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Letting go on the Ligurian coast


The footpath along the coast of Liguria snakes for miles through steep hills terraced with olive groves and vineyards. Around the hairpin bend in the mule track, Jim and I cross the cliff above Riomaggiore, a piece of heaven washed by the Mediterranean Sea.  We walk through cobbled alleys and graceful arches, through warrens of shade and light, down to the palm-lined piazza.

A couple sits on the rock wall above the sea. The wife and I smile.  I point at this daring husband of mine as he scrambles down to the pebbled crescent and mouth the word, “Stupido!” 

She replies, her hand on her heart, “No, no, signora, corraggio!”  Her rakish husband smiles, too.  They have a cosmopolitan air, these Italians swathed in Armani. I wonder if they are from the north on holiday.

“Signor, dove viva?”  I ask. 

“Milano,” he replies.  “E lei”?  His eyebrows rise.

Riomaggiore

We are politely curious about each other.  We ask questions, speaking the language, survival-style.   Sylvia and Francesco tell me that they have come to the Cinqe Terre to walk again on the Via Dell’Amore. It is their anniversary. He is “on the pension” after years of selling silk to New York buyers. I am captivated by the exacting cut of his suit, the graceful drape of Sylvia’s dress, her Dolce e Gabbana belt.

“So,” I ask, “you’ve been to the United States?”

“Si.  Mi amo New York!  Studio 54. Disco. John Travolta, you know?”

Francesco demonstrates his smooth dance moves on the ancient stone.  I tell him we, too, are “on the pension”.

“Un po’ soldi,” I say as I rub my thumb and forefingers together to indicate the modest sum.

Jim returns and we talk about our families, grandchildren in particular. Pictures of nepoti appear.  I tell them it is our anniversary, thirty-five years.  Francesco looks at Sylvia and says, “Quaranta Quattro,” forty-four years. He leans over and puts his cheek next to hers.

“Cin, cin.” I raise my hand in a toast.  Francesco says they must go; I thank them for their company. He brings his fingers to his lips and gestures “Ciao, bella” as they leave.

Jim and I wander through Riomaggiore. Wizened old men and cats visit on stoops.  Erratic Vespas speed by houses heaped up along winding streets. Three-wheeled Apes tote leafy greens and demijohns of wine through lanes where Hannibal marched in another century. A T-shirt sporting Lurch of “Family Adams” fame hangs from a balcony above the communal oven where Romans laid fires in medieval days.

“Che profumino!”    From the rosticceria, the lingering aroma of chicken filled with herbs entices.  We shoulder our way through the curtain of plastic beads into the cool stone-flagged kitchen.

“’Giorno,” we say to the pasta maker and admire his trofie, the regional pasta served with generous amounts of basil pesto and contorni, grilled vegetables anointed with oil.

Outside, we follow the thyme sprawling across a terrace shaded by a leafy-vined pergola. In a mossy courtyard, a scarred olivewood plank serves as a table and salamis hang from hooks overhead, safe from marauding mice. Cradled in a rag hammock, a fleshy summer squash hangs along the fence.  Bougainvillea and morning glory spread like weeds across twelfth century stucco. Behind a concrete Madonna, a lizard darts, its tail curling this way and that.

Back on the path, we hike to Manarola.  The breeze carries hints of lemon and rosemary . We stop to taste the olives, and the bitterness makes us grimace.  A passing miller reminds the stranieri that the olives must sit in brine, salamoia, for forty days.  He tells us with regional pride that these are Taggiasco olives and make the best oil in Italy.  Naturalmente.

We arrive in Manarola hungry and thirsty.  When we stop to study a menu, we see Francesco and Sylvia inside the taverna.

“Vieni, vieni.” Francesco beckons.  We are delighted to see our new friends.

“Is the food good?” I ask, eyeing their empty plates.  “E buono? “

“Si, si…  Order il primo, just one course, and then stop.” Francesco repeats this a few times. “E piu economico.”  I am touched by this remark.

We find a table nearby.  Soon we are deep in conversation and up to our elbows in aciuge and vongole (anchovies and clams).  We ignore Francesco’s suggestion. The pasta arrives, then spicy sausages and beans. 

I smell the plate of fried fish before I see it.

“Scusatemi,” Francesco sets a platter of fritto misto on our table.  He would like us to enjoy it with his compliments. We are honored. I turn and catch Sylvia’s eye.  She smiles, as if on cue. We taste the crisp fish and like its salty crackle.

 “Ciao.”  They are going back to Milan; the train is due.  We kiss on both cheeks and bits of fish fall on his lapel. He doesn’t even mind.

Che gentilezza. 

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