Watcher, Giulio, George, Jean II

Someone asked me – do you have many friends?

I stop and think. Friends. Yes, I have a few. But not many. Friends who are there if I need them, or I am there if they need me. Who think more or less as I think, who have some depth to them. Friends. It’s not easy to have real friends. It takes time. It takes giving of yourself. Perhaps, I don’t know how to make friends, other than the few I have. I learned that it is important to try and draw people out, to be interested in them. But it’s not always easy. When I told a friend about another “friend” and what she said about poetry and music, he said that maybe it wasn’t worth my time to be friends with her. One has to be able to share. And that itself is a problem.

An interesting point was made in a book review I was reading – of course, I can’t get most of the books I read about but reviews can often provide me with the main points. How I wish we could sit together over lunch or coffee and discuss these points. I don’t remember now what book it was but I can quote you a bit:

“At what point does a nation’s exuberance start to obstruct its vision? ‘Sharing.’ as we have seen only too clearly in relation to Iraq, can be a form of domination, and being lavish with one’s own values can be a cover for taking power.”

It made me think that sharing is a sort of domination. That is if you insist that others share yourself with them. I have a friend who wanted to know all about me, to know what my thoughts were, to know who I was. It was fine for a while but then it seemed to me that she wanted in a way to take possession of me, and that was not fine.  Sharing is good if it is respectful of the other person, if it leaves leeway.

Anyway I have started this letter and shall send it off with a little book I enjoyed. You will hopefully enjoy it too although it may not be “classical” enough for you.

 On November  6th, he wrote:

“I do love to share things that I find curious and amusing. For instance in your glossary (he had given me an old thesaurus that he had no more use for you have “Assillo”. This is a word that is now only used in a figurative way and it helps to realize the idea of. ………obsessive insistence comes from its literal meaning – “a horse-fly”! Doubtless akin to the “blue-arse fly” that bit Massa’s horse who threw him and he died.

We layed him under a

‘simmon tree

His epitaph is there to see

Beneath this stone I’m forced to lie

Victim of a blue-arse fly.”

In my next phone call I was regaled by Giulio singing the song. Must say he had a fine voice.

In another letter, he had noted that, “A typical characteristic of human beings is a sense of wonder.” But perhaps it’s not only human for then he described his friendship with a fox.

“– years ago I made friends with a fox (actually a vixen and she made friends with me!). She’d come into the house and was so relaxed she’d nod off a bit in the warmth. A spot of “shut eye.” Anyhow, I imagined that in her foxy mind she categorized what she saw in the house, assimilated them to the things she knew – I expected her to see the fridge as a large white boulder and the gate leg table as some sort of dried up old bush and dismiss them from mind. But no, I had the clear impression that she looked at these unusual objects quite a long time and wondered.”

Dear Giulio,

Never did find out if you’d rather I write by hand or if on the computer is OK. I’ve learned to think “on the computer”. My fingers fly by themselves over the keys – sort of like making music I would guess. And then I have a record of what I’ve told you if I save the letter, that is. For instance, did I send you the poem by Millay or didn’t I. Really don’t remember. But it is so right for these days – even these days with rain and more rain. The colors of the hillsides are incredible. How visual a creature I am. Other aspects too I think, but, yes, I like sounds. The sound of your voice is good. I like that. The sound of the wind in the trees, I like that too. The rain? Well, depends. As long as it isn’t coming in through the roof, which it occasionally does. And fragrances? One marvelous one comes early January when the calycanthus blossoms bloom. It comes all of a sudden when I step out of the house and the fragrance wafts up the slope. Fresh bread. Smoky fireplace. Fresh cut grass. And touch? A raindrop falling on my skin. The warmth my skin retains after a hot shower as I race upstairs to put on my clothes. The softness of the cat’s fur and the warmth when Brutus sits on my knees as I type.

Then even phone calls were not enough.  For he had a story to tell. The story of his life. “Please come,” he said. “To whom can I tell my story if not to you?”

So now the time had come to go and see him. He could not tell me the story of his life over the phone. 

Early one morning, I borrowed my daughter-in-law’s car for the drive along the highway of the sun, keeping an average of 100 km an hour so as not to be stuck behind behemoth trucks. I finally left them behind as I wound along country roads, hoping I would remember how to get to Giulio’s little stone house in the midst of nowhere.

The cluster of houses with stone steps leading from one level to the next is up in the hills of the Chianti. They are apparently inhabited only during the hunting season and Giulio said that when the mayor had wanted to put in electric street lights, he had sternly objected and told him it was useless since he was the only permanent inhabitant and didn’t want artificial lights to take away his stars. So there were none. After parking in what might be called a piazza, I made my way down several levels, past a wild persimmon tree, to a rocky road – can one call it a road? – that led to the small stone house with a grape trellis in front.

The door was open as it had been the first time. There were still some leaves caught in a few cobwebs under the chairs but most of them had disappeared. When I had asked the last time if I should sweep them up, he had looked at me quizzically and asked what I had against spider webs. This time evidently his daughter had cleaned up some knowing he was to have company.

He rose from his armchair and smiled a welcome and then adjusted the bare foam rubber cushions that propped up his back. I was tempted to ask if he would like me to bring some slipcovers, but I know he would have shaken his head, saying that they served their purpose just as they were. Everything was sort of makeshift. A single hot plate. A couple of pots. The one he boiled eggs in was without a handle. The teacup where he took his tea was stained from years of teabags. But he had music, he had books. He knew how to look. There was something leonine about his profile and it took me a moment to figure out who he reminded me of, of course, Gentile Bellini’s portrait of the sultan Mehmet II in person, that same hawk nose and slightly supercilious air. 

I found a rather ramshackle chair and made myself comfortable so he could tell me his story. I can only remember highlights now for I took no detailed notes. Perhaps I would have, had I known I would never see him again.

“My mother was English and my father was Sicilian. At least that’s what I thought, although I never knew him since he died before I was a year old. We had a marvelous house in Florence and a villa in Fiesole. I remember my mother used to tell me stories about a Captain P who always came and bailed me out when I got into trouble. Curious stories, they were. Then when I was seven, my mother sent me off to school in England. I wonder if she ever thought about the risk, sending off a child who knew very little English, a foreigner in a strange country, and not understanding a word of the schoolboy jargon. A perfect scenario for cruel bullying by the beastly 12 and 13 year olds. In those days, English people rather looked down on Italians. When, later, they discovered that I was “quite a nice chap”, this did not mitigate their prejudice, they refused that jump and got round it by saying that they did not consider me Italian!! When I see now the fuss they make about Mediterranean Diet it makes me smile remembering how they poked fun at me about “greasy Italian food” and ugh “olive oil”! Actually what happened was that everyone, students, staff and servants, fell over backward to be kind to me! They even hired a special teacher, Mrs. Hargrave, who never took off her monumental hat, to teach me English. I remember that on the first day of school, owing to the school trains from different parts arriving at different times, this caused a catering problem, solved by giving everyone hard-boiled eggs to eat. So each year, I would watch the new boys who had just said goodbye to their nannies for the first time in their lives, alone, amid so many strange people in a strange place. I watched how they struggled to get down those dry eggs despite a big lump in their throats. “

“When I was seventeen my older brother committed suicide. It was summer and we were home in Florence while Mother was at the seaside in Viareggio. One of the servants went up to see why my brother didn’t come down for breakfast and found him dead in his room. He had shot himself. It took a while those days to notify my mother and for her to come back. We sat together in her bedroom and she said she should have realized the danger for depression ran in the family and a paternal uncle had also killed himself. I put my hand on hers and said that I too should be worried. Her answer came quietly. No, not you. No, not you. I looked at her questioningly and finally it dawned on me that the sea captain who always came to the rescue just in time was not an imaginary figure. No, that was my real father. And she nodded.”

“You know even my name, Giulio, was also a deceit. I was supposed to be called Calogero or some other good Sicilian name, but my mother liked Giulio and remembered that there had been a brother or some such relative who had died young and who was named Giulio and suggested the boy, meaning me, be named after him.”

It was time for lunch. I had promised to make pasta, but found it rather difficult with just one burner. There was bread and cheese, wine and olives. What more could one want. Ah, yes, a salad perhaps. But cooking was kept to a minimum. I washed the dishes in the old stone sink before setting the kitchen table, the only table with a stove. So as we sat and ate he began to tell me about the years of his youth. Money had never been a problem.

“I had a friend, my age, and we would take off and wander through the countryside, sleeping wherever we could find shelter, discussing philosophical questions and enjoying our freedom. And then there were the war years.”

I had been wondering about them. He was Italian but his mother was English. Somehow he managed not to be inducted into the army, but he and his friend did go into hiding when roundups were made.

“We knew all the villa’s secrets, including the cellars. I was eventually put into prison but since I knew the guard – he had worked for my mother – he let me out occasionally as long as I promised to return, which, of course, I did. I must say it was rather uncomfortable in the prison and my boots made pretty good pillows. When the Allies came I joined up with the British Army and we got along fine.”

I felt I had to clear my head and take a walk and told him I would only be away half an hour. The rutted road led towards the woods, to a vineyard and a view over the valley. There were rocks and more rocks and low trees. It was an unfriendly landscape but I recognized it from somewhere. Of course, it was Giotto’s trees and rocks.  It is not my favorite part of Tuscany although I love the rolling hills around Siena that are still exactly as Lorenzetti had painted them in his fresco of Good Government. I needed this time to catch up on my thoughts and the half hour turned into almost an hour. Giulio chided me when I got back before continuing his story.

It was still warm enough to sit outside. His eyes ranged over the wooded hills. “I used to go through the woods and make paths. Now I’ll never walk those paths again.” He shook his head sadly. “Do you like those canes over there by the door? I made them all and can tell you where I found them. The cherry was deep in the woods on that hillside, the hornbeam in a clearing over there, the apple at the edge of a field now overrun by weeds. Choose one and take it with you. That way you’ll remember me. I’ve always loved the plants and birds and can sit outside for hours listening. My Barbara knew all the plants too.”

He brought out some beautifully bound albums filled with watercolor sketches of the plants and flowers by the season. A present from Barbara, his second wife. She was much younger, as unconventional as he was.

“She was delighted when I bought her this little house. A house of her own. Actually, it was lucky for me that it was in her name for my first wife never forgave me for leaving her. She belonged to the wealthy society of the time, you might have called us the “idle rich” and when I couldn’t afford the upkeep of the town house and the villa in the country, she suggested I donate them to the children (you know I have two other children – but I’m not sure where they are – one went to Canada and lived in a hut in the midst of the snow, the other one is in Sri Lanka) so inheritance taxes would be avoided and then they could see to the upkeep. I guess I was too trusting and didn’t think of having a clause put in saying I could use them as long as I lived. I never was very practical. Then as soon as they had the property they sold it and all I had was this little stone house.”

“Here I was 45 years old and had never worked a day in my life. I didn’t have a degree, so no schools would take me to teach English. I really didn’t know how I was going to survive and was looking for any kind of a job – a gardener for instance. Then my friends in Rome said they would find me something a bit more dignified and I ended up with Sansoni, editing the articles for the Encyclopedia on art that they were publishing. What a lot of bureaucracy!”

To be continued . . .

One thought on “Watcher, Giulio, George, Jean II

  1. What a fascinatingly complex person! And what an adventuress you were to go into mysterious Giulio’s world on your own!

    My favorite part is your letter to him. By the way, here you are much more than “a watcher.”

    Envoyé de mon Di-Phone

    Liked by 1 person

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