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La Forza del Destino

On our first day in rural Tuscany, La Forza del Destino took over. My wife, Susan, and I had a misadventure we will never forget.

It was all my fault. After a lovely day of tooling around Tuscany in our beautifully air conditioned rented Opel, we returned to Casa Loretino, the converted farmhouse of our friends, Pam and Doug. We brought back with us wine, cheese, salami and bread from the picturesque hill town of Pienza, as well as bottles of water and other supplies. I took the first load to the house, and put down everything in my hands, including the keys. I went to the car for the next load, and heard the door slam behind me. Susan asked, "Where are the keys?" I saw to my horror that the house was shut tight as a drum, behind its lovely green shutters and its iron bars across the ground floor windows. It was about 6:30 p.m., hot and dry.

We decided that Susan should stay, but that I should look for help. Among the items locked in the house were my reading glasses and the note with the name and phone number of the American who worked around the house. Susan's words of advice were: "Your best bet is to call Doug and Pam in the U.S. and ask for their help. They will know how to reach the caretaker, and he will have a key." That became my goal: find a phone.

Casa Loretino's gravel drive leads a few hundred yards down a hill to an unpaved road that runs between Civitella on the south and parts unknown to us to the north. We had noticed a few other gates on this road, so I headed out.

The gate opposite the drive to Casa Loretino was locked up with no bell and no house in sight. I turned south, toward a drive we had noticed as "Casa McDonough." Then I heard a car slowly making its way up the unpaved road, heading north. I flagged it down; no, I stood in front of it, making it impossible for it to pass.

An Italian couple was in the car, 40ish in age Giorgio and Gina. We found that the only language we had in common was his and my French. Mine was better than his, but I made myself understood. Giorgio translated to Gina in Italian, and I listened in on what they had to say, picking up a few words here and there. Her view from the start was: "Let's invite them to our house overnight." His was, "Maybe yes, maybe no, but let's try to get them help in Pergine."

Pergine was terra incognita for me, the next town north of Casa Loretino on the unpaved road. It turned out Giorgio and Gina were not from Pergine themselves, but from somewhere beyond (20 kilometers, they said.) Why they were taking a shortcut home down this unpaved road, I never learned.

I got in the back seat, and off we went northward. Pergine was far, or so it seemed, at least a number of kilometers away. I studied the road carefully, wondering whether I would walk it that night or whether somehow I would find a ride back.

As we drove on, and on, I did everything I could to win over my hosts and to seem pathetic. This was not hard! I added details to my tale of woe in French like the fact that there was a car key, but it, too, was locked in the house. When the conversation fell silent, I would say something like, "Ma femme est seule à la maison. Elle est abandoneé!" "My wife is alone at the house and abandoned!" Giorgio urged me repeatedly "Restez tranquil!" "Stay calm!" Again, I could hear Gina tell her husband that we should come to their house.

Pergine was no great shakes; a particularly sleepy little town on a Sunday night. There was a telephone booth by the road, but I explained that I needed a phone where I could hang out and maybe get a call back with information from the owners of the house. Giorgio took me to the Polizia. A young man in uniform finally swung open the door and explained that the police did not offer help in situations like this. I asked if there was a hotel, thinking that we could use a place for the night where there was a telephone. We were directed to a very unpromising pension, one with cat decorations on the door and a very large dog lying on the doorstep. (Susan is allergic to cats, and my own views on dogs are well known.) It was a moot point; the "Sign of the Cats" had no phone and no room. The cats reminded me that Susan's allergy medicine probably was locked in the house. That convinced me to be even more pathetic and to throw myself completely on the mercy of Giorgio and Gina. I brought up again that my wife was "abandoneé." Giorgio gripped me by the forearm. "C'est Italie! Restez tranquil! Rien ne va passez!" "This is Italy! Be calm! Nothing will happen!"

What next? We found a bar, and the bar had a phone! Giorgio chatted with the bartender, shooting glances in my direction as I made repeated calls. My MCI U.S. Direct access went right through, but, unfortunately, there was no answer at the Walters' home or at either of their law offices. I left a message briefly explaining my predicament and asking them to call their caretaker. But who could tell when they would get this message?

Meanwhile, time was passing and I was up a creek. It was maybe 8:00 p.m. by now, but the sun had not set. Again, I referred to my abandoned wife. Again, consolation was offered. "Vous êtes à vacances! Et c'est le dimanche!" "You are on vacation! And it's Sunday!" This was meant to reassure me in an Italian sort of way, but it brought me no closer to a solution. I told Giorgio how stupid I felt, locking the keys in the house. "Ce n'est pas bête; c'est le destin." "This isn't stupidity, it's destiny." I shrugged in agreement, "Che sera, sera." "What will be, will be." I understood the mentality, but wanted something practical, not bromides.

I passed time chatting, keeping the Italians engaged. I established that the only Italian I knew was from music, especially from opera. (Remembering my Negotiations 101, I thought I had an edge and a better chance for an invitation to spend the night with someone if I did not let on that I was picking up some of their Italian conversation.)

Then the bartender had an idea: "We have a locksmith. Go to the south end of town and ask around. You will find him." A great idea!

Giorgio, Gina and I piled into the car and headed south. We encountered a man about 40 years old, walking north, in the direction of the bar. He was reluctant to talk. Giorgio drove the car right alongside him and talked to him as he walked. No, he did not know where the locksmith was, and, no, he would not help.

What now? Back to the bar. As we retraced our steps north, we found our path blocked by a pair of old men sitting in chairs on opposite sides of the street. Neither would budge to let the car through. Finally, they insisted that we could make it without them bestirring themselves. Giorgio edged up, uttered "Madonna!," closed his eyes, and somehow the car threaded the needle.

Back to the bar, and, sure enough, the uncooperative man from the street was there. Giorgio told me he would work on him again. I confided to him Aida's words to Radames: "Ritorna vincitor!" "Return victorious!" After several minutes, Giorgio returned, winking. All four of us piled into the car, including our new helper, Pino.

Off to the locksmith's home, but nobody was there. Now we had run out of options:  no hotel, no Walters, no caretaker, no locksmith. I looked my most forlorn. "La comedia è finita," "The comedy is ended," the last words of the dying clown in Pagliacci. Giorgio gripped my forearm tightly. "Jamais! Jamais parlez comme ça! C'est Italie! Nous allons vous aider, et votre femme est sauve!" "Never, never talk like that! This is Italy! We are going to help you, and your wife is safe."

He went back to Pino, and Pino in turn found another couple. Giorgio returned with a triumphant smile. "These three have tools, and they will help you into the house." What was this, a village of locksmiths ... or burglars? Pino introduced me to the couple, Luciano and Giovanna. They got out their car and loaded tools in the trunk. I was about to be handed off, but first, we needed to establish exactly where we were going. "No problem," I said. "Casa Loretino. I have been there. I can find it." I even produced the map Pam had given me.

No use. One of the town elders had to be consulted. A long conversation ensued with a very old lady who was seated at a table in her garden. I protested to Giorgio that I knew the way, but he advised me to be quiet. "They know that, but this is something they must do. Give them a few minutes."

It was established that the old lady hadn't a clue where to find Casa Loretino, but that was okay, because I did. She solemnly advised that it would be best to head in the direction of Civitella, and she returned to her table.

I bid a fond farewell to Giorgio and Gina. As a precaution, however, I got their phone number. I also took down their address, and we all were amused to see that they lived on "Via de G. Rossini."

We were off -- Luciano at the wheel, with Giovanna, Pino and myself. Back up the unpaved road, and the shadows were very long, indeed. I tried to engage this threesome, but we had no language in common. No matter! Giorgio and Gina had thoroughly convinced them that I was a total incompetent. They knew that they were my only hope. They spoke Italian non-stop, and I picked up what I could. I chimed in a word here and there, with a lot of smiling and nodding. I learned that there had been some sort of activity in this area during World War II. I also heard that there had been a car race along this unpaved road. Luciano was particularly talkative, and I overheard him say to the others, "Madonna! This is much longer than the one or two kilometers they said it was!" (It actually is about 5 or 6 kilometers.) Hearing this worried me, so at every drive or cross-road, I used the musical term "Lento!" "Slow!", to convince them that we might be there already.

Eventually, we were there. We pulled up, and Susan greeted us with a big smile. I briefly explained what was happening, and we all circled the house, shaking our heads. The tools looked useless, with such a buttoned-down house. Susan pointed out second floor windows that were open. We could reach them, if we only had a ladder. "La scala!", I said. "A ladder!" Pino and Luciano drove off to a stable on the way to Pergine, leaving us with Giovanna.

Giovanna found Casa Loretino inspiring and pointed out Arezzo in the distance with its lights twinkling. She found the hill, the air and the view breathtaking, as we did ourselves. The rise and fall of the jets from the automatic sprinklers must have made Casa Loretino seem somewhat exotic to her.

Pino and Luciano returned, but without La Scala. There was no stopping Pino now: he would break through the semi-circular transom window above the front door. Pino and I brought a table around from the patio, and Pino scrambled up. He went to work with his hammer, and it took him several minutes to knock down all the glass. He worked carefully, leaving the frame intact. We were very worried that he would cut himself, but in he went, pulling his leg through the window and crashing down to the glass-covered floor inside. The door to Casa Loretino was open!

Cleaning up Pino was the first order of business. He had dozens of cuts. Nobody would set foot in the house, not even Pino, but he gladly accepted a pile of Band Aids and some Wash 'N Dries.

Then we heard a car driving slowly up the gravel drive. Out came an American, none other than John, the caretaker. He knew our three saviors, because his wife was from Pergine. John joined in the accolades for the Italian heroes.

We took down their addresses, but they refused any reward. John explained that the break had been clean, and he could repair it easily, since he had made the original window. He certainly could fix it before the Walters arrived later in the week (and, thank God, he did).

The phone rang, and I rushed upstairs to answer a call from Pam and Doug. I recounted the highlights, and they were gracious enough to express gratitude for the discovery that there was one window that could be broken into: an "Achille's Heel." They would cover this window, too, with iron bars.

Susan and I settled down to our bread, cheese and salami, never so happy to have a place to spend the night, and very grateful to five Italians.

I found more glass to sweep up each day we were there.

© Gary T. Johnson,
July 5, 1998