Mountainy Man

The last time I left you I had landed in Italy after the scariest flight of my life.

I met my colleague (who is also an old friend) who had flown from a different airport and waited for our new boss, who had offered to drive us the two and a bit hours from the airport to where we were to stay for the month. She is a lively and bubbly woman, very kind, and given to dropping the names of English Language Teaching celebrities who I pretend to have heard of.

Usually, when I travel abroad for courses, I have a flat of my own. There was the one in Ljubljana this summer, where I broke both beds. There was the one in Russia, on the 17th floor, where I had sporadic access to water and a pillow that disgorged feathers into my mouth every night. There was the one in Strasbourg, with the malfunctioning electric toilet and elusive young landlord, and there was the one the first time I was in Ljubljana, with the wardrobe full of climbing harnesses and the Vaseline in the fridge.

When I was negotiating my fee for this course, the only one of my requests that was refused was for an apartment of my own. I was asked if I would be willing to share an apartment with my co-tutor. I don’t really like living with people, but she’s lovely, so I was OK with that. The apartment was to be the ground floor of my boss’s house, and we were told it was 20 minutes from school, that we would have our own separate entrance, our own bedrooms, wifi, a washing machine and dryer and so forth. At first, we stood our ground, insisting that we should be based near the school and that we would have our own place, but the boss pleaded with us. It is the school’s first time running this course and they were worried about costs and the flat at the owner’s place was really amazing and please, please, please would we take it. We cracked and said yes.

You have no idea how much we have regretted this.

As we neared the house, my colleague whispered to me that we were in the middle of nowhere. In fact, we were on the outskirts of nowhere. On the side of a mountain, at the edge of a village no one has ever heard of, which is outside a town no one has ever heard of. We were pulling into the driveway as the owner cheerily said, “I hope you don’t mind dogs!” I do. Especially big dogs. There were two enormous black dogs that leapt at the car as we parked. They were awfully excited. And really, really big. They had teeth and they barked and they appeared to be very friendly. If you don’t like dogs, then you really don’t like friendly dogs. The pant and lick and nuzzle and look for attention and all I see is my own fear of death reflected in their big dopey, friendly eyes.

The owner cheerily told us that they’d been too lazy to move everything around, so she (our employer, the owner of the school where we were working) and her family would be living in the little basement flat, while my friend and I would have the main house. Hmm.

We saw where we’d be living. I really can’t describe how odd it is. We have a really large kitchen to ourselves. A big bathroom. A big living room. And it’s entirely full of the owner’s family’s stuff. Bursting with 25 years of possessions. Everywhere. It was clear that the family had left the place in a hurry and hadn’t cleared everything out. There’s tooth floss above the kitchen sink. Cupboards full of ware and dried goods. A drinks cabinet. Knick knacks everywhere. The bathroom is like Pompeii, in that the family seem to have been interrupted using it all of a sudden. It is brimming with open and half empty bottles of lotions, potions, shampoos and mucus sprays. There’s a lone nylon pop sock hanging from my bedroom table.

The bedrooms. Oh, the bedrooms.

My bedroom is the house’s master bedroom. It is where my boss and her husband usually sleep. I have a large double bed. Everything in the room is made of wicker. It’s like sleeping in a giant basket. Except it’s lizard themed. One of the shelves in the room is teeming with models of lizards (and iguanas and chameleons and the like). From where I’m lying right now, I can count nineteen lizards. The bedspread has a massive lizard in the centre. The room is full of my boss and her husband’s clothes, as well as countless family photos, mainly of the children when they were babies, mainly naked. One morning, after my shower, I knocked one of the photos and a whole shelf of photos fell over like cherubic dominos.

My co-tutor’s room, however, is the real pièce de résistance of our mountainside home. She is staying in a room of one of the sons. She has to climb to get into her bed. It’s a top bunk. There is no bottom bunk. There’s a desk underneath, where I suppose she’s supposed to do her homework. The son who lived there is an artist and has decorated his room with a number of terrifying works of art, including a blue box with a malevolent face, who leers out of the wall thinking evil thoughts, and a giant portrait of a bunny rabbit skeleton. On the desk, there’s a tank, that we learned used to belong to the family’s deceased chameleon. The tank is home to the stick insect colony. There are two older stick insects. A few middle-aged stick insects. And lots of tiny baby stick insects, all living in my colleague’s bedroom. One of our early encounters with our boss’s husband was when he rushed up the stairs from the basement with an escaped baby stick insect in his hand. On inspection, we found that the tank was far from impermeable, and there were quite a few escaped baby stick insects running around her bedroom.

The owner has mothered us. We had our shopping done for us when we arrived, she cooked dinner for us the first two evenings we were there and she gives us lifts everywhere. This is essential, because there is no escape from the mountain. When we had been told that we’d be staying 20 minutes from school, I had imagined a flat in a suburb, from where we could get a bus to town. No. We are in the back-arse-end of Italy. Our mountain is far away. It’s far away from whatever reference point you might choose to mention. It’s a twenty-minute drive to work. The town where we work is also small, but at least it’s big enough to have a language school. When we’re on the mountain, we sometimes talk of this town like it’s New York or Tokyo. According to GoogleMaps, it’s over a two-hour walk away.

The “regular” bus service stops running at 6:20 pm.

We are like children again, dependent on Mammy for lifts. If Mammy isn’t at work, we have her husband’s phone number, so we can ring Daddy for a lift home. Sometimes, the school secretary or one of the other staff will arrange for a lift for us. We are like one of Madonna’s Malawian children, being coddled with suffocating and well-intentioned kindness.

We only realise how strange the situation is when we talk to other people. We are both professionals, on business travel, in our mid-thirties. We both trained for this and have been approved by assessors from the University of Cambridge. If we were to do this job in many other parts of the world, we would have our own hotel room each, and in others our own apartment each. It’s different here.

  • One person said, “At least you have your own key”. We don’t. The key stays in the front door. It’s the countryside. Why would they lock it? But at least when the family need something in their house, they do knock.
  • My mother said, “At least you can go for a walk”. Not really. We’d need to ask permission. The gates are electronically locked. The huge dogs must be kept inside, because the neighbours “used to have a rabbit”. Once we’re in, we stay in.
  • “At least you have your own bedroom”. My colleague replied that she left it open, so that the owner’s husband could come in and feed the stick insects.
  • “It must be very peaceful and beautiful”. It isn’t. There’s a factory at the bottom of the mountain. And it’s usually foggy anyway. And we’re next to a church. The church bells ring every half an hour. All day AND all night. When the church bells ring, the dogs howl. They howl.

And it’s not just stick insects and big dogs. There are two budgies in a cage downstairs. The owner apologised for the fact that they were in a cage. She doesn’t like putting birds in cages, but her sons do. I was delighted that the birds were in a cage. I may be afraid of big friendly dogs, but it is nothing compared to my terror of birds. Birds have wings, and crucially, birds have beaks. I know that all birds are out to get me and peck my eyes out with their beaks. I just know it.

The last member of the household is a cat. On one of our first nights in the house, the cat opened my bedroom door. Thankfully, I didn’t notice it. I’m not really a cat person. (I like pictures of animals, but I don’t really like animals themselves. I prefer people.) My colleague was woken by the cat and sent her back downstairs to the cramped basement flat the owner and her family are confined to for our benefit. The cat is a disturbed-looking creature with wild eyes, who you just know has seen some crazy shit in her past.

We are sometimes invited to the basement flat for food, and we also go there to do our washing. The washing machine and dryer are in a bathroom that is essentially the en suite of the bedroom the owner and her husband are sleeping in while I have the master bedroom. Last night we loaded and unloaded our washing under the eye of the owner’s husband. He and I averted our eyes while my colleague was unloading her delicates.

That’s how life is on the mountain.

On the second day on the mountain, the owner drove us to see the school. Finally! A trip to the town where we were working! Civilisation! We parked in a vast empty concrete space. Had we broken down? Got lost? Were we stopping for a rest? No. This was it. The school is in a large industrial estate on the edge of town. There are no people, other than the people who work in the school. And the people in the cheese shop next door. Other than that, it’s just us and the tumbleweed. The school has a red phone box at the door, because people learn English there. It’s a very lovely place.

The working days were fine, but we pined for escape. One evening, when the owner lent the car to my colleague, we were able to go into the centre of town and have a meal in a restaurant. We tasted freedom and we loved it. We began plotting our escape.

I’ll write about the escape soon.

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