I stood in the sunshine of northern Italy, stretching and generally trying to convince my limbs that the convoluted mass they now found themselves in was not the norm, after sharing a 737 cabin with 188 other souls the simple process of standing upright was a serious physiotherapic feat. I was beginning a four day press trip to Croatia, flying into Venice Treviso airport where I was to be collected by the Croatian Tourist Board and driven to the Istrian Peninsula. I was then to be shown the best in wine, olive oil and hopefully hospitality. Hospitality was something I had long associated with Italy and the Italian people, but the contempt shown by one individual towards the Croatian minibus or rather its numberplate took me aback. Whether this was an isolated incident or indicative of a general feeling I was to find out later.
After a gruelling lighting tour of Istria from Pula to the Motovun Forest I was once more delivered to Venice Treviso Airport, weighed down with brochures, olive oil samples and luggage I watched as the minibus and its Croatian driver made a hasty retreat. Being a little concerned about a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull I inquired about my flight.
Treviso Airport Arrivals
What to do? The low cost airline washed their hands of me, they didn’t care if I starved to death in a gutter something which at that moment seemed a distinct possibility. When I travel I am always up to or near my baggage allowance, I pack a spare of everything it is a manifestation of my paranoia. The physical effect was the dragging of a 15 kilogram wheeled suitcase resembling a perambulating coffin and the wearing of a ten kilogram camera backpack while trying to find somewhere to stay near the airport which appeared to be an industrial zone populated with automobile franchises. After walking in circle after endless circle, puffing under the weight of the backpack and panting from the effort of towing my wheeled sarcophagus I found a likely looking establishment, only 300 metres from the airport terminal.
It was an agricultural smallholding, incongruous amidst the industrial units, set back from the road offering peace and tranquillity in the heart of this bustling Treviso suburb. I checked in, then made for the airport and its shop to replenish my supply of toiletries which I had abandoned in Croatia in order to reduce the weight of my luggage. On my return I couldn’t find my room, according to the key-fob it was number ten, but number ten didn’t exist. I thought I may have crossed into a parallel universe, a universe where hotels only ever had nine rooms but I soon discounted this theory and decided on practical action. I simply tried the key in all of the doors in the central section of the first floor. I heard a few hurried scuffles from the odd room as I tried the key, I didn’t try and contemplate why, my persistence was soon rewarded and a door yielded or rather slid open. On the door was stencilled Privato either the proprietor had opened up some staff rooms in response to the crisis or it was a subterfuge to confuse the tax man, I never found out which.
The owner was one Guido Tavaro a seventy-three year old Greco-Roman wrestler who had represented Italy in the Rome and Tokyo Olympics of 1960 and 1964. His certificates and photographs festoon the wall of the breakfast room. He however couldn’t speak English and I hadn’t any Italian but I do speak Spanish with which we managed to communicate. Our conversations proved interesting and bystanders even joined in offering their interpretations of our bilingual interchange. It was interesting asking for butter at the breakfast table, the Spanish is mantequilla which meant nothing to Guido while the Italian is burro this however means donkey in Spanish. The whole episode was surreal but very enjoyable.
Guido and his wife lived at the guest house while his three daughters appeared twice a day to make beds, dust and polish. I spent my seven day exile shuttling to and fro the airport rebooking cancelled flights or enjoying the sun on Guido’s veranda. He was remarkably light footed for such a big man, the first I would know of his presence was a forceful slap on the back usually accompanied with the words. “Tu no Inglese, bronzo tu Italiano” which he thought was hilarious, he meant of course I was sun tanned like an Italian or at least I think that is what he meant. The popping of a cork signalled the opening of a bottle of wine and an hour or so of discussion carried out in our unique method of communication. We managed to discuss the weather and politics including the Italian claim on Croatian Istria which explained the unpleasantness at the airport on my arrival. He certainly felt very strongly about it. I flatter myself that I was able to understand his meaning, or I think I understood it, he may have been talking about his broken down vacuum cleaner for all I knew. I soon became familiar with this ritual and we drank many bottles of wine together including his home-made variety which while being a bit on the fizzy side was quite pleasant.
After our chats he would head rather unsteadily off towards the barn and appear again on a bright red tractor towing some over complicated piece of machinery with which he would perform some mysterious but essential task in one of his three fields. Irrigating his land simply involved opening a valve on a number of water risers which were positioned rather conveniently over his fields. There were also two fountains which constantly fed water into a couple of troughs where bundles of white asparagus floated for whatever reason. These were fed, as Guido had told me from a subterranean Alpine spring, I drank regularly from them with no ill effect. I secretly think he had tapped into the water main, he seemed a resourceful sort of person.
Feeding myself didn’t present a problem there was a small restaurant at the airport and two trattorias some one hundred metres from the guest house. The first one specialised in fish which I couldn’t face after my four days in Croatia where they fed it to me at every opportunity. I had the things with heads on and without, cooked, raw, filleted or with a profusion of bones, I swear that after my visit to Croatia I could stay under water for tens minutes without undue discomfort. I am a fan of Italian food and I wasn’t disappointed it was superb. With a glass of house red at 80 cents my exile was proving an enjoyable experience. I noticed pictures of a memorial to Mussolini on the wall of the trattoria along with a calendar showing him in all his fascist regalia, this disturbed me and I took the matter up with Guido that evening. I expected his response to be horror and outrage but he simply left the table and returned with his photographs of the man. They revered Mussolini for giving them back their self respect after the loss of the remains of the Italian empire. I explained how my father who was on Malta during the siege was bombed seven times a day for over 140 days by the Italian and German air forces. He explained to me that as a child he was bombed by the British and American air forces when he lived in Treviso town. I steered the conversation away from controversial issues, I liked Guido and I think he enjoyed my company, I didn’t want to spoil our relationship as this was to be my last night in Italy. The all clear had been given for flights to resume and I was heading back to the airport in the morning.
Saying goodbye to Guido was difficult, he seemed rather emotional and embarrassed by it, we gripped hands and looked each other in the eye before I trundled my way towards the airport, the weight of my baggage and the roar of traffic soon occupying my thoughts.
He made me promise to return and I could stay at the guest house free of charge, I of course said I would. Will I return? It may be a mistake, the house will be the same but we will be older and all the leaves on the trees will be different. It was an unexpected but magical interlude, one which I will always look back on with affection. Guido’s zest for life and his uncompromising hospitality was an inspiration. I was sad to leave but very very glad I had come even if by misfortune.