Nel suo ultimo racconto, “The best mud in Italy”, la scrittrice britannica Myra Robinson presenta una galleria di eccentrici e divertenti personaggi immersi sullo sfondo di una tranquilla cittadina termale e dei suoi benefici fanghi caldi. Originali ed umoristici, come ad esempio la stravagante, aristrocratica vedova americana del brano che segue, i caratteri tratteggiati dall’autrice danno vita a pagine che scorrono via facilmente ed affascinano il lettore per la bellezza dei paesaggi presentati e le atmosfere che sono in grado di evocare.
It was dark and my partner, who has no head for heights, was simmering on the point of eruption as we negotiated another hairpin bend on yet another Apennine mountain top in the middle of nowhere. There was a thunder storm and it was pouring rain. We were on our way to stay in the guest cottage belonging to a feisty old woman we’d met some years ago in Venice, who had invited us to stay at her place in northern Tuscany, where she owns a hill and all the buildings on it. At least when we found it, at the top of an almost washed away gravel farm track, the little Tuscan casetta had plenty of candles to see us through the power cut.
Flinging open the shutters the next morning, paradise! Brilliant light with lavender-grey hills rolling gently into the distance, dotted with poplars, umbrella pines and vineyards. Our terrace, fringed with enormous terracotta urns and alive with lizards, looked down onto an inviting pool sparkling in the sunshine. To the left, a tennis court; to the right, silvery green olive trees, an orderly vineyard and a deer standing on the fringes of the woodland.
There was a note on the table in large spidery handwriting along with wine and a basket of fruit, inviting us to a candle-lit dinner at the pool-side to join our friend, the glamorous old American owner of the property.
What an amazing woman! In her 90s, she’s had four husbands, each one richer than the last, (which is presumably why she’s been able to buy this little piece of paradise) and knows everyone who is anyone in Florence. Rather like an American version of Dame Edna, but without the malice, she has bright blue bouffant hair, eyebrows drawn at crazy angles (her eyesight isn’t too good these days), smudged bright red lipstick, and is dripping with heavy gold jewellery. Her boudoir is crammed with paintings and photographs of the rich and famous, and her enormous antique bed, the heart of her empire, holds her phone, a fax machine, books, a bell for her maid, several pairs of large diamante glasses, and a hand mirror. She owes her long life and vitality apparently to a friend named Jack Daniels.
From the boudoir she keeps an eye on what’s going on. French windows open onto a terrace and the swimming pool. She can eavesdrop on conversations and watch us swimming, but against the bright sunlight it’s impossible to see inside. We only enter when summoned. It might be to chat about what we’re reading or about a piece of news. Sometimes she’ll give advice about where to go and what to do, or more importantly, who to meet.
Stefano, her faithful retainer, kept leaving us presents of newly laid eggs and booked us into tiny local restaurants we’d never have found by ourselves. They all knew the American signora and gave us preferential rates as well as extra bottles of wine and olive oil to take away with us. Her favourite restaurant, il Cinghiale, was up in the hills at the end of a ten-mile gravel track. As is often the case in Italy, you think you must be on the wrong road, miles from anywhere, as you drive through clouds of dust higher and ever higher, then suddenly you see a large full car park and you know that there are people feasting inside the rustic building. What worried me a little, when I thought about it, was that the staff at the Cinghiale kept a store of Jack Daniels for our hostess who still occasionally drove herself up there, and, of course, well-lubricated, drove back again.
Erratic though her driving was, especially on the downward run, she was immune from prosecution. The carabinieri were in her pocket, and we were beneficiaries. They let us off a parking ticket when they realised where we were staying.
“Oh, no, signori. Friends of the American signora are friends of ours.” The policeman waved a brilliantly white glove to dismiss us. “Just don’t do it again.”
The signora’s dog was a large Alsatian called Wotan. When she was away from the heat of a Tuscan summer in her mountain home in Austria, Wotan lived in a compound near the farmhouse, looked after by Stefano, but when she was in residence, Wotan roamed free to keep her company and protect her.
“Don’t you worry about him, daalings,” she would reassure us. “He’s a sweetie. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
All the same, we tended to give him a wide berth because he started howling and barking long before we ever got anywhere near him, and if we did approach, he growled menacingly, with gloopy strings of saliva dangling from his jaws. Some days we hardly dared venture towards the swimming pool which he seemed to be guarding with angry zeal. You’d hear her shout “Wotan!” from inside the villa, and he’d slink away, but somehow we knew that he’d quite fancy a taste of English flesh.
One morning, all hell broke loose on the slope opposite the villa. Stefano and his two grown-up sons were shouting and yelling at Wotan who faced them snarling with a baby deer in his mouth. Stefano prized his jaws open whilst the others held him still and we watched from the safety of our terrace. The faun was dead, of course, but it wasn’t going to be wasted. They skinned it and took it away for a feast. Our worst fears had been confirmed. Wotan was to be avoided at all costs.
At the end of the most amazing ten days, we went across to the signora’s villa to thank her before heading north, back towards Venice.
“Well, daalings,” she drawled. “I know how you love your part of Italy. I just wanted you to enjoy my special part of Italy before my deadline. I may be in the departure lounge, but I haven’t departed yet.”