Thursday, January 12, 2012

Vicopisano, day one

We had arrived in this tiny Tuscan town the night before; quite late. Samantha had one of her more spectacular nervous breakdowns and had taken us to a strange little estate instead of the centre of town, so we had to follow signs to our meeting place. The meeting arrangements with our host had been particularly ‘Get Smart’; we were to meet in front of the Bar Italia, beside the red phone box, he would be in a blue car with an Australian sticker on it. I was a little sad that he wouldn’t be in a cigarette vending machine, and that there was no password.
We pulled up twenty minutes late and there he was; beside the phone booth, with the car. He guided us to our home for the next seven day: casa al castello. This is a tall house – three storeys – in the middle of the oldest part of town. You go up one flight of stairs (I could see Paris’ eyes rolling; he knew more than anyone how heavy our idiot suitcases are) and on this first floor there is a living room and a kitchen. Then another flight of stairs (steep and long) to the two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. The rooms are big, high ceilings and cut across with ancient beams. In our bedroom the beams are truly tree trunks; not even cut into nice square shapes, but great lumps of wood. And it is cold. We cranked the heater up but (unlike most European houses with the notable exception of York) it did little good. Puffy jackets at ten paces.
We woke in the morning with sun flowing through our windows. I guess this is the important difference between here and York; in York the house was cold and the landscape was misty and freezing, here the house is freezing but there is sun and blue skies outside. So we found little slivers of sun and sat in them or basked against the heater. This was to be both a rest day and a day of organisation. Not very interesting, it must be said, but absolutely necessary.
We began the day by leaving the children in bed and going to the local supermarket. This town is very out of the way (according to our host) so the local residents aren’t used to tourists and none of them speak any English. We found that this was true, but everyone gave us a chance to speak and to be understood, which made it all easier. We must stick out like sore (very sore) thumbs here.
Our house is at the top of the old town and you have to walk down the old streets into the ‘new’ square (which is new only in a relative sense). It made me think about Frances Mayes and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. I’m not a fan of these kinds of books (but somehow end up reading them; hmmm), the whole ‘A Year in Provence’, ‘Almost French’ genre. The ‘me’ but exotic me! Even Isabel Fonseca did one about a year in Uruguay and she seemed very sane (with the notable exception of marrying Martin Amies). But back to Frances Mayes. There is apparently little reason to read a book about someone who has lived in a tiny Tuscan town all their life, but a book about a San Franciscan academic who comes to Tuscany and renovates an old house – watch it fly off the shelves. Frances Mayes does a good line in being a poor academic who has a dream and goes to the wall to fulfil it (though I have it on good authority that Frances Mayes has never wanted for money and that bit was just a narrative device). Hers is not a return narrative, but a renew one – and a change one – where we go from discontent and malaise to contentment and self-fulfilment. But why in Tuscany? Why not, say, Blackburn? Or Melton? Or, considering she is a Californian, Salinas? Why? We probably all know the answer to that one. Romance.
But why am I being so smug about this. I’m doing something almost identical with this blog. It is partly a diary but a lot of this is an exploration of self: what am I like in another place, how might I change, what might I learn? And why Europe and not, say, Blackburn? Romance, history, space. I guess such a journey does provide space from the everyday and opens up channels that are not visible when you grind away in a known place (including job and whatnot). But still, I have little time for the whole book about the exotic self (masked as the ‘natural’ or the ‘real’ self). I think that these texts are often linked with love and it might be that I object to that. A bit like a diet manual – I lost weight and found love. In the travel genre, it is: I went to the most romantic place in the world and found love. No kidding.
Although this writing, for me, does work if it is funny.
We fed the children and then got organised to see our host, get internet access (which we don’t have here – and it is making some of us very cross indeed), shop properly for food and orient ourselves. Which we did. I can’t be bothered going through this, very boring. Except the supermarket was called PAM.
Paris cooked a big lunch for us and we enjoyed the food, wine and the sun on our back in our little kitchen. There was some discussion that we should perhaps have a nap after lunch, but a walk won the day. But first to ice cream. Then we wandered the tiny town with its little canal along which is a kind of obstacle course (of the type I described in Verneil sur Avre). The kids loved it – sit ups, chin ups, hurdles and whatnot. Too much lunch in my belly for all that. Then we walked to the castle at the top of the hill, behind our place. It is only open on the weekend, but the views are wonderful. And all along the hillside, people were working their small plots of land; one man was pruning the merry hell out of his olive trees, another was mowing, another was weeding and preparing land. It was all busy, busy, busy. And along all the walls, cats watched wearily. As we arrived at the bottom of the hill, a man walked down the street with his horse. It was all very pastoral.
The sky was falling black when we got back to our front door; it was time to go in for the night. There was chess and cards and something called Ultimate Chess/Checkers (which didn’t involve bloodshed for which I was most grateful). Zelda and I found a channel called Horse TV on the telly (no kidding) which was just wall to wall show jumping. None of us could take our eyes off it. And then I found an English movie channel called ‘True Stories’ which was really just back to back midday movies about social issues (wrongful imprisonment, babies switched at birth, adolescent depression, euthanasia and so on. Like a series of train wrecks.) We must have been tired because, again, we couldn’t take our eyes of it. But eventually, we dragged ourselves away and up to our cold rooms. Luckily the sheets are pure cotton and the blankets are warm. As we settled in, the local bells rang out eleven. They ring the hour, and then one on the half hour. Most useful for those of us without watches (that’s us) and for insomniacs. Ah, that’s me too.

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