Wrong Turn

I can't afford to draw blood, this time. But I haven't got long. I pull the razor quickly across my soapy skull, feeling for renegade hairs with my other hand. I'm exhausted but can't show it; it took a crew of three to haul the little car safely to Parma, and the navigator/offside spotter position was as demanding as any time I've ever spent at the wheel.

Shirt. Aftershave. GPS. Phrasebook. Change the shirt. Cue the CD player. Cashcards and I'm out the door, brushing off my traveling companions with "On the move!" Dov'e posso comprare di fiori? I can't understand the answer.

It feels like a date because it is one. Seven years together minus two weeks apart equals three days in and suddenly I'm a teenager again.

I eventually get "rose" across at the flower shop, but they're delighted with my Australian background and limited Italian, and the conversation costs me time. I want to run, possibly holding it in my teeth, but it's thirty degrees in the shade and I can't afford to.

The coffee here hits your brain like a bullet and it's about the same size, but it's not that which is fueling me, scanning traffic and GPS screen, cutting the ATM sidetrip - no time - and rehearsing my first words. Sei la donna piu bella- donna piu bella del- donna del monde- when the time comes, I can't remember anything.

I never forget my lines.

We're not the only ones in this miserable situation, snatching narrow evenings together, faded with exhaustion. But the other girl's partner flew Stansted to Bologna and had a one hour train ride instead of two days of driving. He got to Stansted the day before his flight and still looks like Einstein, because he obeyed the first rule: if it's about the girl, it's about the girl, and there's no point trying to pretend that it's about anything else.

That's not to say it was all totally miserable. I stood in a cathedral in Todi during a thunderstorm, and one in Parma during a pipe organ performance - the artificial version of the same thing. I overheard a confession. These people have their religion like they have their coffee - strong and black - but I felt almost nothing. Religion doesn't work on me. Sometimes I think it's a pity.

I have no such immunity to ristretto, or to the fearsome doppio which they served me at breakfast, probably figuring that I needed it. I spent the whole day wired, and it wasn't altogether pleasant. Drugs: Just Say "Non, Gratzi".

Under the influence, I went to my first school speech night since 1997, and can report that they are just as futile and boring from the other side of the stage.

The food, like the coffee, is exceptional, and unlike the French version, it's not challenging unless you want it to be. Even roadhouse pasta is fresh-cooked. A tiny corner store made us a pizza excelling Crafers' best.

The art gallery's full of naked babies. La Madonna Con Bambino, La Madonna Con Bambino, La Madonna Con Bambino. Jesus Christ, get some inspiration. Norwegian art speaks to me. Italian art has nothing to say.

Except, except, for the lone Da Vinci in a corner. That guy had talent. And a thing for mysterious smiles..

The castle we visited doubled as a gallery. It's weird to see irreplaceable 500-year-old artworks, unprotected, destroyed by graffiti.They've got so many of them that they just don't care. And hell, maybe these ones weren't even any good. Don't ask me; I don't know.

Hanging out with Lyn's host family, I witnessed the mother dash to the computer, type in some Italian, and use a web translation service to show us the English. All I could think was "of course!", followed by "why the hell can't my phone do this?"

Not that I needed it to. This language is easy. Hooray for high-school Latin!

So we had our moments. Still, five hours on the road on the top of nine the previous day left me so exhausted that I sat in Ciampino airport for seven hours instead of hopping the thirty-minute shuttle bus in to Rome. Total continuous transit time, Macerata to Belsize Park, was sixteen hours.

But I'm still two weeks away from home.

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