One advantage of not having a car is that, though we’re generally more aware of the weather than motorists, its fluctuations don’t make a huge difference to our lives. The boys walk to school just as usual, albeit remembering their coats for a change, M cycles across to the business unit where we keep our stock and I occasionally stir myself to walk into town, though I’m being cowardly and leaving the bike behind at the moment. We’ve gritted a path down the drive with wood ash from the fire which seems effective (I don’t like the idea of all this salt being washed into the streams and hedgerows) and are getting on as usual, with a few more layers. It’s disturbing to see that so much of the response to the cold weather swings between a kind of desperate monocular business as usual (let’s get those roads gritted at any cost) and complete capitulation (my mother-in-law says that the secondary school near her in Lancashire has been closed all week). It doesn’t bode well for the future, when we’ll have much bigger challenges to face than a few subzero temperatures, that the idea of adaptation seems so unthinkable. There was an article in the Guardian this week about the effect of road salt on vegetation and wildlife to which one reader commented that “I have driven over hundreds of miles of roads in Eastern Europe where no salt is used at all. People drive slowly and are accustomed to coping. Sometimes some grit/gravel is used on hilly areas. This is usually sufficient to keep traffic flowing. There is one crucial proviso: cars are fitted with snow tires!” Meanwhile the snow is falling heavily now and I’m not feeling quite so confident as when I started this post – R is in Belfast for an audition and has to come back the eighty miles by bus. I daresay Translink will make it, though…
Like most of the UK, we’ve had more snow, just in time for the boys’ going back to school yesterday. The smaller children in the road were all outside playing for most of the day – I don’t know whether the primary schools were still closed or whether their parents assumed that if they couldn’t drive the half mile or so (even the fancy 4x4s aren’t that good on ice) there wasn’t any other way of getting there. They could have been right, for the roads were quickly cleared, though still not the pavements. According to official statistics, 30% of households in our ward don’t have access to a car, and yet the only path down from the main housing estate (on the highest hill in town) to the shop and post office has been a sheet-glass slide since Christmas.
The end of Christmas, and, neatly this year, the beginning of the school term. It was really icy outside this morning so the boys left their bikes at home and walked to school. It’s over five miles there and back, a bit longer with a detour into town with their friends, not exactly I-were-brought-up-in-a-cardboard-box stuff but enough to get a decent bit of exercise. Talking of which, or its lack, I’ve only ventured out once today, to the park and postbox with the dog. If we’d had a car I would probably have drifted somewhere or other, but there wouldn’t have been any point; there’s enough food and more than enough work to be getting on with here.
Sorry about the long hiatus there; I was away, then spending most of my time working at home (cowardly woman doesn’t like going out when there’s ice on the pavements) and so didn’t have much to say.
I’ve finally heaved myself out of the front door and across town to our (bitterly cold) business unit. On the way back yesterday I called at Tesco, which is next to Asda, and squeezed my bike between the solid traffic. A large part of it was cars with Irish Republic plates, taking advantage of the plummeting pound despite the pleas of the Mayor of Dublin for them to do their shopping at home.
Just a couple of lines to finish off the car hire bit. Russell Howard was surprisingly brilliant, far more substantial in every way (biceps, satire and extraordinary creative energy) than the winsome West Country boy on the box. Highly recommended, if you get the chance to see him live. I took back the car the next day, driving through real snow, which I don’t like, on the country roads and handing over the keys with elated relief. I celebrated with a bowl of sludgy soup and the beginning of Rose Macaulay’s Letters to A Friend (why do I always type ‘fiend’ the first time?) and felt gloriously free. Going home on the bus, after bank & book things in Belfast, was sheer delight; so wonderful to have someone else doing the driving so the only tricky choice is between the book and the iPod.
Talking of books, I’ve just read a wonderful one: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It was published last year, and is set around twenty years in the future, in a post-oil, post-economic collapse Britain. A thrilling story, a bit like a feminist John Wyndham, but very very terrifyingly plausible. Looking it up now, I see that it won several prizes, as did her earlier books. I don’t read very much contemporary writing; am a bit stuck in the middle of last century, but sometimes something gets up and kicks me into the present.
A bit like music, really; it wasn’t until I got the idea of going to Glastonbury next year that I thought I ought to listen to someone who isn’t dead yet. And so to many contented hours wandering around with the Kings of Convenience and Turin Brakes (though I do wish the silent bit in the middle of Rain City could be a bit shorter, it not doing much to while away the drizzling wait at the traffic lights).
Talking of which (quite a little babble of consciousness this morning) I wrote a long email to the entity called Roads Western last month to have a little moan about the woeful pedestrian crossings in Enniskillen. I got a reply the other day, in which they said that pedestrians never have to wait more than two minutes to cross. This may or may not be the case (I need to go out with a stopwatch) but two minutes of standing at the roadside in the pouring rain, watching the cars sweep through the puddles before you, can feel like quite some time. More on this to follow…
Finally, a joyful note. I went to the film club last night (Gerard Depardieu, Quand j’etais un chanteur – beautiful) and walked home by myself under a couple of stars and a space in the clouds with the moon shining through. No one was out, except for a trio of teenage boys, and even the barbed wire outside the Territorial Army was shining. You don’t get that in a car.
I wake up briefly, at about half past four in the morning, as the train groans to a stop and eases itself off again, like an old man cajoling himself up from a park bench. It’s due to stop at Dijon, pass through the Simplon tunnel and call at a few northern Italian towns before Firenze (Florence) and later Rome. I wonder vaguely where we are, and go back to sleep. At seven my alarm goes off, and judging from the houses I can see under the blind, we are definitely in Italy. The train is due into Firenze at 7.15 but we left Paris late when the attendant comes round at half past seven with our passports, he tells me that it will be another half hour before we arrive. Ten minutes later we pull into a station and I glance idly to see the name. Firenze Campo di Marte. Aargghh. Fortunately we have our bags packed and are able to stagger out before the train chugs on to Rome.
From the air alone we would know we were in Italy. It’s still cold, and there is frost on the tracks. We know this cold. For the final seven or eight months that we lived in Italy, we rented a farmhouse in the Mugello, the hills north of the city, and caught the train into this station for Christmas shopping and for G to play rugby. But there’s nothing much to see, other than the pitch, and we catch the next train for the seven minute journey into the central station, Santa Maria Novella. There I fail to find a fornaio to buy plain bread so we breakfast on the leftovers from our French picnic supper – Roquefort, tomatoes and those ubiquitous sandwiched biscuits with chocolate in the middle. To be strictly accurate I have the tomatoes and G had the biscuits, so it isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds. While G. digests the gastronomic feast, I go for a quick gallop around the city, armed with camera, thus:
When I come back, G. goes to catch his train for Pisa and I wait at the station to meet Timea, the export manager of the Italian publishers Giunti. I’ve dealt with Giunti since we first started our online Italian bookshop (now www.crystalbard.com ) and Timea has been especially helpful, efficient and friendly. It is the first time we’ve met and we recognize one another immediately. We go to a new Giunti bookshop in Firenze and browse around together – I can’t think of a much better way of getting to know someone, unless it’s indulging in coffee and apricot tart at a corner café, which is what we do next. After that we go out to the Villa Giunti, the firm’s headquarters north of Firenze, towards Fiesole. It’s probably the most beautiful house I’ve ever visited in Italy, with ancient wall-paintings, a light gallery where the art and children’s departments work and a perfect library with huge windows opening on to the olive-strewn hills. I’m mostly lost for words, in any language, but nod as I’m welcomed and shown around with delicate Italian courtesy.
Back in Firenze I buy a ticket for Lucca at one of the automatic machines. It not only gives me the option of buying a ticket within Italy or internationally, suggesting the destination when I type L, U… but tells me the times of the next few trains and asks which I would like to take. The journey, as all Italian train tickets tell you, is 78km long, I have no eligibility for reductions, and have not booked in advance. So the price would be … imagining a similar situation in the U.K…. five euro. The train leaves in half an hour, as I have just missed one by seconds, but is already at the platform and I can get straight on and settle into one of the clean and comfortable seats. Looking around I see that special litter bins are marked inside the carriage for recycling of paper and cans. It’s the sort of detail we imagine in the Netherlands or Germany, but are rightly ashamed to find the laid-back Italians doing these things so much better than we can. The journey is smooth, quiet and quick, and I am soon back in Lucca, where we lived for a year and a half, and to which I cannot stop myself returning.
I’ve booked into the Hotel Rex, this time, next to the station and with precious wireless internet. The Rough Guide is a bit sniffy about it, complaining of a lack of atmosphere, but the staff are all exactly what most of us hope for, friendly and helpful without being pushy, and the rooms spacious and imaginatively furnished.
Mine is a bit dark, being at the back of the hotel looking out on a narrow alley, but we can’t all be at the front, and it is well-lit and a generous size for a single booking. To my mild surprise the wireless internet, which is free, works first time as soon as I get a username and password from reception, and I’m able to catch up with M, who is valiantly holding the fort at home, including snuffly son and missing books.
Later I go out to walk around the broad walls that circle the city, planning to pick up some bread, olives and water to supplement the remaining Roquefort. Distracted by memories, I am confused by a new chldren’s playground and come down from the walls too early, walking around the road for the rest of the way. But if I hadn’t, I would have missed the typical Lucchese sight; a young man cycling, in the chaotic rush hour, along the busy ring road, baby (six months at the most) in a carrier in front of him, while his golden labrador trotted along, also on the road, at the end of a sturdy lead. There are so many ways of travelling about, given a little courage and imagination.