Barolo, A Flat Tire & The Meaning Of The Host-Guest Relationship
How Paolo Manzone Is Why I Host Travelers Today
My favorite line in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, is voiced by Mandy Potinkin’s character Inigo Montoya after believing he had been defeated in his lifelong quest to avenge his father’s murder.
In the scene he has drunk himself to the point of inebriation, returning to where he met the now deceased (though he doesn’t know it yet) Vinzini (the one responsible for all of those “inconceivable” references).
Sitting on the ground he groans aloud to no one, “You told me to go back to the beginning. So I have.” The reason why I love this line so much is the same reason I enjoy origin stories in either books or film—I love knowing what I know today and hearing the story of how the present was arrived at.
I wish for both you and me to return to this post years from now and understand it the way Inigo Montoya did—as a return to the beginning.
And as this also happens to be the first of what I hope to be a library of posts, it’s only right we begin at the very beginning—at least how I am understanding the beginning as it relates to my present journey with Airbnb in San Antonio, and what San Antonio Stays is intended to be.
And my beginning is in Serralunga d’Alba, Italy, in the Piemonte region about 60km southeast of Turin, and upon meeting Paolo Manzone for the first time.
I’m Late For My Appointment
I was racing to my last wine tasting appointment for the day on my first of six days in Serralunga d’Alba—a beautiful hillside village of rolling green hills, castles and vineyards. It is one of the areas of the region known as Barolo producing some of the most iconic red Italian wines.
And it was home to Paola Manzone’s vineyard where my tasting was scheduled.
The jagged cliffs of the rock face extended down the hillside towards Paolo’s tasting room along a single gravel road.
On my right the rock face climbed high; on my left the hillside dropped off sharply. Keeping my SUV-sized rental car centered on the narrow makeshift road was all I could think of.
Too far to the left and I imagined it tumbling over on itself until the slope leveled off, at which point I assumed my car would be a wreckage of fiberglass and steel and me fertilizer for the grapes.
And too far right, and I would grafitte my rental’s sidewall with Freddy Kruegar art.
Driving across Italian wine country and the narrow cliffside roads sober was difficult enough; adding as my passenger some incredible Italian wines didn’t make it any easier.
And then I watched a car departing Paolo’s grounds emerge from the curve ahead barreling towards me. If the driver was another American on vacation—having just finished his own wine tasting—I think one or both of us would have been in physical pain on attempting to pass one another.
Fortunate for us the driver must have been a skilled operator of small Italian cars on narrow Italian hillside roads, because he raced by me on my left as I embraced the jagged rock side on my right.
He passed me with maybe a fine hair’s length separating us, and him from the edge of the road. But I knew I scraped something on the right; the sound was too obvious. But on making it down the hill, parking, and quickly examining my rental, I found nothing off.
So I ran over to the marked tasting room and forgot about my near-death experience and just focused on the wine I was about to taste.
I want to come back to Paolo’s wine in a minute. If I begin to describe how amazing they all were, I’ll never finish the story I want to tell.
But know that his wines, his wife’s presentation of them in the tasting room, and Paolo’s captivating tour of his grounds didn’t disappoint.
“We’ll Find A Solution”
Let’s get back to my car rental.
“Damn, I’m glad that’s not our car,” one of the English-speaking Swedes in my tasting appointment said to his four mates as we exited our tasting with Paolo’s wife and were about to begin our tour with Paolo.
There were about three seconds when I thought the same thing, seeing the destruction of the passenger-side front wheel. The tire was flat and the rim was torn up.
And then I realized it was my car.
Paolo in his broken English said, “Let’s finish the tour and then we’ll see about your car.” I agreed. But I was distracted the entire time with thoughts about how my short time in the region of Italy I was most excited to explore may be affected by this.
Without a car, I would be confined to my Airbnb. And I was only in Serralunga d’Alba for a few days with multiple wine tastings scheduled every day I was to be there. Instead of enjoying Paolo’s tour, I was mentally going through nothing but negative thoughts about how my week was now going to turn out.
The tour over, the Swedes wished me luck and departed. And Paolo came over to look at my car.
“Where are you staying,” he asked me. I described the small village where my Airbnb was just a few minutes on the other side of the valley, and he knew it instantly. He pointed to the tower in the distance confirming where it was.
“You need a tire,” he said. “I’ll take you back now. Come here tomorrow morning at eight o’clock and we’ll find a solution.”
We’ll find a solution. I can still hear Paolo today telling me we’ll find a solution.
I had changed tires before, so I didn’t usually think of a flat tire as a major problem. But all I could focus on was that I was in the middle of wine country, nothing but agricultural plots and farmers, I didn’t speak any Italian, I didn’t know anyone where I was, and I didn’t know who to call for help.
Paolo pulled his truck out of the covered garage and told me to get in. The trip was just a few minutes, but Paolo asked me questions the entire time. Why was I in Italy. For how long was I staying. Was I enjoying myself. Where was I from.
He filled the time with curiosity, and before I knew it we were pulling into my little village.
Almost immediately he began to waive to a passerby. “Come stai, Paolo?” was the reply. Two more hellos and how are you’s exchanged between Paolo and people walking down the street.
“It is a small town,” he said to me with a smile, “we all know each other.”
He reminded me to be at his vineyard at 8AM, told me not to worry, again said we’d find a solution, and wished me a goodnight. I thanked him and returned to my Airbnb, anxious about the uncertainty of my situation and whether I would be able to repair my car in time to enjoy what was a stunningly beautiful region of the country.
The next morning I was up by 6AM, impatient to get the day started. I walked around the valley to Paolo’s vineyard, and then down the same narrow gravel road I traveled in my car the day before.
I investigated the rock side and saw all of the potential offenders sticking out of the cliff. Jagged rock protruded throughout. I guessed I had gotten too close the day before, and one of those protrusions pierced my tire while the rest tore up my rim.
It was no later than 7:15AM, and I had intended to be there when Paolo emerged so that we didn’t waste any time.
As I made my way around the cliff and his parking area came into view, I saw a man on his knees by my car’s damaged tire with tools. I picked up my pace and jogged down the hill and found Paolo was the man.
I had guessed that Paolo was maybe in his late sixties or early seventies. It was 7:15AM and he was already getting to work on my car, removing the tire. I tried to persuade him to let me take over, thanking him for his effort. But he wouldn’t have any of it.
“No, no, no…I’ll take care of it,” he said, brushing me off and finishing the job himself.
The tire off, he told me that he knew a man in town who could help. That the man had a garage and fixed cars, but didn’t speak any English. And that he, Paolo, was going to take me into town to translate for me.
He tossedthe tire in the back of his truck and asked me if I was ready.
Accepting help from my family and friends has always made me uncomfortable. I would always rather figure out my problem on my own and not inconvenience them. So accepting this help from Paolo had me incredibly uncomfortable.
I ignorantly asked if there was a taxi I could call so that I didn’t have to take Paolo away from his day. He laughed and told me no, that there were no taxis here. I pretended to suggest I would figure something out on my own, but the reality was that I needed his help.
And he was more than happy to give it.
As I got into his truck something inside me pushed aside all of my anxiety and stress, reminding me that I had come to Italy to explore it’s wine regions, to visit the areas I enjoyed reading about and attempting to learn through experience what I had only read about in books.
And that one of the region’s master winemakers was sitting next to me.
He told me the garage was maybe fifteen minutes away. And so I had fifteen minutes to either be anxious about my car tire, or to take advantage of the time and have a conversation with this man.
In those fifteen minutes I learned about the few trips he had taken to New York City, where I lived, to promote his wine. About his love for the art of creating wine.
I asked him questions about his process, and admittedly attempted to show off a little of what little I knew about Barolo specifically and viticulture in general. By the time we arrived at the garage I felt like I could speak with Paolo for hours and never get bored.
He was proud of his family’s years growing Nebbiolo and turning it into wine, the satisfaction of working with his hands under the hot sun at something he loved. He felt himself fortunate, more so than many others, and that it was something he was appreciative of and that as a result he owed his community something in return.
And he had just upended his day to deal with a total stranger.
Paolo translated for me, and we left the garage together after about thirty minutes with our plan.
The garage owner, realizing my car was a foreign make, hadn’t any of the factory tires available in his shop and needed to order one for me. He was concerned for me that when I returned my rental they would notice an odd tire and charge me for it.
So he gave Paolo one of his spare tires to put on my rental for the week I was going to be in Serralunga d’Alba and to have me return at the end of the week when the factory tire should arrive to switch out the spare for the factory tire.
I asked Paolo how much I owed the man, and he said, “Nothing…just don’t forget to bring him back his tire. He needs it back for his car.”
The garage owner wasn’t giving me a spare tire. He was giving me a tire he was about to take off another vehicle trusting that I would bring it back to him and not leave him having paid for a new factory tire for my car for nothing.
He put the tire in Paolo’s truck, and we drove back to Paolo’s vineyard. Another fifteen minutes of opportunity to converse with this beautiful man.
We arrived, and he called for one of the men who worked for him and told him to change out my tire. I asked Paolo if I could give him something as a thank you for all of the time and assistance he had given me, but he refused.
He told me that one day he may find himself in a foreign country and in need of help, and he hoped that there would be someone who wanted to help him. He told me I could now enjoy the rest of my vacation, having only been without my car for a few hours.
I thanked him perhaps thirty times, feeling like there was nothing remotely fair about his giving so much time to me without compensation. I bought two cases of his wine to ship back to New York City before I left. It was all I could think of at the time to show my appreciation for his time and selflessness.
He thanked me, wished me well, and reminded me to not forget to bring back my car to the garage at the end of the week to get the correct tire and return what had been loaned not to me, but to Paolo. It was Paolo’s reputation the garage owner was trusting, not the American.
I said goodbye to Paolo, feeling like I had just experienced what humanity is supposed to be about. I was just the recipient of genuine love. I was a stranger to this man, and this man gave me his time, his reputation, and his labor, and did so with no expectation or desire for compensation.
I had felt like I had just debited from the universe, and that I now owed it something back.
After making my wine tasting appointments that afternoon, I returned to my Airbnb around 6PM. Across from the home I was staying in was a small grocery store where I had already found the shopkeeper spoke some English.
I went inside and briefly told her what had happened with me, and that if I were in New York I would have sought out a good bottle of wine to give to the man who had just helped me as Paolo had.
But it felt wrong to buy this winemaker a bottle of someone else’s wine as a thank you. Did she have any suggestions for me.
“I know Paolo. He and his wife come in here all the time,” she told me. “Is there something they enjoy here,” I asked.
And for the next ten minutes the shopkeeper and I put a basket together of all the items she could remember Paolo and his wife bought in her shop. Cheeses and meats, breads and candies and jams. She wrapped the items for me and I headed back towards Paolo’s vineyard.
Paolo Is Not Finished With Me
I was careful this time driving down his gravel road, and by now it was around 6:30PM so his parking lot was empty of guests. The tasting room was empty, and there wasn’t anyone working to be seen.
I found a door that suggested it was the right one to knock on, and Paolo’s wife answered. I struggled to use the little Italian I had attempted to memorize to introduce myself, but broke into English after “Ciao. Il mio nome è Anthony?”
I began to explain what Paolo had done for me in the morning, and she quickly said that she remembered me and that Paolo had told her what happened.
“I just wanted to thank him for all that he did for me,” I said, extending the package I put together. She smiled, and insisted I come in.
When she opened the package and began to take out the items, her smiled widened with each product. “Oh, we love this,” she said with the first block of cheese. “And this too!” she almost shouted with the next.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had secret intel on her likes and dislikes, and that I purposefully planned each of the items. I was enjoying her surprise.
We chatted for a few minutes, and she apologized more than once for Paolo’s absence. “He should have been back by now,” she said.
When it was 7PM I told her that I didn’t want to take up any more of her time, and that I really appreciated her and Paolo’s time. She bid me farewell, and told me she would let Paolo know I was there and of all the treats I had brought.
I walked back to my car and as I put my key in the lock I was filled with a regret that I couldn’t see Paolo again. I thought that maybe I would look to return the next day or the day after, but didn’t want it to seem that I was looking for a thank you for the items. I wasn’t.
I just really wanted to see Paolo again.
“Paolo,” his wife shouted as I opened the door. “Paolo! Antonio è qui.”
I turned around and saw Paolo returning from his vineyards. He face glistened from the heat of the sun, he clothes were dark from working in them all day, and he moved slowly, likely from the fatigue of a long workday outside.
His wife went inside and returned with the bag of groceries I had brought, and began to show him what was inside. He smiled when he recognized the items, and invited me to sit down. I initially declined, telling him I didn’t want to impose upon him again.
But he insisted. He spoke to his wife in Italian, and before I knew it she had emerged with a chilled bottle of sparkling wine, some bread and cheese. And for the next hour the three of us sat outside at a table overlooking their vineyard, and having a conversation in English.
Twenty-four hours earlier I was just another foreign stranger visiting their vineyard. And now I was an invited guest in their home.
But then, I wasn’t “just another foreign stranger” to Paolo and his wife. That wasn’t how they lived. That wasn’t what they believed.
From the moment I showed up on their property I was treated like a special guest. I was cared for, I was fed, I was given wine to drink. I can’t imagine it felt as special to them as it did to me.
To them what had transpired, what was transpiring, was what a human being is supposed to do for another human being. It was like breathing for them.
But to me, it was all very much extraordinary.
And just because it was natural for them to be selfless with a stranger makes their act no less special. Having lived and worked in New York City for so many years, I suppose I had developed an assumption about people, about their propensity for selfless kindness, and did so in a negative light.
And here these two beautiful individuals were proving me wrong. Or rather, they were showing me that there is indeed variety in the world, and that there is still humanity that values the host-guest relationship.
I will always remember Paolo and his wife, Luisella. For their kindness. For their generosity and selflessness. For their wine (it is something special).
And most of all for their humanity.
And for being the inspiration for my desire to be something kind, generous and selfless to visitors to the city I am calling home today with my own Airbnbs. It is my way to repay what Paolo offered me. It is how we pay it forward, and deposit back into the universe what we had previously debited out.
It is how I choose to honor a man who did far more for me than change me tire.
We hope you find reason to stay with us in our home. And if you do, we hope we succeed in delivering to you what Paolo delivered to me—a truly enjoyable experience, the memory of which will not fade with time.
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