Anytime we travel, and especially during the year we lived in Italy we always had this secret wish inside that we'd somehow find an opportunity to experience and get to know a true local and learn more about the culture and language...well, our wish came true one of the days during a winter trip to Lake Como.
We went to the small Varenna train station early that morning to catch a ride to Lecco (the larger city at the south point of the lake) for the day. We were standing alone in the cold air, when about 5 minutes before the train came an older lady walked by and (as we always do to be polite) said "Buongiorno". She smiled and said a confident "Buongiorno!" in return but continued to walk past us and into the sala d'attesa (waiting room), which we hadn't noticed before. We followed her in to get out of the cold, and were all 3 waiting in silence. When the bell sounded for the approaching train, she turned around and said something to us about hearing the bell but we'd wait until we saw the train to go out again into the cold. Somehow this led to a quick chat about the cold, us learning Italian (since obviously this wasn't our first language) and that we lived in Florence. The train came and we climbed aboard. Hoping that we could chat more, we picked the seats across the isle from her (in an otherwise empty carriage). One minute later, she was handing us pieces of candy from her purse and thus began a 20-minute conversation all the way to Lecco with a lovely 75-year old, Italian grandmother.
She told us that she didn't know any other language and would sometimes give a higher pitched giggle when we had a quick lapse in comprehension. She was headed to the dentist in Lecco and said that her 3 grown children lived there as well - so now she only ventures out from Varenna to Lecco and back. She mentioned how she loves dolci (sweets) and eats them all the time now since they were too expensive when she was young. We told her that we could understand clearly the speech in the region and that people were much more open and nice. Then she added, "and you hadn't even met me yet!" (with a giggle). She proceeded to give us a piece of paper on which she wrote her name and address - and told us to come over to her house when we arrived back in Varenna that evening. Her name is Caterina, and when we told her our names she said that mine is easy to remember since it fits inside hers (catERINa)! As soon as we all stepped off the train in Lecco, she waved goodbye and was off with speed.
When we arrived back in Varenna around 5:30, we walked past the road where Caterina's house is off of just to make sure we knew where to go - but we went first back to the apartment to freshen up again and unload our day bag. About 20 minutes later we were walking up the alley to her house and were greeted by a very loud, "Venite!" (Come in!) by Caterina standing on the landing and opening the door for us. She immediately started talking excitedly and telling us about 10 things at once with a huge smile. She grabbed our coats and scarves and when they wouldn't fit on the coat rack, she literally chucked hers into the hallway to make room for ours. She said that the saw us pass the first time and yelled (because she heard the train whistle and knew we'd be coming so she was watching from her window), but we didn't hear her. But we told her that we went to our apartment first to drop some things off. She showed us her small house and hustled us into the dining area where we had hot tea with lemons from her garden, biscotti, and panetone (Christmas cake). She grabbed a 2008 calendar from a nearby cabinet and began to go through each month showing us photos of the region and quickly going to the next photo like she was so excited to be telling us about it. When we were done looking at the calendar she said for us to keep it because she could go to her bank the next day and get another one!
Sometimes she would get a little flustered because it seemed she had so much she wanted to say or show us that it couldn't get out all at once. And then sometimes she'd cover her mouth and laugh a little because she would get going and say a completely dialect word that we would never know. She'd then say, "E' difficile per spiegare" (It's difficult to explain) but would then find an easier way to say it to us.
She told us about living in Varenna her entire life and how she still lived in the house where she was born, how the town is mainly older people because the young ones have left, how she and her late husband would take the train to Lecco everyday for a while for work when they were younger, and how she gets to see other places in the world now only through photos, stories and TV. It was so interesting to hear about the time during WWII, and how she remembers the American soldiers protecting the area and when there was almost literally nothing left, soldiers would come and bring bread, chocolate, and soap to them. She spoke with such clarity of her memories and I could see her looking in her mind's eye about these events as if they were yesterday. During this time, when surviving was more important than education, she worked instead of studied and thus has a hard time writing even today. She began to write her complete address for us in cursive, but had to quit as she laughed and scribbled it out and reverted to uppercase letters.
We were in the middle of a conversation about how her granddaughter was told that babies are bought at the market, when the post-woman walked in and visited for several minutes. When we were packing up to leave, she made me pick out a lace doily that she made by hand for a Christmas gift and then even wrapped it quickly in a piece of paper and tape. She also packed up our calendar, postcard, and a box of polenta (a grits-like cornmeal mixture typical for the region), and more panetone for breakfast on Thursday. She gave us double cheek-kisses and then tried again as she said that she would kiss us like her figli children, and then gave me 5 kisses on one cheek. We thanked her over and over and she said that she loved the company, and made us promise to come see her if we were back in Varenna...then added "forse saro' morta! (maybe I'll be dead) with a nonchalant laugh. We were a little shocked, but she smiled and said that her dad died at 82 and her mom in her early 70s, and that she is 75 now - so you just never know! She seems to be in great health, so we'd love to visit again! We left with several waves goodbye down the alley...it was a night out of an Italian storybook (not to mention that not a word of English was spoken!) and left us with smiles and a lovely memory of our first trip to Lake Como.