I’ve always had a thing about maps, I remember way back when I was maybe seven or eight years old, I’m in the little library of my prep school, library is a rather grandiose term, really it was more aptly described as a small room filled with books, once in order, but now looking like the aftermath of cyclone, wrecked by a bunch of thugs ( in this case rather small cherubic faced ones in little charcoal grey shorts during the previous milk break).
On one side of the room a large window covers almost the entire length of the wall, beyond lies the playground. It’s lunch time and framed in glass a hundred little monsters all in charcoal grey shorts and maroon v neck sweaters are tearing around whooping and shouting. Behind the glass the sound is muffled, almost peaceful, there’s one book that pulls me towards it like a magnet, my hands grasp it, a humungous Atlas, it’s the biggest book I’ve ever seen, it feels as big as I am. I begin to turn the pages, trace my fingers along the contour lines of mountains, along snaking rivers, through towns & cities with strange names I can’t even pronounce.
Large cities & conurbations spread out on the pages, tentacles of roads and railways like strange alien creatures from another world. As I attempt to sound out unfamiliar place names I wonder what people live there, what they look like, if their lives are very different to mine. I wonder if I will ever see those places.
It’s summer ’18, British Airways is winging me from Heathrow for two and a half hours south across Europe. To be honest I’m rather happy to be away from England again, maybe it’s just the thought of escape once more, for just a while. As the plane moves south my mood lightens as we get further away from England. Overhead a screen displays the journey, the planes position overlaid on a moving map, it pinpoints the cities on our flight path and as London slips away behind and we cross the Channel soon the cities of Germany begin to populate the map. When I see Frankfurt I am reminded of how once not so long ago it would have been a place I would have dismissed as no more than a large dull German city full of Banks & Bankers that I had no desire whatsoever to see.
Seeing it now on the map instead I reminisce of strolling beside the River Main in summer sunshine. Of the ferry boats moored along the river, of the tree lined walk & the weekend market along the avenues length ramped out with bric-a-brac stalls. Tables overflowing with possessions from a thousand different homes, looking for new owners. I think of a saturday morning in the old food market, crowded & noisy, filled with chatter and laughter, the chinking of glasses filled with crisp white wine, of walking Frida the dog in woods close to town on a Sunday morning.
As we head further south the map flags up cities and places once just names on a map, now something else, brought to life. Heidelberg with the old University, the bridges & castles, the strange little sweet shops, buying absinthe to be drunk and drunk by on a summer evening in a little country house.
The cobbled square surrounding the Old Minster in Frieburg filled with fruit & veg stalls, me with my shopping list in hand, of the nearby bars where where I scoffed Flammkuchen* and washed it down with big glasses full of German beer. Of a trip to the Opera, of bicycle rides, summer festivals, swimming in lakes and streams, drinking Ice Wine slushies on a warm evening when the entire city seems to be out on the streets celebrating.
Germany slips from view on the map behind & we continue ahead, Switzerland & Austria below, Berne, Zurich, Vienna, cities that remind me of friends I’ve met these last few years, I wonder about those friends, what they are doing now as I whizz through the sky above no more than a vapour trail. Then comes a mild melancholy of feeling, of missing people, why does it need to be this way, the people I’ve met and liked so much are all so far away? I settle myself with the thought that to miss someone is only possible if one has had the good fortune to meet them in the first place…………
The Dolomites appear on the map and unfurl as far as I can see through the plane windows, jagged mountains fill the Earth in the late afternoon sunshine, snow still on the highest peaks even in late June & then soon after the beaches & blue sea of the Mediterranean, the next land fall the little islands of Croatia, jewels sparkling in the brightest of blue seas. Then the Captain announces we will be landing in twenty minutes. The plane banks right and we begin to descend, the runway appears in front of us, Brindisi, the heel of Italy.
Within an hour later I am at the wheel of a cinquecento soft top whizzing along country roads. As the city gives way to the countryside I find it impossible not to let my eyes drift from the road ahead to the olive groves either side. Ancient olive groves stretch out far distance.
Gradually I let my speed reduce what’s the rush? These trees are just stupendous, they turn and twist with a gnarly & beautiful gravitas. Majesty is the word that comes to mind. I wonder how long they have been here, later I read that many are well over four hundred years old. I love the way they twist and turn in their longevity, silent witnesses, their lives span half a dozen or more human lifetimes, giving olives year after year, lifetime after lifetime. With these thoughts comes a rather humbling thought & the feeling that even the longest of human lives is in the nature of existence just the briefest of moments.
As the sun begins to slip down past the horizon the car reaches the Masseria, a kind of grand old estate farmhouse now turned over to holiday accommodation. which is the first nights stopover. Great white washed walls of thick stone stand against all the elements, impervious to rain or shine, like the Olive trees testaments to time, keeping out the summer heat and winter rains and after a long day I slump on a comfortable large bed and fall asleep reading a book of Puglia’s history, I always feel a little better prepared to understand a place I am new to by reading about it’s past. I drift off to sleep thinking of the morning sunshine and beaches and of delicious Italian food. Now I know I have finally arrived in Italy.
Early morning I am woken by the sound of thunder, I get up and open the back door to my room which opens onto a little whitewashed courtyard. A solitary Orange tree is being bludgeoned by big lumps of rain. I watch mesmerised as the bullets of water strike the surrounding earth sending up ricochets of dust. As I stand there the earth turns from a shadow of lifeless dry beige to sodden dark brown. Lightening flashes and Thunder cracks the air. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s late June, I am in the south of Italy & the sun is supposed to be shining? The rain cascades down soaking everything.
I dress and venture out of my room to find Michele, the far too good looking owner of the Masseria dripping wet and looking distinctly crest fallen as he brings in the breakfast he has just spent ages setting up outside for his guests. He re-arranges the breakfast indoors, as I look towards him we speak, sans words, his eyes look skywards and he shakes his head. Then he curses, at least I think he curses (my Italian is not good enough to understand the words) , but as he wipes away the water dripping from his forehead I am pretty certain that a literal translation of his Italian would be Mother-Fucking Weather.
Michele I am convinced is as bent as a nine bob note. As I mentioned, my reasons for saying this is that firstly he is just far too good looking, his beard isn’t a beard at all, but a piece of sculpture, full and coiffed perfection, his features are just too chiseled, these are not the looks of your average heterosexual man, they are the kind that would look perfectly at home in a fashion mag shoot, or a designer catwalk, he is I guess around thirty-five, the dead give away though as to his orientation in my book at least is to be found in his breakfast, which begins with a tiered cake stand overflowing with dainties and topped with an enormous glass dome ( he explains that he has a wonderful young chef that’s a whizz in the kitchen ) Though for the next few days the cook is nowhere to be seen. I suspect that Michele has a very youthful and pretty Albanian chained up in the kitchen, to ensure that he doesn’t escape his cake-making and an other relevant duties.
Michele names the variety of each pastry and it’s contents with an air of aplomb.
When he is out of earshot I say to my companion that I am sure Michele is Gay, my statement solicits a response to the effect that I am judgmental, and why should it matter.
I cogitate for a moment and think of replying, I am just interested, I just like to work people out but then go with the flow and realise of course that perhaps I am just a judgmental old git.
My friend in due course has a conversation with Michele about design and interiors, it turns out they have similar tastes. At that point I am 100% certain that Michele is gay, but keep the thought to myself, unnecessary as it is. Instead my rambling thinking settles on the thought that it is rather lucky for the general male heterosexual population, that so many gay men are so good looking. Were they straight rather a lot of us blokes would not get a look in.
After breakfast my travel companion & I go looking at houses, my friend is considering an overseas holiday home potentially here in Italy, I am tagging along as company and a bloke to do the driving.
We meet a rather unfriendly Brit who has a real estate business here, she’s best described I would say as rather full of herself, at regular intervals she keeps telling us how many houses she has sold in the last two weeks, we follow her white Range Rover around the countryside from one vacant property to another. At the end of which I’m rather happy to see her and her car disappear off into the distance, no doubt to tell other prospective customers how shit hot she is.
The following day we meet another agent, all together a much nicer chap. A slightly ruddy faced Swede, I on my weighing up kind of way reckon he likes a glass or two of wine on a regular basis. He shows us more properties, some are the apulian old school beehives. Walls two feet thick, cone topped, all built in stone. There is something really delightful about them, maybe its just the solidity, the stone, the safeness of the idea of big thick walls being a home, but I have to say they they do appeal.
We wander through a few of the little local towns, some have a lot of tourists, many of them are Brits, there are lots of shops for tourists, indeed it would be quite possible to imagine that the whole economy of Italy relies on olive oil, ice cream & shoe shops, but if you get off the tourist track you find another Italy.
We hit the coast & the beaches and there we find that Italian love of cordoning off sections of beach with ropes and creating beach bars with hundreds of deck chairs and sun loungers in rows. As it is still June and the real holidays haven’t kicked in yet almost all of the loungers are empty. In a month or so they will be racked out, there is a kind of ghost like quality to the emptiness, a calm before storm. When my friend isn’t looking I check out the few bikini models on display and wistfully think that it would be fun here in July or August, before I remember that I’d promised myself to forget about women, for now.
We clock up a lot of kilometres in the heel of Italy, whizzing around from one town to another, sight seeing, exploring, house hunting. What both my friend & I notice independently of each other is how often on those roads we pass solitary figures on bicycles in the middle of nowhere, pedalling away. Now there should be nothing curious in seeing people on bicycles but, every one of them is clearly a black and therefore in this part of the world by inference an African man & an immigrant.
And so it continues, one day after another, in the country, in the villages, in the towns, every few minutes on a road somewhere we pass a black guy on a bicycle.
It felt strange seeing them like that, isolated figures pedalling away, where were they going, and why?
Late on a sunday afternoon in a local town close to the sea a festival is taking place. In Italy more often than not this I believe dictates that a group of people parade around the town whilst dressed up in medieval or renaissance clobber whilst banging large drums. The rest of the population are required to hang around doing nothing much beyond filling the cafes & restaurants & eating and drinking. Arguably thats a pretty good way of having a lazy sunday.
As we walk through the town I am struck by the fact that everyone is white, I see nobody of colour, nobody mixed race. Until that is we come to a little park outside of which a group of maybe twenty or so black African men are sitting and talking to each other. What strikes me most is that there is zero interaction with any of the local people, they simply walk past the Africans, no hellos, no acknowledgements, nothing.
Later having a drink in a little vegan restaurant & bar (there are such things it transpires in italy) I talk with a waitress, she is Brazilian but has been living in Puglia for eight years. I ask her about the black men on bicycles, she looks at me and has no idea what I’m talking about. I try to explain a little better about all the solitary black guys on bicycles, and she shrugs her shoulders, I’ve never seen them she says, I dont get about very much, just normally stay in town.
And then the idea seems to crystallise a little, that these immigrants are unseen, though they live here in Italy it feels as though to many of the local people that they simply don’t exist.
Race and immigration increasingly disturbs me, not because it happens, though the reasons behind it are often deeply sad, but more in what feels like so many peoples reaction to it.
It’s the lack of humanity surrounding migration when the act is implicitly human.
In a tourist town in Puglia overlooking the sea a conversation with an Australian fellow tourist without prompting turns to immigration. The lady says that in Australia there is too much immigration, that it shouldn’t be allowed, and the blindingly obvious fact that as a white settler in Australia her ancestors were immigrants seems to totally elude her. Back in London not long before sitting in the sunshine I am talking to a group of guys at the pub. One, a white (now) Londoner born in Zimbabwe is talking to a Geordie, we let too many of ‘them’ into this country, the Geordie agrees with him. We shouldn’t allow all these immigrants here in London. I want to say listen to yourself, both of you, what the fuck are you talking about? To my regret I say nothing, just think it.
Here in Puglia it strikes me that people have selective memory, they are happy to dress in costume, to celebrate aspects of history, but are all too ready to forget their own. I read a little about the history of Puglia, and you need not look far to see a land that has been defined by migration and immigration for ever. This heel of Italy though it might appear to be Italian, deeply Italian, is in fact a land defined by the movement of peoples. Greeks, Slavs, Albanian, Normans, Byzantines, Lombards, wave after wave of immigration has been a feature of this land, and emigration too, cycles of it when tens of thousands left Puglia for Brazil, or the US, or when thousands headed north for work, leaving the land at the heel of Italy. Sometimes human lives are short, sometimes human memories even more so, take a step back and there you see that the idea of identity in a nationalistic sense can be nothing more than a snapshot in time, the reality is people have always sought to move to make their lives better.
My friend at one point asks me if I could see myself living here in Italy, I could, my thoughts readily drift off and I conjour up an imagined future evening. The sun has dipped beneath the horizon, the darkness of evening has begun to creep, though there’s still a glowing echo of the days sun lingering, a little halo of oranges and golds & reds. The sound of cicadas chirruping noisily to each other in an olive grove. At a large old wooden table in a whitewashed courtyard beside my old stone house an eclectic mix of my friends are seated. The table is laden with the remainders of a hearty dinner, carafes of wine more empty than full testify to the lateness of the hour. And there we are, swapping stories, our faces light and shadow in flickering candle light. My stories I know would be tall, the girls would have loved me a little more than they really did, in my stories I would be a little more galant than I really was. And if on those warm evenings I tell the stories often enough perhaps I might even believe them myself.
I reply to my friend instead with a short more sensible answer, yep I could see myself living somewhere like this.
A few days later the plane leaves for the flight to London.
As we retrace our route I collect my thoughts, I am wondering what to do with myself these days, I think of how I like my bones warmed by the sun, how comfortable I feel in nature, how much I love the solidity of thick stone walls, how maybe one day I might live somewhere like Puglia. Of the friends I would like to share it with.
I also think of those ancient Olive Trees, those splendid trees that will outlive us all. There’s a kind of comfort & grounding just seeing them, beyond human time, beyond our concerns.
A few weeks later back in London I read about a bacterial blight in Puglia.
For some time now Xylella has been killing the Olive trees there. This bacteria effects the trees ability to absorb water and nutrients, if the bacteria gets to a tree it dies, of thirst. There is no cure.
The only treatment currently employed is to immediately destroy the infected tree and clear any others that surround it, healthy or not, in order to prevent transmission by creating a buffer zone. Whole groves across Puglia have thus been decimated and despite research in many countries no cure has been found. Olive groves that have survived everything that has come their way for centuries have been totally destroyed.
After I read the article I am once again struck by my own foolishness and brought back to the only enduring certainty, that nothing remains, everything changes.
All that we cherish, people, ideas, possessions, none of them are certain to be part of our lives for anything beyond the present moment. Time and again I have struggled with this, letting go of the thoughts that remain.
And even those ancient olive trees that have stood for centuries that I thought of as enduring, they tell me the same story. Perhaps there is no tomorrow, there are no guarantees, but there is today.