An Elephant in Tuscany by Kelli Lundgren

“Ha…rume!” bellows from nearby.

Then, silence.

Peculiar. The sound seems so close, but when looking out from my lofty Tuscan patio, over the iron railing, past the planter boxes of succulents and herbs hanging on the same railing, through the tall trees enveloping the second floor, the source is not in sight.
But what is it? It sounds so familiar, so distinct. I cannot place it.
“Ha…rume!” There it goes again.

Silence, once again.
Think. Think. A tuba? A nearby train? No…something alive. An elephant? An elephant trumpeting? Wait. Listen. I need to confirm.

“Ha…rume!”

One more time, just to be sure… “Ha…rume!”

Yes, it sounds like an elephant trumpeting!
But I’m in Italy enjoying a respite in the Mediterranean town of Castiglioncello. An elephant in a Tuscan neighborhood, impossible! This is Europe. Elephants live on the Asian and African continents. I shake the possibility. So what is it then?

After traveling to many places, this is my first visit to Italy. I’m experiencing it with my life partner Tom.

 

As for many, these first moments of newness will be remembered. Like new love; the first impression of another’s face, eyes, countenance, what he or she said, tucks away in your brain, sensually, permanently. Eventually a connection grows, fondness blooms, a larger picture of memorable moments merge together ­– even the smallest of considerations – into a more complex tale. Yet very first moments of newness, like love, will stash themselves into a beautiful, soulful compartment to access when wanted, when needed. Such is the case with Italy. In a heightened state, my first imprints of Tuscany are fascinatingly absorbed; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, including the odd sound of “Ha…rume!”

My first snapshots of Tuscany include pine trees shaped like giant mushrooms – trunks topped with rounded green canopies. Pointy conifers tower as dark green soldiers standing in rows protecting slender roads and entrances to Tuscan villas.

Hectares of manicured green and yellow agricultural squares roll across the countryside. Fences dissect, gates welcome, grapevines pattern, and palm trees dot the dry coast. A sea of blue lies to the west, the Mediterranean; an ocean interrupted by mountainous islands and rocky outcroppings. Beige-walled cities, once fortresses protecting people from invasion, break up the colorful farming squares. Castles – some inhabited, some abandoned – point to the sky and situate themselves sporadically amongst dense hilly forests.

Villages host cafés and trattorias, burgundy canopies, green shutters, and cobblestone streets. Italian names are embossed in marble street signs permanently mortared onto buildings, none matching Google Maps’ instructions. Tuscany’s first smells include baking bread, fresh air after a rainstorm, coffee brewing. Farm scents, too. Burning weeds, recently cropped fields. In our villa’s garden, dropped and decomposing pine needles send crisp scents up to the high-rise patio. When Tom and I first opened the borrowed home, musty air swooshed out the front door and eagerly dispersed, as sea breeze blew life into the space once again… first Italian aromas.
The tastes of Tuscany includes “pizze,” truly from Italy, not just a marketing theme; formaggio, funghi, and prosciutto pizze served whole. (Sliced triangles are only a foreign presentation.)

If you try to order a latte in Italy, response will likely begin with an Italian laugh, then “let me get you something better.” That “something better” is usually a single shot of espresso served in a miniature ceramic cup with a tiny handle. One espresso will last through an Italian’s passionate morning conversation. Cusped in one hand, the espresso’s smallness enables another hand to frequently emphasize a point while circling a cigarette. It is true, I believe, that if you tie an Italian’s arms to his or her sides, he would not be able to talk.

And on Italian evenings, house wine is sipped at café patios; a divine taste and pleasure. A Tuscan dining experience, from start to finish, will eventually merge into its own long memory, yet the first sip of vino will be remembered. Ask for the house (casa) vino. You will honor the restaurant. Your palate will thank you.

My first Mediterranean sounds include trains rolling north of the villa every fifteen minutes. Sophisticated commuter trains move gently, melodically, their sound amazingly soothing. At night, when I wake up confused about where I am, I hear the train subtly churn. The lullaby of soft wheels on tracks places me back in the villa on the Italian coast. And I return to sleep.

The passionate sound of Italian language, too, will stick with me forever. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to wake up one morning, open your mouth and be able to utter this beauty?

A few days have passed since I began sensing the newness of Tuscany. Yet the periodic “Ha… Rume!” plagues my mind. I am on its trail. Each time I hear “Ha…rume!” the more I am convinced the cry is from an elephant. Yesterday I threatened to seek out the large grey animal. “Ha…rume!” I hear through the early morning, then again in early evening, three days-on since I arrived.
“Is there an elephant around here?” I ask the handsome dark-haired barista at the nearby café.
“No,” he responds, looking perplexed.
It could be that he does not understand my English. What is elephant in Italian, anyway, elephanto? I check Google Translate. No, it’s “elephant.” The young man must think I’m as ditsy as my blonde locks and foreign accent suggest. From my perspective, obviously he is two blocks further away from this animal or he would hear it too.

The next day. I still hear the sound. This elephant must be hungry in the morning and evening. Someone feeds him. What if he’s in a cage, or on display? Of course he should “Ha..rume! Ha..rume!” his heart out… until it stops breaking, until he is free! Cruelty would be to take an animal away from his environment; from the Serengeti, I imagine. Elephants live in Africa. The Serengeti seems just as real as any other place I have not yet visited. I romanticize his freedom, his family reunion. I assume the Serengeti should be the natural home for Tuscany’s pleading elephant.=
I open my smartphone and switch on expensive international mobile data to check out “zoos” on Google Maps. No “Zoo Point of Interest” is nearby.

Another day goes by. The sound is louder, weighing heavier on my imagination. Each time I am more convinced the trumpet cannot be anything but an elephant’s plea. From my high-rise Italian patio, with each sip of espresso dripping down my throat, invigorating me, morning sun and concern press more intensely on my shoulders. I am driven to unbearable motivation to find this guy as he calls out at intervals. Five days is more than I can handle. I slap on my athletic shoes and go. This Americano is going to find an elephanto. I wander up and down the narrow street. I pause to look into side yards across from my perch, to where the sound seems to emanate. I jog out of the neighborhood and onto the main street extending from Castiglioncello miles south through the rest of Tuscany. Cars fly by. Lean bicyclists pleasantly squeezed into tight logo’d jerseys and spandex shorts whiz past me. I take the sidewalk centimeters from fast cars. I see a forested gully, and just past it, a park.

Maybe Italy is lax about what you can keep as a pet? Elephants, hyenas, giraffes. The Italian way, perhaps? I check the park’s outbuildings for pools of water, for piles of hay, for any sound, for anything. The area is lush. Plants grow denser. I peek through the trees obscuring the park from the road. I see a child’s swimming pool and a pile of junk. I circle round and see a structure. Looking further, I see it’s a home with cars parked in front. No garage. No elephant. Nothing for validation. Up, down, up, down, I walk the major roadway. I look across the busy street and discount the possibility of the sound originating further away. The elephant cannot be that far away, not from what I hear.

One more day. I sit once again on the familiar patio on an early afternoon. The sun is high, filtering through the tree leaves. It warms me on this cool September day. And there it sounds, midday, and closer now. Meters away! But it doesn’t just Ha..rume! It “Ha-ha…rumes!” An extra “ha!” Immediately I look, searching rapidly with my eyes through the fenced garden below, across the one-car wide street, over the neighbor’s white picket fence, into another villa’s yard. Viewing another yard, then another.

It’s got to be right there. I stand up. I duck to see. I peek, here and there, changing my position frequently, swiftly, being careful not to hang too far over the rail to threaten my fear of heights. Then again, “Ha-ha…rume!” So deep, it sounds. So close it is. It cannot be. I do not see the animal. I cannot find it with my eyes. But I soon realize a disappointment. It sounds, it sounds… like a rooster. The extra “Ha” makes it possible. My romantic illusion of finding this elephant is being quashed by reality. An identity comes forth as not what I had expected. I sit down and hear the now three syllable “Ha-ha…rume!” a few more times. I look, less enthusiastically, for any sign of a creature. I never see it. Then, quiet once again. Back to the other familiar sounds of a Tuscan afternoon, and I sip my wine.

I want to deny. After all, I did not actually see poultry. Tomorrow I leave on an airplane. The “Ha-ha…rume!” I determine, is still a life out of place. Yes, I will go with that, an elephant out of Africa, away from home, away from his family, on a distant continent managing a foreign culture.

Pragmatism tugs at me. A rooster. Maybe. He sounded his presence in his land, in the Mediterranean seaside village of Castiglioncello, across a white picket fence, in a garden, with a baritone Italian crow; vibrant, passionate, pleading. And then I realize on this same afternoon, on this same patio, toward finishing a glass of vino russo (from Tuscany’s Bulgheri region), that I am perhaps this being.

My continent is not Africa, but America. My food is not hay, but a yearning to replace pasta with vegetables. My communication with locals is limited to mostly “buon giorno” and “ciao.” Perhaps I am the one who misses my family, my Maui home, my friends, my language. I am out of place. And while I love to absorb the unfamiliar, I am at the end of a month long’s journey through Europe. It seems just the right time to go home.

I did not tell you about Tuscany’s touch earlier. I wanted to save it for last. In the town of Pisa, the streets are crowded with wandering pedestrians, crazy drivers, and helmeted scooter riders braiding through traffic. At one point, right in front of me, a car clips a man crossing the crosswalk. The pedestrian does not seem hurt. But both the driver – now out of his car – and the man begin an intense Italian conversation with hands and voices animated. Uniformed police stroll over to watch and make sure the exchange does not escalate into higher proportions, if that’s even possible. The officers stand idle. Then at some point they join the discussion. Suddenly, after one officer instructs, the driver and walker hug. All becomes good. The driver gets into his car and drives off. The man strides on. And the two policemen saunter away. Italian touch cures all.

The sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches of Italy are heavy on my mind. They have not yet fully absorbed. Yet, my first moments, including a bellowed “Ha… rume!” will remain forever stashed in a soulful compartment in my mind to access many times again… when wanted, when needed.

 

BIO: Kelli Lundgren lives in Hawaii and is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. From promotional product copy during her youthful years to opinion-editorial pieces, creative nonfiction writing courses at the University of Utah were motivated by Kelli’s free time during the Great Recession. A volunteer at Maui’s Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve, Kelli writes a monthly environmental column for “Neighbors of Wailea/Makena” magazine. An avid sailor, she follows the wind around Maui’s coast, and in the fall, additional breeze off the Adriatic edge of Croatia.