Yesterday I arrived in Anghiari, and I found, once again, that there is something about this experience of arrival that makes me want to record it. I’m aware that I will say what I have said on other occasions, but each time is new, each time I reexperience the joys of everyday life in this place. In fact, one of the things that I rediscover is that things don’t change here in the way that they do in Sydney, where I usually live. Here there is a sense of continuity in everyday rituals, over years, generations; the buildings remain over centuries; the same people are in the same shops. But, of course, there is also change, and the most obvious, for me on arrival this time, has been the change in season.
My previous couple of visits here have been in winter, and the difference in seasons is quite remarkable. Somehow, I wasn’t really expecting this given the unusually cold and wet weather that Italy has been experiencing lately. Despite the rain and cloudy skies, there is a real sense of spring in the air. On the train from Rome to Arezzo, I was struck by the different light-and-landscape: that deep, melancholy winter light of my previous trip to Arezzo had lifted; the light was much brighter, and everything so green, even though the trees are still bare. There is quite simply more light, despite the cloud cover. And, the quality of this light, as with the winter light, is quite different from any light in Australia. Now that I am in Anghiari, I am also aware of a distinctive freshness of the air. I recognise this from my first ever stay in Anghiari, 15 years ago, in spring. I just want to breathe it in.
Late in the afternoon yesterday I headed down the street to do some food shopping, my Anghiari arrival ritual. My first stop was an ‘alimentari’, a grocery. I haven’t been in here much in recent visits, but, I think this shop will now take the place of my old favourite ‘supermarket’, which closed last time I was here, on the very day I arrived. This shop is full of wonderful local produce, and mother and son serve me ravioli, pecorino, olives, and wine – ‘from a vineyard 10 kilometres away, will that be OK?’ There is clearly a question about the definition of ‘local’. I learn that another son went to Australia, has now married a Thai woman, and they are currently living in her New Zealand. They point proudly to a wedding photo on a shelf behind the counter, and bring out another photo, one of him on an isolated beach in Western Australia. Mother: ‘he does return here, but then goes back there; then he comes here, and goes again…’ After some talk about the weather – it will rain for some days, maybe snow, but then spring will come – I am cheerfully waved off with my carefully wrapped parcels.
It is only two steps to Letizia’s fruit and vegetable shop. Letizia, is, as ever, true to her name, full of joy to see me. She excitedly hugs me, and then hugs me again. ‘Welcome back, welcome back’, clasping her hands. After some discussion about the weather, she advises me, as she did last time, to buy only what I need for dinner: ‘I’ll be here tomorrow … every day’. I am excited to see a box of broad beans on the floor, young and freshly picked, one of the first signs of spring. (Cavolo nero, the most ubiquitous winter vegetable, is not here.) Everywhere I look in this small shop, there are lovely fresh local vegetables.. Yes, I’ll be back tomorrow.
The experiences in these shops reminds me again of the importance of food in this culture, the respect with which it is treated, and the way in which it is produced and sold with such care and attention. In these shops, people have conversations about food, how and where it is produced, how it might be cooked and so on. There is no sense of rush to get things done. This matters.
As I walked back up the hill with my trolley of food, the bells are ringing through the town.
This morning, I woke to the sound of birds. In winter that doesn’t happen here, the only sign of birds at that time of year being the pigeons huddling under the eaves across the road. I headed down the street early for more shopping. This time to the newsagent, the butcher, the baker, back to Letizia’s, and then to Caffè Garibaldi. I was in the newsagent’s at an unusually quiet moment, and so had a chat with Angela, the young woman who runs it. We talked about the recent elections – a disaster – and the problems facing the left with the rise of populist parties. She hopes there’ll be new elections soon.
Then, across the street to the butcher’s where, once again, I was warmly greeted. The younger butcher called out to his father at the back of the shop when I came in, and they both shook my hand. They were keen for me to hear about how the pork festival had gone this year – it was held later in January, the weather was better than it had been last year, and so more people came along, stood around the fire out in the street. When I ask for sausages, they encourage me to come back in a quarter of an hour – they will have finished making fresh ones by then.
On my way to the baker’s (where they knew which bread I’d buy), the woman in the alimentari beckons me in; she would like me to meet her daughter, to whom she explains that I have come from Australia, 24 hours away in a plane. I am clearly providing a connection to the son, brother, who lives so far away. When a man comes in, I’m introduced, as he has a son who now lives in Australia. Back at Letizia’s I say that I’m going to cook a soup, and she gives me exactly the right vegetables, and the right amount, that I’ll need for this. She agrees to a photo with the broad beans and artichokes – a ritual picture, I say – and then hugs me again.
As I pass the tutto shop on my way back up the hill, Matteo, son of Simona who runs the shop, sees me and invites me in for a coffee. Last year I interviewed him and Simona. She is not there today, but he wants me to know that he won the award he’d been hoping for and was soon heading off on a study trip to London. I realized that the coffee came from one of the new coffee machines that he’d proudly spoken about in his interview.
What a ‘welcome back’, as they all say. And, of course, they are very encouraging of my Italian!