Something to remember

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September 24th, 2009 Rrishi Raote

When travelling one is always on a search for the memorable experience. It may be a vista of snow peaks or a moon-sickle of sand, a good meal in warm company or a treasure-filled museum. Whatever precisely it is, it is something you take back with you to your humdrum life and work, and hold on to, when the holiday is over. Something of that joy and release must survive to remind us of how good we are away from the daily nonsense. In its simplest form such a memento is just that: a keepsake, an aide-memoire, a souvenir.

Since I am unencumbered with a fortune, my souvenirs are usually super-cheap, and usually on paper — maps, to be precise. In any new town, I try to purchase a map of the locality. Sometimes the search (impromptu and laid-back, it’s true), is fruitless. In tiny Foligno in autumn 1998, which to me was just a place to change trains on the way from Rome to Perugia in Italy, I asked at the railway station newsagent for a map. The nice-faced man behind the counter looked at me in surprise and said, a trifle helplessly, “We don’t have one. This town is too small.”

Now this was surprising, because every little place in Italy which boasts some history has a stiff sense of pride and a powerful local feeling. And Foligno, despite its modest size, is ancient, older even than the Buddha.

Denied a map of Foligno, I am left with a memory as a souvenir: my friend and I walked out onto the street, which led straight from the station forecourt into the heart of the old town. This was passeggiata time, the slice of evening when the Italians ditch their work gear and stroll or stand about in the chief piazza wearing their best clothes and accessories.

What a sight! Foligno was far better dressed than any other town I had seen. How unreal it was to walk through a town where nobody seemed to be working, and everyone looked like a millionaire, or a millionaire’s girlfriend. Even the dogs were beautifully dressed and groomed, and all were kept on such a tight leash by their masters and mistresses that they had to stand straight, or be throttled. In the neighbourhood of such perfection I was quite content to be drab and travel-stained, secure in my inferiority.

I then formulated the following Rule of Italian Culture: “The smaller the town, the better-dressed the people.” I suppose there was also the underlying memory of the Lucknow of my childhood, where chikan, chiffon and fine cotton suits were the norm among the classes. It must be a universal rule. How many people in their 20s can claim to have divined a universal rule of sociology all on their own?

Anyway, that was the memory I saved from Foligno. On a recent trip to Uttarakhand, by contrast, with no local maps to be had, I had to content myself with an eye-catching pebble. Its mica surfaces are winking at me right now from this desk.

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