Friends of mine once saved for a trip to Europe by emptying their pockets at the end of each day and placing any money in a big plastic jug. Occasionally, when short of cash, they had to turn the jug upside down and withdraw a bill or two with a pair of tweezers, but the system worked. After a couple years, they bought plane tickets and were on their way.
When my wife Cynthia and I visited Italy recently, we too were counting nickels, dimes, and euros. Like my old friends, we saved money whenever possible, to spend it more lavishly when desire struck.
In Rome we stayed in a simple pensione and walked everywhere. Traveling between cities, we took trains and even buses, which were slower but less expensive. On our third day, I reveled in the wisdom of our frugality, as our almost empty bus rose and fell like a ship sailing the hills of Tuscany, the region’s beautifully furrowed farms rising and falling like ocean swells out the long bank of uncluttered windows.
Arriving in a little town called Sinalunga, we wondered if we could hoof it to the luxury hotel one and a half kilometers away where we were staying for a single delicious night. It seemed we had little choice as the seedy bus and train station contained more than a couple suspicious characters but not a single taxi.
The hotel’s website had included directions for arriving by private helicopter but not on foot. And yet walking there seemed simple enough as we strolled through town, feeling a little conspicuous with our rolling luggage clacking annoyingly across the corduroy-combed cement. Three or four blocks on, we came to a big intersection with almost no accommodation for pedestrians, though deft jaywalking delivered us, without incident, to the other side. More troubling was the discovery, three blocks later, that the sidewalk came to a complete end.
We continued along the shoulder of the road, by this time a two-lane country road, the kind that here in America would show 45 mph signs being genially ignored.
We considered walking back to the station. Perhaps from there a call to the hotel would fix things. But there is nothing more foreign than a foreign pay phone, and to avoid roaming charges we weren’t using our cell phones. The shortest path between where we were and where we wanted to be seemed still to lie in front of us.
As we walked on, a driver in a sporty red Peugeot beeped his horn disapprovingly but did not adjust his steering in the slightest to avoid us. I began searching for the metaphor that would describe the proximity he achieved, settling on “close enough to trim my sideburns.” We crossed to the other side, where the shoulder was just wide enough for us to walk single file.
Passing a farm, we encountered a young Italian who spoke English well enough to say yes, we were headed in the right direction, and the hotel was maybe a 15-minute walk from where we were. There was something diffident in his manner, maybe an opinion that was going unexpressed. We thanked him and marched onward.
In a minute or two a narrow bridge came into view and the shoulders vanished. The bridge crossed a sharp downward buckle in the land. It took us a moment to decipher the road sign, but we concluded it meant that cars had to drive over some kind of bump. The bump seemed to us a symbol for stupid American tourists who get run over, so we abandoned the road and began walking across some farmland to bypass bridge and bump, while, in the distance, a dog barked indignantly at our trespassing.
Further ahead, we found the road to our hotel—long, steep, and lined beautifully with cypress trees. Shlepping up this unpaved drive, we hoped no guests or hotel staff would see us in our ridiculous state, yanking our suitcases, red-faced and sweaty-browed. As we followed signs to the parking lot, I thought how curious it was that neither Cynthia nor I had insisted on changing course—a true marriage of minds, too true perhaps.
Anyway, we arrived, and the next 24 hours were perfect. We felt not only welcomed here but adored. The food, the wine, and especially the service left me half-persuaded to devote my life to becoming rich so I could live like this more often.
When it came time to leave, Cynthia asked the woman at the front desk to arrange a taxi for us. Are you catching a train? she asked. Actually, Cynthia said, a bus.
A bus? the woman wondered, her eyes lighting up as if that were a very quaint answer. Yes, said Cynthia, who mentioned that we had come by bus and walked from Sinalunga. This time the woman said, almost philosophically, “Yes, you could walk.”
“Have other guests walked here from Sinalunga?” Cynthia inquired.