Hotel Sonne, Soeldon, Tirol, Austria.
17th of March, 1959
Dear Mum and Dad,
Your ski expert daughter now reporting from icy Austria. If the writing tends to become a little illegible, it is because all that one poor elbow can do is to hold me up off the pillow, while my right hand valiantly guides the pen!
Yes, I have just finished my first day’s skiing, and even though I took the prize for falling over more than anyone else here, no injury so far! Though I did think that one poor fellow I ran into might have cause to claim third-party insurance until we managed to untie ourselves and check that no harm had been done.
At the time, I seem to be accelerating towards the edge of the mountain, and my brakes weren’t working, and there he was with his back to me, right in my path as I headed at speed towards certain disaster.
My skis separated and slipped on either side of him, and down we came in a brilliant tackle!
My excuse is that the ski instructor had taken us up to a nursery slope that was very icy, and not suitable for beginners because the snow was beginning to melt.
Coming down wasn’t much fun either. I was struggling and slipping in very soft snow and soon got behind the others who were now out of sight, including the instructor.
The sun was starting to set, and there I was alone on the mountainside, feeling too scared to admire the splendid view. Fortunately he remembered to do a head count and came back for me. I didn’t have enough breath left to tell him what I thought of him! What a start to my skiing dream!
Sleep is now taking over so I’ll continue tomorrow.
The trip over from England was quite an experience. I finished work at 7.30 on Saturday night after spending an hour getting the weekly figures to balance, then tore home to pack, finally finishing on Sunday morning just in time to catch the 12.30 train to Folkestone.
There we boarded the ferry and crossed the Channel to Calais in France. The crossing took a couple of hours and was very mild and uneventful.
There, a couple of voluble French porters grabbed my baggage and tore ahead to the railway station while I ran after them. I finally found myself on the train after going through a farcical customs check. I could have declared a bagful of diamonds and they wouldn’t have known what I was talking about.
There were five people in the carriage when we started off — four Italians and me. They all knew some English, and we were soon getting on famously together.
They generously shared their bread rolls and vino with me so that I would not have to pay for a French dinner in the dining car. At about 8.30, we turned off the light and settled down for the night – I had thought my ticket entitled me to a sleeper, but apparently I didn’t have the right one.
From then on everything livened up. People began to pour on to the train, and if you think that a darkened carriage full of half a dozen people feigning sleep would prevent a Frenchman demanding a seat too, you would be mistaken. For the rest of the night, people clamoured in and out, talking incessantly. Whenever things quietened a little, a ticket collector or customs officer was bound to turn up. It did have its funny moments especially when the Italians started complaining loudly that the French all talked too much!
There was one young French soldier who lost his ticket. Everyone had suggestions for finding it and finally we all got up and turned the carriage inside out without success. At last he had to cough up and pay for the fare again, though I was inclined to think that he probably didn’t have a ticket in the first place. That done, he then tucked himself under the travelling rug that the two Italian girls and I were sharing, leaving us to shiver.
Another harmless looking young soldier sitting next to me kept pretending to be asleep while trying to hold my hand. — Just one more thing to keep me wide awake!
Amazingly, when we finally arrived everyone was still in sufficient good humour to shake hands all round, even insisting on rousing those who had managed to get to sleep to exchange goodbyes.
I had to change trains at Basel at about 5:15 AM when we were due to arrive at the Swiss border and my new friends kept prodding me for an hour beforehand to make sure I didn’t oversleep the stop. Some chance of that!
Fortunately, the next train was quieter, and I soon slipped in to a semi-coma till about 9 AM, but unfortunately, I missed seeing the best scenery as we passed through Switzerland.
A Swiss woman and her delightful four-year-old boy were in my carriage, and he helped to keep me entertained and wakeful till I disembarked at Oetztal at 11.30.
I then boarded a bus for the last stage of the journey, traveling up through the beautiful Alpine mountains along a road barely wide enough for one-way traffic, with lots of hairpin bends, which the bus driver manoeuvred with miraculous ease.
When we finally arrived at our hotel in Soelden I was really hungry in spite of the windy bus ride so I had a hearty lunch and then ordered my ski equipment when I finally found someone who could understand English. I then spent what was left of the afternoon in a deep sleep.
There will be more exciting details of my first week of skiing life in my next letter and I will pop this into the post on the way to the slopes for my next lesson! This means braving a 2000 metres ascent on a ski lift – and I’m still not used to heights.
Love to all.
Soelden 25th March, 1959
Time has slipped by so quickly since I sent my last letter. By the time that I have struggled home from the slopes each day, I don’t seem to have enough energy left to concentrate on anything as complicated as letter writing.My skiing lessons have been progressing very slowly. I soon recovered from the drama of Day 1 and had the next couple of lessons up at Hoechsoeldon, having been told that there was no snow left on the lower slopes. – The nursery slopes were completely iced up and every fall meant another bruise, so I was very relieved to hear that the lessons were still being given down below, and so spent the rest of the week there and enjoyed it immensely.
At the classes I met two very nice German women who could speak a little English, and we quickly became friends; they were sisters though they looked very different to one another.
Ellen is the older one and Dori, who is 28 and who is married to Arno is 29 years old. They were lots of fun to be with, and I spent most of my time with them until they left for their home in Stuttgart on Sunday.
After our lessons, we would all meet for a beer with crusty bread and tasty cheese, and after a short rest, would dine at about 7.30.
On a couple of evenings they took me to a funny old eating house, where there were very few tourists and the cooking was genuine Austrian fare and where everyone was very friendly and laughed a lot — particularly when I attempted to speak German. I wasn’t able to understand half of what was being said, so Arno became my interpreter — he has spent some time working in London.
At dinnertime, I was also able to relax back to speaking English as well, as there were a couple of young New Zealand dentists at my table and also an English couple who were quite good company. The latter were Londoners, and invited me to visit them when I returned there.
I have now learnt to eat the Austrian way, with most hot meals accompanied with ‘salat’ — crisp lettuce with a little French dressing, but served on a separate plate, which means eating from two plates at the same time.
Incidentally, I also picked up a little hint for keeping salt cellars running smoothly by adding a few grains of rice to the salt. You might be lucky enough, mummy, if you sent this tip in to the Women’s Weekly it just might earn you at least five shillings!!
One evening, we played a game with dice, which entails counting a lot, with the result that I can now count fairly well in German, but as for words, I found a lot of the sounds very difficult to make. A North German fellow at my table even had an accent that had a gargling sound to it. That sounds a little unkind, given how they find English very difficult – there is probably a better way to describe it, but I’m not sure what it is! Despite our best intentions, we often had to resort to a few signs to help communication.
Wednesday. There is a tremendous crowd here this week, the weather is very warm, and the snow is melting fast, so I have decided that, instead of waiting till Saturday to set off for Italy, via Florence and on to Perugia, I will accept Arno and Dori’s invitation to spend Easter with them in the city of Stuttgart, 270 miles north of here. It may be a bit out of my way, but I feel excited by the change of plans, and I won’t be wandering around strange cities over Easter carrying a lot of luggage, while looking for hotel accommodation.
I will be ready to leave here tomorrow morning, and still be in Perugia next Thursday in time for my course.
In the meantime, please send any mail to the Bank of New South Wales in London until I am able to give you a new address in Italy!
I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Eastertide, and of course, a big hug for every one.
C/-Signor M.Ottaviani, 46 Via Annibali Vecchi, Perugia. Italia.
6th April 1959
Well, here I am at last in beautiful Italy, with lots to report. Time has gone by very quickly.
I left Soelden as planned on Thursday, and arrived at Stuttgart at 20 hours — I am still getting used to telling time the European way — perhaps I should have listened more carefully to the serial ’26 hours’!
My stay with Dori and Arni was quiet, but very pleasant. They are really delightful couple and have a very sweet little son called Mattias who is nine months old.
Arno is an architect who specialises in designing exhibition buildings, and whose head office is in London, which accounts for his mastery of English. What Dori lacks in English, she more than made up for in kindness and warm companionship.
Parts of Stuttgart appear very modern, if not all that attractive to my eyes. It is remarkable to think that it has been almost completely rebuilt since the war. Much effort has had to be put into constructing quickly rather than beautifully.
We went for a little sight-seeing tour, and as we drove towards a row of hills along one side of the city (population- half 1 million), Arno drew my attention to the highest one which has been man-made.
I was shocked to learn that It is a mountain composed of all the rubble of the city remaining after the bombing by the Allies.
Religious services are celebrated at a memorial on top of it in the summertime.
The Germans are intensely proud of their remarkable revival, and apparently the average person has learnt not to spend time worrying about the future. They also have very little to say about their countrymen in the Eastern zone.
I left Stuttgart on Tuesday, changing trains at Munich and finally reached Tarantino at 5 AM the following morning. And then on to Perugia by 6:30 AM. on yet another train, this time in a carriage full of young Italian soldiers!
They were good company and vied with one another to present me with various tokens of their esteem — or something similar — including a mandarin, two lollies, slices of salami and a few cigarettes. (Don’t worry, I am still not smoking).
At the Perugia railway station, I was fortunate to meet a young accountant from Rome who has worked here for five years and spoke a little English – which is exceptional amongst the locals; he helped me find a room to rent, and then I spent the rest of the day sleeping.
When I woke I discovered that there was no hot water in the bathroom, so next day I went hunting again. I was soon able to decide on a room in the home of the family whose address you see above.
The Family Ottaviani consists of Mama, Papa and grandma/Nonna, and one son about 20.
It is a delightful flat, very nicely furnished, and I have a large room with a balcony and a view of the town and surrounding hilly countryside – all of this for 12,000 lire a week. It sounds a lot until you learn that 1000 lire are equivalent to 11/4 in English money!
I also have the opportunity for plenty of exercise as my room is on the top floor of a four-storey block of flats.
I am told that buildings in Perugia do not have lifts, and as well my new home is about 20 minutes to the university by foot.
Now back to the question of baths! In England it is considered extravagant and a little unnecessary to bathe every night.
On the continent, that would be regarded as crazy should it ever happen! Electricity is apparently very expensive, so I hear that very few homes have hot running water – and others have no running water.
One bath a week is allowed in the rent. Any more costs about three shillings a time. It is remarkable how soon one can adapt oneself to frequent cold sponges. At Soelden, I stayed in the best hotel in the village, where baths cost 4/–.
There is always a small sort of basin or footbath in the bathrooms. At least I think that is what it is. I haven’t used it yet, as I still don’t know enough Italian to ask what it is used for!
At first opportunity, I enrolled at the Universita per Stranieri i.e. University for Foreigners, for the first term of three months duration, and began lessons straight away.
The university is in the Palazza Galenga, adjacent to the main city archway leading into the Old Town. It was established in 1921.
I was a little nervous to find myself back at school, but I shouldn’t have worried. The lessons are a lot of fun.
Professor Baratti is a really gifted teacher, patient, and very amusing. It is amazing just how much we have learned in a few days.
I was a little discouraged to begin with as most of the students can speak two or even three languages and seem to find it easier to take on another one.
I am determined to catch up with them.
We have a two hours class in the morning and one in the afternoon, during which only Italian is spoken, this, of course, being the language that we are all here to master.
We have started learning the grammar already, and we can also attend lectures in the history of art, and also the geography of Italy, which we don’t understand yet, but which are illustrated by slides. Listening to music helps us to understand the history of music classes.
Social life has begun with dances at the Italian students club, and this means having to try and speak in Italian, which is great practice.
There is a large Italian university here, with mostly medical students, and so there is plenty of available company, with some very nice boys amongst them.
There are lots of interesting students of all ages amongst the foreigners attending our college. They come from every corner of the globe. Lots of them are from Switzerland where there are three languages spoken, so they need to speak Italian there as well as French and German.
There are Persians, Greeks, only a few from Africa, English, of course and, surprisingly, at least 10 Australians.
I am enjoying the company of a very nice Swedish lass – Birgit. She is a little older than me. Most of the girls are rather young, though I was surprised at the number of people in their 60s and 70s in the class as well.
It has taken me a couple of days to finish this letter. I find it very hard to concentrate, as I seem to be continually sleepy. They are telling me that there is something in the air here which often affects strangers; maybe it is nothing more than just the late nights and early mornings.
I seem to arrive just a little late for class some mornings! I have quite a walk to the university, and then have a rushed breakfast at the student’s cafeteria downstairs. Breakfast is usually the traditional light pastry and a delicious hot coffee.
I then rush upstairs and try to slip quietly into the class. Unfortunately, the entrance is near the front of the room, and Signor Baratti loves to pause the class and wish me ‘Benvenuto Signorina’, much to the pleasure of the class who have now learnt the word for welcome!
The next time it happened, he wished me good morning in Italian, and the last time that I was a little unpunctual again, everyone present had the opportunity to learn the phrase in Italian for ‘Have you slept well?’ And I am now able to respond ‘Si, grazie, molto bene’ — yes thank you, very well! It is all very good-natured, so I refuse to be embarrassed and the class enjoys it.
It is all rather deju-vue. Reminds me of when I regularly came late for school in 3rd class, dashing across the back lane at the last moment. Then, you probably dont remember, my penalty was being kept in each afternoon in the 6th class school room where the young boys happened to be learning to memorize the Latin responses to the Mass. I learnt too, simply by osmosis – my first taste of the latin language. It was destiny, and here I am again! loving it!
The city of Perugia is a delightful place to be, a little windy, may be, as it is built on a hilltop. In the 13th and 14th centuries, it was apparently easier to fortify a town in this way by surrounding it with a wall at the base. Much of it within the walls is incredibly old and this adds to its charm.
In recent times, much of the town has spilled down into the surrounding countryside, and the area where I am living is quite modern. The centre of the Old city is at the top.
I have just realized it is time to rush off for the next lesson.
More about the city next time.
Lots of love to all
Perugia. 15 April, 1959
I was delighted to have letters from you for my birthday, including ones from aunt Betty, and also uncle George. Yours arrived the afternoon before, mummy — perfect timing!
One also came from Pat Richardson. She was happy to have news about me from Denise and her brother Ken. She is living now with her family. Her father has retired early from the bank because of ill health.
No special birthday celebrations, but it was a happy day and time is just flying by since I arrived two weeks ago!
It is amazing just how quickly we are able to learn, but I still get very impatient with myself.In class, the professor is talking quite quickly now, and we understand, as he is careful to use words and phrases that we have already learnt. However, outside class, when Italians start chatting enthusiastically to us I am lost and become instantly discouraged.
We have plenty of homework to do if we choose, but it is hard to knuckle down. I lost the habit a good while ago, and there are always plenty of diversions.
There are two student clubs – one in our own university building, which is very large and well furnished with a coffee and a jukebox -(these are also in most restaurants) – and there is also plenty of room to sit about and read and relax.
The other club is in the Italian university, where one can dance to records any night of the week.
Very few Italian girls are encouraged to go to university, and they are not permitted to go out socially unescorted, so the girls from other countries, who are without such restrictions, are very popular, as you can imagine!
I have been there a couple of times, and it is good practice for conversation, though it is still quite limited on both sides, and usually follows the same pattern. “Where do you come from? It’s a long way away? Si! Lots of kangoori there! Si. ‘What is your name? Shirley. Like Shelley Winters? No! How long are you here for? Three months. Ah, may I escort you home? “- It is bound to get better!
The Italian names are a little confusing for me to remember. There are any number of Carlos (Charles) and Brunos and Pietros and Paolos, a few Angelos and, believe it or not, one Archangelo!
It is taking me a little while to get used to the food, but it is quite tasty. We eat at the Italian University students restaurant, not far from ours and on the main road heading to where I live.
The midday meal begins with spaghetti or macaroni, followed by meat — usually smoked ham together with salad or potatoes, or artichokes cooked in a tasty batter, served with a crusty bread roll — without butter, which does not seem to be eaten here. — And always a piece of fruit.
All of this for three shillings. Wine is extra – tuppence a glass -and is just the thing if the food is a little bit indigestible — or that is my excuse! The evening meal is similar, except that there is usually a soup instead of pasta.
Most people start work about eight o’clock in the morning, and all have at least two hours off for lunch followed by the wonderful siesta. I wish we had the same tradition in Australia. It would be wonderful to have a long break in the middle of a hot summer’s day!
Work resumes at three or 3.30 and goes till six or seven, and no one ever eats in the evening before eight o’clock at the earliest, and before that it is traditional to spruce up and spend a half hour or so strolling along the piazza and meeting up with friends.
The weather has been wonderful, just a little rain, and as soon as the sun comes out I get so sleepy, I can hardly keep my eyes open. I’m sure I will be more accustomed to the climate by summertime, and it is always cool in the evenings.
Drowsiness is overcoming me now, so I shall wind up, wishing you all well, and send lots of love —
27th of April, 1959
Dear Mum and Dad,
Life is still going smoothly here, and this week, I have had a couple of interesting nights out. It was wonderful to see some theatre again — my first Italian play.
I was escorted by three of the Italian students, all dressed up with coats and ties, with me in my best red suede coat. Never mind that I was not able to understand much of the dialogue.
The acting was compelling and helped to convey much of the story.
The leading parts were taken by two of Italy’s best-known actors, though not surprisingly I had not heard of them.
The boys took me backstage afterwards, and I was able to have a brief conversation with the leading man, Giorgio Albertazzi — one very handsome man!
He presented me with a signed autograph – all very exciting!
The theatre is really beautiful, and in the Old Italian style — not graduated stalls, but tiers of boxes, one directly on top of the other encircling the theatre. There are magnificent frescoes and paintings on the ceiling, and a stupendous, brilliant chandelier in the centre of the theatre.
On Friday night we went to the cinema. We watched ‘Gigi’. Have you seen it yet?
It is a typical American romantic musical comedy based on a French story with three internationally known French actors, Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and with Maurice Chevalier singing “Little Girls”. – And Italian voices were superimposed above the American dialogue!
It was a lot of fun and luckily they seemed to be speaking more slowly and simply than usual so that I was able to understand much of it.
Did I also tell you that I also saw an Italian circus? I can’t remember ever having seen a circus before – perhaps you remember taking me to one when I was little. I do have a faint memory of seeing elephants and other animals in the paddock near the circus tent in the Henty showgrounds. There were great stunts, and the clowns were the highlight of the performance.
The Italian students all had free passes, and me too once they lent me an Italian university hat to wear.
There is so much of Perugia to explore; there are many tiny cobbled streets winding in and out with lots of little motorbikes and small cars tearing up and down, and there are even the occasional trolley buses.
As these go by, it is necessary to press flat against the stone walls and hope for the best!
which add to its mystery.
There seems to be dozens of churches everywhere. The one I love best so far is the Temple of St. Michael the Archangel was actually completed in the 5th century, if you can imagine, and is still in very good repair. It is completely round, and very simple with the altar in the centre, and no seats to sit upon.
Talking of motorbikes, one of the young Italian friends who took me to the theatre, Franco, offered to take me for a ride around the countryside on his new Vespa. He is very excited about having one and was keen to show it off.
One of his friends quietly told me that he is from an aristocratic family — a count, no less, but likes to keep it quiet. I enjoy his company and find him to be very respectful and good fun at the same time. I felt quite safe setting out with him — just one more new adventure — and it was wonderful riding through the surrounding hillside, hanging on for dear life, and relishing the sunshine, the wind in my hair and the beautiful scenery!
Going to church here is quite an experience. Some people stand, others sit or kneel. Some women wear hats, black veils and others are bare- headed. Everybody has a good look around to see who else is there, and there is always a little bit of chatter going on.
Most of the men stay outside all the time, even ‘assisting’ at three or four masses this way. A few will pop in for a couple of moments at the consecration, bob their heads respectfully and then go out again to join their friends in front of the church and in the adjoining bar. Sunday morning is a special time for them to socialise. Bars supply both coffee and alcohol. One finds them scattered right throughout the town.
There was a First Holy Communion celebration here last Sunday. The children looked really beautiful. The little girls wear full-length frocks and there was some confusion and disorganisation as they were encouraged to get into line. Panic ensued when one little lass set alight to her veil with a candle she was carrying. However, no harm resulted and the ceremony proceeded with much elaboration and was really moving to watch. The church I attend is almost next door to where I live, and is very modern and attractive.
Another big religious event was a procession in honour of our Lady of Fatima. The statue arrived by plane from Fatima in Portugal — the same one that went around Australia a few years ago.
The streets were crowded with people who had come from miles around, and the houses along the way were decorated with rows of lights. It was quite a moving sight. Italians might not go to Mass much but they certainly make the most of their processions!
The Italian students tease me a little about our strict Irish Catholic church. They say that the rules are, after all, made in Italy, which gives them the right to bend them as they see fit! They tend to take life, and themselves, very lightly and encourage everybody else to do the same. I find it quite refreshing!
On Sunday, a group of us went for a drive in the country to a restaurant overlooking Lake Trasimeno. I went with a newfound friend, Peppino, his friend Giorgio who is a dentist, and Sigrid, and an Austrian girl who lives at my flat.
Peppe is a particularly nice person – his full name is Guiseppe – Joseph in English. He is considerably older and more sensible than a lot of the students. He has studied five years of medicine, then moved to law and is about to complete his final year and then graduate.
He is very popular with the younger students who often seek him out for advice, sometimes addressing him as Dottore, which surprised me, but I’ve learned that the title is used as a sign of a respect as well as indicating a degree of some kind.
I have been invited several times with him to the home of a lawyer, whose wife Ada is a cousin of Peppino’s and a wonderful cook as well as quite a charming and elegant woman.
They have been very kind and hospitable, and patient with my limited Italian. They have encouraged me to call in whenever I wish.
They have a magnificent apartment in the centre of town– beautifully furnished in a way that even auntie Linda would envy a little.
I have certainly been extraordinarily lucky in the people that I have met during my travels. I think that you would like these people a lot.
It is rather difficult for the foreign students here to have much social contact with the local families – we are regarded somewhat with suspicion, the perception being that all good girls stay at home with mama.
Luckily for me, this couple and their friends seem to enjoy the company of people from other countries, and once having won their friendship and respect, are kind and affectionate.
It has taken me some time to complete this long-winded letter, and I now realise that it is time to turn it into a special letter for your birthday mummy! I have been keeping my eye out for a present that you would really enjoy but I haven’t found it yet. Please be patient with me and have a wonderful day. I will be thinking of you.
Perugia. 17th of May 1959
Dear Jan and Claire,
I still get quite a shock every time I write the date these days, and this is only when I write letters, which isn’t as often as I mean to. Time is just flying by with not much variation of activity, but I have yet to feel a single moment of boredom.
My Italian is proceeding reasonably well considering that I have only been learning for six weeks or so – with plenty of practice in conversation with friends, though not much study!
I spend very little time with people who speak English, and this way I have been able to go two or three days at a time without resorting to my mother tongue. How about that!
Mummy asked in her last letter if I was able to make myself understood – you should hear me on the telephone these days – the first couple of conversations were very brief and hesitant, but I have become more blasé, and wind down only when somebody else is waiting to use the telephone. It goes without saying that, to the ears of an Italian, my version of the ‘lingua’ can be rather painful to listen to!
I am now quite accustomed to the local food – in fact I enjoy it a lot, though I do have difficulty twirling the spaghetti gracefully. There are such a variety of pastas. The most delicious one is rather like spaghetti, has egg in it, and is flat rather than round.
Everything is cooked in fresh olive oil and it is used to dress salads as well. There is a type of broad bean called fave that is eaten raw after dinner in large quantities. It comes in a very large green pod, and is said to be very nourishing – good protein. I didn’t like it much at first, but now I can pile my plate up with empty pods as fast as the next one!
As you know, I generally eat at the Italian university dining room. Back on Ascension Thursday, which is a public holiday here, some of us had planned a wonderful day in the country, but then tragedy struck.
A woman, who had worked for 10 years caring for the Italian students in their college, was given the sack for defying the manager. The students were fond of her like a mother.
Apparently she was always there to sew on their buttons and so on, so in protest they went on strike and refused to eat there. I arrived at the dining room wondering where everybody was and then heard what was happening.
The protest had no effect on the manager, and the next morning she was found locked in her room with her wrists cut. She was a middle-aged person without family, and had devoted all her time solely to the boys.
The atmosphere the last couple of days has been grim. It has been an eye-opener and very moving for me to experience how loyal and affectionate a large number of boys can be. Many of them feel a certain sense of guilt because their well-meaning strike had inadvertently helped to fuel the crisis.
Now for some happier news. There are lots of traditional annual festivals held around the Umbrian Hills that are accessible to us.
Last Friday, a group of us went to see a famous ceremony in Gubbio, a town in the mountains not far from here. This feast day is both religious and social and goes back many centuries.
The annual celebrations always begin at 5 AM, on May 15th when the town prefect is awoken by a bugle, and then commences proceedings. There is a grand luncheon about nine o’clock, accompanied by much toasting. By midday, everyone is very gay and by six o’clock in the evening, when the main ceremony begins they are really lit!
We were rather late arriving, and so were in a much more sober state than most but we caught the mood very quickly!
The young men taking part were dressed in very colourful mediaeval costumes representing their respective guilds – the merchants in blue running for St George, the masons in gold for St Ubaldo and the peasants in black for St. Anthony.
They began their race, each group carrying an enormous wooden platform supporting a statue of one of the three saints who were the town patrons — St George, St Anthony and St. Ubaldo.
The race begins in the town square at the bottom of Mount Ingino, and with a trumpeting herald leading the race. They then proceed up the steep winding mountain road at a fantastic speed despite the massive weight they’re carrying, finishing at the Basilica di St. Ubaldo on the top, while hundreds of people below cheer lustily – The statues will remain there till May 15th comes round again.
The atmosphere is dynamic. The speed and strength of the participants can only be attributed to the quality of the wine, the frenzy of the crowd, and the intervention of the respective saints!! I felt as if I was just witnessing my first miracle!
By way of contrast, I attended my first orchestral concert here in Perugia on Saturday. It was the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra and it was superb. There are concerts here almost every week, though I haven’t been to many so far.
You would both love the Italian clothing shops. I have done very little buying since I arrived. Shoes are really terrific and quite inexpensive. I did buy a pair of very smart comfortable black leather ones for 30 shillings. However I have learnt that high heels are completely impractical for the cobbled, winding streets. Luckily, the boot menders charge very little for repairs. And they always give the shoes are very good polish for good measure.
Fabrics are really beautiful and priced much the same as in Australia.
I am happy living quite frugally to ensure that my savings spin out and so allow for more travel. I am so lucky that it costs very little to live here as a student. That includes board, meals and uni. fees.
All for now. Give my love to everyone
Perugia. 5th of June, 1959
It was so good to receive your newsy letter today. This reply should arrive in time for your birthday. Your present will arrive before the end of the month, I hope, though I believe that Italian ships sometimes unpredictable.
I packed it with gifts for mum and dad too. It is an original piece of the local Umbrian pottery for your dressing table — I hope you will like it!
On Wednesday, I heard of an opportunity to get a lift by car to Rome the next morning so I snapped it up, bundled my clothes into a case and we were off by 8.30 AM, arriving in Rome a little over two hours later without wasting any time getting there. What a ride! Most Italian drivers picture themselves as the next hopeful for the Monte Carlo, and drive accordingly!
On arrival, I telephoned Joyce Bianchi, Australian lass of Italian parentage, who went to school at Sacre Coeur, She works at the Australian Embassy, and so I went there to meet her – She was very helpful and gave me the address of a hostel run by Dominican nuns where I could stay.
I arrived there in time for lunch — my first Anglo-Saxon meal for some time, and very convent-like — lots of boiled spuds etc — so I made a quick decision to eat out. I just must have my spaghetti these days! Next, I purchased a guidebook and a map and set out for St Peters. It is obligatory for all tourists to go first to see St Peter’s when they arrive in Rome.
The square is really magnificent, beautifully proportioned, though the façade of the church — should I say Basilica — initially disappointed me a little. I’m not too sure what I was expecting.
However the interior certainly didn’t, it is truly overwhelming. It seems immense, with everything on a very grand scale and I felt full of awe just standing there!
The side chapels are crammed full of an array of magnificent statues to gaze upon.
Seeing such superb sculpture is a new experience for me! The most outstanding one is Michelangelo’s Pieta, placed close to the cathedral entrance, carved out of a single block of
white marble – One of his greatest works, and such a moving depiction of Mary, holding the body of Jesus in her lap, looking very peaceful, almost as if he was sleeping! And the brilliance of the sculpting is truly awe-inspiring!
After a little while, it became impossible to take in any more detail, so I set out down the Via della Conciliazione past the Castel St. Angelo to cross the river Tiber (The Italian word for it is Tevere) leaving the Vatican behind and entering the city proper and so begin my exploration of Rome itself.
I walked until it was dark, soaking up the vitality of the city and gazing at so many famous buildings, all the while using my guidebook and map.
It was great to be out and about again in yet another magnificent city.
By early evening, I was ready to find a good place to eat, and was recommended one of the outdoor cafes in the huge Piazza Navona which is a very well known gathering place for locals and visitors alike.
What a bright atmosphere it was! – The Piazza is a very long oval shape with three fountains along the centre. all with splendidly carved flamboyant statues.
It was so exciting watching the colourful scene of everyone enjoying themselves, the noise of the chatter mixed with birdsong, music and the sound of the water spraying up from the fountains.
I had a big bowl of delicious pasta and started to feel sleepy, so it was time to work out how to find my way home to bed and slept like a log till early morning – ready to go again..
Unfortunately, the next day was raining, so it was time to explore indoors. I made for the Vatican Museum — the most famous of the many museums in Rome, only to be told that I couldn’t enter wearing a frock that didn’t have a decent extent of sleeve!
My dress had a cap sleeve but they still insisted it was sleeveless. Bare knees are out as well! This really made me furious especially considering the number of nude statues around and about!
I left in high dudgeon, and consoled myself by eating a huge pizza and a small glass of wine, and followed it with a little siesta. After that, I met up in town with Joyce and her mother, and we went window-shopping together. They directed me straight to the famous via Veneto, and the via Condotti, both famous for their magnificent shops and famous label clothes .
Many of the shops in town are quite small but are all really elegant, each one tending to specialize. There is an air of quality and style about all of the dress wear, both for women and men.
Italy is rightly famous too for its leather wear- shoes, handbags, belts, and gloves, and everything is very artistically displayed in the windows. Even the shoppers are all smartly dressed to ‘fa una bella figura’, as the Italians say, which means making a good impression! – we would probably say ‘dressed to the nines’!
It must be a terrific temptation for people living here not to spend too much, as everything is very expensive, clothes wise.
Quite close to this area is the famous Piazza di Spagna. The English guidebook reminds us that this is near where Keats and Shelley lived for a time.
There is a very broad white travertine set of steps, separated vertically at this time of the year from top to bottom by rows of beautiful crimson azaleas.
They lead up several flights to the Trinita dei Monti, the Sacred Heart Church which you have no doubt heard of at school, and which they say was built under instructions from Napoleon! Apparently he held sway over some of Italy for a while.
There is always a crowd of people lingering about the steps — a favourite meeting place for the famous and not so famous. Believe it or not, I actually spotted Bing Crosby just near the fountain, looking just like Bing Crosby! I wanted him to burst out singing for me! Don’t worry — I didn’t ask him – and I was too shy to say hello.
The cobblestone streets in this area are mostly very narrow – Sydney should not complain about its streets – though here there don’t seem to be traffic problems and there are certainly less cars in the city centre, taxis excepted.
There is a good transport system, consisting of trains, trams and buses. They are very economical — it only cost a few lira a ride, whether travelling just one stop or 20.
The trams are rather like a bus inside, and it is obligatory to enter at the back, pay the conductor who sits by the door, and then exit at the front door. The doors open and shut by remote control, so if you haven’t made it to the front by the time you need to get out, you can be in trouble. I know about this because I soon learnt to hang around the back part till the last minute to wait for the conductor to tell me when I had arrived at my destination!
On Saturday morning, I went to the office of Dr. Lucrezio, one of uncle’s favourite colleagues from CRS – Caritas. I liked him very much, and he has invited me to visit his home and family when next in Rome.
His office is quite close to the Vatican, so I headed for the museum yet again – I can be very stubborn!
This time, of course, I made sure that my arms were well covered, and my skirt long enough!
I spent over two hours making my way through room after room of an enormous array of exhibits and felt that I had barely touched the surface.
It is impossible to describe the various masterpieces and do them justice. The sculptured busts of ancient Roman Emperors and Greek Philosophers are so realistic we know just what they looked liked a few thousand years later.
And being familiar with reproductions of paintings cannot compare with the impact of studying the originals.
Various collections of all manner of artefacts, ancient maps, illuminations, monumental sculptures gathered over time from every corner of the earth probably makes this museum the most impressive of all the great collections.
Apparently, many of its treasures are inaccessible to the public. In some ways, I found exploring it a rather daunting experience as well as being a very illuminating one – and I also admit to feeling some discomfort at the idea of its obvious immense wealth!
I was especially looking forward to seeing the famous Sistine Chapel, particularly Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling.
That day, it was crammed full of many noisy tourists, which was rather distracting. I would like to have the opportunity on another day during the off-season, when I could do justice to
taking in such an amazing masterpiece of creativity – and perseverance!
After lunch, I made for the centre again and started wandering through the ruins of ancient Rome — its forums and temples and aqueducts and city walls which still stand, preserved with great care, right in the heart of the city.
This is a part of the fascination of Rome which one doesn’t appreciate at first — the many monuments and remnants of a succeeding number of great historical periods and civilisations, all fused together without any real sense of order, to make up this very alive present-day city.
For example, the magnificent fountain of Trevi of ‘three coins in fountain’ fame, where everyone throws in a coin while making a wish to return, is in a relatively small odd- shaped piazza, enclosed by rather unprepossessing buildings, and usually lots of visitors .
The Coliseum – the heart of Rome’s entertainment, is also right in the middle of things –for some reason I expected it to be on the outskirts.
It is really tremendous, several stories high with tiers going deep below the surface, and just imagine – originally, the whole of the exterior was faced with marble.
Many of the ancient ruins, have been built upon, layer on layer, and I am told that this causes continual problems when new developments are planned.
Building can commence, only to find that they are on top of yet another piece of history, demanding to be preserved. More catacombs are continually being discovered and explored. Maybe I’ll see them at another time.
I particularly enjoyed exploring the church of St Clement; it is a wonderful physical demonstration of the layers of history. Deep below the ground is the remains of a Micean temple, on top of that a fourth century church, and above that again, the current basilica built in the 11th century!
Enough of all of this for the time being. I will certainly need to come back to Roma again.
On Sunday I walked and walked some more, and finally returned home to Perugia on the evening train,
This week I start studying for an exam on Tuesday, which I don’t believe will be too difficult. I certainly hope not as I have done very little to prepare for it.
I hope you have a very happy birthday — I would love to be celebrating with you.
Lots of love
Perugia. 24th of June, 1959
Dear mummy and daddy,
What an intense week this has been. It has taken a little time to gradually integrate all the sights, sounds and feelings of the Rome experience, while simultaneously cramming in several days of study in preparation for the upcoming exam. Yes, I hear you; I am still up to my old tricks of leaving such things till the last minute.
Well, it is now over, and I am feeling very virtuous, and happy with the outcome. There was no pressure to do the exam. Considering the number who started the course — probably about 150, there were not many who lasted the distance and finally presented themselves to be tested.
It turned out to be not too difficult. There was a written paper on Monday morning, which lasted for three hours, and went quite well followed by my first ever oral exam in the afternoon, which I was very nervous about and managed to turn into a complete farce.
There were just two professors and I in the room, and they set things in motion by simply asking conversational questions, one being what was I intending to do when I left Italy?
From there, we got to talking about a similar language course in France, and then I started asking the questions. ‘Where was the best university to continue my French studies?’ etc.
This would have been alright, except that when I start talking about something that interests me in Italian, I completely forget the grammar and make dozens of mistakes!
They talk about Italian being an easy language to learn, – yes, the pronunciation, once the rules are memorized is quite easy — logical and musical at the same time.
However, the grammar is another matter. All the nouns have a masculine or feminine prefix, le or la – with little logic as to which one is correct. Adjectives and pronouns must agree and change accordingly , and my Italian friends sometimes tease me with silly assumptions because on some days I make too many words masculine and other days feminine.
Also the verbs have lots of tenses, and there are a record number of irregular verbs to contend with! I hope you are impressed by my tenacity!
Mind you, I am not really complaining. I love the language, and I have found the whole exercise very stimulating. So much so, that I feel it could be worthwhile to come back in October for the three months of the media course, and build on what I have mastered so far. We shall see!
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was finally given 25/30 for my efforts — this result was very satisfying, and I will happily accept my diploma and part with 30 shillings for a certificate that proves my achievement!!
The system of exams at the Italian universities is very different from ours, most of them being oral exams, at the end of which the professor tells the student whether he or she has passed or failed. –No nail-biting waiting. Failure is anything below 18/30.
The Italian temperament is well suited to this type of exam — it is rare to see anyone at a loss for words, and I really envy them this.
I know that plenty of Australians would have much difficulty passing an exam if they had to talk their way through one.
Holidays are now upon us, and for the rest of this week, there is only the occasional lecture.
The town is beginning to buzz, what with summer tourists arriving and even some of the new students, ready to start the next term.
I have already met two girls who promise to be good company till I go.
One is a schoolteacher from the Netherlands called Ivonne, and the other is Lucia Russo from New York, who works with Vogue. Her field is in guiding or predicting the choice of colour and texture of fabrics for the coming fashion year. She is good fun, and with none of the pretension of the fashion world.
The local swimming pool opened last Sunday, so I will be spending most of my time there if the weather holds good — at the moment it is jolly hot, but there is always the occasional shower of rain.
The baths are not very big — 25 m long — but we are very lucky that they are here, especially considering that the town always suffers considerable water shortages.
It is now night time and I am finishing this letter after returning from a swim.
I spoke too soon about water shortages. The rain has been coming down in sheets for the last couple of hours. It is quite welcome however, as it will help me to spend some quiet time, and begin to unravel my conflicting plans about where to go next and when.
I have just received a letter from Joe, one of the South Africans from Earls Court with whom I had intended to explore the continent, saying that he hasn’t been able to save enough for the trip, and hopes to be able to join me later.
That, as well as my friend Denise Martin from Sydney Uni. days not turning up yet from Australia is disappointing, all of which is putting me in a quite a spot. I don’t know whether it is best to return immediately to London, then continue travelling up through northern Europe, or to set out directly from here.
I am feeling a little worried about Denise, as I know how keen she is to come and join me.Would you mind phoning her home in Sydney and make some enquiries. Telephone UM7472.
I will keep you posted as soon as things come clear.
In the meantime, I send you all lots of love
Albergo Turrenetto. Perugia.
8th of July, 1959
My plans are gradually beginning to clarify. I now think it may be better to set out up North, right away and see something of Scandinavia while the weather is hot .
On the way up through Germany I would like to visit my friends at Stuttgart again, and catch up with Patricia Smithhurst on the way – she lives in Germesheim in southern Germany. She is a friend both of Denise and me who studied arts/law at Sydney University and lived at college when we were there.
I could aim to be back in England early in August when uncle George will be there, and then see something of England, and hopefully Ireland as well. I could then make a return trip into Europe with Joe, who has to catch the boat at Genoa to return to South Africa in September. His friend Peter has already flown back home. I am disappointed that I missed saying goodbye to him. He is a good friend, and the three of us had some wonderful times together in London.
This itinerary could work well, and allow me to return to Perugia and begin Term 2 at the beginning of October. It still feels like a very good idea to continue with the language studies.
The last couple of weeks have been very hectic – always something doing. The weather has been consistently very hot and without rain, so the swimming pool continues to be the main attraction.
Just after I wrote my last letter, a group of us had an opportunity to go to the seaside. One of our friends, Tito, is taking his two daughters to Ancona on the Adriatic coast to spend a holiday with their grandmother, so Ivonne, Peppino and I went along as well.
We stopped on the way at Gubbio, that quaint old town up in the mountains where we had already been earlier for the big festa. There is also a legend that this where St.Francis tamed the wolf!
After lunch, we visited a shop where pottery has been made and sold for centuries. The present owner is a wonderful old character known to everyone as Maestro Giorgio. He has a reputation as something of a wise man whom many people revere, and he was already known to the boys.
At one stage I became the target of his wisdom! Without being told that Peppino and I were friends, he gazed knowingly into my eyes and assured me that ‘ love is the sin that God forgives most readily’!!’ Very Italian -style wisdom and not ideal advice for someone trying to keep the friendship reasonably platonic!
We finally dragged ourselves away after purchasing several small pieces of pottery, souvenirs of quite a special visit, and finally reached Ancona late afternoon. We then dropped the children off and drove on to the seaside resort of Pesaro, where there were other friends staying, and we all went swimming together in the ocean. That really made me think of home!
We stayed overnight and returned to Perugia on Monday night. That part of the coastline is not very spectacular, and the sea is as flat as Lake Albert, but the water is very warm and salty and pleasant and good for my sort of swimming. i.e. no big waves.
The beaches were bustling with holidaymakers – funnily enough, nearly all foreigners. There seemed to be mainly German and English people and hardly any Italians.
Last Wednesday was also a very pleasant day. A carload of us went to a delightful swimming pool up in the hills in the Tuscany region, about 40 miles from Perugia.
Afterwards we joined in with a wonderful local dinner celebration. It is a very colourful community event, held annually by the local farmers to celebrate the end of the grain threshing.
July 10th. I have finally received a reply from Pat, my college friend, encouraging me to visit, so I will soon set off for Germany, stopping off at Munich and Stuttgart. She lives quite close to Heidelberg, which would also be a wonderful place to see.
As the time approaches to leave, I am having some mixed feelings and right now, feeling rather low. Here I am in the middle of winding up yet another beautiful friendship, and saying lots of other good byes as well – all in the midst of packing up.
It has been an amazing three months, and I have learnt such a lot in all sorts of ways! I have been having a number of Melba-like farewells while I am getting things together to set out up north.
I am concerned that neither of you should worry about me travelling alone for a while. I have been checking things out, and my friends have assured me that as long as I take normal precautions, and particularly as I am travelling by train, all will be well.
It would be good to have company, but that is not happening right now, and this seems the ideal time to set out, so it all feels okay to do so. It is not the first time that things have worked just as I planned, and I haven’t had cause to regret it.
When I first set out to plan the whole journey, back in 1956, when my three other pharmacist friends and I had come back from our car journey to the Barrier Reef, we promised each other that as soon as we were ready, we would all travel together to England and Europe.
However, when the time came that was right for me to leave, none of the others were ready. I somehow knew that it would not be wise to wait for them, and although I was a little nervous at the prospect of setting out by myself then, I knew it was time to go!
I haven’t had cause to regret the decision even though sometimes it has been a little bit lonely. So here I go again! And all will be well! As for safety, I can think of times back in Wagga when it felt riskier to be coming home in a car at night from a dance or one of the boozy football matches with one of the local lads at the wheel!
My final big outing before leaving was truly one to remember. A few of us went first across to Assisi, which is one of my favourite places, and drove up onto Mount Subiaco behind the city, and then down into a beautiful wooded area to a special reclusive Franciscan monastery which few of the students seemed to know about.
It is a very special place built around the cave that St Francis used to retreat to for meditation fasting, and communicating with the birds and animals. It is a beautiful old monastery built in the 14th century out of pink stone taken from Mount Subiaco, not that long after St. Francis died.
Peppino and Giorgio had made a fortnight’s retreat there some years before, and Peppi had gone there to ask for help in deciding to switch from medicine to law just as he was about to graduate. He made the switch and the decision resulted in him being one of the oldest students at the university and a natural mentor to the younger students.
The interior of the monastery had an extraordinarily timeless feeling. It had been built with a prized timber from the forest nearby known as ilex wood. Down almost the full-length of the huge refectory was the original long dining table hewn from a single huge tree complete with very long benches either side.
The table was at least 12 inches thick, a highly polished and richly coloured slab of timber. Each side has vertical curves all the way along, and I was astounded to realise that these had been worn into the wood where the fat tummies of generations of monks had rubbed against it over the centuries, creating these curved indentations. It was one of the most beautiful records of timeless continuity that I could possibly imagine!
I was deeply moved by the experience of being there where St. Francis felt so strongly present, and I was very grateful to my friends for thinking of sharing it with me. And It was just the right place for me as well to mark an ending and a new beginning!
It was also delightful to meet several of the monks who live there. They all wear brown cassocks and a cord around their waists with 3 knots in it, representing their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. One of them had only 2 knots in his cord, and I remember the boys teasing him by demanding to know which of the virtues was missing!
Afterwards, we met up with other friends and finished the evening with a delightful meal in
the garden of a little hotel overlooking beautiful Assisi.
I am ready to leave now, and will stop first of all at Florence. Its correct name is Firenze, by the way.
I don’t understand why the English have changed the names of various European cities from their original?
I will now rush this to the post with an assurance that I will keep your up-to-date regularly, even if it’s only postcards now and then.
I am grateful that you continue to be so patient and supportive of all my wanderings.
I think of you all often with much love