Unconscious Italian

The iPod shuffles and Canadian R&B singer, Melanie Fiona sings Watch Me Work. I’m surprised she remains mostly unknown by the UK music buying public as she’s much more talented than the likes of Kelly Rowland, Nicole Sherzinger et al, but I guess the big U.S. labels still see Canadian artists as ‘poor cousins’. There’s a knock at the door and my neighbour tells me she’s having some work on her back garden done, so there may be some cars parked at the top of the road. Moments later a tractor arrives and two short squat men jump out and begin to hand-ball bricks and wood up the stairs leading to my neighbours back garden. Now being of the nosey persuasion, I pop along to see what’s happening and before long I’m sat inside enjoying a prosecco as the two men toil in cooling early evening air.

There’s a call and Mario, one of the squat gardeners asks me if I can give him a lift to Minco di Lici to pick up his girlfriend. As it’s literally just around the corner I agree, we drive down the lane and pass a group of elderly locals all sat out chatting, each one has brought their own chair and sit in the road with no intention of moving. I see their faces that say, ‘we were here first’. As we navigate slowly around the group they look at the English car and give a half-hearted greeting, We toss a robust, “Salve tutti,” out of the window and smiles grace the ancient faces and a more robust, “Anche lei,” is called back. Mario tells me he is married but his wife didn’t like living in the country so returned to city living. I ask him what city she returned to, expecting him to say Milan, Rome or Naples. His response is, “Casoli.”  Casoli, our council town is a mere 5 km away, and by UK city standards it’s barely a town.

We arrive at the house where Mario’s girlfriend works as a carer, the elderly wife opens an electronic gate and beckons us inside. The woman chats away to us, offers us beer and when we decline she looks sad, her aged eyes, watery. We look at each other and watch her face lose years as it brightens when we agree to have a small beer. Seven cats share the terrace where we sit, but unlike the owner we are not impervious to the smell, luckily a light breeze blows it away from where I sit. Eventually a young girl in her twenties appears at the door, she’s from the Dominican Republic, a good half metre taller than Mario and I imagine at least ten years younger. I ask him how they met and he is vague, so I’m assuming over the internet.

I deliver Mario and his beau back and for regular readers of, A Life on Shuffle, here’s an update on the shed incident of a few days ago, Mario, uses his digger to push it over the edge of the ruin it was lodged on, so now out of sight, I’m very happy. It’s only after he’s put some paper down on the dirty tractor seat for his girlfriend to sit on, that i realise I have just spent a good forty-minutes in the company of Italians and not a word of English has been spoken, and I’ve not had to think about what I was saying, it just flowed naturally. Now I’m not fluent, far from it, but it was nice to actually speak another language without consciously thinking about what I’m saying.

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The Pizza Eating Cat

Saturday morning arrives and as I open the front door I’m welcomed by mewing from the semi-feral cat that lives in the lane. I call it Balenò (Flash) as she has an orange ziz-zag on the top of her head. As the iPod shuffles and Mark Owen begins to sing Four-Minute Warning, I retrieve the piece of pork rind from last night’s dinner that I saved in the fridge. I throw it to the cat and she devours it greedily.

It’s a very vocal cat, constantly calling and constantly hungry. She lives mostly in the garden of Adam and Sarah’s, holiday home at the bottom of the lane, where guests staying feed her. But when no one is there it comes on the scrounge up here. I don’t mind giving it the odd morsel, but don’t feed it everyday, otherwise it’ll take up residence here. The cat is about three-years old and seems to be constantly pregnant, as are all the feral queens in the countryside. In 2011, she had one kitten that survived two-days before being taken by a fox. Until recently she was swollen with kittens, but there’s no sign of her offspring, so I can but assume they suffered a similar fate to the other kitten.

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After yesterday’s blustery weather, the morning is still and the cat basks in the sunshine. I drink my coffee watching her as she deftly pounces upon a lizard and swallows it almost whole. Our builder arrives with pizza and the cat becomes interested in the humans, or more truthfully in what the humans are eating. She brushes against our ankles calling out for a morsel. I drop her a piece of pizza and she’s on it with the same swiftness she used to catch the lizard. Very quickly it’s gobbled up and she meows again wanting more. After three more hunks of cheese and tomato covered focaccia, she strolls off towards the shady spot under the drying washing at the top of the steps and flops down and closes her eyes. Time for a morning snooze.

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Hanging Baskets and Ancient Cat-Flaps

Last week I took a trip over to Fara San Martino to visit my friends Vivienne and Seppe. Fara is a town renowned for its exceptional pasta and being the only place that produce the pasta destined for the Vatican. I wrote an article for Italy magazine sometime back about this: LINK HERE But I wasn’t in Fara to talk about pasta,

Vivienne, teaches English and had a lesson booked so Seppe took me to see the mountain town of Civitella Messer Raimondo. His fiat panda climbed higher and higher up the mountain past empty bars and vacant shops, “It’s a shame,” he said, “so many people have now left.” For many years, with dwindling work prospects many of the people from this hilltop town have boarded up their homes and moved away to the cities. We park the car and walk through streets that are silent, no footfalls can be heard but ours. “Years ago,” Seppe points to an empty house, “People were selling these houses to foreigners. Many made a healthy profit, but those times have gone, and the foreigners don’t come as often as they once did.” This of course has a knock on effect, with no tourism the shops close as do the bars.

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We walk through a narrow vincolo (alley) and are treated to a view down to Fara, the late evening sun is cutting through the mountains, spilling over the red rooftops creating a magical effect. We wander along streets with empty narrow properties, three storey high, I peer into an empty cantina and it’s almost like looking back in time. It’s unchanged, a piece of living history. Seppe points out the ancient feeding trough, telling me this would have been for the family’s donkey, over in the corner is an old cage, possibly where rabbits or chickens were kept. We continue along and see where water over the years has caused damage. Looking into one house we see the upper floors, having fallen years before, lying derelict upon the lower one. It’s a haunting image, knowing that years ago the walls would have contained the clatter of family life. We pass a door with a plaque upon it, “It’s where the old Alpini would meet and talk about the old days,” Seppe tells me, “I’m not sure if the old mountain soldiers remain or still use their club.” 

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The visit to the town is tinged with a little sadness but when I look up and see flowers growing in the cracks in the brickwork above my head. I feel hopeful as life will always find a way. Seppe points to a neat little square in the bottom of a cantina door, I look at the cut and it’s definitely man made, the house next door has one as does the one next to that. “Do you know what that’s for?” asks Seppe, I shake my head, I’ve not a clue. “For the cat,” he tells me. I laugh, an ancient Italian cat-flap. Of course it makes sense, if you keep animals and feed in the cantina beneath your house you’re bound to get rats and mice, so a cat is a necessary part of the family and therefore must have its own door.

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Our visit over and we return to Fara in Seppe’s Fiat, and I’m treated to a trip along streets as narrow as the car and with almost impossible right angle junctions, as he’s an experienced Italian native this is normal for him, but to me it’s an amazing feat of navigation. Back at the piazza opposite his house, like all Italians he squeezes the car into what looks like an impossibly small space and we go back to his house for a cup of tea. Vivienne’s lessons have finished and we all sit chatting as the light begins to fade. I leave with a portion of Seppe’s local history embedded into my consciousness and with one of the amazing olive wood hanging baskets that he makes. Below is a photo of the hanging baskets he makes and his amazing handmade olive wood strawberry planter.

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