Of angst and memory (Cortona, Italy)

Making connections in familiar places used to be difficult. Opening up to people, never an easy talk and constantly a work in progress.

However, there’s a magic in unfamiliar places, a promise of all that can be and for me, a drive to make a connection that ensures that a place finds a steadfast grip in my wall of memories.

I travelled to Cortona, Italy, with two friends, on a whim. Living in Florence meant the sun kissed countryside was a mere, hour or two away. We met for apertivo, bought tickets over the second glass of Campari Spritz, packed our bags at dusk and caught the 6AM train the next morning. Buried in the undulating Tuscan countryside, as Cortona was, I knew, at the very least, we would return on Sunday evening with full bellies and a wine addled brain.We reached the base only to discover that Cortona sat proudly above us. At its very top, sat a small but magnificent fortress. We trekked our way up, coming to rest on an outcrop of the fortress. Time held still as we gazed out onto the unparalleled countryside below. Awash with vibrant yellows, olives and lime greens in neat square fields far below us, we settled down to bask under the heat of the autumnal sun.

So serene and tranquil was this spot that we skipped lunch, preferring instead to satiate our bellies with the view in front of us. And as a helpful nun informed us, the promise of a chocolate festival beyond the rolling hills.

When we finally did rouse from our perch, we descended down to the town. Tiny as it was, it soon felt as though we had walked down every side street. Hidden away in the mountaintops, yet central enough to be an appropriate traveller base, Cortona commanded old world charm. Every brick sang of legend and myth. Tombs dating back to the Etruscans, shrines of Santa Margherita, all jumbled up between crumbling palazzi and hot cappuccinos.

We sat down for dinner, courtesy of a local nonna. We were treated to a resplendent home cooked,10 course, Italian feast set on her terrace as the air developed a distinct chill. Our stomachs satisfied and our brains dull, we made our way to the only bar we had seen in town, proceeding to order the finest wine. Mind you, in Italy, this is not what always what is recommended by the menu but the word of the oldest local in the bar.

All too soon, the locals filtered out and the animated travellers from our group, were all that remained. Topics at the bar ranged from hometowns to what we did and so forth. The day had passed and while Cortona had exceeded expectations, the conversation had grown stale.

As my friends and I made to leave the bar to proceed to Piazza Garibaldi, a viewing point recommended by the lovely gentleman who had suggested the wine, we were joined by a man who whilst being from our group, was not one we had conversed with that day.

While I wish I could regale you with details of his life, I’m afraid I know next to nothing. He stood tall above me, had blond hair and a hard to place accent but my knowledge ends there. I know not his name, what he did or why he had chosen to come to Cortona that day.

As we walked, conversation overtook us and without our knowledge, had soon left my friends a few paces behind. There are a rare breed of people who have the power to connect with me sans introduction, pomp or circumstance. He, for me, belonged to that species.

The beauty of this conversation was that it was so stimulating that its power developed a cocoon around us. My friends dared not look in and we were too engrossed to gaze out. We reached the viewing point and established ourselves on the parapet, legs dangling over. The colourful valley below had transformed to a dark plain lit only by the light of the moon.

At some point, my friends took their leave but when we did finally move to make our way back to the hotel, it was solely due to the mutterings of a sleepy guard. Risen from our stupor, the walk back to our hotel was conducted in near silence. We parted ways at the hotel and the next morning, my friends and I departed Cortona for Montepulciano.

I never met that man again. We try and stay “connected” in this age of technology; a photograph here, a status update there. We remain aloof, impersonal while peering into fragments of peoples lives. But, I never tried to reach out to him on the internet. I simply could not.

Allowing that conversation to be an introduction to social media seemed like an injustice to its glory. Instead, I prefer to let it live in my head, as a reminder to the charm of honest connections and the stimulation a real conversation can provide.

Making connections in familiar places is still hard, but moments like these keep pushing me to look for that spark.

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