To look at me, a tailored lady of a certain age, you’d never guess I once got around by stepping onto roadways and flagging rides, braving all manner of weather and driver, knocking about without advance reservations. In fact, I am incredulous now: I prefer my hands on the wheel, I don’t leave much to chance, and I’m not nuts about the windswept look.
But, there it is: I am a former hitchhiker.
Mind you, I confined my hitching to one area: Italy. And I was small-time: overnights only, from our base in Bologna. Of course I hitched for high cultural purpose. Compelling this mode of travel was my student status. Even more compelling, I was a graduate student. Fortunately, in the 1960s hitching was safe and legal, sort of.
For company, I had my French roommate, Florence. Like me, she was determined to savor Italy. For cover, we dressed in pantsuits, scarves, pearls. Then, brandishing guidebooks, we hoisted thumb, tentatively: Would the “Queen Elizabeth look” stop anything?
One truck driver aside, our choices not only stuck to driving, but, Italians being immensely proud of their country, they’d point out landmarks while supplementing our classroom Italian with idioms. Clearly then, autostop, being educational and cheap, was the student’s way to go.
And we went: Venice, Ferrara, Parma, Ravenna, and of course, Florence. School? When there, we studied like crazies, our travels forcing a work-hard/play-hard regime I’ve maintained to this day. The result? Excellent grades in subjects now forgotten and unforgettable memories of Italy—its people and places, not to mention its infrastructure.
Foremost was our most ambitious trip: a four-day tour of Tuscany and Umbria, in which rain played a major role.
Granted, it was risky resuming our road show during the spring rains, but in our cabin fever we had conceived a desire to check out the landscape of the Renaissance paintings we both loved: Was it really blue? At a break in the weather, we scrambled out of town to see.
Day One was exhilarating: imbibing the work of painter Piero della Francesca in Arezzo; breaking into verse sighting the hilltop town of Gubbio at sunset; making Perugia, our first scheduled overnight. But, it was all too easy, being rain-free and done with just one driver, a charming book salesman. The sudden drop in temperature we didn’t notice at first. But later, in our unheated pensione, we noticed nothing but. Shivering in bed fully clothed, shoes included, we cheered ourselves with choral readings of our guidebooks. Then, in desperation, we pulled the rug off the floor.
Day Two we woke metamorphosed as baritones. But go home? Reasoning that sick is sick, whether in bed or traveling, we lurched onward. Though Perugia’s steep streets nearly leveled us, we rallied at a worker’s café (where I played Bach on an ancient piano) and headed south, to Assisi. There, after warming to Giotto’s frescoes, we confirmed it: The background of the surrounding plain really is blue.
Funny, though, how suddenly everything turned black. Storm clouds! (Henceforth, it rained nonstop.)
Splashing into Spoleto, our southernmost destination, we found another pensione, meaning another night in our clothes. We woke next day feeling Cubist—and looking it. We fashioned a plan: Sightsee indoors, where we’d arrange transportation home. But, it was Sunday. Everything was closed. What ever next?
That’s when we started talking crazy, about “hopping over” to Orvieto. The map showed Orvieto in bold type. Bold type meant open all night. Let’s go. That the map showed no bold-type road connecting the two dots did not register. Locking arms under our one umbrella, we sloshed to the edge of town and stuck out our thumbs. Niente.
Well then, let’s start walking. Nothing happened, of course, but we kept walking, of course. We trudged, cold and soaking, several kilometers. Niente. We shifted to the middle of the road, daring anything to appear. Niente. On we slogged, in a landscape so quiet we could hear the rain: for urbanites, eerie. Giddiness seized us: Had we stumbled into a Raphael painting, about to disappear into the far blue yonder?
As we were rounding the figurative bend, an ancient Renault chugged into view and stopped. A door creaked open, and the four occupants rearranged themselves to admit, against all physics, two more bodies. Once the door was ever-so-carefully closed, we proceeded, rocking like a Ferris wheel, engine groaning, achieving a pace not much faster than a walk. But, no matter, we were happy to be there.
Mario, Stefano, Giuseppe, and Walter—“Walter?”—were members of a band called Gli Arciduchi (the Archdukes), enroute to Rome for their first major club date. Recordings and fame would follow if only their car, “made in the days of Julius Caesar,” held up and, importante, if they found a female vocalist. Did either of us, by chance, sing? No, we laughed, and provided proof.
We parted shortly thereafter, not, they assured us, because we’d offended their sensibilities, but because of a fork in the road. With ardent apologies and their card, they deposited us roadside… in the mud. Umbrella up, we began trudging toward the town of Todi, only to halt at a stunning sign: Bastardo. Was it a campaign poster? A cue from Dante? (It was, we learned, an inn.) Whatever, we honked with laughter.
Several leagues past Todi, also closed, we came upon a roadhouse open for business. Great: a place to dry off, feed our famished selves, negotiate a ride. To our distress, the place was empty; moreover, the only fare served was alcohol and candy. “So, what’ll it be, Florence: inebriation or decay?” We fed on Baci chocolates washed down with rum punch. As the afternoon wore on and our hopes dimmed, we prayed for a truck.
Enter—finally—the Two Gentlemen from Florence, our prospects. Aristocratic even in fishing boots and floppy hats, they looked like Bronzino portraits of Renaissance dukes—aquiline features, a “nothing could astonish us” look. They reeked of hauteur, while we hadn’t showered for how long? Formidable as they were, they were our only ticket out. We approached their table to pitch our plea. Florence, whose French gave her a firmer grip on Italian, got us going.
Bless them, they were not astonished. With only a nod, they agreed. So very, very grateful, we got in their car. But minutes later, they stopped on a bridge. They meant to ratify their day’s purpose: They cast their lines over the side, then immediately reeled in and returned—laughing (and proving that fishing, indeed, relaxes).
In Orvieto, they walked us through the duomo, then took us to Siena, our scheduled third night, and found us a pensione, this one heated. And after bidding our two gentlemen a warm addio, we slept 12 hours.
Next day, our last, we roamed Siena’s duomo and replayed our misadventures, citing them, to save our throats, by just a word—“Walter,” “Baci,” “Bastardo”—our husky laughter wafting through the vaulted space. What tales we would tell our friends stuck in Bologna.
The telling had to wait, though. Laryngitis.
Carla Seaquist is a playwright and writer.