For three years now, I have lived in the same village, tucked away in the Dolomites, a well preserved Unesco heritage site; paradise for skiers, hikers, cyclist and lovers of nature. Here in the heart of South Tirol – a borderland, anchored between the histories of Austria and Italy, divided between a desire for order and an attraction to chaos – life is good and peaceful; traditional, parochial, with a hint of mountainous insularity.
South Tyroleans love their speck, their canederli, their grey cheese and their Spritz Venezianos. They are also, in pure Italian tradition, coffee and gelato connoisseurs. Winelovers. Proud people, aware of the alpine treasures that surround them.
I have never before lived in the mountains. I have never lived in a village. And let me tell you, neither is easy.
Whether covered in snow or bathed in sunlight, the mountains always rise and block one’s view. Never the infinity of an endless sky. Never the abundance of boundlessness. Towering beauty, the elegance of verticality, the dizziness of height yet always confined. A visual prison of grandeur.
Village life too has its limitations. Village life creates habits. It creates intimacy. It dictates rules of conduct, affinities. It spins webs of obligations and duty. All well meant.
Perhaps my real qualm with the mountainous village is its repetition. One tends to follow the seasons, to stick to tradition, to ‘do the same’. Krapfen at carnival, panettone at Christmas, colomba at Easter. Dirndls and lederhosen. And the same shops, the same bakery, butcher, grocery and restaurant.
I love our local restaurant. The Imperial Crown. Run by a brother and sister with her husband in the kitchen. The place is modern-ish, neat, a tad boring but in spring and summer boasts a spacious outdoor dining area that makes up for the creamy indoor palette. The food is good, fresh, seasonal. The chef is particularly talented in starters and primi piatti. The brother is a wine buff. The sister runs a tight ship.
I, we, have been going to this restaurant for three years now. Twice, three times a month. That’s, let’s say, from beginning till now, till last night actually, a good one hundred visits, give or take. I think this makes us pretty good customers. And yet.
The welcome at the Imperial Crown is always professionally friendly. Not cheerful, never exuberant, not even moderately enthusiastic. As I said, professionally friendly. They take your coat and lead you to the table. The food is always up to standard. The wine always excellent. The service always comme il faut.
Dessert? Sometimes. Coffee? Never. The bill? Yes please. We pay and leave. Alone. We get up, walk to the door, take our coats, wear our coats, open the door and leave. The end. Basta così. And no one says goodbye. In our one hundred visits, give or take, we have never, give or take, been accompanied to the door, been said goodbye to, bid farewell. We just leave, like thieves in the night. Unacknowledged. As if we were never there.
Now you see me, now you don’t
Peek-a boo, the best baby game ever invented is a playful initiation to the mystery of disappearing and re-appearing. It is a game of trust and hope and a happy ending. In a way it is also the precursor to good manners, displaying joy at seeing each other, again. Mostly, we are good with generous welcomes. Hugs and kisses, flowers, cake, we pop champagne. Goodbyes are a different matter. Greetings in reverse order, goodbyes carry the ominousness of an end. Yet they are also the occasion to show our appreciation, to reflect on the time, well spent together and now passed, to recap the pleasures shared.
Still, in parting, where lies the sweet sorrow?
Recently my father passed away. I was going to see him back home, he died before my arrival. This did however not exacerbate my sadness and overall sense of loss. After all, despite my father being weak and ill and finally bedridden, we never intended to have a deathbed reunion. He and I had, somehow, in timely fashion, lovingly and propitiously, said all we had to say to each other. There was peace between us for we had found our own way of saying goodbye.
Surprisingly then that what I desperately needed now was a moment of formality; a setting, a time, marked by ritual and solemnity. Sober. Quiet. A marked farewell.
For that is what greetings, farewells and goodbyes do. They mark time. And time is all we have; all we have so little of.