Glamour, we soon spotted, was not the outstanding feature of the village of Diano San Pietro. As far as the crusty olive-farming inhabitants of this crumbling backwater were concerned, the Riviera, a mere two miles away, might as well be on another planet. Down on the coast, Diano Marina has palm-shaded piazzas and an elegant marble-paved promenade along a wide blue sandy bay. Diano San Pietro, on the other hand, straggles up the steep foothills of the Mediterranean hinterland, its warped green shutters leaning into decrepit cobbled alleys overrun with leathery old men on erratic Vespas who call irately upon the Madonna as they narrowly miss mowing you down; with yowling feral cats and rusty tin cans full of improbably healthy geraniums.
The lodgings in which we are doomed to spend the next ten weeks -- courtesy of Luigi, walrus-mustached landlord of the village's only hostelry and liveliest spot in town -- have turned out to be a tiny pair of echoing tiled rooms above a barful of peasants who take thriftily to their beds at about ten-thirty. Our own beds are made of some kind of weird hammocky chainmail that droops horribly under your mattress, squeaks and gibbers at your slightest movement, and are only yards from the village campanile, whose great wheezing bell rings each and every hour, each and every half-hour, shaking the whole building to its roots. Only a masochist, or someone who was born and bred here and had been heaving sacks of olives since daybreak, would try getting to sleep before the 12:30 A.M. extravaganza was over. Twelve long-drawn-out gut-vibrating bongs and, after a short pause, a rusty, breathless bing. One A.M. is music to our ears.
Down by the sea Diano Marina folk have consorted openly with visiting strangers ever since the elegant days of Wintering on the Riviera. No terrible retribution seems to have fallen upon them: in fact a century or so of this wanton behavior has left them looking rather sleek and prosperous. Up on the mountain, the grimly fascinating folk of Diano San Pietro prefer to meet the eccentric behavior of strangers with a united front of appalled incomprehension. In San Pietro a woman does not wear shorts and a T-shirt. Not unless she wants to face a barful of seriously quelling looks over her cappuccino. No: she wears an apron, a calf-length tube, ankle socks, and slippers. Her menfolk go for the faded blue trouser held up with string, the aged singlet vest that is not removed in the midday heat -- certainly not, we're not in Diano Marina here -- but rolled up sausagewise into a stylish underarm sweatband, leaving the nipple area modestly covered while the solid pasta-filled midriff is exposed to the pleasantly cooling effect of any chance bit of air that may waft by. Naturally, a large and well-worn handkerchief always protects the head during daylight hours; knotted at the corners for men, tied at the nape for ladies. Our slinky holiday gear languishes in our bags, untouched. Still, since barefaced lying has brought me here, board and lodging paid for, wages (barring detection as an impostor) in the offing, there is perhaps a certain poetic justice in the severe lack, in my immediate vicinity of bright cosmopolitan life, of frivolity of any kind, or indeed, of anyone under forty apart from the occasional babe-in-arms. Maybe also in the fact that my ten-week stay in Diano San Pietro will end up stretching on into infinity.
Ten weeks' work on the Italian Riviera, board and lodging included, said my sister, waving the job description at me. Mediterranean fleshpots, sparkling seas, bronzed suitors with unbearably sexy accents, wild nightlife.... Why didn't I come too?
What about the bit about being able to graft roses To Commercial Standard, I asked, examining the document. Was this not of some importance to my putative employer? Would I not find it hard to conceal my ignorance of such matters?
Of course I wouldn't, said Lucy. Not with her at my side to coach and camouflage.
After a long and gloomy winter of angst and form-filling I'd firmly established that I had absolutely no chance of getting a loan to buy the home of my dreams. I was, I now knew, a Bad Risk. The sister was doing her best to save me from despair. Enough lurking in the London gloom, skidding home exhausted through greasy city dark and drizzle. What did I care about a career? Or real estate, for that matter? Freelance horticulture would do very nicely. So here I am, middle of February, in Italy and ready to graft. San Pietro may correspond hardly at all to any idea I have previously formed of the Italian Riviera, but it is undeniably a great improvement on London. No more miserly damp horizons stopping twenty feet away at the nearest office block. Here they stretch up into the misty foothills of the Maritime Alps on the one hand, on the other down into the intense blue vastness of the Mediterranean. The sun shines warmly even at this unlikely time of year; the sky is blue; and I am seeing plenty of both.
Moreover, the board makes up twice over for any small defects in the lodging chosen for us by our boss-to-be, Signor Patrucco, whose rose nurseries lie a couple of hundred yards away, just past the olive mill. In under a week the lugubrious Luigi and his statuesque wife Maria have transformed us from just-give-us-a-sandwich philistines into budding gourmets, agog to meet whatever they'll be putting on our plates tonight. Or more accurately, into budding connoisseurs of antipasti. It has taken us some time to learn that you're meant to start with a few of these delectable antipasti-things, then move onto your primo piatto of pasta. Next, the focal point of meal; your secondo piatto of meat-and-vegetables or salad. Followed, if you want, by fruit or cheese. This, to locals, is so obvious that it needs no explaining: just part of the bedrock of civilization. But with no menu, no ordering, only Maria or ten-year-old Stefano, her son, appearing with serving dish after serving dish of delicious stuff and doling it onto your plate unless you told them not to, how were we going to work all that out? Conceptually challenged, we saw only a deliciously haphazard abundance, tried a bit of everything -- or two bits of particularly good stuff, when the dish did its second round -- and stopped, naturally, when we were full up. Usually before we'd even got onto the pasta course, and only, as far as our hosts were concerned, a third of the way through our meal. Causing immense consternation all round.
Maria mills in and out of the kitchen, serving course after course, neatening and tidying, prodding and petting us and the dozen men she feeds every evening, dour hanky-headed folk who, like us, have somehow found themselves short of the womenfolk you need to fix you a decent twenty-course dinner of an evening. Our fellow diners sit in twos and threes commiserating with one another sotto voce, only livening up when we, or any other stranieri there happen to be about the place, do something particularly bizarre.
Have some stuffed zucchini flowers, says Maria. A tiny pie filled with broccoli? A few friscièûi of borage leaves in crispy batter? Now, oven-roasted baby onions, stripy-grilled slivers of peppers and eggplant with a dash of Maria's anchovy-laden bagna cauda. A couple of fat slices of rich red tomato under a big dollop of pesto -- the oil from Luigi's own trees, the basil from the vegetable patch around the back. Some little squares of fresh herby cheese tart?
How would you guess that all this was just a starter? We know it now, thanks to Luigi, whose training in abstract thinking (he is San Pietro's answer to Antonio Gramsci) alerted him to the fact that our eccentric eating behavior was not due to a willful refusal to conform, but the lack of a whole framework of reference. We have much to learn. Tonight we obligingly horrify everyone by putting salad on the plate with our pasta. Salad, of course, is not eaten with the pasta. Salad comes afterwards. It could easily, Maria explains, snatching it back off again with her serving tongs, make the pasta curdle in your stomach. A lot of wise noddings and a chorus of Ah, sí, sís rise from the surrounding hoary heads, confirming her words. (Nowadays, with years of experience, we know that you can get around this annoying convention by casually spearing bits of salad out of the bowl as you eat your pasta -- the important thing is not to put it on your plate.) Next, as if the salad offense weren't enough, we give in at the end of the pasta course. No secondo? Again? Can't we even fit in a taste of the great sizzling piles of meat that have now appeared? The secondo is the whole point of the meal! No, we can't. Maria is most put out. Unfair, since it's at least partly her fault; she's so entertained by our antipasti addiction that she can't help egging us on to try more and more of her tasty tidbits. Still, at least we've made it past the pasta course tonight before falling by the wayside. Our hosts are on our case, and have, they say, great faith in our potential.