Leaving Italy behind.

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Canals at Comacchio.

 

After leaving Ravenna and travelling north to the delightful community centered on Comacchio with its skein of canals and magnificent expanse of wetland, I somehow never got around to writing a post about our time there. It is pretty much an undiscovered jewel just south of the Po delta, with an old world air that is hard to define, enhanced by the waterways in the village and the waterworld that it sits beside. Some lovely B&Bs have opened up, attracting people like us who are looking for something a little off the beaten track.

Ricardo, our host was one of the first to spot the potential, after moving back himself to the area and opening a guest house. We loved his warmth and the ability to meet and with the other guests, one of whom, an international jewel and antique dealer was also an expatriate. He recalled his grandfather waiting with an expectant crowd in 1945 for the New Zealand troops to arrive and complete the liberation of a town that had seen many of its anti-Fascist resistance fighters executed since Mussolini had fallen in 1943. Despite the flowers, the cheers and wine at the ready, the Kiwi troops merely sped straight through on the way to somewhere more important, and the locals were left with no party at all.

We made our way around the town, buying espressos, listening to the voices and drinking in the atmosphere. Wonderful. A trip to the edge of the wetland along the canals crowded by houses and shops had us right above an eel fisherman lifting his net for the catch of the day. Eel iconography was everywhere, on shops and homes – it’s a local staple and delicacy.

 

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We had made up our minds to cycle around the wetland, which we did on hired bikes, fighting off clouds of midges as we passed the eeling stands of the locals, some with motorised lifts to draw up the nets, many looking like Kiwi equivalent of blokey sheds where men escaped the domestic sphere. Later, we went on a guided tour, which included a visit to the sites of the historic salt industry, a famous local product in recent times, now in abeyance.

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All in all, Comacchio was a perfect way to ease out of the journey with the rental Panda and head back to Bologna, catching the train to Verona and our last days in Italy with Alex and Marta.

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Dante’s bones.

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The past week has been a tough one, since the theft of my suitcase on the train from Genoa; the feelings of violation (being burgled in a public place), the anger and depression at the loss of precious photos of my family only just restored after fifty years’ residence with my late aunt in London, have knocked me about. Sleep has been an issue: waking two or three times a night and finding it hard to go back to there. We are more vulnerable to PTS in our semi-conscious state, I find.

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Still, I could not afford to let some anonymous criminal steal my holiday as well, and recalled also that Christ was not crucified between two disciples (they had all fled on his arrest), but between two thieves – one of whom had a crisis of conscience in extremis. So I set out to enjoy what I could of the fabulous Cinque Terre – who could not relish these sensual towns, unless already dead?

 

Leaving the delights of Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Vernazza and Riomaggiore was done with a sense of fullness and respect for the way the people, living on the cusp of ocean and mountain, make full use of life in community. Of course they have the same ills my flesh is heir to – but their street life, the absence of cars, the walking and cycling and the talking on the corners and in the markets, the washing hanging out of windows, the cafes and the fishing boats – no wonder the stressed outer world comes here for healing.

 

But we had to press on, and try to deal with a newfound distrust of fellow travellers on railway stations: we needed to get to La Spezia (to buy another suitcase) and travel on after a full day in Florence to Bologna, to pick up the rental car that would carry us towards a meeting with over 160 New Zealanders at Forli’ cemetery, the dead of the Italian campaign of 1943-45 and their 600 other British and Commonwealth comrades, at rest.

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 The fast train travelled mostly through tunnels, so it wasn’t until we had our car – “your Fiat Panda Ferrari” as the funny, hassled guy at Sixt rentals quipped – that we would see open country again. I had some meltdowns in the navigator’s seat – never a great passenger, usual control issues – but Jeanette steered us in fine fashion along SS9, after I got us by mistake onto and then off the Autostrada, in quick time.

 

Travelling to our goal – the resting place of my high school English teacher’s soldier brother – it was as if we were driving in reverse order the way the 2nd NZEF Divisions had fought their way north. We came to Faenza then over the Senio River, and soon, there was the distinctive graveyard cross with its sword, at the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.

 

 


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Tony Hooper and friend, Italy, 1945.

We left the faithful little Panda and entered the gates of the dead with our tokens: love, respect and a pounamu taonga to bury with Private Antony Hooper. He had died on 23 April 1945, succumbing to wounds received in a mortar attack near the Senio River – his spleen was ruptured and there was no hope of recovery.

 

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His original grave, before removal to Forli’.

His tombstone – that same white lozenge with its curled fern and the name of our country rampant that graces all New Zealand war graves overseas – was dappled in shadow in the gentle Ravenna light. Someone had been before and laid poppies with flax crosses on every New Zealand grave, including Tony’s. How my teacher, his brother Peter would have smiled at this, he who had come 12,000 miles in the early 1960s to stand in the same place as I was now standing – and weep.

 

Jeanette took a photograph or two of me presenting Tony with the taonga and then left me alone – whereupon I gave a mihi to him, to all the Maori war dead lying near his side, and began to weep myself, in bucketloads, keening. I buried the greenstone with him and walked the lines of 28 Maori Battalion Company ‘C’ – Te Hana, Hau, Paniora, Biddle, Potae, on and on they lay, the Cowboys of Te Tai Rawhiti and nearby regions, stranded so far from home, their bones lying where they never could have imagined.

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Today, in Ravenna, having visited Dante’s Tomb and Museum, and discovering the story of his exile from a beloved Florence, his loss of family and prestige, the way his mortal remains, his bones, his koiwi were buried and hidden and disputed and longed for by many who loved him and those who did not – I cannot help thinking that those boys, those young men of the New Zealand Division, Maori and Pakeha, were similarly exiled and estranged from loved ones who shed many a distant and unrequited tear in the night back home.

 

You only have to see Ralph Hotere’s Sangro painting to know that, you only have to go to Mitimiti and see the Hotere names in the urupa to know what exile means. Dante knew that; so do Tony Hooper’s bones, bones we went to greet, bones that will rise again with the great Italian poet’s bones –

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bones Peter  Hooper voyaged home brooding over, and wrote for his lost brother the poem, Journey Towards an Elegy. It is all here: Inferno. Purgatorio. Paradisio.

 

 

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The glories of Genoa

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Arriving in Genoa by way of Ryanair’s budget flight was scarily like a Wellington landing in a bad day’s weather – except our planes are mostly younger and don’t feel like they will break on landing, crash or no crash. This was my first touchdown on Italian soil and felt like it might be the last. There’s plenty to read on Ryanair: no seat pockets, so the emergency landing and other colourful instructions are plastered on the seatback right in front of you for easy access in just such an emergency.

 

   Obviously, we made it, or this would not be being written; having read Penelope Lively’s wonderful essay on ageing in the peerless Guardian Review, I know I need to relish being alive and the fact that I can still enjoy such adventures, while she, at 80, has to forgo such travels and be content with her tiny widow’s garden and reflections on Thomas More’s Urne Burial, re-read for the first time since the 1970s. She knows the joys of a second childhood and its rapt attention,  a gift to counter the failing powers of the flesh so ravaged by time.

 

   Genoa – even after a mere hour’s acquaintance – has all the hallmarks of age and decay, all the signs of fading glory, when the glory thought it would never fade. In the waiting room of the railway station, where the mural on the ornate ceiling attempts some Sistine likeness, the paint on the walls peels and the blinds on the door have long-since given up on keeping light out, been knotted and left to die by some forgotten cleaner. The statue of Christopher Columbus in the entrance car park gazes on windswept hotels, casually draping a conqueror’s fingers on the shoulders of a naked handmaiden.

 

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   The great tourist liners in the port remind us that he sailed from here to map worlds unknown, and now the children of discovery go for cruises to escape discovery and to bathe in luxury one more time. Penelope Lively would have a word for all this, perhaps – I can’t find one that encapsulates my first impressions, but certainly a decayed grandeur is everywhere sensed.

 

   I know she would have word for what happened next: on the train to Monterosso, the Cinque Terre coast, my suitcase was stolen by a mean thief, leaving me with little more than the clothes I stood up in. We had dutifully parked our bags – in sight – in the same kind of baggage area you can do so in England, but I wasn’t watchful enough. I think it was the beggar we gave money to, who conned with the trick of laying pleas for his family on the seat on the way through the train, and collected donations on the way back, including my case.I’m over the recriminations of myself now – I was so relieved he didn’t nab Jeanette’s backpack as well.

 

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   I had my passport and computer in my carryall bag, so they were saved – but some precious family photos and genealogical material are gone, of no earthly use to him. The man on the train behind us who interceded in English with the guard, I salute you; Theo at the hotel, who rang all the police stations between Genoa and Margherita, you are a saint. Tomorrow we go back to the local Carabinieri and start the paperwork. I’m not consoled by the fact that Columbus ended up stealing whole countries, in the work he left behind, and thus my complaint is slight – but I am reminded you can take nothing with you when you leave, as Penelope Lively was also pointing out.

 

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Vertigo in Ypres

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Our last day in Ypres was to be a relatively slow morning at the museum (In Flanders Fields) opposite the Hotel Regina where we stayed; all this after a marathon physically and emotionally draining cycle ride through the countryside to the Tyn Cot war cemetery and the New Zealand memorial at Messines.  Sadly, the previous night had not been good for either of us getting enough sleep, so there was already a low condition on the batteries.

Not a great idea to go into such a museum in that state: wave upon wave of sad imagery that told the same old story,
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enhanced with hi-tech wristbands that gave you admittance and helped the electronic wizardry of the 21st century bring the dead back to a kind of life.

By the time we got to the climb up to the top of the restored Cloth Hall’s tower, I was already done for without knowing it. Halfway up the twisty steep spiral stone staircase we stopped at a display for a breather. I decided I had had enough and Jeanette bravely carried on up, while I was to wait for her descent.

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Reading the panels, I discovered that in medieval times, a jester threw live cats (evil incarnate, it was believed) down to a waiting mob. In 1817, this was revised to velvet stuffed cats and the moggies of Ypres were spared this cruel fate. A blurry video showed a laughing harlequin-clad jester of modern times hurling the toy black felines down to the crowd, who once every three years gather to recall this barbaric practice, now airbrushed for the modern era – so to speak. Who catches the cat gets a wish.

I began to suffer claustrophobia and wanted out – perhaps my dear cat Tozi at home was getting vibrations from half a world away and wanted me out of there – so I decided to climb out. Halfway up, I added vertigo to my inner stress points and had to keep going. At the top, there was no Jeanette, she had been and gone, so it was back down again I had to go.

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She texted me as I descended, but I was in no position to pull the phone out and reply. I plodded on down until we were reunited and I cried enough. We missed out on a few more informative items by my having to flee, but I was done for. You can only take so much.

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The rebuilding of this amazing structure, all but demolished by shelling during the war and the creation of this museum testify to human memory and powers of recovery – but I do wonder about those men that survived the horrors recreated at a safe distance here. Would they want to come? Us to do this?

We had lunch but I could hardly wait to get in the rental Citroen C1 and head for Calais – anything to avoid missing the ferry. With Jeanette at the wheel, I had less control and had to talk to myself to keep it together. When the petrol pump at Calais looked like delaying us further and the woman at Europcar was getting antsy about a tiny mark we told her was in the windscreen when we picked the car up, I let her have it.

What all this amounts to I believe, is my live parcels of accumulated PTS (D), activated early in my crazy alcoholic family, re-programmed by the Christchurch earthquakes and now, making me prone to massive anxiety waves when a timetable or deadline seems pressing while we travel. I’m handling change very badly; I must need more help.I broke down in the ferry terminal and cried.

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Somewhere, hovering over me like a dark bird of prey is this shadow of  war: wars I never saw, wars of my parents, grandparents, and – God help us – my great grandparents back to Crimea and beyond. I am talking about this today because I need to; perhaps if you read this, you will understand, if like me, you know these phantoms.

Today, I am safe in London and I read where the Psalmist says, “They looked unto Him and were lightened: their faces were not ashamed”. Ps 34.5.  Maybe I have taken my eye off the healing I know exists. Why, when peace is near, am I am so often at war?  Still, I am grateful to have been to Ypres, Tyne Cot and Messines. I will know next Anzac Day God willing, where they went to die.

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My favourite Pole of the Day.

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Paul’s book.

I was fortunate to meet a very good Kiwi writer in London yesterday, Paul Ewen, whose Dad used to live in Runanga where I worked as postie for six years in the 1980s – and delivered his parent’s mail in Ballance Street. He gave me a copy of his excellent satiric skits, London Pub Reviews – fiction, but better than the real thing  – do seek it out.

 

After reading a few of Paul’s re-imagined pub crawls in the Tube today on the way out to Mortlake cemetery, I felt I should respond in kind. As a recovering alkie, I found them a very cheap way to experience the effects of inebriation without partaking, and as such, I feel they could very easily become the answer to getting bladdered.

 

The insouciant effect of reading his adventures as a Real Ale Flaneur in Pub Wonderland soon had me seeing things on the Underground that may or may not have been there. A woman with fishnet stockings who expertly applied makeup and then rolled a fag, before alighting at South Kensington could well have been Medusa’s sister. When I observed shortly thereafter that one of the seats opposite was all but breathing as the covering swelled and died, I knew something was up.

 

The seat cover looked like a dying bouncy castle and reminded me that my heart was beating similarly, that there was a part of me indeed that would one day just stop and I would shut down, just like the District and Circle Line this morning, forcing me to take the 209 bus from Hammersmith.

 

It was a reminder that rogue elements in the body politic – something like the Tea Party in US affairs today – can cripple the entire system for no better reason than the fact they just can. You can see what soporific magic his words worked in me, and if I don’t stop, I’ll never get out of this studio flat and down to Waitrose. We are leaving town tomorrow and I have to pack.

 

Suffice to say, he has a rare talent: they are very funny tales, so don’t stop now, Paul. Just thinking about them set off a memory of the woman who interrupted me at the Sexton’s Office at Mortlake as I was getting details of my Grandad’s grave . She burst in and launched into a vicious attack on the helpful staff, Dan and Shirley – something about dirty loos. Goodness. I have found British dunny’s impeccable for the most part.

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The Polish bus.

 

It was almost as strange as my taking the helpful Polish bus driver on the 209 for a Muslim – after he kindly went out of his way to drive me from the bus station where his run finished, while on his tea break what’s more. And all this, simply because I showed him my A-Z, and asked how I could get to Mortlake Cemetery from where we were. He hardly batted an eyelid when I mistook him for a follower of Muhammed.

 

He was close to a saint in my eyes and it just goes to show that some people smell the shit and others smell the roses. You can find Paul on www.myspace.com/shoeswithrockets . Where you can find my Polish saviour I have no idea, but there were a number of excellent Polish graves in Mortlake Cemetery with some stunning images of the crucified Christ. I think Brits need to stop knocking the Poles, period.

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Marking my Grandad Holman’s grave at Mortlake.

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Whakapapa: 30772 was the Co-op Number.

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It’s a long way from 151 Aorangi Road in Bryndwyr, Christchurch where this picture was taken around 1955, where I’m standing holding a toy plastic aircraft carrier, to a book about my father’s war on the real thing, and the humanity of his Japanese foes. I remember when I got the ship: a Firestone Tyre Company Christmas party, my father’s employment between being drummed out of the New Zealand Navy and us leaving for the West Coast when he got a job on the Railways.

I would not have had access to this shot if it had not been for a thirst for history, that search for lost time, and the need to re-connect with my lost English relatives that I wrote about in the previous post. Yesterday I met three more: Jen, my cousin, Uncle Geoff’s daughter; Gary, another cousin. Auntie Doreen’s son, and his Dad, Colin Watts, a lovely West Country Minehead man, now sadly confined to a care home due to his failing memory.

But his memory was not so bad yesterday for that distant world we call the past, which is also the last minute, not just the last month, or the last year. After taking a train out to Woking, I met Jen, had lunch and we carried on to pick up Gary at Twickenham to take him on a visit to his Dad. I was able to see this threesome all together for the first time in my life, and listen to their lovely patter, the rich mingling of English accents.

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As they talked and revealed their different worlds and histories, Colin’s hold on memory became clearer: he was lost in the present and recent past, but alive and clear in the far ago years. He and Gary spoke about the old Co-op Store in Minehead and an incident when the father told the boy to go to the store for some food.

“I don’t have any money”, Gary protested. “Just tell them our number”, Colin instructed him and off he went, with 30772 all the currency he needed. I know this because Colin told us the number yesterday, sixty years after he last needed to use it. These are the layers we have, our whakapapa, the stories that attach to them; just because they are no earthly use in the present, they have heavenly currency in all of eternity, that mystery in which all we are and have ever been, dwells. Nothing is lost, only mislaid.

I had proof of this when we left Colin to his many worlds and drove Gary home to Twickenham, his home for now, empty of mother Doreen, dead and gone and Colin too, unable to run the ship any more. On the table was a picture of his Dad in his Navy uniform, and one of his wartime ships, the minesweeper HMS Westray.

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Colin Watts, Royal Navy engineer.

That led to the discovery of a forgotten bundle of photographs my mother had sent to her brother’s sister over the years: her children, pictured since the arrival of her boys in 1950 and the birth of my two sisters in Devonport Navy Hospital in the next couple of years. Year after year, face after face, child after child spilled out of this old envelope where his late mother had stored the treasure.

I was overcome: I took some pictures of the first few, then gave that up and asked my cousin if I could have them. He was very happy for that: he couldn’t recognise any of us as he’d never known us, and what for him would have been one more sea of faces was to me and my siblings, I knew, a revelation. All the early family photos that were lost when my parents separated in 1967 had been faithfully preserved in a far off land and I had journeyed past the dragon’s lair – indifference – to claim the real treasure.

Sending copies to my brother and my sisters late into the night, receiving back their delight and their tears, I saw once more into the heart of whakapapa, the strata laid down over our years by shared family experiences, good and bad. I caught a glimpse too of the barren nature of what the world tells me needs chasing: the next material wonder that we just have to have.

I am grateful for all the technology that has made this possible, of course – this blog is being written on a laptop and will be published online – but really, isn’t it how we enhance our humanity and make true connections, what really counts?  So here we are:

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Jen my cousin and guide.

And looking our childhood selves, there we were…

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Jeffrey, Jill, Eric, Elisabeth: 151 Aorangi Road, about 1955.

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Among the Ancestors

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My father, his father, his mother and my aunt, about 1923.

Having just spent a weekend with my last remaining aunt, at 83 the elder of the two surviving children of my father’s family, I’m more conscious now of what we lost when my parents moved my brother and me to New Zealand in April, 1950. Yes, there were gains and who could regret them (I don’t), but in making the decision to emigrate back then, it was pretty much a one-way ticket.

My grandfather, seen in the photo above, a gift from my Auntie Pat, was already dead. I was only a few months old when he died in 1948. My grandmother who lived on until 1961, came to Waterloo Station to see us off on the boat train to Southampton, along with Pat. She never saw us again, nor her son, her firstborn, who sits with them in the picture, somehow so vulnerable now in hindsight, about the age I was when Nanny Holman waved me goodbye.

Pat described the tears that she cried, having to go back to work at St Pancras Station, not knowing when she would see us again, especially my mother who she had come to love dearly since Mum’s marriage to my sailor father in 1943. Behind these tears and these scenes were other hidden faces: aunts and uncles, cousins, great aunts dead and great uncles and second cousins still living – that whole network of family connections all emigrants lose when they uproot themselves and go.

Over the weekend in Poole just past, my aunt brought out these pictures and talked about the faces in them: most of them dead, most I had no real idea about except her sister Doreen, my late aunt who I had met on a return to London in the late 1980s. The gap, over thirty years, and the troubles their brother my father had been through made connections difficult. I am only just now, over sixty years later, meeting my cousins. I’m also coming across characters I would love to have known, like Flo and Lizzie, my Dad’s aunts, his father’s sisters.

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Here they are at Pat’s wedding in 1950, Flo beside the her bossy older sister Liz, both turned out in their best for the great occasion. They look to be such characters, as I’m told they were; how rich it would have been to be part of this network. Like any kid, I guess, I would have taken their presence for granted, but I would have felt it somehow, as they would have been woven into the pattern of our lives had we stayed in London.

This is not a complaint, but a sigh of grief, I suppose: grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all leave us in the end, but if we have known them in our space somewhere, how much richer are we? Just meeting my Uncle Geoff, now 81 and the younger of the two, and sharing Pat’s space for two nights has reminded me of how necessary family networks are to our wholeness, and how they teach us something about the wider connections we have to society.

Of course, we made many new and valuable links to friends and neighbours in New Zealand and there was plenty of surrogacy in small mining communities – women we called “auntie”, my mother’s friends, and my father’s workmates. But they had no underlying story of us to give; they were like us, but yet not of us, nor we of them.

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Auntie Pat and me in a selfie.

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