Winning over Italy

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

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Glendaruel (Gaelic; Gleann Dà Ruadhail)
The river flowed red with the blood of the Norse invaders who were defeated there over a thousand years ago.

Moving to a new country brings wonder, delight and inspiration, but it can also refresh memories of home. This is a song about a small, fertile (i.e. often wet) Scottish glen with a glorious past which has inspired a few pipers in its time. Now, sadly, it’s almost abandoned but its secrets and ghosts still drift through the twilight mist….the salmon still come home to the tumbling, whisky-coloured waters.
Please listen to the song and, if you like it, share with your friends. By the way that’s me with the red guitar. Thank you.
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Bop Till You Drop!

ImageOne of the few things I’ve missed is a good 6-Nations Saturday.  The ritual of starting the day with a big breakfast before heading for a fire-warmed pub to review the rugby pages with a few mates till the first game of the afternoon begins…..with a Guinness or two.

Instead I had to make do.  The chores were done and the afternoon set aside to watch Scotland v Italy, glass of red wine and a little cheese for company as we (me and the cheese) huddled round the little gas heater in front of the T.V. 

3.30pm and I rubbed my hands as much against the cold as the prospect of a long awaited Scottish victory.  The teams trotted out and lined up for the anthems, the first lungful of bagpipe lifting the hairs on the back of my neck.  I felt suddenly homesick.

Shrill ring of phone interrupts

“Who can that be?  Do I answer?”  Sighing as I turn down the volume, I pick up the handset.  “Pronto”.

“Hi Charles, It’s Sergio.” (master instrument maker from Scilla)

“Sergio, what’s up?” 

“Are you still selling your bass amp?”

“Well, yes, I haven’t got round to putting it on the internet, why?”

“I’ve got a client here in the workshop who might be interested, do you mind if I give him your number?”

“No, not at all..go for it.”

I put the phone down rather abruptly as out of the corner of my eye I had just seen a rare Scottish score.  Maybe this was good karma.  I tensed again (you can never relax watching Scotland).  Ten minutes later I was beginning to warm up as much as the game when…..Shrill ring of phone interrupts.

I sigh again.  The number on the display is not allocated to anyone I know.  Do I ignore or not?  I mean, I can always call back later.  I gave in and answered.  “Pronto.”

“Excuse me but my name is Pasquale, Sergio in Scilla gave me your number.  Can you talk?”

I really didn’t want to as the crowd were going mad in Edinburgh and I so wanted to join them.

“Yea, what can I do for you Pasquale?”

“You have a bass amp for sale, is there a possibility I can have a look at it?” 

“Yes, of course, when were you thinking?”

“Well, now if that’s possible.  We’re already in Pellaro.”

My jaw dropped.   I screwed up my face in angst as I found myself suddenly confronted by the worst possible dilemma for a Scot.  On one hand a very real chance of a very rare rugby victory, on the other…!  The words ‘iron’ and ‘hot’ sprang to mind as I pondered.

“Hello, hello?” said the voice on the phone….”Are you still there?”

I came back to my senses and responded reluctantly, yea sure he could view the amp.  After all how long would it take and I would probably catch all of the second half.

Pellaro is a small place so it was hardly surprising when a few minutes later I was dragging myself to answer a knock on the front door.  What was surprising however, was the very large grey moustache that was waiting on the other side of the threshold.  I stepped aside as it manoeuvred its way slowly into the living room.  I was staring at the shiny dome of a bald topped head with what looked like a curtain of long hair that had slipped down a few inches from its proper position.   So surprised was I, that I very nearly shut the door in the faces of the three very elderly-looking gentlemen that had just struggled up the stairs and were now catching their collective breath on the balcony.

“Er, come in.”  I beckoned, half looking over their shoulders for a line of waiting zimmer frames.  The rugby was still very much on my mind and my composure was being sorely tested by the roar of the crowd at Murrayfield stadium.

“Well this is it.” I said indicating the amp in the corner.  After untying themselves from a variety of sound cables and managing to hang my bass guitar over Pasquale’s creaking neck….they plugged in.  The room shook for a few minutes while he pounded the strings, things started shaking on the table and my father-in-law was woken from his siesta in the house below.  Pasquale stopped.  “Does it go any louder?”

“Louder!”  Yes, of course but….”  I was tempted to check if he’d switched his hearing aid on. 

“Well what do think?”  I said getting a little impatient.

“Would you mind if we tried it out with the band?”  Band! I thought.  I’d imagined this was to be a gift for some lucky grandchild, not a band with an average age of eighty.

With some reluctance I gave up on the idea of seeing out the rugby and helped them lug the gear down to a row of waiting cars and followed them to their rehearsal room which they told me was just down the road in Lazzaro.  When we arrived at the agreed meeting point (The Hunter’s Cafe) I got out and looked around.  I could see nothing that resembled a practice studio.

“This way” said the ‘boys’.

We staggered (literally) down a few steps towards the beach and turned towards a large steel door that had been hidden from the road.  As we carried the amp into the room I couldn’t believe my eyes.  This was huge!  Charlie Watt’s uncle was setting up a drum kit to one side and a little head was bobbing around behind a bank of keyboards whilst a middle aged woman prepared coffee and Limoncello (was this the groupie?).  The Four Tops put the amp into position in the heart of the great room and argued about what cable should go where.  I looked around in awe.  I was in an Aladin’s Cave of  classic instruments and hi-tech performance.  Beside the large EV speakers and digital mixing consol lay an array of collector guitars and original amps.  A ’61 Telecaster, a ’67  Strat, a worn left-hand Les Paul (that was strangely played right-handed later) and a bank of amps that would provide collateral on any new Hard Rock Cafe enterprise.  It dawned on me that these were the guitars and amps they’d bought when they were in their early teens.  For them it was just their ‘axes’…..for me it was a very expensive museum of the most desirable instruments I’d ever seen in one place.

All thought of the rugby had evaporated…..I had been transported into another age.  Only problem was, I couldn’t work out if it was the future or the past. 

When they counted 1,2,3, 4….there were at least 9 musicians hitting the beat.  Santana. Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Albert King, Garry Moore……They rocked!!!  I couldn’t believe my eyes, nor my ears.  The lead guitarist, whose hands had been shaking Parkinson’s style minutes before, had become one with the fret-board, the drummer had gone from unsteady to rock-steady and even the singer who looked as if he was hanging onto the mic stand, more as a means of support, was managing to do a mean version of Ian Gillan….even if his glasses kept slipping off his nose during the chorus.

The rehearsal finished about 7.00pm and I’d even forgotten why I was there.  It wasn’t till one of the roadies asked me to help carry the meat for the traditional BBQ-after-practice that I thought to ask if Pasquale liked the amp enough to part with some dough.  “Great he said.  Would I mind taking the money in instalments?”  By this time it seemed churlish to refuse.  They had been getting me cunningly drunk with local wine and great music. 

I had to decline the tempting food as I had to go and collect Maria from Reggio but I took up their offer of going back any weekend…..sing for your supper they say.  I have since been back and had enormous fun jamming with these guys and I’ve learnt a great truth…..

Here’s the thing.  When you put an instrument round your neck and step up to the microphone, the years just roll away and you’re young again.  The secret of long life is bop till you drop!


Live From Vieste

The early morning sun is already hot, dazzling the soft ripples of the Adriatic.  We sit admiring the carved strata of the cliffs that rise from the sea up to the ancient town of Vieste above us.  Two traditional stilt fishing platforms (trabucchi) act like sun-bleached sentinels, guarding each side of our private lagoon on the Gargano coast.

I’m writing from a sun-bed by the hotel swimming pool, set near the foot of the rock-face, overlooking a scene of turquoise tranquillity.  The pool can be reached by the many steep steps that twist and climb up to Hotel Seggio, our spur of the moment stop-over….however we chose to reach it by the conveniently placed lift in the lobby, it’s a holiday after all.  We’re on a mini tour of the south that has taken us away from Calabria through Basilicata, Napoli, Abruzzo and now Puglia.

We’d only intended to stay one night in Vieste but the romance of the lantern-lit alleyways and the slew of late-night restaurants and tavernas seduced us into extending our visit another day.  It also seemed a little rude not to enjoy a poolside ‘bibite’ when the hotel had been so thoughtful in supplying the facility in the first place.

This is the joy that an unorganised, even disorganised, road trip brings….No plans to break, no bookings to cancel.  Early September is still pleasantly hot but the majority of holiday makers have gone, the botigas and museums are still open but without the chaos of Ferragosto.  There is probably no better time to enjoy the ‘spur’ of the Italian boot, the peninsula of Gargano with its historic towns, national park and sublime sandy beaches.  The long and winding coast road lies ahead, the secrets of Puglia await….but they’ll keep until tomorrow.

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Today I arrived!  Today I made a decsion.  I got to the beach for the first time this summer at 8.00am.  The water is so clear, clear enough to drink and so calm!  The heat (at 8.00am) is about 27°.  From today and for the next two months I am going to get up early and go for a swim….I am going to feel healthy.  For the last two months it’s all been about promises, promises.  The work is nearly finished, so now it’s time to watch the ketch sail up the Straits, the children absorb the pleasure of the cool water and play their games.  Next week Maria and I start to enjoy our first true holiday…Naples, Pompei, Abruzzo, Bari and the coast roads back to Calabria…

Only last night we were on the beach at midnight.  The band started up. I was standing on the beach, the full moon above me, the waves lapping luxuriously on the sand and surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis!  The singer in the band was kind enough to intoduce me ” I cannot understand why this man has left London to come and live in Calabria” She said!

If only you knew!!!

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How To Find Out What’s On In Calabria

Saturday and there’s something in the air, Reggio is waking up again.  I took Maria into work a little earlier than usual so we could check out a table and a chair or two for the balcony (yes, the same one I fell off  and broke my neck before Christmas).  There wasn’t much to see so we found ourselves on Reggio Calabria’s Lungomare (the promenade) with a little time to kill.

“Mmm that’s interesting.” I said, pointing out into the Straits.  “They’re laying marker buoys for something.  Must be a little sailing race about to happen.”

“You don’t read much do you.”  Maria responded.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the Windsurfing World Cup this weekend.  Haven’t you seen the hoardings all round the city?”  You know, it never occurred to me till now how little you take in of posters in a foreign language, even huge ones.  It’s as if they can’t really be important unless they’re in your own.

“Yea but…….”

“And when was the last time you read an Italian newspaper?” Maria continued.  “And what about the fact that the Via Marina is closed to traffic at the far end, with exhibition marquees and big signs saying ‘Windsurfing World Cup’  A clue perhaps!”

“But I never drive up that end of the town.” I pleaded in my defence.  “What you’re saying is that unless there’s a road block you wouldn’t know something was happening.”

“O.K. I suppose it’s true to a point.”  She confessed.

“In fact when you think about it, how did we ever get to discover about all the great music gigs we’ve been to see….word of mouth or a traffic queue.”

If I’d known just how amazing Calabria is for music, especially in July and August, I would have had my rucksack on my back years ago.  Two whole months of great festival camping.  From world-music folk festivals to blues weekends and jazz jamborees, every little town by the sea or in the mountains has something going on.  Big names too…. From The States, Africa, Europe and up the road in Milan they come.  In one evening you can drive up to Gambarie, a little ski resort in the forested mountains, and help fill the town square with a thousand others to watch Bandabardò and then drive back down to the city to watch another act, courtesy of the RTL road show.  Over the last few years Italy’s main ‘rock’ station has decamped to Reggio and broadcast everyone from Edoardo Bennato to Van Morrison.  All this and I mean ALL…..FOR FLAMIN’ FREE!!!   Not a penny to spend, except the odd Euro for a cold beer and a sausage Panini.  You couldn’t find a better area or better weather to dance along the shoreline or boogie till dawn.

The most amazing part is that nobody seems to know anything about it..well until about an hour after the sound-check or just before the stage lights up.  “Calabria’s so boring” say my teenage students, “There’s nothing to do.”  They’re so wrong but I can understand their problem.  Calabria doesn’t exactly shout from the rooftops when it comes to marketing.  Coordination is not its strongest point either.  It’s as if each village tries to outdo the others on the concert stakes by cunningly disguising the fact that they’re putting on a show at all…..until that is, someone like Lorenzo passes the word.  “Psst. Wanna see a cool gig tonight?”  I confess that the impromptu nature of gig-going adds something special to the experience.  There’s no time to think about whether it’s your scene or not and certainly no need to queue for tickets.  So how come it’s all free?  It would seem that the local councils pay for it all and I suspect top dollar too.  A musician friend of mine recently confided that he’d managed to obtain quite a substantial fee to put his band on stage with a well-known tribute band from Rome, to celebrate next year’s 50 years of the Rolling Stones (including film, lighting, sound crews etc.) all courtesy of the city coffers.  You certainly can’t accuse the Italian authorities of skimping when it comes to putting on a show for the culture vulture.  I just hope the Euro crisis doesn’t put too much of a damper on things.  For me it is particularly refreshing to see musicians and performers actually getting paid, even at the smokier winter clubs and venues, rather than relying on their own facebook-based promotional abilities and the honesty of the money-taker at the door.  Even at these gigs the punter rarely has to pay, except for the beer perhaps.  Of course if you feel you must, you can grab the ferry to Sicily and catch Santana or Lou Reed play at Taormina’s ancient Greek amphitheatre under a star-studded sky.  But again, you often don’t find out there’s something on until the tickets are all gone.  I’m sure there are plenty of musicians out there who won’t agree with me – work can be thin on the winter ground for some of the local musos when the competition is so fierce – but this is just another indication of the amount of exceptional talent that exists in these parts.

So, I kissed Maria goodbye and wandered along the promenade towards the lido area at the far end of the bay, clutching my camera.  “Windsurfing World Cup eh?”  I thought.  “Hope the breeze picks up a little.  Make a mental note to self… time there’s a road blocked off, go down it and see what’s on!”

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There’s Music in the Moon Tonight!

As the winds subside and the skies return to their reassuring azure, we lift our noses to the scent of the coming summer.  Hot days, warm nights and dancing on moonlit beaches.  Free open-air concerts, jazz fests in mountain-town piazzas and radio city…live on the promenade of Reggio Calabria.  Here, summer and music go together like  a white vellum sail gliding over a glass-like ocean as the sun rises, like the smell of fresh bread and coffee floating from an early morning café, like lovers holding hands in the moonlight as they wander to their waiting Vespa.  Us?  Tired and happy we climb into Lorenzo’s car, turn up the radio and watch the moon over Sicily as we drive back along the coast road, home just before the sun wakes once again from behind the Aspromonte Mountains.  This is the essence of Calabria…..I hope this song we wrote for you captures some of that spirit.  NOW…CLICK PLAY….and see the video!

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The Flying Squad

I’d spent the best part of the last hour peering anxiously at the sky, praying that the staggered patches of blue wouldn’t diminish any further than they had already since the early hours of dawn.  Although the November temperature still hadn’t dropped below 20°c, the clouds had been gathering a little more of late, the rains were coming.  Not today I hoped.  This was the day that Omar and Charles go flying.

Omar, a student of mine with a pilot’s licence, had recently suggested that I might like to see Calabria from the air and maybe take some photos so I’d really been looking forward to this day….a true ‘Winning Over Italy’ experience.

“Hey Professor, I hope I’m not late.”  Omar greeted me outside the little airport in Reggio.  “We have time for a coffee I think.”  We headed into the concourse and the little coffee bar beside the news stand.  “Two espresso grazie.” Omar asked the barista.  “The weather isn’t too bad but I think perhaps we will have to change my idea.  I had thought we’d head over Gambarie and the mountains but the cloud is too low today, I’m sorry.”  “No worries Omar, just getting a bird’s eye view of the city will be fine for me.”  I assured him.  “Perhaps you’d like to see where I work before we take off?”  He offered, keen to make sure my day was not a disappointment.  Now this was a real bonus.  You see, Omar is one of the lucky few who’s able to combine his passion with his job.  As Sovrintentdente with the ‘5° Reparto Volo della Polizia di Stato’ he spends much of his working week in a police helicopter…a technician with the flying squad.  I was going to get rare access to a world that few knew about.

It felt quite cool being escorted round the back of the queue taking their belts and jackets off waiting to go through airport security.  In the police office Omar signed an official looking form while an officer in Raybans checked my ID.  “OK, you may pass.”  We headed down the back stairs and out into the warm air that swirled gently off the tarmac…the weather was holding.  After a quick visit to the flying club to register our proposed flight Omar guided me round the back of some large hangers and into the Polizia section near the start of the runway.  A huge open hanger greeted us, two single engine planes and about six helicopters in various stages of maintenance and preparation were arranged tightly inside whilst on the apron two further whirlybirds sat ready and waiting for action.  I went immediately for the camera.  “Ah, wait a moment.”   Cried Omar.  “It’s OK if you take some pictures of the helicopters outside but please don’t take any with a policeman in it…they mustn’t be seen on the web, even pictures of me, I’m sorry.”  It took me a moment to understand the request but I quickly realised that the Polizia in Italy, especially in the south, have to work in more unusual circumstances compared to other forces.  Protecting their identity is therefore of paramount importance.  “Ah, right.  Of course, I completely understand Omar.”   We spent the next hour looking round the craft while Omar explained their function and the technical aspects of their work.

“You will probably recognise most of these helicopters from movies like Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam stories.  They’re all standard U.S. Bell machines which have been adapted for our work.  This is one which is mostly used for search and rescue.”  He said as he helped me climb into the pilot’s seat of a helicopter which had been stripped out to accommodate stretchers and with a control console that had more switches and dials than a 48 track mixing desk.  “This is most of the work we do, helping people who’ve been caught in floods or landslides…like in Messina last year.  Or sometimes it’s sailors who’ve capsized.  I’m the one who has to go down on the winch and help them, so I have to trust my colleagues with my life.”  He laughed.  “We have to always be friends as we depend on each other…we get very close.”

We walked into the hanger to watch one of his unit put a new camera, mounted under the fuselage, through its paces.  “This man’s an expert with these cameras.”  Said Omar.  “Some of our work involves watching the traffic or football crowds when Reggina play and of course if there’s a bank robbery we have to be ready to help the Polizia on the ground.  They’re about to go up and do some training on this new camera I think.  We can watch them take off if you like.”  We stood back at the edge of the compound and waited as the crew wheeled out the helicopter and got it ready.  “So what made you decide to take up flying.”  I asked.

“Well about nine years ago I was just an ordinary policeman in Palermo, Sicily, when the opportunity came up for me to transfer to this unit in my home town.  I decided I wanted to become a pilot because it would help my career and fell in love with flying….I’ve been qualified for eight years now .  I spent many years studying and training to be a technician with the military in Lazio and now, thanks to my English, I’ve been accepted for training as a helicopter pilot. It means I have to go away for training for maybe 8 months and then I will probably be posted to Palermo again.  I’m very excited about this…it’s been my dream.

We watched as the rotors burst into life and the huge blades began to spin, ponderously slow at first but soon picking up speed until the incredible blast of the wind they created made it difficult to look without shielding your eyes from the dust storm.  Slowly it rose and hung a few meters above the tarmac before turning back on itself at an angle and soared away above us.  A wave and it was gone.

We walked over to our own craft for the day.  Fuelled and ready, Omar made a few checks before he strapped me in and handed me my headphones. “We can talk in English to the control tower if you want.”  Suggested Omar.  “It’s the international flying language and good practice for me, and you’ll understand what’s going on.”  We taxied to the end of the runway and waited for the all clear.  The tiny plane felt smaller than the inside of a M.G. Midget and I was a little anxious my big feet weren’t going to interfere with the dual controls as we took off.  “Make sure you don’t put any pressure on the pedal controls.”  Warned my pilot, as we trundled and bobbed our way down the runway towards the sea.  We hardly seemed to be doing any speed at all before suddenly there was a heave and a lurch and…..we were airborne.  Gradually my grip on the camera resting between my legs relaxed and I dared look down.  The city spread out below us and to our right as Omar made a heading northwards across the bay and along the coast.  “I think we should avoid the city while the helicopter is in the air, they’ll be patrolling the autostrada testing the camera.  We’ll head up the coastline, OK?”

“Fine by me.” I nodded.  We rose to 2,000 feet and hugged the shore line, Sicily to the left and the mountains of Calabria to our right.  It was incredible to see the little inlets and coves, little hamlets that nestled round sandy bays occupied by a handful of tiny vessels.  This was something that you can’t see, even from the coast road that winds its way around the foot of the mountains, bundles of little secrets that only now I know exist.  I must spend more time exploring these places I thought, they look beautiful.  From above you could see the odd villa with their swimming pools perched on rocky outcrops, steps leading down to their own private harbour.  It was fascinating.  “This is called the La Costa Viola.” Said Omar pointing along the mountains that rose from the sea.  Aptly named indeed, for the soft light gives them a distinctly purple hue, almost as if they were covered in a carpet of heather.  We flew on for another half hour, over Scilla, towards Tropea before my pilot turned us round to head back.  “OK.” He said. “All yours!”  He took his hands off the joystick and indicated I should take mine. “No it’s quite alright.”  I said, panicking a little. “You fly.  I’m quite happy taking snaps.  However he insisted so I found myself flying us back towards Reggio.  I was surprised at how sensitive and light the controls were and it took a minute or two of swaying about before I got the ‘feel’ just right.  This was fun.

We headed a little inland as I wanted to fly over the monastery that sits high above Reggio and looks so intriguing from the road.  Soon we were approaching the city and Omar took over again.  The radio crackled into life as Omar contacted the helicopter crew to find out their location.  “Look out below.”  He instructed.  They’re about a thousand feet below us, see if you can spot them.”  After a moment or two I saw them, hovering above an empty football pitch a little to the south.  Watching the detectives…. watching them watching you.  We dropped our height a little and flew over Reggio, over the Saturday market, the castle and the stadium, watching life carry on… connections made, arrangements met.

As we landed the first spots of rain began to decorate the windscreen.  With a gentle bump we were back on terra firma just in time.  On the way back to the terminal I thanked Omar for a fantastic morning thinking that this would be a once in a lifetime experience.  “Listen.” He said, why don’t we go for a week in Croatia or Crete sometime…or both.  We’ll take the bigger plane and have four of us go where we please.  It’s what I do as often as possible…it doesn’t work out very expensive and you don’t have to bother with check-ins or security checks.”

Mmm, maybe it’s time to broaden my horizons.  ‘Winning Over the Med’ perhaps.

Many thanks Omar…..A true gentleman.  Good luck with your career!