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Travels in Tuscany: the blessing of fathers

I’d just stumbled from a mountain town in central Bosnia  at the height of the war. Cornered  by a military unit during a local offensive I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to get out-of-town. After marching the better part of a dozen miles in full pack and putting up with a quick ride by a couple Italian smugglers, the scorching sun taking a toll, I was hoping to scrounge a bit of food, refill my water and perhaps get a bit of news on the larger offensive I was heading into farther down the road. Outside of town the road climbed higher through some of the highest passes in the Bosnian range. Headed into the thick of battle alone, and out of  water I was at my lowest point.

I paused in the shade of an outcropping to gather myself and figure a plan, but the more I thought the more hopeless it all seemed. Just then a little yellow  Audi pulled to a stop in front of me.

Idesh?” where are you headed, a little white-haired fellow asked.

I stared dumbly at him for a moment. But for the country and the language he was the spitting image of my father back home in America. A friendly smile painted a long working calls face.

Sarajevo,” I replied.

I’m not going that far,” he laughed, “but I’ll get you a little closer.”

He rearranged several apple crates in back to accommodate my pack. As I scooted in beside him I tried to tell him in his language just how much he looked like my father, but stumbled over the words. It was easier to ask why he stopped.

How could I not,” he said matter-of-fact. “You looked like you needed a hand.”

I sure appreciate it.”

His badly aged Audi was struggling against the steep mountain passes, almost to the point of quitting. The engine whined and jerked as he expertly worked the well-worn gears. Each time the engine seemed ready to quit he would gently stroke the dash and say, “Come on baby.” Then, as if the old car could not bear to disappoint him, it would roar back to life.

How long have you two been married?” I joked.

Sharing a couple of apples with me, he filled me in on the fighting up ahead as best he could. I was with no small amount of sadness that I watched him leave.

In  Tuscany the owner of Hotel L’Fiorino all but adopted us. ana had become friends almost instantly with his daughter, Elena, who worked the desk most days.With kindly features and a hospitable nature he took care of us as if we were family. The night our flight home we said our goodbyes, as we were leaving before dawn the next morning. As we came down that morning, struggling from the elevator with our bags, Ana lamenting that she would get coffee until we were at the airport, we were greeted with an unexpectedly ebullient “Buongiorno!” 

Hotel l'Fiorino in Tuscany. Photo courtesy Hotel l'Fiorino


Elena’s father had stayed up all night so that Ana would have a cup of coffee before leaving.

If there is one thing I’ve learned travelling around the world, and especially in war, is that there is a river of goodness that runs through the world. There  are souls who seem to appear from thin air, along mountain roads or wherever you might be in trouble or forlorn. They are the good salt-of-the-earth folks, the men who do the back-breaking tasks and then return to home and neighbors to reaffirm their belief that goodness is the best and truest mark a man can leave on the earth. they are the standard bearers for morality and ethics in the world, not for  what they judge but the example they set and the neighborliness they abound in. They are the first to an accident, first to soothe a skinned knee, and the first with a beer across the fence. It is an example I have sought to continue as best I can. And for that, to fathers everywhere I can happy fathers day. 

Travels in Tuscany:Best laid plans…

I like to think of myself as the consummate traveller. I watched the opening scene in “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney as if it was a documentary or a How-to film. If you haven’t seen it, he swiftly navigates an airport security line, deftly avoiding parents wrestling with toddlers in strollers, hapless once-a-year tourists, saps with alarm inducing piercings and hidden metal and mopes who think their ten pound Keep-on-Truckin’ belt buckle won’t attract a cloud of rubber gloved spiteful TSA workers hoping to give redneck joe something to blather about how they  should be worrying about the real terrorists(personally, stupid is just as terrifying to me).

I want to be through that line as quick and quiet as possible. When I get to the table, my shoes  are off, laptop out, belt off, change, pens and sunglasses out of my pockets. On the otherside I am dressed and gone while others are still trying to recall for a squad of miffed screeners what is in, on or around their body that is setting off the alarm for the 7th time.

I can live for a week in one garment bag and a small tote, or a laptop bag. From that I have a suit, something for a club or dinner, something casual and something for working out with clean socks and undies for everyday. Files and paper are strategically place in specific pockets for car rental, important documents, hotel reservations, contact information, maps, miscellaneous notes, a journal, charging cords, MP-3,  sundries and a camera. I even have a little pocket for salt and pepper and various little condiments-that’s CONDI-MENTS. I have it all down to a science. Ana thinks I’m nuts.

When we arrived in Italy I’d done my homework in researching every aspect of the trip. Notice I didn’t say plan, as the essence of any good adventure is in the unexpected. I knew the vaporetto schedules in Venice, the highway numbers between Mestre and Ravenna, and had even made a trial run on the Autostrada between Bologna and Florence using Google Maps Street View, but there was one thing I’d forgotten. There was one thing I’d left behind that threatened to sink the entire trip. Standing in the lobby of the Hotel L’Fiorino, having crossed two continents and ocean to see a de ar old friend and war buddy, I realized I’d left his telephone number at home.

The lobby was cooler than the  busy street outside. It was small and modern, but with an intimate feel. There were comfortable chairs near the front window. Beside the small but  cozy dining room was a table brimming with colorful maps, pamphlets and menus from local establishments. Greeting us was a lovely young woman who seemed politely dismayed over the two guests that arrived like something of a storm, babbling in a foreign tongue about this sudden and unexpected crisis. Her name was Elena, the daughter of the owner.

“What are we going to do?” asked Ana, looking every bit as exhausted from the day’s journey as I felt. She sighed and swept a lock of auburn hair from her face. Her emerald-green eyes still sparkled as perfect and brilliant as the day we’d met in Sarajevo 18 years earlier.

Discouraged and aggravated I only shrugged and remarked, “Walk the  streets calling his name.”

“Is your friend on Facebook?” asked Elena. “You are welcome to use my computer to send a message.”

It seems like such a simple thing, but we were just coming to discover true Tuscan hospitality.  In an instant Ana was tapping out a quick Facebook message to Shevko. The only question was whether he would see it in time.

Ana and I were barely in our second floor room when my phone rang. It came up  as his picture.  Though he’d changed(who hasn’t) somewhat over the years there was no mistaking that mug.

“Shevko!” I exclaimed. “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” he replied.

“The Hotel L’Fiorino.”

“I’m just down the street. I’ll be right there!”

Travels in Tuscany: A thousand years at war

It feels like a thousand years since the war. It never feels as if it actually ended. Wars never end, really. It is only peace that ends, and with the last bullet or shell is forever transformed, like the innocence of childhood. It never escapes memory, and though the burdens of today take precedent, it is always there, like a cold shadow haunting the soul, awaiting a smell or some odd trigger that will pull it from its dark hiding place.

I had gone to Bosnia as a witness. I was an artist, not a journalist who was raised during the 1960’s on Martin Luther King’s message, inspired by the anti-establishment Woodstock generations belief in standing for a better world, and by the post-Holocaust never again idea, whether it was Jews, Bosnian Muslims or Tribal Tutsis in Rwanda. I prided myself on seeing a very different war than Western Journalists in Bosnia. Travelling as an Artist, I could go places on  every side of the civil war few journalists could go. Dangerous as independence often was, the true character and potential of humanity revealed itself each time I stumbled alone and forlorn through the war. Good souls revealed themselves everywhere, whether Serb, Muslim or Croat. Without them I could never have travelled through the war, not once or twice, but three times. It was one of those good souls that would carry me to Tuscany 18 years later.

To say that Shevko Jakirovich and I ran into one another on the frontline in the besieged Bosnian city of Mostar in October 1994 is an understatment. He was hardly 18 then, and already a two-year veteran of a brutal urban war against former Catholic Croat neighbors. His dishwater blond hair was uncombed, a  ready smirk on his unshaven face. He and his cousin, in threadbare khaki uniforms, rifles laying casually over their shoulders, had every right to arrest me that close to the frontline. Who was to say I wasn’t a spy for the besieging Croats, or a journalist who might foolishly blab details about defenses on the Muslim side,  but that ignores the intangible nature of human relationships. Something about my  story endeared me to Shev, and I found reason enough trust this swaggering ad hoc soldier.  

 Shevko was my key to the true Mostar under siege, a meeting so inexplicably fortuitous that I wrote a book attempting to understand just what it was. After a few days I pressed on to besieged Sarajevo. And contact with Shevko might have ended there. He might have remained a memory from the war, a face in a picture that hangs upon a wall or is forgotten in an album on a shelf, but fate is a very curious thing.

You see, I was married in Sarajevo to a Bosnian artist. Forced to escape the city separately, my new wife arrived one night with her mother and baby brother as refugees, Catholic Croats saved and sheltered by a Muslim kid. The story brought tears to my eyes when my wife finally reached relatives in neighboring Croatia. How does one ever repay that favor?

And so, after 18 years Ana an I had come 5000 miles to Montelupo Fiorentino, not to repay that favor, but to reaffirm a friendship. Looking along Via Salvador Allende, the setting sun painting warm colors upon the walls of homes clustered at the edge of the two lane street it felt much less as a thousand years at war than a thousand years from war.

Travels in Tuscany: (Part Three)Why we travel

Travel is less about the places than the people we meet

It isn’t about pretty buildings or breathtaking views. Those  are window dressings to the real reasons we travel. They are stage props to the purpose of leaving the safety and security of our own lives in favor of the opportunity for growth. It is that fundamental principle that separates “tourists” from true travellers. Indeed, the tourist, by definition, stumbles from place to place as if they were in a zoo, arrogant in the belief they  are “discovering” something new. Practically no place the tourist goes on Earth is undiscovered. If there is a hotel or a gas station or a windowless hovel there it was already discovered. The tourist is simply following a trail already forged. The traveller, well, that is something altogether different.

It seems at first a little cynical. We all proclaim the desire for discovery, but here’s the rub. What is it we wish to discover truly? All that is left for any of us not employed as an Astronaut or a researcher on the frontiers of science are journeys of discovery at least as important as reaching outer space, or diving to the darkest depths of the oceans. That is the journey of self-discovery, and by that I mean a truly critical analysis of the heart and soul.

For Ana and I, the most precious discovery on any journey are in the people we meet. And when we  are lucky, truly lucky, it is in the lasting friendships and renewed awareness of the complexity and immensity of humanity that we come away with. And in that complex world the traveller must develop skills that opens the prospects for growth and self discovery.

I’m terrible with languages,  but I’ve learned valuable skills over the years to overcome that. The first lesson is that context is everything. That is, by paying attention, being humble, and above all patient, overcoming most any language barrier is a minor impediment. It comes down to this: we  are all human from the same ancestors. Languages are historical, cultural and customary, but  buried within all of them is the desire to communicate and to be valued as a person. Make the effort and pay attention and language barriers become less a canyon between people as a bridge to be forded.

The second lesson I’ve learned is that a little goes a long way. You  are in someone else’s home. Respect it. Understand that they love that home as much as you love yours. 9 words in any language will carry you a long way. That’s all, just 9 words-Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Sorry, I don’t speak…People appreciate the effort, and by virtue of simple human nature, will bend over backwards to help, or at the very least, bridge the gap.

And so, when Ana and I travel, it is  as pertinent to the trip that we step outside our lives back home, and step outside ourselves as purchasing plane tickets or having a passort. More treasured is when we meet someone new, whom we can keep with us forever. Well, not literally of course. That would be illegal, but the memory and friendship, which can only be forged between people who are equal, whose lives and history and experiences are equal in one another’s eyes. That i the greatest blessing for the true traveller. 

As we pulled into the unassuming little Hotel L’Fiorino in the heart of Tuscany that warm May evening  we could hardly have imagined the blessings that lay before us.

Travels in Tuscany: part two

To say at that moment that I was not liking Italy would have definitely been  an understatement. Ana and I, after a wild breakneck ride on the Autostrada from Bologna, becoming stymied by construction outside of Florence, and turn around on the confusing roads south of Montelupo, were spent and just needed to find the hotel and collapse.

That’s it. That’s all we wanted, simply to crumple into a heap for the night. In the morning we’d take stock of things, and gain a new lease on Italy. Travelling somewhere different is a bit like that. When challenged, a body tends to cling defiantly to those old familiar ways. Lost in Montelupo, that’s exactly what I was doing. I knew with some perspective I’d let go of those American patterns and begin to truly experience Italy, but now was not that time.   

The Arno  river neatly separates Montelupo from Capraia. Each town is dominated by opposing castle walls, now churches that face each other from high promontories, from which the Pistoeisi family, which ran rough-shod over the river and roads through the valley, went to war with the Fiorentinis in 1250. Searching that evening for our hotel, I wondered how those ancient animosities might manifest themselves in the present. Turning a sharp corner past the town center into yet another roundabout, traffic ground to an abrupt halt in a line of about a dozen or so vehicles. The reason: the towns are separated by elevated  turn of the century railway tracks, built obviously in an era when rush hour was all of about a mule-drawn wagon and a hand full of peasants with push carts.

Stunned into silence, I reckoned the single artery connecting the two towns was roughly the size of my patio door back home. There was literally enough room for a single vehicle to pass by, with just enough to spare to keep from scraping the rearview mirrors against the old stucco walls to either side. No lights. No  signs. Just two apparently opposing armies of traffic at either end, in some sort of stand-off, negotiation or synchronization I had yet to decipher.

Ana, seated beside me, summed the situation succinctly in a singe word. “Seriously?’

Suddenly someone on the Capraia side blinked or sneezed, or hesitated. I don’t know which. It didn’t much matter. In that brief moment of opportunity traffic poured through the breach from the Montelupo side. Not wanting to be left behind, I dropped the car into gear, gunned the engine and raced through the tunnel, the last before the Capraians exploited a space behind me and charged into the opening.

Still stoked from my little victory I failed to notice the hotel. Ana, still amazed we’d made it through was looking at me, and missed it as well. It took a couple more passes before she cried out and pointed across the dash towards the unassuming little hotel. In the days to come we’d certainly learn a lesson about book covers and judging and things, but that would have to wait. Turning off the road into the tiny little driveway, we were just happy to have arrived.  

Tomorrow: Part Three, Hotel L’Fiorino

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