Week 13 – Under the Umbrian Super Moon
by H D Thompson
My last day in Sarajevo I fell victim to the devilled Black Ice. For those unfamiliar, black ice is a patch of thin ice masquerading as a harmless puddle, designed solely to send hapless fools hurtling toward the cold harsh earth. While trying to arise after my public disaster, I slipped a further three times before successfully regaining my place among the vertical. There was an actual crowd of people watching my sad endeavour, laughing their troubles away at the idiot tourist unable to even walk their fair land. If it were Melbourne it probably would have been considered street art.
I helped an old lady with her suitcase as she was struggling down the stairs at the bus station, and she was, I assumed, very thankful for it. So thankful in fact that she grabbed my arm and reached into her bag to pay me for the act with a cigarette. I told her it wasn’t necessary but she wouldn’t accept it any other way, so I took her cigarette and let her be. Being paid with a cigarette really made me feel accepted. Not at all prison-y like I would assume.
One of the most annoying things about language barrier is that even if the person speaks great English, the nuances of everyday jokes just don’t fly. Every time I throw the line, “if I had a dollar!” people would ask me if I wanted a dollar, a concerned tone in their voice.
On the bus to Zagreb, an older woman got on and took the back seat – a bold move for someone so aged. She was wearing a leopard print jacket and swayed as if she were already drunk(it was midday). I loved her.
As the bus took off, I was chastised by the driver for not printing out my ticket, despite never having had to do so before and the lady at the information desk assuring me I didn’t need to. He yelled at me in Bosnian and I could do nothing but raise my hands in apology and repeat my sad English over and over. Old mate in the back seat then started yelling at the driver and reprimanded him for yelling at me. I had no idea what they were saying but from the gesturing, I could gather the gist. When he stormed off back to the front of the bus, she patted me on the shoulder and winked at me. She was divine.
Every time the bus stopped my new friend would tap me on the shoulder and hold up some fingers and tap them on her arm, indicating to me how long each break was(the announcements were in Bosnian). It didn’t matter if it was two or ten minutes, for her every break was long enough for a cigarette and she would grab my arm and insist I join her. Standing outside the back door she would hand me a cigarette from her fake gem cigarette case and speak to me in her language as if I understood, perhaps not even caring that I didn’t understand, just wanting to unload. I listened to her delivery with deep adoration, lapping up this glorious creature who had taken me under her wing. I desperately wanted her to adopt me.
From Zagreb to Rome I had a two hour long transfer in Venice, which I hadn’t noticed at the time of booking. The transfer was from 4:30am to 6:30am. Luckily beyond words, our bus was held at the Slovenian border for 90 minutes, so by the time we got to Venice I only had half an hour to kill. This was a blessing beyond words because the bus stop was literally a sidewalk and a gutter and nothing else. It’s not that I’m in any way above gutter life, just not at 4 in the morning in next to freezing weather.
A great way to make everyone on a bus hate you is to tread in dog shit while on a break and unknowingly walk it back into the bus. Trust me, it works a treat.
I had one night stay over in Rome before heading off to the hills of Umbria. Staying in a crummy hostel that had only its proximity to the bus station going for it, I once again managed to make the fool of fools of myself. Within minutes of being there, I had accidentally deactivated my swipe card and couldn’t get back into my room. There was some kind of technical issue with the building and there was no one at reception except for two deeply Italian workmen who when asked for help responded easily, “Sorry I don’t speak a word of English I am just an electrical technician, the man who works here will be back any minute now”, which led me to believe that they did in fact speak a word of English and simply chose not to interact with me. Rightly so, to be honest. Once back in my room I had the coldest shower of my life because the hot water was not working and shivered my way into the night. After an excellent evening of catching up with my visiting Melbourne friends Toby and Tom, I managed to lose my key card for the hostel, and after an hour long walk home could not get in. Despite the fact that the hostel was advertised as having 24 hour reception, I was informed that this week “someone may be here, someone may not, who knows”, which at the time I was like how quaint and very Italian but at midnight in 2 degree weather with my body weight in beer under my belt it was decidedly less so. I emailed the hostel hoping that someone somewhere was checking the admin emails and waited for someone to let me in. After about half an hour of shivering outside like a dog in the dark, a fellow guest came back and let me into the reception area. He was considerably drunker than I was and I was trying to ask him if he was in my room but he just laughed. The rooms are instead of being numbered, named after countries and continents. I was in Africa. When I asked this man if he was in Africa, he thought I was asking him if he was from Africa and laughed at me and kept pointing at himself saying “No, Sri Lanka!” over and over and laughing at my white racism. I tried exasperatedly to explain that I didn’t give a fuck where he was from I just wanted to go to bed and he kept laughing at me and calling me England. After a while he passed out on the couch next to me while he was trying to charge his phone and I sat in the darkness praying to all the Dogs that someone will rescue me. After an hour, my email was answered and I had to use the phone on the reception desk to call someone. The man directed me, Lex from Jurassic Park style, to the computer and how to activate myself a card to let me in. The words, “You need to access the mainframe” were used and suddenly the whole endeavour was exciting and brilliant. When I realised that there was simply a program named Mainframe it became much less exciting, but I was still in the dark lit only by computer light, being walked through how to hack the system on a phone in a building that wasn’t mine and I felt so very alive.
Tom, Toby and I finally arrive at my castle in the Umbrian hills after the arduous task of getting there from Perugia. The rural bus system was confusing and difficult, so we got a taxi. Our driver – whose name we later found out was, fittingly, Panico – sped and swerved and drove on his phone and barely looked at the road and it was terrifying. He got us there in record time though, so kudos to Panico.
The castle when we arrive has no internet or firewood so is really just the basic of basic abodes, which is very fitting for a 14th century fortress. We drank wine from a 5L flagon we bought from the local salami store.
We got supplies from the one store in town, and the middle aged lady who works there greeted and dealt with us with a smile on her face, despite the fact that none of us speak the same language. She is so short Toby has to reach the goods on the top shelf for her. It was an excellent start to what I no doubt expect to be a beautiful relationship.
The strangest thing here is how unfriendly the dogs are. The cats laze about the stony steps in the sun hardly bothered by people, but the second a local dog hears you approaching their yard they bark. Every damned one of them, it sets the town off like an alarm system. How everyone in this region has asshole dogs is a mystery.
Firewood had to be collected from the local wood guy and carted back to the castle. Without the aid of my two strapping lads I would have surely been known as the weird local wood guy, forever walking back and forth with a crate of wood, sweating profusely and slowly getting ripped as the days went by. The wood man was cold and unfriendly, but on our second trip we were recognised by his wife who remembered us from the store where she hangs out with I am assuming her friend who runs the place. If I get the women of the town on my side, I will conquer the men. It is a law of nature.
Walking to the next village takes hours, but it’s fine because the Umbrian countryside is an excellent backdrop. We encountered rolling fields and picturesque goats and cruel, possibly-rabid dogs. We also encountered the Carabinieri(local army authorities), who drove by and sussed us out while we sat in the afternoon sun. Someone must have alerted them to three weird foreigners lurking around their village, which I think is fair. The downside of visiting the neighbouring villages is that the sun sets so early and the roads are thin and in no way designed for pedestrians and death feels like a real possibility.
Time here takes on an Italian sway. Today could be tomorrow, soon could be later and schedules are just suggestions.
Toby got a pat from a local cat. While they aren’t bothered by you, they sure don’t want to be petted. Asshole was here for a few days and got one and I get nothing. Over time I will wear down their defences. I’m allergic to cats, but I’m also lactose intolerant but papa still needs his formagie, ya feel.
One night we were all here it was a super moon. It probably looked amazing but we didn’t see because we were too busy being cooped up in a castle tower eating cheese and pasta by the light of an ancient fireplace. A decent enough reason in my opinion.
The bus trip getting Toby and Tom out of town was decidedly perfectly Italian. The only one leaving in the morning was at 7am. The bus stopped 100m up the road instead of at the designated bus stop. The driver swindled us in regards to tickets because we are lowly tourists. It was ridiculously delightful.
Went to plug in the washing machine and it blew up and tripped the electricity. For hours we went without power(but still had lights, for some reason). It was an odd feeling thinking I had broken a 700-year-old castle, but it had survived invasion and war so I think it can survive me. I guess I’ll find out over the next month nestled up here.