Our summer holiday lasted the whole length of the school vacation: about three months. Preparations began early, usually on St Joseph’s Day (the nineteenth of March): since we weren’t rich enough to afford a hotel, my parents would tour the still snow-clad valleys of Piedmont looking for lodgings to rent–preferably somewhere served by the railway and not too far from Turin. We didn’t have a car (this was the early thirties, and almost no one did) and for my father, who hated the sultriness of summer anyway, time off was restricted to three days around the August bank holiday. So, just to sleep with the family and in the cool, he would subject himself to the drudgery of a twice-daily train journey out to Torre Pellice or Meana, or any of the other modest villages within a hundred or so kilometres of the city. For our part we went every evening to the station to wait for him. At daybreak he set out again, even on Saturdays, to be in the office by eight.
My mother began the packing around the middle of June. Apart from bags and suitcases, the main load consisted of three wicker trunks, which when full must each have weighed at least two hundredweight; the removal men came and hoisted them miraculously onto their backs and carried them downstairs sweating and cursing. The trunks contained everything: bedclothes, pots and pans, toys, books, provisions, winter and summer clothing, shoes, medicines, utensils–as if we were departing for the Antipodes. Usually we arranged our destination together with other families–relations or friends; it was less lonely like that. In this way we took a part of our city along with us.
The three months went by slowly, and quietly, and dully, and punctuated by the abominable sadism of Holiday Homework: a contradiction in terms! My father spent only Sundays with us, and those in his own fashion. He was a thorough-going urbanite: the countryside did not agree with him. He disliked the emptiness of the fields, the steepness of the paths, the silence, the flies, the discomforts. The mornings he would spend reading, taciturn and cross; in the afternoon he dragged us off for an ice-cream at the only café in the village, and then he would retire to play the tarot with the miller and his wife. But for my sister and me the months in the country meant a regularly-renewed union with nature: humble plants and flowers whose names it was fun to learn in Italian and dialect; the birds, each with their own song; insects; spiders. On one occasion in the wash-basin, a leech, no less, graceful in its swimming, undulating as if in a dance. Another time, a bat that zigzagged dementedly about the bedroom, or a stone-marten glimpsed in the twilight, or a mole-cricket, a monstrous, obese little insect, neither mole nor cricket, repugnant and menacing. In the courtyard garden well-disciplined tribes of ants rushed about their business, and it was enthralling to observe their cunning and their stubborn stupidity. They were held up as an example in our schoolbooks: ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise’ (Proverbs, 6:6). They never took summer holidays. Yes, they may have been virtuous little creatures, but it was the obligatory virtue of prisoners.