A word of warning about Italian villagers in the road


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GREETINGS from my brother's Tuscan/Umbrian farmhouse. It's nearing the end of my second week here at the Castello dello Mellow, as I call it. I've even written it on all the mugs with a permanent marker, which should give the cleaner a big surprise on change-over day.

Here in Tuscany/Umbria one learns to appreciate the simple things, such as cleaning the pool or playing Patience on one's laptop. There is the daily, sublime hilarity of Garfield in the Herald Tribune, the challenge of yet another 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, or the chance to spend a quiet hour pitching small stones into an upturned hat. What need have I to go on pointless outings in search of "art" and "culture", like my brother and his wife and the kids? You won't catch me driving all the way to Sansepulcro just to look at Piero della Francesca's Madonna della Misericordia when there's a perfectly good poster in the downstairs loo. Also I'm banned from using the hire car, but that's another story.

Tuscany/Umbria is also a place where one can escape the straitjacket of one's British reserve. In London, for instance, I would never think of dyeing blond stripes in my hair or painting my fingernails lime-green but it's amazing how much your outlook changes after two weeks in the hot sun. I also try to be naked whenever possible, although my sister- in-law has apparently raised some objections. She hasn't spoken to me directly since last Thursday, when I mistakenly used two litres of John Oliver "Winter Sky" intended for the big bedroom to mark out a badminton court on the upper lawn. To her credit, I'm sure it's not really "about" the paint. It has more to do with an ongoing personality clash rooted, I think, in something I said when she and my brother broke up for a brief period in 1991. Suffice to say that I was lashing out on my brother's behalf, and that she's lost quite a bit of weight since.

Actually it looks as if I'll have enough space to tell the hire-car story after all. Just after the big John Oliver scene, I was dispatched to the nearest town to get some Pampers from the farmacia. It was a beautiful day, and quite early, and I made a spontaneous decision to go and see my girlfriend Julie (not her real name) who, as my regular readers will remember, is staying with her "new boyfriend" just across Tuscany.

I was making good time before I got a bit lost, thanks to the useless hire-car map, and ended up in one of those little Italian villages where everyone seems to be standing in the road. In my experience there is no remedy for this but to push gently forward, giving the occasional friendly beep to any old-timers who seem particularly reluctant to shift.

I considered deploying a few choice Italian curses I've picked up, but one has to be tolerant of local ways, even the tendency to use the public highway as a venue for idle chats, business transactions or, as in this case, a funeral procession. I'm not sure how one is supposed to know: no one was particularly dressed up or anything. Just a load of grim, dark little men in shirtsleeves glaring in at me as I passed, and then suddenly I'm bearing down on a coffin. You'd have thought I hit it from the way everyone started banging on the windscreen. Eventually the carabinieri straightened everything out.

Typically my brother used an argument about money, ie, the cost of a 40-mile taxi journey, as a way of disguising his real feelings, notably his disgust at his own failure to list me as an insured driver on the car's documentation. Since then it's been like The Ice Storm round here, from what I've heard of the film. However, that unique, up-close look at the passing of a poor, anonymous little old Italian man (or woman - mustn't be sexist!) started me thinking about mortality generally, and rather conveniently there is an anniversary approaching which I feel I would be remiss in failing to address in some way. Yes, on Tuesday I will be turning 35. Makes you think, doesn't it?

This is also, I should note, my last column. It's been a long and rewarding four weeks, and I would like to thank all those writing to insist that I be given a permanent berth for their kindness in advance. Arrivederci!

Wallace Arnold is back next week.

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