When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
Those few of you who take an interest in these things, and who glean all sorts of delight in the numerous mishaps which befall me every time I rub shoulders with my fellow European Citizens will be amazed, if not a little disappointed, that our Italian Campaign passed without incident. Almost.
But like so many things — Ben Elton’s funny period or a solid stool — it all seems to be a distant memory…
We arrived in Sorrento on a bright, hot September morning. The place was buzzing. An enormous cruise ship had relieved itself of its cargo of fat American pensioners, making it nigh on impossible to purchase any over-priced beer, linen or lemon-based products, try as I might. Rumour has it the Costa Concordia flipped over when a couple from Wisconsin leant over the rails to feed the seagulls. I don’t believe this. I think they were trying to eat the birds. So, taking their lead, we settled down to the first in a series of pizza & ice cream snacks, enjoyed the hot September sun and decided we’d chosen the right spot for our first break in a while.
It’s not what you’d call a beach resort, and my eyes lit up when I discovered there was only one ‘disco’ in town, and that was at the other end of town. I would just have to put up with great food & wine and a lack of boozed-up bastards from Barnsley and Bournemouth wrecking the town every night. That’s not to say that the Brits aren’t catered for. There is a “English Inn” on the main street, right opposite an Oirish Bar (both doing a ‘Full English and Guinness on tap”) which, for the most part The Incumbent and I gleefully avoided. For the most part.
For most of our stay, the sun shone, the booze flowed and the food arrived by the skip load. But we weren’t the only ones enjoying a regular bite. So were the mozzies. If there is one breed of animal that The Incumbent attracts more than Neapolitan handbag salesmen it’s mosquitos. Every morning we would idle away a couple of hours counting up and applying ointment to the previous evenings mozzie bites. She even got bitten on the verandah, which brought tears to her eyes. After a while, the critters had had their fill of the missus, and started on my extremities.
In an attempt to put off these little bastards, we’d brought from Blighty an industrial-sized tube of Deet insect repellant. I would carry it around in my pocket when we went out for a stroll of an evening — or at least I did until a passing scouser pointed at this long bulge in my pocket and decided to ask his cap-tee’d mates if they could see the size of “that fat bloke’s knob end ?” We continued our promenading activities at pace, diving into the nearest Trattoria for our seventh meal of the day. As the insect repellant was with us (though sadly we were out of scouser repellant) we decided to apply another layer as we waited for the menu. The whiff was overpowering, and I extinguished the table candle as a precaution. She needed me to cover her shoulder blades in the stuff, and I made sure I had some Deet for my Feet (Sugar for my Honey). I wanted the fish, which was something of a speciality around those parts. The waiter arrived and I ordered in my best Engtalian “Carbonara for bonna Signora, and oh, Sole mio”. It was all he could do not to spit at me.
They brought us whisky, and gin and beer… I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. Though they didn’t get to play with my 4 x 2.
But please don’t get the impression that all we did was sit around and eat. No, no, no. That was only 85% of the time. We went on day trips too. No visit to the area would be complete with a visit to Pompeii. It’s really worth a visit, if only to escape the endless piped Opera music (if you’ve ever been to the West Indies and suffered Bob Marley overdose, you’ll understand when I say I never want to hear Caruso again. Neither him nor his Man Friday).
But the ruins of the once thriving city, sadly lost to the world in 79AD due to the huge eruption of nearby Vesuvius. Our guide Paula, pronounced PouWla, was a local girl who had clearly grown up on a heady diet of Benny Hill Shows and Bunga Bunga parties. She was a fag paper away from snorting fnarr fnarr as she concentrated and pointed out to us each and every “Three Dee Willee” on the road or on the walls. These protruding pointing penises might, she mused, have indicated the position of a brothel, or historians now think Pompeii residents could have used the phallus images as a protection against evil spirits. (Tonight, try getting your willy out in front of your missus and telling her it’s for her own protection. It doesn’t work — believe me.)
What would have been much more interesting would have been if she had told us about the popularity of cricket in this ancient roman metropolis. I myself saw clear evidence of a thriving cricket culture in existence. Who knows? If it hadn’t been for the devastation of the volcano, Italian cricket might now rival that of Australia, or perhaps even one of the major Test-playing nations ?
My exclusive and World’s-1st discovery of the Pompeii Ageas Oval was, as you can imagine, pretty much the highlight of the tour. There was of course the time in Napoli itself. We travelled there by boat, and on our arrival at Naples docks, two Australians with placards were shouting “Send the Boats Back”. We assumed they were lost. Later we sat outside a cafe in one of the less salubrious parts of the city (as opposed to all the many, many, lovely areas….er…) chugging away on bottles of Peroni and listening to Funiculi, Funicula for the 28th time that day. A grin burst across The Incumbent’s face as she watched and listened to the two rather vocal young women behind me.
I hadn’t realised these girls were of the working variety and that every tourist, workman or delivery boy who walked past were treated to the sight of them pulling down the lurex boob tubes and flashing their gnocchi. The going rate was, apparently, “10”. We didn’t hang around to find out if that was Euros or Lira: I glanced over my shoulder and it was a terrifying sight. It was clear to me that at least one of these birds was once christened as a geezer and those chicken fillets he was waggling at the lads were new additions to her being, (matching nicely with her adams apple which was the size of The Vatican). Any version of Funiculi, Funicula playing once he/she got a victim back to her/his gaff would be merely to accompany him being mashed, bashed and slammed on the floor. Speaking for myself I’d rather hold it in my hand.
It could truly be a case of see Nipples & Die. (© National Joke museum 1923).
It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to a couple of decent orders, I have managed to gather enough cash together to take the Incumbent and myself away for a while. Very soon the beaches of southern Italy will be awash with bits of me. It’s been a few years and several stone since I Swarfega‘d my way into a pair of swimming trunks. It’s the kind of thing that could bring down the EU.
So with just a day to go before we jet off, and thanks to the guvnor, most of our stuff has been packed away and we’re busy clearing the fridge of perishables. Today I anticipate having three fried egg sandwiches and two omelets as someone seems to have over-ordered on the egg front. With all of our nicer clothes and accessories neatly put away in suitcases, we’re wandering around the house in old or inappropriate garb. Yesterday, for example, I spent the day in a dinner jacket (which was handy because I was hungry). The Incumbent wore a morning suit so she could have the afternoon off.
Last night, while the other half took herself down to Bluewater, I took the opportunity to steal myself away down to the local for a last pint before I was pushed on to an aircraft. For the occasion I dug out from the bottom of the chest of drawers a pair of rather ill-fitting shorts (for brevity’s sake, let’s just agree that all my clothes are ill-fitting) and an early example of my ever-popular JFK T-shirt. (50 years On — available at all good stockists).
Taking a seat on a bar stool, I ordered from Glenda the usual pint of sludge and began the usual banter with the assembled old boys propping up the jump.
“Aye , Aye”, “Evening All” etc
“Working on one for you, John” I hollered at one of the gathered drinkers. He was sat on the next stool to me but I needed to shout as he was a tad mutton. John had asked if I could make a Laurel & Hardy tee for him and I was on the case. The 70 year old plasterer is rapidly becoming one of my more regular customers, him having a penchant for often wearing one my shirts while both plastering and getting plastered. I think he’s ordered four to date. And he’s paid for all of them, something of a record round here.
“Is it you that makes the T-shirts, then?” asked Colin, sat beside the aforementioned John.
“Yes, that’s me” quoth I.
Colin took a long squint at what I was wearing. JFK stared back at him through the folds in my shirt and the creases underneath my moobs. You can always tell how long Colin’s ben in the the pub by the degree at which his eyes are pointing at each other. Colin is the Ben Turpin of Dartford — especially after half a dozen pints.
“Oooh I like that one” he continued. “that one of yours ?”
“Yup. In all of the colours, in all of the sizes !” I chanted happily. But answer came there none. And this was scarcely odd because it was Colin and he was on a roll.
“That’s the….the…the American President fella, aint it ?”. I’d forgotten to mention that Colin was a bit of a political animal.
“Yes, John Kennedy”, I concurred. “It’s fifty years this year that he died. You can have it in…”
I’d failed to notice that Colin hadn’t finished.
“You ought to do one with him on it, and Martin Luther King here, John Lennon here…” he was pointing to various part of his torso “…and Lady Diana there…” which apparently was somewhere around his navel.
“Diana ..?” I repeated, but it was still Colin’s turn.
“Then write ‘Assassinated’ above ’em” he announced, scrawling the imaginary headline across the top of his chest. “I’d buy one of them“
“Diana..?” I repeated.
“Yeah, well, everyone knows she was killed by them.” Behind him, I noticed John roll his eyes, snort and bury is face into his pint.
“Them..?” I asked — desperately trying not to give the impression I was doubting him (a sale is, after all, a sale).
“The Government ! She slagged off the Tories on TV and I says to me mum ‘she’ll be dead in a fortnight’ and the following weekend me mum rings me up and says ‘she’s dead’ and I says ‘who’s dead’ and she says ‘Diana’s dead’ and I says ‘well fuck me I was right all along’ “.
Colin was no David Frost, but he knew a good yarn when he told one. I was loath to point out that Tony Blair was in government when Diana
died was murdered.
“That’s a good point” I replied.(I’ll say anything to sell a shirt.) “I’ll have a good go at that when I get back from my holiday” I lied.
As if to confirm it to himself, Colin repeated his design to himself (and to me) several times, occasionally adding “you can put their dates below each face” and suggesting colours for the shirt.
And then he started free-forming.
“You know who they’ll get next, don’t you ?” he bellowed.
“Er….” I dreaded to think who was next in line for Colin’s assassin’s bullet.
“Jamie Oliver !”
Two jets of Light & Bitter shot out of John’s nostrils. I bit a lump out of my tongue. In the nick of time The Incumbent arrived to rescue me. She picked me up off the floor and we made ready to leave. Colin was still in full flight, detailing what Jamie had done to incite the wrath of MI5, though my head was spinning and I couldn’t hear what his reasoning was. I should have asked why Jamie was for the chop, not Delia Smith, but we’d gone before I’d thought of it.
As we left Glenda was administering the last rights to John who had laughed himself to within an inch of an early death.
It seems I’ll have no need to finish that Stan & Ollie shirt.
Best Performance in a Leading Roll (in a Foreign Comedy)
In a tightly contested race, the award of biggest comedian on show yesterday went to the French No.10 Frédéric Michalak for his near perfect portrayal of an explosion in an idiot factory during an amateur production of Les Miserables in Paris last night. Michelak, although easily carrying off the award (while trying not to drop it), had to fight off some pretty strong competition, notably from the likes of The Stade de France groundsman, Monsieur Herbe du Somme; Scotland’s own Jim Hamilton for Sunday Morning Lummox —his harrowing portrayal of a 1974 ExB Lock Forward with a forearm smash addiction; and Luciano Orquera, the Italian Outside-Half for his reprise of the Daniel Day Lewis‘s role from My Left Foot.
But in the end the award rightly went to Michelak for possibly the most embarrassing display by an old man on a sports field since Muhammed Ali ‘fought’ Trevor Berbick or Henry Leconte stopped his ‘zany’ antics on the ATP veterans tour. Michelak, of course, even in his prime could never be accused of having been an Ali, but yesterday many french rugby fans were heard to dub him “Leconte”. Or something like that.
The 30 year of from the south of France (born
To Lose Toulouse 1982) is also in the running for Worst Director of 14 Other Men, and The Academy‘s honorary Do Us All a Favour and Hang Up Your Boots Award (colloquially known as The Warnie), but has been withdrawn from circulation until further notice, having been found to contain at least 90% donkey.
I think I must have put them all in a box which is now in the loft. I remember separating them, dividing them by type, each having their own little baggie. When we moved all my stuff out of Railway Cuttings down to The Potting Shed I’m pretty sure that they were in a box which ended up in the loft. Or the garage. Or under the stairs. Wherever it is, I want to find that box because I’m gonna need it. With the Euro’s future likely to be confined to Pathe News, episodes of QI or International Baccalaureate history exams, I’m gonna need something to spend on my next trip.
There was a bag containing Marks, one which had about thirty quid worth of Francs therein, and another with a collection of Pesetas, Drachmas, Italian lira and and Dutch Guilder. In total I reckon there’s at least 60 quid’s worth of old foreign currency,nearly enough to buy me a cup of coffee on Rue de Rivoli. How glad am I that at the time I couldn’t be bothered to hand over all my loose European change to those charities who, back in 2002, were asking for the coins “we wouldn’t need again”? At last my inertia and apathy towards helping others is paying off. Well that’s my guess anyway.
Now I know I’m only guessing, and my glass is typically half empty, but guesswork is all I’m left with as I’m no economist. No, really I’m not. I know I’m a world authority on cricket, lemons, modern art and movies, but I fall just short when it comes to economic nouse.
Not that the supposed experts know what’s gonna happen either: Tony Blair said that the collapse of the Euro would be “catastrophic” for the UK and urged all of us to get behind it. I don’t actually know how to get behind a euro, but on the other hand Tony once told me that I had 45 minutes to put on my tin hat and get to the air raid shelter before the nasty beardy-wierdies attacked. Well, as Tony’s mate George Bush once said “Fool me once, shame on … shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” So I think it’s fair to say I won’t be heeding what Blair says. Let’s look farther afield for help:
Chancellor Merkel has indicated that Germany either receives Britain’s support for invading Belg…sorry, for economic treaty changes or Germany will go it alone, drawing a new map of Europe with Germany at it’s fore. Where does she get her ideas from ? The German Chancellor can’t stand the French President Sarkozy, which doesn’t make her a member of a particularly exclusive club, but both countries hate Britain more, and this antagonistic feeling is only second to their disgust at Greece for dropping us all in the mire, so they have common enemies: David Cameron and this week’s Greek PM, [subs: please fill in name here].
Events in Italy seem to have muddied the waters even further. Berlusconi’s finally gone, just not that very far. He’s made it clear he still intends to make a comeback (this man has the Blair-like gift of being unshakeable and unshameable), and anyway, Super Mario Monti looks like he’s in Silvio’s pocket. No measures or acts will get through the Italian Parliament without the former Milanese Media Mogul’s nod. He’s still the leader of the biggest political party in the chamber, and we have learned from past events, he’s never out of the limelight for long. Once he gets a firm grip on either power or a woman’s gusset, he’s a bugger to shake off.
If you believe (and why the hell would you?) the analysts queuing up to talk to reporters, France looks like the next in line to go tits-up. The Euro economy domino theory goes thus: If Greece goes, Italy goes. If Italy goes, France goes. If France , Britain goes, (always bearing in mind that love grows where my Rosemary goes, and nobody knows like me).
No wonder Sarkozy, David Cameron and his attack-poodle George Osborne are looking nervous and sounding unusually vicious, even by their standards. Every one is blaming everyone else for the big pile of doo-doo we find ourselves in. But of course, still no-one is attacking the banks. Small businesses being refused bank loans, poor people being given huge mortgages which they could never have afforded to repay; mass redundancies and huge unemployment causing the collapse of the highs street: all these factors seem to have been forgotten.
The Brit govt blames the public sector workforce for striking in an attempt to save their pensions and pay.; the French blame Greek bin men and schoolteachers for not paying tax; the media blame the Italian citizen for voting for Berlusconi in the first place. UK finance minister Osborne has been blaming the referendum on Scottish devolution for the state of finances north of the border. Sarkozy accused Uraguay of being a tax-haven. Rare indeed for a French politician to consider tax havens as a bad thing. They’ll be coming out against extra-marital affairs next. Merkel, of course, is blaming everyone within spitting distance.
The shites are coming out, all over Europe.
Bye, bye Berlusconi, at long last. You won’t be missed.
Unlike the previous year’s week in Italy, our arrival in Mallorca passed relatively incident-free. Ok, we were stuck in the carpark for 10 minutes while I tried to locate the handbrake in the hire car (to much sniggering in the back), but once I realised it didn’t have a handbrake we made easy work of the 45 minute drive to the villa.
Within half an hour of our arrival the kids hit the water and I explored the environs. The place looked just fine: plenty of space, good size rooms, a nice big kitchen, and if the pool wasn’t exactly of Olympic proportions, it was big enough for me to join the kids for a wallow, without too much water displacement. It was a semi-secluded spot, with just one other villa over an unkept hedge which, on first examination, seemed to be unoccupied. Perfect- we could make as much noise as we liked, and there were no neighbours to complain about the noise as I beat the children.
The area around the pool and the barbeque had recently been swept clean and, at first glance, looked to be spick and span. However, as I wandered around I did notice a pile dust in the corner where the cleaners had neglected to dispose of it. Not to worry, I thought to myself as I reached for the dustpan and brush. Then, as I made my move to sweep up the pile, it moved. Or rather the top of the pile moved. It wasn’t dust, it was ants. Or rather it was a pile of dead ants, with a surface covering of live ones. There must have been thousands of them.
Hmmm…. I’m not squeamish about ants, but I didn’t want a colony of them, dead or alive, sharing my holiday home. With several flicks of the wrist several generations of hundreds of ant families and their ancestors were in their temporary Addis home in transit to their new home over the hedge. We spent the rest of the evening by the pool, supping the local brew, nibbling oddly and amusingly name potato-based snacks. Oliver, our 16 year old budding Gerald Durrell, searched the grounds for lizards and snakes. Thankfully he returned empty handed.
Waking early next morning, The Incumbent and I prepared ourselves for a quiet cup of tea and a peaceful breakfast by the pool while the youngsters slept off the effects of a chlorine overdose. The sun was shining, the cockerels in the surrounding farms cock-a-doodle-did each other, and two long lines of ants were marching up and down the wall near barbie. Oh sod it. I looked more closely and the floor of the verandah was teeming with the little buggers.
These critters did not enjoy a long life, it seemed to me, as half of their number were already evidently dead. Perhaps they were a particular type of ‘one-day’ ants, I wondered to myself. It made no never mind, as no sooner did one snuff it on my patio, then he was replaced by a dozen others or more. Again I burst into action with my trusty dustpan and brush, but clearly I was going to need something more to combat the attacking forces. In any event, the neighbour’s garden was beginning to resemble an ant cemetery.
Once the kids had finally woken and had breakfast we attempted to press-gang them into the car for the short trip to the beach. Oliver had found a grasshopper and was studying it intently, ignoring our pleas to get in the car. The other three were moping about at the speed only teenagers and Jamaican beach coconut sellers have mastered. Why is it so hard to move kids anywhere? All they want to do is to lay down or sit on their arses wherever they are at that particular moment. You can promise them a beautiful beach, blazing hot sun, ice cream, watersports, even free money and they still want to stay in bed til way after the sun is over the yardarm. You also know that once you arrive they won’t want to leave, taking a good hour and a half to get packed and ready for the journey home. Anyway.
On arrival we set up camp under two sunshades and the four teenagers, showing a rare display of enthusiasm, scurried off to the water. Ah! peace again, we thought. I’d hardly had time to remove my socks and sandals before Tom (the eldest of the four kids) returned from whence he swame. He’d been stung by something which had left a watch-sized welt around his wrist, much to the amusement of Ollie the part-time botanist and full-time elder-brother-annoyer. While his mother was tending to Tom’s wounds, I walked down to the shore to check on the others. I made for a magnificent sight: the sun gleaming off my baldpatch, the sweat trickling down my pale hairy skin, creating a torrent between my moobs, my swimming shorts at half-mast out of respect to the ants who’d died that morning so that we might enjoy breakfast.
Like Daniel Craig‘s grandfather I waded thigh deep into the sea, egged on by the kids, two of whom were hiding their embarrassment rather well as they watched in horror as their father’s naked upper body wobbled towards them. I stood there for a second, letting the warm, invitingly blue Mediterranean waters lap gently up against my nadgers. 29 ½ inches below the surface, something was afoot.
No sooner had I plunged my shoulders beneath the waves when “Oh you little bast..OW!!” I cried (with all the dignity I could muster). I’d been stung too. Something had taken a shine to my instep and sunk it’s teeth/claws/tentacles into my foot. It wasn’t much more painful than a nettle sting, but it was a sting nevertheless. I retreated to the sandy shore, dragging my mutilated foot behind me, like a puppet on a string. The girls followed hastily, not wanting to join the victim list. Oliver went off diving to look for sea monsters.
As Tom and I compared wounds, a middle-aged, pink and plumpish woman laying on the lounger beside us sat up.
“Excause me, boot have yau been stoong”. Her accent told me she was from the midlands. That and the Aston Villa tattoo on her forearm.
“Er.. yes.. I think so” I replied.
“Jelleefeesh” she declared.”There were oondreds of jelleefeesh around ere yestardie, I got stoong on me leg, loook!” She showed us a long lesion running up the length on her inner thigh, stopping just below her gusset. It was a disturbing sight, for all manner of reasons. “I got some cream for it off the loifguard over therrr. Ee’s very noice.”
We turned to look at the lifeguard station, a sort of tennis umpire’s chair with a roof on. Flying above it was a red cross flag and a yellow one which we later discovered meant “swim with caution”. The loifguard, sorry lifeguard himself was at that moment hoisting a third which had a rather crude drawing of a jellyfish on it. After saying some rather crude words of my own, myself and The Incumbent went off in search of some jellyfish sting ointment. By the time we’d returned twenty minutes later, all four of the children were back on the beach, looking bored, cold, hungry or tired, or a combination of all four. We left.
By the time we got back to the villa, Ollie’s grasshopper was but a furry black ball on the patio.. The ants had got hold of it and were feasting their tiny choppers into the poor little sod. There were noises from over the hedge. A family had moved in and were mucking around in their pool. This caused much fascination and some rather obvious spying and snooping. “Chinese” said the girls. “Scottish” declared the boys. I couldn’t be arsed to adjudicate, they were simply referred to thereafter as the McWongs.
I ordered one and all to shower before anyone made a move for the pool. As I poured myself and The Incumbent a sharpener the girls rushed into the kitchen complaining that a column of ants had invaded their dressing table and were all over everything. I put down my beer and picked up the car keys. As I left the house to go find a supermarket to buy some ant repellent, I passed Oliver in the garden, playing with his latest find ; a large blue-black bug which was crawling up his arm. If I’d had the time I might have discovered it was a cockroach, but thankfully I didn’t have time and as far as I’m concerned it was nothing more than a stag beetle. Or something.
Don’t you love getting sprayed with someone else’s waste product when you’re standing at a urinal ? I know I do. I was standing at the trough the other evening, resplendent in my ever-present summer shorts, when a fella came into the pub toilet to begin his business. Now I don’t know what he produced from his fly (I’m far to polite to look) but by the feel of the mist that started to cover my right leg, I suspect it was some sort of steam lance.
He was presumably in a hurry to force it out and finish quickly as he started after and finished before me then returned to the bar before I had time to zip up. I stood there, thoroughly dejected with damp leg and one moist tennis shoe. If you think it’s tough washing your shin in a pub toilet basin, try cocking that leg up to the nozzle of the hand-drier, then come up with a plausible explanation as to what you’re doing to the next bloke that comes in for a pee.
I suppose I might have pointed out the error of his ways to my urinary assailant while he was imitating a garden sprinkler, but being a lover not a fighter I didn’t want to get into a fist fight with a man who not only was a good deal larger than me (in nearly every department) and who’s fist were covered in wee.
I should have asked him what he was up to for the net week as I could do with him in my garden. We’re off for a week, taking the herberts to Spain and I need someone to water the plants while I’m away. With a natural talent such as his, my chillies, carrots and peppers would be sure to get a good watering. As it is, I am relying on my parents to pop over and administer the watering can to the veg patch, and at least that way my produce won’t have a faint lager aftertaste.
So the annual trip with the four kids has arrived and, as usual, I’m pottering around Railway Cuttings making sure I have everything I will possibly need for the holiday, and all the time taking my mind off the fact I have to get on a plane in the morning (why is there always a plane crash somewhere in the world just before I go to Gatwick?).
At the moment, the suitcase list reads (in order of importance): Medical bag; loo roll; passport; tea bags; playing cards; cribbage board; iPod; reading matter; money (if applicable); TomTom; swim shorts and clothes.
You’ll notice I have not felt the need to include a Spanish phrase book. The kids tell me that at least two of them have a working knowledge of the language, but more importantly I fear that fluent cockney, brummie and scouse are the dominant languages where we’re going. I’m less likely to use “Dos cervezas, por favor” than I will “‘scuse me mate, can you shut the fuck up?”. I’m expecting to see many more signs for Ye Olde Red Lion than I will Vino y Tapas. Fish n chips and a cup of tea are likely to be the local delicacies, rather than chorizo, paella or Rioja.
Yes, the Inglés will be there in force and I thank the little baby Jesus that we have booked a villa and pool all to ourselves so I need be nowhere near them. Last year in Italy we stumbled across very few Brits and bloody marvellous it was too. I’m not sure we’ll be so lucky this time round. So the plan (well, my plan anyway) is to spend a goodly amount of time stocking up in the local supermarket then eating and drinking ourselves stupid around the pool. Give me a German, an Italian, a Frenchman or even a Spaniard to chat to at the bar and I’ll be as happy as Larry (depending on how happy Larry is, of course), but I find it hard to embrace my compatriots as they try to Anglicise the world. Maybe I’ll pretend to be Australian ? Maybe not.
If we do find ourselves outside the confines of our villa we shall be vigilant. The first sign of a pair of Union Jack shorts on the beach and we will retreat to base camp; any Barnsley bullshit that they “don’t do a decent pint of bitter over here” will result on us leaving the premises; 18-30 holiday rep organizing foreskin-drinking contests will be kept out of sight of the children and, more importantly, me. I have very low tolerance and embarrassment levels when it comes to the English abroad and look forward to avoiding any pink, tattooed nause from Nottingham holding court in a bar and giving us his thoughts on football or motor racing.
All that aside, I’m thoroughly looking forward a week with the kids and won’t let anything detract from it. Bring on the San Miguel, the gambas pil pil and the Tortillas. Bring on the large scotches in Gatwick and bring on a smooth and scream-free flight. At least there won’t be a bloke giving me a free shower in the plane’s khazi.
So I was worried about the flight, and I was worried about the drive across Italy. A little bit of me worried how I’d handle four kids for a week. But for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to be worried that we didn’t possess a map , a phrasebook or the minutest smattering of the language between us. Whether it was an oversight, what with everything we had to organise and fret about beforehand and all that; or whether my subconscious considered me far to wordly-wise to bother about not being understood I’m not sure. Anyway, we had the Tom Tom, right? Nothing goes wrong when you have a Tom Tom, does it? And this was, after all, an EU country where everyone spoke English, right? Wrong! This was a part of the EU where they had been mercifully ignored by plane-loads of Brits tearing up their towns and abusing their waiters. Sure there were always a few families passing through, but not enough for the indigenous population to feel the need to gen-up on the Oxford English Dictionary.
So, Ich nicht sprechen Italiano, je ne comprends your banter pas, old boy. By the way, can you tell me when the hell I am please, Signor Garcon? What a berk.
No matter, we picked up the motor at one of Rome’s airports (a battered and bruised Fiat Ulysses, prefect for our Odyssey, I thought) and sped east along the Autstrade. 17ks later we hit (almost literally) a string of Toll booths, stretched across the road. In a singularly British way I plumped for the wrong gate. I pressed the red button. Nothing. Pressed it again, still no ticket. Two cars had pulled up behind me. I started sweating-up in the paddock. I pressed the green button, next to the speaker. A conversation was had between 2 people who had no idea what the other was saying. The word “ticket” was the sole common denominator. Four cars behind me now, the third gave several honks on his Italian handbrake (his horn). I made the International Sign for bugger off, back-up, I’m coming out and they begrudgingly obliged and I reversed onto the hard shoulder. Somehow Italians can steer a car, press the horn AND wave both arms in the air all at the same time (yes, I know this sound like a stereotype, but it really is true).
I found a tall, imposing, para-military-type at the help desk, complete with mirror-shades and, dare-I-say, jackboots. He spoke very little English, so he had the jump on me. “Where you go?” he asked.
I’d forgotten where, indeed, I was going, so I picked a nearby city at random “Ancona” I replied. A puzzled look came across his face. Why would anyone want to go to that sh*t-hole?, he was thinking. Ah wait!: He’s English. He wrote several unconnected words in block capitals onto a scrap of paper and handed it to me.
“You no pay” he said. Then gesturing the International Sign for giving, said “you give this to Ancona”.
What he wrote I cared not one wit, as it was clear he was letting us through without charge. And away we went.
An hour down the road we approached a second set of tolls. This time I was determined not to embarrass myself as before. I chose the one with the International Sign for money above it. But there was no slot to insert neither coins, notes nor credit card. I started to panic again. Then a cardboard ticket spewed out of a hole just in front. In my haste I lunged at it, snatched at it and dropped it on the tarmac.
“Oh sod it ! Sorry kids” I exclaimed.
“Dad, Daaaaaad” yelled one from the back row of the car “it’s open!”.
I looked up to see the gate had indeed opened. WooHoo!!!, I had an escape route. I stuck her into what I hoped was something near 1st and released the clutch. We stalled. I’d stuck her into 5th. All week I would struggle and fail to find the right gear. Left-hand-drive motors call for right-hand gear-changing and I would discover that I was crap at it. I restarted the car, found 2nd-ish and we kangaroo-ed out of the trap.
Ninety minutes of scary motorway driving later and we’d reached our exit. Down the slip road, around the tight hairpin (5th instead of the desired 3rd gear) and up to our final toll booth. I pressed the green button. Nothing, but an LED message in Italian. What good was that to me? I pressed the green button instead.
“Si” came a woman’s voice after a short pause.
“Hello”, I said in my best David Niven, “do you speak English?
“Put in your ticket” she replied, by way of an affirmative.
“I don’t have a ticket”
“Put in your ticket”
“I’m sorry I don’t have a ticket”
“Put in your ticket”
“I don’t have a ticket, sorry. I have a piece of paper”, remembering Signor Jackboot’s gift to me earlier.
“One moment please” There was a pause of no more that 4 seconds.
The LED message changes from the unintelligible message to one I understood clearly. It was the International Sign for 75 Euros. Signora Tollbooth had suddenly gone mute. Hmmm… I knew I was stuffed. I hadn’t the command of the language to argue the toss, even if I had an argument. Two crisp 50 Euro notes were slid into the machine, the change was spat out into the tray bellow. I stuck her into reverse, then 3rd, then finally 1st and limped out under the open gate, my tailpipe between my legs.
“I bet they did that cos we were English” offered one of the small mammals in the back seat.
“Yeah” said another, “They hate the Brits” declared a third.
“Nope” I told them. “We didn’t have a ticket so they charged us for the whole length of the motorway. It’s fair enough. British Rail do similar. We’ll know better next time.” Famous last words.
On day 3 of our trip one of the lads and I parked outside what we took to be a supermarket, but which turned out to be a chemist. Exiting with what little we could find worth buying (Aftersun and loo roll) we noticed a parking ticket for 38 Euros slapped on the windscreen of the car. A tad miffed we yomped to the local Cop Shop. “Hello” I said (trying my Alan Whicker this time), handing him the Duty Sergeant the ticket,”do you speak English? ”
“A little” he smiled.
Sadly, he apparently knew only one English phrase: “Thirty-eight Euros”, he said, holding out his palm and making the International Sign for give me the money.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked
“Thirty-eight Euros” he grinned again. Hmmm…. we’ll know better next time.
Later, in a take-away restaurant I managed to order 6 whole pizzas when I wanted 6 slices. The kids were thrilled and chomped their way through the lot. When we finally found the supermarket I bought 12 litres of water which no-one would drink as it was of the fizzy variety and they’d “clearly asked for still, daaaad”.
Map-less, we managed not to find the biggest water-park in southern Europe, drove up two one-way streets and, on the home trip, spent ninety minutes looking at the airport from a distance of 700 yards while we encircled it trying to find a route in. When we finally did so, I drove into the wrong car park to return the car and had a fruitless two-language argument trying to get out of said car park to go find the proper one. This time the lady took pity on me and opened the gate for nix.
So would I go back? You bet. Apart from the odd jobsworth and copper, the Italians were a superb bunch. Most were very happy to help us through the language barrier, and keen to teach us the few words we needed to get by. Birra, Conto, Prego, Formaggio, Pomadoro and the like now seem second nature to me, which will be handy when I go to France tomorrow.
The weather was hot, and the birra cold. The region in which our villa was situated was absolutely beautiful, tiny little medaeval villages dotted around a stunning mountainous landscape. An hour down the road (take a map) is mile-upon-mile of beautiful, clean welcoming beaches, full of elegant,friendly locals, spectacular ice cream parlours and, according to the Incumbent’s 14-year-old boy, beautiful, topless, Italian women (though I never saw any, and if I did, I wasn’t staring, honest).
I’ve never stayed at a better appointed nor better situated villa than The Villa San Raffaello, run by Damien and Sharon, two charming Londoners (albeit, he’s a Gooner) who set up shop there five years ago. Plenty of room, a pool, tv etc etc etc everything a family would want, complete with hot n cold running vegetables and herbs from their gardens surrounding the dwelling. Stick yer straw hat on and play being Don Corleone among the tomato plants (though, hopefully without the final consequences). The vines mature next summer so there will be wine too (or vino, as we like to call it).
Driving through a neighbouring town one afternoon the driver of a parked car I was poodling past opened his door and sliced off my wing mirror. K-LUNK. I pulled in down the road, got out and trudged back to the scene of the accident. The man, elegant, middle-aged, grey hair, mahogany skin and perfect teeth, shirt open to the navel, stood there grinning at me, arms outstretched, palms pointing upwards, the International Sign for sorry mate, but what you gonna do?. I did the only thing I could: I taught him some Anglo Saxon words beginning with ‘F’ and ‘C’, picked up my ex-wing mirror and went back to the car.
Normandy tomorrow, courtesy of Mr Horrible‘s generous hospitality. Now French I’m good at. Cul de Sac, mon amis.