I arrived in Italy a month ago today. Gio picked me up at the airport in Milan and from there we drove two hours to Gio’s hometown of Pavullo nel Frignano a town in the province of Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, 45 minutes from Bologna. Pavullo is located in the Modenese Apeninnes. These ranges of mountains and grassy hills melt into one another endlessly and are connected by narrow twirling roads where cars speed fearlessly up and down and across along side sporadic speeding motorcycles that I swear are thrown in to the mix to make sure I definitely pee my pants.
The views were infinite and spectacular and with each bend we turned another view was more exquisite and stunning than the last. All I could manage to do was sigh with utter disbelief of what was in front of me and exclaim repeatedly, “My God, how beautiful!”
On a two lane narrow road we traveled. Gio would pass cars in front of us if they were going too slow for him, all the while another car was heading straight-on for us from the other side of the road. I would scream like a frightful little boy and he would tuck back in to the right lane laughing,
“Why you so scared, huh? I’m a good pilot!” –He thought my fear amusing.
During the ride through these mountains my emotions were doing flip-flops of an awestruck magnitude consisting of joy and fright. The land was so incredibly beautiful I thought I was about to die or perhaps I did and heaven really did exist. But those thoughts didn’t last too long, because there was no way I was going to heaven, but who am I to judge.
Onward Gio drove. Stone farm houses in vibrant colors of yellow, gray and ginger popped up on grassy hills and throughout the lengthy valleys, all shaded by billowing clouds. Each home or farm we passed hosted grape vineyards, apple and cherry orchards and big leafed trees where luscious figs grew. From the highest point of this ride the land looked like a carefully thought out quilt made in every shade of green and brown imaginable spotted by the occasional herd of grazing white sheep and brown cows. As we descended, large round bundles of golden hay came into focus in the shape of long gigantic pipes almost five feet high. They sat in freshly plowed fields.
The smell of the air changed within seconds from sweet and fruity and to the pungent smell of cow manure and back to pleasing and fresh. Consistently theses magical views didn’t seem real to me, like some kind of perfect dream, a medieval fairy tale where I expected to hear flutes and trumpets and see Knights in shining armor on horses prancing through the lush valleys. I pictured in my mind women in cloaks and caps made of bright linens with lappets hanging down over the shoulders elegantly dancing on the side of the road. Pavullo is the home to the medieval Castle of Montecuccolo, birthplace of the 17th century condottiero Raimondo Montecuccoli, and of the pieve of San Giovanni Battista di Renno (8th-9th century AD). Look-out towers that protected these leaders are scattered on hill tops throughout.
On that drive my screams to Gio were continually load and guttural, “Giovanni! Stop! Slow down!” He only laughed and reassuringly patted my leg,
“Do not be frightened Johnny. This is how we drive in Italy. We are almost to my parent’s house.” He picked up speed and was going about 105 miles per hour up a super tiny road that lead to his parent’s home. The hum of other cars passed us, they do not sound as loud as American cars, their motors seems more gentle, pleasant, like a soft lazy lawn mower, but I am not fooled by their innocent sound (except of course the roar of the Ferraris that zoom past Gio’s house on test rides (Modena is the Ferrari capital of the world).
“Why is everyone driving so fast?” I see another car coming and I grip the handle above my seat, my body tense, when the car passes us there is no more than a foot between us on this tiny loopy road, “Please, go slow Gio” Then another oncoming car passes us, “Oh my God!” Then once again we get stuck in front of another car that is not going fast enough for Gio’s liking– –Fuck! Gio presses on the gas and goes to the left and passes the car and from the distance yet another car comes straight onto us again, “GIO!” He then quickly tucks in to the right side, the car passes, then we are once again in front of another slow driver, again he passes on the left again, “What the hell Gio! STOP! More laugher from Gio, “Relax man” My heart pounds and I fear that at any moments we’re going to plummet down the side of the mountain and all this beauty that has only been around me for a few hours is a sick dirty trick played on me by the Italian Gods, whoever they may be. I am convinced I am going to be punished, after all, who deserves all this beauty? I bite my fingernails, a nervous habit I’ve had since I was a kid, my thoughts run wild, I knew this was too good to be true. I’m going to die right here, right now, this is what I get trying to take a time off from life, who the hell do you think you are? How dare you enjoy life?
“Johnny, I don’t mean to scare you, but you must understand this is the one thing Italians do in a hurry, we drive fast, we’re going nowhere, but we drive fast, it’s funny Si? We take our time with most everything, you see, Johnny we enjoy life, you must always take pleasure in the moment. When I was in America everything was too fast, what for? What do Americans hurry for, huh?”
“That’s very nice Gio, now go slower.”
But he passes another car, he pats my leg again,
“Do not worry, life she good, I play music for you. Relax.”
I have no idea what he is going to play. I’m expecting some sort of death march, but instead he turns on his CD, its Nancy Sinatra singing, These boots are made for walking. Gio knows all the words and now I laugh…
“You know this song?”
I tell Gio it was popular when I was a small boy. I tell him I am old enough to be his father, he thinks this is very funny “You not so old, you got mind of a teenager” Gio is very perceptive, but I reassure him I am very much an old man. He ignores me and continues to sing, One of these days these boots are going to walk all over you… I start to relax a tad because of this familiar American song and I sing softly along with Gio in-between trying to remember the prayer, Hail oh Mary —You keep playin’ where you shouldn’t be playin’ And you keep thinkin’ that you’ll never get burnt Ah, I’ve just found me a brand new box of matches, yeah…
“Oh, man I love this song, so good man.” Gio says. Then we come in behind another car that is going too slow, he tucks out on to the left and passes the slow car and in the distance another car is coming our way, “GIO!” This scene repeats and repeats and repeats…
“Dude you so uptight, you must relax.” He pulls in to the right and we are safe.
Safe? I saw along the road many bouquets of flowers that lay on the road where people have died in-car accidents. Oh, boy. Then we pass a tiny brick post with a Blessed Mary inside, it is below Gio’s driveway. Interesting. Mary is framed and protected by a chicken-wire fence. I stop singing. Mary doesn’t look so happy, and I don’t blame her and I bless myself, trying to remember if I cross my heart from left to right or right to left, it doesn’t matter, I do it both ways, we have arrived at Gio’s house. Hail Mary and Nancy Sinatra.