E incomincia la seconda, nella quale, sotto il reggimento di Filomena, si ragiona di chi, da diverse cose infestato, sia oltre alla sua speranza riuscito a lieto fine.
It doesn’t often happen to be able to fit in a quote from Otto von Bismarck, the moustached Prussian heavyweight… but today the rule book has flown out of the window and I can not only quote Otto but – hold on to your socks – misquote him.
“God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and those who lack good judgement.”
Day 2 of the Decameron is indeed dedicated to those who have a bad day – sometimes through no fault of their own, but often due to their imbecility – and, against all odds, manage to save their bacon. Amongst all of them, my favourite story is the one of Andreuccio da Perugia. He’s a horse trader, who – having heard of the great bargains to be made there – makes the fateful decision of going to Naples alone with 500 golden florins. Doing the mistake that is perpetuated daily by millions of muppets worldwide, he makes the point of flaunting his riches around. The inevitable happens: he is swindled by a voluptuous Sicilian, Fiordaliso, who pretends to be his sister, falls into a manure pit, almost drowns in a well, joins a gang of thieves who are planning to rob the tomb of a rich archbishop, ends up locked in the sarcophagus and, by sheer luck, ends up getting out of that pickle with a reward that will make him forget all his misadventures.
This is also my story. I haven’t robbed tombs and I haven’t been to Naples to buy horses, but I, too, have walked into something utterly unprepared, have found myself in a heap of trouble and, like Andreuccio, lived through it and emerged from it unscathed and marginally wiser. But let’s start from the beginning.
The year is 2010. Yours truly is finishing his Master’s Degree: all exams done, all extra-curricular activities completed, the little booklet where grades are annotated has been stamped “COMPLETED”. All that remains to do is the so-called Discussione. For those of you who’ve never done an advanced degree in Italy, first of all congrats; secondly, you might need an explanation.
Part and parcel of a degree is the preparation of a dissertation. Normally it’s 2-300 pages long, excessively boring and most probably will never be read by anyone, including the writer. Said dissertation will then be exposed – or discussed – in front of a hemicycle of professors whose degree of interaction will oscillate from foaming outrage to apparent death. Then everyone will bugger off, professors will mark the performance, the applicant will be called back in the room, given a mark and the partying will begin.
In my case, the Master’s was a door to another course, an MBA in which I invested all my savings. No Master’s, no MBA, no career as I have it today (whether it’s a good or bad thing I’ll ask myself another time). So there was a lot riding on it.
It’s just obvious, then, that I was to be going abroad the weekend before the opening of the graduation window, right? Of course it was. But, I was thinking, the ‘window’ was 3 weeks long and applicants would be called in alphabetical order starting from a randomly chosen letter. Based on the scientific evidence of years of school (never been called first), I decided not to worry about it. Lo and behold, the week before the trip my relator gleefully announced that I was to pass the gauntlet at 15.30 on a Monday, on the first day of the window.
What to do? Ditch the trip? Of course not. First, it was all already committed to and, hey, money is money. Second, it was quite an event: going to Dundee to see a coursemate, then an evening concert in Edinburgh, Interpol as the headliners. Only an idiot would pass on it… or so I thought.
Scotland welcomed me with its usual treasure chest of whisky, impenetrable accents, friendliness and icy weather. We bagged an unexpected treat on St. Andrew’s Day in St. Andrews where the Red Hot Chili Pipers (I shit you not) inflamed a crowd huddled beneath a circus tent whilst a blizzard raged outside. Interpol, too, were amazing. What was slightly less amusing was to wake up on Sunday in Edinburgh, the day before the graduation, to see a huge hostel dorm room filled with snoring people and, beyond the windows, a few inches of snow.
Now, everywhere else I’d been in the Northern Hemisphere a 10-cm snowfall would’ve been cause for, at most, celebration from kids and not much more than a little bit of a delay on the ring roads. Maybe a few crumpled bumpers for those Audi drivers who like to tailgate people on the fast lanes, but that’s it.
Not in the UK.
The entire airport stood as if frozen. Ground staff milled about in disbelief, looking at the white fluffy stuff (now melting away as a brilliant sun had emerged from the clouds), at themselves, then again at the snow. A car drove up and down the apron where dozens of planes waited patiently for something to happen. Then, over the tannoy, somebody cleared his voice and croaked what everyone, by then, had figured out. The airport was closed, would everyone please piss off.
A monumental queue unrolled outside the EasyJet ticket office where a lonesome and much harried lady was repeating what a pre-registered message kept on repeating on the loudspeakers: pick up your bags, go online, and get lost. Sensing that queuing wasn’t much of an option I hopped back to the bus back to Edinburgh. On the way there I cobbled together a plan: clearly, the flight was toast. My best chance was to head to London, 400 miles south, and grab the first available flight for Monday morning and, then, scramble as quickly as possible to Turin, hoping along the way to be able to grab a suit, a tie and my notes. Those were the days before iPhones, mind you, when 3G was still science fiction. Having failed to find an internet café, I reverted to the next best. Call home.
To say that the call caused a bit of a stir would be an understatement. The phone was picked up by my mother who, in true Italian fashion, proceeded to call me an absolute idiot – not without reason – and that I was properly up the creek without a paddle, something that I was by then very well aware of. Eventually the phone landed in the hands of my brother and, with a minimum amount of swearing, we succeeded in creating a virtual debit card, navigate to the Ryanair website and book the first flight of the day from Stansted to Bergamo. All I needed to do was to find a way to bridge the gap between where I was to where I needed to be. Having grabbed an eye-wateringly expensive East Coast train ticket to London I settled in for what promised to be a relaxing journey south, with perhaps the opportunity of a pint in town before heading over to Stansted.
Not so quick, genius.
Snow had thawed but something about it still slowed us. First it was ice on the power cables. Then, outside York, another convoy had broken down. Then, right before Doncaster, we stopped again. As the minutes became hours the conductor – a plump and jovial man looking very much like the chap that adorns the side of Megabus – tried, and failed, to understand what the hell was going on. “I can see a lot of people doing things outside but I’ll be honest, I haven’t the foggiest about what they’re up to”. By the time I arrived at Stansted airport, having bailed at Peterborough and having nabbed the very last train to the airport, it was almost midnight. There, I managed to book a high speed train from Milan to Turin and a bus from Bergamo (which Ryanair had the gall to call “Milan”) and the city proper. Unsettled by such carefree squandering after years of almost religious penny-pinching, some alarms triggered deep in the data centre of my bank and, with the brevity of an SMS, I was told that my card was blocked. I had €10 and £20 in my pockets.
Due to a long and illustrious career in flying stand-by and missing flights, I’ve developed an extensive body of knowledge about sleeping in airports: from the height of this experience I can safely proclaim that a night spent huddled around your backpack on the cold tiled floor of Stansted, sandwiched between a shuttered coffee shop and a WHSmith, is the absolute pits.
Eventually, long before dawn was due to arrive, I got ready to go, wash with whatever was available ( a miniature shampoo and a bottle of water, which turned out to be sparkling) and catch my flight. As I was heading for the loos for my hobo ablutions a cop ran after me. He thrusted my wallet, phone and passport in my hands, saying “They fell out of your pockets earlier mate”. I walked in the first cubicle not daring to think at the consequences of anyone less nice, or alert, than that officer crossing my path.
The flight was at silly o’clock and landed in Bergamo with a fanfare of trumpets and that voice, in thick Dooblin accent, heralding another on-time Ryanair arrival. From there, everything went like clockwork, like a split-screen movie with a running stopwatch on the left and the action on the right – a drive on an A4 motorway where no one had crashed into someone else and the fast train to Turin with its load of suited-and-booted go-getters. Waiting for me at the station were Better Half and my flatmate who admirably collected all the paraphernalia I required to be capable of standing in front of a bunch of mildly bored university barons to explain why the EU had actorship in the civil aviation industry. Riveting.
My allotted time was early in the afternoon; by the time we arrived there were still two hours to go and, as the relator informed me as he inhaled an espresso, they were running late with the morning session and hadn’t broken for lunch. Eventually, my time came. Clutching my dissertation and with palms so sweaty that I feared electrocuting myself as I adjusted the microphone, I went in.
As per the original Decameron, Friday and Saturday are dedicated to other things than storytelling. Though I won’t spend Friday in penitence and I wash more than once a week, I’ll be taking a breather and will be back Sunday.