Logically, my older sister Jackie asked, “Now what?” when we emerged from Malpensa Airport.
Not so logically, but ever so much me, I looked her straight in the eye and gave an honest answer, “I have no idea.”
I could tell she wanted to laugh, but was trying to glare at me. I pulled out papers thinking about the automobiles, planes, and trains we’d taken to get from Washington, D.C. to Italy. We were on the adventure of our lives, celebrating Jackie’s fiftieth birthday … Fifty. How did that happen?
“I’m going to slap you silly. Oh wait, you already are. Why do I let you drag me into these things?”
“Hush, sister, it’ll be fine.”
Three months earlier I called, “I’m going to the Cinque Terre National Park on the Italian coast next spring. It’s your big birthday, let me treat. What do you say?”
This was Jackie’s first trip to a foreign country, my second to Italy after a half dozen Germany jaunts. Neither of us knew a word of Italian beyond, “buon giorno,” which meant we could only greet the natives in the morning.
“Prego! Prego!” A handsome Italian man was gesturing to get on the large bus in front of us. We had no concerns about leaving our luggage with strangers to load because the airline had misplaced it. We had concerns about where the bus would take us, but a fellow traveler saw Milano Centrale Train Station on my papers, and nodded, “Si, si, is right.”
At the station, we were lucky to get in a line where the older gent spoke enough English to understand we wanted to reach Genoa’s Piazza Principe Railway Station. When we left, he blew us a kiss. “He’s enthralled with us!”
Jackie snickered, “He was happy we were out of his life, hopefully forever.”
When the train pulled to a stop in Genoa, we de-boarded and wound up in the employees’ lounge. “Would anyone who knows us be the least surprised if I went home and left you here for the Italians to deal with? It might cause an international incident, but at least you’d be out of my hair.”
I laughed, almost certain she was joking.
“Scuzi,” a man smiled, laid his hand on my shoulder, and pointed. We crossed the hall, rode an escalator up, and gawked at the elaborate nineteenth century train station.
Jackie was close to snapping, “I’ve been awake for twenty-four hours. Where’s the hotel? I want to wash my face and brush my teeth.”
“Look! It’s right there!” I pointed. “Let’s go, what are you standing around for?” Maybe I convinced her I knew where I was going, but truthfully, it was printing a photograph of the hotel that allowed me to spot it so quickly.
Check-in was simplified considering the lost luggage. Late for breakfast, we still enjoyed a plate of pastries and cappuccinos. I might have redeemed myself a bit when Jackie admitted it was the best coffee she’d ever sipped. Her mood, aka tolerance for me—the instigator-sibling-expanded.
After forty-eight years of sisterhood, she should be used to me, especially after The Great Sister Road Trip of 1996. That time I talked her into flying from our homes in Montana to our parents’ in Pennsylvania and driving back in a Ford Explorer our car-fixer brother had found for me. Everything went great until two days in when the radio got stuck on high volume which meant instead of random music, she had to listen to me sing for three days. Then there was that night in the creepy town in Wyoming….
We began walking around Genoa and kept walking for two full days. Even in the sporadic light gray rain, the medieval city was remarkable—the architecture, the sculptures, the age of everything. I chose Genoa for our first Italian stop because it is one of the oldest intact cities in the country. A port from before the birth of Columbus in 1451, it featurs the sea and rolling hills—a combination we both like to explore.
We popped into a secondhand shop for jackets and socks and met Lu. She laughed when we returned time and again, adding to our wardrobe. One sweater I fell in love with was a Denver Broncos’ orange angora. We ended up calling it the Sweater-from-Hell because it attached fuzz to everything it touched.
We washed socks and underwear using paper packets of detergent from the airline’s inadequate emergency kit: Child-size toothbrushes and paste, mouthwash, and aluminum bladed razors with minuscule tubes of shaving cream. I snorted, “I’m Cary Grant using Eva Marie Saint’s razor in North by Northwest.”
We picked a restaurant for supper because the sign stated, “Open All the Time.” This struck our funny bones and, lacking any grace, we tumbled through the door. We told the elegant waiter that we wanted pizza. Smiling, he said, “Is better than American—the original.” He was right. The crust was crunchy, the vegetable toppings fresh, and the sauce delectable. The tables were covered with peach colored linens and matching napkins. In a pizza place. We continued to realize we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. Or in our cases, a small Montana town and Pittsburgh.
We slept the sleep of dead people in beds that were firm and comfortable, with pillows that were flat and uncomfortable. In the morning, Jackie stretched and said, “I was so tired last night I don’t know how I remembered to sleep.”
I poked, “You remembered how to snore. Sinus issues?”
She threw a limp pillow at my head. Are we really over forty? Over ten?
The Cinque Terre
We caught a train to Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre villages, and explored the colorful seaside town. At a trattoria near the bay we sat outside in the brisk spring air. The serenading owner brought us water, stopping his tune to say, “Caprese.” We weren’t sure if he interjected a word into the song or named a food, but nodded okay. Drizzling local olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the mozzarella, tomatoes, and just-torn-from-the-plant basil, it was as delicious a lunch as any five-course meal.
Walking up a steep incline, we wound left and right and saw the sign for La Torretta. Tucked down a slender corridor framed by pink and yellow stucco buildings, the patio had a wide sea view. We met Gabriel, the thirty-something owner, and were smitten. “Welcome, how may I help you?” He asked this with graciousness each time we saw him.
We followed Gabriel down a maze of steps and along a terrace draped with grape-arbors waiting for spring to keep coming. He opened the door to an elegant room and our smiles grew. Splattered throughout the soothing space were muted aquamarine colors. There was a decanter of scotch and a Nespresso machine—two of my favorite things. We laughed to see a stool bearing the emblem for Route 66.
I walked along our terrace to take sunset photos. The resident of the apartment next door—offered, “Si, yes, yes,” use her terrace for a better view. Her beautiful blonde hair was held back in a casual twist. Hers was a wise face, with lines in the right places to show a life being well-lived. I turned to Jackie, “I want to be her in twenty years.”
“You are her now.”
We are so seldom serious with each other, that her kind words touched me and I turned away before she glimpsed the glisten of my teary eyes.
We watched the sunset colors start golden, turn silver, and become vibrantly slammed with orange and red, edged by deep black. I felt weightless and wondered if I could float over the buildings and land on top of the blazing water. The richness of the life around us filled our hearts, providing peace and energy.
While we wondered if our luggage would ever arrive, we realized that being without it was not a crisis and our no-belongings coping continued: Hair conditioner did extra duty as a styling product and body lotion. Jackie let her short black curls go springy and I wove my long red strands into a braid. We rotated six sweaters, each morning asking, “Which one should I wear today?”
I said, “I must sew the buttonhole on my jacket—it is frayed.”
Jackie asked, “What is it afraid of?” Like twelve-year-old boys, we roared.
As we climbed an almost vertical path, I egged Jackie on, “We can do this! It’ll be easy!”
Four hours of hiking later, I’m not sure she appreciated my encouragement or anything else about me.
In quaint and tiny Riomaggiore we entered a modest church, lighting candles for relatives who’ve passed. Moving in the creaking pew, I took Jackie’s hand. “I get emotional in these old churches. They reach into my sacred places and I’m wonderstruck to be sharing this with my sister.”
Jackie smiled, “Maybe I won’t leave you here after all.”
Adjacent to the churchyard, Jackie photographed a muscular young man carrying a bucket of rocks on his shoulder, making his way down the narrow stone steps the cemetery. One hand was folded over his head grasping the top of the bucket, the arm bearing the load rested a hand on his waist, elbow crooked to form an arm-shelf. We applauded. With modesty, he bowed.
When we reviewed our photos, we saw that his pose was age-old, finding several shots of marble men supporting pillars and roofs in an identical fashion. It was an enlightening moment of understanding the timelessness of Italy. The knowledge that place, that the hearts of people, can withstand the weight of life was something we needed to absorb, internalize.
We took the train north to Monterosso and walked the largest of the villages, watching it bustle with activity. The Church of John the Baptist’s side chapel was in disrepair. The choral area pews were carved with images signifying life and death. Jackie whispered, “I touched the seat … I touched a pew from the twelfth century!”
That evening, Gabriel suggested Trattoria dal Billy for supper. The moment we entered, we felt at home. Eight tables, bright white walls, framed pencil drawings, and photos of Manarola. At one table were two Italian men, at another two German fellows, and a British couple in the corner.
He admitted to sixty-two, but could have lied, which he would have done with aplomb and without apology. Each time we saw him, he wore the same thing: jeans, a blue cotton pullover, glasses on a string, and a cell phone dangling from a lanyard around his neck. Billy was always two days away from a shave, with disheveled gray hair—as if we caught him waking from a nap.
One evening we walked down the long winding hill to Cucina Tipica for a glass of wine. The stars reflected their bright glitter against the dark sea while the full moon slid in and out of passing clouds. Strolling to La Torretta later, we passed the two German men from Billy’s. They greeted us as old friends.
It is this part of staying in one town for the duration of a trip that makes it worthwhile. You see faces repeated, nod to each other, “I see you,” in the purest sense of human to human. You make friends that last forever—at least in your memories.
The next day was Jackie’s birthday. “I feel the same. No, I feel younger, lighter. I like what this trip has done for us, Rosemary.”
After our morning walk through Manarola, we had cappuccinos and tortes seaside. The proprietor said, “Your smiles are the same as the sunshine.”
Jackie shook her head, “I’m amazed that I did this—that I’m here.”
I smiled, “I find myself thinking thank you, Jackie, thank you for coming.”
She hugged me, “I love that we hike each day, eating when we feel like it, having wine with supper and sometimes with lunch. I feel….” She choked up and could not continue.
I tried to fill in her missing words, “We are breathing in and breathing out without clenching our stomachs. From being in this magical place, we are, maybe for the first time for both of us, living in the present moment.”
I looked at Jackie and realized how happy I was that we’d come so far in our sisterhood—from banshees fighting in a shared room that Dad divided with masking tape—to becoming the other half of each other’s heart. We immersed ourselves in this unknown place and learned how to not feel the numerical definition of age society wants to press onto us. This temporary escape renewed our courage and strength to return to our usual spaces on this earth and approach them with new wisdom and the determination to live life large.