It’s Sunday at the beginning of November and I’ve had to put on something with long sleeves for the first time in over five months. What’s the world coming to? It’s 9.00am and I’m sitting under the gazebo at Piper café in Reggio catching up with work, preparing my lessons for the next week. I’ve escaped! The work on the house (stage 1) is nearly finished but after having been woken at 7.00am every morning to the sound of drills and hammers, life at home has been a bit frenetic. A little solitude on a Sunday in Reggio is a welcome tonic. With my espresso by my side I sit back for a moment and take in the day. When I’d walked into the café Salvatore had greeted me like a long-lost friend. “Where have you been?” he cried, giving me a warm hug. “Hey Carlo, salutations! Good to see you.” Said the regazzi (boys and girls) behind the bar. “Sorry Salvatore, I spent the summer in Pellaro and didn’t really come into Reggio much. School’s back though, so here I am again.” I take my coffee and sit down to watch the city wake up. The tall palms along the sea-front sway easily in the soft breeze, to the sound of an accordion and tambourine playing Tarantella folk music. The Cajun squeeze drifts up from the promenade along with the sweet smell of chestnuts roasting on a brazier as the first scattering of families push-chair their brood along the Lungomare, stopping for ice creams at Cesare’s or Sotto Zero. Sicily looks bright under the clear sky, reflected in the flat, blue calm of the sea, broken only by a small fishing boat heading past a school of tiny white-sailed dinghies having their weekly sailing lesson. Across the cobbled street the green first-floor shutters of Restaurant Il Ducale open and the manager starts sweeping the balcony, cigarette dangling from his mouth as he prepares for lunch. It’s upstairs neighbour ‘Etoile’ follows suit on the terrace above. We’ve never tried these impressive looking eateries as yet, their linen cloths and napkins on two floors of balconies and terraces look over the straits and have the air of exclusivity that might be a little on the costly side. Downtown Reggio in November, 22.5 degrees.
School, as I say, is back in full swing and the same question comes up from every new student who doesn’t know me. “Why on earth did you leave the excitement of London for this place?” They ask incredulously. According to a recent article in a national evening newspaper Calabria has the best environment in which to raise children. More are able to spend time outdoors, unguarded and free to roam than anywhere in Italy. It is safe, removed and still largely family focussed which appears to imbibe a natural respect not a disciplinarian one. The first paragraph of this post may not be answer enough for an eager teenager but for the people we’ve mixed with over the last week it seems to strike a similar chord.
On Tuesday evening about 10.00pm, after a long day for both of us, we were just tidying up the dishes when the phone rang. “Angela, happy birthday!” Maria cried. I’d resigned myself to a long conversation to which I would not be privy and was heading into the garden with my glass of our new wine (It shouldn’t really be tasted till San Martino on the 11th but heck, what’s a week) when Maria put the phone down and announced that we were going out. “What, now? I was just thinking we have to finish that translation job before bed. I thought you were too.” “It’s only for 20 minutes Amore, Angela’s about to cut her birthday cake and she’s asked us round. Come on, just for a few minutes, please.” She pleaded, handing me the car keys. It was only down the road in Pellaro, a flat above the bank, so 20 minutes was fairly reasonable I thought. I still haven’t learned – It takes 20 minutes just to say hello and half an hour to say goodbye. I was introduced to a number of new faces by Angela’s daughter Valeria before she sat back down again, and smirked. I have always had a sneaking suspicion that when Valeria smiles this way I’m going to come up against something unusual. The challenge was on, would my Italian hold up?
It did well, the best so far in fact. I even found myself cracking good enough jokes to bring a few tears which, for me, was a real breakthrough…on many levels. I actually began to have fun with my new language and these good friends, I was making the step beyond ‘polite’ at last. It was easy to talk with Paolo, Lino and ‘Chinese’, an ex bass player and a drummer from Milan as we all had music and age in common. The four of us argued over the merits of Prince (who Paolo had just seen in Rome) compared to Frank Zappa who Lino thought was kilometres better. I played my ‘Avvocato del Diavolo’ role and encouraged the debate as much as I could… loving both artistes as I do.
Chiara, however, was a totally different reach into the unknown. Dark-haired and looking very bohemian in her high black polo-neck and 60’s make up, she soon revealed her secret. “I’m Scottish too.” She confided. “My dream is to die in my own true country.”
“Really, whereabouts are you from? Were you very young when you came here?” I asked innocently. “Yes, I was Mary Queen of Scots!” Half my wine reached my throat through my nose. “Yes, most people are surprised by this.” She said, patting my back sympathetically as I tried to recover. She believes in re-incarnation, passionately. It’s a bit strange having a chat with your dead queen I confess, the mother of the unification of the crowns and one that had lost her head once before. I decided to take her seriously, just in case. “What a coincidence.” I found myself saying. “I used to live just round the corner from your last big battle in Glasgow. I believe you also had an Italian lover, his murder must have been a bit of a shock. Your husband’s as well come to that.“
“Oh, before that I was Nefertiti of course.” She added. “Do you think that Egypt has changed much then?” Believe me, I was trying to take this seriously, I mean what would you ask yourself, if you assumed it might be true? Two queens in one night was pushing my limits, I was running out of things to say and looked round hopefully. Valeria grinned and looked quickly away but no one else batted an eye. Chiara is part of their circle and they happily accept her unusual lives. For the time being she’s having a rest as a ‘normal’ single mum.
It must have been after midnight when the cake we came to see cut finally appeared, one candle and a strange tubular decoration near the middle. The lights went out and the song was sung as the candle and then the strange tube were lit. Far from coming close to blow out the candle, Angela retreated to the back of the kitchen. My puzzlement lasted but a second when, in a blaze of colour and flying sparks that reached the ceiling, the tube exploded. Fireworks on chocolate icing. For some reason the conversation got round to whisky, probably because it was time to leave the wine and celebrate with something stronger. The wine had actually been a nice surprise for everyone. It had been uncovered during a clear-out of Angela’s cellar, some bottles of her own wine that had lain forgotten for years and which had taken on the richness of an old port. However, Angela now produced a bottle of 12-year-old Cutty. Well the whisky was twelve years old but the unopened bottle was apparently over thirty…..a pity whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle. A forty-five year old spirit would have been an exceptional end to an extraordinary evening. As it was, it was smooth and warm and I felt quite honoured that I should be present for its first tasting…and the second and the third…….. We left the car and staggered home in the early morning.
So why am I here again? Probably the same reason as the children of Calabria and the Harley-Davidson club that’s just pulled up outside the café. Another life on a beautiful day.