Italy on the inside: Tahoe bicyclist meets new friends, confronts childhood memories
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
I was just happy to have company. Even if that meant camping in what amounted to a turn-out filled with human waste.
My company was a group of young cycle tourists I’d come across pedaling east in Italy’s Golfo di Genova. After riding with them for the afternoon, the group invited me to free-camp with them in the hills outside Savona.
When we arrived I watched disconcertingly as they unloaded their bikes, laid out their tarps and plopped-down in a minefield of human feces. Reluctantly, I followed suit.
There, in fading light, I pitched my tent carefully, placing it between the specks of toilet paper that were scattered thicker than confetti after a ticker-tape parade.
After setting up, I checked the ground beneath me, then took a seat in their circle around the fire. As one of them cracked a magnum of wine, the others informed me that they were college students who’d grown-up together in a small village near Bordeaux. After graduating from college, the group decided to celebrate with an 8,000-kilometer bicycle journey around Europe.
While I began to relax in the warm glow of the fire, I watched in amazement as the group worked in unison. One cooked polenta, while another placed a pan lid over the coals, and began to cook fresh-hot pizzas, then handed them amongst the crowd. Then, in a moment of unbridled enthusiasm, they curiously began singing black southern gospel music.
“Amen! … Ayyyy-men! … Ayy-ayyy-men!” they harmonized as they poured me a cup of wine, and handed me a fresh piece of pizza.
“Amen!” I said as I raised my cup. “Amen.”
Thus was my introduction to Italy.
From Savona, I blazed along the coast, through Genoa, into Chiavari, before sweating up the twisting mountain roads, then descending 2,000 feet to five coastal villages of Cinque Terre.
When I reached the first village of Levanto, I checked into my room and was greeted with a warm hug by my father, Richard. He was accompanied by his loving companion, Cecilia Melanson, and our good friend Tracey Milne, and I took a moment to express my appreciation for their arrival.
It seemed like moments before we’d strolled into the village. “Buongiorno!” the shopkeepers proclaimed as we entered, as we ravaged the bakeries and delis of Levanto. When we were done, we walked out with armfuls of hand-made bread, fresh pesto and Marcapone cheese, as well as fresh fruit and wine.
We set out for the spectacular seaside village of Manarola, the third of five villages interconnected by an 18-kilometer walking trail. Once there, we rolled out a king-sized picnic, and began consuming as we peered up at the multi-colored buildings impossibly perched over the blue-green sea. As we did, a villager walked by, smiled with his eyes and offered, “Buon appetito!”
After a few days, we left Levanto and repeated our process of drifting, stopping, eating and gazing with wonder. Only this time we did so in the heart of Tuscany. We walked the winding streets of Siena, the fortified walls along Lucca, and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
One night, after a horrifying drive through the heart of Florence, we landed in a tiny restaurant to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. Over a seven-course meal, we spoke words of love and encouragement to my father in reaching this milestone.
As the words were spoken, and the meal mindfully consumed, my mind stopped for a moment, as I focused on the man sitting across the table from me. Just recently I had learned he had been diagnosed with very high blood pressure. This thought triggered a series of other thoughts. There within the tiny restaurant my mind reeled backwards to a favorite childhood memory.
It was a memory of my father as a young man, as I slipped my tiny hand into his. In the other hand he held an umbrella as the two of us walked barefoot in the rain.
Moments later, my mind reeled forward. It stopped at a time in my life just before adolescence. It was a painful time when my father disappeared from my life and all but became a ghost at a time when I needed him most. Within my mind’s eye, I replayed the scenes from an ugly divorce, that ended with the death of my mother, a fight over property, and a family shattered.
In the years that followed, my father had dug deep within himself, doing a hard amount of self discovery, facing difficult issues within the context of counseling offices, encounter sessions, and men’s groups. And by looking deeply within himself, he’d forged the way for me.
My mind moved forward to a recent conversation I had had with my father in the living room of his East Bay Area home. With tears in his eyes, and quivering voice, he said simply, “I am sorry; I messed up.”
As we held each other and shed tears, 20 painful years seemed to wash away like rain. I pulled him close and said, “I forgive you.”
It wasn’t long before our time together in Italy came to end. On one of the days before he left, he and I got together for one last photo. While we sat, the realization of our impermanence, and our limited time together welled up from deep within me.
A ball of emotion tornadoed through my body, and all at once I experienced fear, joy, love, anxiety and pain.
Then, as I had done when I was that small child, I simply slid my hand back into my father’s. I knew that as long as I was alive I would have to feel these mixed emotions around my upbringing, but with our recent resolution, that whirlwind seemed to calm.
Before he left, I put my arms around him and said the only words that needed to be spoken. They were the only words that really mattered when it came to me and my father.
Those words were, “I love you.”
He turned to me and said: “Ciao, bambino!”
When: January – February 2006
Where: Chiavari, Savona, Cinque Terre, Florence, Siena, Lucca, Bibbone, Grossetto.
Mileage log: 8,025 – 8,300
Elevation: Sea level – 2,500 feet
“Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn!
Look to this Day!
For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the
Verities and Realities of your Existence.
The Bliss of Growth,
The Glory of Action,
The Splendor of Beauty;
For Yesterday is but a Dream,
And To-morrow is only a Vision…”
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