The Future is an Undiscovered Country….

The escape from Livorno was more than fifteen days ago, but I barely remember it—neither the escape nor Livorno. I know that we spent the first fugitive weekend in Porretta, an hour more-or-less due south of Bologna along the fabled Porrettana, the Strada Statale 64 (which runs between Ferrara and Pistoia), home to mud baths and hot-water cures (and Germans) for hundreds of years.

A rill full of waterfowl (mostly ducks, but with the occasional heron at dusk) flows through Porretta—I think it’s the Reno River, but I could be wrong—and we watched old men in yellow waders catch fat fish in the clear, shallow water and then release them again, one after another. Back in their natural environment, the fish skittered off with a flash and a twist of their thick, asparagus-green bodies, more annoyed than fearful it seemed, and the fishermen re-baited their hooks.


We took a walk across the bridge and down to the station to check the train schedules, where we came upon an outdoor café where some twenty or thirty men had gathered under an awning in heated card competition. M. explained the games to me—tresette as well as others I’d never heard of—and not a few seemed vaguely familiar: similar to Crazy Eights, which I must have played a thousand times with my Aunt Ida when I was nine, or cribbage (without the board), or variations on poker. Our new idea is to write a book on Italian card games, in English, which we’ll sell to American Italophiles mad for anything Italian that hasn’t yet been discovered. Since the cards themselves are different as well, perhaps there’ll be a sideline in the mass-production of fancy, hand-colored decks. If anyone reading this gets around to doing it before I do, please send me a finder’s fee of at least 20%.

At that point, we turned back toward town and headed out for a long walk along one of the many nature trails that lead steeply up from the center, where we found a kind of mossy greenwood full of ferns and round brown snails and the smell of autumnal decay, all of which struck me as dull (Nature repeats herself), and we came back down, tried to relax in our overpriced hotel room, ate a grand supper, and none-too-bravely contemplated the future.

On Monday, the day we were to have had the keys to the Bologna apartment, “something came up” for our future landlord—things so often “come up” in the lives of Italians—and so we had to postpone our meeting until Tuesday, at which point it had begun to rain. Porretta turned cold, foggy (good for the ferns and moss, one supposes), and ghostly. Excellent weather for writing and sitting in steaming, sulfurous water; unideal for anyone already watching the skies for omens signaling the inevitable arrival of the mean, cold winter.

On Tuesday morning, M. drove to work and, in the late afternoon, I took the train for Bologna.
From Porretta you can go to Bologna or to Pistoia and nowhere else, and you can go in either direction roughly once an hour between about 8am and about 9pm, and there’s no point in having other plans. At least ten times on its way to Bologna, the train pulled onto the tracks of some tiny station where a lone traveler stood in the drizzle, clutching an umbrella and an overnight bag.

In Bologna, everything changed. The traffic was hellacious; people careened from the train station as though the Triffids were hard on their trails; the buses were overcrowded; and we were stuck for ten minutes in an overheated coach on the bridge on via Matteoti that crosses above the tracks at Bologna Centrale, surely one of Italy’s ugliest and most dismal train yards. Like every big city I’ve known, San Francisco and New York lovingly included, Bologna loses its frigging mind in the rain. Nonetheless, we ended the evening with house keys in our pockets, and my small collection of belongings somehow made its way into the apartment. By the next day, life outside had returned to normal.

And so it begins. My initial, two-week-old impressions of Bologna are largely, guardedly positive: At first glance, it seems an austere city, but the people one comes across—the people one is obliged to come across, that is, as opposed to those one may choose to come across, the bus drivers, waiters, salesclerks, fellow shoppers, news agents, and so on, whose small interventions can so irrevocably color daily life—are shockingly polite. Shocking, perhaps, only after Livorno, where cafonaggine is a matter of civic pride. Perhaps, then, the Bolognesi are no more than normal. (I exclude the university students, who generally confine themselves to the adjacencies of via Zamboni, where they apparently spend all the time they have not dedicated to peddling marijuana under the porticoes to thinking up ways to annoy normal people—and I say this without the slightest embarrassment at having turned into a Crabby Old Party.)

Prices are high—I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to afford to eat out in a restaurant—though wages are (ever so slightly) higher as well. The buses run on time. There’s free wireless in the centro storico but not free electricity—the women at the Ufficio per le Relazioni con il Pubblico guard the plugs with a certain wild-eyed Germanic zeal; and if your laptop battery runs out in the middle of something important, you can look elsewhere for pity because you won’t find it there. Many museums are free, and last weekend we saw an impressive exhibit at the Palazzo Poggi, whose science, medicine, and anatomy collections include some hundred or so life-sized clay models from the nineteenth-century which vividly depict all the grisly, revolting, and generally unpleasant things that can go wrong during pregnancy and childbirth.

Otherwise, as Harold says in Boys in the Band, time undoubtedly will tell. It is already cold-ish in the evenings and mornings, though we cannot legally turn on the heating until November 1st. There will be fog, and more than one person has warned me, with an evil grin, about the snow.

Meanwhile, someone has gone to a lot of trouble lately to post notices around the center of town, pasting scores of them firmly on lampposts, garbage bins, and walls, which contain the following warning: “Remember, spontaneous human combustion is a serious threat.

It is certainly not something I intend to take lightly.


Posted on 11 October 2006, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road, Write ... che ti passa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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