Car Chaos

It’s been a week for motoring events.

Monday I stepped onto a zebra crossing to discover a car coming towards me, literally. The driver decided to make a U turn and drove between the two bollards either side of the crossing and was driving down the black and white lines towards me.

Tuesday I stopped my car to allow a lady to come out of her drive only for her to wind her window down and complain, I asked her what the problem was and she said she wanted to drive behind me not in front.

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Wednesday I’m pootling to the supermarket with our small terrier on the front seat beside me when an old man in a Fiat Panda pulls out of a side road without looking, hence an emergency stop from me that results in a small dog in the foot well.

Thursday passes with no car related incidents.

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Friday and the most bonkers incident occurs. There’s a bridge nearby that’s very narrow and cars cannot pass each other on it. I was behind two other cars as we crossed the bridge, when I was about 4 metres from the end a young woman decided to enter and squeeze past me, which she obviously couldn’t. I shrugged my shoulders in disbelief that she couldn’t have waited another three or four seconds and she just mouthed something obscene before I drove off the bridge so she could squeeze past.

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Saturday I park my car in Lanciano where I’ve parked it many times before and go into work to meet my clients. We go out to view houses in their car as mine has a problem with the cooling system and is awaiting spare parts to repair it. We return back at the car park and my car is no longer where I left it. A couple of frantic phone calls reveals an overzealous police woman had it towed away as despite there being no markings on the ground and no signs to indicate it, the place where I and many others have been parking for years is a no parking zone. So I’ll be paying a €60 fine on Monday to get it back.

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Land of the One Armed Motorist

Italian drivers’ always get a bad press; growing up in the UK  they were portrayed as speeding motorists constantly beeping horns and tailgating. This stereotype, in part is correct. Tailgating seems to be the favourite pastime of the large 4×4 drivers in our rural community. The horn beeping isn’t as voracious as that in old black and white films of Rome, the reason being that a decade or so ago before you could overtake another car you had to sound your horn, this practice has now since been abolished and so beeping is down to a minimum.

One thing that does amaze me is the vast numbers of one-armed motorists: I’m not suggesting there’s been a spate of accidents with chainsaws during the olive harvest or that there’s a problem with congenital defects in the area. The reason for this one-armed driving is because the Italian population has become permanently attached to their mobile phones. Sometimes I’m certain they only go out in their cars to make a phone call. Like other countries the practice is illegal and carries an on the spot fine, but either the police are blind to hand to mobile to ear driving, or they’re too busy making their own calls to notice.

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This practice of one armed driving isn’t only prevalent with phone users, it’s also the adopted practice of lotharios. I’ve seen many a young man driving with one hand on the steering wheel and his other arm around his girlfriend’s shoulder. I just wonder what’s being used to change the gears?

Driving here is less stressful than back in the UK, because the volume of traffic is much less in our rural idyll, we do have the speed demons who overtake on bends narrowly missing oncoming traffic by centimetres, and we have the aged drivers who seem not to have a clue to who has right of way. And like the UK we have roads pockmarked with potholes that have to navigated with care and some of the dips and bends make going to work like a ride at Alton Towers. Oh, and don’t get me started on the steep hills that lead to a T junction that give a whole new meaning to the hill start.

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Apart from rush hour (over 5 cars at a time) when going to the office the most people I encounter are local farmers in Ape’s or on tractors; my favourite being a local nonagenarian who drives his tractor with his dog on the seat beside him and his wife straddling the engine: It’s quite amusing at crossroads as she has to lean forward and press herself flat so he can look for other road users before moving on.

Finally, there’s one type of one-armed motorist that la bell’Italia isn’t impervious to, that of the van driver. I think they’re a universal breed; men who have perfected the art of driving with one hand on the wheel and the other feeding their face with confectionery or a cigarette and of course there’s the van driver who drives with his outside arm either resting beside the open window or dangling outside the cab to top up and maintain their van tan.

Disco Driva and Wine Workers

This weekend I switched the iPod from general shuffle to a playlist shuffle, the sun was shining and I had a desire for some 1970’s disco music. People often find it odd that I like disco considering the amount of punk, indie and rock in my music collection. But I’ll hold my hands up and state honestly that I am and have always been a bit of a disco bunny.

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Photo from Freepics.com

Growing up in the 1970’s most of the music around was (what I call) dull-rock like ELP, Barclay James Harvest and (cringe) Smokie and bands that I hated with a vengeance like Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd, in-fact the only rock band I did like back then was Black Sabbath.

I was always a Northern Soul lover; I loved the dancing, intricate moves and backflips, I can’t tell you how many pairs of trousers I split the crotch in doing the splits at the youth club discos. So when disco burst onto the scene with more dance music I grabbed it by the throat and danced the ass of it at every opportunity.

So I’ve been driving along the Italian roads with my windows open and the likes of Donna Summer, Karen Young and Chic playing loud, on my way from Fossacesia my all time favourite song and disco diva, Sylvester shuffled to the fore, and as I bounced along the lane I sang along to You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real): it never fails to make me happy.

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Image: Screenshot

In fact every song by the late, great Sylvester James makes me happy, so when I’m back home I set the iPod to Sylvester and spend the afternoon in a self-induced euphoric disco  haze.

Later that evening we went with friends to a local bar, that’s a bit rough around the edges but serves excellent porchetta and arosticini and as we sat enjoying the fragrant pork and the mutton skewers three men walked in still dressed in work overalls. As they ordered their drinks and sat down, it struck me much the Italians are like the British, but at the same time how very different. The men had dropped by for a quick drink and sat with newspapers open at the sports pages and chatted about football, no different than English blokes just off work. The difference was they didn’t have a pint of beer, they sat drinking a glass of red wine each. Just the beverage sat them apart from their English cousins, I would lay bets had this been Germany then a stein of beer would have been the drink of choice.

The evening came to a close and I drove back home with Sylvester singing, Rock the Box, and as we pulled up outside the house, this disco driva, pressed the centre of the iPod and then set it back to, ‘shuffle songs’ in readiness for the following day.

Trip to Town (a comparison)

I was driving into Lanciano, our nearest large town the other day and it occurred to me that when I lived in England it took me the same amount of time; 20 minutes to get to Hanley the main shopping centre for Stoke on Trent. The main difference between driving from Lightwood to Hanley and driving from G.V. to Lanciano is the smaller amount of other vehicles on the road, occasionally I’ll see three or four other cars whereas in England you could guarantee I’d have some sort of delay due to the sheer volume of traffic on the roads. Here’s what a part of my journey would have looked like:

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Photo: Google Map (screenshot)

Now, not only is my journey less congested but it’s infinitely more pleasing on the eye, I calculated the exact distance from my house to where the Google screenshot is from my previous address and took the same image over here in Italy:

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I then went to Google again to take another screenshot of what my journey looked liked previously:

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And once again I calculated the distance of the previous journey and took a photograph of the equivalent journey here in Italy:

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Now I’m not saying the journey is better than before in the UK, yes it’s moderately quicker, but not faster, as there are more bends and the scenery does tend to make me drive at a more sedate pace, much to the annoyance of the young Italians who with a mobile phone clamped to the side of their head find themselves behind me. It is much more pleasing on the eye as I’ve said before, but in wet weather the Italian roads with their snake like bends can be treacherous, and it’s at this point the UK ones with better traction win out.

Italian Idiots

Today I’m afraid my post is a whinge. A gripe. A sounding off. I’m sitting in my living room after coming back from a trip to the local shop to  buy some of their very nice, fat sausages. The trip began very well, the sun was shining and Olive jumped into the car to keep me company. I plugged in the iPod and as Daniel Merriweather sang, Could You, I drove down the lane. The lane down from our house becomes a single track before it travels through the tiny village of Merosci and joins the main strada. I’m driving along, minding my own business when I glance in the rear view mirror to see that I’m being tailgated by a man in an Audi. I assume he’ll overtake me when we get onto the straight, wide part of the road, but no, his bumper still hugs mine. That is until we come to a blind bend and he puts his foot down and overtakes me, narrowly missing the oncoming car he fails to see.

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I’m driving back and the iPod shuffles, this time a song from my misspent youth plays, Shockwork by Test Dept, from the Batcave album, Young Limbs and Numb Hymns. I liked the Batcave club in London so much I had a bat tattoo on my arm as a memento. The things we do in our youth. I reach the junction for Merosci, indicate my intention to turn left, and look in my rear view mirror just as woman in a Fiat; mobile phone pressed to her ear overtakes me, causing me to brake sharply. I shake my head, not in disbelief but in fury. It’s no wonder the Italians get such a bad press regarding their driving habits.

The Birds and the Bees

Hands up, who clicked today’s blog post thinking or hoping it was about sex?

I was driving along the road through San Tommaso with the iPod switched on as usual, as I was sat behind a tractor cutting the hedges at the side of the road and travelling at around 8kmph, it was apt that Kate Bush was singing the largely unknown B.side, You Want Alchemy. The song about bees and honey ambles along beautifully, much like I was doing as the large industrial strimmer took off the excess grow at the strada’s edge. Suddenly the car was engulfed by a flock of swallows, eager I guess for the insects released by the machines blades. Feeling like Tipi Hedren in a cinematic promo for The Birds, I watch as they dart dangerously close to my windscreen, I’m worrying they may be harmed, but my worry is needless, these little blue/black birds are travelling faster than I am. Up ahead is the speed camera and the flower shop, the strimmer stops and is hydraulically lifted up and away from the edge of the road and the swallows disperse. We come to a straight stretch of road and I take the opportunity to pass the tractor, as he reaches the hedges again, the strimmer once more is deployed, and as the whirring blades chop at the greenery, the swallows once again return to feast.

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I undertake the task which was the reason for my journey, drop into the bakers and buy a panino morbido, to accompany the salad I’ll be having for lunch and make my way back home. I’m sliding along passing the yellow coloured house on the bend when the slipstream caused by my driving sucks several bees into the car. I look into my rear view mirror and see just a scooter and a small Fiat behind me. Three bees have landed on the back window and are puzzled by this see-through hard thing preventing them from flying, another two are buzzing around inside and one has alighted upon the steering wheel. I slow down and let the scooter overtake, the Fiat turned off a few metres back. As soon as the car is motionless the two flying bees escape through the open passenger-side window, I get out and the bee on my steering wheel leaves through the open door, I open the rear door and two bees instantly sense freedom and take to flight, leaving one behind. The remaining bee buzzes down onto the headrest of the back seat and paces back and forth. As I’m stopped in a somewhat silly place on a main road,, there’s nothing for it but to coax her out. I lay my hand down and she walks up to it, waggles her head a little and them walk onto my index finger, carefully I withdraw my hand and once she feels the warm sunshine, with a buzz she’s gone.

I climb back into that car, and before I drive away, I backtrack on the iPod and listen to Kate Bush again as I make my way home.

Driving Barefoot

I’m lucky. Yes, really lucky. I haven’t won a lottery or found a pot of gold under a rainbow. I haven’t received some prestigious award or managed to fix myself up with a date with Tiziano Ferro: more’s the pity. So why am I lucky?

I was driving to the small fruit and veg shop that I prefer to use, as most of the produce is local, the sun was shining and the iPod was playing, Duchess, by the Stranglers, the drag of cool air through the open window kept the afternoon heat at bay as the countryside passed in a blur. Unlike other shops that close at 13.00 for an extended lunch, this one stays open all day. I’m greeted with a cheery “Salve’” from the assistant at the counter cutting open a watermelon. I mooch around, filling my basket with fresh produce, when she says, “Melone?” She’s offering me a slice of red melon, which is a refreshing on such a warm afternoon. We chat and she picks some celery, carrots and onion and drops them into a carrier bag. “Soffrito, per te, gratis.”  Soffrito is the Italian version of a mirepoix, or the holy trinity. The assistant enquires how the house restoration is going and after relieving me of €4,00 she packs the sofrito ingredients into my carrier bag and wishes me a good afternoon. (Where else can you get free produce as a thank you for your custom?)

I’m driving home with Kate Bush singing, Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak, recorded live at the Hammersmith from her only live tour which took place in 1979, (2 April – 13 May.) Contadini are out working their land, the buzz of strimmers and the chugging of tractors drift into the car as i drive past. The landscape at this time of year is a mix of green and ochre, as dried grass is rolled up for feed during the winter, and regimented sweet corn reaches for the sky.

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I’m passing a field where two workers sleep in the shade of their trailer, a half empty bottle of wine nestles in the undergrowth at the side of one of the men, when I realise that my life here is so different than it was in the UK. For instance, I don’t buy everything I need in a huge faceless supermarket, I get served with petrol by the pump attendant, rather than having to fill, queue and pay and on days like this I drive barefoot.

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I’m lucky, because I can work from home and to live comfortably here I only have to produce half of what I’d need to write in England: This said I have more work piling up on my desk than I’ve ever had before.

I’m lucky, because I live in a beautiful part of Italy and have some wonderful friends out here and so far being here has eclipsed my expectations.

I’m lucky, because I can drive a mere eighteen minutes in one direction and can be swimming in the sea and twenty-five minutes in another direction and I can be in the mountains.

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I know I’m fortunate to have this lifestyle at just 51, but its not because of luck, it’s the result of hard work and sacrifice over the years and holding on to the dream.

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Italian by Absorption

I’m beginning to wonder if outside forces influence they way people are, surely our surroundings must dictate how we feel and how we perform, so can they make subtle changes to our personalities and habits? I ask this question because I’ve noticed that I’ve started to do things differently here in Italy. The first thing I’ve noticed is the change in dinner time. Back in the UK I always had dinner, or as we Stokies say, ‘me tea’ at 6pm, but here without realising it I’ve fallen into the Italian way of eating it at 8pm. Now I understand that on the days that the builder is here he leaves around 6pm, so that is a factor in the later dinner-time, but even on days when he isn’t here, we’ve eaten at 8pm.

Italian’s are naturally inquisitive people; notice I avoided using the term, nosey and I’ve caught the bug too. As soon as a car is heard I’m outside looking up towards the road to see who it is, and heaven forbid I catch a snippet of conversation, otherwise it means I slow down my pace to discover what’s being said and by whom. This nosiness has become quite acute and we vie for position, looking for the best vantage point, when we want to see who is driving past.

Here, the Abruzzese people live a more frugal life and wasting food is frowned upon.  Since moving here I’ve appreciated that fact that when it comes to fruit and vegetables the shops sell what’s in season. There’s no potatoes from Egypt or French beans from Kenya, and there’s no uniformity to it, a deflated looking pepper is as acceptable here as a plump round one, just as a display of fennel bulbs will have them of all sizes from medium through large to enormous. There’s no one from Brussels here with a micrometre and portable weighing scales. Unlike when I was back in the UK, I store what I know will perish before I have used it all. In the freezer I have pots of basil, chopped celery, parsley, and all manner of things, waiting to be used at a later date. I’ve even got my emergency sofritto (a mix of finely chopped carrot, celery and onion used as a base for stocks and sauces) and chopped tomatoes frozen in wine, should someone visit unexpectedly and need a pasta sauce making for lunch.

I also think I’ve absorbed a little of the contadino somehow. Outside the front door is a flower border, but knowing that flowers here are a luxury and that land should be used to grow crops first, I’ve used it for a sort of mini orto and planted out some onions, courgettes, chillies and tomatoes, sweet corn and a pumpkin. I have a little cluster of English bluebells I brought over tucked away in the corner, as I’d like to get these established further down on our land, where it’s shady and wild cyclamen grow. So until we get our land cum jungle sorted out the flower border will be put to better use.

Guaranteed, these are small changes to my lifestyle, but as they’ve happened without conscious effort maybe I’m becoming Italian by absorption or at the very least more Britalian than I was before.

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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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Dog in the Road

How many times have we heard people say, “If I won the lottery I’d leave here and go and live in paradise.” But nowhere on earth is perfect, even paradise will have its idiosyncrasies, its problems and its bugbears. Since I chose to live in Italy, and more importantly Abruzzo, people must think It’s my piece of paradise, and it is. That is, to say how I define paradise. In my wildest dreams it’d be somewhere with a great climate, endless activities to enjoy and I guess, as this is my dream, I’d have Tiziano Ferro as my live-in lover/personal crooner. But this isn’t a dream it’s reality and despite having a great climate and endless activities, Italy can be infuriating, but so can England, America or anywhere. So I like to think paradise is taking pleasure from the simple things and not dwelling upon the negatives.

After running a business and living in England, I’ve now started to enjoy those simple things. Things like popping to bread shop in the morning and passing the time of day with the locals as you buy some foccacia, or chatting to my neighbour about nothing of great importance and drinking an espresso standing at a bar with men in overalls… Ooer missus ! I like driving the short distance to the, fontano communale in Perano and getting a litre of ice-cold fizzy water for just five cents and talking of driving I like the fact that when I pull into a petrol station a human being serves me. I guess it’s a little like stepping back in time but with iPods, memory sticks and DVD box sets.

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One thing that has not been pleasurable is paying €1500 to obtain permissions from the comune (council) to work on our house. Back in the UK there’s choice. Choice of windows, doors, paint colours etc. Here you have to tow-the-line. We can only paint our house white or beige, (now how do you actually define beige). In other towns there are yellow, pink and pale green houses, but here in our little hamlet, it’s white or beige; any other choice of colour will require a fee for the comune to consider it and a man to come out to fill in forms in triplicate. Another idiosyncrasy that I find annoys me, is having to drive in daylight with your headlights switched on and don’t get me started on the inability of any young woman sat behind a cash register to smile.

Some pleasures are applicable only to where you are situated, I’m lucky, within twenty-minutes of my front-door I can be at the coast, within thirty, I can be in the mountains and if it grabbed my bag within sixty, at the ski slopes. Some pleasures don’t involve much effort and happen naturally. Take the other night for instance, I took a stroll around Civitella Messer Raimondo with Seppe and we chatted about the history of the town and looked at the views across the countryside. (There’ll be a separate blog posting about this within the coming days, so stay tuned for, Hanging Baskets and Cat Flaps, coming to a laptop near you Cat face.)

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One simple pleasure this week was the kind gift of ten beautiful white free range eggs, however one thing that certainly holds no pleasure for me is being sent to buy something our builder requires when my knowledge of construction has previously been obtained via stickle bricks and Lego, add to this the foreign name and you may as well ask me to broker a peace treaty between north and south Korea. However, would I swap this new life… Not a chance.

 

 

The original title to this blog posting was, Simple Pleasures. But today I saw something that I have to say touched me deeply. The Italian’s have a relaxed attitude to keeping dogs, they let them wander around unchecked, and many’s the time I’ve heard brakes screech as a dog wanders into the road. Coming out of Selva Altino is a small bar where locals have their coffee and every morning an old gentleman totters over with his small sandy coloured dog at his heels. Today would have been no different, had the dog not spotted another across the road and decided to walk over. The inevitable happened, the driver in front of me had no time to stop, thankfully death was instant. The saddest sight was the old man’s desperate efforts to get into the road, as the traffic continued moving on the left hand side. Seeing the man’s distress a lorry driver stopped allowing him to collect his companion from the middle of the road.

Makes those simple pleasures all the more special.