Saturday the 16th of November 2019. The snow settled softly on the pine trees and the rock high above the valley floor. Down there, the rain poured across the train window as it snaked between the mountains of Ticino.
Pedro and Giacomo were to greet me at Varenna at 14:30. I didn’t have such a big breakfast and drank no coffee that morning, so my mood should have been foul. But I was excited to meet them again. especially Pedro. It had been five months since I had seen him last, with just one letter in between. His girlfriend would be there too. Caterina was her name.
It was a chilly but wonderfully calm day in Varenna. The rain had stopped, the breeze was gentle, and the town was dead quiet. I smiled when I spotted Pedro waiting for me across the tracks. He was smiling as well. I walked over to him, crossing the tracks and we were jovially reunited. He introduced me to the lovely Caterina but there occurred the terrible awkwardness when an Irishman is confronted with les bises. But all was laughed off and forgotten about when we spotted Giacomo coming up the platform as the green train slipped away through the pitch-black tunnel into the soaked rock of the cliff face. He waved to us from far off with something in his hand.
How can I explain Giacomo? Kind and honest are not sufficient. He is especially kind and especially honest in all things he does and says. He brought mini pizzas for us to eat in case we were hungry. I was famished and so were Pedro and Caterina. He gave us an apology that they were cold, but we refused to accept it. I could have eaten a horse after the long journey.
We walked down into town towards the lake. Taking a flurry of photographs of each other in front of the beautiful scenery while we still had the daylight. The weather was temperate and grey, and the mountains seemed to shoot straight up out of the lake. Up and up until the green of the trees and speckling of houses were replaced by a white blanket of snow and obscured by cloud. It looked so mysterious from down where we were. The tops of the mountains were another world of white. Seeming so near to the eye but being impossibly far away and different at the same time. I took some nice photographs with my film camera.
We ate at a regular Italian pizza place. One of the only open restaurants in town. We talked about our pasts presents and futures. About Belgium, about exams and about where to do a masters. About speeches, and friendship and political trivialities. We noticed the brazen sparrows and the outsized swans walking among the outside tables of the restaurant begging for food.
The walk back to the train station at the top of the town was a lovely stroll through a town which has an air about it that says it has not changed in hundreds of years. Slim staircases and narrow streets where the buildings lean across to each other over your head which in the summer would have been thronged with tourists, were on that day, deserted and we were alone. Giacomo told us some local folklore about a house on this side of Lake Como with a large balcony which the owner used to look out across the lake to their lover’s house on the other side. They were forbidden from marrying by their families or something. Sounds like Romeo and Juliet to me.
We took the train towards Milan back to a town about the size of Waterford called Lecco. Gaia, Giacomo’s girlfriend met us there, and were six at the café to which Giacomo took us for some hot chocolate. I didn’t know this, but hot chocolate has a more literal meaning in Italy than it does in Ireland. A cup of melted chocolate was handed to me and everyone else. Pedro and Caterina underestimated the richness of the chocolate they were about to drink and had ordered a Belgian waffle covered in cream and more chocolate as well. It went unfinished. Over this delicious chocolate we got to know Gaia and Giacomo’s story. Well the start of it anyway. They met in high school 5 years ago. We tried to call Simone. Another esa Alumni in the area who I had met with Giacomo over the summer and was great craic. Alas, he was refereeing a soccer game for his club.
The more I saw of Lecco the more it reminded me of Waterford. Same size, same middle town issues and middle-sized monuments. One thing I’m assured that Lecco has going for it is the view, although I could only see the outline of the mountains against the dark sky from the lake shore. I’ll have to return to Lecco and to Varenna to fully appreciate those places.
In Lecco was where we had to leave Giacomo and Gaia. He walked with us to the train station where we bought our tickets, but then he took us on one last walk to the city walls of Lecco. When I saw them, I was reminded again of Waterford. They looked just like the walls of the Viking triangle and Reginald’s Tower. Gaia said to me that there is a public library on top of and inside the walls which really impressed me. That sounds like a lovely place to read.
Giacomo was holding back tears when we were on the platform. “I’m so glad I got to see you again.” he said. It was a sad goodbye. We knew we would not see each other again for a long time. Perhaps never. He even ran next to the train waving to us as we pulled out of the station. He will be friend of mine for a long time that Giacomo. He has a heart of gold and I’d love to see him again.
In Milan, Pedro, Caterina and I found that the bar in my hostel, the Ostello Bello Grande was the best place for us to go. It was packed and some musically minded fellows had taken the hostel’s guitars down from the wall and were playing some lively folk tunes. There, I was amazed to see that the bar had not only Guinness but Tuborg on tap. Tuborg. I’ve never seen that outside of Tramore. For me, Tuborg has a golden nostalgic taste to it which simply overpowers the otherwise bitter flavour. Seeing my surprise and thirst for Tuborg, Caterina decided to have one too. And for the sake of Ireland, Pedro got a Guinness.
Over these beers, I found out that Caterina is studying journalism and wants to become a television reporter or news anchor. She certainly has the face and voice for it. I said this and Pedro chimed in that she had even done face modelling for some ads in Portugal. I did not believe him until he showed me the photos. I told Pedro he was a lucky man. The talk swung around the table, from politics, to plans later in the night, to more reminiscing about Belgium. A second round was bought and Tuborg number 2 for me tasted even better than the first. Eventually, Pedro said something wise. Very wise in fact. We were on the subject of how happy we were in Belgium and how we wished we could relive that week, when he said: “We have a phrase in Portuguese. You shouldn’t return to the places where you were happy.” Caterina and I agreed that happy memories of a place are about so much more than the place. It’s about the people. It’s about the time. And that return to the place without the people or the context will only disappoint you.
It was pushing on midnight and the metro shut down at 12:30. I walked with Pedro and Caterina through the drizzle and said farewell to them at the underground in Milano. As we were leaving Pedro told me how much he enjoyed reading my letter that I sent him. Caterina also said she loved it and that my English is lovely. Pedro makes me happy to have chanced upon a person so much like myself. And I hope that he and Caterina remain together. From what I saw that day, how they smiled at each other and sat next to one another. Comfortable but excited at the same time in one another’s company.
I retreated in the rain back to the hostel and went to bed happy with the day I spent with the new old friends I had made.
The next morning, it was still raining softly and incessantly when I got up. I ate my breakfast at the hostel, left my bag behind the desk and took my camera out to Duomo cathedral. I bought an umbrella and took some nice photos of the life sized statues which are perched high above the ground on the Cathedral’s spires against the sky. It occurred to me then that no one has gotten a close look at the faces of these figures for a long time. Perhaps for centuries. They are as inaccessible up there as if they were buried underground. I also caught the last song of a beautiful choir in the Galleries Vittorio Emanuel where the Christmas markets were being set up to open the next week. I took in this small slice of the city and savoured it. The rain was nice.
At 1pm, Milano Centrale swallowed me up, placed me on a long slender train which slipped out of the rainy city. Heading north through the mountains to Zurich. I don’t know when, but I will return to this city and to Lake Como and I will meet these wonderful people again.