Being from a small Iowa town, I don’t think I will ever get used to the way life goes on in a big city. So with some relief, we relegate Munich, Vienna, and Venice with all her island children to memory and head west to visit my friend Monika in the small mountain town of Orino.
Riding Italian trains is maybe not as easy as some might lead you to believe. When you don’t have a car, part of the trick is getting to the station, where you find your departure from a list, like at an airport. The number of the platform, or “binario,” where you are to meet your train will hopefully pop onto the screen in time for you to make it there before your train does. If your regional train is running behind, you had better be waiting for it on the platform because you will have a total of about a minute or less to get all your stuff on board before it takes off again. High-speed trains are usually waiting on the platform for a while and boarding is much less stressful.
We took a high-speed Frecciarossa train from Mestre to Milan, about two hours or so. At Milano Centrale, we went down two flights of stairs to the Metro station where we had to buy tickets from a finicky vending machine to ride three stops to another train station. From there, we caught a regional train that took us north to the beautiful lake district where Monika lives.
(I bought almost all of our train tickets online before we left home on a fantastic website called trainline.com. I thought the prices were good, and if there was an upchargefor the service, it is totally worth it.)
The area is sprinkled with little towns that hug the hillsides and in a way make one big town around the shores of the lakes…Lago Maggiore, Lago Como, and the smaller Lago Varese. Orino is a tiny town of 300, and Monika lives in a little two-bedroom apartment at the top of a winding staircase with her son, Jody, who is around 23, and her cat, Galileo, who does not much like company and only made one short appearance while we were there.
We sat around the table in the afternoon and talked for a bit while we had some of Monika’s delicious apple torte. She had a vase of gorgeous flowers on the table – white lilies and huge blue and pink hydrangeas. After a bit, Monika put a slice of cake in a sack and asked if we wanted to go for a walk. We went to visit an elderly woman who lived in a small house up the hill surrounded by flowers of all shapes and colors. She had given Monika the flowers the day before. She was thrilled to have the cake, and it just reminded me of home…small towns and friendly people who care for each other.
Jody’s girlfriend, Lucrezia, joined us for dinner and we made potato gnocchi with Jody’s grandmother’s (Nonna’s) homemade ragù. “She makes it with too much oil and butter,” Monika said, as she thawed the ragù in the microwave, drained off the liquid, and added tomato sauce. So much for nonnas everywhere and their mastery of the Italian kitchen.
The meal was delightfully Italian, with bite-sized pieces of parmesan hacked from a chunk as big as a loaf of bread as an appetizer as we cooked the gnocchi. We just spent the evening talking and eating and drinking wine. I met Monika on a language exchange website, so we are teaching each other Italian and English. The conversation took some crazy turns around the language barrier, but it was fun. Jody also speaks pretty good English, Lucrezia a little, while Erin and Megan have no Italian at all…except for “acqua naturale, per favore.” We managed, and a few times the topic of language itself made for some interesting conversation.
I think small towns might be the same the world over…and language aside, we all have much more in common than we think.