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cortona: spontaneity & serendipity

July 30, 2009

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March 21, 2009

How to keep spontaneity alive and make an ass of yourself in the process:

  1. Go to a caffé in a country where you don’t speak the language.
  2. Choose something random from the menu.  Anything.  For example, order an espresso corretto at 8am.  Yes!  Doesn’t that sound lovely?
  3. When the man behind the counter says “Corretto?” with a dubious tone, stay cool and reply “Si. Si“.  And when he says “Grappa, Sambuca, Cognac...”, laugh that nervous laugh you use when you’ve done something silly (the ha ha, I was just kidding laugh) and reply “No, no, espresso normale, normale per favore.
  4. Though you feel like a royal ass, keep your head high and stick to the original plan.  Ignore the looks of your fellow patrons, eat your croissant and drink that espresso at the bar.  Also, be sure to laugh at yourself because who needs to take themselves so seriously on vacation, or in life for that matter.
  5. Don’t let this experience detour you from living a spontaneous life.  In fact, repeat the experiment right away by going to the train station and buying a last minute ticket to a place you hadn’t planned on going to.  See what happens.

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At the train station, I am mesmerized by the Partenze board, flipping times and destinations like something from the past.  It sounds like the shuffling of a deck of cards, a flapping of wings.  I head over to platform 11 and wait for the train to Cortona.

I hadn’t planned on going to Cortona but a lovely woman named Sophie commented on my blog the night prior and suggested that I go there and stay at Ostello San Marco.  Who am I to ignore the signs?

When I arrive in Cortona, it is snowing.

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When you disembark in a new place without having planned, with no map, no idea really of where you are, you run in circles for a couple minutes until you get your bearings.  That generally requires asking someone where the hell you are and where in the world you are going.  It usually helps if said person speaks your language although that very well may mean that they are just as lost at you are.  But at least you are lost together.

I had noticed a woman on the train sitting across from me, reading a guide to Florence.  She was wearing a ring with dangling silver bits, the sun reflected off them and caught my attention.  I am a sucker for all things sparkly.  I ask her if she knows how to get to Piazza Garibaldi.  She says she planned on taking a cab there if I want to tag along.  Meet Erika from San Francisco, one of the sweetest women I have ever met.

A bus arrives before we have a chance to hail a cab.  We can’t buy tickets on the bus so the driver tells us to hop on, then he drives us all to a Tabagia to buy some but the Tabagia guy can’t be asked to sell tickets during afternoon siesta and he gives us all a free ride.  So up and up we go, up the road that circles the hill on which Cortona sits.

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Erika and I connect immediately.  It’s as if we’ve known each other forever.  We’re so wrapped up in delicious conversation that we decide to have lunch together.  She had read about Osteria del Teatro in her guide book.  It is a lovely ancient theater converted into a restaurant.  The decor is beyond cheesy.  Ceramic cats lounge throughout the lobby.  The bathroom shelves are lined with spooky dolls and porcelain fairy figurines.  Every square inch is occupied by some dollar store knick knack or other.  But don’t let this fool you.  The food is fantastic.  We share a carafe of red wine, an appetizer plate with rice patties, meat & cheese, followed by pasta.  We stay there for two hours, talking the entire time, about all things beautiful and spiritual.  We talk about the stories we create for ourselves.  The limits we set for ourselves, the “I can’t possibly” followed by the “Why not?”.   When discussing my next big move in life, I want to ask her “Which way do I go?” but it comes out “Which way do I grow?” (a very appropriate slip of the tongue).  It is a conversation made of magic.

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From that point, Erika decides to spend the night in Cortona so we walk to the hostel recommended by Sophie.  There is a small poster on the door that reads CLOSED UNTIL MARCH.  Hmmm.  Today is March 21st.  This is my first experience being on Italian time and undoubtedly not my last.  So we meander down the hill.  It is very cold.  It is still snowing.  The snow is actually sticking to the cars, the rooftops, the grass.

We find our way to Casa Betani and an old man waves us towards him with the backward wave that looks more like a shoo motion.  Conversing is very challenging.  He must be about 75 years old and does not speak a single word of English but we know he is trying to rent us a room for the night.  We make the sign for sleep.  He shows us the room.  There are three beds.  Above each bed is a cross.  It smells cold like marble with austerity and incense hanging heavily in the air.  I ask “Quanto costa per noche?”. Vinti euro” each, he says.  We want to say “We’re just not feeling it“, but how does that translate into Italian?  Instead we bow, say grazie and ciao, then continue with our original plan.  We head to the hotel next door where a man shows us a lovely spacious room with a double bed, sheer purple curtains, a beautiful bathroom tiled white and royal blue, and, best of all, a stunning view of Tuscany.  This is more like it.  We take the room, he gives us the keys and says: “Pay later, no problem, slow, slow“.

We settle in then head to a bakery for espresso and what we have come to call sweet air (a treat so light that it tastes like chocolate oxygen).   After warming up, we walk in the dark, snow falling on cobblestones, fireplaces exhaling smoke out chimneys throughout the town.  We peek into the old theatre and a gentleman opens the door so we can see the stage.  Burgundy chairs line the floor of the the vast auditorium with chambers on each side.  A Christmas tree and a red velvet couch sit on stage.  I ask the gentleman what time the show begins.  He says: “9:15… Italian time.  So 9:30… 9:40.”  We consider coming back after dinner to see the show.

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We wander to Trattoria La Grotta in a secluded alleyway off the main square.  It feels like we are entering the basement of a castle with low ceilings and rustic tables.  It is a perfect medieval atmosphere for a snowy night, and the food is absolutely delicious.  We share an antipasti plate with crostini, funghi, paté, bruschetta, meat and more meat.  And cheese.  Always cheese.  As well as a liter of house red for 5 euro, of course.  For our entrée, we have the gnocchi. This ain’t your mushy gooey home variety of gnocchi, these dumplings are firm and chewy and the pomodore sauce clings to their inner crevices. It is out of this world. We are there until 10:30 so naturally, we miss the show.

Erika insists on paying for dinner and the hotel.  I have a hard time accepting but she persists.  She says she has been taken care of while traveling in the past and wants to share this with me.  A kind of pay it forward, good Samaritan deed.  All I have to do in return is do the same for someone else some day.  I am so inspired by her kindness and generosity, my heart just wants to explode.  We meander back to the hotel with bellies full of gnocchi.  The streets are filled with people of all ages hanging out on a Saturday night.  When my head hits the pillow, I can barely believe my day.  My love for serendipity has grown one hundred fold.

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March 22, 2009

Up at 7:30am with the church bells.  The sun is shining over the valley down below.  Everything looks different under the Tuscan sun.  Erika and I start our day at Banchelli’s for Americanos and breakfast.  As I am trying to decide between two pastries, she says: “We don’t do OR on this trip“.  So we settle for more sweet air and puff pastries with cream, which evaporate as soon as you put them on your tongue.

After espresso, we come across an outdoor antique market that happens once a month.  I am drawn to a table with old green vases.  I am enamored with them, actually, but how would I get them home?  Impossible, really. Yet I buy them and not only do I buy them, I bargain for them…  in Italian!  I never (ever) bargain and here I am doing it in Cortona.   Uno vaso per me e un per mia madre.  I ask the man to wrap them in newspaper and I place them at the top of my backpack, hoping they will survive the next 10 days.

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At another booth, I purchase a couple antique keys with the intent to use them as pendants or key chains, reminders of me unlocking pieces of myself on this trip.  As I pay the old man at the booth, he says fortuna and he points at a horseshoe.  “In Italia,” he says “keys are good luck.  Fortuna.”  I love it.  I love that I don’t know which doors these keys once unlocked.  I love the word Fortuna. I love saying it: for-tuna.

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From there, we walk all the way up to the highest point in Cortona.  The fortress.  On our way, we see icicles and snow patches, remnants of last night not yet melted by the early morning sun.  We pass barking dogs, cats lounging in the sun, an old man with a cane walking up the same steep hill as us.  The view is breathtaking.  The lake, the town, the fields in different shades of green, the cathedral spire, the smell of cypress trees, the rooftops, the mountains in the horizon.


After all that walking, we treat ourselves to gelato (chocolate with hot chili peppercorns) before leaving Cortona. The hotel manager has arranged for his friend to drive us to the station for free in his tiny car.  So we pile in, me with my 2 big backpacks, which essentially take up all the room in the car.  Down we zoom, the same way we came.

Back in Florence, I say good-bye to Erika, knowing in my heart of hearts that our paths will cross again some day. How do you thank a total stranger, now a soul sister, for such generosity?  The past 24 hours feel like  a dream, as if an angel had landed on earth, opened her arms and given me this crazy beautiful gift, which I will always cherish.  I cannot wait to share the experience with a perfect stranger some day, this time being on the giving end of things.

So here I am, having caught a new train to Lucca from Florence.  Who knows where this adventure will lead? The train stops, people get off, new people embark.  We are all on different journeys and once in a while, when needed, when the Universe wants it, we connect.  Everything is just so that you derail and take a different direction from planned and you find yourself right where you belong…  if only you trust and open yourself up to that eventuality.  If you say yes to spontaneity.  Sure, you might end up looking like an ass… then again.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2009 7:51 am

    i too am a sucker for sparkly.

    today has been a bit serendipitous and somehow reading about the beauty of spontaneous friendships blossoming…it made me teary in a good way.

    beautiful photos here.

  2. July 30, 2009 9:14 am

    i don’t even have the words to express about this blog – this life lesson – something struck such a deep chord in me.

    gorgeous attitude, gratitude and photography.

  3. July 30, 2009 1:00 pm

    Your posts have not ceased to amaze me! I am swept away…..

  4. July 30, 2009 2:49 pm

    I loved reading about your travels and especially enjoyed your photographs. Came here via Char at Ramblins and am so glad I did.

  5. July 30, 2009 8:43 pm

    Made my way over from “ramblings”. Oh and I am so glad I did! What a beautiful, beautiful place you have here.
    Amazing photographs and words.

  6. July 31, 2009 5:47 pm

    You make it all sound so easy and glamorous. Seriously.

  7. chocolatecoveredmusings permalink
    August 1, 2009 5:40 am

    your adventures seem to get more and more amazing as you travelled. wow. i love that you met so many amazing people along the way. this part of your journey sounds like heaven


  8. August 1, 2009 8:09 pm

    I love that you are / were in Italy. It was such a magical place for me. Not in the least bit surprised that you met Erika. You were meant to and I am sure you will meet again.

  9. lunacyn permalink
    August 2, 2009 9:35 am

    these tales of your journey continue to inspire me. i’ve been attempting to apply the lessons you’ve learned to my own personal trek. the last few sentences of this post almost moved me to tears.

    “Everything is just so that you derail and take a different direction from planned and you find yourself right where you belong… if only you trust and open yourself up to that eventuality. If you say yes to spontaneity. Sure, you might end up looking like an ass… then again.”
    i’ve got goosebumps. thank you for sharing it.

  10. August 3, 2009 3:32 pm

    Oh. Oh my.

    I found my way to you via Charlane and I am sitting here stunned. I can see it all. I can even hear your laughter. And, I know just what you mean. That openhearted friendship that sometimes develops between two people is one of life’s sweetest gifts. Oh, I am so glad I found you.

  11. August 5, 2009 12:11 pm

    Great pictures again! I love the last one! Is that you walking over the horizoned path?

  12. August 5, 2009 9:12 pm

    Reading this post made my stomach soar! I’m so crazy happy for you and I can’t wait to hear if the vases survived and if you have met up with/talked to Erica again.

  13. wingedpaths permalink
    August 7, 2009 1:45 pm

    Simply incredible, hugely inspiring. Thank you.

  14. sophie permalink
    August 26, 2009 11:06 pm

    Ho, my…. 🙂

    Haven’t been visiting here for a while – my life mainly consisting of 7-days work weeks lately, with some spontaneously silly Vancouver moments thrown in… How happy am I to read that I’ve inspired a part of your wonderful journey! I’ve had truly magical moments in and around Cortona, and seeing her again thru your eyes – and in the snow! – is kinda making me a tad emotional…


    We just have to meet when I’m in Montréal. Or you in Vancouver? 🙂

  15. Angela permalink
    September 1, 2009 6:23 am

    Truly inspiring. I thank you for sharing your oh so beautiful and visual descriptions along with your incredible eye for colour, details, light and sheer beauty of everyday life!!! If someone hasn’t scooped you up to write for them….they are surely missing the boat. Keep on creating ~ you inspire us all to enjoy and celebrate the simple, yet important things in life.

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