Our friend Giuliana Milanese from Bernal Heights in San Francisco arrived in Florence on September 12th as part of her month long family and friends tour of northern and central Italy. Giuliana was raised in Oakland by two Italian immigrant parents, and she has maintained her deep ties with family in Liguria, Toscana and Lombardia. Her visit to Firenze was predicated on my willingness to accompany her to Pracchia in the Province of Pistoia, northwest of Firenze bordering on the region of Emilia Romagna. Why Pracchia? My Italian friends for the most part had never heard of this little mountain town, but Giuliana had a dear uncle who lived there for many years, and she was accustomed to visit him on her Italian sojourns before his passing a few years ago.
On September 14th we left for Pracchia. Christina was in her intensive Italian class so Giuliana and I were joined by her two dear friends, Lorella Di Vuono and Viviana Morgante. They are a couple in their thirties who Giuliana had befriended in Bernal. She heard two women speaking Italian, and she chimed in and invited them to spend Christmas with her and her family. LoLo is from Piemonte and Viviana is Palermitana from La Sicilia. They are accomplished world travelers, researchers and raconteurs. LoLo has written a fascinating analysis of the language used in the right-wing appeals of Berlusconi and political groups like Forza Italia and Lega del Nord. This analysis is on a par with the work of George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor who has made deconstructing the strong leader patriarchal appeals of Donald Trump the subject of his linguistic skills.
To get to Pracchia you travel to Pistoia and then change trains. A short ride and you get off at the tiny station. We were the only travelers to get off, and found a deserted waiting room with the exception of two young workers waiting for the train back to Pistoia. They explained to us that now there were only 154 residents of Pracchia, many of them living in a residential home for the aged. They expressed skepticism that we would be able to find anywhere to eat in Pracchia, but off we went for a hike up into Pracchia Alta looking for the old home of Giuliana’s uncle. Giuliana wasn’t able to locate the house, and we hungry hikers were unable to find a restaurant to eat at. In fact there was no commercial establishment open. The only office with public access was the Poste Italiane, and La Postina explained that for food we were in the wrong place. Back to the train station and the next train to Pistoia. However upon arriving at the station the timetable wasn’t accommodating our alimentary needs. There would be no train for another 4 hours!
We saw the COPIT BluBus sitting opposite the train station and climbed on board and asked the driver where we could get some food. He patiently explained that we would have to go to the next town down the road at PontePetri for a meal. He also explained that he would honor our train tickets and get us there. He also explained much of the amazing history of Pracchia and the train system. He told us that the old abandoned station opposite the one where we had got off a couple hours earlier was one of the first RR stations in Italy, on one of the first RR lines in the world, inaugurated in 1864 to connect Pistoia in Tuscany with the major city in Emilia Romagna, Bologna. In 1926 a narrow gauge fully electric service was initiated to connect Pracchia with the small mountain towns of the Lima river valley. This service was under the authority of the La Ferrovia Alto Pistoiese, meaning the railroad serving upper Pistoia, or F.A.P. The service continued until 1965 when it was dismantled, but the old train station where Lorenzo’s bus was parked still carries the initials of the electric railway.
I have been working as a consultant to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMW), one of the original US railroad craft unions established in the 1880’s to represent the workers who lay the tracks and maintain them for all the big freight railroads and commuter lines. I have become, in the parlance of the railroad, a “foamer”, that is someone who foams at the mouth over all things railroad. So I saw a railroad yard next to the station and immediately went over to inspect the “binari” and transversini” (the rails and ties) and the track maintenance equipment, the same materials and gear that I would encounter in a train yard in the Bay Area.
Then Lorenzo drove us in his empty bus down to PontePetri where we ate a wonderful lunch at his favorite restaurant, Quarteroni, a Macelerai e Alimentari (butcher shop and food service). He explained that he would pick us up after lunch on his regular run and take us back to Pistoia where we could get a train to Firenze. Like clockwork, he showed up across from Quarteroni and we were in Pistoia within 45 minutes. He insisted on escorting us personally to our track in Pistoia. We thanked him as he left to drive home to his young family in Agliana. We dubbed him Lorenzo il Magnifico, no Medici he, just a big hearted Italian bus driver. I made sure to gift him a lapel pin from the BMW, which he proudly affixed to his BluBus uniform when we said goodbye.