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Archive for June, 2010

It was a week ago on a dead Sunday night in Aosta, the football game was over, the bars had emptied, and I was sitting on a bench with a coppetta of gelato looking up at the mountains I would be hiking into the next day. I had worked my way down to the best flavour: fondente (I type with reverence), a rich dark chocolate that even in melted form could probably keep a spoon standing. Then something incredible happened: I suddenly could not take another bite. I was full! I had reached maximum gelato capacity. Half of me gaped in disbelief as the other half got up and deposited the unfinished coppetta in a nearby garbage can.

All the preceding week since returning to Torino from Chamonix and Mont Blanc I had been restless. A series of thunderstorms was heralding the coming shift from pleasant late spring weather to sweltering summer heat, and my seasonal instincts were telling me it was time to get out of the city. On the one sunny day I decided to make use of a trail map I’d accidentally bought back in April, and headed for the hills above Chivasso 20 minutes out of Torino where I spent several happy hours exploring the forest. Apart from a rainsoaked day trip to pretty Lago Maggiore, I passed the rest of the week glumly watching the relentless downpour. As soon as the weather forecast announced an improvement, I was on the train to Aosta, and spent two absolutely spectacular days hiking in Gran Paradiso National Park.

I would have gladly stayed longer, but Marco had convinced me I should come back for San Giovanni (aka St. Jean Baptiste: Torino and Québec have the same patron saint). And yeah, there was a parade with people in period costume and lots of marching bands, a big bonfire in Piazza Castello, and a fireworks show on the river, the sorts of civic events one should participate in when one adopts a city as a temporary home … My plan to escape back to the mountains on a 6 am train the next day was foiled by a transportation strike. The next day was Saturday so I decided to make a trip to the charming little town of Alba which I’d been planning to visit for weeks, thinking that many places might be closed Sunday and it might be my last chance to get there. I finally made it back to the mountains for a short hike yesterday – this time to Limone in the Maritime Alps.

And then this morning I got on a train to Rome where I’ll stay one night (initial impression is I like it, but I think for me it’s probably best taken in small doses), tomorrow it’s back to Levanto just north of the Cinque Terre where the sea will make this heat more bearable, Thursday night return to Torino and early Saturday morning all packed up and on the plane…

As for my gelato aversion, well it’s somewhat abated. I can once again eat it with a certain amount of pleasure, but the hunger just isn’t there anymore. I really am full. This is also how I feel about Italy. There is much I love, much I am grateful for, and much I still hope to discover, and though I’m not sure I’ll ever again have the luxury of lingering here for three months I feel pretty sure I’ll be back many times to absorb more of this energy. But as with the gelato I’ve taken in about all I can… for now.

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“Are you fucking kidding me?” said a rather unsympathetic inner voice. “You’re in Italy. I-TA-LY.” Even the most independent of free spirits have been known to develop attachments under the right circumstances, so I hope I’m not destroying my image by confessing now that back in April when I woke up my first morning in Torino, I so missed Bhutan that the first thing I did was burst into tears. “Wine. Food. Art. The Mediterranean. Italian. Italians!” the voice went on as I sniffled my way through a cup of Tsheringma tea, then through unpacking and decorating my apartment with the few random objects I had to work with: a birdman keychain that was a gift from Pato on Rapa Nui, a decade old photo of my friend Bobbi and me sitting on a log somewhere in the British Columbia rain forest, the photo of His Majesty the Fifth Druk Gyalpo that Principal Abbot Thinley had given me at Talo (sniff), the prayer wheel from Sonam (sniff), a wheel of life fridge magnet (sniff sniff sniff)… A text message came in from Marco with an address for yet another pasticerria. I wished I had some yak cheese and that Tshe Tshe was there to talk to. “GO OUTSIDE AND FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS PLACE” the voice commanded.

And, well, that’s pretty much what I did. After all, Torino and Italy are pretty lovable.

That said, Bhutan carries a certain quality of energy for me that I’ve only encountered fleetingly and in much less intensity in Italy, and I’d resigned myself to waiting until my next trip back in August to fully experience it again. Or at least that was the case until last week when I finally got right into the Alps instead of just appreciating them from a distance. There were no curious monklets to keep me company (or to whack me over the head with wooden phalluses), no babies offering me betel nut, no farmers inviting us in for butter tea and arra, no tsechu dances. There were however bonjours and buon giornos, ibex, moobex (a term coined by one of the other trip members, AJ – pronounced “ah zhee” en français), grassy meadows, snowy passes, alpine flowers, treeless scree slopes that reminded me of Baffin Island, waterfalls, rushing streams, wines, cheeses, terrines, quietness, and somewhere in all of that, a supply of the spirit I had been missing. I didn’t even care that weather and snow conditions forced us to cut one of our afternoons short, or that the spectacular panoramas which are the signature of the Tour du Mont Blanc were hidden behind fog and clouds for most of our six days of hiking. Breathtaking though they are I am sure, in their presence I imagine one might too easily overlook all the other life around: water droplets on petals, birdsongs, iridescent insects, no less magnificent or deserving of admiration because of their smallness.

I literally dragged my feet on the last day of our trip I was so reluctant to come back to town, but was quickly cheered up by the emails from Sonam and Tshe Tshe waiting in my inbox, a reminder of more good things to come. A little wistful boarding the bus back to Aosta but nonetheless refreshed and satiated, I beamed out a bear hug of thanks to the big old white mountain with its spirit that unlike Bhutan’s, did not strike me with the invigorating assault of a thunderous waterfall, but with something more like the caress of a gentle, steady rain. A powerful, but comfortable energy, the kind that could make a place a home….

Que la vie est belle.

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