Escape from the Mountain Parts 3 and 4

The last time I left you we had returned from our second weekend away and were facing into our third week on The Mountain. Week three wasn’t easy. It was difficult to see an end to our captivity and the toughest week of the course is always Week Three. If my friend and I were going to fall out, it was this week. Luckily, we’re both lovely and it was fine. We were also living for the weekend. The obvious place to visit would have been Venice, but that was too dear, so we decided to go for a weekend in Treviso instead.

Treviso is a rich town with old buildings and pretty canals, just like Venice but an awful lot smaller and less Venice-y. We arrived in the hopes of good food and relaxation. Our hopes were fulfilled.

As we left the station, we came across a birreria. It served an enormous plate of many meats, fried, cured, roasted, smoked and sausagised, polenta, melted cheese and a tiny portion of salad. I’ll have their food pyramid please.

It was late that night when we got to our hotel. To get there we had to pass the local lads in the town. Italian young people are very innocent. The eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds were spending their Friday night sitting on the steps of a church eating ice cream, no one was drunk and no one was shouting or singing. I wanted to acknowledge their innocence by patting their heads and squeezing their cheeks but I managed to hold myself back.

Hotel Ca Del Galletto, which translates as Cock Hotel, was gloriously old-fashioned. It takes its name seriously. Everywhere you look, there are pictures of roosters. There is a large ceramic rooster at reception that is frankly terrifying. All the hotel napkins, note paper, glasses and toiletries are all engraved or embossed with a picture of a rooster.

The place feels a bit 1920s. And also a bit 1960s. I can imagine James Bond staying here, but Bond as played by Connery. The carpet had seen better days, but that was OK because a piece of freshly-ironed white material lay on the floor beside the bed. After a discussion with my friend we decided that the only possible function this piece of material could have was to give us somewhere to stand when we got out of bed in the mornings, as we were clearly too posh to have our feet touch carpet. There was no shortage of carpet. The doors all had green carpet on them, like someone had upended snooker tables and used them as doors. And many of the walls were covered in beige felt. There were no smoking signs everywhere, but the hotel stank of years and years of smoke. I imagine it would be hard to get the smell of 50 years of smoke out of a building that’s mainly made of fabric.

One of the reasons we were excited about the hotel was a pair of reviews from an annoyed couple on tripadvisor which are just art:

“Receptionists keep on pushing you hundred times a day, asking whether you want or not to purchase breakfast for the morning (if not included). You must predict the way you wake up in the morning and say yes or no in advance. Changing your mind afterwards is apparently considered a crime.”

“*PS. MY FIRST COMMENT WHICH CONTAINED THEIR ACTUAL NAMES AND DETAILS HAD TO BE REMOVED BY ME, AS I HAVE RECEIVED A PRIVATE MESSAGE FROM THE HOTEL STAFF ON TRIPADVISOR HARASSING ME AND THREATENING TO SUE ME. UNACCEPTABLE ATTITUDE!”

“I didn’t book my room with the breakfast, so during the day they had pushed me to add or not the breakfast and once that I added it seems that I cannot change my mind. On the second day I added the BF during the day and I when was 10ish pm I asked to cancel the breakfast as I bought some stuff for myself and my boyfriend. So we saw the receptionist face as we were doing something wrong. The receptionist was very rude saying that will be not possible to cancel anymore, because was very late. We were just wondering and we couldn’t finish a phrase as the guy always jump on the middle saying that we have asked for breakfast already. In the end he cancel, but with very rude movements. All the time when you ask for something they acting as a robot without empathy, smile and with rudeness. For two nights we left the Do Not Disturb sign on our door, but the housekeeping just ignored that. I just wake up and a guy was knocking the door to check the minibar, but the Do not Disturb sign was there… Seriously I do not know what’s the point for it. I do not recommend this place for anybody. You feel as you are bothering some people on their houses, but the reality we paid for it we do not stay there for free. Is not a favor!”

Unfortunately, we had booked with breakfast included, so we didn’t come under the extreme pressure this couple did to add breakfast to our bill. I would have enjoyed seeing what exactly their breakfast-pressuring tactics were. The housekeeping staff also didn’t disturb us. Well, not really. They did phone us to find out what time we’d be out of the rooms so that they could clean, which was a little strange.

While we got out of the way of the cleaners we went to see Treviso, which was pretty, and to eat lunch, which was epic. We also saw Treviso’s only tourist attraction: a fountain of a lady where the water shot out of her nipples, like some form of extreme lactation. A sign at the fountain even claimed that the water was drinkable. We decided not to suckle.

That afternoon I was going to go to Venice for a few hours to see a friend of mine from Cork. This would be the first time that my friend who lived on the mountain with me and I would be apart for the last three weeks. It was weird. We said goodbye and I left her to her own devices for the afternoon.

I knew how to get to the train station from the bridge we parted at. I swear I do. I had to walk straight on for about two minutes and the station would be in front of me. Simple.

Simple for anyone else. I walked straight on. But there was a roundabout. And straight on from a roundabout has always confused me. Once I’m on a roundabout, every direction is kind of straight ahead. I confidently headed towards what looked familiar and went through an archway. I didn’t remember the archway, but there are lots of arches in Italy so that didn’t bother me. Suddenly, I emerged onto a main road. I didn’t remember a main road from when we had been at the station the evening before, so I was about to turn back. Then I saw a sign for the station. What could possibly go wrong? I followed the sign.

Having walked for five minutes, I still couldn’t see the station. I thought this was odd, but then saw another sign and followed it. 50 minutes later, I was still on this main road, following signs for the station. And then, I found myself somewhere familiar, the crossroads for our hotel. I was on the opposite side of the city from the station. I had been following a ring road that evidently only went one way and every sign for the station I had followed took me further and further away.

This was very embarrassing. I’d spent an hour doing a two-minute walk and had ended up on the opposite side of the city. I had blisters on my feet and friction burns on my thighs. Luckily, I didn’t know anyone in Treviso. Except for one person. My friend. Who I’d said goodbye to an hour before. So long as I didn’t meet her, no one would ever have to know. Less than a minute after having this thought, I met my friend. She thought I was in Venice and reacted to me as if I was a ghost. Once I told her what had happened, she had a good laugh. As did I.

I was back on the right track. I went back through the town centre, went straight through the roundabout and found the train station in twenty minutes.

Of course, all of this meant that I was considerably later arriving into Venice than I’d told my friend I would be. I had texted him to tell him what time I’d arrive there, well over two hours after I had originally said. My friend is a calm sort, who I can never remember being annoyed with me, but I was a little worried given that I’d texted three different arrival times and no doubt ruined his afternoon. This was complicated by the fact that, while I could text him, his Italian phone couldn’t send messages to my Irish one. I looked around the station for him and couldn’t see him. I stood on the steps in front of Venice station, one of the most incredible places I know, lots and lots of marble steps leading down to a wide canal, full of gondolas, boat buses and boat taxis, with beautiful bridges and buildings everywhere. I couldn’t see my friend. In the Venetian twilight, everyone looked kind of like him. Damn him for being of normal height and build! He’s also someone who it’s hard to keep an eye out for because he likes surprising people, so while I was looking for him I had to keep twisting around to surveil a full 360 degrees. He’s someone who I can genuinely imagine following me around for a full hour to find the perfect opportunity to surprise me. I kept looking. I was afraid to text or phone him because I was so late that I thought he might be annoyed with me. We ended up both searching the station for almost 40 minutes before finding each other.

I only had about four hours in Venice before the last train was due to leave. We went to a cute little restaurant not very far from the station. It was very Italian, run and staffed by a mother and her two daughters. The mother was in charge in the kitchen, and the daughters were in charge in the front. However, neither of the daughters spoke any foreign languages and the mother spoke French, Spanish and English. This meant that she was in high demand for the whole time we were there and she basically did all the work on the restaurant floor as well as the kitchen. After all, this was Venice and this was near the station. There were very few actual Italians there for the daughters to take orders from.

The restaurant was packed and had far too many tables for the space available. Everything was a tight squeeze before I arrived. They tried to suggest that I take a seat by the window, where someone of my girth wouldn’t be in the way, but I couldn’t fit between any tables in order to get to an out-of-the-way chair so I had to sit in the middle of the restaurant, blocking the main artery for the waitresses to get past. This meant that we had to pass dishes to the table next to us from the waitress. It also meant that one of the waitresses and I became intimate: her hands were all over me as she climbed over me at one stage to get to another table. The whole experience was delightfully warm and we’re-all-in-this-together-ish, as people passed plates for each other and translations were shouted across the room. There was also a dog running around the whole time, for added “authenticity”.

After this, we went for a drink. In the most hipster bar in the world. It was all old with mismatched furniture. We sat next to a piano covered in doilies. There were sofas and bookcases. And some entirely unnecessary candlesticks. There were Chinese paper decorations hanging from the ceilings. There were men in funny hats and a man with a preposterous beard. There was a woman breastfeeding on a sofa. So hipster it hurt.

We got ice-creams and I got the last train back to Treviso and slept well.

The next day, after a leisurely morning in Treviso, where we managed to avoid getting attacked by vicious pigeons, in spite of their best efforts, we got the train to Vicenza to spend a few hours there before heading back to the Mountain.

Vicenza, like Verona had been, was a big surprise for me. It’s phenomenally beautiful. And if you like columns, then go to Vicenza. They do a good column.

We sat in the main square, drinking passion-fruit spritzes and luxuriating in the loveliness of Vicenza. But the dread had begun to creep in. We knew we had to go back to the Mountain.

We went to the train station, and sat resignedly down in our train, ready to go “home”. We always talked less on the way back after our weekends than we did on our way there. As we got further into the countryside, it became clear that all the train stations had their lights switched off. There was no way of telling which station was which. We stopped at one station at around the time we were due in. We looked out the windows and couldn’t see anything. I half-stood and so did my friend. I said “This can’t be it. We’re not due for another four minutes.” We both sat down.

I think we both knew this was our stop. I think we decided to miss it deliberately. But it was subconscious. I didn’t know that I knew it was our stop. I think the same applied to my friend. We left the town drift by serenely, like Thelma and Louise sailing off the cliff.

And we relaxed. We wouldn’t be back on the Mountain for at least another hour. For the second weekend in a row, we had stolen time away from the Mountain at the very last minute of our weekend.

We texted our colleague, who had been delegated by our boss and landlady to collect us from the station and take us to the Mountain. We had to get off our train and get a train back to the town we worked in. We stopped for takeaway pizza (pizza is something the Italians designate “healthy food”) and went “home” to the Mountain.

The next day, Monday of our final week, was probably our darkest day of the whole four weeks, but once Tuesday came we could see the finish line and time began to fly. Other than when we were in bed, we spent almost no time on the Mountain, I was particularly delighted that I didn’t have to venture into my boss’s bedroom once in the final week to do laundry. I had exactly enough underpants to last me until the day we flew home.

On the last day of the course we went to a pizzeria near the school, with the people we’d been training, as well as a few of the teachers from the school and our boss. It was a fairly simple place, we were eating in a tent in the back garden of the pizzeria. The place was called “Mago”, which means magician, and I didn’t think much about it.

As it turns out, I should have thought about it. The pizzeria had an in-house magician. He was going from table to table doing tricks. Now usually I hate this kind of thing. I’ve been known to leave a restaurant because live music started up. Not this time though.

The magician came to our table and started doing tricks. Coins appeared from behind ears. Little red balls appeared from thin air. I couldn’t see how he did his tricks and was spellbound. Yes, SPELLbound.

He needed a glamorous assistant and who better than me? He had an American silver half-dollar. He made me feel it. And bang it. And rub it. And the suddenly, there were two coins. HE’D DONE MAGIC WITH MY HANDS. I don’t think anyone over the age of nine is capable of being as impressed as I was by his tricks. I became his assistant for trick after trick. I blew on his hand. I picked a card, any card. I tapped on the table. I showed the card to the audience. I threw the cards in the air. I held little balls in my hand. I turned cards over. I tapped things. I said the magic word. I counted. I held his magic wand, which went limp every time I held it, but went rigid whenever he held it. I picked a card, any card again. And again. And again. It was magic. Actual magic. And I persisted in being amazed. At one stage he moved on and started using my friend as his guinea pig, but she didn’t quite have my air of gormless delight and he soon switched back to me. I was the Debbie McGee to his Paul Daniels! At the end of the show, I turned to the trainee teachers who had clustered behind me and said, with as corny a wink as I could summon, that I wasn’t used to being anyone’s straight man.

It was a great ending to my time in Italy. Now I will think twice about going to pizzerias that don’t have in-house magicians.

The next morning, my boss’s husband drove us to Vicenza so we could catch a train and then another one and then a bus and then a plane.

I believe in “Never say never” but I can tell you for sure that I’ll never be back at the Mountain ever again. Never.

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