A friend of mine died today.
He had had a good enough innings as they say. He was in his eighties, I think. To be honest I never knew his age exactly. He had seemed timeless. I hadn’t known him all that long either and as he was Italian and I’m not there as much as I am in the UK, it’s a while since I last saw him. But something about his irrepressible spirit, love of life and just plain heart on sleeve Italianness had touched my buttoned up English heart.
I have been very lucky in that I feel to have a dual nationality. I’ve had parallel lives. I’ve grown up in the UK with a lovely family and great friends. Then, every summer, we all piled into our car and spent the best part of the summer school holidays in Italy, in the Abruzzo. Consequently I also have a lovely Italian family to match my English one: the family my parents befriended out there who have known my parents since before I was born and have watched me grow up. I have great friends there too. And finally, although it’s taken a decade or so to reconcile, I consider myself not only my own mixture of Cheshire / Scottish / Yorkshire but an honorary Abruzzese too. I may not have the Italian temperament, but I will always consider it home and when I leave, I take it with me in my heart.
A few years ago, having spent many years fascinated by the nearest peaks of the Appenines to our Abruzzese home, we joined our local section of the Club Alpino Italiano which is where we met Mino. Mino was one of the founding members of the local section and a passionate mountaineer. We knew him in his later years when he could no longer scale the highest peaks and when his declining energy levels meant that he was happy just accompanying his wife Giulia on the lower slopes, having given up on the head spinning views for the less elevated pleasures of woodland, alpine flowers and collecting mushrooms. Some people might regret no longer being able to scale the peaks, but Mino always seemed content. While he may not have reached the summit, he would glory in telling us of the amazing plate of tagliatelle and funghi porcini he ate while we were punishing our bodies up the mountain.
Over the summer, my Dad broke his elbow quite impressively when the brakes on his bike seized up sending him flying over the handlebars as he tried to gently slow down and ended up crashing to a halt. What should have been a piece of solid bone on his x ray, looked like a jigsaw puzzle. He was operated on and healed up but not in time to join the CAI group on their annual away trip which, this year, was to the Dolomites. Someone had to take my parents place so I manned up and took one for the team.
To say it was magical would be to understate it considerably. The mountains were beautiful, beyond what I’d seen before – changing subtly as the sun rose and then set. The colours, the light and shade, the shapes of the rocks all infinitessimally changing every time you looked up. I took millions of photographs.
I also spent a week with the whole group of Italians that, until then, I had only really spent time on a once a week basis at the most frequent. Being Italian and perhaps above that, being Abruzzese, they welcomed me in with open arms. They were surprised that I didn’t talk more. I am, after all, English by birth and shy by nature, but they soon took that in their stride,, discovering that in one on one situations where I had more time to try and express myself in a language I speak pretty well but which is by no means as fluent as my native one, I could hold my own in conversation. They joked with me. The included me in their banter. They made me feel one of their own. Yes, there would be the usual curious questions trying to ascertain what it was like to be British: the weather, the Royal family and what do we eat over in God forsaken England where there’s no pasta con fagioli and a nice bicchiere of Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo to wash it down with. But that’s just a way of expressing interest in where you come from. At heart there was always the feeling that we had things in common, we were the same underneath that cultural stuff. I was welcomed.
Mino was one of the jokers of the group. In his prime he had been a charismatic leader, I could tell. Now he was the adopted grandfather of the party. He couldn’t walk up to the highest summits in the Dolomites either but after a longstanding love affair with the area, he certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to visit them again. He greeted me every morning at breakfast solicitously enquiring if I was enjoying this part of Italy, if I had liked the excursion yesterday, if I was looking forward to today’s excursion. He joked with me and with the others. He bantered. He made it fun.
In Abruzzo they instinctively welcome you. Until the 1950s they were a region with medieval seeming poverty: children running around in ragged clothes without shoes, food on the table because they kept chickens and rabbits and grew their own vegetables in their market garden or orto. The only things they might buy in would be flour for bread or pasta. Everything else; the bottled tomato passata that lasted them through the winter, the dried borlotti beans, the peppers, aubergines and courgettes which were eaten fresh through summer and pickled for the winter, all came from the orto. And not only do they welcome you, they do so with an almost medieval hospitality. In an attempt to impress and provide a suitable welcome, you will be invited to a lunch of six or seven courses and at least three types of meat (meat having been, in the past, the most valuable food they could provide for a visitor of course). All of this happens so naturally and without conscious effort that it washes over you like a warm wave of friendliness. You can’t help but respond with affection. It’s not like the more restrained friendship that an English person might give. There is no irony. There is none of the saying one thing politely but meaning the exact opposite that I actually love the twisted nature of in the English character. It’s in your face, heart on sleeve and honest. It’s almost childlike and yet I don’t mean that patronisingly. And so you respond to it as you would to a child that welcomes you and wants to be your friend. You love them.
Mino’s best friend at CAI and the founder member of the section, posted on Facebook, the sad news that Mino was now scaling the final and highest summits. The outpouring of sadness and commiseration was immediate. In posting their thoughts and best wishes, they didn’t hold back. None of that English reserve that says
‘Oh I never know what to say at times like this so I’d better not say anything at all.’
They were sad, they would miss him, they were glad to have known him and they just said so. So I did too. I mustered my best Italian and the resources of Google translate. I checked other comments to make sure I was copying their idioms in the hopes of not detracting from what I wanted to say by clumsy use of language and I wrote that I was sad to hear the news, would always have lovely memories of times spent in the mountains with him and that my life was richer for having known him.
After doing a walk (there is one every week in the season from March to October), the CAI group put together a semi film of photographic stills set to music. It is sometimes appalling Italian ballad music, sometimes strangely inappropriate English music which only demonstrates that they haven’t quite understood the lyrics. If I were feeling cynical, I could laugh at so much about it: the rather enthusiastic but extremely novice use of either photoshop or powerpoint to put the images together, the emotionally theatrical music, But it is all done with the intention of communicating a love of the walk, the scenery, the mountains and the enthusiasm they all have. So once more, you can’t help but respond emotionally, even while your critical and cynical brain notes the idiosyncracies of it. And so, of course, they have put together a film of photos of Mino, to say farewell. Memories of a good friend, enjoying his life, set to some Italian pop ballad that I’ve never heard before sung by a gravel voiced singer. The film is honest, unsophisticated, openly emotional and yet also dignified. It ends, exhorting us all to seize the day: Carpe Diem. Needless to say it has reduced me to tears every time.
I didn’t know him for very long and I didn’t see him all that often, but I will miss Mino very much, I find and I am truly glad that I knew him. I have only just realised how much, but he touched my life and made it better in his own small way.
My other Italian friends knew him better and feel this more keenly. Unlike me, who usually mourns and grieves the loss of someone by bottling it up until it eats away because I don’t understand the emotional response well enough to give vent to it at the right time or even know how to express it, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They are sad, they know they are and in their emotional eloquence, they are expressing that sadness immediately, openly, honestly and without shame or embarrassment. I can’t help feeling that if I could learn to be a bit more like them, I would be a healthier person. I hope, perhaps, that being part of their group will give me chance to learn how to do that better in future.
Grazie Mino e Ciao.
(Saying Goodbye the Abruzzese Way).