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In Italy and Austria for holiday, I decided to keep a journal.
Northern Italy seems like a capitalist's dream. The infrastructure is modern, the buildings cool and clean, buses and trains run frequently, are comfortable and rarely late. Of course, our young Italian friend explain over a cocktail, on a beautiful piazza in Dolo, in the warm air of the summer's eve, life is not as simple as it seems. Jobs are hard to find, apartments expensive and government corrupt. Nibbling on an olive, I nod my head and stare dreamily into the landscape. At least they've got the food...
Returning to Italy is a process. Wake up under a single sheet, have strong coffee. Potter in Padova, watch the people (tanned, slim, good-looking), shops (quirky, overpriced), buildings (crumbling, leaning, fascinating). Breathe in the warm stones, the shade of the porticos. Buy fragrant tomatoes, sweaty asiago and full, sweet peaches on the market at the main square. Have a picnic in the park, feeding young sparrows. Potter some more, than nap. Wake up at six to go out again, dressed up. Aperitif on the main square, two-hour dinner, chatting to the restaurant owner over limoncello. Sleep without dreams.
Venice, always something new. This time we enjoyed: young sparrows steal breadcrumbs from the table; dragonfly glide over a fountain; cats nap in the shaded alleys, on windowsills, under benches; crabs pick their way through canal sea-weed; blue fish dart to and fro at the port. Sit still at Torcello for fifteen minutes and something will come and find you, if only to escape the heat by sitting in your shade.
Came up with a new message for English Eurostar:
'Welcome to England. The passengers are informed the country is delayed by approximately ten years. Second-class service only.'
Perhaps the best thing about Italian women is their approach to ageing. Ageing is as much a psychological as a physical process – when one chooses to wear longer, greyer dresses, to disappear. Mature Italian women do not negate age, like their English-speaking equivalents (botox-injecting, sunlamp-basking, slutty-dressing, teeth-whitening, makeup-overdoing equivalents). I saw women in their fifties wear backless dresses, bright skirts, original jewlery; and also those who thanks to some care and style remain timelessly elegant. There is artifice here, but there is also art, and ease, and pleasure of looking and being looked at.
In a way, this is very similar to my childhood holidays. There is a small beach and a smell of the lake; motorboats and yachts come in and out the marina, and little plastic-winged kids cover themselves in ice-cream. It is also crucially different. The lake is 40km long, and clear as crystal. The sun presses on the skin like a hot palm, and we escape into the shade to be served good white wine in chilled, sweating glasses. The boats I can see cost more than a house, and the bathers' swim-suits are all designer brand.
As one starts the climb northwards from lake Garda, leaving behind the post-glacial confusion of rocks, hills and mountains, a new valley unfolds. Once past the deep bowl occupied by Lago di Teno, overshadowed by a peak that makes one lose their perspective, a fertile, breathtaking paradise of a valley unfolds. Seemingly isolated from the outside world, the hidden valley stretches for a good few kilometres, its floor covered in fields and spotted with towns, each clinging precariously to a rock outcrop. Every town, clustered around its bell tower, overlooks a panorama of streams and pastures, heaving with activity.
The valley is hugged by enormous mountains, raising from the valley floor up, up, a thousand metres, more, their sheer faces glowing gold in the evening sun. The few side valleys are steep and narrow, but we find a road, which through human ingenuity spirals, climbs and burrows, and brings our panting little car higher and higher, into the clouds, above them, until finally we reach our destination. The hanging valley of Molveno is closed off in every direction by ragged peaks or sheer drops, and as we arrive the peaceful lake starts whispering with the first drops of rain.
The degree of Italianess of a village can be calculated by the number of benches provided in front of the houses for old ladies to sit on. You see, old Italian ladies are primarily solar-powered; a daily portion of gossiping in the sun is essential to their well-being, and cannot be achieved without a bench to perch on. Great care will go into the decoration (flowers, gnomes), comfort (pillows, blankets) and maintenance of those benches. In Molveno, some were even provided by the council, which I found very touching. All for the benefit of small old Italian ladies.
It is strange how it all changes, Italian-ness into Austrian-ness as one crosses Alto Adige, and than Sud Tirol. Not only are the signs bilingual, but people too, often with German being the preferred language. The dinner structure on the menu remains the same: starter, pasta and main, but the composition of the dishes changes, heavy on the meats and cream, and accompanied by beer rather than wine. Especially now, borders matter little to the daily lives. I am sure, though, that the Italian government in pleased about the influx of taxes from this prosperous, hard working province...
I am environmentally-minded; I recycle my trash, not own a car, worry about the climate. But when on holiday, a rented car gives one so much liberty! Not only to travel unusual routes, but also to make stops along the way, whenever we feel like it. We took that opportunity in Stams, and walked up the valley heading to the waterfall; it was good to feel the cool breeze coming off the glacial creek, and have water mist settle on your skin as the little bridge trembled and the Alpine panorama stretched in front of you, all so clear.
Ah, we walked, we walked. Through the woodlands and meadows first, than up-up on the lift, and than more up, urgh-up, own legs now, pushing and pulling up. Such views, all around – Switzerland, Austria and Germany all crowding into view as I take in, and my man points out. Dizzy-drunken bees cover us on the peak, landing heavily and gripping onto hats, backpacks, shirts, never the skin; strange hitch-hikers. On the way down we race an elderly couple and win by the teeth of our skin; I hope to be so fit when I'm their age!
We climbed from the valley so high up, maybe a thousand metres vertically, onto a ragged ridge. Up-and-down we struggled, over all together six peaks on this thorny crown. The stone was dry and white as a bone, crumbly, with shrubs and flowers hanging on for deal life. It exhaled heat right back at us, and quickly made us weary. When we finally scrambled down, dizzy with the heat and strain, I spotted a hut and a kind man gave us fizzy water from the back of his car. If only I spoke German to express my gratitude!
When the rains came to Molveno, they clearly meant it. Starting with a drizzle, the clouds quickly made up their minds and threw curtain after curtain of water over the landscape, each more opaque than the last one; in turn, they swept the surface of the lake, and rapidly started taking things away – the peaks first, than the mountains, than the town vanished, and soon not even the lake could be seen, only a strip of soaked beach and the noisy, grey curtain of the rain. Soon after, things started re-appearing, first as delicate outlines, but quickly filling in.
Things re-materialised so clear, their edges so sharp the eye could get cut on them. The newborn, soaked world sparkled in the sun, made anew.
But the storms have followed us, and they have learned. In Molveno they swallowed the lake; now they attempt to take on a whole Alpine valley. Strong fingers are drumming on the roof, and I'm waiting to see if the rain will be successful.
Well, it was. The valley, and indeed most of the country disappeared for two days. Everywhere we go, the rains got there first. Like migratory birds, we are heading south.
On the beach, humanity is at its strangest. Somehow the presence of water and sun legitimises behaviours otherwise unacceptable: women who would never venture out in a miniskirt present their bodies to passers-by; girls spread their legs desiring the tan, and tantalise men who stare from behind paperbacks; bony adolescents take off their t-shirts and puff out their chests, in hopes of being noticed. Nodding off on deck chairs,or attending to crying babies, adults seem far from relaxed. People blink, sweat and suffer, and if I see one more brightly coloured piece of plastic I will snap.
The usual issue of living in Italy came up, leaving me tense, fearing and desiring change. Seeking an outlet for my frustration I stopped in front of a window and exclaimed: 'My ass is huge!'. My fellow, gripping my huge ass fondly, explained. Women differ from men in that they acknowledge they have no control over their lives, and move on to issues they can complain about, such as asses. Men have not come to terms with the unpredictability of life, and thus fight or get drunk, pretending to control their destinies. I laughed at that baloney, and felt better.
Working people of the first world! Modern business makes you work so hard you have forgotten how to relax. But fear not, for hope for the workaholic classes has arrived – outsource your holidays to me! Give me your holiday budget and I will enjoy myself for you, in great style and with effortless efficiency. I will travel, dine and admire the views, and my activities will be recorded on a personalised instruction tape you'll receive after the completion of my trip. You'll never again find yourselves squabbling over the choice of eatery! Let holidays be wasted (on you) no more!
At airports, without fail we discuss the travel habits of the English. Firstly, there is a twitchy mass in front of the information board, way early for check-in. Than, when the number does appear and we proceed to the desk, we find and already formed orderly line of old ladies and chavvy couples, although 20 seconds at most have passed since the information was announced. They must have materialised out of thin air, or possibly camped in front of it all along. Than comes the fumbling of documents and passports, the nervous shushing of children. Than, another orderly line.
It's the safety check. Finally a mind-numbing two hours on the airport chairs (too cheap to spend at airport bars, too phlegmatic to browse the shops). When the gate is announced, the English rush like a flock of sheep (baaa, baaa), and congregate nervously in the area, ready to jump at the first sign of a flight attendant. When the poor girl/boy does approach the desk, all raise in unison and form yet another orderly queue, standing there with bored expressions for twenty minutes, only to be stuffed into buses, which upsets the meticulously constructed hierarchy. Gods weep.
Funny how for the first time in my life I'm starting to feel the pressure of society upon me, like a hot breath on my back. Last night I dreamt of marrying my man – that's not happened to me before. I seem to be surrounded by relationship turmoil. Someone's just had a baby; someone's baby has just started walking; the guy next to me at the office just got engaged– I mean, it's getting a bit much. I never thought not marrying would be so difficult, and I am only.. whatever, young! What will happen when I hit 'real adulthood'?
British TV is huge on auctions lately. Dig out old junk from your attic and see how much it will fetch – that pretty much covers most daytime shows. The stuff's just awful, and I could never understand the auction frenzy until I went to one myself. It was a fund-raiser, weird and wonderful. I am no stranger to ebay bidding, but this, hah, this is different! I walked out of the room a proud owner of a sodium chloride particle model, map of the world and, ekhm, a one-by-two metres panorama of Mont Blanc. I like it.
And so the music takes me away with it again, to a different place, a different time and reality, a little break from reality, a holiday from reason; a room filled with gentle glow of morning sun behind the drapes, filled with sweet half-darkness and sweet breath, sweet breaths, taken away by the touch, as the music cruises through, in, around me/us.. All steady and lucid like a strange, realistic dream, while it's happening, while it happened, and now there is the music, and it crashes into me in waves and again it takes me, takes me away..
We were discussing getting old with some friends yesterday, having caught ourselves around a table digesting in satisfied silence. Fortunately no-one made the 'ooooh' sigh sitting down, so things are not critical as yet. I was also quick to point out that medical problems are so far not on our list of fun-for-all topics, indicating we still have some years of youth to go through. However, we did say some harsh things about camping ('You're hot, you're cold, you're sweaty, you're itchy, and you can't make a decent cup of tea'), sign of more comfortable times ahead..
Social scientists have the license to be interested in anything. But when I look around with my mind’s eye I cringe, as I realize the extent of my ignorance – which makes everything of interest. What makes sap move inside trees? They have no muscles to pump it around. Do nano-scientists constructing carbon tubes from single atoms in their labs feel like gods? Do the people of the West, feeling increasingly like pieces of straw in a whirlwind, worry so much about the future they choose not to have children? I look around and my heart swells, I want to know.
The fields have turned yellow since I last took this trip. Trees and fields are still lush green, but fecund death is already upon us. Italy, where I’m returning, is going to be hot, very hot, and dusty. I will smell the dust of wheat harvest on the air. Cities will be quiet, and many shops closed as people withdraw into cooler places, like toads that bury themselves in the sand until it rains. As a child, I came across a buried toad once, digging in a sandbank. I though it was a rock until it open its yellow eyes.
They say death comes for someone, or even that it enters someone’s body. But death leaves the body, it comes out of it. We carry it around, in us, all our lives; it teaches us, and it teaches itself, about dying in the little deaths of hairs, skin cells, nails. Death hugs us from the inside, and it grows, until it fills us so completely we can feel its bony chill under the stretched, thin cover of the skin. And than death exits the body, and without death life cannot hold on, so it follows it out, like a dog.
Babies learn so much in so little time, you have to wonder how they tell what in this world is important, and what is not. Take my nine-month-old nephew, sitting in the grass, his attention traveling like a pendulum between his nappy and a chair. He grabs the chair leg with glee, lets it go, grabs his nappy with same glee, looks around, and goes back to the chair leg. This goes on and on. I can’t help asking myself: is there a connection between chair legs and nappies I haven’t noticed? What else in the world am I missing?
I have forgotten what it means to be alone, especially to travel alone in Italy. Suddenly I'm painfully aware of my size (smallish), behaviour (relaxed, scatterminded), and most of all gender (vulnerable, unsettling). Having a drink requires a book to hide behind, and still I feel the pressure of men around me, not agressive, but not friendly either. As it gets dark I retreat to my hotel like a snail into its shell, hiding my soft body from the reality it does not fit into. What a sudden switch in perception, from accepptable half of a pair to unacceptable singularity.
Travelling, I've become empty, like a spacious wardrobe, or maybe a chest of drawers, yes, a chest of drawers is better, it suggests some kind of order. I move myself from place to place and from person to person at such a pace I'm unable to process, to digest what is happening to me, what I'm experiencing. I'm not fully alive, the temperature makes me sluggish, the changing landscape disorientates me, the people talking to me overwhelm me. I can only collect information, store it in my many compartments, put it away for future consideration, when I've become myself again.
It's a hot night at Portogruaro. Music called me out from my room, rythmic jazz, female voice singing incomprehensibly in English. They were playing on the street, parked up under a portico. The androgynous saxophonist swayed, the plump guitarist sweated under his hat. All seven of them so young, so immersed in the music.
A serious looking man dressed in black is making baloon animals on the main square, children flock and he scares them away pretending to bite off their little fingers. Someone is selling heavy telescopes, but no-one is buying, the stars are close this clear night.
It is a good, well-proportioned town.The streets are not too narrow, the squares ample and clean. A marble rider strains to raise in the saddle of his marble mount in front of town hall. There are stone benches by the town's many canals, which flow elegantly shaped by white embankments; the water's so clear I can see every feather on the back of a diving greeb. At night the water slows down and shines like spilled black ink, reflecting lights and facades, and strolling figures. The stones pant out the heat of the day, people enjoy the evening breeze.
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