At a sidewalk cafe in Savigno
At a sidewalk cafe in Savigno
Italy! Two and a half months, alone, with no plans beyond the first week, and no phone. Just divorced after 29 years, I longed to lose myself in a place where I was, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, “nobody’s ex-wife.”

I would stay in hostels. My previous trips to Italy were in luxury hotels, with a private car and driver. But now I wanted to mingle with fellow travelers on interesting journeys. I would learn how to speak Italian, cook Italian, and become better at calligraphy.

First stop, an eight-bed women’s dorm in Milan.

After flying all night, riding a train an hour, a metro five stops, and, with a groaningly heavy backpack and bulging roll-aboard, walking a lot farther than indicated on the hostel website, that dorm room didn’t sound so good. I was thrilled when I found out that, for the first night of my two-night stay anyway (for 89 euros instead of 49), I could upgrade to a private room. Until it was ready I chatted with an Indian couple from Albany who had just gotten off a 13-hour bus ride from Vienna and, by doing it cheap, were traveling the world on retired civic workers’ pensions.

My room was small but blissfully quiet, and opened to an outdoor terrace with hammock. The buffet dinner was surprisingly good. To bed early, I woke up around midnight and followed a buzzing noise past the lively lounge, down to the basement and a karaoke session where five men were belting out an Italian song, joined each rousing chorus by everyone in the room, and all faces beaming. 

At breakfast, my Indian friend was furious that a young man had remarked on her husband’s snoring, and just as furious that her husband had apologized. “I have stayed at the very high-end hostels where a woman took off her shoes and her feet stank, and another where a man let it go all night. But I accept! If you don’t want that, do not share a room!”

Alas — after one woman next to me snored, the one in the upstairs bunk walked up and down the ladder like a ghost all night and another hogged the bathroom for half an hour in the morning when I was late for a calligraphy workshop — I decided that I do not want to accept.

 


While the hostel part of my tour won’t stick, the no-phone part will. The only time I wished I’d had it was when I boarded a bus in Bologna with scrawled directions from my innkeeper and was looking out for my stop when suddenly it was the end of the route.  But the driver, Alessandro, called my innkeeper on his personal phone, talked animatedly to her, then drove me, in the big empty bus, to the archway of my street. 

My lessons go better than expected: At a cooking class for just me at my favorite restaurant in Italy, Amerigo, in the truffle-rich village of Savigno, Jacquimo (standing in for the sick Nonna) kneads and rolls out the dough (eggs and flour only) on one wooden table and cuts it with a large knife on another. To show me what the Nonna would do if the two-table protocol weren’t observed, he pantomimes running after me with the knife. Barbara Calzolari, a master of copperplate calligraphy who writes for the pope, tells me the curved sweep of my letters needs to be “morbido” (soft), like touching a lover’s arm.  

In Bologna yesterday, biting into a pistachio-glazed chocolate éclair on my way to a trattoria for fata a mano tagliatelle Bolognese and tortoloni stuffed with pera and cheese, I thought, “I have to live here.” It is as beautiful as Ferrara but, maybe because it is a university town or maybe because it is big enough to absorb the tourists, it does not feel like a theme park. And as my Italian teacher pointed out, “There are many porticos, so if it is raining you stay dry.”

I keep extending my stay in the B&B, where an opera singer is staying in the one other room, the espresso machine is on day and night, and the owner arranged yesterday for me to make pasta with her mother, who speaks not a word of English, and where today in the mother’s apartment the three of us will share the meal.

At the end of October I will be in Trento for a weekend workshop with Barbara Calzolari. After that, Trieste, because when I was still single and working as a reporter in San Francisco, one of my favorite places was a café in North Beach by that name. Locals get a dreamy look when they hear “Trieste,” but caution that the winds blow hard.