Calitalia

 

10920950_10205958325582325_1470909398659719293_n.jpg I finished off winter break last year with a packed five-day trip to California, meeting up with my two study abroad friends, Tracey and Mariah — the same ones who joined me in Seattle this past November. Last spring semester was a whirlwind from the beginning, and I never wrote about Calitalia, one of the most memorable, transformative trips I have experienced yet. A year later, it has finally been recorded.

 

“È Tutto Qua.” It’s all here. It is the name of the Italian restaurant we decide to splurge on for our celebratory reunion in San Francisco, just a block down from our hostel in the North Beach neighborhood of the city. But the name also encapsulates the way I feel pretty perfectly. The under-rumble of content diners’ conversations reverberates through the building. Cheerful waiters hop happily from table to table, refilling wine glasses, unabashedly singing Italian classics in their native tongue, and yelling orders over each other. The screen print on the uniform t-shirts of the guys that work in the back encapsulate this restaurant’s vibe: “Love Life. Eat Good Food. Spread Happiness! YOLO.” Despite their truth, the first three maxims could not be cheesier or more clichéd. And then that 2013 “YOLO” reference throws you just enough to realize this place is unique — particularly fun and lighthearted. They take their food and service seriously, but the shirt implies that everything else at the restaurant, and in life, should be enjoyable and relaxing.

 

Under the glow of soft lighting an impressive spread of homemade pasta dishes is before me: Mezzo Rigatoni “Braccio di Ferro” — tube pasta lathered in pureed spinach, pecorino cheese, and cream; Paccheri Golosi — cylinders so wide one side lays flat atop the other, bathed in a truffle oil cream with prosciutto and mushrooms; and gambarettli risotto, a perfectly circular pad of — yes, also creamy — risotto garnished by fresh-catch jumbo shrimp. This food tastes more delicious, perhaps even more authentic, than many dishes I had when I actually lived in Italy. But the best part of all is the sight of two of my best friends sitting across the table from me. It had been a year since Mariah, Tracey, and I parted ways at the end of our time studying abroad in the medieval hilltop town of Perugia, and my incredulity that we were really all back together was finally beginning to recede to pure gratitude.

 

Tracey is my token Asian friend from Los Angeles, so in stereotypical fashion, we reunited there the night before over Pho and departed early the next morning (but not before her parents tried to feed us rice for breakfast.) Past the outskirts of LA, we sped by rugged, twisting trees, stoic and strong as they stood in rooted isolation along the vast plains. We pressed north, entering a green mountainous hillscape. We made a pit-stop in Santa Barbara, where cappuccinos and a sunny stroll under California palms provided a needed mid-morning recharge. We piddled through shops in the Dutch-inspired, Lord Farquaad-esque town of Solvang, where a massive octagonal windmill dominates the modest, village-like skyline. Mariah insisted we all try a deep-fried aebleskiver — basically a spherical pancake with jam and powdered sugar — before continuing on. Definitely worth it. We then meandered through Silicon Valley and Stanford’s surprisingly undistinguished campus.

 

And the whole time, as girls do, we talked. We caught up on the last year of our lives and where we thought we were headed, we considered attributes we needed in a significant other, we reflected on the ways our parents influence us, we discussed what fuels us to live with kindness and love toward others. Eventually our yik-yak subsided to podcasts, naps, and road trip music. And then we were in the Golden City.

 

***

 

“Y’alllllll,” I exclaim for about the twentieth time that day, “I can’t get over it. We’re here together, off on a new adventure. I’m so glad to be back with you!”

 

“Mmmhmm honey thang, we surrrree are. Ain’t it jus’ the be-yest?” Tracey teases.

 

I forget how southern I am until I am back with these two, who playfully mock my slight drawl and southern colloquialisms, rarely spoken in Minnesota or California.

 

Despite the difference in our regional dialects, our Italian ones are about the same — that is, thick and rusty. Yelp reported that the employees at È Tutto Qua speak Italian; we are feeling particularly nostalgic so we decide to give it our best shot. I greet the host.

 

Ciao, abbiamo tre persone.

Diciate italiano?! He responds with surprise. Buona notte ragazze, benvenute!

 

Broken as it is, they appreciate our lingual efforts, and the young, attractive waiters reward us with above average, albeit forward and flirtatious, service the rest of the evening. Italians will be Italians, after all.

 

As we close the bill, they tell us they would be off in an hour. Would we want to rendezvous and go out after that?

 

I shrug. Sure, why not? Usually, I am not the going out type; I have to be in the right mood, with the right people, and — most challenging of all — somehow overcome my propensity to fall asleep before 11 pm. It is not often that the stars align just perfectly, but it seemed on this night they had. Exhausted from our day-long journey, we make a game plan to take a cat nap back in our bunkbed quarters at the Green Tortoise hostel. We would wake up at 10:45 and meet back up at the restaurant.

 

It feels like I just shut my eyes a couple minutes ago when the alarm goes off. Mariah pops out of bed and flips the bright lights on, ready to go. But Tracey and I are already succumbing to deep sleep. What had we been thinking? Influenced by my body’s desire to return to REM, going out did not hold the appeal it had just an hour before. Trace and I grunt. I yawn and timidly propose, “Maybe we should just…not? This bed feels real good.”

 

The growing tension is tangible. Mariah is ready for a night of fun, and we are being definitive party-poopers. With a heaving sigh, she leaves the room. I feel bad for letting Mariah down, but I am even more guilt-ridden about flaking out on the Italian waiters. So I, in my uniquely conscientious flair, call the restaurant back.

 

Andrea, the host who ushered us in a few hours before, answers the phone.

Ciao, è Jessica, uno della ragazza chi era al ristorante stasera? Mi dispiace, ma…

In a sleepy state, I could get no further with my already poor Italian. “I’m sorry, but we’re not gonna make it after all.”

 

He understands. No worries, rest well, have a great time time in San Francisco.

 

When Mariah gets upset, she only needs about five minutes before she recovers and moves on. So the next day, she overlooks our lame game, and we pack a lot of sights in. Though they are touristy, they are also distinctly off the heavily beaten path of San Francisco must-sees like Fisherman’s Wharf or Alcatraz. We stroll along the docked boats in the quaint town of Sausalito and grab sandwiches from a local deli for a picnic. As we lounge in the grass, pelicans fly overhead, ferries accent the bay, and the hilly city stands in gray silhouette beyond.

 

We then drive over to Muir Woods, where even along the well-trod board walks, red woods tower over us. We take silly photos inside the base of these massive trees, the largest living organism on earth, and Tracey and I revert to child’s play as we climb up and slide down a smooth, splinter-less fallen trunk more than once. We also venture into less explored areas of the forest, hiking a longer, more rigorous trail loop. On our descent down, we are refreshed by cold, pristine streams which we (illegally) wade and splash around in.

 

***

As the day dwindles, we drive up winding roads to Marin Headlands, where Tracey assures us there is an incredible panorama of San Francisco. The sweeping view of the bay got our attention, but so did the cute guy journaling up on a giant boulder by himself. He wears flannel, jeans, and a Mtn & Sea surfer hat. His Chuck Taylors are well-worn, and he’s got a rugged look to him, enhanced by a few days of facial scruff.

 

“Hey, wanna play Bananagrams with us while we wait for the sun to set?”

He shrugs, “Sure.”

 

Ethan has an easy and relaxed demeanor, but we quickly pick up on his adventurous spirit and intelligence, too. He plans on spending the following two semesters in India and New Zealand; he is a vocal feminist, an advocate against human trafficking, a well-read conversationalist, and — much to my competitive chagrin — a champion bananagramm-er.

 

As the sun sets, we watch the Golden Gate Bridge transform from its painted vermillion orange steel to the luminescent celestial glow it takes on at dusk. Ethan and his surfer buddy Bryston are doing a California coast trip similar to ours, and he passes on some helpful beta for our upcoming drive down coastal Highway 1.

 

“So Bryston took the car this morning and has been off surfing all day, you can’t get in touch with him, and you’ve just been…sitting here taking photos and journaling?” I ask, trying to piece his story together.

“Pretty much. But I mean, it’s not a bad view to just sit and soak it up.”

I agree. “Well how did you get here?”

“I walked from our campsite.”

“The one you said is like eight miles away? And how do you plan on getting home?”

“Walking, I suppose.”

 

I nixed his plan pretty quickly. “Nah, if you want, we’ll take you back. It’s gonna be dark soon. And if you’re tired of camp food, you can come grab burritos with us!”

 

The hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint we end up at is a well-kept secret that a friend recommended to me and we were the only white people in a long line of Hispanics. Logistically, it made no sense for Ethan and Bryston to squeeze into our tiny car and trek all the way into town with us, but I’m glad they did. We all pile into a small, sticky booth, where we enjoy a cold beer and eat five dollar burritos so large we can hardly hold, much less bite into them.

 

We ponder what the world would be like in fifty years. Maybe we’d catch up to Hogwarts wizardry and be apparating by then. Jokes aside, we decide that speed-of-light transportation and driverless cars would be ordinary. The next world war would certainly be over water, and Hilary Clinton’s granddaughter could probably be president. Whatever the future holds, I am oddly comforted by the chill, but still philosophic and bright countenance of these two. They give me a little more hope that my generation of millennials will have good leaders and thinkers to look to. Stuffed, we drive them forty minutes back out to their campsite and say adios. Little did we know, our night was only beginning.

 

***

 

Back at the hostel, I drop my purse, kick off my shoes, and am about to lie down to rest for a few minutes before we go out for tea in Chinatown. My cell phone rings, showing a local San Francisco number. Who on earth? I answer.

 

“Hello?”

“Jessica? Ciao, bellissima, it’s Gaetano, from È Tutto Qua.”

 

It takes me a second to register what is happening. But then it does.

Seriously? Our waiter pulled my number from the call history?!

This is what I get for trying to be nice and do the right thing. I get stalked.

 

I collect myself. “Oh hi Gaetano, what’s up?”

 

In ten minutes, we have dashed our Boba tea plans and are back at the restaurant.

 

Gaetano greets us at the door with the standard Italian kiss on each cheek. His dark-rimmed hipster glasses take up the better half of his face, and he wears a gray ivy cap and bright red leather jacket. He does not have the same black attire as Andrea, because he isn’t even working tonight. That doesn’t seem to matter though; apparently È Tutto Qua is one of those workplaces that is so happy that you want to be there even when you don’t have to be.

 

Gaetano sits down next to me and orders a round of drinks on the house. Andrea tries to maintain his professionalism because he is working, but he is just as charming and playful as Gaetano, and it’s obvious he would rather be with us. He has dark hair and a thin beard, and both he and Gaetano are so very Italian, both physically, with their thin, strong stature, and in their boisterous behavior. Andrea promises to join us when his tables close out, and Gaetano cheerfully yells and laughs at him as he bustles back and forth past us.

 

“All of us here – the waiters, the bar tender, the chefs in the back – we are family,” Gaetano explains in accented but fluent English. Some of us are brothers and cousins, but even if we’re not related by blood, we came from Italy. San Francisco is our home how, so we depend on each other.”

 

The brotherly affection among these guys runs deep.

 

“Come, ragazze, I want to show you how special this building is.”

 

Gaetano leads us out the front door and points up above the restaurant. There is a rare stencil of Banksy graffiti discreetly painted on the second floor wall. I don’t even know about this famed political artist, but but Mariah loves the social commentary and satirical meaning underlying much of his work.

 

“See the ‘B’ and ‘A’ up there?” Gaetano points above the restaurant tent hood. “This place started as a Bank of Italy and then became Bank of America before it turned into the best Italian restaurant in the city.” He winks as he holds his arms out, as if he would embrace the building itself. “Now we use the basement vaults to store food and supplies.”

 

When we return to our table, our wine glasses have magically been refilled. Customers empty out as closing time approaches, but the celebratory enthusiasm of those working remains the same. Andrea, Gaetano, and the other waiters continue to sing and dance, alone or with each other, as they break down for the night. They look like the Italian version of the seven dwarves “whistling while they work.” Their vivacity is contagious.

 

The glasses on our table begin to accumulate as Andrea serves up a round of spritzers, followed by double chocolate gelato, which he spoon feeds to Mariah a few times. I no longer remember what we talked about; details have been replaced with the feeling I associate with that night — this lighthearted joy, moments of gut-wrenching laughter, the fun of harmless flattery. Gaetano scoots closer to me and puts his arm on the back of my chair. He twirls a piece of my hair around his finger. As Gaetano’s attention begins to focus more directly on me, I drop a few more references into the conversation about my boyfriend. Italians usually aren’t really phased by the status of “taken,” and Gaetano is no exception.

 

Regardless, my amazement that we are here, letting the night take us where it will, doled on by these happy, handsome men, is ten times greater than it was on our previous reunion just one night before.

 

Only with three twenty-two year old females, I think to myself. This certainly never would happen if I were traveling with my family of six!

 

Gaetano leans in closer to me. “Would you like to hear our band?”

“You have a band?” I ask, maintaining his flirtatious tone.

“Well, we’ve got a few instruments downstairs.”

“Tracey can join the gig!” I offer, admittedly tipsy at this point. Tracey is far more musically inclined than either Mariah or me, after all.

 

In retrospect, following two men you just met a few hours ago down into a basement with massive vault doors once made to stow away – and keep stowed – large sums of money, is more than a little sketchy. Obviously not our brightest idea, but it happened, and fortunately, all turned out okay.

 

So we descend down the steep steps to a dank basement, pass the kitchen prep, go through those thick vault doors, where, low and behold, there is indeed a drum set, several guitars, a sound system, and even a foosball table.

 

We all play around on the instruments for a little bit, but the jam sesh really begins when Tracey picks up the guitar. Gaetano holds out his hands for a dance. And he can really dance, which I always appreciate. He pulls me closer, and I catch Mariah and Andrea in my periphery, lip locked already. I look up at Gaetano, his piercing crystal eyes searching my thoughts.

 

“Kiss me,” he says in a way that leaves it very ambiguous whether that statement should end in a period or question mark.

I shake my head. “Nope, I won’t. I’ve got a boyfriend.”

“And I have a girlfriend.” Despite his good looks, I’m pretty sure he is making this up. The only women Italian men are steady with are their mothers. “We can still kiss!”

 

I adamantly stand my ground, so we continue to dance. Meanwhile Tracey graciously wingmans it with the guitar, the main performer for what she later jokes is her “couples café.” While we were all abroad, most girls in our program came home with a romantic kiss story with some sexy Italian. I chose not to.

 

“You know, it’s too bad we didn’t meet when I was in Italy.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I bet I would’ve kissed you then.”

 

He smiles. Soon, the night comes to an end. For real this time.

 

***

“I don’t know if we’re going to make it guys.”

 

Mariah holds her stomach, woozy from the onset of carsickness, as Tracey grips the steering wheel and accelerates through the tunnel of darkening woods. Most of the drive south on Highway 1 today has been along curving roads hugging the edge of precipitous cliffs, the expansive Pacific below stretching on into the abyss. Just as dusk approaches, though, we are stuck in a patch of forest, and we don’t know how many more miles it will be to get out and find a good place to watch the sunset.

 

“Maybe we shouldn’t have bypassed that last one where all the cars were,” I say, despondent.

“Nah, we’ll find one a little more isolated,” Tracey reassures. “Keep faith.”

 

My increasing anxiety does not dissipate for another five minutes, when we finally escape the trees. We stop at the first pullover we find, thankfully a smaller one with only one little white truck parked in front of us. There is a lot of brush, but I find a hidden trail and blaze ahead. As I walk, we hear the distant strum of a guitar, and we follow the sound down. The brush clears away to an outcropping, where I find the source of the music.

 

The guitar’s strings are uncut, and the man strumming them looks like a grungy hobo. He sits by himself, legs crossed in front of him. There is only about a foot of sprigs and branches between his brown suede working shoes and the steep drop-off. His salt-and-pepper is greasy, and his skin is leathery. Clay dirt has permanently stained the whole front side of his jeans, and his t-shirt has thinned from many washes.

 

We say hello, he gives us a nod and continues to play. Sea and sky meet at the horizon in the distance. The dappled stripes of clouds and fading light begin to create lighta rainbow streaks, reflecting symmetrically in the water below. We sit, suspended in time. I soak in everything about this moment and try to commit it to memory — the peaceful guitar strumming, the breeze brushing against my cheekbones, the barking seals below, the hint of sea spray flying up on us as waves methodically crash into the jagged cliffs below. It’s so perfect it feels surreal. I know it is real, though, and my heart worships in awe of God’s beauty and majesty.

 

Guitar man stops playing, and we all just sit in the quiet. When he turns toward us, I see he has a mustache. There is an illustration of a man riding a hammerhead shark on his t-shirt, and his baseball cap says “Mountain Dreams” on it. He fiddles with the piece of jade hanging from his neck.

 

“I once saw two sea elephants kill a great white shark right at this very spot,” he says, breaking the silence. His cracked, rough voice makes me think he is probably a chain smoker.

“It’s true, they outsmarted him. This massive fifteen-foot great white was chasing these two sea elephants. They leapt frantically in and out of the ocean, weaving back and forth trying to dodge him.”

 

His hands tremor a little bit as he talks, but he tells the story with his whole body, arms waving and diving, just as the sea elephants would have done in the water.

 

“But the shark was gaining on ‘em fast. There was a male and a female, partners I think. The male was several hundred pounds heavier than the female, o’ course. So the shark starts going after the weaker girl.”

 

He is really getting into it now, his eyes get bigger, his face more animated.

 

“And then — I can still hardly believe it, but I saw it with my own eyes — the male elephant intentionally slows down. The next time he leaps out of the water, his timing is perfect. He body slams all two tons of himself on top of the shark! Ol’ great white sank to the bottom and never came back up.”

 

He laughs to himself and shakes his head. “That was really somethin’. But Big Sur will do that kind of stuff to you. It’s serendipitous.”

 

We are captivated. His name, we learn as we ask him a few questions, is Bret, and he has lived in Big Sur for most of his life. He hates that billionaires have bought up all of the property as second vacation homes, but he also recognizes the irony that one of them is his boss. Bret was an apple farmer for twenty years. Now, for forty dollars an hour, he works as the gardener and caretaker of some land a CEO down in LA owns. To get in touch with Bret, he has to communicate by snail mail. It is 2015, and Bret still does not have a cell phone or email address.

 

“I guess I could get one of those email things and use the public library. I don’t know. It just seems so complicated.”

 

Bret may not have the latest (or any) modern technology, but he is impressively observant and so in sync with nature. He proceeds to tell us the story of the cats that rule the ridge he lives on in his small cabin. For a while, he and a mountain lion lived in uncomfortably close proximity. The cat was stealthy, but Bret would track its movements by the activity of the vultures overhead. He tried to walk around with a flashlight and sleep with a shovel by his side. If he didn’t have them, though, he would make up songs like, “Hey Mr. Mountain Lion, let’s get along” and sing them as he walked. We all laugh.

 

The lynx he often encountered was comparatively harmless. Once when it approached his porch, he made eye contact with it and tossed it a piece of cheese.

 

“Hey we’re neighbors,” Bret said to it. “Are you a wild animal, or will we be friends?” The lynx just stared at him, so he returned to reading his book.

 

“I wanted to be his friend,” he explains to us, “but you should never expect too much too soon.” He ponders a moment. “Truly though, I’m lucky to live with with cat power. They take care of most of the smaller pests, and I don’t have to deal with them.”

 

Bret is a sharp, entertaining story teller, but I am struck by our own luck to cross paths with a genuine Big Sur local. He pulls out the two jade rocks he always carries in his pocket and lets us hold them. He found them along the cliffs, and his face reveals his uneasiness as he tells us about the few times he has lost them. Bret carries a strong sense of superstition, and for him, these two precious stones are good luck charms. This man’s body was weathered, but his life is full. Bret learned to surf these waves when he was eleven. As a teenager he used to party below on the cliff rocks, and those still around three decades later are part of a tight-knit surfer community, preserving a distinct regional culture that is quickly dying out in the area.

 

I am sure Bret had hundreds more stories he could have shared with us, but daylight dwindled. Despite the deep connection Bret shares with his natural surroundings, he confesses that he doesn’t take in this view enough, and he doesn’t even remember the last time he watched the sun set. Like most others, he often gets too caught up in everyday tasks. When he does admire it, he remembers the power and beauty of his surroundings. Our run-in with Bret reminded us of that too. Big Sur boasts more than incomparable natural beauty; it is alive, and Bret opened up a little window of its story for us. The last bit of the sun sank below the horizon, painting the sky vibrant streaks of color.

 

***

When I was 16, I did the classic California coast road trip on a charter bus with 80 other teenagers. There are so many uncharted places I have not yet explored, so I was not super excited to return; I came back because I wanted to be with Mariah and Tracey. But no journey is identical, even if it is to the same place, and Calitalia — what evolved into the official name for our trip — is no exception. Sure, I was with two of my closest friends. Yes, we are all open, inquisitive twenty-something females, and that does cater to a certain kind of trip. Indeed, San Francisco’s colorful mosaic community steps, bustling Chinatown, and ritzy business district guaranteed our fill of culture. Of course, the precipitous cliffs and crashing waves of Big Sur insured some marvelous panoramic views. But those five days were magical — serendipitous, as Bret says — and it had little to do with any of those factors.

 

I treasure Calitalia because of the unplanned, off-the-cuff surprises we encountered along the way. We never could have anticipated an after-hours night of bottomless wine and endless desserts with handsome Italian waiters. “Bananagrams at Marin Headlands” and “Legendary Big Sur stories” are not bullet points you pen into a pre-planned itinerary. And for me, that’s really what these trips are all about: meeting strangers, bringing flavor and reality to what is otherwise a simple tourist destination. We were open to the experiences and people that came our way, and they defined our trip. Intermingled among quality time with best friends, it is Andrea and Gaitano’s playfulness, Ethan and Bryston’s California chill, and Brett’s animated storytelling that remain at the forefront of my Calitalia memories.

 

Traveling and seeing new places is good. My appetite for exploration cannot be curbed, and creation is too vast not to sample its variety, magnitude, and grandeur. But I love these adventures because they are much like that last sunset with Bret. As he shared his stories, the sky changed from an afternoon cerulean blue, to light pastels, to bright brushstrokes of color expanding across the heavens. When I embark on trips like Calitalia, I am broken from routine and familiarity, and I experience a similar transformation. Placed in the physical unknown, my awareness increases, and I am more likely to encounter the relational unknown, too. I linger longer in nature, meander down unknown streets, watch more sunsets; as I do, I talk to people I would not otherwise. And through each human encounter, I am invariably affected. I become less narrow-minded, more appreciative of people as they are, open to what they can teach me.

 

Then I go home. But that is the most important part of all, because I do not — indeed, I cannot — return as the person I was before. The canvas I paint my everyday life upon may be the same, but each of these chance encounters provides a new, brighter color for my metaphorical paint palette. The people I meet add the most distinct, beautiful brushstrokes to my life canvas yet. Before my own sun sets, they are helping me become an evermore colorful, original masterpiece.

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