A Random Act of Kindness

It was the usual last minute rush to set off for the train. Was the heating off? Had we let the neighbours know? All was well (we thought) as we trundled along pulling cases to the metro station with well over half an hour to spare before the train to King’s Cross. A metro train was just pulling out as we reached the station. Then we read the sign. Industrial action! There wouldn’t be another train for 25 minutes, which meant we’d miss our London train. We started moaning and wondering what to do. I pressed the help button for a taxi but there was no reply.

Then a fellow passenger approached us.

”I have a car just on the next street,” she said. “I could run you to Central Station.”

Thinking it would be quicker, we ran after her, but lost her so returned to the metro station. Luckily she also had returned, but with her car. We dived in and zoomed off to the city centre where the traffic was frustratingly slow. Our Good Samaritan dropped us off a street away and it was already departure time, but as luck would have it, our train was running 5 minutes late. I rushed over the bridge intending to keep the doors open, struggling with luggage. It worked! As soon as we both got on, the doors closed and we walked through half the train to find our seats, dripping with sweat.

I tried to remember the name of the kind woman who had made it possible, but because of all the anxiety, all I could remember was the street and the fact that her house had a red door.

Once home again, I set about detective work to find our saviour. It took two afternoons of ringing bells on every red door, but with only two doors to go, there she was. She recently came for coffee and we have become the best of friends.

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Grandma saved by Grammar!

A couple of days ago my niece Amy, who lives in Australia, let me know that someone purporting to be me had sent a message via Facebook. It was asking for funds urgently and seemed genuine because it had lots of information about my family. However, the sensible girl immediately knew it wasn’t me because she said there were several mistakes in the grammar and I would never do that, even in an emergency!

I have since changed my password, and had a message from Facebook to say someone in the USA had tried to use my account. I think I can live without such intrusion into my life, so I won’t put out any more messages, and may also close my account.

(By the way, I have neglected my blog of late because of a long and fantastic stay in Japan. I might add one or two thoughts about the trip soon.)

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Celebrating the life of an old friend

The leaves are just turning this autumn in Italy, but with the sun shining, there was a steady procession through the village, over the canal to the old church for a commemoration of the life of a distinguished local man, Riccardo Pergolis, Professor of English-Italian translation. The church was packed, and there were three distinct elements to the service. His talents were not only as a linguist (represented by me, with a short talk in Italian and reading a poem in English) but as a builder of boats and a yachtsman, and a musician and maker of  harpsichords. A choir had come from Geneva, and sang a mixture of sacred and traditional folk music.

It was dark when we came out of the church, but we were all uplifted by the service, and walked along to the village hall where a typically Italian enormous feast had been prepared for 100+ people. We drank Serprino (upmarket Prosecco) and helped by the choir, sang as we chatted and sampled the local delicacies.

Some would call it networking. I’d say good fellowship, something that Italy does better than anywhere else I know.

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La Vendemmia: Harvesting prosecco grapes

It’s  September and wherever you go the roads are full of tractors with trailers full to overflowing with grapes.

I arrived at 8am, equipped myself with a wheelbarrow, a plastic bucket, plastic gloves and a pair of secateurs, and set off for the nearest rows of prosecco grapes. The variety is called ‘glera’ and they are tiny sweet grapes which hang in abundant golden chandeliers. This is one of the reasons prosecco is so cheap to produce. A glera vine can yield up to 4 times more grapes than other varieties. The other reason is that they can be gathered by machine, but the last two vines on each row have to be hand picked because that is the turning point for the machine.

We picked all morning in hot sunshine and I was relieved when lunch time came and we all retreated to the farm yard where a long table was laid for 35 people. It was a fabulous meal, with of course lots of wine, followed by music, singing and dancing (accompanied by an accordion).

Not much picking went on in the afternoon, but we chatted and sang along the rows for a couple more hours before drifting home in the sunset. I’m now stiff and tired, but I have ensured that next year’s supply of prosecco will be available!

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The Phenomenon of the ‘Dinner in White’

It seems that all over Italy there are glamorous picnics being organised for balmy summer evenings where everyone wears white and brings food to share. (Nobody explained why it has to be a cena in bianco -dinner in white.) But this is no ordinary picnic. You book in advance because the local community provides tables and chairs (and even sprays the park so that there are no mosquitos) and people bring tablecloths, napkins, different glasses for different wines, candelabras, best china plates, cushions, a vase of flowers as a table decoration,  baskets of fruit…

This civilised scene is enhanced by classical music playing in the background.

On this occasion the music was stopped by an announcement that when the meal was over, we all had to follow a path lit by candles to the other end of the park where we would have an explanation of the sky and its stars that night. (Most people had brought mats so that they could lie down and observe in comfort.)

Of course the talk was in rapid Italian, so after a while we slipped away, only to find that the candles along the path had gone out and we nearly fell in the stream.

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Keeping Cool in the Furnace that is an Italian Summer

In my last post I wrote about the dreadful grey weather in Italy, but now it is the opposite and the question is always how to keep cool. In fact, for the first time ever, I’m quite looking forward to returning to England’s unpredictable but pleasant temperatures.

It has been hovering around 40 degrees for two weeks now, and we creep around on the shady side of the street to do the shopping, then return to drink gallons of water.

The air conditioning in the flat is having to work too hard and is inefficient, and the three fans help, but it isn’t’t comfortable, especially for sleeping.

Luckily, during the day we can go to the luxury pool at Lispida Castle which the owner said we could use in return for an article I wrote. The trouble is, and I shouldn’t grumble, that this pool, like all the pools in the area, is thermal and at the moment it’s simply too warm: like swimming in bath water. Friends stayed in a nearby hotel which has two pools, one of which has diluted its thermal water with cold, so that at least was enjoyable.

The other solution is to drive up into the hills where there is often a breeze. If we take books and sit under a parasol in a cafe the afternoon can pass pleasantly. Il Rifugio on Monte Rua was particularly nice.

My favourite place to sit and read is the villa dei Vescovi. There you can sit in the loggia pretending to be an aristocrat and read with a superb view, and there are two further advantages. It’s free to holders of a National Trust card, and hardly anyone visits so that you can have this beautiful place to yourself.

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A Dismal May in Italy

The first of May was a miracle in retrospect because it was warm and sunny all day. That meant that my little stall of Cose Inglesi did good business and I enjoyed myself for a full 12 hours chatting and selling all sorts of things from marmalade to teapots, fish knives and forks to horse brasses.

Ever since then, the weather has been dull, depressing and damp. The locals are still dressed in their winter uniform of black and more black, and not venturing out of doors apart from to go shopping. Everyone is complaining, not remembering that in March they all complained that we needed more rain.

Not anticipating this gloom, we only brought summer clothes, and are now compromising with layers of shirts and cardigans. I only have one pair of shoes amongst the 6 pairs of sandals, and my thin raincoat doesn’t feel adequate.

What do you do in Italy when the weather is bad? Eat well! We keep on discovering new places to eat in the hills, family owned, full of atmosphere and great value. The latest is Da Nicola, improbably about a mile along a quiet narrow canal tow path, but an enormous barn conversion with seating for over a hundred people. We had their lunch time special at €13 including wine water and coffee and it was superb.

Conclusion? Even in poor weather life here in Italy is great!

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The Long Drive to Italy 2019

Over recent years it has saddened me to see how much the rural France I loved has grown shabbier and more abandoned. We drove though mile upon mile of La France Profonde where there were old agricultural buildings with collapsed roofs, more empty cottages for sale than lived in, and the vital shops which keep villages alive all closed.

We had chosen to spend the first night in St Mihiel in the Vosges because I had read about a wonderful piece of sculpture by Richier in a church there. I had also found a beautiful art nouveau B&B there so we had lots to look forward to. The house was indeed a treasure, but the taste of the new owners left much to be desired. There were some good pieces of original furniture, but the purple wall panels, festoons of drapery and weird light fittings didn’t do justice to the lovely rooms. Worst of all, the house felt very cold. There only seemed to be one place open for an evening meal, but luckily the Lion d’Or Pizzeria served unpretentious good food.

By contrast the next night at Weil am Rhein was comfortable and enjoyable. That location was chosen because it’s the home of the German Design Museum, which of course we visited, but I have to say, it reminded me more of a visit to Ikea. The hotel, called Ott’s, provided us with a great room and meal, as well as an excellent breakfast.

Then it was a slow drive to Bavaria on ordinary roads with views of the Alps. In Obammergau we found ourselves surrounded by shops selling wooden figures and cuckoo clocks, and after heavy German food, amazingly found a Chinese restaurant where we enjoyed crispy duck instead of sauerkraut.

As I write, we have the last day’s drive ahead of us, over the Brenner Pass and towards Verona. It will be good to be ‘home’ again, especially since this will probably be our last drive all the way there. Having had a horrendous accident on an Italian motorway 2 years ago, this long drive now seems too stressful. But we’ll enjoy the views today, and hope to get there safely with all the ‘Cose Inglesi’ safely packed in the boot ready for the market on May 1st.

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A Pirates’ Den in an Italian Village

Having been away from Italy for the whole of winter, it was a pleasure to return to familiar haunts. We swept up the accumulated drifts of dead insects and cobwebs, noting with relief that  the flat had survived another winter, and set off to see if anything had changed in the village.

Sadly, family run businesses continue to close, but one green grocer’s shop has now been taken over by two sisters and turned into a trattoria. Naturally we had to give it a try. It seems that the noisy drinking crowd from the wine bar on our corner, which had closed, had decamped to the bar in this trattoria, so it was busy with a lot of familiar figures as well as some new ones. These newcomers looked like a bunch of pirates, wearing exotic printed scarves around their heads and all of them with earrings and wide boots. Just to add a final touch of authenticity, the lively group sitting at the table next to us had a parrot with them. It perched on their shoulders, or on chairs. As it was on a lead, it also went for little walks across the floor. As far as I know, it doesn’t speak Italian or anything else, but it does offer baci (kisses) which I declined.

The food, incidentally, was very good, and great value. My tortellini stuffed with cream cheese and wild herbs in a walnut sauce was scrumptious! My minder had roast pheasant, what appeared to be the whole bird, so we took the remains back with us to make an excellent risotto the following day.

Life in Italy continues to be full of surprises.

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The prototype for Sir Les Patterson?

During a recent visit to see my sister in Australia, she announced that we were going to the Blue Mountains to stay in an old colonial hotel, the Carrington, in a time warp of Edwardian stained glass and heavy brown furniture. It was a delight. In the heat of February we had afternoon tea indoors rather than on the verandah, and were entertained whilst eating our sandwiches, scones and cakes, by a pianist who looked strangely familiar. At the grand piano sat a rather scruffy individual in a very stained suit, his tie covered with the remains of many meals. He smiled, to reveal buck teeth, and his shoulders were decorated with drifts of dandruff. The crowning touch, on closer inspection, was a distinct whiff of something unpleasant.

His repertoire was amazing. He knew songs from the great days of musicals, the classics from Mozart and Chopin to great opera arias, and would play requests of anything from any era.

The sniggering as we compared him with the great character created by Barry Humphries, Sir Les Patterson, ‘Australian Cultural Attaché’, gave way to admiration. He was a modest kindly man who had seen better times. Could Barry Humphries have been inspired by him to create his memorably odious character? We could hardly ask!

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