The hospital in Parma was part of the University, but stripped of any vestige of academia and adapted as a refuge for the sick, some of them Italian soldiers but most of us prisoners of war. Bare corridors and rooms deliberately scoured to make them clinically clean gave the lie to the building's exterior with its walls and towers studded with splendid carvings as fine as any of the numerous proud buildings which adorn this city, one of the principal cities in the old province of Tuscany. All that I knew about the place was that it had been a great favourite with the thousands who had toured Italy before the war. I supposed the city had important historical associations, a famous gallery or two perhaps, housing priceless works by old masters, but I knew nothing at all about them.
It didn't, however, take me long to find out. Very raggedly, and by dint of questions by the score in my very stiff Italian, I became the willing pupil of Sorella Caterina, a nun who had been sent into this world to give succour to prisoners of war. She it was who looked after the ward that I was in, and who made it her business to convince me that I had now arrived in the most beautiful, the most important, the most gifted, the most brilliant, the most aristocratic city in the whole world. If I understood her aright, and it must be borne in mind that the only English she knew was 'yes', not even Rome, where reigned her Father in the Faith, could be compared with Parma. What comfort I drew from this knowledge was dubious, because there was no hope whatsoever of my seeing any of it, fairest city in the world though it may have been. The guards made sure that none of us put a foot outside the ward, and yellow jaundice, together with two or three other less serious diseases, ensured that I wouldn't budge from my bed for quite a while. So there was nothing for it but to go on chatting with the Sorella, about Italy, its people, its culture, and about Parma, the city that was a combination of all that was 'true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report'.
It's true that in passing she mentioned the local woollen industry, and spoke ecstatically about the craft of the cottagers who worked in fine silk on the outskirts of town. Once she became mundane enough to speak of cheese and ham, the likes of which were not to be found on land or sea, but she didn't linger over