Photo of the Day

Photo of the Day
A place worth weeping for ... No wonder George Clooney chose it!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Hello readers:

This blog is enormous - almost five hundred pages of a book.  So I'm going to make the Venice blog a separate one, starting from this week.   The new blog address is very similar to this one so you won't forget it ...

Please join up there to follow me.  Make it easy for yourself - there's a "follow by email" link which means each time I post you'll get an email automatically.  Then if you want to post comments, that's easy too.  For all those who have wanted to post comments but haven't for some reason been able to, just send me an email as usual and I'll post the comment for you.

So before we both switch a catchup:  I arrive 1st September in Venice. My apartment is all set to receive me!  Sylvia and Giorgio are excited about my coming and said they don't know why I am bothering to go to language school because judging by my emails to them, my Italian is excellent.  The secret is that I have used Google translate!  So University starts on 6th September.  Five days a week, and a cultural activity every day to facilitate the process.

I'm also learning at home with a fantastic free program I downloaded from the internet, with advanced upgrade for a fee,  called BYKI. I'm learning repetitively like a child learns a language and somehow it's sticking in my long term memory.   Instead of learning one to ten and Monday to Saturday in order, so you have to mumble through until you get the word you want, everything is jumbled, and then in the middle the program throws in a rogue word like il scarafaggio.   So far it's my favourite word. It means cockroach.  Hope there aren't too many in Venice!


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Six degrees of separation

A long time ago, when D and I were just beginning the bead business, we had a table, an umbrella, a few shoeboxes of trinkets, and a gig at a market in Sydney's whoop whoop.  If I remember, it was raining, and cold and neither of us wanted to get out of bed that Sunday to drive an hour each way in the hope of making a few dollars.  But we did, and we did, and we did.  And we also met the man, BK, who was to turn our lives around .. and lead me, particularly to this path.  The story goes that he sauntered up to us, fingered our trinkets,  and asked what we were doing with such nice stuff at a place like this.  Would we like a shop? A shop? How? Where? Why? When?  Yes! I'll show you one! Here! Why not! Next week!  We took the shop and his very generous offer ... and the rest is history - and my story.  A few years later D and I were over living in whoop whoop and wanted to return to the bush and the beaches - I'd had such bad luck there. I'd broken my nose very badly when I walked into a glass door, I'd broken my wrist, I'd broken two toes, and a blonde was stalking D so much that I had to get a voodoo doll to giver her stomach aches every time she came near.

We said goodbye to BK, and thanks for all the loaves and fishes and parties. We closed the shop, packed up our home and travelled around India for several months. When we returned, we moved back to the bush and the beaches and began our bead business with renewed vigor, and all was rosy in Stormland for years until much shi+t hit my fans. You've read all about it for months.   Then the Venice Happening.  A lifelong friend commented last week that my Venice Happening was similar to the life changing meeting with BK - a stranger walking into my life and offering a Chance. I agreed with her. And I gave a silent thanks to BK, although I hadn't been in contact with him for YEARS, for pushing me resoundingly on this path ... even though D is not part of it now.

So.  It was so cold this Sunday morning in Sydney, I dared not venture out for my attempted daily walk.  My phone rings.  Do you remember us? Of course. Instantly.  It's BK's wife G.  They're in the area - can they visit now?  

How amazing ... I hadn't thought about their role in the scheme of things since L mentioned it.  They arrived, I brought them up to date, a gallop around the twists and turns, the tunnels and hills, the floods and famines, the losses and prophets since we last talked.  The kids have left home, they are grandparents, their business interests are elsewhere, but life's still pretty okay. I wonder how I affected their lives? Not a corpuscle as much as they affected mine.   I'm astounded that they just reappeared in my life, in the short time I'm here - such important cogs in the early wheels of this incarnation. It was as if they were my guiding spirits, come to check on the progress of my journey.   I now feel I have achieved perfect closure on what led me here.  I have booked my ticket to Venice. My new life awaits.

So here - another thanks to BK for a chance meeting and a chance taken ...  and reinforcement that there really is a grand plan in our lives, and that no matter how convoluted the path ... there is meaning to the journey.  And when a stranger comes to your door, and says - here - take a chance on something different! - you'd be a fool not to. I've proved it every time.

You should try it sometime.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

All power to the goddesses!

Quote of the day:
Whatever you give a woman, she will make greater. If you give her sperm, she'll give you a baby. If you give her a house, she'll give you a home. If you give her groceries, she'll give you a meal. If you give her a smile, she'll give you her heart. She multiplies and enlarges what is given to her. So, if you give her any crap, be ready to receive a ton of sh!t.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Still call Australia Home

It's taken me a week to get over my jet lag .. or perhaps the rigors of travelling for five months.  I've been sleeping 10 hours a night, and am finally rested.  I've caught up with friends, and I've unpacked my winter clothes from storage.  Every time I hear a crow call, it reminds me of the CIAO!!! of Italy.  My iphone has church bells as its ring.   I'm glad to be back, surrounded by my friends, and my truckload of goodies, but I'm looking forward to being back in Italy in September.

When I set out on this journey, it was with the idea of taking a tiny bead and trading it up to something wonderful.  I traded beads with people I'd had significant interactions with and when one person gave me two beads for my one trade, I decided to keep that momentum going and keep one for myself and trade one onwards.  Many of my dealers gave me gifts of beads, or put surprises in my goodies bag.  All of these are going to go in to my travelling bead necklace, which I shall post when I've assembled it.

In Nepal, I traded my first little glass frog bead with Salim for a dzi bead.
In Essaouria, I made the next trade of the dzi bead for two Venetians from the mid 1800's.

I traded the two Venetians for a Roman eye bead and a rare Kiffa bead in Taradount.
I kept the Roman eye bead and traded the kiffa bead for a big chunk of amazonite and a Yemeni silver bead in Marrakech. I kept the Yemeni.

I traded the amazonite for two old double Afghani silver beads in Istanbul.
I traded the old Afghani silver bead to Sarah, in London, for a piece of very old Moroccan fossil amber and a rare moon bead.
I didn't want to trade the pieces Sarah gave me! I'm putting them on my travelling bead necklace.

But the bead journey continued. In Venice, Giorgio gave me an old Lewis & Clark glass bead from the mid 1800's.  I gave Sylvia an old Turkoman silver and carnelian pendant.
They gave me the use of an apartment in Venice, and the keys to their friendship and guidance.
Fair Trade. Very fair trade.

Bali was the vague idea of making a new life out of this journey.  Venice is the remarkable detail.

I couldn't be happier than if I were a boar sniffing truffles mid season!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arrivederci Italia!

And so my Italian stay ends.  For now.  There have been 7050 page views since December.
This morning I threw away my trekking boots that I’ve had since 2002.  They weigh over a kilo and take up easily the size of a large shoebox, and besides, I needed the space for my Roberto Brunelli blue leather drop dead gorgeous food adornments.  When the wind blew I was safe as these boots anchored me to the ground.  I never got bitten by a snake. I walked over glass, over buffalo pats, over muddy patches, and through water. Not once in a decade did they let me slip. In those boots, I walked the Himalayas, twice.  I stomped through India’s heat and dust and hail storms.  I trekked through Balinese rice paddies, Thai hill tribe villages, African savannas,  and deserts and English moors. They have the mud of ancient Cappadocian homes, the slime of Australian swamps, outback dust, wetlands, bushlands, mangroves, Etruscan soils, English moss, and Roman ruins embedded in their soles. 
My boots are a metaphor for this past decade: I think they are, without exception, the only things that never let me down, but now their weight is holding me back. I am travelling light now, with all its nuances.
I should calculate how many kilometres I have walked in them. If I averaged 10km a day - minimum that I walk when travelling or weekending at home, and multiply that by at least a third of a year - 120 days and multiply that by ten, I get 12000 km - which is, I think, something like half way round the world.  Sometimes at the end of a day’s really hard walking, it feels like much more. Venice is hard going. Art galleries are hard going.  The Himalayas are killing.  My boots could easily have gone another 9000 kms as they weren’t even close to disintegrating, so they deserved a decent farewell:  I kicked them off, threw them across the room, massaged my toes, said thanks for all the memories, then I left them outside in the Bellagio rain overnight.  Just before I left for Milan and the airport, I put them on a Medieval step for some person who needed them more to take them on. It’ll have to be a tourist because no Italian would be seen dead in them. What tales my boots would tell, if only they could talk.
Things I wished I’d done this trip:
Kayaked on Lake Como, but it rained most of the time.  A flight over Lake Como ditto
Taken a gondola ride with a beautiful Italian man and spent the night with him at Cipriani.  Plenty of offers, but I don’t think I was ready.  Photographed the whirling dervishes but the time in Istanbul just evaporated. Swum in the Black sea, but it was far too cold.  Biggest biggest faux pas:  not doing Holi.  I can’t believe I didn’t do Holi.  It seems so long ago that my spirit was so crushed I was unable to walk into a wild exuberant crowd.  But that person has gone. And there will always be another Holi, somewhere. And this person will go in there, boots and all ... 
Things I am sorry I have done:  nothing.  Niente.  I’ve had a ball.

A place I shouldn't have gone but had no control over:  The Lizards and Flies village in Morocco.  I still have holes in my skin, and the bites still drive me nuts with itching as apparently those biting monsters also laid eggs in my skin.  UGH.  I'm also now a non meat eating person - I still have nightmares about those intestines. 

Things I'm delighted to have done:  everything I did except the above!

Best parts in no particular order:  

Hot air ballooning in Cappadoccia when I knew I could do anything alone ... because I wasn't alone any more. I had my happy self.

Meeting Sarah who taught me so much and led me to silver pastures I never knew existed.

Learning on the bead trail in Morocco and finding I had a nose for treasures.

Meeting Giorgio and Sylvia in Venice and knowing instantly that this would change my life in a wondrous way.

Walking through Villa Melzi in Bellagio and discovering serenity.
Having insane fun and laughter with Luda in Istanbul and knowing we had more pulling power than a mighty tugboat.

Leaving Nepal!So sick of being so sick!

Doing ridiculous right hand turns all over Italy with Dawn, and the hilarious, delightful results. Like putting on weight and not caring!

Most of all:  not being afraid to go out on the longest, skinniest limb I have ever dared - with a broken heart and the loss of my my home, my car, my known career path, shaky health, and no idea of the road ahead. 

I am emotionally the best I have been in a long time.  I am truly, madly, deeply happy.  I have made exceptional friends.  I have made an adventure with memories to last a lifetime.  I am once again a photographer.  I have become a collector.  I will be a better designer, and a better known designer.  My future is golden, delicious, exciting.  I am unafraid of anything. And I am only halfway through the year I'd given myself to recover.

I took a risk a day and it changed my life.

I leave for Sydney now.  I won't post much from there, as I'll be very busy making arrangements for phase two.  I return to Italy in 8 weeks and will post again when I arrive. 

That's Amore!

Right outside my door, Bellagio
It's five am and I'm waking in large room in what was once a stone home for 15c fishermen. Around me are the enormous, ornate villas of the Italian aristocracy, who spent their time organising frescoes on their ceilings and stupendous artworks for their walls.  They'd come here, to Lake Como, escaping the heat or cold of Milan, just 60km away.  
Old Como smuggling boats
Or they'd help smuggle Jews to Switzerland, driving them over the border, just 30km away. I can hear the water lapping, rain dripping off mossy tiles, the occasional whine of a speedboat.

I'm leaving this morning for "home".  Sydney.  I don't know if I'm excited or sad.  Home isn't a concept for me, and that itself is an alien feeling.  I've always had a lover or a husband and children to return to. I don't have that and I don't have a home, or a car.  When I return I will have to find somewhere to live, remove my remaining bits of furniture from storage, start making a living again.  For months my questions have been "what now?"  In three days it will be "how now?"  My children are grown and making their own lives, and I don't really fit in there. I think they'd like me to be the sort of mother who'd plant their vegetables and babysit their cats, but I've spent so long travelling, I'd want to take off before the tomatoes turned red.

I've been away from "home" since January.  Almost six months.  I am so comfortable about the rigours of travel now, and the delight in different environments, that I could carry on for what seems like indefinitely. My cases are a bit heavy, because I've fallen in love with Italian fashion and I am delighting in looking sophisticated and elegant again.  I've bought a few lovely pieces of clothing; chosen by weight, crushability and suitability for the unknown path ahead.  My hair is long; if I have to tie it up, it goes into a tortoiseshell clip at the side of my head - only Americans wear ponytails.  I've found that I am less invisible with a bit of makeup, and as my eyes are my "best" feature, I am making them up to advantage.

Bellagio rooftop
Yesterday I was taken for an Italian who can speak very good English.  I'm greeted in Italian, and I'm replying with confidence, and with the correct accent, but that about sums up the extent of my linguistic journeying.  All that will improve when I return to Venice in September, and attend the language school.

If I wasn't returning to Italy in nine weeks, I'd be very depressed about returning to Sydney today because I'd be returning to where I was, and left, six months ago.

So here I am getting down on my knees and thanking every person I've met along the way, and every experience that happened as a result, that has brought me to be able to return here to begin a life I could never have imagined. If you asked me what I wanted most in the world now, I couldn't come up with a better answer than I'm going to Create and Learn in Venice.  I could add that I would like to be discovered by an aristocrat and be ensconsed in a villa, but I don't know if I'd really like that, right now. I'm still not quite "ready" for that sort of adventure, and right now, too, I don't want anything to come in the way of returning here for Phase Two of this Great Big Adventure.

Garden at Villa Melzi, Bellagio
When I was 21, I left South Africa to visit my father in Kent. I'd booked to go skiing in Switzerland. I was attached to a young man who went to America, from where he proposed, and asked me to go there to get my ring. My father said, don't be mad, go skiing first. I didn't.  Instead I spent what would have been the skiing week sheltering from a terrible tornado in Toledo, Ohio.  The relationship didn't last because I met G. Years later, I was in London, again, working on British TV, when G asked me to return to South Africa to marry him. My father said, don't be mad, you have a job that other young girls would kill for.  I returned, and that blew up and I stayed in South Africa until I married a man who took me to the windy part of Australia and I never returned to London.  Years later, still in windy Australia, I fell in love with a Maltese man who had a family castle on Comino that he'd offered me to renovate. We'd live in Europe and I'd teach in the castle. That life turned upside down when I went away for a long weekend and he met someone else and married her before I'd returned. I was more upset about losing the chance of a castle than losing him.

All my "I shouldn't have done that" decisions were based on my affections for a man. I will never do that again. If things go haywire I want to be able to say I caused that, not that I followed my heart into a decision that changed my life in a negative way.  So for now, I'm putting thoughts of an Italian aristocrat into a very nice Italian shoebox, storing it in the boot of a very nice Italian car, and going my own way.

Outside Bellagio apartment
I don't know if I have fundamentally changed in the past six months. Certainly, I look much healthier. My skin isn't grey. My eyes are clear and sparkling.  I laugh a lot. I've put on a bit of weight but I actually prefer to look buxom and womanly than grey and miserable. I have a radiating confidence in my ability. Someone asked me how I was "going to manage" in Venice. I have no idea. I'll do each day as it happens with the knowledge that it is my choice.

Ending phase one here in Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Como has been  ..... I'm struggling for words. I am surrounded by beauty the likes of which I haven't seen. Pale mists lick the lake shores, and wisp around marble statues in the gardens of Villa Mezzi.  The waters of the lake change colours every hour, from grey to blue to green to mauve to taupe; the surface is pocked and smooth and churned and swept and angry and mirrored. Mountains rush up to the sky to fetch snow and crash down the other side in dense forests of oak.  At the base of the mountains, dipping their toes in the lake, are hundreds of little villages and towns, each with a distinctive personality and style.

Typical Varenna lane
Yesterday, our final day, Dawn and I caught the ferry to Varenna, in such dense rain that it was like travelling through the fog. We'd spent the morning on Bellagio shopping for lace lingerie confections, as my K Mart uber uplifts were ditched in Istanbul. We lunched upstairs in the Heaven Room at Divine Comedy, on provolone, pizza, formaggio in various guises and liberal glasses of vino bianco, as the rain hurtled across the rooftops and inverted umbrellas, drowning out the love songs to Italy played on American radio. Dawn and I were sharing my Kathmandu silver collapsible umbrella, until a shopkeeper decided that it didn't match her orange and black outfit and gave her a bright orange umbrella of her own.

Varenna on Lake Como
The weather has been mostly imperfect since we’ve bee on the lake; but with its own mysterious beauty. On my last day on the lake - in teeming rain - I left my camera in the apartment; knowing that I’d be sorry, but lugging the extra 3 kilos a day have recently been exhausting me. But Varenna in the rain is possibly more beautiful than in the sun.  The houses dip their foundations in verdant hydrangeas of every colour of purple, lilac and pink, deeply saturated colours in the rain.  Pathways were mirrors reflecting the exquisite 15c villas, the worn walkways were dappled with pink petals and grey water lapped our feet. Fishermen leaned into the rain from overhanging rocks curtained with ivy, hauling their catch.  Simple shops selling jewellery or silk scarves perched on medieval rock promontories, with views through ancient arches across the water to villages a ferry ride away.  Light caught glasses of campari, bounced off umbrellas and kayaks and reflected off stones. Even the ducks shone wetly.
Terrace at Hotel du lac, Varenna
I stood on the terrace of Hotel Du Lac, looking up to the mountains, some still covered with snow, out across the water where yachts were looming in the rain, and up to the villas. A wedding was to begin in a few minutes and a sultry singer was warming up her Italian and English repertoire. Rose petals fell at my feet from mossy ancient urns. Drizzle curled my hair.  Arias rang in the air.  Tears welled in my eyes.  And rolled down my cheeks.
On my last day in Italy, I stood on one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my extensive travels this year - possibly even in my life ... and shed tears.  For being in Italy. For the long months I’ve been away. For the joy of being here, in this miraculous place. For having to go “home” - in name only, if only temporarily.  I don’t want to leave Italy.  It’s been the most spiritually rejuvenating place of my travels, where I have burst out of my tangled past into a sunny clearing of wondrous possibilities. 

Varenna from ferry
We walked up the slippery, dark lanes, down the uneven cobbles, under mossy arches and across wobbling bridges. Verenna is the quaint fisherman’s village of the lake, compared to the haute and pomp of Bellagio. But I loved it more.  Halfway to the ferry to return to Bellagio, as the clouds darkened and lowered,  we turned back to eat our last supper at a waterside restaurant. The rain came in so hard visibility diminished to fifty metres, and the yachts on the lake seemed to vaporise in the mist. The mountains across the lake vanished into a fog, then returned looming to tantalise,  then vanished again under a torrent of rain. Jetties were submerged, and drenched ducks came into the restaurant to shelter. I took pictures on my iphone.  When the rain eased slightly we rushed back across the rolling jetties and cascading rockside walkways to get the second last ferry to Bellagio for the night, battling under our soaked umbrellas and squelching in our battered shoes.  

Missing our ferry by minutes, we had an hour to kill until the last one or we’d have to spend the night there.  Two sopping cyclists who’d ridden from 2000metres high and Switzerland limped into the shelter, shivering and soaked to the bone. They hobbled across the road with their bikes to the Hotel Olievo, for deserved coffees. They were seated at a warm table and served their coffees immediately. Like two orphans in the drain, we watched them with envy, then decided to do the same.

So there was still time for another misadventure!  There were four or five empty tables at the restaurant. It was almost nine pm and the heavens were emptying themselves on the Hotel Olievo in Veranno.  Rain coursed in rivers past the terrace where we shivered, cars slushed and made mini tsunamis into the flower beds. No sane person would be out on a night like this.  We sat down at a table. The following happened completely in Italian, which made it much more dramatic and theatrical.  As with all Italian interactions, the more excited the conversation, the higher the volume and the faster the speed. The woman who had shooed Dawn away a week ago when she needed a loo stop, had the memory of an elephant and still had it in for Dawn, obviously because she was much prettier, sexier and obviously had a life. Glowering fr behind her (mama mia) cheap reading glasses, she told us to leave as we were not eating.  But we want coffee! we said - you haven’t even asked us!  Go, she said, you can’t sit here - practically lifting me by my shoulders -  you must sit there, pointing to a table half of which was in the rain, the other half of which was a receptacle for the dripping awning. It’s wet!  said Dawn. The chairs are wet!  Bo, with a shrug, if you want coffee, you sit in the rain. This is not a bar. 

You want a drink, you go up the hill to the bar - pointing into the veiled wet distance where we couldn’t even read signs. I pointed to the cyclists, warm and sheltered. But they’re having coffee!  The woman huffed. They are guests in this hotel!  You lying cow was the literal translation, they’re not they’re catching the ferry with us. If you want to sit, you sit at that table in the rain, curling her nose up as if we had leprosy or as if (mama mia) were wearing bad shoes.
Dawn refused to sit. I pulled the table further under the shelter, but the woman pushed it back into the rain. Dawn said, I will stand here and embarrass all of you until you give us a table.  The cyclists picked up their coffees and said, if you don’t give them a table, we will take our coffees to the ferry station. The woman said no no, you stay here. With a look of loathing, she offered us to share the table with the cyclists. We said, No, there are four tables here that we can sit at but you want us to sit in the rain?
Dawn told her we worked in tourism. I told her I was doing updates for travel books. Dawn added a few words like donkey, and moron, and idiot, and worst Italian insult of all - you are letting your side down.  My brother slept with your mother - or words to that effect. The other diners had stopped eating or watching the rain and were laughing and shaking their heads at the goings on. The woman stomped away.  Other people who had come after we’d arrived already had their coffees or menus and wine.  I sat at the wet table. Dawn stood behind me with her orange umbrella. The woman eventually returned and with a gritted teeth Senori, commanded we sit down, this time at a less wet table, slightly out of the rain.  We ordered a hot chocolate and a macchiato. They cost as much as the pizza we’d had for dinner along the jetty, which came with chips and olives and a salsa for the bread sticks. The woman threw the bill down with the drinks, and said Pay Now. What? Do you think we’re going to run away? She hovered over my shoulder. I paid and told her she was the rudest woman I had ever met and she should be ashamed of herself. The rain crashed down, the ferry lurched in and when we left, Dawn, who had been scheming to totally unhinge the woman, said .... I’m going to give her a very very dirty look. That should fix her.
Bellagio, by ferry, in the rain
We played charades on the ferry to Bellagio. The windows were fogged up, pale lights teased in the distance, seen through the little rivulets of condensation. Alone upstairs - apart from the shivering cyclists on the other side of the ferry - as only the senseless or desperate would travel on a night like this, we made our own theatre.  Dawn mimed four words, a big circle, waves. I shouted out - Perfect Storm!  Mo-By Dick-Us!  She ran her hands over her body. I shouted out Bo Derek!  10!  She made rolling movements again. I shouted out Shark!  Pirates of the Caribbean! She pointed upwards, then fluffed her hair out. I shouted out Ancient Mariner!  God, you’re hopeless, she laughed, holding her sides, it’s Under the Tuscan Sun!  SUN? Mama mia!  Non sole! I haven’t seen sun for days!
Walk way to San Giovanni, every day
Back on Bellagio, the taxis had gone to bed so we happily walked the 2 km uphill back to the apartment in the rain.  Swanky cars swooshed by as we huddled against the ancient mossy walls that bordered the Villa Melzi, splashing us. Moss dripped from the arched bridges. We passed again the enormous aquaduct that straddles someone’s garden, so large it can be seen from across the lake, and squelched down the winding lanes to the cobbles and the private church that looks like a small White house where the owners of Villa Melzi go to give thanks for their particular slice of paradise.  Up the 600 year old steps, into the garden of ancient olives and giant magnolias, to make some strawberry and cherry tea from the leftovers in our fridge.  

Delsene coffee shop, below our apartment
Soaked, happy to be here, sad to be leaving.  That's amore ...

Paradise Lost

From Umbria, we trained to Varenna.  When Dawn asked me to come to Venice to meet her, I had to change my ticket to Sydney so that I left from Milan.  Milan, hmm, she said. That’s pretty close to somewhere wonderful.  I’ll take you there, she grinned, after Umbria, but it’s a surprise. 
We arrived at Torontola, the stop for Umbria, from Venice, in the rain, and left it in the sun, after some tortured negotiations about tickets to Milan and onwards.  Train travel in Italy is fraught with changed time tables, tickets that don’t guarantee seating, stops that may not happen, platforms that change just as the train is coming in which involves hurtling myself and my luggage down the stairs and up the other side before the whistle blows, risking life limb and vertebrae to get onto the train, wondering how I’m supposed to drag 25kg of hated luggage through a passage that is as wide only as a wedge heel, and finding out that the 6 hour train that promised food, doesn’t.  It’s all part of being in Italy and I follow Dawn like a love struck puppy as she works the system.  

Why are you wearing a short white pleated skirt when its raining and we have 60kg of luggage between us and three stops and we don’t know if we have a seat or what platform the train will be on, and how come we’re sitting in first class when we’ve booked second?  Shhh, she grins.  This skirt has got me a lot of help in the past.  Sure enough, at the top of a flight of stairs, when we are almost being mowed down in the rush of other passengers, blonde Dawns does a little Marilyn Monroe twirl, and instantly her giant pink case is carried by a total stranger, the tickets are sorted, nobody dares move us from our non guaranteed seat as she unpacks the cherries she’s brought for the journey.
We changed at Florence for Milan.  I forgot to write about the ride to Torontola when we first sat in a coach where an ancient man, stretched across the seats, was gasping his last breaths as his daughter watched anxiously out the window. Dawn and I smelled death and decay and would rather stay in the aisle for four hours than sit with them. Later a whole coach was disabled and sealed off,  so all its passengers were moved into a few crowded coaches, while we wondered if he had actually taken his last ride.   In Florence station, I sat on the suitcases swinging my red shoes to detract would-be gypsies, thieves and pickpockets from thinking I was a naive tourist, while Dawn rushed around changing tickets so that we’d arrive earlier, at a different station, on a different train, which meant we wouldn’t have to take a taxi, just a ferry, but she had to pay a bit more, and maybe she could get credit for the ticket we don’t use, and she could use it later, but then again she has a Europass, but then we’ll have to get a lift from the ferry, so we better hurry because that’s the train, right now, first class that looks and sounds like second and the conductor is blowing his whistle and waving his green bat, and there is nobody around to appreciate her white frilly skirt and take pity on her huge pink suitcase that goes up to her waist, so we haul our cases up the four metal stairs and wedge them into place taking up two passenger seats and lurch into two window seats to spend the journey talking to an Italian architect from Venice who travels the world with her husband who makes sails for yachts. And who says that where we are going is the most spectacular place in Italy.
We arrive at Varenna, in pouring, drenching rain, running down hill over the cobbles after our runaway cases that have had enough abuse, thankyouverymuch, to last a lifetime. The road ends, before it branches into tiny lanes that weave up through the ancient village,  at a ferry terminal, lurching in the rain.  Our clothes are soggy. Our hair is frizzy. Luckily, I have proved to Dawn that my shoes are really Italian leather because the colour hasn’t bled onto my skin. 
We’re on the shores of a very very large grey lake. Mountains race to the sky and crash back down into the sea.  Magnificent villas buried in hydrangeas cling to dripping forests. Motor boats, ferries and fishermen break the surface of the lake. Snow tips the mountain tops. Houses are painted pink, cerise, salmon, cream, pale yellow, ochre. Oleander bushes the size of houses scatter the cobbles with petals and magnolias the size of oak trees drop their blooms in the water.
I’m on Lake Como, rowing distance to Switzerland,  home of the terribly rich and some incredibly famous, and eccentrics and recluses and people who just want to be here because this is where earth was invented, and I think I’m going to faint, surrounded by so much beauty. 
I stand like the French Lieutenant’s Woman on the prow, ignoring the drizzle as the car ferry churns its way across the water to Bellagio, built at the fork of the lake. Ochre and yellow villas loom out of the rain as the ferry pulls up at the quay: we’re met by Ornello, in whose apartment we’re staying at San Giovanni, one km from Bellagio.  She’s clad from head to toe in oilskins, and wellies, and flings our luggage into the minute boot of her Fiat, tears up the road under bridges and down winding lanes so narrow the mirrors have to be tucked in, and deposits us in the 300 year old apartment.  I fling open yet another set of shutters, lean way out and breathe deep, seeing the boats, and mists, and silver water. I go up to Dawn and hug her.  Grazie mille.
The apartment is part of the Villa Melzi complex, a magnificent 17th century villa, built by a man who was crazy about gardening, and every morning the grounds are swept by hand, every out of place leaf picked up, every azalea inspected for blight or bugs, every Japanese maple trimmed and plucked, every white marble statue dusted. Below the apartment is a coffee shop, and a pizza restaurant under creaking vines, where old boats bob in their shallow water.
One day we’re taken up to Bel Vedere, a restaurant way up the mountains by F. He arrived here in the sixties, fell in love with the place, kept coming back over the years as his fortunes changed in America, and then met his girlfriend who ran the local laundry. He's a lively raconteur and has become a vivid fixture in the village. 

You see this here, he says pointing to a house, this is where Antonio (all names changed to protect identities) lives. Antonio’s wife left him and now he grows olives, you must taste his olive oil, the best in the world over there is CIAO! he leans his huge frame out of the tiny car and slaps the hand of the man selling fruit from a truck, that’s Marcello, he’s having trouble with the tax department so had to leave his villa to rot and he’s living with the daughter of .. Bon Jello! he shouts to a kid wheeling past on his bicycle, are you gonna play tennis tonight with me, that’s Giorgio, his mother is French and she ran off with the baker, now living in Milan, her husband Luciano sold me my goats because I can’t mow such steep lawns see those lawns there mine are just like that except the fken goats eat everything else as well, oh he’s back!  that restaurant is run by Luigi when he wanted to renovate it and put on a third story the communale got wind of it and he had to tear it down, there’s that tree that fell on top of Maria’s house and killed her mother, what a story so Maria had to go and work in Luigi’s restaurant and now she makes the best breads in town, you must try them, specially with Antonio’s olive oil, Oh! there’s that old man, CIAO, Bon Jerimino!  Ya wanna ride? he pulls up alongside a wheezing puffing octogenarian leaning heavily on his olive wood cane as he makes his way painfully up the impossible mountain road, I see this old dude every day he walks miles to visit his friends, sometimes I give him a lift come on old fella, claps his hands, hurry up, we haven’t got all day, move over we’ll put him in the back because he usually doesn’t smell too good, old man gets in, whiff follows him, old man starts shouting ..
In Italian: I went to visit my friends, but then I had to hit one of them with my stick because he was rude to me and I don’t like people when they are rude to me, every day i walk down the hill thankyou for giving me a lift, my god if you didn’t do that I would probably have died of a heart attack I used to do it when I was a young boy but now I am nearly ninety and when I got to visit my friends they weren’t there and some were there but they were eating lunch now I have to come back for lunch all the way up the hills an  my heart isn’t so good and thankyou my god for giving me this lift nice legs the blonde girl has is she yours my wife used to have legs like that but my god she’s dead now you should have eaten her tagiatelle best in the village and I had to hit my friend with my cane because he was rude, who’s the redhead in the front why is she laughing until she is crying doesn’t she respect old men if she doesn’t shut up I’m going to hit her with my stick too or maybe I’ll just put my gnarled old hand on this blondie’s legs then we’ll see if my cane is still working my god thankyou for rescuing me from sudden heart attack death on this road, it’s steeper than it used to be, I used to take my goats up here, my wife made goat that all the villagers wanted to eat why is the redhead laughing so much? Let me out I’ve had enough I will walk the rest of the way ... end Italian.
F's contribution is interlaced with the hitchhiker: There you are old man, out you get, you can walk down the road now to your stone house, careful you don’t fall on your cane what a crazy old man I sometimes give him a lift his wife used to make the best goat stew we also have 37 cats which drive me crazy and eleven dogs and they sleep on the bed I don’t mind but you know it can drive you crazy CIAO BON Jeeorno! there’s RIccardo, his father owns that villa up there his second wife comes from Como, his first wife ran off with the fisherman ....and so on.  

He “took” us to lunch at a crack in the mountain with views down to Bellagio where the speciality was wild boar (oh, yea, I could think of a wild boar that isn’t even Italian) rabbit, home made cheeses and the famous olive oils Fred was going on about. Th grappa flowed, he ordered more dishes that we said we didn’t want and couldn’t eat, and the grappa flowed more, and so did the wine, and platters of cheese came out, and home made honey and jams, and finally when we dragged our bursting bodies from the table, he disappeared to talk to his friend who owned the restaurant with a Thankyou For Lunch, ladies, and left me with the bill for what would otherwise be spent on a very nice Italian leather handbag, indeed.  I didn’t say a word all the way down, apart from aren’t we going to be too late for Como, Dawn, if we don’t try and get the ferry now? which he ignored as he took us to the cycling museum, and the tennis club where I was swarmed by flies and deafened by kids playing pin ball machines and other kids screaming and splashing in the pool and the buzz of flies, and was almost traded to his CIAO! Bon Jeeorno! amici who sells melons in the street.  Fred hasn’t learned a word of Italian, and doesn’t want to. He says his tongue just can’t get around the words.  His girlfriend is learning English ... slowly.