Winning over Italy

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

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The Old Man by The Sea

The Calabrese are a tolerant lot, they’ve tolerated me for the last eight months after all.  Tolerated my bad Italian and put up with me writing things about far.  They don’t let themselves get wound up over things.  Rather than jumping about looking for someone to pin the blame on for the recent travel crisis they just gave a sort of national shrug,  “volcanoes happen” they said, rather a lot of them here actually.  Of course they argue, passionately, but there’s no bile attached no feelings of having to break something or someone.  They would happily argue about the colour of a chameleon crossing a tartan rug, but the key word here is “happily.”

I put these low stress levels  (in one of the poorest parts of the country mind you) down as one of the main reasons why life expectancy is here is a lot longer than the three score and ten amen.  That and, of course, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables real fresh you understand, not supermarket fresh.  There’s a small town we passed through recently, between Tropea and Nicotera, where an octogenarian is considered to be a young scallywag.  Imagine;  gangs of delinquent eighty-somethings roaming the town on their zimmers, high on prescription drugs, looking for trouble and gate-crashing domino parties just for laughs.  Spray-painting “Great grandfathers rule OK”….scary.   Deaths in the region are announced not in the press but locally on special notice-boards strategically placed round the town.  Just a glance reveals some incredible ages.  Some even just have an estimate against their name.

“I’m telling you he was ninety-six!”

“Rubbish, you’re losing your memory, he was ninety-nine if he was a day.  He was in the class above me at school.”

“When were you ever at school?  We didn’t have them in those days!”

You see, those arguments again.

 One Sunday, a few weeks ago, Maria suggested we take a drive to Scilla for a coffee and an afternoon stroll.   Scilla is a very beautiful old fishing town about 30 minutes drive to the north and in the summer the beach is one of the most popular places to head for.  On this day however, it was almost deserted.  Dramatic storm-waves were crashing through the short tunnel under the castle between the  beach and the old town.  The only people around were the restaurant owners on the sea-front, sweeping the washed-up sand out of their properties and onto the beach where it belonged, while the sea seethed and hissed it back up to their doorways again.  In the old fishing quarter there were only a few scavenging cats circling an overturned bin.  We stood on the sea wall for a while and let the wind blow our post-lunch drowsiness away before getting back in the car to make our way gingerly up the old narrow streets to the main town on the rock-face high above us.

We parked in the Piazza outside the church and walked over to the balustrade to look back down on the beach below us.  There were a handful of the town elders sitting on the benches round the square, gossiping and joking with each other while a sole barista leaned on the door frame of his empty café, having a smoke.  Maria had started taking photos, trying to get a decent shot of the castle with me in the foreground  looking thoughtfully out to sea, trying not to laugh, when one of the old men walked slowly over to join us.

“Your husband doesn’t need to take a picture of you” he said to Maria. “How could a man forget such a beautiful woman, your face will always be in his memory.”

“Where are you from? Are you from Calabria?” still addressing Maria, “I can tell your man is not.”

“Yes I’m from near Reggio and my husband’s from the UK”

“Ah, did he come all this way to find you?  A man should travel a long way in his search for a beautiful girl.”

 Maria, obviously flattered, felt that then would be a good time to go over and offer the barista in the café some brief employment, before she found herself getting too embarrassed.   She smiled and politely bade farewell to our companion, thanking him for his kind words as we crossed the square to order our drinks.   Half an hour later we’d paid for our coffees and were about to get back into the car when, out of nowhere, our friend appeared once again.  By then I had the sneaking suspicion that if Maria had been alone, he’d have tried his luck.  But he smiled and shook my hand and, still grasping firmly, started reciting a poem he said he’d just written.   It was in local dialect and told the story of a foreign traveller who happened upon a village in Calabria and saw a beautiful dark-haired girl gathering water from the town well.  He immediately fell under her spell but watched from afar till he had the courage to ask the father for the girl’s hand in marriage.   Now, I’m not superstitious but let me just say I was glad when the story ended with a “happy ever after”.  He was still grasping my hand and I had the strange notion that he was seeing a little more than he was letting on.  “Nonsense, he’s just an old man with a poetic soul.” I reasoned.   As Maria was climbing back into the car he turned to me and, sideways to my ear, he confided,

“There’s a woman I am chasing.  She’s not the most attractive woman, but her mother has much money and hasn’t been well lately.”  He winked and gave my arm a tight squeeze as I got into the car.

“Don’t you start chatting up young girls when you retire” warned Maria as we drove off.  “Definitely no poems, am I understood?”

Even as we left I could see him in the mirror, waving and smiling as he walked over to his buddies on the Piazza bench.  I hoped then that I came here in enough time to grow old disgracefully.

“Yes darling, you’re understood.”

 Time waits for no one, but here it would seem to last a little longer…  especially for the old men by the sea.

(Note; Please listen to “Time Waits For No-one” by Alan Stewart via my LINKS page.  Seems to fit!)

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Bacon’s Picnic

Lying in the warm grass, head resting on the lap of a beautiful woman, looking up at a flawless blue sky through the silver-green leaves of an olive tree.  Late afternoon on a perfect day.

Traditionally, on Easter Monday Italy to goes for a picnic.  Not your common or garden, cucumber -sandwich- on- a -tartan- rug picnic mind you, but a flown-blown feast.   A long table packed with food and wine for about twenty is about average, just like you’ve seen in those beautiful slow-moving Italian movies.

 Gina, Toto, Maria and I had been invited by Carmen, a colleague of Maria’s, to join her and her family at a country spot near Bova, a little place on the coast just south of home.  The preparations however, start a good three days before the event.  Gina baked a traditional Easter loaf called “Cudduraci”, a sweet bread often shaped like a fish or a dove, where the dough is wrapped round an egg which then cooks in its shell, inside the loaf.  She also made a number of “Pastiera”, a rustic cake containing ricotta, candy and, of all things, barley.  Meanwhile Maria prepared her speciality of minced-beef roll stuffed with ricotta and spinach while Toto and I snuck out to our little winery and sampled each cask of wine carefully to select the best for the bottles we would take.  That was our excuse anyway.   By 9.30 on Monday morning Gina had cooked off the Veal Milanese  and the car was packed with wine, food, Amaro Del Capo, and our own home-grown olives, matured in jars of salt water and chilli.  At last we were ready for the off.

After about half-an-hour’s drive and as the sun was burning off the last of the morning’s mist, we pulled off the main road and slowly, very slowly, made our way down the  remains of a dusty farm track, nerves jangling to the sound of the car sills scraping over the pot holes and baked ruts.  Then, suddenly, just after a small church in the middle of nowhere, we turned right and found ourselves driving through the middle of a massive olive grove.  Already the place was busy with dozens of  groups setting up for the day, putting up tables, laying out food and lighting fires to cook over, certainly not for heat.   We pulled up in the grass next to the area where Carmen’s extended family were busy laying the table.   As I unpacked our contribution to the feast, we were passed round the family and introduced; cousins, uncles, aunts, children and grandparents all queued to be met.  About twenty one of us in all.  All around, the sound of happiness danced its way through the olive trees to the rhythm of Tarantella music.

“What is this place “? I asked looking around, unaware that I’d broken into some considered murmuring that was going on between the men.  “Does the owner not mind all these people descending on his land?”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, then at each other quizzically. 

“We’re not quite sure to be honest”  someone eventually concluded, “But people have been coming here for years with no problem.   A long time ago it used to belong to the same barons that owned the mansion and lands around Pellaro, or at least the same family.” 

“No-one’s quite sure who it belongs to now.” Added another.

“Are the olives harvested, does someone take care of it all?”

The best answer seemed to be a group shrug.  “Boh” they said and quickly dismissed any further awkward questions by returning to the more serious topic of Toto’s wine.   “Mmmm, this one’s got a very round body”. 

I took the  hint and joined in – the world is not our affair, at least not for the moment.

Carmen’s daughter came over to me, she’s about three.  “My name’s Ilaria” she whispered.

 “Really? That’s Hilary in English, I have a sister called Hilary.” I confided. 

“So I’m Hilary, Yes?”

 She took possession of my  hand and led me away for a walk.   All round the grove there were soft-red flowering fields and hills, there were vineyards and old crumbling buildings, pastures and woods.   Patiently I followed as she led me back towards a group of teenagers who were playing Tarantella  (a sort of cross between Celtic and Cajun).   The accordion was being passed around to a new performer after each song, the girls dancing the traditional dance while little groups of picnickers gathered to watch and listen.   Young people playing their own music, talking in their own dialect.

When we returned to our own picnic, Carmela (Carmen’s aunt) was grilling some pancetta over the fire.  It was sliced thinner than usual, perfect for bacon and eggs one morning I thought. 

I went over and (thought) I said “We call this bacon,  I haven’t seen it look so thin in Italy.”  She looked at me a little sadly I thought, never mind.  Then, just as if some ultra-sonic whistle had gone off , one only audible to Italians, the place went suddenly quiet as the whole site sat down to eat in their respective camps.   Food was passed around, up and down the table.  Wild mushrooms, olives, bread, pasta, Milanese, salame, all sorts of flavours, meats and cheeses and of course, rich, deep red wine.  Carmela offered me some sausages…and a slice of lemon. 

“Lemon with sausages?”

“Of course,  it helps the digestion”

 So I tried sausage with a drizzle of lemon….fantastic. 

“Would you like some, bacon?” 

“Yes please!”  I declared, as I picked a hot rasher and drizzled a little more lemon, beautiful. 

Within seconds of finishing the bacon, Carmela was back at my side.  “Bacon, would you like some more?”

“Of course.”

She filled my plate with a huge helping of lasagna and smiled.  I looked at the plate, obviously confused.

“Don’t you like lasagna?”

“No, No” I assured her, “I love it”.

“Then eat, bacon, eat.”

The table started to vibrate to suppressed laughter.  Carmela and I looked up.  They’d been watching the entire exchange.

 “What?  What did I do?”  I looked at a weeping Maria for some explanation.

“Carmela, his name’s Charles, not bacon.”  She spluttered.

“But he said he was called thin Bacon, I’m only trying to put some “beef” on him”.

 By then most of us were happy to have a sip of Amaro Del Capo and relax, but it wasn’t over yet.  There would be no rest until the mountain of tiramisu, cakes and huge, beautifully wrapped chocolate Easter eggs had been respectfully reduced to a mole hill.   Then, just when you thought it was safe to lie down and sleep, the fresh espresso kicked in.  The men argued and put the world to rights, the women talked and put the men to rights. 

Now, lunch is over.  The sun hot, so we lie in the shade, Maria and I.  I look up and see a perfect sky through the green and silver olive leaves.  It doesn’t matter how thin the bacon you bring home, life can still be a picnic.

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Just a Thought.

Before my next “piece” I thought I’d better answer a couple of  recurring questions. 

For those of you who’ve asked to hear more about Lorenzo, don’t fret.  He will feature again, whether I like it or not.  I’ve had too many hangovers to ignore the fun that is Lorenzo and his (fortunate) spirit of adventure!

For those who would like to know more about travelling in this neck of the woods, I’m setting up a contact page which will allow me to answer any queries about where to stay, what to see and what to spend.

Thank you for your comments and I hope I answer them all.

All the best, Charles.


Welcoming the Invaders.

Palm Sunday and , oddly, election day in Italy.  We were in Tropea with Roberto and Arianna, having some lunch in the main square.  It was quiet, too quiet.  At least it was for Arianna and Maria who have secretly been looking forward to some shopping but, being a summer tourist town, the season hasn’t kicked in yet.   Today everything is closed, except the camera shutter.  So we sit, eat arancini and enjoy a carafe of local red wine straight from the cask for a couple of euros.  (Three or four cafes and bars were open for locals).  We wander around for an hour or so and shoot side streets and squares, balconies and the ancient Benedictine church on the Isola with its (closed) underwater caves.  We arrive at the Duomo Square.  Strangely, considering  the day, on either side of the entrance door to the church are two unexploded war-time bombs and, on the outside of the building, an old stencil.  An old political promotion for  Il Duce himself.  On a day that one of the founding nations  of democracy was going to ballot, a 70-year-old, unsullied effigy of Mussolini still looked down on the church square.  The past lives with the present here.   The menus are translated into German, the few tourists we’ve seen are American.

“Any chance we can drop in to see my sister on the way back” asks Roberto as we stroll back to the car.

“Where does she live?”

“Oh, a small town we passed through to get here.  Nicotera.”

“Ok, let’s go now then shall we?  We all agree.

Leaving pretty Tropea to prepare for its seasonal invasion, we drop back down the steep, spiralling road into the lowlands for a few kilometres before climbing back up again into a busy town perched on a granite outcrop that marks the northern boundary of the Calabrian plains.  Just outside the main town live Silvana, her husband and her two energetic children.

When I meet new people I tend to get a little shy of my shamefully basic Italian so, after the usual polite introductions, I quietly retreated from the chit-chat to the kitchen balcony which looks very inviting.  I passed a few familiar looking paintings but, as I have to admit to being more interested in the prospect panorama, I paid them scant attention.  I had only been admiring the balcony view for a moment when Roberto’s brother-in-law, Massimiliano, joined me. 

“What do you think of the view?  He asked in excellent English.  “If you look across the plains you can just make out the ships in the port of Gioia Tauro, see how they seem to float across the land as they crawl up river.  Over to the right is the old city of Nicotera, it has a long and interesting history.  Goes back to 500 A.D.  Do you see the church in the middle of the town?”

We were looking down and across to the old town and a jumbled mass of terracotta roofs and stone walls.

He continued.  “ It’s built on a thousand-year-old Dominican, how do you say? Ah, yes a monastery.  You can still see the catacombs which are now a museum.  And on the other side there is an old town underneath the town you can see now.  It was an old Jewish district, would you like to see?  We can go now if you’re ready.  I promise it is very interesting.”

The family had been getting ready for our excursion as he talked so when we went back inside, everyone  was already waiting at the door. 

“Do you like my pictures?” he asked, as he hung an enormous and complicated looking Nikon round his neck and put his jacket on.   “It’s my hobby.  There’s only one that’s really original, in my own style.  For me.” 

All round the house were the most amazing oils.  Every wall displayed paintings in the styles of Van Gogh, Picasso and others… all more than good enough to be hanging in their own gallery.  If he’d told me they were recently discovered works, I’d have believed him.   In one corner, in the least prominent position, hung the original Massimiliano.   A hint at the modesty of an undeniable talent, one of many I learned as the afternoon drifted on.

As the eight of us walked up and down and through the town our guide took me under his wing, educating and entertaining.  About photography, history and sociology.   About the past 1,500 years of invasion, general GBH and occupation.  The Greeks ,The Romans, The Saracens, The Northern Hoards, The Dominicans, The Spanish, The Africans and Turks, The Germans and even the gods (Hercules) have been here and lived.   It made me think how us Brits got off a bit lightly over the years.  In between stories, my tutor encouraged me into little angles and crouch into corners to take more educated photos.

“It’s better from here.  Take a look at this.  No, try from this doorway.”

All the time the “family” trotted behind, enjoying his enthusiasm and absorbing more knowledge themselves.  We saw the ancient wooden carving of the crucifixion hung on the church walls, pitted with dry rot and Turkish bullet holes.  We saw the old Jewish town, donated by Frederick 2nd to encourage trade and prosperity.  We saw the balcony in the old square where Garibaldi addressed the people on the eve of the new Italy, The New Republic.  Now a simple ice-cream shop, the building still has the power (if you narrow your eyes a little) to make you see history and romance in the making.

“Is anyone doing anything to preserve all this, all these amazing buildings?” I asked innocently.

Massi  looked sad for a moment.  “I would like to thank you for giving me the reason to come back here with my camera.” he said.  “It’s been years since I appreciated what was on my doorstep.  The sorrow is that no one has the vision to see what you and I can see.  There is so much to keep but no will or money to keep it.”

“If only more people knew about it”  I said.  “Most of our older history was pulled down and shortbread-tinned years ago.  Here even tiny houses occupied a thousand years ago still stand.  It should be preserved as long as possible… somehow.”

 With the children’s legs tired and the camera battery exhausted, we got back in the cars and headed down into the beach town area with it square, new-town layout for the “best ice cream in Calabria”.  High above us the old looked down on the new, its nose in the air.  We talked a while about politics and the Italian way.

“We need enterprising, open minds like your people.” said Massi.  “We are too content to let what happens happen.  Maybe we’ve been invaded so many times we are used to someone else telling us what to do.” 

I tried to point out the odd thing or two that Italy has brought to civilisation….Puccini, Columbus, Michelangelo, De Vinci, not to mention small essentials like roads, democracy and public sanitation.

“Don’t be in a hurry to turn things over to Pizza Express and Sainsbury’s.”  I suggested.  “There’s a reason why people like us love Italy.”

So many of the people I meet are self-depreciating and reluctant to eulogize about their nation, pointing  out instead it’s failings and problems to outsiders .  No bragging, not even about four World Cups, except possibly to the French – so I hope they don’t mind if I do a bit of bragging for them in the blog.   Two things to start for sure, their warmth and generosity. 

Massi and Silvana waved us off with an invitation to return soon and see more of Calabria’s hidden secrets. 

“He knows the places” Roberto assured me as we drove off.  “You should call him”.

“Don’t worry, I will.”

The sun was low as we made our way through town, skirting the voters returning from their ever-hopeful chore.  The day didn’t change things in Rome.  Sometimes  it’s just as well.