Italy was where my father was stationed in the war. He was a dispatch rider and was billeted with an Italian family. They treated him like a son.
We’d tootled into Italy in our old Bedford van and wended our way up and down and around the old coast road because we couldn’t afford the tolls on the new motorways that cut straight through the mountains, with miles of tunnels and sections on trestle bridges spanning the gorges. Besides the scenery was better off the tracks and we were in no rush.
We trundled up to the top of a mountain to get a view. There was a little village near the summit and we parked up to stretch our legs and get a feel of the place. This was Italy. We hadn’t been in it long. It smelt like Italy. There was a different flavour to France. The air was hot and fragrant even at this height. Below us, we could see the sea. The sky was clear azure. Villagers went about their business among the olive trees. Herds of goats picked at dried tufts and bleated. An old woman walked down the road with a headscarf and gaily patterned heavy-duty peasant dress balancing a huge basket of vegetables on her head. I wanted to take her photo but was too embarrassed. It would have been as if her whole life had been reduced to the status of some quaint bit part, a touch of old-time colour, to be nothing more than an anachronistic sight. ‘Hey look at the old peasant woman!’
Arrogance. We were the spoilt twentieth-century kids staring in wonder at the quaintness of reality, as she went about her business.
An old man in a dusty ragged suit, grubby unbuttoned granddad shirt and battered hat trotted past on an ass. His face was as gnarled and furrowed as the old olive trunks. He stared at us as he rode past. We nodded. He smiled through gappy teeth and said something that we could not understand in guttural Italian. This was his world. To him, we were the oddities. He shook his head and laughed.
Who knew more? The old peasants still working the land as they had done for generations? Or the alien interlopers from the modern world beyond the bottom of this mountain? And how much of what either of us knew about life was in the slightest bit important?
We got back in the van but it wouldn’t start. We pointed it down the steep incline and let it roll and then, when it had built up considerable momentum, tried to bump start it. The engine turned. The engine backfired and belched smoke. It chugged and died and blasted great clouds of black soot as it rained explosions to echo back at us from the surrounding hills but it would not start. There was no doubt about it. It was dead. Something unpleasant had befallen its innards.
We pulled over to review the options. Lifting the bonnet revealed that the engine was still in place. We prodded and checked. All the bits seemed to be there and stuck on right. The connections were connected. We turned it and checked sparks and fuel. We had exhausted our repertoire and were at a loss.
Below us, the sea sparkled and the town shone white against it. We decided to let gravity assist and roll our way down to the town. It looked straightforward. In reality, it was hair-raising. The roads were steep and windy. The van quickly built up speed and without power did not grip the road or perform in any way conforming to normality. Without acceleration, the bends became less negotiable. Even the brakes did not seem to bite. We lurched and careered, swaying and veering, threatening to bounce off the road, screeching round tight bends, leaning over dangerously, pretty much out of control. Fortunately, the roads were clear. Another herd of goats and we’d have been over the edge and bouncing down the rocky outcrops. We shuddered around corners on two wheels, leaning precariously, righting ourselves just in time for the next bend. It wasn’t so much a controlled rolling down the hill, as a mad race. You didn’t control the van so much as fight with it to limit its destructive urges. It bucked and shook and threatened to roll over and take off. I could imagine the brake linings glowing orange-red. You could smell them overheating. Perhaps they would boil the brake fluid? Catch fire? Who knew?
The road gradually became less windy and steep, to a point where the brakes starting exerting some influence and our descent smoothed off to a controllable rush. We started to breathe and began to imagine that we might survive the journey. We had reached the main road in one piece, still moving at speed and somewhat out of control. Fortunately, at the junction nothing was coming and we had a clear path. Somehow we had survived. There was much loud cheering.
The van still had a lot of momentum and there was a slight gradient but it soon became apparent that we were slowing down. The game had changed. Instead of trying to slow the beast down, we were now into the business of trying to conserve our speed in order to reach the town.
We did. The van silently trundled along the seafront as a leisurely pace and we came to rest at the first garage and only garage in town.
Taking a few minutes to compose ourselves following our hair-raising experience, we finally disembarked to make enquiries concerning repairs.
It had a workshop. Three mechanics came out to look at the crazy hippies in the beat up and exceedingly dead van. They chattered and smiled and seemed friendly enough. We spoke no Italian and they spoke no English but we got along. They checked the engine and shook their heads. It was serious. They pushed it in and got it on the ramp for a real going over.
We thanked them and went off for something to eat. On our return, we discovered the result of their deliberations – a burnt-out valve. We were going nowhere in a hurry. There were no parts available and no centre in Italy for Bedford parts in the whole of Italy. They were going to have to send to England. It was going to take a week. This was a disaster. The van was our home. The four of us lived in it. We had no money for accommodation.
The van was in bits on the ram and, despite the language barrier, the import of our predicament must have communicated itself amply. They smiled and laughed. Through some means that was entirely gesture and subliminal, it was conveyed to us that it was OK. We could stay in the van on the ramp. There was an old dingy toilet we could use.
Every night the men went home and locked us in the garage and went off laughing. Every morning they unlocked the door and knocked on our windows. Thus it was that we spent a week in the lazy seaside town of Firenze and lived in a garage on a ramp. Pete and Julia were supposedly on their honeymoon. The four of us had a great time.
Rights are tenuous. You have to hold them dear and fight for every inch. They are never conceded lightly.