by David Little @dlittle21
My inattention was pulled upwards.
Across the tracks at the Trento, Italy train station, two black eyes locked into mine. She peered for three seconds longer than it is suitable for strangers, so I shyly returned to the safety of my book. The pages glowed and my back was warmed by the mid-afternoon sun high above blue mountains behind me. A breeze carelessly flipped my place backwards.
I looked again: she was chewing gum and bouncing her white Adidas on the shadowed cement. A small backpack occupied the spot beside her. She was playing the role of Bored Teenager better than any Pizza Hut commercial portraying a stilted family dinner I’ve ever seen. Schoolmates milled about the platform, sharing earbuds, and laughing sarcastically. Her apathetic gaze returned, this time more curious. She reminded me of when zoo animals inexplicably change their attention from immediate surroundings to those on the other side of the glass: the gawkers, the tourists. I immediately understood why, as I stuffed my too-large novel back into my pack; I didn’t fit in. No, it wasn’t so much my clothing that gave me away (on this trip I made sure not to bring the usual tourists ware: wide brimmed hat, fanny pack, last year’s running shoes). It was simply my expression—perhaps punctuated by a Tolstoy beard. I have, after all, been told that I’m no good at hiding my thoughts.
I wandered over to the washroom. It was a hole in the ground. Splashing some water on my face, my thoughts returned to zoos. It was all a matter of perspective, really. To me, the curious Italian teenager was the exhibit. To her, the wide-eyed and tentative tourist was the foreign animal. Back at the platform I triple-checked my ticket and the train schedule. Today, more than any other on this trip, I was flying blind. Before leaving Canada I had exchanged emails with Dino, a distant Italian cousin. He gave me his address, insisting that I could visit anytime; but after asking for the easiest way to reach Deggiano, his village, I had yet to hear back from him. Eventually my train arrived. I moved towards the transport and beamed a hearty wave and a wide smile to the teenager across the tracks. A moment’s shock and indecision registered on her face. But as the riveted metal panel slid across my view, she returned my gesture with glee. I had erased her enclosure—or perhaps she mine.
My eyes were dazzled as I stepped into the train’s cabin. The interior was entirely swathed in groovy ‘70s orange. It was like I was riding inside a giant jack-‘o-lantern—except that the giant candle shone from outside in. Once underway I figured that this train must be fully electric, for the only engine sound I heard, as we slithered towards those blue mountains, was a scratchy whir that amplified depending on the track’s slope. My arm, resting on a plastic armrest, vibrated in harmony with the train’s song. Shifted myself, I noticed that it was a simple sequential map of our route. My eyes capriciously returned to this diagram upon resting at every tiny stop. We began to crest a hill; now through the scratched windows the darkening valley was unfurled. As if attending a massive outdoor concert, rows and rows of diminutive apple trees stood compliantly regarding the valley’s deep, faraway stage. With the evening’s greying rays relaxing on the the concert goers’ slender leaves, all seemed at rest. Perhaps an unknown opening act had just begun their set and the audience, still and self-conscious, had yet to form their opinions. The train continued its orbit around the fringes of this venue. I leaned towards the window in anticipation of spotting the valley’s bottom, but we entered the rushing void of a mountain tunnel.
With each passing stop, my view of the outside was diminished by the cabin’s florescent glare. Now only one station away from my Google Maps estimated departure point, night had fallen completely, and there was only a hand full of weary students left. COMMEZZADURA finally rolled up, so I anxiously jumped down into the sharp darkness. I surveyed my surroundings: I stood at a lonely platform connected to a shuttered strip-mall. The only source of illumination was a single yellow street lap in the parking lot along with the icy stars suspended high above the mountains. I opened my mouth to ask for directions, but every passenger, like skittering insects, had disappeared along coal-black sidewalks into the hills. I was utterly alone and it was getting cold. Somehow I had to find my relatives.
I wandered down the road and crossed a bridge spanning a stony creek with water trickling through it. Ahead was a small cluster of inns and shops. Like the strip-mall there seemed to be no sign of life in sight. Was this how Russian scientists felt when their Venus probe dropped not into a steaming jungle paradise, but a lifeless rock with crushing acid air? But then it hit me: this is mainly a ski tourist area, and it was only early November; most businesses were still awaiting the snow to fall. I continued my search along the curving street. Finally a small motel pub crept into view. Its one window revealed black bobbing heads silhouetted by friendly lamps. My pack and I squeezed through the thin doorway and approached the bar. I spotted a sign indicating that the staff could only communicate in Italian or French.
“Est-ce que…vous…” I began to fumble my high school French at the perplexed waitress. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to the side.
“…Forget it,” I sighed. I gave up and presented my cousin’s name and address from my phone’s contact list. Her eyes lit up immediately in recognition.
“Ah, si, si!” As she rushed me outside to a man having a smoke. “Nipote di Dino. Walter” I wasn’t sure what relations Walter had to my cousin, but it didn’t matter. I was extremely relieved that I probably wouldn’t have to sleep outside tonight. He luxuriously finished his cigarette, all the while looking me up and down curiously. I then followed Walter to his dusty Audi. We sped down the adjacent highway and turned on to a narrow dirt road that coiled up into darkness.
A translucent golden beam, filled with hovering dust particles, streams before me through the south-facing window. Her grandfather clock has now chimed three bells, the air still ringing. We have just arrived from Edmonton and I am clamoring for a snack. From the beige speckled counter, perched atop a stool, I watch my brothers flock to the ancient TV. They are already navigating the peculiar order of the channels. Soft, deliberate footsteps sound on the linoleum stairs. This is Grandma’s house.
Blinking, my thoughts returned to the present. Luciana, William, Lorenza, Kevin and Dino—the kind, generous people whom I came all this way to meet—watched me excitedly. Still holding the fork, I sliced off a second piece. Once again thoughts, images, and aromas connected with my grandma came flooding back.
The object responsible for these formative memories was a simple apple and grape cake. But how did these recollections arise? Did Luciana add an obscure ingredient endemic to Grandma’s side of the family that triggered a single dormant neuron in my brain? At any rate, molecular processes, infinitely regress-able, are not my specialty, but something in that cake initiated something important within me, and still does.
The next morning I was introduced to more apparent cousins, all dressed in their finest Sunday livery. I was led, hands clasped benignly to my arm, to the light diesel clatter of an eight seater Mercedes-Benz Viano. For today we were going for a drive. But before hitting the asphalt we stopped for fuel. If I remember correctly, it was over 1.60 euros…a litre.
Our silver space shuttle now satiated, the occupants’ knees pressed together, we set off towards Lake Garda. Despite having its payload reached by several chattering Italians and a diffident Canadian, the Viano tackled the swirling, yet spotless roadway confidently. We rolled through numerous villages, most with signage in Italian dialects, but some in German. Dino explained that this was due to the fact that the region was once a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As we continued snaking down into the valley, the sparkling lake becoming discernible, I marveled at how (for lack of a better term) tidy this area was. In the shadows of the sleeping Dolomiti mountain giants, these people have carefully planted and tended their own Garden of Eden: timeless wooden red-roofed homes, small family farms fastened to grassy slopes, manicured orchards of grapes, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, and olives.
It’s possible that my body wasn’t used to the deluge of rich cuisine, surviving the previous two months on bananas and Snickers bars. Or maybe it was the stuffy confines of the Viano’s fuselage. Whatever the case, a series of tight, descending S-turns performed at ambitious speeds began to seriously turn my stomach. I planted my feet, leaned forward, and breathed deeply. Remembering an amusement park tactic for the frequently green-gilled, I focused my attention out the window on something stationary: a cluster of apple trees. With every turn our bodies completed another metronome’s tick (“one and two and three and…”). The van braked for the final apex, and the humble audience of apple trees turned to watch, their shining leaves outstretched.
[Photo credits: author]