Standing before my huge bathroom mirror, I look beyond my raised arm and find Otricoli, a memory so vivid as to be painted on the opposite wall. “What an odd name,” I said, the first time Pat and Giangi showed me around the Roman ruins below the Umbrian hill town.
“What does it mean?”
Giangi, grizzled mariner who had returned from filming in Australia, shrugged one of those quintessential Italian shrugs–shoulders raised, hands spreading, ready to capture whatever inspiration hits. “Forse, a name for the two-handled Roman jugs?” Forse, perhaps. My Italia, acquired through frequent trips and reburbished just before leaving home, works fine when he talks slowly, but if he speeds up, I am lost.
On that first visit years ago, before they’d renovated a single room in their hill top tower, I gathered unconnected impressions–helter-skelter carpentry in the ceilingless tower, narrow streets with only a hint of sky above, and a look-out point reached by wide stone stairs. Only later when I spent spend five nights with Pat did I get a sense of the place from gate to gate. She and Giangi had finished the tower sufficiently to include a bath and tiny kitchen at one end of her lofty studio, and a tiny third-floor bedroom and bath tucked under the eaves. When we stood on the top-floor terrace and stared down into the sweeping Tiber Valley, I grasped the setting’s beauty. The original residents had moved up from the river to escape the barbarians, but I found their escape point far more commanding and breath-taking than the Roman ruins below.
Pat had brought back a Turkish cat Anusha, from an archaeological dig where she drew every object unearthed. Anusha stared down at us from the rafters–orange, black and white face with gleaming green eyes.
At night out of my third-floor widow twinkled the distant lights of Rome. We lingered over lunches, two women trying to tell each other our entire stories in five days. Mornings I wrote and Pat painted in her studio. A magic haze of effort and serenity hung over us. Gone was the huge shadow of the rest of our lives, hanging just out of reach, ready to smother us.
There were many other happy times. Once at Christmas, with Giangi in residence, I slept at the lowest level facing Pat’s enormous collection of antique dolls and stuffed animals which she’d brought from her childhood in Savannah, Illinois. She baked one of her grandmother’s extraordinary cakes–more trouble in one slice than I’d devote to meals for a month. We ate in the second-floor kitchen overlooking the narrow street–the neighbor’s windows almost close enough to touch. In the holiday atmosphere, we talked about my buying a tiny pied-a-terre in town.
Later as Giangi and I sat before a functioning antique fireplace framed in stone, he talked about being a boy during the war. As he rode his bicycle along a rural road, American and British planes straffed him. He rolled into a ditch and survived without thinking much of it. Now years later he was plagued by nightmares. His constant travels perhaps an escape from what Italy presented in his dreams.
It is probably ten years since I’ve been in Otricoli. Pat and I still meet in Venice or Florence, still enjoy each other’s company. We are full of opinions on everything from cell-phone use to our art forms, her painting, my writing. We discuss the U.S. and Italy. She is far more vehement politically than I am. I am more in search of little hints that will roll open, once more, a scene from Otricoli–perhaps La Contessa is serving us tea in 100-degree July heat. Near 90, she is dressed in a long-sleeved cotton blouse and navy cotton skirt. In the cool grandeur of her drawing room, cluttered with mementoes, she too talks about the war, her hunger and that of her first child, and how they eventually went to live with a farm family, who fed them sorghum.
La Contessa is long gone, and Giangi is not well. It is not so easy to be with Pat in Otricoli. Her life has become complicated.
And so I remember the charm of our early days, hanging over ancient stones and glimpsing the Tiber on its way to Rome between banks flecked with green.