20. One of the Family

At the Happy Burger, I spent so much time using their wifi, looking for a place in Milan, unsuccesfully, that I felt like I was taking prime space away from other hungry travelers. I ordered a beer to buy a little more time, and decided to just find a place on our route. I checked out the route of the train on the map. It passed through Desenzano, a town that was right on the Lago di Garda, a famous vacationing spot for all kinds of high-class Europeans. I picked a good budget option and thought about the fun we had in Nice and was imagining a fresh-water dip this time, some time around 5pm while the sun still beat down.

 Haste makes waste, and I would find out on the train ride that I’d reserved a place in Lonato, the town just before Desenzano. It was inland a couple miles and probably too far from the lake to sneak in a dip- blaaaa. What do you do after a hot, tiring slog around a big city when you promised your 13 yr. old a refreshing swim in a big, mountain lake minutes after the train ride? You promise him something easier to deliver- a hotel room with A/C (keep fingers crossed), a TV, a soda. Six one, half dozen the other, far as Keenan’s concerned.

Arriving in Desenzano, I scouted out means of getting back to Lonato. We should have gotten off the express in Brescia and boarded a local. I tried to find a bus, then I went back to the little station to inquire about local trains heading West. I asked an old man for help and he said go ask at the candy counter. Then he said where are you going and I said Lonato, the next station to the West and he said he might be headed in that direction and maybe he could drop us off. We got in the back seat of his car. Sitting shotgun was a very old man I took to be the first’s father. Though they spoke an Italian that seemed a bit non-standard and garbled, we seemed to understand each other pretty well and I congratulated myself on being able to communicate in Italy with my Spanish (throwing in words like notte, mi figlio, mangiare, etc. now and then). I asked him if he was from around here. “No, I’m from Ecuador.” and of course I realized we’d all been speaking Spanish the whole time.

Like the Mexican in Cuneo, he’d been here a long time, raising a family and everything. I gathered he was some kind of handyman because he said he worked on the villa something-or-other and too bad we weren’t staying there because there was a pool and lido on the lake, etc.

25 years in Desenzano and Guillermo didn’t know how to get to Lonato, the next town on the train line, about 2 miles away. He asked the old man if he knew the way a couple times but abuelo just frowned and shook his head as if to say, “That’s a journey I took long ago but nowadays I couldn’t begin to tell you the way.”

We pulled into a gas station, Guillermo made inquiries and came back shaking his head. “No, it’s not the place I thought. It’s much farther, in the other direction.”

What was this, a scene out of Garcia Marquez? We weren’t searching for Macondo, for crying out loud! And we were actually headed in the correct direction. I wanted to say, “Just keep going down this way, aim West, I’ll show you!” but this wasn’t a taxi ride so we let Guillermo take us back to the station, getting lost once in an up-class neighborhood where the kids stopped splashing in their pool for a sec to look at this motley bunch in the compact car intruding on their fun.

There was only one more local train heading west that day. It was due to arrive in an hour so I went to the candy counter and got Keenan a pop and a panini and we sat in the little square outside the station, sweaty and dirty with our bags while vacationing German, French and Italians, mostly kids in bright, brand-named beachwear, laughed, chatted and occasionally looked our way as we munched on panini and refilled our Fanta bottles from the hopefully-potable water fountain.

 waiting for the Lonato train, which was right on time, as all the trains in northern Italy were.

I studied the map on the way to Lonato in the nice, air-conditioned wagon. Small town, easy! I had all the coordinates in my head when we alighted and I said, “This way, Keech!”

Ten minutes later we were lost on some highway.

“Hmmm. I coulda sworn it was….” 

Back  toward town we hiked, to try another road. I know you are supposed to face traffic when you walk the street, but sometimes I choose to go with the flow, back to the motorists, because even though my roughing-it traveling skin is thicker than some, I hate walking down some road on the outskirts of an unknown town, being the only pedestrian, locals whizzing by, knowing exactly where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, giving you brief, unsmiling looks that say, “Who the heck are you?”

So you focus on other things, like the nice gas station over there, or the graveyard on the top of that hill. And sometimes in all your desperation and fatigue, you get giddy: 

“Judging by these numbers, Keech, I’d say we’re either halfway, or a quarter of the way there.” 

A couple right turns and we made it to the little town of Lonato, which was very pretty, maybe even worthy of the cliche guidebook moniker, “a hidden gem”. Speaking of gems, I walked into a jewelry shop and the ladies were very helpful and friendly, guiding us toward our hotel.

A block further I passed a small alley on my right, and lying in the open-door entrance of the first house there was jet-black long-haired and leggy, pretty girl looking out on the alley with complete boredom- small town teen ennui you could say.  As we went by, she looked up from the street and her beautiful, cold “machine gunner blue eyes” (sorry Hemingway) met mine. We passed the alley and I turned back to Keenan. “Hey Keech, did you see that girl in the alley there?”


-She was really beautiful. And I think she was just your age!

Keenan just stared at me.

-Why don’t you ask her the way to our hotel?


-OK. I’ll ask her.

I expected Keenan to protest. Another dumb idea of papa’s. But Keenan just stood there. I get giddy when fatigued. K just becomes resigned.

Now here is where the magic begins. You’ve been reading, thinking, “Well I never let things get this unorganized on my trips. You won’t find me ambling down some highway, completely lost. While these two are still bumbling around I’ve checked in and am having a daiqiri in the pool or shopping for handicrafts on artisans’ promenade in town.”

Fair enough, but when I asked pretty Valentina for directions, immediately, like a hawk that has spotted prey, or a mama bear aware of danger to her young, Sra. Bellandini came rushing to the door.

Now with perfect planning, A to Z, these type of chance encounters might never come! You can have your poolside Maitais and handcrafted salt shakers, I’ll take the experience that was about to unfold. What happened will need a separate blog post, or maybe even another blog, so I’ll just summarize here for now.

I expected to be shooed away with a broom by the rotund matron of the house. She wasn’t going to let some stranger from another land get near her beloved niece. But to my surprise, Mrs. Bellandini was as warm and welcoming as can be. When she found out we were staying at the Hotel Rusticcho, she said, “Ah, but you cannot walk that far! You are hot and tired! Come in and have a drink and Arturo will give you a ride.”

There was a big decanter of home-made lemonade on the table. When I told the woman my name was Daniel, there was a big commotion. Her husband’s name was Daniele! What a coincidence! Providential! Uncle Arturo grabbed some special bottle of local firewater off the mantel, gave me a wink and poured a couple shots worth into my lemonade glass. He poured himself a glass too, without the lemonade, and I wondered about our ride to the hotel. And then the fun started. Like I said, I won’t get into everything now, but we had stumbled upon a party celebrating the wedding of the oldest son of the house the very next day, and as far as the Bellandinis and deSantis were concerned, the more the merrier. The wine flowed, champagne was uncorked, appetizers and all kinds of Italian cheeses on platters, then some smoked salmon thing, then pasta, a beef dish a pork dish, potatoes, more wine. Fantastic!

When everyone was eating gelato and sipping champagne I brought the house down. After dinner, speeches were being made. I excused myself and slipped into the bathroom, grabbing my ipad on the way. I’ve got this translator app that I’d programmed for Italian. Someone was soon knocking on the door so I only had time to get something short.

I’d been using Spanish all night long, but when I was asked to stand and say something for Maria and Giancarlo, I bolted up confidently and belted out,

“Evivva gli sposi!”

Oh, man. What a roar and round of applause that got! Mama Bellandini was in tears and grandma deSantis came up to give me a big hug. After a while arrangements were made. We were going to the wedding tomorrow. And no member of the family would be allowed to stay in a crummy hotel on an occasion like this. Unthinkable! Sra. Bellandini got on the phone with the desk guy at Hotel Rusticcho and seemed to chew him out a bit. He was probably a local and how could he show his face tomorrow at the wedding if he didn’t give Daniel here a full refund! Case settled!

To top it all off, as guests were filing out and Keenan was in a corner with a fascinated Valentina, teaching her Japanese kanji characters, Maria, bride to be, tearfully approached with Giancarlo and asked that I be godfather to their first child.

You see. These are the kinds of things you miss.


Actually, you can cancel everything from the alley on. I’m just funnin ya. We did see a girl with machine gunner blue eyes and long, black hair, but in Shumway fashion, neither of us had the guts to ask her anything. Another 15 minutes of schlepping our bags down the road, we found our hotel, and there was a soda pop, air conditioner and television for Keenan, as promised.



next: These two gentlemen discover a very nice city, and no tall tales.