Travelling by car has the great advantage that you can leave when you are ready, without being affected by train or bus timetables, and get the closest possible to the place you are going to see. Besides, having an autistic daughter it is also a much safer and less stressful way to go around, though Valentina has improved her behaviour a lot since she has taken her medication.
But having a car also means you have to park it somewhere. And often you need to pay for it.
The gigantic white blades of a modern windmill impressed us as we came out of the ferry at Rotterdam port on 28th July early that morning. We had had a good sleep in pristine beds in a spotless cabin where the ‘voice of god’ in several languages from the loudspeaker had allowed us about seven hours of peace and silence, waking us up at seven, or eight o' clock CET.
Before reaching the B&B my husband proposed a quick visit to the cube-and pencil-shaped buildings in Rotterdam. We parked at €1 per hour: acceptable. Our first family photo of the journey had the pencil building in the background, renamed by my husband p**is house.
“But it doesn’t look like a p**is,” one of my sons said.
“Don’t you remember what a p**is looks like?” my husband replied.
Then we moved to the statue De Verwoeste Stad (the devastated city) by Ossip Zadkine commemorating the bombing of May 1940. It represents a bronze human figure with a hole in the chest, its huge dark arms and hands stretching in the blue clear sky in a desperate attempt to stop future devastations.
The B&B was in the countryside, The rooms were spare and clean with wooden timbers on the ceiling and whitewashed walls. Large windows let the summer light come in and showed a typical Dutch landscape: flat and green, with cows grazing and tidy rows of birches at the borders of the fields becoming progressively smaller towards the horizon.
Amsterdam was our main target so the next day we drove there in about half an hour. We headed straight to the centre, avoiding by inches the horde of bicycles darting everywhere. We found a parking place along a canal near Anne Frank’s house and thought we needed to park there for a long time as there was at least an hour's queue just to enter the house. My husband went to pay at the parking metre but came back a minute later. He was shocked by the price: €5 per hour. This is the reason why everybody cycles here.
“Let’s look somewhere else, maybe further from the centre,” I suggested.
To be honest we are quite spoiled here about the cost of parking places. In Rome it is €1 per hour everywhere, even in piazza Venezia or near the Colosseum and in Lancaster there is enough free parking ten minutes walk from the centre.
After forty minutes search we found a Q8 car park, new and polished, €3 for fifty-five minutes, weird. And expensive, but we had no choice. We paid €17 for the first day in Amsterdam.
Even more expensive was the car park near Van Gogh museum, €4 for fifty-four minutes. But we had a nice surprise when we came back: a shining black Ford Mustang with an American plate picturing a cowboy on a rampant horse was parked near our scratched Ford Galaxy. What an honour! We took photos: you don’t see a Mustang every day.
In Alkmaar the display at the entrance of the car park said ‘vol’ (full) but several cars were queuing so we did the same. After a while we entered and started to look for a place. It seemed truly full. And there were no places for disabled.
“Haven’t they got disabled people in the Netherlands?” I said.
“They have euthanasia,” somebody said, a nasty joke to keep our spirits up in a difficult moment.
Eventually we found a free space at the top floor. After all that, it wasn’t completely full.
The mentality and habits of each country must be mirrored in the price, location and maintenance of car parks. Everybody says that Dutch people pay great attention to money owing to their past of traders and sailors living in a rather small and vulnerable country. They had to make the ends meet somehow though they don’t have massive natural resources, the country is not protected by mountains or big rivers and the sea is sometimes more a menace than a defence. But they managed to become a powerful colonial power and keep their country rich and independent. And making money is essential for independence. So let’s pay the parking fares.
To confirm my thesis about parking lots, here is an example from Germany. On our way to Italy we stopped one night in Aachen (also called Aix-la-Chapelle in French and Aquisgrana in Italian), a very German town at the border with the Netherlands. The parking metre had precise but rather complex instructions, a sort of mathematical quiz to test our preparation. It was €0,30 for the first twenty minutes, then €0,05 each three minutes up to a maximum of two hours. How much was it for two hours? They didn’t give the solution. I could easily have been stuck there for two hours if it weren’t for my husband, a skilful Maths teacher, who found it very easy and logical. It's typical of German people to do things efficiently, he said.
In Italy, the sunny land of pizza and mandolins, the parking places for disabled people are free everywhere. We had the blue badge of Lancaster county council for Valentina so we didn’t cough up. Otherwise only €0,50 per hour near the seaside town centre. No wonder they often run out of money.
In Assisi, where I had a day trip with my husband leaving the children to my parents-in-law, the parking lots in town were full. The policemen led us to the cemetery area where we parked on a lawn, fifteen minutes walk from San Francesco’s church in an alley shaded by cypresses. This was unbelievably well organized, and cost us nothing. Maybe the spirit of St Francis suggested it.
Art, Museums and Churches.
My favourite places when I am on holiday are always museums, especially art museums, and churches. They tell much of the country we are visiting, and they also meet with my own interests. But the children get easily bored by them so we have to ration visits.
We couldn’t see a good half of the masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam because it was under restructuring, but there was enough to make me enter into a sort of trance pervaded by Dutch art. Besides, sharp-witted captions entitled ‘Director’s choice’ commented on some of the pictures, which made the visit even more interesting.
Here are some examples. The portrait of the nubile Maria Trip by Rembrandt van Rijn showed a richly dressed lady with her hair loose: the comment was ‘personal advertisement’. Regarding a landscape by Johannes Torrentius (whose paintings were all burned except this one that was used as a lid of a barrel), the painter was described as ‘a subversive rake’, who died aged fifty-five of syphilis and was persecuted for blasphemy. The notice said he used to paint women masturbating and a Mary Magdalene holding a skull in her hand and an arrow in her mouth. A portrait of a young woman lifting her skirt and warming her hands by a brazier by Caesar Boetius van Everdingen was appraised with the comment: “Who quenches her burning desire?” Quite surprising considering the demure, pristine Dutch tradition, though the proverbial Dutch tolerance must play its part here. Good and bad mix…or at least lie side by side.
Of course, I was deeply impressed by Rembrandt. He is a sublime master, one of the greatest who have ever lived in this ungrateful world, ungrateful for artists most of the time. And he did not have an easy life though he was rich and successful for a period. Reading his biography I was moved by his passion and devotion to his wife Saskia and bewildered by the distress he had to cope with after her death. He is equal to the great Italian masters such as Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but he hasn’t received equal reverence.
In his work, the contrasts struck me as much as the dynamism of his characters and the originality of his compositions. Contrasts between very bright highlights and very dark deep elements, between thin and thick layers of painting, between finely detailed parts and roughly sketched ones, between controlled skilful techniques and loose free brushstrokes. He caught contradictions and hypocrisies in portraits and self-portraits, as in the irony of his self-portrait as the apostle Paul. His old, wrinkled skin and big nose give a revealing image of the austere apostle Paul. It was also very human.
Another great painter who impressed me was Frans Hals, famous for his portraits. Again, one of the ‘Director’s choice’ was a wedding portrait of a wealthy Haarlem merchant and his wife. The caption said there were a lot of symbols of love everywhere, like the thistle referring to man’s fidelity. Looking carefully at the man’s relaxed and sated expression (he seems used to every kind of pleasure) and at the woman’s cheeky eyes (she seems to say ‘got him!’) it made me think about probable future infidelities instead.
Jan Vermeer stood out among the Dutch masters, his smaller-sized pictures showing a unique attention to detail, psychological insight and subtle play of light and shade. His most famous paintings describe silent woman's reveries where the position of the hands, a gaze and slightly parted lips reveal a secret world of emotions. And his work became famous two hundred years after his death. How frustrating!
He was born and lived in Delft, famous for its elegant porcelain, where his father was an inn-keeper and an art dealer. Vermeer was an art dealer too, as he didn’t earn enough with his art. His tomb in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) is simple and dignified. A picture of the Girl with the Pearl Earring near the tombstone seems to invite us into a mysterious world beyond it.
We also visited the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft main square. My husband had vertigo climbing up the wooden stairs to the top of the tower, but he was not following a blond woman as in Hitchcock’s film, or so I like to believe. The church is on a remarkable site, that of the mausoleum of Prince William of Orange, the father of the country. He fought and died for the freedom of the Netherlands, deserving respect from all his people. The construction of the church was inspired by a vision. Townspeople, including a beggar, saw a light or a golden church in the sky above the present Nieuwe Kerk. As it was a marshy area the light could have been only marsh gas fire. To be honest it wasn’t a lucky church, not only because of the reed land sub-soil it was built on, but also for several disasters it endured caused by fires, lightning, attacks by fanatics and the Delft thunderclap, when in 1654 ninety thousand pounds of gunpowder exploded in the Delft powder magazine.
We found two other astounding churches travelling to Italy, the Palatine Chapel in Aachen and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Strasbourg.
The exterior of Strasbourg cathedral is superbly decorated, all little columns, fine sculptures and ornaments of sandstone like a laced dress…or laced underwear: very coquettish. I prefer plain cotton things though I suspect my husband would choose something different. Inside the church the stained glass windows reveal a richer and more colourful garment. We noticed digital display screens and got closer to learn more about the history of the church. But they gave information about the Christian meaning of the different parts of the church, the Holy Sacrament, the Baptism Font and so on, things we already know. but certainly useful for others.
Charlemagne’s bones rest in a silver and golden shrine in the choir of Aachen cathedral. I was puzzled when I read in the brochure that he was canonized as a saint in 1165, but actually the Holy See never recognized this canonization, made by an Antipope. I wonder what kind of holy deeds he could have performed in his life, apart from forcing pagans to Christianity in various violent ways including slaughtering. We couldn’t see much of the Barbarossa chandelier or of the central part of the church, the octagon, because it was under restoration but we read that for six hundred years emperors were crowned and enthroned here. According to the legend good Christian people did not have enough money to build it so they asked the Devil to help them, promising him the first soul that entered the church. When the church was ready, thanks to the money of the wealthy Devil, (who maybe expected the juicy soul of a devout girl or boy), the cheeky Christians pushed inside a wolf. Poor Devil, so bad and so naïve! He must have fought hard with the wild beast.
The Van Gogh museum was unmissable. I entered feeling sorry for the great painter and with the firm belief that he had been mistreated during his life. Just think: he did not earn a penny from his artwork, neither did his brother, an art dealer who supported and funded him and who died only six months after him. But after their deaths Vincent’s pictures went up and up in value. His Sunflowers, 1889, were sold for £24,750,000 in 1987 according to the biography by Melissa McQuillan. It seems that the painting did it on purpose. Other people throve on his artistic talent and undeniable genius.
The beauty and interest of the museum was not only in Van Gogh’s work but also in the way it showed his development as a painter and the artists who had influenced him. His masterpieces were concentrated in the last two or three years of his life, especially after he had entered Saint-Rémy asylum. He became free and unrestrained, capable of reaching a synthesis of everything he had learned, practised and believed in. How dramatic and full his life was! Its apex coincided with his death. Through art he explored himself and what was around him, honestly and in-depth. Like the great poet and painter Blake, whose art I was studying at the same time, he sought the meaning of man within his own mind and soul. I couldn’t help thinking about Pablo Picasso as well, whose work I had seen in July in an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool. There was personal research in Picasso as well, aiming towards love and peace along with a sex-centred quest towards the end of his life, where male and female were strongly marked both physically and psychologically. In contrast, Van Gogh developed a spiritual quest that ended with the vibrant landscapes and still lifes so alive with shapes, colours and strokes. A stream of life, or a spiritual force, seemed to run through them.
In The Hague besides Mauritshuis, where the Girl with the Pearl Earring is, we visited the Het Paleis or Winter Palace where there was a permanent exhibition of all the most important works by Escher. I did not understand his optical illusions, metamorphoses or tessellations very much but my husband is a fan of him. At home we have all the main books written on Escher and now a new acquisition of three large posters my husband is going to stick somewhere if he finds any free space. My favourite picture was the one with the artist's table in the foreground developing and merging into the alleys of a village in the middle ground and opening into a wider landscape in the background. Perspective reversed. I wonder how he could think about it: a genius. It was a magical world of extreme miniaturist precision and surreal imagination.
We also had a photo taken. It shows the whole family inside a chamber subject to an optical illusion, so that Valentina and I seemed the tallest of the group. Just compare it with the other family photos.
The Het Paleis was also beautifully decorated with crystal chandeliers in the original shapes of a skull, a shark, a spider, a seahorse, an umbrella…as in a child’s toy-room.
Before leaving the Netherlands we decided to face the long queue and pay a visit to Anne Frank’s House in Prinsengracht. It was like a pilgrimage, a way to pay homage to the six million Jews murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. The tour in the almost empty secret annexe ( the rooms where Anne, her family and other four people lived for about two years) was most moving and the inscriptions from Anne’s diary on the walls recreated the atmosphere of anguish and fear of that time. In August 1944 they had been betrayed and deported in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other extermination camps. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived and published the diary in 1947. On the walls of Anne’s room there were still cuts from film-star magazines she had stuck there: Ginger Rogers, Royal Families and Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait. On the ground floor there were photos and declarations against racial and religious prejudices. Also on display was the Oscar (amazing I had never seen one before, so smooth, bright and full of life) which Shelley Winters had given to the House when she won the Academy Award as Mrs Van Daan for her performance in The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959.
One hall was dedicated to videos with subtitles in several languages about today’s issues on different kinds of discriminations. After each video everybody could vote in favour or against it. Some examples: demonstration of the English Defence League against Muslims in Birmingham; websites on facebook denying the Holocaust; ban of headscarves in German schools; discrimination against Romany people in Hungary; ban on Nazi symbols in Germany; the symbol of the cross in Italian state schools. Surprisingly (for us) twenty per cent of the people in the room were against headscarves for Muslim girls in schools and thirty-eight per cent were in favour of Nazi symbols. Regarding the cross in Italian classrooms, which I remember from my own schooldays, we were fifty fifty.
In Amsterdam we missed the diamond exhibitions, as none of us were interested in diamonds, skipped the Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum, and did not go to the Red Light District. My husband said it was dingy. I trusted his judgement.
Shopping and shop windows.
We did not indulge in shopping as much this time. Everything was so expensive, especially clothes and shoes, that we preferred to stick to what we really needed…which included books (art books of course, and we had to sneak in a trip to Waterstone’s in Amsterdam as the children had run out of books) and nearly 300 tulip bulbs at the Flower Market. We didn’t mean to start a plantation of tulips in Lancaster: most of them were presents for relatives. Though I can easily guess what our garden will be full of next spring.
We also needed to top up phone cards. We hunted out Vodafone shops everywhere because our children needed to keep in touch with their friends and had thought they could manage with a ten pound top-up each when they left Lancaster.
What attracted me this time were the shop windows. They show the life style and products of the country, but with an artistic slant. I learned so much from them.
In Amsterdam I was struck by cows and glass apples. Not ordinary porcelain or plastic cows, but up-market, bright-coloured cows with a monocle and an aloof expression. Near them were transparent, vermillion, ochre and olive green apples, certainly not meant to be bitten into sitting on a bench.
The Flower Market had a lavish display of plants, bulbs and blossoms. We couldn’t help taking photos and buying a good share of them. Beside the tulip bulbs we had about twenty packets of flower seeds, which will probably last for the next few years. Everything was three or four items for €10, which was a bargain, but when you buy a lot it becomes squandering. Even cannabis seeds were three packets for €10, but we left them there. Although I enjoyed the film Saving Grace, I preferred to not take the risk.
In the same street there was a Christmas shop. How sweet! It was full of angels, shining baubles, tinsels, lights and artificial snow. Sint Nicolaas (Santa Claus) was in different sizes and materials. I chose one in a glass ball as the hand-crafted wooden ones were no less than €50 each. At the till my sons noticed they sold condoms as well. I wonder if there was a Santa motif on them.
In Germany (we stopped in Aachen and Heidelberg) I was fascinated by the beauty of the products in display. My mouth watered looking at the cake and pastry shops. The decorations using coloured iced sugar on large biscuits, shaped like hearts and butterflies, were works of art. Everything looked so rich, intricate and expensive. I fell in love with a pair of silver earrings, the ethnic style I especially like, but they cost more than a hundred Euros, so I just looked at them longingly for a while and then tore myself away.
We could see Heidelberg only by night and it was raining. Again I was fascinated by a big, luxury Christmas shop. It was closed but its four windows had a fully decorated Christmas tree, majestic angels, elaborate nativities and wooden toys in the best German tradition. I couldn’t see if they sold condoms, but I daresay they did not. The centre looked so quiet and respectable. My little son, who is usually self-controlled, felt rebellious that night, or maybe he was cold.
“What happens if you pee here?” he said.
“Are you crazy?” my husband said. “They cut it off.”
In Assisi we found the most strangest conundrum. The little town was pristine, worthy of the cleanest Dutch town. Pastry shops were luscious. I would have tasted everything if it wasn’t so hot that I was really thirsty. We bought our souvenirs in a Fair Trade shop and thought that shops in general (including religious shops) were quite discreet in Assisi, in keeping with the Franciscan spirit. This was until we reached a grocery shop with highly original varieties of Italian tricolore pasta. Near the traditional penne and farfalle they had ‘cazzetti & fichette’ (literally meaning c**ks and c**ts). What about eating them? I am sure St Francis would have understood, he was so patient with everybody’s weaknesses.
The last town we visited was Bruges, famous for its chocolateries. There were so many that we finally entered one and bought a big packet of chocolates. Two or three of them survived till Lancaster.
Bruges has always been a rich, attractive town – in fact it was full of tourists from all over the world – also famous for its tapestries and lace. We found a picturesque Italian restaurant showing Laurel and Hardy in two poses, one standing by the Tower of Pisa with a fierce-looking Italian cook holding trays, and another wearing chefs' hats along with patriotic Italian cook holding the Italian flag. Both cooks had black moustaches or I wouldn’t have recognized them as Italian.
Looking at lace also included lace underwear. In shop windows, I mean. No suggestions from my husband, I swear.
In spring time I usually buy the books I wish to read during my summer holidays, already savouring the long-yearned pleasure of idling in bed, or on a deck chair under an umbrella at the beach, reading one of my books. It never happens but I like to dream of it.
Of course I always buy three times as many books as I would ever manage to read in the best scenario possible when on holiday with a family of six. But I make an effort to not be disappointed. I say to myself, being on holiday means having a break. Reading is only part of it. After repeating it a few times I even believe it.
First of all I had to finish The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I couldn’t leave it at home- I was too much taken into its fantastical allegory and magical writing. But I made the unforgivable mistake of not taking the third book of the Trilogy and I bitterly regretted this after a few days.
Then I started the next book, Look Back in Hunger by Jo Brand. Cracking. I was reading it at the Space Expo in Noordwijk where Valentina decided she wasn’t interested in planets and spaceships and chose a children’s corner in which to draw and colour from her collection of pens, always with her. I sat near her, happy to skip the space museum as well, and opened the book. People passing by must have thought I was nuts as I couldn’t help giggling and bursting out with laughter every now and then.
Later on in the car I read some passages from Jo Brand’s childhood to my own children. The story became more serious as it went on and was quite scary when dealing with her teenage years. Luckily she survived and eventually won through.
I found the second half impressive: about her experience as a nurse in the emergency clinic of a psychiatric hospital. She is a smart but tough person indeed.
Blake as an Artist by David Bindman was my serious reading, ready for the first meeting of the Poetry Society Stanza group in September. This links poetry and visual art. I chose Blake because both poetry and art are in his illuminated books and also because I have always found his work extremely original, both foreward-thinking and honest. I am especially attracted by the strong lines, apparent simplicity and essential symbolism of his works of art as well as his poems, and by the profound wisdom of his visionary world.
I also read Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga while I was in Italy, alternating it with Italian newspapers and magazines of different political views.
When I picked up Between the Assassinations from the bookshelves I assumed it was a detective story. Ideal seaside reading, I thought. No way, it was a gritty collection of short stories about a miserable Indian town where people who tried to lift up their heads or fight corruption and discrimination had a very hard time. For a while I realized how comfortable and even luxurious my ordinary life was compared to the life of the poor of India. I felt guilty. I could have a shower, sleep in a bed, have food every day, live in a house and go on holiday. Such privileges!
As soon as we passed the border with Italy, news on the radio announced a crisis in the Italian government. My husband tuned into Radio Radicale and Radio 24 channels and we soon realized that not much had changed since we had left Italy three years ago.
As it has always been, the fight for power is harsher inside the party that rules (this time a centre-right coalition) rather than between the government and the opposition. This makes the Italian government unstable and unreliable and eventually no-one rules the country.
The summertime crisis had the flavour of a sceneggiata or Neapolitan melodrama where the main weapons are gossiping and vendetta. But who cares about Italian institutions, reputation and above all about Italian people? We are proverbially used to manage by ourselves or arrangiarci.
In debate was the use of a house in Montecarlo, belonging to the party, by the brother in law of Gianfranco Fini, the Head of the Italian House of Commons (Camera dei Deputati). On the cover of the popular magazine Oggi there was the photo of his whole family, his partner Elisabetta Tulliani and his two daughters on the front, grandparents, and the cause of all the trouble: the handsome Giancarlo Tulliani.
As I said above, the fight is always internal so the next attack was against the ownership of a villa in Arcore by the President of the Italian government Silvio Berlusconi. It seems he bought it from an orphan (an aristocratic orphan though) and it was a real bargain. Were Italian people bewildered and outraged? I don’t think so, just disappointed by the unchangeable course of Italian politics. And amused by the summer drama.
The truth is that most Italian politicians don’t work for the people or for the programme and ideals of their party but only for their own interests and those of their friends. There is no consistency between what they say and what they do and most of the time they don’t even say what they would do if they won the elections. They chat inconsequentially, or have rows one against the other. The political atmosphere is so confused that it would be hard to compare the results of a certain government with its initial policies (supposing you understood what the policies were and can detect any results). There is no connection between ordinary people’s problems and the political world. It is a detached, privileged entity. I wonder if the collapse of the Belusconi era would really change something. Now at least we have a scapegoat: it is his fault.
I also found a few articles about the change in British government from Labour to Conservative. Pictures always attract me. On the front page of a popular Italian newspaper there was David Cameron with the British flag behind him and a painting of Elizabeth I in the background. On page 27 the article continued, the Prime Minister explaining his politics very clearly, and also on the same page was an advertisement for the magazine L’Espresso. Its cover photo showed a very young couple (she was wearing a bridal veil and little more) in a sort of Kama Sutra position. Well, it jarred a bit with Cameron’s point of view.
The other picture that attracted my attention was one of Tony Blair, a photomontage, where he takes his own photo with his mobile phone while in the background a bomb is exploding in the Iraqi desert with a plethora of black smoke and flames. It was part of an exhibition of British Comic Art at Tate Britain.
Summer is also the time to close the balance. The results were very good for Germany (GDP 2.2 %), the best in Europe, not bad for the UK (1.1%), so so for USA (0.6%) and low for Italy (0.4%).
Smashing progress for China, which became the second economic power in the world after the US and overtook Japan. According to Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, the proverbial work ethic of Chinese people coupled with a widespread tendency to save money caused the rolling economical growth.
Reading an article about the Shangai Expo I was impressed by its description of the UK pavilion: a stylized porcupine in a desert. Each quill had the seed of biodiversity in the world. The warning was that if we don’t keep biodiversity the result will be a desert. I would have liked to see the display.
My children had reading fever this time, which quite impressed me. They left Lancaster with three new books each and in Amsterdam we had to look for Waterstone’s bookshop to buy more. Worse luck, each book was about double the UK price. Exciting, gory reading they call it.
Valentina chose her books as well, a soft plastic one with a sucker she tried on different surfaces and a glove puppet book with Old Mac Donald’s farm animals on each finger. She liked them so much that when she dropped them by mistake one evening in a restaurant we had to go back the next morning and pick them up. Luckily no other little child had lifted them.
Food and family dinners
As soon as we landed in the Netherlands my eldest son asked for vla. He remembered tasting it in the past when he was only four years old when we spent the summer in Enschede (Overijssel region), where my husband had been working for a period.
It is a gorgeously decadent custard of different flavours, made from eggs, cornstarch, vanilla and sugar. Its taste is absolutely unique. I must try the recipe sooner or later.
The B&B where we lived had a large fridge in the common room and the landlady reserved a whole shelf for us. We started with a packet of one litre of double vla, vanilla and strawberry. It lasted no time. The next day we hurried to the supermarket again and filled our fridge shelf with eight more one-litre packets of vla, chocolate, stracciatella, pineapple and orange, vanilla and chocolate, caramel, and so on. We hoped to have enough for our six-day stay in the Netherlands.
We could also cook our own food in the kitchen of the B&B. I bought some pasta, passata, butter, garlic, parsley, salt, cheese and salad. The result was a terribly bland dinner which we wolfed down all the same because we were starving. Strange, I thought, I used the usual amount of salt. We tried again the next day with the same outcome. On the third day I poured a massive quantity of salt in the boiling water for the pasta and as much on the hamburgers sizzling in the pan. It was slightly better. For some reason the salt we had bought did not season. Then I recalled the famous passage from the Gospel of St Matthew, referring to Christians: ‘You are salt of the world. And if salt becomes tasteless, how is its saltness to be restored? It is now good for nothing but to be thrown away and trodden underfoot.’ I also remembered the comment of a very optimistic priest about this passage: the salt, he said, can’t become tasteless. Well, it can.
Most of the time we ate dinner out, usually in an Italian restaurant, a Pizza Hut (one of my favourites: I love the variety of starters and sauces and Valentina always finds what she likes) or a McDonald’s (my third son’s favourite).
The problem with McDonald’s is that we always feel at a loss when we have to order. While we are queuing it seems all right and we choose what we want , repeat the list and check it again. But at the till something is always missing or misunderstood or someone changes his or her mind. It happens every time. We can’t help it.
Here are some examples of a typical conversation at the till.
“How many chips?” I say.
“Five,” one of my children says.
“Five portions of chips, please,” I say.
“No, I meant menu number five,” he says.
“All right, how many menu number five?”
“And how many chips?”
“So one cappuccino, three Mc Flurry…” I say
“No, four Mc Flurry,” one of the children butts in.
“All right,” I say. “Four Mc Flurry, one Kit Kat…”
“Kit Kat for me too.”
“…Two Kit Kat flavour,” I say. “One M&Ms, one strawberry, please.”
“Two strawberry ones,” somebody behind me says.
“This makes five,” I say.
“Five then,” he says.
No wonder that the guy at the till usually gets it wrong.
I also find McDonald’s very clean and practical for toilets, especially when there are none available except in museums. It happened in Amsterdam and it always happens in Italy. You can’t go around a whole day without needing the toilet at least once (I can’t) and you can’t enter a museum expressly for that purpose. So McDonald’s does the job.
We usually chat and laugh at dinner, especially when there is no TV on, and there isn’t one in restaurants. We had a very happy dinner at Pizza Hut in Aachen where we solved some paramount dilemmas.
1.How to organize the dinners at the seaside and how to divide the family in the two small apartments we had rented for a week (my parents were with us as well plus another girl and another boy, friends of my children).
2.Do grandparents look forward to having great grandchildren? We settled that: ‘yes, they do’. My eldest son is first on the list though the second child, my daughter, could overtake him at the eleventh hour.
3.Speaking English in Europe. I suggested they did not speak too fast and avoid the Cumbrian accent or people wouldn’t understand them. They replied that it was my accent that people did not understand. All right, suit yourself. Later, when they ordered their desserts, the ice creams had the wrong flavours.
Our best breakfast was in Aachen and our best value-for-money dinner was at Strasbourg at La Petite France.
I had spotted gorgeous pastry shops and cafés and we made up our minds to fill our bodies with thousands of kilocalories before leaving Germany. That morning we chose an average of two pastries per person (Valentina had three) each the size of a Cornish pasty, and a black coffee for me. Even the coffee was superb and the creams, jelly, fruit and pastry of the cakes were indescribably delicious, melting in the mouth with a perfect balance of flavours.
At La Petite France, the touristy old part of Strasbourg, we fancied pizza and carbonara, as usual, and chose a restaurant with a French name but with a hint of Italian colours on the outside. We had one course each plus drinks (I chose an Alsatian dish instead with baked potatoes, a white sauce, salad and smoked prosciutto: very tasty). The bill for the whole family was only 74 Euros. And the carbonara was just right, so abundant that my husband and my eldest son, who usually polish off the leftovers, couldn’t finish it for the first time in family history.
Entering Italy in the early afternoon the next day, the Italian flag flapping at the top of the custom building, its colours clean and bright against the blue sky, we tuned into the National Anthem, Fratelli d’Italia, playing just the first line. The Italian custom officers at the border looked suntanned and relaxed, watching the cars passing by. One was absently chewing his fingernails. On the radio there was a discussion about what to do with the olive oil you find in the tuna cans. In order to dispose of it carefully and in an eco-friendly way, the suggestion was to give it to your dog. Poor thing!
After a few miles we stopped to have a snack, prosciutto and salami panini for everybody and a creamy cappuccino for me: fantastic. I must say that in spite of all my love for England and my wish to travel in different countries and taste different flavours, sometimes I still find Italian food unbeatable.
We usually stop for one night in the Po Valley at a B&B near San Secondo Parmense. We found the level of the river Po quite high for the season and the air not too sticky. We always buy one metre of pizza for dinner and eat it watching the Italian TV in our big, air-conditioned room. In the morning we looked forward to having breakfast with Italian coffee, fresh milk, homemade butter and jams and homemade cakes. Yummy.
In my husband’s little family village my mother-in-law always fills us with the most appetizing food. This year, we talked about crops and they told me they had only a few plums from the plum tree in the garden near the house. In the other garden, a bit further away, the trees gave no fruit at all. The trees blossomed in spring but because of the bad weather the insects did not have enough time to pollinate them and the blossom fell without giving fruit. Coming from the city, we found this very interesting. Similarly, because of the weather conditions last year they had had thirteen hundred kilograms of potatoes but this year there were only three. It was the same field. In the past, they said, when people depended totally on the harvest and couldn’t rely on the supermarket round the corner, they used to sow in different places so that they had at least enough food to survive winter. They also spoke about the unusual frost they had on 11th September 2001. Yes, 9/11. It killed all the crops they had no time to harvest.
Coming back home we had an unusual experience in Switzerland. We never stop there because it is a short stage of the journey and because it is expensive. But it was three pm and we were hungry, so we opted for a short break. We spent seventy five Swiss Francs (about £50), paying with a credit card, on four sandwiches, some biscuits, three cokes and three packets of candy. Then we needed the toilet. We had to change €10 because to enter the toilet you needed one Swiss Franc. In exchange they gave you a voucher to spend at the shop. We collected four vouchers and had a quick family meeting to decide what to do with them and with the rest of the change. Valentina wanted an ice cream. We bought one for two vouchers but it was melted. Their freezer did not work, and we spent the rest on packets of candy, which are never wasted in our family. A subtle way to steal your money, somebody said.
In Bruges we found a typical Italian restaurant in Market Square. We sat outside to enjoy the evening sun and the view. The restaurant had an Italian name, Italian colours and Italian postcards displayed by the entrance. But the waiter, the waitress and all the staff I could see by peeping inside looked very Flemish. I started to get worried about the food.
“They will give us a Flemish version of Italian cuisine. Awful,” I said.
One of my children called me racist. Actually the food was excellent. Valentina ate up everything and we had a very good time. Never judge a book by its cover.
Whilst still in Lancaster, we had planned a child-free day trip during our time away. We knew the frescos by Giotto, in the upper church of San Francesco basilica in Assisi, had been recently restored so we chose them.
Assisi is one of the most characteristic and unspoilt medieval towns of Umbria. For our honeymoon, about eighteen years ago, we had taken a tour of the old towns of the region. Besides Assisi, we also visited Todi, Spoleto, Spello, Gubbio and Perugia, Umbria’s capital. It was magical, a total experience, like all good honeymoons.
When we reached Assisi in the late morning it was already hot. The simple yet elegant buildings, made with white and pink stone taken from the near Mountain Subasio, created an ambience in which I was dreamily immersed: the opulence of a wealthy society that had thrived on trades in precious fabrics and local crafts.
In the Middle Ages it was a town linked to the Dukedom of Spoleto. This belonged to the German Emperor rather than to the nearby Church State , which eventually managed to conquer the whole region taking advantage of the unstable and fragmented Italian political situation. Elevated ecclesiastics often played the part of rulers in temporal as well as spiritual matters, due to the absence of a local or state government.
As often happens in rich towns, there was a striking difference between the wealthy, especially merchants but also high priests and nobles, and the poor, because of unemployment, exploitation and illness. Some of them, like lepers - but maybe also the mentally ill, disabled and wretched in general - were totally excluded from society.
St. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant used to every leisure and pleasure. His legendary meeting with a leper, and his act of embracing and curing him, marked a radical personal change and was iconic from a social and religious point of view.
Walking in the pristine alleys of the graceful Assisi with its discreet little shops selling local food, leather shoes, pottery and olive-wood religious images, its crimson geraniums hanging from timbered balconies and ogival windows and its white stone-carved churches, I couldn’t help thinking how clashing St. Francis’s poverty, his rags and his bare feet must have been with that scene. He would have mingled with the crowd in India (I was reading Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga which depicts the Indian poor), but in affluent Assisi he stood out.
The first place we visited was the San Francesco basilica. There was no charge to enter and admire the fantastic frescos of the great masters of the time: Giotto, Cimabue, Lorenzetti and Simone Martini. Not an inch of the upper and lower churches is left blank. Every arch, web, and even the lower parts of some walls, which the visitors can touch by stretching out an arm, are exquisitely decorated. What great effort and investment in honour of the poorest saint of the Catholic church! It is such a pleasure for all the enthusiasts of visual arts like me to have the opportunity to admire those masterpieces.
St. Francis has a paramount importance in Italian cultural and religious tradition and mentality. Just think: he is the patron saint of Italy together with Saint Catherine of Siena and in Italian schools his life and his writings are studied from the first years of Primary School. I remember my primary teacher made us learn, by heart, St. Francis’s famous poem, Cantico delle Creature (The Song of the Creatures) and we had to recite it in turns every morning for a whole term. In middle school and high school we studied it again because beside being a beautiful, profound poem, it is also one of the first writings in volgare, the language of the people, that would become the modern Italian language later on.
In our Primary school books there were pictures of St. Francis speaking with birds and with the wolf of Gubbio, who was probably the personification of a ruthless criminal with whom the saint had managed to come to terms. This was owing to the saint's mercifulness and the promise of food from the people of the town, Gubbio, which the wolf had previously ravaged.
What has always struck me in the life, writings and deeds of St. Francis is not only his extremely ascetic life – difficult to understand out of the historical context – but also his profound humility, accepting the need for penitence. Before and after him people who chose a pure, poor life were usually persecuted as heretics because they challenged the corrupt and opulent life of a greater part of the clergy. Ordinary people protected ascetics and considered them holy. St. Francis felt too humble and sinful himself to judge or blame the priests and focused on showing a holy way of living. He was one of the excluded and lived with them and like them. In his Testament he says that living with the poor he felt that ‘what was bitter became sweet.’
In a famous passage about what is Absolute Joy he says that it is not in being successful and in getting whatever you wish for, but, on the contrary, in being capable of bearing and accepting with joy and inner peace every kind of abuse and trial. This is quite crazy…or supernatural. His greeting was ‘Dio ti dia pace’ (May God give you His peace), the most important thing for him and which money can’t buy.
He showed us a different way of living, perhaps an illusion: a life of brotherhood, joy and peace, deeply rooted in the Gospel but also obedient and submitted to the Church. A total abandonment to the grace of God pervaded his life. He struggled till the end against any self-importance or manipulation of the gospel, refusing any belongings for himself or his friars.
Two years after his death the building of the magnificent basilica of San Francesco was started and later on the humble small church of La Porziuncola, where he used to pray, was surrounded and protected by the pompous basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
We also visited Santa Chiara church. She was St. Francis’s friend and founded the enclosed order of Clarisse. Her relics and her tomb are in the vault. When I was a child what impressed, and also scared, me was to see her hair in a glass casket. That heap of off-grey (maybe once blond) curls gave me the creeps. They looked unreal and I felt that her sacrifice in cutting it was useless. Still today I find it hard to understand out of a medieval context. Although I wear very short hair now.
As we did not pay tickets to visit the churches we decided to spend some money in San Francesco basilica’s souvenir shop. We bought bracelets and key rings with the Franciscan Tau, the Greek T which St. Francis considered the symbol of the cross. We also bought a rough wooden Tau for us and two small pictures for the great-grandmothers with the image of St. Francis by Cimabue (from the famous fresco in the lower church) with the saint depicted as short, in rags and with big ears.
I found two books I bought as a present for friends: Francesco by Raoul Manselli, and Vita di un uomo: Francesco d’Assisi by Chiara Frugoni. They had opened my mind to the life of the saint when I had read them. Instead the popular, beautiful films about him (Brother Sun and Sister Moon by Franco Zeffirelli and Francesco by Liliana Cavani) are very free interpretations of his life and his time.
Walking about Assisi, discovering evocative glimpses of secret alleys and half-hidden patios, taking photos of its flawless buildings, was such an enjoyment. Though towards the end of the day we felt both dehydrated and sticky. Shuffling towards the car to drive back home the witty opening words of ‘Consolation’ by Billy Collins came to my mind:
‘How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns…’
Though I shouldn’t say this as I tour Italy every summer, and enjoy it. It was the heat that influenced me.
No more as young as in our honeymoon times, I and my husband had a very pleasant day all the same. We were together and we could see things from a more experienced and realistic point of view, which is not a trifle. It is a blessing.
My husband is the best driver in the world. He can run fast, or drive slow, but always smoothly. He is patient in traffic jams, tireless in queues and on long hauls, watchful and careful even after hours of driving.
As a passenger in the front seat I can relax and have a nap, confident that everything is under control. When I am not sleeping, which is rare, I can enjoy the view from the car window or read. What bliss!
Driving to Italy and back is not a big deal for him. He doesn’t feel tired or worried about it. Whenever I ask him if he needs a rest and offer to drive in his place he declines politely. The children are seriously worried every time I suggest driving because I have got a name for driving slowly and getting lost easily. The truth is I am no match for him.
When we moved to Lancaster about three years ago he left first with our Ford Galaxy packed to the brim with the essentials we needed in our new, empty home. He had planned to do the journey in two to three days stopping for the night on the way. But then he was so excited by the idea of arriving as soon as possible that he forgot to stop and kept going all the way to Lancaster, arriving safe and sound in about twenty-four hours. Amazing! When he rang me the following day I couldn’t believe he was already there. Two days later, when the rest of us arrived at John Lennon airport, he was there waiting for us fresh and smiling.
This summer in Europe, he had no problem in keeping to the right side of the road from the time we landed in Rotterdam (whereas I still felt an awkward sensation we were driving on the wrong side of the road after two weeks), but something got on his nerves.
In Amsterdam we soon realized we were part of a minority, the minority of spoiled people who still used a car and who still walked. Cycling is the chosen way to move in Amsterdam.
Everybody cycles and bicycles are everywhere. You think it is your turn to cross at a traffic light, but instead a bunch of cyclists cuts across your way. They ride without helmets and at breakneck speed. There are cycle paths everywhere but most of the time the bicycles are on the road. Besides, the cycle ways are close to the pavement and look similar to it. So when you get out of the car, or walk, beware of the cycle path! Cyclists don’t stop for a passerby, they don’t stop for anyone or anything.
Near the station there are parking lots for bicycles as big and tall as those for cars, except that they are full of bikes.
We came close to having an accident quite a few times, especially when I paid attention to cars and motorbikes instead of bicycles when I crossed the road, and supposed naively they would give way.
On our last day in Amsterdam we had a long walk in the centre among bridges and canals hoping to reach a big market near the concert hall. After about one hour of wandering we felt tired so my husband offered to go and fetch the car and come back to pick us up. We waited in Rembrandtplein, a large square packed with restaurants, cafés, hotels and clubs. In the middle of the square was an ugly statue of the great painter. I felt that they could have done a better job.
We waited for almost an hour under the sun, wolfing up spicy Doritos crisps. Valentina, lucky her, found a fountain of water springing from the pavement and soaked herself in it. When my husband finally turned up he was fuming. He said it was an obstacle race to get to us. Beside the usual bikes and motorbikes darting everywhere, two cars, one a cab, had stopped in front of him for ten minutes, letting people getting on and off and blocking the way. It reminded me of Rome and Naples.
In Italy we found out that the air conditioning in our car did not work. It was torrid; we opened all the windows and then it became windy. So we partly closed them and suffered in silence, sweating and drinking water. It was particularly hard going towards the seaside resort on the Adriatic coast because the motorway A 14 Adriatica had queues and hold-ups for about a hundred miles. From the radio came an endless stream of bad news about political corruption, government crises, crimes and banal interviews with people who insisted on saying that everything was going well and everybody was good. We managed to reach the seaside after eight pm, exhausted and starving. Luckily my parents were waiting for us and had got some dinner ready.
The following day we had a walk in San Benedetto del Tronto to buy some pizza for dinner. My third son, who is a fan of cars and has watched every episode of Top Gear twice or three times, spotted a dark convertible McLaren with cream leather seats, and a black Bentley Continental GT. Wow! They looked so elegant, undisturbed and aloof, like black panthers running in the savannah. I wondered where I was. Was this the rough centre of a popular seaside town with graffiti on the walls and huge holes in the streets? Somebody had made money hand over fist here as well.
Climbing to my parents-in-law’s village we found the main road closed owing to a landslide. We had to take a long, narrow detour with frequent bends passing near tiny villages half hidden in the woods. I felt sick but did not complain.
Our worst experience on the road was on the way back to England. We found a lot of road works in Germany, though my husband was driving with his usual carefulness. The motorway had two lanes bordered at each side with blocks of concrete. At a certain point we passed under a bridge and the road forked. We were overtaking a huge truck on the left lane when a dark green Audi overtook the truck on the right side just before the fork, cutting across the truck’s path and forcing it to brake. If the truck driver had swerved instead it would have crashed against us. The truck driver blared his horn, the Audi shot away at full speed and we felt somebody in heaven had been thinking about us. It could have been a tragic accident, a family of six dead, or badly injured, on a German motorway. If I wasn’t sure we are not important people I would have thought the manouevre was deliberate. And my husband kept his composure as usual.
Our old Ford Galaxy took us home once more in spite of some strange noises from the engine. It held on till the end like a faithful companion.
Going back to my parents-in-law's little village is not my favourite choice. Though to be honest, they are very kind to us and do everything they can to make our week-long stay comfortable.
The house is spacious yet cosy, but the village is very small. There are no shops, no bars, and nothing to see or do. Being situated a thousand metres above sea level, amongst mountains and woods, makes the weather rather changeable. In summer it can be cold and rainy, or hot. When it is hot different kinds of insects (from bluebottles to nasty huge horseflies) attack you as soon as you step out of the village. Besides, family life requires us to be at home as much as possible.
I usually feel trapped and try to not think about it. It’s only a week after all.
One of the few pleasures of being there, beside the food, is meeting the great-grandmothers. Yes, my husband still has two grandmothers: his dad’s mum, aged ninety, and his mum’s mum, aged eighty-six.
They had a very hard life, especially during WW II, and when their husbands died they each felt terribly alone but managed to reach such an old age thanks to a healthy lifestyle.
His father’s mum is a small, energetic woman with big blue eyes and short, straight white hair. Her father died when she was a girl and her mother took both her daughters with her to work in the family vegetable plot from then on. She developed a great passion for sowing, growing and reaping grain and vegetables, harvesting chestnuts and keeping farm animals: chickens and a pig. She became skilled at her work and when she married, although she had three children, she never neglected the work in the fields. She was strong, could work hard for many hours, and was quite a bossy kind of woman, controlling everything that was going on at home. In a different situation and with a better education she could have been a successful business woman.
Last summer I noticed her mental decline. She is still physically fit and healthy but unfortunately dementia is affecting her brain. It has been developing for some time but the noticeable effects have been sudden and unpredictable. She doesn’t recognize anybody, forgets what you tell her and can be aggressive if something is not done her way. None of her children expected her illness. Now she needs someone with her all the time. Her children have arranged for a Romanian lady to stay with her day and night.
His mother’s mum is a very different person and has had a different life. She married a man from Northern Italy during the war, when she was only eighteen, and had five children, one of whom died when he was a baby.
They were so poor during the war that she had nothing with which to dress her first baby, who was my mother-in-law. So she went to where the sheep used to pass close to the barbed wire. She gathered strands of wool the sheep had left when their coats brushed against the wires. At home she spun and knitted the wool to make a dress for her daughter; she said she looked very pretty.
Her husband was an anti-fascist so they had some bad moments when Fascist or German soldiers combed the village.
After the war she moved to Rome and had a busy but comfortable life with her husband and four children. Unfortunately her husband died when she was only forty-one. He left her without an income and she felt lost and alone. Again she had to accept her fate, and adapt to what life sent her. However, she managed to keep the family together and raise her children on the straight and narrow. My husband is her first grandchild.
She is a sweet, kind lady with a soft, pretty face. She is quite straightforward. She has always been my favourite in my husband’s family. She keeps all the photos of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in her room and often talks with them, telling them the story of her life and hoping they will cope with it as well as she did.
Though she still has a clear mind she is failing in health. Last summer she was very weak but was recovering little by little by the time we left.
She lives alone and is a very independent person with her own mind and her own ways. She has a passion for plants. Her small apartment in Rome has a lush corner on the tiny veranda.
Meeting the great-grandmothers always gives me a greater zest for life, especially when I feel a bit worn out. Because, no matter how hard it can be sometimes, there is always residual strength to be found in a hidden corner, helping you hold on and stand again.
Radio and TV programs
Travelling in central Europe we had to leave behind the English radio channels we love, especially BBC 4, but we couldn’t yet tune into the Italian channels.
As soon as we entered Switzerland we grabbed at Italian Swiss radio. The programme was about Locarno Film Festival, awfully boring, but at least they spoke Italian. What struck me was their pronunciation. It sounded strangely posh. They pronounced the vowels in a ‘closed’ way. I could imagine their lips barely moving. In the centre of Italy where I come from, we pronounce the vowels in an ‘open’, generous way, which may be felt to be a bit vulgar, as is often the way for everything that is ‘open’.
German words were mixed with the Italian. This phenomenon happens to us as well when English words come to our mind before the Italian ones. They spoke German with an accent that, according to my husband, sounded like Scottish compared to English.
At our first stop in Italy, at the B&B in San Secondo Parmense, we had a complete slump in front of the television with a chunk of pizza margherita in our hands, zapping Italian evening TV programs. I opposed my usual refusal to watch dreadfully violent films. They showed women dragged by cars for miles, tongues cut with electric saws and extreme body piercing. Not even the Nazis thought about this.
We changed channel and chose a program about WW II, the battle of Montecassino. Still violent but less gory.
Montecassino was a crucial battle in the liberation of Italy and the Allied forces took months to conquer it. Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of civilians died. Italian people living in the area hid in caves to escape bombing and German roundups. They were starving and dirty, full of nits and unaware of what was going on. They were dressed in rags, most of them were barefoot and the children wore huge military jackets or coats.
The most spectacular scene was the filming of the bombing of Montecassino Abbey on 15th February 1944, the smoke and dust soaring like a special effect. The Germans were not in the Abbey but had not allowed evacuation. One thousand defenceless civilians had taken refuge there in the previous months. About six hundred of them died, hit by the bombs or buried under the ruins of the cathedral and the precious Bramante cloister. The eighty-year-old Abbot and about fifteen monks survived because they took shelter in a cave under the Abbey, where the original building founded by St. Benedict was. Afterwards they were safely escorted to the Vatican in Rome. During the bombing they had their prayers and Mass as usual.
I imagined the desperate and useless screaming and crying of the hundreds of people buried under the ruins of the monastery. There was no rescue.
After the destruction of the Abbey the Allies held back, giving time for the tough SS forces to take hold of the ruins and reorganize the defence of Montecassino.
It took three more months of fighting in chilly winter weather, the worst for decades, to defeat the Germans. The soldiers were exhausted.
Finally on 11th May 1944, American, Polish, British and French divisions attacked on three different sides and succeeded.
The French troops were composed of twelve thousands Moroccan Goumiers, who had the hardest task: to pass through the mountains on the left of the Liri Valley. They were highly trained and brave soldiers. Half of them died in the battle to reclaim Montecassino. Before the battle their commander in chief, General Juin, promised them fifty hours of total freedom if they won. After the battle they stole, raped and killed freely in the villages of the area for fifty hours and more.
Thousands of women and children were their victims, some men as well, though most of the time men were forced to watch and if they rebelled they were killed. In the total chaos and slaughtering of the war their cries were barely audible.
The novel La Ciociara by Alberto Moravia, and the film of the same title with Sophia Loren, give a clear idea of the terrible events.
One of my husband’s grandmothers once told me the story of an innkeeper who used to serve food and drinks to Goumiers during the war. He had two daughters and hid them in the cellar before the Moroccan soldiers arrived. But one day they arrived unexpectedly and saw the girls. They chose the prettiest one and abused of her in front of the whole family for hours. The poor girl was considered a pariah and no man ever wanted her. When Italian soldiers came back from war and knew that their wives had been abused, they left them. Even today, in some villages, they hold a day in memory of the Liberation and the havoc after it.
To end with a lighter note, my children’s favourite TV programs were mainly cartoons. The mythical One Piece (a Japanese cartoon about pirates’ adventures they used to watch in their childhood), Camera Café (gags by two cheeky Italian fellows in front of a hot drink machine talking about dates, girls and more girls) and Futurama. They could have followed Futurama in all the countries we went, even in Flemish. A global cartoon mania.
Last August death was a haunting presence from the time we arrived in Italy. Strange, because we usually forget about it, especially in summer time.
On the radio we heard the news of a group of Christian doctors (a British doctor was among them) killed by the Taliban in Afganistan and of a Philippine woman battered to death in Milan. The man, a doped-up Ukranian boxer, had been dumped by his fiancée and decided to kill the first woman he met. And he did. It happened in the street in front of a bank: people did not dare to stop him and when the ambulance arrived it was too late. It must have been a horrid scene, indiscriminate, gratuitous, like a bolt of lightning. But much more painful and drawn out for the poor woman, I should think.
Around mid-August both national and family mourning swooped down like crows. On 15th August my mum’s brother rang up my dad, a doctor, saying he felt a pain in the chest. He thought it was indigestion. My dad suspected a heart attack and told him to go to hospital. My uncle lived in a small village near Rome where the streets are so narrow the ambulance can’t enter. So a friend brought him to hospital where he died after a few hours. At the funeral I met my cousins and some relatives from Tuscany I hadn’t seen for ages. My uncle lived alone: he was divorced and his four children live in Rome. He was a hard-working but grumpy man, very skilful in practical jobs like most people in my mother’s family. He could mend, build and make everything in a house from furniture to a new bathroom. In the village where he lived he used to mend bicycles for children and do other minor jobs for free. The little square in front of the church was crowded the day of the funeral. I can’t forget the image of him in the confined funeral chamber of the hospital. His body lay in the coffin as still as only death can be. My dad told me he had dreamed of my uncle’s younger brother, who had died in a car accident forty years ago, the night before his death.
The day before the Palio dell’Assunta (the Palio of Assumption, on 16th August) and during the propitiatory dinner of the Contrada della Civetta (the area of the owl), which was in a square, a French tourist died. He was the leader of the delegation of Avignon and was sitting under the balcony of an ancient building, recently restored. The building belonged to Monte dei Paschi, the Siena Bank. A sixty-kilo piece of the balcony eaves came loose and fell on his head. It was a sudden, fatal accident and everybody said it was caused by the bad luck persecuting the Palio when four ‘green’ contrade, or areas of the town of Siena, take part in it. Believe it or not, in the four flags of four contrade of the Palio of the Assumption (Selva, Oca, Drago and Bruco, Forest, Goose, Dragon and Caterpillar) there is the colour green, a cursed colour according to a superstitious legend. For me the restoration of the old edifice hadn’t been flawless. And there is a good lesson to learn: never sit under a balcony. The Palio was won by the contrada of Tartuca (Tortoise).
Last, but absolutely not least, on 17th August the life senator and ex-President of the Italian Republic Francesco Cossiga died, aged eighty-two. He was born in Sardinia and joined the Christian Democratic Party in his youth. He was a strict Catholic, faithful to the Italian Republic and to democratic values. He was President of the Republic from 1985 to 1992, elected with a large majority of the votes of the Parliament. He had been considered an obedient, dull man but after five years he started to voice what he thought, provoking political leaders and telling his idea of the truth. Here are some examples taken from Corriere della Sera, the most important Italian newspaper. Once he said that in Italy they (people? politicians?) had mistaken solidarity with squandering and inefficiency, because they thought money would never end. He also said he valued comedians, but was afraid of people who, though they took themselves seriously, were a standing joke. He called Silvio Berlusconi ‘Pa-Peron’, playing with both the word Paperone (Uncle Scrooge) and the name of the Argentinian President Juan Peron.
His remarks were called picconate (blows with a pick). He hoped to reform his party as well as Italy but he was a lone voice. The scandal of Tangentopoli (political power based on bribe-taking), which split the Christian Democratic party, was drawing near.
He was willing to compromise with the Communist Party, but supported a hard line with the Red Brigade when they kidnapped the president of the Christian Democratic party Aldo Moro and murdered him after two months of captivity. He felt guilty, as if he had killed him, he said. He was a fan of secret services, a defender of democracy and loyal to Italian Republic till his death.
A star compared to today’s Italian politicians.