Friday, 23 December 2011

On the Lash in Genoa

An old chum from Blighty came out for a Christmas dinner and Genoa was chosen as the activity centre for the event. At one of (the several) bars that enjoyed our custom prior to sitting at table, the above moment of reasonably spontaneous dancing took place in a narrow alley, so typical of the old town, graffiti an' all. Wonderful. You wouldn't see that in Plymouth or Portsmouth I'd wager.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

My Italian Bank

Life in Italy is usually OK. Despite fragile governments, endemic corruption, a sclerotic and bloated public sector and undoubtedly the worst drivers in the world (Somalia and Burkina Faso included), there is a steady unchanging rhythm to life here that is in sharp contrast to the frenzied change that seems, to me at least, Blighty's hallmark.
But the banks. Oh, the bloody, sodding banks.
The first thing to understand is that, even by Italian standards, they are amongst the most unionised workforces in the land. They are unsackable. A teller can defraud a gentle, white-haired 91 year old widow of her life savings and the worst punishment they will receive is a transfer to another branch. You can tell it's unionised by the complete and utter lack of customer service. And the stupid opening hours. Monday, Tuesday and Friday 9.15 - 12.20 and 2.10 - 4.15; Wednesday and Thursday 8.50 - 12.00 and 1.55 - 4.05*
Let me tell you about yesterday. My bank card stopped working. I just couldn't get it into the sodding machine. The first hurdle is the bank entry system. Because tooled-up robbers are quite common in Italy there are some of the most astonishing door entry mechanisms. The one at my bank resembles something out of an early Star Trek episode, with a glass cylinder that swallows you up on the street and spits you out into the bank foyer.
I go to the Customer Service Counter, an oxymoron if ever there was one. No one there. I go to a teller. He is straining over an intermediate level Sudoku in the local paper. I stand there. He looks up. I can tell he is a filthy communist because he bristles at the sight of a well-fed customer who pays his bloody wages. Not a word of greeting. I explain my problem. He bristles further because it is even worse; I am a foreigner. Monosyllabically, he tells me to go back to the Customer Service counter. Behind a screen around the corner from the counter is the sound of stern, one-way conversation. I poke my head around. A young couple are staring with a mixture of fear and incomprehension at the Bank's Customer Service Manager who is in turn staring at me with a mixture of contempt and disbelief. I weakly wave my bank card in the air and try and explain the problem. "I shall be occupied here for at least half an hour." I see the young couple sag visibly, like animals taking a bullet. "I suggest you see a teller" "But he..." "Good afternoon."
I go back to the teller. There is now a 69 year ex-railway worker who retired 21 years ago trying to cash in some 1944 War Bonds he found in his great uncle's attic. After about twenty minutes it is my turn. The teller smirks as he tells me to go upstairs to see the other Customer Service representative. This has probably made his week, even although it is only Monday. He has won and what's better he knows that I know he has won. The ocean going bastard.
But this is big news! Ten years with this bank and I didn't know there was (a) an upstairs or (b) another person responsible for Customer Service. I go up the stairs in an almost jaunty manner, feeling I have been allowed into a special place.
It is another, surreal world up there, a series of modern, expensively-curtained offices with a monastery-like silence untainted by the sound of any labour. I find my target, one Signora Rivetti. She looks as it she could open a beer bottle at 20 yards just by looking at it. She happens to be on the telephone, talking about her sister's piles. I knock gingerly on the glass window. "Wait, please! No, those rubber rings are worse than useless. And I should know!" She motions me into her office. She has a big fluffy monkey fixed to the top of her computer screen. He is looking over his shoulder at me and smiling. I flick him a V just to let him know who's boss.
Twenty five minutes later I leave. She has scissored my old bank card, stapled it to a piece of paper and told me in no uncertain terms that I should have a new card in a week. If it doesn't arrive I am to ring and make an appointment and come back. In some manner that she can't possibly imagine I contrived to de-magnetise it, oaf that I am. I should ensure to keep the new one away from any sources of heat. I signed seven separate forms, some of them twice on the same page.
I leave the bank, ejected by the cylinder onto a damp, misty piazza. Somewhere nearby is the sound of laughter. I head for the nearest bar.

*except for the third Wednesday in every month when it closes at 3.00 for staff training

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Bar Basso, Milan

Meet Maurizio, the Anglophile owner of Bar Basso in Milan, one of the city's most traditional bars. He invented the Negroni Sbagliato in the 60s, replacing the standard measure of gin with Prosecco thus making it slightly less of an alcohol bomb. Needless to say I had a genuine Negroni, and it was superb. We had a chat, Maurizio and I, and I said I was from Devonshire and he said he liked to stay in Sidmouth. Sidmouth! Next to Budleigh Salterton it's probably the place I'd like to spend my last days in. Which may well not be that far off, if things carry on as they are. This is later on the same evening.
It's got to stop. I'm 57 FFS!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Great War

I've just finished reading Tommy by Richard Holmes, published by Harper Perennial. It tells the story of the British soldier on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is comprehensive but never boring. It tells of the (for us) unimaginable horror in an almost impersonal way, which somehow makes the words even more harrowing. But it is also packed with fascinating background material. Like how the army found itself so desperately short of horses in 1914 that they sent vets around the farms and smallholdings of Britain to requisition horses, many of which were more family pets than working animals. Off they were taken, the majority to die horribly in the Flanders mud. How the War saw previously unseen advances in medicine and the treatment of wounds. At the astonishment of hearing newly-arrived American soldiers describing Germans as "motherfucking cocksuckers", a particular lexical coupling that was entirely new to the average Tommy. Of particular interest is the issue (here used in its original sense if you please) of leave. Many soldiers found going on leave unpleasant and depressing, finding people in Blighty ignorant and dismissive of what was actually going on at the front ("What do you get up to in your spare time when you're not fighting? Go to a dance hall or the cinema?"), or that the pain of leaving their loved ones again was just not worth the candle, or actually missing the comradeship of the trench and returning to find out who had been killed or who had survived more important than being at home.
And then of course Armistice Day on November 11th 1918. In British cities it was marked with church bells pealing, with noisy celebrations and parties throughout the land.
The soldiers in France and Belgium noticed more than anything else the extraordinary, all-embracing silence, still to be found in the exquisitely tidy CWGC cemeteries, like the Guillemont Road Cemetery above, to be found near the Somme.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

God Spede the Plow

I was chatting to the horribly young Valerio after he had delivered our wood for the winter when he happened to point out that he and his brother were responsible for clearing the snow from our roads (see above, that is him last winter). "Lordy" I said, "what a wonderful job, all that power and effect, master of all that you see, clearing a path for us humble peasants" in effect the usual nonsense.
"Don't you believe it" he said, "it's a bag of shit" and this from an utterly charming young man to whom you would only be too glad to introduce your panting, hormone-crazed daughter.
"So what's the problem Valerio?" I asked tentatively, expecting another volley of foul language.
"It's the others" he replied, looking over his shoulder. "It's dog eat dog in this business. We get €24 for every kilometer we clear. There are 28 kilometers in your parish and that sounds a lot but if we hit an obstacle, given that half the time we can't see where the road is, that can damage the blade. It's all hydraulics you see. Expensive stuff. Chains for our tractor tyres cost a fortune and we have to have them because the hills are so steep. Then there are the other bastards, one evening last year I tried to start the tractor but it wouldn't go because someone had poured a load of sand into the fuel tank. They want to steal our business you see. I'll swing before anyone takes this work off me. Bastards, all of them"
By then his lip had started to quiver. I paid him for the wood and wished him well.
Serious stuff, being a snowplough driver.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A couple of pre-dinner drinks

Ah, the changing seasons of life. Once an aperitif was four pints of London Pride and two bags of KP Nuts.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Upside of a Drought

 For the first time EVER the seriously dry weather this year has meant that I have been able to get the three vegetable plots ploughed before the winter kicks in. The soil here is very heavy so once the rain (when oh when?) comes it is pretty unworkable until the spring and it dries out.
Anyhoo, my mate Alessandro pitched up with his trusty Fiat and a single share plough and got stuck in. An hour saw the job finished. I shall dress the plots with some serious manure in the spring and then harrow and Robert will be my father's brother. I vow that there will not be a repeat of this year's tomato nightmare.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Some Culture. For a Change.

Up to the pleasing bi-lingual town of Trento to sing a Mass at the Duomo with the choir. It's a good place to visit because it has the best of Italy (food, wine, architecture) and the best of Germany (people don't park on the pavements). On the Sunday we all went to the town's impressive castle, the (literally) Good Advice Castle. There was an exhibition on the trading and cultural relationship between the Med and the Alps, which wasn't as mind-numbingly dull as one might expect. At the entrance there was this chap, sorry it's a bit blurred. Now, that's a tummy!

On show were some wonderful pieces like this beautiful terracotta bust from the third century BC.
 And this exquisitely fine gold crown, made for a Gallic princess's funeral in the 4th century BC. She had three in her tomb near Ancona apparently, but the other two were lost. There are myrtleberries, flowers and leaves, all worked together. 
 And then just to reassure you lot that I haven't taken complete leave of my senses, this is a wonderful white wine that Bruno and I discovered in a bar in a small town on the way back home. Custoza is a blend of local whites from near Verona, there's usually some Trebbiano and Garganega along with whatever else they have to hand. Lip-smackingly good. Doubt if you'd find it in Blighty. The joy of Italy!

Monday, 12 September 2011

All Bunched Up

 As I may have posted before (and can't be bothered to check), grape picking is not some bucolic, idyllic pastime. It is backbreaking, hot, uncomfortable and seemingly without end. There are wasps and mosquitoes, the constant threat of the picker on the other side of the row of vines clipping off one of your pinkies with his/her secateurs as you both go for the same stem, bunches of grapes that don't hang down temptingly but have grown around one of the many training wires. And the heat, oh the bloody heat and the sweat.
 Anyhoo, we stopped for a a couple of rolls at lunchtime, our motley crew, Albanians, Italians and one extremely red-faced Brit. I ate one roll with salami and another with Parma ham and drank about a litre of sparkling water.
Bruna had the right idea 'though, perched in the shade of the tractor cab.
As you might imagine your correspondent will be paid in kind, not in cash.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Up in Them Hills

 Up to the mountains towards Austria, in the Trentino region, for another wine-fuelled choir party. Above is the hotel where Bruno and I stayed. Interesting place, the weather vane features a beer tankard.
 I don't know if you can see but the clock in the hotel bar shows 9.15 (in the morning of course) and there are already some hearty local types who have downed a couple of glasses of red wine to get the day off on the right foot. I feel almost ashamed to say that I had a coffee. Honest.
 At the party itself this demijohn holds 54 litres of Teroldego, a very quaffable local red. Bruno and I gave it our best shot. The pottery pitchers were a nice touch.
In this rather dramatic picture, the lady is firing up a small cigar. Brava!

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Joy of Travel

Sensible, relaxed Italy where one can still have a pleasing glass of Merlot at a motorway service station. Or a beer. Or a Grappa.
Maybe that's why Italy has some really sensational, extravagant multi-vehicle accidents on its autostrade.

Monday, 1 August 2011


I cannot remember a summer like this, in terms of the weather, which has been uniformly awful. But, remarkably, awful without a drop or rain. It's been dry with some serious gales which often saw the garden furniture sailing merrily over the fence. The tomato plants took a real hammering in a particularly bad rain-free tempest about six weeks ago and they've never really recovered. Once Italians used to compliment me on the size and abundance of my tomatoes. Now little groups of horribly-inbred wall-eyed locals stand just outside the gates, pointing at me and cackling with cruel humour at my discomfiture. I try and chase them away with comments like "Hey Benito, that's a nice tooth you've got" but they soon re-assemble and carry on with their gurning and grinning.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Dining Alone

 To Rome, on business. Above is the view from the Deputy Mayor's office. Then the joy of the expense account stopover. I left the hotel I was staying in near the huge central railway station, Roma Termini, and had a wander around some back streets. I came across this trattoria. The walls were covered with framed photographs of the well-fed owner with a series of B list Italian slebs. Perfect.
 A smooth, fruit-laden Sangiovese from Tuscany accompanied a bottle of sparkling mineral water and some decent nosh.
I do so enjoy eating alone, especially in large cities away from home. It's the anonymity I think. The pleasure is, of course, doubled when you can claim it back on exes.

Sunday, 17 July 2011


 To Asti to see Jethro Tull in concert. Ian Anderson is 64 and still does that one-legged flute solo thing. I read later that he is a millionaire. Not surprised frankly at €35 a ticket for a 90 minute open-air concert. Still the venue was pleasant, next to Asti's cathedral and it was interesting to feel one's ribcage and teeth vibrate to a bass line coming from a serious speaker some ten yards away. Aqualung was one of the first LPs I bought I think.
Jethro Tull is huge in Italy. There is even a fan club called The Tullians who follow them everywhere, superannuated old, skinny hippies with black headscarves, serious earrings and out-of-it eyes. When I was at St Custard's I packed in the violin and asked if I could learn to play the clarinet. The skool orchestra was without a flautist however so the (oddly) heterosexual music master cajoled me into taking up the damn thing. Dreadful instrument, nearly as useless as the harp. Anderson plays it very well however, I'll give him that. I think I'd have been much happier with the clarinet. Ah, all those lost opportunities.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Hotel Architecture

This is the remarkable lobby of a hotel I stayed in recently in Asti. It was pleasingly run-down. This picture I think makes it look better kept than it actually is. Presumably dating from 1970s (any ideas from the architecturally-minded?) the lobby's island feature really caught my eye. Someone has filled the base with that sort of white shredded plastic packaging material you find inside the box when you order an electronic item from Amazon. One of the half-dead pot plants has a faded red ribbon tied around it. The three distant guests marked the height of activity whilst I was there. Silence invariably reigned apart from an occasional trolley bag being dragged across the lobby by a weary sales representative heading for his dusty Fiat Croma and yet another meaningless appointment.

Monday, 4 July 2011

When Will It End?

Pretty bloody quickly if things carry on like this I think.

Friday, 1 July 2011

My mate Sid

I was clearing out the PH Memorial Shed in a rare burst of activity. There were a load of concrete bricks in one corner, damp from a gently leaking pipe. That corner was dark and as I got towards the bottom of the pile, puffing and panting in my ghastly late middle-aged way, I thought I saw something slither. I ran out squeaking, got a serious torch and went back. Yes, there was Sid all curled up amongst mice-chewed newspaper and all sorts of other unmentionable stuff. I would like to say that I was the one who captured him but I thought that it might be better to get someone who knows what a viper looks like. So along came Gianni and his wife Rosella and with a pair of barbecue tongs we got him in a large glass.
He was quite long and struck out a couple of times. After a lot of tooth sucking Gianni declared that this was not a viper but a bicha, a harmless mouse-eating snake (good for you Sid). So I gingerly let him go into the next field and off he slithered happy as Larry Sid.

We have a truly ignorant neighbour who claims on a regular basis to have killed vipers which is almost certainly bollocks. Another neighbour (89 year old Riccardo) has lived here all his life and says he has never seen one; he is probably right. Snakes are good for the countryside although that bloke in Blighty who was bitten by one of his King Cobras this week and then died may well have overstated his affection for them somewhat.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Uncle Hector's car

Some eleven years ago dear Uncle Hector drove back to his farm near Launceston in Cornwall (Cornovaglia in Italian, the only British county to have an Italian name) from a local Parish Council meeting, parked the car in the drive that leads down to the milking sheds and went inside, greeted Auntie Eileen, had a cup of tea, said he thought he'd go to bed, which he did and never got up again. Nice way to go really. Anyhoo, this is his car and it looks as if it has never been moved.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Blighty Today

Just back from a whirlwind visit to Devonshire to visit the last resting places of a variety of dead relatives, wonderful weather, gorgeous English countryside, great beer and wine and probably the best fish and chips I've ever eaten. Anyhoo, back in Italy where the weather is so British, damp and cold and miserable.
For reasons too complicated to go into here, I flew in and out of Birmingham and yesterday coming back it was almost deserted which was such an unexpected joy after the usual horrors of Gatwick or Thiefrow.
Some of you may be surprised that I did not take advantage of this heart-warming offer from the Yates's bar, but where is the indefinite article? It's Breakfast and a Pint.
God help us.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Tea Time

I have reverted (through a logistical cock-up) to leaf tea. And, whaddya know, it's better than tea bags. Still PG Tips of course but it's a nicer cuppa (or should that be mugga?). A proposito, do you like my new mug?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Only in Italy...

 ...and I believe in North Korea is there a functioning communist party. Actually this being Italy, there is more than one communist party, this lot being of the Leninist faction. I think the flags are quite striking.

This is their newspaper. Unreadably dull of course. Workers of the World Unite! it says.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Home Grown

Ron's freshly-picked asparagus, steamed and then half of them whizzed up to make the sauce, and some tips kept whole, served with pine nuts and decent olive oil and the whole delicious lot washed down with a juicy 13.5º Barbera d'Asti.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

You can laugh but...

..I rather like this. It's a tasting note written live as it were, as the writer was sipping the wine. Whether you think it's all bollocks or not, some of the words remind us how beautiful the English language can be. The writer, by the way, is a serious wine buff who knows his onions (as it were). And if you want a bottle, you can get some here. Cheapest price is £2,000 a bottle.

1985 La Tache; Grand Cru Monopole; Domaine de la Romanee-Conti: wild strawberry, plum, herbs, wood, charcoal, wood, cinnamon, raspberry, fresh, meaty, hugely complex. gamey, forest floor, wild blueberry, wonderful stuff, bonfire, chocolate, Asian spices, burnt matches, peat, cherry, minerals, iron, earth, hints of sous bois, blood orange, rosemary, thyme, oregano, eucalyptus, minty, but this kept developing in the glass, tannins have dropped away but it has a great backbone of acid, this will hold beautifully! Coffee, expresso. salt beef, salt, shitty, this just keeps changing. Sea air, asparagus, saline, vegetal, sea shore, sea shell, oyster sauce, milky, creamy, wet soil, lemon, grapefruit, sorbet, core of wild red fruit, wild raspberry and strawberry; molasses, superb depth, salt and pepper, fish and chip shop, beer batter, fresh plum, lemon, roses, rosebush, rose water, ethereal and deep, transcendental, pepperoni and chilli sauce, fish sauce, almonds, nettles, underbrush, grass, pollen, honey, dust, lifted but deep! WOW just wow! Blackberries, smoke, bonfire, wild raspberry, earth, cooked cranberry, this is the single greatest wine I have tried in my life! Fresher, lighter and more ethereal! Gunpowder, oxtail, cooked beef, cooked lemons, perfume, nail varnish but not in a bad way! Pork Crackling, so deep, so complex! Burnt fat; cooking oil, rubber, wax, maldon sea salt, squid, octopus, sea water, burnt raspberry, leather sofa, cigar, cigar box, almost like a Diplomaticos No. 2; fresh strawberry, bulls blood, absolutely brilliant, the best and most complex wine I have ever tasted! Wonderful texture! ******** [easily the longest tasting note I think I have ever written and the only guaranteed 8* wine!!!!!!!!!!].
A really brilliant wine that we thought would never show in the way it did with its poor levels and ashy, disintegrating cork! It was a revelation, and we even saw a beguiling peachy light in the Decanter. You just have to be sorry for any wine that had the pleasure of sharing the table with such a wine! Oh how I feel for that wine!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


The Intrepid One, on his return to Blighty from the war hell that is Libya, kindly left the Combo household a large tin of green tea, given to him by a Chinese worker he met at a drilling site in the desert. Rather surprisingly I've been drinking the stuff and yesterday evening went to get a spoonful when I noticed a small, sealed plastic bag at the bottom of the tin. The contents look interesting. What shall I do people, drink it or smoke it?

Re TIO and Mad Dog McClane: I cannot post on your blogs even though you are both Blogger, the format is different I think. Any ideas anyone?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Malvern Hills

This lot pitched up at the weekend. What's the collective noun for Morgans? A creak?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Sweet Expectation

Thought you might like to see some genuine in-class Italian graffiti:
There is a scrawl in this one below that says "our mission is perversion" and a broken heart below. Elsewhere, not visible, is "Sesso senza amore" - "sex without love".
Rather worryingly this is in a classroom where the pupil age is 14. Presumably they're all at it like rabbits, except for the plug ugly ones of course. Interestingly, teenage pregnancies here are almost unheard of. There was a Peruvian girl in the local village who got knocked up at the age of 14 by an Albanian lad but she was whisked off, never to be seen again. Maybe here in Italy sex and love do go hand in hand when you are a young teen, but I'm too old (damn! damn!) to find out. In Blighty you are (I think this is going to sound very 1960s) either in the family way or you have a bun in the oven or you are up the duff. There's probably a lot worse too now. 
In Italy they say the woman is in dolce attesa, sweet expectation.
Says it all really.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Getting Stuffed

This was the snack table at a friend's house whilst we all watched England getting stuffed by Ireland on Saturday. The Italians loved watching my despair.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

That's It Then

Bloody bugger. Spring's here. So that's it then.
All that delicious abdication of responsibility for the outdoors that goes hand in hand with winter is finished.
Those 11 acres* will need sorting, ploughing, harrowing, seeding, planting, cutting, taking care of....oh my God I think I need a drink.

* Outrageous overstatement. I only have to till and tend one acre. The other ten can sod off.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Local Railways

Italy had the great fortune never to have enjoyed the attention of a Dr Beeching as did Blighty in the 60s. The Italian railway network is still largely intact and branch lines still exist. Maybe there's only a couple of trains a day, the stations are unstaffed, the ticket machines don't work and the waiting room no longer has old vine cuttings glowing faintly in the hearth but most stations are still extant. I came across this little gem the other day. Cesare Pavese wrote La Luna e i Falò (The Moon and the Bonfires) in 1949 just before he topped himself* at the age of 41. This station is near his birthplace so the plaque has a line from the book which, badly translated, reads: "Through the peach orchards I could hear the train arriving and filling the valley...".

*He was a Communist so I can see his point. If he'd have hung on for a while he'd have eventually seen the light, become a Conservative, jetted around the world for Champagne-assisted book launches, had it off with Sophia Loren and got hammered regularly on decent Italian red wine.

Monday, 28 February 2011

My Grappa Heaven

 To just north of Venice at the weekend to go to a wine tasting at Smooth Tony's. On the way Bruno and I stopped off here, at Nardini's Distillery Tap in the historic town of Bassano del Grappa, so you get the idea of this town's principal business. The firm is still family owned and run of course, no stock market quotation or selling out for lots of wonga to some French luxury goods conglomerate here, this is Italy not Blighty after all. All the bottles in the bar are of different types of grappa and they don't sell anything else.

 It was packed at four in the afternoon, with people enjoying a range of different grappa-based snifters.
This is the view from one side of the bar of the historic bridge, that's if you can still have the power of vision of course.
And this is the view from the other side. Not bad eh?
Bruno and I started with some serious 50º grappas and then moved on to their Tagliatella which is a grappa-based liqueur and difficult to find outside of the Veneto region. Then we saw some people knocking these back so we had one each.
They're called cinquanta-cinquanta (50/50) and we never found out what the make-up was as we seemed to have mislaid the power of speech. But long live Nardini and Italian tradition!