Today is April 25, the Festival of Liberation in Italy, celebrating the end of World War II.
Four years ago I was celebrating in Cinque Terre. Today, my heart is breaking for the friends I made there and the devastation of their unique landscape, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site of terraced cliffs that “contain more stone than the Great Wall of China” according to local sources. Or did, before they came down following the torrential rains that fell on October 25, 2011. Large sections of the centuries-old retaining walls washed away, and several villages filled two-stories-high with mud and debris.
I wrote about my visit to Cinque Terre and published that travel memoir as an example in my book, Write Your Travel Memoirs: 5 Steps to transform your travel experiences into compelling essays. I’m excerpting a few paragraphs from that memoir here, to introduce you to my friends and my “real home”.
Several villages in the Cinque Terre are still far from restored, and those local business-people are without income until tourists return. The village of Vernazza was particularly hard hit. My heart aches for the people trying to get through this while Italy is mired in debt and unable to provide government aid.
I am donating all proceeds from sales of this book on Amazon in 2012 to Rick Steves’ “Save Vernazza” fund. I hope some readers of “True Stories Well Told” might feel inspired to purchase a copy, knowing you will help the people I’ve written about here.
“Finding Our Place in Cinque Terre”
Optimism wrapped me like a sunny cloak, but dread pulled on its hem. Arrivals make me nervous. The problem, when I have planned a trip and finally arrive at the place I’ve been fantasizing about, is inserimento—insertion—making the transition from traveler to temporary resident.
How do you sync up with the place you’ve reached? What is its story, and what is your place in it? When expectations crash into reality, how do you handle the impact? If insertion goes badly, you soon feel like a walking wallet to be harvested of your cash, rewarded at worst with Chinese-made souvenirs or at best a few local products. If insertion goes well, you are living a new life you were always meant for. Either can influence your mood for days. On a short vacation there’s a lot riding on inserimento.
* * *
At midday the train releases us into the main street of Vernazza with four tour groups, mostly school children. We bob down the street, carried along by their tide. Jim and I are the only ones with suitcases—me with a small roller bag, Jim with a grip, our messenger bags and that’s it—we travel light. But even this load is heavy enough that our first thought is lodging. In these crowds, this might be a competition sport.
A small man materializes at Jim’s elbow asking if perhaps we are looking for a room. “What gave us away?” jokes Jim. There’s something instantly likeable about the little man’s smile. The rest of our deal-making is accomplished with relaxed humor, because we all know that we will take whatever he is offering. It turns out to be a little apartment just a few steps away, which he will give us at a good price because he has just repainted the kitchen; it can’t be used. “Good price, but one night only,” he says: day after tomorrow is the festival, and the room is already booked. He is referring to the Festival of Liberation, April 25, a holiday celebrating the end of World War II.
* * *
We leave our bags in our new home and head out to find lunch, flowing with the crowd downhill. Vernazza, like each of the five Cinque Terre towns, has been built against the two sides of a ravine flanking a brook. Sometime in its history the brook was covered over so what were once merely sidewalks down both sides became a paved street broadening and slanting to the west. In Vernazza (as we’ll discover in other villages we visit) that sloping main street terminates in a plaza and a port of sorts. With seas too rough and terrain too steep for harbor berths, the fishermen use a gantry system to raise boats from the waterfront into the plaza where they drop them onto wheeled frames, then roll them home to park outside their doorways.
[Picture what happens when torrential rains meet that constrained watercourse.]
Thousands of day-trippers are pouring in. Boats already crowd the main street. It’s a canyon four stories deep, walled with pastel stucco buildings accented with grids of green window shutters. A cacophony of crowd noise echoes around us. High-pitched children’s squeals and a toy-train whistle rise above the roar.
We shuffle shoulder to shoulder toward the plaza surrounded by people descending from the train station. Even more people are spurting out of cracks between the buildings. I spot the white/red paint slashes that are the markings of the C.A.I. trails (Club Alpino Italiano) this area is famous for. Hikers who began the day in villages north or south of Vernazza are arriving, just in time for lunch.
* * *
From the crowds and merriment, you would think this was the festival day already. The student groups are chattering. A saxophonist is playing for tips. A national news crew is doing a “first beautiful day of Spring” story, stopping people for interviews. I overhear someone say this is the first day the sun has shown in over a month.
Ordinarily Jim and I hate crowds; we dislike finding that we have chosen the same thing at the same time thousands of others have. It offends our sense of ourselves as special, apart (and no doubt better) than the masses. Can we control our knee-jerk reaction? To arrive at noon in a place awash in its maximum capacity of day-trippers is to risk feeling alienated.
Here is where our inserimento will go well or badly, which will inflect the rest of our trip. Here in Vernazza the story-in-progress is mass delirium generated by unaccustomed warmth, sun, and scenery. In addition to the school groups there are couples and families who woke finally to a promise of Spring in the air and blew off whatever responsibilities to head for the Cinque Terre for the day… and who could blame them. The universal festival mood affects us too. We feel at home, and find we don’t really mind our thousands of guests.
* * *
The days run together, but the faces don’t. Standing out in the blur of scenery and snacking are the moments of interaction, not just with the locals, but with the “United Nations of Cinque Terre,” the visitors whose paths cross ours. We came here for the scenery—which has turned out to be more about people-watching than botanizing.
The first interactions were about lodging and food, the basic themes of life. But here, even those are conducted with a note of personal interest; we do not feel like wallets being harvested. Maybe later in the season, when the local people have grown tired of their daily invaders, their hospitality will falter. Today we are greeted as warmly as if we had brought Spring in our luggage.
Late in the afternoon on our first day in Vernazza, we discovered the “Pirati di Cinque Terre,” where we were drawn to the cases displaying tiny marzipan sculptures simulating mussels, tomatoes, hot peppers, even little chicken carcasses. “We haven’t seen pastries like these since Sicily,” Jim says. “And I am Sicilian,” replies the madcap man behind the counter. He turns deciding what to order into a comedy act. I ask his name: “Borat.” I tell him we were admiring the dessert case because Jim is a pastry chef. “You must come to work here,” Borat responds. My mind trips out on the possibilities of that.
In the morning we go back to the Pirates for breakfast, but now the man behind the counter is dour; could our “Borat” be manic-depressive? No, the laughing Sicilian reappears and introduces us to his twin, Massimo. “He is the serious one. I am the handsome one.” Our affection deepens for these Sicilians who are trying to insert themselves into the business scene of Vernazza. I suspect mistrust of newcomers from outside has denied the Pirates a location nearer the heart of the village. The Sicilians’ restaurant sits at the upper gate holding back the cars (except for deliveries between 8 and 10a.m.) But the pirates’ pastry tricks far surpass the talents of the natives, and their whacky patter pleases the tourists. Rick Steves wrote favorably about them, which is good for business.
* * *
According to Rick Steves’ “Save Vernazza” website, it is uncertain when (or if) the Pirati di Cinque Terre will reopen. Please help me help them.