7 October 2021

I took a train last Saturday, and realised how long it had been since I’d been on a bumbling local line. Enlightenment came thanks to my complete unpreparedness. What? Nowhere to charge my three-quarters-dead cellphone? How is that even possible? (The two-carriage train from Chiusi to Empoli had probably gone into service some time in the 1960s, so hardly surprising really.) 

Before Covid stopped us going anywhere much at all, I’d become so accustomed to using travelling time for catching up on the press, and leaping from one fascinating article flagged on Twitter to another, that I’d grown to neglect non-electronic reading material. This realisation made me immensely sad: I used never to set foot outside the door without something on paper to read. I remember once, many many years ago, being picked up by the Barberini metro station in Rome by a prospective client who wanted me to take a look at her garden in Fregene. “I knew it was you,” she said as she pulled up at the street corner where I was waiting “because you were reading a book.” Her theory was that the English always read books. I think it was what a lot of people of all nationalities did.

So, I thought, I’ll take stream-of-consciousness notes as I stare out the window. The line between Chiusi and Siena (my final destination) passes, for much of its route, through a land out of time, the back ways of a rural Tuscany which is far from prosperous and rarely visited. This was the point, of course, that I found that neither of the two pens in my bag worked… and the only paper I had was a couple of screwed-up receipts from shops and bars. 

Really, nothing was going right.

But some images were so powerful that they’ve stuck. So I’ll share some glimpses.

The first came even before the train had pulled out of Chiusi station.

On the far side of the tracks, and crockery-rattlingly close to them, are a couple of small ramshackle apartment blocks where the population appears to consist mostly of sub-Saharan immigrants. Not that many years ago the people you saw over there were inadequately dressed, and on foot. I still remember the day when I first saw one of the men – in a proper warm jacket – zipping merrily around on a bicycle so small that a knee hit an elbow with every push. The bikes became more suitable over time. Before the departure whistle blew on Saturday, I spied one of the men on a moped and couldn’t help rejoicing: such a tangible sign of the horrors of cross-Africa, cross-Med migration paying off, and lives getting better. I can’t wait for the flashy car epoch to begin.

For segments of the trip I had my carriage more or less to myself. Over others, gaggles of kids alighted. The first group – probably aged about 15 or 16 – were off from Rapolano Terme for a big night out in Sinalunga… which written down like that looks like a perfect examplar of ‘oxymoron’. The second lot were slightly older – perhaps 18 to 20 – and were heading for the bright lights of Siena. 

The pattern of mask-wearing – obligatory, in theory, on all public transport – was the same. Girls wear them. Boys wear them more or less effectively on a sliding scale of how cool/good looking/sophisticated they consider themselves. While most wielded their phones for constant messaging (they were talking non-stop to each other too, multi-tasking with admirable dexterity) one lad used his almost exclusively for checking the fall of his fringe with his camera on selfie setting. He, naturally, kept his mask slung firmly beneath his chin.

In a strange way, though, they took me back to Istanbul (some years ago now: things may have changed since) where the central streets were packed with groups of girls whose choice of head adornment went from flowing black locks to tightly wound black scarves, with variations galore in between… in the same group I mean, with no one appearing to judge their friends by who opted for what. Here too, mask or no mask seemed irrelevant, with no one exerting peer pressure one way or the other. I, on the other hand, was observing most judgmentally, and wondering how much older Mr Über-Cool would have to be before he realised that it was his responsibly masked mates who looked so much more sophisticated than he did. What a terribly grumpy-old-lady thing to think!

Beyond the grimy train windows, the landscape north from Chiusi is flat and undistinguished along the train tracks. It’s agricultural here, but it’s a bitty agriculture, with bland, characterless houses – their paint flaking and stained – set among scrappy fields.

Where the land is flat, the fields are brilliantly regular – so much so that I presume they still follow the pattern of centuriation, divided up by the Romans on their favourite regular grid scheme. This dry-as-dust article (in Italian, sorry) has tell-tale aerial photos showing the extent to which the lay-out has remained unchanged over millennia.

Once I had this image of Roman land distribution in my head, I couldn’t help but see the few stooped figures in the patches of dried-out maize stalks (why so much maize in such small plots?), or emerald cime di rapa, or velvety grey-green cavolo nero as worn-down Roman army vets, released after 20 years of soldiering on the edges of Empire and palmed off with some stony land in a far-flung town where they didn’t want to be.

Approaching Siena from this southern route is a delight. There’s a bit of periurban straggle. Then over there to the left, ping! out of nowhere, the Torre di Mangia suddenly materialises. 

Sunrise on Lago Trasimeno

Città della Pieve was rocked last Friday when a distraught woman deposited the blood-stained body of her dead or dying two-year-old on the conveyor belt at the Lidl checkout, down in the valley. Things like that really don’t happen here. The child was pronounced dead at the scene, the mother was bundled away, the nation’s press descended to pry. (“Did you get any pictures of the body?” one shocked local amateur journo was asked by MSM hacks who pestered him for days.)

There was the usual offensive jumping to conclusions. In the immediate aftermath I read that she was di etnia rom (ethnically Roma) which chimes nicely with arcane fears of gypsy woman stealing and eating children (in fact, she’s Hungarian); and that she was “a dancer in a burlesque club”, which, true or not, clearly flags her up as no better than she should be, and therefore capable of any horror. 

In town, everyone concocted their own theory on the basis of vague rumours, private speculation and very few facts (“there has to be a third person involved,” muttered my taxi driver darkly, en route to the station.) Every now and then, comments overheard on the street peddled truly loathsome stereotypes. But the overwhelming reaction here has been grief for the little boy and bewilderment around the mother.

Analysing reactions, I had to admit that my own weren’t entirely consistent. As it became more likely that the mother had indeed lost control and done the horrendous deed, my reaction was “poor woman, driven to such depths of distraction”. I mean: what kind of abject despair would make a mother stab her child to death? Would I, however, have thought the same way had it been the father who had wielded the knife? Quite honestly, I think I’d have instantly branded him a monster.

Last Monday’s unprecedented total Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp blackout reminded me of a tale from Capraia which I forgot to relate when I was writing my last post.

The Good Yacht Zuckerberg cast its anchor into Capraia’s cobalt waters not so long ago, far enough from the shore for its occupants not to have anything to do with the locals, but not so far that the locals couldn’t spy on the goings-on. They watched in amazement as a team of minions took to the water to float a cylinder of netting from the back of the boat, enclosing a large expanse of sea from which they then proceeded to scoop out any offending item (fish, seaweed, jellyfish), taming and perfecting even Nature to satisfy the whims of the Facebook founder. At which point the holidaymakers jumped in and splashed about a bit, after which the net was reeled back in. 

It’s a perfect metaphor for… oh, all kinds of anxiety-inducing things about our modern world. It made me laugh, of course, but it also made me reflect on how real, raw encounters with the true and the genuine are shaped and sanitized to humour our ever-encroaching on-screen personae. And the person who more than any other has led us down that slippery slope is the man whose pristine sea has to be sieved and fenced off from the rest of the world before he can countenance diving into it.

Rain has come finally, after our long dry summer. Not, happily, the kind of rain that swamped the north-east of Italy with 740mm (29 inches) of rain in just 12 hours the other day – a European record. I immediately flicked back through years of my own rain-recordings to find the day in October 2016 when we had 108mm. I had completely forgotten the flooded laundry. What remains with me is the memory of waves of rain water bounding down the steps towards the front door: it was terrifying.

So I can only imagine what seven times that must feel like. Actually, no – I can’t imagine it at all. And I’m perfectly happy to stick with our current low two-figure daily share.