Thursday, October 29, 2009

And what's your name young lady?

This adds a whole new meaning to The Horn of Africa.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm coming home baby

The major part of today will involve getting back to France with 20 kilos more stuff than we arrived with. Au revoir.

Memory lane

As hard as it is to think about it, mum may never visit Foggia again. She gets no younger and has a worsening mobility problem, so perhaps subconsciously it seemed perfectly natural that she wanted to visit the grave of her mother, father and brother. The second of November (All Souls) is when one would normally visit a grave and, as we leave tomorrow, a visit to the cemetery it was.

Italian cemeteries are wondrous places, so different to anything that I’m used to. Rather than burial in the ground, it’s normal for common folk to be interred in the walls of an above ground building. The walls are over two meters thick and the coffin is pushed in feet first.

The not so common have their own above ground mausoleums, some of which are obviously architect designed and very attractive.

The cemetery at Foggia is huge and my uncle Nino is interred at one of the furthest points from the main entrance. It was a struggle for mum to get there. It’s so big that they have built a road around it to make access to the furthest points easier. The need for space is further exacerbated because, as far as I can see, there is no cremation.

Anyway, as I write, mum and Pia are in the kitchen loading up with food for tomorrow’s journey. Vegetables, meat and lots of fruit, most of which I know will have to be dumped, are being loaded into yet another bag. I’ll bite my tongue right now and fight with mum later. We have already exceeded our weight allowance.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Don Carlo Gnocchi

Mum was in seventh heaven this morning (excuse the pun). She and Pia were watching a combined live broadcast from Milan cathedral and the Vatican (with you know who) concerning the beatification of one Don Carlo Gnocchi. It’s well documented that this priest did lots of good works with disadvantage and disabled children, so good for him. However, the poor guy’s glass coffin was sitting outside on the steps of Milan cathedral whilst lots of prayers were said, and hymns sung around him, in front of a cast of thousands.

I’m a failed Catholic. To be honest, I’m an atheist, but I was brought up with all this ritual and I now watch with nothing more than morbid curiosity. We all have the right to worship our god and I would never comment. Each to his own I say. Still, mes amis, putting a stiff on display to be gawped at by one and all is a bit rich.

Having said that, he’s now Saint Don Carlo Gnocchi. He sounds like someone out of The Godfather. What a great name. Cool.
I’m going to be called Saint Alex of ‘Arrogate (Given that saints are normally deceased, you get my vote now – Ed).

When will I ever learn?

I should have known better. Soldiers get decorated for less. I must have been bad in a previous life.

My mother wanted to buy 'a couple of things', so, with encouragement from Pia, I agreed to drive her to the shops. My mother has never bought a 'couple of things' in her life. She doesn't know what a 'couple of things look like'. She shops and time stands still for her. She enters an alternate universe devoid of common sense, devoid of any feelings for anybody else, devoid of time.

I have to say that I was very scarred when I was young. Scarred by agreeing to take her by car into Harrogate, parking on a double yellow line with a definite promise that she only had a 'couple of things' to get and that she'd only be twenty minutes. It was the early days of traffic wardens and there weren't many about, so I decided that I would take a chance and stay with the car. What a fool. What a poor innocent fool.

Three hours later (YES -THREE HOURS LATER) I'm still sitting there expecting her to return any minute and not knowing if she's forgotten and gone home. Words can't explain how angry I was, so when you put the words 'shops' and 'mum' in the same sentence, I so don't want to know.

Anyway, we arrived back with her complaining to Pia (who seemed to find it all very amusing) that I'd only allowed her two hours to buy 'a few things'. She has no idea how lucky she is. Where's the medal?

I need a shot

I love my coffee. I love a shot of caffeine. It has to be short and very sweet. I have fond memories of visiting bars with my uncle Nino, mum’s brother, when I was younger and slugging a mid morning shot in Sotto Zero. Ah, those were the days.

Anyway, sitting in the saloto, trying to get an internet connection with my new fangled Italian dongle from TIM (there’s a joke there somewhere), I fancy a shot.

‘Zia, mi fa un cafe?', I said to Pia. See, it's easy to understand and gramatically correct. She then goes over to her all singing and dancing coffee machine (it grinds the beans, boils the water etc. etc.) They are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but this machine costs in the region of 600 euros. They take drinking coffee very seriously here, and, before I die, I’m going to get one.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The rules

There is a benefit to being me (hmmm – not sure about that one – Ed).
I suspect that I’m the male head of the family. Dino, Pia’s lovely husband, is obviously older than me but he’s a Forgione. I believe that I’m the eldest male of the ‘famiglia Zarra.’
I’ve got a cousin Antonio, a big shot cardiologist, who is persona non grata around here, who's a lot younger than me, and I’ve got no intention of rocking the boat in case someone else qualifies. Lil’ ‘ol schmuck me has finally made it. It’s all very cool and particularly so because everyone panders to me. It doesn’t matter who’s sitting at the table, male, female, guest, family, I get served first. I get the biggest portion. My advice is sought about the quantity and quality of the dish.
This doesn’t sit well with Jan, but I encourage her to get used to it and I'm sure that with practice she will. Being a modest sort of chap I usually wait a couple of seconds for someone else to get served before I tuck in, but hey, I hate cold food.


Get me outta here. Last time I was in Foggia (week or so ago) I put on three kilos.

We’ve just had a five kilo Sunday lunch, comprising, orecchiette (my favourite pasta) with a tomato sauce, torchellino (rolled and stuffed pork belly), fresh ricotta, percoche (a late harvest hard peach from Puglia, the sort they put in tins, great when dunked in red wine), cake, chestnuts and amaro, an Italian digestivo. Burp, excellent.

Nothing changes, cos I have a row with my mother. She tries to correct my Italian at every opportunity. I shouted at her because everyone (including her) understands what I’m saying. ‘Mum, at my age I have absolutely no intention of learning the grammar. Leave me alone. Stop correcting me. Why can’t you understand that?’
‘Most people would relish the opportunity to have their grammar corrected’, she shouted back at me in vain. It didn't help that I burst out laughing at that.

To shut her up I changed the subject. I mentioned that knowing that there was no way she’d leave Italy without taking back lots of goodies; I’d brought an empty suitcase with me. See what a bloody caring son and angel I am?

What a mistake. What a huge mistake. The conversation then switches to transporting jars of vegetables, liqueurs and anything weighing nothing less than two kilos. I try to calm everyone down and point out that it only takes seven items at two kilos each to blow the weight allowance. Pia, ever the pragmatist then insists that I pop to Ipercoop to buy lots of plastic bags and bubble wrap. Sorted, but a close shave nonetheless. Why don't I just learn to keep my mouth shut?

It had to be said.

I've had sex with few myself.

Lotsa noise

I've got a headache, so thank goodness there's only one television on. I'm lying on a put-up bed in the study, the room next to the kitchen and I didn't sleep very well. The noise from next door is horrendous. I can clearly hear every word being said on the television and my aunt Pia has decided to reorganise all her pots and pans. To me it sounds like she is throwing stuff at the walls. It sounds like she's trying to drown out the television. I have got to get up.

Italian television is great. It's so bad, it's brilliant. It's 08.30 and the morning breakfast programme is blaring away. I've only been here a few hours and every programme that I've seen involves very beautiful, some would say stunning, young women standing around, looking gorgeous but doing nothing. Where do they find them all? On last night's programme there were six of them, all absolutely gorgeous, who traipsed on carrying keys (don't ask) and, sitting to one side, was a man whose dress and demeanor said that he was gay. He seemed to be an important guest and frankly I have no idea why he was there. Anyway, as the girls slithered onto the set the host turned to him and said, 'aren't they gorgeous'? As if this wasn't funny enough the look on the gay man's face was a picture. He looked ever so slightly confused and not sure what to say. Eventually he said, 'yes, the dresses are beautiful.' The host turned to him and said, 'is that all you can say?' I nearly fell off my chair laughing.

Back to this morning's programme, a sort of Italian breakfast news, there's this stunning young woman talking about whatever and I can't take my eyes off her. Pia notices this and said, 'she's beautiful, isn't she. She's this year's Miss Italy. And, she's intelligent as well!'

Anyway, I need peace and quiet. I must admit to being a bit noise sensitive so off I go to sit in another room where I can sit quietly and type this rubbish. Bearing in mind that it's early Sunday morning when, what happens? Some idiot upstairs starts drilling with a bloody jack hammer into the concrete floor above.

The Gregorian chant coming from the television in the kitchen was beginning to sound very inviting.

Don't you just love 'em

It's only on flights to Italy that I come across loud cheering and clapping as the plane touches down. The relief is palpable. We have absolutely no right to be in the bloody sky and it's a miracle that we landed safely. Crazy people.

My aunt's house is full of elderly people (that includes you boyo - Ed). Italians make a lot of noise. Italians who are hard of hearing make even more noise. There are three televisions all in different rooms but all in close proximity. Each television is blaring out a different programme. By blaring I mean bloody loud. Loud enough that when a phone rang on a programme in the next room everybody dived for the phone and confusion reigned because there was nobody on the line.

It had been a long journey and I was tired. I just wanted to get to bed but, despite it all, I found it very, very funny.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Get your reward later

I can't say that I'm looking forward to the rest of the day. Not that I'm looking for sympathy or anything (oh yes you are - Ed) but I leave home just after lunch then I have a three hour drive to Girona, a two hour wait at the airport, a one and a half hour flight and then a two and a half hour drive to Foggia. It wouldn't be so bad if I was going on a holiday but it's in order to bring my mother back from Italy to France. The return journey to be completed two days later. This is not my idea of fun. I don't subscribe to the notion of getting your rewards later.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Robin has reminded me that if a woman really wants to get noticed she needs to consider how well she applies her eye makeup. There are no shortcuts.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Makes you think

This is an interesting article.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You're how old?

What's the point of having a 50 years old body, when you get to 100, when you can't remember what to do with it?

It's how much?

As if sensing my latest culinary theme and knowing my love of Italian food, Will sent me this menu. It's from a restaurant in Florence.

In the days when men were men and, more to the point, our expense accounts were very generous then I might have been tempted. But €90 for a bloody poached egg. You gotta be a joking!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spot on

Staying on a motorway service area theme, I spotted this in Italy. The perfect name for a place to buy sandwiches!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I want hot chips

Both Italian and French motorway services work with a strange kind of morality. Outside both of them you find lots of people slowly killing themselves, smoking. Inside either of them you can drink yourself silly and then leave the service area and kill both yourself and others on the motorway. You figure it out.

But that's where the similarity ends. The Italian services are much much better. The travelling public expect and get a higher standard. The restaurants serve a choice of reasonable food and, if all you want is a shot of caffeine, you will get excellent freshly made coffee.

Driving back from Girona last night we needed something to eat so we stopped at the Narbonne Vinassan service area restaurant. It was was 20.00 and it was fairly busy as you'd expect at that hour. To cut a long story short, the food was abysmal. It was cold and of generally poor quality and the coffee was from a machine. I know, I know what do I expect from a service area? Well, I expect more. These places need a good kicking. From my limited experience, English service stations have generally improved so why not the French?

Change the world

Well done chaps, that'll make a real fucking difference.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Memory lane - again

What an interesting morning! We leave for home tomorrow (but I'll be back in a week) and we’d both wanted to take a quick trip to Siponto. This is real memory lane stuff for me because my mother brought me here from age 1, and, as Pia likes nothing more than for us than to get out from under her feet, as she cleans the house for the first time that day, we headed out.

Our first stop was the 12th century church (above) just outside Siponto or to give it its full name Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. The custodian was very helpful and informative and even opened up the crypt for us. The crypt, which is not normally open (he must have felt the tip coming on), is actually a 5th century church upon which the present church was built. The excavation next door is the remains of a 4th century paleochristian/pagan church which was destroyed in an earthquake. It was all very, very interesting.

On the way into Siponto (deserted beach above) I’d also noticed a sign directing you to a farm where they make mozzarella. I love good mozzarella. Not just any mozzarella but ‘mozzarella di bufala’. I have a longstanding joke with Dino that in all the years that I’ve been visiting Italy I have never ever seen any buffalo. I even suspected that it was yet another Italian scam where they buy milk from somewhere else and then pretend it’s from buffalo and then sell it as authentic. Well, let me tell you mes amis that I’ve seen the light. Or,to be more precise, I’ve seen the buffalo. I’d heard that they made mozzarella locally and we had the time to explore. So explore we did.

A few miles down a narrow track, in the middle of nowhere, and full of local Italians buying the stuff, we found the farm and right next to it were many, many buffalo. I’d finally found them. The search was over.

Needless to say the provenance of this wonderful speciality, the freshest possible, had to be found. Caseificio dei Pini, viale dei Pini, Podere no 3, Siponto-Manfredonia, Puglia, 0884 541799 is the name of the farm. There was a shop on site next to the cheese making bit where they sold another, rarer, speciality, ricotta di bufala (even Pia had never heard of it). We love fresh ricotta, there’s nothing like it, it’s very special so we were in seventh heaven. Excellent and very highly recommended, assuming of course that you like the stuff.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In a hole

Conversations with my mother are never boring.

We’re sitting outside finishing lunch on a beautiful, sunny Girona day. The plane doesn’t leave until 18.15 so we have time for a leisurely lunch.

I flew to Leeds on Sunday to pick her up, escort her on the journey to Italy and generally ensure that she reduces the weight in her luggage from 30 Kilos to 15. She’s Italian and considers the rules about weight allowance as advisory rather than compulsory. A bit like Italian drivers at red traffic lights.

Anyway, I’m sipping my coffee when mum said, “Don’t do that, it looks horrible.”

I have to look around because she can’t possibly be talking to me.

Wrong. She is looking at me.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“That thing with your hand,” she said.

My offence? I’m in the habit of holding my hand level, palm down, under my chin to avoid spills when I drink coffee.

“What wrong with that?” I said, “in fact what’s it got to do with you?”

“I’m your mother (as if that's the answer to everything), and it makes you look like that man,” she said.

Intrigued, I said “Which man?”

“You know, him. The American.”

That’s narrowed it down a bit I think to myself. One in 125 million are much better odds.

“Er mum, which American?”

“You know, that one in the ground.”

“Mum, please, what are you talking about?”

Mum, talking to me as if I’m stupid, “That one, the one they found in a hole in the ground.”

Jan and I looked at each other, looking for inspiration.

“He had a beard,” she said.

The clues don’t really help. I started to get exasperated, I’ve got better things to do with my life and stupid conversations is definitely not one of them.

“They found him hiding, you know. I know you know,” she said.

Jan and I look at each other, looking for some help.

It finally dawns on me. Do you mean Saddam?

“Yes that’s him. Hussein, Saddam Hussein.”

Jan fell about laughing.

I said, “Mum, he’s not American.”

“You’re just being awkward,” she said.

“Let me get this right mum,” I said, “because I hold my hand under my chin when I’m drinking coffee I look like Saddam Hussein?”

My mother looked at me as if I’m an imbecile.

“Yes, you must have seen him do it? It looks horrible.”

“Mum, I’ve seen quite a bit of him on television, mostly strutting about and dispensing goodwill, but frankly I’ve never seen him do that.
What's worse, I find myself apologising.

Jan can hardly contain herself, she’s screaming with laughter. Saddam is one of the few things she’s never called me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bloody cold

Grief it's cold. We left mum's house in Harrogate just before 07.00 this morning and blow me but the ice warning light came on in the car. It was 3C. Being an idiot I'd only packed Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. I don't think I looked stupid? (No more than usual sunshine - Ed)
At least when we get to Girona it will be all toasty warm. It's only October and it's bloody freezing in England, so stop moaning back there at home!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hello big boy

I hate to be late. I’m lying there dozing, watching the hours tick by and finally I give in and decide to get up and get going. Better to spend time on the motorway making progress than lying, stewing in my pit. OK, so it’s not yet 04.00 but I want to be away at 05.00 so it’s onwards and upwards.

As you would expect, the trip to Girona is very easy. Turn on cruise control, point, and go. It’s pitch black, it’s Sunday, so no lorries, and hardly any cars. A really boring journey and I struggle to stay awake. Still, the CD choice is good and I manage to stay on the road by listening to such uplifting lyrics as ‘doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo.’ Those guys must be laughing their heads off as they count their money.

Normally Jan would chat and keep me awake, but she’s not driving down to meet us until tomorrow, so my mind wanders through my early life as Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder and even Manfred Mann remind me of times when men were men and life was good.

Security at the airport was easy, no queues and bored but friendly staff. After passing through the metal detector, a guard, thinking that I must be pleased to see him, pointed at a big lump in my pocket and, with a knowing smile, asked me what it was. It was nothing more than my plastic spectacle case. He looked a little disappointed but it’s good to know that they're alert and check you over thoroughly.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Panic stations this morning because I had all the pain associated with kidney stones, which I get from time to time, and I thought that with it being Saturday I'd have to go to the hospital to get some pain relief. As it happened, our doctor was still at her morning surgery so she gave me a morphine shot in the ass, which always works. Lovely stuff that morphine!

The panic was because I didn't want to be hospitalised. I leave the house at 05.00 tomorrow to catch an early flight from Girona to Leeds, to pick up my mother. I then get her back to Girona on Monday to catch a flight to Pescara in Italy on Tuesday. I hope you're paying attention to all this?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A kind thought

After being together for many years, I took a careful look at Jan one day and said, "Darling, 20 years ago we had a cheap apartment, a cheap car, slept on a sofa bed, watched a 10-inch black and white TV and I got to sleep every night with a hot 25-year-old.

Now I have an expensive house and car, a nice big bed and plasma screen TV, but I'm sleeping with an elderly woman. It seems to me that you're not holding up your side of things."

Jan, who's very reasonable person, told me not to worry. She told me to go out and find a hot 25-year-old girl, and she would make sure that I would once again be living in a cheap apartment, driving a cheap car, sleeping on a sofa bed and watching a 10-inch black and white TV.

Isn't that thoughtful?

Monday, October 05, 2009

A nice surprise

A knock on the door on Saturday night, heralded the arrival of Alain our artist friend from the village. Would you like some tomatoes for chutney he said. Of course we said.

Above is a sample of what he brought. They were yellow, green, red and black in colour. A selection of old varieties, a selection that was so sweet and delicious. Bugger the chutney, I said, let's have tomato salad instead. And so it came to pass.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Time to reflect

China has been celebrating 60 years of communist rule. That's fine. Good for them. Their parades look very impressive. All these men and women marching in perfect time and in a perfect line. Good effort I say.
But something has been puzzling and worrying me for a long time. How the hell do they get all the soldiers in their parades, the same height? Thousands of the the buggers, all 5 foot 6 tall (or whatever). I think it's kinda spooky. Is there a hospital somewhere shaving bits off. We need to be told. The world needs to know.