Winning over Italy

A "heel to toe" look at Italy by C.C. Winning


Tales of the Unexpected


The tourist Meccas of North and Central Italy have produced thousands of guide books in dozens of different languages and supplied TV producers with hours of material to fill the early evening and Sunday afternoon schedules.  While the beauty of these places has not been diminished, the first-time traveller kind of knows  what to expect. In Calabria, almost every day and every journey brings a new surprise.  There are only trickles of foreign visitors to the south even in the high summer and, subsequently, tourist information and travel guides are very thin on the ground.  You are left, thankfully, to find out for yourself.

A few weeks ago we were at a bit of a loose end as our well-laid plans for getting together with friends had fallen through at the last moment and, as we had already wasted the best part of the day waiting for their arrival, I was not in the best of moods. 

“OK let’s go for a drive.  Don’t know where we can go at 4pm, but anything’s better than hanging about doing nothing”   So we got in the car, headed down the road to the autostrada and turned left, and south.  After about 20 minutes along the coast road, no more, we spotted a worn-looking sign for Pentedattilo, somewhere off to the left and into the hills.  After the turnoff it could have only been another ten minutes before we were winding almost vertically through a little town high in the mountains.  Just as I was thinking there wasn’t much here to look at we emerged at the other end, turned a corner and found ourselves in a smart little car park at the edge of a cliff.  As I was concentrating on coaxing the car into the last tiny space, it was a few moments before I lifted my head to see where we had landed. 

I’m not often lost for words but when I got out the car it took some time before I could even say “Wow”  Just standing there and taking in what was in front, beside, below and above me, took my voice clean away.  Immediately below me was a little church, doors open and judging by the sound of the choir, obviously in session.  In front was a view over a deep valley to more mountains beyond while on the right, on a steep slope was the most incredible and beautiful scattering of old village houses which looked as if they had been individually placed by a film director for greatest effect.   Looming high above the village were five enormous fingers of rock.  Pentedattilo (from the Greek for Five Fingers) is so named because it looks as if it’s built in the palm of a massive mountain hand, the fingers creating five protective peaks from which medieval attack would have been impossible when the town began to flourish.

What makes the scene most surreal however and somehow makes you talk in a hush is the fact that Pentedattilo is a ghost town….they say that not even the birds sing here.   The fingers, through age and frequent earth tremors ,  turned from protection to threat as the number of falling rocks were enough to persuade the authorities to evacuate the village in the early sixties.  We walked past the little bar at the end of the track leading up into village and made our way, slowly, up the steep slope.   It soon became apparent that some kind of work was going on.  The narrow lanes that wound themselves round the ancient cottages and houses nearer the top were new and inlaid at the sides with little spotlights.   Some of the houses had been recently renovated and there were strong indications that the work was on-going.  To some extent it is being resettled, a little at a time, by people who come at various times of the year to volunteer their services and keep the place alive.  Although only a few homes are lived in, mainly by a colony of artists who exhibit their work in their tiny, open front rooms, the amount of underground cabling and piping suggests that this is no half-hearted project.   Nobody else would ever even think of trying to rebuild something out of such crumbling ruins whilst constantly threatened from above by erosion and instability, unless of course you happened to be the new Scotland football manager.

When you almost reach the top there is another, bigger, church and a railed piazza from which to look back down on the tiled rooftops and the valley below.  We only saw a handful, excuse the pun, of people wandering about, exploring the place like ourselves, including a couple having their pre-wedding photos taken in the wooden doorways framed with climbing roses and Bougainville.    We sat down and spent some time just looking down as the sound of the choir below drifted up through the still air and created such an emotive atmosphere that you could only wonder about how the place must have been when it was full of life and daily routine.  The place is steeped in folklore, including a castle whose owners were wiped out one Easter over the love of a woman and the attempted assassination of Garibaldi, and it certainly feels it. 

We had chosen the perfect time of day to see and absorb such history as, when we arrived back at car park and stopped for a much-needed cold beer, the sun began  to set.  While we sat and watched, the hidden street lights began to cast a ghostly glow up the walls of the cottages, picking out features and lanes we had missed on our stroll.   We left with the remains of the choir, slowly heading  back towards the ocean and the main road again.

 It was only when we got back and I tried to do some research about the town that I found out that for the last 3 or 4 years there has been an annual short-film festival at Pentedattilo.   I have to find out where they view these films as all the buildings I saw into could have barely contained a 15” TV and a coffee table, never mind an international gathering of directors, actors and their audience.  But then again, I’ve learnt now….. always expect the unexpected.


We Know Where You Live

Reggio Calabria is a small city of about 170,000 whilst Pellaro, our home town some 12 k to the south, services some 7,000.  A visit to the city would be surprising if you didn’t meet at least 2 or 3 people you knew while, conversely, meeting someone you didn’t know in Pellaro would be even more of a talking point.  One of my wife’s main concerns about leaving London was the loss of anonymity..the ability to wear and do what you want without judgement, without anyone knowing or caring.  Moving from big city to little town, no matter where,  has to rank fairly high on the metro-scale of culture shocks.

My own culture wake-up came quite recently.  I had to take a trip to the local supermarket (a pet hate of mine, but that’s for another blog) as it was the only place I could get a new print cartridge in the mid afternoon when all the other shops were shut for siesta.  I plead beggar rather than chooser.   The  car park was pretty quiet as I pulled in and switched off.  I got out and went over to the sea rail to admire the view which always takes the sting out of this kind of shopping, putting you in an easier and more relaxed state of mind for the task ahead.  This particular day I was overlooking a very blue, gentle sea and Etna, covered almost completely in snow but still with her smouldering eye.   What price Beckenham Sainsbury’s now!

Breathing in, refreshed  and smiling, I made my way casually towards the portals of Porto Bolero shopping centre.  I hadn’t gone much more than a few steps when a small white van pulled up right beside me , screeching on the smooth concrete as it braked sharply.  I jumped back in some alarm as I tried to avoid impact whilst some ill-considered Anglo-Saxon advice formed on my lips, ready to be aimed at a driver who wouldn’t have had a clue of its meaning.   However, immediately after he stopped he got out and made straight toward me, at the same time reaching into his inside jacket pocket.   My expletives were now caught in my throat as his manner and attitude now demanded  a somewhat more circumspect approach. 

“Are you the husband of Maria Piccolo?” he demanded, looking straight at me and reaching deeper into his jacket. 

“uhm, well, possibly”  I muttered, as I took a hesitant step or seven backwards.  By now, believe me, I’m thinking “it’s a hit, it’s a vendetta by another family or I’ve upset someone on the road back there”

“Right, this is for you” he says, as he brings out a white envelope and slaps  it in my hand. 

Is this the evil white envelope I know nothing about?  Is this the invitation I can’t refuse?

Immediately after leaving the paper in my trembling hands, he turned towards the back of the van, opened the doors and brought out a white polystyrene box.

“Here!”  he said  “sign here!” 

With nothing more than a very hasty scribble, I signed and stood dumb, barely holding the white box  as he jumped back into the van and shot off on a further mission of doom.  

It took me a minute before I decided to inspect the box more closely.  At last it dawned.  It’s my mother’s idea of a red cross parcel.  A pack of freshly smoked trout from Loch Etive.

The perfect delivery, no doubt.  But why there?  Why in a supermarket car park 6Km from home?  Because of community.  They know who you are and this is what I love about the place.  The postman had recognised the car and followed me till he could deliver the parcel.

If this was my first clue about a new way of life, the second was to follow three weeks later. 

I got a call on my mobile during the middle of an English lesson at the local primary school.

 “There will be a parcel waiting for you at the fruit shop, when can you come?”

“In about half an hour if that’s ok?” I whispered into my phone.

“Ok, ask for Giovanni  Brrrrrrrrrr……”.  As the phone went dead.

So, intrigued,  after school I forced my aching feet towards our local fruit and vegetable shop which was only about 5 minutes away.  “Hi, can I talk to Giovanni?” 

“Sorry, you’ve got the wrong shop, Giovanni runs the one down by the station”

“Ok” I said, “I’ll pop down there then, thanks”

As there are about three greengrocers near the station it took me a further few enquiries after Giovanni before I found the right combination of tomatoes, aubergines and peaches.  Upon presenting myself at last to the correct trader, I was handed another parcel.  This one was brown.  It contained about 2 dozen cds of new songs penned by my oldest friend and compatriot (more about on my links pages) 

On this occasion the courier had not been able to find my address and had simply gone to the first shop he came across and left the parcel safe in the knowledge that , in a small town in Italy, someone was bound to know who I was and make the final delivery. 

How the fruit shop got my number, god only knows.

If it’s a question of having to visit the local P.O. depot which only opens at times you can’t make it, or braving the culture of community…..give me the community any-day.  I feel a little safer now, if only a bit more careful about what I might say….in any language.

The Price of Dignity

Over the Christmas period it is a long-held tradition in the southern parts of Italy to spend as much time with friends and family as possible.  It’s a sort of catch up and promise time.  Everyone’s worked hard all year and the time’s come to focus on what’s important in your life.  So over the last couple of weeks Maria and I have spent a lot of time with friends at their homes.  Arrive about 9.30pm, have a dram and eat a cake or two before sitting down to chat and play cards…and take as much money off each other as possible.  True seasonal spirit!  These evenings, as you can imagine when you’re losing  your shirt, can go on for some time.

During a lull in one of these visits one of Maria’s friends, Mario, turned to me and asked whether I ‘d managed to come to grips with driving on the other side of the road.  “To be honest Mario, It hasn’t really been a problem.  After all, I’ve driven in the US, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal before here.  But there is  one instinctive move that I can’t fully control yet”

“What’s that?” said Mario, no doubt a little irked by my blasé attitude.

“Well” says I,

“Just a couple of days ago I dropped Maria off at the station in the morning, as I do most days.  Then, on the way back home, I pulled up and parked outside Luca’s newsagents to buy some cigarettes.  I went in and hailed Luca as usual.  Luca, as usual, had my Winston Blues waiting on the counter before  I’d even walked in the door.  No problem.” 

At this point the rest of the evening’s guests have stopped talking about Mario’s wall-to-wall nativity scene (complete with waterfalls and a city of tiny lights) and are now listening to my story. 

“So what’s that got to do with driving on the other side of the road”?

My story is this.

I purchased the cigarettes, saying ciao to Luca, and walked sunnily out of the shop.  I strode  straight to the car, unlocked the door and got in.  In one easy natural movement I  grabbed and fastened the seatbelt before turning round to grip the steering wheel…..which wasn’t there!    I was holding thin air.  I was all securely belted up and ready to go, in the passenger seat!

This  might not have been a major problem if it hadn’t been for the 5 or 6 people on the pavement chatting.  Had they seen me? Had they noticed what I’d done?  If they had, then it would be all round the town within a matter of hours.  This is when you have those Victor Meldrew moments.  Ooooooh Nooooh!

How the hell do I extricate myself from this with any sense of dignity? I can’t sidle over to the driver’s side without really drawing attention to myself  – it’s a very small car and my sharp bony knees could well have created a new sunroof – and I can’t just unbuckle, open the door and whistle why I walk round to the other door, now can I?  What in god’s name do I do?

Then, genius!  In a moment of pure inspiration, I dive forward to the glove box and start fishing around with my right hand whilst, at the same time, casually unbuckle the belt with my left.  I pull out documents, manuals, empty mint packets and old parking receipts and then try to look puzzled.  Where could it be, I hopefully animated to the now-puzzled onlookers.  Then, and with only a momentary hesitation, having not found anything in the glove box that could possibly get me out of this, I started patting all my pockets.  No luck there, I mimed to my audience with a very Italian shrug. 

So, my opportunity was there for the taking. 

I got out of the car, checking  my pockets one more time as I walked back into the newsagent,  bought a lighter and came back out brandishing it with a sheepish smile for all to see before getting into the right (correct) side of the car and driving off with a squeal not quite appropriate for the motor I was trying to control.

Did I get away with it?  Who knows?  I never did look back at those folk chatting outside the shop.   No doubt I’ll find out one day.  The price of dignity?  1 Euro!

I was sure to lose more at the card table.