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.
Last weekend we drove to Bologna, the car packed to the roof with enough tomato passata, jams and assorted food stuffs to feed a small army for a month or three students for a fortnight. (Actually Sam shares his flat with four other people, but two of them are girls, who doubtless rarely eat jam).
Aldo and I hung out in my favourite square, the Piazza di Santa Stefano, at the Caffe Sette Chiese. He was stationed in Bologna for eight months during military service, and his stories of that time are so full of fun times and nights out that I suspect they had little time to suffer hardship, let alone do much marching.
Back in June Jasper and I spent a day in Bologna helping Sam move house. While I threw away empty bottles and scrubbed floors Sam drove his things to the new place, a total of four trips. A month later we received four traffic fines: he had driven on a bus-only lane for a distance of 50 metres. With this in mind we approached the drive into Bologna with some trepidation. Our hotel offered parking and a day’s travel permit but knowing how difficult it is to spot the signs regarding bus lanes and other dangers, we carefully followed their instructions on entering the city only to find the main road closed halfway. We turned off, got lost a few times, and finally found our way back to the station. Then, seconds too late, Sam said from the back of the car “I think we’re getting to that bit of road….!” It reminded me of my favourite gag in Bugs Life: ”Don’t look at the light!”
The cobblestones from the Piazza sometimes look concave, sometimes convex. Perhaps the police of Bologna will look at their photograph of four frozen fearful faces snapped through the windscreen of our car and say “Not them, again! It must be an optical illusion.”
I took this photograph this morning, including a splinter of orange from a streetlight on the left to prove that my camera wasn’t set to black and white. In our precipitous descent from light and warmth into frozen darkness I’ve been lighting candles and clustering lamps; but all they seem to do is make the gray seem grayer. I lit more candles and listened to a TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell on happiness in which he recounts Howard Moskowitz‘s ground-breaking work with tomato sauce. The precision of his research, dividing the sauce up into a startling range of categories, led me to analyse more closely what it is that I’m feeling nostalgic for on these dark days. Looking through photographs of the summer I realised that I don’t miss the full blaze of day but the evening light, with its nuances of reds, pinks and blues.
Moskowitz changed the way that food manufacturers thought, revealing to them for the first time that some people like their spaghetti sauce thin, others prefer spicy, whilst a third, previously undiscovered (and presumably deeply dissatisfied) group, like it chunky. (Of course we’re talking here about Americans, Italians don’t believe in diversity where spaghetti sauce is concerned. They apply it to other areas of life.) Happiness, says Gladwell, is found through recognising the diversity of human needs. Jasper, who needs little more in life than a snow day at home to make him happy, bounced in to put Sting on the hi-fi and I made hot-chocolate, finding consolation in serving it just the way I like it, thick, dark and spicy.