It’s hard to explain my attachment to Italy. It’s almost primordial. It’s as if my ancestral amoebae emerged from some goop on the land mass that eventually became Italy when the world was still the giant continent of Pangea (Creationists can go suck eggs by the way the Earth really is that old).
Or else I suppose it could have been my Latin classes at school. Yes thats it. Maybe the ancient history of the country first drew me in. Quintus est filius, amo amas amat amamus amatis amant ( i hope thats still right – did seven years of that crap and can’t remember a bloody thing).
From those early latin classes I didn’t so learn much about Italy per se but my Latin teacher, Mr Bicket, was able to show us through the language the great stories, deeds and oratory skill of the people of Rome. Being a loquacious chap myself it’s something I rather admire in a people. The Italians have carried that tradition forward, they really can talk, about everything and nothing but they’ll keep talking. It is rare to meet a silent Italian or an Italian without an opinion. Even when they are silent it is usually because they’re busy gesticulating one of the 157 different hands signs they use in place of words and sometimes complex phrases with sub-clauses and so on.
The best thing about talking with an Italian is that if you talk with them in their own language, even the broken, shoddy baby-like babbling that I can just about manage they are immediately impressed that you bothered. They don’t have the post imperial hangover that the French, English and to a certain extent the Spaniards still do. Where they expect people to understand them in all quarters. They don’t rest on their history they way that many Greeks do (in Greece this is common i’ll add though I haven’t met many who do it outside certainly none of my university friends).
Most of all what I like about Italy and the Italians is WE don’t really get how it all bloody works but it does. They have endemic corruption in the south, a ludicrous parliamentary situation where the last Prime Minister, Berlusconi, was a sort of running joke who installed strippers into political office (FYI I have nothing against strippers if they got there without the patronage – my friends run the East London Strippers Collective so I have to be careful on that one). His political party name, Forza Italia, was a football slogan, he owns the media (not a conflict of interest nope) as well as I think a football team. The only reason he went into power was to avoid being indicted with the preceding prime minister under the Tangientopoli, literally Kick Back City, scandal in the 80s/90s. In Italy sitting ministers are immune from indictment until their term ends.
Yet Italy’s trains (discounting the weird disaster this summer) are amongst the safest and most punctual in Europe not to mention the fair pricing which when compared to the UK would make the average London commuter shit a brick at the value for money Italians get. Health care is way better in Italy especially if you want to go see a specialist, no effin waiting around till it’s too bloody late. Everywhere makes amazing coffee and everyone can afford to live a fairly decent lifestyle despite the fact that there is like 12.4% unemployment and barely any new industries anywhere except the north. Everyone dresses well apart from the Italian Scouts who strikes me an some sort of weird anomaly in the space-time continuum – they’re like a society for unfashionable Italians which is itself an oxymoron. Education is excellent and most italians have one or two degrees (the ones in their twenties and thirties) and they are all politically engaged which is why I don’t quite understand how they have such appalling politicians. Social cohesion seems pretty strong as is their sense of Italian culture despite the massive influx of immigrants and refugees that they deal with. I also like the way they deal with the immigration problem “Welcome! Here you go have free pass to the rest of Europe!”. “A problem shared is a problem halved” must be their immigration department’s motto.
Okay Italy has problems – I have experienced violent crime from Moroccans in Rome, I’ve personally witnessed drug abuse in the streets of Perugia, there is racism against the Roma community and grappa is a chemical weapon and should be classified as such by the UN. But seriously how does the country function? Who cares… bottom line is it does and so long as I can buy a machiatto for a Euro, prance around Rome as if I’m Mastroianni in a Fellini film and generally enjoy the lifestyle that Italians so easily exude from their pores, I’ll keep coming back. Its the country I know the best having travelled there on ten separate occasions over 16 years.
I’ve climbed mount Etna for a random art project financed by a very wealthy and flamboyant friend of mine, hung round with him and a tranny and her friends whom we met in Palermo. I used to take tourists on pub crawls in Rome and then squeezed through the bars of the Colosseum at night. Chilled at a cafe, not quite looking chic enough, on Capri before reliving my imperial fantasies in Tiberius’ ruined palace. I’ve taken my sister on a Vespa ride round the hair raising Almafi coast, dined with my mother at a cliff top restaurant in Sorrento. I received an exasperated look and a whisper of “there goes another British Public Schoolboy” when I asked for directions to Caecilius’ house in Pompeii. I’ve woken up on a beach in Fano after being kicked off the private deck chairs. Similarly I’ve been kicked off a beach by the military in Nettuno while trying to wild camp with my pub crawl tour buddies. I studied at the Universita per Stranieri (for Foreigners) in Perugia to produce the rather bastardised form of the language that I’m proud to speak now. I went to my best friends wedding in Sardinia and shortly after that wedding proposed to my ex-fiance. Italy has seen me at various phases in my life for better or for worse and in reality my love affair was always with this beautiful country and its people. If I could marry a country then Italy would take my heart step on it fuck someone else and I’d still have her back because thats how Italy rolls.
For real though one of the main reasons I keep coming back is George’s place tucked away in the Apennines. From Garda to his I had to cross the plain of Emilia Romagna which was no hardship being absolutely flat!
I headed directly south to Reggio Emilia the birthplace of the Italian flag and my friend Francesca Sassi who recommended I try the Erbazzone. In fact whenever I mention a place in Italy she always recommends food “I can’t help it I’m Italian” she says. Arriving in the town I tried to contact her for a recommendation on where to buy this baked spinach delicacy but alas her phone was busy so instead I did the only thing you can do when it comes to baked goods – I asked two police officers where the best place to eat was. They recommended Meli’s which so happened to be Francesca’s favourite place!
After a satisfying and slightly over indulgent lunch I set off for Bologna another 60km southeast. It’s a beautiful university city that, had I been better in my second year Italian, I would have studied at on Erasmus exchange. It’s a stunning place in the centre with a very vibrant nightlife and my arrival experience at midnight was tinged with a little regret at my own stupidity for not getting with the program way back when. So with resignation I decided to just imbibe the atmosphere and hang around to witness the piazza nightlife. I decided at 2am I had had enough. For some reason I was lacking the confidence and/or maybe energy to ask someone if I could camp at their place, something I had done in Pisa six years previous to this with great success and the creation of lasting friendships. Well for whatever reason I decided to get a move on and began cycling to Forli to give myself less distance to do for the final leg.
An hour later and I stopped to cook pasta. I thought I could make it by dawn but was getting pretty sleepy and eventually stopped my bike and collapsed in front of a house with a big freshly mown lawn. I slept next to my bike just wrapped in my ground sheet 127km done.
I woke up like a corpse complete with rigour mortis and had to stand in the dawn sun letting it warm my bones before setting off to find a cafe for a macchiato shot and a piadina. By my calculation I would arrive that day about three days earlier than I had told George, pretty good or so I thought…