Piano Piano

There are many things that the Italians are good at, pizza is one, pasta obviously and football: I’m reliably informed. But there is one thing that the Italian people excel at. Waiting. Everywhere there’s a piano piano mentality, (slowly, slowly). They really do show off their waiting skills at the post office. Here bills are bi-monthly, meaning if you don’t have direct debits set up you have to endure a minimum of six visits per year. “Direct debit,” our builder says, “You might as well give your Bancomat card to a stranger and tell him your pin number,” Banking options other than cash are still relatively  new here and many of the older generation are sceptical about security.

Friends posted on Facebook that they had got engaged in Florida and I thought, I know, I’ll send them a card, so it’s there for when they get home to the UK. Now having only previously posted postcards before I remember that any guide book tells you to buy your stamps at the tobacconist. So I write out the card and drive to the local Tabacchi, I ask for francaboli, (stamps) and am told they don’t sell them. I try another three and get the same response. So there’s nothing for it but to go to the post office. I decide on the small one in Altino as the larger one in Casoli is bound to have its usual crowd spilling out into the piazza. In fact so busy is the Casoli office, they post traffic police outside in the morning so that people don’t block the road. I have experienced the Italian post office before and know that when people joke about taking a flask, book and a packed lunch they’re not being ironic but telling the truth.

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A week ago I used the Altino P.O. to pay some bills for a friend and was lucky enough to only wait for thirty minutes before I could deal with the woman behind the counter. Now what you need to know is that the office has two sportelli (glass windows/counters), one is for P.O. bank products and the other is for P.O. postal products. You can pay bills at either window, but only withdraw money at the bank window or buy stamps at the postal one. So I join the throng of people already waiting, three women are sat against the back wall chatting animatedly, the other seating contains a mixture of men and women of various ages. I squeeze in behind a display stand next to a young man who is sweating and smells ripe and a woman wearing an overpowering perfume, thankfully both fragrances cancel out the other. I count fourteen people, seven per window if all are here to pay bills. Twenty five minutes later I count thirteen people. Now maybe it’s a requirement of the job with post office workers the world over that the staff must work with the momentum of a corpse. Another twenty minutes pass, and five more people join the queue, asking who they follow. I’ve ascertained that I follow the perspiring youth. Forty minutes later, the youth has finished his transaction, but sadly he’s at the bank products window. Confusion reigns, isn’t the Englishman next. I explain that I need to wait for the postal products window, a late arrival sees a chance and nips into the vacant space at the window and a man reprimands her for not working out who is next in line. Eventually the window I want is vacant, I make my way over, the old lady is confused wasn’t she after the Englishman, but why isn’t he at the other window. Consternation ensues and a man explains to her what’s happening and that she should have used the window that’s now taken by the interloper.

So after seventy-five minutes of waiting, it’s my turn. “One stamp to England please,” I ask. The woman behind the counter takes my letter and sticks a stamp onto the envelope, removes the sum total of seventy cents from me, for the transaction then says, “Instead of waiting, next time go to the large tabacchi across the road,” (the only one I haven’t been to.) “They sell stamps.”

Have you ever tried to smile through grinding teeth, it’s difficult

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.

Painting Crossings

People often comment that driving in Italy can be stressful. The stereotype is of a young man with music blaring, phone attached to his ear and his foot heavy on the accelerator. To be honest this stereotype isn’t that far wrong, the main difference being that driver’s gender doesn’t come into it. Driving on major roads and the motorways can be stressful, cars behind hug your bumper, headlights flash to urge you to move faster and horn sounding is all part and parcel of the overall driving experience. However on the rural roads, driving is a much more sedate affair: A week ago, I actually found myself conforming to the stereotype; I was travelling behind a man in a Fiat who pootled along the lane at a mere fifteen miles per hour.

A couple of days ago, I was driving to San Luca near Attessa, as there’s a builders’ merchant there who’s much keener on price than the nearest local one, and I actually enjoy a leisurely drive through the small villages that surround mine. The Colourfield were on the iPod playing, Yours Sincerely, as I travelled down almost deserted roads: a gentle tune for a gentle pace. We pass a patch of purple irises, their heads held aloft for the bees to find. As regular readers know, I rarely travel anywhere without a camera and I can’t resist the chance to stop and take a few photographs.

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I climb back into the car, the iPod shuffles and, Kirsty MacColl sings Caroline. I pass under the bridge on the road to Piane d’archi and head towards the T junction, I pause to allow a priest cross the road: it’s twenty-one degrees and he’s wrapped up in a long black coat with a fur collar: heaven forbid he takes it off in such inclement weather, but that’s another Italian idiosyncrasy. I reach the T junction and turn left and suddenly I’m part of a long queue of cars. Traffic on the left hand side is moving freely, and in front taking advantage of any gaps cars on the right side pop around whatever the obstruction up ahead is. Soon it becomes clear what is going on with this normally quiet stretch of road, they’re painting in pedestrian crossings and have painted only the right-hand side, so all along the road heading towards Atessa has congestion – well I say congestion, it’s actually around twelve cars in total.

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Of course it makes sense to paint one side first to minimise disruption. This said, I’ll make sure my plans for the next few days don’t include driving in the opposite direction.

Method in the Madness

Living on a building site isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve had grit in my bed, dust in my sock drawer and splinters in my, well lets just say I sit on it. Add to this the fact that I’ve just discovered I’m allergic to cement and you can forgive me for saying, that this is a testing time. okay it’s not as bad as four years in limbo, being displaced, but it runs a close second. I know the weather here in Abruzzo is better than it is back in the UK at the moment, but what good is sunshine when you’re trapped in a restoration project.

100_6075Today I did my morning trip to the builders’ merchants for the day’s materials, but today was different. You see today I understood why I had to keep going for cement etc. in dribs and drabs. For the past two weeks it’s annoyed me that I have to do the daily trip, but no longer. At the start of the restoration I asked the builder how many bags of cement will we need to complete the master bedroom downstairs, his reply was “I don’t know, but today we’ll only use four.” Confused, I asked why we only buy four bags, when we’ll have to come back tomorrow. His response to this question was, “Why tie money up in bags of cement that sit waiting to be used, money is better in your bank.” I tried to explain that, I’ll still have to spend the money the following day and he said, “But you held onto the money for a day longer.” What a crazy way of looking at things, I first thought.

Then Nino arrived to measure for windows, he measured only one room then left. “Why didn’t he measure all the windows?” I asked our builder, who just shrugged his shoulders and shaking his head told me because the each room is a separate job. “But it makes sense if he’s here to measure all the windows in the house. That’s what they would do in England.” Our builder removes his hat and wipes his brow before telling me, we’re not in England, we’re in Italy. What a crazy way of looking at things, I thought, again.

The quote comes in from Nino and I say it’s okay, so he arrives at the house again. This time he’s measuring for a window and a door for the second bedroom. The process is repeated, he leaves after ignoring the kitchen windows and the third bedroom’s window. The following day he calls with his quote. I tell him it’s fine and ask if he’ll be coming today to measure the other windows. “No,” I’m told, “I will make these two jobs first.” I’m about to say that surely my total requirements are just one job, but think better of it.

Now to  work on a house in Italy you must obtain permission from your local comune (council). This means paying for a piece of paper and a job number granting you permission to move doors or build a balcony etc. So this extra expense has to be factored into any restoration project. So our 1970’s, porn star look-a-like, geometa (architect) comes along to measure everything and says you may just need a simple number. We then mention we’re putting in stairs and the whole thing changes. Apparently, new stairs will alter the house considerably, and will therefore require a complete job number and permissions. Total cost will be one thousand five-hundred euro. He says he’ll be back to take photos on another day and can I e-mail him our house purchase paperwork and payment will be split into three payments of five-hundred euro, cash if possible and cheque later. “I could just give you a cheque for the total amount,” I say, “Or cash if you…” I am unable to finish as he strokes his moustache, looks over the top of his sunglasses and says “No three payments is fine.” He then hitches up his ridiculously tight jeans and strides off towards his immaculate cherry red sporty number that’s parked beside my dirty sand-covered Zafira. What a crazy way of looking at things, I think, yet again.

Later this practice of one job being split into several smaller ones, and payments being requested in instalments makes sense. I’m in town, talking to my bank manager, he’s asking how things are progressing and I tell him how it’s going. “I’ve not seen any cheques go from your account,” he asks. I explain that I’ve not needed to write any. “But what about your builder, how do you pay him?” I explain that we pay him a daily rate we’ve negotiated. “Ahh, I see.” he says. “You have taken to the Italian way of doing things very quickly,” I’m a little confused, and about to let him know that I find it frustrating that I have to pay everything in several small amounts, rather than in one go, when he says, “Here, it’s against the law to pay anyone more than one-thousand euro in cash, you must set up payments with the bank. So people break down their bigger jobs into smaller ones and invoice for smaller amounts. It our way of keeping secrets from the government.”

Suddenly it all makes sense “But I still don’t understand why I can’t buy more cement and let it sit outside waiting to be used, I’m hardly going to buy a thousand euro worth of the stuff,” I tell him as he sets a coffee down in front of me. “Well,” he says, “it’s just the way we do things. But no doubt somewhere there’ll be no madness in the method.” I smile at his misquoting, Hamlet and stir my coffee as the sun shines down upon Lanciano.

Dented Cars and Dirty Fingernails

All countries and people have their idiosyncrasies and Italy is no exception. They say that the English are the most eccentric of people, but I disagree, I think all people have a little bit of eccentricity about them, while others’ are just plain bonkers. Take today for instance, I woke up to find the car covered in sand, during the night a sirocco must have whipped up and deposited part of the Sahara on the Zafira. So, not finding the sand particularly bothersome, I just sploshed some screen wash across the windscreen and drove away. I was on my way to the supermarket and passing the self-service car-wash nearby when I spotted the queues of cars waiting outside. I spotted someone I knew and pulled up and chatted, we passed the time of day as he waited for the person in front to complete the washing of his car. My friend asked if I was here to wash the sand off my car, “Boh,” I said. (See how soon I’ve began to fit in. Boh means absolutely nothing but everyone uses the expression.) “Sabbia, non.” He looked at me horrified that I didn’t see sand as a problem, I then looked at his car with its dented wing and scratches down the side. “What’s a bit of sand compared to scratches and dents,” I told him, and again he looked horrified. He then moved closer, put his hand upon my shoulder and whispered to me that dents and scratches are evidence of a useful car, a car that works well for its owner, however a dirty car tells all and sundry that the owner is a lazy man. It’s more important to be clean than it is to be dented.

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No doubt the owner of the car I spotted on Sunday up at Gessopalena will worry more about the dusty bonnet than the broken side light due to poor negotiation of the limited space available in this particular street.

Now, I have been back in Abruzzo now for twenty-two days and it’s fair to say that every single one of those days has seen me comment upon how dirty my fingernails have been. I mentioned this to my builder, who gave me an odd look, making me realise that finger nail conversations aren’t butch enough for builders. “That’s because you are living on a building site.” he said, more than likely to humour me, as I’m the one who pays him at the end of each day. “I guess so,” I say and begin to walk away, when he says, “Maybe if you had been a builder and not a writer then dirty fingernails wouldn’t be a problem for you.”  It was my turn now to toss across an odd look,  “Me, a builder. No way, far too hard a job for my liking,” I said. “I’ll stick to sitting at a desk and writing.”

“But look at all these beautiful stones,” he said, “Writing cannot bring these out like a builder can.”

“Oh yes it can,” I told him. “It’s the writing that pays you to do it.”