Note: I wrote part of this on the train, on my way to the Mantova Festivaletteratura. 6th September. The rest is from memory.
It’s 8.15. I’m on the train. I have butterflies in my stomach, partly because I am always like this when using public transport and partly because, since last night, I have been quite excited about going to the Festival.
It is far too early to be up on a holiday but I decided, this year, to take the train rather than drive. It means I don’t have to worry about drinking, the traffic, parking, etc. But also, I think, it is much cheaper, even if I am travelling 1st class against motorway tolls and petrol.
So I sit in leather seats, in comfort, with room to move around and can relax.
As I write, we have left, exactly on time. The rail service, here, is really very good. And 1st class is worth the 5€ extra.
The countryside is not really beautiful, to me. We are in the Lombardy plain, there are no hills. The flat fields to either side are full of ready-to-harvest rice – which plants look similar to sweet corn (maize to Americans, maiz to Italians), like dead stalks rather than food, or just-harvested fields with the few inches of dried stalks left.
Occasionally we pass buildings. Old, abandoned buildings – except they aren’t really abandoned. There are telltale signs – window shutters open, a car parked outside, washing hanging from the window.
Or small villages or towns, clustered houses which end abruptly to fields of sweet corn or rice or hay.
We pass through a station called Pizzaghettone (or something like that) and then, immediately over the river Po, I assume, the other side of which is a small village – which reminds me of Crespi d’Adda – a factory (still operating) with purpose-built houses and blocks of flats nearby. I must check it out sometime.
There are points on the line where the rail is single track. the train slows and passes through wooded areas. It looks so beautiful as the early morning sunlight shines through so it is not gloomy. We could be anywhere.
We arrive, on time.
This is, in fact, the first time I have come to Mantova by train and, if I am on my own, it is certainly something to consider next time.
I walk from the station through to the centre and the Festival office. I arrive at the square near to Piazza del Erbe. There is a café there that sells some special Mantovan pastry. I stop and sit at a table. In any case, I need coffee. It is hot and perfect.
The waitress comes and I try to get what I want but, either they have run out or they don’t sell it any more. I have coffee with a doughnut. It’s not brilliant but it’s OK.
I walk round to the office. It’s the first day of the festival but there are plenty of people around. I go into the office. They have changed things around a bit. I look for Marella but can’t see her. I see Sara and the guy from Sweden or Norway or somewhere of whom, to my disgust, I can never remember his name. He’s such a nice guy too. But I am crap with names. Sara explains that Marella is not feeling well. I am disappointed because I usually spend 10 minutes chatting to her and it’s always a nice start. However, Sara sorts me out, including which events to see. I have all day and only three events so plenty of time for sitting, relaxing, drinking and eating.
So, I leave the busy office, not wanting to be a burden, knowing, having worked at the Hay Festival, that you really don’t want people just hanging about. There is work to do, after all.
I make my way up to Piazza Sordello and one of the outside cafés. I sit and, even if it is about 11 a.m., I will have a beer
Except the waiter ignores me. And I read about my first event. I check the time – it starts in less than 15 minutes. I abandon my idea of a beer and get up and walk towards the location. As I near the place, I pass another cafée and decide that I will have that beer after all.
I sit outside and order. I have 10 minutes. It’s enough time.
As I drink my beer, a ‘minder’ comes with two people. Americans. Since the couple have a minder, he or she must be an author or, at least, speaker. I look at him but don’t have any idea who he is. The minder is obviously bored with them or cannot find things to say. She checks her phone. I contemplate the idea of talking to him (for his partner has gone across the street to take photos) but don’t. After all, I don’t actually know who he is and just because I speak almost the same language, doesn’t mean I have to speak to him. Indeed, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean I will like you – in fact, I don’t really have many gay friends – I find I have little in common.
I suddenly realise I am going to be late and finish my beer, pay at the counter and go to the event. It is called Translation Slam. It may have been wonderful if it had been an English author but, unfortunately, the author was Spanish – so although I understood some of the Italian, the whole thing was quite difficult to follow.
After this, it was time for lunch. Lunch, of course, had to be Griffone Bianco (see link on right). I wandered up to Piazza Erbe. I could see some of the old buildings fenced off – the earthquake near Modena affected Mantova too – but none of them seemed to have fallen down – just a few bricks or slates having fallen to the ground.
As I walked up to the restaurant, I saw Peter, sitting on his own. I went to say hello and he invited me to join him, even if he was already on desert. I had a very pleasant lunch time and we chatted and ate and drank (although he only drank water) and it took about two and a half hours.
The next event was just after 3. Steven Greenblatt. It was OK and, obviously, all his bits were in English which helps a lot
On my way back to the office, I passed a shop which sold belts (amongst other things) and called in and bought a belt which I had needed for ages. Then I went to the office to enquire about Marella. Apparently she was going to come in later. But then I was off to my next event. It was Peter interviewing Aiden chambers – so all in English (with translations for the Italian audience. Mr Chmabers did seem quite a crazy guy (in what he thought) but it was interesting none the less.
During the event, Marella texted me to ask how it was going, were there many people, etc. There were a lot of people – almost full and I thought it went very well – the audience seemed to appreciate it.
Then, as Marella was now in the office, I went down to see her. Whilst waiting for her, Peter arrived and she grabbed him to ask if he would go to dinner with some important people of the Festival. Then she asked if I could come too. Is said I could for about half an hour as I had to catch a train. She said that was fine.
We got a taxi and ended up at the ‘staff canteen’. Mantova has an enormous number of volunteers – mostly kids from schools and universities and the one thing that Mantova does well is look after them. They have a huge canteen serving food all day and evening. I found it amusing that we were going to dinner there – what with such important people in Mantova!
We followed Marella into the ‘authors & special people’ dining room – away from the hordes of kids (thank goodness). There were about 10 very large, round tables, with tableclothes on. We were introduced to these people (a couple – the woman of which I had seen at Peter’s gig). Then we got food from where they were serving and sat down.
Considering these people had really wanted Peter to come, they hardly spoke to him which both Peter and I found quite strange. In fact, the guy spoke more to me – about the dogs, as it happens.
And, finally, Marella and I got a few moments to talk when I promised to try and bring F (and, maybe, the dogs) there next year. Well, he’s met Lola now and likes both her and G, so I’m on a roll right now!
Of course, because the time was short, I completely forgot to ask about Marella’s daughter – which I felt terrible about afterwards.
I left quite soon and walked to the station. I arrived with a few minutes to spare and got on the train. It left on time but, unfortunately, there was a delay on the way back (another train in front had some problems) and so I didn’t get into Milan until 11.30.
But, I thought as I caught the tram back – here (as opposed to Hay), I can wear my sandals all day and night – and that makes everything so much more pleasant.
However, I had a super day and was so glad that Marella (even though slightly sickly) was able to come. I’m sure that, without her (sorry Sara), the festival wouldn’t actually be quite the same at all.
So, next year, I have to try and persuade F to take a day off and come – even if it is his busy time of year.