Being Local

With the iPod shuffling I drove to the bank ahead of tomorrow’s closure due to it being All Saints day, Spandau Ballet play Chant No1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On) 12” Mix, as I park up and join the queue at the cash machine. It seems like everyone in Selva  Piana needs to get cash out. I’m standing behind an elderly lady who’s humming a discordant tune to herself, when a man asks me if I want the bank or the ATM. I explain I want the cash machine and the whole queue that’s lined up in front of it moves, they’re all waiting to go into the bank and the cashiers are operating a two people, out, two people, in, system.

After withdrawing some cash I head off up the hill that leads to Vizzarri, Somebody Told Me, by Eurythmics plays as I pull into the car park at Scriz, a family-run independent supermarket. I’m picking up a packet of De Cecco pasta when the doors open and there’s a commotion by the fresh fruit. I hear a lot of excited English voices as a group that have arrived in a mini bus enter the store. A man at the front is talking to the group and a couple of excited ladies pick a packet of biscuits up and examine the wrapper.

I’m down at the sliced meats section talking to my friend behind the counter when the group arrive and stand behind me. I order some cooked ham and my friend is cutting me four slices when I hear one of the biscuit women exclaim, “Isn’t it lovely when you hear them speak Italian.” I am slightly tempted to ask what she’d expect to hear, Cantonese, but my friend asks me if I want anything else. I’m ordering six slices of prosciutto nostrano (traditional dry-cured ham) when the group leader addresses them saying, “Here you can see the locals buying their sliced meat and cheeses in much the same way they have been doing for years.

Although it’s only a tourist group, it’s a nice feeling to be considered a local; although the people who originate from here would never consider me that, to them I’ll always be that crazy foreigner (quello straniero pazzo).

Talking about being crazy, as you know I have a few OCD issues, one of which is related to my job as a writer. I only use Staedtler pencils, it’s irrational I know but I genuinely find it difficult to take notes using any other brand of pencil. Most ex-pats get sent HP sauce, Cheddar and other food goodies from back home, but imagine how happy I was to be sent over these beauties:

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That Crazy Foreigner

At the bend in the lane, before our house, sits an ancient stone fountain. The fountain isn’t a decorative one but a practical one, it served the small community here before mains water was piped in. Sadly it now lies decommissioned and nature has started to claim back the space. An old elder grows to the left, it’s knotted branches shadowing the trough where women would stand washing the family’s clothes. The right side, the animal drinking trough is slowly becoming engulfed in brambles, the thorny, limbs providing green lizards with a safe haven from the feral cats that hunt them. I look at this structure with its weed covered façade and an idea surfaces. “I know,” I say to myself loudly: As I’m alone, no is going to think, who’s the nutter talking to himself. “I’ll clean it up.” So I set too with petrol powered brush cutter and I’m attacking the brambles like a man possessed, when out of no where appears a small Italian man. He’s no more than 5’3”,  leathery from years in the sun and nut brown. Now I may have said before that Italy has an omnipresence about it. You could believe you were alone in the countryside and feel the call of nature and pop behind a tree and I can guarantee that by the time you’ve got home two-thirds of the village know that you’ve not only peed behind a tree, but the grid reference and who owns aforementioned tree.

“What are you doing?” asks my companion, intrigued by my toil. I explain that I’m clearing the weeds around the fountain and he smiles, a broad smile revealing teeth as white as Italian plaster. “Why do this,” he says, “it doesn’t benefit you?” I try to explain that I’m doing it because it would look nice, but he doesn’t understand why I’d waste energy on such a task. “Pazzo,” he says, a phrase I’ve heard before, meaning, crazy: My friend Allessio calls me, il pazzo straniero, the crazy foreigner. I tell my new friend that I may be crazy but the fountain is a piece of history. He likes this and begins to tell me how this stone utility was an important part of village life. He explains how the women stood two abreast, chatting as they washed clothes, by hand and how the men would bring the family horse to drink water before it was harnessed up for a days labour in the fields.

IMGA0164The conversation changes and he tells me how the water was turned off when the village was connected to the mains water supply, “the community started to change, people didn’t spend time at the fountain discussing the important things anymore.” I ask him what the important things were that would be talked over. “ Who’s olives are first at the community press, who makes the best pasta orechiette, who’s ill and who’s died, All of these things are important in a small village.” He then points to where he appeared and tells me it’s his family’s land, I make out an Ape* camouflaged among the olives, he then tells me that since he had heart surgery he’s been unable to use a petrol strimmer, he laughs as he pretends the vibrations are causing him to suffer a heart attack and then with one more “pazzo.” he disappears back into the countryside.

I then set to with hedge clippers, I’m not going to trim the greenery within an inch of its life; just enough to neaten it without making it look artificial. I turn on my iPod and X-Ray Spex play Highly Inflammable, it’s hard to imagine that the charismatic, yet reclusive singer Poly Styrene past away a year ago, this month. Their single, The Day the World Turned Day-Glo, is still one of my all-time favourite songs and holds many memories of the emerging punk scene in Britain. I take a break from clipping and with a pair of secateurs begin cutting back the elder. Several hours later and the stone fountain is revealed in all its glory. Time to retreat from the midday heat and have that well earned cold beer.

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The following day I shift all the earth that has accumulated around the base, fight against the brambles and even come under attack from a gang of black ants, the size of golf balls: okay a slight exaggeration, maybe the size of half an Oxo cube. I beat the ants into submission and as a particularly sulky one waves its fist at me in anger as his comrades retreat I stand back to survey my work. I’m happy with the transformation from overgrown ruin to restored glory, and as the iPod shuffles and Kasabian play, Fire, I walk the few steps home.

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Later, after a trip into town I return to find the old guy standing with another looking at the fountain. I hear them say, “good work,” and “nice job.” They both spot me and give me the thumbs up and my friend from yesterday says, “Thank you, many memories.” I wait, but I don’t hear ‘pazzo straniero’.

*Ape, meaning bee (pronounced App-ay) is a three-wheeled hybrid of a scooter and pick-up, made by the vespa (meaning wasp) manufacturers, Piaggio.