Home and Away

My well-educated and urbane demeanour might not give it away, but I come from a relatively poor background. (Although, to be sure, I had classmates at school whose home situation was much worse than mine.)

The first “holiday” I remember must have been before the age of five (when my brother was born), and it consisted of my Dad borrowing a small van from work over the weekend (he didn’t have a car) and spending the night camped out in it at the seaside. I was supposed to sleep across the front seats, while my parents were bedded down in the back, but I remember being cold and uncomfortable and whiney, and trading places with Father in the early hours.

In later years, the family did graduate to week-long breaks, but never too far from home. The only foreign travel was across the border into the Republic of Ireland, except once, when we went to a B&B in the very exotic Isle of Man.

Apart from that trip to the Isle of Man when I was about 13, I didn’t escape Ireland, or travel on my own, until I went to University in Edinburgh. In my last year there, I did take the train down to London for a job interview, but came straight back without doing any sightseeing. I think the concept of travel for pleasure was still alien to me.

Tower BridgeThe change came with my first job. For one thing, I had to spend about the first three months in London. I was entitled to fly home each weekend, but I usually didn’t, instead hitting the tourist trail, or even just wandering. I bought my first good camera, and copies of Amateur Photographer. I liked London. I think the anonymity of the big city appealed to me. Throughout my later working career, I’d spend several days per month in London town, and I still liked it, although I rarely had much free time.

DubrovnikThen there was the fact that I had, at last, a disposable income, meaning that a real holiday was a possibility. In fact, my first foreign holiday was from an advert in the union newspaper. (I’ve always been a union man.) There was a special offer for a package to Yugoslavia. I had some discussions with a colleague about a joint trip, but she pulled out and I went on. In some corner of the many-worlds multiverse, we fell in love, got married and had many children. A narrow escape.

That was when Yugoslavia was Yugoslavia, a non-aligned, socialist republic; proud of its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic composition. I really had no idea of the seething sectarian hatred under the surface. But I loved the old walled city of Dubrovnik — formerly the Venetian colony of Ragusa — and the ruggedly beautiful Croatian coast. And Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina was like stepping back into the middle ages and the Islamic past of the Balkans. It was exotic and atmospheric.

After that holiday, there were several more nondescript trips to the Med and Adriatic, either alone or with the current girlfriend, depending on circumstances. I think it was a Greek island where I first experienced the masculine pride of being with a woman who was going topless.

Girlfriends come and girlfriends go, but from the 1990s I was with the person that occupied a major chunk out of my life. But there was a problem: she (a) was in a high-pressure media job and (b) was indecisive. Invariably, her colleagues booked their time off in advance, blocking her and leading to confusion. There were several years when we didn’t go on holiday.

FlorenceThen, after such a Summer Without A Holiday, she saw a card in the window of a travel agent’s for a city break to Florence. In October. But, hey, it was a holiday, and I instantly agreed. It seems surprising in retrospect, but neither of us had much idea of the background of the history, culture and ambience of Florence and Tuscany. It was simply a chance to get away, so we went.

Well, we were lucky with the weather. It was bright and not too cold. And I fell in love. With the place. When I reluctantly came home, I was determined to go back. But we fell into the previous pattern of failing to make arrangements, and some years passed. I was rather frustrated by the situation, which probably was a factor in agreeing — or to be honest, to be complicit in agreeing — to a family holiday with my brother and sister and parents to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. My partner was invited of course. But she couldn’t get the time off and couldn’t make it. Of course.

Anqua villaAnyway, I picked the location: Tuscany. There were nine of us, including two small grandchildren (Italians love them) and we rented a big, old, fortified villa — our “castle” — in the countryside SW of Siena. And loved it. One day, we visited the spectacular towered town of San Gimignano, and it happened to be the climax of their medieval festival, the “Ferie delle messi”, with people in costume everywhere and minstrels wandering around and whole roast pig on the spit.

That, really, was the start of my affair with Italy. The majority of my Summer vacations since then have been spent in Tuscany and Umbria (plus a spell in Abruzzo and a short visit to Venice). Eventually, my long-term relationship split but I kept returning to Italy, either single or coupled.

I got the idea that I’d actually like to live there and eventually decided to take advantage of the crazy property boom by putting my house up for sale. Just before the boom went bust. I actually held out on a half-million-pound offer just before the crash, on the assumption that prices would go even higher.

So the house is still for sale (do you want it? we could do a deal) but I’m reduced to annual trips. Sometimes, I book a city apartment and travel by train, since the Italian trains are generally cheap and punctual (that wasn’t Mussolini — he was just claiming credit for the achievements of the previous Socialist administration); and sometimes I go for a rural location and rent a car.

LuccaThe year before last, for example, I took advantage of the economy direct flights to Pisa and took an apartment in the centre of Lucca, a short train ride away. Last year, I flew to Rome, and after spending a couple of days there, took the train up to the Tuscany/Umbria border, where I collected a car to drive the short distance to my rented apartment in a village near Lake Trasimeno.

This year, the direct flights to Rome have been discontinued, but I’ve booked tickets through Pisa again for a three-week stay in June. The “middle” fortnight is to in an apartment in Umbria in a house belonging to a nice (hopefully) Australian couple, but the three days before and four days after are still undecided. I think Pisa city for the former, and maybe Lucca, maybe the coast for the latter. I’ll let you know.

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