Winning Over Italy

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”