When I was opening the back door shutters the other morning, I felt something wriggle then slither out from under my foot. It was a lizard, one of those dazzling emerald green ones which in Italian is called a ramarro (Lacerta viridis, European green lizard). When my heart stopped thumping, two thoughts occurred to me.
Firstly, when you live in a country where some snakes are poisonous and your middle vision is kind of fuzzy, the no glasses/bare feet combo is not advisable (and potentially lethal).
Secondly, it didn’t bite me, so… was Caravaggio spreading old wives tales?
The lizard (actually, it’s a ramarro) dangling from the finger of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard has clearly sunk its teeth in well. I’ve been told countless times, as I stroll around plant nurseries “watch out, there are ramarri in here. They bite.” I don’t recall ever being told “there are ramarri in here. I’ve been bitten by one and I can tell you, it hurts.”
(This fine fellow fell into an empty flowerpot and died before I had noticed him there. I know it’s a male because males’ heads – particularly beneath the jaw – turn blue in mating season.)
So I’ve been trying to work out if the fear is justified. The answer seems to be – they might bite but they’re much more likely to zip off at lightning speed. Biting is really a last-ditch expedient. What they do bite, on the other hand, is vipers. They’ll wrap their jaws around a viper and keep them there till the bitter end. Moreover, they appear to be immune to viper toxin.
Now, I’ve read this in various kind-of-scientific places but frankly, I have a nagging suspicion that it too could have a touch of legend about. Accounts of this aggressive/fearless behaviour are often presented alongside some colourful Italian country lore according to which Lacerta viridis is man’s best friend if there are poisonous snakes about, letting off a shrill whistle to warn of vipers in the vicinity.
“Il ramarro tienilo alla tua destra perché ti fischia nell’orecchio” (keep a ramarro close at hand so it whistles in your ear) goes one saying with a charming ring of inauthenticity to it. Much more common and possibly more apt is the expression “tenace come un ramarro” (stubborn as a ramarro).
In fact I suspect that the particular fear of saber-toothed ramarri is just one more facet of Italians’ troubled relationship with lizards as a whole. They’re not seen as scuttling sun-worshippers whose greatest fault is making you jump out of your skin when they shoot off noisily at unexpected moments.
During my interminable building work on the house in town, the ladies on either side (neither of whose gardens, I have to say, are much to boast about) never complained about loud banging or brick dust coating their freshly hung out washing. But they did hound me to pull the weeds from between piles of builders’ clobber stacked in the garden because if I didn’t we’d be overrun by lucertole (lizards) – “lucertole” spat out as if they were saying “rats”. Caravaggio clearly didn’t hold them in much esteem either.
We emerged from our green world for a few days last week, and headed for Positano. It felt good to exchange green for brilliant blue. Being on the Amalfi Coast, in mid-June, and being some of the few very non-locals there was disorientating and completely wonderful.
What’s wonderful for us is of course calamitous for positanesi, more or less all of whom make a living – directly or indirectly – from the visitors who in any ordinary June throng the narrow lanes, doing the Positano shuffle between importuning vendors of flowing robes and flowery sandals.
High up on a footpath above Praiano, an elderly man tending his undulating rows of beans came across to chat with us as we puffed by. “You’re the first walkers I’ve seen today,” he said. “Usually there’d be hundreds.” He was spending every day up there on the empty hillside, he said. There wasn’t a weed to be seen in his orto. “It’s terrible down there in town. You come out of your house in the morning, and everyone looks like their football team lost badly last night.”
Perhaps because their long-established and highly regarded hotel puts them in a less parlous position than most, the owners of Le Sirenuse (we were in Positano because L was doing research for a guide to local walking trails for the hotel’s guests) had no trouble admitting that their lovely town was a delight in its empty state, and that to return it to anything near sustainable ‘liveableness’, visitor numbers would need to be slashed dramatically.
It’s the same dilemma facing so many special places – Positano, Venice, gorgeous little historic towns all over Italy. The people who are suffering most from the lack of travellers are also those most aware of the unbearable pressure that their industry exerts on extraordinary locations. They’re hoping for a paradigm shift, baffled as to what form this would take and at the same time dubious that they’re even going to survive.
In the mean time I find I’m more and more frequently switching off BBC radio, infuriated by reports on the ‘opening up’ of Europe for UK tourists as of July 6, with ‘air bridges’ channelling the white-fleshed masses towards the Mediterranean sun. Like so many Europe-looking British obsessions, this is simply not a story here.
What ‘air bridges’ are, I cannot fathom: they sound rather like ‘flights’ to me. But what is really riling me is that the UK government is sorting EU countries into ‘safe’ ‘medium’ and ‘dangerous’ categories, with corresponding isolation requirements for returning Brits.
Ahem. Excuse me. Does no one there realise that the sick man of Europe is Britain? That were it not for the fact that people in the EU tourism sector were utterly desperate we would be building a wall in the English Channel to keep Brits out? Given the UK’s abysmal record on virus-containment, it’s a bit rich handing down high-and-mighty judgments like that. But then, self-awareness isn’t a British trait.