We struck gold at our next place to stay in Poggibonsi, a town that sounds like it should consist entirely of jumping castles. It was a free, green area sosta with 1€/12 hours electricity and 3G coverage. Very pleased with ourselves, we settled in, door open to let in the beautiful spring day (this is as ‘outside’ as we tend to get with Nettle, to the amusement of other campers we know).
Then a car pulled up and a greeting in a very broad Australian accent announced the arrival of two expat Australians who had noticed our Aussie flag sticker on the back, which we put there to inform the French that we weren’t British and please don’t hate us.
We invited them in for a cuppa and did a round of introductions: They were Ray (Raylene) and Sam, and had lived here for twenty-three years. Ray was a Port Adelaide girl, and Sam was born in Lucca, a town not far from Poggibonsi, and had spent twenty years in Australia. They were very friendly and curious, and we very quickly made weekend plans!
Sam picked us up early on Saturday morning and drove us around the Chianti region. Along the way, we visited an old convent, inhabited by six Australian nuns who were sent here thirty years ago or thereabouts. Sam and Ray had originally heard about them and dropped in to say hello, and had been friends with them since. We met two of them, very friendly and Australian in an ‘old school’ way (they used the word ‘wog’ to describe a flu they’d had! — to us younger Australians, it’s solely a derogatory term to describe Italians and Greeks in Australia!). When they’d arrived at the convent, it was falling down, the roof just about to collapse, dirt floors — they’ve been fixing it up ever since. They laughed and described it as a challenging time, and I wasn’t surprised.
Sam took us back to their house — with some stilted conversation in the car on the way, with Sam’s amusing tendency to either not hear or ignore much of what we say! — and we enjoyed a several-course lunch with them. Katherine was particularly excited by an Australian-style roast for the main course, as she is a little deprived of this kind of cuisine, with us being vegetarians at home (and not having an oven!).
After lunch they drove us out to a charming fortress-village — Monteriggioni — which we wandered around for a time, talking. The surrounding countryside was beautiful and emerald-coloured.
On the way back, they stopped via a shop that makes and sells crystal — something the region’s known for — and while we wandered around talking with Ray, Sam bought us a gift from them, a little crystal olive-oil dish. How lovely!
The following day Sam and Ray picked us up very early and we drove north west for three hours towards a little town called Villa Collemandina. The drive there was beautiful, heading through (or at least nearby) the Garfagnana, a spectacular-looking region of green mountains and valleys I’d marked as a place I’d like to visit.
We drove alongside a bright blue river, along its valley with multi-hued mountains around us, and stopped by ‘Ponte Diablo’ in Borgo a Mozzano, a spectacular bridge over the Serchio river. Ray and Sam explained the legend: In return for bringing about the bridge’s completion, the devil demanded the first thing to cross the bridge. It was a pig, and a pissed-off devil got some rather petty revenge by making the bridge the odd shape it is. Fair enough.
We drove upwards into the mountains and arrived in Villa Collemandina: Sam and Ray had invited us there to join them at a restaurant they enjoyed, Ristorante Panoramico. The restaurant were celebrating Italy’s Liberation Day (liberation from Nazi Germany, that is) by holding a very inexpensive banquet. First we walked around the compact town’s little paths amongst the tightly-packed houses. A rather disturbing (but slightly amusing) old guy laughed at my hair and asked (translated by Ray) whether I was masculine or feminine! Guess I probably do need a haircut. Then he became overly friendly with Katherine, which was a little off! Eww.
The view from the town was great, as it was perched high on a mountain:
So, we filed into the restaurant and were treated to a feast — prosciutto, slices of local salami served interleaved with slices of kiwi-fruit, a wild mushroom risotto, and some rather more dangerous risotto containing mortal quantities of cheese. For the main course, big hunks of chicken, lamb, and many other different kinds of animal. This prompted Sam to proudly recount the Noah’s Ark of animalia he’s consumed in his life, including snails, sparrows (he described how he built a trap to catch them), wild boar piglets, deer, budgies (of all things!), and donkeys — and lungs & tripe, body parts he was particularly proud to have consumed.
We’ve been curious about gypsy (nomad) culture too, having heard some rather extreme things said — mostly the impression we’ve received that they’re thought of generally thieving and morally deficient — which seemed to us too extraordinary to be anything but widespread prejudice. So we sought Ray and Sam’s impressions, which didn’t differ greatly from what we’d previously heard. In fact, they told us that they’d heard recently in the news that a young girl had been sold from one group to another because she was considered a skilled thief, and thus valuable. It still all seems a little extreme to me — that, generally speaking, one whole culture can be so ‘corrupt’ — so I reserve judgement until I know more!
We were interested in their decision to move to Italy, and Sam explained that Ray’s family had been hostile towards Sam as an Italian, calling him Mafia, apparently, and had made their lives so unpleasant they decided to move. Good old Aussie racism, but fascinating to hear that the family were so caught up in their prejudice that they apparently drove their daughter away to another country!
We were equally fascinated to hear Sam talking about Southern Italians — unprompted, he loudly complained that there was “one law for them, another law for us”, with car registrations, TV licences… — very interesting to behold those sentiments, particularly in light of their exodus from Australia!
After lunch we sat outside in the sun and talked with Ray — as it turned out, we seem to share a lot of similar opinions and we enjoyed discussing the big issues (environmental collapse, overpopulation, asylum seekers and immigration and the popular attitudes to it…).
Back home, we exchanged contact details, and we told them to get in touch when they visit Australia again (if we’re there!), and we said farewell.
It was very interesting to meet some locals who also have an Australian perspective, and we really enjoyed meeting Sam and Ray!