers. While he was waiting for his number to come up (In Spello? Really?) at the butcher counter, I busied myself at the fish counter with my camera.
It was very evident that my blog for this trip to Spello was going to be rather empty, since I had not taken out the camera on my walk to the Madonnina, through the olive trees, or in Foligno with Paolo.
I did find gallon (probably something metric, like 3 liter) bottles of new olive oil, and was tempted to bring one back. Too much weight, though—but dark green.
Meanwhile, at the meat counter, one guy was making sausages in the back while the other was taking delivery of about six sides of pork.
I followed Robespierre to the produce counter, where I saw a new system. Here in Florence, plastic gloves cover your hands as you pick out fruit or vegetables, and then you put them into a bag on the scale, push the button with the picture of your item, and the barcode label pops out to stick to the plastic bag with the name and the weight and the final price. There, you bag the items and an attendant puts in the code, gets the label and price and sticks it on the bag (tying it shut so you cannot add to the bag, I guess).
Robe steamed the chicken chunks in white wine and water and garlic, and then added in all of the red, green and yellow peppers. Along with pasta with Paola’s pesto sauce, that was lunch for Ariana (home from school), Paola, Robespierre and me. It was wonderful, and the same dance around the pasta pot happened at lunch—Paola and Robespierre both being in charge, covering and uncovering, arguing about the time to cook it. It’s done lovingly, but Paola gets frustrating that she has 25 years of her own household, and now has to fight to help her father in his.
Of all the boneheaded things to do, making sure that I had photos of Robespierre to show Cheryl with the “oggi trippa” sign, I didn’t even check the focus.
I shot a couple, then one of Paolo and Ariana, and then Paola took a couple of me with Robespierre.
That was it—I had about 10 minutes to catch my train, and push the payment for my room back to them after they tried to return it to me. Ariana went downstairs to do her schoolwork, Robespierre waved from the window, and Paolo took me to the car in driving rain to take me to the station. It was clear that Robespierre didn’t want me to go so soon, but this trip to Italy is winding down, and I had scheduled a day in Florence before I go to Bologna to meet Fabio, the young man Mike and I met in California and hosted in Sacramento on Labor Day Weekend. I got another kiss from Robespierre, and I hope to see him again. He is such a character, and “bull-headed” is an understatement. He speaks Italian to me as if I can understand every word, and I struggle all the while to keep up, getting the gist and not the nuances, of course. I love visiting him and his family, and Paola and I spent nearly every minute together, too. I’m thinking Ariana has good chances of a trip this summer!
That’s it for Spello this time, and I’m not sure it was a good idea. It was difficult to leave the first time, with Cheryl, and heartbreaking to watch Robespierre from the window as we drove away for the station. Somehow, he really likes my visits, and it’s mutual. Next year, Robespierre!