Category: Italy

Twelve months ago

Every so often Kate and I find ourselves posing the question to each other, "What were we doing this time last year?”, not for any deep or meaningful reason, but simply because in the two years or less since we both ceased gainful employment and began doing other things with our lives, even we are beginning to lose track of where we have been and what we have done. The answer to this question if posed at the present time is that we were mid way through six months of living in northern Italy, for me the longest period I have ever spent outside the UK and therefore an experience of some significance. What is rather strange, however, is that it takes no effort at all to remember our Italian sojourn because a number of rather bizarre happenings are combining to act as reminders for us, things that seem to be stretching the boundaries of coincidence considerably.

The apartment in which we were living, tucked away in the village of Torri at the end of an ‘interesting’ fifteen minute drive from the Italian Riviera town of Ventimiglia, was owned by native English speakers, a fact that became evident when we first glanced at the content of the bookshelves that would sustain us throughout the winter months. It would be no exaggeration, indeed a considerable understatement, to say that our lives were made more enjoyable through having such a library at our disposal. Many a rainy day did we spend in front of our log fire, reading our way through novel after novel, all of which were new to us and most very much to our taste. How could whoever placed these books there have known?

So here we are back in the UK, twelve months has elapsed, and a film based on the Stieg Larsson novel we read in Italy, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, is opening at cinemas across the country. It doesn’t stop there though. At least three of the books on our shelves were written by Henning Mankell whose creation, the Swedish detective Wallander, really got under our skins. So to see him come to life on television here in Britain has been a real treat, as well as taking us straight back to the fireside sofa in Italy. Then as if this wasn’t enough, when we recently heard the name Aurelio Zen this too immediately rang bells for us. Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring this Italian detective have an amazing feel to them, Italian life just oozes out of every word despite them being written in English by an Englishman. Having now watched the TV version we are not disappointed. It is almost as if whoever stocked those now far off bookshelves must have had an uncanny, even spooky, ability to see into the future. Surely this cannot just be coincidence.

The reminders of our Italian living do not, however, start or end on the bookshelves. Being ever conscious of our making best use of pension pounds (or Euros), it was not long before our daily and weekly shopping in Italy had introduced us to a new experience. We have my brother Graham to thank for our initiation to the place – he shops there regularly – and we did have our reservations at first but sooner or later we found we had caught the ‘Lidl’ bug. Now if you prefer to buy your foodstuffs with labels you recognise, Kelloggs for breakfast, Heinz for lunch, Cadbury’s for a snack, then a Lidl supermarket is not for you. The problem is not that they don’t sell any products you recognise (they do) but simply that the brands and labels are not those you will be used to. So for example you may find yourself buying ‘Crownfield’ corn flakes for breakfast, ‘Campo Largo’ is the brand for canned goods and if you are looking for a Mars Bar then you’ll need to find a sweet bearing the name, ‘Mister Choc – Choco Caramel’ which only reveals itself for what it really is when you bite into it. All this was part of the learning experience we went through when we first arrived in Italy so that by the time we left in April 2010, we had become thoroughly Lidl-ised, possibly even addicted.

Imagine our surprise when we first started exploring Yeovil after our arrival here in August last year when we found ourselves within easy walking distance of our own Lidl supermarket. This was like home from home for us and the reminders of our Italian life were everywhere we looked. But there was still one thing missing for us, one product that was a particular favourite of my brother Graham, and soon became ours too as thanks to his generosity a bowl full of these things always appeared before us at the end of our climb up to his Torri apartment. It was not until early December that our local Yeovil Lidl finally started to stock our favourite ‘Crusty Croc’ crisps, paprika flavour. Thanks Bro’ for introducing us to a snack that now takes our minds back twelve months with consummate ease.

Ensuite sink & shower

And what has been happening around the home whilst all this reminiscing has been taking place? Well, I am doing another apprenticeship in plumbing, connecting complex bits of copper together so that water can flow around the shower and the small sink we have squeezed in. Kate puts herself at great risk by holding the pipes together so that I can apply the blowtorch and solder them up; such bravery. She still has both eyebrows so things must be going reasonably OK.

Hedgerows and landscapes

On our journey north away from the spring of northern Italy we pause briefly to experience the same season just emerging in southern England. The buds here are swelling in the hedgerows, making this contrivance one of the most remarkable of man’s creations. Some examples are nearly as ancient as human habitation; take a 30 metre length of hedge and its age in years can be roughly determined by multiplying the number of species by 110. Hawthorn and holly, beech and hazel, chestnut and alder plus so many more we cannot identify are all constrained together in a narrow corridor only an arm span wide which can stretch for many miles across the countryside. These are highways of life and they are as common here as they are absent from the land we have just left.

We stay for a few of days with friends, deep in Kentish farmland in their timber-framed cottage. From the back window we gaze out past the magnolia tree into a cherry orchard, home to magpies, woodpeckers, several tawny owls, the odd pheasant and many rabbits. A flock of rare-breed sheep, black with white faces (as if part of a photographic negative) are allowed to roam here in order to keep the grass trimmed and this gives a tidy aspect to the place, tidiness being a word that I have always felt applied to the countryside in this corner of Britain. In front gardens there is scarcely a hedge that is not trimmed, a lawn that is not cut or a shrub that is not pruned to within an inch of its life and this sense of order is somehow carried out into the farmland as well.

The land here appears almost flat (until you start walking when you soon realise it isn’t) and the skyline is at eye level, decorated with trees, currently bare of leaves with their twisted branches exposed and cold. The English country cottage, black timbers intersecting white plaster, is what we think of when we use the phrase ‘old house’, just as in Italy it is a tall dwelling built of large, irregular stones, often plastered in yellow and connected in a cluster with others on a steep mountainside. The age of the dwelling in each country may well be similar but the view through the window can never be the same. In Italy the horizon is visible only by tilting the head back uncomfortably and raising the eyes heavenwards. The contrast between Kent and Ligurian Italy could not be more vivid.

Our friends’ house, once three adjoining farm-workers cottages, is a now complex mix of dark beams and interesting corners, all tastefully decorated and with the conveniences of modern living blended neatly in. The positions of the walls between each of the former dwellings are still visible but these do not intrude or appear out of place. Wooden beams are ‘original’ which means that many have had a previous life somewhere else before being incorporated in the structure, perhaps in another house or maybe a ship. Look closely and you will find curious notches and grooves everywhere or a round hole with the remains of a wooden peg sticking out. Let the imagination wander and you’ll see a mast standing here, a rope holding back a cannon or a hammock swinging.

These few days are a pause for for breath, a time for re-acclimatisation and relaxation in comfortable surroundings before we return to the Scotland we love so much.

Final days in Italy

At the end of this week we will be filling our two enormous suitcases and taking them away from here. Like many others, we negotiate the mysteries of the Internet to make bookings for our return to Britain, taking advantage of the considerable discounts available to those who can make travel plans some way ahead.

Doing financial transactions on the Internet can be a nerve-wracking experience; we follow the trail of data from one screen to another, trusting that the thin thread connecting our computer to the world-wide web via an Italian service provider holds on for long enough for us to complete the process. Somehow it no longer seems incredible to us that we can do these things so easily from wherever we are. If we need to find out when a bus in Scotland will depart or the cost of a window seat on a train leaving London, this information is available to us, our car-free life having forced us to learn the skills and given us the confidence to apply them when we need them.

Our last week in Italy is a time for reflection. Soon the sights that our eyes have become so used to will once again appear foreign. Take the arches, for instance. Everywhere we look these shapes taunt us with their simplicity, defying gravity and even time itself. The arch is used inside, as in our apartment where the curved ceilings are supported by walls up to a metre thick, and outdoors where tightly packed mediaeval buildings are connected by these apparently fragile arches of stone, many hovering in space despite the absence of mortar. These simple, man-made structures could be centuries old, proving just how robust the form is, how clever its use has been. Whole towns have been built using little else, hanging together solely because of the arch, a shape that occurs over and over again.

It is so prevalent in the landscape that one quickly takes it for granted and ignores it. Its strength lies entirely in the pressure of each stone on its neighbour, each one passing the load to the next, outwards into the supporting buttress. Take just one stone from the arch and it will fall, so interdependent are its pieces. Even such a thin arch as this one, just one stone thick at the top, will easily support a man walking across it. If there is one single shape that just shouts ‘Italy’ then I nominate this one, the arch.

And if there is one single plant that surely does the same then, hardly surprisingly, it must be the olive. As we leave Italy the new growth shoots are appearing, pushing upwards towards the light despite the frosts and snows of the winter only a few weeks past.

We are told that it is regarded here more as a plant than a tree; the trunk continues to lengthen each year, stretching ever upwards. And it seems almost impossible to kill an olive – no matter how much it is cut, the root will always throw out new shoots, from anywhere along its length. The effect of this after many years of pruning is a vast, contorted and twisted root-ball spread far beyond the girth of the original plant. Somehow over many years, and with the help of man (it must be said), this organism may well have learned the secret of immortality.

Which only leaves me to reflect on the Italians themselves and the society in which they thrive. So many aspects of British society are governed by rules and laws which are intended to protect us from harm. It seems strangely comforting, therefore, to find a place where an individual is expected to use his own common sense to judge whether or not something is safe.

Take the level crossing in Ventimiglia where impatient pedestrians will duck under the closed barrier to cross the line and we have seen armed polizia nonchalantly watching nearby. The trains only pass slowly at this point so the danger, they would argue, is no greater than crossing a road. And who needs stop lights at a pedestrian crossing when surely drivers can see when someone needs to cross the road. Natural courtesy applies and this is acknowledged with a smile and a wave of the hand. Standing forward of the driver in a crowded bus might be unsafe and might even make driving more difficult but who in Italy would think to challenge those standing there or interrupt their conversation with the driver. The trip into town is, after all, a social occasion. Then there are the domestic gas and electricity meters and valves which, rather than being locked away inside, are located at street level outside the buildings. Dangerous? But why would anyone with common sense want to interfere with such things.

These examples reflect attitudes that are very much at odds with how things work in the UK. They present us with many questions about our own society, making us think about how protected we are and what we lose as a result of this. There is, it seems, another way and we are grateful for having the opportunity to discover this.

Travel plans

With less than three weeks to go till we depart Italy and begin our return to the Western Isles of Scotland, we closely watch for news that might disrupt our travel plans. Back in February we were returning from a short trip back to London when our return flight was cancelled at the last moment. This brought home to us, for the first time, how vulnerable we are in these situations, how the airport suddenly becomes an alien landscape and how frightening it can be when this sort of thing happens. Suddenly we had become part of the crowd scene normally only seen on the TV news – people milling around looking for information from the airline when there was none available.

We also learnt just how big a place an airport is. Our flight was cancelled after we had checked in and had passed through the security barrier – we were ‘flight-side’ – so we had to be led back on a roundabout route, guided through various code-controlled barriers, till we once again stood in a queue for re-booking a flight. Several hundred confused people had to be rounded up and walked a distance of about a quarter of a mile through the airport complex, a not inconsiderable logistical problem for any airline. Some will no doubt provide a better service when something like this happens, I am sure some will be far worse. For the passenger it is the feeling of helplessness that is so distressing, the lack of control over what is happening and what made it worse for us was that we were travelling with my mother and her companion, both of whom are elderly and have mobility issues.

The reason for this disruption – the French air traffic controllers were striking – was an event far beyond our control. Now we hear that on the date booked for our return at the end of March another strike is being planned. It is difficult to see how this might affect us (our airline is not involved) but nevertheless we must consider planning for the eventuality so we are better prepared.

No matter how difficult these events make it for us to get there (we will walk if we have to) soon we will be participating in the re-birth of our catamaran home in far-away Scotland. And in case anyone is wondering how this is done, take a look at the picture below, a bizarre set of drawings we spotted in a Ventimiglia hotel, of all places.

‘Comment naissent les bateaux’.(How boats are born) shows an ‘elfe marin’ and a ‘sirêne’ (mermaid) blending together to make this fine vessel, a very modern-looking multihull. We just can’t wait to get started on Cirrus Cat.


Our friends Rich and Gerry are the latest visitors to stay with us here in Torri and from the very first day they threw themselves into a punishing mountain walking regime, despite the threatening weather. Just like others who have visited us here, their legs sprung boldly into action up our steep mountain slopes before their over-stretched muscles shouted ‘stop!’ and we gave them time for recovery. Having the Ligurian mountain scenery so accessible for the last five months seems to have given us something of an edge in the lower limb fitness stakes when compared with most of our visitors, that and the 61 steps up to our apartment door, of course.

Our evenings with Rich & Gerry were occupied with playing a card game we were taught by our son Ben some weeks ago, a new one (to us) and one that now seems to have slipped permanently into the repertoire of our lives. Sadly the one-word English name by which this game is commonly known is so vulgar that I will avoid writing it here by loosely translating it into the French phrase – ‘Tête de Merde’ – in the hope that this will offend less. (Anyone interested in knowing the rules should follow this link.)

A few weeks later and I have reached a significant milestone, my 60th birthday. This time our visitors are my mother and George, her companion, and we were treated to meal out in the Italian style. To those used to the British way of eating a meal it may seem strange to be served a succession of tiny portions of different foodstuffs, one after the other, over a period of several hours, all nibbled along with pieces of bread and (of course) floated down with wine. There is far less mixing of tastes on the same plate as we might be used to in the UK, each mouthful being just a single tasting experience rather than a blend. ‘Meat and two veg’ it is not. At our meal each morsel arrived on a new plate (in lesser restaurants the same plate is re-used), was dressed with olive oil from a different region and was flavoured with marjoram or rosemary if the chef felt this was needed. Eating this way the diner is encouraged to focus on one single flavour and one texture before cleaning the palette (with wine of course) then being served the next. In Italy a meal is expected to be a social occasion which takes as long as it takes – no rush – and it ends when it seems right that it should.

The final dish was the fruit course and mine arrived with a blazing roman candle stuck in a strawberry, a nice touch and a very memorable end to the delicious birthday meal.

Encouraged to show our distinguished visitors more of the area we live in we popped into France to take in the noisy delights of the Menton Lemon Festival, complete with its fire-breathing, orange and lemon dragon and a parade of near-naked dancers. Then on another day we explored the back streets of Savona just along the Italian coast, a town which boasts a Sistine Chapel with a ceiling painted almost as artistically and dramatically as the more famous Roman one. Savona was the home of Pope Sixtus IV, one of the line that give their name to such chapels.

Kate and I are not great at being tourists and do not generally give sightseeing the priority many think it deserves. We generally prefer to shun the crowds and sneak away somewhere quiet where we can appreciate something nobody else would be remotely interested in – like a set of attractively curved roadside benches which would put at risk the toes of any occupants from passing traffic or else we just gaze at the colours of the mountain landscape we are in, generally dark green but for the next month or so splashed with bright yellow of mimosa flowers.

As spring starts to creep out from under its winter shell we begin to think of leaving this land behind us to return to the boat we left far away on the west coast of Scotland, to meeting up with the many friends we left behind there and to continuing our travels around Britain.

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