The Road To Ruffoli: 2003-10-21
I wasn't sure if I would make it to Italy in one sitting as it wsa over 1000km from Prague to Florence and then still further to the town of Greve in Chianti and further still to Ruffoli where Sophie lived. Even after waking very early I didn't going till 11 or 12 and after trying to figure out yet another airometer to fill the tyres it must have gone 12:30 before actually leaving Prague. The journey was going well though, 3 countries with plenty of research and data recorded, the bike had performed without a hitch and all I needed now was a long earnt rest. After 7 years running my own business, 8 months planning this journey and then jumping straight into it, I was quite exhausted. It seemed to me that I had never really stopped running on high since I got my first proper job in the games industry 11 years ago.
I decided to skip Austria as I had no good contacts or knowledge of games there. Sorry Austria but there was nothing to aim for there. Actually I did have some contact details in Austria, curtesy of Maria Slovakova, but no luck in making actual first contact with them. So I shot through the mountains at around 10 or 11pm, through the tunnels and valleys with the occassional drizzle to keep me company, for there was seldom another soul on the road. I finally relented from the backroads and jumped on the nearest motorway. Again it seemed pointless following the minor roads when there was nothing to see at night. I was sorry not to see the impressive mountains I was passing through and could only imagine at their majesty looming around me through the inky black. I felt as if these mountains were watching me in an observational silence like cold unmouving guardians taking a great interest in this minute insignificance passing between their gigantic toes. The minor roads were slowing me down due to a very light film of water making them extreamely slippery, I must be tired but didn't let this get to me. I was fighting mind over bodily matter, denial of the cold that bit into may hands and feet and the extreame exhaustion was certainly dangerous but had become strangely addictive.
The motorway was warmer, faster with a regular supply of petrol stations and felt a whole lot safer. As I left the mountains I began to warm up, the warmest I had felt in weeks of cold roads and rooms. Apart from a strain in my right thumb growing along my arm and shoulder, the driving was going remarkably well all things considered. I never drink coffee, but I was drinking coffee at ever petrol stop to help invigorate the mind and keep the body awake for the next few hours. Just before Florence thouugh there was an almighty terrential downpour. I slowed to as little as 40kmph just to feel safe in the inch deep water, with trucks overtaking me ever so close I couldn't wait for the weather to change. My prayers were heard as I entered Florence the rain ceased and left in its wake a quite beautiful nightsky. For the life of me I couldn't remember the special route I had so often driven to Greve from here. I stopped some late night revelers on their way home, who tried to help, but I'm sure even if I knew Italien I would still have trouble understaning what they said. Besides the conversation kept pulling back to who I was and what the hell was I doing with the huge bike and tons of luggage in the middle of the night. Somehow I finanally found a road to Greve. Even though it was 5:30am and I had been riding for close to 19 hours, I took the last 20km very slowley as I relaxed in the comfort of the warm night and looking up to admire the stars and occasion moonlit cloud. I felt a deep sense of comfort from knowing I had almost reached my destination and that I was near a home away from home. I began to recognise the road with its various twists, turns and steep ups and downs. It reminded me of a time a few years past when I was driving my old mate back from late drinking in Florence and I had missed Greve altogether only to be held at gunpoint by the Caribineiri 7km outside of Sienna, but that's another story. I passed through Greve tonight knowing that I needed to find the dirt track road to Lamole and take a left up to Ruffoli a place I didn't know at all. The road to Ruffoli was a last hurdle I hadn't counted on. This was my first experience of such a road, on a huge bike loaded with all my stuff after a heavy rain had passed, it was quite a daunting task. I slipped about all over the place, but I took is steadyas ever and with the same determination to succeed that had brought me thus far this night I was damned if this road was going to get the better of me. I imagined myself falling and slipping about in the mud as a struggled to raise the bike again, but then I would shut those thoughts out again and remain fixated on the road ahead under my bright headlight. I made it! I was suitably impressed with myself and thougt this would put me in good stead for future scrambling along bad roads and piste in Africa. As per Sophies SMS instructions some 8 hours earlier I found her farmhouse and slipped in quietly with my load. The light of her livingroom entrance lamp was a welcoming sight and in the setting of a most rustic and rural of farmhouses I couldn't feel more content, that is until I found my bed. Beautifuly laid out with pillows and blankets I sunk into the expanse of the double bed spreading out my whole body to enjoy its clean cool smooth sheets. It was 6am and I was finally in bed, what bliss. You would think that I would sleep soundly for hours after my ordeal, but a symptom of my epic journey is the unrelenting buzz of information that bombards me each day. The games, the girls, the road and all that sits at it's side is all whizzing around inside keeping my mind alive. I haven't slept properly for an entire month.
The next morning I awake to the bright fresh day and sweet aromas of the Tuscab#n countryside. I love this place, I have always loved it. The last time I was gear I was lucky enough to be roped into the harvest of a small olive grove. It was December back then, so cool, but in the sun it was a pleasure to work topless feeling the sun's heat warrm my back as I worked amoungst the densly cultivated and undulating landscape. In the middle of that day we stopped for a peasent's lunch and then continued to sunset auntil the job was done. It was a most satisfying feeling, the toil of the land in my veins supported with the substantial and honest food and wine that Tuscanny has to offer. To top it all I discovered a grand piano in the house there and could play some music whilst gazing out through the small farmhouse window onto the spectacular of Chianti bellisimo! I had decided at once that this would be where and how I would retire from the stress of London life. Retirement is still a long way of for me, I won't have any money to retire on after this journey and with no obvious prospect of being able to either. This journey is all have, perhaps I should die on the completion and save myself a miserable slow death in poverty.
So now that I was up and about I decided to make my way down to Greve and meet Sophie for lunch. Sophie knew I was on a roadtip, but nothing more. So began my explanation of my exploration of games culture and sketchbook to illustrate where I had been and discovered so far. Sophie is half English half Italian, living and working in Italy with a shop in Greve as a front for her business selling trompe l'oeil and decoration for Tuscan homes and on occasion those homes of tourists who pass here every year. Sophie's work can be seen everywhere in the area on shop signs and other such manifestations, her work is unique. For 3 years I think, she was married to Tom, a very good friend to me indeed. Tom and Sophie finally split up leaving Sophie with a huge rebuild of her life's expectations, but Sophie is a true trooper and has the strength of character very few of us can make claim to. Inspite of everything she has kept a home and business running through the hard times and is attempting to turn it all around in a new business partnership with Catia, a longtime friend of hers. Like many of us Londoners, sophies works hard and parties hard. There is seldom a week that goes by whithout a visit to one or more of Florence's nightclubs. Sitting in the pizza of Greve I explained to Sophie that I was in much need of a rest from the busy life on the road and asked her tentativley if she would mind me staying on at her plave for a few weeks to recouperate and edit some of my work. Whilst n the road moving from place to place it was nigh impossible for me to find the time to stop, edit and update my website. Sophie agreed, thank god, as I'm not sure how I would have coped if I should move on so soon again.
That forst night we were invited round to Lucio's place for fine wine and food with many friends. I took to Lucio immedeately and his ever so slightly subversive undercurrent and the music of his band 'Formica', a 3 piece experimental jazz fusion outfit.
As the evening passed on I learnt about 3 very old Tuscan gaming traditions; Il Palio, Il Pozzo and Calcio Fiorentino. All 3 games seemed to have a very clear common denominator in that they all had an objective without rules and all were highly physical. Il Pozzo is for thr Tuscan people more important than Italy in world cup football, so I'm told. Essentially this is a horse race, that takes place in the main piazza of Sienna. Once every year each canton of Sienna squeezes into a segment of the piazza and puts forth their elected horse and rider, there is much pushing and shoving as spectators all fight for a place to watch, but more importantly attempt to change the outcome of the race using whatever means they may have. There are no rules, which means the riders can be bribed, beaten or horses attacked, some spectators even run out onto the course to try and stop horses mid race. The jockies themselves may fight with each other during the race or ram other horses. At the end of the day it is the first horse over the line that wins with or without a jockey. Originally strong warhorses were employed for this race, but now a more spindly thoroughbreed is used. It is particularly harrowing for the horses as they try to keep balance running along the thin layer of dust clay that covers the cobblestones of the piazza. The horses often bang against building walls and fall into crowds, breaking their legs or worse. It is a dramatic affair which ends with one canton winning the race and doing all their families proud. Il Pozzo (The Well) is also a very physical game with no rules. 2 teams of 7 players arranged in 2 concentric circles. The inner defending team oes all it can to stop the outer attacking team from placing a ball in the centre circle. Players develop physical strength not unlike that of Rugby players, but are allowed to use any tactics they may chose. You can imagine the physical violence that ensues. Finally Calcio Fiorentino, otherwise known as Calcio in Costume or Calcio Storico, is a particularly violent and physical game. Calcio Fiorentino was invented by 4 noble families of Florence who wanted to demonstrate their physical prowess. The game they invented would be played once a year in the magnificent Piazza St.Croce in Florence. 2 teams of 27 players per team per match would attempt to score as many goals as possible in the opposing teams goal mouth that would streatch across the entire width of the pitch. Again there are no rules on how to complete this task. The players may use whatever physical force or tactics they desire to score goals. As a consequence the ball can often become a secondary interest whilst players grapple, wrestle and generally ware eachother down. It was the nobles themselves who played this game inviting the common people to come and witness their physical strength and show that they were not only financially powerfull. Indeed it is an extrodinary spectacle, but the noble families no longer exist and in their place the Florentine nightclub bouncers are now the players of the game. Once a year these gorillas finally have a chance to let out all that pent up anger over the drunken spills of Florentine nightlife.
One of the friends, Simone, at the soire that night was himself a player of Il Pozzo and Calcio Fiorentino, but for now this was all I would learn of the Tuscan games, there was much eating and drinking to be done.
It's hard to believe I'm actually on this journey sometimes especially when I've only actually spent 7 days travelling on the bike. Over the last month I have been living with Sophie Rose at her beautiful farmhouse in Ruffoli and it seemed that soon after the first 2 days we found ourselves living together like a contented married couple, but purely friends ofcourse. We had our separate rooms, adjacent wash sinks and facing tiolets. We shared the common spaces, cooked, ate, drank, smoked, and watched movies together under big blankets. We took to reading by the fire on 'lovely' winter Sundays, although it was almost impossible for Sophie to get away from work or some other chore for more than a couple of hours sometimes. Sophie has been increadilbly busy; running her business, looking after her mother on Monays and trying to run a normal healthy social life is deinately bearing down on her energy and health. Whilst she is attempting to diversify her business the added strain is pushing her stress management to the limit. I truly hope for her health's sake that the business pulls through. There are very few people that I know who have the pride, scruples and self-determination that Sophie has. My daily routine over the past 4 weeks has been: wake up around the same time as Sophie, drink tea and take in the beautiful view of Tuscan misty hills and mountains, set to work editing video, image and text data of previous countries, namely Holland. Every now and again I might take a break to prepare and eat an Italian dish sitting on a stone outside under the Cyprus tress in the brisk but sunny light of the glorius days here. I would often be accompanied by 2 black cats who would follow me everywhere around the farm, in the hope of a scrap landing their way. As the day wore on I would prepare a fire and do the dishes in anticipation of Sophie's return from another day working hard at the shop.
On occasion I would venture out from the country farm house down into Greve or Panzano nerby. There are many face of old friends here and their parents too. Donald, Joyce, Cathy, Catia, Jason, Guido, Carlo, Ramma, Andrea and many more. I made friends with Sophie's Neighbours; Clement, his German girlfriend Hana, Laurent the French born Vietnamese performance artist who was obsessed with his cardboard statue of a woman with voluptuous bust, but not least of all a very beautiful Swiss girl called Lydie. Well actually Hana was tremendously beautiful too, so frustrating when they have boyfriends, but then I'm probably too old for them anyway. Age is creeping up on me. I can't believe how many grey hairs have sprouted over the last year, wrinkles showing around my eyes too. It's all very recent and very frustrating. What was very refreshing here was to be around so many artisans. Clement was in the business of restoring frescos, Hana was gilding and restoring wood on furnishings. Laurent although working hard on his sculpture was able to show us his video performance art involving much paint over body whilst enduring great effort in the process, often some sort of combat with his co-performer, David. Clement and I had a good rapport and were able to hold very lengthy in-depth conversations. By this time I have met many new friends and they have all helped to make me feel stronger, more sure of myself and my mission and that I belong somewhere. This is an important notion when you travel a lot, knowing where the ground stops and thin air starts helps give you a sense of place. Perhaps it doesn't seem so important now, but in the future I'm certain, on a journey like this that it is these friends, the memories and comforts we have shared that will pull me through the hard times.