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Biding Time in Ravenna

The older man sitting next to me at dinner reached over and took my fork.  He speared ravioli off his plate and handed it to me with a big grin.

I was seated at a long table next to a very sweet older couple who were here in Ravenna for dinner – they owned a pensione on the lido (beach) nearby.  We had managed some basic communication, and I was pondering the menu.   As usual I couldn’t make up my mind – I asked them what they were having and if they liked it.
So he pointed to the menu what he had ordered and gave me a taste.  The wife took the fork and gave me a taste of her calamari with asparagus on pasta, too.  Both delicious.  And made more special than the taste was the kindness of these two people who embraced a stranger.
It’s encounters like these that make travel special.  More than any art or sites or epic bike rides.  It’s connecting with people along the way that I remember the most.  And for whatever reason, the last few days in Ravenna – and now in the small medieval town of Brisighella – I’m finding these experiences are just coming one after another.  
My second night in Ravenna the older man next to me at dinner was shocked I was cycling solo through Italy.  He was telling all the waiters and people around “She’s cycling alone through Italy” very loudly and trying to ask me questions in rapid-fire Italian I had no way of understanding. 
It was a bit embarrassing, until he tried to feed me his potatoes because when saw what I ordered for dinner he decided I wasn’t eating enough. And when he saw my Brazino (bass cooked in salt – incredibly delicious and a local specialty) he gave a hearty Bravo! of approval and apparently decided I wasn’t going to starve – and had good taste.  I think it was traveling alone that had him more worked up than the cycling.  Why?  He asked.  I just shrugged.  “Independente.  I like it”.  “Independente”, he repeated.  He still didn’t look like he thought it was a something I should be doing.  But at least I wasn’t going to do it hungry.
On a loop ride through a park to the beaches south of Ravenna through a maze of 40km of trails winding in woods dirt trails, a mountain biker stopped and waited for me to make sure I could find my way through the confusing trails.
I met another less prepared biker who was more lost than I had been.  He was from Bangladesh and had some English, and was telling me how hard is was to find work and we talked about work in America – he wanted to know if there were jobs there.  I gave him some of my water (he had none) and pointed him in the right direction.
An antique car procession that is touring Italy rolled into Ravenna the day I was trying to leave.  As I was slowly riding out of town from Ravenna through a maze of onlookers and closed-down roads I was flagged down by a man from Bologna who was there to watch.  We chatted and then he wanted to know why I didn’t wait and watch the cars.  “Very famous actor Jeremy Irons is coming in a classic Jaguar!”  
I didn’t tell him I have less than zero interest in classic cars – we are in the area which builds Ferraris and Lamborghinis and the car culture here is second only to the food.  As I left I said, “Say hello to Jeremy for me!”  He liked that.  And I will say as I slowly made my way down the road I was looking for Jeremy Irons driving one of those old cars as they came streaming towards me on the old Roman road into town.
And last night I wandered into a shop that sells the famous olive oils that are special to the Brisigella region and chatted with the woman who ran the shop.  She was from Puglia in the south of Italy, but there is no work near her home there so she took a job here.  She is engaged to marry a local boy, but she misses home and worries for her mother who is living alone and getting older back home.  Her brother had to take a job in central Italy.  She poured me a glass of local Albarino wine to try and we chatted until she had to close up the shop.  She told me how hard it was to move here alone – to such a small town – and how no one would talk to her for months.  But things are better now, and she has a second job guiding tours and hopes to start studying Russian to add to her fleet of languages this fall.
Inevitably when I meet someone, they tell me where they are from and then immediately why their town is so special and why it is important.  A man from Florence talked about the art and described the bronze sculpture that was the first bronze sculpture done in history.  A man from Bologna tells me he is from a small town just west that was very important for the resistance in the Nazi occupation.  People here love their homes and have an enormous pride of place and they want you to know how special their community is, too.
There is a big difference in the interactions I’ve had between the start of my riding in Parma and now.
I don’t know if it’s a difference in the territory – there are certainly regional differences in Italy in how people interact with each other and with outsiders … just as in America.  (I had a cab driver in Rome tell me all about how the people where he was from in the Piedmont were not as friendly as the people in Rome.)  And I was also in an area where there were no other Americans I met for days and very few English speakers at all, which also changes the dynamics and makes you more of an anomaly.
Or it may not have been the territory, it may have been me.  I think that you project a willingness to engage with others.  And starting out on a self-supported bike trip there is a lot to think about and do that takes your attention and mental and physical energy.  Now that I’ve got the travel logistics down, it may be that I am simply more open to others, and they sense it.
We all project something that makes people more or less likely to approach you.  Where you welcome people into your space, rather than put up the silent barriers that keep them at a distance. 

But when you are open to others – they are always curious and interested in you.  Especially when you are traveling alone.  And these interactions are always the best memories.  And by letting people share a part of their day or country or help you, you are in turn giving them a kindness and sharing part of yourself in return.  It’s a priceless transaction that is more valuable than any masterpiece or duomo or meal.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA