Water Rats of Prato

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On Sunday I took the train from Zurich to Prato. I opened up my computer so that I could work on the way, thinking it would distract me from tunnels. Tunnels are horrible. I am afraid of being stuck in one, crushed by rock and slowly suffocating. Maybe it’s because I know the panic of suffocating well. When I was very small I would turn around in my bed and wake up with my head where my feet should be, heavy blankets pressing down, tucked in tightly all around, no air. I would panic and yell, knowing nobody could hear me because of the muffling effect of the blankets. I would push frantically against the blankets to find the path of least resistance and the way back to air. Maybe I was re-enacting my birth, during which I tangled myself up in my umbilical cord and turned blue.

I belong in water, not air, but where have my gills gone? Despite the lack of them, I envy the water rats, nutrie (sing. nutria), which live under the Ponto delle Mercatale (Merchant’s bridge) in Prato. They wizz through the water with webbed feet and spend their days playing and swimming in the cool down there, while we sweat above. People look at me questioningly when they see me photographing them. Why would I photograph these big rats, living in that open drain of a river? I hope that, by seeing me photographing, they will look differently. The nutrie are delightful. They are the size of the ducks they seem to delight in startling. Perhaps this is why I did not notice them at first, because they are also the same colour as a brown duck. You could easily confound them in a sweeping glance. But they are plump and graceful in the water and on land. At first I thought ‘otters!’ They are also beaver-like, with blunt, rodent faces. Like rats and otters they are social, seeming to gather in family groups, occasionally kissing and grooming each other, sharing rocks on the water’s edge, perhaps sharing burrows but I have not seen any enter or exit one.

But back to Switzerland – the tunnels weren’t so bad in fact. None were extremely long, as I had feared. I don’t know how that can be, but I knew we were through the worst, through the Alps, when village signage was in Italian and we came to Lake Lugano. In Switzerland the lakes are populated, but there are green places around their shores. In Italy terracotta houses seem to stretch out everywhere around the lakes, despite their abrupt, glaciated shorelines. It is likewise on Ligurian coast to the south, where places like Cinque Terre are a rarity in that, only there can the vines, olive groves and weedy scrublands can come down to drink at the seaside. They say that Italy has five times more laws than in France, so nobody knows how to interpret them, so pragmatism is the Italian substitute for anarchy. Maybe this is why the Enlightenment failed: now science seems to tell us so much that it’s all relative; you have to just take your own guess, use your common sense.

From Milan to Bologna the route crosses the flat farmlands of the Po valley. Then I change to a rattly old regional train that stops at all the stations on its way through the hot ranges that separate the Po from the Arno. These create a divide between waters that drain east, to the Adriatic, and west, to the Mediterranean. They join the earthquake prone spine of Italy to the Alps, sweeping west into France, then north towards Mt Blanc and the white giants of Savoy and Switzerland.

Across the aisle from me a black man is watching a loud sermon on his ipad. When his ex-wife calls he tells her “God is with me now,” and soon goes back to the sermon, though only after a few vitriolic reproachments and a final “God bless you”. Our world, supposedly rational, is really fueled by sheer belief, from this guy with his god, to those who organise their relationships with food and others according to the stars. It is a reminder that the imagination is what we use to make sense of things when there is too much to make sense of.

I step off the train in crackling hot Prato and think of baked potatoes. Google street view showed me the way to my accommodation, Magnolfi Nuovo, but I still manage to go the wrong way and have to lift my case around all the street trees where they make the pavement too narrow to roll it. Still, it is only a five minute walk, from both the station and the university. We’ll go there tomorrow.

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