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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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For the week of Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2002

  Opinion Columns

On borrowed time

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS


The countess in her villa in Portofino wasnít immune to grief, nor did her wealth protect her from the fate we all suffer eventually.


"Countess Died While Playing Hide-and-Seek, Report Shows."

This is an exact copy of a headline I came upon recently in the English-language Italian section of the International Herald-Tribune. It continues: "Countess Francesca Vacca Agusta played a rather unfortunate game of hide-and-seek on Jan. 8, tumbling off a cliff and into the water outside her Portofino home after she climbed over a wall at the villa edge as part of an attention-getting stunt." Later we read that apparently earlier in the day the countess locked herself into a closet with a bottle of liquor. The excerpt is remarkable not only for its understated and flippant attitude, but also for the novel idea of dying while playing hide-and-seek.

Even though our lives are light years apart in style, I identified with the unfortunate Countess. I always thought that maybe I would go some odd way like that. I can envision the headlines now: "Idaho Mountain Express columnist (and, of course, fabulous local resident) JoEllen Collins dies after swallowing a pin she was holding in her teeth while making a life quilt." Or, " Ö after tripping over dogís leash" (more likely). Or, and this would be the best: " Ö after laughing so hard she suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and never regains consciousness."

I am, obviously, speaking with tongue in cheek. (By the way, where does that clichť arise? Or why are people "happy as clams?" Do clams hold the secret to bliss?) No, I donít want to die any of those ways. I cling to life, actually. Iíve often wondered about phrases like, "Well, at least he died doing what he liked best." Thatís like saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." My response is, "He who dies with the most toys dies. Period." We all share the same fate. The countess in her villa in Portofino wasnít immune to grief, nor did her wealth protect her from the fate we all suffer eventually.

At any rate, I just took my life in my hands again as I took my walk on the roads around my farmhouse. (My futile attempt to memorize Italian verbs and counter the effects of Perugian chocolates.) Even when I am the only object on the road, I have literally had to leap to the side as an Italian driver (OK, I know it is a stereotype) going about twice the speed limit tears down this side street on his way to the autostrada. Even my landlord, Allesandro, who is a policeman in Rome during the week, or maybe because of it, drives way in excess of the 50 kilometer per hour speed limit sign (equivalent to a 30-mile hour zone in the U.S.). I have seen the gauge on his car, and on this very street he was up to 95 kilometers per hour. Whatever your arithmetic skills, you can imagine that going nearly double the limit is excessive, and yet I believe it is par for the course here. Couple the craving for speed with the frustrations of being stuck often behind a tractor or very small vehicle used in the fields, and part of the breakaway mentality is understandable.

When I drive, especially as a foreigner in a rented car, I hug the side of the road as countless native drivers roar by, often passing me with perilously small space to return to the lane ahead of an oncoming truck, but I have yet to see an accident or anyone getting really angry or flipping a finger or shouting obscenities at the passers. I believe that is because it is such an accepted practice. Italians arenít rude: theyíre just fast. There is a lack of the American sense of possession of the street. In fact, the roar of engines is so common that the birds inhabiting the pines above me didnít flee when three cars screamed by, but as I approached the edge of the shade cast by the trees, they fled away in panic. To them, possibly, a motor is less of a threat than the real flesh of a human being who might have a rifle.

I had a random thought the other day about my lovely little neighborhood birds. I wondered whether they are the same birds so happily roasted on an annual October celebration day in the Tuscan town of Montalcino. My guidebook recommends it, noting: "Sagra del Tordo, The feast of the Thrush: Montalcini wander around all weekend in medieval costume throwing archery tournaments and parades, mainly for an excuse to roast hundreds of tiny thrushes, whose passing they toast with plenty of Brunello wine." I wonder, by the way, if this is the same writer I encountered in the article about the countess, for the style is similarly condescending.

In the past few days, I have noticed at least a half dozen dead animals on the streets around me. They look like muskrats and are the size of a porcupine. My landlady says they are "nutrias." I think the recent spate of their being run over has more to do with the lack of field cover after harvest rather than with the whims of the native drivers, but Iíll await my verdict on that one.

In the meantime, I donít wish to wind up like the countess, the finches or those poor creatures at the side of the road. Not yet, please!

 


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.