Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Menton Musings No. 2: the kindness of strangers and the beauty of Italy



I’m happy to have emerged from a few days laid low by a very annoying head cold – not helped by having to move from one side of the apartment block to the other. We are now ensconced in the apartment we will stay in for the duration of our stay (bar a couple of weeks at the end) – and it’s great! The view out to sea is even wider – we can see more of the harbour activity while losing nothing of Menton’s early morning glow.

The last couple of weeks have a recurring theme: the kindness of strangers. For instance, the woman
in the jewellery shop who mended my broken necklace for free,, and the neighbours who rescued me when I locked myself out!! Dear William Rubinstein (the KM Trust’s contact here) held a wonderful pot-luck dinner at his apartment in Nice – a great mix of fascinating people and the loveliest, liveliest of atmospheres. Afterwards, we walked back to our car pinching ourselves and saying ‘we’re walking through Nice after going to a party!’ So surreal! William Waterford, one of the stalwarts of Menton ex-pat society, invited us to his beautiful house and stunning garden to share the pleasure as bands of excited children rummaged through the undergrowth for Easter eggs. Since then we’ve had two very pleasant meals with other people we have met here – including a couple of New Zealanders, which is very comforting!

We were also very pleased to meet Alexandra Boyle, who grew up on a farm in Canterbury. She has created the most amazing antipodean garden on the hillside just above us, and set up a highly successful business growing organic produce for the exclusive high-end restaurants in the region. She’s an interesting, impressive woman – it was a real pleasure to meet someone with such a vision and commitment to what she’s doing. And what a joy to walk through tiny groves of kauri, rimu, nikau, kowhai, ferns, and much, much more – and to know, thanks to her generosity, that in times of home-sickness we can pop up the hill and sit amongst familiar plant friends to sooth our souls.

I’ve also met lovely ex-Christchurch woman Merryn Corcoran and her husband Tim. Merryn has recently published her first book, based on an historic massacre in one of the hilltop villages just across the border in Italy. It’s a tragic story, no doubt mirrored in many other villages. http://www.merryncorcoran.com/ When we’ve been off on our little jaunts in the car we’ve been discovering these hidden gems – tiny medieval buildings stacked together like collages, perched on steep outcrops, like stepping back in time. And we’ve been struck by the number of war memorials – and just how many names are engraved there: huge numbers, given the tiny populations of each village. The scale of the decimation to these communities must have been mind-boggling.

Day to day, life here is starting to feel easier and less foreign. I can greet the woman on the supermarket counter and she seems to know what I am saying! I can walk down the road to Italy and buy wine at 1.99 euros a bottle (and manage to drink it very nicely, thank you.) And I can identify the odd bit of food now  — though, between an unfamiliar and very small kitchen, ingredients that might appear outwardly familiar but behave very differently when cooked to the ones at home, and  a lack of all those pantry basics we all spend years building up, I have managed to create some impressively disgusting meals! 

This week we’re enjoying the company of fellow Wellington writer Philippa Werry (who is currently shortlisted in the NZPost Children’s Book Awards - yay) as she returns from spending time in Gallipoli for the Anzac commemorations. She’s written about it on her blog:  well worth a read! http://philippawerry.blogspot.fr/2014/03/going-to-gallipoli.html


Yesterday we went to check out Genova/Genoa – just for lunch in Italy, darlings, as you do! On the way we were drawn to the lovely coastal town of Imperia – first view of it like something from a travel guide: the tall, medieval buildings clutching to the hillside in all shades of pastel, the Mediterranean sparkling below. We ended up strolling along the beach front, near a huge marina full of the most enormous super-yachts – the kind that make grown men (of a boating persuasion) drool and contemplate a mid-life crisis! The marina and surrounds were in a strange state of flux – half constructed buildings, huge unfinished landscaping projects, fenced off fields of rubble. In the end we decided it must be a sign of Italy’s rugged economic ride these last few years — someone’s grand scheme gone sour. Fascinating. 

Genoa itself had also obviously undergone some massive rebuilding/re-
imagining projects of late. Their waterfront has been redeveloped with recreation in mind – huge open spaces for people to stroll, an enormous aquarium, sculptures, a bio-sphere (though we did agree this looked a little on the small side to be totally impressive; more brought to mind a mouldy snow globe!) and the most over-the-top recreation of an early Geneon galleon you’ll ever see (which, after my initial excitement, turned out to be a film prop made for Roman Polanski’s 1986 film ‘Pirates’!)

Marking the border of the waterfront and the start of the old medieval town of Genova stood a huge overhead motorway (see photo with artwork on metalwork)  – the very one we had driven in on. In many ways the fact they’ve raised it is a blessing – it doesn’t cut off the waterfront from the city – but it is incongruous to see it (and hear it) as you emerge from the dream-like trance you’re thrown into when you enter the narrow cobbled streets. 

The little streets are filled with vibrant stalls and sight-seers (and back a few blocks, into the gloom of real Genoa, a few rather shabbily made-up ‘ladies’ of the night.) Quaint, tiny Dickensian shops are incongruously stuffed with the trappings of modern life, though, in one, a man was working at reclaiming the ancient craft of sculpting wooden puppets. Rather uninspiring churches from the street view open out to reveal gilded, magnificent interiors so ornate and over-the-top they left me staring open mouthed. I’m not big on structured religion (Really? those of you who know me say!) but I’m sure as hell grateful they supported the artists and artisans who created these beautiful interiors back then, so we can still see and share in the magic of their work today. I have no doubt we’ll return there to explore further in the coming months.


The old town of Menton, too, is slowly revealing her ancient charms. The day Philippa arrived we climbed up to the old cemetery that sits atop the crest of the hill, its graves filled with the bodies of people who died on foreign soil. English, Russian, Scottish, American . . . many, perhaps, having come here as Katharine Mansfield did, to rest and recuperate from illnesses that ultimately had no cure. As we wandered around this peephole to the past, the sky (which had turned black and threatening) burst forth with the most extraordinary thunder – so loud it was tooth rattling. Then down teemed the rain and we scuttled along steep cobbled streets, back down to the modern world below. A wonderfully dramatic soundtrack to a graveyard jaunt!

more pictures. . . 

2 comments:

  1. Love reading of your experiences Mandy. Do hope you get an opportunity to 'walk' or at least see the Cinque Terra villages across the border in Italy. A heritage place of five fishing villages and absolutely charming. Ancient grape vines still exist up in the hills alongside the walking paths.
    Regards
    Alison Bell

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  2. Thanks Alison. Certainly hoping to get there. Just arrived in Florence - wonderful!

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