24 Hours in Cremona
by Julia Conrad
My fifth month teaching English in a small northern Italian city called Varese, a place no tourist has or should ever step foot, I took up the habit of describing the “state of my soul” at the top of my diary entries. That January my soul was: a walrus, a decaffeinated tea bag in cold water, permafrosted tundra (my sex life the permafrost), a used tissue at the bottom of a backpack, rotting.
The Christmas lights had all been taken down and my colleghi’s festive dinner invitations had dried up, so my life after school consisted of going to the Varese public library, pretending to study so that I could be in the company of other college-age people, and trudging home in the five PM darkness. The first self-assigned text of my fake study sessions was the city’s recycling pamphlet, which I read with maniacal concentration to fit in with my tablemates reading anatomy and legal textbooks. At the end of January I sat down to pore over Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.”
According to the careful handwritten notes I took on “Walking”, people do not live with enough freedom and unpredictability to fully enjoy their lives, even though they can by simply choosing to think outside of societal expectation. The beauty of life is in uncultivated wildness and spontaneity, in stepping away from private property and the social conventions about “success” slowly killing us all from within. “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours” I copied down verbatim, thinking of the many elliptical machines I had marched nowhere on for hours. “Walking is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
I looked up at the room full of students in puffy jackets blowing their noses and highlighting their already underlined notes in the cold afternoon silence. There was no wildness here. And what was the point of living in Italy—or living anywhere, I asked myself, my thoughts growing impassioned, if one wasn’t truly living? I needed to go somewhere new. I needed to be a spontaneous traveler even while “at home.” I needed adventure. I needed to stay with the cutest guy I could find on CouchSurfing.com.
Burning with Transcendentalist fervor, I messaged Lorenzo, “25, musician, history student” the following day, and soon we had made plans for me to stay on his couch in Cremona that Saturday night for free. On Saturday morning I left my apartment a mess after running around at nine AM frantically murmuring “fuck” because the bus was arriving in ten minutes. I had overslept from the long week, jumped out of bed, showered and shaved-my-legs-for-the-first-time-in-months while racing the espresso pot on the stove. I then drank the coffee in one scalding shot, forgot to pack underwear, and finally got a chance to brush my teeth in the train station bathroom, eyed disdainfully by the woman in the mirror next to me.
Cremona is three hours by train from Varese. As I watched the dried-out landscape speed by, I thought about all that I was leaving behind, and then, finally, I was in Cremona, city of arches, pork, and violins. The plan was to meet under the statue of Garibaldi outside the station and, after waiting there for a nervous and heart-pounding minute, mentally chanting “if he’s a creep I’ll go home,” I saw Lorenzo “25, musician, history student.”
Lorenzo was handsome in a Gucci ad kind of way. He had a scruffy Italian beard, long eyelashes, a leather jacket, and a gravity-defying pompadour with a single lock of jet-black hair artfully falling towards his bright brown eyes. He sauntered towards me with a wave, kissed me on both cheeks, and welcomed me into his cloud of sensuous and expensive-smelling cologne. We walked to his car and he put my overnight backpack in the trunk, where a suit-jacket with satin lapels dangled from a hanger, just in case. “Just in case?” I asked in Italian. He explained that he was the lead-singer in a band and I nodded as if this were par for the course, as though my soul last week had not been a day-old sock and I didn’t sometimes eat cannellini beans straight from a can for dinner.
“Ti va un caffe?” he asked, and when I said yes he drove straight to his favorite bar one piazza away from the station. There he bought us both coffee and pastries filled with thick cream, and chuckled knowingly, “How’s it going in Varese? Did you know Varese has the highest suicide rate in Italy?”
This is a fact that I often tell people in order to describe Varese, and thus felt immediately simpatico with Lorenzo. We agreed that one of the best things about Italian culture is the focus on beauty and enjoyment, and how the one exception seems to be Varese. After we finished our coffees, he chivalrously opened the passenger door for me and then sped dexterously through narrow alleys and tight curves to get to the city center of Cremona. I pictured what we looked like in the car together from the street, feeling like a different person.
We walked in the shadow of sunny Renaissance brick and terra cotta towards Piazza del Comune, the center of Cremona. From a bird’s eye view the other streets burst from the piazza like arteries from the heart, and Lorenzo offered historical details about the buildings. “When I run out of things I know, I start inventing. Just to warn you,” he said. He had a warm personality. We went to a photography show and lied to each other about what was happening in each picture. “They are training that boy to be the siren on the front of a ship,” he said pensively. “That photo is actually of Berlusconi,” I responded, “When he was young.”
Lorenzo continued holding every door open for me. We stopped for tramezzini, Italian finger sandwiches. While we ate, I goaded him into letting me hear his English, and he spoke with a deeply cute British brogue, picked up from working at a pub in London two years before. “Am I into him?” I kept wondering. It was like being faced with a giant plate of tiramisù after months spent lost in a permafrost tundra. His school of travel—or maybe it was romance?—was the one of flawless details, splendid and predictable as clockwork. In some ways, apps and sites like Tinder and Couchsurfing, have this slightly staid quality. They’re like any sort of Internet shopping—you click on what you’re looking for and you get it—often not your dream version, but recognizably like what you asked for. It comes in the mail wrapped in plastic, you open it, and that’s that. No surprises.
I had to admit that I’d been lucky though, I thought to myself as we walked across Piazza Stradivari, an elegant, wide-angled square: who complains when what they order is perfect?
Off Piazza Stradivari, we looked up at the attic of Antonio Stradivarius, where he crafted violins that are worth millions today. The world’s highest quality violins exist because of the virtuosic craftsmanship of Cremona luthiers in the 17th and 18th centuries. In honor of this history, Cremona has a violin museum, where Stradivari and Guerneri violins are displayed in dark, pressure-controlled chambers, and only played in a perfunctory way, the way a stationary car’s battery has to be run every so often.
After the museum, we went “home.” Lorenzo lived with his mother, a thin, leathery woman with straightened hair who ran around in her socks, a floor-length fur coat, and a barrel-shaped fur hat, as she prepared to go out for dinner. As she flitted in and out of the room, Lorenzo insisted that I just sit at the table and eat pecorino with a glass of white wine while he made risotto with porcini mushrooms. As he cooked, he sang Lou Reed’s, “Oh, it’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you” softly. “REALLY?” I held myself back from blurting. I was starting to feel that he was reading lines from a bad rom-com script.
“You take the bathroom first,” he said hospitably as we prepared for bed later. The clock was ticking closer to the time of will-we-won’t-we, and then the time of my departure, and then my return to Varese, where I would once more be a person whose social life consisted of reading essays from the 19th century in the silent company of strangers.
When I came back to the room, Lorenzo was lying down wearing only his British flag boxer-briefs, turning on an episode of TV on his laptop. Did he actually want to? Do we travel to enter fictional lives? Was I the American ingénue who has a one-night-stand with the lead singer of a band called Super-Io (Italian for the Freudian “Super-Ego”)? Was that the correctly adventurous thing to do? Would I then finally be “Walking”?
I took a breath, and then climbed up the ladder to sleep in the loft bed surrounded by his history books. The next morning we slept in, and after breakfast went on a stroll down the side of the Po River. I realized that it was Groundhog’s Day, and had to explain to Lorenzo about how, if the groundhog is frightened by its own shadow, winter stays and the groundhog returns to its burrow. At this thought, I realized that it was time to go to the station for my 1:30 train back to the Italian capital of suicide. Lorenzo gave me a hug on the platform. “Come back anytime!” he said, waving. Three hours later I arrived in Varese, and instead of taking the bus home, I walked.
Julia Conrad has been an English teacher in Italy, a literary agent in New York, a violinist in the band Dirty Bird, and, currently, an MFA candidate in Iowa City. Her work has been published in The Massachusetts Review.