Not even a priest to chat with

I never liked bets and agonism. As a kid I had isterical stomach-aches before swimming competitions and, once teenager, the coach kept me in the bench because, while skillful with the ball, I didn’t have the necessary sport wickedness.

When I write my posts, warm and safe after a hot shower and a snack, usually with a mug of tea in front of the screen, I’m in a good mood; or, at least, in a better mood than a few hours before: possibly in a snow blizzard, on the border of a highway with numb shoulders, wet toes and a lot of doubts in my mind. And it’s comprehensible, it’s easy to indulge to (auto)irony and to joke when the worst part is over and you reached the goal. Today, for once, regardless of the shower snack and nap, I decided to recall the tone of my thoughts during the frustrating walk.
This part of France, the Haute-Saône departement most of all, and the one immediately following, are infinte expanses of fields, alternated by long and straight national roads, driven mostly by trucks, and sprayed by a handfull of ghost-towns: desert dormitory-villages, closed churches and closed townhall, empty streets, never a bar, rarely a room pretending to be a bakery. The civil death. When I ask for explanations to the few humans I meet, always nice and kind what I get are vague disappointed sentences accompained by pityfull gazes for the naif foreigner. To ask for a bar in here is like to ask for telegraph station: things of the past, “well, you know, once it was full of them”. So far, even the most remote and small italian village had the eternal sport bar. Today, on the notice board of the (closed) townhall in a small village, I saw a flyer advertising Shiatsu courses; they got Shiatsu but they have no bar. Shiatsu. Bar. I wonder how is the social life among these people, luckily enough french television is good and the Wii is cheap. The day before yesterday a woman offered me an hot chocolate at her palce, but it doesn’t always go like this.
Saddened by the portrait? There you are, add some wind and snow, an entire region white and wet, not even a single bench where to sit and rest and the winter holidays in french schools. Plus, weather forecast telling similar weeks to come.
So far the first solution was a partial shortening of the walks and some detours to more crowdy towns: this imply anyway some long walks along national roads borders, tiring stetches without pauses not to get cold (that’s way I need a bar, to spend half an hour in a warm place, not to play lotto), hood well closed with consequent reduction of the visibility. Yes, exactly, a shitty situation. I told it to those I met: look, so far it’s been easy, everyone can do the francigena my way. What now?

Pride is another gift I lack, I prefer stubbornness. Walking these days feels more like an athletic competition, even worst, like a solitary training: lots of effort, few human or aesthetical gratification and insignificant small goals. Italy varied more often, Switzerland was short.

I, nonetheless, believe I have to keep going, at least for little Paolo who cried in the changing room and for the slightly older one that missed unbelievable goals in the muddy soccer field (and because I left to many thing incomplete). Because it will be unspokenly beautiful to accomplish it and for hundres of other reasons. But I’m not disposed to keep going like this; because it there is a thing that this travel must not became, this is sacrifice; this certitude contains all the laicity of my adventure. Effort should always be accompained by beauty, pleasure, exchange. This is not tourism, nor holiday, but not even  masochism. To move the backpack 20 km  every day, a bus in enough.

Well, I knew that France would have been tough, but it’s not the same to think it while flying over it on Google Maps and finding myself among its most desolate regions. In the last two weeks I saw just one sunny day; this may also help, ’cause, strange to say, all the fantasy in the world doesn’t help to imagine a blue sky over the clouds. And we mediterraneans usually don’t need it.

Oh, I also burned a pair of sock on the stove and lost my toothbrush.

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Farewell, ye mountains

The best ideas on how to write a post come to my mind, of course, while I’m walking. And every single time I tell to myself that there’s no point in noting them, that I will recall them once writing. I never recall them. Let’s know then that the blog your read is way less brilliant than the one I have in mind whilst walking. Too bad for you, you could have come with me.

Switzerland is small. It was soon over. From Sainte Croix, on the top of the Jura, you can see the Alps and they are pretty close. There, clinged to those two mountain ranges and spread on the few plain left in the middle, there is Switzerland, the hole with Europe all around (I refuse to believe that I came up with this definition). Now that I’m back in the €uro zone I already miss it, right when I was starting to understabd their coins (what about coloring them differently?). The last Helvetians I met were amazing hosts (less shy and more open), they are all into the debate about national identity, blurry future and the relationship with us europeans. They got a wonderful country and they left me a big desire to come back and know it better.

[note: if I’m parsimonious with touristic details it’s because I believe that the world is full of specialized guides, Internet most of all. That’s not the point of this blog, may be at the end I’ll give you a list of the most beautiful places. And it will be partial anyway, since – due to my metereopathy – wonderful places looked awfull under the rain and, similarely, ugly spots seemed glorious if blessed by the shining sun. Same thing for photos]

The entrance in France has been definitely unpleasant: no sign to victoriously portait, no police officers to laugh with; on the other hand it snowed heavily and new forms of aquatic life were developping into my shoes. I really felt bad when I decided to hitchhike: it is always a disappointment and a loss, even if it was just for a few miles of national highway, I felt bad till today. Till, in short, I’m about to get back on the road. Weather forecast tells fog and clouds for a week (Italians, never, NEVER, consider a blue sky as a given) but no rain, so I postpone any possible measure for my shoes that, poor them, are not exactly designed to step on 20 cm of melting snow.

The CouchSurfing blast is unfortunately over, here in France I will find sufers only in the few main cities, while in most of the villages I will have to improvise, being them lacking in “francigenous” structures. Let’s hope for the best. I could also have some hard time finding internet connections for a while, so I greet you all and I go discover a bit of France, finally leaving behind the mountains (anyway, so far the thoughest walk was the one to the small Radicofani).

Guiding animal: cat and crow
Winner of the “useless item” award: sunglasses; obvious, I always aim at north-west.
Anecdote of the day: they say that during similar trips, the body losts the weight of the backpack; the brain tends to recuperate the original balance, eliminating the new excessive weight; if I loose the kilos of my backpack, once in Calais they could as well put me in an envelope and send me to Cambridge via mail.

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.

Also, new videos!

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.

the new legend of Val D’Aosta

Cavour who?

I finally understand the Piedmontese. If I were a Piedmontese, with that mish mash of little kingdoms and republics right next to me I would want to unite Italy as well. Because the Alps give precisely that impression. From far away they look like clouds, but when you get closer, well, when you get closer they become a golden gateway, a breathtaking hedge of pink granite. You can’t help thinking this must stand for something: I mean they look at you, authoritative, fatherly, they tell you: don’t worry about it, we’ll keep an eye on things over here while you soak your feet in Mediterranean waters. In short, you can’t imagine that with such a barrier there would be any other separation down south, the people down there should be living in peace (and instead, well.) I’ll stop here, or I’ll enter dangerous grounds and make a fool of myself and my mum will be mad at me (my mum used to teach history, when I was young she read Greek mythology to me instead of children’s stories- and then you wonder why I’m walking to England…). What I meant to say is that since a few days ago, and when the fog is kind enough to allow me to, I have these long face to face encounters with the Alps and I stay there, enchanted, looking at them and asking myself how the hell I’m going to cross them, how can anyone even think about crossing them. Oh, tomorrow I’ll walk along the Dora Baltea (yes, I’m learning the names of Italian rivers, it’s cool) and I’ll enter Val d’Aosta. I left from Terni, on foot, in case you didn’t know.

Tonight I’m being hosted by the last couchsurfer (in the woods close to Ivrea), after that it’s hostels and friends of friends and polenta until I reach the borders. So, CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing will save the world. Whoever came up with it should get the Nobel Peace Prize. So far I’ve always slept in beautiful places, listened to interesting life stories and met lovely people. ALWAYS. I know I’ve already said this but I want to repeat it: photographers, teachers, organic farmers, Italian-Indian tourist operators, globetrotter musicians, crossbowmen, more globetrotters, sommeliers, people with the strangest obsessions – american cars, parrots or Belgian beer. Without a doubt the best thing about this journey, that which gives me confidence, is finding kindred spirits that offer me their couch in return for my story.

Someone, someone who met me before I begun my journey and who saw me again a few days ago, told me that I have a different gaze. One he’s seen in other crazy travelers. I can’t say anything to that, what I do seems quite normal to me, it has assumed a quotidian character, we shouldn’t be surprised at our desire to learn things (and meet people, people!), new things everyday and touch them with our hands. Getting closer to the Channel, 20 km at a time, is what I do now, I started doing it and every morning I instinctively go on my way. Could that be the symptom of my disease?

Health status: I’ve lost a couple of kilos, convinced my feet that blisters are pointless, got to know my tendons and their habits, am cultivating a goatee and washed my three items of clothing every single day. I’d say it’s not too bad, after 800 km.

Guiding animal: nutria and heron
Recurring phrase: aren’t you cold?

p.s.: I don’t have a fast internet connection so I’l have to wait a bit before uploading more videos and photos, I hope to be able to make up for that soon enough.

p.p.s.: if you’re in Milan, Genoa, or Turin, or thereabouts, or anywhere else, perhaps you’d like to take a look at this: GeMiTo. Also here.

Straight to Aosta

I wake up early in the morning. I don’t dream much. I carefully recompose my backpack, by now it all comes naturally to me, everything has its place. I grab a bite to eat. I tie my shoelaces, fill up my water bottle, zip up my jacket, quick look around and out I go. Never a doubt, never a change of mind. In the mornings I always start walking with a determination whose origin I am completely unaware of. I think it might be the result, the thousand daily results. Today I’ll arrive in Bolsena, today I’ll arrive in Lucca, today I’ll arrive in Aulla. I’ll get to that crossroads and I’ll take a break, I’ll go on till that turn and I’ll stop, over that bridge there’s a village. I gain one more metre of world with every step: it’s the most satisfying activity, the richest of realisations. 500 km are nothing, it’s getting to the end of that road that counts, reaching the next bar, the crossroads with the state road. If I asked myself every day how far I am from England I probably wouldn’t even get out of bed. Instead, it’s a different journey every day, a different host every day, a different dialect every week, different food, a different panorama. And every day you’ve done something, something that gives sense to that day and, more importantly, it gives sense to the next one.

I thought Tuscany would never end, Emilia is already almost gone, along with the Appenins. 550km means a fourth of the journey, it means a month’s walk. The days last long, but it still feels like I left home a couple of days ago.

In Sarzana I went to the supermarket: my ears were bursting eyes burning and balls busting after less than a minute. Good sign, it means I’ve gotten used to a different rhythm. My space is the road, the village bar, the parish, my hosts’ homes and their couches. Anything brighter and/or louder and/or full of people makes me dizzy.

I see my schedule go by slowly and the journey adapts to itself and to the new unpredictable necessities; it gives me a sense of freedom and even the tendons pick up on it, the many miles of asphalt notwithstanding.

Soon, a little stop.

Guiding animal: Turtle.

Holy Grail: Hot Shower.