For 20 years I’ve been driving to Lake Garda. The past 7 from Piemonte. Riva was my first home in Europe; our flat is the size of a closet, it sits on the lake and it is heaven. Being Italy I pass through several regions, including Veneto, teasing me with signs to Venice. Just seeing the letters VENEZIA feels romantic – I can only dream of my next trip to La Serenissima.
The drive takes 4 hours with driver’s like myself and others flashing our lights at trucks intruding on the fast lane as they pass slower trucks before shifting back to the right. Trucks transporting some of the world’s finest products, including Maserati’s covered in white linen. Ferraris aren’t on trucks, they are meant to be driven and pass by, or is it through, in a whiff of red smoke. When I see signs for Modena, this is where they’re made. I also pass Cremona, home of the every precious Stradivarius. Such is a drive through a country full of artisans.
This sojourn is often predictable but this time, surreal. It’s Sunday, this sensation heightened, with few trucks. And once I turn towards Verona and begin to cut through the dramatic mountains taking me to my destination on the lake, there are even fewer cars. This is Trentino in the Red Zone. Life is quiet so what better time to listen to a podcast, or an interview, so I do. This time about the Mitford sisters. Half of the family knew Hitler and to suggest they were extremely political in an extremely political time feels redundant. One sister, Unity Valkrie Mitford, born in Swatsika, Canada, hung out with Hitler on a regular basis. She was the least compelling, and after she tried blowing her brains out when England declared war, even less so.
As I listen to Laura Thompson have a go at the sisters, having met two of them before they died, she’s slightly suprised how many young English girls still idolize Nancy. Nancy, the eldest was a fine writer, but Ms. Thompson still thinks about Diana each week. After meeting her, she forever captivates; i have to agree. Diana was ethereally beautiful, treated her time in prison as a phase, was idolized, painted, and written about by several members of The Bright Young Things, was married at Goebbels home with Hitler acting as flower girl or some such. These women were fierce. They were walking advertisements for Jean Cocteau’s mantra, “Whatever the public criticizes, cultivate; this is you.”
They exuded the kind of confidence that is rarely seen. It didn’t hurt they were living in the middle of history, of so many social, literary and political circles, almost like Gore Vidal, at a different time. Ms. Thompson can’t help but admire their confidence because it came with no apologies. It was who they were; they carried the courage of their convictions. Whether they persued communist or fascist beliefs, long after those isms were no longer in vogue – once upon a time in London and elsewhere, in the early 30’s – they were, however fleetingly, in fashion.
Listening to Thompson talk about her book, “The Six; The Mitford Sisters” reminds me of all the books I’ve read on these insanely confident women. They were loved and hates for obvious reasons, Decca, the only one to move to the States wrote a brilliant book called, “The American way of death” an expose on abuses in the funeral home industry in America. They just carried on with their issues, their politics, their way. Yet when Laura Thompson says, “Diana was the most enigmatic woman that ever lived” I think she may be on to something…
Reaching my destination and parking my car, looking around in late March, accostomed to hearing and feeling this tourist town burst into life, as the Italians prepare for an intense tourist season, as Germans descend and practically take over the town, I can’t help think how quiet it is, and how much confidence and courage it will take for all of us to get through this pandemic.
But back to Venice. When I first felt the lockdown, February 24th, of the previous year, I’ll never forget what the Venetian said, “We know many things and we know nothing at all.”
As the French say…bon courage…