I’m sitting in a restaurant to avoid the rain. I thought there would be a bar in the last village; the first on my route for three days. I planned carefully the hours that I’d spend there, plug in my phone to charge, eat a toasted sandwich, wash my socks and then, a carefully timed hour later, order another coffee and croissant. But I came down out of the forest to the village and the building was repainted, a bare terrace where the internet showed tables and chairs. No business any more then. Not surprising, it’s a long thin village with nothing but blank houses and intermittent passing cars, whizzing through between empty mountains and cluttered coast.
Further along there was a restaurant, “closed for cleaning”, said the sign on the door. It’s been the case in a few places I’ve seen recently, perhaps a code for sheltering themselves against the coronavirus which is thickly sweeping some of Italy. Not this part, yet, only 24 cases in a regional population of 1.5 million, but maybe it’s a good time of year to put your head down, close for a short time and hope this all goes away by summertime when the real wages are earnt.
So there I was, 10am in a bus shelter, with the beginning mists of drizzle settled firmly on my shoulders and a full day of rain ahead. I may set my shoulders against this kind of weather, gird my loins and do it anyway but it’s not without a slight quailing against the thought of future wetness, of the shivering cold of damp clothing against skin, of pulling coverings over face against insistent droplets which will always eventually find their way in.
I considered my options, I’d planned for this cafe visit, mainly for electricity access. It was another two days until the next road, on my route into the hills and mountains of Liguria on a route which prioritises the high places, and I didn’t think I had enough stored electricity to see me through. A place then, and I checked the map, seeing a restaurant a mile away, opening in half an hour.
I arrived as they opened, shaking rain from my pack in the porch and taking a moment to clean my glasses before I could talk, ask for a table. They let me sit here, at a corner table by the fire, drape out my wet clothing to dry, and rest for a while.
It’s an ordinary kind of place, bright orange walls with pebbledash texture, a collection of ceramic plates above the entrance to the kitchen, windows painted with a cartoon collection of gnomes and fairies, toadstools and snowdrops, gently flaking. There is a mother bustling around on the phone, pensionable age, a younger son waiting tables. It’s a place where working men come, in hi-vis jackets, fleeces and paint spattered clothes. I watch a man in plaid shirt speckled with white paint splashes order his daily menu – first course, second course, wine, water, coffee, usually around 10-15 euro, and think about how many British house painters come to a restaurant for lunchtime wine and pasta.
This feels like an area of Italy without airs and graces. When I entered the country I was in awe of the meals, the pomp, the ritual, the classy clientele. Maybe I have become used to it, so many months away from the raw and rugged Balkans, where often in a small town restaurant the only menu question would be “what kind of grilled meat do you want?”.
But it is marginally poorer here, less showy than Veneto, mildly grubbier. They are happy for me to hide out in the corner and type away, with melting icecream in the bowl next to me, my final centimetre of wine left in the glass to mask the table squatting, arrest the eviction.
I woke up in the forest this morning and to the forest I will return again to sleep. Wet tonight, but for one night only. I had an urge to ask at the bnb next door to the restaurant, but like the need for a cigarette, if you ignore it for the duration of the urgent calling, it recedes and later you can safely wonder why you ever wanted it at all. Yesterday was cold wind that cut at my face, today is miserable drizzle, tomorrow maybe sunshine.
Two days to the next town, where I will stock up again. I like this route, I like planning for days without shops, counting the number of meals left, feeling the dwindling weight of my food bag. I like it when there are no options, no comforts to spend money on, it’s just you and the results of your planning. Here on the mountain is the eating of the adventure pudding and your years of ingredient choosing – adequate toilet paper, good gloves, warm ears, clean feet, cosy bedding, sufficient salami – have gone into it.