Winning over Italy

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

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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!


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!!!!

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The Coast Road Home

Okay now, knuckle down and concentrate.  Time to get back to the keyboard without any excuses.  It’s that time of year when it starts to feel colder inside than out.  There’s no central heating here and when it’s still a mid-afternoon 18 degrees on the Lungomare at the end of November, requests for such are looked upon with understandable disdain.  So blog!

“Why have I shown such disregard for those that might wish to read?”

Well Judge, there have been some reasonably mitigating circumstances over the last four or five months and perhaps, if you will allow, I can explain.  First off, there was the house, yes the one we started last year and is at last weather-proof and habitable.  There was no Santo’s Clause this time…oh no.  Far too smart to fall for that one again, not for stage 2.  No, this time we got quotes and other quotes and then threatened just to do it all ourselves which had the expected effect of bringing quote number one down to a more sensible level…without add-ons.  The windows and shutters I have to say are just about complete, 2 months after they should have been.  This was entirely our own fault for having paid the full amount in advance when we started to feel sorry for the installer who kept coming round with a hang-dog expression asking when we’d be ready for his part of the jigsaw….a now ex-friend of a relative.  I now lean towards the philosophy that having no project manager is better than six who think they are.  After scrubbing, sanding, cleaning, sanding, varnishing (the rather lovely wooden-beamed ceiling), sanding, filling and finally preparing the walls for their 3 coats of paint the summer was over and we were, tanless, ready to move in.  I should perhaps mention that the famous English phrase ‘like watching paint dry’ is lost on the Calabrese….nothing could be less boring. In the summer heat the paint is usually dry before you’ve managed to apply the loaded brush/roller to the wall.  Extremely frustrating! So, somewhat bare on the furniture front I’ll admit and with a couple of internal doors still to be found let alone fitted, we took the leap.  I was particularly keen to wake up on the first morning and try the new en-suite, hi-tech (by Calabrian standards) thermostatically controlled shower which we had chosen deliberately to counter the vagaries of the village water supply.  Two years of trying to wash with one hand whilst trying to alternate taps between freezing and tepid with the other, had invariably met with the soap squirting out my grip and shooting across the floor while I screamed at the sudden rush of scalding steam as someone next door decided that the garden had had enough watering for the morning.  No more!  A shower should be a thing of joy.  Sadly, that morning, it was not to be.  The higher I turned the temperature, the colder the water got.  Not wanting to confess that he’d never seen anything more complicated than two straight taps, the builder had installed the unit upside down.  “It’s red on the left in Italy.” He said. “This thing’s not Italian, look the instructions are in a foreign language.” Gently I explained that the ‘red bit’ wasn’t the hot water tap but the thermostat and that if he’d read the whole instruction sheet he’d have maybe seen the big picture with about 25 different languages.  “Were the numbers being upside down not a bit of a clue?”  At last, however, all was fixed, an early morning shower is bliss and all the window man has to do is fit the shutter catches on the outside wall.

“The other mitigating factors, your honour?”

Well, As I said, summer was over and I’d forgotten that September and October are the harvesting months.  The grapes, the tomatoes, the chestnuts….It all takes time you know.  What with work starting again and having to turn your feet and hands a deep black-purple while you make the next year’s wine and then see how many jars you can fill with passatta from a truck load of tomatoes,  it’s easy to forget about the laptop.

“I beg your pardon?  I seemed to have had enough time to fiddle with my guitar?”

Ah, that is true.  I may have got a teeny-weeny bit sidetracked there I have to confess.  But it’s all in a worthy cause, I promise.  I just have this little project called ‘The Dark Tourists’ which is ticking along nicely to some sort of conclusion….or beginning, I’m not quite sure.  The songs had to be written first of course (9 now in the melting pot)  but I’m hoping you’ll like what I’ve done.  Finding the musicians was a bit of an adventure in itself but that’s nearly done and something should be ready for the public in the new year.  Just need to find that elusive accordion player.

So, yes I guess that’s all the excuses out of the way and I promise I’ll work much harder in future and make sure the notepad doesn’t go to waste.  If your lordship pleases, the recent hours of community service should produce some half-decent posts.  Perhaps ‘Watching the Detectives” (a flight with the flying squad)  or ‘Spotting Dark Tourists’ (a musical journey in a strange language) might be fun reading in the next few weeks.

I’m hoping I’ll get away with a suspended sentence……….