I appear to have been adopted by two Italian ladies. One of them is Rosina, my landlady. She has children and I have the mental age of a child, so we get on famously. In preparation for my arrival, she has provided spare linen and stocked the cupboards generously, neither of which I succeeded in doing in two years in Oxford.
The other is Mariella, my mentor here in Acqui Terme, who greets me on the station platform as if we’ve known each other for years. We chat away on the short walk to my flat, largely in Italian; they tell me that’s the language here.
In Turin, a pathetic dialogue in Porta Nuova station had briefly discouraged me from speaking: as I stood buying my ticket, simultaneously concerned and heartened by the English swear words a man was hurling at the machine beside me, a lady made an innocuous remark about the receipts they produced. Having just breathlessly hauled my suitcase from the accommodation in the centre of town, I would have struggled to form a coherent English sentence, let alone crank the rusty gears that appear to control my Italian. A blank stare, a protracted pause and an unintelligible, mutant utterance (“Ccch-usi??”) was enough to send her on her way. I returned to my ticket buying, selecting the Italian language option in a feeble attempt to prove to onlookers that I had been bluffing all along.
A seminar for all the language assistants in Italy had briefly brought me to the city: the forty-eight hours spent there put us largely in the hands of the British Council, in theory practising teaching methods, but more realistically learning the important lesson that things here don’t usually run on time. Aside from the few thoroughfares that led to these sessions from our accommodation, my memories of the city from this time are largely steeped in dim lamplight and cheap red wine. Thus it was with this basic orientation, my clumsy Italian and a squashed croissant that I set out for Acqui Terme one Wednesday morning in October.
One of the last sunny afternoons of the year sees us down the tree-lined avenue from the station, meeting another of Mariella’s old students at every turn. We turn onto a cobbled street, past a friendly looking drunkard and into a cluttered hallway where Rosina is waiting. Remnants of a recent exhibition by a local artist, she says. The apartment is small and delightful, part of a draughty fourteenth century building situated in the former Jewish ghetto. I’m told there is no wired internet in the block, but Rosina has attached teddy bears to the exterior of the building, so I don’t really mind. It’s an old building, and apparently overloading the electrical circuits (e.g. switching a light on, looking at the washing machine) will result in power outages for most of Northern Italy, so I’ve unplugged everything and closed the bathroom door.
Rosina and Mariella leave me to unpack, eventually persuaded that I won’t starve to death if they don’t cook me something. I retreat to the window with a large selection of pasticceria they leave behind. The bedroom looks out over one of the central streets, and there is an elderly lady on the terrace opposite, accompanied by the most plant pots I’ve seen in a single place. She looks rather annoyed to be falling asleep so early on a Wednesday afternoon. To her left, on the wall of an adjoining house, someone has delicately painted a door and several windows.
To be continued…
Image:// Christopher Allnutt