Po PlainThe writers’ group met this evening. I read out an exercise I had written up over the summer. The good thing about being older is, I suppose, that you have more memories…

The Po Plain

 We were travelling back up from Umbria today. There were traffic jams – there are always traffic jams – around Florence, and then we were scuttling across the vast expanses of the Po plain. It was hot, oppressively hot. Our car’s thermometer indicated 41° C. As the distinctively flat countryside shimmered outside I suddenly realised that, to almost the day, it must have been precisely thirty years since I travelled across that landscape in my first ever excursion ‘abroad’. How I came to take that decision is another story, but going ‘abroad’, going to Italy, was one of the most important, and one of the best, existential decisions of my life. And all of the memories of that first trip came flooding back as if magically released from some hidden store room. The extraordinary spaces and heights of Milano Centrale! Clanking slowly out into the Milanese suburbs, with their mix of industrial architecture and residential areas, then gathering speed onto the plain. There were three of us in one compartment; my friend and I, and a young Italian man who wore a stoic expression all the way to Bologna and, for all I know, beyond. The heat was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It hammered on the ceiling and reached out to us from the floor and the walls. It thudded on my temples and squeezed my chest. It made us melt. My long trousers and shirt and jacket rapidly became unbearable. Our Italian fellow was clearly a seasoned rail traveller. He opened the window as wide as possible, pulled the blind down fully, then pulled out the six seats so that they made three beds, settled down and began to snore. The heat was making me somnolent as well, but I couldn’t let the landscape go by like that! I left the compartment and stood out in the corridor, where I could watch everything go by. I remember the trains – not the square-nosed, relatively modern locomotives that pulled the international trains and the expresses, but the squat, rusty ochre monsters that pulled goods trains, strongly reminiscent in their shapes of early ironclad battleships. They had six spoked wheels and had an indescribable animal menace about them (spoilt only by their pathetic little whistles). At the other extreme was the grey and green beauty of the settebello and other, similar, Pullman convoys. I remember the distant blue-grey spine of the Apennines, that accompanied us from Milano to Bologna. I remember the red brick farmhouses, the rice and corn fields and endless plantations of fruit trees (the Po plain was not just the bread basket but the rice pudding and fruit bowl of Italy). I remember the copses of birch and poplar planted in neat squares and lozenges. I remember the water jets and the long watering gantries spanning vast fields. I remember how deserted the landscape seemed, with not a moving figure or animal or machine in sight. I remember gazing out at this, the landscape of Giovanni Guareschi, for the first time and thinking about the priests and mayors in each of the hamlets I could see sprinkled about the plain. Faint traces of water trickled through vast river beds that hinted at winter savagery (indeed, the main line, bridge and all, was washed away a few years later). I remember the thrill of recognising names that I had previously known from food packets and novels and plays: Parma, Ferrara, Piacenza… I remember strange but slightly familiar names; Fidenza, Salsa Maggiore, Firenzuola… And I remember the Po itself, just before Piacenza


I remember the huge gantries and distinctive clock faces as we entered Bologna station and how we decided to hire a taxi to take us to the Pensione where we had reserved rooms. Even as the driver was ripping us off, he apologetically explained that the one-way system obliged him to take such a circuitous route. (The Pensione was about five minutes’ walk from the station.) I remember us grabbing an absurdly small and expensive sandwich in the Via Independenza around the corner. I remember how we had to pay to hire a tap to be able to turn on the shower in the bathroom (and when you turned it on you got a trickle), and I remember how a flu-ridden Steve proposed that we should share a double bed in a single room to economise. His snivelling and the heat rapidly drove me out in search of an alternative resting place and I remember the ease with which I found a route out onto the flat roof, where I gratefully laid my body in a very faint but cooling breeze. And I remember waking up with the light at five in the morning and gazing up at a peculiar pointillist black cloud that seemed to sliver across the sky above me. I got up, rubbed my eyes, and realized that I was watching a seemingly endless stream of migrating birds (starlings? larks?) as they flew south west towards Africa. My gaze lowered to the city about me, with its mediaeval towers and the futuristic banks and apartment blocks on the Via Marconi. This was abroad. I was abroad. And, in effect, I have been abroad ever since.