Driving southeast from Germany, through Switzerland towards Italy, the Italians reach you before you reach Italy. In a service area near the Swiss-Italian border, the small grey-haired lady behind the coffee counter (who turns to customers with a sprightly “Prego!”) is surprised by our request for a Cappucino mit Sahne (cream); for the Italians, coffee goes only with milk. We are heading towards the Italian Lake District, to a town next to lake Como, about 20 kilometers from the city with the same name. Como is close to the Swiss border, which explains the Swiss-Italian blend visible there. The roads are small, but the traffic exhibits traces of Swiss restraint. Fashion shows a stronger Italian influence: the elegant costumes in Como mirror the styles I’ve seen in Milan. The elaborate lakeside villas and the expensive cars – Mercedes Benzs, BMWs, Porches – paint a Swiss-like glossy, rich canvas. You could take in the alpine mountains all around and believe you are still in Switzerland. This isn’t the Italy of the South, not the real Italy, as some would say.
We reach Como on a balmy Friday afternoon, and continue along the treacherous road to Lezzeno. The SS583, a winding road that cuts through the mountainside along the western arm of lake Como, is not more than four meters wide in most places, and it narrows down to two meters along some curves. When there is time to spot an approaching car I slow down almost to a halt, but there are times when you meet the daring Italian in his tiny Fiat around a blind bend, and at such times the only recourse is to close your eyes and pray to the local diety, la Madonna. After twenty minutes on this highway I can take it no more; I drive into the next roadside restaurant I spot.
The pizzeria, which has a terrace overlooking the lake and the mountains, appears empty, and the only man attending is in no hurry to serve us. He arrives at our table after ten minutes and reluctantly presents the menu cards. We spend the next two hours there. Wife joins a long teleconference, and uses her iPad to give a presentation. (It is a sobering reminder that we belong to the “always-connected” generation, and that we do not control when we go “offline”). I gaze around at the green mountains curtained by a thin mist, at the occasional boat that ferries people across the lake, at the bees leisurely surveying the flowers on the railings. The view probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries; there are surely more settlements next to the lake, but everything else seems untouched. This may be an illusion created by the stillness of water and the immovable, immutable mountains: you feel they’ve been around for thousands of years, and will continue for thousands more. There is a timelessness about this place that make two hours seem like eternity.
Our room is in an apartment in Lezzeno, one of the small towns hugging the mountainside. The landlady is a friendly middle-aged Italian woman, whose second language is French; neither of us know Italian, but Wife claims to understand French: she deals with the handover business. The Italians cannot speak without using their hands, so what ensues is a frenetic display of gestures, emotions, and words, at the end of which Wife sends me a reassuring glance: everything is understood, settled.
It is a modern, well-furnished apartment, with a hall serving as a common living-dining-kitchen and with two individual rooms. Guests are expected for the weekend in the other room too: a French couple later that afternoon, and a German lady next day, once the French leave. The hall has windows that open out to the lake, about a hundred meters away, and a row of cottages stands in between. But these houses are at a lower level, which leaves us an unobstructed view, similar to the one from the restaurant terrace we just left, but at a lower level.
I unload the car and settle down to read. Among the Italian magazines in the apartment is a copy of Vogue with a black & white picture of three plump beauties; inside is a photo essay with the tag-line “Curvy is Sexy”. I am still flipping through these pages when the landlady comes in, followed by an elderly couple, the French guests. My first instinct is to turn the pages to a safer section, but then it occurs to me that we are dealing with the French: why hide anything? After a few friendly greetings – the zestful Bongiorno! has now turned into the sensual Bonjour – the landlady goes on to explain the apartment to our fellow guests. When she leaves, the elderly French lady is keen to speak to us: do we speak French? Je parle une petit peu Francais, Wife replies with confidence, and that is enough encouragement for the lady: she begins a conversation; I retire to the bedroom. Some minutes later, when I turn my ears to sounds from the hall, I hear a stream of French sentences punctuated by short mouse-like squeaks. I listen harder: the lady is going on and on, and every once in a while Wife manages to squeeze in an “Oui!” before the lady continues with her discourse. …………. Oui! …………… Oui! ……….. Oui! ……
In the evening, after the sun goes down and before darkness seeps in, we walk to the nearby restaurant the landlady has recommended. The town clings to a small stretch of SS583, and on both sides of this road are the familiar Italian-style cottages, simple houses with small wooden windows, tiny grilled balconies, and orange-tiled roofs in a slight incline. The road is deserted, but every now and then a car or a motorbike whizzes past. When vehicles approach together in both directions we stop and lean back, against a moss-covered brick wall or an aluminum railing, praying that the vehicle on our side is driven by a tourist, not an Italian; then, recovering our breath, we continue walking. The lake, to our left, glitters like a sea of molten lead, and the mountains in the distance fold over the sky as it grows dark. Soon we reach a small church, lit in amber, with a small stone-covered courtyard in front. This space will be the locus of an important ceremony in two days, but we do not know this yet. We take some pictures, and walk over to the restaurant. Aurora, a charming lakeside ristorante, is packed with foreign tourists; conversations are in English – British and American – and the waiters speak English too. My penne pasta is excellent, the best I’ve tasted in years. An hour and half later we walk back, watching the sparkling lights on the far side, listening to the hum of a ferry crossing the lake. In less than half a day, Italy has shown us a different life, a mix of leisure, beauty, terror, and full of character.
[To be continued]