The International Writers Magazine

Turin-Torino - Secrets and Lies
Hary Fuller in Italy

urin 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 o’clock 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 love.

My romantic side melts whenever I read these public declarations, so pure, so genuine and so out of date, so different from the gaudy graffiti tags along railways, over bridge arches and in the unkempt areas of European big cities.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 complaints.

"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 knows!"

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 can’t 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 all right?"
"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 don’t 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, I’d also like some candies for my neighbour’s children, you see…"
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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 one!..."

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?"
"I’d like a piece of beef."
"How big?"
"About 300g, please."
He snatched a bit of joint: "Look, this is a beautiful piece and it’s a bargain" he underlines while he weighs…the half -kilo mountain of meat and twice as much as what I had asked for.
"It’s a bit too much…"
"What are you saying, at that price, it’s less expensive than salad, really!"
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: "Let’s see if you dare to confront me!"

Today I don’t 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 can’t 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 away.
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. It’s 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.

I’m 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 rings.
"Hi, this is Lucrezia! How are you?"
"I’m 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, isn't it?"
"Of course."
"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, I’ve got to type! OK. You can proceed, then I’ll 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 can’t speak louder, there are people around who speak French. Shall we meet on Monday, let’s say, around 7.00 p.m., I have to go to the dentist first; I hope it won’t take too long. Otherwise, I will call you and have the lesson on Tuesday…Oh! 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!!! I’d like to go to the gym too, every now and then!"
"Don’t overdo…"
"You’re right, although exercising is really important. All right, see you on Monday then, I’ll have to go, my boss is coming. Ciao!"

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 doesn’t stop there, actually.
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 social event.

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 d’Azur 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.

About 4 million people are scattered between the many valleys and the provincial capital, Turin, set halfway between Paris and Rome. The region is quite big—25,400 square kilometres—and 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 don’t intimidate you. That’s 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 can’t 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 90’s 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 anonymous particles.
But, I remember a lady claiming that in spring, she can breathe the fragrance of almond blossoms floating down from Val d’Aosta…

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 can’t help gazing at the Po, the hills across the river, the Capuchin chapel and to the north, the famous baroque Basilica of Superga. It’s 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

More Destinations here


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