Overseas, nothing is where you think it oughta be. Light switches disappear. Bench heights rise and fall. Window latches are weird. You look left, and a car skids in from the right. You’re always in the way; slightly off-kilter.
This is why you travel. To be shocked out of the regular. All of a sudden you hate your routine and conclude that everything in Melbourne is horrific and gauche.
Europe is a reminder of all the things we’ve left behind. Reading paperbacks in public. Taking your time. Second hand bookstores instead of phone retailers. Buying one individual thing from one individual shop. Cobblestones. Tiny, classy billboards. Going home for lunch. Dogs with balls. Bread and fruit that goes off within ½ a day. Cold drinking water flowing from bull’s head fountains. No TV, just music.
To get into our flat on the Corso San Maurizio we step through a small door inside a huge door, walk through a covered stone archway that cries out for the clatter of hooves, cross one courtyard, then another. Neighbouring flats in stone and beautifully weathered walls overlook two flowering chestnut trees, two black cats, and a knot of matchbox Fiats parked wherever they please. Our front door opens with a theatrically large key.
The stand-up coffee bar on the corner is more a petrol pump for espressos than a relaxing time-out from the day. From our front gate we can see the city’s major landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, which punctuates the horizon of the snowy Alps in the distance. Switzerland is yonder.
Last week a wee man stopped me in the street and said “Complimenti! Si beLLIssiMA!” I thanked him and glided off, chuckling about Italy.
We’re a very short walk to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where we’ve already sorted out “the good aperitif place” as opposed to “the student-y one.” For €6-10 anywhere in town you can get a Spritz or a powerful Negroni, plus an all-you-can eat buffet that lasts from 6:30-8:30 (when the restaurants are still empty). By that time we’re full of grissini and tartare and exhausted from using our 3 phrases in Italian and just generally being in a foreign place and head home to read.
The mercato Porta Palazzo, the weekly fresh food and veg market, is the cheapest in town. Everything costs €1-3 a kilo, asparagus, artichokes, olives, huge sweet strawberries, melons, olives, leeks, everything. The deli section has one shop that just sells horse meat. We bought a burrata as big as a cantaloupe, and a deboned rabbit rolled in prosciutto.The fencing club is 10 minutes away on an old orange tram with metal chairs more like 1930s bar stools inside. I’ve fenced in two informal comps in two weeks.
Everyone in the club, from the Maestro to the squad, has their twin back in my club. Women fence very differently to men, and are as elegant as ballet dancers. I am an Orc in comparison. Out of respect to me, some people score bouts in a mix of English, Italian, and French.
My lack of Italian doesn’t seem a huge impediment to people – everyone is extremely friendly. Everything takes much longer than back home and is far more sociable. Once an opponent is selected and gear adjusted, there may be a nice long chat on the piste before play. The short metal pistes are jointed every few metres, and there’s no defined back line and no halt to the bout. I wonder what would happen if I chased someone around the room.
It’s good to do everything at my own pace on my own. I go for a walk when I feel, I work when I feel, I draw when I like. It’s lonely sometimes without someone to talk to during the day, but there’s always lots to do and think about.