Walking uphill in Cortona

Susan (in town, after the walk uphill)Terry Barrett, photographer.

It was much like that bike-taxi ride in Amsterdam when I found a sticky situation funny, and Terry didn’t.

Let’s see if I can describe this.

Some context. We have chest colds. I feel better. Terry feels worse. I’m warm enough. I found an Italian hand-knit hat and mittens at the local Saturday outdoor market. Wearing three sweaters with my coat is comfortable. I’m less cold.

Terry has a faculty meeting at the college. I go with him to get a tour of the grounds and see where I might find Internet access.

So we left our apartment on Via Maffei to walk to the college for the first time. 

The locals say, “You’re halfway up the hill from your place. Keep going up. It will take about fifteen minutes the first time. As the weeks pass, it won’t take so long.” 

So we begin heading uphill from our place. 

When we reach a church, Terry says, “I think we go right.” I say, “I think it’s left.” 
He listens to me. We go left, a steep left.

Without a map or the name of the college’s street, we just head uphill. “Cortona is a small town. You don’t need a map,” locals say as they gesture directions with their hands.

The roads are made of cut stone. The incline is steep, and the stone slick. I turn my feet sideways, just as in skiing, to get down or up a steep incline. Tiny steps. A light snow falls.

Oh. Important information to this story: Terry’s knee is inflamed from the miles we walked in Rome. It especially hurts climbing or descending.

At the first intersection we come upon, we stop. Terry is visibly upset.

“We’re lost.”

Then we continue. We stop frequently to catch our breath. I occasionally rest against a wall. I look skyward and think of my cousin, who invited me to run a half-marathon with him in Tampa, Florida on February 22. (With relief, I tell him, “So sorry, I’ll be in Italy,” but he replies, “Run there.” I agree with that.) I feel bubbles of laughter arise and begin talking to myself: “So I thought I’d be running in Cortona? Ha! It's a struggle to walk.”

More steps.

A woman from the Italian post office approaches in a car. I waved her to stop and ask, “The college?” And then, oh yeah, hidee-ho. We’re the only ones who speak English. She points ahead making a peace sign, or maybe it means two streets or look for a v in the road?

We continue.

It’s now apparent that Terry will be late for or altogether miss his first meeting. He’s anxious, curt, and irritable. “We should have gone right,” he says.

“Right, Honey,” I say, and those two rights so close together flame my chuckle undercurrent. Terry predictably ignores my behavior.

I hear, then see a small bird with a red and burnt orange underbelly, one I’ve never seen. 

“Terry, look!” 

He doesn’t. We continue.

Leading the way with strong knees and a comedy-hour attitude, I round a corner and see a vast sweep of the Tuscan valley (Valdichiana) for the first time when it’s not raining: fertile and immense rolling hills of olive groves and vineyards, Lake Trasimeno where Hannibal defeated the Romans (elephant bones are said to lie at the bottom of the lake), clusters of terra-cotta homes, one that is probably Frances Mayes' (author of Under the Tuscan Sun), and a snow storm in the distance between peeks of the Sienese Mountains. 

Glory be. I sigh and motion him to come over, “Terry, you have to see this.” 

Focused on his steps and in full-responsibility-mode, he says, “No, Susan, no, no, no. I don’t want to. Don’t start that.” The “that” he’s talking about is my spontaneous distraction to do what I want when I want. Especially if my want is in a magnificent realm. 

“I have a meeting and we don’t know where we are. Come on.” I imagine his sore knee and sense of responsibility. I have the giggles. 

He’s lucky. We see a few colleagues.

He goes ahead. And I stop every few steps and look out over the valley below. 

I don’t care if I’m lost. (Nor do I have any commitments.) 

I cannot contain my laughter. I laugh and laugh. We are in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I am seeing a stunning panorama for the first time. Terry is serious and trying to get to a place he does not know, too responsible to arrive on time to pause and look with me. I laugh some more. This laughter is not at Terry. Well, some of it is. I’m laughing at myself, too. Too often, I’m serious and hurrying and forget to be awake to the moment. But not now.

I now understand what teacher Pema Chodron meant when she shared a personal dream. In it, Pema is readying for a visit from her teacher, doing this and that, making her room just right. Her teacher arrives later that day and asks, “Pema, did you see the beautiful sunrise this morning?” 

“Why no, I didn’t see it. I was too busy fixing things.” 

Her teacher laughs and laughs saying, “Too busy to live life!”

Too busy to live life.

Later that night in bed as Terry and I hold each other to fall asleep, thoughts of going up the street return. Remembering, my body begins to shake silently. Terry whispers, “Are you crying?” 

“No. I’m still laughing.”