Next to me on this hugely packed train from Ferrara to Chiusi is a man reading a book called Delitti in treno (Crimes on Trains). I was debating with myself as to whether this was an odd or fitting choice until I noticed that his texting thumb was hovering over the keys of an old Nokia, ready for action – but the keys were completely obscured by a pasted-on Post-It note. At which point I decided his literary choice (and he) was very odd indeed.
Then he turned his phone over. The keys were on the other side: on the back he had stuck a list of train times. Not so odd after all. What a shame.
In Ferrara for the rather wonderful (if very damp) Festival di Internazionale, I was discussing the temptation to find stories everywhere with Italo-Somali writer Igiaba Scego. She told me of the time when her email account was hacked, and one of the those “I’ve had my bag stolen in Oslo, please wire money” messages was sent to all her connections. The only person naïve enough to fall for this old chestnut was a woman she hardly knew: a very famous black British writer. She asked a techie friend to try to trace where the hack had happened and discovered it had been done in Nigeria – common enough. So she – then in the US – pictured these three black people, on different continents, all linked to each other by crime and ineptitude. She said she intended to write about it one day.
Over the same dinner where the hacking scam came up, we wrote our own strange tale. Igiaba brought up a recent article on oh-so-chic CdP, where L was listed as an illustrious inhabitant alongside the likes of Mario Draghi and Colin Firth. “Oh,” said Igiaba’s cousin, another Ethiopian lady, living in Rome. “You know Colin Firth’s married to an Italian? I know his mother-in-law really well.”
I said what a funny coincidence, and we did too, and mentioned this lady’s name. “No,” she said, “that’s not her name.”
She told me that her daughter had had this ‘mother-in-law’ as her Italian teacher at school last year – a wonderful teacher, whom all the kids loved. She used to bring in pictures of Colin and his wife Livia at premieres and parties and show them to the kids, and take the class to see great films at the cinema and the Rome film fest, and even had them make a short film.
Having already told her that we knew the whole extended clan very well, I couldn’t really back down, nor was it easy to find a way to break it to her gently. I kind of had to tell her that the mother-in-law lives in CdP, full time; that she has never been a teacher; that her name was something quite different… and I saw her deflate abruptly. I tried to soften the blow and argue that perhaps this teacher was some more distant relative and that the kids had misunderstood, but no: she had informed all the parents too of the antics of her ‘son-in-law’. I felt awful, puncturing her myth. And doubly awful because it was a two-fold fairy-tale: the tale of Colin Firth, and the one of the perfect teacher. Is she now worrying about other possible deceptions perpetrated by this teacher?
Outside the train window the world is enveloped in mist and drizzle and I’m wondering how I’m going to approach a week which should be a mad dash from one project to another, with not one but two jaunts to Rome inserted in there somewhere/how, plus C coming home and L travelling constantly and barely touching base. (He, incidently, is surveying the same scenario from another carriage – we booked at different times and were given seats far apart – and panicking about how he’s going to get the images he needs to accompany a travel piece in two damp dour days in Pisa with a photographer.) So burying my head for two and a half days in ideas in Ferrara was a welcome break.
It’s a festival of journalism, or rather of themes dominating current affairs in the widest sense. Debates, presentations, book presentations, master classes, documentaries… all kinds of things.
This was our second year there, and L’s workload increased. He presented a movie, and a book and he discussed the Italian provinces as presented in the foreign press (when they are mentioned they’re usually in travel articles and being presented as everybody’s idea of paradise) in a round-table discussion with prize-winning local hacks. So he sang for his supper, but enjoyably.
I, on the other hand, listened to Nate Silver, failed to listen to Robert Fisk (he got stuck in Damascus), enjoyed hearing Gad Lerner interview Elias Khoury, followed various discussions on immigration and Syria and whatever happened to the Arab spring. And I shopped… very strange for me, who suffers badly from retail panic but there comes a time every now and then when I’m forced to admit that most of my clothes aren’t really fit for much more than dusters and urgently need replacing.
A highlight this afternoon, before we headed station-wards, was the Zurbaran exhibition at the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Some remarkable things, often with a use of paint and brushstrokes and textures which look amazingly modern. My favourite? A small piece showing a silver tray with a white porcelain cup of water and a pink rose – quite exquisite.
Before leaving for Ferrara, I had to take drastic measures with trees.
Two of my medlars are now leaning at dangerous angles, and one looked like it was about to topple over under the weight of its fruit. I lopped off three huge branches but didn’t even try to save the fruit: there is simply too much of the stuff to deal with on the untouched branches and the trees that I spared.
My quinces, on the other hand, were doing very strange things: fruit kept developing odd rotting patches then plunging to the ground. When I looked closer, I realised it was because the weight of the fruit was snapping the ends of the branches it was hanging on. None of the good quinces on the trees seemed particularly ripe: they’re still very acid green and they showed no inclination to come easily off when twisted. But I had to do something to ease the strain on the poor little tree, so I cut about half the hanging fruit off and brought it inside.
This evening, back from Ferrara, we broke into my pile and stewed then baked a couple. The skin is thin and slippery – quite unlike the thick coarse grainy stuff of other years. And the flesh – usually so slow to lose its teeth-jarring crunch – went deliciously soft and juicy in no time at all… yet failed to turn its usual rosy pink. All in all, very strange behaviour.
More strange behaviour on our return? In the rain gauge was 89mm of water. Eighty nine. Between lunch time on Friday and 8pm on Sunday. That’s a ridiculous amount of water. And it brings the total for last week up to 145mm. Which is almost double our average October total.