2 THERE IS NO CAR
Scotland fell away beneath him, a stretch of green pasture, of hills, of swirling mist. Suddenly they were bathed in sunlight; fields of cloud, topped with crenellations of white, now lay beneath them as their plane pointed south. In his window seat he closed his eyes against the glare, imagining for a few moments their destination, as much an idea, a feeling, as a place. He saw a small tower that he had never seen before, a tower of warm red brick with a pattern of holes for doves. Down below, a man was pulling at a bell rope; as the bell rang, the doves launched themselves from their holes in the brick and fluttered skywards.
He opened his eyes and noticed that the passenger in the seat beside him, a man in perhaps his early fifties, dressed in a lightweight linen suit, was looking at him. The man smiled at him, and he returned the smile.
“What takes you to Pisa?” the man asked. His accent revealed him as Italian.
Paul hesitated, unsure as to whether he wanted to strike up a conversation that went beyond the niceties. He had brought with him a book that was just beginning to engage him, and he was looking forward to getting back to it. But the man smiled at him again, and his natural politeness decided the matter. “So parlare Italiano,”
he began. “Sono . . .”
The man did not allow him to finish. “Ah!” he said, and then, continuing in Italian, “What a pleasure it is for us Italians to discover somebody who speaks our language.”
“I’m sure there are many. Such a beautiful language . . .”
“Yes, but what use is a beautiful language spoken just by oneself? It’s all very well for the Spaniards, because there are so many Spanish speakers—all over the world. Even Portuguese has Brazil, but we have just us—just Italy—and after a while we get fed up with speaking only to ourselves. We have heard everything there is to say in Italian.”
“Surely not . . .”
“I am not entirely serious. A bit serious, perhaps, but not entirely.” Turning in his seat, he extended a hand towards Paul. “But I must introduce myself. I am Rossi—Silvio Rossi.”
“I’m Paul Stuart.”
Silvio loosened his tie. “Stuart is the name of Scottish kings, is it not? Mary Stuart . . .” He made a chopping gesture across his throat. “She was most unfortunate. Queens cannot choose their neighbours, and if they find they have one who has an axe, then it is most regrettable.” He sighed, as if the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, had been a recent outrage.
“It was a long time ago,” Paul said.
Silvio raised an eyebrow. “But I am an historian,” he said. “What happened in the past remains rather vivid for me and . . .” He paused, and now removed the tie altogether. “That’s better. Yes I find that the past has a much bigger shadow than people believe. It’s still with us in so many ways. At our side all the time, whispering into our ear.”
“Warning us not to repeat our mistakes?”
Silvio smiled. “We repeat some. Others we’re sensible enough to avoid making more than once. But that’s not what I was thinking about. What I was thinking about was the way in which the past determines our character, not just as individuals, but as nations. A child who is treated badly grows up damaged. A people who are subjected to bad treatment will bear resentments, will be suspicious. They will be bad allies.”
Paul, who had been holding his book, slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. He had endured worse conversations on flights, including an attempt at religious conversion, a confession of adultery, and detailed advice on the attractions of Panama as a tax shelter. “You’re thinking of?”
Silvio waved a hand airily. “Oh, there are many examples. Russia, for one. Russia is a peasant country. It has a past of serfdom that ended only in the nineteenth century. That made for a vast, stubborn, ignorant population—one that was also very resentful. And they are resentful today—particularly of the West.”
“They view the West in the same light as they viewed their feudal masters. Authority.” He paused. “So western politicians who lecture Russians about human rights or their tendency to invade their neighbours will never change them. Not one bit. You’re dealing with a particular sort of bear, you see. One with a history. An abused bear with a short temper.”
Paul savoured the metaphor. He was right. “And Italy?”
“Well, that’s an interesting case. With us, the important thing to remember is that we are very young. We have lots of history, of course, but Italy itself is a teenager. The Risorgimento was really just yesterday, you’ll know. It ended in 1871. That’s yesterday. And that means that, as a state, we are still very far from maturity. That’s why half the population doesn’t really believe that the Italian state exists—or, if it does, they feel that they owe it nothing. We’re very disloyal to Rome, you know. We look after ourselves—our family, our city—and we don’t like paying taxes to Rome.”
“Nobody likes taxes.”
“Some like them less than others. Take the Greeks. They have a particular aversion to taxes, and this is because they haven’t forgotten that they were once part of the Ottoman Empire and they saw no reason to pay taxes to the Ottomans.”
“So you’re saying that people don’t change?”
Silvio sighed. “They don’t. Or if they do, it takes a long time. A very long time.”
The plane gave a slight jolt as it encountered a pocket of turbulent air. Paul glanced out of the window, and then returned to the conversation. “May I ask you something?” he said. “Is this what you actually do?”
Silvio shook his head. “I’m an economic historian,” he replied. “That’s something quite different, but it doesn’t stop me having views on these more general matters.”
“Economic history,” muttered Paul.
“A sobering science. That’s why I’ve been in Scotland. I’ve been at a conference.” He paused. “You didn’t tell me why you’re going to Pisa.”
“To taste food and wine,” said Paul.
Silvio looked surprised. “So that’s what you do?”
“Yes. I write about it.”
“There is a great deal to be said about Italian food.”
“Yes, I’m discovering that.”
Paul reached for his book.
“I mustn’t keep you from your reading.”
Paul had not intended to be rude. “Forgive me. I was enjoying our conversation.”
“But you must read your book, and I have some papers to attend to.” Silvio reached into his pocket. “Let me give you my card. I’m at the University of Pisa. It has all the details there. If you need help while you’re in Italy, please get in touch with me. My door is always open.”
Paul thanked him and took the card. Professor Silvio Rossi, it appeared, was not only Professor of Economic History at the University of Pisa, but a member of the Italian Academy of Economic Science and a cavaliere
of the Republic. He slipped the card into the pocket of his jacket and opened his book.
Copyright © 2017 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.