Sunday, February 6, 2011

Losing our way in Lucca

Thursday, February 3
The next morning we ride our bikes into San Salvatore to pick up our pane integrale. We want to ask Luigi if there is a safe place to chain up our bikes, because this afternoon we want to take the train to Lucca and walk to our language school to confirm our lessons for next Monday. We have been advised by Luca not to park our bikes at the station. Luigi is quite busy cutting meat for his customers, though, so we decide to walk over to a nearby bar. Maybe if we park the bikes right by the bar windows, thieves would not dare cut the chains. The whole business section of San Salvatore consists of a main street about six American blocks long. There are a couple of bars, two small grocery stores, a fruit and vegetable store, a pizzeria, a gas station, a hair salon and a half dozen other small businesses. At the bar, we order two hot chocolates and sit down. Across the street, we see a bike rack in a parking lot, but knowing how quickly a thief can cut through a bike chain, we don’t think anybody would even notice if someone pulled up, cut our chains and loaded up our bikes. There is not a bike rack in front of the bar, and the young lady at the counter is not from San Salvatore and doesn’t know where we can park the bikes.

We try one of the grocery stores and find a young man working the counter whom we had also seen the day before at Luigi’s macelleria. In fact, this store also bears the name Bianchi, and it is owned by the same family. We suspect this is Luigi’s son, but we will wait for another day to ask him that. Meanwhile, he invites us to park our bicycles behind the macelleria whenever we take the train. Another problem solved.

After exploring the town a little more, we return for a siesta and then plan to ride back into town to catch the train to Lucca. At the agriturismo, there is still no wireless, so I borrow Luca’s computer and jot down some directions for the Lucca Italian School. Ordinarily I would have studied the map carefully and written down more detailed directions, but I am in a hurry and don’t want to take up more of Luca’s time.

The train ride takes 20 minutes through flat farmlands. It would cost 1.1 euro each time to take our bikes on the train, so we plan to go a piedi in Lucca. It should take about 25 minutes to walk to the school, according to Google maps, but then, we don’t actually have the map with us, just some scrawled notes on a piece of scrap paper. After having visited Italy almost yearly for the past ten years, I should have known better.

The thing about Italian city streets is that they almost never travel in a straight line. However, the curve is so gradual that you hardly notice it. Countless times I have started walking north on a street, only to find that six blocks later, without having any idea of the change, I am now walking west. To make matters worse, many streets change names every couple of blocks, and when the street name changes, the house numbers start over; therefore house numbers have no correlation with where you are in the city. Even using Mapquest or Google maps helps only a little, because it is often nearly impossible to find out what street you are on. Street names are sometimes etched on the sides of buildings, but it is no easy thing to find the names when you travel by car, as there is no standard placement for the name. If you plan to rent a car in Italy, GPS is a necessity.

However, because it is so difficult to find one’s way in Italy, the macho American stereotype of men never asking for directions does not exist here. Everyone asks for directions, and the locals are always willing to help.

I lead us to within three blocks of the school before making a time-consuming error. I have found a four-way intersection I am looking for. One of the streets should be via Pisano, and there it is. Now we are almost there. What I don’t realize is that straight ahead is via Pisano, but also 90 degrees to the right is via Pisano. Who would have thought that here where street names change randomly and for no reason, at this intersection a street made a 90 degree turn at a four-way intersection and does not change its name? And unfortunately, this happened to be an exceptional street in still another way: the via Pisano I choose goes on for at least a mile, and who knows how much longer, because that’s when I stop to get directions. After retracing the last mile, coming back to the four-way stop and taking a left, we find the school within a few blocks, via Sant’Anna 14, a street that is so short that none of the various people we had asked during our wanderings had heard of it.

Once at the school, our fortunes improve. Our lessons are confirmed, and one of the teachers, Daniela, tells us what bus to take back to the Lucca station. The bus will be leaving in five minutes, and the last train to San Salvatore for the day departs in half an hour, so we must hurry. Without the bus, we would have had to run all the way on foot, and another wrong turn would have left us stranded.

We had chosen San Salvatore in part because it was small and isolated. We knew people there would not speak English, and that’s what we wanted. We also chose it because it has a train stop, although the actual station has been closed for some time. Trains from Firenze to Lucca pass regularly, but only a half dozen a day are regionali that stop at small stations. We will have to time our trips carefully when we take trains.

As it is, the bus returns us to the Lucca station in plenty of time, and so despite our minor misadventure, we accomplish something important today. Still on my list is to purchase a printer for my computer and get our Italian passports, but neither item is as urgent as the other things we had already taken care of.

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