When a person goes to Italy, the expectation is that she will rave of the vitality and meaning accompanying seeing the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum or any other famed attraction. I meant (and hoped) to do just that — have the sort of life-altering experience which keeps Pisa and the Galleria del’Academia full. However, after ten days in Italy and Switzerland, I can not help but think of, like the photo of a friend gone but for that moment captured and crystallized, alive and mine, the lakeside town of Desanzano and an Italian 99 Cents Store.
I reached Desanzano on the fourth evening of our travels. Not mentioned in my travel books and looking like Florida, hotel complete with garish yellow and pink facade, Desanzano seemed a disappointment. I wanted the real Italy, not a cheesy tourist stop. Bored one night, a friend, Laura, and I explored Desanzano.
Tall, square buildings with stucco roofs and black rectangle windows turned pink and gold beneath spiraling streetlamps. Desanzano’s cobblestone streets disappeared into each other and into multiple loops and alleys, archways separating squares and schemes of life. Only shadows of objects in darkened windows and the mystery of the next street curve led us on.
Meandering through the curling maze, we were contemplating returning to the hotel when a serendipitous turn dropped us before a lime and magenta sign reading ‘nine-t-nine’ cent store.The shop was a haven of glittering, florescent light against the deep black backdrop. Miniscule at half the size of our hotel room, its shelves were filled with a smattering of variegated plastic trinkets and oddities; a feast for our excited minds. Pointing delightedly to each item, we questioned: do we need a spatula? Nail polish? Bubbles? Kite? Corn hair remover? Plastic watch? We indulged in acting as gleefully as reason allowed and as excited as one-euro-junk can make a person.
After touring the store twice, Laura came to the cash register with a handful of items and I with one carefully chosen ceramic, buck-toothed alligator with lily-pad parasol clutched lovingly to my chest. I can’t describe the strange golden-pink magic of that evening or why it made us so giddy and happy. Maybe it was because we discovered something we didn’t expect, or even think, to find. It was a simple happiness, filled with desire to explore and be surprised and have fun.
I hope to return to Italy, and I think one day I will see the Colosseum again and remember being 15, but I will never be able to recreate that night or that feeling conjured in Desanzano. The 99 Cents Store will have disappeared and that elation to be free and exploring a bite-size world will live only in that one sweet moment. Part of the charm of famous places is that everyone shares them and the feelings they evoke.
Part of the charm of that night is it was my adventure and my moment. Bertolli sits on my chest of drawers, his buck tooth, wide smile reminding me that life has a very strange, sweet magic indeed.
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