Copyright © Paul Wright 2011, 2014, 2016
Photographs © Paul Wright, Karen Munro
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“The Tales of a Roving Dairy Farmer”
I have lived in Italy since 1991, when I moved there with Nicola, who was then my partner and is now my wife. Here below is a selection of chapters from two of my published books; An Italian Home – Settling by Lake Como and An Italian Village – a Perspective on life Beside Lake Como, and from my forthcoming book, Cats do Eat Spaghetti. Back in 1990, Nicola and I were living in a sixteenth century cottage in Godalming, a small town in Surrey’s stockbroker belt. I was, and still am, a self-employed artist, and our cottage doubled as my studio. At the onset of the decade, with severe economic recession and interest rates at record levels, my work had all but dried up. People were only spending their money on the necessities required to keep body and soul together and art and live theatre weren’t, for most people, a necessity.
Nicola was working as a legal secretary, but was often overworked and under pressure and as summertime approached, she was in need of her annual break. We were pretty sure we would return to Spain, where we’d had superb holidays for the previous two years. On our third visit, we wanted to visit the countryside of mainland Spain, especially the rural parts the tourist rarely sees, so we chose Arcos de la Frontera, a picturesque village south of Seville, overlooking vast sunflower fields, with dazzling white buildings that seemed to hang from the mountainside. I fell in love with the place, and seriously began to wonder what life would be like if living there and if it would be possible to find work. I realised that I’d had enough of England and I wanted to move to somewhere with character, with that atmosphere only time creates. For a while, Nicola shared my enthusiasm but her keenness soon faded and, practical as ever, she began to dismiss the topic as a vacuous adjunct to whatever conversation we were having at the time. For months afterwards, a voice inside me continued to nag, but I needed to know that Nicola wanted to leave her native country behind. I knew I shouldn’t, couldn’t, browbeat her into making a decision, although I persisted with the subject. Then, finally, she said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do then let’s do it! Why not? We only have one life!”
That, in a nutshell is how we decided to move.
“But, I hear you say, you live in Italy!”
Yes, but that’s the next part of the story. Our first holiday together had been in Lombardy in Northern Italy, when we stayed in the medieval village of Moltrasio, on the western shore of Lake Como. Nicola knew the village well, because she had worked as an au pair for Christine, her husband, Giorgio, and their two children. She and Christine had become good friends, and they remained so, speaking regularly on the telephone. It was during one of these phone calls, that Nicola had arranged a twelve-day holiday for the two of us in Moltrasio. Now, six years later, I was formulating plans for us to emigrate to Spain whilst Nicola chatted on the ’phone to her friend. After a few minutes she called out for me to come into the living room and then told me what they had been discussing.
“Chris says that Giorgio has been transferred to an office in Rome,” she said. “They are moving at about the same time we plan to move to Spain and they want to rent out their house in Moltrasio.”
I’d already guessed by the energised look on her face the plan that had sprung into her head. She didn’t need to ask whether the same idea had entered my head as well. Forget Spain. It had to be Italy, and it had to be Moltrasio.
By the end of their conversation Nicola and Christine had come to an arrangement: We would take the house initially for one year, fully furnished, for a small rent. Both parties agreed on a year because neither could say what they would be doing beyond that. We knew that we could afford to spend a year without either of us working; we just hoped that we would find something to do to keep us going beyond the twelve months. Christine was happy with this arrangement, because if Giorgio’s engagement in Rome didn’t work out and they needed to return to Moltrasio, there would not be any complications. Also, she preferred people she knew to look after the house on a non-contractual basis and was not really interested in making a profit from the rental. And it meant that they could return from Rome to stay for holidays when they wanted. So, within twenty minutes, from a chatty ’phone call to tell Christine about our intended move to Spain, we had ended up making a firm commitment to fly to Italy the following April to take over a three-bedroom house.
One evening we got a phone call from Christine in Rome, saying that she and Giorgio and the children would be coming up to Moltrasio for a week’s holiday. Or longer, she suggested. They hadn’t seen us since our holiday there six years ago, and she wanted to remind herself of what we looked like. She also wanted to help find me work. She told Nicola that she would organise a party at the house and invite some influential friends to view my portfolio. Hopefully, she said, that would do the trick. Before the first day of their stay was over, Christine had telephoned so many of her friends that her social calendar and ours was full for the whole time she was in town, which had already expanded from one week to three.
“That’s playtime sorted,” she declared, “Now to find you some work.”
Next, we sat down and talked about the plans I’d formulated whilst basking in the sun. I outlined how, when I lived in England and was first searching for work I had contacted all the architects and interior designers in the London area, and how it had paid dividends. Now, I hoped to use this method here in Italy.
“Looking at your portfolio, and from the quality of your past work, you should find work here,” Christine said, “but from my experience of living in this country, your method of cold calling simply won’t work. Here, you have to know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody who will offer you work, especially with the client list you are going to be searching for. Frankly, without a contact base there is not much of a chance in this country, especially in the art world.”
This left me a bit deflated, but she continued, “I have an idea. I have two good friends in Torno, on the opposite side of the lake, who have recently bought a large apartment in the Villa Taverna and they are in the process of doing it up.” Holding up a photograph of one of my murals, she said, “They might go for something like this.”
Within five minutes of telephoning them, she had persuaded them to take a look at my portfolio and arranged an appointment that same afternoon. Two hours later, I had a commission. Better still, they wanted me to start as soon as possible.
After the first day’s work in their apartment, I announced to Nicola with some glee that to my relief they spoke English perfectly! When she heard this she looked daggers at me. I knew she had been waiting for the day when I landed my first job in Italy and had been intrigued to know how, with my miniscule vocabulary, I was going to cope in a work situation when she wasn’t around to hold my hand.
“I’m glad you’ve found work,” she said, “but these people are not going to do you any favours if you continue to expect them to speak English. All you are doing is postponing the inevitable. Either you learn the language properly, or we pack up and go back to England.”
She also included Christine in this forceful assault against me, using the advantages of her friend’s experience as a language teacher to reinforce her opinion against my evasive attitude to learning. She then followed it by saying to Christine, “I think he’s beginning to believe he can exist here without ever speaking a word of Italian. He stubbornly refuses to take schooling, which is simply ridiculous.”
Christine, sensibly, did not openly take sides, but I could still sense that there was an unspoken agreement between her and Nicola that I should be making better progress and that they would make an effort to ensure that I did.
Nicola voiced that consensus when she said, “I think it would be wise to do something about your inability to speak Italian sooner rather than later. You are lucky that communication with these clients is easy, but it might not be so easy with others.”
I wanted to continue to live in Italy because I was in love with everything about the country, but I was afraid to admit to myself that I might never learn the lingo properly and thereby ruin my, and Nicola’s, chance of staying here permanently. I also knew in my stomach that one-to-one lessons with a language teacher and learning against the clock would not work for me. Most things I had learned in life had been gained by my own endeavours in my own time and not by traditional learning methods, but I was very cautious, scared even, of telling Nicola about this particular aspect of the way I tick in case she flipped.
Learning Italian was definitely hard work for me, but considering their collective talents, Nicola and Christine could not have been less sympathetic. They understand the structure of language. They study grammar and literature for fun. When they are together, they talk about language, in the language of language. They talk about nouns and pronouns, verbs and adverbs, defining relative clauses, discuss prepositions and past participles (not forgetting the present reflexive and the imperfect), the conjunctions and the consonants. And who could forget demonstratives, possessives, and interrogatives, as well as the definite and indefinite article? Consequently, if they set out to learn a new language, they simply apply the same set of rules to it. It is the sensible way to go about it: it makes the learning process simpler, instead of a perpetual riddle. To them, learning a foreign language is a pleasurable experience that opens up new horizons. Languages allow the opportunity to travel and explore and to mix with people from different cultures.
Christine, the language teacher, and Nicola, whose knowledge of grammar was coupled with perfect pronunciation, were frankly baffled by me. What was foreign to them was that somebody should find learning a new language such an insufferable burden and they must have wondered how on earth they had become associated with such a numbskull as me.
Perhaps it was paranoia, but there appeared to be a noticeably stiff atmosphere when I was in their presence. They would sit next to each other, always watching me, with their legs crossed as tightly as could be. Christine would sit in her favourite upholstered Queen Anne lady’s chair, with Nicola perched on the arm beside her, each with a glass of dry white wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Empty-handed, I would watch them and I could see their painted lips, whispering behind a hazy smoke screen. Their furtive eyes, almost lifeless, eerie and uncanny, weighed me up as if I were some sort of biological misfit. Muttering behind cupped hands, they assessed me ominously, as if deciding my fate. Occasionally they would indulge in a slow synchronised inhaling of tobacco smoke, callously exhaling it in my direction. If our eyes met, theirs would divert and focus elsewhere on nothing in particular. Their lips would curl downwards. Their bottoms would wriggle uncomfortably as they leant from side to side. Then, cigarettes exhausted, they would symbolically grind the stubs into the ashtray. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Something had to be done. Since the moment we landed at Malpensa airport Nicola had become my protector, mentor and surrogate mother. At my insistence she took on the added role of teacher and sat me down with the intention of instructing me daily in our adopted language. She tried her very best to help. We began by spending two hours at a time of intense learning until she said her brain was beginning to hurt and I was too tired to think straight any more. The next day we started with revision from the previous day’s work. For Nicola, retention of the previous day’s work would be the proof of the pudding that her method was working.
The day after my first lesson her patience held up. The day after my second lesson it began to fray after only a few minutes. After day three it had deteriorated to the point where, scolding me like infant teachers used to do to their pupils, she took to corporal punishment, applying the edge of a ruler, the part that hurts, across my knuckles. Her exasperated conclusion was that I had the concentration powers of a flea and the retention capabilities of a demented geriatric.
It was clear early on that this exercise in home tuition wasn’t working the way either of us had hoped it would and it was putting a great deal of stress on our personal relationship. After session four, our association nearly terminated altogether and I felt it wise never to ask her to teach me Italian ever again.
In the middle of one of these ill fated lessons Nicola described how ten years previously she had been through a similar encounter to the one I was experiencing, when she failed her driving test for the third time and could not afford any more private lessons to enable her to take it for a fourth. She then begged her father, a former driving instructor, to give her some free lessons. This, she said, ended in traumatic circumstances when she crashed his car into a traffic island. The moral of the story is, never ask relatives or partners to teach you to drive or to learn a language if living in acrimony is to be avoided.
Christine at least expressed some sympathy with my predicament, pointing out that as people age, the part of the brain that retains language has been scientifically proven to shrink in size if not used. If it is exercised regularly by the learning of new languages, the reverse can happen and it enlarges. Added to that, the older we get the more we lose the habit of learning and we forget how to do it. One reason that children are more receptive to learning than adults is because they are involved in the daily process of study at school and therefore the brain absorbs information with less effort than with an adult. However, all was not lost, Christine added, because it’s quite possible that I was the type who picked language up in conversation, in contrast to others who learnt via the textbook in the traditional classroom method.
Nicola, now becoming really concerned about my inability to learn, decided to give this conversation method a try. In her mind the best place to pick up the language in all its forms and where there’s always a plentiful supply of conversation about all matters under the sun is at the local bar.
“The next time we go shopping in the village,” she declared, “and every time after that, we are going to stop off in the Bar Centrale and introduce you to the villagers. There is always somebody in there prepared to chat, especially if you’re going to be buying the drinks.”
A couple of days later, as promised I followed her to the village bar. Nicola was the only woman in there apart from the barmaid. Not to be deterred she soon got the ball rolling by ordering everybody a bianco sporco con spruzzo. This is white wine with a dash of Campari, topped up with soda water and a twist of lemon. It’s a drink local to Moltrasio that’s drunk by anybody who’s a drinker. ‘Bianco sporco’ means ‘dirty white’. It’s a peculiar name for a drink and ordering the same drink outside of the Moltrasio area, in Milan for instance, can cause offence if asked for without an explanation. A barperson might think it was a slur on the clarity of their wine or the cleanliness of their glasses.
We had, of course, visited the Bar Centrale previously on a few occasions but not for a long stay. A glass of wine each, a packet of cigarettes for Nicola, or the occasional coffee and a brioche in the morning, then we would be on our way. This time it was different. Because it was a sunny day, we decided to sit outside where there was more space to spread, well away from the smoke filled interior and at one of the well-worn tables on the terrace, next to the old men and the all-day card players. Here we joined a typical picture of life outside any bar, an essential feature in the heart of any village in a Mediterranean country where all the fit and early retired male pensioners and local tradesmen unite to pass the time. In fact they are more than just bars. They are the heart and soul of the community. For the folk of Moltrasio the sight of new people moving into their village is unusual. It’s even more unusual when they are foreigners who wish to enter their daily ritual.
Foreigners who move into a village like Moltrasio rarely become involved in daily life. Almost all that move in are extremely rich and live in exclusive villas behind electronic gates and are certainly not inclined to mix in with the commoners in the local bar. They tend to remain stand-offish and completely faceless all the time they are resident, so none of the locals would know who they are because they are unlikely to ever meet them. Nicola was keen to make sure that the locals knew we were not of this type, or that we had wandered into the bar by some error of judgment. She wanted to let them know we were not rich, nor were we renting a smart villa for the summer season. Most of the regulars at the Bar Centrale have known each other since childhood. One or two of them recognised us from our shopping trips to the food shops and already it was surprising after only a few weeks in the village how much information had filtered through about ‘i due stranieri’, the two foreigners living down the road. Back in Surrey, Nicola’s parents had run a bar for thirty years. It became famous for its village games and its vibrant atmosphere and ever since she was tall enough to reach up and pull a pint of beer she had learnt the practice of how to talk to people from every walk of life about nothing in particular and for all day long if necessary. A lover of people and social company, she is a good listener and an even better talker and she knows how to hold an audience.
So in the situation we had placed ourselves, almost akin to entering a members-only bar, Nicola was at her best. After I had bought everybody a drink she introduced the both of us to the entire clientele sitting on the shaded terrace outside. Most of regulars responded by pulling up their chairs around our table and welcoming us to their village. After that introduction, and every time that we walked into the bar we were greeted like old friends. A couple of the older men told her that they really enjoyed our visits, because it livened up the place and it gave them somebody new to talk about when we had gone.
So, as far as my learning Italian was concerned we had at least made a start.
We had been living in Christine and Giorgio’s house for three years, when, almost to the day we moved in, Christine called to tell us that her daughter was about to start studying for a degree at the University of Rome, and her son would soon follow. This meant they would have to sell their house in order to raise the necessary money to pay for both courses and find themselves a new home, and for us it meant having to find somewhere else to live too. This caused us a little anxiety at first, but then we had stayed in Italy for two years longer than our arbitrary deadline and if after that deadline we had decided to stay, we always knew that sooner or later we would have to move house. We discussed the idea of buying a place in Moltrasio, but this would have first meant selling our house in Godalming, then looking for a house to buy. All of this would take time, which was what Christine and Giorgio didn’t have, so we decided to look locally for somewhere to rent for a few more years and review our situation at our leisure.
Nicola decided to ask the shopkeepers in the village centre if they knew of anywhere to rent. In our three years in Moltrasio we’d got to know pretty well everyone and we now thought of it as home. We really wanted to stay here but it wasn’t going to be easy to achieve, because in the first few days of looking on our own we only found places in other villages we could afford, or a few holiday residences in Moltrasio at tourist prices, when of course we wanted to pay the prices the locals pay. Like a lot of countries with a big tourist industry, Italy has an unofficial two-tier price system, one for the locals and one for foreign buyers, such as Germans, French, Americans or, indeed, us. Being English was not that common for the region, but even so we would be classified as tourists and therefore just as likely to be expected to pay the upper price bracket. We quickly found it was vital to tell local residents we hadn’t met before that we were, after having lived there for three years, permanent residents and not foreign tourists. That is why it was imperative for us to become as local as possible as soon as possible.
We didn’t like the idea of having to move further afield, where we didn’t know anybody, so we decided to ask our friends and any local contacts we could find if they knew of anywhere in the village we could rent. One of the first people Nicola asked was Eleanor, the wife of Pino, the butcher. She told Nicola that she’d heard there was a place in the centro-storico, the historical centre of the village in Via Recchi, and she volunteered to find out for us if it was still available. She said it was owned by a middle-aged widow whom she knew quite well, but did not see very often.
Things remained quiet for some weeks, then, out of the blue, Eleanor telephoned to say that she had recommended us to the widow and she was interested in showing us around the apartment. We grabbed the chance and went to see it straight away. It was part of a three hundred year old building and above a disused butcher’s shop, with a front door that opened directly onto a set of narrow stone steps that led up to the village. It was small and unfurnished with only one bedroom, no central heating and no gas and the stone kitchen sink had one cold water tap hanging loosely on the wall. Worse, there was no garden and no terrace or balcony where we could relax in the sun. On the plus side, the apartment had bags of character and we had really taken a liking to it. It was situated in a much prettier part of Moltrasio, with a favourable piazza outside and to the side of it was a strong waterfall running down the mountain that used to power the waterwheel of the old granary. Also the view from the kitchen window, looking over the centro-storico was truly wonderful. The houses seemed to jostle for position, their roofs and painted stucco walls creating a pleasant, composite patchwork of terra cotta, burnt orange and yellow ochre. After living in a four-storey, three-bedroom, detached-house with all mod cons and two gardens it would certainly mean that we would have to do some adjusting, and it left us thinking for a while. Could we turn it into a place we could both enjoy living in?
Because we liked the place so much, we decided to see if we could come to an arrangement with the owner over the terms of the lease, and we soon agreed she would pay a plumber to put in a modern boiler, have the gas connected and replace the stone stink with a new one and we would pay for the installation of the central heating. Then, before we moved in I spent four weeks painting the apartment, having the central heating put in and furnishing it. I had to, because it was uninhabitable by modern standards, we wanted to stay in Moltrasio, and it was the only place we could find at such short notice at a rent we could afford.
I had accumulated a pile of art materials and associated artists’ equipment and I quickly found out there was no room in the apartment for me to produce my oil paintings and watercolours, so I needed to find a studio and storeroom. It seemed like a stroke of luck that soon after we had moved in, the old butcher’s shop below that had been closed for thirty-seven years became available to rent. We’d not had the opportunity to look inside the shop, but judging from the outside, I thought that it might suit my purpose ideally.
It was during the negotiations for the shop that we discovered the full story. The owner’s late husband had been the butcher who owned the shop and when he died, Pino and Eleanor decided to rent the property from him, thereby holding the butcher’s licence to stop any likelihood of competition. They had been content to rent the shop off of the widow for all that time, even though they never did a day’s business from the premises, continuing to trade from their original shop further up the stone steps that ran outside our front door. When I approached the widow and asked her about the possibility of renting the empty shop, she informed me that Eleanor and Pino had not paid the rent for the last half year and it was due in advance. When I told her I was interested in taking over the old shop and converting it into an art studio, she said she would make further enquiries for me and see if Eleanor and Pino still wanted to continue renting the place.
Two large supermarkets had opened near to Moltrasio in the early nineties and had taken a lot of business away from the smaller shops in the surrounding area. Eleanor and Pino had realised that there wasn’t much likelihood of another butcher ever opening up again in the village because the two that were already there were finding it difficult to compete with supermarket prices. A few days after I’d approached our landlady about taking on the old shop, Eleanor and Pino arrived at our front door to speak to me about taking over the lease and when I told them I wanted it for an art studio and was not planning on a career change and taking up butchering, they willingly ended their tenancy and handed me the keys.
Having a studio and workshop literally downstairs was very convenient because I could both show my work to the public and have much more space to store our belongings. We also found living in the central part of the village very attractive and very sociable, because the piazza outside was a pedestrian zone and we met so many people as they walked by. The foreign tourists that happened by my studio said they had not witnessed anything like the ancient village before. Most of them had just arrived from the hustle and bustle of the real world, from their manic existences in the twentieth century they called civilisation and suddenly they had found themselves in a time warp. Apart from Nicola, I was just about the only person in a wide area that spoke English and because my studio door was always open, I would be bombarded with questions from English and American tourists who had been dying to speak to somebody who could understand them. They all said that the village had a calmness, a peace and a harmony on the eye that gave them real contentment, and what most of them wanted to know was where they could rent a holiday home, because they felt they wanted an instant lifestyle change and to swap places with me. Some visitors to the village were so knocked out with the place that they spent most of their holiday arranging a place to stay for the following year, and confiding amongst themselves that they must keep quiet about the village. “We want to keep it for ourselves,” they’d whisper.
Because there was, and still is, nothing in the way of museums, grand houses, smart shops or public gardens in Moltrasio for the tourist to spend money visiting, the village hardly gets a mention in the guidebooks. For the discerning visitor who isn’t interested in ticking off the ‘must-see’ items in the guidebook or isn’t a shopaholic, the fact that there are none of these commercial interests makes the place all the more desirable. Of course, if it did have something that attracted the average tourist, I doubt we would have chosen to live there and we would have continued our search for one of the ever-decreasing number of unspoilt beauty spots.
But there was more life in the village than the human residents and the tourists. No sooner had we settled in to our new surroundings than we discovered that the piazza was a haven for a large population of feral cats. We had recorded ten residing in the immediate proximity, but an accurate head count was difficult, if not impossible. The early spring, which was when we had moved house, was the beginning of the rutting season for the little darlings. Our bedroom window overlooked our landlady’s garden and the nightly cats’ chorus coming from it was becoming extremely noisy and was seriously disturbing our sleep, and with the mating season in full swing and the scent of the females attracting quite a few more, there were some mighty bust-ups and a great increase in the noise level.
After a few more weeks we noticed that one of the females, a tabby, was becoming rounder by the day, which made us very alarmed, because we knew that this would yield lots of irresistible, fluffy babies, the kind we are suckers for. Sure enough, a few weeks later the tabby walked past my studio door looking very much slimmer, which only meant one thing – in three to four weeks’ time we could expect to see her out for a stroll to show off her latest litter.
One morning in early June, I heard the same mother cat meowing more than usual outside in the piazza, so I went to see if she was all right. I followed her gaze down the road, towards a tiny black and white kitten that was struggling up the slope, as if it were pulling a ton weight. I slowly approached it and even though it tried its best to scamper away, I easily picked it up. It was a male, and he was one of the most gorgeous babies imaginable, with a black hood over a white face and a coat as soft and as shiny as silk. Kittens of this age are generally pretty lively creatures and when I picked him up I discovered why he could not get away like he should. It was because a large hole had been torn in his abdomen and some of his intestine was hanging out. By now his mother was giving me real grief, meowing and fretting, but when I offered the kitten back to her she ran off in the opposite direction, leaving me, literally, holding the baby.
Our only regret about moving to Italy was that we had to leave Lucy, our dear cat, behind. We had considered at great length whether or not we should bring her with us, but if the one-year trial period we had given ourselves hadn’t worked out, she would have had to go into quarantine when we returned to the UK. Nicola’s sister had been willing to take her for whatever time we spent out of the UK and it turned out they were both having a happy time together. We asked for, and received, regular reports on how Lucy was and it appeared she wasn’t missing us at all.
That evening, when Nicola returned from Milan and she saw the tiny kitten, she knew I had fallen in love while she had been out at work. Three quarters of an hour later we were inside the vet’s surgery in the next village where he told us that he did not think there was much chance that the kitten would survive, as the hole was massive in proportion to the size of his body. He did not know if he could stretch the skin across the gaping wound, but he said he would try. While we were there, he found a dog’s tooth inside the hole, which explained what had happened. We telephoned the vet’s secretary every few days to see how his progress was, and he seemed to be surviving. Two weeks later, when we went back to collect the tiny creature, the vet told us that he had clung onto life beyond expectation. His future was sealed – we had found a replacement for Lucy and once again we had taken on the responsibility that goes with having an animal. That was something both of us had said would never happen again, but knew in our hearts probably would.
The following spring a sleek white feral that regularly roamed the piazza was seen to be putting on weight around her midriff. Sure enough, a few weeks later she too passed by the studio looking her svelte self again. And, four weeks later, right on cue, she began parading four babies around her territory in the piazza. Our neighbours began throwing their hands up in horror at the sight of more kittens, all with a potential to soil their gardens unless, they told us, they were poisoned pretty quickly. When we heard this we were horrified and adopted three more kittens immediately, as well as taking on the feeding of the rest of the feral animals.
We came to discover that only a small percentage of Italians are any good at looking after pets. Cats have a particularly rough time and are treated like vermin. Dogs fare slightly better, but there are still too many residents who have the wrong motive for owning a dog and a lot of them regard them as guard dogs first and as pets a very poor second. Also, dogs are often used as status symbols behind big gates of smart villas. The intention of this is supposed to indicate to the passer-by that the owner must be rich and has something worth guarding. It would seem that the higher the gates, the larger and more visible the dog or dogs are likely to be. The dogs apparently act as a living invitation to any burglar who might be ‘casing the joint’, telling him that there are some prize possessions to be had if he’s prepared to take the chance of getting ripped to bits.
Cats cannot guard anything, therefore they are low in the Italians’ reckoning. “What is the use of a cat, or any other pet,” they say, “if it cannot earn its keep?” Then the same people add, “Of course, some of them do catch rats, and cats are also good to eat.” At first we thought we had misheard the last part of this statement but when we heard a neighbour expounding on the gastronomic delights of eating cat with polenta as a winter dish and how she and many of the locals appreciate the way a plump cat roasted over an open fire and the local maize dish compliment each other perfectly, it began to dawn on us that they, or at least some of them really do eat cats. I think she must have thought that when we said we were cat lovers, she thought we too enjoyed eating them and it had never entered her mind that somebody should want to keep a cat, or in our case cats, as a pet, feeding it solely so that it can have a nice life rather than fattening it up to be eaten at a later date. To her way of thinking, and many like her, anybody who spends good money feeding an animal for no practical purpose must be insane.
The practice of eating cats is alien to British sensibilities, but it’s not hard to understand why the Italians choose to do so. They must have suffered a great deal after countless invasions and occupations of their country since the end of the Roman Empire, often being left to starve. World War II left such a legacy, and when we had first arrived in Moltrasio, there were still a number of people around who suffered under the Nazis and the memory of that brutal time is as vivid to them as if it had happened only yesterday. But in times of plenty it seems peculiar that a few of this older generation still liked to eat cats and, worse, are not too fussed whether they are feral or somebody’s pet. One night a group of us went to a trattoria in a village on the opposite side of the lake, next to our old friend Enzo’s home village of Lemna. When the waitress presented us with the menu we saw on it ‘gatto con polenta’ – cat with polenta. According to one member of our group, the proprietor will accommodate a customer bringing in a cat the day before they are due to eat there and the chef will prepare and cook it for them.
When another female gave birth in our landlady’s garden, the headcount of ferals in the close vicinity of our apartment rose to twenty. It was plain for anybody to see that the man from the council would be round to lay his poison if people started to complain about the amount of cat poo they were having to contend with. At this point, Nicola decided to take control of a worsening situation and she set out to have them all sterilised. With the patience of a saint and the aid of several tins of Whiskas cat food, she gradually gained the confidence of our feline neighbours, sitting for hours at the foot of the stairs to the apartment with the front door wide open and a bowl of freshly-opened cat meat at the ready, coaxing these nervous, always wary, often completely wild creatures to come a little closer each day. At first she had no success at all while she was sitting near them. Of course, as soon as she moved away there was a free-for-all for the food. Gradually, though, she gained their confidence one by one, ingeniously using the evening breeze coming down the road from the mountains to assist in blowing the irresistible smell of the food in their direction. The poor, skinny creatures, desperate for nourishment, could not resist the temptation any further and began to let her touch them whilst eating. Then, as calmly as they would allow her, she would pick one up, then snap it into the cat basket before the creature realised what had happened, call to me to stop watching TV and fire up the car engine so we could rush him or her to the vet for sterilisation.
Nicola finally captured all twenty ferals, one at a time, which was amazing, although the result was achieved at some considerable financial cost. The next part of her programme, which turned out to be as equally difficult as the cat baiting, was to educate our human neighbours. She wanted to make sure they understood the effort she had exerted and the expense she had incurred in taking control of the situation, to try to ensure that they understood why she had taken on such responsibilities and get them to take on a responsible attitude themselves. She told them that she had done something positive to resolve a problem that should have been sorted out years earlier, but this was all new to them and most of them weren’t interested at all. Some gave her verbal support but there was never any financial assistance offered and she knew they did not really understand why she was doing what she was doing. They surely must have been wondering why this Englishwoman kept banging on about animal welfare, and persistently telling them that it was everybody’s responsibility to take care of them properly and not to go putting poison down as a cheap, short term solution to a long term problem.
For a few months everything seemed to calm down and, encouragingly, the flow of pregnancies abated, but we had noticed that the population of feral cats had gone down from twenty to thirteen. Some of the cats we had taken to the vet to be ‘done’ had disappeared. We wanted to know where they had gone, and why! We hoped they had not been eaten but anticipated that they probably had. Eventually we would get some clues.
After about one year of living in our new apartment, one of the four domesticated cats, a small female tabby we had living with us, did not come home one night. This was unusual, because cats are habitual and she always came home at the same time. I was distraught and for days and nights afterwards I looked everywhere for her. Nicola put the word out that one of our cats had gone missing and she hoped it had not been eaten. She was told that this was most unlikely, as it was the height of summer and cats only get eaten with polenta as a winter dish. Nothing was heard for two weeks, then, Marco, one of the local council workers, discovered her down a ravine in the waterfall, drowned and bloated. How did she get there, we wondered, and why?
On further enquiries a young girl told us that she thought she saw an old man who lived in the house beside the stone footbridge push the cat off the wall into the ravine. She claimed he did it because he had done it before to another cat. I was ready to pull him out of his house and push him down the same ravine, even if he was eighty years old, but Nicola stopped me, telling me that there was no proof that he’d done it and we couldn’t take the word of a young girl who only thought she saw what she saw.
Still to this day I think there was proof that this person had murdered one of our babies and I am sure that Nicola kept the whole truth away from me for my own good. This was one of those times I wished my Italian were better, so that I could have made some enquiries of my own.
Then, the following winter, another beauty, an all-white, fluffy longhair we had adopted disappeared mysteriously. This was really odd, because we had taken her in when she was a tiny kitten roaming the piazza. She had only recently started to go out of the house, but had never gone further than a few yards, preferring to sit for hours beside the front doorstep, never moving. I think it was a pre-meditated act by some greedy passer-by who fancied a cat for dinner and had whipped her away. From then on, we put collars on all of our cats and Nicola did the rounds yet again, informing all the neighbours about the latest victim and asking them not to mess with our cats. However, the problem of teaching the ignorant was not yet resolved and every time we thought we were getting through to them something else would happen that made us think that we were going backwards instead of forwards.
One night around midnight we heard a muffled noise outside the front door, then the sound of someone running off into the distance. The sound of footsteps outside our door was not an unusual occurrence, as the door opened onto steps that were a regular thoroughfare to the village centre. A few minutes later we heard a faint mewing sound and it was not one we were familiar with. When we opened the front door, we saw that somebody had dumped a box containing a tiny kitten on our doorstep. Next morning, after the gorgeous little creature had had several good feeds, Nicola set off in a determined mood, verging on anger, with the box including the baby under her arm to root out the perpetrators and to give them a stiff lesson in how to take care of their animals. Amazingly, she was successful in locating them and when she returned and before I could ask her how she’d got on, she said, “I gave the whole family a severe scolding they’ll never forget and they assured me they will never do anything of the like again!”
A few nights after that, somebody else dumped a runt in the piazza. This time we were not able to trace the owners and according to a neighbour who was in the habit of peering through her lace curtains at everything that passed by, they’d driven up the road in a car at midnight and then dropped something out of the door. Word was getting around about feline welfare, but either it was the wrong kind of word, or it was being conveniently misinterpreted. “If you ever have a cat problem,” the wisdom seemed to be, “then take it along to Piazza Recchi where the two English who are soft in the head live and they will take care of your problem for you, free of charge.” Slowly but surely, after many lectures on animal safe keeping and how shameful it must be for the people of Moltrasio having two foreigners in their midst doing their mopping up for them, we started to win through.
We looked after our four official cats better than we looked after ourselves. They were fat and happy and they received the best medical attention money could buy. Sandro, the mobile vet, visited them regularly on his cross-country motorbike to administer check-ups and the neighbours were happy in the knowledge that the remaining feral cats in the area had all been neutered and defended their territory, keeping other cats at bay and preventing a return to how things were before. In the summertime, all of our babies would lie in the studio window basking in the sun and more than one person has told us, “They are a picture fit to paint.”
“Italian Village” is the sequel to “An Italian Home”, in which I describe some of the characters I have met and become friends with, and some of the people I have worked for. By way of explanation, Mario is one of a group of retired men who spend their days seated around the fountain in the centre of the Piazza Roma, the main square of my home village of Argegno. Here, they take a little wine, eat the odd slice of pizza, play cards, make ‘old fashioned’ comments about the women that pass by and generally try to put the world to rights.
The lake is swelling tonight; unlike its usual placid state, it is swishing around. The moon hangs against a cobalt-blue sky with a distinct glass orb with a touch of madder-red mixed into it. Its gravity is so forceful that it makes the water vibrate. This electrifying sight is complemented by the silhouettes of the tall, speckled, plane trees on the short promenade. These giants too are restless, waving their arms as they sway in time with the swell of the water. They make an eerie, though not alarming creaking sound in the autumn air, as if calling for their lost bark to be returned. But they are not the only things swaying under the October sky.
I have spied the silhouette of another gigantic form, close by. It is Fabio. He is meandering, almost out of control down the centre of the lakeside road and appears to be heading in my direction. He is dressed in a grimy, brightly patterned short-sleeved shirt and equally grimy navy blue shorts. Fabio is not one of the old boys; he’s forty-seven. He’s a two-metre high builder’s mate, built like a brick privy, with an unruly mop of ginger hair that is usually covered in brick dust. When he scratches his head, a red cloud forms around him.
Fabio was one of the first people we met when we came to live in Italy. He was a renowned member of the local rowing club, having rowed in the double-sculls for Italy in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he won bronze medal. I like Fabio a lot, but he drinks too much and when he does he becomes reckless with his money. He’s often found combing the villages around the lake, looking for somebody he knows to share a drink with. When he does, he will insist on paying for everything. When we lived in Moltrasio I made the error of getting involved with him on too many occasions, but since we moved to Argegno I’ve managed to evade most, if not all of his offers. My last lapse took place about a year before, in the Bar Onda. My main memory of that fateful incident was the first half-hour in his company, where he taught me how to lay imaginary bricks in the middle of the bar floor. And after sinking half a dozen glasses of bianco sporco (literally, “dirty white” – white wine with Campari soda) it was blotto time and I lost count of how many more we downed and how many bricks I was supposed to have lain.
If Fabio happens to be around Argegno and he spies me, he uses the only two English words he knows – ‘you drink?’ I’m sure that Fabio targets me because he’s got it in his head that all Brits are alike, especially when they are on holiday. His impression has been reinforced by television documentaries that display the British tendency for alcohol-fuelled hooliganism. As hard as I try to convince him that I drink a maximum of two small bottles of beer or half a bottle of wine a day, and that I am not a twelve pint a day man like the stereotypical Brit, it makes no difference.
Part of the reason why the Brits indulge so much when they are abroad is because booze is half the price it is in the UK. The quantity they drink amazes not only Fabio, but all Italians. He’s told me several times that he always enjoys the company of Brits, especially when he tries to out-drink them. Fabio must think I’m a bit flaky, and I’m sure he’s not altogether convinced I am English, because I don’t drink anywhere near the amount he believes I ought.
Fabio is the strongest person I’ve ever met, and to prove it, when he’s had a few drinks he will pick a person up by the elbows and lift their feet off the ground. I weigh ninety kilos and he can pick me up as if I were a bag of popcorn. He owns an old Lambretta scooter and when he rides it he never wears a crash helmet or uses his lights. This is common practice in Italy for locals who travel short distances, but one night he was knocked off his scooter by a hit-and-run driver in a very long tunnel. He then walked three kilometres to the nearest bar, where he drowned the pain he was feeling. He then worked for three weeks before admitting to himself that he had a broken ankle.
I’m still down by the lake and it definitely looks as if Fabio is heading my way, so I think it’s safest to hide behind the fattest tree trunk I can find. I am timing his approach. As he closes in, I circle the opposite way around the tree. He had obviously seen me, but because he’s as drunk as a rat, I’m praying he’ll think he’d imagined seeing me and pass by. Because he is so affable, it’s unkind to avoid him, but I want him to save his money rather than squander it. Also, I only need him in small doses and not the excessive alcoholic one he will insist on pouring into me if he does find me.
He’s arrived at the spot where I was when I saw him approaching. He is swaying as he looks around. Only his size fifteen, steel toecapped, cement-covered boots keep him upright. He’s staggering past at this very second. He’s so close I can smell the brick dust in his hair and the odour of warm wine that clings to his clothes. He’s within touching distance, but he’s not found me and he’s shaking his head in puzzlement. Now he’s moving towards the ornamental railings that surround the lake and he’s leaning over them precariously. He must think I’ve fallen into the water. He’s still leaning over the railings and calling my name at the same time. ‘Paul, dove sei?’ ‘Paul, where are you?’ Fortunately he looks like he’s given up trying to find me and instead is trying to remember his bearings.
Phew, that was close.
He’s now attempting to cross the road to the Piazza Roma where the bars are, but instead of taking the forty-five degree angle he needs to take to get there he’s meandering way off course. At this time of night his state of inebriation is notorious; it’s the same scene, on the same stretch of road, at the same time of night, seven nights a week. Motorists slow almost to a stop to give him space in case they crash into him and he damages their cars, but he passes on, insensible, to reappear where we least expect him. Or not.
One morning at the fountain, Mario leaned his face away from the glass of wine he was holding and asked me if I was going on the annual mangialonga the next day. It would take place way above Argegno in the Intelvi mountain villages and would include plates and plates of indigenous food. I was booked in to go: although Nicola and I had been to several other events it was my first time for this particular one. Nicola was away, working in Rome, but even if she had been around, she wouldn’t have gone, because she cannot pack away the amount of food a person can pack away (or at the rate they are expected to pack it away) and she is often staggered at how they do it. S I decided to go.
“Mangialonga” means, “long eat”. These events involve between wine producers, restaurants, bakeries, cheese producers, salami makers – the list is endless. The one Mario spoke of is different from others; usually there is a bus laid on to take the participants from venue to venue to sample, but in this one everyone gets some exercise between the several courses of meat, polenta, pasta, risotto, cheeses, roast chestnuts, huge sticky deserts, caffè, and an unlimited amount of wine. It is something of an endurance test, both of an individual’s stomach capacity and their legs, because although the walks between the destinations are not in themselves hard, they certainly feel that way when carrying a heavily laden belly around.
The price of the ghita (the trip) was €35 per head and it started in the village of San Fedele. Most of the forty people who had booked had been going on it for years. They would meet up at a bar at 10am for a light breakfast that includes an espresso coffee mixed with a shot of grappa or cognac and a brioche, then walk from one eating or drinking establishment to another, in a succession of villages, over a distance of five kilometres. It is a highly sociable affair, as all Italian events are, and as we walk and talk in a group or in pairs we soon find ourselves at the next epicurean spot. The itinerary has a fairly strict timetable, and the leader and organiser of the event, in this case a local builder, will tell us all how long we have to eat or drink in each place before we have to move onto the next one. This can be anything from half an hour to two hours. It finishes in Cerano around five o’clock in the afternoon as it starts to get dark, and then we are supposed to walk back to the starting point in the San Fedele bar, where we say our farewells with a promise to repeat the joyful outing the following year.
On the day, we spent half an hour having a ten o’clock colazione in a bar in the centre of the village, and the event finally got under way with us stepping across the road to another bar for a couple of glasses of a white Valtelline Superiore and a slice or two of Sbrisolona, a typical Lombardo cake, layered with a sweet lactic cheese and topped with Nutella. After that there was a fairly long hike to the village of Castigilone, to a trattoria where we ate tortelli di zucca (Ravioli filled with pumpkin), barbecued chicken drumsticks, polenta Valtellinese mixed with funghi porcini and Taragana cheese, accompanied by a half bottle each of Nino Negri and a half bottle of Nebbiolo.
Around mid-day, we went to another trattoria on the outskirts of the same village to try their tripe in broth with mixed chopped vegetables, then risotto alla Milanese (the only liquid used to cook the rice was Berlucchi spumante), with saffron and grated Grana Padano cheese, plus a selection of some of principle wines of Lombardy, just about all of which we sampled at one time or another during the day.
After that, we walked to Blessagno a tiny village with a population of two hundred and thirty seven. Here, at another trattoria we enjoyed a starter of fresh lake trout, followed by a choice of either cassoeula served with polenta or osso buco (braised shin of veal in a vegetable sauce), with wild porcini mushrooms fresh from the mountains and chopped celery, also served with polenta.
Around three o’clock we went to a restaurant further up the mountain where we had Cotoletta alla Milanese (veal cutlets coated in breadcrumbs) with chips, followed by cheese: Gorgonzola on crackers; the soft local cheese, Quartirolo Lombardo and Bitto, an alpine cheese from the Valtellina. For dessert we sampled panettone, a sweet dessert cake with a coating of icing sugar, served with mascarpone laced with Marsala. The wine included Grumello, Bonarda and grappa, plus caffè.
To finish off, in the late afternoon we gathered in the small village of Cerano, where a castagna festival was about to get under way. Castagne, sweet chestnuts grow prolifically in this area and are regarded as integral to the local diet and they are delicious. They are gathered as they fall and are eaten in several ways. On this day they were cooked on a griddle on an open fire, with the skin first pierced with a knife blade, to prevent them from exploding. In October into November there are castagna festivals in all the villages to celebrate the harvest, and the locals will gather round industrial sized grills to sample the year’s crop, and as they do, they will wash it down with a few glasses of a dry Prosseco from the Veneto, together with large slices of panettone.
When it was all over we were supposed to walk back to the starting point in San Fedele, but I couldn’t walk another step and I admit to cheating. It wasn’t the food that had defeated me but the quantity of Bonarda, the sweetish and slightly frizzante (sparkling) red wine I had drunk. So when I saw Fabio, the builder’s mate with the sticky-out ginger hair approaching on his scooter I thumbed a lift to where my car was parked. As usual, he was without a crash helmet and when I asked him if he had a spare crash helmet for me, the ludicrousness of the question produced one of his bellowing laughs; so loud I was afraid it would draw attention to us. My only safeguard in begging for a lift was in knowing that if the police spotted us, his infamy as a drinker would encourage them to wave us past rather than stop us. As he travels within a ten-kilometre radius of his home for work purposes or to the nearest bar, they let him go because they see him as only a threat to himself. If they did pull him over, they’d need to arrest him every time, because he is permanently over the limit.
Until comparatively recently, it wasn’t compulsory in Italy for the rider or passenger of a motorbike or a scooter with a capacity of 125cc or less to wear a crash helmet, but Fabio isn’t interested in the law as he continues on his way, a cloud of brick dust spreading from his ginger locks. If anybody asks him why he doesn’t wear one he’ll tell them he can’t find one that fits. This could be true because his head, like his body, is something like an XXXL. However, it might help if he had his hair cut from time to time.
Fabio apart, Italians are moderate drinkers and they will generally not drink on an empty stomach. The majority don’t touch a drop without having a snack or a meal in front of them. Red wine is considered more beneficial than white, especially when eating because it helps the digestion by breaking down fat in the gut. Bars are open all hours of the day and most of them close late, but to see a drunkard tottering around the streets is a rarity and would be considered as a brutta figura (an ugly figure). In Italy, even mild intoxication is regarded as bad manners, so some of the more puritanical villagers avoid Fabio like the plague. But the rest of the villagers like him because he is not the self-pitying type of drinker, nor is he the type who becomes moody or aggressive; in fact, he is quite the opposite. When he’s sober he’s happy and when he’s had a few he’s even happier and he can be good company. I try to avoid him, because although I enjoy having a laugh with him, he tries to tie me into a drawn out drinking session I cannot get away from. However, the local barmen welcome his company at all times, because he helps to keep them in business. When he’s not working and he’s hanging around the villages, there isn’t much sign he’s intoxicated. A lesser man would be legless on half the quantity he drinks because his body weight is so vast that it takes a while for his system to absorb the alcohol, but he doesn’t show the excess until the late evening.
Being a Sunday it was Fabio’s day off work, but of course it was not a day off from drinking. Although he wasn’t officially on our outing, he seemed to be involved in it. As the main group walked and talked their way on the footpaths from one village and from one bar or trattoria to the next, he would be riding his scooter in the road, at the same time keeping up with us, joining in conversations en route and arriving at the same places to enjoy a drink. Apart from acknowledging him I didn’t have the opportunity to chat to him much, but I noticed that when we sat down to eat in a trattoria he wasn’t there. According to Pino’s wife, he does the same thing every year. He looks forward to the outing as much as the people who have paid to be on it, but he never eats anything. Nevertheless, after we’d finished eating and it was time for us to walk to the next destination, he would be sitting on his scooter in the road, waiting to accompany us.
Fabio’s scooter is an ancient, rusting Lambretta from the 1970s, and with a giant of a man like him on board it struggles to reach 40kph. He must weigh 120kg, and with me, at 90kg on the back, the poor scooter reached less than half of that speed on the way to San Fedele. It was a risk, but we were 1,000 metres above sea level and I’d never seen a policeman in the wilds of the Intelvi mountains. I just needed a lift for the last two kilometres to carry me to my car, because almost literally I was on my knees. Ten minutes was all the journey would take but as I cocked my leg over the pillion seat, I realised that my car was parked outside the bar where the event had begun and I knew it wasn’t in Fabio’s makeup to pass a bar, especially if he is in the company of someone he knows who owes him a favour for giving him a lift on his scooter. So, it would be my duty to provide him with a few drinks before he’d let me be on my way. The bigger risk was my driving home after a session with him. If I did get pulled over, the police would be unlikely to let me go, because they don’t know me.
If I’ve had a drink and if the police are around, then I might try to make myself as insignificant as possible, because they are not renowned for conciliation or arbitration if there’s the smell of alcohol coming from whoever is sitting behind a steering wheel. Although this is the state of affairs in most parts of the world, in Italy it seems the law keepers are more tolerant if they know you. I cannot guarantee this, but it appears from what I’ve witnessed that the local police are lenient when it comes to apprehending somebody they have known since they were boys together, and unless there has been an accident they tend to let the offender go. In recent years there has been a tightening up on the drink driving laws, but they do seem to turn a blind eye if a local event is happening and a number of people are likely to be driving home after they have had a few. But just in case the police weren’t feeling affable, I took a back road through the village of Schignano that Daniele, a farmer from the Val d’Intelvi for whom I painted a mural, had advised me to take if I had been a bit worse for wear after drinking his home made Barbera.
When we arrived in Italy we came with the enthusiasm and determination necessary to make a move abroad a success. Italy is a magnificent and majestic country and although comparatively small, it has a large number of diverse cultures. We settled in an ancient village with a society that has, by and large remained unchanged for centuries. We didn’t have to grow to love Italy; it implanted itself on us the minute we crossed the tarmac at Malpensa airport on April 9 1991 and our enthusiasm for Italian village life hasn’t diminished to this day. I don’t imagine it ever will.
Before we moved to Italy I had visited the country on three occasions as a tourist, and always went to the cities. But the way of life is entirely different from that of the villages, and as we settled we found we had entered what seemed like a time warp. Italy reminded me of life back in England when I was around seven years old. The television programmes were presented in an old fashioned way and popular music on the radio was out of date. The rolling stock of the national rail network dated from the nineteen sixties. Food shopping was how I remember it when I was only as high as the counter. At the village grocery store everything was individually wrapped in sheets of white or greaseproof paper and you could buy a single egg, instead of having to buy a pack of six. At the cold meat counter a shop assistant hand-sliced our order, then decided what size of brass weight to use to balance the scales.
On the opposite side of the street, Angelo the greengrocer would carefully pack our basket for us or deliver it on foot, proud of the freshness of his home grown produce. The butcher assured us that all his meat and poultry was from his own farm and didn’t contain hormones. Going to the barber was how it was when my mother used to escort me. The post office still used rubber stamps and duplicated everything with carbon paper. We even had to lick our own stamps. At the bank, standing orders and direct debits didn’t exist. We had to pay bills in cash or by cheque.
Of the other things I’d forgotten that Italian village life reawakened in me were that where the majority of residents had gas, the ones that didn’t had a delivery van visit the village every Wednesday morning, when they’d swap their empty propane bottles for full ones. The house we rented in Moltrasio had both mains gas and electricity, but some of our neighbours used oil lamps for lighting, a log fire for heating and an iron, wood fired range for cooking and boiling water. I remember my aunt Winifred in Formby lived like that back in the mid 1950s. All the villages had (and still have) a free public washhouse for laundry. Bars of soap are provided by the Comune and some of the older women to this day use the large sinks, sharing the wringing out of heavier articles with a willing relative or friend.
The centre of Argegno village has remained much the same for the past nine hundred years and this has been dictated by the remains of what was a massive, twelfth century stone fort. Parts of the fort still dominate the village centre, even though over the centuries it has been reduced in size. What remains has gradually been converted into living accommodation and the part that fronts the main piazza is now the Ristorante Barchetta.
Italian culture is distinctive; at once recognisable, defined by customs and traditions, but also the diverse creative pursuits of each region. Because of Italy’s tumultuous history and relatively recent unification, there is less emotional connection to the concept of being ‘Italian’ and answering to a central government in Rome, and more identification with a home town or region. Italians also form bonds with their neighbours and friends and refer to those from the same area or region as a paisano. As well as economic and political factors, creative events, festivals and celebrations also make up Italian culture. And although it has sometimes been portrayed in a less than positive light in many films, especially in stories about the Mafia, the innate friendliness of the people, their love of debate, their appreciation of the moment, their love of food, quality wines, good company and their struggle for excellence in whatever they do are why visitors enjoy Italy.
And there are unique events in towns and villages around the country. Every New Year’s Day, the residents of Argegno hold a Presepe Vivente, a living Nativity. Many Italian villages, including our former home, Moltrasio hold presepe, which are nativity displays featuring life-size figures, but this one is unique, because it features real people and animals to depict scenes from the Nativity. The Presepe Vivente has been around for a long time but in the last decade it has become an important fixture on the village calendar. An ever-growing number of visitors from the Como province and beyond come to watch, so from what was originally a local event has grown into national even international spectacle. When Nicola and I first saw the Presepe Vivente in 2004 there were around a thousand people in attendance. The 2016 it drew over three thousand people. The costumes, props, and the artistic direction in general have improved from good to outstanding; so much so that the standard of the skill, detail and the effort are at professional level. And all this for an event that lasts for just two hours.
Days before the event, a local group, The Friends of Argegno decorate the streets with branches of pine and laurel and twenty or so artigiani (tradesmen) erect the scenery and build pounds and stables for the animals, making the already medieval village look positively ancient. Weeks of work will have gone into making the scenery and costumes that will decorate the piazzas, lanes, tracks, alcoves and the doorways; even the local men who will be taking part will have grown full beards.
Then, on the night before the event, the artigiani work to erect the scenery. When the other villagers wake up they find, right outside their front door either a recreation of Bethlehem as it was 2000 years ago, the inside of King Herod’s Palace or, opposite their kitchen window a huge stone that has been rolled to one side to reveal Christ’s sepulchre. And if the unsuspecting should venture out, they could bump into Saint Peter with a gang of fishermen in tow, on their way to cast their nets into the river Telo. They will certainly see a huge entourage of visitors arriving in Argegno to view the event. Thousands of visitors will pass over the Roman footbridge and stand outside the starting point of the procession, the Church of the Holy Trinity, where a 3 o’clock mass will be held before the participants set off.
The sun will be bright, but not warm. Set low in the sky, it will cast long shadows, reminding all who have gathered that they have just entered the first month of a New Year. Then, when all is ready the gathering will follow three elaborately clothed, gift-bearing Magi on horseback along the twists the turns of fifteenth century mule paths. The visitors are led back to the Roman Bridge, from where they will climb to the oldest part of the village, passing what were once the houses of the contadini – the poor people who used to work the mountain homesteads and pastoral farms or fish the vast lake. These poor people were often scorned by townsfolk as ignorant peasants. But not on this day. The townspeople will be on their best behaviour, some of them wishing they could swap places with the contadini instead of living in overcrowded suburbs. Contadini families themselves left their ancient villages to follow fortune and some, if they could, would welcome a return to how life was led in their old communities.
The people following the procession will have been given a written guide, telling them about the history of each particular biblical scene. In at least thirty five biblical representations, approximately eighty Argegnini, willing to confront whatever weather January throws at them will be in place, standing or sitting, silent and motionless, as if in a painting, (and hoping the animals will stay still) as the visitors pass by, eager to see how accurately the Bible stories have been interpreted. Each year the final stage is different, 2015’s being a recreation of Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultimo Cena (The Last Supper), a long trestle table, covered with a white tablecloth with Jesus in the centre and his apostles on either side.
When the locals wake up the following morning it would be as if the presepe had happened in a dream, as any sign of it will have disappeared and everything will have been put back to normal. Even the huge amount of clearing up will have been done to a professional standard. All the animals, including two cows, several sheep, half a dozen mules and the same amount of donkeys, plus ducks, dogs, chickens, a dove, three horses and a herd of goats will have been loaded into trucks or in horse boxes and returned to the people who kindly lent them for this very special and well appreciated occasion.
Modernism is creeping up on the lakeside communities, but there is at least one person, who lives in the village of Laglio, six kilometres south of Argegno who is fighting to stem the tide. He is Achille the barber, a fit, lively and very friendly seventy-nine year old. Every time I visit Achille I am transported back to the carefree days of my childhood when my mother used to take me, because his shop and the way he goes about his work hasn’t changed for over half a century. What will happen on the day he decides to hang up his scissors for good doesn’t bear thinking about, because it is unlikely anyone younger will take over his business and the only alternative for us men will be to go to a unisex hairdresser in a vast shopping mall twenty five kilometres away; the kind of shop where you have to make an appointment. A female junior washes your hair and a slightly older one cuts it and all for an astronomical price. I’m sure that the occasional tourist who passes Achille’s shop pretends he can do with a haircut, so that for a few minutes he can be transported back in time. A couple of years ago I asked Achille if he had ever estimated the number of heads he had cut since he started work before and through the war years, when he was employed as a barber in the army. He hadn’t done so, so one day when I was sitting in his chair I did a calculation based on the information he gave me and I arrived at a grand total of around 160,000.
Ten years before I wrote this book, Achille became aware that he had become a curiosity, simply by not changing anything. Since Laglio became famous as the place George Clooney spends his summers and because Achille’s shop is opposite George’s villa, it became known that GC didn’t get his hair cut in smart barber’s shops in New York, Paris, Hollywood or London. No, he went to Achille’s tiny shop, and for €11 (£7.50) a time, sometimes including a glass of wine from the bar next door, he could hang out with Laglio’s card playing old boys. When the story was reported in the local press, Vogue, desperate to find any snippets of news about George, sent a journalist and a photographer to Achille’s shop. When the Vogue article came out, complete with a full-page photograph of Achille holding his scissors and revealing to the outside world who cut George’s hair and where, the story began appearing in other magazines. After that, journalists from around the world would arrive, asking him to pose for a photograph and if, by the way, he had any gossip about George they could print. Achille may well have had, but he has been in business long enough to know how to be tactful when it comes to revealing information about his clients, so the journalists would go away with nothing except what was in the original article.
On another occasion when I was in Achille’s chair he opened a draw to the right of the sink, revealing at least a dozen well known glossy mags, all with the article about him being Clooney’s barber. When I asked him how much he had received in payment for granting permission, he said he’d received nothing. So I told him that the next time anyone came hustling, to tell them to hang on while he telephones me, and I will arrive within ten minutes to sort out a contract for him.
A couple of years ago I designed and hand painted a sign in the old fashioned style to go above Achille’s shop door. It was to replace a sign that had flaked and faded to the point where it was illegible. The sign I did featured the traditional red and white diagonal strips of the barber with the word Barbiere across it in green. A few months after it had been in place Achille told me it must be the most photographed shop sign of all time, because every tourist to the village seemed to want to photograph his antiquated shop front, preferably with him standing in the doorway.
When we lived in Moltrasio, we got to know everybody in the village. It was commonplace to be invited to lunch at our friends Enzo and Ada’s house. Ada would take a large handful of home made pasta and plunge it into a cauldron of boiling, salted water that would be swinging above a roaring brushwood fire. Then she would stand over it, making sure it didn’t soften beyond the imperative al dente state. She would then take the pasta and add it a tomato, onion and basil sauce laced with grated goat’s cheese. Meanwhile her husband would fill a large earthenware jug with half decent Barbera – a local red wine – from a large demijohn that would be resting on two blocks of wood on his cantina floor.
Enzo and Ada invited Nicola and I to lunch so many times I cannot begin to count them, but on each occasion they did it was always one to appreciate because they would recount stories about the past ways of Italian life. To get to their house from ours was quite a strain on the leg muscles, because it overlooked the main village and the climb to get there seemed to go on for a lot longer than the thirty minutes it actually took. I recall walking past one particular house on the way up there. The inhabitants lived on the first floor and their farm animals were kept on the ground floor. The floorboards were spaced a centimetre apart so the warmth from the animals rose up through the gaps to warm the people.
It was by coincidence rather than planning that our arrival in Italy enabled us, for a decade to experience the remnants of the old Italian lifestyle and it was both educational and heart-warming. From then on, many laws have unhinged centuries of culture and they have not been helped by the introduction of the Internet, the EU or Satellite TV. Of course what is continuing to take place here affects every other country and before long there will be little difference. We will be one unhappy mass, devoid of tradition. Fortunately for us two the residents of Argegno have recently elected (in our opinion) the best Mayor we’ve ever come across. He is efficient, practical and intelligent, and although at thirty-two he is still a young man, he is of the old school, so our immediate future is in safe hands, as he is as keen as the residents are to keep the community spirit of Argegno as un-spoilt as possible, for as long as possible. Since he was elected an example of his work has been to revive an Italian tradition of providing a free, five-course Christmas lunch for pensioners, plus generous prizes to be won in a free Tombola. 30 per cent of the 600 inhabitants of Argegno are sixty-five or over, so it is no mean undertaking.
Nowadays, when I’m in the company of younger Italians I must bore them rigid, because I try to make them aware of what we as foreigners appreciate most about the Italian way of life. Then I try to convince them to do everything they can to preserve it because once its gone it will never return. From experience I tell them that if what they know disappears, then the rest of their lives will be spent looking for contentment they will never find.
“Cats do Eat Spaghetti” is my third book, and makes up what we now call my Italian Trilogy. As you read in “Moving Hose and some New Flatmates”, Nicola and I are keen cat lovers and active cat rescuers. “Cats do Eat Spaghetti” tells in detail the story of our cats and how we came to give them homes.
Some thirty or so years after the cheerless demise of Whiskers, my childhood kitten, the next cat I had an alliance with was called Lucy. I spent so long without a little darling in my life because I had been living and working as a stage designer and scenic artist in the British theatre, television and the film world, which meant I had to travel a lot, so it wasn’t possible for me to provide the settled situation that a cat, or for that matter, any pet needs. It was only when I left the entertainment business and bought a semi-detached house in Surrey and started my own business painting Trompe l’Oeil murals in the homes off the well-to-do did I start to consider having a cat. What also encouraged that was when I met Nicola, my future wife (although neither of us knew at the time she would become that) she suggested that we should keep some animals.
Nicola was working as a legal secretary and in her spare time she was the secretary of the local soccer club that I played for. One evening, after an away fixture, we went out for a few drinks, and that is where our relationship began. For the first year of us being together, Nicola continued living with her parents, but she did spend the majority of her weekends at my place. Before I met her, I’d been quite happy living on my own, but around the first anniversary of our meeting she suggested that she moved into my house on a permanent basis. I’m sure Nicola knew I wouldn’t turn down her proposal, because she had already been moving in piecemeal and I hadn’t said or done anything to prevent it. Nicola is an avid reader ad is never far away from a book, so consequently a growing collection of them had started to fill vacant spaces in my bookcase. I’d also noticed there were clothes hanging in my closet that weren’t mine and her wash things had begun to get mixed in with mine on the bathroom shelf. When I noticed a teddy bear had crept into what had become our joint bed (and it had brought its own pillow), it was just a matter of a couple more suitcases of clothes and a large box of shoes being moved in for the process to be complete.
Lucy made our relationship a threesome within the third month of Nicola moving in. One weekend we’d noticed a cat had started to peer at us through the glass panelled double doors that opened onto our back garden. It was grey with fawn bits, a tortoise shell back and a white front. We didn’t know its name or sex at the time, but we soon found out from our next-door neighbours. They told us her name was Lucy and she came from four doors down the street. They also mentioned that she wasn’t very happy in her current home, because her owners’ routine had suddenly become irregular. The more Lucy came to visit us the longer she began to stay, especially when we started to feed her. Consequently we soon started to become very fond of her, as you do if you’re a cat lover. Like me, Nicola is about as lovesick as it is possible to be over cats (or any animal, come to that), especially one that happened to be looking for a home. My house, in which I had lived alone for five years, was becoming more populated.
A couple of months after Lucy had begun visiting and had made her dietary likes and dislikes known to us, Nicola and I were sitting in the back garden appreciating some extraordinary pleasant British weather when we heard the beginnings of a very loud and distinctive commotion. It seemed to come from the semi, four doors down the road. The noise was soon followed by the appearance of Lucy, more or less flying over the adjoining fence, passing us at top speed and into our house. The commotion involved two human voices, one female and one male and they were going at it hammer and tongs. We could hear objects going bump, bang and crash. Judging by the amount of net curtains that were being swishing about along the street, we weren’t the only ones paying an interest to the proceedings. Two days later we heard an even bigger row than the previous one, and when it was in full swing Lucy arrived, yet again looking for shelter. It was then we realised there were serious matrimonial problems happening within earshot and when our neighbour across the street told Nicola, in confidence, that the marriage in number fifty-two was irreconcilable, our first and foremost concern was for their child’s welfare, as it should always be if a matrimonial breakup is in an advanced stage and Lucy was their only child.
The next episode in the matrimonial breakup up process happened a few days later, when the wife moved out. The husband began moving out a couple of weeks later, but in the meantime Lucy had already decided she preferred to live with us in a noise free zone, amidst massive proportions of love and harmony. We spoke to the husband before he left, to make sure it was okay to officially adopt her. All we needed to know about Lucy was how old she was and had she been neutered. He told us that she was eight and confirmed and she had indeed been neutered. We were so pleased, but even better, Lucy seemed to be pleased that she could live without noise or flying household objects. And although she could not possibly have grasped the fact, she wasn’t going to be torn in half in a custody battle.
Soon after that we also moved. We needed more space and with two salaries coming in we could afford to upgrade. Our choice was a pretty 16th century, three-bedroom Elizabethan cottage with oak beams. Building societies had recently announced that they were keen to lend money to couples that weren’t married, so one day we asked Lucy if she would like to move house, with the prospect of her having her own bedroom. She said she would.
A couple of weeks after my house had been sold and we had moved to the cottage, Lucy didn’t seem at all happy that she’d agreed to the move, because she started to scratch herself; so much so she began to look as if she was infected with the mange. Our vet informed us she was flea-ridden and asked us if the previous owners of the cottage had pets. They did, a dog, which had left most of his fleas behind in the fitted carpets. We had them all removed and had a man from the council spray the entire house and its contents, including all our clothes with some sort transparent liquid. The only things he didn’t spray were Nicola, Lucy and me. We then bought new carpets and sure enough, Lucy stopped scratching and her fur began to grow again.
This was just one of the many things we were to find out about being a cat owner. When Nicola lived with her parents they’d always had dogs, so having a cat was even more of a new experience for her as it was for me. I remembered my association with Whiskers, but I hadn’t learnt much from it because it was so brief and so long ago, so we bought several textbooks on the subject so we could improve our parenting technique. People had told us that cats are independent creatures that are quite capable of looking after themselves, but we found this casual, half-hearted pronouncement to be completely untrue. People who think that are not worthy of keeping cats and on several occasions I have made firm attempts to put such individuals right. If animals are domesticated, they need constant attention if it is to have a good life:
Lucy turned out to be a lovely, soft natured cat and she appeared to be grateful for our adopting her. There might have been a language barrier but that was easily overcome because there was a desire to communicate and she let us know of her gratitude and as a result we soon learnt that a cat could teach us a lot about life. The non-cat owner or the casual owner who doesn’t make an intense study of their fellow creature is most definitely missing out. A cat is wise beyond belief. They are equipped with twice as many of the necessities needed to survive as we humans have. They are also sensible, analytic, clever, sensitive and knowledgeable. They are enthusiastic about life and it rubs off. They are determined, single minded, protective, courageous, courteous, sane, comical, loving, beautiful and highly intelligent. They can also be self-centred, envious, cunning and jealous and hostile and ruthless killers too, but we pretend that side of them doesn’t exist.
Lucy wasn’t the kind of cat who would let us forget her and she would let us know loudly if we tried to do something without involving her. We still had a lot to learn about cats, the stuff the books didn’t mention, mainly because books generalise about cats’ behavioural patterns and instincts. What they cannot possibly do is describe each cat’s individual character and personality (perhaps that should be catality), because each one is entirely different. And Lucy certainly had loads of “catality”. She would respond to a whistle. This was a surprise to us, because we imagined it was only dogs that came to heel when called, but if we hadn’t seen her for a couple of hours or so, a sharp whistle or two would alert her and bring her home. Sometimes her return would be in an enthusiastic, bounding manner or sometimes it would be at a nonchalant stroll partly uninterested in finding what the commotion was all about. When I told her I’d been worried about her and I didn’t like her wandering off too far, she would shrug her shoulders as if to say, ‘shucks, don’t be so silly.’
Like a lot of cats, Lucy was a pernickety eater. Apart from cat biscuits, she only liked Whiskas tinned meat. She wouldn’t touch cheaper brands. Nor was she a big eater and at first I was concerned, because I thought cats ate more than she did. Because Lucy was our first cat, all we had by way of judging what she was like were our reference books. When Lucy was hungry she would insist on fresh food every time. It could be from a tin that had been opened and kept in the fridge for a day or two, but if there were remains left in her bowl from a previous feed she wouldn’t touch that, even if it was only an hour or so old. When it was time to eat we had to provide a clean bowl with a dollop of fresh food in it every time. Trying to fool her by mixing new with old was an expensive mistake because she wouldn’t touch any of it. On several occasions Nicola tried to be firm with her by leaving it in the bowl for as long as it took but she still refused. Instead she would skirt around it every time and stack up on biscuits instead. If we removed the biscuits as a way of forcing her to eat the tinned food she had left she still resisted and would go off in a huff until we gave in.
One day, when Nicola was at home I’d gone out, and when I came back, Nicola was not in good humour. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she’d had a battle of wills with Lucy over food. Nicola was fed up with Lucy being so picky, so she waited until Lucy asked for food, hoping she’d be hungry enough to eat what she was given, so she gave her a bowl of food she’d refused that morning, which she, Nicola had placed in the fridge. As soon as Lucy realised it was food she’d already left, she gave the bowl a superficial sniff then strolled into the lounge. It so happened that Nicola had bought some exotic dried flowers and ferns and arranged them in a large, expansive display in a basket, which she’d placed it on the lounge carpet. It was the type of modern and expansive arrangement that doesn’t come cheap. A short while later, Nicola followed Lucy into the lounge and noticed her new floral display was wet.
‘At first I thought it was water,’ Nicola said, ‘but how could that be? I then gave it a sniff, because I suspected it might be something else. It was. I’m certain she peed on it as a deliberate gesture done to demonstrate her disapproval.” Needless to say, the display was ruined and Nicola had to throw it out. Later, when Nicola had cooled down she said we’d been lucky that it was only dried flowers we’ve lost. Maybe she could have chosen to burn the house down!
“Cats do eat Spaghetti” is currently in production. We will let you know as soon as you are able to pre-order this, in ebook and paperback formats
Paul Wright is an English artist from outside Liverpool who specialises in large scale murals, Trompe l’Oeil painted furniture, contemporary oil paintings and watercolour landscapes.
Following a period of study at the Southport College of Art, his first job was as a designer for a shop window display company in the centre of Liverpool. In 1963 however, at the height of the “Mersey Beat” era and as “Beatlemania” was about to sweep the world, he became involved in painting murals in many of the new clubs that were springing up all over the city.
His first work as a stage designer was for the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre, and later in the early 1980’s he won the London West End Scenic Art award for “The Aspen Papers” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve and was part of the design team responsible for the scenic design on the “Dr Who” science fiction series, as well as working in films for British television and cinema.
In 1982 Paul started his own art studio in the county of Surrey just outside London where he specialised in hand painted interiors for private homes, villas, hotels, offices, clubs etc., from which his work attracted the attention of important architects, interior designers and private clients in London and abroad.
In 1991 Paul moved to northern Italy with his partner, Nicola, where he continues to work from his studio and ‘art gallery’ based in the beautiful medieval village of Argegno on the shores of Lake Como, from where he travels around Europe and to the USA. Paul’s work has been featured in many art exhibitions in the UK and on two programmes for Italian Television, plus dozens of periodicals and newspapers worldwide.
Some photographs of Lake Como in general and Moltrasio and Argegno in particular
Gina’s house in Moltrasio, with the famous laundry hanging outside in the typical Italian way (Karen Munro)
Lake Como, looking north to the Swiss Alps (Karen Munro)
Some farm buildings, in the mountains to the west of the lake (Karen Munro)
Paul Wright was a keen semi-professional footballer when he lived in England. After he moved to Italy, he joined Moltrasio’s club for one season. Here he is with the plaque he was awarded for “Best Defender” in one of annual football tournaments (Paul Wright)
The view over Lake Como, from the hill above Argegno (Paul Wright)
L’ultima Ciena – Michaelangelo’s the Last Supper created for – Argegno’s Presepe Vivante. Presepi, scenarios depicting important stages in the life of Christ are popular in Italy, but are usually staged using life-size models, or created in miniature. Argegno’s is unusual in that it the displays are made up of real people, dressed in period dress. The whole event takes place in one day i January, wher the entire village changes overnight. All the participants are known to Paul Wright, some very well
Click to see a YouTube film of the 2015 event
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“The Tales of a Roving Dairy Farmer”
Just what is it like for a foreigner to live and work in a northern Italian village, and become part of the community? How tough is it to leave your home country and settle in a new one? What do you have to do to be accepted by the people who live in a village that has existed for over five hundred years? Award-winning mural and Trompe L’oeil artist and stage designer Paul Wright and his partner Nicola found out the hard way, working, playing, laughing, eating and drinking alongside the residents of a beautiful lakeside village
Also available in paperback -
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm ISBN 9780956230812
Cover price UK £8.99 USA $14.95
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In this, the sequel to his successful debut book, ‘An Italian Home’, Paul describes life in the Italian village of Moltrasio, particularly focussing on the Italian male. His regular dialogue with a group of men who have retired, mostly from the catering trade, punctuates his adventures beyond the village boundaries for all manner of clients, both reputable and not so reputable in the surrounding area and beyond, to the Italian Riviera. After selling some of his trademark Trompe L’Oeil painted furniture to an American client, he finds himself working for one of them at his home in New England, and enjoying a break in New York City, where he discusses the art market. With his typical Liverpudlian humour, Paul pulls no punches in describing the behaviour, likes, dislikes and prejudices of the people he meets.
“An insightful and often funny depiction of Italian Life” Hannah McIntyre, The Italian Insider Magazine
Also available in Paperback in the UK now, from May 2017 in the USA
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm | ISBN 9780993101892 | Cover price UK £8.99, US $14.95
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If all you ever wanted to do in life was to be a farmer, nothing will stop you – not even losing the use of one of your arms! In this heart-warming tale, former Northumbrian farmer Philip Dixon recounts the story of how he began farming at the age of seventeen, at last acquiring his own farm a decade later, coming to terms with all manner of events and fascinating local characters. His story is told with humour and candour, and features his farming neighbours and colleagues in the north of England and some of the less pleasant people he met as he moved away from farming and into the dairy product industry. This book brings up to date the world occupied by James Herriot, but with a real edge
February 2017 (UK) and May 2017 (USA)
264 pages | 198mm x 126mm | ISBN 9780957475410
Cover price UK £8.99 USA $14.95
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Those of you who love Paul Wright’s books, An Italian Home – Settling by Lake Como and An Italian Village – a Perspective on Life Beside Lake Como will know that he and his wife, Nicola have taken care of many of the feral cats that lived in and around their first home village of Moltrasio on the shore of Lake Como. Now Paul tells the full story of their lives with the cats, and a few other animals too. Illustrated with Paul Wright’s own line drawings.
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"Tales from Lake Como" is a sample of chapters from the three books by English artist Paul Wright. Paul moved to Italy in 1991, settling in a small, unspoilt village on the shore of Lake Como. He has remained there ever since, working as an artist, specialising in Trompe L'oeil paintings and large scale murals. In 2011 he published his first book, "An Italian Home", which told of how he and his wife, Nicola arrived and settled in Italy and how they became a part of the community. His second book, "An Italian Village tells more about the people he works with and for, and his neighbours. His third book, "Cats do eat Spaghetti" is currently in production.