In his book McCarthy’s Bar Pete McCarthy tells how the Irish have the most practical and sociable of sayings, if your name’s above the bar you should enter and buy yourself a drink. As most bars in the Republic carry the name of the proprietor or past proprietor there’s always the possibility that you may even be related so it would be rude to pass by one of the family without saying hello. If the same philosophy held true in England then the Royal Family would have one hell of a pub crawl, especially the Prince of Wales and The Duke of York. Though one doubts they’d meet any relatives, no matter how distant. I was a little more than surprised therefore when, a few months ago, I came across a bar called Cameron’s Coffee House down here in the toe of Italy. Being a loyal clansman (the second ‘C’ represents my credentials on my mother’s side) I couldn’t possibly pass without dropping in. Not that I expected to bump into any highland cousins you understand but I did get to meet the owners, the Cogliandro family, and over the months it has become a place of choice to sketch out some of my ideas. I can sit and have a coffee or beer and make my notes while watching the world whizz by or see it slow down to come in and watch the Juventus game . You see, the odd thing is that Cameron’s is actually a petrol station.
Remember the days when you’re dad pulled in to fill up the car and you were greeted by a smart attendant in a uniform? When you didn’t actually get out the vehicle and the whole process including payment took less than 5 minutes? No waiting in a queue to serve yourself followed by a longer wait while the ten people in front of you at the cash desk stocked up on their weekend shopping. “I just want to pay for my unleaded and be on my way.” You scream to yourself. “Why in heaven’s name is there no petrol-only cash desk?” You complain. Cameron’s is fairly typical of most Italian gas stations, privately owned and run like a personal business…pumps and attendants for fuel and a bar for refreshments, meeting up with friends or watching the footie. They have individual character and the best of both worlds exists in that you can have the car refuelled, topped up with water and have the oil and tyres checked while you enjoy a gin and tonic and a smoke at a table on the forecourt, not more than 2.5 metres from the nearest pump.- the neat row of terracotta planters, cascading with flowering shrubs, provide a clear and effective flame barrier. Local history and the office of statistics declare that, as yet, there hasn’t been a single episode of a petrol station exploding in a fireball that wasn’t entirely deliberate. You might bring about someone’s untimely death by smoking inside, but not outside.
But Cameron’s is much more than that; it’s where the fishermen meet up for a coffee and brandy at 5.00am before they go to catch lunch and where they return on their way back to celebrate their luck; it’s where the local football team gather before making their way to training or a Thursday evening game and where the kids meet up on their Vespas** (or their non-descript Japanese versions) around midnight before they head off to Reggio for the disco at that night’s beach club; it’s where the independent trucker pulls in to eat Panini and drink red wine before settling down for a night in the cab. Cameron’s is a petrol station with landscaped grounds that are carefully maintained with tall white lilies, orange and red flowers, small palms and clipped shrubs that seem to flower all year round and, like all bars in Italy, it’s spotless. Activity comes in erratic surges, a trickle of business most of the day is interrupted by sudden bursts of demand and supply which drown out the sound of the crickets in the sunburnt fields beyond the perimeter and sometimes, just sometimes, something exciting happens.
A couple of days ago I was sitting outside in the late evening watching the sun go down with Nino, one of the two sons who run the business (Pippo was down checking on the lido they have in the summer). We were commenting on the fact that, at that moment, we could see almost every conceivable mode of transport in front of us. The busy road carrying trucks, buses and cars at alarming speed in the foreground, the single carriage diesel train chugging north towards Pellaro along the shoreline, the white sails of yachts on the Med weaving in and out of the cruise liner and the container ship, the bright colours of the kite and wind surfers and, from above the peaks of Sicily, the afternoon plane from Rome was turning into its final approach. Just then the polizia pulled into the small run-off just north of the entrance. This is not particularly unusual as either they or the carabinieri will often park there to perform spot checks on passing vehicles, especially at this time when the road is packed with cars returning from the southern beaches to the city. It’s a happy hunting ground for them and a happy time for Nino. The smart drivers who spot the polizia in time, as they speed down the long straight, heave on the brakes and slow down as they pass the garage while the less observant who are racing three abreast across the whole road, are waved in for the inevitable penalty. What makes Nino happy is the extraordinary number of drivers who pull into the forecourt, succumbing to a sudden urge for caffeine…either that or a more immediate need to avoid the document-checking uniforms. This is funny to watch. The drivers get out of their vehicles with feigned nonchalance and make their way to the bar as if this had always been their intention, pointedly avoiding a glance at the polizia in case eye contact is made and their number noted. Within five minutes of the constabulary’s arrival, the car park was forty-full and the bar was doing a roaring trade. The longer the polizia stay, the more fine forms they fill out the more money fills the cash register. Yet, somehow, the forecourt always escapes scrutiny.
As I say, this is not particularly unusual, just the source of some amusement. It was when the polizia decided that they’d met their quota and drove off that things got interesting. A few minutes after the light blue 159 had left and the mass exodus of customers had started running, Le Mans-style, for their line of cars there was a loud screech of brakes at the southern entrance. Everyone turned to look as a small Alfa suddenly turned in to block a Fiat on its inside path. As the Fiat seemed to try and reverse, the four beach-clad occupants of the Alfa jumped out, doors left wide open, and ran towards the blocked hatchback. At first it looked like a very rare case of road rage but as they surrounded the Fiat and began screaming and pointing some frightening looking armoury at the occupants, everyone in the forecourt suddenly skidded to a halt. For a fraction of a second you could see the possible consequences flashing across all our minds. Do we head back indoors and duck? Do we all make for the toilets and deny witness? “Honestly officer, I was in the toilet at the time.” What! All forty of you… in two cubicles?” In the speed of things there was no way of knowing what this was all about, just that it could get messy. How were the men in the Fiat going to react, who had they upset? With one hand still pointing his firearm at the driver, one of the aggressors fished in his back pocket and produced an open badge wallet with the other. The four men in the Fiat were dragged out of the car, stumbling as they tried to keep balance with their hands behind their heads. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” they cried, literally, as they were forced on the run to the nearest wall, which they met with their faces. Ouch! They were not about to remove their hands from behind their heads to absorb hard-brick impact with primed steel pressing at their necks. There they remained with no movement, except possibly for their bowels and trembling knees. The bar heaved a collective sigh of relief as the immediate danger was expediently brought under some control. The whole episode probably took less than two minutes and it was certainly only another minute after I’d raised my head above the back of the bar stool when uniform wailed into the car park. The “subjects” were cuffed and packed into the back of the two police cars and, just as quickly as they’d been stopped, they were dispatched to more secure premises.
The bar was back to normal as if nothing had ever happened as the last siren drifted off into the night. As I tried to manage my heart back into place from its temporary relocation in my mouth, I caught Nino looking at me, a small smile playing on the corner of his mouth as he continued to read the pink sports paper. He hadn’t flinched from his article during the whole affair. Perhaps he’s seen it all before or perhaps he thinks football really is more important. Either way, I smiled weakly back and shuffled off to my own car. Think I had all the ideas I needed for the next post.
** Read Peter Moore’s ‘Vroom’ books for the true cultural significance of the Vespa…..see links on this blog.
With thanks to the staff at Cameron’s Coffee House.