Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Caldine Calamai and Our New Tuscan Family

The directions received from our soon-to-be Tuscan hosts were somewhat unnerving. 

“Turn right after the gas station and head up the road towards the church. The road gets a little narrow at that point, but don’t worry. Our pickup makes it through, so you’ll be fine. But call us from there and we’ll come and meet you to get up the road safely.” 


And we would have done just that, had it not been 10 pm, and had we not known that our hosts were retirees. The idea of having this retired couple get up out of their bed, in their pajamas, to come down and meet us in the village, just seemed unacceptable. (That was before we met Guido and Charlotte.) 

I had decided: we’d be fine. I had taken four-wheel-driving courses in Queensland, driven on the “opposite” side of the road for years, driven on icy European streets, and mastered the infamous German Autobahn. I had this. Besides, after driving hundreds of kilometers, we were now on the home stretch. Just another 10 or 15 minutes to go. How bad could it be? 

As luck would have it, the road was dark, making it almost impossible for me to gauge how narrow it was and how adventurous this drive really was. As far as we could tell it was just a rough, unpaved road with the occasional stick screeching past the car. A virtual walk in the park. 

But where WAS this place? 

The road winded ever-upwards. 
A railroad track. 
A church. 
An old cemetery. 

Still no darn farm house. Had we taken a wrong turn somewhere? Did we even have cell phone reception out here? 

Just a kilometer or so away from the old cemetery we finally see the sign for “Caldine Calamai”, which directs us to the large old stone house where we would be staying. And it’s at this point that the road gets most interesting. Ha. Could my minivan-like Mazda 5  handle this? There was only one way to find out. Thoughts like:

“Yes, 4-wheel-drive would be pretty appropriate right about now.” 

and “What would happen if we got stuck in the remote Tuscan countryside at 10:30 PM with three kids?”

came and went, countered by: “No time to entertain those types of thoughts. Keep driving, Liz.” 

And then, a large stone farmhouse. Yes, it says Caldine Calamai! We made it! 

Only the next day would I realize that it is only wide enough for one car, but is a two-lane road, providing the only access to the dozens of citizens who live in the Turicchi area. How do you get up and down it? Honk your little heat out. Honk like there’s no tomorrow. Honk like your life depends on it. Because guess what? It does. The road curves? You honk. Think you see a car? You honk. When in doubt... honk.

If our week in Tuscany was a 5-course Tuscan meal, our arrival was the antipasti, setting the tone for the rest of our curious, tantalizing courses that would be served up to us in Turicchi and surrounds.

Course 2? Let’s name it the day of relaxation on the farm, where we went hiking, visited an old abandoned farm, went swimming in our pool overlooking the Tuscan hills, and BBQd with our hosts. It was a day where kids could be kids, and adults could watch lazily.  

Next Up? Course 3. That’s the Take-a-Trip-to-the-North-of-Tuscany-in-Search-of Waterfalls Day. And on our return, our hosts would tempt our palate with pasta served with homemade tomato sauce, to which we would add our version of Insalata Caprese.
Course 4 is our first “taste” of Italian hospitals. On this day we visited a new children’s hospital in Florence, where we had to wait a long time but walked out not having paid a cent. For an emergency room visit. The diagnosis. Emma had a skin rash. She received antihistamine cream to be applied daily. This is where we parted with my sister and her boyfriend. They were off to explore Florence. I would do the same with the kids. 

The Medici “Boboli” Gardens. Downtown Florence. Oversized Gelato cones. The Ponte Vecchio Bridge. And Piazza Michaelangelo, with it’s stunning view of the Florence skyline. Just wow.

Course 5 was a bit bitter. Maybe I could compare it to the much loved local dish of Chicken Liver Pate. It doesn’t taste bad, but I probably wouldn’t order it again if given the choice. This is the part of our meal-journey where I go hike with my three kids, misread the map, lose my orientation,  twist my ankle, break three bones, and get stranded on a hiking trail in the mid-day sun with my two-year-old daughter. The two older boys went for help. This, in a foreign country where they didn’t know their way around or speak the language. I was sooo uncomfortable with that. But more uncomfortable with my throbbing, slightly contorted foot. I knew they’d be fine. Just as I knew I’d be fine. Or maybe the word “hope” would be more appropriate here. 

The situation was terrible. For everyone involved. The poor owners of the guesthouse, who had now become our friends (thankfully), were searching for us in every corner of the countryside, retracing the steps they believed we had taken.

I was sitting beside Emma on a stony path, sans shade, battling light headedness with sips of water and calls to friends and family (I remember thinking, “Unconsciousness is so not an option right now.”

The boys were scared. Once they had found help, which came in the form of a well-built, handsome Italian man with slicked-back hair (a mirage?), I had gotten in touch with our friends and put them on the phone with our rescuer. They made an arrangement to take me back to their home (or rather villa), and we would meet there. 

From there we debated what to do. The closer hospital, or the better one? With a car, or with an ambulance? With kids or without? The decision was made for me to be taken to the closer hospital, with an ambulance, without kids. The kids would go home with my new friends, Guido and Carla. The hope was that I would be released that night. 

My phone battery was dying. They were loading me into the ambulance. I was instructing my 7.year-old that he was in charge and would have to help take care of his brother and sister and keep them calm. 

What I thought at that moment: “No tears, Liz. Your kids can’t see that.”

The doors to the ambulance closed. 2-year-old Emma begins crying. The ambulance pulls away. I lose all composure and am an emotional basketcase for the first half of the journey. My emotional state fluctuates for the next four hours in the hospital. Barely anyone speaks English. My kids are in an old house with many stairs, with people I have know for three days. And yet somehow I trust them implicitly. As if they were family. Thank God. But how unfair of me to push this on them. They suddenly have three kids to feed, clothe, and get into bed. 

They did just that. And then they drove 30 minutes at 10:30 PM to come and get me from the hospital and bring me back to their guesthouse. Thankfully, Guido is not your average 70-something-year-old retired physicist. An ex-runner, he practically single-handedly carried me down the slippery, stone-covered path to our apartment. From there I had to scoot down the stairs on my butt to get to my room. The crutches were not provided by the hospital. That was on our agenda for the next day. 

Fast forward to the next morning. I wake up. Lukas makes everyone breakfast. A grasshopper dances on my hair. My foot hurts. Guido comes, bearing crutches. He has again driven 30 minutes to find me a pair, and then back. Now that we have them we must return to the hospital, where I will meet with the orthopedic doctor. He will analyze the xray and CT tests from the previous night and most likely tell me that I need surgery. I already know that I will tell him that I will have this done on my return to Germany. We will stay one more night. 

My husband organized an ambulance to pick us up and bring us back to Germany. But only one child can ride with me. The other two have to come home with my sister and her boyfriend (who will drive our car home). Again, I am uncomfortable. It’s a full day journey. My kids can be a pain. My sister and her boyfriend are not used to the German Autobahn, or to my car. But in situations like these you learn to let go and trust. And hope. And that’s just what I did. 

But first, we would have one more meal in Tuscany. As luck would have it, we would end up in an outdoor restaurant overlooking Tuscany as the sun set, on a tip from Guido. Sadly, Guido and Carla couldn’t join us, as their son and daughter-in-law had just arrived. But the view was second-to-none. The wine was incredible. And the food was divine. We were just a bit rushed. And it’s never good to be rushed when dining out in Italy. But I had to get back to my new friends-turned-family. I knew my time was running out, and I was feeling sad. So we ate, returned to the guest house, and said goodnight to Guido and Carla and their son and daughter-in-law.

When that ambulance came, I knew I would cry. And boy, did I. I had to say goodbye to Guido. And Carla. And their son, Martino, and his wife Nadia. They were all so incredible and kind. I was sooooo lucky to have them. And a little unlucky to break my foot. But because of this mishap, I will forever have a special bond with this beautiful family. So six weeks of walking with crutches and not driving is a small price to pay for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain four new family members. And good looking Italian ones, at that! Who knows, maybe I can get used to the chicken pate, afterall. 

Today, more than two months after our return from Italy, my 5-year-old son asked if we can bring “Papa” to Italy sometime to visit Caldine Calamai. I hope he joins us, but one thing is certain: The kids and I? We’ll be back. Next year, and for many years to come. And we’ll hike. Only next time I think I’ll take Guido’s advice, and read the map a little more carefully. ;-)

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