Archive for October, 2010

Piccolo Napoli (part 2)

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2010 by cockroach1

There was a worrying gaggle of backpackers outside the place, all clutching guide books thumbed open to a certain page. That didn’t bode so well.

‘He said it’s the best and cheapest pizzeria in Naples…’ the Incredible Ponce shrugged, and elbowed his way through the stragglers to ask how do you get a table, do you stand around and wait to be called in, should you come back in half an hour, do you leave a name or what? Apparently you left your name and they called you, and it would only be five or ten minutes’ wait.

‘Want to go somewhere else?’ he asked, as he sparked up a cigarette on the doorstep.

‘No, it’s ok, let’s wait, if he said it’s this one, then it’s worth waiting for, I should think. And all these people….’

‘Yeah, all these people…’ he muttered, the cigarette clenched between his teeth. ‘I don’t like so many er… tourists… know what I mean? That means it’s probably in some guide book, and it’s shit. It should be full of Neapolitans, then I’d be a bit more excited.’

‘Mm-Hmm. Well, let’s see.’

‘I’ve had a look at the menu. There are only two types of pizza: Margarita and Marinara. That’s no mozzarella. I’d order the Margarita.’

‘You’re the boss.’

In theory I approved of the spit and sawdust décor, the white tiling, the paper tablecloths and the choice of two pizzas. It seemed awfully French, and showed a lot of confidence. As my brother is fond of saying, he loves any unpretentious bistro that tells you what you will be eating today. I approved of our tiny table tucked next to the kitchen door, where we could watch the industrious to-ing and fro-ing of the white-jacketed waiters, spinning on their heels and wielding pizza after pizza. I liked the tarnished mirror on the wall, the framed newspaper clippings and the old, old photograph of the original Michele, smiling proudly in front of his restaurant. It’s just that the pizza, for me, wasn’t all that great. I prefer dry, thin-crust pizzas, which I’d eaten in Puglia and sometimes in the North. The outer edge was great, the topping was okay, the flavours all right, but it still sagged damply in the middle, like a wet sock. I ate it and said nothing.

‘Huh. Had better.’ The verdict was delivered when the Ponce had finished. ‘Somebody’s got lazy because they’re in the guide books now. Probably used to be fantastic pizza, but look at the number of people they’re serving. I think they’ve gone off the boil. Tourists…. spoil everything.’

After lunch we headed back into the old centre again for some more exploring.  There was graffiti everywhere, on dank walls next to alleyways tall and skinny like models, threaded with the infamous washing and crazy cables. ‘Hands on the pieta!’ read one illustration of a priest with his hands raised high, stick ‘em up fashion. By inference hands off our children. There was a prolific grafitti artist called Diego Miedo, (Jimmy Fear) who’d left the city strewn with naked, cubist figures and faces, and a series of rocket-propelled penises flying off walls, round corners, up doorways and down side streets.

The children of Naples were fascinating. Older than their apparent years, knowing in a way that was disquieting, or perhaps simply ‘chulo’ which translates as ‘cocky, flashy, nervy, a pimp’, and in Colombian Spanish as ‘a black vulture’.  All of the above could have applied. Not only to the seven year old moped drivers, pumped up and alert, but also to the street kids, who apparently unaccompanied, roamed the alleyways and main thoroughfares. Sitting at a café table as the hectic, sleazy world went about its business, we watched two boys and a girl. Ridiculously grown up and romantic, the two attractive children walked hand in hand beside their overweight, mean-spirited friend. They gazed into each other’s eyes. She even clutched a rose in her other hand, was a pretty gamine thing with straggly hair, in a slip and miniature heels. Her ‘husband’ steered her gallantly through the crowds, while the fat kid strutted resentfully, catching my eye and tipping a can of Pepsi over on the table next to us, turning with a satisfied shrug, a clear ‘screw you’, to watch the can spill its contents across the plastic table top and roll onto the pavement.

A woman pushed a pram decorated with all the reserve of a gypsy caravan, a baby as round and plump as a dough ball nestling somewhere inside the frilly confection of white lace studded with pink flowers. It was a slice of wedding cake on wheels. Later we passed her again, paused behind glass in a bakery. Surrounded by all those cakes and truffles, nothing but ribbons, fluff and flowers. The baby was gift-wrapped, warm as toast and all plumped up nicely ready to be served. An ice cream stall with its shutter down but a technicolor poster of a boy devouring a multi-coloured ice cream, burying his face in it, one eye squinting manically out at you, malice in his appetite.  A chubby man with a greasy look about his chops clambered off a bike and hustled into the crowd, wearing a greying t-shirt with the slogan ‘God’s gift’ on the front.

A moped skidded past us out of a narrow alleyway as we queued later at a street stall, to buy pastries. The woman swiveled off the back of the bike, standing with her hips thrust provocatively, her chest out like a drill seargent. She had glossy black hair and was painted like Cleopatra, a pouting, wet mouth and her eyes so overdone they stared out of her head with the intensity of a freshly-heckled drag queen. Her boyfriend was cadaverously thin with sunken knife-ish cheeks and sinewy hands. He was a caricature of a seedy backstreet hustler, dressed in tight-fitting trousers and winkle pickers, wearing a rakish cloth cap on top of hair greased down close to his head. A bent old lady scuttled past us and up an alleyway like a startled crab skittering up the contours of a rock.

‘Ha. The lookout.’ said the Ponce. ‘Did you see the other guy go up there just before? To score smack? Granny’s the lookout, waits on the street till the deal’s finished, ‘case the cops come. Being nosy and that, watching everybody, everybody expects old ladies to be nosy, don’t they? That’s Neapolitans for you! Got to hand it to them.’

‘This place is freaky.’

‘See? I knew you’d like it.’






Piccolo Napoli (Part 1)

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by cockroach1

Places, like people, have a reputation to live up to, some more colourful than others. They can disappoint you when you actually visit them, or they can be exactly as you imagined them to be. Naples is one of those places that has quite a reputation. Think of Naples and you probably think of pizza, pickpockets, Neaoplitan songs, mopeds and maybe ice cream. A few years ago, I was working as a tour manager and accompanying a group in Tuscany, staying in a very chi-chi little hotel in a seaside resort full of Russian oligarchs. I was informed by its owner, an eccentric, opinionated and slightly mad hotelier, that I should go upstairs and have a look at his terrace, his lovely, elegant terrace above the entrance of the hotel. He had given the upstairs room to two elderly brothers from Manchester. I took the lift up to their floor and stuck my head out of the window to look. They had rigged up various washing lines, and hand-washed pants and vests, towels, socks, t-shirts and cotton handkerchiefs were strung all along the terrace to dry, like faded bunting.

‘Piccolo Napoli!’ exclaimed the hotel owner,, shaking his head in disgust behind the reception desk, when I came back down. ‘Little Naples, they’ve turned my beautiful hotel into a Little Naples!’

The day we went down to Naples had already taken a vaguely comical turn by mid morning coffee. Federico accompanied us to Sperlonga before heading back to Rome while we caught the train. We had a little free time and decided to go for coffee and croissants. As we crossed the road to go into a café, the Ponce stopped a man on the street to ask him directions to the nearest cashpoint. After they had chatted amiably for a minute and he had given us directions, the man, who was grey-haired, stout and smartly dressed, embellished his goodbyes, as if he had a God-given right to comment, with,

‘And why don’t you sort your hair out, eh? Get a serious haircut? I mean, what is going on there? Call that a haircut?’

As Federico dropped us off at the station he called out to the Ponce through the little dusty window of the canary yellow car,

‘Have a good time. And make sure you don’t miss the night train! You know what you’re like!….’

‘Miss the train?’ I scoffed, ‘He’s travelling with me now, there won’t be any trains missed. I’m an ex tour manager, and I’m English, for God’s sake! I don’t miss trains.’

Coincidentally I was to spend much of our time in Naples eating, stuffing local delicacies into my face. But my words were the least appetising thing I was to eat later that day.

On arrival in Naples we left our small bags at the left luggage in the station, a prefab hut with a roll-down metal front, manned by a short wiry man with a big moustache. The Ponce’s mother, on the telephone that morning had warned him yet again,

‘Be careful there, be really careful, both of you. And don’t eat the whole of Naples!’

I had been clever, oh yes, no moped-riding, bag-snatching hustler was going to drag me along the pavement by my bag strap. I had stuffed my handbag into my hand luggage, and was only carrying my mobile, passport, and cash. Everything else was in the bag safely locked in the station. I had worn utility Capri pants with various buttoned pockets up and down the legs, so had no need of a handbag.  My hands felt unusually empty, my pockets heavy.  The rest of the day I spent patting my pockets automatically at regular intervals to check the buttons were still done up, like someone absent-minded searching about her person for her keys. There is a joke about someone asking an Argentinian if he has a light, and he starts patting himself up and down, searching his pockets and person in great detail, until he eventually says,

‘No, lo siento, no tengo fuego….. pero que bueno que soy!’ (No, sorry, haven’t got a light, but… my God, I’m fit!…..’

Our loins girded, the Ponce and I struck off for the centre of town. The first thing I saw on leaving the station was a group of swarthy young men, one of whom caught my eye and held it with what could have been arrogance, aggression, lust, naked curiosity or a combination of the four. Either way I thought –I’m going to like it here. I like anywhere where people stare at you. To look is human. People used to stare at me all the time in Madrid, a full radiography from head to toe. Nowadays they don’t do it, or I don’t notice any more. This could be because people or social mores have changed and Madrid is becoming more cosmopolitan, and it’s considered rude to stare, or it could be because I’ve changed, a woman of a certain age slipping through the cracks of society to become almost invisible.

‘Hello…..’ said the Ponce, ‘did you see him? Pretty fit.’

‘I saw him.’

‘The men in Naples are to die for. Dark skin and green eyes, or pale blue eyes. Beautiful. Hung like donkeys as well, from my limited experience.’

‘Shame I’m with you, then. If I give you ten euros will you bugger off to the cinema and I’ll meet you later at the station?….’

Wide, traffic-clogged avenues became narrow, moped-clogged streets, winding round and round, punctuated with piazzas and churches. Roads snaked uphill then down again; there seemed to be steep streets everywhere but you never really arrived uphill. People scuttled by and mopeds weaved in and out of the pedestrians. Nobody was going anywhere slowly; everybody seemed to be in an almighty rush. I stepped off the pavement to cross the road and the Ponce grabbed my arm in a chivalrous fashion and told me,

‘Listen, you have to be really careful of the traffic here. In Naples they’ll run you over then come back and resuscitate you so they can run you over again and kill your mortal soul as well, just to make sure. So be careful.’ We forged on, further and further into the dark heart of the city.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

‘I dunno, think this is Baby Jesus Street or something, Or Jesus and Mary Street, something like that.’

‘Oh, wait, look at this!’ In a glassed-in niche between the shops there was a plaster figure of Padre Pio. Padre (Father) Pio, as far as I can tell, is Italy’s favourite and most ubiquitous saint. Images of him abound everywhere- smiling down, dangling from taxi front view mirrors, from key-chains and postcard stalls, glimpsed when wallets or front doors are opened, on café walls above the till, in corporate offices behind the boss’s desk, in police station waiting rooms and hospitals. But this was more than an image, it was a plaster figurine, and had to be investigated for its kitschness We approached to take a closer look. Inside the little glass house there was a vase of plastic flowers, dwarfing Padre Pio and his companion, a virgin with bowed head, wearing traditional blue and white. There was something about the tacky, shabby scene made of plaster of Paris, primary-coloured paints and plastic that reminded me of real dolls, of the little houses you used to decorate for Barbie and Ken, or in our case Cindy and her boyfriend whose name has been long forgotten. But on looking up and seeing the shop on the other side of the road Padre Pio was forgotten in an instant.

‘What the- No….. You have got to be kidding me. No way!’ We bolted across the narrow street and pressed our noses up against the window of the shop opposite.

I may have mentioned before that there were some quintessential and just plain weird images during our trip to Italy. This was the One. This was the one I will never forget. In the shop, one of those religious suppliers that sells ecclesiastical robes, candles, imagery and paraphernalia, standing before us was a statue of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. During the flight to Rome from Madrid, with one of the economy airlines, the Ponce and I had started a standing joke about perception and size, repeatedly referring to the thumbnail-high cans of Pepsi, Fanta and tonic water in the in flight brochure with ‘depicts actual size’. (Have you seen how small they are? And they look just like normal cans in the pictures when they’re photographed next to equally tricksy tiny packets of crisps!)

‘That’s larger than life-size, isn’t it? I mean, she was a midget?’ he asked, his breath steaming up the window of the shop, which was, thankfully, closed for lunch.

‘’Kin ’Ell….’ Was all I was able to reply.

He was right, the statue was larger than life, and surprisingly straight-backed and youthful. She was standing holding hands with three children, in a circle, in a ring, and they were all dancing. Yes, dancing. The whole statue must have been two metres across; it was big enough to house a tall virgin statue in the middle like a maypole.

‘But where would you have a statue like that? Under what circumstances….?’

‘A School…. A hospital…..’


He was there too, and Padre Pio, and plaster-cast cherubs, and the Pope. But the old one, not the new one, presumably because everyone liked him more as he had a nicer face, and wasn’t a paedophile-loving ex nazi. They were all there in white looking out straight at us, rigidly posed with arms outstretched to bless us, or folded in prayer, or interlinked with the children, or stretched across the beam of a crucifix, all of them with strangely blank and badly-executed expressions, whether they be grinning, contemplative, or crumpled in agony. The effect was creepy-kitch and delicious. We left Little Shop of Horrors but its wares stayed in my mind for the rest of the day, and at regular intervals one of us would shake our heads and mutter,

‘A larger than life statue of Mother Teresa… holding hands and dancing in a circle with children…’

We spent another couple of hours wandering around until it was time for lunch, which we had planned meticulously well before the trip. In Naples, you must eat pizza, there is no other option than to try it, as this is, after all, its birthplace. We had the address, via a Neapolitan friend of the Ponce’s, of the best pizzeria in Naples, which was also very reasonably priced, apparently. But before lunch there was time for more people-watching. There were people everywhere, rushing around on foot or on the crazy mopeds that weaved in and out of the pedestrian traffic. I could see why a moped would be a great form of transport here. If you are born in Naples, you must automatically know how to ride one, perhaps it is genetically programmed into you, or it could be historical memory passed down through the generations.  Or it could be the fact that the term ‘underage driver’ means nothing here, and they start learning young. I gasped, and had I been Catholic I would have crossed myself, as a man drove past us, driving with one arm, a fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and a two or three month old baby nestling in the crook of his other arm. Vespas screeched and honked past us, often with three, four, and the highest number we counted: five people astride them. It was like some kind of bad joke about elephants and phone boxes. Yes, it’s possible for at least five people to fit on a ‘moto’. And we’re not talking five anorexics either. Some of the vehicles appeared to be transporting entire families: huge, lard-arsed, gypsy-style women bursting out of their clothing, auntie on the back, mum in front with an infant in her arms, a lanky teenager squished in between them, and a boy no older than seven standing on the front board steering. Practically driving it.

The other common sight in Naples are nuns and monks. Being anglo-saxon I find it hard to take them seriously, to me they look like extras from a film about  the Middle Ages, or punters on their way to some drunken Saturday night fancy dress party. But here they were, hurrying all over the city as if they owned it, scuttling like ants around an anthill. The first time our path was crossed by a nun, the Ponce slapped me on the arm playfully and declared,



‘Yours! And you can’t pass it back.’


‘If you see a nun or a monk, we have a saying in Italy, that it’s bad luck, so the first one to see it has to say ‘yours!’  And if you say ‘no passing it back’ then you can’t pass it back to me. If I don’t say it, then you can hit me back and the nun’s mine again.’

‘Does it matter what colour they are? Brown ones, grey ones, black, you know… any of them worth extra points?’

‘Yeah, the ones in black, they’re reeeaaaally bad luck.’

I wasn’t sure if this was one of his Calabrian quirks or if it applied to the whole of the country, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that we spent the rest of our stay in the country pelting each other every time a member of the religious orders walked by, and I won several points about half an hour later when a small car cut across our path bearing three nuns, one of them in black.

‘Yours, your, and yours, and no passing them back!’ I exclaimed triumphantly, triple-slapping him on the arm. Oh, we had such fun….


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2010 by cockroach1

There was an old and moderately depressed dog, well past its prime, tired and fed up. When you called it, or slapped your knee, or clicked your tongue at it, it just looked at you then looked away and sat down so it could contemplate the pavement. We knew this, because the Ponce and I had been trying to pet this dog for the last half hour and it had resolutely ignored us. The dog did, however respond to the distinguished gentleman who was at the table opposite us drinking steadily and chatting to its owner, a wiry woman with short grey hair, seated on the step the opposite side of the bar entrance. I say distinguished not because he was particularly elegant or handsome, but because he had a distinctively large head, with grey/white shaggy hair, parted in the centre. He could only have been Italian. His face was big and square, with a protruding jaw, Mussolini-style, and his voice was so low and gravelly that it would have been mellifluous, if it hadn’t had such a monotonous tone that it sent you half to sleep while he talked. And he talked a lot. Unfortunately, the Ponce, being a well-brought-up boy despite appearances, was encouraging him, responding to his attempts at conversation with friendly politeness and interest. I, meanwhile, stared into the distance feeling somewhat frigid and unresponsive, hoping he wouldn’t turn and pick on me. If he did, I would fake very bad Italian, as opposed to so-so Italian.  I hoped Federico would finish showering and turn up soon so we could finish our drinks and go.

‘I detest dogs.’ the man said, tickling the depressed dog’s ears gently, and stroking its muzzle. His hands, which were large and square like his head, caressed the animal, lulling it into a stupor at his feet.

‘I loathe them,’ he continued, ‘really, I can’t stand them. But this one…. I make an exception for this one. Don’t I, Boy?’ The dog turned morose eyes up to him and sighed.

His owner nodded and added, ‘He’s a good boy, he just doesn’t take to everyone. The thing is-‘

‘Cats.’ said the one with the square head. ‘Now cats I do like. Far more elegant and self-contained, as animals go. Anyway, this dog, this particular dog, has a very nice nature, you just have to get to know him. He’s not as friendly initially as some dogs are. If you don’t know him he’s most unlikely to come over and let you stroke him. He likes me, though. We’re old friends, aren’t we?’

‘-it’s something in his personality, he’s very introverted, but once he gets to know you he’s very affectionate. He’s a lovely little dog.’ The woman on the step talked almost to herself, as if she knew no-one was listening.

The shaggy headed drinker smiled at me, and I smiled thinly back then looked away. I had no desire to engage in conversation, but I had a horrid feeling that he did, that he would get his own way in the end, and that there would be no escape. No wonder other nationalities think we are cold and frosty, because in certain circumstances, we are.  Circumstances like striking up conversations with a stranger who loves the sound of his own voice. Already we had been treated to a monologue about the links between Calabria and ancient mythology, the state of Italian politics, and philosophy, a subject which is intriguing, but after I caught the word ‘reality’ I had zoned out completely and only caught the occasional phrase like ‘Well…. I would have to disagree there, you see…… in my humble opinion, correct me if I’m wrong….. That’s not strictly true though, is it?….’ and ‘The reason that’s such an interesting supposition, let me explain, is….’

For now he drew the Ponce back into another interminable discussion about living conditions in Spain, both of them echoing the frequently-held view by Italians that Spain is their ‘poor cousin’ and has little to offer in terms of architecture, Art, cuisine and general level of culture. During this discussion he slipped into effortless Spanish, all the while looking very pleased with himself and probably expecting us to compliment him on his command of the language, which neither of us did. Had he asked, or had we chosen to show off as well, he would have discovered that both of us also speak several languages, as do most of our friends, so if he was looking for praise and gasps of admiration he was looking in the wrong place. The Ponce did, however, betray me, with,

‘Oh, there’s no need to talk in Spanish for her sake, she understands Italian really well, speaks quite a bit of it. Enough to have a conversation anyway.’ I was unable to kick my friend under the table because we were sitting side by side opposite the man with our legs in full view. I was just about to lean over, however, and say in English,

‘Are we going in a minute? This old git’s doing my head in. Why do you keep encouraging him?’ when the man turned to me, and asked, with exaggerated politeness, in Spanish,

‘And are you Spanish, might I ask? You don’t look terribly Spanish, I must say.’

‘No. I’m English.’

‘Ah, you are from England!’ he replied, switching immediately to English. Heaven help us- a tri-lingual bore! There really was no escape. You couldn’t insult him behind his back in any shared language, and you could hardly pass each other a written note about him. He had us well and truly trapped.

‘Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?’

I did, but I replied,


‘Nottingham… ah yes, that’s near Manchester, isn’t it? I have never had the pleasure of a visit to your hometown, but I have of course, been to your fair isle many times. Now… let me see… the Sherriff of Nottingham, right? Didn’t you have a sherriff….?’

‘Yes. It’s Robin Hood country, that’s right. He’s our local-‘

‘And don’t you have a rather good football team? I am Italian, I have to ask about football.’ Here he pursed his lips wrily and stopped stroking the dog for a second so he could press a hand to his chest patriotically. The dog rolled its eyes up at me and huffed.

‘We did, yes, Nottingham Forest. Not any more, that was about twenty or twenty five years ago, I don’t even know what league they’re in now.’

‘Peter Shilton!’ he exclaimed, nodding his shaggy head wisely. ‘Peter Shilton.’

I was surprised that he knew the name, but I was damned if I was going to give him any credit. No-one who courts it so desperately should be granted it so easily.

‘Oh yes, there’s Peter the keeper with nothing to do.’ I quoted an old Notts Forest football chant, certain he wouldn’t know that.

Help was at hand. I spied a familiar figure ambling along the pavement in our direction. Unmistakably tall, with a straight man’s rolling gait, and dressed in a fresh shirt and jeans. Federico to the rescue. I stood to kiss him on the cheek and stayed on my feet on the off chance we all might rise to our feet and leave, but the Ponce waved an imperious hand and stated,

‘I’m having another one, want a beer?’

‘Shouldn’t we be going?’ I asked.

‘Nah, not yet, we’ve got plenty of time.’

‘Ok, I’ll have a beer then.’ Federico caught the waiter’s attention as he passed, ordered a beer, then stood the other side of me and asked the Ponce. ‘What time are we meeting Ricardo?’

‘I said about 11 o clock. We should get a quick drink in front of the Coliseum first, I always used to have a quick drink there before going out.’ He turned to me. ‘I want to take you so you can see it lit up at night. It’s beautiful.’ I sat down again.

A group of girls walked past obscuring the man opposite from view for a moment. I didn’t catch their language but they looked American or Canadian: tall, fair-haired young women with healthy complexions, enviable teeth and short skirts. For a second we could have been in a busy train station- there was a criss-crossing of bodies and conversations, the Ponce and Federico talking to each other across me, the girls passing in front, the barman, bearing a tray of drinks, popping out of the bar in the middle of all this like a wooden figure out of a cuckoo clock, the tired old dog dragging itself back over to its owner and slumping at her feet. Then the ‘crowds’ parted and I found myself face to face with the bore.

‘I saw no legs.’ he announced, directly at me, a twinkle in his eye. Our private little joke. A complicit historical reference, to a hero of my ‘fair isle’’. What could I do but shrug and half-smile back at him?

‘I think those girls were Irish.’ he declared.

‘Really? I would have said they were American. They looked a little tanned to be-’

‘A herd of Irish. Or a new species, perhaps, a herd of some new species. With no legs.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Like I said, I saw no legs. Columns. That’s what I saw passing just now. Columns! Where have all the legs gone, I ask you? All the ankles…?’

I glanced surreptitiously at my friends but they were deep in conversation above my head and were not going to come to my aid.

‘Ankles….’ He continued, savouring the word as if it were a boiled sweet. ‘I love ankles. Architecturally, when a woman is hugely round, or….. or massive, it fascinates me how something so fine could support such a weight. All that weight!’ He was smirking now at his own cleverness, sketching with his hands in front of him the impression of a ‘hugely round’ woman with impossibly fine ankles. I was glad I was wearing trousers this evening. It occurred to me that I could only be having this conversation with an Italian, because only an Italian could discuss women (and with a woman) in such aesthetic, architectural terms, as if we were literally objects: an Etruscan vase, an elegant cupola, a fading fresco.

‘But it’s not only ankles that fascinate me,’ he ruminated, ‘there are other parts of a woman’s body I find intriguing. Not only legs and ankles…..’

Here he lifted his trouser leg a half inch and smiled, pausing to take another sip of his drink. Whatever it was, it was bright orange and looked toxic. Then he continued, ‘But not the parts you might logically expect. Also wrists,’ here he circled his own wrist with his other hand, ‘and fingers….’ Here he pulled at his own fingertips softly, suggestively, as though gently removing invisible thimbles. He licked his lips, running his tongue along his wide, already moist lower lip, and grinned at me, raising his eyebrows in what I’m sure he imagined to be a ‘wolfish’ expression.

The term ‘mental rapist’ appeared in my head. That’s what this old bare bore was: a pompous, erudite mental rapist. He was no idiot, and he knew full well I had no desire to talk to him, and yet here he was, obliging me to do so against my will, talking at me as if it didn’t matter whether I was there or not, or as if my only purpose was to be a receptacle to his thoughts, his opinions, and his vaguely lewd gestures. But a combination of British-ness, tiredness and general holiday stupor kept me in my seat, nodding and responding stiffly, unenthusiastic, vaguely offended but obliged to be there, like the Queen at yet another tedious State reception. If I sat it out for long enough he would transfer his attention to someone else, and start verbally molesting them. And this, thankfully, was what happened. He picked up on a brief interlude in the conversation between the boys, and the three of them were soon deep in conversation again.

Eventually we escaped, though not soon enough. Over the next twenty minutes we were subjected to a lecture on linguistics and language, a subject which implicitly we should all be interested in, all four of us being polyglots. But none as interested as out guest speaker.

‘You see, English is such a rich language because of its subtleties.’ he purred, ‘Take a word like ‘big’ for example. And now take another, very similar word, which has different connotations.: ‘great’. ‘Big’ refers to physical size, I am talking in general terms here of course, but then what about the word ‘great’? It can be used when talking about something large, of course it can, but usually it denotes a moral imperative as well. Not just big, but ‘grand’, although that, of course, is another word in the same group.  For example… he is a great writer. As in very good, not just very big. Let’s look at Great Britain-‘ here he looked at me, and nodded as though I were a visiting head of state gracing his banqueting table.

‘Great Britain is a term which has no connection to size, indeed England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland- the sum of these countries is fairly small, in geographical terms. No, the ‘great’ in Great Britain is an acknowledgement of the stature of this little country in the world, at least when she was an empire- and such an empire!… It’s a title granted to itself in recognition of its… well, its greatness…’

‘Actually it has another origin, it doesn’t refer to Empire, or our opinion about ourselves, though most people think it does.’ I interrupted. I flatly refused to be bored to death inaccurately. And about my own country, but he continued speaking over me.

‘Let’s look at another word- the word ‘re-a-lity’, which we were discussing earlier-‘

‘Great Britain was coined to distinguish it from Brittany in France which used to be called Bretagne, and the country Britain, which used to be called Gran Bretagne, so it’s not really anything to do with being morally better, it does refer to size. You see, size is everything.’

‘The word ‘reality’ in English: does this refer to concrete reality or to something else in fact? Because if you look at the word in German….’

He barely even faltered in the rhythm of his delivery. Fine. Suit yourself. Only my country, but you’re the man with the mouth, so you must be right. The breath I had drawn to continue talking was choked in my throat before it had time to form words. So I stopped forming them and sat quietly day-dreaming waiting for this torture to be over.  I was not going to waste any more breath even replying to his questions. If this was to be a one way talk, then talk away while I think about something else. My friends are used to me disappearing inside myself sometimes, so after a couple of attempts to draw me back in to the ‘conversation’, the boys left me staring at the pavement and thinking.

It was the arrogance that bugged me so much. There’s nothing worse than an intellectual, academic bore. I remember my ex boyfriend, the older one who came to visit me in Madrid and had to pose as my father, telling me about his university lecturer. He had taken a literature degree a few years ago, as a mature student, and after passing with a good grade, his tutor had taken him to the pub to discuss continuing his studies.

‘We in the department think you should take the masters. We’re all behind you, we’d give you every support’. The university lecturer had told him as he raised his pint to his mouth, but my ex had already made his decision. He wasn’t going to take that masters, and the reason was the lecturer’s moustache. The man had a small, well-tended moustache, and my ex confessed to me he had already decided he was not going to carry on studying under his tutelage because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to stand another year or two years attending tutorials with him and having to look at that moustache while listening to him pontificating. It was the intellectual arrogance of the man, the arrogance of the academic that put him off, and this was somehow encapsulated by that tiny little moustache.

As we walked away from the bar and left the barfly downing the rest of his orange cocktail, about to order another one, stroking the bored little dog again, which had come and settled at his feet, and turning to talk once more to the dog’s owner, Federico asked me,

‘You ok? You’re a bit quiet.’

‘I’m fine. Just couldn’t get a word in.‘

I couldn’t help exclaiming, once we had rounded the corner. ‘And he was boring me to tears! I thought my head was going to explode!’

‘Yeah? I thought he was all right. Bit drunk, but friendly enough; obviously very educated. People like that just like talking to people.’

At them, they like to talk at people. I can’t bear men like that, they drive me nuts! Droning on and on at you not listening to anything you say because you don’t matter. That wasn’t a conversation, that was a monologue! Doesn’t even cross their minds that other people are educated and smart as well. And did you notice how he interrupted me and the woman with the dog, but not you two, because you’re men?’

Federico and the Ponce swapped bemused glances over my head.

‘Not really.’

‘Well, he did. And he was wrong about Great Britain as well, but he wasn’t going to listen to me was he? No, because I’m a woman. Boring, sexist old bastard!’

‘All right… keep your wig on!’ the Ponce nudged me in the ribs and laughed, and he and Federico exchanged glances that said everything. And who knows if they’re right or wrong, it’s hard to say when we live on the same planet but often appear to have landed here from different ones. The glance said,

– What on earth do they get so uptight about all the time? What goes on in their heads? Yeah, he was a bit of a bore, but nothing to get hot under the collar about. What’s with them, eh? What’s with the sudden strop? Women! I just don’t get them sometimes….

‘The word “Great” in this context has its old meaning of “big” as in “she was great with child” or “Greater London”. Likewise, the ending “-y” on the end of “Brittany” has the meaning “Little”, as in “doggy”, meaning “small dog”, or “Jimmy”, meaning “little Jim”. During medieval times, the British Isles were referred to as Britannia major and Britannia minor (as in Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s Historia Regum Britanniae). The term “Bretayne the grete” was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until King James I proclaimed himself “King of Great Britain” on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title “King of England and Scotland”. ‘ (

Blot on the landscape

Posted in Urban Jungle- Flora and Fauna with tags , , , on October 3, 2010 by cockroach1

Late in the afternoon we set off for Sperlonga, a little way along the coast in the direction of Naples, where Federico has a villa by the sea. I took the back seat, and was instantly transported to the passive, detached watchfulness of childhood, lulled into a trance, half listening to parental conversation up front, counting the orange flashes of the streetlights marking our journey. I kept slipping into a safe and contented doze, stewed into drowsiness by the heat, the whup-whup of air juddering through the open windows, and the joints we had smoked before leaving. As I opened my eyes the outskirts of Rome made way for familiar Italian roadside scenery: scrubby allotments, trailing bougainvillia and oleanders, tall pines which always seemed to come in threes, stretching and holding up the sky, sheltering a little building- a restaurant, a garage or a house. Garden centres flashed past, one or two of them with an array of preposterous statuary. Behind all this were distant blue mountains that had huge layered sections cut out of them as though someone had helped themselves to a massive slice of Black Forest Gateaux. On approach you began to make out the terracing, the heavy machinery, the whiteness of the exposed rock like a part of its skeleton revealed. I didn’t know there were quarries here around Rome as well as up in the North of the country. Olive trees contorted themselves by the side of the road alongside low-slung vineyards and rows and rows of fir trees. On a twisty mountain road later we passed a figure paused by the side of the road. A chubby middle aged man huffing pinkly on an expensive mountain bike, poured into brightly coloured, labeled cycling gear as tight as a wetsuit. I remembered the ‘piropo’ or ‘compliment’ the Huertas Pirate once told me had overheard in Madrid, from a gang of construction workers as a girl walked past in sprayed-on clothes:

‘Oye, guapa, tienes esta ropa tan apretada como el tornillo de un submarino!’ (Hey, Cutiel, you’ve got those clothes on tighter than a submarine screw!’)

We stopped halfway there at a local shop, or what we would refer to as a ‘deli’. Our mission was to stock up on mozzarella, which is particularly good quality in this region. I had been hearing about this famous mozzarella for quite some time prior to the trip. Federico ordered a couple of kilos of the stuff, and they were handed over in brine, in a sealed plastic bag, which was heavy, the smooth globes knocking against the side. The boys also ordered tomatoes and fresh basil, which filled the car with its perfume.

I drifted off to sleep again as we drove, climbing steadily, passing small towns, stretches of open coast road and holiday homes. When I awoke we were nearly there. We were in an area of high hills covered sparsely with fir and pine trees. As we rounded a corner there was a swathe of blackened, burnt land, covering several hillsides and dotted with twisted tree stumps.

‘Shit, what happened?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t know there’d been forest fires here.’ said the Ponce.

‘There haven’t.’ replied Federico grimly. ‘It wasn’t like this the last time I came, a couple of weeks ago. This is the mafia. Bastards.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘Oh, who knows? They’ve always got some reason. Either to punish a land owner for something, or because they want to devalue the land so they can buy it at a cheaper price… they do it every two or three years. They’ve really screwed up the countryside round here. Let’s not talk about it, it pisses me off too much.’

We drove past walled villas protected by clumps of firs, olive trees and pines, huddled around them on the top of bare hilltops which appeared to have been shaved all the way up. I wondered if the fires had killed anyone or burnt anyone’s villa to the ground. It seemed miraculous that they hadn’t reached the houses. We pulled up at the front gate of one of them and drove in underneath a canopy of vines, the driveway lined with plant pots bursting with flowers. We began to unpack the car and Fede took us round to the front of the villa. Round the front of the property was a vast covered terrace, giving onto an open sundeck, with a couple of rolled up hammocks and sun loungers. There was a large brick barbeque, a heavy plant pot in the middle of the terrace with a primary-coloured windmill sticking out of it on a long pole, which Fede adjusted absent-mindedly, so it could catch the breeze and turn silently. A wide, three-armed fan hung from the wooden ceiling and sliding glass doors lead into the living room and open plan kitchen.

‘I’m going to start calling you Rapunzel.’ I told him. ‘You always have the good views, don’t you? Fede in his tower with the great view, wherever he is. It’s a bit of a trademark. Look at this, it’s gorgeous!’ There was open sky above our heads, the tops of fir trees shading us from view all around, a steep, tree-covered hillside on the left, and in front the soft line of the sea merging into the sky as if done in broad water-colour stripes. We could hear the sea clearly, breathing and whispering far in the background.

Later that evening we sat outside and chatted, to a soundtrack of sea, birdsong, the flapping of pinned up sarongs in the wind, and the occasional passing car, the subdued noise distorting as it weaved in and out of the trees.

At the long wooden table on the terrace we ate some of the mozzarella with a tomato and basil salad, bread, olives and the fluffiest, creamiest ricotta imaginable. I had to agree with the boys- these mozzarella were like nothing I’d ever tasted outside Italy. They were heavy and dense, off-white, reminding me of an elbow joint, a smooth bone out of its casing. When you cut into them there was resistance, then the knife pierced the skin, and thick, full buffalo milk spilled out of its heart.  The body of the cheese was solid and rippled like wood grain. The taste was enormous. It was difficult to compare these cheeses with the jellyish pellets you buy pre-packed in the rest of Europe, something raw and flimsy about them like shucked testicles.

‘You have to eat them within twenty four hours really.’ Fede told me. ‘That’s why you can’t export them. They don’t travel: you have to keep them in liquid as well, otherwise they dry up. D’you know, plenty of people from this region don’t even eat them any more.’

‘Too heavy.’ Agreed the Ponce, shoveling another half mozzarella into his mouth. ‘There’s only so many of them you can eat. And full of fat….Ha! Those people who go all holier-than-thou: I’m going on a diet, I’ll just have a caprese salad, please… yeah, ok, that’s about 9,000 calories right there, good luck. Wow, these are fantastic, though.’

As the sun went down I walked over to the corner of the railings, at the edge of the platform and stared out to sea. There was a blurring of the line between sky and sea. Pinpricks of light appeared on the horizon, sliding silently from one side to the other, boats and ships crossing far away. Lush, green trees framed the sea, and sheltered the terrace from other nearby villas. From here you could only see a tiny section of the ruined Apocalyptic hills that were all around us. The ravaged black scenery was not noticeable enough to ruin the view, but you were aware it was there in the corner of your eye, a literal blot on the otherwise serene landscape. The view was spectacular, the ambience very Ibizenco, bringing back memories of mountain villas and Summers with endless chill out sessions. But this wasn’t Ibiza, this was near Rome, heading down south, ever closer to the mafia. From Rome up, everyone pretends they don’t exist, they are merely a Southern problem, but they were there, the mafia, just round the corner, even this view marked with its black spot, its stain spreading over everything. Look closely enough in Italy and you will always find them, burning the country up and consuming it piece by piece with their own particular brand of Hellfire.