7 October 2021

And the coming home

 Part three: The long road 'home'

When I was a boy I used to really enjoy weekend walks, often exploring abandoned farm buildings or distant woods with a pal, or sometimes inviting myself to lunch at unsuspecting households of friends.  The wrench, however, was the retreat, the having to go home, the retracing my steps.  A sense of dull depression would creep over me, not because I didn't like home, but because it included the responsibilities of chores and homework and school the next day.....

A similar feeling descends on me as I think about the long road 'home.' 

However, before I leave, we take a trek up Monte Labbro, a 1,200 metre hill not far from Arcidosso, once the home of the charismatic 'Prophet of Monte Amiata' David Lazzaretti (1834 - 1878).  Four kestrels sprint and flutter in the strong mountain breezes - possibly two young ones being schooled by their parents?  The views from here are wonderful, across the Tuscan countryside and up to the heights of Monte Amiata (1,738 metres) with the plumes of steam from the geothermal power station near Santa Fiora in the foreground:

And then, all too soon, it is time to bid my friends farewell, including ninety-something year old Corrado (pictured at the head of this piece), who was born in the house where I have been staying (but who moved down to be beside the road around fifty years ago).  We have shared many a glass of his rustic wine in the past, but today he spills me a coffee.  His wife, Concetta, died exactly one year ago, and he is managing pretty well, despite failing eyesight, though complains about the difficulty of getting domestic helpers who don't put things away in the wrong places.....  Considering that he was born in the time of Mussolini, was a boy when German troops stomped and shot their way through in the 1940s, and then lived his adult life under 66 different governments, considering all that, he is in pretty good shape, and I hope I will see him again on my next visit.

I drive across country, crossing the River Orcia and past some spectacular examples of biancane - eroded rocks typical of the Crete Senesi  - then wind up past La Foce (famous home of Iris Origo) to Montepulciano and then down to the Val di Chiana and on to Arezzo.  

It's all happening here.  A sunny Saturday and everyone is in their finery.....

In the Piazza Grande a massed gathering of paramedics and mountain rescuers sing the National Anthem for me and we all are then treated to an aria from La Traviata.  

There's a wedding in the Cathedral, which swallows the beautiful bride into its dark entrails:

And another in the Pieve di Santa Maria, where the priests are taking no chances:

It's a day for parading (don't they look fabulous?):

And then an evening for the Passeggiata (soooo relaxed!):

I feel rather alone in this city this time (Amanda and I were last here a few years back) without my little companion - I guess weddings remind me - and yet there is life all around, children dashing about playing chase in the Piazza, and hundreds of really healthy looking young people engaging with their friends in a ritual of Saturday Night excitement, the girls all dressed in black skirts or trousers, bare midriffs and fine tops, the young men studiously less careful, except in their hair cuts.

I take comfort in the bottle-lined interior of La Torre di Gnicche (Piaggia S. Martino 8), where la signora Lucia makes me welcome and I sample some local affettati and vino for my supper.  It is quiet, even though it is barely fifty metres from the Piazza Grande.

I retire to my hotel room, high above the central streets, but can hear, through my slumbers, voices well into the night, with the final farewell calls around three.  But all in good humour - no sound of breaking glass, or voices raised in drunken violence.  It is calm, and friendly, and harmless....

In the morning, with clouds beginning to gather, I have to return the car to Florence, and then I stroll about the crowded, smiling streets.  

It is beautiful, and it is busy.  2020 was a disaster year, of course, but this year things have picked up.  One million two hundred and fifty-five thousand tourists have been registered in Florence in the summer of 2021, a rise of 185.7% over last year (although this is still 60% down on 2019).  

Although many of the visitors here are Italians who have chosen not to travel abroad (or who could not) most of the tourists here are Europeans (German, French, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss and Austrian) but not American or Japanese.  Apparently this is especially thanks to the introduction of the European Green Pass in August - and  I can vouch for the efficacy of this.  My NHS Covid Pass App (which I printed out and carry in my pocket) has been accepted in every bar and restaurant on this trip - I have just had to show the QR code and every little zapper from Paris to Tuscany has recognised me and given me a big green tick - how simple is that?  And it means that not only do the baristas and restauranteurs know that I am doubly vaccinated, but all the other diners or drinkers can rest assured that I am too.  No pass = no entry.  OK, so there may be some disappointed people, and people who have reason not to be vaccinated, but for the vast majority of people this brings peace of mind, and means that places can now function almost normally.  I have to have a driving licence to drive, and my wife is no longer allowed to, which, practically speaking, means that the roads are safer than if everyone could drive whether licensed or not.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream......

Anyway, the skies darken and thunder rumbles.  As predicted, the heavens open and a heavy storm sweeps the streets clear of mankind and unkind.....  For a moment I think my roof is leaking, but then I realise the paint has run....  It isn't like this in never land.  You simply don't know up from down.

And then it is over.  The cobbles gleam and there isn't a crowd in the sky. Pretty soon it will be tomorrow and the world will forget what has been and what.  But for now, I have the extraordinary privilege of staring at Brunelleschi's dome as if it were about to be completed:

And a strange light illuminates the facade of the cathedral, bathing it in a pinkish glow:

Night falls.  A pizza and a glass of vino, a wander past the hotel I used to prefer,

and bed.  In the morning I board the Freccia Rossa to Milan, where, in a complex of modernity and imagination, including a thoughtful garden of delights and some ancient empty streets, I have a few hours to wait, 

Which wait I partially fill by indulging in a last meal before my execution.... A truly beautiful risotto alla Milanese followed by Abbacchio a scottadito (with a side dish of porcini trifolati) with some Roero Arneis (2019) and then some Nebbiolo d'Alba.  Thank you Alla Cucina della Langhe (Corso Como, 6) - If you are in the neighbourhood, please give them my regards.

And then it is all aboard the TGV for Paris, eight hours (it is delayed) of scenery and sneezing (not me, but the woman next to me), hauling sometimes at 300kph.  I cannot help but feel the gravitation pull of Italy behind me, as I nervously approach my homeland.

I won't go on.....  I know some of my readers will have different ideas, but the absolutely worst part of this trip was my return to the UK.  I was prepared for this - I had had a Lateral Flow Test in Florence (supervised online); I have been twice vaccinated against Covid 19; I am healthy and have no obvious symptoms; I have a new blue British passport; I have the NHS Covid pass; I spent around £200 on tests including the Day 2 PCR test for my return; I was born in the UK; I pay taxes; I have a permanent address in the UK....  But despite all this I was reduced to a trembling wreck at the Gare du Nord by the overriding feeling of unwelcome and inefficiency (the Gov.uk website was down exactly when I needed to show my Passenger Locator Form).  After ten days of friendly (sympathetic) travel through three different countries I really felt it might have been preferable to have gone to Calais to hitch a ride on a leaky dinghy to Dover.  

Indeed, if it weren't for the fact that I had to get back to look after Amanda, and that I have some rights, I would have happily turned round and gone straight back to Italy.  No wonder that hardly any European HGV drivers (et al) want to go through this humiliation on a regular basis.

Just one little example: with my new blue Great Britain (sic) passport I had to go one way through the channels towards the security check.  Guess what?  Our channel wound its way in convoluted rounds to eventually be reintegrated with the simple straight channel for anyone else.....

Some apologies to those who disagree with my take on this, but Brexit has been a predictable disaster.  I am ashamed to be a British citizen.  I have been back ten days and Johnson makes a speech without mentioning supply difficulties (I couldn't get any fuel near here yesterday) and Theresa Coffey sings I've had the time of my life at the Conservative Party Conference closing disco.....  Universal Credit drops by £20 a week; fuel prices are at an all time high (with all the knock on effects that will have on food prices); heating one's home will be hundreds of pounds more this year; and Pandora has opened a box that spotlights the fact that the poor person who may falsify their benefit claim is such a minnow in the huge lake of tax evasion and surreptitious corruption that is this Tory world.

Fuck!  Nowhere and no one is perfect, and Italy's plethora of difficulties, governments, parties and disasters doesn't make for a good comparison, but all in all I would rather take my little one back there and see the sun go down with a glass of good red wine, than fret myself to death here in this so-called Bullingdon sovereignty where thousands of pigs can be eliminated because of 'supply problems' and food banks and supermarket shelves are running on empty.

Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole,
n’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa...
Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole.

O, sole mio!

The end of the road.  Back home, on the beach with my little one....

2 October 2021

Still on the run

 Part two: To Tuscany

In the morning, though it is still dark despite the Harvest Moon, I leave Geneva, and the train to Milan skirts Lac Leman and heads for the Simplon Tunnel.  The scenery is spectacular but shrouded in cloud and difficult to photograph with reflections on the windows and shrubbery by the trackside.  

At Brig we stop for customs and immigration - and also, the guard announces, temperature checks....  But all that happens is that a burly, desultory man glances at my NHS Covid Pass....  and that's it.  

Near Stresa I do get a good view of Lago Maggiore and Isola Bella from my seat (above) and am reminded of the stops we made at the Hotel Bristol, with its horizontal lift, in Stresa, when the girls were small.  My guilt has appeased a little as happy memories begin to take over.  

A quick change of train in Milan, and then a couple of hours later I pick up an Audi Q2 in Florence and take aim for Siena, and within an hour or so I am checked into the Albergo Chiusarelli, where we have stayed on a number of occasions.

A little later, showered and changed, I am sipping an aperitif on a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful urban spaces in Italy.

Opposite me, next to the Palazzo Pubblico, I see the little roof terrace from where I watched the Palio, probably in July 1977.

And just on the edge of the sunshine, under the red awning, is the place where I asked Amanda if she would like to get married....(to me... Ed)  which would have been in August 1984.

We were previously here two years ago, almost to the day, on the last trip we made to Italy.  It was already difficult to find things for Amanda to eat, and even more difficult to get the timing right, but I eventually found somewhere for her to have mozzarella and soft bread at about six.....

This time I return to the Osteria Da Cice, where we have eaten well many times under the arched ceiling of terracotta bricks.  The hostess has been here thirty years, and here she is showing a table of young men some of the bistecche alla fiorentina that are about to be grilled for them.....

After Cantucci e Vin Santo I wander the quiet streets, and sit for a while gazing at the candy-striped cathedral.  It is like an old friend, and I share something special with it, for it would have been a much grander, more imposing building were it not for the Black Death in 1348, combined with a colossal overspend at the time, which led to the ambitious project being abandoned.  I like it as it is, but this memorial to the plague reminds me of how vulnerable we all are, and how we can never rely on the future.

In the morning, in glorious weather, I drive down the Via Cassia and turn off at Buonconvento towards the benedictine Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore.  I walk down from the car park, past the restaurant in the gatehouse, to the Church and the abbey complex, where, over thirty years ago, Amanda and I stayed in the Foresteria....

The principal reason for visiting this beautiful site is the Grand Cloister, whose walls are adorned with frescos by Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi - here from 1505 - 8), which tell the story of Saint Benedict.  

I particularly like the pictures of various animals which, I think, may have been part of Il Sodoma's menagerie at the time, like these badgers (being pecked at by crows):

And this delightful white cat:

And then there are the male femmine (naughty girls) that Florenzo sends away from the monastery, their innocent (?) faces influenced perhaps by the great Leonardo da Vinci, 

but so like Tuscan girls today.....

I move on, towards Montalcino, but stopping at Val di Cava, where my old friend, Vincenzo, is still making Brunello on what was his grandfather's estate.  I delight in seeing him again, after many years, and finding that his son, Pierfilippo (who is about the same age as our Hannah and who we first met when they were both in car seats) now works with his father in producing innovative fine wines from superbly healthy san giovese vines. 

From Montalcino I wind down to the isolation of Sant'Antimo, where Charlemagne buried some of his troops a few years ago.  

We have visited this beautiful church time and again over the years, and clearly remember when it was more or less abandoned, and that if you turned up to see it, the custode would zip down from the village on his motorino and unlock the dusty door, allowing us into the cool interior, which was lit by windows glazed with thin slices of alabaster (or onyx - or both).  

Now it is a commercially viable monument and active church, with regular services on Sundays, and parking for coaches from Germany.

Among my abiding memories of this place is seeing a Roller emerge from its nest in the campanile - alas, such undisturbed natural wonder is now lost to the popularity of the architecture.....

On the road to my destination another landmark rises ahead of me. This is the Castello di Velona, picked out above the vineyard and before the peaks of Monte Amiata.  Many years ago Amanda and I explored this place when it was a ruin, the roofs falling in, mattresses rotting under the sky, and an ancient ledger fluttering in the breeze with details of harvests and expenditures fading in the sun.

Then I climb a rough track and roll to a halt before my friends' house, at 600 metres up the shoulders of the mountain.

Little has changed here since I first visited in the summer of 1976.  Over the years Amanda and I, and our children, have been guests of David and Sarah, our friends, in this lovely old farmhouse. I used to place my clockwork wristwatch on the windowsill by my bed and would wake in the morning to hear it ticking, while golden orioles squeaked and squawked in the cherry trees outside.

Autumn crocuses break through the dry thatch of the grass around the building, 

A Grayling butterfly heads for the bottle of Rosso di Montalcino that Vincenzo gave us for supper,

In the valleys below smoke rises from where the contadini are clearing the ground below their sweet chestnut trees in preparation for the harvest,

The sun dips down to the horizon, backlighting the hills towards the sea and beyond, the heights of Elba just visible on the left.....

And then it is gone and the sky is just full of colour behind the walnut tree as everything fades....

My heart is at ease. Back home I know Amanda is cared for and safe. It is strange to be here, without her. My guilt begins to surface again as I wish she could be with me to enjoy this glorious evening..... But then I know she would be happy for at least one of us to carry these memories.

At Arcidosso - many years ago

1 October 2021

On the run.....

Part one:  Getting Away

This is a personal story, but I am not claiming it's exceptional.  The pandemic has laid waste all sense of normality and created suffering across the world.  At the same time our struggle with dementia is more manageable, perhaps, than that of others.  We are fortunate, too, that we have support, from family and others, and can afford, at the moment, to pay people to help us.  

Things could be worse.  

That said, it is not easy, and I want to share experience so that others may understand.  So that anyone in a similar position, today or tomorrow, may be able to feel some company.

There is a saying that, Once you have met one person with dementia....  You have met one person with dementia.  No two cases are the same, though some may be similar and certain types of dementia may be better understood and more predictable than others.

As I have recounted before in these pieces, Amanda, my wife of some 38 years, has developed Frontotemporal Dementia (Semantic Variant), which is one of the rarer forms of dementia.  She has been afflicted for about ten years and has now reached the stage where she needs full time care, helping her with all the things we take for granted in daily life, from eating bread and fruit, to going to the toilet.  With Alzheimer's disease life expectancy from diagnosis to death is around ten years.  Amanda's dementia, coupled with the fact it was a fairly young onset, means she will probably live much longer than that before the general decay of the brain leaves her vulnerable to something which will finish her off.

In the meantime, it is a kind of slow demise, a slow death, and a slow bereavement.  But, to look on the bright side, she appears content and will chuckle and smile in an innocent, uncomplicated way.  And one of my messages, for what it is worth, to all and sundry (though I'm no paragon), is to grasp those positives.....

We moved in January this year.  A monumental enterprise (from my point of view) and one that left Amanda traumatised......  But this here (below) is our new home, and with the aid of certain prescribed medication and a persistent routine we have become accustomed to our new address.....

But, everything takes its toll, and, despite the help I get from family and employees, I have been responsible for the whole shebang - which includes everything from taxation to pensions, to the move, to dentistry, to ensuring we have enough Tena pants and medication - and the state, bless its convoluted ego, is not empowered to be of much assistance (though please don't take this wrong - those who are involved with us have been wonderful; just that there is a very clear limit for social care and mental health - it's not like you break your leg and they do everything!)

And so, with the permission of one of our daughters and a following wind, and given the alignment of the stars and a number of other fragments of luck, I take the train to Paris on my way south for a brief respite break.  My ultimate aim is Tuscany, where I hope to meet up with some old friends, and to rest.  I am apprehensive, but I look forward to several days not having to wake up at a certain time, not having to keep an ear out for the little steps upstairs (as I write this, I am listening for signs that Amanda may get out of bed upstairs, meaning I will need to go up and check that all is well....) 

But I am hoping to be able to go to a restaurant and relax with the menu and a glass.  To be 'free' to choose this way or that without a thought to where the nearest toilet may be, nor thinking what we can eat this evening (at six) without spitting it out.....

So, here I am, at Le Train Bleu, at Gare de Lyon, Paris. An indulgence that not even sophisticated Parisians (such as my companion on the Eurostar) have all treated themselves to.

And it is a luxury.  Wow, what an ambience!  Am I dreaming?  A quick zap of my NHS Covid Pass (no qualms there, and the zapper immediately knows who I am and how well vaxed I am) and I am seated under sprawling frescoes of women in shaded porticoes overlooking Monaco (Montenard pinxit).  Then food of an order of well trained angels, and Riesling that could baptise an Archbishop.  

I wouldn't want to dine here every day.  But.... It's one thing off the bucket list.

But then, forgive me, the first twinge of conscience.  I used to try places out in Paris with Amanda by my side.  Yes, being me, I often made the choices, but she was with me, and smiling, and we would accompany each other through these experiences, however difficult.....  Now, perforce, she is not here.  I have no hand to hold.  Somehow the food doesn't taste quite so good......

A little later I am seated on a train bound for Geneva, Switzerland. Another country.  Hundreds of miles.  But a mere three and a half hours from Paris, reaching 300kph at times and whipping through the history of Europe, up the last stretch as though the pre-Alps were something of a minor inconvenience, and then disembarking in a city without so much of a scratch on my passport.

I have little connection with Switzerland.  Amanda and I drove through it a few years ago on our last overland trip to Italy, just after some of the people in the United Kingdom (sic) chose to turn their back on the mainland. It was then an embarrassment.  It is now a shame.  But 'the people' had their wish and we have to live with it - for now.  

We also drove through the country when the girls were small, and each time I have been here  I have thought how calm and neat and clean and pleasant a land it is.  Right now, on my own, I think rather differently.  I am at ease, sort of, but on my shoulder is the unwelcome weight of a conscience, niggling at me - should I be here?

But then, what do I know?

So I am on the run.  Escaping from my responsibilities, trying to forget the daily pain of watching a loved one disappear.  But friends and counsellors have told me I need to look after myself, or who will care for - Amanda.  And there is the rub.  We both worked all our lives to save a little for our twilight days, and now it will all be tied up in her care (or perhaps mine as well?)  I am a pawn in the government's game. If I fall over, then the bill will fall to the local authority, already starved of resources by a cabinet of fools, but until that day, we pay.....  

And the result is that I feel guilty. Guilty for abandoning my powerless partner. Guilty for perhaps enjoying myself.  Guilty even for expecting some help when there are others more needy than us..... But, guilty, as charged, for being a self-centred Europhile flaneur, riding the TGV to Geneva and eating (and drinking Chasselan) care of Jose et Carlos Farina, at the Bistrot du Bœuf Rouge, 17 rue Dr. Alfred-Vincent, CH 1201 Genève.... 

Yes.  On the run.  

And guilty.