The Road Not Taken

(June 2009)

When we first told people we were moving to Italy, some said they were jealous of our adventure. Others remembered fondly similar sojourns they had taken. Indeed, one of the main reasons for our year here was to seize the opportunity while we had the chance, to live life without having to ask, “What if?” As we head into our last weeks here we are trying to soak in as much as we can, visiting different cities and towns almost every weekend. But just as these cities offer pleasant diversions from our life here in Florence, they also leave us wondering about what could be.

One of my students is an anesthesiologist who lives and works in Florence during the week. On the weekends Vittorio returns home to his wife Sabrina and two daughters in Ferrara, about one hundred miles northeast of Florence in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Vittorio always talks about his hometown, and the pride he has for the region is evident. Who could blame him? Among Emilia-Romagna’s exports are some of Italy’s finest and best known products: balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, and of course Ferraris. It didn’t take much persuading on his part for us to accept an invitation to his home in Ferrara.

Another city we have been anxious to see is Bologna. Since the train stops there before heading to Ferrara, we decided to take this opportunity to visit it on the way to visit Vittorio. Bologna is about the same size as Florence, but with a decidedly different feel. Florence’s buildings are made of the large stones known pietre forte; Bologna’s consist mostly of red brick. In Florence one can hear so much English spoken on the street that it seems like an American city. Bologna sounds much more Italian. Florence clings to all things Renaissance; Bologna artfully mixes old and modern. And while Melanie and I don’t like stereotypes, the whole Italian notion that the farther north you go, the more organized things are holds true. Melanie was so excited to see a straight street that she made me take a picture of it.

We only had a few hours to explore Bologna, so from the train station we headed straight for the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore. We visited the cathedral, enjoyed lunch there, then headed for the Torre Asinelli, which affords views of the whole city. From there everything was a sea of red.

As we walked the streets we got the feeling that this is a real European city. It felt international, yet also retained its own local flavor. There was a university area, nice parks tucked away in various corners, and a smattering of monuments. Many of the buildings’ bottom floors are arcaded, creating stylish walkways with real sidewalks (not like the afterthought raised pavements here in Florence). We found ourselves asking what it would be like to explore this city more, but sadly we only had a few hours before we had to catch a train to Ferrara.

Ferrara is decidedly smaller than either Florence or Bologna. And while those two cities are nestled into valleys surrounded by green hills, Ferrara is in the middle of the plains of Emilia-Romagna. Our friend Vittorio had to pick up his two daughters from school before meeting us at the train station, so we waited for him. I was a little worried that four-year-old Chiara and seven-year-old Francesca would be afraid to talk to us since we didn’t speak Italian very well, but that fear was dispelled as soon as Vittorio pulled up. The two girls hopped out of the car and greeted us, and it took approximately 1.4 seconds for them to befriend Melanie (she is always great with kids). I of course took the sarcastic teasing approach with them, really the only way I know how to relate to kids (or anyone else for that matter). Since their father does the same thing, they instantly saw through me. Immediately we felt like we fit right in.

Ferrara is an incredibly charming place. It is small enough that people are friendly, and seem to recognize each other as they pass in the street. Yet it is large enough that there are plenty of things to do. The city places an emphasis on bicycles, and they dominate the streets. Its old walls surround the city, and you can ride your bikes all around them.

Our first night we ate at the Pavoni family home, a third-floor apartment in the old city. After playing with the Legos we had brought the girls (they seemed better at figuring out the pieces than we were), we had an aperitivo on their terrace. As we ate we watched the rondini (swallows) dart and dive among the rooftops. Then we moved into the kitchen, where we were treated to local Ferrarese cuisine, including coppia bread and Pasticcio alla Ferrarese, a delicious pie filled with pork, macaroni, pumpkin and about a hundred other ingredients. Ferrarese cuisine focuses on blending salty and sweet flavors, and this dish did that perfectly. We then moved into several different kinds of gelate and cakes for dessert, all of which we fantastic. The parents sent the girls to do their bedtime ablutions, which took a long time because the girls wanted to stay up late with the grownups. Still, they gave in to sleepiness, and the four of us stayed up a bit longer, talking about important things (like politics) and really important things (like food). I even had my first semi-conversation in Italian with Sabrina, although I had to turn to Vittorio on numerous occasions for a translation. We bonded very quickly with these two despite growing up in different parts of the world and speaking different mother languages. Vittorio and Sabrina are exactly ten years older than we are, and we imagine our lives will be very similar to theirs in ten years.

The next day Sabrina (also a doctor) had to work, so we all took the girls on a bike ride. Chiara is a little kolohe (the Hawaiian word for mischievous), and refused to ride in the seat of Vittorio’s bike. If we were riding, so was she. For the most part she did very well, although cobbled streets are not easy for a four-year-old who recently removed the training wheels from her bike. Still, both girls are incredibly good natured, and they loved being able to ride around town with their bikes. Chiara went a little more slowly than we did, and she only fell once. When I asked, “Stai bene?” (Are you okay?), she replied, “Non molto,” (Not very).

We visited a few historic buildings, and had a nice lunch at a restaurant in a garden. The girls recognized cherries on the tree we were sitting under. They ended up picking the cherries and eating them (even though their father insisted they weren’t ripe). We rode our bikes some more, stopped for gelato, then headed home to get ready for dinner. This night Vittorio and Sabrina dropped off the girls at Vittorio’s parents’ apartment just one floor below (talk about convenient!), and we headed out to eat at a restaurant with Vittorio’s sister and her husband. The conversation was in a mixture of Italian and English, the Ferrarese food was again excellent (this time we had various cappellacci, a stuffed pasta), and the quiet nighttime atmosphere was broken only occasionally by the pizza delivery boy whizzing by on his scooter. We returned home where we talked some more, playing guitar and singing songs into the night. Vittorio and I alternated between Italian and American songs. Our new friends did what Italians do best: make you feel welcome.

And that is really how we felt about Ferrara. If we were going to live in Italy longer, it would be in a place like Ferrara. The friendly people, the good food, la bella vita, all the best that Italy has to offer is available there. Still, no matter how tempting it is to explore more towns and seek yet another adventure here, this year here has helped us realize how happy we are to live in California. As much fun as this year has been, there really is no place like home.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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