Wednesday, November 21, 2007
a school essay come to life
When I was in school we had to write this essay - the one place I'd love to visit. I wrote an essay on Italy which was a place of kitsch images - you could make a Matrix sim card ad with those images. As I grew older I was lucky to make friends from other places, among them Francesca, an honest to goodness Italian. I learnt that pineapple is ananas in Italian too. And everything I'd learn about Italy made me want to go there even more even as my stereotypes softened, deepened.
So finally this summer I did. My friends Maria and David had rented a villa in small village near the town called Todi and they very kindly invited me to stay.
The villa had its own swimming pool, there were fruit trees scattered around, I slept, read murder mysteries, swam and played with the kids. And ate of course. Innumerable, exquisite meals.
THE VERANDAH WHERE WE ATE
THE VIEW FROM MY WINDOW
Often we'd do day trips - to little towns nearby.It was like a very spread out Chandni Chowk, a town per craft. We went to towns which specialised in pottery (Deruta).
Towns which specialised in cured meats - in fact Norcia was one of the prettiest places I've ever seen.
MAIN PIAZZA IN NORCIA
Towns which specialise in looking like film sets
One day we drove to David's ancestral village, Villamagna. His family used to own a spring from which a common Italian bottled water is now sourced.
These villages were all in the Umbrian hills - hilltop walled cities from a feudal past.
In David's hometown there was also an old, abandoned monastery (the spring had initially belonged to them). There was a legendary fountain there - they say if you put your face in it and drink, your wish comes true.
It is salutory that people can retain the charm of the past - even if it means not having internet and good cell phone signals at times. But none of it is uncomfortable and you have just enough of modernity to keep you comfy. In fact David's cousins own a restaurant and resort - which you will agree looks MORE than comfy.
And also, you rarely had to climb up hills. There would either be a lift that would take you up the mountain - or for the bigger towns, which were at different levels on a hill, like Perugia - an escalator! You'd get on it and could get off in stages for wherever in the town you needed to go, like a vertical subway.
Driving on Italian roads is an exercise in proving gender stereotypes (men do not like to ask for directions, prefering instead to pore over inaccurate maps like pioneers).
Roads aren't marked - instead everything is like a series of arrows pointing to towns. So to get to Town G you have to take the road to Town A, bypass Town B, then take the road to Town C - and so on. In other words, you can get lost very frequently. So on occasion our day trips turned into road trips - where we drove on several roads to several towns, never finding the one we sought, and then came home - drank too much wine, ate gigantic Italian meals of sausage and cheese and pasta and roast chicken and swam in the house pool (!).
But of all the place we went I was maybe most enchanted by a town in the middle of a lake- on an island. It used to be a town of lacemakers but now it's pretty minimal - it has some famous churches, and apparently St. Francis spent some time here. We walked up a long, long slope, dying in the heat, halfway through thinking we'd just go back down but once we were up, it really was worth it, to stand there and see the lake and island, the old, very simple church, the strange photographic shrines in the cemetery.
Here, Maria's kid had a complete meltdown. Since the town's like a sort of cheap lakeside resort it had a plenitude of plastic purchasable objects and entertainments. Much wailing followed which eventually had to be assuaged by objects from the present.
Finally we drove to Rome. This is the fastest of any drive I've had in my life and I can prove it!
There's a different pleasure in driving into a long anticipated place, where you get time to savour the excitement and when you get there, really do it. As opposed to suddenly finding yourself in a place, dazed, not quite able to absorb, when you fly in.
But Rome pictures in another post - or this will never go up!