Renée Bintje is a travel and leisure writer, whose professional work in the environmental and humanitarian sectors saw her living and travelling across Asia, Europe and Africa. In this column she shares some of her travel sketches, which is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The Hills of Sabina – Part 2
By Renée Bintje
The next few weeks were blissful. We lived in paradise, everyone respected each other, worked equally, no one ate another’s food. We did not even have to prepare meals three times per day but just once per day, with the fridge abundantly stocked.
I would be the first to wake up – my breakfast was simple, a glorious pot of Italian coffee sufficient for three refills, which I slowly sipped in the company of my thoughts, out in the garden, watching the sky change from green to orange to pink, and then a final burst of crimson before breaking into full daylight. The sky was strewn with thousands of stars, over that part of the land, where human’s rapacious intellect had not yet plundered. This was the best time of the day for me, being in my own world, with my companions, the dazzling stars, the silence of the dawn, the play of lights and colours in the sky. I realised that even passing thoughts were incapable of being dark under the influence of such great beauty and dignity.
It was during this special time that I came across an extraordinary cat. At first, he passed by, stopped to acknowledge my existence, sniffed about, extremely curious but kept his guard. The next day, he came closer and allowed me to stroke his head, but still a little cautious. Over the next few days, he decided that I could be completely trusted with and would sit on my lap the whole time I was at the garden bench. He would stay with me until it was time for me to get on with my day, and he would go his way. Bello, the name I called him, had a pearl-coloured coat, with milky tea tiger stripes just on his face. His eyes were the colour of water, so clear they were almost colourless, with just a slight tint of blue. I felt as if he could see through me, as if there was a mysterious connection between us.
Bello would come to visit me at every dawn, the beginning of the day for me, and the end of the hunting night for him.
Sally and Dan would wake up much later and have a hearty breakfast with cereals, toasts, butter, cheese, jam and the rest of it, properly continental. We start work at around nine in the morning, break for lunch at one and then continue to three or four in the afternoon. As we were all keen walkers, we would try to get all the work done by three so that we had sufficient daylight left for long walks after work, discovering new routes, pretty villages, small farms and shops for food and supplies.
I was the only vegetarian in the house, and without Sean, the vegan who ate everything, we agreed to cook supper separately. We would eat supper together but freed from the communal duties and washing up. Evenings were so much more enjoyable that way.
A few days before the new retreat group’s arrival, Gianna asked me to vacate the bedroom I occupied in the main house and move into a yurt in the garden. The Gardener had pitched it up, at the north garden, nearest to the main house. The yurt had a low roof, only the centre was high enough for one to stand upright. A single bunker bed, a bedside table, and my luggage filled up all the space. Sally and Dan, meanwhile, had to move to the workers’ lodge, near the kitchen, into a small room with a double bed rather unglamorous to the one they occupied. The main house and outdoor retreat spaces would be occupied by the guests and we were requested to be minimally present during their retreat. We would be present during meal service times, for all housekeeping requests while maintaining the place top notch, unseen, wherever possible.
It was Paradise Lost from then. We have been expelled from heaven and would live in servants’ lodge and yurt and exist as real workers…
The first night I was to sleep in the yurt, out in the open, I was excited with anticipation. I thought it was romantic to sleep in the garden with just a thin strip separating you from the open sky and stars. As soon as it was pitched up, I made it as pretty and cosy as possible, with many cushions and colourful throws, woollen blankets, fresh flowers, and scented candles but Gianna did not allow me to light candles in the yurt in case of accidental fire. She handed me solar lights instead! There were plenty of geckos in the garden and they moved freely in and out of the yurt as if pissed off with me for pitching up the tent right in the middle of their pathway.
However, as silence fell and the night deepened, I felt exposed, and fear crept in. I heard sounds of nocturnal creatures, cicadas, faraway bird cries, unknown rustle and slither sounds so close to me that I would remain motionless in my bunk bed. It also got very cold later in the night, which made me want to use the bathroom frequently. That was the worst part, having to get fully dressed in the middle of the night and walk across a large, barely lit garden, to get into the main house for the bathroom.
One night I heard animal footsteps outside the tent. It was the first time I heard footsteps and immediately remained motionless and held my breath. The footsteps were so close that I could see a shape trying to enter the tent. I froze, stricken with fear. A little pearl coloured head popped in. To my wonderful surprise and relief, it was Bello!!! I felt elated to see him, flung my arms open and asked him to come to me. Without any hesitation, he jumped on my bed, and delicately touched my face with his paws and rubbed my face his nose, with light doses of licks. From then, he would come by each night, and curl up on my chest, or on my shin, belly, solar plexus, head, wherever he felt most comfortable, while I closed my eyes, feeling protected and much loved by Bello.
A couple of days before the group’s arrival, Elda, the usual Cook hired during the retreat season came by to start up her kitchen after the long winter closure. She was friendly and very energetic. I called her Chef, but she insisted she was a Cook. She had a kind, laughing face, and a great sense of humour. I liked her immediately. I asked her if I could be her Commie Chef.
“I told you I am not a Chef! My father was a Chef, but I am a Cook! You can be my kitchen helper if you know how to cook. Can you….?” she asked.
Working with Elda in the kitchen would probably be the best thing that could happen to me, I thought. I found her passionate about food, she knew a great deal about Italian regional cooking, from North to South, and I was genuinely interested in learning Italian cooking. That, and after weeks of never-ending cleaning, dusting, laundry, and chores which self-perpetuate, I was desperate to do something different, something refreshing, something creative, and to learn from her, so I boasted that I was a good cook, and familiar with Italian cooking.
She was making a long list of food and ingredients to start her kitchen, stopped writing, and looked at me, carefully.
“What can you cook?” she asked.
“Anything”, I replied, nervously.
“Choose three that you want to cook for tomorrow – a starter, a main, a dessert….”
I said I would make zuppa di finocchi and insalata di giardino as starters, parmigiana di melanzane for the main and tiramisu for dessert.
Neither approving nor disapproving, she handed me her shopping list, “Okay, here, add what you need to the list, I will get it. You will make supper tomorrow. I will come by in the evening to join you.”
I could not believe the opportunity that just then opened up to me. Quickly but nervously, I wrote down all I needed before she changed her mind! I have made these a hundred times so I felt pretty confident it would not be a complete disaster. At that moment, Gianna passed by, and Elda shared the “deal” she had made with me. Gianna looked at me curiously, and said, in that case, she would also come by for supper the next evening.
“Great!!!!” I exclaimed…… Ohhh, my god!!!, I thought…
Elda returned later in the afternoon, with so much stuff, more than I have ever seen in one shopping trip, but since we were expecting sixteen to twenty guests, three meals per day at the retreat this was to be expected. Together, we put everything away, with her instructing me where each item resided.
There was no doubt who the Goddess of this kitchen was.
She handed me a small bag with the ingredients I requested for my menu,
“Allora, domani sera, alle sette, va bene… ?! Ciao Bella!!!”, giving me a quick, reassuring embrace, she left…