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.
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.
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.