Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Ice Girl Cometh

The Ice-Girl Cometh
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, January 2009)

I can always tell when an American Midwesterner visits the little Italian town I live in, because without fail, they perceive the challenges of January even in the middle of summer. Most Midwesterners have an innate sense of winter survival, having had to deal with the extreme conditions of blizzards and super-sub-zero temperatures all their lives. One look around this tiny village and its 45 degree upward-angled streets, they turn to me and ask, “How do you get around in the winter?” 

When I first arrived here, it never crossed my mind that there would even be such a thing as winter. I arrived in the late spring, and had nearly a full year of beautiful weather to simply enjoy my existence in this exquisite new environment. But I was repeatedly warned by those that grew up here, “You’re going to stay year-round? No! The winters here are horrible! It can get below freezing, and sometimes…it even snows!” Having been raised in the flatlands of Northern Illinois, I took this ominous admonition all too lightly. I fondly remember “snow days” that kept me from going to school as a child, the blowing and drifting snow that on occasion would even block the front door of the house. “Sometimes it even snows,” was a threat that I could hardly take seriously.

When winter finally came though, and I got to experience its Tuscan version firsthand, I began to realize that even if it was not at all the kind of winter I was used to, it still held its own unique challenges. Snow was hardly a grave consideration. The only thing I really noticed was how damp the air was, allowing the cold to sink into your bones, even through the heaviest wool sweater. But I found that a warm bath or sitting in front of a fireplace would easily alleviate this little problem, and I thought that if this was the worst of it, winter wouldn’t be so bad after all. 

One late night in a January a few years back however, I did finally realize one of the more serious disadvantages of winter in this otherwise paradisiacal place. The heart of the town rests at roughly 1600 feet above sea level, but the rest of the city slopes upward, culminating at the height of roughly 2400 feet, a steep climb for anyone that lives up in that neighborhood, as I did at the time. I never thought much of the vertical slant of the streets, apart the fact that I was terribly impressed by all the exercise I was involuntarily getting just by walking home. That night however, I was made all too aware of just how precipitous those pathways are.

I was invited to dine with friends who lived just off the main piazza in the center of town. As I was making my way down to join them, a light rain began to fall. I had forgotten my umbrella, and so made haste to get to dinner as quickly as possible. Once inside, warm and dry, I put the weather completely out of my mind and enjoyed the evening and all it offered. The wine flowed as freely as the conversation, and hours passed unnoticed. After most of the guests had left, I found myself sitting around the fire with a small group of my closest friends, and there we chattered away until someone noticed that it was nearly two o’clock in the morning. With big sloppy hugs, we parted, and I headed outdoors. 

I was happy to see the rain had stopped, and as I looked around, I was mesmerized by how stunningly beautiful everything was. The temperature had dropped to just below freezing and the rain that had fallen earlier had given a silver patina to the entire town. The ancient stone buildings in the soft, late-night light, took on such an argent majesty that I felt that I had been somehow transported to some magical kingdom where fairies most assuredly ruled. 

I carefully made my way across the vacant and now rather slippery piazza, and headed for the first little street that would begin my ascent home. At the foot of that passageway, I looked at its mirrored surface, breathless at the sight. First for the aesthetic wonder of it all, and then seconds later, the reality of the situation began to sink into my wine-muddled brain. 

My first tentative steps met with disaster. The ice that covered my way was as smooth as glass, depriving me of any kind of foothold. I tried digging in my heels, but discovered that the momentum of swinging one’s leg in an attempt to implant the next footstep, would inevitably send one’s center of balance off in the completely wrong direction, and within seconds I would find myself face down on the ice-covered stones. Fortunately the levity of the evening had left me in a seemingly indestructible good mood, and I found the entire slapstick process most amusing. On my hands and knees, unable to gain any kind of forward motion, I lightheartedly laughed at the situation for a very long time. 

However, after that very long time was spent in the cold, and with frustration sitting in, I didn’t find it all that humorous anymore. An hour had passed and I was not even halfway home. What normally was a twenty minute walk was now looking as though it was going to take all night! I had managed to find semi-iceless pockets here and there, and by way of blending a mixture of climbing techniques, I was ever so slowly making some kind of headway. Some walking was actually accomplished, but most of the progress I was able to make, was made by either crawling on my hands and knees, or by grabbing iron handrails whenever present, and pulling myself upwards. At some points, I found that if there were even a few inches of bare pavement next to a palazzo, I could press my body against it’s rough hewn surface to sort of Velcro me in place, and then remembering my childhood ballet lessons, put my feet in First Position and cautiously walk-climb-cling up the street that way. Little by little, with every fearful step and with every Three Stooges-esque fall, I was slowly making my way home. 

The entire endeavor took a little over two hours to accomplish. Unlocking the door to my apartment, frozen, bruised and very grumpy, I made straight for a hot shower to thaw out. As the welcome warmth of the water began to melt its way into my stiff, sore muscles, the aggravation, anger and frustration of the experience washed down the drain, and I began to relax. After quickly drying off and putting on my warmest nightclothes, I snuggled into bed, pulling the blankets up tight over my head. 

And as I drifted off to sleep, I relived the whole incident but from an observer’s point of view, as if watching a film, and the humor returned. Giggling myself to sleep, I thought that even as ridiculous as the entire scene was, I would still rather face these slippery slopes than ever have to shovel another driveway again.

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