It is dusk when we arrive in the town.
A single cobblestone street wanders crookedly, with dirt offshoots leading here and there, tilted houses built sometime in the last ten centuries but definitely not less than 300 years ago. The air is warm, with a hint of something crisp, and a handful of people are scattered among the tables in front of the cafe. This is where we must go, because you do not expect to spend the night in a strange town without going to the cafe first.
There are paper lanterns outside, winding their way among the tables without being obtrusive about it, shedding a soft light. People rustle newspapers and talk and look up, one by one, as we enter. We are an unknown quantity which must be investigated and explored. This is not quite the right time of year for any of the people that we could be, which means that there is a mystery which must be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction before anyone can disperse into the night and wander home.
We choose a table which is not quite in the middle, because this is presumptuous, but not so far at the margins that we seem hostile. Drifting to the counter, I order hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat. I notice that the hem on my pants is coming undone again, and the mirror behind the counter shows that my hair has started to do that annoying thing where a tuft sticks up in the back, like a crest, even though it was washed and brushed and neatly braided this morning. I look, actually, sort of like a California quail, and it is a resemblance which favours the quail more than it does me.
The air is faintly dry and dusty and there’s a thick, slightly musty, slightly sweet scent which I cannot quite pin down. It is tantalizing, and I lift my head to sniff, and someone smiles, and says something I cannot quite catch. We sit and talk, and gradually people drift over. I point at Fort Bragg on a map and someone has been to San Francisco and did we come from Paris (the airline tags are still on our bags)? Where are we going? Have we seen this museum? Would we like to visit the horse farm tomorrow? How long will we be here (the town, the country)?
This is a conversation which is carried on in multiple languages, with gesticulations when language fails, and at one point we are introduced to the mayor, who beams and welcomes us and shakes our hands. He gives me a handful of brightly coloured pastilles and I give him my Dick Tracy lapel pin, because he is captivated by it, and he beams and pins it proudly to his coat. “I love Dick Tracy,” he says, and I say “I do too.”
There is no pensione in the town, we learn. Several people offer rooms in their homes, but it is such a beautiful night that we cannot bear the thought of being indoors. There is much discussion and consultation. It’s not a bother at all! Someone has a spare room because his son is away, we could sleep there and it would be no trouble. No no, we really do want to sleep outdoors, truly! It would be lovely, if we could.
The mayor has the solution; we can sleep in the vineyard.
It is warm enough that we do not even need to set up the tent, we can simply roll out our bedrolls on the ground, and we do that and lie down and look up at the stars. I cross my arms behind my head and I stretch my legs and toes out as far as they will go and my ankle makes that little popping sound that it makes sometimes, when it is planning something nefarious.
The thing about traveling, is that while I love it, sometimes I also hate it. I hate not being comfortable in the language or the dialect, I hate trying to communicate across multiple language and culture barriers, I hate the press of people even as I love them, I hate the constant disruption and disorder, because I am an orderly person and I need things to be squared away. Travel is the opposite of squared away. I must surrender myself to it. Travel is like falling.
And thus, I am happy, but also tired. And we murmur quietly with each other and we smell the heady loaminess of the earth and the grapes, which are getting big and ripe on the vines. This vineyard has probably been here for hundreds of years, the vines we can see in the dim light are wizened and twisted.
I like old things, paradoxically. Although I crave order and even lines and neatness, I do not like things which are new. I like olive trees which are ancient and still producing, I like old drafty buildings, I like weathered floors. I like the passage of time and the weight of history which these things carry with them. I love to be surrounded by old things on a warm fall night in a town that has no name.
Our voices drift off and our breathing synchronizes and we could be any people, anywhere, sitting in silence at any time in history.
I know that when we get up in the morning, we will probably eat a bunch of grapes, and they will be dewy and slightly cool and highly refreshing, and then I will go rinse my hands in the standpipe, and then we will go to the cafe, and we will find something to do to repay the mayor for letting us sleep in the vineyard, and then we will wander on. But, for the moment, I can lie perfectly still and forget all of that and just. Be.