2nd person singular

That is to say, the person I am speaking to, i.e. ‘you’. Prince or pauper, president or peasant, priest or penitent, and regardless of the relationship between the two of us, we English just say ‘you’. Age, familiarity, class or courtesy are immaterial: simply ‘you’.  Which makes modern English quite unlike other a whole host of other languages which continue to draw this kind of distinction between the participants in a conversation.  And all three of the languages in which I can claim varying degrees of competence – French, German and now Italian – certainly do this. French has informal ‘tu’ and formal ‘vous’, while German has ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, and Italian has ‘tu’ and ‘Lei’.  Incidentally, I also have a passing acquaintanceship with Malay, having done a six-week course in the language some twenty years ago at the start of our three-year tour of duty in Borneo. Although I can now remember little more than a few stock phrases, I can at least confirm that Malay also has formal and informal versions of ‘you’. But I digress…

The consequence of this distinction is that in every conversation the speaker holds in one of these languages, a judgement call is required: formal or informal? ‘Tu’ or ‘Lei’? For native speakers this judgement is, of course, made without conscious recourse to any rules. They just know. But for non-native speakers deciding which to use can be an absolute minefield. Yes, dictionaries and grammar books make a stab at explaining what the rules are. In French, we are told, ‘tu’ is used when speaking to children, family, friends and colleagues you know well, whereas ‘vous’ is used when speaking to older people, strangers, customers, and in business situations. It doesn’t take long to realise, though, that there are some pretty big grey areas here. What exactly is ‘a colleague you know well’?  And what about when you are speaking to this colleague ‘in a business situation? And who on earth are ‘older people’? The whole year I was in Strasbourg, I lived in constant fear of insulting one person by being too chummy, or snubbing another by being too distant. In German it is even worse. The rules are broadly similar in theory (with hierarchy as an added factor) but in practice they are interpreted much more conservatively, with a very dim view being taken of any over-familiarity. In the late 1980s when Mr Blue-Shirt was posted to Minden in northern Germany, I taught English at a small language school run jointly by the owner and his right-hand woman. They had worked together – in the same office, even – for well over twenty years, but they still addressed each other with the formal ‘Sie’ – and with Herr this and Frau that, not first names. Similarly, when the Army posted Mr Blue-Shirt to Paderborn some years later, I did a lot of teaching in a large automotive components company and got to know a particular fairly senior manager and his long-serving secretary pretty well. He addressed her with ‘du’, but she addressed him with ‘Sie’. And again, no first names. All of which gives the impression that many more relationships are conducted ‘at arm’s length’, and – to my sensibilities at least – that there always seems to be a sense of being either ‘in’ or ‘out’, and more usually the latter. Nevertheless, throughout our eleven years in Germany, I always erred on the side of caution and kept things formal, but disliked the distance I always felt I was creating.

Yes, yes, I know that English had a familiar and a respectful ‘you’ up until the late 17th century, and that the ‘you’ of today is in fact derived from the formal version ‘ye’ or ‘thee’ (‘thou’ being the corresponding informal version). This notwithstanding, I find having a single ‘you’ much more unifying and non-judgemental. No ‘in’ or ‘out; no ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’. Just ‘you’.

So it was with some trepidation that I first engaged with Italian people, constantly keeping an ear out for when, where and how ‘tu’ or ‘Lei’ was used in every conversation I entered in to.  I knew from our several years of Italian evening classes that the rules were much the same as for French and German, but would practice match the theory? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that ‘tu’ is indeed generally used with children, family, friends and colleagues, and ‘Lei’ with strangers, customers, and in business or official situations. But no, in the sense that people tend to move from the formal to the informal more quickly than in French – and loads more quickly than in German. Thus, within a couple of weeks, all my adult students addressed me with ‘tu’ (and my first name), which gave me a real sense of collaboration between equals, rather than simply A.N. Other supplier delivering a service (OK, I may be over-thinking this somewhat).  And once Cecilia who works in the café in the village found that we were neighbours, she immediately moved from ‘Lei’ to ‘tu’. Similarly, having realised that we weren’t just tourists but actually lived here, the chubby clerk with thinning hair in the post office switched to ‘tu’. Karina, my frighteningly trendy hairdresser with the huge horn-rimmed spectacles did the same after about three appointments, and Silvio, our slightly intense and otherwise risk-averse architect even sooner. Our charming insurance agent, Marco, took a little longer, but then again, the first time we met him, we were struck by his old-world courtesy and impeccable manners. And last but not least, even our laid back doctor with the ancient BMW has now dropped the ‘Lei’ in favour of ‘tu’. Whether being a similar age is the common factor, or some vague notion of shared endeavour, I have no idea. Whatever it is, though, the result is the same – and something I confess that the English ‘you’ actually cannot achieve: a positive sense of inclusion and acceptance. And a confirmation that we are no longer strangers.

The party’s over… -ish

Controesodo. It’s what I call a ‘Lego word’: one made up of two or more other words cleverly clicked together to encapsulate a particular concept that would otherwise require a full sentence to explain.  Unlike their more formal cousins, compound words, Lego words tend not to appear in dictionaries. Indeed, ‘controesodo’ doesn’t. But it’s component parts do: ‘contro’ means ‘against’ or ‘counter’ and ‘esodo’ means ‘exodus’. And ‘counter-exodus’ is the word Italians use to express ‘the time at the end of August when everyone returns to work or school from their summer holidays’. See what I mean?

So during the counter-exodus, while the roads are clogged with sun-tanned families heading back from the seaside, businesses and factories gradually hum and clatter back into life and ‘back to school’ ranges fill the shops, coastal resorts breathe a sigh of relief and start folding up the sun loungers, tourist attractions fall quiet and start offering off-season discounts. And up and down the country, countless towns and villages pack up their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems, congratulating themselves on having successfully completed another season jam-packed with sagre and feste, concerts and shows, pageants, exhibitions and markets.

The sheer number of these local events that take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Siena or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – has held a series of 3- or 4-day long events between June and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. We have had the annual artichoke festival, the annual pizza festival, a medieval weekend and a celebration of apiculture, and over the weekends in between, there have have been no fewer than fourteen live music, dancing or sports events. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the August issue of Corriere Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region produces every month, contained a hundred and forty-six closely printed pages listing more than seven hundred events in eight different categories. A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna, anyone? Or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano? How about the Palio down in Servigliano? Or maybe the Beer Circus in Pedaso? Or…?  Or…? Or, or, or…

More remarkable still is that the fact that a vast number of these events will have been organised, promoted and run entirely by the local ‘Pro Loco’, sometimes with a degree of financial or logistical support from the Comune (town council). Roughly translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy. Interestingly, the principal purpose of all this activity is not, in the first instance, to attract tourists, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties. Our local Pro Loco certainly fulfils this purpose if the huge number of residents who enthusiastically participate in the events they lay on is anything to go by.

The Pro Loco movement, it seems to me, is an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which is rooted in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of allegiance is in turn derived from the fact that until little over a hundred and fifty years ago Italy was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between neighbouring regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. So loyalty to the local was often a matter of survival. Consequently, even today, if you ask a random Italian where they are from, they will probably give you the name of their particular town or village rather than a city close by that you are more likely to have heard of, never mind the name of the region it is in.

My increasingly dog-eared breeze block of an Italian dictionary translates campanilismo as ‘parochialism’. To me, though, this smacks of insularity, narrow-mindedness and mistrust of the different. And in view of its roots, it is easy to imagine that this is what it might have become in the modern era, with the activities of the Pro Loco conceivably a manifestation of little more than some kind of tubthumping tribalism and collective one-upmanship. In my as yet limited experience, however, today’s campanilismo seems much more benign, and much more akin to the modern concept of ‘localism’: support for the production and consumption of local goods, the promotion of local culture and identity, and lots of local accountability. It is therefore a celebration of local difference, which in this unified, more peaceful age is seen as enriching rather than threatening. Which is just as well, really for while the controesodo and with it the summer may officially be over, the work of the Pro Loco is not yet finished after all. As the days begin to shorten and the heat to fade, there are the celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest, Advent and who knows what else for them still to organise…

Spreading the Word

Ecco ci qua!” Cecilia smiled broadly as she placed our customary cappuccino and americano combo down in front of us with a flourish. “Here we are!” It was mid-morning so we had chosen one of the small white tables in the deep shade of the Caffé del Teatro’s colonnaded terrace that looks onto the main square in the village. The sunny terrace to the side of the café, with its boxy modern armchairs and its fabulous views across to the Sibillini Mountains provides the perfect spot to enjoy aperitivi, but was already way too hot at this time of day. With her tray thrust under her arm, Cecilia bustled off to fetch the obligatory pot of sugar sachets and canister of paper napkins. “Senti,” I said when she returned. “Sapevi che… Listen, did you know that there were thieves operating in the area?”

We had found out only some weeks earlier that Cecilia, along with her husband Fabio and young son Nicolò, are some of our nearest neighbours. They live in one of the small collection of houses on the hill up the lane immediately behind our house, and I could practically wave to her from my study window as she drives past on her way to work. We didn’t really believe that any of our neighbours would have been broken into as well as us since our break-in had so clearly been a put-up job. While we were reluctant to point an accusing finger at any particular individual, it was simply too much of a coincidence that the theft of all Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools had occurred not only while we were away, but also immediately after we had had an assortment of workmen about the place (re-doing all the external render), many of whom had been into the tool store to plug something in or to run some water to mix another bucket of goo. The Carabinieri didn’t think it was a coincidence, our insurance agent didn’t think it was a coincidence. And nor, he finally acknowledged, did the owner of the building company that had done the work.  We still thought it worth putting the word out, though, in case someone had seen or heard something, or had been offered some cheap second-hand tools.

“No…,” Cecilia said, puzzled. “Why?” As I recounted what had happened her expression turned to one of incredulity. “No! I’m so sorry! How terrible for you! Did they get in the house too?” I assured her that they hadn’t – the one saving grace in the whole situation. “That’s something, at least.” She took her tray from under her arm and leant it on the table. “But all your husband’s tools! Fabio is a plumber and he keeps all his tools in his van. If that was ever broken into… Well, I don’t know what we’d do…” She sighed, picked up her tray again and squeezed my shoulder before bustling back inside to serve the row of customers waiting at the counter.

Mi dispiace molto!” Massimo, the tall, whip-thin and unfailingly charming owner of the café had broken off his conversation with one of the old boys who are a regular fixture in the place as soon as he saw us come in to pay for our coffees. “I’m so sorry. Cecilia’s just told me you’ve been broken into. What happened?” This time it was Mr. Blue-Shirt’s turn to go through the story. A couple of the old boys and a black-clad nonna, who had just tossed back a caffé corretto (an espresso with a shot of grappa), tuned in to what Mr. Blue-Shirt was saying, expressions of keen interest spreading across their faces. “Listen,” said Massimo as he dropped our €2,20 into the till. “If there is anything I can do, anything you need, just say…” The nonna and the old boys nodded. We all knew, of course, that there nothing that anyone could do, but we were touched by his concern and sincerity. “Thank you. That’s kind of you. I’ll do that,” said Mr. Blue-Shirt with a weary smile. “Arrivederci.” We turned to leave. “Arrivederci,” replied the three elderly eavesdroppers, looking us firmly in the eye.

We now had little doubt that the news of the English couple’s break-in (“you know: the ones who live in the place with the green gate, just down from Giovanni and Violetta…”) would be half way round the village by the time we got home. We have been going to the café on a regular basis ever since we have been here, partly because it is a lovely place to go for a coffee or an Aperol spritz, but also because it became apparent almost the first time we went there that it is effectively the beating heart of the village. Seemingly open for about sixteen hours a day, there is never a time when it is not buzzing with life and chatter, the local news and gossip being mixed into each successive conversation like sugar stirred into coffee. First thing in the morning the cheerfully lit, long narrow space is filled with people dashing in to knock back a quick espresso on their way to work. Then it’s tired-looking young mothers with their pre-school children in buggies coming in for a bit of grown-up conversation and a change of scene. Come lunch time they give way to a succession of dusty workmen, who, perched on bar stools, skim the Gazzetta dello Sport as they bolt down their piadini. And after this the rolling cast of old boys, who often don’t even have anything to eat or drink but just sit in a circle setting the world to rights, pretty much have the place to themselves until school-out time. Then waves of boisterous youngsters spend ages peering into the glass cabinets deciding which type of cake or which flavour ice cream to have. As evening approaches, bowls of olives and nuts, cubes of cheese and chunks of sausage appear on the bar ready for the aperitivi crowd: small groups of colleagues enjoying a glass of wine on their way home from work, or couples on their way out for the evening. Gradually the place takes on more the feel of a bar than a café: the volume drops, the pace slows and the coffee machine falls quiet. But still the conversation and gossip flow, the day’s news still wafting in and out with every swing of the tall glass doors. “Any idea why the autostrada was closed earlier?”… “Mariella’s had her baby.”… “Did you hear about the break-in at the English couple’s house?”…

Sightseeing

We’ve never really done much proper sightseeing in Le Marche, Mr Blue-Shirt and I.  Even our very first trip back in 2007, a tour of the region that took in places such as Urbino in the north, Ascoli Piceno in the south and Macerata in the middle, was effectively a recce to see if it was a part of Italy we could see ourselves settling in. Once we had decided that it was, we spent the next few holidays refining our search area, eventually excluding the north for being too craggy for our taste and the south for being a little too remote for our needs. Then once we had identified the middle as our Goldilocks area, subsequent holidays were spent – other than the odd day at the beach – scrambling round an endless succession of tumbledown ruins in our search for The One: the property that had the intangible something we were looking for, the place which embraced us like a long-lost friend and where the breeze seemed to whisper our names.

As a result, we were always more concerned with finding banks and supermarkets than frescoes and amphitheatres, with the quality of the roads and the altitude rather than churches and museums, with the look and feel of a place as much as with its sights and attractions. All of these cultural pursuits were put off until a later date; until we were here permanently, when we would have all the time in the world to enjoy them. But since we have been here permanently, our focus has been on the practicalities of settling in and building our new lives, so sightseeing has dropped even further down the never-ending ‘to do’ list. And in any event, who goes sightseeing on their own doorstep?

It has therefore come as an added bonus that when friends come to visit, we now have the opportunity to accompany them on their sightseeing trips and finally the visit all those places we had never got round to seeing. Take the Grotte di Frasassi: we first came across these caves the Christmas we were staying in a converted chapel in Cagli to the north of the region. On a day out somewhere further south, we drove through a narrow gorge between the towering bare crags of that section of the Apennines that lies just to the north of the Sibillini Mountains, and we caught a glimpse of the signs for the caves as we negotiated a series of tight bends, with the sheer face of the limestone cliffs on one side and on the other side an equally sheer drop into the River Sentino roaring along the distant valley floor. In the nearly ten years since, we have picked up leaflets about them and read about them in our guidebooks, always intending to visit them at some point, but never quite managing to do so. Until the other day, that is, while we were thinking of places to take the friends who were staying for a week or so and the idea of escaping the relentless August heat by spending a couple of hours amid their cool gloom seemed a very inviting prospect.

The Grotte di Frasassi were not actually discovered until 1971 when a group of teenage speleologists stumbled across a small opening in the north slope of the little-known Mount Vallemontagna. It was only the current of cold air blowing through the opening and the time it took for a pebble tossed into the hole to hit the bottom that hinted at the scale and significance of their find, which turned out to be the largest known system caves in Europe that is believed to extend for some 30km in total – although at least half this distance has yet to be explored.

The abyss into which the boys had dropped their pebble was in fact a single 200m-deep chamber that is 180m long and 120m wide. This cathedral-sized cavern – the biggest in Europe – is filled with thousands of huge stalactites and stalagmites, towers, columns, concretions and petrified waterfalls. It is the start-point of the approximately 1.5km-long tourist trail that winds through a subterranean labyrinth of half a dozen or so further caverns, chambers and passageways, revealing 1.4 million years’ worth of surreal natural sculptures, some of them rising from mirror-clear pools, others dangling like a calcite sword of Damocles from way up in the roof of the cavern. As the four of us followed our English-speaking guide along the narrow walkways, a magical landscape of crystalline frills, turrets, ripples, curtains and crenellations unfolded before us in shades of pink, grey and ice-white, each elaborate structure more other-worldly than the last. The weird and constantly shifting shadows cast by carefully placed spotlights, the gentle sound of constantly dripping water, the occasional waft of sulphur and the chilly atmosphere (that vindicated our decision to don long trousers and fleeces for the tour) only added to the distinctly alien feel of this primordial world that has only been known to humankind for a nano-second in time.

As we made our way to the exit through the 200m long man-made tunnel, its huge metal sliding doors hissing back and forth to let us pass, we compared adjectives. “Jaw-dropping” declared Elaine. “Mind-boggling” offered Nick. “Awesome in its truest sense” was Mr Blue-Shirt’s assessment. Suddenly, the August heat washed over us and we squinted against the vivid blueness of the sky. “Out of this world” I said eventually.  Although people have been admiring the famed beauty of Italy’s soaring mountains and undulating hills since time immemorial, surely few would imagine that such an astonishing spectacle, that offers a whole new dimension to Italy’s natural treasures, might lie hidden within. We really must go sightseeing more often.

Homecoming

Like a drought-stricken pond, my sleep-starved brain has silted up. Clumps of words lie around its cracked and arid interior, lifeless and untidy. In the absence of anything more than a just few light showers of slumber, these clods of meaning refuse to dissolve into trains of thought that trickle into sentences that form into flowing paragraphs. After night upon night of searing pain and tormented restlessness, my mind is too thirsty for sleep to do anything more than half-heartedly kick these ugly clods about in the vain hope that sense will simply fall out of them.

In one clump are gathered random details of our trip to the UK. Three thousand miles. Eleven different beds. Five countries, four counties. Endless traffic jams. Knotted back. Two vehicles MOT-ed, one of them then sold, a new one bought. A new flat for Mr Blue-Shirt’s mum. Things dropped off. Things picked up. Van gradually filled with sundry bits and pieces for home. New car’s broken air-con sorted out. Trolley-dash round Sainsbury’s. Sight test. Hearing test. Much needed back massage.

Another contains a happy mass of catching up and touching base and all-enveloping hugs. Boys’ sailing weekend for Mr Blue-Shirt, girlie gin-fest for me. Shopping with a girlfriend: dress and hat for two autumn weddings. Excited talk of her impending move. Dinner with some friends, lunch with others. Pubs. Real ale. Enormous coffees. Flapjacks. Get-togethers with our families. All of Mr Blue-Shirt’s, with talk of new jobs, GCSE results, driving lessons, care of ageing parents. And nearly all of mine, with talk of a master’s degree in Germany, one niece’s wedding plans, another’s newly-announced pregnancy. Even flowers on the graves of those now gone: mother, father, sister – all at rest in Devon. Back pain getting ever worse.

A third is laced with nostalgia. On the way back, a night in rain-soaked Bruges where we once spent a special anniversary. Driving through the Ardennes, Mr Blue-Shirt’s teenage playground. The next night spent in Strasbourg where I studied for a year. Back pain now preventing sleep, but knowing that we’ll soon be home helps keeps my spirits up.

The next clump is more jumbled yet. Larger too. And much harder to make sense of. The mounting excitement of getting closer to home. Whooping at the first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea: it means we’re nearly there. Arriving at our big green sliding gate, delighted to be home. In front of it the decomposing body of a long-dead dead cat – thankfully not our beloved Mimi. Three pallets stacked up directly behind it.  The strangeness of these two things quickly forgotten at the fabulous sight of our beautiful newly rendered house. Relief that the irrigation system has done its job, that the wi-fi is still working. Flinging shutters open, waking up the house. The discovery of broken hinges and a crow-barred workshop door. A break-in. Disbelief. Shock. Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools all stolen.  Every single one gone. Anger, tears… Bastards. Only thankful that the house has not been touched. Carabinieri. Interviews. Theories. Another sleepless night – this time for both of us. Who? When? Why? How? Visits to the police station. A list of stolen items. Official statement made and signed. The station chief seeks to reassure us and tells us in English ‘Do not be afraid’. This simple kindness nearly makes me cry. Back pain now almost unbearable. Arm and fingers growing numb. Thankful that we’re now registered with a doctor. The first chance to wield my hard-won health card. I opt for tablets rather than injections as Mr Blue-Shirt would need to administer them. Insurance policy. Are we covered? How do we claim? Meeting with our agent booked. Nights spent in the spare room. Impossible to lie down. Impossible to sit up. Impossible to escape the pain. The BBC World Service for company, but not really listened to. Why us? Is it personal? Who knew we’d be away? Someone must have tipped thee thieves off. Bastards. The tablets aren’t working.  Mr Blue-Shirt watches YouTube videos on how to give injections. The lovely friends who have come to stay urge me to see a chiropractor. I relent and find one, and weep with relief when she says she can fit me in that day. Head crunched, spine pummelled. C6-C7 radiculopathy. Misaligned vertebrae. Trapped nerve. No silver bullet. Further sessions booked. The pain and the sleeplessness persist. Tearful. Miserable. Exhausted. So thankful for Mr Blue-Shirt’s kindness and support. So disappointed at my current inability to reciprocate.

A final clump. La Dolce Vita has taken on a bitter taste. It will pass though. We shall make it pass. We shall do as the sunflowers do: we shall turn our faces to the sun so the shadows fall behind us.

Growing apart

You’ve arranged to stay with a life-long pal you haven’t seen for ages and ages. You know the sort of thing: it all starts really well with the inevitable “Gosh! You haven’t changed a bit! I’d have recognised you anywhere!” You are delighted to find they still have the same mannerisms, the same voice, the same dodgy jokes and even the same dodgy dress sense. You swap reminiscences and stories, both of you now a little unsure of the precise details, but it’s fun all the same and restores that old sense of closeness – for a while.  You enquire about what they’ve been up to since you last met. But you soon notice how often they answer these queries with a weary ‘Yeah, still doing that…’ or ‘No, no real plans…’. You become aware of a growing conflict between your sense of reassurance that so little has changed and your disappointment that so much hasn’t changed. You find that they have lost touch with various mutual friends, who, like you, have moved on; that they don’t go anywhere much, that their world is shrinking. You are shocked by how narrow-minded and reactionary your dear old friend seems to have become; how angry and even aggressive. And you are saddened by the way that they seem trapped in the past, and prefer to spend more time looking backwards not forwards – but are even more saddened – infuriated, in fact – by their unwillingness, if not inability to see this. Finally, you reluctantly have to admit to yourself that you don’t have very much in common at all these days; that you have grown apart.

This is very much how it has felt to be back in UK having spent a week or so travelling about the country seeing family and friends in Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Herefordshire and Devon on our first visit after nigh on a year in Italy. Unsurprisingly the place feels far more familiar than anywhere else we have stopped on our trip. But at the same time, our native country now also feels oddly foreign, alien – and decidedly not like ‘home’. No, home definitely now lies 1200 miles south in the hills of Le Marche, in that magical spot between the majestic Sibillini Mountains and the sparkling Adriatic Sea whose soothing, warm embrace we cannot wait to return to…

Image courtesy of travelandleisure.com

On the road again

Ancona, San Marino, Imola, Bologna, Modena. The towns on the exit signs from the autostrada indicated our gradual progress north as Le Marche and the coast slipped away to be replaced by the flatlands and fruit groves of Emilia Romagna, which in turn became Veneto.  We were on the road to the UK to perform the remaining parts of the still unfinished process of transplanting ourselves from one country to another, as well as to visit family and friends.

The first 250 miles of our route north brought us to Verona for the night – along with a very welcome thunderstorm that had brewed up as we approached the city in the early evening rush hour and 36˚C temperatures. I swear you could hear the city sizzle as the cooling rain splashed onto the ancient palazzi, the cobbled streets and the world-famous amphitheatre. Wandering its elegant walkways after the storm had passed it struck as simultaneously both very familiar and surprisingly foreign. Familiar because it is somewhere we have visited several times down the years. Plus, of course, simply being in Italy is now the norm for us. But still decidedly different thanks to its city feel, its grand buildings and the polyglot crowds of tourists that thronged the pretty squares and avenues. We joined them only for long enough, though, to find somewhere quiet to eat before heading to bed as we had an early start the next day and a 450-mile drive ahead of us.

Within barely half an hour of leaving the waking city we began the long climb up into Trentino-Alto-Adige (aka South Tyrol) towards the Dolomites, as the Alps are known in these parts. The hazy outline of distant peaks gradually solidified into soaring crags whose lower flanks were carpeted with dense forest. As we climbed higher, oak, birch and beech surrendered to pine and fir, and dabs of snow in sheltered gulleys glinted in the strengthening sun. Italian building style, with its jumble of terracotta rooves and ochre tones, gave way to something much more distinctly Alpine with deep gables, whitewashed walls and window boxes spilling geraniums and petunias over carved wooden balconies. This architectural ambiguity along with the mix of Italian and German still spoken in these parts reflects the area’s turbulent past when these alpine territories were pawns in a centuries-long game of geo-political chess that ended barely 70 years ago.

As we continued our ascent we played hide and seek with the foamy green Adige as it tumbled south, weaving from one side of the road to the other through this narrow valley that remains as important a trading route today as it was in pre-Roman times. Indeed, as we pressed north an entire lane of the autostrada was permanently occupied by an endless train of container trucks grinding nose to tail up the relentless incline barely any faster than the mules they have long since replaced.

Finally, we reached the summit and there were only the toll booths to clear before descending towards Innsbruck, the Austrian winter sports Mecca that lies tightly packed within the narrow confines of the Inn valley. Then after another brief but precipitous up and over, we switch-backed down into lush glacial valleys and verdant pastures dotted with dark wooden chalets and pretty beige-grey dairy cattle whose wooden bells clonked softly in the clear still air.

As the landscape relaxed into rolling hills, we realised that Austria had become Germany. The winding mountain road straightened into a brutally efficient Autobahn that carried us swiftly north-west through the edge of Bavaria between Ulm and Augsburg, then on into Baden-Würtemburg past Stuttgart and Karlsruhe and on to our next overnight stop in Heidelberg among the vine-clad slopes of the pretty Neckar valley. Here it was another cocktail of the familiar and the different: familiar because it is another town to have featured in our many touring holidays during the ten-plus years we lived in Germany, and yet different because it looked, sounded and felt so little like where we now call home. The next morning it was over the mighty Rhine and on into Rheinland-Pfalz past Ludwigshafen and Kaiserslautern and then into the Saarland and another chunk of territory that has enjoyed lasting peace in only the last half century. From here we pushed on through the searing heat into Belgium, Mr. Blue-Shirt’s home for most of his teenage years. Another invisible border, but another instantly visible shift from culture to culture, and from language to language, each successive country’s identity as distinct and strong as ever, with little sign of the alleged homogenisation of Europe at the hands of ‘Brussels’ to which so many in the UK seem to take such grave exception.

Our experience of Brussels on this occasion, however, was limited to its hair-raising traffic system. But having safely negotiated the white-knuckle ride that is the city’s ring road we eventually escaped into the flatlands of Flanders, where the current generations are the first in centuries not to have known war and occupation. Then as the heat at last began to wane, we slipped into northern France and on to Calais and the end of our 1100-mile journey across mainland Europe.

Later in the evening as we sipped our drinks at a quayside bar we looked out across the sparkling waters of the Channel. The UK now lay just 22 miles away. Reflecting on the fact that in these turbulent times it has seldom seemed more distant and isolated, and utterly adrift in a stormy sea of uncertainty and division, we wondered how far – or even whether – it might still feel like ‘home’…