Winning over Italy

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


An Accidental Story

It has seemed to me in recent years that almost everywhere you go, everyone takes a perverse pleasure in telling you how bad their national health service has become.   That’s if you’re lucky enough to be in a country where they have one….not like Somalia or some might say even America.  The Italians are no different in this respect, if perhaps a little more jaundiced than outraged they will solemnly tell you disaster tales when the subject comes up.  Are they exaggerating?  Is it all true?

I got the chance to find out for myself this week, quite by accident!  I’m still not sure what really happened, but one minute I was on the balcony cheerfully collecting my jacket and next I was aware of making a mental note that it would be better if I could change direction mid-air to avoid the pile of bricks that were looming towards me.  I must have managed somehow because I came to a few seconds later with a mouthful of earth and a searing pain across, well everywhere.  Maria tells me that the sound of my cry was so scary she was convinced I’d broken a guitar.  Slowly I was helped up and into the spare room while a call was placed (thankfully) to the ambulance service…and it is here that my experience with the Italian health system begins.

The ambulance can’t have taken more than ten minutes to arrive – because it only seemed like a couple of minutes and time usually slows to a crawl when you’re suffering agonies.  The three crew, two men and a women, took turns in checking me over and asking questions, prodding gently and carefully and succeeding quite cleverly to distract me from the pain by making me talk in Italian while they tried their little English with a pleasant chat about music and football.  It was quickly established that I would probably live and that I should get a friend to drive me to the hospital for a proper examination immediately.  “No, you’re not going in the big white ambulance with flashing lights because that’s for people who need it more than you do.”  They kindly waited to help me into Cristina’s car, using the time to mildly scold the family for having moved me from my landfall, and bade farewell.  So far, I was feeling in good hands.

We arrived at the accident and emergency entrance of Riuniti Hospital as the late afternoon darkness began to fall.  I was helped out by Maria and an attendant while Cristina parked the car and was led into the sort-of-reception area.  It was more like a large corridor than anything I’d experienced before and was occupied only by a small number of patients lying on trolleys or hunched in wheelchairs as they watched the football injury hobble up and down the passageway with his girlfriend.  So quiet I thought, so small and almost temporary…as if the main area was somewhere else being redecorated.  However I began to appreciate that although Reggio is a large city, it’s never had to design itself to cope with pub-turn-out-times, muggings and gang warfare on a Saturday night….and this was only late Sunday afternoon.  Within a few minutes my own wheelchair arrived and I was made as comfortable as possible by a dark-haired nurse who seemed to speak a few words of English.  “Make comfortable please.  We wait a moment.”  “Thanks.” I managed through the short gasps my lungs would allow in the increasing pain.  Almost immediately however my name was called and we were ushered quickly towards a side room.  Maria tried gamely with the wheelchair which must have come from the same factory as supermarket trolleys, causing everyone to raise their feet rather smartly to avoid being run over on our erratic route to our first port of call.  Swiftly, another pretty dark-haired nurse had me over on my side, onto a table and was puncturing my backside with a needle in one hand while simultaneously taking my blood pressure with the other, well almost…it was that slick.  Within a few seconds the pain had dropped from yell alert to yellow discomfort.  I love this approach, deal with the main cause of anger, upset and complaint before it arises and you find yourself with a patient who’s far more rational and malleable.  The registration doctor checked over the ambulance crew’s notes and took a few further details for the computer.  He handed his updated documents back to the first nurse and indicated our next stop was X-ray.  As I could talk a little more easily I made the effort to thank the nurse for her help so far.  She had taken over the ‘reins’ as it were from Maria to speed along our progress.  “I told them I wanted to be with you.”  She said in my ear.  “Really?”  I replied trying not to take this as a complement and keeping a wary eye on Maria. “Yes, I can practice my English.”  My ego deflated.  “How long you are staying in Calabria?”  “Well I live here now, with my wife.”  I said, nodding in Maria’s direction.  “She’s your wife?  She’s so young, for you.”  My ego collapsed.

Outside the X-ray room we were asked if we minded waiting a little while as a little boy had had an accident and was due to arrive for an emergency scan.  Of course we wouldn’t mind, but again I was struck by how politely we were asked.  The poor lad duly arrived and was rushed in straight away so I continued my conversation with the nurse…

“Your English is very good.” I commented.  “Where did you learn?  Have you been to England?”

“No, I’m from Romania and I studied a bit at school, but I pick up English good when I was in Kosovo….with the doctors during the war.  I went to volunteer and never got the chance to go back to my country and finish my training.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “Did you come to Italy to finish?”

“No, here I am only volunteer also, so is the other nurse you met, we’re both from Romania.  After the war we stay in Kosovo to help the women for sex.”


“There was plenty human traffic after the war, poor girls speak no language and don’t understand what happens to them so we stay to help them escape….stop sex slaves.”

By now the little boy had been scanned and whisked off to another ward and it was my turn, so our conversation came to an abrupt close, just when there were so many questions I wanted to ask.  I was skilfully lifted onto an ultra modern table at the end of which was one of those tunnels that scan you inside and out, top to toe.  Everyone retreated to a safe distance and the table entered….I was impressed, they were taking no chances.  Before long we were back down in the first office going through the results and waiting for the final report.  My nurse unfortunately had to leave for another patient and I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to learn more about her adventures, I’m sure they’d have made a great story.  But I was left with the impression that if Italy’s hospitals were relying on Sunday volunteers, they’d found a rich source of talent and interpreters to boot.  Few of the other staff spoke any English and if I hadn’t had Maria or my nurse then I could well have been in some difficulty.  I was told it would take a full month to recover from my cracked ribs and the broken vertebrae in my neck, which would require me to wear a protective collar till I returned for the all-clear.  So that was Christmas sorted and my recording plans somewhat put on pause.  However I was more than grateful for the care and attention that I got and said so as we left.  As we left the department I just overheard someone saying, “That was a nice man.”  I couldn’t help thinking that more people should know just how good their health-care workers and volunteers really are.  Now I have my own story to tell next time the subject crops up….a positive one I will gladly repeat (the story, not the accident)

As we waited outside for our lift home our ambulance crew turned up.  “How did it go?” they asked.  It transpired that the female part of the team was the aunt of one of my students.   “Remember, when you play your first gig in Reggio we want to come.”  ….it’s a small city it’s true, but it’s got a big heart!

A very Merry Christmas from Calabria.

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Prize Competition: Win a Local Honey (Made by Bees)

Mele, Maiale e Miele.  To the untrained ear these three words sound strikingly similar but mean quite different things, though not without their occasional synergy – apples, pork and honey.

It’s absolutely true what they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  My language skills have improved to the point now where I can be lethal…to myself and all those around me!   So much so that I can breeze in with a pretty accurate Italian accent and be mistaken for a native.  This ability has the perverse effect of actually increasing the chances of misunderstanding rather than diminishing them.  “He said it in such fluent Italian that he must mean what he said.”  It’s the misplaced stresses and nuances in pronunciation that mean you can arrive at a completely different destination to the one intended.

Last week I hot-footed it down to my friend Franco at Remo’s butchers to buy a joint of pork for roasting on Sunday, a little British treat with apple sauce and a honey glaze.  With aforementioned breeze I entered the shop and greeted the staff with bonhomie and chatted about the wonderful weather we were having in December.  Why are we always surprised by the same weather every year?

“So what would you like?” The staff enquired as one after we’d chewed the cud.  “Two kilos of your finest pork.” I answered assuredly.  The faces frowned.  “Are you sure?  Two Kilos?”

“Yes, it’s for a traditional British dish.  We roast it in the oven with some potatoes.”  At this point any other self-respecting butcher would have chucked me out the door, but not at Remo’s.  “O.K. give me a minute.”  Said Franco as he disappeared into the back of the shop.

“So how much will that be?” I asked the staff, producing my thin wad.  “The till says 30 euros.”

“How much?” I exclaimed.

“Well it’s the best in the region so you have to expect to pay a little more.”

“A little more!  OK then, I suppose.” I replied, beginning to regret my promise to cook the Sunday lunch.

Franco arrived on the scene a few moments later, staggering in with a large brown box which he dropped rather quickly to the floor.  “Pork in a box?” I wondered.

“Have a look.” Urged Franco.  I opened the box to find a neat row of jar-tops.  “What’s this?”

“Two kilos of the finest honey in Calabria.” He announced proudly.  “Now, what wine would you have in England to go with this.”  He said, moving to the racked bottles along the back wall.  I think he might just have been taking the micky by then.

Friends of ours, an Irish couple, recently had their own story to tell.  When they went to their local municipio to register their intention to live in this wonderful country and obtain their I.D. cards as proof,  they were asked, after much form-filling confusion, to come back the following week with both their luggage.  (This is not as bizarre as you might imagine, if you have any experience of officialdom in Southern Italy)  Quizzical but compliant they duly turned up at the appointed hour and heaved their suitcases to the front desk.  “What’s this?” Enquired the concerned clerk.  “Have you lost your home?”

“It’s the luggage you asked for.”

“No, I said ‘next week come with someone who knows both the language!  Mamma Mia!”

So to our competition…………


                     And enter the “LITTLE KNOWLEDGE COMPETITION”

 During the last year, as some of my Facebook followers will know, I have been quite amazed at some of the ‘Google’ searches that have brought readers to ‘Winning Over Italy.’  I oft lie awake trying to figure out what they were really searching for.  This is a short list of my insomnia….there seems to be a tenuous link.

  1. A.      Stone fox pictures of little willy  (What!)
  2. B.      Cpeàhebekobòinropoà  (My keyboard can’t even replicate this accurately, suspect Russian)
  3. C.     Roots in lateral pipe (An existential plumber?)
  4. D.     Long legs crossed  (On my site?)
  5. E.      Wandering lust  (possibly a grammatical error, or then possibly not)
  6. F.      Roberto in Italy girl  (Must be easier ways to find Roberto)
  7. G.     Older women with long legs  (Wrong site I think)

All you have to do to win the tasty jar (perfect for a cold with hot water, lemon and a snifter of whisky) is VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE!  You can do this either via the ‘comment’ section of this blog or by voting directly on the Facebook page..”Winning Over Italy.”  It couldn’t be easier.

All voters names will go in a fashionable hat for an independent draw and the winner will receive their jar of honey.  Rules:  This is open to any reader in the world.  Closing Date is 30th January 2012.  Email address necessary for contacting privately for postal address.

NOW WIN 20 Euros!!!!!  Send your funny (must be original) translation stories to this blog and it may be published on this site….funniest voted for will Win 20, yes twenty, Euros! 

Hurry…..While currency still exists!!!!