‘These new delighted lakes’

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The white speck just visible in the rock here is the church of San Martino near the village of Griante on Lake Como, Italy.  When I say it’s on the lake, that’s a misnomer, as the church stands on a cleft in a mountain outcrop about 600ft above the water. I’m really lucky to be spending a couple of weeks on a writing residency here and after several cold and wet days,  the sky cleared this morning and my partner in crime and I decided now was the time to do the San Martino climb.

We’ve been eyeing the sanctuary church from where we’re staying for a while, psyching ourselves up for what looked like a daunting trek. It was a stiff walk on a country track first across Alpine meadows, then a rough cobbled path leading to a serpentine stone stairway until close to the summit, the path levelled out again in a bridge across a gorge and we reached our destination. It was worth the puffing and panting!

The view  from up there was a symphony in blue, the pooled shadows on the lake, the pellucid sky, the craggy striated peaks, still snow-capped, wrapped around by a cyclorama of cloud. You can understand why tourists of old came here for their health – the rinsed air and the painterly vistas are certainly balm to the mind, if not always to the creaking body!  (And when I say of old, we’re talking back to the time of Pliny the Younger, who fancied the lovely village of Bellagio, which we can see from our windows, and is now a very swish resort for the well-heeled.) Also need I mention George Clooney’s pad, a short bus ride away?  Nespressos, anyone?

One of the things about travelling – and of any experience when you get to a certain age -is that places constantly echo other places, new days resurrect old ones. As  I sat in the portico of this simple pilgrimage church – built in 1938 by a grateful Griante community in honour of the Blessed Virgin  – I was thinking two things.  One practical, one wistful. How did they actually build  this church so high up, moving all the materials up the sheer rock face when there wasn’t even a rudimentary path to follow?  And I was remembering my very first trip to Italy when I was 19,  indeed my first trip abroad ever, to another lake.

In the summer of 1976, I volunteered with VSI, Voluntary Service International, to go for a month on a workcamp to  Switzerland.  The deal was this.  You got yourself there under your own steam, and they gave you bed and board and a very modest allowance in return for your labour.  And in this case, it was hard labour.

The project was to help build a holiday retreat for deprived children in Ticino, the Italian province of Switzerland (where I could scarcely believe any lack of privilege could exist.)  The home was the brainchild of a tough, wiry 80-year-old Swiss German named Gerold (surname lost in the mists of time) who was extending his own modest, cut-stone home to provide facilities for urban kids who never got a holiday.

Gerold lived in Brione sopra Minusio, a small village close to Locarno, similarly overlooking a lake, but the other one, Lago di Maggiore. I remember my first view of that lake, at about the same altitude as San Martino today, and thinking I’d passed into another dimension.  The lake itself looked ethereal with plumes of cloud lazily idling in  mid-air,  while the clusters of villages nestling in the folds of slopes and shore – ochre, white and terracotta – and the sturdy ferries ploughing through the water like needles pulling frothy thread, looked concrete and prettily real. Add to that, since it was high summer, the sizzling heat and the sense of an exotic otherness was complete..

Tireless himself and zealously energetic, Gerold was a hard taskmaster – we toiled from 7 in the morning going to the quarry where we loaded rocks into the back of his Renault 4 and then heaved them on site with wheelbarrows and then proceeded to lodge them in cement to to make what was going to be the wall of a dormitory house. We mixed cement, we chiselled and plastered and we sweated.  (Thankfully, when the sun rose high in the sky, we followed Italian custom and had a siesta, going back to it at 4 for another three to four hours’ work.)

My companions were a Swedish student called Mats from Gothenburg, and a married Indian doctor in his 30s working in Tanzania who called himself Nikki, though he said that wasn’t his real name. He indicated that his own name was too difficult to pronounce for Europeans. Mats and I wondered what he was doing so far from home, working for peanuts in Ticino.

Our meagre living expenses did not go very far in hideously expensive Switzerland.  We could only afford to go out once a week on a Saturday night to the local pub, for two glasses of  Stella Artois, which was hardly going to turn us into roaring drunks.  (Though we did discover, if you hopped on a ferry to lakeside Cannobio, just across the border into Italy, both food and drink got cheaper and better!)

But it cost nothing to sit on the terrace in Brione, day or night, and just drink in that superb view.  The refined beauty of the north of Italy’s lake district that I was looking out at, was my first “foreign” scenic experience and it set the bar high for future travel expectations.

There were two other legacies of that sojourn.  One, I discovered new food – I became addicted to yogurt and oatflakes as a breakfast cereal (this was pre-muesli Ireland).  When I started eating this concoction at home, my mother was incredulous.  Yogurt was the equivalent of buttermilk for her, good only for baking bread, and as for pinhead oats, she said, we fed that to the chickens.

The other legacy was that several months after I returned, I got a letter from Tanzanian Nikki, asking me to sponsor him, his wife and three children for a visa to come to  Ireland to live and work, and maybe give them a place to stay?  You can imagine the reception that got at home!  But it partially explained what he was doing slaving away in Switzerland with two teenagers like Mats and me, building stone walls with his bare hands. He was trying to set up a track record of work in Europe to strengthen his case to migrate.

I wasn’t in a position to help him, and I didn’t hear from him again after that.

Before I left Brione, I remember signing my name in the wet cement of the wall I was working on and Gerold saying some day when you’re old you’ll come back and see it there.  As proof, he said.  Of what I’m not sure.  That I was there, that I’d done my bit?  As a teenager still,  I didn’t think of long perspectives, as Gerold did. I couldn’t even imagine being old.  Now that I am, and am geographically close to Lago di Maggiore for the first time in 43 years, I’m in the position to testing the hypothesis.

I’ve looked at images of Brione online but none of it looks even vaguely familiar. Would I be able to find Gerold’s house now in what seems a much more developed and upmarket Brione?  And even if I did find the house, I’m pretty sure that in 2019’s super-monetized tourist economy, the place is no longer his, no longer the rustic haven it was, and is most unlikely to still be a children’s home for the deserving poor.  Plus my initials have probably been obliterated by several architectural makeovers in the intervening 40 odd years. Would I want to be reminded how time alters and destroys?

Perhaps I’d be better off staying away and instead leaving the memories of that other lake, that other time, that other me, as they are, to be recollected in tranquility.

Can even death dry up/These new delighted lakes?

 – Philip Larkin: Wedding-Wind

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