“This is France. You are welcome to go back to Italy.”
We left Torino for the mountains on Monday afternoon with a clearly spoken promise that it would take a mere 45 minutes to reach the condo in the Alps. (45 minutes often turns into 1:30, so I was skeptical). As we reached Cesana Torinese, I looked up and saw the most beautiful scene: the Alps rising in the background, a pasture filled with sheep and a gorgeous Medieval church. And then it started to snow.
We did, indeed reach the condo in LESS than 45 minutes, turned on the heat and water, and then Alex said, “Let’s go to France before the snow gets worse.” I didn’t want to get back in the car, but Alex assured me France was only 10 minutes away. So we drove to France. We got to the sign that said “France,” took a picture, and then got turned around by the French border patrol because we had left our passports in our bags at the condo. Alex could not get over the fact that there were police at the French border. “This is the EU! No passports is kinda the point!” So we turned around and went back down the mountain.
10 minutes to France is actually just a few kilometers from the condo, but France is through part of a mountain and then up the rest of it. So down the mountain we went, Alex muttering under his breath about the French. I have heard the Italians mutter under their breath about the French, but my sole points of contact with French people have been with Exchange Students who were quite polite. I ignored his muttering, watched the snow fall, and enjoyed the view down the steep side of the mountain. And then we slid. And then the car in front of us slid. And then the truck approaching us slid precariously close to the mountain itself (the upside, not the down side). And then the truck in front of the car in front of us slid into the truck that had just escaped smashing into the mountain, and they both smashed into the mountain. And then I began praying. We went very, very, very slowly around the trucks and called the Italian equivalent of the Highway Patrol, who told us they knew there was an accident, and they were sending salt. When we got to the condo, I was shocked when Alex said, “Grab your passport.”
“You have to be kidding.”
“Oh, no. We are GOING to FRANCE,” he said.
Back up the mountain. No sign of salt. Snow falling. Dusk settling. Me praying. We found the scene of the accident, drove over one of the parts of one of the trucks, and went to France where we could find neither a public restroom nor someone who could understand either Italian or English. I’m not someone who travels to another country and expects everyone to speak their language. But just across the border from one country to another, I would expect that someone would understand a few words of the people who live ten minutes away.
We got lost… of course we did! It was dark, snowing, and French! Through the dark, snow-filled night, I spotted a sight I can see from a half mile (or ~ a kilometer) away: YARN SHOP! I yelled until Alex hit the brakes, and we went in to a tiny, warm, French yarn shop. The shop owner had the store floor filled with bags of yarn she was stocking on shelves. She had three brands, and two turned out to be the same stuff with different labels. I pulled out two balls of Bouton d’Or to buy as a souvenir, and Alex insisted that we ask for stitch markers. We named them in English and Italian. Blank look from the owner. We described them in English in Italian. Blank look from the owner. Alex described them in French. Blank look from the owner. “How are we going to explain stitch markers?” Alex asked, but I was all for leaving the elusive knitting accessory behind. We tried looking in a knitting encyclopedia, but it was in French, so we couldn’t find the right section. We tried everything we could think of, and when we had given up, the owner lit up and said, (put on your most obnoxiously fake French accent and repeat the following): “STITCH MAR-KER!” Yeah. What you said. Excited by our ability to communicate with each other, she walked around the store correcting my pronunciation of things… and I mean things that were written and meant to be said in English. The yarn was speaking English. I was speaking English. I don’t know what the owner was doing, but I felt very clearly un-French and it was quite like a repeat of the border patrol turn-around. It was great. Not demeaning or frustrating at all. Ridiculously expensive and awkward.
Then we went to a French supermarket, the same kind as is down the street from Alex’s house. No one understood us there either. Then we went home. In the snow. Down the mountain we went, agreeing that maybe we should have taken the border guards as a sign. There were no guards on the italian side, and we cheered when we passed into Italy. At least one of us would be understood, and the Italians get a kick out of the fact that I can kinda understand them but not speak to them
We went to a restaurant for dinner and found the first restaurant I’ve seen in Italy in which it is clearly marked that no dogs are allowed. That’s right. Dogs in restaurants. Emily the boxer would be in heaven. Turns out there is a cat that lives in the restaurant. That was an unexpected twist in an unexpected night.
So why was I surprised when I awoke to 9″ of snow in October and everyone in the village yelling out “Merry Christmas!” to each other? That’s what I love about Italy, besides Alex, his family, his friends, the yarn, and olive bread. My time here is as twisty and turvy as the mountain pass to France, but no one ever asks me to turn around and go back where I know what to expect.