As we are gathered under the pergola in our backyard to celebrate Australia Day, the aroma of lamb cooking away on the barbecue slowly wafting to where we are seated around the table, beers in hand, I am reminded of another national day, in a very different nation.
La Festa della Repubblica (Italian Republic Day) is celebrated on the second of June – which just so happened to be less than a week prior to my exams. When la Festa della Repubblica came around, the day was overcast and unpromising. Stressed due to upcoming exams and needing a morning away from the tiny cramped and cluttered desk in my college room, I jumped on the train and went to Certosa di Pavia, one stop away from Pavia and renowned primarily for its impressive church.
Stepping out of the train station, the first thing which captures the eye is the high wall, and just behind it, the spires of the church pierce the sky. The thick, vine-covered wall encompasses the grand church, the old living quarters for priests, the stables, gardens tended to by the priests and a store in which goods (mostly wine and grains) still produced by the Certosa di Pavia priests are sold.
The church is absolutely stunning, and as I wandered around, I couldn’t stop myself from craning my neck to stare at the intricately painted ceiling. Photographs of the church interior are strictly prohibited on grounds of respect, so though I can’t produce my own photos to prove the beauty of the church, I can suggest a glance at these great snaps from Google images:
Being inside the cold, silent church, wandering amongst the tall marble columns and magnificent (though sometimes morbid) religious paintings, was a far cry from the mass of notes and colourful posters which littered my college room, and I was finally able to step away from any concerns regarding university and just breathe. Not that I am overly religious, but being in a quiet space in which I could just stroll around and think was a very reassuring and rejuvenating experience.
Outside the church walls, a ring of stalls had been erected and were selling a range of goods, from trinkets to cards to local jams. I wandered around before looping back around the church wall to make my way back to the train station. The morning was fading away, and I had reserved the rest of the day for studying. Stopping every so often to take a photo, I walked hurriedly back to the station.
Only to find that I had missed my train by exactly one minute, and that the next train wouldn’t arrive for another hour …
Evidently, the study plan was not going well.
I stood rooted to the spot for several long moments, not even bothered to be angry at myself. I was annoyed, but what could I do now? There were no shops of any kind around the station – people generally only stopped for the church. The only sign of life within walking distance was a small and slightly dodgy bar on the other side of the parking lot. It looked tired, run-down, way past its prime. Not exactly reassuring. But I crossed the car park and nervously stepped through the door.
It was nice enough inside, though the several patrons within were much older than myself and the room was crammed with poker machines – the laws in Italy regarding gambling differ from Australian laws, and I was always surprised to see the pokies so blatantly flaunted, rather than segregated and ostracised to a private room.
I ordered a cappuccino and sat down to wait, watching a mother enter with her baby to meet an elderly man who appeared to be the grandfather. Despite first appearances, there was a homely feel to the bar – I should probably clarify that bar is the Italian word for café – and a “drink your coffee and relax, you can pay us later on” policy which emanated the warm traditional Italian hospitality.
So I drank my coffee, slowly sipping its frothiness while pulling faces to make the adorable baby laugh, while I pondered the upcoming exams. When the time came, I took my cup to the counter, paid, then caught the train back to Pavia with the intention of rushing back to my room to cram for the rest of the day.
Although when I arrived in Pavia and set out down the main road, college-bound, I realised that it was festa day. And the streets were flooded with people, and I could hardly move through the mass and somehow I ended up being caught in the middle of a procession. I made to move onwards, to push past those commemorating the day. But the sight of the procession – more precisely, of several figures marching in the procession – stopped me. For there, amongst it all, were veterans of the Alpini, the army corps of the mountains. The branch in which my grandfather was enrolled.
So I was captivated, suddenly patriotic for all things Italia, because by a twist of fate, on that day I was brought a little closer to my grandfather, a little closer to what he was and what he did. And I was proud of that.
Yes, I arrived home much later than expected. Yes, I studied a lot less than I had intended. But thank God that I missed that train, because otherwise I wouldn’t have seen that procession. I wouldn’t have seen the veterans marching in their signature green hats with a feather clasped on one side. And I would have missed that fleeting, beautiful moment of family history.