Winning over Italy

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


The cost of nothing and the value of everything

“She canna handle it captain!  The bridge won’t respond to any more pressure from this warp factor!”  Said my chief engineer.  “She won’t take the turbulence.”  He shook his head, his mouth grim with this synopsis as he looked down at my old guitar on the work bench.  “Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to go without for a while when I move to Italy.”  I replied.  “Perhaps it’s a sign to give up.” 

I arrived in Calabria trying to get used to the idea of not having something to strum, just when the lazy weather lent itself to sitting on the porch and humming tunelessly to the butterflies.  Maria knew the sadness in my heart.  “When you’ve been working for a while you could get a new one.”  She said sweetly, when she got fed up with my droopy face.  So for the next few months I contented myself with the unhappy trail that so many amateur musicians have taken through their lives…..wandering from shop to shop trying out another dream purchase for ten minutes while the salesman hovers over them, only to sigh and place it back on the wall.  “Maybe next month.”  We smile weakly as we leave the shop, promising never to return until the cash is in the pocket.  Each time working out new ways to reduce the months of torture. 

There aren’t a lot of instrument shops in Reggio but in one I found the guitar that I wanted, the one that fitted like a glove and suited my guileless style but as you can guess, it was way beyond my budget.  I gave up and gradually forgot.  Until our first Christmas.  We were at a friend’s house over the holiday (see Price of Dignity post, Feb 2010) when I was introduced to Demetrio.  Demetrio was a musician and talked about his mouth-watering collection of guitars.  “We should marmalade sometime.” He cried enthusiastically when Maria told him I used to dabble.  (jam is marmellata in Italian).  I told him my story as a way of getting out of the possibility of embarrassing myself in front of a good player.  “Which shop did you see this guitar in.”  He enquired.  When I told him he smiled and said .  “But of course, the owner is my best friend.  Why don’t we meet there on Saturday, I’m sure I can help.”  

Certain that it would make little difference ,we met outside as arranged.  “Marco, this my friend I was telling you about, do you think you can look after him?”  Of course Demetrio, for him everything is half price!”  I gawped.  A small discount perhaps but 50%?  “Are you sure?”  He was.  Suddenly half the shop came within my reserve, guitars more exotic than the one I’d had my eye on were placed in my eager hands to try.  In the end I chose the one I’d wanted all along and walked away…. with a large chunk of my budget still in my pocket.

This was my introduction to the way that the Calabrian economy works   You never think about spending until you’ve met at least a cousin or a friend of the man who sells the item you want, be it a car or an evening meal.  Drop the name and see the price drop along with it.   It’s a wonderful arrangement all round, cementing old friendships, building new ones and all the while it keeps business turning.   Of course it also means that your own services may be called upon one day, to look after a friend of a friend, but it’s such a small price to pay for survival in hard times as well as prosperity in good.  Here, our shopping habits have changed as result.  We scatter our custom round the local community, buying our bread from Francesco one day and Roberto the next,  our meat from Franco at Remo’s our chicken from Mario.  It’s a triumph for the independent trader and customer alike.  Astonishingly, in these days of multi-nationals and global economics,  the nearest equivalent of Sainsbury’s is shutting down while the butchers and greengrocers flourish.  Whilst I’m sorry for the check-out girls who will lose their jobs, I’m happy for the local farmers and shopkeepers who will keep theirs.  The tomatoes shall be fresh and have flavour, the local goat shall have cheese to sell.  The conglomerate has had a taste of his own chickens, undercut and driven out.   From clothes to diesel almost every euro we spend goes to someone we know and now, as we brace ourselves for the 2nd stage of the house, our costs have shrunk as our friendships have grown.  Viva Calabria, where you know the price of nothing and the value of everything!

Perhaps I should have called this “Starship Enterprise”


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Three Passions

Amo: A term of endearment, short form of Amore, love.

The early evening music of Reggio Calabria begins to fade.  The tired orchestra makes its way home on the tail-end of the rush hour concert.  The horns and percussion of the cars and scooters blare and slam Varese-like in their impatience.   I, on the other hand, stroll down to Via Marina in the first balmy air of Spring.  My work is over for the day and so I go to Bar Sotto Zero for a glass of Sicilian white and wait for Maria to finish her work then meet me there.  As always I have a book to keep me occupied, my little treat while I nibble on some green olives and sip my wine.

“Amo!”  a voice purrs behind me.   I turn quickly, smiling widely as always when I hear this sweet word.  My arms are open wide ready to embrace.  “Amore!”  I answer.  “You’re early.”

The words stop in my mouth.  The attractive girl I’m about to hold and kiss steps back in shock, a look of horror and panic large across her face.  A look complimented by the frown that glowers down at me from her very tall husband.  First he looks at me and then to his partner, accusation forming in his eyes.  “Oh I’m so sorry, scusa.”  I gush.  “I thought you were someone else, really.  This is where I usually meet my wife and when you said Amo I thought it was her.”  I’m talking too much, providing too much information.   Suspiciously he accepts my apology and they order their ice creams to take away while I return embarrassed to my book.  As they leave a few moments later, the husband is whispering to the girl harshly while glancing over his shoulder in my direction.  I’ve landed this poor, innocent woman in trouble, I can tell. 

You see, in London no-one else was referred to as ‘Amo’ but me.  Having an Italian partner was not usual in our area and this was always the way Maria called me.  In a crowded shop, from the end of the street or in a busy bar I always reacted to this  word in the same way because I knew it was aimed solely at me.  I haven’t quite got used to the fact that in Italy it’s probably not, I’m not so unique after all.  I use the endearment myself now (when talking to Maria of course) adopting it over darling or sweetheart or, heaven forbid, baby. 

There’s something about the Italian language that just lends itself to amore, to passion and love.  Love is a three syllable word, the stress point making it more emotional, more expressive.  Try adding some emphasis to ‘daarling’ and it becomes a sort of greeting between two thespians who can’t really stand each other.  Even the use of bello or bella between two friends signifies that the recipient may not even be good looking but simply a beautiful person.  The same passion applies to food as much as love, recipes are just as jealously protected.  The heart is open and dares speak its name.  It almost puts a lie to the concept of the horoscope, either that or everyone’s a Scorpio in Italy.  Watching a history of Italian cinema recently, underlined the lack of fear that Italians have in expressing an opinion about say, a beautiful woman walking down the street.  It doesn’t seem offensive and is indeed appreciated when an approving comment is overheard.   If we can talk about the view in terms unrestrained by fear of offence why not its occupants?  If a woman does take offence and dishes out a sharp slap to the face, then so what!  It’s all part of the fun of life…. just make sure there’s no  husband around!

 Profondo: Deep, profound.

 One of the ways I’ve picked up a little Italian is listening to football commentaries and it has thrown up a number of interesting lessons.  It was fairly simple to grasp the ideas of an auto-goal (own goal), angolo (corner kick) and even the more obvious arbitro (referee) but there’s one that really makes me chuckle.  The concept of a Partick Thistle centre half making a profound pass has me in stitches.  Not so bizarre possibly for his Italian counterpart who probably studied Greek philosophy at primary school, but surely beyond the cells of your average home-grown player, well unless he’s on the home grown.

(TV Anchorman)  “Let’s go over to Firhill for the first-round replay between Partick Thistle and Celtic, Malky.”

“Welcome to a soggy Glasgow.  Well Tam, it seems to me that the Thistle defence is playing a little too profoundly.  And only after ten minutes play!.”

“Aye Malky, I couldn’ea agree more.  That Partick legend, McAristotle, will be turning in his grave!  But that might be mere speculation.  Who knows”

“For half-time analysis, we’ll be going over to Jimmy Freud.

Passion isn’t just a game of two hearts!