On borrowed time
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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!