Back Roads Back

“You can’t hear that?” Tizi says.

“No.”

She rolls on her side, facing me in bed.  “Try.”

“Try,” I say. “You either hear something or you don’t.”

It’s 4:00 a.m. She wants me to hear a bird. I want to hear the bird.  I get up and walk to the foot of the bed where there are double doors that open onto a balcony. We have the serrande lowered all the way to shut out most of the light and provide a little dead air space. Every morning, without fail, I hear a dove out there. Wherever I am in the apartment I hear the dove. Also a couple roosters will start up in another 30-45 minutes. I’ll hear those. But this bird, the one she has been remarking on the last few mornings, I do not hear.  

“I can’t believe it,” she says. “Go put your hearing aid on.”

It’s the frequency. I have difficulty with high frequency sounds. Like whispering. The dove and rooster I can hear. I can’t hear a thing she says in bed without shoving one of my ears in her direction. And this bird, whose song she now tries to mimic with her own comical whistle, I can’t hear.

“Go get your hearing aids.”

“Can you do that whistle thing again?”

“Shut up.  Go put them on.”

“They’re not charged.” 

She sighs. It’s time for me to get up anyway. I grab a shirt and pants, head for the kitchen, where I’ll put on a pot of coffee. The coffee pot clunks on the counter. A spoon rings when I set it down. If I move a chair and I’m not careful, the wood legs on the tile floor will shriek. When I pull the fridge door open, the sucking sound is deafening. There’s a whole auditory universe in this apartment that’s amplified by tile floors, high ceilings, and no rugs anywhere. The good government of San Marino has decided the best time to collect garbage behind our building is 3:00 a.m. I hear that. As the weather warms, the scooters will come out, kids racing up and down the nearby roads at all hours. I’ll hear the insect whine of those things. But Tizi’s bird, no.

Later this morning we walk up the mountain from Borgo Maggiore to Cittá, up a long gradual stairway, a 20 minute ascent that will punish our knees on the way down, then across the upper town to the first, second, and third towers. Along the way we meet Signor Gobbi, a Sammarinese senior citizen who is out for his morning walk. He’s way more senior than we are, tells us he’s 88 when I ask. He walks every morning, he says, 10 km a day. The routes from one end of the city to the other, up to the towers and back, some of them crisscrossing and switching back and forth, are not easy. He is the personification of spry. When I grow up, I want to be him.

Lots of Sammarinese in Michigan, he says. We go down a list of names, check off the ones we know. In RSM, this happens. In the store where I activate cell service, there is a Carlo who knows many of the Sanmarinese I know back home. At a hardware store, the woman at the counter is related to a family we know. We talk about her old uncle, Achille.  A few years ago, when we did a tour of the cisterns beneath the Palazzo del Governo, we chatted at the entrance with a local whose name is Cardinali, whose aunt ran a restaurant for years on Gratiot Avenue back in Detroit, a place famous for still serving wine in coffee cups, a throwback to Prohibition days. We ate there a few times. Standing at the Pallazzo entrance, it was old home week.

We walk together for a while. Along the way, Signor Gobbo points to stuff growing along the path. “Wild asparagus will appear here in a few more weeks,” he says. “And these are pungitopo, whose red berries,” he says, “make a nice sauce.”

I glance at Tizi. Nope, never heard of those.

“Nature nourishes us,” he says.

When we stop between the first and second tower, where I always take a picture, Signor Gobbi takes a path down to meet his wife. I stand and look up into a tree for a bird I hear. I actually do hear it. If Signor Gobbi was still with us, he could tell me what I’m hearing.

From Cittá and Borgo we will drive back roads down the mountain and cross into Italy. It’s a glorious day. We’ll be here long enough, I hope we’ll see the great greening. We know where we’re going to stop to photograph the vines, to photo document the birth of the fruit. But it’s already green.

“Stop here and take a picture,” Tizi says. It’s a curvy two-lane road. The hills are ravishing. I get a few shots. “Post these and say, ‘This is NOT Tuscany.’” She’s bullish on the area, the Marecchia valley, the hills of Montefeltro. It irks her that Tuscany gets all the appreciation. But the other side of the coin is: I can stop on a curvy two-lane road and take pictures. Only local traffic, and not much of that. Where we’ll have lunch today we will hear only Italian spoken. At other times, when she’s not irked, she’ll say, “Let them have Tuscany. This is for us.”

Back in the car, I ask, “What were those plants called, with the red berries?”

“Pungitopo.”

In Italian pungi (prick) topo (mouse). In English, butcher’s broom. 

“Where shall we have lunch?”

So many choices. Where we end up, at Osteria Carlini, we’ve never been before.  But we have a bottle of their extra virgin olive oil in our apartment. And, a surprise: We know them, from another restaurant, other years. Today at the osteria, it’s just the two of us, and them, for lunch. And now we know them even better. We’ll be back here for sure.

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