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!”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.