Hitching to Fenestrelle: Italians like Banjo!

The next day was a lazy one. My legs were sore from walking and covered with scratches and bruises, and so i went to the town and wandered for a little bit. I eneded up at a market plaza where i sat and wrote in my notebook about the previous days. I had some absurdly overpriced ice cream 8 Euros for three (very pretty) little scoops.  I had another wonderful meal with my hosts and then was invited over to the house of their daughter’s friend that evening. We chatted and had a lovely evening before walking back at midnight.

When I woke the next morning I was ready for the next leg of my trip. I had decided that I would hitchhike to Fenestrelle, only 60km away. It felt so nice to linger in bed, but I got myself up and showered (in an incredible round bathtub with tiles all around) after a quick breakfast I got a lift to near the old town in an ancient land rover. With many thanks, I jumped out of the car w ith a cardboard sign and my bags.

It was a hot day and I stood by the side of the road with my bags looking out over the old city. While not quite as successful as the previous experience, I was quickly picked up by a traveling priest who drove me as far as Montgenevre. He had spent a year in England as a child and still remembered a little bit of English. He served all the surrounding churches, including the small chapel that only held service once a year on account of being nestled high up in the mountains, even higher than the fort! He dropped me at a rotary where I was picked up almost immediately by an Italian couple in a truck.  As we wound through the mountain passes and tunnels I spied the bobsled track that was used in the winter olympics in Torino. They left me in Cesana Torinese, the destination on my first sign. I walked around the local market for a while where I saw a number of interesting stalls that had been set up on either side of the river running through town.

I flipped my sign over to FENESTRELLE and found the correct road. Whatever people say about Italians not picking up hitchers, they must be talking about some other part of italy, because again I was picked up by the first truck passing. Andreo, a vacationing computer technician  drove us the rest of the way while talking my ear off.  The year 2011 is the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, but according to Andreo, the country will never be unified. Local languages and dialects are learned first and different areas are still not accepting of each other. The greater unification of Italy into the EU is also problematic. I had heard this several times from different countries. The Euro is blamed for increasing prices for most people while luxury goods are made cheeper. Can any economists out there shed some more light on the situation?

We passed into Fenestrelle and I soon knew I was in the right place. After some searching I found the tourist office. Since it was closed for lunch, I chatted with some old Italian ladies and played banjo on the porch until Michelle, my contact, arrived at 3:30.

It turns out that she is a wonderful women who moved from London eight years ago. She speaks four languages and so was asked to basically run the Tourist center. Her main business, however, is a small B+B that she runs with her husband in town. She was connected to the sword team when her son joined the group a few years ago. She called Paolo, a member of the team who I had gotten in contact with through Jan Elliot. As Paolo drove from a nearby town, Michelle and I talked and I learned about the town. Fenestrelle has only 566 residents, but is home to the largest fort in Europe. It is the second (although a distant) second largest to the Great Wall of China and home to the largest covered stairway in the world. And yet no one knows about it.

When Paolo arrived we chatted for a bit and made my schedule for the week while getting a drink nearby. It turned out that the Bagnasco sword group was supposed to have their event in June, but something had come up and it got canceled. By a great stroke of luck the had scheduled it for that sunday, and the team would take me down with them! Wow! They had arranged a meeting with some of the older members and historians of the group for monday, and I could attend practice on that tuesday. Wednesday there would be a concert and food and then the big day would be on the 25th, the Thursday, when the team would dance and “everyone would party.” I was excited to have such a nice looking schedule and Paolo had even brought me a tent!

I went in his car, took some pictures of the new mural of the sword dancers and found the campsite. We pitched the tent (Amelia Bedelia (sp?) would have been happy, it literally could be pitched, thrown into the air, and would construct itself!) and then found a man to help inflate the air mattress he had brought. I had gotten it half inflated by breath (to Paolo’s protests) when we found a solution and air gun. Paolo said that the team was taking me out to dinner, and left me for a few hours to get settled in. I unpacked a little and got comfortable and then sat on the edge of the mattress in the door of my tent playing banjo. A little boy came by on his bike and sat down to listen. Another pair soon followed.

Before too long I had a little concert going on and a man stopped by to try to explain something. The communication was just not working, but we went and found a man who spoke spanish to translate. He told me that the camping (they call them campings, not campgrounds apparently) was having a little talent show that night and that I HAD to play for them. To prove his point he took me around and had me play for the owner and some other folks. I said that I was going out with this group, but when i got back i would play.

Before too long It was time to meet Paolo again. He and his brother picked me up and drove me to the village pizzeria. Much of the 25-35 year old contingent of the team was there and I got to meet everyone and chat about my project. The proprietor of the pizza place (which was actually down the street from the little covered tent in the park where we sat) came out and actually spoke some english. He attempted to explain all the pizzas to me, which was a bit excessive, but I ended up figuring it out and ordering.

We chatted until the pizza arrived (I really like Italians, they are friendly and i can understand much more than when I was in France!) and I was blown away. I’m not sure why exactly, it was not obvious what was so different about the pizza, but different it was. I gobbled it up, as did everyone else. I think that part of it was simply that it was made with all real ingredients. The pepperoni geared no resemblance to American pepperoni, and neither did the dough. I had big juicy artichoke hearts and ham and olives and everything was delicious! We all finished and trooped on over to the store where we bought huge loves of bread from pizza dough, fresh out of the oven as well as little cups of coffee. (NOTE: aside from cappachinos, which are specifically a breakfast drink, the italians drink very tiny cups of coffee. Brewed cups of coffee as are seen in america simply do not exist) The Italians, especially Paolo, refused to let me pay for anything, saying that it was a welcome to their town.

They dropped me off at the campsite where i wandered over to the tennis courts where a dance party was going on. We had taken a few hours for dinner and as i had suspected, the talent show was over. Now they were playing pop music (from italy and america) and dancing. The owner spotted me and came over. He also spoke spanish and began questioning me as to why I had not come and played for them. I explained that i had still been eating dinner, and he replied, “well, you will play for us now!.” He was apparently serious, so i ran off to fetch my banjo and he got everyone’s attention. They shut of the music and he explained that i was an American who was traveling and studying music and dance and that I would play banjo.

When I got back I had two microphones in front of me and 50 italians crowded around expectantly! I played a song and was created with thunderous applause. “Sing too!” someone shouted. I had not been prepared for what I was getting into. With no time to tune properly and rather nervous I jumped in anyway. The crowd cheered and yelled until i had played and played, going from Old Time to Old Crow Medicine Show to my own songs. Yes I would play “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” No I do not know any Eagles songs for banjo. It was well past midnight when I stopped and I was immediately flocked by italians with questions!

I hung around to talk in spanitalian for a while and then headed to bed, totally thrilled with the day! Be well and let me know your thoughts!

About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
This entry was posted in Exploring, France, Italy, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hitching to Fenestrelle: Italians like Banjo!

  1. Jan says:

    What a great day you had. Lovely to see the photo with Paolo and company. Those pizzas look delectable, but then so does the ice cream.
    Are you getting news of Irene? We lost power for a couple days but that was nothing compared to VT … Wyndham Co. is a mess.
    Regarding banjo playing, you must complete one of these before playing any further.

    http://www.whitetreeaz.com/vintage/drvrapp.htm

    (Courtesy of Mitch Diamond)
    Jan

    • Hey Jan,
      thanks for all of your help with finding teams and the such, I am in basque country and have now found lots and lots of different dances, I’m seeing at least 6 in the next month, starting tomorrow! I did hear about Irene, although sporadically; poor vermont!
      I submitted my application, but i might be “one of those city folks with education that play the banjo”
      oh well…

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