Thursday, September 26, 2013

A sentimental break

It’s the night before the move, and I’ve just taken a last stroll around the Radcliffe Camera. Hardly anyone there, but a party of Spanish bankers calling affectionately at each other. Oxford is soaked in nostalgia, and my dose has arrived early. I'm not going far, nor am I going to move to a radically different environment. I swap bogs for fens. I’m looking through Brideshead to find the words to salute Oxford, especially in this week of low mists and unseasonably wintry light.

There aren’t any, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trains, planes, and automobiles

We had underestimated the journey. The train to Gatwick was fine; the plane to Pisa was fine. A. watched out the window for nearly two hours, fascinated by the wings, and the clouds, and our view of the Alps. Our bags came off the conveyer belt first; we ordered our Panini and cafĂ© in Italian with ease, and we ate outside, beaming with our luck, watching Pisans slowly cycle by in khaki shorts and neck bling. But this was where the streak of luck ended, or at least, became chronically uncertain. I had, in a rush of enthusiasm, volunteered to drive us to the rural place we’d rented for ten days. There was no other mode of transportation. To save money, we rented a manual car. I’d earned my license on a manual car ten years ago, but haven’t practiced since, though I drove an automatic for nearly as long. It couldn’t be that difficult, I told myself. There’d be a baptism by fire, and then we’d sail onto the other side. This was woefully wilful idealism.

We got our rental car by the skin of our teeth. It turns out that not having the correct credit card is a problem. The tired rental desk attendant eventually agreed to sign it over, more out of annoyance at our continued presence than anything else, after we agreed to pay for a second package of excess coverage. We sat in the Renault Clio and tried to locate the necessaries. But there were nine variations of lighting (and none seemed right for night driving), and the car started by on/off button, not a key, but something like a TV remote, and all the switches seemed cunningly hidden away by a maddened and devious engineer. (The hazard button was not found until the fourth or fifth day.) The very possibility of correctly handling the clutch seemed ambitious, though I padded my feet up and down as though playing the organ, trying to tell myself that it worked just like this.

We were lucky enough to take a series of correct turns and emerged onto the Fi-Pi-Li (Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) autostrada. It was ten minutes before we realised where the lights were. I argued to A. that we were not the only hazards on the road, given one driver’s single working headlight. In fact, the Italian approach to headlights was baffling: most vehicles kept their lights on throughout the day, and this in summer.

But the autostrada was our friend: not for nothing had I once driven from Minneapolis to Seattle in two days. The anxious differences between a manual and an automatic are erased when the roads are empty. Until you hit a diversion, and are bumped along onto the tiny slip of a road between Montelupo and Empoli, sandwiched between hulking trucks and zippy Fiats and have to pull over onto a road shoulder to wail, convincing your boyfriend that you are very, very close to losing your mind and will have to spend the night in the car with nothing to eat but two Eat Me apricot bars.

To the average reader, this is a dull tale. To A. and me, our journey from Pisa to Vigliano was The Odyssey. For twelve years, we drove over hills, and stopped suddenly, swerved irresponsibly, were forced into hill starts, and stalled on side roads, and got lost on different roads with identical names, behind villas which resembled each other as haystacks do. The signs were hidden beneath ghostly trees, alongside country shrines; no streets illuminated. To outsiders, no knowledge of how steep the next hidden hill is available; one is driven by the road instead of vice versa.

When we arrived at the villa, the stars were bright and fierce, and the sound of our burning clutch revving echoed across the hills. ‘Move the car tomorrow,’ said Anna, our host. ‘The neighbours will hear you.’

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Questions of Travel

I’m stuck in something of a conundrum. I’ve realised that writing about Italy – Tuscany in particular – leads otherwise capable writers into committing themselves to the most self-satisfied, plummy language. There are other places in the world in which this becomes equally tempting: India occasionally, rural England, Burgundy, Provence, New England, the Pacific Northwest, one’s own garden, etc. But Italy is particularly bad. It is difficult, when writing about Italy, to avoid harping on upon the vivaciousness of the Italian tomato, or the quirkiness of the stray Italian who happens upon your path. This is problematic. It may be a pleasure for the writer to descant on la dolce vita, but the reader suspects there is degree of the writer’s self-romancing, suspects she has read it before somewhere (or everywhere) else. Such writing does no favours to anyone. It comes to no realisation. It smacks of privilege (and a lack of the imagination). It is best kept for the self to feed over. It is a kind of pornography.

I’m particularly aware of the general irrelevance of my experience in Italy as a friend has just come back from Jordan and the West Bank. Her observations are moral, political, historical, social. She has seen guns, poverty, and injustice. I’ve just driven around a few hill towns.

So it is difficult to think of the adequate or just word to explain my recent trip to Italy. How do you say what it was like without slipping into syrup? I’m at a loss, and will have to just try to avoid wobbling into treacle as much as I can.

I’ve wanted to go to Italy for several years, and besieged A. to go. He finally agreed, as long as we avoided cities. A. did not like Barcelona. He is not a fan of Paris. So, no Rome, no Florence, no Naples. No museums or art galleries or hours trying to fit everything in. We would try to lie low, eat good food, see new vistas, survive in someone else’s normal, not try to conquer the landscape as though it’d never been done before.

I learned a bit of Italian. A. gave me an Italian Pimsleur course, which I would practice while getting dressed in the morning and undressed in the evening for two months. A bombastic American voice would announce, ‘Say “I’d like some white wine”’, and I would dutifully mangle or parrot back what I’d retained. David Sedaris has written about the entertaining codification of national biases in various Pimsleur courses, and the Pimsleur Italian course prepared me to ward off unwanted insistent admirers, to contradict everything my male companion said, and to describe my large brood of children.

I coupled that with a textbook called Ciao! which was mostly for vocabulary and spelling (Italian does have a few silent or elided letters), and found a conjugation handbook at the £2 bookstore. This, plus a smattering of reading on the Medicis, was all our preparation. I packed my new Dante, which I envisioned myself translating piecemeal on a sunburnt hill, and my textbooks (read: crutches) and Pietro Grossi’s new novel in English and set off.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The sun has risen in some kind of send-off, and the journey to Florence (or, rather, just outside Florence) is about to begin. I'm accompanied by Dante's Inferno and a dictionary, three of Nabokov's early novels, the diary of Cesar Pavese, and a book to review. A sketch-book, two notebooks, a diary, and my language books. One packs too much, but one always wants the luxury of choice. Wish us buon viaggio...