Scenes from a vacation in Italy, or how a lizard came to pose for an American

July 13, 1996|By ROB KASPER

I REGULARLY PROMISE people that I will send them snapshots. Many photos are promised, few are delivered. But this time I think I had better keep my word or I could end up with a forked tongue. I promised a lady I would send her a photograph of a lizard.

The lady had been talking to the lizard. The lizard appeared to be listening. A friend of mine suggested the reason the two were conversing might be because the lizard was the lady's husband. One day he got on the bad side of her, and next thing he knew was living under a rock. That couldn't possibly be true. But nonetheless, I am anxious to get this photograph in the mail, before I start growing a tail.

I came upon the lady and lizard at a magical spot in Italy, where hot water bubbles out of the ground in shallow pools, and folks come to sit and soak. It was near Saturnia, in southern Tuscany, in a place called Cascate del Gorello on the road from Montemerano. Being in this free, public swimming hole reminded me of going tubing on the Gunpowder, except that the water was hotter, and the swim suits -- yes, everybody wore suits -- were European cut.

The fact that my family found the bubbling waters was a minor miracle. For two weeks we had been driving around Italy, often around and around and around. We spent a fair amount of our vacation getting lost. We got lost in Florence, where streets can change names every three blocks. We got lost in Porto Santo Stefano, where instead of spending an afternoon with friends from Baltimore, we spent most of the day crawling along on a road about six feet wide and about 300 feet above the swirling Tyrrhenian Sea. We got lost, briefly, in Arezzo, where I made the one mistake you are never supposed to make when you drive in Italy, I hit the brake. I soon learned, when in doubt, you hit the accelerator.

Lately I have been having a little trouble adjusting to American drivers. The other day on Cold Spring Lane, a guy honked at me when I cut in front of him. There was an opening of at least half a car length, which is a lot of room for Italian drivers. Unlike us Americans, Italian drivers are too classy to honk. If they get upset they gesture.

The day we tried to find the bubbling waters I had that old familiar feeling that we might be lost. While my wife looked at the map, I looked at the countryside. It was gorgeous. Fields of sunflowers, cantaloupe and hay. Along with the hay came a couple of hay wagons, which lumbered along in front of us, backing up traffic. I knew I was getting in the Italian spirit when I enjoyed passing the hay wagons on a hill.

We had been driving for about an hour, the muscles on the back of my neck were beginning to tighten. I was gripping the wheel. I was beginning to doubt my navigator. Then we came around a curve, and there out in the middle of a field were the pools, the waterfall and about 100 bathers.

My wife, our two sons and I waded into the warm waters. For a while we basked in the slow-moving waters of the lower pools. Eventually I edged my way up to the base of the falls, where I got a neck massage from the cascading waters. I surveyed the scene. Entire families were sitting in the water, grandparents, parents and children. A few men were giving themselves facials with mud pulled from the bottom. Bathers exchanged greetings, sat on the rocks near the water, smoking apres-bath cigarettes in the warm, late-afternoon sunshine.

I pulled myself from the relaxing waters, and walked over to some rocks where I had left my camera. That was when I saw the woman, who looked like she could be a grandmother, talking to the lizard. At first I thought she was talking to a rock. I smiled. Hey, I was a visitor in these parts, and, if people here talked to rocks, that was fine by me. Then I saw the lizard sitting on the rock, and surmised the woman was talking, in apparently friendly tones, to the reptile. This, too, was OK by me. Italy has given the world St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for being able to communicate with all kinds of creatures.

The woman told me to take a picture of the lizard. She didn't speak English. I didn't speak Italian. But she told me with her eyes. It was a friendly exchange, but it wasn't a request, it was more like an order from on high. I obeyed.

The woman disappeared from my view. The lizard stayed. A few minutes later, the woman appeared at my side, presenting me a piece of paper with her address on it. She wanted a copy of the lizard shot. I nodded and, without saying a word, promised her that I would deliver the goods.

After our encounter with the lizard lady, the luck of our family changed. We stopped getting lost. We zipped through lower Tuscany, into Umbria, around Orvieto without a hitch. We found the autostrada, the north-south expressway of Italy, which has no speed limit. We sailed along, being careful to stay out of the way of the flying Dutchmen in their BMWs and Jettas. By the time I turned in the rental car in Arezzo, deliberately driving the wrong way on a one-way street, I felt empowered, like I knew where I was going.

The other day, back in Baltimore, I picked up the photographs of our trip to Italy. There were some great shots of the lizard. I have the woman's address. Now I need someone to advise me on how to write this letter to my friend in Italy. "Dear Senora. Enclosed are the lizard photos I promised to send you. Please remember me fondly in the next life."

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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