Last week, after tunneling under the squat heft of Monte Bianco, and with the cloud-tangled peaks of its French facade in our wake, I watched two alpine cows tumble together in a meadow by the side of the road. The white of their bellies blurred with the brown of their backs, and it seemed that they were locked in a play fight. How amazing, I thought. But as we drew closer to the dancing cows, the image corrected itself: it was just a small windmill turning furiously in the strengthening wind.
We were going home. To the home beyond the hills and mountains; far from the Alps, and the Pre-Alps, and the green, terraced footholds that wrap around Bergamo like a frilly collar. To the rushes, reeds and washes of East Anglia and the flat swathes of the Cheshire plains. Driving across France – wheels on earth, dogs in the boot, rain belting the windscreen – was a physical process of connecting the two: our Italian home and British one.
A week ago, this journey was a matter of moving forwards, past weather and paperwork and sodden service station stops. But in retrospect, it was the final act in the gradual unfolding of our lives since last March, when the announcement of the Lombardy lockdown snapped them shut.
I will always associate the eve of the pandemic with Venice. When people ask, ‘where were you when you heard about the first lockdown’, as I’m sure they will, I will tell them that it was at a provincial train station somewhere in Veneto. It was a text from a fellow expat in Lombardy – ‘they’re talking about locking down Bergamo’. Bloody hell, I hope I’ll be able to get home, I thought as the train swept the shores of Lake Garda. That morning, after being gripped with a desire to escape to Venice, I’d churned out this article on the strange pre-lockdown days in Bergamo. Everything was cloaked in the damp chill of early March, queues started to form outside of supermarkets, ambulance sirens began to pick up pace. A storm was brewing and we were in the eye of it, but we had absolutely no idea.
A trip to Venice seemed brave, not stupid. The Italian Prime Minister was begging for tourists to return to the country; our restaurant owner friend hugged me when we met. I remember borrowing an unmbrella from the hotel and crossing an empty Rialto in the direction of Al Nono Risorto. There was only one other table, and I ate a big plate of penne alla vodka followed by busalai buranei (Venetian biscotti) and vin santo. By dessert, the kitchen staff had taken a seat at the bar to play cards. We were all acutely away of this strange moment in time, but until this point, it was just that, a moment.
While I was away, we were asked if we could give a foster home to a dog on her way to the UK, just until Lombardy reopened again, two weeks max. 18 months later, and she’s still with us.
Back in Bergamo, decree after decree drew the lines of home closer and closer to our apartment. Within a couple of weeks, we needed paperwork to go to the shop or walk the dog. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels after spotting police officers checking the documents of people waiting in supermarket queues.
Hana the dog and I were allowed 250m from our home. At first, we took slow laps round the block – her sniffing cautiously at the pavement and crouching on her haunches everytime we had to cross a road, suddenly aware of her position at the end of a leash in a strange place with strange people. She refused to enter doorways for the first two months. Only the butcher, who would greet her with scraps of veal, eventually gained her trust.
Spring came slowly, and then all at once. Magnolia shed brown-tinged petals onto the pavement, mimosa pom-poms popped into life, and there was an explosion of wisteria, warmth, dusky evenings. With each walk, mine and the dog’s map unfolded a little more. We started to push the boundaries of our 250m to creep up Via Nullo, to the steep staircase that leads to Bergamo’s medieval Città Alta, simply because looking up them felt like opening the wardrobe door to Narnia.
At the end of April, on the first day that we were allowed to walk freely within our comune, we took Hana up those steps and walked through the upper city as if for the first time. Without the usual veil of smog, the mountain range that shoulders the city appeared to be embroidered on a ream of blue silk. We walked and walked, and let Hana stalk pigeons in Piazza Vecchia.
A few weeks later, and we drove twenty minutes out of the city for the first time, exchanging the hills of Bergamo Alta for the rolling vineyards of Torre Rovere for a lunch and a hike. Since then we have explored more of Lombardy and its mountains, we cooked more elaborate meals at home than we could ever have imagined, and we have breathed out and in with everybody else; our world tightening and easing with the ebb and flow of infection rates.
We are immensely lucky to live in the shadow of mountains. Most Italians look puzzled when we say that we swapped Lecce for Bergamo – a town forever associated with the grey, industrious north, and now, as the unfortunate epicentre of a pandemic. Yet in the process of unfolding this city, through our dog walks and hikes, we have fallen in love.
Everything came together a few weeks ago, when friends asked if we’d like to hike Monte Grignone. We struck out at 5.30am and stopped shortly after at a truckers’ bar for coffees and brioche. The sky bloomed pink above rice paddies, as if the roadside neon signs had bled their colours. We hiked through dappled woodland besides banks peppered with cowslip, lilac sage and forest orchids. I didn’t know their names then, of course, but the hum of bees and homemade cheese at the rifugio, made from the milk of the cows grazing the mountainside told us that we were on rich land. The trail became steeper, and the grass turned to felt as we approached the tree line. We could just make out motorboats drawing spiderwebs on Lake Como. When the path gave way to rocks, chains and snow, we knew we were close. The dogs slowed and longed for their beds. So did we. Rocks fell away as we clambered upwards, hauling ourselves up on wobbling thighs. No view from the summit, just a fog of cloud and the blessed sight of a candle-lit rifugio. We camped at 2140m and woke at 5am to a sky in flux. A cloud moving between us, so close we could breathe it in, and a few minutes later, a clearing, a red flush and then an elemental separation: a white foam, a strip of sulphur yellow, and cap of scarlet clouds. And then, emerging from the West, 270km away, Monte Bianco.
As our physical world has unfolded, so too has everything else. In Bergamo, we have wonderful friends, two dogs, and tentative plans to open an agriturismo. The containment of lockdown has allowed other elements of our lives and imaginations to flourish, and for all the silence of this blog, life has been busy and good.
I’m writing this today because I’ve realised that my website hosting runs out in a few days. There’s absolutely no reason why I should renew it, so for now I plan to park this site somewhere for free, for posterity and just in case I feel the need to revive it again. Normally, I’d vow to post more often to justify the expense, but in reality I know that between a PhD and the early stages of a novel, there’s simply no time. As soon as I know where I’m headed, I’ll update this post, but for now this is a sort of farewell. Thank you to all those who have cheered me on over the years – it may not have led me to be any more consistent in my posting, but I promise that those words are still driving me forwards.