The landing of the plane in Perugia was one on the bumpiest I had experienced, and was followed by a recorded bugle that reminded us that Ryanair had once again met its targets of punctuality. Well done Ryanair, you nearly killed us, but at least you did it with perfect timing. Minutes later, having survived that kind of taxi ride that only visitors to Cairo can properly appreciate, I was checked in to a wonderfully ancient hotel in the centre of the city. After struggling to manipulate the heating system with a remote control for about half an hour, and having searched in vain for a kettle and tea bag, I settled down and contemplated the evening meal that would satisfy my hunger after a period of self-induced starvation caused by flying the world’s favourite no-frills airline.
The centre of Perugia was strangely quiet, with several restaurants closed, but I eventually found a nice looking place up a dingy alley. Walking in, I asked for a table for one, which seemed to displease the waitress. She looked at me with that mixture of hostility and pity that made me feel that I must be entering a pornographic cinema wearing a stained overcoat. I was seated and given a special menu – all for 30 Euros – decorated with pink hearts, and realized that it was of course St Valentine’s Day, and to eat alone was an admission of utter failure as a member of the human race. Looking around, it did indeed seem that the tables were occupied exclusively by couples. But on closer inspection I realized that one couple was a middle-aged woman with an iron-like grin as she flattered and humoured a man old enough to be her father, who he undoubtedly was. Another couple consisted of a young woman who repeatedly smoothed her bald partner’s head. I suppose there’s no law against it. And another couple consisted of some well-dressed young men with rather too much bling for my liking. By the time I had finished my mixed salad, pizza and half bottle of something red, the waitress had seemingly changed in her feelings of disgust and smiled at me in the way a daughter does to her father on Christmas Day. I was grateful for that, left the restaurant and started the short walk back to the hotel, noticing ruefully that the Teatro had some time ago started its production of ‘La Traviata’.
The following day, I tried a place called al Mangiar Bene, which promised well. It was reached by a precipitous staircase that convinced me that disabled people either don’t exist in Italy, or they never eat out. Seated at a delightful table under a vaulted ceiling made from Etruscan bricks, I had few causes to complain. Having mediocre German, rather poor French, even worse Spanish and Italian, barely recognizable Swahili and non-existent 143 other languages, I seemed to make a veritable hash of making my intentions understood. For some inexplicable reason, I ended up with some extremely harsh red wine in a litre jug, having ordered a quantity that was called mezzo, when I really required piccolo, and a vast supply of expensive water. On seeing that the wine was far too much for me to drink without serious consequences, I sighed, but when the waiter arrived and asked if the wine was what I wanted I instinctively said ‘yes’, when what I meant was ‘no’, which is what Englishmen do when they don’t want to cause a fuss. To my surprise, I added the word belissimo, to indicate my great delight at the wine rather than a more subdued acceptance. So the waiter must have been equally surprised when I left half of it in the pitcher.
Opposite me in the al Mangiar Bene was a man with a forehead that managed to achieve an exact right angle bend, whereas the young man he was dining with had a more rounded and inclined forehead beneath a luxuriant growth of black hair. They were most abstemious in their eating and in particular in their drinking. When delivered with a singular bottle of beer, the older man inspected it by peering over his spectacles at the label as if it were some première cru. Having satisfied himself about the credentials of the bottle of beer, he filled his glass and then reached for his dining partner’s glass, and would you believe it, filled it with an inch of foam, which evidently didn’t strike the recipient as being at all curious. You notice things like this when you are eating out solo. I speculated silently that this was a father and son, the latter a student at the University of Perugia, the former having divorced acrimoniously from his wife, who gave the son his normal forehead. No doubt the son was grateful to his mother for this genetic gift, and somewhat angry at, but resigned to, the poor relationship he had with his father. They left the restaurant hurriedly, and nearly caught me up as I climbed the staircase to the Corso Vannucci, which had turned into a cathedral-like quietness, lit by dimly yellow streetlights, with a background clickety noise of footsteps and muffled conversations. The Teatro was closed, and the colourful poster advertising ‘La Traviata’ had been taken down. It was only in the absence of the poster that I contemplated it, and I recalled that it was illustrated with a square-shouldered woman with long flowing hair and a low cut dress. Her head was deliberately slanted, as if looking at a mouse behind her right heel, which seemed to add a great deal to her demeanour.
The following morning the watery sun and the translucent walls were replaced by the irregular drips of rain from the clay-tiled roofs distantly, but vertically, above me, and the narrow alleys were engulfed in a grey dampness. I was forced to hurry to the University precinct rather than listening to people’s lives reflected off the old stucco walls and travertine slabs. Distances were foreshortened and sounds swallowed up by the heavy shroud over this city on the hill. It was still raining as that evening I searched for somewhere to dine, conscious that I wanted to leave the posh and commensurately expensive La Taverna to the last evening, when I judged that I would not object to paying a packet (or parcel) for a few ravioli sitting in an exquisite creamy sauce like a pile of little suitcases hurled off a no-frills flight onto a wet runway. But adventurousness surrendered quickly to the practicalities of a raging hunger, and I descended the now-familiar staircase to the al Mangiar Bene, where I felt confident that I would not be eyed up and down with suspicion – the key to successful eating out solo.
For those followers of fashion, I should inform you that the colour in Italy this season is black. Black shoes, black sweaters, black quilted coats and black shiny jackets, and black-dyed hair. Even priests in the Roman Catholic Church seem to be following it. Some Italians wear fur-lined hooded coats that suggest they are preparing for a few months at the South Pole. Instead they are making their way through some heavy drizzle, dodging the puddles accumulating on the irregular flags of sandstone edged with porous travertine, and trudging up and down the red brick floors of stair-cased alleys that connect the centro to the world beyond the museum with its endless early Renaissance masterpieces, the lofty church, the square with its fountain. They walk head-down over the thousand year-old steps. Their lives are suspended in time, as are our own, like the frozen picture of an arrow, propelled from an unseen bow and directed at an unseen target.
My second visit to the restaurant allowed me to ponder anew on the virtues of pasta, since the slurpy tagliatelle with tomato sauce of the previous evening had been replaced by a bowl of rubbery rigatoni looking like a pile of severed human fingers. I concluded that one’s choice of pasta is critically dependent on whom you are dining with and what you are wearing. I would definitely avoid the long splattery variety if having a first date while wearing a white suit and a pink tie. This being unlikely in my case, I would extend the advice to the wearing of a dinner jacket and bow tie surmounting a frilly shirt-front. In such a case, definitely go for the dismembered digits, irrespective of whether your dining partner is your first date or your last.
Ten metres from my table was surely a twin of the Italian manager of the England football team. He had a superb head of (black) hair, though his face was lined, and his square jaw seemed hewn from stone. On the adjacent table a youngish man with a designer stubble to die for, and those fashionable spectacles that Italians tend to wear, was having dinner with a cross-eyed woman with hair pulled back a little too tightly into a pony tail, but who had a natural smile. Their occasional intimacies, as she lightly touched his forearm during conversation, suggested that they were newly acquainted, and they seemed delighted in each other’s company. They paid their bill, I mine, and as I walked up the staircase a discreet distance behind them, I noticed that they were arm in arm, he with his stubble and she with her squint.
As it happened, the visit to the La Taverna was precluded by a fairly serious bout of lack of ambition, which I find is quite common 4 days into an excursion. Two hours previously, I was having my photograph taken with a group of African geologists, having signed their course notes with ‘best wishes, Philip’. This didn’t prevent me from going to the La Taverna, but having ended up by some quirk of fate with three panini at lunchtime instead of one, I had felt obliged to consume one in my hotel room whilst struggling with the remote control. My appetite collapsed, and my final night in Perugia was spent half-looking at a game of football on the TV and half-observing a group of Chinese visitors navigate their way through meals that they had ordered with speculation and a good deal of apprehension. ‘Spaghetti’ seemed to be a word that they were all familiar with. Fair play. After all, we were all in the same boat, they as three couples and I eating solo.