A friend on holiday in Vicenza posted on Facebook the other day that some 30 years ago, aged 26, he lived there for six months and now he felt he was a ghost. It had been a time when he was young, fancy free and enjoying living in a foreign country.
For me, the city is Venice. I went there on my last National Service leave – one could either go home from the camp in Germany where I was stationed or get free return travel to somewhere roughly the same distance from it in Europe. I discovered there was a student hostel I could use and the young German traveller I shared a room with said I must meet the girl he had been having dinner with in the refectory. I did. She lived in London and we became friends. When I returned two years later, she took me to the Ai Cugnai restaurant near the Accademi where she regularly ate, although by this time she was only going occasionally as she was living with her future husband's family.
This is 60 years ago. The restaurant was family owned, and had a clientele part local – young men who worked in Venice during the week and went home to the mainland at weekends – and part foreign – mostly impecunious Brits, teachers, people studying in the city's Marciana library and sun-seekers who spent most of the day on the lido's free beaches.
For some 20 years, I kept going back staying at the same place and eating at the Ai Cugnai where I met the same people – one is still a friend. But the Andreotti family, who owned it for many years and became well known in guidebooks like Lonely Planet
, are long retired. There are new owners, it has been substantially remodelled and the clientele of the past no longer eat there. Maria, my landlady, the reason for returning so often, is dead so now I go maybe every other year.
The city is full of ghosts – people I have lost contact with, friends I shared flats with there who have died, bar owners I got to know too well – life was cheap and Italian drinks then did not seem to consist solely of aperol spritzer. And, like my friend in Vicenza this week, there is the ghost of one's youth, of the days when one stayed up late putting the world to rights or wandered the city forever getting lost instead of as now stumbling round with a stick, being helped on and off the boats and going early to bed.
It has finally happened to me. Despite months of being able to inexplicably dodge the virus, while all around me seemed to succumb one by one, Covid finally caught up with me. The roughness of throat and dry cough first appeared last Sunday, with extreme tiredness following at short order as the ever so light second line developed on the testing kit early Monday. I don't know about others, but I have found it to be the strangest of illnesses: feeling fine one minute, wiped out the next, clear headed at times and barking like a distempered canine, others. Bizarre…
It had all being going so well in the week prior to my illness,.I had a few positive sharing experiences where I successfully reached out to others. Firstly, mid-week I was fortunate enough to spend some time with and attend a Champions League match with my good friend, once on the books of Killie, Tom Brown. A man who freely admits he was not born to Celtic. Then, on the Saturday, we took my son Dominic's girlfriend Becca to her first game.
As I walked Daisy on her early evening stroll on the Sunday evening, I had an altogether different experience: being yelled at by an English voice emanating from a white van man sitting stationary at traffic lights. Due to accent and proximity to the vehicle, I was unable initially to hear his instruction clearly. However, on getting closer, I understood he was advising that I had dropped something back at the corner which I had just come around. Naturally, I then backtracked in an attempt to locate the object, only for the van to take off as the lights changed, with the driver in celebratory mode, laughing heartily at my folly.
I would not like you to think I am a bad loser, though those who know me, are fully aware that is the case, along with my long-term holding of grudges and inability to let any slight, real or perceived, go. But this guy obviously thought that he had pulled off the prank of a lifetime. I imagine he could not wait to get home or out to meet his buddies and share with them his undoubted feat of comedic genius. The pithy way he had drawn me in with his carefully constructed ruse, playing on my inert fear of loss. Planned and delivered with aplomb, exploiting the environmental conditions and darkness to implant in my mind that, yes, I may have dropped something in my hurry. Only to leave me looking like the sorrowful patsy having been drawn in and subsequently deposited on the metaphorical, as well as actual, roadside.
Classical deception tactics, deployed with sangfroid. He had stitched me up 'like a kipper'. Many a dinner party and other social event in future will no doubt be regaled by this man's exploits. I suspect he probably has many other sleight of hand tricks in his repertoire and would not be surprised if the next time I see him, is as an irascible Saturday night TV supporting artist on one of the fill-in programmes you see scheduled at 4am on a Tuesday.
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