Friday, July 29, 2011

Roof of the world

 There are lessons to be learnt, on your way to the top.
Firstly, that patience is its own reward.
From the balcony on the Mole Antonelliana (built 1863-89 yada yada yada), you can see the whole of Turin. You can see how it's made, and what it's made of.
Roads along Roman lines, for one thing. Elegant porticoes and squares, for another. 
Lots of red, white, and green.
For a five-year-old, it's the chance to talk about the nature of fear, and civic pride, and how sometimes people cut in line, and you just have to let them do it, but you don't have to be pleased about it.
It's a chance to see the point of mathematics, and think about speed and capacity, when figuring out how long we're all going to have to wait until it's our turn to go up in the lift.
It'a a chance to discover, with an air of disappointment that may stay with him for the rest of his life, that what grown-ups call  'the top' of a building doesn't actually mean the top. The teeny tiny pointy bit, his uncle reasons, would snap off if we all went up there.
It's a chance for me to eavesdrop, and to share an unspoken thought: huh, to hell with 'all', I want to go to the top.
Not really. I hold my breath, and look over the side, but only for a moment.
High is high enough.
This is of course Turin's tallest building, a squared dome, a grey island sitting in a sea of terracotta roofs.
Up here, you have a sense of place, whether you're looking off towards the misty Alps,
... or at Superga,  that solid, white reminder of  Il Grande Torino, a tragedy played out close to home in every sense.
This is the roof of their world, and the torinesi are rightly proud of it.
Everyone should get high in Turin.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The river road

And it seems like it goes on this way forever...
James Taylor
It is not all like this, by any means, so don't get too romantic about it. 
The Lambro Valley Trail starts out perfectly, with optimism and clear signeage, in a dreamy tunnel of leaf and light. It's all so simple, with a hopeful vanishing point to look forward to, if we just keep carrying on the same way.
But life is never quite like that.
This is the Lambro, from which you get Lambrusco, and Lambrettas. It is one of the threads that powered  Milan's industrial heritage. The river is shallow and fast, suspected of a lot of dirty secrets; some would say, much like the locals. Here's one, who did not appreciate us walking by, and went to sit in a pine tree.
Like just about everything in Italy, the state of the river is the subject of much head shaking. 
'Things' should be ... more this, less that. It's the classic talk of those who make against those who take, the shared reasoning of thsoe who who look at the valley and see a resource that could be better managed in a dozen different ways.  The conversation's too deep for me. Once in a while, 'il nostro amico qui' gets a mention, and then you remember that Arcore is just around the corner.

The river gets a 'limpidissima' mention in Petrarch, back in the thriteenhundreds, and there's a saying in Milan, ciar com'el L├ámber, it's as clear as the Lambro. Somehow though - and despite the fishermen along the banks - there's bad feeling about the quality of the water. A general sensation that scary things are trickling into it from what's left of the manufacturing trade along its banks, in the hands of Italians most enduring Urban myth, the Evil Entrepreneur. 
Here is a mill chimney, lost in thr trees. once,. dozens of people came down here to work - and soil - the river. but surely that's all been washed away, long since. The water looks fine to me, I'd happily take a swim, but under the surface -well, who knows.
Before long, we are at the Grottoes of Realdino, ready to stop for a drink.
Now here's a pretty contradiction. Everyone turns their nose up at the river water, and points at the mills for the reason why, but the water spouting from the rocks under the factories, that instead is speciale...
There are fish in the flooded miniature caves, shy carp, and busy tiddlers. At night, when it's all lit up, it must be quite a sight....
 But we have much road in front of us, no time to tarry. And ducks ahead, too...
And elderberries, and blackberries, and hawthorn, lilac, maples and plane trees. And lasagne in a working men's restaurant. And a lot of stinging nettles. I learn about Robinia. It is supposed to rain at eleven, but it has not. We have no idea of the time, and anyway, the sky has enough blue in it to make a pair of cat's pyjamas, so we will be okay. 
Rocks and ferns and rising ground. And bends in the river, whenever the path allows us to come back to it.
Eventually, after some meadows, roads, and a steep hill, we come down to an abandoned factory. Inside is like the set of a zombie film, the end of a world.
More river and woods, and then we are at a point where the path, so solid and real on the map, peters out in the face of reality.
A helpful vigile comes to our aid, once he gets over the shock of meeting walkers on his patch. There is some concrete consulting. At least, I think so. It is time to think about the road of return.
Make that the railroad of return.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Simple Lines

Terminus anxiety, what subway system doesn't bring it on. It's all very well knowing what stop you want to get off at, it's the ends of the lines that matter when you're havering like an idiot between Villejuif and Clignancourt or Upminster and Ealing Broadway at the head of an escalator in the middle of a busy crowd that knows exactly where it's going. 
Milan is more dork-friendly, because there are only three lines, and (because metro lines everywhere like to divvy up when they get out into the suburbs) only half a dozen names to remember. No confusing line names and numbers to remember, either. It's Red Green and Yellow, and the stations are color coordinated to the extreme. 
As you can see, it's reasonably obvious when you're going out of Green Line territory into the realm of the Red; light fittings, handrails, and pipework all change colour, as do the trains themselves. 
This is the red line. There's a man who plays the violin, to an orchestration coming out of his back-pack.
Italians like to think their trains are dirty; some of them are, but not the ones on the Yellow line.
It's all very open-plan.
Sitting here, thinking of the grubby Bart trains running around San Francisco, you can't help but reflect on

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In the clouds

Mostly, it's like this.
Mostly.
Today, tomorrow; a predictable future, at least as far as the weekend, perhaps a little more. 
I live in the clouds.
The small certainties standing up like towers in the foreground, and the soft green routine fading into a mistier distance.

Sometimes, though, I can see further.
It won't last; the clouds will be back before dawn, and despite myself, I will forget what's inside them.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The end of the world

 It was vintage car day, up in the mountains. Bit worrying, the thought of all those elderly brake disks wobbling up and down the hairpin bends. Hopefully they update the safety features as often as they update their bumper stickers: I'm pretty sure 'Io non sono su Feisbuk' was not on the  back window when these vehicles rolled off the production line. Zuckerberg probably wan't even born. This is the valley called Chisone, and  the castle is Fenestrelle, no, nothing to do with windows, it's Finis Terra - the end of the world, or at least the ancient mountain kingdom of the Cozii, loyal allies of the Roman Empire.
There are always two sides to every edge, of course.
 Living on the edge, of the mountain, and of both French and Italian bureaucracy, is the natural condition of the people of the tiny village of the same name, in the valley on the 'French' side of the castle, a tight, inhospitable no-man's-land between Savoia and Savoie.
There is a sign in the main square / communal parking lot (only residents can get beyond the traffic barrier that closes the village off to mere motorized visitors) it's one of those finger posts, pointing to Antarctica and LA; it also reminds you that here we're only a few hundred km from Paris and Rome.
Even on this warm and busy weekend, with brightly coloured Tour-de-France types, and mad motorbikes, and no end of car-bound daytrippers like us, it feels like a world of its own, a place where you walk and stoop and climb, even before you start up to the fort, clinging to the hillside above. Like landlubbers on a sliding sea, we don't belong.
It's a place of watchful eyes and whispering. Small balconies and glazed doors doubling as living room windows stand cheek to jowl like kissing cousins.  You can just imagine small barrels and bales of dutiable goods being slyly passed from hand to silent hand, down these alleyways.
How much do you think that the physical shape of a place influences the mentality of its inhabitants, and how much does the mentality shape the building of the place?  How much does time operate on our minds? The tension was palpable as the vigile urbano went about giving tickets to every vehicle out of place in this tiny, one-street village. Even to this 2CV, parked here to publicize the vintage car event.
*ut oh, somebody didn't get a permit*

Friday, July 1, 2011

Nefertiti's Knees

Turin is a tight little brunette of a town, where they make cars. Not that you'd know that from the city center, which is all about porticoes. And the Risorgimento. But mostly porticoes, where you can comfortably consume your bicerin, and shop, and show off, all at the same time, whatever the weather.
Unlike Paris or London, Turin's river (the broad, still-mountain-fresh Po) runs beside the city center, not through it, a line dividing town and country. Plump green hills spring up on the far bank, adorned with plump white villas. The rich merchants and nobility of Turin can literally look out of their windows, and keep an eye on their investments and employees in the smart downtown shops. 

Just a provincial gem then?
No. At every turn, Turin politely reminds you in a small, elegant way, that it was a royal city a tutti gli effetti, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and then Italy's first capital, when they finally got their act together in 1861. But then Rome took took over, and sigh, things went downhill from there - for the country, not for Turin, which carried on making stuff, like, hello, cars.
 ... so totally want one!!! but pink, and with a soft top, please.