by Christine Campbell
“The nuns are back!”
I took a reluctant break from the first of many gelati that day to look expectantly for our accidental companions. Alizeh gestured excitedly down the beach, trying to point them out while clutching a Fior di Latte cone, but I had no trouble spotting the group of habit-clad women against the horizon of the sparsely populated April shoreline. They were carefully navigating their way across the pebbled beach, taking high, awkward steps as though they were skipping cracks on a sidewalk, their stockinged calves appearing on occasion beneath long black skirts. Toting paper lunch sacks and hanging on to well-balanced cones of their own, it was clear they had just emerged from the same gelateria we visited moments before. How could we have missed them! I had opted for the black and white Stracciatella, because I liked saying the word and felt I could pronounce it with some authority, but whatever flavors the nuns had chosen were multicolored and bright, making my sweet tooth jealous. Mint greens, pastel oranges, and raspberry reds stood out in stark contrast to their black garments, seemingly more suited for the sticky hands of rowdy kids at a carnival than for 50-something sisters in habits.
Alizeh, Richard, and I, given the freedom of a six week Easter Holiday from Oxford, had been tending to our tired feet on the beach of Monterosso al Mare, the first of five stops in Cinque Terre-- a group of five coastal towns along the Italian Riviera. We were somehow still wired awake after a 5:00 alarm in our Florence hostel got us stumbling out the door, though every day in Italy had been an early one. The bells of Florence’s Duomo resounded unforgivingly through our wood slatted windows at 7:00am sharp, but with margherita pizza to eat and gelato to taste, Davids to ogle and cappuccinos to sip languidly in cafes, I was tired of sleep and only wished my body could put up with more hours in the day. This particular morning we had rushed to our train car in a frenzy after forgetting to validate our tickets, with our backpacks comically full and cameras bouncing dangerously around our necks like proper newbie tourists.
We had first encountered the nuns on our second train from La Spezia, which we had somehow managed to catch on time. The women sat quietly together and shared some sort of pastry in a paper bag, flipping through well-loved Bibles and snapping photos out the window between bites. Their calm and welcoming presence, discordant as it was against the throngs of tourists and tired Italian businessmen, offered a thoroughly appreciated break in tone from the gaggle of talkative American college girls immediately in front of us, whose incessant chatter fit all too well with their high, blonde ponytails and Jansports. We had been trying to distance ourselves from these girls, for better or for worse, so as not to be thought a part of “that” group of Americans. In our nervous anxiety about getting off at the right stop, however, Alizeh, Richard, and I were caught in their legging-ed vortex and somehow followed them off the platform at Rio Maggiore. As we eventually realized our mistake, we hightailed it back to the train, wondering desperately what the nuns would get up to as we watched it leave without us.
Luckily after we caught the next car to Monterosso and found out that the nuns had opted for something sweet in our absence, the day seemed to be getting back on track. Our fear of trying to fit every conceivable sight into the neatly packed time span of about 8 hours had subsided, and in its place was an unexpected, almost voyeuristic desire to know how their day would shape up. From a safe distance we watched a few black habits whip around in the wind as the nuns navigated the stones beneath them in sensible, rubber soled shoes. My mind was driven to a scene from The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which a habit-clad Ingrid Bergman teaches a schoolboy to box, light on her feet and hopping evasively around the room to demonstrate proper ‘footwork.’ The reference was lost on Richard, who is a fierce but friendly Catholic, so I was left laughing to myself while trying not to drip Stracciatella down the side of my hand.
Keeping tabs on our new found friends all the while, we found ourselves physically worn down as we tried to hobble towards the sea without shoes or socks, hoping to keep our things dry in anticipation of a long day of walking. Alizeh’s perpetually Chaco-sandaled soles, which had, in the previous week, trekked a portion of Spain’s Camino del Santiago in the rain, had grown raw and tired without her thick wool socks. Her 30-foot journey to the water’s edge over bulky black stones was painfully greeted by an anonymous sting from something waiting among the waves. I’d like to imagine it was a jellyfish, but the pages of our guidebook were curiously barren of useful information about hazardous marine life off the coast of northwestern Italy in spring, and no tentacles were spotted receding beneath the surface upon second glance. Alizeh never wavered in her steadfast determination to continue eating her gelato as we waited to see if the conglomeration of red dots on her left foot would evolve into something more sinister, but this was a relatively accurate portrayal of our priorities throughout the trip. Dark alleys in strange cities meant nothing if there was pizza at the end.
After a brief period of tentative hobbling to test out the damage when her sandals were strapped back into place, Alizeh was on the mend and we were all upright again. Our feet were unpleasantly sticky-salty as we started off in casual pursuit of our nuns, who had settled down on top of a few large rocks that jutted out into the water and provided ample room for a picnic. We were motivated by sheer curiosity; though our break from University life left us time to explore a bit of the world before shutting ourselves back into the Radford Camera to churn out essays, it seemed a much more drastic departure from daily life for these women, wherever they were from, to be laughing freely on the beach, not calculating the spiritual merits of some weathered Fresco in Rome or shouting at spring breakers in short shorts. Alizeh snuck a photo of them once we had maneuvered our way out onto the rocks, a few of the waves threatening to break over our toes, and it was one of those moments you would never expect to be so beautiful in real life. All was silent apart from the waves at our feet. Even the busy beauty of Florence, such a departure from home and school and England, felt a long way away. The sun was warm on our backs but still gentle enough in early April, and I sat with my friends, scanning through photos in our cameras’ viewfinders, reflecting on previous days of travel. All of the nervous anxiety about going somewhere unfamiliar and trying to fill every minute of our days with planned museum visits and tactical relaxation melted away as we learned to just sit there and listen to nothing.
And that’s how we spent my 21st birthday. We followed a bunch of sweet-toothed nuns around an Italian coastal town, forming some sort of unspoken experiential bond with them and soaking in the mutual sunlight. We had originally been going for 21 collective scoops of gelato in lieu of typical drunken celebration (the nuns would not approve. Or maybe...?), but a dinner of fried octopus and seafood pizza had left us excessively stuffed in Manarola, and we fell just short of our goal. We were distracted and led astray from our plan by obstacles good and bad (Richard was later bit by a lizard he tried to catch with bare hands), and to add to the chaos, on our way home we were caught in the middle of a regional train strike and temporarily stranded at La Spezia. The nuns, however, grouped together by the biglietteria and talking animatedly amongst themselves, made us somehow sure we would get where we were going.