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Italian Snippets

The Americans.


Come on, I want to say – man up! You’re letting your side down! This is not what we expect.

For the Americans have no plan for the day. I ask them if they have big plans for today and they look back at me blankly. Maybe you have a little plan, some sort of plan? I ask. I sound like an idiot. We have no plans to do anything, the woman says calmly, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that one would make a plan in such a situation.


Last night they told me they had arrived the previous day, but no, they hadn’t yet been into the town. I, on the other hand, had arrived that afternoon, hot and panting after lugging my suitcase up the narrow limestone staircase to our rented rooms high above the Amalfi coast.


I’d passed a pleasant 3 hours in train from Rome and an hour long wait for a local bus from Salerno. When it arrived there was no storage area for luggage underneath and it was full of teenagers going home from school. We were crammed in so tight that I’d spent the journey on the lower step of the exit area with my legs wedged between my case and another passenger’s body, lifting my feet and perching like a hen to avoid crushing my legs whenever the driver closer the back doors. Then another bus trip up the mountain to Ravello, followed by a hike up the hill with suitcase and backpack to the final flight of stairs to Guiseppe’s Ravello Rooms.


And yet, after a short shower and a cuppa, I’d managed to stroll back into town to poke around the piazza, recharge my phone and have a beer.


I had been surprised by the Americans’ inactivity yesterday but assumed they were having a post-jet-lag day off. Mary from Australia tells me at breakfast today that the Americans walked down to Minori yesterday. So they had done something yesterday! That’s quite a walk. I expect they will be full bottle today, mapping out a major excursion.


But no, they have no plans, the woman says and smiles benignly at me. Later I see them outside where we are staying, putting something into their hire car. We exchange greetings and they stroll aimlessly off up the narrow lane way, hand in hand. It’s positively un-American of them, I think. Un American. Why so without focus? So “in the zone”!?


My mind turns it over and decides they must be recovering from a Very Bad Experience. Something awful has happened in their lives, it says. Yes, they are the walking wounded. Perhaps they have lost a child? Yet didn’t they mention last night that they had skyped their son, managed to phone a daughter for her birthday? Maybe not, no recently lost child. That’s good. Perhaps he’s lost his job in the recent great American economic downturn? So they decided to just come away to Italy and have that holiday they had always dreamed of.


Why not? Why not just stop and sit somewhere beautiful after all these years of work on two weeks leave per year. Or perhaps he is ill? He did look a bit pale. Recovering from some dreadful disease which still might claim him fully. They are taking time out to be together while they can.


Yes, that must be it, I decide. It’s so sad. But right, that they should sit and do as little as possible. Just go with the flow up here above the bustle of the Amalfi coastal towns and their tourist hordes.

Very wise of them, I think, very wise.






The bus driver


The bus driver has found a new friend. It’s the woman sitting in the front seat, who is leaning forward in order to engage him in energetic conversation. The driver is chatting like he has just regained the use of his tongue after years of having it tied. Yes, signora, he says time and again, you are so right.


He is clearly a man who likes to be occupied while at work. I have only been on the bus a couple of minutes when I see him light a cigarette. He stretches his left arm out the window, dangling the illegal fag above the roadway, his right hand alone on the wheel. Occasionally he draws it in from outside, takes a deep drag on the fag and puts it outside again.


The woman’s mobile phone rings, and then, as if to assure him he has friends too, his mobile follows suit. No, he’s not going to answer it, I think. Not with one hand on the wheel and all these bends in the road winding high above the Amalfi coast. Every few minutes we are encountering a situation which involves stopping, negotiating with other drivers through the window, backing up, edging forward to pass in the constricted space. But I’m wrong – answer it he does. Applying the brakes, he grabs at his hands-free cord, untangles it and takes the call.


Their respective calls attended to, the driver and the woman are deep in conversation once more.

Over the space of 35 minutes he takes three calls, smokes two cigarettes, and cements his friendship with the woman. By the time she gets off at her stop, they are new besties. He salutes her grandly as he sets her down and gives her a wave through the window as he moves us off. In reply she gives what I would have thought from the tenor of their conversation was an un-characteristically coy smile.


Ah, I think, may they meet again on this clamourous stretch of road. Or better still, on Facebook.



The Chinese Parucchiera


The hairdresser is Chinese. The padrona is Italian, but she is too busy having a fag outside her shop to attend to me. That’s what the help is for. First I am sudsed up by a thin Chinese boy, the apprentice I guess. He has no idea how to massage my scalp but rubs away enthusiastically producing a fine froth with the shampoo. When he judges me to be sufficiently clean he moves me to the chair where the Chinese woman waits with her scissors. We communicate well, in a tongue as foreign to her as to me, but I am stumped for the word for “fringe”. I hold up a bit of my fringe and and indicate that I don’t want it like this any more. I want it to grow.


She gets the idea and sets to work. The boy hovers inches to her right, following every move of the maestra. Gosh, I think, he’s keen. The woman works with great attention. The boy studies her every move as if she were Michelangelo fashioning stone. I recall something I read about the famous sculptor, where he said that he was simply the agent who released the soul of the stone, its essence, as he cut into it. Gosh, I think, maybe I’ll come out of this looking absolutely fabulous. Maybe this woman will fashion me into a masterpiece too. The boy certainly seems to think something momentous is going on here.


But then, as she snips away intently, I hear her mutter cosi’ fini questi capelli, it’s so fine, this hair, and my heart sinks. Just another day at the hairdressers, I think. No miracles of transformation today.



Men in tights.


Much drumming in the Campo tonight. The teal blue and yellow quarter are out in force in the lead up to the June Palio. Earlier the red and blacks paraded through the street of my hotel. The red and blacks seemed to be using this Sunday to give some practice to the littlies. A thin but imposing young man leads the way with his flag, the kids following behind thrashing their little drums. He pauses to aid their coordination, leaning nonchalantly on his flagpole. I notice that the front line is three little girls, no more than four or five years of age, decked out in their masculine hose and bibs. They crowd around the older boy giving him coy smiles; he smiles back paternally.


But tonight in the Campo it’s serious stuff. When I slip down the access alley into the light I see flags waving around the entire perimeter of the scalloped shell. The noise of drumming competes with a brass band performing at the bottom of the space. I sit on the warm rose-hued bricks along with scores of others and let it flow over me.


The men are mostly young. They stand in their multi-striped medieval clothing, left food slightly in front of the right, right hand on hip, moving their flagpole in a swirling pattern. Proud to be a part of Siena’s history. The brass band too has lots of young people playing instruments. A procession begins around the Campo: first the flag men, then the band, and then hundreds of ordinary people join in, their blue and yellow scarves around their necks, walking and singing at the top of their voices.


This would never happen at home, I think. This is the positive side of the much maligned campanilismo. I remember Martina saying that her son came home from University to take his turn in carrying the ceri in Gubbio. A few minutes is all they can stand, she says, it’s so heavy. But they do it in relays, moving the colossal wooden log from shoulder to shoulder as they climb the mountain. He wouldn’t think of missing it, she said.


And what, I think, do we give our sons to do? What do they have weaving in and out of their growing years to aspire to, to pull them out of themselves and into the commune? What do they have that is fun and boisterous to engage in, and yet is absolutely supported by the most conservative elements of their district or town? The only answer I can come up with is football. But does donning a scarf and screaming for your team on Saturday afternoon measure up, really? Looking at the young men in the Campo of Siena it is hard to imagine that it comes close.




A few paces from the door of my hotel in Nimes the mothers sit with their feet in water while their kids run up and down splashing each other to keep cool. Not so much a fountain as a moving footpath of water, the narrow, shallow channel links the train station to a square containing the Roman arena that marks the start of the old city. Water is one of the elements of the broad mall which welcomes the traveller from the train into the heart of this city of faded grandeur. Wooden and stone benches wrap around raised flower beds and settle in the shade of huge horse chestnut trees. It’s the south of France, and it gets very hot here in summer. But when it does, even the poor African immigrant youths of Nimes have somewhere to come.


There are two cafes immediately outside the doors of the station. The tracks are elevated or underground, producing almost no noise. People come off the train or sit and wait for incoming passengers, having a quiet drink or meal. I escape the heat of my room to sit with them and observe the goings on.


A dad closes his laptop and rouses his snoozing son. They disappear into the station and come out with a woman holding a briefcase and looking done in. Maman, off the train from Marseille or Montpellier or one of the other nearby cities where there is work. Two very old ladies in sun-frocks totter round the corner and collapse into the seats beside me. The waiter greets them with great respect and patiently and smilingly apologises, saying that as the cafe is closing soon all he can offer them is a pression (beer) or a glace (ice-cream). They settle for the latter and the waiter makes change for each of their five euro notes. Do they come here every night to escape the heat and indulge this simple pleasure?


Nimes is not the first place travellers think of when they think of the south of France. It’s not St Tropez or Nice, or even Avignon or Aix. But to my mind it’s a lovely city; a mixture of lost grandeur and modern redevelopment. Some years ago the city fathers got in the architects to create some modern buildings to smarten up the city, apparently in an attempt to challenge the dominance of Montpellier over the region. Not an easy ask when some of your existing structures happen to be Roman ruins from the time of Augustus. Norman Foster, the British architect and art collector, came up with a simple and beautiful design for the museum of modern art. Perhaps its the preponderance of glass which allows it to sit perfectly across the road from the Maison Carre’, a tiny but perfect temple dating from 5 AD.


The modern interacts with the ancient everywhere in Nimes. The really big ticket Roman ruin is a smallish but extraordinarily intact Roman arena. It is currently hosting a series of pop concerts. Late one night, lying in bed with the windows wide open to catch any breeze, I hear music drifting down the mall and prolonged clapping and whistling. Ah yes, I remember, Mark Knopfler is playing Les Arenes tonight.


One morning I walk in the extensive gardens built on the edge of the old city, now an island of calm in the midst of busy thoroughfares. Les Jardins de la Fontaine, the gardens of the fountain, were developed in the early 1700s around a series of tanks built to capture the waters of a spring. The spring was used by the burgeoning textile trade (denim cloth takes its name from de Nimes, of Nimes) but they needed some way to store its waters. With its stonework and statues, the series of fountains and tanks is reminiscent of ancient Roman baths. The gardens cover a huge acreage stretching up the side of a hill and incorporating two significant Roman ruins: a temple to Diana (more from Augustus) and La Magne, a tower at the top of the hill with a commanding view over the city.


Winding my way back down the hill into the old city I stumble on Les Halles, the covered market. I’ve learnt that in Spain and France this means a lunch counter with tall bar stools to perch on while you watch the short order cooks produce your meal. I settle for vegies of the day out of the fryer and a plate of jambon serrano, bread and a glass of wine. Five minutes later I’m wiping the oil from my chin and wondering why they ever did away with the old Coles lunch counters.


My day ends with a visit to the museum to bullfighting, tucked away in a street behind the arena. A visit to the Camargue the day before was something of a disappointment. The area at the mouth of the Rhone river is famous as the breeding ground of the white horses and black bulls used in bullfights, which are almost as popular in this part of France as in Spain. But the bulls I saw on my tour were sad and puny looking creatures, and the “cowboys” looked like they were stacking shelves at Woollies.


Now I learn that the Camargue bull is bred for meat not for the ring. For that they breed the Spanish bulls: big and aggressive. I also discover that this region has its own traditional form of bullfight where the matadors enter the ring unarmed and the bull is not killed either during or after the performance. I find that the life sized statue in the square near the arena which has so intrigued me is that of Nimes’ famous matador son, Christian Montcouquiol, known as Nimeno. He was apparently the first Frenchman to win respect abroad for his skills on a par with Spanish matadors. The museum storyboards gently imply that he took his life two years after being rendered a tetraplegic following a goring in the bullring at the age of thirty five. I am quite moved by this but perhaps the constant presence of death is part of the fascination for those who enter the ring. It’s not a sport that sits easily with our sensibilities, but it’s part of the story of the beautiful city of Nimes.



Mario, da donna!?


One of the good things about eating alone in a restaurant is that the flower sellers don’t bother you. Others, yes.


As I sit staring into space awaiting my spaghetti al pesto, idly tearing strips from one more overcooked Italian panino, a creature approaches. It has the height of a 12 year old boy and the face of one much older. That face is covered in some sort of white greasepaint, like a clown might wear. The boy is wearing a sort of Chinese coolie suit of shiny white synthetic material. His hair is covered by a scarf of the same ilk. My mind races through the possibilities: albino gypsy? character from the commedia dell’arte?


The apparition asks me for money.

I say no thanks.

But signora, he says, for me to eat?

Not even, I think.


He makes a cursory round of the few diners and ends up in front of the counter where the padrona of the restaurant is busily wiping glasses. She turns and spots him, making an untranslatable Italian gesture. “But Mario,” she exclaims with mock theatrical surprise, “as a woman tonight?!”

The kid shrugs and breaks out of character. Okay, I think, the village idiot. Or perhaps the smartest entrepreneurial kid on the block. If the gypsies can make a living out of begging, he thinks, why not me?


Not so furbo is the young daughter of the restaurant owner, acting as waitress. She stands out front, balancing awkwardly on her sky-high Doc Martens clodhoppers, mini dress putting an abundant chest on display. Even this does not entice passers by into the circle of tables. I feel sorry for her; she’s no spruiker. I came in here because I felt their opposition next door had far more than its fair share of customers.


As I pay my bill I put down two extra euros. “Signora!” she exclaims, “but it’s only twelve euros!”

“I know,” I explain, “these are for you.”

Her eyes open wide and incredulous. “Thank you! Thank you!” she emotes.


As I am wandering down the quay, I suddenly remember that I have left my shopping bag under the table at the restaurant. I turn around just in time to see the waitress, Doc Martens legs flying sideways like an Irish dancer, running towards me down the street. She is waving her free arm and calling “Signora! Signora!”


My turn to thank her profusely.

I continue down the quay. I’m getting to like San Remo.





Saint Francis Complex? 2014


I’m at an Italian ski resort high in the Alps, in the off season. It may be summer but it’s cold as charity. According to the internet, tomorrow, and the four days that follow it, will deliver a maximum of 43 degrees Farenheit. I can’t figure what that is exactly in Celsius but something tells me that it’s improperly cold for mid August.


By chance, or perhaps because the unseasonable cold has rendered my senses numb, I take a table at an expensive restaurant. One or two groups enter after me, making a total of just six tables occupied. Despite this low level of patronage the waiter actually asks a large family group which enters with a dog in tow if they are sure they want to sit down, as there is another dog already in residence. Yes, he is actually warning them that their dog might not get on with the dog already seated, and thus they may want to reconsider eating at the restaurant. They decide to be brave and sit down; their large dog disappears beneath the tablecloth.


This is Italy, where dogs are admitted not just onto trains and buses but also into cafes and exclusive restaurants. The first dog in, lolling below the table adjacent to mine, breaks out into loud bursts of barking throughout the first course. Unsettling to say the least. No one says a word. A bloke sitting having a romantic night out with his partner, and paying plenty for the privilege, catches my eye and gives a tiny rueful smile. I guess he’s spotted me as a foreigner and knows that dogs aren’t always welcome in restaurants abroad.


Which is odd. Because no one is more “doggy” than the English, surely? And Italians have traditionally been very offhand about their domestic animals. Animals were kept for absolutely practical reasons: to work, produce food or be themselves eaten. In peasant society animals shared their owners’ living quarters all winter because to let them freeze was unthinkable. Unthinkable because the loss of an animal was the loss of the family’s source of milk, cheese, meat, or a worker to pull the plough. But that was the old Italy. In modern Italy animals, which is to say dogs since the Italians are not into cats, are not kept for practical reasons. They have morphed into pets, members of the family, eaters at restaurants.


I once saw a dog piss up against the counter of a bar as it’s owner ordered a coffee. Everyone saw it; no one blinked an eyelid. You have to laugh.



Some corner of a foreign land…


“Out there, outside this house, it’s Abruzzo,” says the waitress. “Inside this house – it’s Scotland!”

And we both laugh at the absurdity of it.


So that would explain the salotto walls dripping with framed derivations of clan names and heraldic crests. It would more than explain the two enormous glasses cases suspended from the picture rail, each holding a full set of bagpipes, one set with the wool of the sheep still attached to the bellows.


“Look at me!” she continues, warming to her theme and indicating her red and black tartan tunic worn over the standard waiter’s uniform of white blouse and black pants. We laugh again.


So the padrone married a Scottish woman and they live upstairs with their middle son, Alessandro, grown up and gone into the family albergo business. At the reception a sign cut into wood reads

The Balestra and McDonald families welcome you to Albergo Montagna.


“I would say she is more Scottish than Italian,” says the waitress ironically.

So we get to talking about yesterday’s vote in Scotland where the people have rejected independence in favour of remaining within Great Britain. A chance to redress 400 years of injustice if the secessionists were to be believed.


“The important thing,” says the waitress, “is that they were able to vote. The signora has always been a big one for an independent Scotland, but now they have had their chance and they have lost.”


“I guess the people got scared,” I offer. “But it would have been more interesting for the rest of the world if they had said yes in their vote, don’t you think?”


It’s then that she surprises me by telling me she is originally from the Ukraine; she has family there still. She says those she has contact with in the area of fighting are starting to come out of their bunkers now that some sort of interruption to the hostilities has been effected. But she doesn’t know how they will survive the coming winter. There has been no harvest, she says. The crops are all destroyed. She uses the italian word casino, a complete mess.


“They voted in the Crimea,” I say, “and now they are back with Russia. Why can’t they allow a vote in your part of Ukraine also?”


In the Crimea they are pretty much all Russian, she explains, but in this area it’s not so clear.


“What do you think of the government in the Ukraine,” I ask, “does it work?”


“No,” she replies immediately. “According to me, if it worked they wouldn’t be in this situation.”


“Maybe they haven’t done enough to hold the people to the Ukraine?”


“Look,” she says, “Ukraine has always been dominated by some other country. There has been no independence. But who helped us during the war? Who came and liberated Poland? I don’t say that I am for Russia or that I like Putin. But I have a friend who keeps on saying she is completely for Ukraine, they must be independent etc etc. But then her husband is away working in Moscow! According to my way of thinking if you live in one country but all your money comes from another country, you should keep quiet. How can you fight against a country yet you gain your living from it?”


It makes me think of the young Islamists leaving Australia, the United States and Britain to go and behead others in the name of the new Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and Syria. I had been surprised to learn that it is against the law in Australia to do what they are doing. Theoretically speaking I thought one was allowed to go overseas and fight for another land. Volunteers did it in fascist Spain, we Australians did it for Britain and the empire in the First World War. How is it suddenly illegal?


But now as I consider the question again I recognise my reasoning has changed. It does offend us that a young person, brought out of Lebanon or wherever by parents fleeing war or persecution or simply seeking economic advantage, having grown up in the comfort and freedom of Australia, should turn against the country that hosted them and declare us all infidels. Should go overseas to gleefully wreck havoc in other lives which may or may not want an Islamic state. Should learn how to kill and rape, and seek to import that violence back into their host country. That must offend us deeply. Perhaps the loss of citizenship is appropriate after all.


And now as I consider the waitresses’ words I see a link between the perspectives of the made-in-Australia Islamist, the Scottish ex-patriot full of vehemence for an independent Scotland in which she will not have to live, and the Ukrainian resident who adopts a bellicose attitude towards the very country which furnishes her family with its livelihood.





Have you ever heard of Sermoneta? No, of course you haven’t. But I’ll bet you’ve heard of Orvieto and Assisi and even Spoleto, Spello and Todi. But of Sermoneta? Niente, nothing, I’ll bet.

Yet it’s every bit as beautiful as any of these towns, and for my money, somewhat cuter than all but Assisi. And unlike Assisi it’s not overrun by tourists.


It’s not in Umbria. But it’s as like an Umbrian hill town as you can get. It’s actually in Lazio, south of Rome and slightly east. In an area called the Pontine Marshes or la Pianura Pontine. Once the home to malaria and disease.Now a vast plain filled with agriculture, especially vegetable growing. Mussolini saw to it being drained in the 30’s and it’s not looked back.


But Sermoneta, high above the marshes atop a hill at 250 metres above sea level, has been here forever, or at least verifiably so since the Bronze age. The medieval ages gave it its streets, narrow and twisted, snaking up and across the curve of the mountain. Everything in the centro storico is make of one material: the local white/grey stone and smoothed pebbles. Assisi, Perugia and Gordes in Provence come to mind. It’s centre is like an demonstration of the proposition that unity, in design, is everything. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.


From the top of the town you look out over the flat plain below stretching away to the sea. People come here to see one of the most intact medieval towns in Italy. Italians mostly, but a trickle of Australians too, according to my hostess, the down to earth Anke. Of course that may be because Anke, while she has an Italian husband, is German with a mother living in Australia. Anke runs the Ostello San Nicola, with another woman, Caroline, an English woman also married to an Italian for the last twenty- something years.

“The reason my Italian is better than Caroline's -” Anke declares - “and I like to think it's better than Caroline's - is because I'm a chiacchierone, a chatterbox,” she offers. “And I read in Italian all the time. Caroline reads exclusively in English. And then Caroline is not an extrovert like me,” she muses, “Caroline stands apart a little. This holds you back.”


Don’t I know it.


So I climb the pebbled alleyway up to the piazza and find a man of seventy four running a bar. It’s the time of siesta where all over Italy regional centres are throwing up zzzz’s. He has no bread to make me a panino, and of course the paneficio is closed. It’s mid afternoon in the low season. There are about half a dozen men distributed amongst the four bars open on the piazza. But this man is energised by my need to eat. I tell him not to worry, I’ll take a pistacchio icecream instead. But he doesn’t think a gelato will do the trick for me. He can see I need something more substantial.


“Look,” he says, “Just give me a minute. I’ll get some bread from my neighbour and make you a sandwich. We are competitors but we give each other a hand when it comes to it. Va bene?”


I thank him and sit reading the newspaper at one of his tables. The Mafia bosses have asked to be present at the taking of testimony from the President of Italy, Giorgio Napoletano, on the rumoured treaty reached between the Italian State and the Mafia during the 1990s. Macche’?! What the hell? Now the Mafia think they have the right to ask to be present at the taking of testimony from the head of state on their activities? It’s breathtaking in its audacity. Equal partners in the running of the investigation into their own activities!


My man returns with thick slices of bread and proceeds to layer slabs of sheep’s milk cheese between them. He hands me the sandwich wrapped in a paper serviette as he makes my coffee.

“My granddaughter is having some event today at school,” he tells me. “My son rang and said ‘Close up and come’, but I don’t like to close the bar,” he says.


“What, never?” I respond.


“Well, only on Thursday at midday,” he replies.


So here is a bloke, seventy four years old, maybe not rich but not poor, I’ll wager, who would rather keep his bar open than close it for once and go to his granddaughter’s concert. I have his care and concern for my digestion to thank for the fact that I have something to eat after going all day on an empty stomach. I accept that his extra effort on my behalf was not motivated by profit seeking, as he charges me just 2 euros for the sandwich. He’s gone to a lot of trouble for me. I understand that it’s something to do with pride, and something to do with courtesy.


But where is the granddaughter in all of this?


When I front up to the till he asks me for 3.3 euros, the equivalent of $5 for a sandwich and coffee. I insist he take 5 euros for his effort. The word I use also translates in Italian as fatigue. He gives me a look and says “I’m not so old as all that!”


“Well, at least this one time, take it,” I reply.


We part with excessive salutations.


Hours later, as I walk back to my lodgings from dinner in the centre, I pass through the piazza. My man’s light is still on, a gaggle of men of a certain age occupies the chairs outside his bar.



Everyone knows everyone in a small town.


I’m crossing the piazza on my way home from dinner. I’ve just put away a delicious tender steak char-grilled to a perfect medium rare. Around the sides of the large plate were sprinkled little flowerlets of herbs and red Treviso cabbage. A light, tangy saute of fresh porcini tumbled over the meat. A side dish of crispy fried potatoes that the waitress had insisted on. With a glass of prosecco imported from a local bar and a basket of fresh chewy bread, that’s a meal.


“Good evening signora!” A waiter from one of the bars in the piazza salutes me. I imagine he’s low on customers so I mumble something about perhaps a cup of tea. He doesn’t hear this and launches into enquiries as to how I’ve enjoyed my dinner, my stay.


“You’re at the hostel, right?”


“Yes, but how do you know?”


“I know Caroline. A lovely lady. The other lady too, she’s lovely also.”


“Indeed,” I reply. “Anke is anche delightful.” I attempt a pitiful pun.


“You’re a parachutist, then?” he continues.


“A what? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”


“A parachutist. Up in the sky. There are lots of them staying at the hostel at the moment.”


“Really?” I am amazed. “I didn’t know that,” I reply. A large group of enthusiastic and talkative young Swedes are staying at the hostel, of that I am aware. They have taken over. Buckets of water sit around the kitchen and communal outdoor areas. It appears that rocks are being washed. Rocks! They are stacked in plastic zip-pocketed piles on the dining room floor. The Swedes sit scrubbing rocks all afternoon, and bits of brick and mortar. I have been mystified by this, utterly floored. This afternoon I had decided that they must be geology students on some sort of field trip and got quite hot under the collar imagining them stealing all of Italy’s rocks to take back as examples for their theses. But parachutists?!


“No, no!” I blurt out, “I am much too old to be a parachutist!”


“Oh, so you’re a traveller then,” he says. “It’s always good when you’re travelling, isn’t it. So you’ve just had dinner at our restaurant. Did you see Franca? My daughter.”


This family owns the town it seems.


“Ah! So my glass of prosecco came from here!” I put it together – the waitress saying she’d just nip up to their bar to get me that glass of prosecco I wanted if I just waited two minutes. As she did.


“Yes, yes, we own this bar too. And another restaurant up the back of town but that’s just for summer. It’s closed now.”


“But business is not too good in Italy right now?”


“Yes, there’s la crisi you know.” If Australians have christened it the GFC to the Italians it’s ‘the crisis.’ “But the main thing, the really important thing is your health, you know? When you have your health you have everything,” he adds sagely.


“Yes indeed, you’re right.”


“Well Signora, off to bed now? Back to Germany then?”


“No, no,” I assure him, “I’m not German, I’m Australian. I’m going to Ischia tomorrow.”


His face opens into a big smile. “Ah, Ischia! Bella! But it’s not the season now you know. It will be cold now.”


“Cold?!” I’m shocked.


“Oh but you will be used to it, signora. No trouble for you.”


Ah! He thinks I’m Austrian; not German but Austrian. The mistake is so common I don’t bother to correct it. I wish him good luck, he thanks me heartily and grabs my hand in a modified Hi5.


I continue my journey across the piazza, just an ordinary everyday Austrian lady paracadutista.




A rough housing.


So this time I’m determined that it not be a Chinese parruchiere. Ah, “Roberta Branchi, haircuts for men, women and children: 10 euros” the sign outside the shop indicates a bona fide Italian hairdresser.


I step inside and ask if they have time to cut my hair.


“Yes!” says Roberta, rising from behind the counter to her full height, and motioning me towards the basin, pointer finger directed at the floor in an action I had previously associated with the training of dogs. It is clear immediately that Roberta was once Roberto, but no matter, I think, a male hairdresser’s eye is often better than a female’s.


As Roberta pummels my scalp at the basin it is also clear that she has not quite managed to get rid of all her testosterone. Or perhaps this is the only outlet for frustrated testosterone when one is wrapped in a floor length slinky number and a blond wig? She rubs and scrubs at my poor fine hair until the time comes to wrap it in a small towel and buffet it some more.


Then the pointed finger again, ordering me towards the chair where the cutting is to take place. I look at the floor expecting to see some yellow arrows or those little painted footprints you see in hospital corridors, but none are in evidence.


I tell her that I just want a simple blunt cut, all the same length. And I blunt cut I get. The first snip of the plier-like scissors wrenches at my neck hair and I pray she doesn’t draw blood. It takes 90 seconds and exactly 8 snips of the tool for Roberta to declare her work done. The hair falls willy nilly all over my shoulders and chest as Roberta has not found it necessary to cover me with the standard plastic cape.


With an explosive movement she grabs a hairdryer, whips around my chair and pushes my head towards the floor with her free hand. My leg is caught in the cord of the hairdryer but Roberta has her blood up and no time to waste. I throw my head forward onto my knees and try to remain calm.

After a bit she indicates that I should sit up now. I attempt to curtail the process by telling her not to worry about drying it off as I am going swimming. I swim all the time – no need to blow dry it!


Roberta is having none of that. “Stay quiet!” she spits out. “I am not finished yet!”


There follow ten minutes of horror as she blasts my head with hot air. Once or twice I try to get free. “Ma, basta con il calore!” I declare “Enough with the heat!”


“Heat is good for you,” is the grim reply.


Ma brucia la testa! It’s burning my head.” I mangle a laugh to let her know I’m a good sort, no trouble really.


“It’s burning your head?” she notes, intrigued, not missing a beat.


I realise that the less I say the quicker she will release me. I now feel that she positively does not like me. During all of this Roberta makes some attempt to make conversation or perhaps it is all a joke against me, for the benefit of the punk youth who has sidled into the shop and taken up a conversation with her.


She tells me what I need to do to catch a man here on Ischia. “Did I ask!?” I want to scream at her, but I daren’t while she has that burning hot tool in her grasp. She struts about demonstrating the walk which will get me a bloke.


“I’m too old for men,” I reply. This is a bad reply.


“Only the dead are old,” declares Roberta. She indicates the youth sitting behind me, his reflection in the mirror before me. “Look at him,” she says, “He’s 27 but his girlfriend is 65. And she doesn’t have money – he has money, but he loves her!”


“I’ll bet,” I think but I stay quiet. One thought only: don’t antagonise her. She is yanking at my hair with the brush, my scalp can’t take much more of this.


At last it is over. Roberta tots up her bill and declares her man-handling to be worth 25 euros.


I protest. I didn’t want the blow dry, the extra cream etc. But any fool can see I’ve been caught.


The word fregatura (rip off) comes to mind but I suppress it, saying instead “It’s a lesson for me, no?” and give her a look. I pay up and get clear of the shop.


I walk home feeling angry and strangely violated. I try to analyse why I feel so upset. It’s not the money. It’s not even the fact that I got a lousy haircut. It’s something to do with being trapped, the rough physical treatment and the unmerited hostility she emanated towards me. And what was all that nonsense with the boy in the shop? Was she trying to set me up with the local gigolo?


I remember reading about women who have been raped, how they need to wash and wash and still they don’t feel clean. I am ashamed to associated their horror with the triviality of this incident, but nevertheless when I get back to the hotel I am compelled to step immediately into the shower and wash away all Roberta’s good work.


The next morning, I take out my nail scissors and tidy up the bits sticking out around the edge.


Gigolo 101


p<>{color:#000;}. Legge?

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, leggo.

p<>{color:#000;}. Un libro?

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, un libro. (Is he blind? I take in the deep tan, white jeans and stylish singlet over the gym cut torso and tattoos.)

p<>{color:#000;}. Una storia?

p<>{color:#000;}. No, non e’ una storia. E’ come un romanzo.

p<>{color:#000;}. Ah, romanza!

p<>{color:#000;}. No, non romanza.

p<>{color:#000;}. Un giallo?

p<>{color:#000;}. No, non e’ un giallo. Non e’ cosi’. E’ difficile spiegare in italiano. Forse e’ come una storia ma non della storia passata. (Narrativo? Letteratura? That’s too grandiose.)

p<>{color:#000;}. Lei e’ sola? (siting down on the plastic chair beside me)

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, sono da sola.

p<>{color:#000;}. Da dov’e’?

p<>{color:#000;}. Dall’Australia. E’ lei? Vive qui?

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, si, sono da Formia. (whipping out his ID card and pointing to the place of residence.)

p<>{color:#000;}. Mi chiamo Mario.

p<>{color:#000;}. Piacere. Mi chiamo Robin. ( we shake hands)

p<>{color:#000;}. Cosa fa?

p<>{color:#000;}. Io? Aspetto il traghetto a Ponza.

p<>{color:#000;}. E’ in vacanza?

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, certo. Vado a Ponza per qualche giorno.

p<>{color:#000;}. Ha un hotel?

p<>{color:#000;}. Si, si, ho un hotel.

p<>{color:#000;}. Una camera singola o matrimoniale?

p<>{color:#000;}. Cos’e’ la sua interesse?

p<>{color:#000;}. Vorrei andare all’isola con lei.

p<>{color:#000;}. Ma no! Perche?

p<>{color:#000;}. Vorrei fare qualcosa con lei.

p<>{color:#000;}. No, no, io sono troppo vecchia per te!

p<>{color:#000;}. Ho avuto delle relazioni con altre donne piu grandi…

p<>{color:#000;}. Veramente? Bravo. Ma purtroppo io non voglio una relazione con te. (Time to highlight the age difference)

p<>{color:#000;}. Perche? Ha paura?

p<>{color:#000;}. No, non ho paura perche c’e’ un sacco di gente intorno. Ma tu devi accettare che io non ho nessun interesse in te.


My little speech concluded, I glance up and he’s gone. Disappeared into thin air.


Italian Snippets

Vignettes from travels in Italy: the author's interactions with locals.

  • ISBN: 9781311879936
  • Author: Robin Trinca
  • Published: 2016-04-19 13:20:07
  • Words: 7173
Italian Snippets Italian Snippets