“Let’s take a trip up into the mountains,” I said. “It’s a beautiful day, we’ve got nothing else planned, and we could probably do with getting our heads above the parapet.” For several days following Mr Blue-Shirt’s mum’s funeral we had been hunkered down in the house, sleeping lots and not sleeping lots, talking lots and not talking lots, and generally not feeling up to doing very much at all. I had taken leave of absence from work and all jobs on the house and garden were on hold; we just pottered about, slowly adjusting to this new kind of normal. But I had begun to sense that all this introspection and insularity was at risk of pulling us further down into the darkness, and that we need to start heading towards the light and to breathe the oxygen of purpose and people once more.
“What do you reckon?” I persisted. Mr Blue-Shirt had continued sipping his coffee while scrolling aimlessly on his phone. After a long pause, he looked up at the clock, took a final swig of coffee and nodded firmly. “Good idea,” he said. “Where were you thinking of?”
“I hadn’t got that far. Where do you fancy?”
“I don’t know. I thought you had somewhere specific in mind.”
This was typical of many exchanges lately when fatigue and mental fog conspired to make even the simplest of decisions just too much effort. I was determined not to let this one spark of enthusiasm fizzle out in another puddle of listlessness, though. The soft honey-gold sun was tracking across a sky of solid blue, beckoning us out into its mellow warmth.
“How about we just follow our noses and see where we end up? I’ll get the map.”
Mr Blue-Shirt squinted up at the sun through the kitchen window and nodded.
“OK. I’ll clear the breakfast things away and we’ll get on the road,” he said, easing himself from his stool at the breakfast bar.
We headed west and slightly south, directly towards the proud peaks of the grey-green Sibillini Mountains that looked magnificent against the perfect sky, and we could soon feel our mood begin to brighten. The main east-west dual carriageway guided us inland along the flat floor of the busy Chienti valley. But lost in thought once more, we missed our usual turn-off that skirts the eastern edge of the mountains and snakes along to Amandola and Sarnano, from where we normally begin our upward climb. By the time we were able to turn off, though, we were already well into the mountains and immediately found ourselves surrounded by steep wooded hills clad in shades of bronze and copper and gold as we zig-zagged up towards the craggy limestone peaks that jutted into the brilliant blue.
Without realising it, we had also ended up in an area that had been badly affected by the two violent earthquakes that had had struck central Le Marche exactly three years earlier. It was a sobering sight: village after village where dozens of houses, shops and churches still stood shored up by steel girders, or even still in ruins. Indeed, once debris clearance and stabilisation measures had been completed, most places seemed to have changed little since the quakes had occurred apart from the tight clusters of small, wooden chalets that had been rapidly erected on any piece of spare flat land. This was the emergency accommodation that had been provided by the state and whose residents had tried to make them as homely and attractive as they could, with white plastic table and chairs arranged on the narrow verandas and scarlet geraniums tumbling from modest window boxes. There are several thousand people across dozens of communities still living in these simple structures, and a similar number in rented accommodation or staying with relatives (although fewer now living in their campers), all still unable to return to their homes – if, indeed, they ever will be. In larger settlements, shops and businesses, even post offices, schools and police stations continue to operate from Portakabin-type structures in a humbling display of stoicism and determination to get back to normal and to get on with life. And while we both felt distinctly uncomfortable, as if we were indulging in some kind of voyeuristic ‘earthquake porn’, it was clear that these communities were desperate for people to come spend money and help them get back on their feet – and for people to know of their ongoing hardship.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Norcia, a small, picturesque town that lies on the western slopes of the Sibillini just over the border into Umbria. It had been close to the epicentre of the 5.9 magnitude quake that struck the area at the end of October 2016, bringing down many of the buildings in its historic centre that had already been damaged in the series of quakes and aftershocks that had rocked the same communities in late August. A foodie-heaven, it is famous for its sheep’s cheese and black truffles, and so great is the range and quality of its salamis and cured meats that the collective name for such products is ‘norcineria’. Its historic centre used to be packed with enticing delis and teeming restaurants, and a few are still battling on amid the ruins and abandoned buildings with their broken windows and flapping tarpaulins. Most, however, have long since de-camped to the temporary high street of cabins along one side of the town’s sports field where they are trying to eke out a living. But here in Norcia the stoicism and determination were accompanied by an all-too-evident anger at the lack of assistance from the government. From crumbling balconies and gaping doorways throughout the town hung homemade banners that complained of abandonment and indifference, of being betrayed and being forgotten. And we could see why, for as with other places we had passed through, we were taken aback by the almost total absence of any re-construction work in progress. Indeed, although the whole town bristled with buttresses and braces and scaffolding, the only place in Norcia where work actually seemed to be going on was the 14th century Basilica of St Benedict in the main square.
So apart from feeling the soft sun on our faces and enjoying the spectacular autumn colours, which had undoubtedly done us good, it was not quite the kind of spirit-lifting day out we had anticipated. It had nonetheless done us good in other ways, though, I’m sure. It had made us feel less ‘singled out’ by misfortune, it had turned our inward focus outwards, and it had given us some very valuable perspective. And, I think, might just have enabled us to turn a corner.
More importantly still, it had enabled us to make people beyond Le Marche aware of the wretched conditions in which so many people in the forgotten communities of this beautiful region are still struggling to live and work.
Photo of the Basilica of St Benedict, Norcia: http://www.nytimes.com