Thursday, 17 May 2018

Through Italy at Christmas Part 2

Christmas Day

I seem to remember that we slept until nearly lunchtime.  It was very quiet in the building and the area.  When we woke, we decided we needed food so we set off to find a cheap trattoria where we could get something to eat.  Little did we know that everything in Rome was closed on Christmas Day!  We walked round the nearby streets but drew a total blank.  In the end we had to return to the pensione.  We had no food but we did have a panettone (an Italian Christmas cake) which one of us had been given by our students.  Panettone is a light mixture with a little dried fruit cooked in a special tall tin.  We did not even have a knife to cut it with.  However, I did have a stainless steel tail-comb.  We washed it and then used it to cut the cake.  That was all the food we had on Christmas Day as far as I can remember.  Having a panettone became a tradition in my family and for years we used to share one with my sister and her family, and always cut it with a steel tail comb.

At some point on Christmas Day we thought it would be a good idea to go to church.  This was something else that was very different and there were be no church services in the afternoon.   We did find one church with long queues to get in so we joined the queue.  When we got inside, we found everyone was there to pay their respects to the crib.  I bought some postcards of the crib which I kept for years.

Our week in Rome

We remained in the pensione until Boxing Day (which does not exist in Italy).  Then we decided to move to the apartment.  I seem to remember we had found out the different regional names for caretaker so we realised we would be able to get into the building.  We took a bus to what was a nice suburb.  The apartment was fine.  I only have one real memory of our stay there and that is that the fridge seemed to run incessantly.  After a couple of days I realised that Cathy, who was very vague, had left the door open!
We had a list of the main sites we wished to visit.  We went to ‘ancient Rome’ and the forum and to the pantheon, the circular building that was also from classical Rome.  We walked a lot through various squares and saw the fountain that had starred in a famous film ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’ when we were very young.  We also went to St Peters and I think we may have attended Mass there.  We also attached ourselves to a tour group in St Peters so that we would get some commentary.  I had arrived in Italy in the previous September knowing not a word of Italian but Cathy had studied it at university.  I was quite impressed with my ability to follow the commentary the guide was giving.  It was only after we left the group that Cathy told me the group had been Spanish and the commentary was in Spanish.  So much for my languages!

Although it was winter and cold we wanted to eat ice cream.  It was part of our culture to eat ice cream throughout the year so we were a bit surprised that nobody seemed to be selling it, even though some cafes had a sign saying ‘gelato’.  It was a while before we learnt that people had been giving us strange looks because no-one ate ice cream in winter.  There were chestnut sellers everywhere and this was the winter snack.

One day we had a bit of an adventure.  As usual, we took the bus into the centre of Rome and that day we intended to go to the Spanish steps. I do not think we realised that we were about to get caught up in a political demonstration!  Yes, there were busloads of carabinieri around the edges of the Piazza d’Espagna but we did not realise what was going on.  And remember that Cathy was very vague and also, I was learning, not very street-wise.  Suddenly we realised that the shutters were going up in all the streets around the piazza.  Then we heard the noise of a demonstration approaching the piazza.  Lots of shouting.  A huge group of people entered the square and suddenly the police were there, forming a barrier between them and the open space.  We were behind the rows of police on the opposite side of the square to the demonstrators.  Only then did we realise that police buses were everywhere.  We had planned to climb up the Spanish steps but suddenly we were cut off.  We seemed to be the only passers-by who had ended up on the wrong side of the police barricade.  The demonstrators congregated in the square and it all got quite tense.  We hadn’t a clue what the demonstration was about but later learnt that it had been prompted by events in Spain where I think a demonstrator had died not long before.  Whatever the cause, it was not nice to be caught in the middle of it.  My first thought was to get out of the piazza somehow but Cathy did not seem to realise the seriousness of the situation.  All the shops in the adjacent streets had their shutters down so there was not much use going down one of them. Given that we were in no man’s land between the demonstrators and the police we were lucky to get out.  I remember thinking that we could go up the Spanish Steps as no-one was near them.  We did and got away.  At the top were a large number of police buses, all empty.  This was where they had off-loaded the policemen.  I now know that 1970-71 was a year of political turmoil and revolutionary groups in Italy.   Certainly when we returned to Turin there were demonstrations in the centre of the city most weekends with people wearing red scarves tied like the ones Boy Scouts wore.  But I was more wary then.

To Naples

After several days in Rome we took the train to Cassino where we were to spend the night with Gianni and his family.  The town seemed quite new with modern houses and I now know that was because it had been very badly damaged in the Battle of Cassino in WW11.  That evening we helped to make a Monte Bianco pudding: a confection of cream and chestnut puree.  Next day we visited the monastery and the site of the battle.  I remember wandering through the soldiers’ cemetery looking for New Zealanders’ graves.   I seem to remember there was a large section. What I did not know was that there was also a very large contingent of Polish troops and we saw a huge number of graves for them.

The monastery itself had been totally rebuilt.   I remember going up a lot of steps and into a very quiet large church.  The view from the monastery was wonderful but I cannot remember much else about it.  However, I have now discovered that wikipaedia has a very full account of the battles fought there.  I have also learnt that the New Zealand commander, Kippenberger, trod on a mine and lost both his feet.  His was a name that was often mentioned in our house as my grandfather and he had commanded different sections of the New Zealand army during World War II.  My grandfather was friendly with these distinguished people but I cannot remember meeting Kippenberger.  We did meet one or two other generals though.

We continued our journey to Naples and spent several days there.  I have memories of the fireworks, which were as good as the students had said, and also of driving around Naples with the person with the broken arm doing the driving!  A lot of the streets looked very poor.  I can remember buying and eating pizza and being told it had originated in Naples. I do not have many other memories of Naples but the journey back to Turin was not without incident either.

From Rome to Turin

We must have returned to Rome by train and spent a night there.  I know that we reserved seats in the train from Rome to Turin as it was the end of the holiday season.  Also, at that time, trains in Italy were incredibly crowded but cheap so we used to go first class with reserved seats whenever possible.  The weather was back to being just cold and damp.  We had booked an afternoon train service.  When we reached the railway station the concourse was full of coaches.  We went to ask what was happening.  Fortunately Cathy’s Italian meant she was able to go up to one of the ticket booths and asked what was happening.  The answer was ‘sciopero’.  This was the word for strike and one we were familiar with as all sorts of strikes happened regularly in Italy at that time.  We were told to wait outside and that we would be travelling part of the way by coach because there was a railway sciopero in the Rome region.  So we got into a coach.  No hope of a seat, of course, and the coach was full of young soldiers returning from their Christmas break to barracks in Turin.  They were members of the ‘alpini’ regiment which meant they wore hats with small plumes of feathers in them.  We were two unaccompanied young women so obviously foreign as Italian women did not do things unaccompanied in 1970.  It was no surprise that Cathy complained about the soldiers next to us attempting to grope her, but we survived by being very frosty and not admitting to speaking Italian.  The coach journey was quite long and we had no idea where we were going.  At one point, the coach blew a tyre.  We stopped and the driver and, I assume, some other people, managed to get it going again.  They may have changed the tyre.  I cannot remember.

Finally we reached a railway station that was outside the strike area.  I think we were probably in Tuscany.  I remember we pushed and shoved with the best of them to ensure we had seats.  The Alpini all got on the train, too, and some were in our compartment.  It was very crowded.  We then spent more hours travelling to Turin.  These Alpini were very friendly in a nice way and offered us fruit which they had brought from their homes in the far south.  We thought they were oranges but when we bit into them they were extremely sour and we realised that they were lemons!  The soldiers, who were possibly Sicilian, were obviously used to eating lemons as though they were oranges and did not think that we would find them sour.  I actually liked them.  I did not eat oranges anyway and I liked sour things so it was fine for me.  I seem to remember Cathy having to find polite ways of refusing them, though.  We finally reached Turin sometime around nine pm.  Thus ended our Christmas holiday.

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