Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop


To me the best day of the year is my birthday. The 22nd March … not the 21st March or the 23rd March. I am quite unable do that. For, as long as I can remember, my joy has been to celebrate my birthday in my home, surrounded by friends and family, and I cook. A sort of lousy Babette’s Feast, for I am no cook to write home about, but this is the day that I pull out all the stops.

This year for the first time we were in Tuscany. ‘I’ll feed them all here,’ I told my brother, who was visiting from the Cape.  ‘Us, Mila and Mauro from Venice, and Kira and Mirko from Florence. I’ll set the yellowwood table beautifully. I’ll use Ouma’s old dinner service and I’ll cook something nice – with a real Cape flavour’.

My brother, a long time sufferer of my culinary experiments, looked at me dubiously: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just go to a restaurant?’ he said. ‘Nope!’ I said, ‘I’ll ring Kira and see if she can come’. Now Kira is a legendary cook of note. Liam would walk the 32 kilometres from our house to Florence simply to taste her risotto. ‘Oh oh,’ said my brother, ‘THAT Kira.’

And so the doubt set in …

‘Kira,’ I said on the phone, ‘do you perhaps know of a nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant in Florence where we can go for my birthday?’

duomo fixed

The nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant lay just behind the Duomo. It was packed to the brim with locals enjoying good Tuscan fare. Doors and windows were closed against the March chill, scented waves of ribollita, lasagne and pasta competed with the chat and general laughter of people simply having a seriously good time. The local Tuscan red flowed and our table was enjoying it all immensely. ‘No matter that I did not cook,’ I thought, ‘I feel as happy as I have on every birthday.’ My brother glanced across the table at me, lowered his eyes and smiled gratefully at his plate.

It was late afternoon by the time we walked out of the door of the restaurant. The men walked ahead while us women set a more leisurely pace, strolling down the narrow cobbled streets and gazing at the beautiful displays in each window that we passed. Every now and then we stopped to talk about owning one of the stunning Florentine creations on show.

We were almost at the parking garage where we had parked the car when another and different window display sprang to light – it was a bicycle shop. On display were beautiful gleaming bikes of all shapes and designs … pedal, electric, fold-up … Fold-up? ‘Just the thing!’ I cried, ‘Let’s go in and have a look.’

Full of red wine and bonhomie we very soon forged an excellent friendship with the owner of the shop. ‘What I need,’ I said, ‘is a fold-up bike that would fit into Campari. Then I can come into Florence on a Sunday and I can simply park anywhere, get the bike out, and off I go.’

‘Sure!’ said the owner – he was so nice – ‘but you don’t want an ordinary little one. You want one with style’.

‘Style, that’s it exactly!’ chorused the three of us, ‘It simply won’t do without style.’ And then he produced it. A magnificent white, gleaming charge ready to do battle with any of the rough cobbled streets and traffic jams of Florence. ‘Oooooh!’ we gasped.

By this time the men had doubled back to find us, and they were much more critical, if not a tad sceptical. ‘But how does it work?’ asked Liam. ‘Oh that’s easy’ said the lovely man ‘You just snap-click and the handle bars and front wheel fold back to double the bike back onto itself.’ The men walked around it. Finally Liam, with a twinkle in his eye, said ‘Well, if it can fit into the back of Campari you can have it. It’s your birthday present.’

backseat fixed

Campari was duly fetched from the parking garage and positioned on the pavement outside the bicycle shop door. ‘Snap-click’ went the man and onto the back seat of Campari went the bicycle. A perfect fit, and a perfect end to a perfect day.

The next Sunday Liam folded my gleaming new toy onto the back seat of Campari and off I set for Florence. ‘Enjoy’ he cried as he waved good-bye from our wooden gate at the bottom of our valley, ‘Explore Florence and come back to tell me all about it’.

Passing Pasquale in his orto I called out to him. ‘Buongiorno … I’m going riding in the streets of Florence. ‘Let me see,’ he replied and came up to the car, ‘Oh, one of those’ he said. ‘Better you take the bus’. And muttering something suspiciously like ‘new fangled rubbish’, he set off back to his vegetable patch.

I decided to park Campari just in front of the American Embassy. ‘It’ll be a nice ride along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio,’ I thought, ‘and then I’ll take it from there’.

I got the bike out and set off. I crossed the Arno at the Ponte Amerigo Vespuci and cruised slowly along the south bank of the river. A light breeze played softly in my hair. ‘Oh this is the life’ I thought, ‘so step it up girl.’ I pedalled faster. In front of me I could see the Ponte Vecchio, its beautiful medieval shops basking in the morning sunlight. I headed for it.

Just about at the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita and Via Maggio there is a row of dust bins – those funny big grey ones on four little wheels. It was there that I heard a snap, but no click. With that the handle bars and front wheel folded in on me and I found myself airborne. With an unceremonious flop I landed on top of the dust bin with the broken lid. Tourists gasped, onlookers gazed … and I?

Dustbins fixedIgnoring my grazed elbows, and not even attempting the ‘snap-click’ I lifted the awkward beast up and beat a hasty retreat down the narrow side road running towards the Santo Spirito.

 

 

 

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A WEST COAST FARM PART FIVE : NO TURNING BACK (February 1985)

For some time I’ve needed to go back. Go back to the place that held my girlish dreams in the palm of its hand. ‘I’ll grow up and make lots and lots of money, I’ll buy it back. I’ll do anything, anything that it takes.’ Geelbek. Isolated peace. One foot in the Langebaan lagoon – in the world of salt marshes, wild pigs, flamingos and fishing, and one foot in the dry arid scrubland that is so much part of the desert waste of the western Cape coast …

there are two small windows on the veranda side
there are two small windows on the veranda side

The house runs down towards the Langebaan lagoon. There are two small windows on the veranda side, facing away from the lagoon. One of them is ajar, loose hinges swaying in the breeze, I turn to the friend I have brought with me. ‘Look, we can get in there. If you lift me up, I’ll lower myself in.’

I stand on my friend’s back, twist diagonally across the small square window frame. Once through I rest my hands on the cement floor, letting my body follow. ‘I’m in!’ The inside of my head seems to be swelling and I put my finger on my forehead, trying to help force my memory back. What do I know, and what have I been told?

I know that the small side room that I am standing in was my bedroom as a child. There’s nothing in it now. Cement floor, exposed tin curving in an arc above me. I think my father and grandfather bricked in this section of the long stoep once my brother was born. Where was my bed? I don’t know, can’t remember. I pad down the long passage towards the kitchen, looking for the outer door onto the verandah. Dust and cobwebs everywhere, the smell of must.

‘I’ll open up.’ I yell. ‘The key’s on the inside.’ The old stinkwood door creaks, sticks. I give it a kick. Suddenly light floods in, lighting up the yellowwood beams above, the terracotta floors below. I follow a dusty ray, along the passage. To the left, the dining room, to the right the kitchen. Long wooden stairs rise steeply to the loft.

The old range stands empty. No fires now. A blackened chain hangs down one side. Where’s old Leah, her gentle face reddened by the heat, an old apron wound around her ample middle? ‘Kom binne my kind, daar’s lekker koffie in die kan.’ Come inside my child, there’s delicious coffee in the pot.’

And where’s my grandmother’s garden? I can see her now – large rush basket under her arm, hatless despite the relentless African sun. Her clippers are in her gloved hands, and she’s in amongst her favourites … foxgloves, carnations, roses and lupins. She loved that garden. The house formed two sides of the square, and a low curved limestone wall the other two sides. There was a sundial in the middle and a small wooden gate opposite, leading out towards the eucalyptus trees.

Here it is, the door from the house leading into the walled garden …

Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.
Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.

I push it open and stand, transfixed. Raw grey-white sand looks back at me. There is not one single plant, not even a weed. The sundial is lying in pieces in the centre. There’s no gate. A sheet of rusty tin has been nailed across the gap in the wall. Three ostriches stand and look at me. ‘Get out,’ they seem to hiss, ‘This is not your place any more. You have no business here. Shove off.’ I close the door, turn my back on them.

Slowly I move back down the passage, past my bedroom, and my brother’s. Here’s my parents’ room. It is in the first wing of the gabled section, and I don’t remember any of it. Only the long wooden sash windows reaching right down to the floor and the palm tree outside …

Lena stands under the palm, the fronds sheltering her from the heat. She’s old Leah’s daughter. ‘Don’t cry, come sit under the tree. Your mummy’s gone on the horses with your daddy, she’ll be back soon.’ I sit in between Lena and her small daughter, ‘Klein Kat’ – little Kathy. Klein Kat smiles, her small hand picks up the first of the bright orange palm nuts from the grass. Together we start to build.

The interleading door from my parent’s room to the great verandha is missing and I can see across the huge covered space that bridges the two Cape Dutch gables. The coir matting is still on the floor and the view from here is magnificent. I look through the big picture windows, out through the two palms flanking each gable, and across the lawn to the gate in the long low hedge.

Out and across the tidal marshes that edge the lagoon. I can just see the line of the old jetty. ‘Come on’ my grandfather is saying, ‘Pack that picnic basket, we’re going to give this new speedboat a run for its money. It’s called a Century, one of the finest makes you can get. She’s come all the way from America, one of the first to be imported into South Africa. Let’s see if the Yanks are up to it.’

... let’s see if the Yanks are up to it ...

… let’s see if the Yanks are up to it …

Hop, skip, jump along the jetty. Miss the rotting planks. Grandmother’s got her scarf wrapped tightly round her blue rinse curls, my mother, beautiful, swings her long legs easily over the side of the Century.

I move away, crossing the vast expanse and up the steps into the final gabled wing, my grandparents wing. ‘Whatever happened to those feather eiderdowns?’ I wonder, ‘The ones with the pink English rose pattern?’ Granny loved pink. ‘Who’s got them now?’ I wonder. ‘One of my cousins I suppose.’ It’s a pity feather eiderdowns can’t talk …. ‘Snuggle in, snuggle in – it’s Sunday morning and we’re not going anywhere. Now where’s the story today? Who’s going first?’ ‘Well,’ says Grandfather ‘The higher up the mountain, the greener grows the ….’

‘Oh no you don’t!’ says my Grandmother, ‘you can stop right there.’ Grandfather was naughty. We loved that.

It’s full circle now. Nothing more in the house. I retrace my steps until I get to the side stoep door. Just off the veranda the big old brass tap is still there. I look at it hard. ‘She’s too lively.’ My grandmother’s voice comes floating though from the kitchen. ‘Lena can’t cope with John as a baby and also watch her, keep her safe. Thank heavens for Mot, even if he is a bit simple, he seems to follow her everywhere, he just loves her.’

Mot’s waiting by the brass tap. His hat’s on his head at a crazy angle and his shirt is torn. He’s rubbing his eyes with his fists … ‘What’s the matter Mot? Are the other children teasing you again? What have they done now? Did they take your little draad-karretjie – wire car – that you made so carefully? Did they throw it in the reeds again? Come Mot, come, don’t cry. You’re here, I’m here. Let’s go past the dam and through the farmyard gate. If we hold hands tight the geese won’t get us, won’t peck our eyes out. Then we can go to Louise, the farm manager’s daughter. Her mum will give us kaaings and butter on hot white bread.’

I move across to the dam and climb onto the raised flower bed that runs around it. I pull myself up onto the wall and look down. Green slimy water lies halfway down, dragonflies busily skimming the water. Helicopters, we used to call them.

I perch on top of the wall and look around. Enormous eucalyptus trees tower above me, their branches bowed by finches’ nests. The sound is almost deafening as their busy green and yellow bodies dart in and out of their upside down homes.

I peer through one of the thickest trees. I can just see the start of the long stable wing, all doors barred shut. No horses now. I look further down the line of trees and the tall entrance gates come into view.

I remember my grandfather and one of my uncles building them … ‘this is a good place to teach her to drive, nothing can go wrong’ said my grandfather …

How we loved that story! My aunt bravely boarded the old Chevrolet and inched slowly from the farmhouse door towards the new gates. Closer and closer she got, somehow mesmerized by the black wrought iron – until it enfolded her and the Chevrolet in a tight embrace. ‘I’ll never drive again!’ she announced, and fled back to the safety of the house.

Once more I look beyond the last eucalyptus tree, on towards the white pillars. In my minds eye I see some cousins lolling around the wrought iron, waiting and watching for a speck of dust far, far away as visitors battle down the hump-back dirt road with its eighteen gates. But no visitors will be coming here now. No-one will be watching out for the name ‘Geelbek‘ written on the white pillars.

...cousins ... waiting and watching ...
…cousins … waiting and watching …

A stiff breeze has come up, and I hear those huge gates starting to creek forlornly on their rusty hinges. There’s nothing here for me now. No turning back. And finally, it is time to leave.

I jump down, off the dam wall, pick a cutting from the wild red pelargonium that has surrounded the dam forever. I turn, and move towards the gates and the long white chalk road that stretches beyond.

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 22 – Fire!

Right now it is as dry as dry can be. There’s been no rain since I cannot remember when. The earth and our two tiny streams stretch out their arms to a merciless god. ‘When will the rains come?’ is a question on everyone’s lips. Old Enzio shrugs, ‘The moon’s too full,’ he tells me, ‘the rain will come with the new moon.’
‘Two weeks?’ I gasp, ‘Can the garden wait?’

Conscious that our borehole dried up last summer, we water plants selectively. The favoured and the fittest cling on, the weaker do not survive. The ‘favoured’ include geraniums – for what is Tuscany without geraniums? And equally so, what is Tuscany without olives? Despite the searing heat and the temperature soaring towards the forties Pasquale is working the olive groves around us. Up and down the steep lines he goes, working our neighbours’ olives as well his own. He seems to take enormous risks on the steep hillsides, and I often fear for him.

For Pasquale has macular degeneration. He has about 25% vision left in one eye, nothing in the other. Fortunately the noise of his tractor, an ancient Lamborghini, is completely overshadowed by its squeak. As long as I can hear a soft steady hum accompanied by a shrill rusty squeak, I know that he is safe.

... an ancient Lamborghini ...
… an ancient Lamborghini …

Sometimes our hills prove too steep, even for Pasquale’s abject lack of judgement, and then he has to strim the grasses down by hand. All this is in preparation for the olive harvest next month, when huge nets need to be placed below the trees. But the strimming is also to prevent fire, as right now the grass is crackly dry and as brown as a Highveld winter.

One morning I walked up our hill to meet my friend Jazz, who was coming over from Castellina-in-Chianti for lunch. I’d seen Pasquale strimming the olive grove of Sebastiano, although from any distance he wouldn’t really be able to see me. After lunch we’d planned to fetch Jazz’s daughter Giovanna from school.

It’s unusual for anyone to be out and about at this time unless they have to – it’s far too hot, and it is siesta time. But once we got to the fork of our small track, it seemed that siesta time had been forgotten. Just above the road Pasquale was halfway up Sebastiano’s grove, fire all around him and spreading rapidly as the dry grasses caught alight. Jazz and I looked in horror, for instead of beating at the top of the ring of fire, Pasquale was banging away at the bottom. And with an upturned fork.

From the top terrace of the house old Cosimo had seen him and with all good intentions had grabbed his stick and hobbled up the road to help. Well in his eighties and with a pacemaker, the uphill hobble had proved too much for him, and he had collapsed on a nearby rock. ‘Aiuta, aiuta! Subito!’ he said to us. ‘Fetch help! Quickly!’

... old Cosimo on his rock ...
… old Cosimo on his rock …

Now in our valley on a boiling midsummer’s day between two and four, that is simply not possible. Leaving old Cosimo on his rock and Pasquale beating against alarming odds with his fork, we tried the easiest first – Liam. With good South African roots and born on the Highveld he’d know what to do. What’s more he wasn’t sleeping. He was reading. ‘Right.’ he said, and taking two sturdy spades, he set up off up the hill.

Then Jazz and I rushed from door to door. Forgetting the obligatory polite greeting of the big old house, we abandoned the ‘permesso’ part. ‘Sebastiano!’ we yelled, thumping on his front door, ‘Come quickly your olives are on fire!’ No answer. More banging brought his wife Mirella to the window. ‘He’s fast asleep,’ she called, ‘but I’ll try!’ Next on to Matteo – with the same results. Do Italian men sleep while their women watch? Next on – old Enzio. ‘Oh forget him,’ I said to Jazz, ‘Leila’s out and he’s stone deaf, we’d have to tip the bed over to raise him.’

Making our way back we saw Liam, Matteo still in his vest, and Sebastiano, all firefighting on the hill. Each had a spade and a workable system had been set up – Pasquale being placed where he could do the least harm. ‘You see if old Cosimo is ok,’ Jazz said, ‘I’ll go and see if I can help, although they seem to be getting the flames under control now.’

... firefighting on the hill ...
… firefighting on the hill …

But old Cosimo was far from under control. Bent over his rock, hatless and in the blazing sun, he had both his hands clasped to his chest and was gasping for breath in an alarming manner. His face, normally a sort of unhealthy chianti-wine colour, had turned purple, and his eyes were afraid.

Kneeling down on the rough grass in front of him I looked into his eyes. Frightened, with his heart rate probably soaring, he clearly needed air badly, but with his hands in a vice-like grip over his chest, and bent double, he was unlikely to get any. ‘Look at me!’ I said, ‘Keep looking straight into my eyes.’ And taking his hands gently in mine, I tried to raise them up, away from his chest. No luck.

Now here’s where I need more Italian lessons … or is it the pronunciation? ‘Pieno, pieno,’ I said in my best speaking voice.

Piano, piano!’ came from the hillside above me.

What on earth was Jazz on about? And still Cosimo would not part his hands from his chest. ‘Pieno, pieno, Cosimo,’ I said, ‘Trust me. Look into my eyes.’

PIANO! PIANO!’ Came the echo back from the hillside. That was enough.

‘All very well for you,’ I yelled back up the hill, ‘having a good time fire fighting with the boys while I battle away here between life and death. And what on earth are you wittering on about anyway?!’

‘Trust me, trust me!’ mocked Jazz from her lofty perch. ‘He’s never going to trust you, he hasn’t a bloody clue what you are saying!’ And roaring with laughter she delivered her master blow – ‘You’re telling him ‘Full, full’ instead of ‘Slowly, slowly.’ ‘And he’s full of fear anyway, so he probably thinks you’re a right idiot.’

Chastened, I turned to look at him, but by this time, what with all the backchat and the laughter, old Cosimo had calmed down.

And so too, had the fire.

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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