Italy, I kept saying to myself. I’m in Italy.
I’d crossed the border high up on a mountain, a squat concrete pillar the indicator that I’d changed territory, here on the ridge walk that alternated between cold blowing mist and wide open views to a thousand licks of cream that are the snowy Dolomites ahead.
I’d descended quickly to avoid the rain that would become snow up here at 1600m, out of drinking water that didn’t run here up on the ridge. It had been a rush to get down before dark, walking as quickly as I dared on the stony path that twisted 1000m down the steep slope. After the disappointment of two dry streams I found the place where water rushed from earth and drank deeply, before making a hurried camp in the forest in the sparse minutes before full darkness.
It meant that it wasn’t until early morning that I was walking through misty dampness into my first village, watching for Italy, noting the shutters at windows, the solidity of the square church tower, the modern cars in every driveway.
I am in Italy and it is coming close to Christmas and everything is rich. Fountain spouts come carved in scrolls and dragon mouths. The streets are cobbled in stone laid in patterned arches. There are window displays of beribboned hampers, kitchen knives, pasta makers shining with the clean precision of worked metal, glowing chocolate wrappings nestled in tinsel. I am overwhelmed by the sense of luxury here. All the sandwiches are made with good bread. There are a thousand varieties of cheese. Cups of hot chocolate are thick with starch, a chocolate soup that I eat in spoonfuls like liquid mousse.
I have battled through the Balkan desert and reached an Italian oasis.
It’s a wonderful relief to return to the land of first world problems. I am walking in rain and not snow. There are no bullet holes, no bears. The wars were 70 years ago.
I need this. It is almost Christmas. I havn’t been thinking about Christmas too much, because I know I am going to spend it alone. I imagined myself walking in the mountains and waking up in a tent on Christmas morning, walking silent streets and looking at houses where families were together in warmth. There’s a sadness in that but I knew it had to be this way. It’s my choice not to go home, it’s my choice to be alone.
I want to slip away from all this hard work of walking, the difficulty of the life I’ve chosen for myself, and let it go for a while.
I want to fill a bath with chocolate soup, I want to condition my hair with it. I want to lie there for an hour, eating cheese and drinking prosecco. I want warmth and splendour to infuse into every part of me. I am a bear who has not hibernated and I am in need of my pile of leaves. The deep winter is approaching and I have no burrow.
I’m tired and I want life to be easy.