Category Archives: The hole with Europe all around

Fourtwentyseventeen

The other day, as I was repairing my watch with my Swiss knife whilst eating chocolate and fontina, I had a discussion about the falsity of stereotypes with a shepherd who happened to be passing by. He sustained that the Swiss are not at all the way people portray them. And he was right. They are shorter.

Jokes aside, so far Swiss hospitality has been attentive but with a slow build up. The Swiss are accustomed to the cold so, with rare exceptions, they have trouble breaking the ice. They like the ice. They stare at me silently. At which point, using my rediscovered French, I embark on a monologue composed of a combination of comments on the bad weather, our corrupt government and rigged football championships – so the entire repertory of small talk classics. The Swiss hosts then lower their guard and get caught up in the heat of the discussion, and from then on it’s all chat and gossip about our respective countries. The Swiss, at least the francophone Swiss, do complain about their country. The grass is always greener… So far my hosts have been the usual quasi-thirty-year-olds, quasi-graduates I have already described – except in their Swiss version they don’t live in their grandparents’ apartment, they have good jobs, they are relatively well off and they take their Sunday walks in snow shoes. And as if this weren’t enough, their national hero continues to obliterate tennis records like sandcastles. To sum up, a bit distant to begin with, the low profile Swiss actually have a lot to say. Did you know they don’t like Germans? Ah, the irony…
(In any case hats off to them for elegantly remedying the most illogical of french bad habits, the one that requires you to perform complicated calculations to express the most banal of numbers: to say “97”, for example, instead of the ridiculous quatre-vingt-dix-sept; they say (thank God) nonante-sept. Simple and efficient. Not at all French, that is).

After this embarrassing ethnographic interlude, let’s return to our usual subject: the ode to walking. My latest discovery regarding the advantages of long-term walking is a prodigious improvement of memory. The days are so slow and the occupations so few that every gesture is performed with the utmost awareness, and details are perceived with such precision that they become naturally embedded in memory: I remember perfectly well where and what I had for lunch on the 28th of December, where I was at sundown on the 4th of January, or what the mattress I slept on on the fourth day of my journey felt like. Not bad. Right?

Tomorrow I reach the 1100th km and I’ll be exactly halfway through my journey. I am a little tired.

technical report: I have holes in my shoes.
weather report: it’s bitterly cold even at noon, the sun doesn’t seem to be aware of the whereabouts of Switzerland, it snows every day and there’s ice everywhere. And the coldest bit is still to come: a place with the charming nickname “little Siberia”
phrase of the day: “excuse me, the parish?”, “Which one, catholic or protestant?”
guiding animal: ferret and swan
advice of the day: my cousin has written his second book. Buy it – trust me.

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Italy on its feet (and Switzerland is not green at all)

A very rare photo taken in the middle of the Great St. Bernard tunnel

Hey, I’ve walked a thousand kilometres (did I actually believe I could walk this far? I don’t know, all I planned for was leaving).

We’ve actually all walked a lot more than that, it’s just that I’ve been lining them up for a month and a half. And now I’m in Switzerland. Perhaps a different journey starts now, truth be told so far I’ve been taking an extended walk around my country, sometimes in places I already knew. The language, the lifestyle, the geography, the food: I was quite familiar with it all. It’s not like I’m in Mongolia now, quite the contrary, however that bit of extra effort to translate (the language, the cuisine, the culture) will be necessary and will surely add some flavour to my journey.
What kind of Italy has it been? Hard to say; predictable and surprising at the same time, curious rather than mocking towards me, maternal and worried silly, almost. And in the end I found myself being interviewed on the regional tv news (wonderful people of the Val D’Aosta, there really mustn’t be a lot going on over there if they thought I merited air time). An Italy that knows what the Francigena is, where everyone can point you to the vicar’s house and the “bar sport” is used to accommodating bizarre individuals (that is, if someone actually manages to take their eyes off the slot machine and take a look at the skinny little man with the backpack and walking poles). From 18 to -9 degrees Celsius, smooth hillsides, the cool Italian Riviera, dull plains, rough mountains. Eels, ribollita, focaccia, parmesan, barbera wine, fontina and polenta. But also, and most of all, about a hundred ham sandwiches and an equal number of hot cups of tea. Just a few euros to get to know so much better the territories I pass through, the rivers and their valleys, the anecdotes, the pride and frustrations and confirm, as if there was any need to, that almost no one knows exactly where Terni is (in the south of Umbria, people, south of Umbria). I’m not trying to sound like an amateur anthropologist, it’s that I inspire a lot of curiosity and absolutely no fear, people ask me, at first perplexed, then they call their friends and tell them you won’t believe this… And often I’m the one that ends up doing the listening, because everyone has an extraordinary story to say and sometimes they don’t realise it, or have simply forgotten about it.

A bunch of hosts in their thirties – or almost, with a degree – or almost that on average live alone but in the apartment that used to belong to grandma and that is right next to their parents’ with a job they’re not very happy about and a great desire for change, lazily perusing facebook and with a strong feeling that the accounts don’t balance. Parish halls with the signs drawn by children, footballs, guitars and photographs of the old Pope. Hostels that cost as much as hotels, breakfast not included and dusty blankets that make me cough and are not warm enough (I’m starting to sound like Edmondo Berselli).
All in all, that is, nothing extraordinary, but composed of many little things that I was serenely obliged to get to know (that’s what walking does: it obliges you to get to know things, the eyes cannot but see, the ears cannot by hear all the things that slowly slide beside you). A specular image of my journey: many little days more or less ordinary but that put together make up an, etymologically, extraordinary journey.

Weather report: In Switzerland there is not a lot of snow and I’m starting to think the sun does not exist.
Spiritual guide: Barwomen.
Phrase of the day: I saw you on tv.
Things you don’t expect: the Swiss also complain about trains.