Truffle Snufflers and Umbrella Sellers of Italy


We drive in the cool fog of an October Sunday afternoon to the mountain town of Pianoro, in the Tusco-Emilian Appenines. Today is the Truffle Festival, and locals have turned out in their hundreds. They are dressed in good quality padded winter coats and dark denim jeans, and accessorise with leather. Stylish, but not flash. There is a marquee, and stalls where lean, well-dressed truffle hunters barter quietly but seriously with vendors.

The funghi on display ranges through white, yellow, orange, brown and red: the same pallete as the foliage above. A cured ham is furred with mould, and bristles with actual pig bristles. There’s a salami that must weigh five stone, and which will be sliced into wafer thin slivers. I see the fabled white truffle for sale at €300 l’etto – this is a measurement of about a hundred grammes. A truffle hunter doesn’t smile when I try to photograph his adorable, truffle-snuffling pointer pup. Braziers crackle, and chestnuts roast in the aromatic woodsmoke.

We take a peek inside the marquee and I am instantly accosted by two guys in their sixties. They want us to sit at the trestle tables under the propane space heaters, and eat the peasant food. They entreat me – in louder and louder Italian when it becomes apparent I don’t understand – to sit, eat, partake of the hospitality. And why wouldn’t we? They smile, laugh, take me by the arm. I order polenta with fungi at six euros, Linda has rissoto with fungi, and the bairns have their usual pommes frites. The food is amazing. How can it be so light, yet so rich and filling? And the house red is inexpensive, but has real depth. This is really good. We relax, and take in the surroundings.

Families with grandparents and peedie bairns. Old guys on their own. Groups of sixtysomethings. An old woman at the table behind me puts away a plate of tagliatelle, followed by a veal cutlet with mushrooms, and a large glass of red. The young mother at the table in front loses it with her raucous toddler and changes places with her husband, entering immediately into animated chat with her mother-in-law. Dad plays Spongebob on the tablet for the bambino. There is much laughter. I pay for the food, and in my change is a German euro coin, commemorating reunification; Wir sind ein Volk.

Outside in the cold again, an embittered crepe seller gives us his view of Italy today:

It’s a mess. Berlusconi and the Vatican. Corruption. The Italians are little people, racist people. 

Will Pope Francis help? I venture.

What can one man do? He replies.

As a white tourist, I’m not likely to encounter much in the way of racism. No doubt the African umbrella sellers on the side streets of Pisa or the squares of Florence come across plenty of it, though.

We saw them there in the pissing rain, selling umbrellas, or packets of paper tissues. Helping commuters to park in tight spaces, or assisting tourists with ticket vending machines. They are mostly good humoured. I bought a good umbrella from one; Linda bought a poor umbrella from another. Good and less good – we’re not talking RBS or VW here. Their coats are spattered, they have energy and enterprise, and many of them smile. They store their wares in the branches of city olive trees in the shadow of the leaning tower when it’s quiet: practical sense from another continent, another world.

In Florence, many sell on the streets. Here is a man with a makeshift sales table made of cardboard with woven cardboard handles. There is a woman with a ruined umbrella dangling origami insects and dragons. On Ponte Vecchio, I talk with a young man from Nairobi. His hand is cold, his eyes are bloodshot, but he is full of energy. He wants to sell me a trinket, but he’s just a peedie bit too forward. I don’t like to buy from him.

In Piazza Della Signoria there is a network of sellers who look out for one another. Under the gaze of Ammannati’s sculpted Neptune, whose powerful arm may have quelled the waters they have braved, they ply their selfie sticks. A group of police officers wanders casually across the square, and a mild tension becomes apparent. Like a shoal of sillocks on the approach of a larger fish, the sellers bundle their gear and move swiftly in one direction through the crowd, all eyes.

And in Pazza del Duomo, a Roma woman asks me directly for money, in return for a blessing on my family. Growing up on an island, I didn’t encounter a beggar before I was eighteen, when I became a student in one of the large Scottish cities. There I saw decrepit addicts begging miserably on the bones of their skinny backsides, the rain dripping from their beards. These encounters always perturb me, and I think they demand some discretion. This woman looks fit, is full of energy, and implores me. But I smile, and I say something a bit mean that I heard once in Glasgow; I don’t owe you any money. We pass round the square, and she tries again, not recognising me. When I refuse a second time, and then she recognises me, we laugh loudly together. It’s a bit of a game. I see she has a gold tooth.

But then, in Via Dei Pecori, a massive, incoherent beggar lumbers along the street, his two club feet knocking together, cap in hand. Like iron filings to or from a magnet, people are drawn to or repulsed by him. Now I must give a coin. I hope it says Wir sind ein Volk. He says grazie.

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