Winning over Italy

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


A Little Night Fishing

Late afternoon and the tomatoes are sliced and sun-drying nicely on the gauze frames laid out across the patio.  The peace and quiet  disturbed only by the odd bee or insect flitting around the cactus flowers and potted plants that border the aubergine garden and crops of herbs that perfume the air.   That is, until the other real world intrudes with the shrill noise of the house phone.  

“That was Lorenzo on the phone”  shouted Maria from the bedroom window. “He’s picking up Irina about nine and he’s put some rods  in the back of the car.  He’ll pick us up on the way back”.

“O.K” I replied.  I was really quite happy not to go out at all, but an evening with Lorenzo was usually eventful so maybe I could be persuaded.   Hang on!  Rods?

“What rods?”

“Fishing dummy”

“I can’t fish, I hate fishing”. 

I hate it because I’m useless, a fact that can be confirmed by all those over the  years who’ve tried, and failed, to teach me.  Even if it came down to a question of survival, I couldn’t catch anything but the branch of the tree behind me.

Too late.  Events had been set in motion.  Lorenzo and Irina turned up surprisingly on time and after a few minutes deciding on appropriate footwear, we set off.  For the beach?  “Ahh, I thought, we’ve got a boat, I like boats.  I know what to do on a boat”.   Lorenzo pulled up on the shingle about a meter from the edge of the shore and switched off the engine.  The sun had long gone which made it hard to scan too far along the beach for our boat.  

“Vabbo.  You girls head along there”.  Lorenzo said, pointing down to nothing on the left.  “You’ll find a small restaurant, see if you can get some pizza and a few beers.  Charles and I will get the rods organised”.

“Where’s the boat?” I asked as I looked hopefully at some traditionally painted fishing vessels pulled up on the spare ground behind us.

“What boat?  We don’t need a boat, look!”  Said Lorenzo punching me on the arm and grinning.  

I followed the aim of his finger, while I rubbed my arm, and everything quickly became clear.  All along the shore there were dozens of cigar lights glowing red like Cuban spaceships hovering above the water line, identifying rows of fishermen, some with families,  tending lines that disappeared into the sea……. waiting.  The girls took our pizza orders and, after some sniggering about my wanting a nice white wine instead of beer  (“oh you brought a corkscrew with you then?”)  they set off on their hunt for food.

“Right.” said Lorenzo once they’d gone.  “You hold the torch while I get the bait ready, and for goodness sake keep it steady.  The hooks are meant for the fish, not me.”

I gripped the torch tightly while Lorenzo set about the business of pulling out three huge rods and a box filled with live worms and began to thread the invertebrate fish-snacks over the hooks and along the lines with consummate skill.  I could see how a slip of the light could easily end up with him threading his thumb in the same way.   In my broken Italian, which hadn’t got round to fishing vocabulary yet, I tried to explain that I was no good at fishing and that charging me with one of these expensive looking pieces of equipment was going to lead to disaster and possibly even hospital.

“Don’t worry, you’ve got a worse job to do than that my friend”

“ Thanks Lorenzo, I’m just going to pretend I misunderstood you there” I muttered in English.

After only a few minutes he had finished the “baiting” and put on a small miner’s headlamp.  At the edge of the water he hammered some hollow spikes, which served as the rod holsters, into the shingle. 

“OK, when I cast the lines, you’ll see small fluorescent lights at the top of the rods.  Your mission Jim, should you choose to accept, is to watch those lights.  When they start moving up and down, tell me immediately.  All right?”

“Managgia!  Responsibility, I’m sure to screw this up.” 

Have you ever had to watch three lights, spaced about 10 meters apart from each other, simultaneously? Looking for the slightest movement?  It’s full-on concentration, believe me.  But, after a few false alarms mistaking the combined pull of the intermittent breeze and the sea’s gentle swell for hungry fish, I began to relax a little and settle to my task.  The girls returned from their walk about twenty minutes later laden with beers and warm Quattro Stagioni pizza, so we switched our attention to feeding ourselves rather than the fish.  With little in the way of nibbles on the lines, Lorenzo and I settled down on the bonnet of the 4×4, laying our heads back on the windscreen and looking up as we sipped our beers.

Only then did I really begin to take in our surroundings.  Never have I seen so many millions of stars so clearly.  The sky was crowded with clusters of bright diamonds and the moon, large, pink-red and incredibly low in the sky, looked as if it was no further away than the southern headland.   It was so big and close that I swear you could see almost every crater,  mountain range and valley that scars its surface.    Then, after only a couple of minutes came the most amazing sight.  As we looked up, a trail of silver light flashed across the midnight blue and burst into sparks over the Sicilian mountains, burning with life and dying within a matter of seconds. 

“Shooting star, said Lorenzo, we get a lot this time of year”

There was another, then another two in quick succession before, from the sky behind us and over our heads, there came a spectacular meteor shower, intense and awesome for three or four minutes before calming down to one or two random “rockets” once again.  Our very own firework show.  We lay there silent for a moment or two afterwards, taking it all in.

“Welcome to Calabria” said my companion smiling at me, just before his face suddenly changed and he jumped down from the car and started barking orders at everyone.

Whether it was the display we’d just witnessed above or a change in the tide I don’t know, but the action had begun.   For the next half hour we were running from rod to rod, teasing in our prey.  We were hooking fish every couple of minutes from each line in turn, while Lorenzo dashed from sea to car to sea again, reloading the hooks and casting rapidly while we ducked, trying not to lose whatever we had on the end of our lines till he came to take over and make the final landing. 

In those frantic thirty minutes we’d, sorry, he’d caught over a dozen Saraghi, a fish which is about 9-10” long and 4” wide and best grilled with a little lemon juice.  We were tired.  We waited for a little longer while we finished off the last of the beers and packed up, taking with us our BBQ for the following evening along with a memory that will cook for a long time yet.  For me, what had started as an evening full of doubts had ended up as one of those occasions when you just want to get on the phone and tell all your friends.  But, as it was after two in the morning when we got home, it would just have to wait….till now.

Thanks as always Lorenzo.

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Dressed for an Occasion

Coming from a clock-wise country, where social engagements are well planned and arrival times courteously  adhered to, it has taken me a little time to get used to the last-minute changes that distinguish the Calabrian approach.  This upside of this “unplanning” is that it often produces surprisingly pleasant occasions, the downside, however ,is that your never quite sure if you’re dressed appropriately when you leave the house.

On the 26th of December, a Saturday, we had arranged to collect our friend Cristina from her house before heading together into Reggio for a little café society.  It was about mid afternoon when we pulled up outside and were beckoned in to wait while she got ready and I was happily furnished with a glass of grappa to keep me occupied.   When Cristina eventually appeared I was feeling comfortably numb from the home-produced spirit so missed the first warning signs that our plans had changed as she was dressed somewhat down from her usual stylish “Vogue” look.   When the two girls are together and intent on gossip, I am usually left to tag along behind and obey instructions as and when required. 

“The car’s facing the wrong way, can you turn round”  

“But that’s heading away from town, where are we going?”

“We’re going to see Sonia”, Cristina’s sister, she’s helping out at the church”

“Oh well”, I thought, “just go with the flow”.

We had only been driving further up into the hills for a minute or two when we came to the road’s end at a little place called Macellari, where we were met by 3 or 4 official looking guys in fluorescent jackets guiding vehicles into a small waste land beside a very narrow bridge.   We found a space among about a dozen other vehicles and got out to make our way across the footbridge, over a narrow ravine that nudged a patient stream down between the road on one side and the village on the other. 

On the other side, where the path took us up through little rows of houses, there were a number of other little groups ahead and more beginning to follow from behind.  Little family groups of all ages,  chatting  and nodding to each other as they passed.  The congregation on its way to prayer and a reminder of my childhood when we would walk as a family unit to the kirk, rather than drive, out of respect to the Sabbath. 

As we climbed we began to hear faint music, choir music drifting down from the hills ahead, getting clearer and louder as we approached, ebbing and flowing with the warm breeze.  No sooner had we left the last home in the village behind than we passed a small group by the side of the path on our left.  They sat under a wicker frame, a mother and father with a young daughter poking a wood fire to keep warm in the dimming of the day.


Double take!  A mother and father and child… dressed in Arab clothes, head towelling, rope bands with long striped coats and barely visible sandals.  

“Did you see that?” I called to the girls, still focussed on their conversation. 

“What?, Oh that? Very nice” as they glanced back, then got back to whatever the hot topic was.

The music was now getting a lot louder and seemed to be a strange mix of Bach and bagpipes.  It wasn’t until we turned the next bend and the scene opened up to reveal a narrow valley that we all just stopped, and stood, and gaped.   The stream was still evident below us but rising up from either side was a scattering of homesteads dotted around on the hills.  At first glance it all seemed so normal with just a few people coming and going about their daily business, albeit framed by the remains of a Roman viaduct.   As the valley narrowed towards its arches, another footbridge stretched across to connect the village.   Directly across from us there was a small stone cottage with a fire blazing outside.  To one side was a small pen containing about half a dozen goats and what looked, from the distance, like an old woman on a stool milking one of the herd.   Looking closer we saw that each cottage window and doorway was lit by candles and lanterns which illuminated some type of trade activity, a cobbler sewing roughly cut sandals, a potter at her wheel.    Below the bridge crouched a couple of women washing clothes in the stream, beating their garments against the rocks on the bank.  A young girl filled an urn from the stream and turned to walk up the path to the homesteads with it perched carefully on her head.   All the time the shadows and shapes of the viaduct flickered and changed under the streetlights of flaming torches.  Everyone was dressed in authentic robes, headwear and sandals.  We had just stepped into Bethlehem, two thousand and nine years and one day ago. 

The choral music emanated from hidden speakers in the hillside and helped create the most moving, living nativity scene you could imagine.   The bagpiper appeared in front of us from the olive grove above, squeezing an inflated sheep’s hide with pipes replacing where the legs would have been and began to lead us on.  Every house we passed offered something new and fascinating, someone selling wine from leather bottles, olive oil being made from an ancient stone mill-press, hot frittole (a local pork dish) being served on rustic bread, a sweating blacksmith hammering some utensils into shape over a bellow-blown fire of intense heat.   The townsfolk continued as if we weren’t there, time tourists wandering amazed among the Pharisees, Levites and, well, Romans.

As we passed the potter the young girl emptied another urn of water into the basin by her side, to wet the clay, and the piper led on.  When we reached a little square at the top of the village we spotted a small barn.  Of course!   Inside were all the correct animals keeping Joseph and his bride warm.  I’m not good at baby’s ages but I’m going to bet that the child Mary was holding could not have been more than a week old.  How did they do that?  Did they have a list of expectant mothers in the area or just hang outside the maternity hospital, full of faith?

Sonia was the one handing out the frittole, so we stopped for a chat on the way back and helped ourselves to the sweet, rich meat and a cup of red wine.   It was Christmas as it was meant to be.  No priests, no church, no presents, no tree full of coloured lights, just an honest simplicity that got to the heart of the season.  As we left, the sun had sunk behind the hills and the only light was that from the windows and doors and the flickering street lamps, to guide the scores of people who were  just arriving.   This only happens on two days of the year.  The 26th of December and the 6th of January when the three Kings are supposed to arrive on the scene.   Next time I think I’ll wear sandals and not evening shoes.


The Eyes Have It.

It was last Thursday, mid morning.  I was patiently forming a queue of 1 in my bank’s local branch when the entrance capsule opened to receive the branch manager.  He walked over to me, shook my hand and with a big smile said,  “nice to see you, how are you today?”  After my assurance that, indeed, all was well he then repeated the exercise with the chap already being attended to at the counter before trotting off to his office.  The last time I witnessed anything so personal and sincere in a bank was the best part of, well, let’s say many  years ago when I tagged along with my dad while he sought some advice about a planned purchase.  I’m even sure I was allowed to take a toy to keep me out of trouble.  Those forgotten days when a bank manager had the expertise and authority to advise without recourse to a mainframe and without the need to complete a targeted insurance sale.  The moment served to bring into focus the experience I’ve had in becoming a functioning member of the Italian community.

To establish my new status and to cross over to another system I had to complete the following game levels;  obtain codice fiscale (tax and insurance code), open bank account, gather ID card, win driving license. 

Like all of you I’m sure, I’d been warned about the infamous red tape in Italy, so my expectations on completing these tasks in less than a few months were a shade low.  However, and I fib not, the whole list from start to finish was accomplished in less than a day…without once lifting a telephone.  In Calabria they have an office and, more importantly, a real person for everything you need.

Allora, first up and an early start, codice fiscale.  This, I’ve since discovered, is the key to all doors in Italian dungeons and dragons and subsequently the most important.   So, in hindsight, it was very lucky it was top of the list.   I Left the house to go to the Reggio office at 8.15am and was back home by 9.45am, job done including travel time.   Surely to catch me unawares!                                                                                                                                                         

 Second step, bank account.  Interview with the manager, complete forms, deposit funds and walk out complete with activated debit card…45 minutes, including hand shake and welcome to the bank.  Too easy!

Step three coffee, before going to photo shop for mug-shots for ID card and driving license.  Total time and cost, about 10 minutes and 5.7 euros.   This, I have to say, is where the story becomes just a little more “Calabrian.” 

To apply for an ID card one has to go to the local municipal office, which in my case is only a short stroll from the photo shop.  In Pellaro you climb a few steps from the street into a small, square and very old-fashioned building which surrounds a tiny courtyard.  There’s no reception counter to speak of, so you make your way round the quad till you find someone who looks vaguely as if they belong.   I was shown into a council-plain room with yellow gloss walls, a few old and battered bookcases and a huge heavy-looking wooden desk.   From a cracked leather chair the chief  “funzionario” stood up, greeted me warmly and offered me a seat while he opened a drawer and pulled out the necessary forms, suspiciously as if he’d been expecting me.   Name, address, phone number, place of birth and occupation.  No need here, nor the bank by the way, to explain my movements over the last 10 years, my employer’s details nor income.  No need to feel that there’s a check going on against the national police databank, just in case.  ‘Till, that is, it comes to your personal appearance.  This is where it gets serious.

 “Hair colour?” .


“Hmmm, think we’ll put grey”

“Oh!” The realisation of age catching me up as I stroke what little hair cover I have left.  “Okay then, I suppose.”


“5ft 10”

“Eh?  Aah, of course!  In meters please”

“I’m afraid I don’t know”

We got up and moved to the next room where there was a door frame with a few notches marking out centimetres from the 30cm level up to the top of the frame (what they have to measure at 30cm still has me puzzled from time to time).  We established my height in European….1.77m, then returned to our seats at the desk.

“Ohkaaay, colour of eyes?”  And, deciding not to take my word for it, he leans over and stares at me intently for a moment.  “Green!” He declares.

“Are you sure?  I would have said brown.”

“Mmmm.  Wait a moment”.  He gets up and calls to someone in the next office.  “Can you come in here and check something for me”.

A female colleague arrives and looks straight into my eyes.  “Brown.”

“Brown?  No way!  They’re definitely green”

“Rubbish!  I say brown”

Not happy with a split vote,  he lifts the phone and summons a further two employees (or employee and other customer, I’m not sure).

“Green for me” says one, “Sure they’re not a sort of grey-brown?” questions the other.

By the time we had a two vote majority establishing that I no longer had brown eyes but green, we’d had a full room of about nine people all gazing very deeply into my eyes.   Most disconcerting, I assure you, but my identity would be waiting for me to collect two days later for 5 euros. 

The process was now nearly complete but I had only a few minutes to leg it round to my appointment with the driving license office.  An appointment, why?  Because I had to have my new green eyes tested by a doctor.  There were about seven or eight people waiting ahead of me when I skidded in, so I settled down to catch my breath.  It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before I looked up to see that the queue had evaporated and I was hearing my name being called from another room.  

“Sit there please”

I sat down in the only free chair in the office, against the back wall, and peered through the dim light across to another large desk which was covered in open files and papers.  Behind the desk sat the doctor, I’d presumed, leafing through a bundle of forms.  Without looking up he picked up a long stick from below the table and pointed in the vague direction of a chart on the wall behind him.  (Please note here that I had spent the previous few nights religiously practicing the Italian alphabet which is a few letters short of the English version and that i & e sounds are easily confused)

Still without looking up or turning round, he points and commands,





“Ok”, next please”.  He stamps a form and hands it to me.  “Go to the other office and give them this”.

The next client and I passed each other as I left the room and went to hand over my form and fee at reception.  How long did it take you to read the last paragraph?  That’s how long my green eye test took.  My license duly arrived 3 days later, though a little more expensive as the doctor’s fee had to be met, of course.   He probably calculates his earnings by the minute than by the hour.

The truth?  I never once needed the phone, no labyrinth of numbers to select, no repeating my name clearly and slowly three times to a voice recognition system that ends with going back to option 1, while I damage the wall with my forehead.    Just a look at the world with new eyes.


Thinking Outside The Box Office

Just as a footnote to my last article about Pentedattilo and to add weight, were it really needed, to Calabria’s ability to surprise, I must let you know what happened just hours after sending out the last post.

You may remember how intrigued Iwas to find out how it could be possible to accommodate an audience for a film in any of the houses I saw in the village.  Well, let me tell you, the answer is even more surprising than I could have possibly guessed, though perhaps some of you quicker thinkers are already ahead of me.   I received a very gracious comment to the blog from Emanuele Milasi, the Artistic Manager of the Pentedattilo Film Festival, who has kindly invited me to the 2010 event so that I can see how it ‘s all done.   Have you guessed yet?  Do you want to know?  OK.  They show the films against the outside of the buildings I saw!  Of course!   All I can say is,  I can’t  imagine a more inspired location for such an original spectacle, especially on a balmy August evening under the stars.  The smell of  wild flowers, the torchlight of the moon guiding the way to my seat below mountain balconies, truly a seat in the gods.

So, do yourselves a favour.  If you’re looking for something new to do this summer, come to the picture houses!

My apologies, but as I was in London over last weekend the usual weekly post will be a little delayed.

(Please see links page for Festival web site)