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It seems to be very hard to shake off the cold I acquired in Italy, but I’m working on it.  Fortunately, the memories will linger longer than the virus, and I still have a thousand photos to sort through.  A comment from one of the ice climbers  who was in Valnontey the day of the accident came in yesterday, taking me to task for my interpretation of events.  If I got it wrong, I apologize.  I did not mean to imply that any one was at fault for climbing when the weather was warming up.

From what little information I was able to find on the internet, I suspect ice climbers may find it difficult to get reliable, up-to-date  information about conditions in Cogne or elsewhere in Italy.  That, in itself, is dangerous.

There are three stories that caught my attention in Turin but never made it into this blog.  One was about pro- Mafia Facebook groups.  When it was discovered that more than 2,000 people had joined a group hailing Salvatore Riina, the so-called “boss of bosses”, Senator Gianpiero D’Alia, a member of the anti-Mafia commission called for a government investigation, saying:  “We can’t accept in virtual reality what we don’t accept in real reality.”  A new group (159,000 strong) calling itself “Mafia Off Facebook”  held a one-day Facebook blackout.  An on-line  petition was circulated to close Facebook in Italy.  That may have made Zuckerbeg sit up and take notice, but probably not the Mafia.

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Luca Marchio, a native of Como, decided that it would be a good time to visit Iraq, so he caught a bus from the Turkish border to Baghdad, then checked into the Coral Palace.  The hotel has not seen a casual Western visitor since the U.S. invasion.  Despite the manager’s  qualms about hosting the foreigner, he agreed to arrange a tour of the city for Luca for an extra $40.

The following day, Luca set off for Falluja on a public bus.  The police found him sitting next to a woman selling milk.  They contacted local journalists, the U.S. marines and the Italian Embassy.  Even though it was determined that Luca was not a risk to anyone but himself, he was put on a plane home.   He lived to  tell the tale. So much for the Darwin Awards.

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In 1987, a Korean immigrant named Yongman Kim opened a movie rental store in the East Village, New York City.  Begun as a sideline to his dry-cleaning business, the store quickly became a local institution.  Before long, Kim had staff traveling the world in search of obscure films that would eventually result in a one-of-a-kind collection of 55,000 videos and DVDs.  Then Netflix and the internet came along.

Last September, Kim issued a challenge, promising to donate the collection to anyone who would keep it intact, continue to update it and make is accessible to Kim’s members and others.  Offers poured in, but all failed the test one way or the other.  All except one.  A 42 year old Italian graphic designer was intrigued enough to pursue the dream.

What she had in mind was a town in Sicily that was going through a major upheaval.  Salemi’s efforts to reverse long-term neglect had led its citizens to invite prominent artists and intellectuals to take over the government.  An art critic was elected Mayor;  a prince was put in charge of town planning.   A provocative Italian photographer was appointed the town’s Alderman of Creativity. Houses were being offered up for one euro in exchange for promises to restore the buildings within two years.

A serendipitous meeting led Franca Pauli to come up with a proposal that looks like it will actually happen.  “It was almost like falling in love with this thing, and I was trying not to,” she said.  “We generally start projects from an idea, but then we have to calculate a budget and planning and timing and meetings….. This was the opposite.  It was all friends and phone calls and meeting people in a bar.”

What a great story.  So Italian.  I’m going to miss it.  Arrivederci, Italy.  Next stop, rail trails in Australia.


As the speedometer crept over 110 kms, I realized that I could stay in the truck lane and content myself with driving blind behind a big box, or I could speed up. The other cars were simply whizzing by and there did not seem to be any speed limit.  Go, little Panda, go!

The fastest cars in the world come out of Italy, of course.  They were built by and for Italians, for people who seem to believe that they have to keep up with Mario Andretti or they’ll be letting the home team down.  It would not be a leisurely drive up to the mountains, but it would be quick.

Aside from an inadvertent detour at the end of the motorway which almost took us into France, all went well. The mountain road from Aymavilles to Cogne required all my attention. Fortunately, there was no ice, little traffic, and plenty of places to pull over and let the locals pass.

Our albergo was in the village of Lillaz. There was a large parking area outside the village, but I decided to be bold and follow the signs to the hotel. It was like driving through a toy town. Enormous amounts of snow clung to the rooftops. The streets were barely big enough for a car. The last turn had my wife holding her breath. And then, there we were.


Later, we discovered the reason the hotel had been booked solid until our lucky, last-minute cancellation.  An annual  cross-country race was scheduled to start the next morning.  Over 750 competitors would be out on the trail.  The fastest would be done in two hours, of course, but the slowest….? Our host had neglected to mention the race when he was on the phone with our travel agent, but he assured us we could be out skiing by 10:30.

Lillaz is famous for its cascate (frozen waterfall), which is a short walk from the village.  We made our way out there to get some exercise before dinner.  We were starting to lose the light, but there was a small group of climbers at the base– mostly Brits.


We were looking at the first of four “pitches.”  If I understood correctly, this particular fall was actually 1500 meters high. The whole area is a mecca for ice climbers.  It is an excruciatingly slow and scary sport to watch from the snow below.  Occasionally, chunks of ice would get dislodged by an ice pick, come plummeting down, hard and dangerous as rocks.

The next morning we got in a little bit of skiing before we were hustled off the tracks by locals, who must have thought we were mad.  They were out in force to watch the three leaders fly by.  Most of the participants were Italian, but the event had attracted some international skiers during the last two years.  Both top spots (male and female) were taken by Japanese skiers.  The winner finished the 45 km run in 2 hours, one minute, just a couple minutes ahead of his compatriot.


That afternoon we did have the place to ourselves.  The weather was perfect and the track was still fine.  We hadn’t done this in awhile, and it felt good.  From our window, we could see Mont Blanc to the west. Lillaz is at the end of a valley that runs east-west. A second valley runs north-south, heading from the village of Cogne towards the mountain of Gran Paradiso.The village at its head is called Valnontey.

We headed up there by car on the Monday, stopping for a leisurely lunch in Cogne. It is a spectacular valley  If the word awesome hadn’t been stamped into meaningless phonemes over the last decade by almost everyone, it would be the exact word to use to describe the peaks around us. The Alps are awesome.

But as we headed out a helicopter flew overhead, its blades making an ominous sound in the quiet afternoon.  The temperature had climbed quickly during the day and the amount of snow on the steep rock faces was considerable. Something had triggered an avalanche.  It knocked two climbers off the face of Valmiana, ice climb number 8 of 53 in Valnontey. A 33 year-old Frenchman was dead; his Irish partner survived the fall.


It would be ghoulish to say that we enjoyed our afternoon, but we were ignorant of the tragedy until our ski was done.  Tomorrow I head home to Melbourne, back to the land where whole towns have been wiped out by flames. I will miss winter. I’ll miss the Italians, my teachers and fellow students at Italiano Porticando.  I’ll miss the city, of course, and the spectacular Alps.

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