Immaculata – a short story

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by Nathan Marcus, Max Weber Fellow 2010-2012

Villa La Pietra, New York University in Florence

Some say my crazy stories are my best and I thought this might be a good way to tell my most recent. It was a week ago on Wednesday. When I got up in the morning I realized I had left my phone at my friend’s place. I had the feeling that there was a lecture by a colleague on Italy and its Fascist Past, I wanted to go to at  NYU’s  Villa La Pietra at 11 or 11,30. I got ready and left the house around 10. Outside everything was peaceful and I remembered it was a holiday: the Day of the Immaculate Conception (Mary’s conception as I later learned. In the Middle Ages the Dominican and the Franciscan Friars held heated debates on whether Jesus could have been immaculately conceived if his mother hadn’t been. One of them won and Mary’s coming into being was ipso facto immaculate. Why her own mother and grand-mother were let off the hook remains unclear to me).

Making my way to the bus stop I realized that everything was closed, and that if there was a lecture at NYU, it had to be that they, just as my own University, where ignoring the Italian holiday. I would have called Niccolò, who had a car and wanted to join me anyway, but I didn’t have my phone. It also occurred to me that buses would be running on a holiday schedule and that I needed to buy a new bus ticket but had no cash. Most places were closed, the lady at the cafeteria would charge me one extra Euro to buy it with my card so I went to get money.

I bought my ten-ride-pass and joined the people waiting for bus 24. The schedule said there was one at 10.32 and the next one twenty minutes later. The old lady standing next to me said it was 10.35 and that we had probably missed the ’32, but I answered that was impossible, since she herself had certainly been there for more than just a minute and furthermore we would have seen the bus drive off at least; indeed, to both our satisfaction, the 24 pulled around the corner turning into the square the very next second. Once on board, I was no longer so sure about my authoritative  claim and feared the bus might actually be the ’52, with us  sitting there for the next twenty minutes, which would mean that I was sure to miss the lecture. But soon enough the driver got in, started the engine and off we went, me feeling lucky.

NYU is on the via Bolognese, the road that linksFlorencewith the capital ofEmilia-Romagnaand I knew the stop was called something like Bolognese 23 or maybe 03? There was a girl sitting opposite me that was easily identifiable as an American student and I decided I would take the risk and bet she went to NYU, trusting my impeccable sense for detecting the Village undergraduates. As the bus began winding up the hills we passed Bolognese 01 and 02, but all of it seemed to close to town and the girl was not moving and I seemed to recollect the stop was more like 23 than 03. I knew that one could see my own University across the valley from La Pietra so it had to be further on.  I asked the driver who thought I had missed my stop just a few stops back, but I knew what La Pietra looked like and hadn’t seen it. Meanwhile the girl turned out to be a full-bred Italian and once we left the last houses behind us and I got a clear view from the bus, which gave me a glimpse of the EUI’s Badia on the other side, I decided to get off.

I stepped out onto the country-road. To my left there was a street and a sign saying “Esmeralda Resort” or something of that sort. To my right the hill fell away steeply, revealing a clear view of Fiesole perched on top of its mountain below the grey clouds, with San Domenico and the Badia clearly visible in the middle. It had rained during the night and all was sprinkled with fine drops, twinkling, but there was no sun. I saw no sign directing me to La Pietra, but I was sure it had to be close. Esmeralda Resort was shut and deserted, so I started to walk along the road, hoping the lecture was at 11.30 and not at 11.00 and that I would get there on time. But after one bend and then another there was still nothing in sight. I kept marching along, cars rushing by me in both directions and I wondered how many NYU students got hurt each year, walking along that busy, unprotected road, late at night. It was then that I realized I could not possibly be on the right track and that there was no way the Village undergraduates actually navigated this dangerous street daily without a side-walk. I had been walking for what had had to be at least 15 minutes already. My friend would be coming by car and so perhaps he would recognize me and give me a lift, I hoped vainly. The speaker also had a car, but of course she was already there by now. And then I wondered whether I should try to hitch-hike.

It’s a thing with hitching rides. Once you start holding out your thumb you are in a bind. Every car that rushes by you without stopping makes you think your endeavor futile, but, in theory at least, every car that goes by without stopping increases your chances that the next one will (only as long as the chance of a car stopping is greater than zero, of course). Then again, your chances might not really be increasing and just be the same with every car, so that keeping your thumb out doesn’t help you at all. It’s like when you throw a dice: if your first is not a six, are you more likely to throw a six the second time? How long should you keep trying?

My situation was quite blatantly hopeless; it was certainly past 11 and the Villa nowhere to be seen, and so in desperation I held out my left hand, thumb up. With the first car approaching from the back, I asked myself whether to turnaround like in the movies, and walk backwards (which slows you down) or whether to keep walking forward. But I hadn’t even begun to contemplate my new conundrum when the Skoda (incidentally ‘bad luck’ in Czech, as I later remembered) actually came to a halt no more than five meters away from me! Counting my blessings I quickly jumped into the front seat, explaining that I was looking to go a bit further on, towards NYU’s Villa La Pietra, feigning utter and complete ignorance of my lost whereabouts. But I was for sure off course, as the driver said , and the Villa back the other direction, at least 2 kilometers towards Florence. But he seemed keen for some company or distraction, or I was just glued to the seat, so he decided to take me there, even if he was incredulous about my claim that I planned to attend a lecture on the day honoring Mary’s spotless conception. I wondered what he might be doing out and about on the holiday himself, with seemingly nowhere to go. His name was Michele and he was not fromFlorencebut from the North. He told me that he had worked at La Pietra when it was still owned by Lady Acton and, happy to show off his impeccable English, which he had picked up living inLiverpoolfor 5 years sometime in the past, complained that they were all free-lancers now. I tried to get a glimpse of the time on his dash-board but could not make it out.

We drove back another way, taking the old Via Bolognese, which joined the bus route all the way back where I should have gotten off. Michele decided to let me out at the gate to the NYU dorms, my best chance given that the whole complex was massive, consisting of several villas and having more than one entrance. When I asked him, dumbfounded, how rich Lord Harold Acton had to have been in order to afford to buy the place, he explained that five (fascist?) families had lived in separate villas on the compound before. Lord Acton was the British military commander in WWII and after liberating Florence had had the families (or at least their heads [sic]) executed, taking over the whole place for himself. I made a mental note to check the veracity of his story later. The porter at the gate knew, of course, nothing of any kind of lecture and would not let me in. Everything was very quiet and I was now completely certain that I had not only picked the wrong stop but also the wrong date. Michele touchingly still waited beside his car, ready to aid his new foreign friend and promptly drove us around the compound to the other gate, where the porter, after a short exchange over the inter-com, buzzed open the large iron gates. And so, as I waved Michele goodbye, I entered the long, pine-tree-lined road and began my march up towards the Villa.

It was all very, very quiet. How lucky! There was certainly no lecture, I already knew that, but at least I got to see the place on a day like this when everything seemed undisturbed and untouched. Reaching the Villa I noticed that there was only one car parked in the courtyard and it was difficult to make the porter believe I really thought there was meant to be a talk. It might have been my attempt at explaining things in Italian, or simply his kindness, that made him suggest I criss-cross through the garden to the other side to ask there, as long I told no-one he had sent me. That way, he said, I would at least  get to see something. Slowly traversing the large grounds, passing through the olive groves, villas and gardens, I spotted a lone photographer in the distance. Apart from him I seemed to be the only person out. I strolled along for quite a while, admiring the Villa from afar, and upon reaching the NYU dorms spotted some undergrads in the common room, glued to their apple laptops. Of course, no-one knew of any lecture and after another phone-call by the kind but suspicious porter, just to make sure there was really nothing going on, I walked back out onto the street.

Now what? It was, I guessed, about 11.15. I could go to the bus stop and wait for a bus to arrive and take me back into town and then either have lunch, or make my way directly up to the EUI. I was inclined to take a cab to the EUI, but walking up the road it was clear I would never find one, and calling one was not an option. A small alley cut right through the NYU compound and I decided to take it and find my way down the valley and up the other side towards the EUI, with a coffee stop at the Badia. If I walked briskly, I would make it in time for lunch. As I entered the small alley, with walls on each side separating it from La Pietra’s olive groves, I could hear the first car approaching behind me. This time I only thought for a split second, deciding that I would bet on every car being an independent event so that if the first had stopped, the likelihood that this one would too, was large and not the opposite. I held out my hand, thumb up and could hardly believe it when this one, a small white build from the 90s, stopped, too. In it were two elderly ladies, they seemed like mother and daughter, and in the back lay two large bouquets. Dumbfounded I wondered who the flowers might be for, and, not believing my luck, apologized saying it was fine and I did not want to squash their flowers, but the bouquets were soon moved to the side and I wavered no longer and jumped in. The two women were going to drop me off at Le Cure and once they realized I did not speak Italian well there was not much more conversation, them perhaps being disappointed that it had not been a local neighbor they had stopped for, but some wandering tourist, me happy with already having made my random friend for the day and having been saved from one more grueling march, while contentedly pondering the inherent quality of probabilities from the back seat.

At Le Cure I quickly caught the bus to San Domenico despite the holiday, and on it ran into a colleague on her way to the office herself. We arrived at the Villa sometime after 12, and I tip-toed into a presentation I had completely forgotten was going on. I was quite exhausted and quickly dozed off, my head between my fists, without having my phone to keep myself busy. When I woke up shortly before 13 it was about time for lunch.

Tomorrow I am going to the lecture. Niccolò picks me up at 11.15.