Winning over Italy

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


1 Comment

Mediteraenian Homesick News

The one main event I miss most about being away from Scotland is Hogmanay, our often happy-abandoned way of seeing in the new year.  (or maybe that should read seeing to the new year).  In Italy the celebrations are a little muted in comparison (bar the traditional gunfire in the air), to the extent that in recent years we’ve chosen to stay in rather than search for an ad hoc party or two.  If I was missing it before then I’m missing it more now.  Regular readers will know that I sometimes meet a few unexpected characters along the way but none more so than today (30th December).   Today I turned the corner at Lungomare and bumped into, you guessed it, The Mid South Highland Pipes and Drums.   A warm-up gig for their annual trip to Sicily, I discovered from Pipe Major John MacDonald later, once he’d picked up his pipes and dusted them down.  “We usually come and play in Sicily between Boxing Day and the 2nd of January.”  He told me, surrounded by his band who it seems gather from all over the British Isles to make the trip, including a native Sicilian who’s apparently no mean piper himself.  We swapped numbers.  You never know when you’ll need a piper, especially down here where they don’t exactly stand around on street corners….except today.  

“Why Italy?”  I asked.   “Oh we go all over the place, depending on where the agent in Sicily finds us to perform.  Once we were here playing when an excited Italian came over and, via interpreter, expressed a desire to book the whole band for a week in Milan.  Sure enough, eighteen months later we were being flown out to take part in a theatre event in Milan, all expenses paid.”  Volunteered the drum major, whose only complaint about the annual trip was Alitalia’s treatment of his mace.  “I don’t think it’s ever arrived in one piece.” 

“Have you ever been to the Orange Throwing Festival in Ivrea?”  John MacDonald asked me.  “Can’t say I have, why?”  “Oh that’s well worth going to.  If you can imagine a huge crowd of people throwing hundreds of thousands of blood-oranges at horse-drawn carriages full of mad Italians, with the horses managing to evacuate-through-fear on the citrus pulp and sticky juice as they trot past….all to celebrate the 1194 Battle of Oranges.  Well, you can imagine the condition our dress shoes get into when we have to march down the road after them!  Still the food’s good and the wine’s great, so we can’t complain.  The reception we get’s also well worth the visit,  they can be an excitable lot down here, don’t you think?” 

The snare ticked time with the pound of the bass drum as they began to march, solid and focussed, down the high street.  The other drums picked up the beat before the skirl of the pipes shivered across my skin as they took up the tune and scattered all before them.  My feet tapped, possessed, to ‘Mari’s Wedding’.  My eyes moistened to ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ filling the evening air, hanging for a moment before drifting away across the water.   The sheer romance of the pipes.  When I found out that the Pipe Major hails from the Sma’ Glen in Perthshire (where you’ll find the best little fire-warmed pub in Scotland and where I’ve spent many Christmases over the years)  my homesickness was beginning to catch in my throat and sting my eyes.   “So what’ll you all be doing on New Year’s Eve?”  I asked innocently.  “What do you think?”   John grinned as the rest of the band laughed.  “Another red wine please.”  They cried in unison.  

I just managed to resist the impulse to join them and follow them round the rest of their trip as they hopped on the tour coach and bade farewell.  I watched them drive away  “Happy New Year.”  They called.  “Mind how you go.”  I replied quietly, waving as they headed off into the Calabrian night.  “Mind how you go.”   Now that would have been some new year to write home about, getting in the ‘spirit’ of Hogmanay with a pipe band, so far from home!   I wandered back up into the town, the sound of distant pipes ringing in my ears as I wiped another tear.  Well, if you can’t get sentimental at New Year, when can you?

If you ever get a chance to see this fine band, buy them a wee drink and say hello from me.

Happy Hogmanay!


Leave a comment

A Year in the Day.

I’m standing on the raw balcony, looking down on the ripening oranges, lemons and mandarins……and the cat fertilising the broccoli.   As I reflect on all the new experiences we’ve managed to pack into 12 short months, I wonder what the next twelve will bring.  It’s a mild 20 degrees as the Scirocco sweeps in gently from the Sahara and the stars glitter like Christmas lights around the full moon.   At this rate I’ll be able to do what I did last year on New Year’s Eve…..sit on the beach in the late afternoon and watch the sun sigh on the old year, with my guitar and a good book.  No-one to disturb on the deserted sands but the soft surf kissing the shingle.  Perhaps this time I’ll build a little fire so Maria and I can see in the new year,  just the two of us, watching the crescent moon and the distant glimpse of fireworks light up Sicilian villages across the water.  We will think of folk back home and clink a glass of prosecco to those we miss and those we’ll meet again soon.  Oh my heart be still!

This calls for a montage (soundtrack ideas welcome).   Season’s greetings and good tidings for the new year and I leave you with some of ‘Winning Over Italy’s’ highlights of 2010.   Thank you all for reading and being so kind with your comments.  Slainte!


Leave a comment

Santo’s Clause

Sometimes it rains in Reggio

The oval ball bounced unexpectedly into the arms of the Argentine ex-pro, the best player in the side.  He gathered his prize deep inside his own half and broke at such speed that he found himself isolated as he headed for the gain line.  Like a wildebeest on the Serengeti, he made a brave and desperate bid to escape the chasing pack of overweight lions who snapped at his heels and clung onto his back, till fatigue and greater numbers eventually brought him down.   He wailed one last time as his knees gave way and his forlorn struggle was ended, so near yet so far.   Meanwhile the rest of the herd grazed, unperturbed by his plight, at the other end of the plain.  

“Where were you guys?”

“Sorry mate, Alfonso grazed his knee and Giovanni grazed his elbow.”

The ground, it’s true, was hard – not the soft, deep mud of Kent that you can drown in while someone finds a foothold on your back.   The ambulance turned up twice to cart shattered limbs to the nearest hospital.  I was watching the local rugby team in action in the company, oddly, of a Belfast lad and his Dublin lass.  There’s a small ex-pat group who we’ve recently met and enjoyed a drink or two with.   Not, I’m happy to say, anyone who wants to turn Reggio into some little home from home but who’ve settled here for much the same reasons as us, love.  We all have our own Calabrese friends and social groups, but now and then it’s nice to hear an Irish joke again.  The bruised players retired to the changing rooms for the after-match pasta and wine (no beer and bawdy songs here) while Steven and I hung around at the side of the pitch pretending to talk about serious things.  We both knew the unspoken truth.  We were really waiting for the couple of kids who were mucking about with the ball to edge close enough for us to take a catch and pass it to each other.  Catch a memory or two.  

Been waiting years for a fire here!

The north of Italy, like most of Europe, has ground to a halt in the big freeze.  The central belt and the south worries about the rain that threatens such ancient sites as Pompei, while here in the deep south we sit outside in our shirt sleeves on a warm evening.  What a difference a two-hour flight from Gatwick can make… if there was one.  The smug smile is soon wiped from my face however when I overhear……     “This is earthquake weather we’re having.  Bound to be one soon.” 

“Excuse me, did I hear you correctly?  Earthquake weather?” 

“Oh yes, when it’s this warm in December you can be sure we’ll have a tremor or two.” 

I’d been missing the sight of my breath materialising in the cold air and the soft white flakes that make it feel something like Christmas for entirely different reasons, but now I was getting positively misty-eyed for a bit of seasonal weather.  Christmas is different here, closer perhaps to the intended meaning of peace and goodwill, but I do confess to missing a little of the commercial over-indulgence, the bustle and slush of home and of course, my family.   I’ve even missed complaining about the frozen tracks and colder trains…for a second or two. 

“Have you got a good strong table at home?”  They asked.  “To take cover under.”  I don’t know about the table but I’m now hoping that our slight overspend on the house foundations is going to pay dividends, I just wasn’t expecting it to be this soon!

I had been surprised by the depth of the foundation trenches Santo (our builder) had dug to support our new balcony and astonished by the amount of concrete that managed to spill into them.  

Ever wondered what Santa does to earn a euro?

“Why do we need so much Santo?”

“In case of earthquakes of course.”  He replied, looking at me as if I was completely stupid. 

“Erm, how often do these happen then?” 

“Serious ones?  Oh about every hundred years or so.”

“And the last one was…”

“Let me think, well I guess about a hundred years ago.  But don’t worry about it, nothing to worry about with these foundations.”  He patted me on the back and smiled before tipping another load of cement around the cage of steel reinforcements. 

This was the first mention of ‘Santo’s Clause’, the ‘don’t-worry-about-it’ clause.  It wasn’t to be the last.  The digging had revealed all sorts of unexpected treasures, including old rotting pipes and altogether more healthy-looking tree roots.  There was no doubt that we had to replace the pipes but the roots required a little more lateral thinking.  We’d already had to sacrifice the pomegranate tree for the (external) staircase and weren’t about to lose the mandarin if it could be avoided.   After a little head scratching and confused interpretation, we struck upon the idea of extending the balcony another meter outwards so that the supporting columns would be clear of the tree’s root system and the walls clear of most of the branches.   I wasn’t complaining.  It would make the balcony even more like the extra room I’d imagined, a real dawn-to-dusk suntrap.   I have visions of sitting on a Moroccan sofa, working at a little rustic table under a potted palm with my pot of espresso or an iced jug of garden-fresh orange juice by my side.  Perhaps to lie back in the evening with my guitar and a Bloody Mary, to gaze at the stars before bed.

“How much will this cost Santo.” I asked, trying to turn the sound down on my dream.  “Don’t worry about it, no problema.”  He said, walking away to start up the cement mixer again.  As each day passed a new idea or problem cropped up.  With the new-found space on the balcony it meant we could extend the bathroom out another meter.   A heated argument broke out between me and Santo for a day or two.   He wanted the roof line to follow the balcony, I wanted it to follow the walls…it would allow more sunlight and look more interesting.  I won and Santo went into a huff for a week.  On every job it seemed that Santo asked Toto, Toto asked Maria, Maria asked me.  I looked and measured and answered Maria, Maria told Toto and Toto replied to Santo, each step in the process opening up another possibility for misinterpretation and vague instruction.   Eventually he came round and started boasting about how his plan to change the roof line had been the right one.  “Look how beautiful it’s going to look, you should listen to me more often.” 

His and Her's. Park where you want darling!

Every night I returned from work something new had appeared and I was getting anxious that none had been in the original quote.  “Can we please sit down with Santo before anything else is decided when we’re out at work.”  I pleaded.   “Santo says don’t worry.”  The family responded.   I was also becoming aware that every time I wanted to check on the extra costs, Santo suddenly had something important to see to elsewhere.  There was no doubt that the place was going to look special and I was pleased with the quality of the work but Santo’s increased absence and the additional workforce taking his place was beginning to sound alarm bells in our wallet.  “Don’t worry about it.” Said his men.  We’re really pleased with it, relax more, have a beer.”  Santo’s Clause again.  

The work finished (on stage 1) on the day of St. Martino, followed by the bill two days later.  I recovered from the shock two days after that.   We’d been in no doubt that it was going to cost more and were glad that we’d had the foresight to keep a reserve when we’d accepted the original quote.  Sure, the work has progressed further than we’d planned for the first stage but it means that the next steps (like putting in the windows and doors) will have to wait a little longer.  However, we can relax in the knowledge that we have a more efficient drainage system than the London Underground, for less annual rainfall than an Argyll bank holiday.   Just as long as we don’t have to test it in any earthquakes.   The cost has still been unbelievably low but I’m older and wiser now, old enough not to believe in Santo’s Clause.

Oooops, forgot the chimney!