The International Writers Magazine:Italy
- Secrets and Lies
Hary Fuller in Italy
belongs to a mysterious triangle and its charm is ill-fated, according
to tradition', whisper the people of the Piedmont regional capital.
Is that a secret? Or is it a fantasy provincial city-dwellers
use to perk up their self image? Some say the city, along with
London and San Francisco, is a black magic figure but for those
preferring white magic, you can cling to the belief in another,
good triangle created by Turin, Lyon and Prague.
In this wet and
chilly month of March, within a week of spring, I am easily convinced
that the first grouping fits better. It is eleven oclock in the
morning but the sky is still shepherding herds of grey clouds over the
city. Thousands of blobby drops stick to my hair and to the ground.
Passers-by wear dull faces. The streets, sternly crossing at right angles
to each other, put all the sidewalks in line, littered with cigarette
butts, pieces of faded paper, evidence of not so well trained dogs.
As I look up, my eyes follow the endless rows of identical green canvas
curtains that shield balconies from the wind, sun and rain. I walk along
the yellow walls of a paper factory, scribbled with graffiti: "Anna
ama Luca" or "Sei l'unica" and other messages of eternal
My romantic side melts whenever I read these public declarations, so
pure, so genuine and so out of date, so different from the gaudy graffiti
tags along railways, over bridge arches and in the unkempt areas of
European big cities.
I step inside a bread shop. At the moment, the shelves of the small
store where pasta packages, various cans, but also
loaves of bread
in many shapes are stocked, are shaking, reverberating with a customer's
"There was a burglary in my neighbour's house! She was just out
for some errands. They climbed over the railing, but she lives at the
third floor! People saw them, but nobody tried to stop them. They stole
her pension money!" From the height of her counter, far above the
head of the customer, the shop owner comments, sounding resigned: "Heaven
The outraged reporter of the misdeed, a chubby short lady, straightens
her scarf, a large black and flower-printed piece of cotton, on her
shoulders, then resumes: "We cant stand that any longer!
Ah, give me two triangolini
no, not this one, that one" her
hand waves in an imprecise move. "Give me also a bit of pizza with
onions". The baker dutifully aligns her knife along the width of
the pizza, following the instructions of her customer: "Is that
"No, cut a bit more. Like that, yes, that will be fine."
She rummages in her bag for her wallet while she goes on with additional
comments on the news: "They dont have respect for anything
anymore. As if it were not enough that they want to cut off your pension!"
The baker tries to lift her up with a bit of wit: "Either by thieves
or by government, clearly, we are doomed to be taken."
The lady is almost out of the door but then, she comes back: "Sorry,
I forgot, Id also like some candies for my neighbours children,
Another customer who has been greedily listening to the news of the
day takes her turn on the stage and shares one of her own stories.
"We dont know any more what world we live in, I tell you!
The other day, my colleague was in his car, stopping at a red light.
He did not want to give money to these windshield cleaners, well, the
other, the Moroccan insulted him!"
Twenty minutes later, I am served.
I proceed on my shopping trajectory. Horns loud from the lines of cars,
one wanting to turn right, although his car is in the far left lane;
horns loud at the street light as a driver doesnt start right
away; horns blowing from a car whose owner longed to get into traffic
(Why?) but another one has double parked just in front of him; the siren
of an ambulance. A woman walking in front of me stops and watches the
white van of the Red Cross, sighs, looks around for someone to respond
to some thought such as: "Who knows what happened to this poor
I hide in a supermarket. My trolley wobbles a bit and I have to pay
attention to where it runs as well as to the other customers. The butcher
is available, I rush towards his counter, he says hello, all smiles:
"How can I help you today, my lady?"
"Id like a piece of beef."
"About 300g, please."
He snatched a bit of joint: "Look, this is a beautiful piece and
its a bargain" he underlines while he weighs
-kilo mountain of meat and twice as much as what I had asked for.
"Its a bit too much
"What are you saying, at that price, its less expensive than
I yield, not willing to argue as usual
only a detail.
This is not a good time to do shopping; only one checkout is open and
the queue already is stretching. I take position, trying to look serene
but on the alert because a 'smart' shopper will, as usual, try to jump
in assuming a very innocent face. Some take advantage of their white
hair as if it was automatically authoritative even in this mundane matter,
others push surreptitiously their trolley next to mine with that defiant
expression as to say: "Lets see if you dare to confront me!"
I dont have to teach. I can stroll and wander about despite
the gloomy, sticky weather. I stop by the newspaper stand, which
inevitably draws my attention. The sandwich board headlines of the
local and national media standing on the ground cant go unnoticed,
of course; "One under age child out of ten in Turin is an extracommunitario
(not from the UE)! The AIDS gang strikes again!"
The outside panels
of the stand display the bright covers of glossy magazines where some
television celebrities bare themselves, some adulterous couples are
caught smooching, a singer's latest fuss makes the headlines, some VIP
wedding is announced in an insert.
I take one of the two largest avenues of the town, Corso Francia, which
as implied by its name, leads to France on one end and on the other
one expands into a gracious square, Piazza Statuto. Many means of public
transportation have their terminus close to it. But the square itself
has a green lawn and pretty flowers in its centre, parted by white stone
paths lined with some benches in light wood. Around the square, beautiful
houses, pink and ochre brighten the square with their historical allure.
An impressive monument is erected at the front of the garden, commemorating
the workers who laboured in building the Frejus gallery in the Alps,
opening a link between France and Italy. The border is just about 100km
I am back in my neighbourhood. In the past, it was filled with factories
and plants. Nowadays, houses have replaced them: they have no pretensions
to any fetching architectural style, standing as a bland line of colourless
buildings among small family-owned stores providing basic home goods.
Its the typical in-the-middle area of European towns, the littoral
zone between city and suburb. When I watch the façades closely,
I am always surprised to see various shades - beige, yellow, terre de
Sienne - impregnated by dust, fog and other particles, which linger
constantly in the Torinese sky.
Im home now. An unusual detached house, nearly hidden by a giant
fir tree, it is a haven of peace; the house even boasts a tiny garden
in the back. As I have just put my bags down in the kitchen, the telephone
"Hi, this is Lucrezia! How are you?"
"Im fine. How about you?"
"Er, just OK. Yesterday I had a late meeting with the French clients,
so I needed to unwind and went to a pizzeria with a friend, but she
was a bit under the weather. She dumped all the ups and downs of her
love story on me. Her boyfriend is kind of paranoid, according to her
and it reminded me of my own previous lover, do you remember?"
"Sure, does that mean that you spent the evening trading tears
and pieces of broken hearts?"
"Er, not exactly, I just felt uncomfortable. You know, as a friend
I tried to give her some bits of advice but, after all, it is her choice,
"Listen, I am still in the office now and I would like to ask you
for a little help. How could I translate "non avendo ricevuto nessun
cenno dal vostro tecnico
"As I have not received...
"Wait, wait, Ive got to type! OK. You can proceed, then Ill
read over the whole letter, is that all right?"
I thereupon proceed to edit over the phone a letter she is supposed
to be able to translate perfectly on behalf of her boss.
"Thank you so much! I cant speak louder, there are people
around who speak French. Shall we meet on Monday, lets say, around
7.00 p.m., I have to go to the dentist first; I hope it wont take
too long. Otherwise, I will call you and have the lesson on Tuesday
no, that's impossible, I have to go with my brother to choose his wedding
gift and Wednesday I am not available, I am going to the psychologist,
Thursday I have the English lesson, I don't have time for myself anymore!!!
Id like to go to the gym too, every now and then!"
"Youre right, although exercising is really important. All
right, see you on Monday then, Ill have to go, my boss is coming.
At that time, in the early 90s, an English friend confessed to me that
since she started living in Italy, she had caught the habit of using
"OK" all the time. "They are so engrossed by anything
from the States", she dropped with a twinkle in her eyes, "that
even just that word at the end of any sentence sounds cutting edge for
them." The passion for everything American doesnt stop there,
Popular or luxury versions of fast food restaurants are always crowded,
movies and soap operas pushing "glamour, adultery and corruption"
in a Hollywood setting move the tongues into high gear. The fad of learning
English "nowadays, it is the number one pre-requisite!"
has spread as quickly as an outbreak of disease. The crème
de la crème, though, belongs to the privileged who can introduce
a guest from the other side of the Atlantic at a party, a dinner, any
Needless to say that the American man who happens to wander over here
is swiftly wrapped in a cocoon of simpering women, highly skilled in
the art of seducing Adam and debunking Eve.
Turin is the capital of Piemonte, which means "at the foot of the
mountain", that is, the Alps. Below this barrier, the area located
in the north west of Italy is close to the Rhone valley to the west,
flirts with the Côte dAzur on the south, opens up onto the
Po valley eastwards, and looks up to Switzerland, over the region of
Lombardy and Milan in the north.
4 million people are scattered between the many valleys and the
provincial capital, Turin, set halfway between Paris and Rome. The
region is quite big25,400 square kilometresand seems
more dedicated to trails, fir trees and larches, chamois and shelters
than to exulting metropolitans swaying between beers and vodkas
in the heart of Turin's club land. Indeed such a variety of outdoor
environments close at hand is exciting for the Torinese who rush
there as soon as they can. Within an hour and a half, by car or
even by train, they can reach France!
At the time
before 1999 when 1,000 lira was nearly worth the same as the franc,
it was so tempting to do some shopping in Briançon, the first
alpine town you meet after having crossed the border or even to go and
try the ski tracks near Grenoble.
Southwards, the Ligurian coast down to San Remo or Monaco offers the
ideal backdrop for spring break or autumn weekends--if one to 3 hours
on jammed roads dont intimidate you. Thats how, in the early
90's, house building soared on the Côte d'Azur, spurred by the
needs of Italian vacationers. One of my students, an accountant, used
to go every two weeks to Nice to assist his clients who were thriving
in this nearby paradise where it was no longer necessary to speak French.
Other students of mine spent their weekends regularly in villas their
parents bought in Menton or some small town in the hinterland. The less
lucky keep on holidaying in a family house on the Levant coast of Liguria.
And, if they cant dodge work any longer, some Torinese hop to
Milan during the week on the two-hour train as the highway between the
two cities is often wrapped in a thick fog, which slows traffic down
to a crawl.
After all, Piedmont belongs to the Northern area of Europe. That's what
Turin people assert relentlessly. The geographical location confirms
that definition without any doubt. And the climate itself consistently
tears down the myth of an Italy radiating forever with "O sole
mio!" style warmth.
Winter is dark and sometimes frozen in a cold which can chill to the
bone, robbing you of energy and making you curl up in a typically Torinese
fur or cashmere coat against the intrusive, dank humidity. At the other
end of the year, summer, as in many other European countries has been
stifling since the end of the 90s and the heat can be overwhelming,
like a steamy wave swamping streets and houses. The city then smells
as if it has been impregnated with car exhaust fumes, dust and other
But, I remember a lady claiming that in spring, she can breathe the
fragrance of almond blossoms floating down from Val dAosta
Spring and autumn are indeed refreshing, after some showers have cleaned
up the atmosphere. The sun shines, the temperature is balmy and surprising
panoramas are unveiled.
From the widest square in Turin, Piazza Vittorio, you cant help
gazing at the Po, the hills across the river, the Capuchin chapel and
to the north, the famous baroque Basilica of Superga. Its a place
particularly endearing to Torinese since it is the mausoleum of the
Savoy dynasty as well as the scene of the tragic death of an entire
soccer team in the 1960's when their plane crashed nearby.
The view under a clear, blue sky, however, reconciles you to the city
and you are willing to stroll through its streets or along the Po River.
Walking along the river path, you will reach, on the south bank, the
huge Parco Valentino where a medieval village complete with castle,
built for exhibition purposes in the nineteenth century, may take you
by surprise. But the park displays large patches of grass where you
can lazily lay down and watch a few glittering roller skaters or families
pedalling bicycle carriages. Further on, you will pass by a garden arranged
with rocks and waterways in a sinuous and bumpy layout, as appealing
as any forest full of secrets. From a different angle, a flower garden,
perfectly manicured and symmetrically arranged is blossoming close to
a fountain modelled on an antique Roman design.
Modern history has also bound Turin to northern European culture, particularly
to French rules. Today, Turin no longer represents the essence of northern
Italy and the Turin people are not exclusively Piemontese. But they
either deny this vehemently or regret it bitterly. Once upon a time,
the elegant Torinese high society claimed the nickname "la petite
Paris". (little Paris)
© Hary Fuller Jan 2006
Extract from an unpublished book about life in Northern Italy
More about the Olympics in Torino this Feb 2006
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