As most of you will know Helen my dear wife of nearly 44 years passed away on Christmas Day 2016 and what followed was six months of darkness, loneliness and absolute hell, poorly controlled by foreign travel to England, Malta, Morocco, France, Belgium and Italy. Travel I thought might help and in a way it did but it was not a cure, more a temporary boost which reverted to status quo as soon as I returned to Boyle.
Then sometime before my Italian trip I met a woman. Not just any woman, who wears a skirt and six inch heels and pays a coiffeur big bucks every few weeks and makes a take-over bid for the cosmetics counter every time she walks through an airport. No, this woman thinks, has a mind to match anybody’s, a slim athletic body and a glorious limp caused by 40 years of triumph at beating men at their own game. She is an academic, an athlete, a writer, a poet. To all intents and purposes a polymath, although she thinks of herself as normal, mundane, incomplete, a person in a crowd of people. Understated is her middle name.
I had hardly a chance to glow in her presence when I was whisked off to Italy to watch Madame Butterfly at the arena in Verona. There were four of us, myself, Daughter No 2, Daughter No 4 and Son No 2. The idea was to bask in luxury, think of departed Helen and watch and listen to one of her favourite operas. We did this and more.
Our first night was in the finest B & B in Italy, Stile Libero, in a village adjacent to Bergamo Airport, whilst we awaited an African flight the following day. Our journey had been car to Dublin, Dublin to Manchester, Manchester to Bergamo, courtesy mainly of Ryan Air. The cheapest way we thought but has we waited for our anticipated flight the tannoy announced the arrival of a Ryan Air flight from Knock. There is no accounting for the availability of Ryan Air. The few bob saved was nothing compared to the high level logistics it had taken for us to arrive in northern Italy. Cap off to Stile Libero and also Ryan Air for our realisation of how necessary proper research is needed in planning a trip.
That afternoon we drove on to Verona, that ancient Roman city on the Adije, staying close to the amphitheatre of music and adjacent to a 2500 year old gate to the historic town, in a 15th century town house called Suite Finardi, owned and managed by beautiful Italian women who had filled their rooms with antique luxury and 21st century comfort.
The opera was a sight to see. An open air terraced space 30 metres high built originally for 30,000 Lombardistas, but now seats 20,000 internationalistas and constructed about 30 AD, as Jesus was being crucified, for more brilliant open air spectaculars.
The sight was perfect, booked into some of the best seats in the house. Us in our scruffs and surrounded by European pedantry of dress. Uncles with nieces, gentlemen with lovers, beautiful experienced women with young men straight off the dress walk, all in fabulous couture, all in expensive maquillage, men and women alike. If the opera had been cancelled it was worth the seat just to watch these people far removed from my own existence. However the opera was on and what a performance. I came home satisfied and aware that with so much beauty on tap, the end of the world is far from nigh. Three hours of total immersion in quality.
Home to luxurious bed, breakfast as usual in a little trattoria opposite our rooms. Fruit, yoghurt and eggs a million ways.. As fine a repast as I ever hope to eat.
But now it is time to return Son No 2 to England to take up his necessary work and study, whilst we laze in lovely Bergamo. A walk from the low town to the high town, historically and logistically set along a steep escarpment that nearly did for me. Daughters No 2 and 4 skipped up like young lambs. Oh for long banished youth. I should have lived my life better.
An evening feast in a good restaurant, Enotica Zanini Osteria, conducted by a maitre d’ who knew his stuff and realised our interest in the local area and went beyond the call of duty to explain, display and advertise the regional goodies, bottles of wine came out not on the carte, little amuse bouche chivvied out of the chefs appeared on the table. It was a thoroughly delightful and delicious couple of hours.
We took the funicular back to the low town but still had hills to climb. Daughter No 4 with her fitness at peak levels walking up hills backwards, doing stretches as she waited for Daughter No 2 to arrive and wet her pants in laughter and then they both sat on a bench and had a little feast as I chugged up manfully some time later.
A trip to Lake Como was planned. We went and immediately came away. Crowds and Italian McDonalds hastened our departure. So up into the mountains we went on the Swiss/Italian border along roads last travelled by Hannibal and found a little brewery tucked into a fold in the hillside besides a cascade of water tumbling down the heights. I stop here a minute while I describe the growth in Italian craft beers. Like most European countries, Italy has cottoned on to the Belgian tradition and is now producing beers from centuries old recipes of absolutely wonderful quality. Everywhere we went we had beers that tickled the palate, eased the throat in that marvellous climate.
This brewery produced four different beers of great quality using water from this gushing adjacent mountain stream. But not only that they had a kitchen pushing out rustic dishes of Swiss/Italian tradition and the people spoke in a fusion of language that was difficult for our in- house linguist to understand. Antipasti was recommended and was huge. One portion did the three of us. I then had a dish called Stinko that eventually translated as Pig’s Leg. It was superb. We came away satisfied, with our chow having been washed down with pints of red and brown beer. The whole was an experience.
It was time to leave Italy, its pleasantness, its welcomes, its food, its beer, its wines which we really enjoyed. I arrived in Boyle in the early hours and to a welcome sleep, with the thoughts of this wonderful Galwegian woman residing in Sligo on my mind. Thoughts that had never receded even when drowning in beauty and finesse of the Italian variety.
I dragged myself up and arranged to meet this fair maiden at my earliest opportunity. We met at Lough Talt, a lovely spot halfway between Ballina and Tubbercurry, high in the Ox Mountains of North Mayo/South Sligo. For those of you of geological disposition, a sister of the Appalachian chain in North Eastern America founded 480 million years ago before the Atlantic Ocean inconveniently separated the siblings.
We met there several times, the clear air and calm water encouraged our thoughts of each other and we have been inseparable since except of course when her athletic pursuits push us apart. I hope fervently that this friendship endures. A good man needs an even better woman. I now sink into a glorious dream of a life so dark a few months ago which has metamorphosed into a loving light. Into a lustrous autumn of 2017 and hopefully a sublime 2018 and wandering on into old age, an old age stretching for miles. This lady has the lot including a propensity for fancy tea. That does for me.