We have just returned from a family road trip around Italy. It is something I have done every single year of my life: driven down to Italy by car. The journey, contrary to most people’s horrified reactions, is absolutely essential to me. And no, I don’t find taking the plane easier. With all the packing limitations, the minimal liquid allowances and security checks (with kids!), the folding up of the stroller, the transfers and the poor food options, the delays which are out of your hands, the lack of spontaneity, the lack of hire cars that would fit all of us in at our destination: it is a migraine and scream-fest waiting to happen. But that is not the real reason, it is just the reason I provide when pressed, not the irrational, emotional reason we do the road tip. The real reason is that planes are to road trips as fast food is to slow food. The Annual European roadtrip is a pilgrimage.
The Trip punctuates the year and even more so, it brings into relief my own evolution with an constant anchor-point. It is not just a physical journey, it is my personal form of mental and emotional therapy. In the same spirit that a hypnotherapist takes the patient slowly back, through personal landmark moments in time, one by one, regressing them to childhood, I feel myself beginning to lurch as if sat on a train at the platform, disorientated as to whether it is my train which is moving or whether the train next to me is. As the mileage on the clock rolls upward, there is a visceral shift, my emotional pistons engage and I begin the process of mental rejuvenation and start to “reverse-process” life’s watersheds. First by the current year and then further and further back in time. It is the sweetest and saddest of counterpoints to see how everything changes yet everything remains the same. First I compare this year to last, then to the time when there were two children not three and then only one, then the time I was childless, then to the time I was unmarried and so on, all the way back to my earliest recollections.
There is also a pavlovian element that plunges me back in to another era, as if suspended in time, as I cross the border. The pause between breaths allows me to believe for split-seconds that lost loved ones are still alive. I can trick my brain that they are all around me like they once were, that destiny is all for the changing. It is a purposeful sadness, healing and pushing me to savour the present by realizing how I was once unaware of the preciousness of these similar moments in the past. It is as if I can in some way shave some of the accumulated sadness of my adult years off and thus excoriated, engage with the present with more freedom and immediacy. I don’t think we realize how much we just shore ourselves up, and shoulders forward, we keep on keeping-on in the face of grief and adulthood and responsibility. I think of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when they try and put the Ferrari in reverse while jacked up on stilts in an attempt to reverse the illicitly accumulated mileage. This trip is the Wardrobe which transports me to Narnia. My mother’s death feels less final, as if I were in a permanent twilight zone that exists in spite of the passing of time, a parallel universe in which I am allowed to feel emotions long buried, and childhood frustrations long repressed. I luxuriate self-indulgently in the maelstrom of sensations, I invite them in, acknowledge them and submit to them and all the sadness, joy, anger, helplessness and agonizing nostalgia they contain. I am somewhat obsessed with films and books that play with time and the “Butterfly Effect”: Sliding Doors, Back to the Future, Run Lola Run and, of course, the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I am also reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life right now which deals with the premise you could replay and “correct” small actions and choices that have far-reaching repercussions for the individual and the world.
Because of the regressive quality of the experience, I like to think it makes me more empathetic towards the kids, mainly because I actually remember with more clarity and less distance what it was like to be their age, to be handed snacks from the front seat, to have someone exclaim that the water is so clear and to look out to my left “Look! Cows! Goats!”… I was that child and now it is they. Smells, sounds, and qualities of light unique to each point along our route transport me back. It seems I still am that 4 year old squeezed into the back of the petrol blue Alpha Romeo GTV (minus car seats and seat belts of course), loaded on to hovercrafts and through autoroutes and aboard alpine car trains. As we would pop out in to crystalline air beneath limpid skies my mother would force my dad to take a pitstop and she would billow up a picnic blanket on a grassy border and let it fall, spreading it out, warm and comforting, our landing pad upon which to eat homemade sandwiches, peaches, yoghurts and whole tomatoes under the surreptitiously fierce summer sun. We would follow trout from the bridges above streams and gaze at the savage rapids and waterfalls, nature up close and unabridged as we never saw it within the confines of London. We would gasp at lakes and forest-fringed peaks and gawp at the shrinking Mont Blanc glacier.
We always stock up on fresh apricots and other goodies being sold by the roadside if we see them. The apricots are to die for, an explosion of fragrant sweetness and peachy tartness. The potent, extra-mature cheese we tend to take on the Northern leg of the trip: Our new tradition is to stop at the following Stube at the St Gottard Pass:
…where we eat the simplest and most scrumptious meal of mountain sausage:
… with ketchup and mustard, that they serve to you in a cardboard box lid on slivers of greaseproof paper and there, from our rough little bench we drink mountain-chilled, sparkling Apfelschorle and admire the view:
This year I actually spoke to the forbidding-looking lady who runs the booth, whom we see every year, rain or shine. She has that mountain attitude of interior and exterior weather-toughened practicality. Deep brown skin, impenetrable shades masking her eyes and what lies beyond: the human equivalent of a guard dog. For some reason she took to us, the fact that we spoke in German and then Italian (apparently), and in no time she was walking the baby around the rocks and crags near her shack, proffering her toy windmill and bringing us extra mustard and juices before we even had to ask. It just so happens that she has no grandchildren as her only son died when he was in his twenties, on the very day he celebrated his graduation. She explained as if on auto-pilot that he had gone for a solo festive ski off piste and never made it back, plunging to his death off the Monte Rosa. Her directness, her humility, her damaged soul that she just unveiled to me when I least expected it made my eyes immediately sting. I barely managed to eke out a word after that, and then, the dam broke and tears sprang forth and I hugged her and cried and she patted my back and said in a stoic and faux-upbeat way in Italian “I have no little ones of my own, so when I see nice families I take an interest in theirs!”. She walked me to the shady interior of the booth and showed me the framed picture of her bespectacled and curly-haired son. I asked her how she had managed to survive the grief and she said that finding herself on her own precipice – of madness – she had decided to undertake a challenging renovation project. She bought a property in Tuscany in a town called Pittignano in the province of Grosseto and now, over a decade and a half later she has finished and is finally looking to sell and move on to her next distraction to keep her from the verge. I promised her I would mention the fact that she is looking for a buyer of the property on this blog, as you never know. Hopefully she will re-embrace technology and photos will follow, as we exchanged addresses and agreed to meet up whenever we pass through.
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Both then and now we then wend our way down the mountain to the almost netherlandish flatness of the outskirts of Milan, through its rice paddies and orchards to stay for the second night with our first of a whole slew of beloved relatives, to sleep head to foot with a gaggle of cousins. Then we would pick blackberries and cherries in the orchard and roll about with the dog and climb trees and feed the chickens. The matriarchs would have a catch up and, chatting away would prepare the meals and the beds and distribute the gifts. The patriarchs would hug with slaps on the back and update each other on work, discuss cars and homes and the stresses of life. Now, these same cousins have kids of their own and, including our 3, there are 9 little ones at the table between the ages of 1-8. Despite being second cousins, they all are the very best of friends and it helps smooth over the gaping holes left by the departed.
If you can’t face your own roadtrip, I highly recommend the Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, or better still The Trip to Italy.