The Simplon Pass leads to Varzo

In which a man cycles up a big hill and feels a bit confused. He then cycles down the other side of the hill, only to become even more confused.

The top of the Simplon Pass was a strange place. I think it might be partially because it was my first alpine pass. It was always going to feel a bit special. It might also have been because they were doing roadworks. One of the signallers directed me to push my bike on the narrow pavement of a tunnel, which I did for a couple of kilometres. Then I whacked my ankle with my pedal and I made a very loud noise with my mouth. I learned a new word recently. That word was liminal. It refers to the moment in a ritual of some kind when someone is at a threshold, and things will look different on the other side of that threshold but they are not yet through said threshold. There is a liminality about cycling up a mountain pass for the first time. In my case, I just didn’t know what cycling up a mountain with 20kg of luggage on my already stupidly heavy bike was going to be like. Would there be an internal wall I’d hit? Would I end up slumped by the side of the road crying and frantically googling taxi firms who might come to get me?

When I reached the top there was a sculpture of an eagle that would have looked a bit authoritarian if it hadn’t reminded me of Sam the American eagle from the muppets. There’s a military base a hundred metres or so past that, with soldiers hanging around. One of them saw me slowly inching forward on my bike as I looked around. He gave me a thumbs up, presumably for dragging myself up. I grinned back. It was nice to share the moment at least a little, but to be honest I was more focused on how stupidly cold it was. It had been a sunny day a thousand metres lower. Here it was snowing. It wasn’t settling or anything but my fingers certainly knew about it. There was a desolate looking cafe that felt like it was at the end of the world. A tank rolled by in the distance. There was what looked like a big monastery or church in a valley below. All told, there was a funny vibe about the place. And what’s more, I was on the way out of probably the cleanest, most organised country on earth. Switzerland is nice but wow, in some of the towns there is barely a line that is not sharp and new. It’s incredible. Order seems to be important there. It is a difficult thought to accurately articulate beyond thinking that sometimes the rough parts had been shaved off, for better and for worse. Sorry if you’re a Swiss person reading this! I found myself wondering where that order had come from. Are the governing bodies in Switzerland simply very efficient?

I knew that pretty soon I’d be in Italy though. I was interested to know what the differences were going to be. I set off down the hill. I looked off the side of the mountain to see the view getting more beautiful all the time. The roadside became the walls of a creek with leaves sprouting from the cracks. The roadwork signs changed so the men at work icons didn’t have massive heads any more. The quality of the roads got much worse, noticeably, after about a minute. I think it was because of the rain but everything looked so green. The kind of green you don’t ever see anywhere except in nature on a really rainy day. I cycled on to the B&B I’d booked, which was in a town called Varzo.

In Varzo the buildings were old and the streets were mostly narrow. A lot of the houses had bunting and ribbons tied to the front of them, with each part of the town having differently coloured ribbons. As I got closer to the road I was staying on there were hand drawn cut outs characters of different cartoons by the side of the road, seemingly just to make the place more fun for kids. At one point there was even a little model of a bed with an effigy of some kind sleeping in it. The idea of someone from the area caring enough about it to go to the trouble to make all of this stuff moved me a little bit. I always get the feeling that in Britain we couldn’t care less about the places we live in. Something like that would probably get dragged away by bin men anyway, right?

I decided to stay an extra night in Varzo so I could go back and photograph some of the scenery I had not photographed in the rain and hail coming down the hill. This place looked like it had not had a new building built in it for 50 years and yet it felt for some reason like it was loved by the people who lived there, because they were invested in it, involved in it. They had some agency in the village’s well being.

The next day I went out to take photographs. It rained solidly for six or seven hours. I got wet. When I got back in to the town the church square had a big race finishing line. There was a crowd. Turned out everyone was watching their kids run a school trail running tournament. As I started to push my bike up the hill people shouted behind me in Italian to get out of the way. I looked back to see a stampede of ten year old kids running up the hill. After they’d all passed, one of the guys who’d shouted came over to shake my hand and slap me on the shoulder as he laughed. I smiled back at him.

All of the above is very very ordinary. None of it is special. I’m not writing any of this to breathlessly exclaim that Varzo was a magical place. It wasn’t. It was beautiful, to my eyes at least, but not ‘magical’. Though I don’t think I could even tell you what that might mean anyway. The thing that interested me was the difference between two mindsets. It put me in a mild culture shock for a few hours and I still can’t properly put my finger on why. I think this is partially because in most of England (less so other parts of the U.K.) people seem to have very little of that sense of agency and involvement in the place where they live. We have no sense of ownership of it. I guess the contrast I’m speaking of is between methods of organising civic life. Varzo did feel a little like a country to itself. Like an unheard of country where they had many of the same problems but had tried different ways of dealing with them.

This split comes down to questions I often find myself coming back to. What could be done if the world were started afresh? What could a new country’s culture be like? Where would the new customs come from? How else could things be organised? How much do we take for granted, blandly accepting social patterns simply because that is how they have always been done?

Perhaps more importantly though, it made me want to be part of a kinder community, where people are involved, and sharing their lives together.

Category thinking aloud | Tags: ,,

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