This morning as I hung my washing out in brilliant sunshine, a lone figure lumbered towards me out of the mist in the valley below, a shotgun slung over his shoulder. It was only later that I thought to revel in the wonderful recollection that my first question to myself when I saw him had been “I wonder whether that’s Ivano [our plumber] or Marcello [who does odd gardening jobs]” rather than “I wonder if I’ll get away with my life”. At times it’s good to reflect that the simple fact of living in a place where (as a rule) armed strangers mean someone taking a pot shot at a passing duck, rather than rebel fighters or psychotic weapons maniacs is an inestimable blessing.
It was, in fact, Marcello who regaled me with tales of CdP life. I mentioned our neighbour, Maria. He told me that once a long time ago that feisty diminutive force of nature had taken the trouble to get engaged. Her betrothed, however, decided he needed to make a quick buck and that the swiftest way to do so would be to hold up an insurance company. He chose one right across the road from the Carabinieri barracks, and naturally was arrested the moment he stepped out of the office.
Once long ago I heard Maria explaining to an inquisitive visiting child that she had never married because she had never found a man who could mend a tractor as well as she could. But I suspect the real reason is that her opinion of men plummeted so low on that occasion that the whole of the male sex has never since managed to convince her that they’re worth bothering about.
A few days ago we chose the foggiest possible evening to head off to dinner at Il Merlo in Cetona, a pleasant place where food is just a little different from your usual trattoria. It was a creeping-pace evening, one where you check you’re on track by keeping a close eye on the curb side, and make sure you’re ready to react swiftly to the least glimmer of tail light.
Down in the valley in Po’ Bandino, where the mist is thickest and the likelihood of traffic greatest, something loomed at us out of the wall of white. A cyclist. No lights. No hands. In fact deeply engaged – we realised as he came closer – in a conversation on his mobile which involved a considerable amount of gesticulating with his free hand.
“Whoah brother, respect,” said L, in an awed tone that only a fellow cyclist could muster. “Respect.”
An Australian friend who spends some months each year in CdP told us – amazed – how he had been accosted in the street outside his house by a postman who had asked him if he wouldn’t mind handing over a letter addressed to another inhabitant of the same block.
“I think it’s a credit card,” the postman said to our friend. “I expect it’s quite important.”
It was important, as our friend knew, because it was a replacement for one stolen from his partner. The fact that the postman was entrusting it to someone who appeared to be a complete stranger seemed somewhat, er, negligent.
But what he failed to appreciate is that local post people know everything. About everyone. Either that or they have an uncanny knack for accurately summing people up on the spot and deciding whether they can be trusted – like one very hot summer day when our post lady Stefania couldn’t bring herself to slog down our bumpy lane and took advantage of a complete stranger (by sheer coincidence, my sister) who happened to be sauntering along much further up towards town to sign for a registered letter addressed to me.
At this time of year I like to recall that Christmas when one of my eccentric uncles addressed my Christmas card to “AH, a farmhouse outside CdP, Italy”.
When I asked Stefania how on earth it reached me, she was nonplused. I showed her the envelope and translated.
“Oh,” she said, “all I noticed was that the surname started with H. I didn’t look at the rest.”
The beautician I go to when I’m feeling in need of pampering (or I just can’t be bothered to cut my own toenails) has her little shop in an alleyway in town called Borgo di Giano – ‘Giano’ (Janus) I presume because it faces into town on one side and out over the walls to the surrounding countryside on the other… though now that I come to think of it, perhaps there are less erudite explanations too, seeing as there are plenty of rows of houses sitting atop the town walls in streets called all kinds of other things.
It’s a beautiful street, curving slightly upwards, and filled with pots of geraniums which ooze loving attention.
The beautician started telling me about life in Borgo di Giano. It’s a village within a village, she said. Two of the old ladies who live there have been friends since elementary school, and they check up on each other every day. One day, one of these old ladies rang the doorbell of the other in the morning as she always does. No answer. She rang again, repeatedly. No answer.
Utter panic. The whole street is roused to action. No one has a spare key. But someone knows a nephew who does. But no one has his phone number. So someone decides to call the fire brigade. No, someone does have the nephew’s number after all. The old lady’s friend searches the house from top to toe.
“I even searched under the bed,” she announces, quite desperate, to the street. Nothing. And then the missing lady hoves into view, calm and unruffled, from the town gate at the end of the street. Realising the day was going to be hot, she thought she’d take an early morning stroll to the cemetery to check up on her husband’s grave.
The beautician works in Borgo di Giano but doesn’t live there.
“One day you know, I’m going to have to move back to CdP. I moved away but I really miss it now.”
But hang on, I think: you live in the new houses between us and the centre. You’re about 500m outside the town walls. Far away enough, it seems, to feel like an outsider.
We closed this week with a 24 hour jaunt to startling blue, warm Venice. C’s contract there has finished (she is what is euphemistically referred to as ‘between jobs’) and her belongings needed transporting. Moreover, there was a review to be written of the Gritti Palace Hotel which necessitated a night on the Grand Canal. So off we went. And for the first time in all our decades-long Venice experience, we drove into the city. It felt so disorientating, both being in a car in that watery city, and being on the ‘wrong’ bridge, watching the trains which have always carried us towards the centro pass by on the other side.
With things pretty calm now tourist-wise, the Gritti put us in an utterly magnificent first-floor suite where Santa Maria della Salute felt within reach of an outstretched arm.
For such a short stay, we were surprisingly active. At the Palazzo Fortuny – one of my favourite Venetian spaces – four exhibits were being inaugurated, all of them by or about women. Most touching was the one dedicated to Henriette, Mariano Fortuny’s muse-partner-wife; most striking were works by Romaine Brooks, with her stylish portraits of lovers (Gabriele D’Annunzio, Ida Rubenstein) and friends (Luisa Casati) and her strange, haunting pencil sketches of things emerging from a fervid imagination – troubled, yes, but with a sense of humour.
We also dropped by the Slip of the Tongue show at the Punta della Dogana – always worth a visit if only to admire the magnificent building and setting. The exhibition was curated by Danh Vo and was every inch an artist’s selection – an artist whose works really, I’m afraid, interest me very little. But there were things that were rewarding. I loved an installation which seemed to be a pile of driftwood in a far room – unless you lingered and looked and realised that mixed in were arms and legs and little wings of the kind that you’d expect to see gilded around elaborate frames of dark paintings in darker churches, or as cornices around baroque doorways. Beautiful.
But oh! how odd. Having said I was left unmoved by Danh Vo’s works, I have just taken the trouble to go and check who the pile of driftwood was by. And it’s his. Do I now have to reconsider my whole stance?