Polyglot Lane

I always expect to be speaking two languages when I’m in the office dealing with my Italian colleagues and speaking with our English clients, but not very often is it a requirement of dog walking.

Today I’m taking our youngest dog, Alf Alf for his walk and the first person I see in the lane is the English builder working on my neighbour’s house, I stop and we pass the time of day. I continue on down the lane when driving towards me is my friend Nicola and we have a quick chat in Italian.

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The weather’s good so we walk further down the lane than usual and I spot a couple from a nearby village who have a holiday home here and we converse with a few English pleasantries before my friend Giuseppina calls to me. She only speaks dialect and we manage a short cobbled together conversation before it’s time to turn around and walk Alf Alf back home.

I’m sure moments like this are quite common for anyone living in another country where the language is different from their own.

And it’s moments like this that make living abroad special.

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An Apple in the Lane

Over the past week the Britain has been battered by Storm Desmond, in the news I’ve seen images of flooding in Cumbria and Lancashire. There’s been videos posted of pensioners being rescued from upstairs windows by the fire service and seemingly stable roads crumbling away. And it reminds me of the storms we had here earlier in the year, where mountain roads overnight ceased to exist and the roads on the coast became flooded with sea water, silt and all other manner of debris.

Thankfully the weather here is better, the December days are bright and sunny and can be quite warm; although the locals don’t think so. I often get reproached for not wearing a coat, with warnings of being struck down with a dreadful influenza that’ll certainly kill me. The temperature drops in the evening and we then have the joy that is a wood burner. Yes, they need cleaning out every day, you have to contend with the smell of smoke and the dust they create would give many a clean freak apoplexy, but there’s that sense of satisfaction when it’s first lit and it starts to warm the room. Also there something joyous on an crisp evening of the sight of stone houses with trails of white wood smoke rising up from their chimneys.

Living in rural Italy can often be challenging, but is mostly for me rewarding. The fact that there’s only 10 properties in our hamlet, 3 are holiday homes, 3 are empty and with only 4 having permanent residents I understand that living here wouldn’t suit many people. But on a day like this it’s wonderful. A short walk along the lane can be breathtaking: The autumnal colours of the trees work so well with the traditional tiles and stone buildings that are dotted around the countryside. These abandoned properties blend well with the landscape and rather than give the area a depressed look they do their bit for the environment, they are perfect habitats for many of the critters that live here and last year one in our lane became the hibernation haven for two hedgehogs.

DSCF5116.JPGA walk along the lane this morning with the dogs more than makes up for the cold evening yesterday. The sun is warm and the sky is as blue without a single cloud to spoil it. Nature’s rich palette of colours are spread out before us as we stroll slowly with no sense of urgency; Alf sniffs every bush and leaves his calling card and Olive scans the ground for fallen walnuts which she cracks open and gobbles with gusto. Ahead of me she stops and investigates something in the middle of the road. I reach her and see that there’s a solitary apple sitting in the middle of the lane. Alf sniffs it and Olive looks up at me as if to say, “who left this apple here?”

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A quick look to the right and I have solved the mystery. There’s evidence of chinghiale (wild boar), the vegetation is trampled and the pomegranate bush has been stripped of its over-ripe fruits and the apple tree has been pulled over. Alf gets wind of the night time interlopers and his nose goes into overdrive and he’s pulling me towards the undergrowth, Olive barks as she gets the scent of the boar and for a few minutes there’s two excited canines, one bewildered human and an apple in the lane.

Wild Sea

I took the dogs out to the beach a couple of times, before the forecasted snow arrived. It was nice to have great open spaces with hardly another person in sight, the dogs love walking on the sand and although they’re both wary of the sea, they both like being on the beach. During school holidays in the summer-time dogs are banned from beaches, so most dog walkers tend to be out with their animals in spring and autumn.

The beach at Francavilla was completely deserted, but a depressing sight to behold, the summer facilities were boarded up and locked away and the sand was littered with evidence of holiday-makers. There’s something bleak about holiday destinations out of season. I recall a holiday town in New Zealand I visited during a working tour out there, the whole town had a depressing aura about it, and Francavilla is the same under metallic coloured skies.

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Next time, we went to the beach at Ortona, it’s adjacent to the port and rather small, but at least it’s clean. The sea is quite choppy, almost as if it’s having an argument with the shore. Waves roll in, foaming viciously; white horses stampeding as the harsh wind stabs at my cheeks like invisible hypodermics.  We walk along the moored boats that are bobbing wildly as huge waves splash over the breakwater soaking any unfortunate passer-by,

There’s something about the beaches once the umbrellas have been removed and the holiday makers have left, it feels like they start to belong to the local population once again as the dog walkers, young men with fishing rods and couples bundled up against the cold reclaim what’s theirs.

Pomegranates in Pyjamas

It’s early evening, 20.20, (8.20 in old money). I’ve just got back from taking Alf for a walk down the lane. As I was already geared up for an evening in front of the television, I was dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of Calvin Klein pyjama bottoms. So I’m settling down for the evening, when before I could take a sip of my wine Alf decided he needed to pee. As we get very little traffic in the evening and I can’t be bothered to get changed and slip on his collar and lead and head off down the lane. The air is cool and as we stroll past the walnut tree Alf crunches a shell open and devours the nut inside.

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We’re passing my neighbours hose when a man in a Punto drives past, he waves and I return his greeting. I’m eager for Alf to pee but he has other ideas, he just wants to walk. We get down to the war memorial at the bend in the lane, when a youth on a scooter whizzes past. We walk as far as the pomegranate bush and Alf decides to pee, as he splashes the ground I pick a couple of the fruits. We’re walking back when Rosa drives past, slowing to stare at the crazy Englishman wearing pyjamas as he walks his equally crazy dog. (She’s not keen on dogs and not Alf who gave her a fright a few weeks ago).

We stop at the walnut tree and as Alf crunches another nut free, I fill my pyjama pockets with walnuts. I’m at the top of my drive when a tractor trundles past and the driver calls out, a cheery ‘good evening’. Typical, most nights we’re lucky if we get a single car down the lane after 7pm, and tonight when I’m unsuitably attired we get a abundance of vehicles.

I sit down and sip my wine, comfortable in the knowledge that down in the town there’s more than likely talk of that crazy straniero out walking in his bed-clothes.

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For F’s Sake

It’s all about the letter F today. Everything that has given me pleasure or annoyed me has began with this letter.

Foraging. There’s nothing finer than an early morning walk with the dog. At 06.30, I took Alf out for his morning constitutional up the olive grove, The morning was almost silent, the occasional birds’ call filtered through the branches of the gnarled ancient trees and Alf  peed in the same spot he always pees in. He’s getting better at walking beside me without his lead on, he will still bolt sometimes and I have to wait for him to realise he’s too far away and come running back, tongue like an unrolled carpet flopping out of his mouth. Today we play zombies, a game he likes best, he runs back and forth to and from me as I pretend to be a zombie and try to catch him, when I do catch him I have to pretend to eat his brains. (How pleased am I that there’s no one around whenever we play this game. Just how the Italians would interpret a fifty-one year old man, arms outstretched, groaning and walking rigidly as a dog jumps and runs at him doesn’t bear thinking about.) After a few minutes of our game we begin the walk back, foraging as we go. I pick a couple of ripe black figs and we share them as I pick some wild marjoram and collect a handful of fallen walnuts.

Frank Chickens.The first song of the day to shuffle as the kettle boils is We are Ninja by Frank Chickens, a Japanese duo that had a couple of hit singles back in 1982. I check my email and have a quick look at who’s doing what on Facebook before continuing with my research for a couple of magazine features on Italian cooking. The iPod is still playing and another Frank Chickens song plays, this time it’s Cheeba Cheeba Chimpira.

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Figs. Yesterday a friend dropped off some figs from his garden and we had them roasted, stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in Prosciutto di San Danielle; in my opinion much nicer than Parma ham. There’s a few left and they seem to just appear in my hand before disappearing inside my mouth. It’s been a good year for produce, I’ve not purchased any tomatoes for weeks, having grown my own. We had a plentiful supply of courgettes and chillies and three large pumpkins on the solitary plant I popped down at the side of the house. I’ll be clearing a patch of land in the autumn to get ready for next years planting of the orto.

Flies. This week there’s been more flies than normal, as the kitchen cupboards were being fitted the room seemed to buzz with them. The bathroom has also seemed to attract them, every time I go inside there’s two or three flitting from surface to surface. I’m constantly spraying the air with fly killer and the dogs are trying to catch them as they bother them too. Sitting outside is a nightmare at the moment as there’s so many of the things. Occasionally a dreadful smell wafts up from down the bottom, where a stretch of unkempt land lies, and we begin to wonder if there’s some rotting carrion down there; it would certainly account for the plague of bluebottles.

Food. For part of my research, I’m reading Italian Food by Elizabeth David, published in 1952, it’s a seminal work that paved the way for other writers’ of foreign cuisine. Lunchtime comes around and as I’m focussed on antipasti, I decide a plate of such will be nice. I think if you’re going to prepare antipasti it’s best to use good quality ingredients and take the time to prepare it. I start off making a cucumber, caper and tuna salad flavoured with lemon juice and olive oil; unfiltered extra virgin of course. The second salad is simple, just finely chop three average sized tomatoes, season with white pepper and a pinch of salt, crush one raw garlic clove into the tomatoes and slosh on some olive oil. These salads are served with some Prosciutto di San Danielle, some chicken and spinach roll, another fig, olives, cippoline and a wedge of Gorgonzola and a dollop of fresh ricotta seasoned with black pepper and anchovies. As I tuck in, I think of another thing beginning with f that would go well with my lunch, focaccia.

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Funkadelic. As I wash up the lunch things, the iPod shuffles and Funkadelic play their ridiculously long-winded ten minute and forty-four second track, with an equally long-winded name, Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doodoo Chasers).  Dishes washed, I return to my research, life in Italy is far from dull.

The Missing Dwarf

How do you dispose of an unwanted dwarf?

Now there’s a question most of you will never have been asked before, although I do suspect it’s a particularly common one for some members of the Renegade Writers.

I like living in the countryside. A rural setting really suits me. I guess you could call it semi-rural really, as although we’re on a hill over looking a valley and surrounded by olive groves and fields, we not too far from a town, shopping centre and other amenities. I like the quiet that comes with living in the countryside. I go to sleep with the window open and all I hear is the click of cicadas, the hoot of a distant owl and the occasional  barking dog. When I wake It’s to birdsong and the rustle of grasses in the breeze. Today at 06.45, Alfie decided to let me know he wanted to go out; clever for a five-month old; his cold nose on the sole of my foot did the trick of waking me. The morning was misty following yesterday’s welcome thunderstorms and there was very little birdsong. I put the kettle on and switched on the iPod, adding my noise to the day and the Squeeze classic, Cool for Cats played as I dropped instant coffee into mugs.

One of the benefits of being semi-rural, is that there’s always somewhere to walk the dogs away from traffic. Not far away is a dried up riverbed next to vines of ripening grapes and little pockets of olive trees. The road through the area is safe to let the dogs walk off their leads as there’s very few people that drive along it. I love taking the dogs there, it’s great for them to nose around and discover new smells, they chase each other and hide from their humans behind the bamboo; No doubt sniggering like naughty school-children as they hear their names being called.

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Alfie Mac managed to get his head into the shot top left

The only thing that ruins these moments of pleasure is fly-tipping. The selfish act of fly-tipping is not a problem just for Italy, it’s  a problem for rural areas all over. I grew up in a semi-rural part of Staffordshire and the lanes around our house would sometimes overnight grow a pile of rubbish or miraculously a beaten up of sofa would appear in a field. Even down our lane here in Italy, someone has bothered to drive up at night and deposit an old mattress down a slope that leads to some redundant olive grove. There’s always a mattress or a fridge. I think these items must be the most difficult for people to dispose of, either that or they just don’t know how to get rid of them.

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If getting rid of household items poses a problem for some people, what about disposing of unwanted dwarfs? As I took a diversion from the main track down a little pathway, worn away by passing feet, I came across another example of fly-tipping: this tipping was of the Disney persuasion. In the rough grass lay a set of concrete garden ornaments, these were shaped into the guise of Disney’s version of Snow White and her dwarf friends. However there’s only six of her vertically-challenged mates with her; one of the dwarfs is missing.

As I stand looking down at these concrete cadavers I ponder the name of the missing dwarf, could it be, Happy or Grumpy, possibly Bashful or Doc, maybe it’s Sneezy. Could it be Dopey, it may even be Sleepy.  At my side Alfie nudges me, bored with standing still and my attention is taken away from the Disney death, and as we wander back up to the main track I debate the plural of dwarf, is it dwarves or dwarfs. No doubt the answer will be found with a Google search. The Plural of Dwarf explanation

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The Foraging Foreigner

Saturday afternoon, 13 April 2013. The temperature is 23C and my friend Michele is passing on his daily walk with his dog, Bobby. We chat in the lane and he points to something in the hedgerow, “Wild asparagus,” he says as he picks two lanky spears and hands them to me. Every day, the lane up to out house is visited by locals with carrier bags, they can be seen scanning the land for free food. Foraging is a part of the Italian way of life, and this time of the year they are out looking for the asparagus. I often cut rosemary from the fragrant bushes in the lane, or pick borage flowers to freeze in ice cubes; ideal for dressing up a gin and tonic and I’ve also collected the leaves from the wild garlic. But that has been my limit. “I’ll show you,” Michele says, “It’s important to do it right.” The first rule is you must wear long sleeves so that you don’t get scratched. I’m wearing a T-shirt so have fallen at the first fence, so to speak.

With Bobby following behind we climb up the side of lane into the greenery and head up an incline as we head towards the olives. Michele points out what looks like a fern and tells me that this is the main part of the plant. Very quickly he spots the thin spears and picks them and hands them to me. I peer into the undergrowth and can see nothing, I’m staring like a man possessed and Michele points, “There.” I still can’t see anything and he deftly steps forward and plucks three spears. “Years of practice,” he laughs. We continue through the olives and he tells me that it is important to wear sturdy shoes. I’m wearing canvas pumps: Fail number two.

We scramble through a thicket of spiny leaved bushes, and are beside the ruins, Michele finds more asparagus and I find scratches on my arms. There’s two spears near a huge cactus, Michele clip_image001hands me Bobby’s rope to hold and he clambers onto the cactus, it’s not sturdy and it is very spiny. I wonder at the need to put yourself in danger just for two measly strips of vegetation. But I guess historically feeding the family was of prime importance and the life of a contadino, (peasant farmer) was hard, so every morsel must have counted. We carry on searching and I find my first patch and feeling like I’ve achieved something I pluck the green stalks from the earth.

As we reach the dirt track Michele tells me that the asparagus won’t be found here, as it grows in the shade and doesn’t flourish in the heat too, so it’s pointless going any higher up the hill where there are no bushes. He stops to point out some mushroom and tells me that they are deadly and I mustn’t even touch them. We walk through a patch of purple coloured orchids and he spots more bounty beneath a young fig tree. The bundle in my hand is now quite large, and he tells me, “That’s enough, only take what you need, leave the rest for another family.” He then tells me that I really shouldn’t wear thin cotton trousers when walking in the fields as I could end up with a tick on my skin. Fail number three.

“Thick jeans are better,” he says. Then rolls up the left leg of his and shows me a scar where he was bitten by a tick a year ago and had to go to the hospital to have it removed and four stitches put into the wound. He looks down and there’s blood on the back of his hand, he’s got a small black one of the dreaded ticks attached to his skin. “This is how you kill a tick,” he tells me as he drops it onto a stone and taking another stone crushes the beast. “Don’t stamp on it, it might get wedged in the sole of your shoe and survive, and you’ll then take it into your home.”

We chat in the lane and he tells me how to cook this feast we’ve collected, plenty of salted water, boil for just a few minutes add to some garlic and butter and lightly fry then toss into the pan some cooked spaghetti with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve. I tell him I’ll do exactly as he says and let him know how it tastes. He then randomly tells me he had a prostate operation the previous year and waves as he continues walking Bobby.

I cut the woody stems from the bundle and cook as directed and have to say it’s tasty, a tad bitter, but not dissimilar to the asparagus I’ve had in the UK.

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The following day, I see three people in the lane scouring the hedgerows, and as I watch them picking asparagus Michele turns up to ask if I liked my dinner last night. I tell him I did and before he continues on his way, he says remember, sleeves, shoes and jeans