Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…
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There’s No Place Like Home…

So after a five week trip we were home. I’d looked forward to returning. I always do. I am always eager to see how the garden has junglified, what’s in the post, how everything looks.

After a concentrated and manic unpacking of the van, a small assault on the laundry mountain and a cup of tea we set upon the post. A bundle of foot-stool height letters yielded precisely 4 items as follows:

  • One communication from the bank regarding my granddaughter’s savings account
  • One communication from the bank regarding ‘changes to regulations’
  • One communication from the health service regarding national bowel cancer screening [largely irrelevant for reasons followers of this blog already know]
  • Several, scruffy, hand-delivered communications from ‘Keith-yer-tenant’

The bubble of anticipation that accompanied our return began to ebb. ‘Keith-yer-tenant’ [not his real name any more than Grace Lessageing is mine, although this rendering of it does contain elements of how he announces himself every telephone call he makes to advise us of a problem] and his partner are occupants of a small flat we rent out and have been our tenants for a number of years. During those years their tenancy has weathered some initial teething troubles, such as breeching the tenancy agreement, deciding he would prefer to pay rent weekly rather than monthly and ringing up to request changes of light bulb, help to solve the problem of the bathroom floor being wet after bathing, to express astonishment at learning that soaking in vinegar will clean a shower head and to claim forty nine pence for a tin of soup whose label got wet inside a cupboard.

This time Keith-yer-tenant has opted to punish us for having the audacity to be away by presenting us with receipts for items he has had to replace and inform us that he has deducted the cost of said items from his rent. We were just a little confused by the price of £2.50-which seems somewhat steep for a 13 amp fuse, but then remembered that he must have supplemented the price with some compensation for the shoe leather involved in going to purchase the fuse plus the trauma of having to a] suffer the inconvenience of the malfunction caused by a fuse blowing and b] having to actually replace it.

Still it should be acknowledged that Keith-yer-tenant has made a real effort to solve a problem all by himself, rather than seek assistance from Steve, the handy plumber neighbour we have asked to be on call while we are away. That K-y-t is not over fond of Steve is not something we can address. Steve is charming and accommodating and has changed K-y-t’s light bulbs on several occasions.

K-y-t is by no means the most problematic of renters I’ve encountered. I began by letting rooms in a previous life, when a newly single mum in my forties with a mortgage and a decrepit hovel to renovate. The antics of one or two lodgers are immortalised in my debut novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [available from Amazon].

Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Travel or Holiday? What’s the Difference?

We are travelling across The Netherlands, meandering slowly northwards with the aim, having negotiated Germany and Denmark of an eventual stay with a Norwegian friend. The Dutch countryside, though flat as a table-top is scenic in a bucolic way and the villages chocolate box pretty with their thatched, angular, barn-style roofs and manicured gardens. [I suppose the analogy of the chocolate box must be becoming obsolete nowadays-as a child I was used to seeing the array of assorted chocolate boxes ranged along the top shelf of the village shop and all bore images of thatched cottages or streets of half-timbered houses. Heaven knows why…]

All this prettiness is, of course very uplifting. But to enjoy travel [or a holiday-whether the two are the same is a matter for debate] every sight need not be picture-book gorgeous, in fact quite the contrary-some of the ugliest views can provide the best travel experiences.

Take docks. We sailed overnight last night from Harwich in Essex [East coast UK] to Hoek von Holland [The ‘Hook’]. Harwich is a tiny port, occupied almost entirely by the two sailings of one ferry company. The enormous ship dwarfs the quay as lorries crawl up the ramp like swarming insects to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the vehicle decks. At last it was our turn to be swallowed, trundling across the metal gantry and shuffling into a narrow space between two caravans. We downed a couple of drinks, chatting to some touring Americans to one side and some touring Australians on the other before tumbling into bed in our cabin.

We woke to the view of Rotterdam, a forest of cranes and pylons all engaged in loading or unloading container ships. How many containers can there be in the world? One per head of the population? You could be forgiven for thinking so. The containers look like children’s bricks as they are plucked from the quayside in giant pincers and placed with meticulous accuracy on to the wide, flat deck of a ship, piled to an impossible height until it seems the vessel might topple sideways-and yet there is one on the horizon, disappearing somewhere with its unwieldy cargo.

We ground to a halt in the berth and descended to the depths to rejoin out vehicles and a long wait for our turn to disembark. Then we were away into the Netherlands and Northwards.

I attempt to make sense of the signs. ‘Slag boom’ says one, or ‘sluiz-droomen’, or broodjes slommen’. The Dutch language seems to consist of faintly abusive and insulting words although they are in fact all innocuous terms for everyday objects. We cross ‘dijks’ and wait for ‘brugs’ to open and allow boats to pass on the countless  waterways that make up the country-once passing underneath an aqueduct bearing sailing ships-an astonishing sight. We cross huge barrages like driving across the sea, where on either side cormorants are gathered, spreading their wings to dry before plunging after another fish, or tall grey herons poised motionless along the roadsides.

So to Germany then-ausfahrts, glottlestops and beer-swilling, thigh-slapping efficiency-ah, but only for one night!

T-shirts. Casual or Culture?

If you were looking for a barometer of trends in politics, culture, fashion or social status you could do worse than study T-shirts.

Few garments have stood the test of time better. You might say jeans have lasted as long, but apart from altering in shape [from straight to flared and back, for instance], getting a few strategic rips and patches or sequins they don’t vary much.

The previous generation to my own [ie pre-babyboomers] were not T-shirt wearers. My father got up and put on a proper, ironed shirt-collar and all-and unless he was going outside to dig the garden he would add a tie, considering that he was not suitably attired without one. He continued to adhere to this dress code until poor health condemned him to pyjamas.

The T-shirt, according to Wikipedia originated in the 19th century from undergarments worn by factory workers then became a staple for US military personnel before becoming glamorous in its plain, white form pasted on to the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s. Who could not fail to admire the rippling white fabric stretched across young Brando’s chest as he reared over Blanche Dubois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’?

These days T-shirts fall into various categories, sometimes getting adopted as high fashion on a designer’s whim, proclaiming which side of the stadium a fan shows allegiance to, which rock band is beloved by the wearer and which festival tour they’ve attended, being used as a vehicle for showing off a ponsy holiday destination-as in a map of The Galapagos-, or to inform company that the wearer is up for it [eg inscribed with ‘Angel’ or ‘Hot’]. This last is as alluring as driving around with a personalised number-plate such as the ‘I5EXY’ I spotted once and it is tempting to add ‘not’ to it somehow.

There are also the ones that climb on to a droll slogan or idea and overstay so long as to become wearisome, such as ‘Keep Calm and …..’ or pictures depicting the ‘evolution’ of pursuits like cycling.

The best T-shirts are ones that are laugh-out-loud funny, although they only have this capability for the first sighting, like hearing a joke. Husband, whilst holidaying in Tenerife once was much taken by one that read on the front ‘The Older I Get’ and on the back ‘The Better I Was’. A recent favourite of mine was worn by a male passenger climbing on to the bus to Bridgetown, Barbados and read: ‘Six Pack-Coming Soon’.

My own T-shirt wearing is limited to plain colours except that I am guilty of wearing a New Zealand [black with a white tree-fern leaf of course] only when temperatures plummet at night and something extra is needed under the duvet [no-I am not a nightwear fan either!]

Facebook: Friend, Foe or Farce?

Have Facebook and Twitter changed the definition of friendship? And have they altered the way we view and approach friendship?

A quick look at some of your Facebook friends’ friend lists will reveal that some have literally hundreds of ‘friends’. How many of these would have been termed friends before the advent of social media? Before the likes of Facebook a friend would have been someone you met up with, if not frequently then on some kind of regular basis. Even the couple you met while on holiday in Gran Canaria would only be your friends if you maintained face to face contact with physical visits or repeat holidays. Unless you’d exchanged addresses and phone numbers the holiday friendship would disappear into the photograph album along with the memories.

Is it some kind of competition? As in, “I have five hundred friends and you have six, therefore I am infinitely more popular and a social butterfly whereas you are a sad, lonely individual”.

Is there a need for a new set of rules, an etiquette for social media sites? I’m wondering because besides the well documented episodes of Facebook bullying there is a boulder-strewn precipice of a path to negotiate where social media friendship is concerned.

What should you do if invited to become a friend by someone to whom you do not wish to expose your life? And what of those to whom you’ve extended ‘friend’ invitations and have received no response? I must confess here, reader that I have experienced both these occurrences during my few years of Facebook. Does the pleasure of ‘friend’ acceptance outweigh the pain of ignorance? It is worthwhile considering, here, the nature of the friendship-if the ignoring ‘friend’ is from a mere, fleeting holiday encounter it can be dismissed. If, however it is your childhood best buddy, the inseparable companion you grew up with, shared your innermost secrets with, laughed and cried with, it is understandable to feel a degree of rejection. But it is worth remembering that these names on the screen are not really real friendships; they are mere digital contacts.

Among my own friends, old and new, a number do not participate at all in social media. Their reasons vary from ‘not knowing how to use it’ to ‘it’s boring’. There is an element of truth to the second complaint, in that we all have FB contacts who spew out the minutiae of their daily lives like effluent, although I point out to those who criticise that there are ways to avoid seeing tedious posts [eg turning them off or scrolling past them]. And unlike many, I do enjoy seeing photos of the places others visit-I may well want to visit those places myself.

So are social media sites overall a good thing? I’d say yes, providing you treat them as the shallow, cursory level of contact they are. But Facebook friends are not a substitute for real, talking, moving, laughing, gesticulating, sharing-experiences people.

Spring Chickens and Tough Old Boilers

                Some years ago I was invited to a hen party as a colleague of the bride-to-be. In recent times, hen ‘dos’ have become more elaborate affairs, as have stag parties. They often consist of an entire weekend of activities-even, as in the case of one of our neighbours, a whole holiday of sailing around the Greek islands. For women there will often be some kind of ‘pampering’ like nails, massage or facials, followed  by something more active, such as ballet, followed by cocktails, followed by a meal, followed by getting extremely drunk going clubbing and tottering around on spindly heels/falling over/throwing up/stripping off/lying in the gutter and generally having a great time. The whole of this may be undertaken in some kind of themed fancy dress, or simply the tartiest get-up that can be assembled.

                For a number of reasons I consider rites of passage such as these to be the realm of the young. If you are of more mature years and get invited the best policy is to select the part that is most appropriate [in the aforementioned case it was the cocktail and the meal]. As the meal drew to a close, the two of us who had opted out of the clubbing part waved their taxis off with a shared sigh of relief. I must add that not all the older women had opted out of clubbing-indeed one or two threw themselves into both the late night revelries and the taxis with an excited anticipation that appeared a little incongruous alongside their younger companions; still, no matter.

                Subsequent feedback during coffee with one of the [thirty something] married revellers of that night only served to reinforce my theory. Had she had a good time? ‘It was ok’, she replied. ‘but you know-however young, fashion conscious and fit you may be, there is always going to be someone younger, more fashionable and fit than you are’. This, I might add was from a beautiful, intelligent and witty young woman. No surprise then that she has risen up the career with meteoric speed.

                It is currently Red Carpet Season. Consider the likes of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. They are held up as shining examples of older women who are ‘still gorgeous’-and yes, they are, though the unspoken phrase ‘for their age’ lurks in the background of the chatter column like an eavesdropper.

                So what are we ancient crones to do? The answer, I feel is to do nothing. We can continue to scrub up the best we can for the sake of our own dignity. We can be good conversationalists, good listeners, constant learners, entertaining, interesting, interested, fun, witty, wise, creative. But we cannot, and should not attempt to compete in the sexual arena, for there will always, always be younger, lovelier beings; such is life.