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.