At last I’ve found a film that shows the real Italy that I know and love. Yesterday, on the hottest day this summer, we set off to see In Grazia di Dio, directed by Edoardo Winspeare. We were expecting a quiet evening – the car park at our local multiscreen cinema was deserted.
“It’s the first night of the championship,” said Aldo, “let’s give up, they won’t bother tonight.”
There was only one person in the large booking hall, a bespectacled girl reading her book at the computer. I asked her what time the main screening started, wondering if we had time for a coffee, then puzzled over her reply as we walked to the swing doors.
“The director is here,” she said, giving me change, “so best to go in straightaway so he can present it.”
In Grazia di Dio explains why I live in rural Italy better than I can. My decision to move to a foreign country and culture without any of the usual props like work or family is often questioned. (I used to worry about answering a different question, but the last time anyone asked that one was ten years ago, the paediatrican after hearing my recitation of Jasper’s flu symptoms. “What do you do?” Running a variety of answers through my mind (teach English, translate, run building sites, rent out holiday accommodation…) he forestalled me by continuing “only a doctor would know about rolling a glass on a rash to exclude meningitis,” thus clarifying that what I am busy doing, most of the time, is being a neurotic mother.) There’s no doubt that physical beauty is a large part of the attraction, that the landscapes and townscapes that give life an extra grace and joy were important in my decision to move here. But the missing part of my answer is in this film.
Filmed in Puglia, like all of Winspeare’s films, and using local people instead of professional actors, the story is very simple. Four women are forced by the current financial crisis to move to the country, where their lives change. They survive by working the land and bartering, and discover new values. Which are really the old values: the sense of community, of family, the connection with the earth, both economic as well as spiritual. The screenwriter, Alessandro Valenti (the bespectacled girl had them confused, the director who was no doubt at some other provincial multiplex talking to local people, stunned like us to find themselves in the company of the man who made the film) talked to us before and after the film, discussing their adherence to the Tolstoyan principles of finding the universal through detailed examination of the particular.
Edoardo Winspeare is interviewed with English subtitles on Youtube. He believes that the simple things are the most difficult; that telling a simple story well is harder that than a complicated one. He talks about how brutal the financial crisis has been, forcing people to emigrate to find work, to live without money, yet how it offers the opportunity to rethink the economy, and therefore society.
Winspeare and Valenti have got it right. For anyone interested in Italy, this is a film not to be missed.
Spring is still feeling indecisive with days of unseasonal heat followed by rainstorms but they’re longer and we’re beginning to find more to do outside, so this is a good moment to do a roundup of the films, books and music we’ve enjoyed this winter. Our favourite films were Philomena and Il Capitale Umano, whereas Jasper’s favourite was undoubtedly Inside Llewyn Davies. The nearest multiplex is half an hour away so for purely pragmatic reasons I try to combine our cinema trips, an unpopular move with him when he finds that we’ve sneaked into the same cinema as him and his friends. This week he wanted to see Inside Llewyn Davies again and I chose a wonderfully absurd Italian film (the sort that never makes it abroad) for us, only to find that it was showing very late. All the other films’ posters were so soaked in blood that I decided we’d try ILD, although I’d already watched it once with J. That viewing had ended badly, as I’d incurred the full force of his impassioned adolescent wrath by making (in his opinion) an entirely unnecessary observation about the density of traffic on the New York to Chicago road in the sixties, during an (apparently) moving scene… The second viewing was better in that I stayed awake, mostly due to the looks thrown my way by Aldo, which said all too plainly “I thought we were going to laugh, tonight?”
Far from the watercolour tones of spring last weekend I gazed into this Bologna cheese shop and fantasized about taking home an entire round of parmesan.
I’ve been reading a lot of Asian literature this winter with my reading group and strongly recommend Children of Dust, a beautifully written memoir of life in Pakistan and a fascinating account of the challenges of immigration and the life of an outsider. Since childhood I’ve secretly indulged the bad habit of checking the end of a book before reading it but luckily it is difficult to do this with a Kindle. I loved Every Last One by Anna Quindlen but anyone interested in reading it should avoid finding out anything about it beforehand. The view from the train to Bologna, orchards alight with blossom.
We’d been feeling disappointed that Musicamdo, our local jazz club, had offered us such a short concert season this winter, with just four evenings dedicated to voice, but we enjoyed every one of them, in particuar Kurt Elling and Diana Torto. But those were treats, the real sound track this winter has been the sound of either Jasper or I practising the piano. The only positive impact of our musical efforts is that we induce in everyone who hears us a deep sense of appreciation for the golden silence that is there, waiting, somewhere, beneath the interminable fumbling and banging that is trying to be a Chopin prelude or a Scott Joplin rag.
Our cats have a large bowl of water outside, but they prefer ours. It tastes so much nicer in a glass, but if there are none around when thirst strikes, they pop up to the bathroom, leaving small muddy footprints around the lavatory bowl. I often find a cat waiting politely outside the door when I emerge from the shower, as it offers not only delicious lavatory water but also access through a window to the roof where some poor misguided bird nests year after year, no doubt hoping that not all their young will end up as a scattering of tiny features on our bathroom floor.
Sadly I have never learnt to appreciate the small dead creatures that the cats share with me. Many years ago Mimi placed a mouse directly under my chair while I was eating supper with Aldo, back before he knew me well. I put my heel down and feeling something soft looked down. On discovering that it was a mouse I ran out of the room screaming while Aldo peered closely at the little creature. He brought it through to the kitchen where I was standing on a kitchen bench, cursing all cats.
“It’s dead, there’s no need to worry,” he said, waving it towards me.
He had much to learn.
The almond has burst into blossom, the mimosa is flowering a month ahead of time and as we eat lunch outside doubt is beginning to creep in: perhaps the freezing winter we were threatened with isn’t going to turn up after all.
The first thing I want to photograph when the weather improves each spring is the view through the front door – no doubt in my desire to go out, after so many months of being inside. This week I’ve met some of that desire with a walk along the coast in thick sea mist (the grey swirling sort that does not photograph well) and, led by the feeling that life opens out again in the spring I’ve started reading Lost by Rebecca Solnit, which has me pondering the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s question “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
Jasper took up the piano last year and I took these photographs while he was at his lesson this week. Mogliano is empty on weekday afternoons between lunch and five, and the misty February air and the echo of my footsteps gave the town an eerie, timeless feel.
This year I decided to take up the piano again. I think of myself as having recently given it up so it was startling to realise that my last lesson was 37 years ago. I wondered whether this explained my struggle to keep up with the metronome as I massacred a Bach prelude; after all Jasper has been whisking through Scott Joplin with the metronome without difficulty. But after a few weeks I downloaded a metronome app onto my phone, thus revealing Jasper’s musical flexibility, in adapting to our old metronome’s moody beat.
This morning Jasper and I had breakfast in the bar – headline news during the working week. Normally he hunches over his muesli at 6.30 am while I prepare his light mid-morning snack, a hunk of bread with parmesan and sausage wedged in the middle. But he is on work experience at the moment, in the Comune, Mogliano’s town council offices, together with another seventeen year old; a sleepy sort prone to Captain Oates style breaks. Jasper dashed off to work, keen to maintain the positive impression that he has made so far, and I relaxed with my notebook.
Two of the tables between me and the window were filled with men and women in separate groups, regulars at this time, who while away an hour or more discussing everyone not actually there at the time. The television as always was on, high on the wall to the left of the window, but the sound of local news drowned out the hysteria of Italian early morning chat shows.
I tried to photograph the mountain view but the cluster of ladies with glasses and serious winter coats, combined with a bobcat parked outside obscured the full picture. “Dai… che fantasia…” (No… what a fantasy…) and “Ah… be!” (Well, I never!) filled the air. Things became particularly loud when one of the group of men, sitting beyond the women, expostulated “Tutte questa chiacchiera!” (All this chat!) before turning to his companion and loudly discussing an agricultural dilemma. A few minutes later he had dropped his voice and was going into the finer details of Pietro’s recent, mistaken, marriage.
On my way home I realised that all we need at this time of year is a little sunshine. Everything is transformed, with long slanting lines, giving us hope of the spring to come.
I photographed this rainbow at the begining of the year, but the brief period of stillness around Christmas has evaporated so fast that it’s only narrowly avoided becoming a February photo. Before December becomes a distant memory I have a Christmas story to tell.
Aldo’s granddaughter Andrea invited us to her nativity play on the 6th of January, at her Sunday School. Anticipating a faithful and holy interpretation of the story I found us a seat near the back, where my dozing would cause minimal embarrassment to Aldo. The curtains jerked open on the stage, small children shuffled forwards, frowning past the lights to see if they could spot their parents, and I began to yawn.
The Archangel, more Gabriella than Gabriel, came on stage and began to talk to Mary, a young woman so admirably devoted to her housework that she swept the stage assiduously whilst the Angel spouted on. I settled against Aldo’s shoulder when a line woke me up with a start.
“What do you mean, you’re married? Aren’t you engaged to Joseph, a carpenter?”
Mary lent on her brush, and shrugged, “No,” she said, “I’m married to Michael.”
I nudged Aldo. “Did she really say that,” I hissed. He nodded.
“Have I got the wrong place?” asked the Angel, taking out a large map, “I’m looking for Nazareth. The Mary I’m looking for is expecting a baby.”
“Huh, if only! We’ve been married for five long years,” said Mary, with surprising cynicism for a girl of ten, “no, this isn’t Nazareth.”
The play had our full attention. The Angel adjusted her glasses, studied her map and rushed off the stage. God wandered on, followed by a young man in a similar beard. “Did she tell Mary?” he asked his anxious assistant.
“No!” he replied, “You know what the Angel Gabriella is like. She never really pays attention, fussing around her hair and looking in mirrors. She found the wrong Mary.”
Even the most imaginative script writer couldn’t change the end of the story, but it didn’t matter by then. We were hooked, paying attention to every small detail; unlike Joseph, who sat at the nativity scene with the expression of one waiting for time to pass, the sooner the better so that he could get back to those annual tax returns.
I’ve frequently mentioned how much Aldo and I differ in our approach to walks. The faintest whiff of sea air has me tearing down to the coast to stare at the waves but he is usually wearing the kind of shoes that are only truly at home on pavements and in bar. But this Sunday he had a surprise for me – new shoes specially suited, he told me, to walking ON BEACHES.
We set off along the pavements of Civitanova through long slanting lines of sunlight (the only upside to this time of year, with its truncated days and long long nights). He had remembered that he needed some buttons and when I muttered darkly that I suspected a ruse to keep me away from the beach I was told that my suspicions were unfounded, this would only take a moment.
In the haberdashers a man dressed remarkly like a Catholic priest was deep in conference with a client wearing motorbike leathers. They were discussing women’s underwear, the sort clearly not intended for the biker’s elderly female relatives. Tiny sparkly items were fetched from the highest spot on the window display. Time passed. I perused the wool racks and Aldo pondered buttons. More skimpy items were brought out of boxes and drawers and colours, lace and sequins were on display, albeit in very small quantities. Finally the biker put his helmet back on, scooped up a multitude of small frilly packages and left.
The priestly shop owner came over to us. He began a detailed discussion with my husband about what sort of button goes well on a leather jacket. The counter was gradually covered in boxes of buttons. When they began comparing navy and black and speculating on which went best with red I gave up.
“These shoes need wearing in first,” he said as we ordered our brioche and coffee, “and anyway, it’s nearly lunchtime.”
What luxurious words. I’m a morning person, so I don’t complain much about the 6am alarm call necessitated by Jasper’s school timetable, but that doesn’t prevent me from delighting in having a week off. Jasper has gone on retreat with some classmates, to a closed convent. I doubt they’ve ever had an English agnostic attend the regular fourth year school retreat, but he has been assured that he can meditate whilst the others pray. Five nuns live in this convent, and although they spend time with the young people they are separated physically from them at all times, congregating in a room which is divided in two by a wooden barrier. Jasper’s school went to the convent last year and he came home filled with stories of how the nuns ended up there, so a combination of curiosity and an interest in new experiences has sent him on this retreat.
Abandoned at home we have let our (metaphorical, as Aldo has none and mine is too short) hair down. We’ve eaten meals with NO MEAT, fallen asleep in front of the fire without fear of his sarcastic laughter, and tonight we’re off to the cinema without eating supper first. I’ve been getting up at a leisurely hour, taking the dogs for a sunlit walk instead of crashing about in the early dawn on my way home from dropping Jasper off for the bus. And if you look carefully at this photograph you will see that there is a tendril of smoke winding out of our chimney, proof that I have finally learnt to kept the fire going all night, without his help.