The Confessions of a Rambling Man. Chapter 14

Landing at Fiumicino the first thing my man brain registers – bright fluorescent lights of the airport shopping mall, glitzy designer clothing stores, then the sight of women in heels, the rhythmic clacking of those same heels on polished marble floors – six months spent by the beach in Asia meant that invariably the women I would see would be in flip flops or sandals, at the airport there are women everywhere – in swanky heels, figure hugging skirts, designer dresses –  jeans that may just have been sprayed on, lips full of lipstick, scent wafting on the air and I am in another world, welcome to Roma.

Once out of the airport I take a train forty minutes north to Stigmiliano *, a world away from Rome, a little village with a station that comes to life for just three minutes each hour when the train pulls in. 

In those few minutes there is a flurry of activity, people decant onto the platform and head for waiting cars – engines purring and ready for quick get-aways, others hurry to climb aboard the departing train, there are greetings and goodbyes rising to a crescendo of slamming doors and then the final whistle of departure. As quickly as it sprang to life the station returns once again to its all pervading slumber as if the entire community of Stigmiliano is under a spell and I find myself the only person remaining.

I am to be collected by my friend who runs a Yoga retreat in the country close by, I’ve wangled a volunteering job with her for a month or two, I am to assist her handyman working on the gardens where organic produce is grown to tend to the land as well as a bit of general work catering for the yoga students, a new bunch of whom come and go every week or two through the summer.

I drag one suitcase across the platform, a rucksack on my back, a smaller holdall slung over my shoulder – my belongings though appearing extensive are actually mostly just clothes along with a little tin of keepsakes – my little secret box of memories that I take with me on my travels, I’ve learnt not to hold on to anything too tightly, people & things have a habit of losing themselves, or perhaps I lose them, but this little tin is my exception, in it my treasures, worthless to anyone else but me, one photo of my son, a little buddha statue that travels with me –  figurative companion that sits next to wherever I sleep,  a sketch drawn by a little boy, a dried eucalyptus leaf from Spain, a few sea shells from India. Then the practical stuff – toothbrush, toiletries, notepads, computer, phone – I am surprised with myself, that a once home loving cancerian comfortable with the trappings of domesticity is such a gypsy. The thought rises again as it does from time to time as I struggle with my bags across yet another station platform – when will  I settle? When and where?

I head to the station cafe, it is empty save for the proprietress who sits behind the counter, her  nose buried deep in a book, she comes to life momentarily, long enough to make me a double espresso before she slips back once again into the sleepy spell of Stigmiliano.

I sit outside with my coffee and smoke a cigarette, my Goa tan as deep as any Italian farm worker means that just for a while I can imagine myself in that moment, blended in, an Italian man with nothing in particular to do other than sit and sip his coffee on an indolent Italian afternoon. 

My friend arrives with impeccable timing just as I’ve finished my cigarette & sipped the last of my coffee. My bags loaded into the boot we pootle along country roads towards the commune of Torri in Sabina in a little old Fiat, the roads are empty, save for the occasional car or agricultural vehicle along the way, I wind down the window and feel the breeze hitting my face as the hedgerows race by, bursting with green, the scent of tall grasses, roadside flowers, wild fig trees with fruit that will soon be ready for picking and I smile to myself a happy Gypsy of a man in Italy. 

Ten minutes later we turn off the little country road onto a tarmac track that is a little unsure of itself as every once in a while road peters out and turns to compacted earth baked in the summer sun. We pass half a dozen old farmsteads, little cottages with vegetable patches and an acre or so of land, the homes worn with time and lack of attention, the rural life does not appeal so much to the young, they prefer neat apartments all squared and stacked one on top of another in the towns and cities. Left behind are a few old folks who sit on verandahs and peer out at us as we drive by, or the empty farmhouses with For Sale placards where the oldsters have gone for good and the windows are shuttered and front gates padlocked.

We arrive at Guilas, my friend and boss reaches into the glove compartment and retrieves a remote control gizmo, presses it and the heavy iron front gates to the property swing open, we drive through and they close behind us with a clank. I’ve arrived.

I’m shown to the  accommodation for my stay – a Yurt, a kind of circular tent modelled on the nomad tents of Mongolia, though thankfully made of canvas rather than animal skins. I rather like my new home, itinerant dwelling for an itinerant kind of bloke. There’s a camp bed, a little bedside table and a solar powered lamp, luxury for any self respecting traveller. My tent is pitched at the edge of the grounds away from the main house, my neighbours are olive trees, a swimming pool is twenty metres from my front door. There’s a set of buildings close by with an outdoor shower and garages, tool sheds  full of gardening  equipment and general supplies. 

The house itself is fifty or so metres along a pathway and down steep steps, it’s built of great stone blocks, thick and solid & cool in the shade of the Italian summer, no matter how hot the day the house remains deliciously cool, who needs air con when you’ve half a metre of rock to keep you cool.

The heart of the house is the kitchen, which is a hive of activity for breakfast lunch & dinner. 

An outside terrace with an enormous oak table table twenty feet long is the main dining area, a spectacular view lies beyond the terrace of valley and hills, of olive groves & woods.

Each meal time the table groans under the weight of fresh vegetarian food, the benches either side with up to a couple of dozen hungry yoga students. 

It’s well into the season by the time I arrive and a group of Californian Yoga students are a week into their two week stay. Knackered with my journey I hit the sack early after dinner and sleep right through til dawn, then I get up and wander the grounds, without a soul awake the acres are all mine. 

As breakfast time approaches I head for the kitchen to help out with the service 

One of my tasks is to brew three different pots of tea from herbs I am to pick from the kitchen gardens, I am most shocked of all to find that some of the Yoga teachers insist that no fresh coffee is available at breakfast, for them coffee is a no-no, too much of a stimulant for the true yogi.

Why anyone would want herb tea when there’s so much good coffee in Italy escapes me, are these people mad? I guess it takes all sorts of people to make a world, I do my best not to condemn outright strange imbibers of stewed leaves. 

During my first working brekkie session I spend much of my time checking out the yoga students, this I find a particularly rewarding pastime as they are for the most part female and I’m a bit of a sucker for the kind of women that are into Yoga.

After breakfast I asm introduced to Tony who I am to work with on the land. He speaks Romanian & Italian, I speak neither, but with a combination of sign language, demonstration and my limited Italian vocabulary and a bit of ancient schoolboy Latin and French I get enough words from a given sentence to just about manage. 

Tony is a bit of a lad, well an ageing one, maybe late thirties or just in his forties. He has two sons, a wife and a wandering eye, I soon learn from one of the other staff on site who does massage therapy that Tony flirts incessantly with all of the younger women around the Centre, in a not very pleasant way. This I discover means he is dicing with certain major injury – a few days later I meet his wife, Rosa a truly formidable Romanian lady who would I have no doubt remove his testicles with glee if she ever caught him playing away from home.

Tony however was nothing other than a gent towards me, after all I wasn’t his type, we quickly slipped into a routine, he’d turn up first thing after breakfast, show me what needed doing and then leave me to it for a few hours whilst he went off and did whatever else he had to. 

I would then be weeding or clearing scrub, picking beans or tomatoes, basil or aubergines for lunch or dinner, up and down row upon row of vegetables in the baking sun with a hoe in my hand. Late or early with a hosepipe watering when the sun wasn’t so strong.

As days turned to weeks I realised I absolutely loved that little hillside. I would be out in the heat of the day, sweating as the sun rose inexorably higher overhead and every bead of perspiration felt like a cure to all of the years I had spent behind a computer screen, every keystroke on ten thousand spreadsheets, every mile driven up and down a motorway.

There were four other members of staff at the property, a Polish chap who was employed as the manager, a Buddhist by persuasion he was without doubt one of the most miserable men I’ve ever encountered, one morning I greeted him in the kitchen as I was stirring a vat of porridge:  How are you today Pieter?  I kid you not, his reply was  “A day closer to death but then so are we all”. What kind of morning greeting is that?

Pieter was like a human vacuum cleaner, able to suck up every particle of joy from the air around him, in the rare moments he stepped out of his cloud of misery he would ingratiate himself with the boss by whining about everyone else’s  work whilst painting himself as a veritable saint working every moment possible to make up for others  short-comings. 

As a result I grew to have a firm and abiding loathing of Pieter, something clearly in his past had made him a miserable tosser, who knew what it was, Buddhism hadn’t cured him of it & I was unable to find any redeeming traits in him, miserable tosser that he was. 

My longer term friendship with Giulia (despite being a lowly member of staff in terms of ranking in the hierarchy) meant that I was treated rather preferentially, on days off Giulia would ask me to go with her to the beach or on day trips, she let me have free run of the old fiat in the afternoons which I made full use of. This rankled with Pieter, but he could do nothing about it and as much as the benefits of my special treatment were great I enjoyed even more the effect in winding up Pieter the miserable.

After lunch in my free time sometimes I would head off in the fiat to the little local town of Torri  a couple of kilometres down the road, I say town, but it is more of a village, medieval in origin, perched on a little hill overlooking the Latin countryside. A Police station, with regulation Italian flag fluttering outside, a hairdressers, a fruit and veg shop, a chemist, a little general store that doubled as a bar, one restaurant, a butchers shop. Just outside the village entrance a bakers & another more modern bar next to a post office. This was the metropolis of Torri, home to no more than a couple of hundred souls at most, most of the time you’d hardly see anyone, the shops all closed for the afternoons, the only place open come the afternoon was the bar outside of town & here I would head, just for a beer, or two.

My Italian language skills improved very little with time as we tended to speak mainly English at the Yoga ranch. In the bar I would order a large beer on tap, take up a seat outside at a little table and drink my beer and smoke away. Inevitably locals – always blokes would stop by, take a small beer and sit and chat to each other. I would nod, say hello and apologise for being English and not speaking Italian. I’ve found this practice absolutely invaluable wherever I’ve travelled in the World, Apologising for being English endears you to the natives, mark my words.

Here I met il Francese ( the Frenchman ) a diminutive chap with a beer belly, a bald head and a sleepy eye. With time I learnt that he wasn’t French at all, but had been born in the village, then gone away to sea as a young-man. Il Francese however got in with the wrong crowd & ended up in prison in the South of France, I never did quite find out what for, but when eventually he got back home some wag started calling him the Frenchman, and the name stuck. The Frenchman always wore the same clothes – a string vest, probably a very sensible garment given the heat of Italian summer, it was of indeterminate colour, a kind of grey-brown affair, ( I believe it was most likely white when new ) but with colourful little rosettes of what I imagined to be tomato sauce based dinner spillages. He had dark trousers held up with a belt and braces, big hob nailed boots, A greying pelt of hairs erupted through the holes in the vest, from his shoulders big lumps of arms sprouted and then ended in podgy hands that looked as though they were the perfect tools for digging potatoes. 

I have to say I rather liked il Francese, I looked forward to him turning up at the bar. He would talk to anyone who would listen with philosophical ruminations on the meaning of life, as he appeared to have some learning disabilities I found this a very endearing trait. He talked fondly of prison, of the great people he’d met there, he said he learnt more in prison than his years at school, including a decent amount of English, French and German from the fellow guests.

After my beers I would wend my way back to the homestead, ensuring that I set out quickly so that my alcohol consumption had not yet hit my blood stream, just in case the carabinieri were out and about and looking for someone to breathalise.

Later in the afternoons I would wander the grounds of the property which were so extensive I could lose myself for hours at a time. Don’t get me wrong I love great cities, but here I was captivated by the smallest of things – I would sit and watch whatever caught my eye for an age, dragonflies over a little brook, a snake basking in the sun, finding porcupine quills along a pathway, picking figs and eating them straight from the tree, just an hours drive away from a major capital city and no sounds of cars or people. As I look back now I realise that it was there on a little hillside in Italy for the first time in years I was happy.

Man with Tomato.

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