I like to think that a good post is a shortish post, that what needs to be said can be said concisely and still get to the heart of the reader. Today, I may not be able to stick to this rule, as I sit down to write a barely digested whirlwind.
Having missed our first flight to Pisa in our Bla-Bla car two days prior due to car accidents on the freeway, we were fully intent on making yesterday’s flight, and left our Geneva Airbnb with plenty of time to spare. What we did not count on was the passing of “The Giants,” a cast of 8 meters-tall puppets currently touring through Europe, that very day. The city was swarming with security forces, buses were re-routed, and we got more than a little lost in our bus connections. Our time buffer now gone and the Swiss clocks ticking, we were told to “follow the Rhone,” which we did running, sweating, and carrying heavy backpacks. As we neared the correct bus station, I am pretty sure I heard my partner huff to himself - not necessarily this mildly - “If we miss this flight, I am going home.” It was an interesting possibility, and I allowed myself 12 seconds of considering what that would look like.
On the final bus to the airport, and following a plan we had hatched the night before, we went about the business of opening our packs and piling onto our bodies as many clothes as we could, in order to be able to take our then smaller bags with us on the plane, and save the check-in fee. This was quite an interesting scene, and I saw a few proper European eyebrows go up as I wrapped yet another scarf around my neck.
We got there about 45 minutes before departure time, and ran straight into an unnervingly long serpentine line, at security. Tempers were flared up, the clock seemed to move extra fast, and by the time we got to the other side, we had mere minutes to get to gate D74, where our plane was about to leave. It was immediately decided that there was no time for me to put back on my zip up boots, nor slip my laptop back into the bag.
My partner grabbed my backpack and started to run. I followed him as best as I could, barefoot, multiple scarves flying around my neck, laptop under my arm - and layered in several shirts, a polar fleece and a raincoat. Note: if you ever want a painful yet strangely pleasant sensory experience, try running barefoot the whole length of an airport moving walkway.
Gate D74, it turns out, was about 225 kilometers away from the security gates, or so it felt. We went up, we went down, we went around - and by the time we arrived at our gate, we were told that the plane was late due to an engine problem. The mix of “oh my god thank you,” and “what the heck is wrong with our plane?” was as peculiar as the way my traveling buddy was suddenly breathing. I put my boots back on.
On the plane we went, and in Pisa we landed.
The relaxed and joyful Italian energy immediately made its way through our bodies and I was so happy to have finally arrived. After almost two weeks of wonderful traveling, rarely sleeping in a bed more than once, we were both craving a month of settling down. In less than an hour we would be moved into our little place in the hills of Tuscany, nestled in that beautiful Airbnb we had secured months ago due to its location and extraordinary affordability. We would unpack, I would write, coach, we would hike, we would take day trips to Lucca and Florence. I could taste it all already, and we allowed ourselves to breathe more deeply as the bus made its way out of the city and towards the countryside.
The bus let us out at a scenic stop and outfitted with our host’s summary directions, we started to make our way towards our new home. We were told to go towards “Guesthouse Marta,” and then keep going up the hill. We saw gorgeous Guesthouse Marta on our left, and we kept going. Vineyards, olive trees, it was like being in a movie. When the road turned into a dirt path, a local man speaking an Italian dialect I could barely understand showed up and let us know that going up further may only lead us ... further up. That there weren’t really any houses up there. But that if we still wanted to go, he would take us. At least, that’s what I think he said.
Thanking him, we decided to turn around as we realized that we had most likely passed the house already. Our host had said that there would be Italian flags at the gate, and my mind doing what it does, I had pictured happy Italian flags proudly flying in the wind, above a stately iron gate. These flags were more the sloppily-wrapped-around-a-rusty-fence type, and my Positive Thinking Motor instantly kicked into high gear.
We managed our way inside the gate, into a rather unkempt yard (my Positive Thinking Motor immediately declared it charmingly natural), passed a window adorned with thoroughly ripped mosquito screens (my P.T.M. decided it would get back to me on this one), found the key and walked into the house.
Let’s just say that it looked lived in.
Not saying anything to each other, we made our way upstairs to what was to be our bedroom. On the way to the room, we passed a makeshift room made of blankets strung together, with a bare mattress sticking out of the bottom. Walking into our room was tough as we stood in front of two bare cots, in the middle of a desolate room, with a light spray of mold overhead. I heard my P.T.M. mention the tall ceilings and I made a note of that.
One of us sat on the slouched red couch in the corner and we looked at each other.
A month. This was to be our home for a month.
I could tell that the two cots were hard on him so I brought up the possibility of moving them to another wall and next to each other. I imagined putting some of my scarves on the walls... somewhere.
We were tired. We had so badly wanted this to be home.
I suggested to check out the bathroom. He got up and came back. His face told me much.
We talked carefully to each other, as if neither one of us wanted to scratch at the other’s fragility.
We were in the middle of nowhere. We knew no one. This gig was paid for already, it was getting late. And did I mention that we were tired?
After all, what did we expect for $20 a night? We wanted to travel on a budget, didn’t we? Who did we think we were to turn up our noses at these people’s home?
As if grabbing a life line, I slipped into coaching mode and mustered a makeshift clarification session.
I saw three options:
1) run away before the hosts arrived (my Positive Thinking Motor briefly flashed me a vision of lovely convivial people walking through the door with huge smiles and carrying plates of pasta for dinner. Hadn’t we just said, hours before that “it’s all about the people”?)
2) spend one night here and try it out.
3) buckle down and settle for 30 long days and nights. And afternoons. And mornings. And more nights.
Suddenly, as I looked at my partner’s sweet crestfallen face, some very exact words popped into my mind. They said:
There is Something Beautiful Right Around the Corner.
We just have not seen it yet.
For some reason, these words altered my mindset and gave me strength. The word Beautiful, specifically, did something to me.
Full of this new strength, I headed downstairs to take a look at the kitchen and bathroom situation.
That did it. P.T.M. settled down for a long nap. Whatever else would happen, I was not sure. But this was not where we were supposed to be. My companion agreed, and we got into action mode.
We would try and get a room in that Guesthouse Marta for the night, and regroup.
Having much experience with Airbnb, I knew that if we were to receive any kind of refund we would need to follow a protocol, so we snapped several photos on our way out, put on our backpacks once more and headed down the hill.
The terracotta colored house was stunning, and its big door was a little intimidating. I kept wondering what this stately villa was doing there, in the middle of this tiny village, and why would anyone possibly stay there? The words Home Sweet Home written by the bell convinced me to ring it.
A minute or so later, a woman carefully opened the door and looked at us questioningly. I mobilized my best Italian to ask her if she could rent us a room for the night. She opened the door a bit more and let us into a waiting room that was both spectacular and comfortable. Then she asked us to wait while she went to her office to check.
This checking took a while and we wondered how she could have problems finding us a room. The house was completely quiet and again... who would be staying here?
While we waited, I looked around more carefully, and something deeply familiar started to fill my mind. My grandmother’s place. My grandmother’s hotel. Around the age of 50, my grandmother Lilli had bought a small castle in the Loire Valley and her hospitality, contagious laughter and sense of beauty had turned it into many guests’ happy place. This place felt so very much like hers, this special home of my childhood. Just as I made the connection, I noticed an unusual wooden life size statue on the landing of the winding staircase. It was the same one that now lives in my mom’s house. The same one I grew up with.
Something was up, and that very something was inspiring me into asking mode.
I knocked on Marta’s office door and asked her if she also might know of any room we could rent in the area for a month. I briefly explained our situation to her, and she asked me a few questions. Did we want a room or an apartment? How much could we pay? She told me that she would think about it all and see what she could come up with. I walked out of her office feeling as though this woman had the magic to get our life back on track.
Minutes later Marta came out and told us that she had had a cancellation and that we could have a room for the night. She asked us to follow her up the staircase - past the statue - and opened the door to a movie set of a bedroom. To say that it was beautiful would not do it justice. The pink and orange colors, the inviting bed, the sparkling cleanliness, the stateliness were washing over us like a healing waterfall. When she opened the French doors to a huge terrace overlooking the hills, my mind blew a small fuse of gratitude and wonder.
She offered us a friend price and we gladly accepted it.
When we asked her if there was any place to eat dinner, she said that all was closed for a few hours and that she would go down to the kitchen and prepare us a little something.
Still feeling a bit fragile, as well as dizzy with the contrast and the speed of this turn of life, we walked onto the terrace and did a bit of emoting, me shaking my head in disbelief.
The ups and downs of the day. The speed. The intensity. The contrasts.
When not much later Marta walked through our room and placed a tray of bruschetta, cheese pastries, cake, and fresh juice onto a small table on the terrace, all I could do was put a kiss on her cheek. I am not sure she understood what she had done for us by offering us the Essence of Hospitality, at that very moment. Right then I knew that more than the messiness, the mold on the ceiling or the strange bare cots, what had wounded me an hour earlier was how very little we may have mattered to our hosts. How devoid of Hospitality the experience had been.
Still feeling a bit lightheaded with all of this, I walked downstairs to bring the meticulously emptied tray back to Marta (and say hello to the statue) and she told me that she had some things to talk to us about. Would I come back in ten minutes?
You bet I would.
As my partner took a short nap on the big clean bed, I met her into her living room and she told me about some possibilities. She said that it would not work for us to rent a room as we needed a kitchen. She said that she had an apartment she wanted me to look at. She said that she could not match the price we would have paid at the other place. She said it was beautiful. And she asked me if I would like to see it.
Not knowing where this place was, yet trusting that this woman would not fail me, I followed her down a sweet double staircase right across the yard of the villa, about 60 feet from the guesthouse’s dining room. There, she opened a floor-to-ceiling shutter (one of three) and lead me into the most charming Tuscan cottage I could imagine. The kitchen, complete with a pizza oven and yellow wooden chairs, a postcard onto itself. Soft shades of orange everywhere, tiles, deep dark wood accents, a potent blend of beauty and comfort. All of it speaking of Hospitality. The kind my grandma Lili loved to create.
In a mix of Italian, French, Spanish and English, we talked about the possibility of us staying there for almost a month. Then she gave me a price - which, while being more than $20 a day, was a heck of a good deal. She said that we could move in right away.
Back up to the bedroom, I told my companion the result of the “meeting.” Together we walked downstairs - yes, past the statue - and within thirty minutes we were moved into our new quarters. Definitely faster than my mind could grab.
Before falling asleep last night, we tried to comprehend the events of the day, I told him about the words that had come into my mind while in that nightmarish spot, earlier that day. He laughed.
There is Something Beautiful Right Around the Corner.
Right around the corner. Like around 600 feet around the corner. How had I missed that??
So here you go.
24 hours later, I am still digesting this bit of miracle. This bit of divine upgrade. All the layers. How, had we seen Marta’s place online we would have never even considered being able to afford staying here. How it took that wildly optimistic response to the original Airbnb listing to get us here, to this sweet, sleepy little village - a few kilometers from some of the most beautiful cities in Italy. And the potential recklessness to say “no, this just won’t work,” even when doing so might cost us money and a big bunch of unknown.
Because we often don’t know what beautiful thing may be waiting for us right around the corner.
And my guess is that there are still many Gifts and mysteries to unwrap. One of them being that the house actually IS full. Full of Italian families on vacation, possibly having found this little gem in a more direct way than we have.
Oh - as we were having breakfast across the yard this morning, in a room reminiscent of the Orient Express, one of Marta’s cats walked in. I asked her name and was told that this one was named Lilli.
Life ... let us never underestimate its power to delight us.
Island Bliss Retreat
July 12 to 19
Happiness Retreats in Italy
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