At some point between December and February, I get a powerful urge to give winter the finger. While living in Colorado, this usually meant a vacation to Mexico or the US Virgin Islands. Now that I’ve transplanted myself in Italy, with its rich spa culture and prolific geothermic waters, “f*ck winter” often indicates a trip with a dip.
Lounging in the spa is something I am missing now, as they’re all buttoned up due to the ongoing pandemic. I crave sitting in hot water like I crave having happy hour in a bar. Or seeing the bottom half of people’s faces. Or having a good sneeze on the street without everyone leaping to the other side of it like I’m a human porcupine about to deploy spines.
About this time last year, I was organizing myself a “f*ck winter” trip. Due to my car-free lifestyle, I was constrained to a destination which could be reached by train. Fine by me because I adore soaking in the scenery, journaling, the occasional nap and using disgusting bathrooms with no toilet paper (aka, train travel). I found that I could arrive in Salsomaggiore Terme via the train line that runs through Faenza towards Piacenza with one change in Fidenza (yes, it seems everything in this region ends in “enza”). Within an hour, I’d researched the spa, booked the train and an Airbnb for two nights.
Two weeks later, I was waiting for said train. It was “early” (for me, anything before 9 a.m.) and satisfyingly cold for someone departing for a mini spa-cation. When the train arrived, I climbed onboard and snagged a seat whose window wasn’t obscured by graffiti, enjoying the delicious feeling of “going-somewhere-new” spreading up from my chilly toes. In Fidenza, I boarded the modest two-car train whose life purpose was to zig and zag through the misty foothills of the Appenines to Salsomaggiore Terme.
Salsomaggiore Terme is a picturesque town of about 20,000 nestled at the base of the Apennine mountains. As its name suggests, the town’s main attraction is a saline spa, which was built in 1902. Its ornate Art Nouveau decor hails a bygone era in Italy when going to spas, or termes, was the thing to do both for staying healthy and in fashion.
When I exited the train, I was greeted by the gray coldness that characterizes winter in north-central Italy. I strolled through the fog towards the quaint heart of the town, passing through a sprawling park whose benches were damp and dusted by moss, its bridges slippery and guarded by quacking ducks. It was easy to find the Terme, since it’s as big as a shopping mall but much more elegant. In fact, I’d say it’s magnificent.
I pulled open one of the heavy, wooden doors and entered a cavernous room with a checkered floor and lavish curling frescoes of nymphs and forests. For 50 euros, I was given a fluffy bathrobe, slippers and free reign of the place for the day. Free reign included access to a horseshoe-shaped Turkish bath that smelled of eucalyptus and was filled with tiny lights that changed colors with all the haste of a frozen snail. And the so-called “emotional showers,” whose various essential oils, sprays and temperatures morphed as you walked through them. It ended at a shower head emitting a rainy mist, accompanied by flashing lights and a peal of rather realistic thunder. I sat in a nearby tub, listening for the thunder and the following screams of group after group of unwitting Italians.
Downstairs there were several pools, one of which was all cool hues and classical music. My favorite was the larger one, which had cascades to stand under, assorted jets to pummel every part of a sore body and submerged, vibrating chairs. There was also a spacious relaxation room filled with chaise lounges, a plethora of tea and a host of chattering Italians ruining the solitude.
“For Italians, relaxing means talking,” one of my friends told me after I remarked on this.
“I just wish you guys could talk with your mouths closed,” I replied and she burst out laughing.
Italians do experience just about everything through chatting about it. And chatting about it (ask them, they’ll tell you it’s true!). For example over dinner, they discuss various ways to cook the dish they’re spooning into their mouths. The Italians who can laugh at themselves will admit that they often jabber on without accomplishing a single thing. There’s a term for this: “Parlare di aria fritta,” or to talk about fried air. It’s something like being full of hot air, or talking “hogwash” or “poppycock.” Or, to be so very American, “baloney.”
It was dark by the time I emerged from the spa, my skin so wrinkled it resembled that of an old Shar Pei. Because it was winter, it wasn’t yet time for happy hour but it seemed like midnight. It was also chilly, but I was cooked all the way through from seven hours of basking in various containers of hot water. As I waited for my Airbnb host, I watched a pair of necking teenagers tumble into the shadows across the square. A woman loped across the street, holding her purse over her hair as if it were pouring rain instead of just idly considering a drizzle.
I soon spotted my host, a short woman named Savina with shoulder-length graying hair and an easy smile. Her house was a couple of kilometers a way and I would’ve walked there, but Savina insisted on the ride.
“You’re not going to want to walk up the hill to our place after the spa,” she had written in What’s App days before.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said as I slithered into Savina’s small gray Fiat. I was so relaxed I felt like a piece of “baloney.”
“My pleasure. Will you join us for dinner?” Savina asked as she navigated a crowded roundabout. “You are free to say no if you want to go out. But we’d be honored to have you.”
“I would love to join you for dinner,” I said, touched. It was the start of an evening in which I would feel more like a family member than an Airbnb guest. The experience was so homey and unpretentious that it brought back shades of Warmshowers, a mutual hospitality website I have used many times in my biking adventures.
We pulled into the driveway of what I would see in the morning was a charming, two-story house abutting a hardwood forest. Savina showed me upstairs to my room which was painted a rosy red, furnished with heavy wooden bunk beds and decorated with knickknacks. I got settled and then backtracked down the creaky stairs. I found Savina listening to classical music and cooking up something mouth-watering in their neat, yellow-walled kitchen. Outside the windows, I could see Christmas lights blinking on a neighboring hill.
“Would you set that?” Savina asked me. She handed me four plates and cloth napkins and pointed to a sturdy, rectangular wooden table.
I spent the evening there with Savina and her husband, Paolo (after dinner their friendly but nerdy teenage son disappeared to play computer games). Paolo had a thick white beard and a curious, honest manner about him. He had popped in when I arrived, lingering near the door because his thick rubber boots were painted with mud.
Savina made us tea as the pasta sauce simmered, and while we sipped it, she showed me her nature-themed oil paintings. After dinner, I helped clean up (ignoring Savina’s protests) while Paolo littered the table with repurposed bottles of digestivi, or after-dinner liquors. I couldn’t decide, so I tried both the limoncello and the nocino (a hazelnut liquor typical of this region). Talk ranged freely from winter plans to future dreams, from my experience growing up in America to theirs as Airbnb hosts. My square digestivo glass kept refilling itself with Paolo’s delectable nocino, syrupy-thick with hints of coffee and brown sugar.
The moon was peaking in the window and the clock had cleared midnight when we decided to turn in. Paolo put a hand on my shoulder as he exited the kitchen.
“Buonanotte, americana,” he said with a grin.
Savina turned to me. “Thank you for sharing the evening with us. We don’t always have such an interesting young lady in our house!” She gave me a big hug and I returned it.
“I am so happy that I booked your place,” I said with sincerity. I felt grateful I’d finally bothered to learn Italian; it had given me the gift of two more friends in the hills above Salsomaggiore Terme.
In the morning, I threw open my shutters to frosted tiles and fog that hung about the valley like thick, gray curtains. I wandered downstairs in my pajamas and found Savina in the kitchen reading a book. She’d laid out the table in the aesthetically pleasing way Italians do, with neat disks of cookies arranged on flowery plates, cheese stacked like a neat pile of wood, jars of homemade jams accompanied by dainty little spoons. Paolo was already outside rooting around–we could see his flannel-clad form moving about in the grayness.
“Tea or coffee?” Savina asked me.
“Coffee please,” I said, sitting down at the table as Savina prepared the stove top Moka coffee maker. I watched her go through the requisite steps: clean it well so no old coffee spoils the new stuff. Fill the water up to the little hole inside. Insert the filter and fill it with ground coffee but do not (whatever you do!) pack the grounds. Screw the top on snugly and place it over a low flame.
“It takes longer that way, but you won’t burn the coffee,” my friend Veronica said when she initiated me on the Path Of The Correct Moka. “Be sure to mix the coffee with a spoon before serving it, because the coffee at the bottom of the Moka is the strongest.”
A note to horrify Italians everywhere: before that moment, I’m pretty sure I packed the crap out of the grounds. I also never stirred the coffee before pouring it and always cranked up the flame because I am an impatient American. Although, I’m more patient now that I’ve lived on this other pianeta (planet) full of delicious food and things that make no sense at all.
“I can give you a lift into town later if you like,” Savina said as we sipped our delicious, properly brewed coffees.
“Thanks but I was thinking I’d walk back to the station,” I said. “It will be nice to stretch my legs.”
Savina nodded. “When you’re ready to go, we can also take a stroll up behind the house. The woods there are so lovely.”
The train was at 1 o’clock and the morning had been leisurely, so by then it was time to get going. I gathered up my stuff and came downstairs to find Paolo in the kitchen polishing off the Moka.
“You leaving?” He asked. When I nodded, he said. “It’s been a real pleasure. You’re welcome to come back anytime.”
“I hope I have the chance to visit again,” I said. And I thought I would this winter, until a little something that starts with “C” and kind of rhymes with Miley Cyrus showed up.
The forest behind the house was delightful, full of birds hopping on dewy branches above a carpet of leaves in various shades of orange and brown. Savina and I did a little loop that in the end deposited me along the road heading into town. It was actually rather steep, I noted.
“Watch out for ice in the shady spots,” Savina said, pointing at a corner. Sure enough, it was covered in a cold, shiny film.
“Thank you so much for everything,” I said, giving Savina a hug. I felt like I was saying goodbye to my parents’ friends or my friendly neighbors as I turned downhill. The narrow road wound past fields, creeks and the occasional swatch of forest. Everything was delicately outlined with frost and the grass, somehow, could still patent itself as “bright green.” Maybe it’s because I grew up in southeastern Oregon where everything succumbed to a sort of grayish-brown hue. But spotting such brilliant green in the middle of winter seemed like a dash of magic.
When the road dumped me out on level ground, I followed the muddy river back towards town, which was bustling with locals scurrying past shop windows displaying Christmas trees and Santa Clauses. Then there was the park, still dotted with ducks like so many crumbs on a picnic blanket. Steam rose off of the water, lending credibility to how cold I felt despite my scarf, gloves, hat and robust winter jacket.
When the little train arrived, I climbed aboard with a dozen other passengers, all of us heading to our “enza” towns of choice. For me, it was–and still is–Faenza.
It’s funny how most Americans think I say “Firenze” when I tell them I live in Faenza; just like how most Italians think I say “Silvia” when I tell them my name is Sylva. What a hot, beautiful mess.