Most people’s idea (and they are absolutely right) of the English second home in Italy has a setting high on a hillside where there are wild flowers, irises, orchids, harebells, carnations and many more. Weaving busily among them, and the long golden grasses, is every sort of insect, crawling or flying and nearly always making a lot of noise for its size.
Waving vines nurse their famous fruit and make a fretwork of the sky while gnarled fig trees with their bold curvy deep green leaves offer refuge in their purple shade. Olive trees with their little pale leaves flicker from terre-verte to silver in the gentle breeze. Oleanders are bright with rich carmine flowers, and yellow broom sweeps like celebration down the hillside. But perhaps not all at once!
An ever expanding view of prettily farmed rolling agricultural land, is dotted with cypresses as felicitously as if there really were a God, and, for even better effect, in just the right places He reinforces his claim to fame by artfully pricking the blue sky with what are undoubtedly, His occasional church steeples.
The night is bright with fireflies, stars, and moonlight, and the day is loud with cuckoos, cicadas … and the distant buzz of a tractor to remind us that we are not actually in Heaven.
Add to this a delightful converted farmhouse with a slightly inconvenient water-problem and all mod-cons. It looks over to a distant backdrop of blue-grey mountains while the middle-ground intrigues the eye with hill-top villages harbouring restaurants that are, quite truthfully, twice as good and half the price of anything you will find in London.
Outside the house would be a well, canopied by museum-quality wrought ironwork. Against the house would lean the occasional crumbling staircase going no-where, while a truly ancient and mysterious architectural history would be hinted at by the arched brickwork over blind windows and the ghosts of doors. Inside the house are grand rooms with wonderful views, giant fire-places … and central heating.
Those who are lucky enjoy the benefit of a brilliant turquoise pool shining like a tiny intense jewel of pleasing but jarring colour in the grand landscape of it’s setting; those who are unlucky have a pea green one because of the slightly inconvenient water-problem!
Work around and in such houses would be down to some local village persons, the fairly predictable rapacity of whom, even to recognise, might lead to some uncomfortable soul-searching and is therefore best ignored … and, for lack of alternative. Thus, in the necessarily blinkered eyes of the owners, such persons are perforce and, without exception, ‘darlings’, which conspires to a general happiness that the cold eye of truth might frustrate.
Those who offer their services have hard lives, and if the picture is not quite perfect to the point of being cloying, it is more surprising than otherwise that so many local Italians are not spoiled into avarice by the pot of gold foreigners can represent, and are often more generous with their time and trouble and hospitality than would be their patrons.
Well, I won’t say that taking part in such a scenario, including some double-standards, would be rejected by me, but unfortunately, I couldn’t afford it.
I didn’t even live in Tuscany. I lived in a plebeian village, without a working vine in sight, half way up a mountain some distance north of Milan. How I came to be there was inconsequential. Italian friends lived there and told me of a room to let for £80 a year in the courtyard where they had a flat. I thought about it for ten minutes that shamed my sense of adventure, and rang back to say I would take it, sight unseen. Whatever was to follow, I hadn’t a clue about, but it had to be interesting and too good to miss.
As it happened, I had fairly recently exchanged my long-enough and mostly amusing life in advertising, for the shaky one of an artist. To my surprise my foolish gamble was rewarded by a level of success and so now I was savouring the exhilarating joy of being able to work anywhere, and roughly speaking, being able to do anything at any time.
I rented my little room in Italy for an unanticipated 16 years, and used it only in the summer months. It was in an ancient courtyard situated in a small town, or big village, in the Alps some distance north of Milan, and very little south of Bellagio on Lake Como. Almost equidistantly were Lecco to the East and Como to the West. It is the first reasonable sized conurbation where it is possible to breathe in the height of summer and the last stop for the wooden-seated train grinding up into the mountains from Milan.
It was not a town that the average English Italophile would settle on for their summer idyll with any great enthusiasm. For while it wasn’t at all ugly, or the views lacking in drama, superficially it was ordinary; a town whose ebullient yellow-ochre baroque church might catch the eye for a moment as one drove past it and through the mountains on the way to better places, Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio, Cadenabbia, and all the many colourful little towns nuzzling the sparkling lake.
It wasn’t a town patronised by foreigners at all, but it had its full share of summer visitors. There was an annual flow of wives and children seeking refuge from Milan, where, even at midnight the walls scorch your hands with the stored heat from a spiteful sun.
Many of these refugees from Milan had opulent second homes complete with slavering guard-dogs, and limpid turquoise pools. Others, even very poor people, sometimes whole families rented rooms, on a temporary or annual basis, as I did.
In Italy there are many similar yearly migrations from overheated city centres to fresh hill-top villages whose economies these days rely almost solely on the summer trade.
The room I rented was even then spectacularly cheap, in part because my landlady, Signora Lucia, a rather nice looking, warily friendly, ageing lady, wanted a foreign tenant who could have no legal hold on the place, and in part because, while she possessed the gimlet eye of one who knows exactly what the score is, she cared more about a quiet life than profit; a sensible philosophy given the rabbit warren of rooms in the courtyard and the endless opportunities for friction.
We solemnly drew up a hand written agreement, lacking somewhat the niceties of a proper legal document, but good enough for honest people, and duly witnessed by my friends.
My little room had originally been inhabited by Signora Lucia’s own family and, not so long before that it had been part of farm buildings providing shelter for beasts of the field. It was into my grand fire-place that her epileptic brother Tino had fallen during a seizure as a child, and where their mother had cooked upon an open fire. This large useful space was boarded up when I arrived. I opened it up, painted it white, and got a handsome and, it turned out, accomplished local carpenter to cut the eccentric shapes necessary to make shelving. I filled it with many bottles, sketch books etc., but I never managed to eliminate the ancient tar that ate its way through any paint I cared to throw at it. The bill for this work was hard to come by, and small enough to shatter some ignorant assumptions about Italian character when it eventually arrived weeks later.
At some point Signora Lucia and her husband (long dead) had managed to buy the whole of the building which contained, among many others, my room, but now my landlady lived in a village some small distance from Canzo, in a similar old building but refurbished to the point of scintillating modernity.
Signora Lucia’s brother and co-owner, Tino, continued to live in the family home (indeed, he refused to leave) in rooms, a floor above me. Tino was an endearing man but ‘sette etti’ to the kilo; very simple. He suffered recurring epileptic seizures which often caused him injury but never necessitated calling for an ambulance as this, I slowly came to understand, cost money.
My ground floor room had a small front window, high up and barred against villains, and a heavily shuttered but glazed front door onto the Vicolo (Lane) Chiuso (Closed). As indicated by its name, this tiny lane was closed off at one end, and only just served to divide the tall buildings which lined it as it made its short journey down into the Piazza. Some years later this humble lane, too narrow for more than motorbikes, was peremptorily promoted to ‘Vicolo Santo Stefano’. The local commune had noted with retrospective alarm that there was no road named after the local saint. No-one complained!
It was into this vicolo I would occasionally sneak if I wanted to avoid leaving by my little room’s backdoor which let into the courtyard with it’s sometimes too many opportunities for conversation.
The ceiling of my room was supported by bowed whitewashed beams which were having a job to support the weight of the tiled room above. Anyone walking above tended to create local showers of white dust. However, it was a pretty ceiling most agreeable to view from bed, an organic structure playing an almost animated part in keeping the house up. Ghost-friendly it provoked fantasies of other lives, other times, as did my landlady’s husbands wartime medals which remained, evidently unesteemed by her, for I mentioned them to her, in a drawer in my wardrobe throughout the time I lived there; material evidence of a real life with it’s own drama, lived in this place, and forgotten now by indifferent time.
The walls were two or three feet thick, and when the electrician came to put a few plugs in for me he simply scooped out holes, mixed some cement and stuck the plugs and screws into it. No bother with drilling holes. These were the Spanish buildings, I was told, three hundred or more years old. The whole area, including Milan had belonged to the Habsburgs in 1535 (according to my World History) and then to the Spanish, and then to the French. I presume that it was the French who had left a legacy of the lira being surprisingly referred to as franchi when one shopped at the local market. Like the carpenter, the electrician was not only an expert, but aesthetically sharp and did everything with exquisite common sense, the sort one has generally learned by bitter experience not to expect!
The floor of my room was of marble composite laid directly onto the breathing sweating earth. This resulted in a happy white fungus growing every time the room was closed up for any length of time and a tide mark of damp edging up the cream walls yearly, until, every so-many years, it was repainted … and it all started again.
My back door, the door onto the shared courtyard, was paned with wobbly-glass and next to it was a good sized green-shuttered window. My little room was like a minute house, with a small washing facility which could be shut away behind glass panelled doors. I bought myself a fridge, improvised some bookshelves with bricks and planks, threw a pretty coverlet and cushions on the bed, established some floor to ceiling plain canvas curtains to conceal the ugly wardrobe and dresser, repainted the woodwork with the half-full pots of chalky paint usual in our bit of Italy, bought some pretty plates and glasses …and a lot of bottles, littered interesting bits of pottery all over the place, put pictures on the wall … and there it was … a second home! All it lacked, and this was the big one, was a lavatory. More later!
Immediately outside my room was a portico, a large covered area like a room with one wall missing. To one side was an open granite staircase. Incredibly thick ceiling beams supported two further floors above and their balconies. The space of the portico, opening onto the courtyard, formed a protected living area, bigger than my room, for me and the swallows and cats of the year.
Under this portico I used to eat and talk with friends, write, read, work. Even if it rained it was seldom cold. In the evening, as the light faded, after some noisy argument and ritual jostling a couple of swallows would sit, and eventually sleep a short distance from their nestful of sleeping chicks, side by side on a giant nail. Generations of swallows had slept on this nail hammered into one of the great beams by Signor Tino many years before. It amazed and delighted me that however many people were eating and drinking and shouting at the table, smoking and with candles burning, these delightful companions still slept on, apparently unconcerned, not more than 1ft. beyond ones reach.
There were three swallows nests jealously protected by Tino who would have killed anyone interfering with them. He loved them even more than I did. Mostly only one nest per year was occupied, but their occupants varied in character; some pairs nervous of humans and quarrelsome with each other, others very relaxed and even flying into my room to sit on a loop of wire. They were a delight to watch every year, and if one was lucky one might catch the day when the babies first fly. This was always a moving sight. Clumsy, and flapping strenuously they would jump into the great unknown alight on some roof or tree to sit there slightly stunned and getting their courage back.
On one occasion the least able of 4 youngsters sat in the hot sun on a nearby roof all the afternoon until we human voyeurs were despairing. The parent birds periodically returned to scream at it, flapping their encouragement and example inches from it. Eventually at dusk they achieved lift-off and, straight back to the nest, the two parent birds flew at each side of the panicky youngster, so tight into its sides that I would almost swear they held it up. It stayed in the nest for a further week. You could pick out the youngsters for some days after they had left the nest simply because they weren’t that good at flying and … in the way of all flesh … continued to demand food Mostly, once they flew they didn’t sleep in the nest any more, but there were exceptions. One fat little only-offspring insisted on returning to sleep in the nest every night until it’s distraught parents had to run it off with much shouting and screaming. They soon had a second family on the way.
Quite often the offspring of the first family would help their parents feed their second, and, in the event of a cat taking an interest, all the swallows in the vicinity would turn neatly out of the sky in quick succession and dive at it screaming like so many spitfires. One cat cringing from the noise rolled on its back with its feet in the air quite clearly showing the white flag. In 16 years only once did I find no nest occupied. That year the beamed roof of the portico had been resprayed white… including all three nests. I was outraged. I carefully mixed my watercolours and returned the nests to their rightful muddy colours … and stuck a tiny Union Jack on one of them.
Having lived all my life in urban areas, this intimacy with swallows was a revelation. I awoke to their little chortling dawn chatter noises, a bit like bag of marbles being gently shaken in water followed up by a little trill, and I recognised their alarm signals and their occasional quarrelling and the hoarse chorus of demands for food from what was to all appearances a nestful of bright yellow gaping beaks.
Once, I bemoaned the fact to Tino that I had never been there on the day they all left for Africa, although I had seen them mass on the telephone lines in anticipation of some magic moment and Tino said, eyes alight with pleasure, that more exciting was the day they arrived … one at a time. That, I would love to see; tired birds searching out homes they, or their relatives, have returned to for generations. The swallows were an inexhaustible pleasure, more I fear than reading about them at too great length can be.
Over my back door under the portico, in a tiny shrine lit by a minute bulb, a painted plaster virgin stood in a plaster rock cave in front of which was a tiny vase of plastic flowers, on a real embroidered cloth which was occasionally washed and changed.
Signor Tino had been told by the priest, when he was young, that because of his epileptic condition he could never marry, and an historic letter that he had written at the time to the Virgin asking that he be given the strength to resist temptation had remained behind the shrine ever since. Everyone knew about it. It is probably still there, although he has been dead some years.
My lapsed Catholic friends shuddered at all that, but as religion has never had any hold on me, my attitude was ambivalent. While I believe all religion to have been invented by the imagination of man, and to have done far more harm than good, I was rather amused at this bit of local colour to be found above, of all people, MY door, and was too secure in my own beliefs, or lack of them, to feel any need to disassociate myself. And, while one may personally believe it is fiction, it is a self-evident fact, and a bit awesome that such a lot of real love, trust, and hope, and for that matter, fear, is focused on such belief. And God was definitely a big player in our courtyard.
Under the portico, smiled upon by the plaster virgin, were various pine tables that would have cost a bomb in Portobello Rd. These, along with stray chairs, were left for use outside, together with too many of Signor Tino’s latest acquisitions. He was undoubtedly a kleptomaniac. Any detritus that wasn’t actually smelling would be hoarded by him. Indeed, quite apart from his apartment which was stacked with the boxes of postcards which were his main obsession, there were rooms which could have been rented, full of his stuff. Some furniture was quite good, and I got him to lend me some of it, but it was always sneaked back … along with my Union Jack.
Tino was strong and did a lot of helpful jobs for local people which they frequently paid for with broken furniture, old pots and any old rubbish they wanted to be rid of. Thus Tino would do two good turns for the price of none! However, he was well satisfied, and would triumphantly bring the latest trophy back to the courtyard where it had to be be accommodated in some bursting crevasse or other, along with the stack of firewood no-one could use any more and the drum of a washing machine, and the polystyrene packing from someone’s television. Well, in the end, he WAS, along with his sister, the owner. Who were we to complain?
Every now and again my landlady’s two unsentimental daughters would take advantage of his latest seizure to throw out some of his rubbish while he was too weak to protest. Some hours later he would sit dazed and grumbling and appealing to whoever was around for justice. I always thought he did have a valid case. Nevertheless, his junk was a nuisance even though mostly we managed to conceal it.
However I run ahead, for when I first arrived Tino was just a strange character of whom I was a little nervous. For one thing, while he understood perfectly well when I spoke Italian, he spoke almost exclusively in Brianzolo, the local dialect, of which I only sussed out an occasional word, and being a simple fellow, he didn’t really understand why all I could do was nod agreeably when he spoke to me. Fortunately most people had the imagination to speak to me in Italian, although between themselves they could be incomprehensible. Every town/area in Italy has effectively 2 languages, Italian and a local dialect. These dialects contain language a lot more complex than what the English would think of as dialect. In Verona for example books of poems by local authors are translated from Veronese into Italian!
Over the years the twelve or more characters occupying rooms round the courtyard and who at the beginning were almost indistinguishable from one another became as clear cut as my own family, and I must add, an hilarious entertainment to be enjoyed yearly in the perfect theatre of the courtyard.
To finish the description of the courtyard itself; the building in which I was accommodated was one of two three-story buildings that contiguously embraced the courtyard in an L shape. The other two sides were formed by a wall that backed onto the garden of the Latteria (milk, cheese, etc., shop), and which blessed us with some greenery, and on the other side by a low smallish building with three doors, above which was Tino’s balcony with it’s very ancient geraniums.
Of the three doors of the small building, the left hand door was to the communal clothes wash-house for our building only. This was jealously guarded. Tenants of OUR building paid for the water and therefore no-one else could use it. It had a deep marble composite sink. This means it was made of a sort of marble porridge that never looks really clean, and, because some bits wear faster than others the surface was corrugated like porridge too. But it was wonderful to be able to use the water wildly, even if, and quite often because, the water was cold.
The right hand door should have been to a shower, but which was a joy frustratingly denied, as it was crammed with Signor Tino’s treasures.
The centre door was to the most horrid, horrid lavatory. At that time this wasn’t at all exceptional in Italy. Even smart restaurants had little better than ours to offer their well-dressed guests. It was a hole in the ground buzzing with flies, and not at a very discreet distance from where one might be eating and chatting with friends.
This added interesting counterpoint to many conversations, and I am afraid was frequently amusing, and somewhat unfairly too, as I was privileged to be able to use my friends facilities. A few people had been able to install their own loos, but for everyone who hadn’t, mostly ageing ladies, there was no alternative to the hell hole.
Some years later the landlady of the building next to ours in the courtyard built a proper lavatory in a small self-contained out-building, complete with a flush system, and, because the old ladies refused to contribute to the cost otherwise, there was the inconceivable luxury of a SEAT. This new lavatory, achieved as it was by subscription, was subject to territorial rights and became much envied by the tenants of our building who still had to use the hole, until a year later our landlady, somewhat shamed, trumped the other by putting a flush loo on every floor. Mine was just outside my room in what had been a large cupboard under the stairs (as usual appropriated by Tino), and in as happy a position as I could hope for. And, she combined a flush loo with a shower. AND with hot water. What happiness! Even if the lavatory drain pipe did converge with the shower exit pipe … it only caused problems occasionally … mostly when the septic tank which served both buildings was full and backed up! On these occasions a vehicle with the longest hose in the world would be called to … do it’s job, amazingly efficiently.
At greater or lesser speed, and in much the same pragmatic manner, during the time I was there, similar changes were being reflected in every local courtyard of which there were probably something like twenty. All were in roughly the same area, because they are formed by buildings that made up the ancient agricultural centre. Over the centuries walls have come and gone, usages have been altered, and every courtyard is uniquely distinguished by the haphazard nature of the architecture, which came at some arbitrary point to be enclosed. Ancient granite columns, graceful arches, intriguing staircases of granite or wood winding their ways to passages and balconies all combine in different ways to form many different theatres of life. In each courtyard intimate histories of the inhabitants are characteristically spelled out by the dangerous tangles of redirected wiring and ingenious plumbing.
Each courtyard contains a small community, with a character of it’s own, full of different stories and personalities, all securely locked in every night behind their own giant studded ‘portone’, the giant door into the courtyard , which sometimes contains within it a smaller door for the sake of convenience. During the day these doors are mostly open, allowing the curious a glimpse of other players on other stages. As a foreigner with a camera I could find excuses for wandering in and chatting. In one courtyard I saw the most beautiful cats and kittens I had ever seen. They were like seals with sparkling fur. All very well, said one of the tenants, but they get into everyone’s rooms, we can’t escape them. She continued to complain about her neighbour the cat enthusiast.
The mix of courtyard inhabitants is pretty universal; more widows than widowers, maybe a poor couple with children living in desperate disharmony, some owning, some renting, sometimes just a room, sometimes an apartment. Add to that the inevitable short-lets to people fleeing the heat of Milan; characters who, cast into the volatile mix of permanent residents, provide interesting focus for summer gossip. That was my very own role, of course.
As the physical nature of courtyard life with its open staircases, balconies, doors onto a common space, precludes any real privacy, characters enter and exit left, right and centre and may be overheard, literally as on a stage-set, making high melodrama of small antagonism’s to the great delight of an alert, if often invisible, audience.
This of course might not suit some. But I loved it. Possibly because I had a studio to escape to just over the road, and of course another home to go to and thus could remain reasonably detached. Certainly, under such close circumstances, malice can flourish, but then so can compassion. I can’t imagine a better support system. The Samaritans wouldn’t get a look in. I doubt anyone could lie unconscious on the floor for more than an hour or two, never mind weeks. Curiosity polices every courtyard. The limited number of people living in them and the fact that each person’s actions are so open to scrutiny exerts social pressures. Genuine kindness, or hypocrisy, it hardly matters, the sick are bought soup, the slow are advised, the lame are offered an arm, errands are ran and no one person bears the whole weight of another’s problem… it is shared by the community.
The price to be paid for this almost fool-proof social system is some inescapable claustrophobia. It works just because everyone knows everyone else’s business and for many elderly people, whose partners have died, it provides an actively involved life, far richer in human contacts and mental stimuli than living in a block of flats with marble staircases, central heating, lifts and private balconies.
I have watched good sons re-house beloved mothers in just such accommodation and wondered which was most likely to kill them first, the isolation there, or the chill asthmatic damp that every winter pervades the courtyards and creeps the walls of our un-damp-proofed ex -farmyard buildings.
The outer walls of these communities, when not actually adjoining each other, form a puzzling network of narrow lanes, which wander in steep and curvaceous harmony, dividing and merging in response to the terrain and some long lost ancient territorial logic, until finally they find their way to the Piazza.
Thus, paradoxically, the most interesting and central part of the town is also the poorest, for these buildings are valued for their history and protected by such vigorous planning laws that few dare make any serious changes for fear of the expense. And apart from that, these dwellings, damp and unhealthy as they undoubtedly are, have historically only been occupied by those who can afford nothing better. And, so while on the periphery of Canzo the owners of smart villas must alert their guard dogs, and bring in their cars for shopping, the humble courtyard dwellers can amble out of their secure courtyards, to fetch hot bread, freshly baked, and anything else they want in a matter of minutes.
Until shortly before I left the only gas available was in large metal containers ‘bombola’s, and when one of these ran out, a very strong man from the electricity shop would heave one round on his shoulder … even before the pot cooled! Every sort of shop you could desire was most conveniently concentrated within an area of about one quarter of a square mile. There were also two galleries, a library, a theatre turned cinema, a shop that sold artists materials, and a well-known painter with a broad-brimmed hat.
Still remaining untouched by time, sandwiched between shops facing into the busy Piazza, was a building with a small yard facing the main road, and which sported several rabbits and hens, and a cockerel whose noisy crowing, combined with the bells of the church … Ave..cockadoodle Ave..cockadoodle Ave… doo Ma..ri..a…., and the honking of parking cars to compound an eccentric cacophony of sounds that distinguished the centre of Canzo.
Just behind the shops lining the Piazza, and overlooked by my studio, which was at the top of the building opposite my room, was a large area of allotment, as decorative as a Van Gogh, which supported every type of agricultural produce, including flowers, and fruit trees, and which would in most towns have been long ago converted to prime real-estate.
Things are changing of course, prompted by civic pride, the high street came to boast a new a digital clock and then a very, very, tiny park was opened.
The roads were re-surfaced with an interesting colour, which by common consent was a failure, and despite the expense, was changed almost immediately back to the original colour. For many years after my arrival, this is how it was and no doubt still is; a tug of war between ancient and modern.
When I first arrived, nearly all the characters in our courtyard were tenuously connected by blood or marriage. By the time I left, several had died and been replaced by others with no connection including, sadly, the first of the rich to lever out the poor.
At the beginning and until the day I left there was Signora Cesarina, a spiteful lady of little brain, who was permanently at odds with Signora Artemisia, a generous but powerful personality who lived with her delinquent son and nice daughter, by two different absent fathers. Both of these ladies could be described as vulgar … they certainly had some vulgar gestures and vulgar expressions which mildly alarmed me at first acquaintance but maybe the language barrier veils some of this and leaves actions to speak more than words. Certainly the bombastic Artemisia was as kind and intelligent as Cesarina was mean and spiteful. All this of course to be discovered over the years.
Artemisia and Cesarina were on their own a perfectly balanced theatrical turn, and both blessed with amazingly appropriate names.
Artemisia was a large lady with a strident voice, of a pale waxy skin, and round tinted glasses. She would cross the courtyard with her hands dramatically stuck out in front of her as someone acting crossing a dark room. She had a pension for the blind. Behind her back, Cesarina would say that she could see a lira at 20 paces. Artemisia would say contemptuously that Cesarina was the parsley that got into everything. Cesarina felt superior; she owned her apartment in the ancient building and it had been seriously updated with marble floors, flush loo and shower contained in a gleaming tiled bathroom. Her marriage credentials were impeccable, grandchildren dutifully visited, and she could afford the odd holiday by the sea.
Artemisia, renting two rooms up wooden staircase, and very poor, with her two illegitimate children was permanently stung. But Artemisia was armed with that best of all weapons, humour, and succeeded in being the bigger personality.
Cesarina with her narrow eyes was baffled at not winning our unequivocal support in this undeclared war. She tried bribery; bottles of wine and bits of food, she tried subversion. We nodded agreeably at all she said, only understanding as much as was politic.
How much Artemisia could see was always in some doubt, but it didn’t noticeably impede her progress, or her capacity to cook. The whole courtyard took her dark glasses with a pinch of salt, and it was some years before I saw, to my surprise, that her telephone book was in Braille. Artemisia, of whom I became very fond, was re-housed shortly before I left and died a few years later.
Signora Maria, was tiny enough for me to tuck her head under my arm. She was an ancient, strong little body, dressed mostly in black, with a gnarled voice and bright eyes. Maria was a widow of such long-standing, and her independence of mind such, that it was hard to imagine that she had ever ceded to a partner. She was the eldest inhabitant and by far the most intelligent although she had no idea where England was. She was the unelected leader and wise-woman of the community. And she was, to a disgust that she only dare admit to us, the sister-in-law of Cesarina. She was also Tino’s aunt; relationships in the courtyard defeat me even now. She was a good person, and her fairness and almost ingenuous lack of malice (which isn’t to say that she didn’t recognise it) was so patently superior that she was the natural resolver of quarrels. She would simply shame the participants with some gentle and truthful comment that left them muttering but with their stings drawn.
Signora Maria must have been nearly 80 when I met her. She had had a very hard life. Her mother had left her father when she was tiny, and her father had abandoned his family when, as she put it ‘he met a woman he wanted’. Maria’s eldest sister, 14 years old, had perforce to look after a raft of children. Maria said that she remembered walking along with the smaller children, her sister, and a wheelbarrow full of clothes. Her fathers desertion she half excused with a shrug, ‘he met another woman and she didn’t want the children’. The sister died of a heart attack when she was twenty. I guess this paragraph is her only memorial.
Maria survived, and went to work at the silk factory in the town where my landlady now lives … a walk of about 10 km each way which she had done daily. She married, and her honeymoon was a day at Como with buns in a bag. It rained and the bag burst. She had never been to Como again. Until we took her, she had never been to Bellagio at all … only half an hour away. Unfortunately, she was half blind by then, but she enjoyed enormously sitting in one of the smart cafe’s by the Lake seeing, insomuch as she could, the parading tourists in their exotic clothing. She insisted we kept this visit a secret because she said the others would be jealous. And I daresay in this she was right. But it seemed quite funny this 80 (plus) year-old slinking out of the courtyard like a naughty schoolchild to join us in the car-park, and then making up some story later to account for her absence.
She had hardly left Canzo ever. She had had three children in the two particularly damp rooms which she came to own, and which were connected by an outer staircase. There was water and a sink, but she had to go out to use the outer lavatory shared by all. She still grieved for a son who died on the Russian front when he was 18, and she was still angry that he should have been sent there. Her family wanted her to move into a home or stay with them, but she refused to move. She, sensibly, had grave doubts about her daughter-in-law’s enthusiasm. She went into hospital now and again but always came back to the independence of her unhealthy rooms as soon as she could. She used to say that she could hear the violins in her chest. She was still turning over her heavy horse-hair mattress without asking for the help that was readily available until the day she died.
Over the years she became like an honorary relation. She had no education, but she was subtle, and had she been born into a different age she would have been university material. In a way she was lonely. There were very few to whom she could truly confide her feelings. When she died, she must have been about 90 years old. From then on, quarrels went unchecked, small decisions became big, and unworthy participants struggled for an unspoken supremacy. I missed her a lot.
Signor Tino was Maria’s nephew, and the brother of my landlady. He lived in total chaos up in his rooms full of cardboard boxes full of postcards. He was a simple person. To my landlady’s daughters he was an old fool with whom they had little patience and without whom the building the building could be sold. Artemisia used to laughingly say to Tino, ‘Eat!, eat!, Tino, if you die we will all be turned out!’. My landlady had told us that while Tino lived she would not sell the building. When he did die, a year before I left, she decided to postpone the sale until after her own demise, no doubt to the disappointment of her common-sense daughters.
‘ Tino, I was told by my landlady, is the richest of all of us, he never spends a penny. Tino himself said, ‘my problem is that I am mean’… which was rather endearing. Tino was probably in his late sixties when I arrived, but his stress-free life had left him looking quite young, and he had a nice face which went with his kind personality. Tino’s cup of life was small but full. He lived his life in an eddy of small supports from family and friends, and wouldn’t have eaten at all were it not for their constant supply of leftovers most of which being in the form of pasta were insufficient to keep him healthy. In the morning he would sit on his balcony dipping bread into water. He wouldn’t take his pills and, eventually, a busy little lady was employed to see that he did, and she would come bustling through the courtyard twice a day, disappear up the stairs followed by an outburst of protest from Tino and then silence as she stamped down the granite staircase again.
My landlady was mortified when the doctor declared Tino suffering from malnutrition. Hot gossip for the court-yard! But she had frequently offered him a place in her well-appointed home, and he was having none of it. It wasn’t her fault; he was incorrigible. He was perfectly happy browsing dreamily through his postcards. Postcards were his poetry, and his eyes lighted with pleasure as he showed them to you. Some of them were very old and probably collectors pieces, but he had no sense of those sort of values. This daily preoccupation, and observing the swallows, doing good turns for people, and occasionally watching TV with Cesarina, who it must be said was quite kind to him, made his choice of life a happy one.
The same pugnacity with which Tino defended his life-style was reflected in the occasional unexpected action. I saw him stand between the bully and bullied and flying bottles before any-one else in the courtyard had the courage to have so much as an opinion. And when there was a fire in the courtyard, due to my friends TV aerial being struck by lightening, it was Tino that put it out with endless buckets of water. Unfortunately, the neighbours shouted up to my Studio, where I was working in the building opposite, ‘feuk!, feuk!’ which I now know, but didn’t then, is Brianzolo dialect for ‘fuoco’ (fire) which I would have understood. As a result I just thought my neighbours were indulging themselves, as they were inclined to, in some childish alarm at the raging storm, and ambled down at my leisure to find, to my horror, flames hitting the wooden beamed roof of my friend’s kitchen. They were at the time in Milan, but fortunately I had left the door unlocked.
By the time the fire brigade arrived the fire was out, but in true Italian style, they still stuck to the rules and unnecessarily broke all the windows to let the smoke out, and into the bathroom where it needn’t have gone! Cesarina was chagrined to be out at the time but, not to be left out, made up for it by her emotional account of how she felt as she smelled the smoke in the Piazza!
Later, visitors from other courtyards made it their evening’s ‘passegiata’ to visit the scene, clucking with great pleasure as they looked through the window at the what-had-been invisible cobwebs now made shamingly visible by soot. Tino was hero of the hour, and shyly enjoyed it.
Above Tino was a couple with a child who had learned to speak with an impediment because that was how her mother spoke. The husband and wife were always fighting but unfortunately, because they were on the top floor, sometimes it was hard to hear exactly what was said! But it was usually pieced together after a little comparing of notes.
Signora Luigina, was a gentle soul whose torture was to be expected to take sides and who was seldom seen anywhere but sitting on the balcony adjacent to her room on the first floor, from where she would wave a friendly greeting. It was Luigina who adamantly refused to leave her room when the building with all its wooden beams was threatened by the fire directly under her.
For some years my two Italian friends and their family of three young boisterous adolescents plus motorinos, girl-friends, etc., were also there adding to the fun.
At weekends and holidays there was hairy Angelo the lorry driver and his subservient wife, spoilt son, and a daughter, who was no sooner fertile than pregnant, …and a motorcycle that lit up like a Xmas tree. They owned their property and turned it into something quite desirable even though all rooms only connected via an outer staircase.
Some years later this habitation was sold to another Angelo. Angelo, the fat, brilliant cook, and his equally bursting wife Nicoletta from Sardinia who had some wild ideas and who Cesarina said was a witch.
Angelo and Nicoletta married late and their gratitude and happiness spilled over to those around them. They used their accommodation at weekends and for weeks here and there. As soon as they arrived Nicoletta would start washing. Everything in sight had to be spotless. From every surface inside and outside their house, to Angelo’s knickers which appeared on the line faster than he could wear them it appeared to us, their level of cleanliness was positively shocking. Their whole interest in life, apart from cleanliness, was eating, and in Angelo’s case, drinking. There was always something interesting going on in their kitchen, and Angelo would appear outside wearing a tweeny type apron which fell from the apex of his belly as from a giant overhanging cliff. It never bothered him at all that this was generally thought to be the woman’s job, or that he looked vaguely ridiculous in his tiny apron. His mind was on the job. We were frequently the happy recipients of their largesse in the form of marvellous dishes of surplus pasta, and much more. Angelo and Nicoletta were as generous and life-embracing a couple as Cesarina was the opposite. Unfortunately they shared a common wall with Cesarina, and their drainage pipe trespassed across Cesarina’s roof. And this provided a golden opportunity for malice disguised as righteous indignation to fuel an interminable feud between them.
Angelo and Nicoletta’s first act on arrival was to buy some big plant pots which they filled with flowers, and an oleander. Three cheers we thought. Cesarina didn’t like it, and it must be said, sadly, once my Italian friends moved house, flowers and plants were not a feature of our courtyard. I /we were not in residence long enough, and Artemisia was almost blind and Who would sweep up the leaves? As it was, it was Cesarina that had the graceful vines from the Latteria’s garden cut back if they made their delicate forays over our wall. If she had dared, Cesarina would have knocked down the swallows nests … dirty things.
Cesarina took Angelo and Nicoletta’s flower pots as a challenge, especially as their positioning subtly underlined the borders of some imagined territorial rights. This challenge she answered by moving their pots very slightly every time they were away, and putting her own flowers out, which, to our enormous amusement and Artemisia’s victorious contempt, were plastic, and planted into an old soap powder container, and were occasionally washed and hung on the line.
The spoken and unspoken battle between Cesarina, and Angelo and Nicoletta, led to a problem; who would dare water their flowers when they were away. Cesarina certainly wasn’t going to. She would relish watching them die. And, without Signora Maria’s gentle reproachful presence, there was no-one in the courtyard who dared defy the unspoken command of Cesarina. Except us.
Stoutly standing on her bandy legs, hands on hips, she would watch us with perplexed gimlet eyes as we poured on the water lavishly, cheerfully disregarding her opinion. She could not afford to subject us to her malice; we were never there long enough to be disliked, and we were good-natured with everyone. It is hard to put up a good argument for killing flowers, and we made sure that the language barrier made it harder. Behind her back others would signal their approval and later get us on our own to explain the difficulty of their positions. I felt almost sorry for Cesarina, for if she won the battle, she lost the war. No-one liked her or made much effort to be companionable towards her. She divided, she ruled, but the spoils of victory were a sour loneliness.
A few years into my tenancy arrived Gigi, the street cleaner, who was less seen than talked about. Gigi was a big amiable hairy beast who seldom came into the courtyard, preferring to use his front door into the street rather than run the gauntlet of curious neighbours at the back. He was a youngish man of many parts some of which were revealed by his slipping trousers as they opted for gravity rather than the up-hill struggle over an ample belly. He, and the plump cheeks of his sun-kissed bottom, would be seen from time to time trundling his cleaners cart round Canzo. There was a lot of hissing and nudging in the courtyard that he was ‘omossessuale’ which is of mild academic interest, as I have never seen anyone less stereotypical … if it were true and it probably wasn’t. His sweating body, plenteous black curls and his shy good nature belied a certain criminality which was hard to take seriously. However rumours that I had discounted for years were partially substantiated by a police raid with tracker dogs (food for the Gods in our courtyard) when they did find some drugs. He was given a very short prison sentence and subsequently went in fear for his life as he had named other dealers. However, he was one of our number, and even Cesarina was sorry for him.
Gigi wasn’t easy to get to know, and then one day the neighbours insisted that we call upon him to unblock our lavatory, this rather regular problem having occurred due to unusual plumbing techniques, and on a bank holiday. We were a bit reticent about this but the good natured and unusually well dressed Gigi ambled round with a lot of rags tied to a broom handle and pumping with this unsophisticated device put the matter straight in seconds. Then followed the usual offer of coffee or wine, and we fell to talking, for some odd reason, about antiques. That prompted him to show us his unboasted collection of ancient agricultural implements. To our surprise he had converted one of his rooms into a well equipped workshop where he lovingly restored them. He gave me something I happened to admire with insistent generosity. The neighbours certainly didn’t know this Gigi. He was no ordinary cleaner. But then maybe there is no such thing.
Gigi had a cat. Over the years there were a number of cats few of whom remained for more than a couple of years. Artemisia was a soft touch, and was adopted by several, one at a time. Cesarina didn’t like them, of course, but she disliked waste more, and so would put out food for them. Tino hated them because of the swallows, and he would literally do them damage if they came near him.
At one point Artemisia had a cat that was very nervous. It was explained to me that it had escaped from being ‘transferred to another courtyard’ in a black plastic bag. I guess it fought for all its nine lives at once before they were lost in the local mountain river. It was as healthily circumspect as Gigi’s cat was over-trustful. It was a matter of amazement to me that these two undoctored male cats made friends and would cuddle up together at night sleeping on my comfortable padded garden chair under the portico. Yes, and with the swallows out for the count above them.
One cat that came unwelcomed into the courtyard was an ill, flea-bitten pregnant black female. It was the only cat I’ve ever thought truly ugly. Artemisia who by this time had moved to a room on the ground floor was very exercised by this situation. There was no way our community could support a family of kittens, and Canzo was full of unwanted cats. She fed the poor animal, and she made up a comfortable box in her room for it to have its kittens. And then, consulting no-one, she called in the vet. They were all put-down. I thought it incredibly brave of her, for she loved animals. Unexpectedly, I think everyone in the courtyard rated her for that sad act. Such decisions are hard come-by. I thought that, as usual, Artemisia had had diminished all around her by her shouldering of responsibility. We were all immensely moved and saddened as we watched the neat vet leave her humble room with his case and a bulging plastic bag.
The other presence in the courtyard was God, always there but varying in influence depending on the rest of the cast in residence in any particular year.
The widows were all ageing and had husbands in the cemetery. Dressed in their best clothes on a Sunday, ‘I am going to see my husband’, they would say with a confidence you could almost believe in. Tino would regularly go to see his ‘Cara Mama’. It was disconcertingly surreal.
On the whole, there was a level of fear which did not speak well of His kindliness and there was a heavy investment in eternal insurance. Radio and TV would be devoted to prayer for hours at a time; at some times a blind man could think he had wandered into a church rather than a courtyard. We would eat, drink, and be merry, accompanied by Vatican Radio to one side, while from above, the saintly Luigina let her piety slip to the sound of bullets ricocheting round her room as bad men and good men fought it out amongst flickering lights behind her shutters. In respect of a good Western, you could walk our lanes and follow the plot.
By the time Tino died, which was a year before I left, the balance of occupants had changed so much that newcomers made outsiders of the few left who were there when I first arrived.
Signora Maria, to whom I would like to put up a statue, had died.
Artemisia, increasingly blind and far from healthy, had been re-housed in sanitised luxury, which she had enough character to survive quite well, for some years. She was on a third floor with a wonderful view of the mountains which she couldn’t see, and was sponged upon as always by her delinquent son Alfredo, now grown from a 14 year old into an almost middle-aged looking man with a heavily veined red nose and bloodshot eyes … for the usual reasons. Reasons that I hear have recently caused his premature death. I am sorry about that. Swaggerer though he was, he was generous, had a certain charm and was never short of an accompanying good looking woman and at least Life knew he was there. Artemisia’s charming daughter Piera, whose very orthodox sunbathing in the courtyard used to disconcert Tino, had long since married and had children.
Angelo and Nicoletta came less and less frequently; Cesarina had worn them down. She told us in a husky lowered voice that the gentle Angelo had tried to strangle her, and incase we didn’t understand she grasped her own throat graphically. It was hard not to laugh openly. We imagined the situation only too well and although we clucked obligingly, she knew we were a lost cause. She continued to hint to the gullible neighbours that Nicoletta dealt in black magic, and given the almost pagan nature of their Christianity, this did not fall on entirely fallow ground.
Now occupying untidy Tino’s rooms we had a man of opposite character. Neatly dressed, he suffered from a pathalogical cleanliness. His name I forget but, we called him ‘Tutto Bene?’, because that was his inescapable greeting. Unusually, a widower had come to add a frisson of interest for the widows.
Artemisia’s two rooms were taken over by the ancient one-toothed Ida, who could do a lot with it and cooked herself most savoury meals, ‘I think I’ll have Osso Buco and mushrooms today’.
At the time when Gorbatchev was ousted from power, it was Ida’s TV we watched, trying desperately to understand events with our insufficient Italian. Then Ida asked US what had happened! ‘Why are you worried’, she asked. ‘Is Russia near England?’ ‘Near enough to us all’, I said. In the same way Artemisia had been interested when I had said, talking about our return to England, that I hoped the sea wouldn’t be rough. She asked for confirmation that we had to cross the sea to get home. ‘I thought there was something’, she said wonderingly, but she was very good on Opera. Geography wasn’t a strong point in the courtyard.
Signora Maria’s damp rooms, empty since she died, and almost all of the other landlady’s building has been sold to a rich couple. It was always a paradox that the most convenient place to live was the humblest and cheapest. Eventually, the lira had to drop. Why live on the inconvenient periphery when you can buy a three-story block in the centre … if you have the money to put it right. True such a building is often in multiple occupation but mostly the widows can be shaken out. The town was developing, and such investments were becoming more and more worthwhile.
Gigi, who owned his flat, had to sell it because this couple who bought the rest of the building insisted on extensive renovations, a share of which he was legally obliged to pay. Evidently he had no druggy profits and so Gigi had to sell to pay his share, and now the rich couple have the run of the place, and will no doubt make a tidy profit, and move on.
My neighbours will regard Gigi’s plight in the way they would a damaging storm; a natural phenomenon. Indeed, mostly they will be impressed by the flashy, vulgar couple who have bought the building. They will embrace those who would exploit them, and who are only as pleasant to them as is necessary to win their convenient co-operation. Artemisia couldn’t have beaten it, but she wouldn’t have joined it, and her opinion would have been fearlessly expressed. But then in truth it IS a natural phenomenon, only a microcosm of what is happening everyday in many spheres of life. Without an earthquake of social engineering what more natural than that the lucky rich should take advantage of the unlucky poor.
And so, the wind no longer drives through a latticework of decorative open brickwork at the top of these buildings where many years ago straw was stored for the animals below. Over the years the straw gave way to rooftop dwellings for rabbits and pigeons; the pens still there to be seen. And these practices in their turn were given up in favour of the communal drying of washing. And now, this made redundant by new technology, now gives way to modern studio conversions and the Jacussi.
In the middle floors where there were perforated doors to rooms where silk worms, shared accommodation with humans, there will now be posh lounges with concealed lighting. Downstairs the ghosts of horses, sheep and goats have been exorcised by damp-courses, marble floors, double-glazing, and by truly wonderful flush loos. And somewhere to be found among the ghosts are builders, those of the many nationalities who laid claim to this zone centuries ago and whose languages can still be traced in local dialect.
As one wanders on a nostalgic tour of the ancient centre of Canzo, one is more and more aware of the up-grading of many handsome old buildings, and a kind of implosion of social dynamics. Where will the poor go when the rich have bought them all out? The poor were slowly improving their own conditions, but the rich will do it fast. It was always a paradox that the most convenient place to live was the humblest and cheapest. I was very lucky.
In recent years a supermarket has been built on the periphery, destabilising the self-supporting nature of the old commercial centre. Now there are items that one can’t get at the local shops because the supermarket sells them so cheaply. Bombs were thrown at first, such was the feeling of local shopkeepers, but as usual the biggest wins. Shops close, Banks with armed guards open in their place. It is not an unusual story, but still it saddens one a bit to see the ancient past losing its grip on the present.
Even the bells of the church were part of this struggle. No longer needed to ring twice to make sure they were heard by shepherds that no longer existed up on mountains, still they continued to ring twice on every hour day and night, and on the half hour, and further punctuating the day with rounds for weddings and religious events, and, … deaths in a minor key. There was even a referendum about the noise, but the result was a giant SI for God. He at least is not losing His grip!
Had the bells been rung by teams of sweating enthusiasts perpetuating ancient skills and devoting their talents to the glory of God, it might have been some consolation for interrupted conversations and sleepless nights, but NO, a computer had done this divine work for a couple of decades!
But only a pedant would grudge the existence of the curvaceous yellow ochre Church which gracefully dominates the life of the town; it is the ‘padrona’ of the Piazza. Every Sunday it sucks in crowds of well-dressed worshippers, and then blows them gently out again, morally cleansed and hungry for lunch. Brides and grooms spill out at intervals surrounded by relations dressed in their best, and vicariously enjoying the importance of the moment. They radiate enough happy enthusiasm to infect the eyes of the most cynical observer. At such times, supporter’s cars screech around the streets hooting gleefully in robust enjoyment of an unwritten licence to make as much noise as possible. Shopkeepers step-out to gaze upon the scene and enjoy a moment or two of complex sun-blessed reflection.
To the side of the church is the main bar. Outside, a row of men sit slumped on chairs indolently watching daily life. Inside, men again, sit playing cards. Now and again there are outbursts of noisy disagreement, and much scraping of chairs as some-one rises to make his point more passionately. They drink, but not much. A few people sit drumming their fingers waiting for the concertina doors of the telephone booth in the corner to release its occupant. Mosquitoes die noisily, and at length, on the latest natty electrical device. The family that run the bar have not survived 25 years of it with undiminished enthusiasm. Only the mini-skirted daughter has some sexually orientated incentive to show interest in the customers. But the owners are patient, polite, and enigmatic, and their measures are generous!
Diagonally across the Piazza is a smaller bar. Again, it is man’s world, but here the jovial proprietor does not seem to be counting the minutes to retirement. Every day the same crowd … men of course … appears to be deep in conversation, and rooted to the spot on the pavement outside. If they were earning money for it, they would be doing very well indeed. And perhaps they are. The Mafia flourishes, even here. Criminals from the south exiled to the north by way of punishment, have spread their ways most effectively.
My Italian friend had paintings stolen from his car, and later a ransom was arranged through the mediation of the local off-licence. I was horrified that he paid, but he shrugged. His car, parked daily in the Piazza, it was pointed out to me, was also a hostage to fortune.
As in most towns, drugs are a problem, and responsible for much petty theft. One local shopkeeper was irate at the theft of his stock of expensive Porcini mushrooms, which was greeted, I am afraid, more by laughter than sympathy.
Among the other shops facing onto the Piazza is the bakers. Fresh hot bread is baked there three times a day by two smiling brothers who can be seen in the inferno in the back of the shop shovelling neat trays of rolls in and out of the oven. Between bakings they stand outside the shop cooling down under the hot sun.
The town is changing. I imagine that while the rich modernise and take-over the old centre, the poor will be re-housed in flats elsewhere, with central heating. It is hard to argue that this isn’t an improvement.
I don’t suppose that in 50 years time there won’t be a similar mix of gregarious characters lounging on the low walls that surround the Piazza and inhabiting local bars, as those there are at this very moment. People, rich and poor alike, will grow into new ways. Like weeds they will exploit every crack for their benefit
The old buildings and their courtyards will no longer provide succour to the lonely widows and robust real-life theatrical performances for all to enjoy … for the rich are different … but the interesting old buildings will still stay a delight to the eye.
Saying goodbye to shopkeepers who after so many years always gave me a friendly welcome, and who I may well not see again, I found myself looking at their faces with belated curiosity. After 16 years of anaesthetising familiarity where was my film about to stop?.
There had been changes, but not great ones. A cosy coterie of shopkeepers all looking suspiciously alike still controlled the commerce of Canzo, but now their high prices were somewhat modified by some salutary competition from the Supermarket. The little daughters of shopkeepers I had known when I first came had finished with their innocent flirting and often become worn, disillusioned, married women grinding away behind their counters. The plain daughter at the Latteria had given up hope. Silly youths had become responsible fathers. Their ageing parents were handing over the reins.
I would miss the sensual drive to Lake Como, mostly down hill, passing through a few villages that looked like stage sets, and turning a corner to enjoy the predictable shock of Grigna, a craggy mountain-top pinkly lit and heralding ones imminent arrival. I would miss negotiating the whipping U bends lined with cypresses and insistent foliage, the staggering lake glimpses on the way to a pleasant town with a small port and a pebbly beach. There was talk of the lake being polluted, but it nearly always looked clean and clear and big fat fish swam in it, and so did I. Nothing is more pleasant than swimming with wonderful mountain views all around one. The beaches are only over-crowded at the weekends, when they are invaded by a tide of tired Milanese workers with their barbecues, portable fridges, chairs, tables, grandmas, grandpas, babies, children, white stomachs and reddening shoulders, and admirably sophisticated picnics. On Sunday night the tide goes out again and motorbikes and cars make their constipated progress to that hellish storage heater (I know, I have worked there), Milan.
I would miss the mountains, sometimes Turner-like in their misty effects, and othertimes to be seen with such magnifying clarity that one can run the finger of ones imagination over burnt grassy slopes on mountains many miles away and count each fretted profile with childish pleasure as they recede like line after line of white washing all the way to distant Switzerland. I would miss the walks and the wild flowers and the few really interesting restaurants in the mountains, the hairy drives to get to them, or if not, precipitous walks to join other privileged eaters.
In my 16 years there had been a lot of enjoyable experiences; eccentricities of Italian life unimaginable in England. Like the period when there was a prolonged national shortage of small change. This had always been a problem, and foreigners had been surprised and suspicious to find sweets as part of their change for as long as I can remember. But this situation was a lot worse. Bit by bit, since the Government wasn’t doing anything about it, various institutions made their own banknotes with which to pay people, and it always amazed me, the good faith with which these were accepted. A 500 lire note issued by The Tennis Club of Palermo, or The Banca Antoniana di Padova e Trieste didn’t sound very convincing, but it seemed that as long as there was something that looked liked money people were happy to use it. And, there were hundreds of different issuers! A lot of these notes are now collector’s pieces. More locally, it meant that in our area Milanese bus tickets were currency, accepted by shops as well as customers, as were postage stamps, sometimes in neat plastic containers. Local shops stamped little bits of cardboard with their name and eg. 50 lire, and these would be valid currency for all local shops. It must have been quite a bonanza for some!
There was a lot I would miss, but I felt I had drained my glass pretty dry. My own chapter in the life of our courtyard seemed to have come to a natural end. By the time I left, only Cesarina had been there longer than me.
I had enjoyed my relationship with my landlady. She had always been hospitable to me and fair. I would go to her house to pay the rent and every now and again it would go up. This used to involve a polite ritual over a drink, a lot of skirting round the subject, and philosophising about the cost of living. I was always the first to break by actually mentioning money. She would say, ‘what do you think?’ and I, nonplussed would say that it was up to her. And then she would tell me that I was supposed to bargain with her, ‘You say something, and then I say something’, she explained gently. I explained that life in England had made me unfit to participate in such a process, and said I would trust her to be fair. Over the years she resigned herself to this aesthetically unsatisfying process and she always was fair. I paid £80 a year when I first arrived, and 16 years later, it was £400, about £80 of which was for electricity and water.
I did flirt with the idea of passing my room onto some friend, but I became more and more uneasy that what I found amusing might be simply irritating to others. How would other people regard Cesarina’s transparent curiosity when she journeyed across the courtyard to hang some small wet item on the line just so she could see round the corner to see what the we were up to, or make an excuse to donate some bit of poisonous gossip, slapping her bottom by way of emphasis.
Would they mind Tutto Bene trotting down the stairs to pass the time of day as they sat in their dressing gowns having breakfast under the portico, to say nothing of the postman who would chat amiably, totally indifferent to whatever state of attire he caught one in.
It didn’t even go without saying that other people wouldn’t mind the swallows droppings. And what about Luigina and her TV Westerns, and Ida with her one tooth, and religious musak. And would they enjoy Angelo and Nicoletta with their overwhelming gregariousness; Angelo with his enormous stomach and tiny apron, and Nicoletta with her stories of mystery and imagination.
And when work in the courtyard needed doing, how would they feel about the cement mixer, even if this did bring with it a handsome Olympic Pole-jumper from North Africa.
And what about the recently arrived brassy rich couple with their swaggering behaviour.
No, I couldn’t take the responsibility. It would be safer to leave friends to rent for a few weeks a nice, safe, converted farm-house up a mountain in Tuscany. As I now do.