On my way out of Venezia somebody offered me a bed, they were slightly to the north of my route so I said probably not, not wanting to ask them for something they might not be offering – a lift home. I was feeling strange and uncertain of myself, the ground kept swaying underneath me and my head felt stuffy and congested. Sharing a cheap hostel room with heaters blowing hot electric air and eleven other people who didn’t like open windows had meant I’d crossed the bridge back to the mainland with a feverish cold. It’s a difficult thing, trying to gauge how much somebody is offering you, how out of their way they’re prepared to go. It may sound selfish, to not want to accept an offer unless it completely works for you, but having wasted many half days trying to transport myself backwards and forwards from my walking path, just to take up the offer of a bed when I’d have slept just as well in a tent, I can tell you that unless it works for me I might as well not bother. But I also feel nervous about asking for more than people are offering, it’s hard for me to gauge when I’ve crossed the line into unacceptability. Something about being made to feel bad for needing things when I was a kid, probably. This woman was strangely insistent though, and offered to come out and meet for a coffee. OK, I thought, and gave her the directions to come and find me enroute. I put trust in strangers so often on this journey, step into so many cars, over so many thresholds. ‘Who is this woman?’ I wondered to myself, as she drew up beside me, rushing out of the car to fling her arms around me and pinch my cheeks. ‘What do you need?’ she kept saying, wanting to buy me food, clothes, shoes. We went to a restaurant, one I would never have picked but inside it was full of happy people clustered at small tables. A traditional countryside trattoria. What do I need? I thought about it and realised that it was a bed. A bed. My head was swimming with fever and I couldn’t think straight any more. “Right then” said this lovely little fairy woman and took me the half hour drive back to her house where I collapsed into her boudoir of a bedroom, all red walls and mirrors and four poster bed. Perhaps the most glamorous bed I’ve slept in to date. We looked at each other across the breakfast table, two humans with no idea of who the other was, only predisposed to like each other. Like spinning webs around each other we share our stories, detail by detail we connect ourselves to one another. We went to the mountains the next day, a treat for me in a glorious burst of sunshine and snow, the temperature gauge dropping slowly as we wound our way upwards from misty valley to snow patches and finally the full two metre thickness up at 2000m. We tramped in the snow to viewpoints and a refugio serving toasted sandwiches and hot chocolate. I was so glad to get the chance to see these beautiful places. Later that afternoon I said yes again, to another invitation, out to a bonfire. It was the 6th of January, the night of Epiphany when Italians burn bonfires. A peasant tradition is to look at the way the smoke is blowing and predict the harvest for the summer ahead. West is good, east is bad. They put a nonna on top, white apron and pumpkin head, burn the witch, they say. But it’s the witches who knew. “My grandmother knew the meaning of every single wind direction” says one woman. Now they cluster together, looking at Google. The generational wisdom gap. We eat pinza, a sweet spiced polenta cake with sultanas, and drink mulled wine. It’s really nice to be at a normal Italian celebration, after the hollow splendour of Venice. We are in an open sided marquee on a back road of the flat grid system of vineyards and ploughed fields, canals and irrigation systems, out in the countryside between Venice and Padua. People crowd around the food table, dressed in thick coats and woollen hats. Children are given stockings full of sweets and fake coal, in black sugary lumps. The pile of pallets is set alight and it burns hot and quick, the witch’s white apron flapping in the heat and ten thousand sparks flying up above her head to swirl in the cold air, like goldfish circling a pool. The plume of smoke streams away to the west, south west, and the crowd mutters their predictions. It’s going to be a good year, six month of warm weather, they say. Not that our lives depend on this any more, disconnected as we are from living with the rhythm of the earth. I stare up at the smoke, watching the goldfish swim, and think about all that lies ahead of me, away to the west. People are helping me a lot but walking is difficult at the moment. I want to sit down, almost all the time. It’s a struggle to get my daily mileage into double digits. I am deeply tired and my energy only lasts for hourly bursts. I am starting to want to be home. I am starting to think longingly of routine, comfort, of visiting the same cafe, of eating off my own plates. The size of this journey is never ending and I cannot use the end point as motivation, it’s too far away, there are too many steps to take before then. I’m not giving up, I’m just floundering a little, in need of a change of approach. Unfortunately, I’m finally sick of rucksack food and the proliferation of village bars compared to the lack of small village shops, means that it’s easy for me to make all my carb intake wheat, in the form of croissants and toasted sandwiches. Comfort food means the chance to take a break on a sofa rather than perch on a cold stone kerb outside, munching on muesli in cold water, while your body heat disappates. It’s not surprising that I no longer wish to rehydrate dried potato, and that salami sickens me. It’s been over a year of making do, of searching supermarket shelves for easy to eat products that come in packages lighter than 500g, will survive the gauntlet of rucksack jostling without leaking or going bad and are highly nutritious, the key point. I feel like I’m stuck in quicksand, as much as I struggle to move forward, the journey keeps me still. It’s a catch 22, the slower I go, the longer I need to sustain the same effort. I am missing a piece of the puzzle that creates peak performance. At some level, I’m doing this wrong and it’s making me less likely to succeed. But that’s what an endurance challenge is. It’s not about your intrinsic strength or physical capability, it’s about your ability to keep yourself going beyond your limits. In a way I’m just letting myself be. It’s OK to be tired and it’s OK to slow down for a bit. I’m not in a race. But I’m also thinking about how to get better, how to get faster again. It will help when the days get longer, give me more hours to walk at my slow, shambling pace, and I think I could work on increasing my carb intake, replenish my liver storage. But mainly I just focus on not giving up, on always walking even though I don’t feel like it. I focus ahead on France, Spain. Sometimes I get a glimmer of an ending ahead but mainly it feels impossibly far away.
- Italy, the promised land
- Rural Italy