It seems that nothing is forever. So it was that I found myself in mid February driving down through France on the long road to The Hamlet, to pack up my remaining belongings and return to the UK, my Italian adventures almost at an end. Bittersweet, but a time for deep reflection and certain profound realisations. Driving down hundreds of miles of French motorway I was lulled into a sort of trance, alert enough to drive safely, but with my brain in a sort of overdrive. I knew this trip was going to be my last to The Hamlet and I was impatient to get it over with and head back up the long road home as soon as possible.
My heart twisted as I finally turned off the last of several motorways and began climbing my way up the familiar winding roads, up high into the foothills of the Emilian Appenines. A UNESCO biosphere and area of outstanding natural beauty, clear sparkling air, superb traditional food and wine and friendly welcoming people. I would miss all this, but nothing in life is forever and the time had come to move on, back to my homeland and, for better or worse, Brexit!
As I turned into the gravelled driveway my gentle neighbour, her small son, firmly attached to her hip, turned to wave, a huge smile lighting up her lovely face. The farm cats, who over the winter, had become the size of furry melons, stretched indolently in the afternoon sunshine and, recognising my car, sat bolt upright- for they somehow knew that I’d arrived bearing gifts! I’d had to find a space in my already-stuffed car for cat treats and cat biscuits, for I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on their beautiful little faces if I’d turned up empty-handed! A cacophony ensued as they rushed over, falling over each other in their attempts to get to me first – and that was before I’d even opened the front door. So, of course, I yielded to their demands and laid out two long and substantial lines of biscuits for them. Dutifully they look their places, the pecking order the same as before and hoovered up the lot in record time.
My neighbour’s two elder children came to help me unload the car and, as I walked into the converted barn, I was grateful for the warmth. The huge woodburner had been lit and the whole house was cozy and welcoming. Yet there was an air of sadness and abandonment about it, almost as if it knew that I was leaving.
I busied myself with turning on the gas for the water heater and radiator in the bedroom and bathroom, for, that at that altitude , it can be really cold at night – even well into the Spring months. Supper magically appeared, I found a bottle of wine, lit some candles, threw another couple of logs into the woodburner and settled onto the sofa with a huge sign of relief.
The journey from home had taken 3 days. 6 hours driving a day and 3 nights in unfamiliar hotel rooms had taken their toll and I concluded that I was definitely too old to do this again. Staring into the flames of the candles I again felt the pang of knowing that this chapter of my life was ending and I wasn’t yet ready to get excited about the next chapter. So I mused on what my time in the Hamlet had meant to me.
Through the kindness of friends I’d been privileged to be introduced to an area, little-known even to the Italians, and to live in a place like something from a novel – a small hamlet situated around an imposing 16th century Manor House. Where the owner, a wonderfully witty and intelligent octogenarian, came to live each summer; the rest of the year, his children, grandchildren and associated family came and went for parties and weekends and retreats. The caretakers, my neighbours, presided over the main house, their house, my “barn” and an assortment of outbuildings, courtyards, a loggia and a huge orchard. As well as several fields and a couple of lakes – oh and several rows of vines! It had been heavenly for the time I had made it my home, but my Anglo Saxon DNA was busy informing me that I was too old for living abroad now and that I needed the stability of my own culture henceforth.
The next morning as I opened the kitchen door to the orchard I was greeted by a shocking sight. All the trees had been severely cut back, pruned and pollarded. Necessary but somewhat draconian, especially as the first buds and blossoms of Spring had been tentatively appearing. The massive old fig tree outside my bedroom window, which had provided such welcome and perfumed shade in the heat of the summer, looked like something from a war zone. It’s gnarled branches grotesquely silhouetted against the sky, like an arthritic giant with hideously deformed hands. I could almost hear its spirit groaning piteously. Even the birds seemed shell shocked, their beloved bucolic and safe habitat reduced to a pale imitation of itself. Was such severe management necessary? Yet in that moment I knew that I could not have stayed on, somehow the radical pruning had severed my link with the place and, suddenly, I couldn’t wait to pack up and leave.
It was all over in a few days, I’d given away most of my furniture and accoutrements to my neighbour who was sadly grateful. Sadly because she and I had become like mother and daughter. She is one of the most gorgeous souls I have ever met, kind, gentle, sensitive and with a wonderful and joyous sense of the ridiculous. She’d watched me arrive, become adopted by the feline posse, take dozens of kittens to be rehomed, act as a recovery room for newly-spayed mothers and even saving William, the magnificent tabby Tom cat, from dying of septic wounds sustained in his bid to remain Alpha male. She’d watched me and our elderly landlord become the best of friends, eat together, drink together, go off on adventures together and generally enjoy each other’s company and friendship.
She’d seen me playing silly games with her three children and their myriad small cousins. She and I had, many times, sat out in the loggia in the cool of the evening, putting the world to rights and discussing our hopes, fears and dreams. She’d brought me a share of their supper on the evenings when she knew I was too tired – or lazy – to cook for myself. Her pizza was simply the best I’d ever eaten, her sparkling eyes and shy laugh a constant delight. Her husband, a small wiry man, hugged me tight with tears in his eyes when he came home that evening, telling me that my departure was a sadness too deep to contemplate, for I had worked my way into their hearts and their stories. The foreign woman of a certain age who had arrived from nowhere, who had become part of The Hamlet family and who was now leaving.
The morning of my departure, I walked quietly around the cluster of buildings, once again marvelling at the way the sun lit the age-old stone walls, how the creeper on the old stables was beginning to recover from the harsh winter weather, followed everywhere by the feline posse, all looking at me as if they knew I would not be returning. A couple of them, semi feral, allowed me to briefly stroke them and Old William sat and looked me straight in the eye. Bidding me farewell.
With tears in my eyes, I hugged my neighbours goodbye, whispered “Addio” to the house and its ghosts, told the cats to keep hunting mice and rats and, as I climbed into the car, I noticed that in the dust, their paw prints were all over the bonnet, effectively marking me as one of theirs.
“Ciao cara” sobbed my neighbour, tears pouring down her face as the little one looked perplexed at his Mamma’s outpouring of emotion. I wiped my own eyes, hugged her hard once again and got into the car. Putting it into gear I drove slowly off, saying a silent goodbye to all my special places, savouring the panorama of the gentle rolling hills, the snow covered mountains in the distance – a secret place where my soul had been healed and my heart found peace. Waving at the baker and his wife in the organic Bakery, I drove through the village and down the steep mountain road heading for the stretch of brown haze, the pollution, that marked the motorway and the end of something indefinable. A place of magic and laughter and stars and of long suppers under the loggia with good meat, good wine and good friends.
Arriving at the motorway junction some 40 minutes later, reality returned and my magical Hamlet slipped back into its own time. A memory to be treasured and fiercely protected. I simply hadn’t realised what I’d had, until I lost it.