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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.

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