When Spirits Rise

We reached our bed and breakfast that evening in a considerably more subdued state than we had left it that morning. Wet through, freezing cold, with numb hands and a stiffening neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head, all I wanted to do was lie down. But we couldn’t stop – we had arranged to meet friends for dinner in Alghero. We scrubbed up as best we could – I thawed myself under a hot shower for a while, flexing my tingling fingers – changed into dry clothes, and then we had to get back on the bike for the 15-minute ride into town. Alghero had a rather strange parking system, whereby spaces that were marked out in white were free, but others had to be paid for at a machine. What the rules were for motorbikes wasn’t clear. Along the promenade I found a space that looked more or less white under the sodium streetlights, and rolled into it. We walked along the marina, beneath the large gate into the old walled town, and turned into narrow cobbled streets full of shops selling jewellery and T-shirts for tourists, heading up to the restaurant, Osteria Barcellonetta.

The name was a legacy of the long Catalan rule in Alghero. Pedro IV of Aragon overthrew the ruling Genoese Doria family in 1353, and embarked upon a policy of Hispanicization for centuries which became known as “barcellonetta”. Even today Catalan is widely spoken, and uniquely in Italy, it has recognition as an official dual language. The restaurant was pretty full, but they found a table for four in the corner. For much of the week we had been attending dinners for 20 people in a series of restaurants around the town, so it was nice to have a smaller and more intimate gathering. I felt rather underdressed, however: my only clean clothes happened to be a turquoise kurta shirt, a blue checkered Cambodian scarf, and a Nehru vest over the top. We were definitely bringing a more multicultural dimension to Alghero – especially when N and M turned up in their ethnic scarves.

The food at Osteria Barcellonetta was a fusion of Sardinian and Catalan influences. Normally in Italy we found that ordering antipasti to share, and then a couple of primi or secondi dishes was enough for us. But tonight we were pushing the boat out, and somehow ended up having a five course dinner: bruschetta with marinaded fish, black ravioli with seafood, trofio pasta with aubergine, and steak with green peppercorn sauce (the best I’ve ever had). There may have been a tiramisu or two as well. After an hour in the restaurant I was starting to feel warm a little, although I kept getting periodic shivers – as did K. We had both been showing the signs of mild hypothermia, but were recovering well. We regaled the others with accounts of our horrendous ride; they had been in a car on the road to the south of us, and with the rain deafening on the metal roof had looked up at the mountains and wondered how we were coping on the bike.

This in turn led to an exchange of outlandish tales from around the world – stories of improbable driving, hazards negotiated, and assorted adventures. I mentioned nearly dropping the bike earlier that day, and how it had happened before with K on the back – that time at Anjuna Saturday Night Market in Goa. The traffic had been insane, the main road in gridlock, vehicles facing in every conceivable direction as policemen blew whistles futilely, adding to the clamour of honking. A small white van driven by a young Sikh had crept remorselessly closer and closer on my right, until we were inches apart. I actually rapped on his door, but it had no effect; closer it came, and I had no more road to move out the way – just the soft sand of the verge. As I hit it, the tyres slewed and the bike toppled. “Jump!” I shouted to K, and she somehow vaulted off the back. Just as the bike started to fall I glanced down and saw a woman with a baby sitting in the shadows, right where it was going to land. Somehow I held it – the full weight of a 500cc Enfield, as she sat a couple of feet away and watched. While I wrestled with the bars to try and get it upright to avoid it landing on her, she mutely extended a hand, asking for change. “In a minute, lady,” I snapped at her.

A story came to mind of a border crossing between Hungary and Romania undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his walk across Europe in the 1930s:

This borderland was the most resented frontier in Europe and recent conversations in Hungary had cloaked it in an additional shadow of menace. Well, I thought, at least I have nothing to declare… I sat up with a jerk in the corner of the empty carriage: what about that automatic pistol? Seeing myself being led to a cell, I dug the little unwanted weapon out of the bottom of my rucksack and undid the flap of leather case; the smallness, the lightness and the mother-of-pearl plated stock made it look like a toy. Should I steal away from these bare wooden seats and hide it in the first-class upholstery next door? Or slip it behind the cistern in the lavatory? Or simply chuck it out into No-Man’s-Land?

Patrick Leigh-Fermor – Between the Woods and the Water. 

(In the end Leigh-Fermor solved his dilemma by “hiding it in a thick fold in the bottom of my greatcoat, fixing it there with three safety pins”. Well, we’ve all been there. “What about that automatic pistol?” Damn! – I knew I’d forgotten something.)

M told a story of one night in Kabul, when we had come across a guy pushing his broken down car as he tried to steer it. Spontaneously we went over to help, the three of us taking up position against the boot. We got it rolling and he jumped in and tried to drop the clutch, but it wouldn’t turn over. After a couple more attempts we gave up and left him to it.

“And we have no idea who he was, or what was in the car,” I said. “We were just being helpful.” It had been a red Corolla, the type featured in all the security alerts as being the popular choice for a car bomb.

“Our fingerprints will be all over it!” he laughed.

“Not planning a trip to the US any time soon, are you?”

“No, but I’d like to get home to London without getting taken away at the airport.”

We were all laughing quite hard now. I realised that a couple at a nearby table, who I had heard speaking English to each other earlier, were looking at us rather strangely.

(Those icy Kabul nights… empty streets beneath the white glare of the security lights, our breath smoking in the chill air. The weather was oddly familiar, somehow like April in London, bare trees just coming into bud… but everything else was different. We walked past high walls and razor wire, exchanging low “salaams” with loitering men carrying machine guns to establish our legitimacy. You had to watch your step in Kabul – quite literally. The manhole covers had all been removed and gaping holes revealed a long fall into the drainage system beneath the road. Car headlights cutting twin shafts of light through the clouds of powdery dust, silhouetting muffled figures swathed in blankets walking along the verge. The little yellow lights from the houses that climbed the hillsides, and the forest of antennae on ‘TV Hill’. The twin-rotor ‘whump’ of Chinook helicopters on patrol. How long ago it all seemed.)

Sitting in the pool of warmth and light as we laughed in the restaurant, I found myself thinking about the improbable routes our individual lives had all taken to bring us together. From such different backgrounds and cultures we had all found something – a sense of connection – which spanned any such superficial geographical divide. The chance circumstance that led me to do a degree in Norwich – a city which I had never thought I would go back to, where after the bereavement of leaving Africa I had fallen into a pit of depression and heavy drinking which took years to get out of, rebuilding myself – then deciding to go back to university, and then changing my degree course after just two weeks, and overcoming all manner of obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal, to do so… It felt as if it was somehow meant to happen. Perhaps we look for patterns retrospectively in order to fully appreciate the true depth and meaning in our friendships. People come and go, friendships can run their course and you can grow gradually apart, but some remain, even if only as a memory, and the strand of them, the thread of their character, becomes interwoven with our own and makes up the tapestry of our lives.

In this wistful, grateful state of mind we wandered arm in arm along the battlements of Alghero’s old town, with the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below us in the darkness. It reminded me of Essaouira. The streets were full of people, walking together in small groups, sitting in cafes, just spending time together – young couples, families with children, old people; locals and tourists mingling. I realised it was Saturday night. There was no infernal babble of dissent trying to make itself heard above the roar of traffic or the quick heart-jittering alert of sirens – just a low, melodious hum of conversation. Nobody was walking along fast, head down and defensively hunched, staring at their phone – their postures were open and comfortable as they ambled along, their laughter easy and natural. Although many people were drinking, nobody was visibly drunk. In this culture people drank without guilt, without the theatrical casting off of inhibitions that is so much a part of having “a good time” in more northern cultures – without the shrieking raucous laughter that resembles a shout of pain from a distance. They took wine with dinner, a digestivo afterwards, not to get drunk but for the simple pleasure of it.

Descending again into the narrow labyrinth of streets, we paused occasionally at the lit windows of jewellery shops. In the main square, although it was after midnight, a cafe was still open with many people sitting outside beneath a trellis of vine leaves. “Anyone like a coffee?” I asked. We found a table and took a seat.

“I might have a brandy,” K said. “Do you think they’ve got some?”

“Bound to.” I looked at the menu. There were some Italian brandies listed, and then cognac, for €4. “I’m almost tempted to have one myself, for medicinal purposes,” I joked.

“Will you have some of mine?” she said. “I don’t want a whole one.”

She does this with dessert all the time. But brandy? I don’t drink! But if there was ever a time – in the convivial company of friends, after a fine dinner, with my pins-and-needle fingers and spasming back and a lump of ice at my core that was only slowly starting to melt…

The waiter came over. “Quatro macchiati, per favore,” I said. “E un cognac.”

“Prego, signor.” Off he went.

Four small cups of espresso with a dash of frothy milk arrived, and were set before each of us. Then from his tray he took a huge balloon glass with a good inch of amber liquid in it, and placed it in front of me. It glowed like fire. I picked it up cautiously and put it in front of K, who inspected it then took a sip, pulled a face quickly and recovered. It seemed to go down well. I busied myself with my macchiato, which didn’t take long. She took another sip, smiled, then pushed the brandy across the tablecloth towards me. I picked it up, cupping my hand around the base of the glass to warm it, and sniffed:

The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.

“Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”

They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”

“I’m quite happy with this.”

“Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.” He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We were both happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog barking miles away on a still night.

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited. 

I quoted the passage as I slowly swirled the brandy, deferring the moment. I still wasn’t sure. Then, like stepping backward over a cliff edge and putting your trust in the rope, I raised the great glass tentatively and took a small sip. The pins-and-needles moved from my fingers up to my lips. I tasted it experimentally, rolling it around my tongue – the slightly powdery residue of it, the numbing anaesthesia, the sudden fiery flush of it coursing throughout me. I exhaled carefully through my nose, scenting it – the age of it, the wood of the barrel, the eye-watering, mustard-like sting that mellowed into something warm and glowing. The intake of spirits. A slow smile lit my face. So ended 15 years of being teetotal.

Carefully I placed it back in front of K, shooting occasional cautious glances at the glass out of the corner of my eye. It was certainly medicinal – it seemed to be healing my assorted woes on the spot. I quite fancied another sip, but I wasn’t going to rush her.

The philosophical paradox known as The Ship of Theseus, first outlined by Plutarch, poses the question whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every part of it is in fact still the same ship. Aristotle argued that it was, because the design, the “what-it-is”, or formal cause, of the ship, was unchanged even though new materials might be used. If it is true that the human body renews itself almost entirely every seven years at a cellular level, then after 15 years I have renewed myself twice over. I am not the same person. My formal cause may be the same, but we can change our opinion, our philosophy and even perhaps our personality in the same way that we renew ourselves physically. In drinking cognac I was not going to suddenly regress to where I was 15 years ago, lost and hurt and angry. I had evolved. There might be loss, hurt and anger again, but I knew now how to deal with it, not be consumed by it.

And moreover, I had become greater than the thing itself. My sobriety had become a cornerstone of my personality – something that set me apart, perhaps, as an exercise in self-control. But it was an edifice which was top-heavy; each year that passed by its height was added to, until it was this monumental looming feature. I knew I was playing with fire. But drinking was something that, if I shunned it, would always retain that element of danger to it – that possibility of the loss of control. And yet, as with riding a motorbike where you clutch on to the bars too tightly for fear of coming unstuck, and ride more jerkily as a result, this was an illusion.

So I confronted the thing – the anachronistic beast in the lair that lurked in the darkness of my consciousness – by throwing open the door and allowing the light to flood in. I realised I could take it or leave it – it didn’t merit anything more than that. I picked up the balloon glass and took another sip, and in doing so, in some very fundamental way, I loosened my grip on the bars a touch, smoothed out the ride and regained control.

We walked, fingers intertwined, along the promenade beneath the palm trees. Ahead of us were the other two, small figures in the distance, also hand in hand. The moon turned the outline of the clouds silver, and there was the chink of rigging from the yacht masts in the warm breeze off the sea. A cat began to follow us, trotting alongside, then halting, looking round, and following us once more. I examined myself cautiously for any trace of tipsiness, any effect of the brandy, and found none. I merely felt deeply happy – and as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’”.

“This is nice,” I said aloud. “Main khus hoon.” I’m happy. I wondered how long it would last, then laughed at myself.

“Me too,” said K.

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Rainriding

The road is silver and jumping with water, a shimmering aquatint of slick, sinuous curves. Treacherous patches as smooth as mercury lie where the camber levels out, and the tyres glissade across them with a thin zipping sound before regaining the purchase of the rougher asphalt with a dull roar. The hillsides are smoked with rain, thickening and dispersing as the clouds lower down their flanks, tissues of mist that are slowly torn away to reveal folds of wet valley. Small, battered farm buildings hunker down against the weather, red tiles shining, gutters cascading with twisting streams of tinsel, drowned by the rain.

The minimalist titanium spiderweb of my Scandinavian glasses offers no protection against the onslaught of droplets, and I experience the curious sensation of raindrops bouncing off my eyeballs at high speed. It stings my face like a dozen needles. I narrow my eyes to a squint and try to scan the road ahead, finding the line for the curve, avoiding the standing water which could carry us sideways over the cliff, and shudder as another rivulet of rain trickles down my neck. I’ve got the big shivers, a tremor beginning, rippling outward in fluttering muscle. The world is a blur through my smeared lenses, my shoulders hunched, face set in a grimace, roaring round the bends in low gear, with hands as white, dead and cold as a pair of flounders on a slab.

There’s a small track off to the right which I scan quickly, processing in a kind of mental shorthand – synaptic telegrams dispatched to save energy, warmth: no good, soft sand, bike’ll fall over. Another bend, double hairpin, click down to first and don’t touch the brakes, lean it over first this way then that, left eye is closing now, right one is down to 25% vision, find a layby urgently, don’t take your hands off the bars however much it hurts. Gurning mightily, jaw working like a ruminant, one eye shut, I make out twin tyre tracks off to the right and a heap of abandoned construction equipment, and steer towards it, clunking down through the gears like a learner with my non-functioning fingers, jolting the back brake because I can no longer remember left foot from right. Roll to a halt, into neutral, try again, into neutral, green light on, ignition off, sidestand down. Time to stop.


Colonel Bogey and Penguin Pillion

Colonel Bogey and Penguin Pillion

We were woefully unprepared for bad weather. We had left Santa Maria de la Palma in bright sunshine earlier that morning, and the forecast had been set fair. After a few days of temperatures in the high twenties there was no reason to expect a sudden change. As a result I was wearing a Haglofs Gore-tex jacket as a windbreaker – 15 years old, but reproofed earlier that summer – jeans and Blundstone boots. No gloves. K wore a couple of jumpers like an Indian aunty, jeans and trainers. Nothing more. Fortunately I had packed the Outward Bound hoodie as an emergency layer in the top box, so she put that on. We had passed numerous German tourists on big BMW touring bikes in the previous days, and laughed at their stiff-legged gait as they sweated in all their armour while waddling around sunstruck towns. Now the laugh was on us. The Indian style of bike touring makes no concession to protective equipment – even helmets are only used on main highways. But now I found a serious flaw with my helmet, as it lacked any kind of a visor. Riding with my huge sunglasses on this wasn’t a problem; I had ridden through the Himalayas with the same setup, over 18,000-foot passes. But as the day darkened I had to take them off and swap to my regular, non-tinted glasses, which offered minimal protection.

All the way south along the coast road from Alghero to Bosa the weather had been overcast, though there was a glimmer behind the clouds and occasionally sunshine broke through. The road was superb – bend after bend as it curled around the headlands with views of the open sea beyond. We took it fast, the 700cc Honda engine powering smoothly through each bend. It was a great bike, the NC700 – a little stolid and unadventurous, perhaps, but stable and forgiving of my elementary mistakes. We did some quick overtakes of caravans and other four-wheeled objects, and I noticed that above 90kmh my eyes started watering significantly, so after that we kept the speed down a little.

Bosa Marina was windswept and out of season. Palm trees whacked dully back and forth in the breeze along the promenade, and few people were about. We found a cafe open and sat outside with cappuccinos and a couple of paninis – the usual prosciutto and cheese, and tomato, basil and mozzarella. Although we’d planned to continue down the coast to Oristano, given the change in the weather we decided to cut inland and head through the mountains before returning to Alghero. By the time we left the cafe the sky was darkening, but I hoped it might be clearer conditions in the mountains, following the brightness to the east. We rode through the backstreets of Bosa until spotting a sign for a place that was familiar from the map: Montresta. The road climbed steadily upwards, and round one bend revealed the imposing bulk of Malaspina Castle draped along a spur overlooking the town.

The last few buildings fell away behind us and the landscape changed to a rather desolate hilly scrub. We roared our way round the bends, climbing steadily the whole time, until we passed a sign saying Altitude: 550m. We had climbed half a kilometer in perhaps quarter of an hour. It felt colder too, and I kept an eye on the ominous clouds that were looming off to my right over the hilltops. Montresta wasn’t far – perhaps 20km – but on these hairpins our average speed was 40kmh at best. The occasional farm buildings we passed looked like miniature castles themselves, with a rough-hewn, walled-in look and strategically small windows. Occasionally, small, battered-looking Fiats came hurtling down the road towards us, doing double the speed limit (which are all ludicrously low in Sardinia), disappearing round the bends with a twin dab of brake lights. But soon we had the road to ourselves. I hit a large pothole which caused the bike to jump sideways, and heard a groan from behind me. “TK?” I called out: Thik hain? Alright?
“Oof! Yaar,” came the answer.

I felt the first spot on the back of my right hand. Snatching a glance off to my right on a brief stretch of straight road I saw bruise-grey clouds advancing down the hillside across the valley from us. Then I had to snap out of it and concentrate on the next bend, following the metal ribbon of the crash barrier which had an ominously large dent in it. I clicked down into second and raised revs, until the limit point at which the barrier disappeared around the corner matched our own speed, neither advancing nor retreating – the perfect speed for the bend. Information, Position, Speed, Gear, Acceleration. I noticed small dark spots begin to appear on the road surface, and felt more droplets. “Rain coming,” I called over my shoulder. But it might just be a small shower, I reasoned, and we were getting closer to Montresta with every kilometer. Soon, though, a thin, steady drizzle began, and I had to periodically wipe the lens of my glasses using only my left hand to clear them. Then, suddenly, it got heavy, a curtain of falling silver water. I was taking the brunt of it on my chest, and acting as a shield for K, but the Gore-tex was holding up well. It was my vision that was the problem – I just couldn’t see properly, and on each of these tricky bends I needed every ounce of concentration. I was also becoming very cold. I remembered the words of the police biker who taught the advanced motorcycle training in Suffolk: “No matter how much training you have had, or how good a rider you are, you are only as good as the next second of the next minute of the next hour of that particular day. A second’s lapse in concentration could be your last.” It seemed prescient.

After powering through for longer than was probably wise, I could hardly see the road any more. That was when the layby came up with the construction equipment, so we rolled into it. There was no shelter at all, and the rain had settled into a thick downpour. I was concerned about K in the Outward Bound hoodie; if it soaked up the water, with an ambient temperature of around 12 degrees, moving at speed on the bike she was going to quickly become hypothermic. Spotting a ditch partly covered by branches we headed towards it. On the far side the hill fell away and we clambered down a few feet over a low wall to take shelter under some foliage. It was not the most scenic of spots. Discarded tyres lay around, with occasional pieces of plywood and other debris. Across the valley, I could make out small fields intersected by drystone walls and a little farm building. In the distance a dog barked, the sound muffled by the hiss of the falling rain and the drops pattering on the carpet of leaves around us. K’s teeth were chattering.

“Right, we’ve got to keep warm!” I announced.

“Oh god, it’s gone into military mode again,” she said.

“Yass!” I jumped up and down a few times, under the dripping trees. “Come on!” We jumped up and down a bit. I began harrumphing various marching tunes, of which the British are historically favoured with a great abundance. “A Life on the Ocean Wave” with the band of the Royal Marines – the record of which we used to have as children when we lived in Eastern Europe. As kids we just enjoyed marching up and down in time with the beat. It only occured to me retrospectively that playing British Military Music for hours on end in the living room with the secret police’s microphones hidden behind the wallpaper was in fact a not-terribly-subtle two fingered salute at the Communist regime. “Tipperary” – the most extraordinary song, really, written by two Brits (one of Irish descent) before the First World War, which became widely adopted by all the troops in the Trenches – including the Germans. And one night in Frankfurt in 1990 I met a man from East Germany walking his way west after the wall had come down, sitting on a park bench with a couple of other guys, sharing a bottle of vodka. On hearing that I was British he pulled out a harmonica and started playing “Tipperary”, and then we all joined in, between swings of the bottle, serenading bemused passers-by: a young Brit (of Irish descent) and three old German guys, singing a British wartime song, drinking Russian vodka after they had escaped from Communist East Germany. Historical ironies.

But in the ditch in the rain the tunes in my head all kept turning into Colonel Bogey, from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Marching on the spot we began whistling it tunelessly, flapping our arms. I had pins and needles in my fingers from the cold. The only lyrics I remembered were the kind familiar to generations of British schoolboys:

Hitler has only got one ball

The other is in the Albert Hall

His mother, The dirty bugger

Cut it off when he was small

Himmler had something similar

But poor old Goebballs

Has no balls at all.

Just then, we heard the sound of an engine. A big bike. Then another, then a third. BMWs. You could tell by the clunking gear changes. They slowed, perhaps on seeing our bike in the layby, but then carried on along the road. I wondered aloud what exactly three touring Germans would have made of pulling up in a layby somewhere in the mountains of Sardinia in a downpour and hearing “Hitler has only got one ball” being bawled lustily from a nearby ditch. We stopped singing. We had to – we were laughing too hard.

A Sardinian friend had assured us that it only ever rained for an hour at most, at this time of year. One hour and fifteen minutes later, under the tree, we considered the full momentous import of the weather having disobeyed her. To one side we had a dismal view of the soggy hillside under the downpour; to the other, through the boughs of the hedgerow, we could just see a glimpse of the road and the slim silver bars of rain. It fluctuated in intensity, noticeable by the changing sound as it fell; it would become lighter in patches, raising our hopes, the patter of droplets more noticeable on the canopy of leaves above, and then it would strengthen again into a thick, steady hiss which drowned out the individual droplets. A pale sun sat behind stubborn wads of grey cloud, growing no brighter. We had run out of songs, exhausted our comedy routines, and now just glumly watched and waited, occasionally giving theatrical shudders. We were getting too cold.

The problem was, getting on the bike again we would be colder still, the minute we started moving. It was a judgement call. I gave the rain another ten minutes to stop, and when it showed no inclination to slacken off whatsoever, I looked at K and said, “Alright, let’s give it a go.”

We clambered back up the hill and through the gap in the hedge with a few feeble, bedraggled squawks, and stood in attitudes of general misery by the bike while we got helmets on again. Mercifully the engine started. Shooting a parting glance at our miserable ditch, I clicked into first and we nosed our way out of the layby and back onto the road.

The rain had eased a little, it seemed. I could see better now, and it didn’t sting as hard on my face. My hands were a problem though – my fingers seemed to be moving in slow motion. I had a strange burning pins-and-needles sensation in both, and when I went to pull in the clutch it seemed to take my hand five seconds or so to carry out the decision after I’d made it. Not a good sign. I looked hopefully ahead for signs of Montresta, but there was nothing – just mile after mile of wet scrub. Stiffly we rode around the bends, on and on, until I made out the shape of a farm off to the left. Then more sog and dismal heath. A few kilometers further on we rounded a bend and I blinked in disbelief: there below us, spread out across the hillside, were dozens of little pale-yellow houses with red roofs. Then a church. This was it! Montresta.

The town looked abandoned. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and everyone was very wisely staying indoors, given the weather. We rode up and down narrow winding streets, past a pharmacy (shut), past the church, looking for a cafe, a pizzeria, anything. Coming down one street we saw two enormous murals covering the wall of a building. It looked like Belfast. Just opposite, up a slope, there was a sign that said “Bar Cafe”. I squinted at it and saw the door was open. We roared up the hill towards it and pulled in next to two or three small cars parked outside.

From within came the din of a rapid-fire Italian commentary which emanated from a large TV on the wall. Several men sat around talking in raised voices to make themselves heard over it. At the appearance of two sopping wet bikers leaving individual puddles in the doorway, all conversation stopped. Slowly everyone turned to stare. There was an oddly sectarian feel to the place – and not just because of the murals outside – rather like walking into a pub in a small town in Northern Ireland as an outsider, where you don’t really know the rules or the background. I stepped over the threshhold, announced “Salve” (as opposed to the more distinctly Italian “buongiorno”) to the room in general, and squelched my way over to the bar. Only the blare of the TV continued. The waitress was pointedly pouring out two shots of something transparent, took them over to the men at one of the tables, and slowly conversation resumed. On her return to the bar she favoured me with a glance for the first time, and inclined her head at me. What did I want?

I had no idea. Something hot and wet. “Due té, per favore,” I said. Then I saw a row of biscuits and cakes off to the right under the glass counter, and made out a brand name on one of them. “E due Fiesta”. I had no idea what a Fiesta was, but it looked more edible than a small car. She found a couple of mugs, and two Lipton yellow teabags. It clearly wasn’t the sort of place many people dropped in for tea.

I had a sudden thought. “Um, té con latte, per favore.” I got an upward jerk of the chin in acknowledgement, and then she said something in Sardinian I didn’t catch. “Dov è…” I think I caught. Where?

“Outside,” I pointed. OK. She’d bring it over. Although it was cold, there were umbrellas on the terrace, and we could smoke out there.

The tea came in two tall china mugs with lids, and the Fiesta turned out to be some kind of orange spongecake covered in chocolate. It was very good. The rain fell steadily, pattering on the umbrella above, with the view from the terrace dominated by the house-high mural opposite. It was based on the Sardinian flag – a St. George’s Cross which usually has the head of a Moor with bandaged forehead in each quarter. Originally a sign of the Crown of Aragon, which the Kingdom of Sardinia became part of in 1326, the quattro mori are thought to represent four major victories by the Aragonese against the Moors in Spain, and the cross of St. George, itself a Crusader symbol, supports this. But interestingly the design changed subtly over time, and during the Savoy House Domain from the mid-18th century, the Moors were turned to face the other way, leftwards “to the luff” – a nautical term meaning mast – and the bandage on the Moors’ foreheads changed position, moving downwards to become a blindfold. Whether this was an error by a copyist or a deliberate protest is unclear, but the blindfolded Moors remained on the flag until as recently as 1999, when a special regional decree changed the design back to the original, returning the blindfold to the forehead as a bandage, and changing the orientation of the Moors’ heads to facing “away from the luff” once more.

In the mural on the house opposite, the artist had painted the portraits of two women over the upper quarters of the flag. One wore a high-collared blouse and had her hair done up tightly in a bun, in a style which might have been early 20th century. The other’s hair cascaded downwards, her eyes were half-closed and she held a microphone, as if to make a speech or to sing. Both had very striking features, and looked strong, proud and fiercely independent. There was a small caption beneath the picture: “Omaggio a Grazia Deledda & Maria Carta”. Grazia Deledda was a writer from Nuoro who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1926, and whose novels described life on the island. Maria Carta was from Sassari, and was a folk singer, songwriter and actress (she played the mother of Vito Corleone in the film Godfather II), who also brought traditional Sardinian music to a wider audience around the world. Above the mural was the inscription:

A SAS FEMINAS SARDAS

EROICAS FEMINAS DE TALENTU

ASOS SARDOS AZZIS DADU FAMA ET GLORIA

SU TEMPUS NO CANCELLAT SU MEMORIA

DE CANTU AZZIS LASSADU IN TESTAMEN


TO THE SARDINIAN WOMEN

HEROIC WOMEN OF TALENT

TO THE SARDINIAN PEOPLE YOU GAVE FAME AND GLORY

TIME SHALL NOT CANCEL THEIR MEMORY

OF THE SONGS YOU LEFT AS A TESTAMENT

It was a strange mixture of defiance, independence and pride. I realised that my initial perceptions of sectarianism weren’t entirely wide of the mark, but were prejudiced by my own cultural baggage. This wasn’t a divided community like Northern Ireland. Who was the enemy here? It felt like there was one. Italy? The next village? Outsiders generally? I didn’t know. A few days earlier, talking to a young Sardinian man in a restaurant, I had rather clumsily asked whether, as a European Union citizen, he felt Italian first or Sardinian. “There’s no question!” he replied forcefully. “I’m Sardinian first, always!” The others round the table nodded in agreement. “90% of our problems here are because we are colonised by Italy, stuck onto this banana republic run by mafia and idiots like Berlusconi, hanging off Europe. Look at Scotland. If they can have a vote on independence, so should we.”

I had noticed, too, that many street and place names were written twice, often with the tiniest difference between them; perhaps only a single letter. One was Italian, the other Sardinian. It was an assertion of ‘otherness’, but still subject to Italian approval. The road the cafe was on was called Carrera de s’Alighera, in Italian, and beneath it, with just one letter different, Carrela de s’Alighera in Sardinian. The Italian was in capital letters. I knew that in Corsica, the neighbouring island to the north which was part of France (and which had that same Moor’s head on its flag), they had long had a pro-independence movement that bordered at times on outright insurgency, with bombings and kidnappings. Could the same happen in Sardinia, or had Europe’s own internal boundaries shifted somehow to incorporate more semi-autonomous stances, as the continent turned inward on itself against perceived threats from outside?

So there were undertones here. I couldn’t argue with the premise of the mural – indeed I found it heartening that the contribution of these daughters of Sardinia was being lauded, in a place – Mediterranean, southern Europe, or whatever – where an outsider might reasonably assume that the role of women was very much relegated to second place, as indeed it was just a few hundred kilometers to the south across the Mediterranean in North Africa. The mural posed something of contradiction in many ways; a positive message, delivered in a manner and style which seemed slightly ominous in this dismal hilltown in the rain: something insular, clannish and tribal. I noticed that there was still plenty of space on the flag for more portraits.

My tea had grown cold. K had found a cat to play with on a doorstep. The rain seemed to showing signs of abating a little – there was a brightness off to the west, and even a watery patch of blue: “enough to make a Dutchman’s trousers”, as my grandma used to say – a phrase that I think originated with the wide-legged trousers the Dutch sailors wore during the Third Anglo-Dutch war off the Suffolk Coast in 1672. Looking at the sky they were more skinny jeans than bellbottoms, but it was vaguely promising. I headed in to pay the bill, and we readied ourselves for another cold, wet ride. Turning back onto the main road we had gone several hundred metres before the presence of a roadsign on the other side of the road reminded me that in Sardinia – as in the rest of Italy – they drive on the right. The first time I’d made such a mistake on the trip. I told myself to focus – it would be stupid to make a slip-up now. But I was deeply cold, and kept getting muscle spasms in my back. It wasn’t far to the next town, Monteleone, and perhaps we could stop there again for another tea.

The rain, though, hadn’t gone away at all – it had just retreated to round the next bend. We got soaked once more. But there was no way I was going to stand under any more trees to wait it out – I had run out of marching songs, for one thing. I remembered all the times that I had pushed my limits, gone way past the comfort zone, into a place where there was nothing left but to endure, and hang on and I felt a flicker of residual warmth at the thought: these are the times that you look back on, I thought. Not the easy days when nothing much happened, but these times when it got rough, and somehow you got through. Wait until you are sitting back in your flat in London, with the heating on and a cup of tea at your elbow, looking out at the lights of the city, warm, comfortable and dry – you’ll look back on this and laugh. Just another adventure. So we just gritted our teeth and hung on. “I take you to such interesting places!” I laughed over my shoulder, and got a kind of gibbering “Brrrrr” in reply.

Monteleone was larger than Montresta, by the look of it. A small one way street nosed down the hill into the town, and we spotted a neon sign saying Bar Tabacchi with a few parking spaces nearby. The rain was falling in stair-rods again, so we jumped off the bike and ducked in through the door. The warm fug hit us and my glasses immediately steamed up. Four men in their 60s sat at tables near the entrance, and the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to the previous place. “Ay ay ay,” one cried. “Molto aqua! Sta freddo!”

“Molto freddo,” I smiled, looking molto freddo. Very cold. “Motobike e aqua not very bene”.

I ordered a pot of tea from the girl behind the bar and we went to a table a short distance away to drip quietly on the floor. On the television overhead a kind of talent show was taking place, of syrupy Italian love ballads together with videos that looked like ice cream adverts. The tea arrived and I wrapped both hands around the cup for warmth – my fingers were numb apart from the prickling and burning pins and needles.

The door opened again and two more bedraggled figures came in. Cyclists. They clipclopped across the linoleum in their special shoes, then the woman spotted our pot of tea, and said to her companion: “Look – they do tea.”

“Super. I’ll get a pot.”

They came and sat at the table next to us.

“Lovely day for a ride,” I said.

“Isn’t it. We’ve come 70km in this.”

“Are you British?” I asked.

“Scottish,” announced the woman in a distinctly English accent.

“Looks like you got a bit wet yourselves,” said the man. His accent was definitely Scottish – the softer brogue of the far north. We swapped general Anglo-Scottish pleasantries about the weather for while, talked of cycling in London, the night ride from there to Suffolk known as the Dunwich Dynamo, and how, fun though motorbikes might be, the world would be a great deal better off without the internal combustion engine.

A patch of glowing sunlight suddenly appeared on the wall opposite. We all stared at it, basking in it. The rain had stopped! Hastily we packed up, bade farewell and fair riding to the Scots, and set off once more. The road was steaming gently in the sunshine, and we followed a convoy of small cars up and over the escarpment. Coming down the other side the wind hit us, and I began shivering again. Then, suddenly, the sea came into view. The curving coastline made the shape of an old man lying on his back in the waves, his rounded head at Capo Caccia, the swell of his belly forming the hills further inland, and his feet pointing towards Alghero – dark rocks set against a shining sea crumpled like tinfoil. I remembered the Poor Knights Islands off New Zealand that resembled a knight in armour lying down in the deep blue Pacific, and also Cabeça do Velho in the middle of Mozambique – the old man’s head, surrounded by bushland and visible from the town of Chimoio; dusty, fought-over, blown apart Chimoio, a liftetime ago. Now there were elephants again in the bush around Cabeça do Velho, I had read, and Gorongosa National Park had been nominated as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The world turns, heals itself.

We entered the outskirts of Alghero in fairly miserable shape, damp, chilled and shivering. The road into town led through backstreets in a neighbourhood that looked run down and impoverished, like a suburb of Tunis or Tripoli. Huge potholes lined the streets. I thought about the course of a life, the countless, random experiences that make it up and the threads running through it that connect us to each other, the people who we love, and whether we meet them through mere chance or some larger design. But mostly I was thinking about what to have for dinner.

My back was spasming again and I groaned periodically – I had trapped a nerve somehow. Halting for a red light just outside a petrol station I became aware of a noise behind me: high, clear notes. K was singing. I couldn’t quite place the tune. “It’s singing!” I exclaimed tiredly, delightedly, and received a rather soggy pair of arms wrapped around me in a hug in return. The light changed to green, I did a shoulder check and accelerated away.

It was “What A Wonderful World”.

The Eternal City

Relentless sentimentalist that I am, the aftermath of a trip manifests itself in a snowstorm of tickets and receipts which I can never quite bring myself to throw away. I can pack in ten minutes, but take weeks to unpack. These tickets are in fact tabs to a mental filing system, their curious hieroglyphics sometimes prompting a furrowed brow as I endeavour to recall the event that each represent. That indecipherable, looping script with abundant double consonants could only be Italian… cappuccino, palazzo… but what was it for? A hotel? Two coffees and an aqua minerale? The Italians love their receipts. It gives the Guardia Finanza something to do.

My wallet bulges with reminiscent litter. A small pink counter ticket with the number 253 – nothing else. That was the queue for a concert in London. The bewigged and powdered portrait of an 18th century young man, which has gone into the transparent pocket where one might reasonably keep a photograph of a loved one, is the ticket to an art gallery in Venice. The blue cardboard folder marked SNCF contains the stub of a train ticket: Roma Termini – Assisi. Do you remember the Filippina nuns, who went to sit down then spotted the sleeping man on the concrete and developed expressions of dismay, deciding instead to stand further along the platform? We are not so squeamish. Or was that Assisi – Firenze? And the Middle Eastern guy with a quick, jittery manner who asked me for a cigarette then complained there was no filter? I remember we hadn’t eaten all day, the bags weighed a ton, we weren’t sure if it was the right train, and you could smoke on the platforms. We did, furiously. The factory opposite had a hole in the roof like it had been bombed. Von Ryan’s Express. Colonel Bogey. All this from a ticket stub.

Vueling Airlines, which I had assumed to be Chinese, turned out to be Spanish – the budget arm of Iberia. And it was, in many ways, a very European airline: the German stewardess welcomed us to “Fooling” Airlines, the Spanish pilot pronounced it “Wailing”. We fooled and wailed our way around the runways of Gatwick for a while to an Ibiza dance music soundtrack as rain spattered the portholes, then took off and within a minute pierced the characteristic murk of overcast that hangs above the British Isles. Suddenly the cabin was filled with sunlight in a premonition of the Mediterranean weather we were heading towards. It was a little over two hours to Rome Fiumicino, but we touched down in a different season: 27 degrees C on the ground.

I walked into the terminal and there was K, waiting just before immigration, as we had arranged – just the same. Passengers flowed around us as we hugged for a long time – it had been six months, a sleepy parting in the hot darkness of a Goan dawn as I climbed into John the Taxi’s car for my flight back to London. At that time we had had no idea when we should meet again; now here she was, and all the stresses of travel arrangements, the tedious bureaucracy of obtaining Schengen visas for non-EU citizens, were behind us.

But after just a few minutes together we were separated once again by our passports – I had to join the EU queue, and K went into the non-EU line. I kept an eye on her progress and we approached the adjacent desks at the same time. The immigration official before me could’ve doubled as a male model in his spare time – olive skin, chiselled features and a tremendously smart navy blue uniform (unlike the UK Borders Agency who have kitted out their staff in shapeless sag-assed black combat fatigues like a SWAT team). I proffered my passport together with my first Italian sentence – a very English “buongiorno” – and he glanced at it and waved me through. On the other side a group of African nuns stood together with arms folded and expressions of inexhaustible patience, waiting for one of their number. A couple of soldiers loitered nearby in shades and designer stubble. I waited. Five minutes. Ten. No sign of K. People I recognised from the queue behind her began to emerge from the same booth. What was going on? 15 minutes. Perhaps she had gone on to baggage reclaim? 20. I walked to baggage reclaim, trying to keep the expression of anxiety off my face. No sign of her.

My mouth was dry and I bought water from a machine, gulping it greedily down. Half an hour had gone by, and by now I was feeling sick. What if there was a problem with the visa? What if they just stuck her in a holding room before the next plane back to Delhi? I saw a lady wearing a yellow Fiumicino Information vest and approached her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “There’s always a delay for non-EU. Maybe 15 minutes.” By now it had been 45, I told her. She pulled out a phone and called a friend in Immigration, who also said not to worry. I asked her what I should do if K didn’t come through. “Well… you could try the police?” she said uncertainly, clearly with no great enthusiasm for my prospects of success with them. I paced up and down the baggage hall, wondering what the hell I was going to do. The phone didn’t work. The free airport wifi wasn’t connecting. It was all going wrong.

Then, suddenly, there she was, flip-flopping her way across the concourse, looking harassed. “Surrey!”

“What the hell happened to you? I was worried sick.”

“They took me out of the queue and I had to wait. Then I had this interview and they wanted to see all the hotel bookings. I told them you were waiting and tried to message but they told me to put away my phone.”

“I’m sure. They don’t want people causing a scene. They’d have just quietly deported you and I wouldn’t have known anything about it. Anyway, you’re here. Viva l’Italia. We’re in.”

There was a small booth outside the airport terminal where you could book a seat on one of the many buses heading to the city centre. We chose Terravision, largely on the strength of the name, and took our place in a crowd that couldn’t properly be called a queue in the British sense of the word. A forest of arms reached over the shoulders of others, proffering tickets to the one girl who was wearing a Terravision tabard. A group of Germans who had been patiently waiting were shouldered aside by a phalanx of Chinese who used their enormous wheeled suitcases like a battering ram. Realising that we were playing by Delhi Rules I dived in, somehow getting the big orange backpack into the luggage hold while clutching K’s hand so as not to lose her in the crowd. It was an interesting cultural introduction – neither the orderly queueing of northern Europe nor the free-for-all melee of Asia, but something in between. The Chinese tutted at these Indian upstarts with their underhand techniques such as the Casual Footplant, the Accidental Rucksack Blat or the Art of Becoming Immovable Unhearing Object. But it got us on, and we got seats. Looking out of the window as the door closed I saw a disconsolate group of Deuter rucksacks and Jack Wolfskin anoraks still standing on the pavement. The Germans would have to take the next bus. “Surrey!”

Roman traffic, too, was a strange kind of hybrid; there was some desultory hooting, but not too much. Cars raced towards zebra crossings, but then did actually stop at the last minute for pedestrians. The personal space measure had shrunk, but not too much: if a pedestrian comes within a metre of a moving vehicle in London the driver is likely to have a panic attack; in Delhi it’s more like a centimetre or two. Rome’s yardstick was a good 30cm – ample room by Indian standards, but disconcerting for Brits and others. Despite the ominous warnings of the guidebooks it all seemed quite orderly really.

And Rome was beautiful. I had been expecting traffic-snarled streets and the occasional ruin surrounded by scaffolding with bits dropping off it periodically like carious teeth, as gangs of moped-riding youths – scippatore, my guidebook helpfully explained – lay in wait for unsuspecting tourists to relieve them of their handbags. But instead there were wide, tree-lined boulevards, with turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. The mopeds were mostly ridden by smart young women in designer clothes. Sometimes we’d pass walls or arches with narrow terracotta brickwork that looked ancient, and the street names were large stone rectangles carved in an elegant, Romanesque font, unlike the functional metal placards in much of the world. The metal signs that did exist, such as for traffic signs, all had a tall and skinny, slanted font – the very definition of Italic. Another sign, on a billboard, left me nonplussed: “Study for British School – Via Rhodesia”. It took a moment to realise Via Rhodesia was the street name – surely the only one left in the world. We passed an enormous ruin of walls and archways – the Emperor Caracalla’s Baths. Then, suddenly, turning a corner the view was dominated by the unmistakeable outline of the Colosseum, prompting a series of oohs and ahs from the passengers, swiftly followed by the assorted clicks and chirps of dozens of cameras. It was, I’ll admit, all very impressive.

Neighbourhoods adjacent to main train stations are rarely salubrious areas, and I had some misgivings about our hotel’s proximity to Termini, recalling the shooting-up gallery round the back of Oslo’s Sentralstasjon or the seamy backstreets around London’s King’s Cross. But this too was unfounded – it was a pleasantly central location off the Via Merulana, heading towards Vittorio Emmanuele park. The hotel itself, Auditorium di Mecenate, was on the third floor of an apartment building serviced by the type of ancient elevator where you have to pull an iron grille across to shut yourself in. Next door was a cafe, across the road a pharmacy, and there were many small shops about. Over the next three days we gradually got to know the neighbourhood, and later, at the end of the trip, we returned there out of sheer familiarity – although to another hotel as the Auditorium was fully booked. Indeed the next time I’m in Rome I’d probably stay there too. Of course there’ll be a next time.

Dawn makes any city unfamiliar. Even if it’s the one you live in, the first grey light of daybreak throwns different features into relief, and the dimensions of the streets assemble themselves naturally without throngs of people to disrupt the view. The birds begin to stir, singing the day into being. The occasional passer-by, huddled against the cool air, walks with the furtiveness of an urban fox, away from the retreating night – heading to work, perhaps, or home from the night shift. The first shutters begin to rattle up on the cafes and a yawning waiter wipes down tables before unstacking the chairs. Four cops draw up in a car, the bubbling blue-and-white Polizia sign on the side looking like a toothpaste advert. They climb out and adjust their uniforms, smoothing their hair, settling caps on heads – two men and two women – before heading to the counter for coffee. A priest in long black cassock cinched with a wide leather belt goes in, and greetings are exchanged.  He bestows a benevolent smile upon the pastries behind the glass counter, finds one he likes in particular and points it out to the waiter. Two African men carrying large bags go past, their eyes swivelling quickly over the cafe’s customers before moving on. Nothing to see here.

I hadn’t appreciated how small Rome was – the historical center, at least. The hotel receptionist furnished us with a map of the city centre, and drew swirling italic rings around various sites of interest in ballpoint pen. Over the course of the day we managed to visit most of them simply by ambling about in pursuit of a series of coffees – the kind of sightseeing I like best. From the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, dominated by the church of the same name from which issued ethereal singing at certain times of day, and clanging clock chimes at others, it was a 15-minute walk downhill to the Colosseum. Thronging with tourists even in the early morning, it loomed over Constantine’s rather diminutive Arch nearby. A series of Bengali men lining the stairs offered selfie sticks to the descending tourists, and nearby a Roman Legionary in helmet, tunic and sandals peered glumly at his iPhone before perking up at the approach of a group of girls who wanted their picture taken with him. Two ladies, each with their own selfie stick, took pictures of themselves repeatedly, only halting at the approach of a vendor who offered them… a selfie stick. “I’ve already got one?” said the taller of the two in distinctly Australian accents. “So has she? Why would I need another?” It was a fair question – or series of questions – and the vendor sloped away, saw me watching and half-heartedly lifted one before deciding it really wasn’t worth it, nothing was really worth it, and he might as well just go and sit down on that rock for a while and watch all the other vendors get rejected too.

There was a kind of vendor hierarchy, with selfie sticks lowest of the heap. Above them were the flower guys – all of them also Bengali – who would approach a couple with a bunch of roses and offer one to the lady. They had cultivated an expansive air of Italian romance – “please, take it for free, beautiful lady” – but would then hover around until paid to go away. They tried it on couples seated outside cafes too, laying a rose on the table before lurking round the corner and coming back to extract payment. There were Africans – mostly Senegalese, it seemed – who sat on small stools along the pavement selling wooden items: little, hideous giraffes, the kind of intricately carved folding bowls such as the one I bought in Afghanistan, and various other trinkets. Some of these, too, would ambush customers in cafes, lurking in the field of vision with a repeated, questing refrain of “Buongiorno? Buongiorno?”, until dismissed with a wave of the hand or an impatient jerk of the head. Tourists tended to get into conversation with them, which was inevitably a mistake; on more than one occasion I saw British tourists (“Bon jaw know,” they would fatally reply) doing that mildy exasperated apologising that the British do so well: “No, I really don’t want one, thank you… sorry, no, not today… no, well not tomorrow either, because we’re going to Pisa, haha… sorry, no thank you”. And the vendor would hear: “sorry… thank you… sorry… thank you” and think: “Aha! If I just keep on standing here and guilt-tripping them into a state of grovelling abasement I’ll wear them down”. After one of these encounters, our waiter – who was Punjabi – rolled his eyes and said to us (in Punjabi): “These guys just try to make everyone feel like wankers”.

And they did. But it wasn’t really their fault, either. All summer columns of refugees had once again trudged back and forth across Europe in search of sanctuary, to a wall of monumental indifference; a wall whose height was added to by each passing, hateful headline. Migrants desperate for a better life – or any kind of life at all – had risked everything to get to the final, glittering citadel of the EU. Now they were in, legally or otherwise, and what they found was indifference, resentment, hostility. Nobody would give them a job in a country with 50% youth unemployment. No-one wanted to buy their tat – no-one had any money anyway. The Bengalis sold the same green laser lights and glowing parachute toys that they sold on the beaches of Goa; the only difference was that here, when they did occasionally make a sale, they got paid in Euros. And in a street just next to the Colosseum, at an ancient, cast-iron pump set into a wall, an African clad only in his shorts stooped splay-legged like one of the giraffes that he sold, and with the quick, deft movements born of long practice, soaped himself all over, sluiced water over his head, scrubbed his teeth vigorously, washed his socks under the stream of water, and then dried himself off with a small towel and repacked his daysack before trudging away down the street towards the crowds of tourists once more.

The hotel was on Via della Statuto, and at the end of it, past the kebab shop on the corner, lay Vittorio Emmanuele Park and the metro station. The pavements outside the shops were colonnaded, with canopies offering shade from the sun, and each morning stalls selling cheap clothing were set up, again mostly manned by Bengalis. They seemed to do a roaring trade – there were nearly always people looking for a bargain, whether tourists in daypacks with cameras slung about their necks or smartly dressed housewives leafing through the racks of clothes with a vague air of distaste. A staircase descended into Vittorio Emmanuele Station, which was fairly grubby, with bare concrete walls and a distinct absence of the advertisements that line every London platform. Rome’s metro is essentially just two lines – A and B –  and looked a little knocked about. Machines on the concourse sold tickets for €1,50 which were valid for 100 minutes of travel – which would probably take you to the end of both lines and back, if you were so inclined. We were bound for Ottaviano and the Vatican Museums, a few stops away across the River Tiber.

Emerging into the heat on what looked like just another Roman boulevard, it slowly became clear that the demographic had changed: the streets were full of nuns. They went past in groups, of all ethnicities and languages, the colours of their habits varying a little from one group to another, and yet there was a drab uniformity to them all. All seemed to favour sagging grey ankle socks worn with sandals. Sometimes they hurried, sometimes strolled, and they, too, became impatient with all the tourists, following each other in their little groups round clumps of daytrippers who had stopped en masse in the middle of the pavement for no reason at all. I eavesdropped on the conversation between three nuns ahead of me, who were speaking in English: two who I took to be Irish from their accents, and a younger African one. I only caught a fragment of it, but one of them said to the African nun: “And did you receive absolution this morning?” For what? I thought.

I sat down on a rock in the shade of a nearby wall and rolled a cigarette as the column of nuns went by. As I sat there, five German girls in tight denim hotpants came and stood in front of me. More arrived – clearly a school group – all of them in these cheeky Daisy Duke shorts. I wondered how they were going to get into the Vatican dressed like that (the answer was, by using temporary sarongs to cover bare legs and shoulders). Soon I was surrounded by 15 or 20 blonde teens who seemed completely oblivious to my presence. They had a heavyset, milk-fed kind of manner to them – rather clumpy and big-boned, for the most part – a small herd of nubile Teutonic heifers. Their teacher, a harrassed-looking thirty-something man with a prominent Adam’s Apple and razor burn, addressed them all from an adjacent rock. They scowled, looked at the floor, played with their phones. Their shorts looked terribly uncomfortable. There was a lot of furtive wiggling and readjustment. The nuns slopped by in their orthopaedic sandals and baggy socks, smiling sadly.

The Vatican, a miniature state-within-a-state, didn’t require a visa, at least. But there was security to be cleared – airport-style scanners and X-ray machines for the backpacks. Notices warned of a ban on objects such as scissors, penknives and hammers, which had been introduced after an incident in 1972 when a mentally disturbed man, Laszlo Toth, attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta statue with a hammer in the Basilica of St Peter’s. Although I didn’t anticipate having such a visceral reaction myself to any art I might encounter, I realised that my penknife – an enormous, inch-thick Swiss Army Knife with 42 blades (apparently) – was in my backpack, and wondered what to do with it. In the end I just left in in the bag as it went through the scanner, and they never picked up on it. (Thai Airways, Air India and Singapore Airlines have also missed it in security checks over the years, which is a little concerning I suppose.)

St Peter’s Basilica was immediately cool and dark after the broiling sun. There was a low sussurus of murmuring as the crowd of tourists endlessly perambulated anticlockwise with necks craned aloft. Crepuscular rays descended in tapering columns of light from the windows around the high dome, creating a suitably heavenly atmosphere. From far above came the triple-clap of pigeons’ wings and a faint cooing. Sculptures of assorted saints in heroic poses lined the walls; Saint Veronica appeared to be attempting to escape from her dress; St Andrew reclined upon the X-shaped cross that came to be named after him, hand outstreched and eyes turned aloft beseechingly. Over the altar was a baldacchino, designed by Bernini, oddly reminiscent of a four-poster bed. Dark wooden columns twisted and fluted their way aloft, rising to 20 metres in height. At the base of each was a marble plinth, and upon these were carved a heraldic shield containing three bees in triangular formation – the coat of arms of the Barberini family, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini having become Pope in 1623 and taking the name Pope Urban VIII. The removal of ancient bronze beams from the Pantheon to provide material for the baldacchino led to an anonymous critic of the time writing the Latin pun: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” – What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did. 

But it is only on closer inspection of the plinths that one can detect that Bernini’s monument has an extraordinarily graphic detail, given that this is the most sacred spot in the Roman Catholic world. Each shield is enclosed by a woman’s head, and while initially appearing identical, when viewed from the front left plinth it is possible to discern her changing expression. As Witkowski (1908) writes:

The scene begins on the face of the left-hand front plinth; the woman’s face begins to contract; on the second and following plinths the features pass through a series of increasingly violent convulsions. Simultaneously, the hair becomes increasingly dishevelled; the eyes, which at first express a bearable degree of suffering, take on a haggard look; the mouth, closed at first, opens, then screams with piercing realism. … Finally, comes the delivery: the belly subsides and the mother’s head disappears, to give way to a cherubic baby’s head with curly hair, smiling beneath the unchanging pontifical insignia.

Interpretations vary as to Bernini’s message. Some believe that the faces illustrate the labour of the papacy through the symbolism of childbirth. Others maintain that they were commissioned intentionally by Urban VIII at a time of his niece’s problematic pregnancy in gratitude for the successful delivery of the child. But perhaps the most entertaining account is that it stems from a piece of Roman gossip at the time – that this was Bernini’s revenge on the Pope for having disavowed a child illegally born to his nephew Taddeo Barberini and the sister of one of Bernini’s pupils. Even Popes are not above the morality of Vox Populi in the Eternal City.

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The Checkpoint

I fell into your eyes one night

And I’ve not been quite the same

In our dance around each other

In this endless, driven game

You told me that you liked me

Quite formally, but still

The way it was you said it

Made all my senses thrill.

So turn your head towards me

Move into my arms

Raise your face to kiss me

And I’ll meet all your demands

I love the lightness of you

Your vanities and all

Your frailties are an open book

But I’ll catch you if you fall.

Riding along a mountain road

I hit a rock one day

The back wheel jumped, the cliff came close

And I quietly said your name

I don’t know what you were doing

Or where it was you were

But whatever it was or wherever you were

I’d like to think you heard.

So draw your nails down me

And show me what you do

Let loose the drape of your long hair

And I’ll sift my fingers through

Entwine your limbs about me

And we’ll hold each other close

As you close your eyes and shiver

At the passing of a ghost.

On a dark night I heard the click

Of a safety catch come off

And then a scream of challenge

As the soldier aimed his shot

I froze and carefully raised my arms

As the lights shone in my view

And squinting at their silhouettes

I only thought of you.

So we’ll head into the sunlight

Of another tropic dawn

And the limpid call of birdsong

As we walk across the lawn

To the house of many chambers

With the stairs ascending higher

And at last we’ll lie together…

As the soldiers opened fire.