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’…

Breakthrough

It all started with our annual refuse collection bill which had arrived the day before. It contained a catalogue of errors, so I went up to the billing section in town hall to try and sort it out. It transpired that the bill for every household in the Comune was wrong, not just ours and now half the village seemed to be either phoning up or dropping by to query their bill. So the poor woman in the billing section, hardly surprisingly, was more than a tad frazzled. “Yes, yes, I know it’s wrong”, she sighed for the umpteenth time. “Ignore it. There was a mess-up with the printing. You’ll get a corrected bill next week”, she rattled off time and again with lots of melodramatic eye-rolling and exasperated gesticulation.

Well that cleared that up, but I also wanted to query the amount as it seemed rather high. “É residente, però?” asked the woman amid the chaos going on around her – You are resident, though, aren’t you? Seemingly, being resident would entitle us to a lower refuse collection fee. “Non ancora”, I responded slightly sheepishly – not yet. “Come ‘non ancora’?” – What do you mean, not yet?: she could see from the previous bills that we had been here for over a year. So I was obliged to relate the sorry tale of our multiple yet ultimately abortive attempts to secure residency, and the vicious circle we were apparently caught in whereby the Comune insisted we needed health insurance before residency could be granted, and the health authority insisted we needed residency before we could register with the state insurance scheme.  “Well, that can’t be right”, she declared and immediately picked up the phone to the health authority, happy to have a break from refuse bill queries, I think. Like us, though, she was sent to pillar and post and down a couple of blind alleys too, but she was like a dog with a bone. Several phone calls later her persistence was rewarded with a set of instructions for us to follow, and, more importantly, the name of the specific functionary we needed: Dottoressa Elena Compagnucci. Result!

With a quick “Grazie mille!”, I set off to the clinic again, picking Mr Blue-Shirt up en route, and barely forty minutes later we tipped up outside Dr Compagnucci’s office, which we had eventually found by a process of trial and error at the far end of a dingy and distinctly unpromising-looking corridor on the lower ground floor. Almost hidden behind tottering towers of bulging files stacked up on her desk, the tiny fierce-looking woman could not have been more charming or helpful once we had explained our situation. She patiently talked us through every last step of the entire process: where we needed to go and who we needed to speak to and in what order. At which point it became clear that a vital detail had been missing from all the previous explanations we had been given. On reflection, this possibility should have occurred to us sooner as the same thing had happened with practically every bureaucratic task we had tackled. But since you don’t know what you don’t know, it is always impossible to identify where, never mind what the gap is.

The Missing Vital Detail this time was that the processes both for taking out health insurance and for securing residency were actually in two parts. Up to this point, however, people in each authority had only ever talked in terms of simply ‘getting insurance’ or ‘getting residency’, all the while omitting to mention that it was the interweaving of the two processes that avoided the vicious circle we thought we had been getting trapped in. It turned out that the first part of the insurance process triggered the start of the residency process, which would enable us to complete the insurance process, by which time the residency process would be complete. The sainted Dr C. showed us examples of the documents we would receive, printed out a checklist of the documents we would need to present, and even filled in the payment forms that set everything in motion. Clutching this new set of paperwork, we expressed our heartfelt thanks for her help and left her office in a state of near elation. The door had barely closed behind us before I broke into a full-blown jig in the middle of the dreary grey corridor, while Mr Blue-Shirt contented himself with a couple of restrained air-punches. There was no time to lose, though, as we wanted to get back up to the village before everything closed for lunch. First stop, the post office to pay our premiums for the year using the forms Dr C. had completed for us. Next stop, across the cobbled square to the Comune with the top copy of the payment forms, which, critically, had been duly signed, stamped and dated by the post office clerk. It was these that would allow us to begin the first part of the residency process, namely get our application entered on the civic register.

Judging by the mixture of apprehension and concentration etched on their faces as they worked through the process, we concluded that we must have been the first foreigners the two women in the registry had entered onto the system. Over the preceding weeks we had made that many visits to their cosy office, with its beamed ceiling, terracotta floor tiles and tall shuttered windows that looked across to the Sibillini Mountains, that we had become almost chummy and had a bit of a chat while they were photocopying our documents (again), or writing down our multi-digit codici fiscali (again). Not this time, though. Tense silence reigned, and all we could do was watch through the standard issue glass screen above the worn Formica counter top. Then, just as the office was due to close for lunch one of the women handed us our signed and stamped official confirmation that we fulfilled the requirements to qualify for residency, which would be formally granted within a week. I don’t know who was more relieved: them for having completed the process correctly, or us for finally being able to see the finish line.

This confirmation letter was the key to completing the insurance process and actually registering with the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale – the national health service, so later that afternoon we made what we fervently hoped would be our final visit to the clinic. I swallowed hard as our number was called, approached the blank-faced clerk behind his glass screen and fed our paperwork through the slot, even at this stage half-fearing something would be wrong or missing. In the end, though, the only complicating factor was his speaking to us in broken Italian (‘post-box – house – have?’) in the mistaken belief that this would make things easier for us. Less than twenty minutes later, though, we left the desk with our health service registration documents in our hands and our names entered on the list of one of the GPs at the village surgery. We practically turned cartwheels across the car park.

The only thing left to do now – apart from put a bottle of fizz in the fridge – was to pick up our official residency certificates a week later. Oh, and to go and thank the clerk in the billing section for sending us the wrong refuse collection bill.

Village life

We plodded the final few metres up the hill into Montelupone’s main square, the Piazza del Comune, more than ready for a cool drink after our 4km walk from home. We had come into town for the 24th annual Festa della Pizza and had assumed that the four-day event would be held here in the centre of the village, as this is where all the other festivals we had been to had taken place. But although the square was buzzing with life, it was just the Caffé del Teatro and the Pizzeria del Borgo doing their normal roaring trade on a warm summer’s evening. Slightly puzzled, we looked around for some evidence of the festa and soon noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows scrawled below them. These guided us out of the square and up the narrow street behind the town hall and eventually led us to an imposing pair of forged metal gates at the end of the high moss-clad wall that runs along the back of a small neat square where the village war memorial is located. We had always imagined that they were the gates to the courtyard of one of the tall slim houses facing onto the square. Normally chained shut, they were now flung wide, granting access, not to a private garden, but – to our great surprise – a large grassed area about the size of half a football pitch with a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

For a moment or two we both stood there, slightly disorientated: we had had absolutely no idea that this secret little park even existed. But here it was thronged with easily half the village’s 3000 population, music blaring, strings of lights dancing in the breeze, and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall was a stage with microphone stands and drum kit set up ready for the live band that was due on later, and in front of this was a raised dance floor across which small children were charging and sliding, squealing with delight. Around the right-hand edge of the space stood a couple of small open-fronted marquees housing banks of cash desks, in front of which queued groups of people, chatting animatedly. Along the far wall stood another much larger open-fronted marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching their pizzas. These were appearing in a steady stream from a bigger marquee still that, together with the bar, ran the entire length of the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks at the cash desks first before collecting our order from the relevant marquee.  “Una pizza diavola e una pizza verdure,…” Mr. Blue-Shirt bellowed above the Euro-pop pounding away in the background when we finally reached the front of the queue, “…una birra grande e un vino bianco”. Having handed over just €20, we received two receipts, one for our drinks order, the other for our pizza order, which crucially, as we were shortly to find, also included our order number: F180. We eased ourselves away from the crush around the tills and while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which paced a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt armed with microphone. “Effe cento quaranta cinque!”  he called over the crackly PA system, as he plucked a ticket from where it was tucked under the crust of the uppermost pizza in the stack that had just been deposited on the bench. Someone in the gaggle of people gathered in front of the table yelled “Si, io!” and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before finally handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If order number F145 had only just been served, we were in for quite a bit more pizza bingo until they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt appeared beside me at that point, having wiggled his way through the crowds from the bar clutching a large plastic beaker of beer, a smaller plastic beaker of white wine and, balanced between the two, a portion of deep fried artichoke slices, so at least we would have something to keep us going until our order was called.

As we sipped and nibbled our aperitivi, we entertained ourselves by watching the incredibly slick pizza-making operation in full swing in the marquee   This was swarming with a huge team of volunteers in their bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a long row of trestle tables, each of which formed a different pizza-making station. “Effe cento cinquanta cinque!” blasted over the PA.  At one stood a team of people forming dough into soft plump balls, at the next, amid clouds of flour, stood the dough rolling, spinning and tossing team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the wafer-thin bases. “Effe cento sessanta quattro!” Then came the topping adding team, with their battery of plastic tubs overflowing with different ingredients, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. “Effe cento settanta due!” Here, the finished pizzas were lined up, ready for the pizza chefs, their faces glowing red in the heat, to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two huge wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza boxing, slicing and stacking crew who finally dispatched each completed order to the front of the marquee. “Effe cento ottanta!” “Si, io!” I cried, waving my receipt in the approved manner.

Mr. Blue-Shirt dabbed the final smears of garlicky tomato sauce from his lips. “That was top-notch”, he shouted over the band who were now in full swing just across from the trestle table where we had managed to squidge ourselves into a couple of spare seats. With my mouth still full of the final delicious oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement. “The sausage on mine was properly spicy”, he continued. “As good as any pizza we’ve had from a proper pizzeria.” “Absolutely!” I was able to say at last. “My vegetable topping was really generous and the crispy base was yummy”.  Replete, we swivelled on our bench to watch the band. They were clearly going down well as the dance floor was now full of couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances taught by one generation to the next.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, but as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasping of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the inky sky we reflected on what – to us – had been a rather remarkable evening. And marvelled at our sheer luck in having ended up living in this incredibly active, vibrant, sociable village. A village where we are looking forward to becoming active participants in – not mere observers of – community life.