Winning over Italy

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

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Mandarin Trims….Ruins and Renovations

Ruins and Renovations, in Pentedattilo

The air is warm and still, fresher after last night’s rain.  The perfumes have been released from the rosemary, mingling with the coffee that drifts from the kitchen.  I’m sitting in the shade of the mandarin tree, eyes half closed with nothing disturbing the quiet except the sound of the chickens discussing last week’s egg production.  “Really Margherita, you’re going to have to push your weight a bit more, otherwise you’ll find yourself swimming in your own juices with the potatoes.” The only other sound is a low buzzing noise somewhere near my left ear.  How many people can say they’ve had their hair cut by an itinerant barber under a mandarin tree?  His electric clipper works its way round to the other ear.  Sadly it takes longer to trim my beard than cut my hair these days, but I shouldn’t complain.  Normally my shearing takes place on the patio but that’s gone for the time being, removed on the back of the builder’s lorry to allow for the new foundations.  The work has finally started on our envelope-planned home. 

If I sounded a little less than complimentary about the Calabrese approach to driving last week, let me make amends immediately.  The work rate among builders here is something else entirely.  From the minute the two men arrived, sharp at seven, they got stuck in without prevarication.  No cup of tea to appraise the situation, no two-observers-for-every-labourer and no break for a full English and a flick through the ‘Soar-away’ at the nearest caff’.  The only sun being absorbed is the one beating down on their backs as they work solidly without rest till twelve, leaving the site tidy and organised before lunch.  At 1pm they’re back and continue with a level of  productivity that makes your back ache just watching.  When the builder initially said that the whole job would only take two to three weeks I confess that I laughed a little to myself, my own estimate jaded by past experience.  Now however I’m beginning to realise why Gino, our Sicilian friend back in London, always brought over workers from his home town to do any building work in his restaurants.   These guys are harder grafters than anyone I’ve seen before and I take my hat off to them.

We had to think carefully about how the place was going to look.  It had to be modern enough to be efficient and easy to maintain but neither of us wanted to lose its ‘authenticity’ or rustic appeal completely.  A dream project would have been to use old stone and build it ourselves ‘literally’, but that was just romantic nonsense… wouldn’t be finished for decades.  We will draw the line at a token cart-wheel on the wall (I promise) but I’m sure at least that it won’t look so modern as to be dull. 

This issue can be a problem in Reggio.  Although it’s Italy’s second oldest city it has a bit of a split personality when it comes to building these days.  Keats came here for a weekend and stayed a month, Gabrielle D’Annunzio famously described the main promenade as the most beautiful kilometre in Italy at the turn of the last century while in 2006, wit and raconteur Scott Smith said of the city, “Be nice when it’s finished.”  Scott isn’t far wrong.  You fall in love at once with the little towns perched on their mountains, steeped in myth and legend, and the villages that climb up from the sea, intent on surprising and seducing you as you turn another corner on the coast road but, Reggio itself is a far more confusing affair.  One minute you love the mixed Liberty style and Venetian buildings of the centre and next you stare appalled at the unfinished square blocks of urban growth.  A few Italians, like Paolo who we lunched with last week, will painstakingly and lovingly restore an old cottage over a period of years, a joy both to look at and live in, while their neighbour will build a small featureless block of flats that look sadly out of place next door.

There’s a good reason why much of the building work looks unfinished, from the outside anyway.  In Calabria old habits die hard and the now-visionary concept of not having something till you’ve saved for it still remains strong.  In one year of living here I’ve yet to see a credit card used.  You build your property as you can afford it so at least what you build is yours, not the bank’s, and as a result the credit crunch has had much less of an impact here.  The ‘dream home’ just stays a dream for a bit longer.  The inside of these homes is a completely different matter.  Again with great common sense the Italian reckons that the inside of the home is where your guests are going enjoy your company, not standing looking at the external walls.  You can find  yourself approaching your host’s domain clambering through scaffolding but once inside your treated to marble floors and expert finishing that you might expect in a small palace.  Indeed the interior of the most anonymous looking public building can be decorated with renaissance friezes and intricate ceilings that make even the inside of the Westminster Palace look positively drab.  

Gerace’s cobbled streets

The preservation of many of the old domestic homes around the region comes from a surprising quarter.  Recently Roberto and Arianna took us to the beautiful medieval town of Gerace which is remarkable for many reasons, not least its situation perched on top of a mountain 1,600ft above sea level.   What makes it so beautiful is that it’s almost entirely made of up original buildings, from its Norman castle and Byzantine cathedral to the narrow cobbled streets of tradesmen’s homes and shopkeepers, with little of the last century in evidence. 

“I’m amazed that so much of the town has been preserved in such good condition.” I remarked, as we wandered slowly up from the main square to the castle.  “You feel as if you’ve stepped back about four hundred years in time.” 

“We’ve got people like you to thank for that.” Smiled Roberto. 

“How so?”

“Most of the old houses have been kept up by visitors from abroad who’ve come and settled here or bought homes for holidays, I think they appreciate the value of keeping our  heritage more than we do ourselves sometimes.”

Much the same can be said of Pentedattilo (see ‘Tales of the Unexpected’) where the abandoned town is slowly rising out of the ruins again thanks to the work and determination of visiting artistes and tourists.  In fact this is where I learned, at the annual film festival last week, the other reason why many of the old houses are left to crumble.  We were  talking to Maria Milasi one of the festival organisers when (my) Maria asked if it was possible to buy one of the ruins and rebuild it, just for a little studio to escape to you understand… another of those little dream things that make life fun.

“Funnily enough we’ve been trying for ages to buy something ourselves.” Said (the other) Maria.  “The problem is that when the place was abandoned fifty years ago most of the occupants left for America or countries like Argentina and the local authorities can’t track them down.  You see, they’re still the registered owners.  You could take a risk that they’ll never come back or that they’re dead now, but it would be a lot of money and work if  they suddenly turned up again.”

“Thanks for the work mate, very kind of you.  Now if you could move out by Friday, my grandfather in Rio left this to me in his will.”

This is a common story all over, the owners die and no one claims the property until years later when the damage from lack of maintenance has been done, if they’re ever claimed at all.  If you can’t find the owner, you can’t buy the property.

In the meantime we’ll do our best to keep in-tune with our surroundings as much as possible, completing each stage as we go over the next couple of years.  In the future? I think I’ll be having my trim under the mandarin tree from on.


A Guide To Motoring In Calabria

Hire a small car if you can.

“Who’s that at the end of the bar Toni?”  I indicated with a nod to the chap who was muttering to himself, his hand shaking every time he picked up his drink.   “Oh that’s just Nico.”  Toni replied, as he continued to polish the only glass that had been used that day.  “Pay no attention.”   

“What’s wrong with him?”   I insisted.  

Nino stopped for a moment and lent over to talk confidentially. “He’s a driving instructor.”  He whispered. 

“Oh, right , enough said.” 

We both turned to look as Nico shook half the contents of his drink over the bar counter.  “Oh well, back to work”  he said with false bravado.   “One day I’ll get this as far as my mouth.” 

I don’t know what the suicide rate for driving instructors in Calabria is, I only know it must take a special kind of courage.   You know how much I love the Italian way of life but yes, if  there’s one thing that could be the tiniest, weeniest bit better, it’s the driving.   I have therefore taken it upon myself to offer the following survival hints to the uninitiated traveller to these parts.  The essential guide to motoring in Southern Italy. 

Hint No.1:   Most  Italians learn their road sense on a machine called a vespa  (scooter) at the age of 14.  Just when they’re learning what else a penis  can do, they learn that they can also ride this thing without regard to consequence or concern about anyone else on the way. …who needs to indicate that they’re coming up the inside when it should be patently obvious.   This carefree approach becomes ingrained by the time they graduate to 4 wheels, only faster. 

Hint No.2:   Cars in Italy come as a more basic model, regardless of country of origin, and extras are fitted as needed.  E.g. The indicator is almost never needed and mirrors are only for make-up or hanging things from, faith takes care of the rest.  

Hint No.3:   Headlights:    During the day dipped headlights are legally required on main roads, fog lamps just to make sure and full beam essential for reserve ammunition. 

Hint No.4:   Rear/Brake Lights:   Regular checking that these function is not necessary,  you’re not worried about where you’ve been just where you’re going.   Red lights are for Christmas trees and streets of sin. 

Hint No.5:   Horns:   Horns are essential, especially before the lights change or, passing a side entrance from which exit is prohibited or, when you’ve been waiting for more than 1.5 seconds or, if you’re just bored. 

Hint No.6:   Hands Free:   Hands free means  hands occupied  elsewhere  (mobile in one, cigarette in another and child in the third).  i.e. Hands free of the steering wheel. 

Hint No.7:   Seatbelts:   The seatbelt should be fastened to stop the warning noise (modern vehicles only)  Not required for small children who should be free to wander around the interior at will. 

Hint No.8:   Windscreens:   Windscreens  are to stop wind escaping and small children from projecting  any further than the bonnet when stopping  unexpectedly  (which is expected). 

If your baby could just back into the kitchen a bit...

Hint No.9: 

Passenger seat:   Where the small child stands, head out of the window, when the driver can’t be bothered holding it anymore. 

Hint No.10:   Speedo:   What’s that, something to swim in? 




Hint No.11:   Cars:   From the outside it may look like a Fiat 500, a Ford Fiesta or any other normal hatchback but once inside, like the Tardis, it takes on a whole new dimension.  It becomes either the Batmobile or a tractor, there is no middle road.  (pun intended) 

Hint No.12:   Traffic Lights:   Green means go, red means go faster. 

Hint No.13:   Solid White Line:   No overtaking. 

Hint No.14:   Double Solid White Line:   Definitely no overtaking. 

Hint No.15:   Dotted White Line:   Overtake up to 3 abreast, 4 if there’s nothing coming the other way. 

Hint No.16:   Blind Corner/Sharp Bend:   Overtake now….you only live twice…Shit!  Sorry, make that once. 

Hint No.17:   One Way Street:   My way. 

Hint No.18:   Hand Signals:   WARNING!  On no account use hand signals, you have no idea who’s in the other car. 

Hint No.19:   Exit Lane:  Exit lane, entry lane, who cares. 

Hint No.20:   No Exit:   Sorry, what did you say? 

Hint No.21:   Accident Repair:   If the seat still works carry on.. 

I'll just squeeze in behind the Beetle

Hint No.22: 

Parking:   Wherever takes your fancy, preferably the pavement, across a street corner or next to the vehicle already parked there.   Parking is an art form and should be studied carefully before attempting yourself for the first time.   





Further ‘real’ important information for the visiting driver: 

In the event of being cut up, tailgated or offended by any other road traffic offence, do NOT get angry or try to respond in kind.  Do nothing……it’s just the way it is.  When hiring a vehicle, choose a small hatchback (it’s a smaller target and easier to park) and do take out all the insurance options.   Carry all your vehicle documents, registration, license etc. at all times.   Really make sure you drive with your headlamps on during the day on the main roads/auto strada.   The traffic police do random spot checks at the most unexpected places and times.  And watch out for those scooters…they won’t watch out for you!! 

Calabria welcomes safe drivers!

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Long Legs, Sauce and Saintly Women

Sunsetting at Mamita

 After a long hot summer of blissful inactivity, spending most days at the Mamita beach bar (where an English lesson each day with the manager was traded for a free bar and lounger) the last week has been a veritable buzz.  Of course there was the arresting incident at Cameron’s Coffee House (if you read last week’s exciting post) which kicked things off.  The rest of the week however went something like this. 

Monday:  Night of  the long legs. 

I was sitting on the patio having just downloaded Peter Moore’s “The 40-Year-Old Vespa Virgin” (Vagabond Editions)* and had just settled back in the sun-lounger for a good read when Maria came bouncing out the house looking excited – she’s lost none of her effervescence since being back in Italy, I’m happy to say. 

“Amo, guess what!” 

“Tell me.” 

“I’ve just been asked to be on the panel of judges for Miss World tonight.  What do you think I should wear?” 

“Sorry, could you just run that one by me again, I thought you said something about Miss World and you judging.” 

Maria ignored my mocking tone. “You remember Valeria don’t you.” 

“Do you mean the Valeria and Mario Valeria, the Valeria and Angela Valeria or the Valeria at work Valeria?” 

“Mario’s Valeria of course, the TV producer.” 

It all came flooding back, I remembered Mario once telling me that he owned the rights to the preliminary rounds for Miss World,  the shows that select Sicily and Calabria’s prettiest to compete for the right to represent Italy.  “Do you want to come.” Asked Maria.  “It starts about ten.  You don’t have to of course.”  I thought about it for a moment, I had wanted to catch up on some work but then, on reflection, perhaps it might be worth seeing…purely in the interests of observing Calabrese culture you understand.  “Oh all right then, if it’ll make you happy.  I suppose I should take the camera just in case.”      


Decisions decisions...

Tuesday: No plans. 

An early rise, which was difficult considering we didn’t get home from the critical appraisal of bikini clad babes (no.7 won by  a leg) till well after 2.00am.  The builder was coming to arrange the start date.  Some time ago we’d decided that of the three option available to us, renting in the centre of Reggio, buying a old place and doing it up (Maria wanted to live by the sea but I preferred the hills) or taking the family home and building onto it, the latter was the most practical.  For relatively little cost we could turn it into something special and still keep the garden with its supply of fresh food.  Besides, culture dictates that the family home is kept in the family, down through the generations. After all, there was still the dream of building a small summer house in the mountains one day ( see Dream Harvest post).   The first cost I thought we would have to meet would be obtaining the services of an architect to put our ideas on paper for a builder to work to.  Wrong!  “What do you want to pay an architect for?”  Everyone laughed.  “Well I’m sure they don’t do it for free, unless of course you’re saying there’s one in the family.”  “Don’t be daft.” Said the builder when he came round to give us an estimate.  “Where do you want the doors?” 

“Well, one there and one about there, French doors so there’s plenty of sunlight” 


“There, there and there, with shutters.” 

“OK, bathroom?” 

“We thought that it would be best en-suite, on this side of the bedroom.” 

“No problem, now you want the study here and a balcony along the length of the building, yes?  I would say you need to make it 2 meters wide, not one.  It will give you sun on the top and a nice shaded patio below. OK.?”  Right then, job done!  What did you want the architect for again?” 

He put the old envelope he’d drawn our plans on in his back pocket and told us he’d give us quote in the next two days.   “Are you sure this is going to work?” I asked Maria, a little dubious.  Eventually I was assured by all those I talked to, the building grows around you organically.  Like with everything else in Calabria, no one makes plans. 

Wednesday: Sauce. 

Another early rise.  It’s important to make the passata before the sun gets too hot.  By 6.00am Toto and Gina were up and had begun slicing the five crates of tomatoes in two and cleaning the flesh.  My job was to keep scraping the filter of the pulsing machine to allow the thick juice to flow and drop into the huge plastic basin.  A legion of prepared jars stood in line, each containing about four leaves of fresh basil from the garden.  As I kept the filter clear I had to fill each jar with a ladle, leaving about an inch of air at the top before putting the cap on while Toto vigorously pushed the red fruit into the machine.  Too vigorously as it turned out.  After we’d got through about a quarter of the tomatoes the machine gave up.  After a lot of cleaning and swearing, trying to coax the thing back into life I managed to convince my work mates that the heat of the machine probably meant something had blown and opened up the casing.  The only thing I could think could be the problem was that the hot white- plastic-tube-with-some-terminals-attached had gone, was there somewhere we could get a new one?  Time was of the essence as the sun was getting hotter and it wouldn’t be long before the tomatoes would start to dry out and lose their freshness.  The only chance was a local hardware shop, so I trotted down with the part in hand, hoping not only that this was indeed the problem but that a replacement could be found.  Luckily there was no queue in the shop to shake their heads at my non-existent technical knowledge and even poorer Italian on such matters.  I pointed to the part and said something about ‘tomato machine’.  It seemed to be enough as a new one was found in the back store and handed over.  “How much?” I asked.  “Don’t worry, go and try it first.  If it works, come back and pay.  If not, just bring it back.”  I was told.  What a great way to do business, never having to buy something until you’re sure it’s what you need.  Sure enough the part proved the problem and the tomatoes were saved.  We worked quickly and hard, the sweat soaking our shirts as we squeezed the last remnants of goodness out of the tomatoes and into the jars.  No preservatives, just fresh basil and tomato.  The trick then was to get much hotter.  A large oil drum filled with water was set over a coke fire and brought to the boil.  The jars of passata had to be boiled for 40 minutes to seal the caps and sterilize the sauce.  Between the sun and the fire I think we all would have been pretty much sterilized, had it not been for the internal cooling of the ice-cold beers, to celebrate a good job done and a year’s supply of home-made tomato sauce. 

Thursday:  On the tiles. 

Had to dismantle the TV system ready for the builder coming so spent half the day on the roof bringing down the half a dozen old aerials and a satellite dish.  Plenty of time to catch up on reading then. 

Friday: Blessed are those who wait. 

Old Clio gave up the ghost.  It was a surprise she lasted so long to be honest, held together as she was by rusting bits of wire and electrical tape.  Only one window worked and as there was no air-con the car became a mobile sauna, besides, the most important part of any Italian vehicle was missing…the horn.  I had to go into town by bus, for the very first time.  “Go down to the stop when you hear the bus make its way up the hill to San Filippo.” Maria had instructed.  “It will turn round there and come back down in about ten minutes, don’t miss it because there won’t be another bus for an hour.”  I had a sweet espresso and thought I would play safe and go down early rather than trust on hearing the right engine.  I stood on the little pavement at the little crossroads and waited.  A little fiat came up the road opposite and as the driver turned to go up the hill I noticed that she made the sign of the cross.  “Probably doesn’t trust her driving.” I thought. “ That or the road.”  A few minutes later the bus approached from the left, on its trip up to S. Filippo.  Just then a young woman came running down obviously intent on catching the bus, she turned towards me as she ran and crossed herself.  “Praying the bus would stop?” Hers were suitable rewarded.  It wasn’t until the old man, making his tortuous trek into the village, also turned to acknowledge me and crossed himself that I began to feel a little uncomfortable.  The discomfort grew into anxiety shortly afterwards when Francesco the village shopkeeper, phut phutted past on his little Piaggio van, smiled and made the same sign. What was it?  I felt my head for horns ‘cos I certainly didn’t look like a priest.  Maybe they knew something about me I didn’t, had the doctor been less than truthful with me when I had my check up?  The villagers would know before me, that’s for sure.  The last straw, not to say the last nail in the coffin, was when the bus came back down the hill and stopped and, as I clambered on, the driver repeated the cross.  I dared the passengers to follow suit as I made my way up the passage to my seat, glowering as I sat down.  Staring perplexed out the window as we drove off,  the dawn of understanding suddenly met my gaze, a glass-cased Madonna stood, decked in flowers behind where I’d been waiting, oblivious. 


Santa Maria!

Saturday-Next Tuesday: Festa Of Santa Maria (The Consoler) 

4 days of festivities, so it’s still going on! 

*Peter Moore’s 40-Year-Old Vespa Virgin is an abridged version of his wonderful “Vroom With a View”and can be downloaded free on Smashwords.  Check out his link.