Adunque, – disse la reina – se questo vi piace, per questa prima giornata voglio che libero sia a ciascuno di quella materia ragionare che più gli sarà a grado.
It is perhaps appropriate that, for the first day, there wasn’t a specific topic to guide the vespertine stories of the young Florentine escapees. After all, why shackling their newfound freedom with constrictions? Better to give carte blanche to their imagination and to see how inventive took them.
There are, however, common traits in most of the stories from that night; a fil rouge of sorts weaves in and out of every novella. Nothing is what it seems. Today’s villains are tomorrow’s heroes. Strongly-held beliefs might turn out to be completely untrue.
Ser Ciappelletto, “the worst man ever to be born”: blasphemous, murderer, traitor of friends and of religion, yet capable of swindling a full absolution and nabbing sainthood, all from his death bed. The wise Melchisedech, who convinces Saladin that all three religions have their merits and one cannot be more authentic than the other. Can Grande della Scala and Erminio de’ Grimaldi, when put in front of their own stinginess, change their minds. The abbot cannot punish the young friar he caught with a woman, for he did exactly the same and with the same lady nonetheless.
If ever there was a lesson to be learned from this first day, it ought to be that being certain of something often rhymes with being wrong. And that contradictions are a part of human experience. My story is exactly about this.
Much like most of continental Europeans, I’ve for long considered the southern US to be a swamp of ignorance, prone to the occasional burst of violence and with a penchant setting crosses on fire. I considered them the land of God, guns and Trump, the place where creationism is taught at school. As strange as it might sound, I’d been readier to go to Iran than I’d been to visit Charlotte, NC.
Armed with facts such as that abortion clinics in the state had declined from 112 in the 80s to 14 in the year I was visiting, or that the weekly attendance to the city’s megachurches was higher than what Arsenal could muster – even with the promise of beer – I boarded my flight from Madrid in a state of mild trepidation. Over drinks in Chueca, the night before, a friend remarked how he was told that hillbillies would take pot shot at the 737 airplane fuselages as they left on freight trains, Seattle-bound. “And that’s just down the road”, he smirked as he downed the G&T.
The first indication that things mightn’t be as I expected it awaited in the airport’s immigration hall. American borders are, normally, an obstacle course of beige walls, 1980s carpets and functionaries who behave as if they featured on those Discovery Channel programmes where people dressed like them discover drugs and contraband every other minute. This time, though, there were Cookie and Doug. Cookie was a Latina lady not much taller than three packets of Oreo stacked one on top of the other, while Doug was a monumental man with a Hulk Hogan moustache, a brown suit that had been manufactured by a metal press and a tie that even my dad would’ve defined obscene. They patrolled the queue of travellers as they inched forward in bovine fascination and, instead of barking orders, spoke to people. As my turn came, Doug made a point of asking how I was, if I travelled far and apologised for the air-con being weak (it was so cold that I could’ve squeezed a half lemon with my nipples). When I left to go to the booth, he wished me a great stay in town.
My hosts had laid out an evening of entertainment: baseball. As with most Anglo-Saxon games its intricacies escaped me and, let’s face it, I was more interested in getting rat-arsed than learning why a guy dressed in pyjamas was running around or another was worthy of an ovation for catching a ball mid-air. Yet, even when obfuscated by a worrying amount of Sam Adams, I couldn’t help but notice a few things. There weren’t any riot police, water cannons, horses dressed in Day-Glo orange with a bit of Perspex around their eyes unlike every stadium I’d visited in Europe. Fans from both sides mingled together and gave each other way in the queues for loos and sausage stands in an apocalypse of “After you, ma’am”. And whenever my non-American accent was spotted I’d turn into the celebrity of the moment although, with hindsight, I should’ve passed on the “Italian meatballs” sandwich.
And so it continued for the duration of my stay, with absolute strangers offering help and guidance to other people they’d never met before, drivers letting us know we still had a quarter on the meter as we were parking after them and, above all, genuine pleasure at knowing that somebody from abroad – from Europe! – was coming to visit town. Then, as things were wrapping up and the return flight loomed large on my agenda, came the final lesson.
A barbeque. A quintessentially American affair in a condo with a community garden half the size of Andorra and an amount of food truly worthy of the adjective pantagruelic. In spite of our best efforts it was clear from the start that we’d never, ever be able to finish it all off. But that had never been part of the plan: during the feast, with the savoir faire that denoted a well-rehearsed ritual, our hosts spirited large trays of sizzling meat and potatoes, tubs of salad and big sacks of those fluffy bread buns, stacked them into the back of a van and drove them to a soup kitchen not far from where we were.
It was all so normal that I didn’t notice it and it was only when they returned that I realised what’d just happened. Through the beer haze it occurred to me that the Bible-thumping, Confederate flag-flying, gun-loving hillbillies had taught the European – son of a welfare state, born in the place where the Good Samaritan has been taught for two millennia – quite the ultimate lesson.