It was the season of believing the doctors.
Because of medical uncertainties, we had skipped vacation the previous year, so this time we splurged on a ten-day trip to Italy. Instead of teeming Rome, where we’d stayed as grungy grad students two decades before, we booked a place in a little market town in central Italy—not a villa but an apartment overlooking the town square. We wanted quiet. Escape. Good food, wine. A chance to stroll the countryside.
Breaking our time-honored precedent, Francis had done the research, and I was happy to be spared the work. Usually, I wouldn’t have trusted his impatience for details. But when he talked about gentle hikes on rural paths, always ending in a delightful trattoria with handmade pasta and local Chianti, I was hooked. I was sure I could manage.
His choice, in fact, was brilliant. Barely a mile long, the town lay in a narrow valley surrounded by hillsides of olive groves and vineyards. It had a cute triangular plaza with a medieval church at the apex. Inside the church was an altarpiece from the school of Fra Angelico. Outside, neat lines of four-story tan and cream buildings with red tile roofs formed the legs of the triangle. Arched arcades covered the sidewalks, and beneath them clustered bakeries, cafés, wine stores, restaurants—tourist heaven. Our apartment was on the third floor above a butcher shop whose sign featured a giant hand-painted pig. For health reasons I hadn’t eaten pork in years, but I gave up all inhibitions, figuring three glasses of red wine would eliminate the fats and preservatives in the capicola, mortadella, prosciutto, soppressata, bresaola … all of which I sampled.
Francis’s one mistake? The idea of countryside strolls, “gentle” hikes. Except for the main highway leading in and out—too truck-dusty and pedestrian-unfriendly—the only direction beyond town was up. Before my illness, we were well-conditioned runners, but at this point, the weather already hot in early June, could I scale one of those deep-green hills? Or should we stick to our rented two-seater Fiat whose air conditioner belched smelly fumes?
It was the season of believing the doctors, of assuming their confidence was justified.
I wasn’t giving in to doubt, and Francis didn’t make me. So this one sunny morning we set out to the northwest, toward a reputedly charming hilltop town with one reputedly excellent ristorante. According to the map, it was only 1.3 miles, practically next door. We took bottled water and two granola bars.
It was cool at first, and the narrow climbing road made graceful loops past dusty green olive trees posed in terraced rows like well-mannered armies. Deeper-hued grapevines trailed each other along the contours. The air smelled like rich dirt with a hint of manure. Now and then we saw a small farmhouse or outbuilding, but few people showed themselves.
My calves cramped first. I stopped to sip water as I gazed past a curving hump of the field into an empty sky that loomed as close as if it wanted to either hug us or smother us. We pressed on, the slope steeper, the sun higher. Rounding a curve, we came on a side road and our first close-up person. At the juncture of the two lanes, where the roadside gravel had scattered toward the middle of the pavement, an old man was patiently sweeping it back. It was important to keep gravel in its place. I thought: when I retire or get too sick to work, that’s a job I could do. It’s simple, straightforward, endless. There were no houses in sight, no clue where the old man came from, and he didn’t acknowledge us.
Around another bend, the ascent grew abruptly fierce, as if protecting the town from invasion by underpowered Fiats. My underpowered legs nearly gave in, and now my belly was cramping, an unpleasant reminder of previous symptoms. I sweated profusely. “Is it getting really hot?” I asked Francis, and he half-nodded. When I stopped twice more for water, Francis looked concerned, but I grinned at him.
Of those 1.3 miles, the last 0.2 morphed into 18.4, I swear, and Francis too was puffing as we emerged over a final hump into the village. At once I felt the effort worthwhile, whatever it cost me. The town incorporated every bit of the ancient aesthetic that tourists celebrate: a cobbled, curving street barely wide enough for two horses, centuries-old houses of rough-hewn stone and stucco, arched entries with red wooden doors, minuscule courtyards visible through vaulted passageways, little flower-stuffed balconies. Utterly, absurdly beautiful.
Though I needed to sit, there’s no room in such a town for a substantial square or another such amenity; the miniature plaza off the entry road had become a haphazard parking lot for vehicles that looked like they hadn’t moved in weeks. We decided to head at once for the highly recommended restaurant, figuring it would be easy to find because the town’s single lane circled back on itself. I labored on, out of breath, with Francis struggling to slow himself down to accommodate me.
The place looked deserted. Up ahead one stout woman clumped across the cobblestones, then disappeared. It was past noon now, and perhaps it was the custom to avoid the heat of the day. I’d passed beyond sweltering into melting, though the temperature was probably bland by local standards.
A full circuit of town revealed no sign for a restaurant, but I was ready to fall over, and Francis had suspicions about an open door about fifty yards back. He returned to it. Ornamental ironwork on the two small windows suggested something other than a house, as did the tiny wooden table and two rush-seated chairs arranged in the street near the window. The table was big enough to hold, maybe, two espresso cups and one pastry.
Poking his head in the door, Francis had a brief conversation with someone in the gloom.
“There’s a guy in an apron,” he reported, “and there are three or four tables inside, but I couldn’t understand him. He pointed at a clock on the wall.”
“Did he say ‘uno’ or ‘due’?” I panted. “Will they open soon?”
“I don’t have the faintest idea what he said. Are you okay?”
“Fine, fine,” I lied. I wanted to think I was just extremely out of shape. It was the season of believing the doctors.
With few other options, we decided to wait, and we found a low stone wall near the town’s entrance, under the partial shade of a poplar. We sat and held hands and drank water and ate the granola bars while the human beings of the place remained invisible.
From that perch we could see the entry road plunging off, disappearing into the sky. A wisp of breeze came up, for which I was profoundly grateful. The buildings were gray and tan and that kind of rusty color you see on old stones. The roofs were deep red. The sky was a blue I don’t know how to describe, one I’ve never seen elsewhere except in paintings. The town smelled like rock and flowers and sounded like the most profound quiet you can imagine when the whole world is asleep or missing.
As Francis traced his fingers along my palm, I wondered if we’d be discovered at any moment, if people would burst out and bring us food and wine and laughter. That fantasy made me smile, and for a moment my weariness lifted in the mild breath of wind. I stuck my feet out and wiggled my toes.
Beyond fantasy, though, I understood now what my body was telling me. In no way did I want to leave Francis. With one glass of wine, I thought, I could sail into that endless sky that was close enough to hug. It did want to embrace me, I could tell, and from this high up, I could vanish right into it. This beautiful, dead place felt like heaven already, just minus the angels.