The Chestnut King

by: Julianne Homola, Marist Italy Staff

On Sunday I was heading out to a small town outside of Florence, Marridi.  This town is so small that it isn’t even on Google Maps unless you know to look for it.  In Marridi I would find a pretty famous and highly popular Chestnut festival (otherwise know as: Castagne di Marroni).

However my story doesn’t truly begin until I reached the S.M.Novella train station and bought my train ticket.   It was 20 to 11 and I figured I had time to settle myself on the train, set up my sketch pad, pull out my almonds for a nice train snack (clean, requires no additional steps other than eat, and quiet) and watch as I go through the Tuscan hills.  Oh boy was I wrong.

Old Fashioned wooden train-cars parked
in Marridi (not my train)

The first thing I noticed was that my train seemed stunted.  It had only three cars to its name.  The second thing I noticed was that the first, then the second then the third car were all full.  I realized a moment late and a dollar short that I would have to stand.  It wouldn’t be the first time I had to stand on a train but I did have high hopes for personal space (HA!) and perhaps a nice corner (HAHA).  I was sadly mistaken.  If I can paint you a picture, imagine more people standing in this train than there were people sitting.  Now imagine them as all Italian, angry and yelling at each other.  That was my life for an hour and a half.  I mostly focused on being as small as possible, not falling as the train abruptly stopped and convincing myself I was not dying of heat.  The trip seemed to last for an eternity and a half.  HOW CAN ONE HOUR BE THAT LONG.  I threw myself at the doors and scrambled for fresh air praising all that was good in the world to have my feet touching solid ground and to have a breeze tickling the back of my neck.

The happiest Chestnut ever


My jubilation at the change in scenery was short lived as my eyes started to take in where I actually was.  What a gorgeous area.  I was stunned by the mountains, the trees with just a blush of orange at the tips and what under normal circumstances would be a quiet unassuming town.  As I followed the trail of people I wound down through small streets which were just adorable.  Its strange to say a street or town was adorable but somehow it was.  It was just a cute town.

Spices

I saw stand after stand of chestnut flavored everything: flour, bread, cookies, strudel, cookies, cakes, fudge, roasted chestnuts, chestnuts on sandwiches, chestnut soaps and soups (not together, that would be gross).  I sampled as much as I could possibly try of each of the food items I ran into.  After about four hours of experimenting with every variety of chestnut flavored item you can think of I determined with certainty that I do not like chestnuts.   It was a sad realization and not at all something you want to realize in the middle of what I could only assume was one of the greatest outdoor fairs dedicated to a tree seed.

I was actually kind of sad about this, I love the smell of the roasting chestnuts, the idea of chestnuts is quintessential “autumn” atmosphere, and I mean who could hate something called a “chestnut”?   Obviously there was something wrong with me.  I tried another bite of my strudel.  Nope.  Still didn’t like it.  Maybe if I took a smaller bite? Still no.  Never let it be said I did not give a valiant effort.

I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those things that I will always convince myself I like and forget that I don’t appreciate it until it is too late.   Similarly to how I feel about liquorice flavored items, I always think I like them but then I take one excited bite and realize I have made a dire mistake.  A dire life altering mistake.  Then I have to make the urgent decision to either finish my bite of what seems to be the most horrid thing I ever consumed (made worse by disappointment) or find a discreet way to dispose of the offending food.

With a small sigh, I threw the rest of the studel out and meandered around the town.  The views were nice and the people were friendly so I had no trouble doling out the rest of my time until it was time for my train to leave.   I eventually made my way to a roof top coffee bar I had noticed earlier.  From there I had a great vantage point of the whole main street area and the surrounding hills.

I spent the next hour drinking my caffè and enjoying the sounds of the marching band playing below.  The sun shined down brightly but not offensively on my table.

I laughed silently as a girl who looked to be in high school started waltzing by herself to the heavy trombone.  I watched as one of the boys took a chance and grabbed her hand to dance her across the terrace.  It was a beautiful picture while it lasted.  Pure happiness and jubilation were tattooed on their faces for the whole world to see.  Not that they cared.  Dancing because they could and for no other reason.  Before you could blink it was over and the whole group (dancers included) fell into a fit of giggles.  The awkward looks and “you did not just do that in front of everyone!” written clearly over the looks the girls shot at each other as they chatted loudly.   The boy was laughing but I could see the way he watched her, I think it was obvious to everyone but perhaps them.

A view of the Festival from the Cafe

In the other corner sat three old nonnas, wearing brightly colored trench coats drenched in huge faux jeweled pins.  Their scowls and angry gesturing were a complete juxtaposition to the group of teenagers.  Their bags were strewn at their feet like an offering to some long forgotten god.  In my mind, these were women who had been friends for years.  They had grown up together, gone to school together, gotten married at the same time and now were out enjoying the day.  Although I couldn’t hear them, I could imagine their conversation and only hoped their observations to be kind.

Basket Weaving

A young child broke into my line of vision as he ran across the terrace into his father’s waiting arms.  His happy babbling describing everything he had seen downstairs with a fervor that only a two year old can have about the basket weaving he observed.  The dad picked up the exuberant two year old and sat him on the ledge so they could watch the marching band pass by below.

I went to take a sip of my coffee and was met with the brutal realization that I had already finished it long ago.  Small grains of sugar stuck to the side of my cup as a cruel reminder of what once had graced my cup.  I picked myself up and began a slow mission back to the train station.  I stopped here and there, to make sure I didn’t miss anything too important.  As I walked through the main strip of vendors I noticed a gap in the crowd.  In the middle of the pathway a large dog had decided it was done with this “walking” business and he had found the perfect resting spot.  His owner was laughing as she tried to convince him to get back up.  A passerby offered to pick the pup up a coffee as it was that time of day, which gave the crowd watching a good laugh.

Half the crowd

As I made my way to the platform I knew the train was going to be crowded but I don’t think I anticipated how many people would be there.  With each passing minute the platform filled with more and more people.  I couldn’t imagine how many where even there much less how we were all going to fit on one train.  As the train pulled up, we could obviously see there were only three cars.  Three cars for what I would estimate was around 200 people.  The crowd as a whole groaned and the occasional swear was heard over the unhappy din.  As the train slowed you could feel the crowd tense as they bolstered their elbows and prepared for battle.  The battle of the seats.

As one the crowd shoved and pushed, scrambling to get inside before the doors were even fully open.  Small children were lifted up to prevent being trampled.  Someone shoved me and I went down with a scream.  I was offered a helping hand and someone behind me chastised the pusher.  When I made it in I stood in the main entry way in a back corner.  There were more people standing on the train than there were people in actual seats: every seat was taken, the entryways were packed like sardines in a can and the halls next to the seats were lined with people.  It was hot and it was crowded.  Personal space was a thing of the past, the only thing you could do was try not to bump into too many people as the train swayed with the tracks.  With each stop the cars would push you forward then slam you back, more than once people fell over.  Eventually we came to one stop and then didn’t move.  We didn’t move for a good ten minutes which was strange (as it wasn’t a particularly popular stop) until we heard the ambulance.  A man in the car behind ours had had a heart attack.  His wife followed anxiously behind the paramedics while they brought him out to the ambulance.  Everyone in my car watched solemnly as they took him away.

The train slowly took off with only a few stops between myself and home.  I watched as the sun set through the hills, just enjoying the view of the trees.  I miss having nature right outside my door.  In Florence everything is made of stone.  My little group of potted plants help me to get a piece of something in my home, but I miss my garden at home especially now with the harvest and fall.  I was so happy to have been able to see the changing leaves, and I can’t wait for my next adventure to see more .

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