(A Less Than Idyllic Day in the Italian Countryside)
The first blow to my youthful naïveté fell in Tuscany, a week shy of our group’s transferring from Siena to Firenze (“Florence”), Italy. We were 14 college juniors, young women about to spend the remainder of our academic year in that glorious city. Before we began our studies in Firenze, our host college insisted we have a six-week orientation in Siena, whereby we would live on an estate supported by paying guests like ourselves. There, classes in history, culture, and language would provide a smooth transition to the more demanding curriculum ahead of us.
Getting to know the locals was a pleasant distraction from the intensity of our preparation period. The host college arranged parties for us, and they gathered a group of young Italian men from local “good” families in the manor’s salone, a large public room, to entertain us. On one of those evenings, I met Silvestre.
Nervous and a bit fidgety, I had retreated to a velvet-covered divan and watched the other women circulate among the ragazzi, the boys who eagerly introduced themselves. Our mythical reputations had preceded us: American girls were free and easy; American girls didn’t need chaperones; American girls laughed loud and often and were much friendlier than Italian girls; and American girls were rich.
A tall man, wearing a well-cut brown suit, vest, and immaculate shirt asked if he could share the sofa with me. I nodded my assent and worked up enough saliva to open my mouth, dry and sticky from anxiety. He introduced himself as Silvestre and asked me where I was from in America. His eyes widened when I answered, Chicago. He leaned toward me and began to relate the story of his life: his father was a count; they had an estate with vineyards; and he had a degree in jurisprudence.
Noting his slightly receding hairline, I asked how long he had been in practice and told him my father was an attorney, too. Ah, he remarked, we had much in common, and he would like to get to know me better. Complimented and feeling more relaxed at that moment than I did at the evening’s start, I agreed that I would enjoy having more opportunities to chat. I imagined we’d meet for coffee and I’d improve my language skills with a handsome, established man while enjoying a view of the passing crowd at a café on the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square.
Silvestre misunderstood my eager consent as much as I misunderstood his intentions. As the evening wound down and he prepared to leave, Silvestre squeezed my shoulder and said, “Ciao, cara, vi vediamo Sabato, eh?” “’Bye, dear, we’ll see each other Saturday, right?”
Playing by the group’s rules, I informed our program director, Mrs. L., about my plans. She squinted at me and asked if I knew what I was getting into. Of course, I coughed; her words unsettled me. Why was she glaring and why did she shake her finger at me with a warning to return no later than 2100 hours that evening? Her mouth reminded me of a prune.
Classes were a blur until Saturday arrived. I could hardly wait to realize my dream of lounging in a glamorous café and my heart jumped a bit at the sight of Silvestre’s Ferrari coming up the estate’s long drive. As I watched him approach, the fragrance of figs warming in the sun enveloped me.
Stirring up little clouds of grit in the drive, Silvestre’s car pulled into the courtyard. He greeted me with an air kiss on each cheek and opened the passenger side door. Off we drove at high speed through the Tuscan countryside.
“Aren’t we going into town? I thought you were taking me to Siena.”
“No, cara, I was sure you would be delighted to go instead to the seashore.”
Oh, well, I thought, maybe we’ll find a café on the waterfront and linger over our espressos there. I praised the landscape we were crossing, its plane trees, vineyards, and the hills covered in dusky green. Silvestre agreed, asserting that life in Italia was beautiful because Italians took advantage of life’s pleasures, and, yes, wasn’t this beautiful, and wasn’t I bellissima, beautiful, too? He said this often during our conversations and patted my thigh lightly.
I smiled, but squirmed closer to the door. I agreed that life in Italy appeared to be beautiful, but maybe not for everyone. I pointed out the workers in the vineyards, bent over their tasks.
“Oh, but they know their place. They enjoy it. You should see them after the harvest. They sing and dance. It’s so beautiful. Now, tell me more about your family, what you do in Chicago.”
By early afternoon, we reached Viareggio, a lovely smaller city on the Tyrrhenian seacoast. Silvestre drove onto a quay near a 30-foot yacht. “Well, look there, my friends’ yacht. They’re probably on board,” he said. “Come meet them.” He jumped out of the car, jogged around the front to open my door, then pulled a picnic basket out of the trunk. “My mama insisted on packing us a lunch. Cara mama.” I felt my fantasy of espresso in a chic café fading away.
Taking my arm, Silvestre guided me onto the boat and called out to his friends. When no one answered, he ducked below deck. He reappeared with a woman in a bikini and a man in equivalent bathing attire following him and sipping at Negronis. Silvestre introduced them as Sandro and Elisabetta. They shook my hand and danced off the boat. “Divertitevi, enjoy yourselves,” they shouted as they ran laughing onto the beach.
“Perfetto, perfect,” Silvestre smirked, and uncovered the dishes stacked in the basket. “We will enjoy these delicacies mama prepared just for you. Look, tonnato salad, melanzane, carciofi alla giudia, e un buon vino nostro.” Tuna in mayo, several vegetable salads, a wine from their vineyard. It looked delicious, but I had no appetite. The day was not turning out the way I’d hoped.
I ate a few bites with little enthusiasm. Silvestre chided me: how could he face his mother if he brought home half-eaten food? Americans are so wasteful. I sighed and ate a bit more, but soon, warmed by the sun and delicious red wine, I fell asleep.
The sound of a loud engine and the boat churning through water woke me up. Still clad in my Bermuda shorts and a navy-blue tee shirt, I unwrapped myself from a scratchy blanket and went up to the boat’s small wheelhouse. When did we leave the quay? Why had Silvestre decided to sail away from shore?
He was at the helm. We were sailing on stormy seas. Huge waves nearly swamped our boat. Silvestre’s mouth was set in a hard line across his face as he tried to control the wheel. I grabbed a railing and congratulated myself on not overeating. When I shouted over the noise of the wind and rain, “What’s going on?” he answered that both un terremoto, an earthquake down the coast and a thunderstorm were forcing him to return to Viareggio. That accounted for the choppiness and giant waves. I hoped he knew how to manage the boat. The wind slapped my skin and my cold, wet clothes clung to my body. Shivering, I could hardly wait to return to the approaching shore. I retrieved the blanket and huddled under it.
The storm died down and the seas calmed enough for us to return the boat safely to the quay. Sandro and Elisabetta were waiting for us. After securing the yacht, Silvestre jumped onto the quay, hugged Sandro, and thanked him for the use of the boat. Sandro whispered something in his ear, and Silvestre shrugged. Sandro looked at me with a crooked smile, then winked at Elisabetta, before wishing us a pleasant time on shore.
My teeth were chattering and everything on me was soaked. Elisabetta handed me a sweater. “It’s nothing. An extra. Take it and warm up. We’re going to visit my aunt.” As they left and walked away from the shore, I called out my thanks and turned to Silvestre.
“Now I think we’d better drive back to the villa. Mrs. L. said I have to be back by 2100 hours.”
Silvestre rolled his eyes. “Wait a bit. We have time. But come, let’s get you into dry clothes.” He steered me toward a little newly built cement and stucco villa about 100 meters from the quay. “We can rest here. You’ll change into something more comfortable.”
Anxious again, I didn’t know what to do. This adventure was a big disappointment and my interest in Silvestre was fading.
He knocked on the villa’s blue wooden door. A middle-aged woman wearing an apron over a floral housedress opened the door, greeted us with a bow and many “Benvenuti, signor e signorina,” (Welcome, Sir and Miss), then invited us in. As she gave us a tour of the house, I wondered if she was Elisabetta’s aunt. Where did Sandro and Elisabetta go?
Under his breath, Silvestre said that this woman rented flats by the day, and he hoped we could rest there for the night.
Feeling acid rise in my throat, I ran out and waited in the road, my back to the villa. Silvestre ran after me and shook my shoulders while turning me toward him. His face was bright pink. Wasn’t the place good enough for me? Didn’t I know how much trouble it was to find a clean rooming house?
I answered that he had the wrong idea. I’d wanted to go to Siena for a nice long chat over espressos, maybe some vermouth, and my curfew was in a few hours. Had he deliberately tricked me, so I would be expelled from my program?
With a sneer, Silvestre slapped his forehead and apologized. He bowed low and assured me he would return me to my mother hen on time. Packing me into the Ferrari and stowing the picnic basket in the trunk, he started up the car and off we went.
Another storm swept over us. Rain splattered on the windshield and roof as we drove in silence through the hills. In the dark, only the dashboard lights and occasional sheet lightning lit our faces. I began to shiver again, from fear and from the cold.
Rain lashed the Ferrari. Silvestre declared driving through the storm was dangerous and we had to park on the side of the road. Sitting on the verge, we listened to the rain and thunder all around us. After a long, silent interval, Silvestre said, “Isn’t this romantic?” and lunged at me.
“Stop!” I shouted, “Basta! Enough already. Just get me home.” He froze. “Accidente,” he said. Damn. Muttering, povera cucciola, “poor puppy,” he patted my head, wrenched the gears, and returned to the road toward Siena, Long after 2100 hours, he left me at the gates of the estate and said he’d call. No thanks, I thought. I realized how lucky I was that Silvestre had given up and had not harmed me. Now I understood why Mrs. L. had wagged her finger.
Time to report in. I found Mrs. L.’s room in the manor house. She was snug in bed and reading a book. Her hair was down around her shoulders, and her covers were tucked under her chin. Reading glasses sat below the bridge of her long nose. “Well, there you are. Let’s see what time it is.” She looked at her clock on the lace-covered nightstand. Then she returned her stern gaze to me.
Quietly, but with a hint of menace she reprimanded me. How could I be so irresponsible? Didn’t I realize how worried she had been? Who was this Silvestre, and how could I let him take me away like that? Maybe I was not mature enough to be in this program.
I couldn’t answer. Verging on copious tears, I felt humiliated and filled with self-doubt, I couldn’t share my experiences with Mrs. L. I was certain she would blame me for everything that had occurred—and wasn’t that true? Anger rushed through me. No, Silvestre had deceived me, and I was too inexperienced to realize it. Never again. When Mrs. L. said I could continue with the program but would not be allowed to leave the villa during our last week there, I smiled. Yes, I thought, now I knew how things stood. If I were to meet another Silvestre type in Firenze, I wouldn’t be so naïve. Well, maybe. Anyway, I hoped not.