And so—rolling through Signa, initial setting for Ouida’s novel, rolling from my Jack London to my Mary Shelley obsession—I felt an odd confluence of passions.
I read Signa back when I was working on my YA biography (Jack London: A Biography, Scholastic Press, 1997), but I’d forgotten much of it. But just now I discovered that the entire text is available online (link to text)—and here’s some of what Ouida said about the little town:
It is so old our Signa, no man could chronicle all it has seen in the centuries; but not one in ten thousand travellers thinks about it. Its people plait straw for the world, and the train from the coast runs through it: that is all that it has to do with other folks.
Passengers come and go from the sea to the city, from the city to the sea, along the great iron highway, and perhaps they glance at the stern, ruined walls, at the white houses on the cliffs, at the broad river with its shining sands, at the blue hills with the poplars at their base, and the pines at the summits, and they say to one another that this is Signa.
But it is all they ever do do; ….[i]
And I have to add that I didn’t see many fellow passengers staring fondly or curiously out the windows of the train … just the reflection of an aging American with a memory of Jack London.
I see on the map that Pisa is about sixty miles west of Florence, with Signa lying only about twelve miles outside of Florence. Total trip by train—about an hour and a half.
I noted in my journal that some of the hills on the journey reminded me of those near Marietta, Ohio, down on the Ohio River—but the Tuscan hills also reminded me of the scenery in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado about Nothing (1994), a film I used with my eighth-grade students the final few years of my middle school career. They loved it. So did I, even though I saw it five or six times a year (I had that many classes) before my retirement in January 1997.
In Pisa, I found a so-so hotel, then walked around the streets taking pictures. I knew I had to go see the Leaning Tower, and, of course, it was mobbed with tourists, surrounded by merchants selling everything you can think of that’s even vaguely Tower-related. I had actually heard at the hotel desk a couple of Americans ask the clerk if there were anything else to see in Pisa—a moment I could not have credibly created. It happened.
Then I boarded a train for La Spezia, a little over an hour up Italy’s western coast. It was near here that the Shelleys had decided to spend the summer of 1822, a summer that poor Bysshe Shelley would not survive. I needed to stand in the scene.
Photos of Pisa from my April 1999 visit ...