Thursday 13 March 2008


Wow, Ryanair are now flying to Perugia on a Saturday. From the 5th April. Flights will leave Standsted at 6.55am, oouch. So, for those of you who want a saucy weekend in Umbria, one can fly out Friday and back on Sunday afternoon. Great in June for Umbria Jazz.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Italian coffee

The ritual of coffee in Italy is one of those things that non-Italians can probably never learn. We have been here for about eight years now and I am sure we still get everything wrong; for instance, I just cannot quite bring myself to adhere to this rule of not having a cappuccino after 11a.m. Call me a subversive, but a good cappuccino can be drunk at any time of day, as far as I am concerned (except after a meal, one has one’s limits after all).

Finding a good ‘cap’ is not always so easy of course; the tendency in Italy is to drink it tiepido, meaning tepid or lukewarm. My Italian dictionary also provides the alternative meaning of ‘indifferent’, which perhaps better sums up my own opinion of lukewarm ‘hot’ drinks. A good cap should have the ability to render pleasure unto the drinker, whilst simultaneously scalding a fine layer of skin from the interior of the mouth. In order to achieve this you need to ask for the cap to be bollente (boiling); be insistent, as most Italian barmen will not believe that you actually mean it. In your local institution you should eventually reach the point where you need no longer ask for this special treatment, though I prefer to be safe than sorry. When entering your local caffè for your morning, lunch or afternoon shot of the black stuff (alas, they do not serve Guinness quite as widely as a man with a surname like Cleary would like), don’t expect to find many options to choose from.

Fortunately Italy has not, as yet, been inundated with large high street coffee shops that offer bewildering arrays of choice. You will not find, for instance, a pumpkin-spice latte or a decaf-mochacino topped with glazed pecan choppings down at Pergo bar… The answer is - keep it simple, or corretto if you fancy livening up your espresso with some local grappa/rocket fuel. They never did explain to me if an espresso without alcohol is therefore deemed to be in some way ‘incorrect’.

An Element of Choice

Although most Italians stick to the staple ingredients of espresso, milk and alcohol for their coffee, there are still a surprising number of nuances to each individual’s taste. I for one simply ask for a caffè macchiato, which translates as a coffee literally ‘stained’ with a drop of milk, and take it as it comes in whichever establishment I have chosen to patronise for lunch. Others, however, might specify whether the milk should be cold, tepid or hot as well as requesting that they have more or less schiuma (foam) with theirs, not that I ever get to drink the foam now that Cecily our young daughter has taken a liking to it. Italians can be as opinionated about their caffè as they are about their food, which is to say, very. Being of a less sophisticated, Northern European palate, I cannot deny that it all tastes the same to me after a while.

Coffee drinking traces its roots to Aden, in the early 9th century, from whence it spread throughout the Middle East over the ensuing centuries, shifting from a religious to a popular beverage, before being taken up by European nations sometime in the 1600s. Whatever your take on the convoluted history of the world’s most consumed drink, there is no doubting the huge impact that Italian coffee culture has had on the rest of the world. Although high street coffee shops in the UK bear little or no relation to my own experiences out here in Italy, you would be hard pushed to deny where the influence comes from. I try to enjoy my cap when I am back in Cambridge, I really do, but something always tells me that the enormous, swilling bucket of burnt coffee and milk, served at temperatures hot enough to melt copper (at least it’s not tiepido), just doesn’t quite match the one I am used to. As I said, keep it simple. There is nothing more effective for a quick pick-me-up on a long night journey than a simple shot of espresso, though please bear in mind that caffeine is on the International Olympic Committee list of prohibited substances…


Jimi Hendrix once sang; “Bang, bang honey, shoot, shoot, shoot, as long as it’s your silly head I don’t give a hoot” (Crash Landing 1970). Now, this lyric may not have gone down in the annals of mainstream pop culture, and certainly will not be known by more than about 0.001% of the Italian population, but from September onwards for about 6 months all you hear in the woods behind our house is banging and shooting (without the honeys). Welcome to the wonderful world of the Italian hunting season, where anything goes and no fence is too high to be scaled in the pursuit of the scarpering prey. Park outside the bar in Pergo at 10am on a weekend morning during winter, and you will be vying for position with any number of battered Fiat Panda 4x4s and small jeeps, all displaying signs of having been recklessly driven through the muddiest of terrain at unadvisable speeds. Inside the bar looks like a meeting of the local veteran mercenaries’ association, as jeans and furry-collared parkas give way to all manner of camouflage outfits and multi-pocketed waistcoats replete with built-in GPS and heated pockets (probably). The lads have all been up since around 5am and have been tracking cinghiale (wild boar) through thick woodland for hours, attempting to pick off a few without accidentally picking off one of their own number. Unfortunately the latter is not a joke and seems to happen with surprising regularity every season, possibly due to the amount of grappa flowing through their systems…

Hunting in the U.K. has long been considered the preserve of the upper classes, and until very recently of kings, not least to do with the overall expense of pursuing the sport, as well as the amount of free time required to do it justice. Obviously this was particularly the case with fox-hunting and its requisite knowledge of riding and everything that keeping horses entails, but also applies to pheasant shoots and the like. Hunting in Italy however, is considered a rite of passage for just about every working man from the age of 18 to whenever one is failed by one’s eyesight (my one-eyed, elderly neighbour only had his license revoked about 3 years ago, rather late I thought…). I imagine that in the cities nobody spends time going to the country at weekends to shoot animals, but in rural areas like ours the fervour inspired by the hunting season is enough to create hunting “widows”, rather like golfing widows in the States. The majority of the lads local to us are the usual suspects who can be seen propping up the local hostelry and most of them are builders. Can you imagine your local brickie waking up at 5am on a Sunday morning to head off to Tarquin’s place to shoot some grouse? If anything, in Italy we have the reverse of the UK, in that the upper echelons of society here tend not to get involved in hunting, probably considering it to be a somewhat tawdry business, albeit necessary to sate the nation’s hunger for wild boar products. Having said that, Charlie and I did once attend a quite spectacular post-hunt dinner at a nearby castle, although the elegantly dressed Germans who made up the hunting party were a far cry from the camo trousers and army boots brigade of the local Squadra dei Cinghialisti (Hunting group).

The socially cohesive element of the wild boar hunt in rural Italy is very evident. As I mentioned before, it is quite literally a rite of passage for young men, but even the elderly veterans who can no longer shoot are involved in the complex process that is the boar hunt. There is etiquette and group coordination in hunting that is quite fascinating; hunting groups have been known to aid the emergency services during the regular bouts of forest fires in the summer, due to their knowledge of the terrain and there ability to work as a team. Each area will have its own hunting society, the Squadra dei Cinghialisti, and also its own boundaries, within which its members are allowed to engage in hunting during the open season. Given that wild animals have a tendency not to adhere to these arbitrary boundaries, the escaping prey will often run over into another group’s patch. Whether the poor beasts are then finished off by one squadra or another is immaterial, as the camaraderie of the whole experience means that the resultant kill is divided fairly. The highlight of the year for most groups is the Sagra di Cinghiale (wild boar feast), where guys who would not normally be seen dead cooking, preparing or serving food, organise and run a night of feasting on the result of their endeavours during the season. A must see if you have the chance.

Shopping in Italy

Let us consider for a moment the effects that those two great languages, Italian and English, have had on one another. Whether you realise it or not, much of what you read or hear in English would not exist without the underlying influence of the Latin language and Renaissance Italy. Cockney Rhyming Slang certainly has a place in the hearts and voices of the nation, but let’s face it, without the Romans we’d be nothing (on a controversial note one might argue the same of Chelsea…). Put it this way, most of you will probably have noticed that by adding an O or an A to the end of an English word, you have a more than 50% chance of being somewhere close to understood in Italian. For those of you who have not tried this particular trick, please feel free to give it a go; just don’t add an O to the end of ‘cats’, as I heard one delightful old English gentleman try out on the streets of Cortona a few years ago.

Charlie and I have been living in Italy for nine years, but it is only when we delve slightly that we realise quite to what extent we owe our linguistic heritage. Sometimes things hit you out of the blue, like the time I was reading a newspaper article about bankruptcy and realised for the first time that “bankrupt” comes directly from the Italian term banca rotta, meaning “broken bank”. Similarly the word “malaria” is a combination of two very commonly used Italian words; male and aria, meaning ‘bad/evil’ and ‘air’ respectively, originating from a time when the fatal illness was thought to derive from stale air. One of my favourites, a phenomenon common to all countries but surely originating in the base camp of all corruption, the Roman Empire, is “nepotism”. The Italian language makes no distinction between grandchildren and nephews/nieces, throwing both categories of relations into the one word: nipote. Looking at life in Italy, it is not hard to work out that if your grandparent or uncle is in a position of power, then you are more than likely to have both feet and most of your upper body already inside the door.

So, having covered some of the influences of Italian on English, albeit in a drastically brief and probably slightly crass way, shall we now have a look at the corresponding influences that English has given in return? I think it is fairly safe to say that the borrowing of English words or phrases is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, probably dating from the post-war period. At this point in Italian life, the country had been laid low by the horrors of World War Two, yet was only a few years away from the economic miracle that the 50s and 60s would bring to bear. With this boom period came all the trappings of the British and American pop cultures that were themselves taking the world by storm at the time. This era of economic stability and development heralded in pastimes heretofore unknown to the general population of Italy, who had begun to leave the hardships and penury of rural life for the promise of the new high-life in the rapidly expanding cities. So, where someone might once have gone to the market to buy some scraggly chickens and fare la spesa, now suddenly they were buying clothes and other consumer items. Somehow “doing the expenses” did not encompass the grand new activity so, in the absence of any other aboriginal word or phrase, people were now doing “lo shopping”.

This is just one example of many lifestyle words, such as lo jogging or il weekend, but there are others that have crept in over the years in all walks of Italian life. If you have ever watched football on Italian TV, then you may well have heard such classics as “sta facendo il dribbling”. In business you have joint-venture, marketing plan and you are considered all the more employable if you have know-how. As the world becomes smaller and boundaries corrode, so more and more English words will find their way into Italian dictionaries. The younger generation in Italy seems to give ever increasing credence to the UK, and particularly London, as a role model and a place many believe they would like to spend time, if only the weather were a little better... Take the weekend flight from Perugia to London and you will see many local youngsters heading over to see friends who already live there. English may never be able to match Italian for universal linguistic influence, but it is making great progress in filling up the Italian dictionary with modern day “isms” and phrases that the poor Italians never knew they had a need for.

Italian lessons San Gimignano

Arriving in San Gimignano in 1999 I was thrown, somewhat haphazardly, into the deep, deep waters of learning Italian. Charlie was a great help initially, having only recently graduated with a degree in Italian, and so was able to guide me in my first steps like the good TEFL teacher that she was. Quite how I ever managed to learn a single word in San Gimignano amazes me to this day, given the fact that just about everyone, even the Carabinieri (yes, really), were able to speak English. By chance we obviously fell upon the two or three haunts where no English was spoken, and so I was able to practice my barbarous lingo on them right from the start. Coinciding with this initial period of lingual inadequacy was my first foray into the world of Italian employment, when I landed a bar job at what we later discovered to be a pole-dancing club. Charlie recalls (with some glee) picking me up at the end of my first night and seeing my pleading face silently screaming to be transported away. Understanding that vodka con ghiaccio meant vodka with ice was difficult enough, but would you have known that Cubalibre meant rum and coke? A gibbering wreck does not go half way to explaining how I felt afterwards; horribly relieved and grateful to my rescuer probably goes somewhat further.

Eventually landing my first ‘proper’ Italian job in that same summer of ‘99, working in the villa rentals market, my language development was then channeled to the idiosyncrasies of a travel rep’s working day. For example, having to explain to villa owners why Brits attached such importance to electric kettles in place of the tinny, vertical saucepans that come with rental territory and into which courtesy bags of Lipton Yellow Label tea would be ritually dunked each morning to stave off the inevitable Chianti headache. I admit this was a little more advanced linguistically speaking than my initial forays into Italian, which had involved ordering coffee at the bar and usually recounting my only full sentence to anyone who cared to listen; namely that we lived in the centro storico (like anybody really cared anyway). The thing about speaking another language is that you have to start somewhere; otherwise you may as well just fall back on the thoroughly colonial pastime of simply speaking more loudly and clearly in the best Queen’s English. You just have to get over the paranoia that when you open your mouth you must sound, to any Italian within earshot, like Dante being hung, drawn and quartered. The Italians, you will soon find, are infinitely forgiving of the heresies committed upon their beautiful language.

We’ve all made mistakes when speaking Italian, but some mistakes are of course more amusing or controversial than others. Not being able to conjugate verbs properly is not exactly a stoning offence, and anyway, the Italians are the first to admit that their grammar is more complex and convoluted than the EU constitution. One has to be careful when approaching the masculine/feminine aspect of the language, as this can lead to far more embarrassing moments. The vast majority of words are safe, but there is a small handful to which attention needs to be paid. A slip between and an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ at the end of a word could mean the difference between asking after the condition of someone’s roof or enquiring rather personally about certain body parts. Hence why the buxom barmaid outside San Gimignano laughed when I informed her that our house was hot because we lived “under the roof”. Just look up tetto and tetta in a dictionary, you will see what I mean…

Pay equal attention to the (usually successful) method of trying to directly translate something that one might say in English. Picture me asking a dozen heavily armed riot police at a football match where I could find the merce, assuming I was asking after the merchandise stand, but in reality was asking where I might buy some drugs. The fact that I was a straniero stood me in good stead that time I can tell you. You can have great fun translating English slang or colloquialisms directly into Italian and then trying them out on your friends (this group is generally preferable to armed personnel) to see if they work. Don’t be surprised to find however, that they look at you blankly when you say “buon uno amico” as this literal translation of “nice one mate” really does not mean much. As for “bless his cotton socks”, I imagine that “benedica le sue calze di cotone” would cause many an old maid to make the sign of the cross and run off to the laundry room. In fact, I’ll go and try it on Antonietta right now…

Local Italian markets (Sagre)

Life in Italy somehow would not be complete without the odd visit to a local sagra, which translates as festival, feast or patron saint’s day. There are so many in every province, let alone every region or the country as a whole, that it is impossible to list them all. There are the obvious ones, which the majority of travellers to Italy will have heard of if not actually been to, such as the now world famous Siena Palio and the barrel rolling in Montepulciano. The latter is quite a spectacle, where teams of 2, dressed in medieval costume and each representing one part of the town, roll huge empty barrels of wine from the bottom of the town to the top square in front of the Duomo. I was not surprised to see a series of Croce Rossa ambulances waiting at the finish line; probably to cart off any young stud who thought himself macho enough complete the course without training and with a 20-a-day habit.

However, there are a myriad of local festivals practically unknown to anyone but the local communities where they have been conceived, brought up and removed from the closet to be brushed off to much applause and gaiety once a year. When I was young I once read that there were more than 15,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, which I dutifully agreed to visit all of. I imagined myself cruising from one to the other in hollowed out logs and living on coconut and papaya, oblivious to the logistics, the sharks and the general impossibility of the task in hand (I have only managed 6 of them to date). I now believe that this undertaking would still be more easily achievable in one man’s lifetime than to visit all of the sagre on the Italian mainland (I don’t even want to imagine how many they have on the islands).

As you can probably imagine, the majority of these events revolve around food, with each one having a specific delicacy as centre stage. Whether or not all these dishes are considered a speciality in their area is never quite certain, though one suspects that one Umbrian sagra dedicated to Spaghetti Carbonara may have come about because the next door village got the monopoly on the real local recipe. There are many events in Cortona throughout the year, but the main foodie event is undoubtedly the Sagra di Bistecca, which occurs each year at Ferragosto. A huge barbecue, the size of a snooker table, is constructed in the public gardens, tents are erected and steaks, wine and chefs are drafted in in obscene quantities. The aftermath of the festival is usually a large hangover and a place for dogs to lick the gravel under the barbecue for weeks ahead. I did not make it to the Sagra della Ranocchia (feast of the frog) this summer, but I am assured that it was tasty beyond my wildest dreams…

What Cortona lacks however, and what most of the smaller festivals have in common, is a serata danzante (evening of dancing), which follows the lengthy eating session during summer events. The exponents of the music itself usually fall into one of two categories: male, with shiny gold or leopard print shirt and shaggy hair reminiscent of early 80s footballers or female, with shiny gold or leopard print shirt and shaggy hair reminiscent of early 80s footballers, only prettier. The last one I went to had both varieties playing together as a duet. What I really admired was the degree to which the captive audience, from the teens to the octogenarians, appeared to know the songs, the lyrics and the moves to anything that is played. Aside from the waltz and the tango, there is an aptitude for line and formation dancing throughout the generations that I only ever witnessed in the UK during the heady days of Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” back in the early 90s. We attempted to join in at a couple of points, but rushed off the floor without raising a sweat, for fear of being arrested for ineptitude. You also have the plain medieval stuff; things that you still find in the far corners the UK as well. Racing disobedient donkeys around an oval circuit, bobbing for apples in water and then flour alternately, is one of my local favourites. At the same festa you can indulge in a bit of old fashioned animal tormenting; betting on which direction a rabbit will run after being placed under a metal bucket which is tapped repeatedly with a stick; heady stuff indeed. Overall the local sagra is a great excuse to get dressed up, eat and drink lots, dance if you feel up to it, gossip with friends and is generally a life-affirming event for any local community. Go to one if you have the chance.


When taking the inaugural flight from Perugia to Stansted last December, I was struck by one of the more interesting forms of Italian group behaviour: the queue. Obviously this was not the first time I had noted the apparent inability to form a coherent line, but it seemed a particularly good case in point. Being with the then 7 month old Cecily Grace, we were able to pre-board (these days you have to pay for the privilege, nothing comes free with our favourite airline anymore of course). Having fought our way to the front of what I can only describe as a rugby scrum to hand in our boarding cards, we were one of the first half a dozen people onto the Tarmac, along with the other people with young children, short tempers and bags under their eyes. Looking back at the glass front of the boarding gate, I half expected to see a couple of less able folks with their faces pressed to the glass and a look of abject terror as they were slowly crushed by the advancing mob of passengers. Once at the foot of the stairs to the plane we had to wait, though, and in the interim the other passengers were let loose from the bulging doors of the passenger lounge. At this point any ideas of pre-boarding privileges went out of the window, as we sharpened our elbows to fight off the hoard of fur-wielding matrons and able-bodied rabble that began to muscle their way to the front. I felt like crying out “trample the weak, trample the weak!” as I locked arms with a like-minded young dad and drove them firmly back into their own half. We eventually made it onto the plane, but not without a fight and a couple of black eyes…

To queue or not to queue? That is the question you must ask yourself the next time you find yourself waiting for something with more than about two other people in the same place. Obviously there are times when a natural order will impose itself upon a situation, such as at the supermarket check-out, but that is about the only place you will find it happening. You see, queuing is about as anathema to the Italians as tea with UHT milk is to the average Brit. Getting one ahead is simply de rigueur and, quite frankly, it does become quite a satisfying art form once you have had time enough to practice a while. One of the best places to practice is at the Posta (Post Office), where only the foolhardy would consider giving precedence to someone who might have been in the room before them. Turn your back for a second to check the weather outside and you risk someone jumping into the spot you had earmarked for yourself amongst the fray. It is a bit like witnessing the confluence of waters at a narrow point in a river, where the tumult of waters presses together for a split second before being forcibly thrust out into the wider world beyond. God forbid that you try and buy a stamp on pensions day.

There are wider connotations to the queue of course, one of which is the exhibition of another very Italian trait, the lack of personal space. Most Brits find the idea of having to squeeze together in a small space with lots of other people decidedly unpleasant, hence why the orderly queue is such a staple of life; nobody wants to be too close to the person in front or behind them. Trying to get into a sport stadium in Italy, for instance, is like one big, communal hug-in; turn around too quickly and you might find yourself accidentally snogging the bloke behind you. This nonchalance about proximity to one’s fellow human beings has other side-effects, such as the chance for young men to nuzzle up behind unsuspecting foreign girls on the train platform (witnessed at Termini station!) If you find yourself alone on a bus, don’t be surprised if the next person to get on ends up sitting thigh-to-thigh with you. This is perhaps just an example of the ease with which the Italians socialise with one another and particularly their ability to speak with total strangers as openly as they might do with their own mothers. Whilst most Brits might loath a journey on the London Underground because of the confined space, so most Italians would probably find the impersonal nature of the other passengers more disconcerting. After all, why sit in silence when you could be discussing football, health and Formula One? This is a manifestation of the openness that often sets the Italians apart from their Northern European neighbours and goes a long way to making Italy such a pleasant place to live.

Italian builders

Working with builders when I first arrived in the Cortona area seven years ago proved to be a real eye-opener, especially language wise, as well as a sharp cultural learning curve. Nothing prepared me for the complexities of the Italian cantiere, or for the laughs that were to be had therein. Having first learnt Italian over in the western half of Tuscany, and grown used to certain inflexions, I found myself thrown mercilessly into the world of Umbrian builders who, to put it delicately, did not speak quite the same language that I was used to. Particularly difficult to get used to were phone calls to builders, where at first much of the content passed over my head in a blur of Umbrian drawl and local dialectic. Once I discovered that there were at least half a dozen words for any one thing on a building site, depending on where the builder hailed from, I was able to get to grips somewhat more quickly. On the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum was the technical jargon that made up the Computo Metrico Estimativo (building quote), that made me come over quite faint when I was first presented with one for translation. Any readers who have ever had occasion to read through one of these tomes will hopefully empathise. Certain of the riper phrases that I picked up on building sites, and later tried out on unsuspecting neighbours and colleagues, were normally greeted with the Italian equivalent of “one does not say that in polite company”. So I soon learnt to store these tit bits of rudeness into my mental Italian thesaurus, saving them gleefully for occasions when dismay and/or irritation needed to be fully aired in one’s best colloquial vocabulary.

In my experience both British and Italian building sites tend to be similar in terms of the language one expects to hear, although I don’t think you would find your local bricky bringing every animal under the sun (and the Madonna’s virtue) into question with the quite the same regularity that his Italian counterparts do. There is, however, one factor that very definitely sets apart the two cultures and that is: LUNCH. By and large the Italians take as much pride and care when eating on a building site as they might do at home for Sunday lunch with the family. I have seen all manner of makeshift kitchens cobbled together from ancient fridges and gas stoves, tables made simply from building blocks and scaffold planking. Depending on the state of the house they are working on, the building crew might even be lucky enough to set up camp in a room with a fireplace, ensuring even more salubrious surroundings than usual. No matter that there might not be a roof on the house, or that Arctic winds are blasting through the windowless openings, making any work a misery; as long as there is a sealable room on the premises, it will become the canteen.

Not a cheese and pickle sandwich in sight, or a mug of hot tea or a can of Coke. These guys do the whole show, the full monty; antipasti, primi and secondi, local wine and freshly brewed coffee to wrap up, as well as a grappa, obviously. One of my best memories from my years of restoring houses was a particularly whopper lunch that took place one day in the old kitchen of a house undergoing a full restoration. As I recall it was the only room on the first floor that actually had a floor at the time, so some care needed to be taken to avoid walking through the wrong doorways. Taking pride of place on the makeshift table was a whole spit-roasted piglet, ordered the previous day from a chap with a local monopoly on such things. Bruschetta with home-grown olive oil to start; spaghetti with aglio, olio e peperoncino to follow; rounded off with the fennel and rosemary stuffed porchetta with a side dish of spinach. All washed down with copious quantities of that hairs-on-your-chest type of local red wine, sipped from plastic cups, seated on dusty building blocks or bags of cement, enjoying the sun through the window and generally wondering if I would achieve any more work for the rest of the day. How could you beat that? One did have to wonder how accurately the walls and floors could possibly be constructed after such an indulgent feast at this hour, as well as hoping the builders had the nimble footing necessary for the dizzying heights of the four storey roof construction, but somehow they always did manage it. With this in mind, I wandered off to nurse my full stomach in peace and leave the experts to get on with the real work.

Italy and Italians

I thought it about time that I put fingertip to keyboard in recognition of the institution that is the Italian barbiere. The first barber shops in Rome have been traced to the 3rd century BC, so you could say the Italians have had a lot of practice! Back in those days the slaves were bearded, whilst freemen were expected to be clean-shaven; these days the majority opt for the smooth approach. The full beard is rarely seen these days, but new slants on the traditional goatee have reached endemic proportions, with the Azzurri (Italy’s national football team) being largely responsible for many of the latest trends.

My barber occupies a prime site in the centre of the Via Nazionale in Cortona, flanked by chic bars, jewellers and fashion parlours, right in the middle of the passeggiata. All Cortona strolls by each day, peering through the plate glass. Inside they see a functional, unadorned room; bright lighting, a couple of old barbers’ chairs, newspapers and the usual barber shop paraphernalia. However, there is intangible mystery. Why this exalted site? Why always so busy? For the most part the customers are men in suits, or the pastel-shaded jumpers so beloved of the wealthy Tuscan gent, and their hair is already perfectly crafted. A small queue forms long before the door opens. Those in the know lean round, and are invited to return in, say, 35 minutes. It took many trims to see through the looking glass. This is more than just a place to get your hair cut. It is an institution, a comfort stop in the life of the ufficiale; the doctors, lawyers, accountants and commandanti who run Cortona and every other provincial town from Alto-Adige to Calabria. Here they take a break from busy schedules to look their best, to relax and chat discreetly, or not so discreetly as the case may be...

With a stiffener in the bar next door in I go, with awe and trepidation. Scissors flash in mid air. Combs lined with razors subdue the thickest barnet. Friends stand in the door to chat, whilst an eye is always kept out for the more scantily clad foreign students. I panic inwardly about the maestro’s concentration. But the show goes on regardless. I tend to only go for the basic haircut, but I have seen older gents receiving all sorts of bizarre treatments heretofore unknown to me. Useful hairs, the ones that might stop spiders crawling into one’s nose or ears, are attacked without mercy, usually with a lightning snip, sometimes barbecued in a terrifying whirl of flaming cotton wool and methylated spirit. Perhaps I have a few years ahead of me before I am able to enjoy these particular mysteries of the barber’s shop, but I find them fascinating to watch. Out comes the cut-throat razor and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention before being whipped away in a matter of seconds, leaving the skin almost smarting from its new exposure to the air. A final aromatic spray, and the performance ends. I retire to the bar to recover, and to check that the back of my head does not look like a receding duck. But the finish is always impeccable. A good trim can last for weeks, the experience far longer.

Whilst sitting in the leather throne, one can hear snippets of the most remarkable gossip. Perhaps the assumption is that, being a straniero (foreigner), I will not understand or be remotely interested in the identity of Signora X’s latest amante, or that Signor Y has decided to trade in his own signora for a younger model. It is a fiercely masculine domain, with marital gossip making way for the inevitable discussions about the Italian males’ three favourite topics (other than ladies of course): football, politics and food, in that order. It seems that the all-male sanctity of the barber’s shop is drawing the younger generation of Italians. Whilst the older generation have long enjoyed the relaxing ritual of the cut-throat shave, with its hot towels, thorough soaping and the nerve-wracking flick of the razor in a stranger’s hands, it seems that this small indulgence is making a comeback with today’s would-be Lotharios. What better way to hit the town on a date with Maria than pay a trip to the barber’s at lunchtime to ensure that the smooth look lasts well into the evening? So the next time you find yourself in Italy and feel the need for a little pampering, put down your copy of GQ and head to the nearest barbiere for a spot of old-fashioned treatment. Don’t do it if you are in a hurry however; as with all the best things in Italian life, apart from Ferraris, these things must never be rushed if they are to be enjoyed.

Driving in Italy

Picture, if you will, exiting Pisa airport in your newly rented Renault Twingo; it is your first time driving in Italy... You have negotiated the rental queues and decided, perhaps against your better judgment, to proceed straight to the car instead of knocking back the double coffee that you probably needed after your 4am wake up and bleary-eyed drive to Stansted. At once confident yet somehow dreading the drive ahead, your left hand hits your door as you reach for a gear stick that is not there. After making a vain attempt to disguise this glaring mistake from your fellow passengers, and this time using your right hand, you urge the car into 3rd as you get onto the slip road for the superstrada. You look in your wing mirror and spot a lone car, probably an Alfa, approaching at great speed in the inside lane. Assuming that the Alfa will pull into the fast lane to facilitate your entry onto the motorway, you confidently accelerate, only to discover that the Alfa has no intention of pulling over and that, in fact, you must screech to a grinding halt and wait your turn. Welcome to the wonderful world of Italian driving, where few rules apply and the usual habits of road safety are curiously absent.

This is not to say that the Italians are bad drivers of course, rather that there is a controlled abandon to their driving that the uninitiated, at first experience, may find somewhat humbling. So, your Twingo has made its way shakily onto the superstrada, heading for Florence, and you are quietly availing yourself of the car’s abilities and, probably, its incapacity to accelerate faster than your sit-on lawnmower. Stopping en route for a coffee break at one of the many petrol stations along the way, you note the Alfa that caused your initial fright at the beginning of the journey. The driver, late twenties with dark hair and darker shades, is filling up with petrol whilst simultaneously puffing on a cigarette and shouting into his mobile at someone whom he obviously considers to be some sort of idiot. Brushing aside your anxieties you hit the road once more, this time careful to avoid the assumption that someone will actually let you onto the motorway in front of them. Whilst overtaking your hundredth lorry, creeping past on a bend with a few inches to spare on either side, you glance at the rearview mirror and, behold, Alfa-man is back. There appears to be no outward sign of his slowing down as he careers towards the backside of your trembling Twingo, halogen headlights flashing, and then suddenly the lights are gone. Can he have disappeared, somehow found a third lane to undertake you in? No, he is so close to your back bumper that you cannot see his headlights anymore. Urging your poor lawnmower on to an almost impossible shriek, you attempt to overtake faster; after all, you can’t pull over into the truck can you, even though that appears to be what Alfa-man wishes you to do. A gap appears up ahead and you, your lawnmower and its now sweating passengers breathe a collective sigh of relief as Alfa-man whisks past in a flurry of petrol and tobacco fumes. Do not worry, a few miles up ahead you will find him parked behind a Carabinieri car with lights flashing; a hefty fine and a few points on the license, lovely.

Back when Charlie and I lived in San Gimignano and worked as travel reps, we used to advise our clients on day trips to see the nearby towns and cities. When Florence came up, the advice was always the same; park at Piazzale Michelangelo and walk down into town, thus avoiding the hazards of the “ten-lanes-no-lines” fiasco that one finds in and around the centre. Even my father, a seasoned driver who knows every conceivable route to anywhere in mainland Britain, was reduced to a wreck in the passenger seat of my car as we blithely slalomed across traffic, negotiating Florence’s insane and ever changing one-way system. However, once you have mastered the combined arts of acceleration over braking, courageous use of lateral movement and never allowing too much space to develop between you and the car in front, then driving in Florence or any other major Italian city can actually be quite fulfilling. Even the country roads are not devoid of excitement. Take the omnipresent white Fiat Panda with its octogenarian driver, mix it with Alfa-man, a couple of Porsches and a few tractors for good measure, shake them all up together, add the cigarettes, mobile phones and an unwillingness to use indicators properly and you have a recipe for countless pleasant journeys. Just don’t forget: give an Italian an inch and he’ll park in it.

To dress or not to an Italian

For those very few of you who have never had the pleasure of visiting Italy, you may not be aware of the extent to which fashion grips the average Italian. Take a look at any fashion magazine and you are likely to find that half a dozen of the first pages are Italian brands with slick ads for sunglasses, footwear and fashion. From these images one could be forgiven for assuming that every Italian looks like an extra in a Prada shoot. This is not quite the case, but there is a consciousness about dress that is omnipresent and all-pervading. I recently saw a quiz show on television where the contestant had to choose the fashion “no-no” from the four options given to him; I think the correct answer was the wearing of Bermuda shorts with a sock/trainer combo. Although some people may think that shorts with white socks and trainers is rather fetching as a weekend-strolling-by-the-river sort of outfit, you will not find the average Italian debasing their fashion conscience with such sordid informality. No, over here it seems you either dress up or stay at home.

When we look back at photos of our first years in Italy, we realise that we have not managed to escape the Italianisation of our own dress sense. When we arrived in Italy in the hot summer of 1999, our clothing tastes owed much more to a love of retro 70’s tracksuit tops and flared cords than to the glossy boutiques of Florence or Rome. Whilst these glossy boutiques are still slightly out of range, we have certainly begun to dress up rather than down. Seven years ago the idea of wearing beige suede, slip-on driving moccasins, without socks, would have filled me with horror. These days no summer is complete without them; I am even wearing them right now. The fact that my friends back in the UK really are filled with horror when they see me sporting these most Italian items of footwear means that I have to be careful when packing for trips back.

OK, so I may be guilty of dressing up occasionally and trying to look like I might have just stepped off a yacht in Porto Ercole, but there are certain things at which I try to draw the line. One of these things is the Italian preoccupation for logos; all shapes and sizes, almost exclusively written in English and often brilliantly misspelled. Whereas for most Brits a trip to Italy may be a dream holiday, whether for culture and history or food and wine, for countless young Italians the reverse is true. Ask many of them and their life dream is to visit England (especially London), the country of “Laddy Dee” (Lady Diana), the true pint, “ooligans” and the promise of unbeatable fashion. They may not think much of our food, but they do seem to think that Inghilterra is at the summit of trend in many other ways. This is evidenced by the profligate use of Union Jacks and English witticisms on clothing, that are either unintelligible, or else only wearable if the owner does not understand what is written on his or her chest. Much of this trend derives from sportswear and the now internationally recognized team/country/club polo shirts or track tops. One of the main exponents of this fashion genre was an upmarket polo label from South America, but cheap copies have now spread in terrifying proportions to local street markets up and down Italy. Walk down any large Corso on a weekend afternoon and you will be hard pushed not to spot a variety of outfits expressing the bearer’s allegiance to such delights as the “Fotbol teem Kuala Lumpur”; with a Union Jack on one sleeve and probably a Rising Sun on the other, just for good measure.

There are of course other trends that set the Italians apart from the rest. On your travels you may be lucky enough to spot a “logo folder”; the phenomenon whereby a jumper tied at the waist is carefully folded such that the logo is showing at the front for all to see. Alternatively you may remark on the slavish adherence to the seasons; how the winter jackets come out on 1st of November whether the winter has arrived or not. Whatever the weather, there really is not much room here for slouching and in this sense we poor foreigners tend to stand out like proverbial thumbs. As hard as you try, you just cannot quite carry it off like the Italians do. If you cannot walk the passeggiata with a polo shirt emblazoned with “Soccen League Champion Ship”, or you lack the essential summer slip-on driving shoes, then at least try to do one thing: avoid the shorts with socks combo.

Having children in Italy

Perhaps it is the phenomenon of “mammaioni” that helps us understand the fantastic attitude that Italians have towards children. A “mammaione” is probably best translated as “Mother’s boy” and sums up perfectly the startling dependence that many people here, but particularly men, have on their mothers. Whilst driving around a few years ago we heard an article on the radio regarding the intense traffic in and around Milan every lunch time on weekdays. Undoubtedly there is a morning rush hour in this great financial capital, as there is in any other important city, but the lunchtime rush needs special explanation. Reporters had conducted brief interviews with the drivers of the near stationary cars, noting the age and sex of the occupants and asking their destinations. The results were conclusive; some 70% of the cars contained a single man, aged between about 25 and 40, on his way to have lunch at his mother’s house. Quite what effect this kind of daily mass exodus would have on London does not even bear thinking about.

As amusing and alien as we might find this however, it gives an insight into one of the strongest links in the Italian social fabric: family. Some 95% of Italians sit down for Sunday lunch with relatives every week. Our next door neighbours are testament to this every Sunday, with son and daughter bringing their spouses and children to eat at midday, without fail, every week. We have hardly begun to even think about lunch before they all drift off for an afternoon of football, hunting or Grand Prix viewing. I once asked our neighbour, Antonietta, if she enjoyed cooking for the whole family every weekend, to which her reply was that she liked having them all over, she did not really like all the cooking but, who else would do it? As the matriarch of family, the responsibility falls to her, but then, she would not want it any other way.

We had always watched this familial activity from afar, until the 10th of May this year when all of that changed for good, with the arrival of Cecily Grace at the hospital near Montepulciano. It had became clear, when Charlie started showing obvious signs of a bump, that her stomach was no longer her own, private possession, but was in fact public property, to be touched and cooed over at every given opportunity. One Sunday at church our family priest Don Giuseppe proudly declared it was to be a “bella feminuccia” and so it was that God had spoken and it was indeed a little girl.

Having Cecily was to prove the key to the Italians’ hearts. A lady who generally wears an almost impenetrable mask of distaste, for which we coined the phrase “lemon lips”, smiled for possibly the first time in her life on meeting her. People whom we knew only well enough to greet in passing on the street were suddenly stopping us for a peek, eager to see a new baby. Even the usually too-cool teenagers displayed their future parental skills. On one particularly fateful trip to the supermarket, Cecily decided she had had enough, causing much fuss and almost bringing the roof down on our fellow shoppers. Preparing ourselves, in a thoroughly British way, for an embarrassing few minutes standing in the long queue, we were surprised to find people parting the way and ushering us past them in a sort of Moses/Red Sea fashion. Whilst one lady took it upon herself to grab the baby and attempt to calm her down whilst we hurriedly threw our shopping onto the conveyor, the cashier neatly packed everything for us and even helped us to the car, leaving the other shoppers waiting at the till.

A trip to the UK during the summer cemented what we had already experienced at home in Italy: that the Italians are just so interested in children and everything about them. Whilst we always try to be conscientious towards others wherever we take our little daughter, it is simply the case that in Italy you are welcome almost anywhere. Tables and chairs are shifted in restaurants to make way for the pushchair, whilst ordering anything takes twice as long as before, due to the now-expected questions and well-intentioned advice from all and sundry. This is not to say that our fellow Britons are not keen on babies, just that nobody seems to notice them in quite the same way. This was further proved when we flew back to Italy a couple of weeks later. We held our breath as the stony-faced passport controller intently surveyed her brand new passport, only to be asked to hold her up so he could get a closer look at the little “principessa”, then waved on with the sort of smile probably only reserved for his own children. Italians may joke that “la festa è finita” (the party’s over) when you have children, but they certainly don’t live like they mean it.

Bright Lights in Italy

“Per bellezza” was what the chap said, whilst sipping Campari from a green-stemmed cocktail glass. It was a windy February evening some years ago in a local bar, sometime before midnight. It could not have been darker and the wearing of sunglasses could not have been more unnecessary; especially sunglasses that had no apparent tint in the lenses whatsoever. On being asked why he was wearing transparent shades that offered no shade and were clearly not designed to make driving any safer, his reply was, as I have already mentioned, “per bellezza”. The only true translation of this statement is “for beauty”. Unable to construct a relevant or timely response to this, I decided simply to nod agreement; for beauty, how obvious. Were British and Italian attitudes to eyewear really that diverse? I tried to imagine myself in the same ‘sunglasses’, sitting with some old friends over a quiet pint in an English country pub, calmly explaining that my glasses were the result of the sole necessity to look cool and offered me no effective benefit. I realised that this situation would never arise; it just isn’t possible to get away with that sort of self-image in the UK, unless you are a Big Brother contestant of course, in which case it is probably a prerequisite.

The wearing of sunglasses is a fact of life here in Italy; it just is sunny almost all the time, and the Italians are very conscious about their UV protection. Your average British high street might have an optician, with wall to wall frames for reading glasses and a slim selection of shades; which is perhaps why most Brits buy their shades in fashion shops or chain stores. In comparison every provincial Italian town will have at least one optician selling a remarkable range of UV- approved sunnies, from the genuinely cool to the sublimely ridiculous. Though huge sunglasses have only recently become de rigueur accessories and trademarks for celebrity types, for years now Italians seem to have functioned on a ‘the bigger the better’ ethos. Perhaps the biggest exponents of this art are policemen or, more especially, policewomen. Tottering on heels down stone-paved streets in navy-blue uniform, with a white topped hat perched above a mane of highly kempt chestnut hair, whilst sporting a handgun and an enormous pair of black Chanel sunnies is par for the course, believe it or not. The fur coat brigade of older ladies have long been wearing their own mothers’ original sunglasses, often the size of saucers, that were once considered terribly outdated but have recently been made fashionable again by the likes of Kate Moss. Who would have thought that Granny’s shades could ever be hip again?

However, how you wear your sunnies appears to be just as important as their brand or their size. Charlie recently tried on a girlfriend’s glasses, only to find that the arms didn’t reach her ears. It transpired that said glasses had spent about 90% of their life perched atop her head and, therefore, whether they fitted or not was irrelevant. In fact, Italians have a wide range of innovative ways of wearing shades that look neither comfortable nor practical. Hanging the glasses from your ears so that they hang down just below your chin seems to be a local favourite. There is also the bizarre trend of placing one arm of the glasses in the right ear and letting the other rest on your left jawbone, so that the glasses hang across your face in what we suppose is meant to be a ‘jaunty angle’. It is this trend towards wearing vastly expensive designer shades anywhere other than in front of your eyes that really sets the Italians apart. Bronzed beach hunks; the kind that manage to spend two months by the sea with no discernible means of support and who achieve a depth of tan unreachable to most of the population, can often be seen squinting their way across the beach with their D&Gs tucked into the back of their Sundek swimmers.

When you consider that an Italian, on average, spends double what northern European nationals spend on a pair of sunglasses, you have to marvel at their tenacity in keeping themselves at the cutting edge of fashion and self-grooming. But then, they say that the sex-appeal of the classic Latin lover is largely determined by his sunglasses, which may go a long way to explaining all of the above. So, when compiling a list of all things quintessentially Italian, remember to keep sunglasses close to the top of the list. Football, coffee and fast cars may be amongst their greatest exports, but none of these would be half as glam without a pair of “Made in Italy” designer shades close at hand.

Fiat 500 Giardiniera

One of our age old dreams came to fruition this year: to own an original Fiat 500. You will have all seen them many, many times; on trips to Italy, in old films or simply rusting away in half-collapsed barns. The shape is so well known that it surely must be one of the most distinctive symbols of Italian culture and design in the 20th century. If “The Italian Job” had been an Italian film it would most certainly have featured Marcello Mastroianni and 3 Cinquecenti in red, white and green in place of Michael Caine and his iconic Minis. In fact legend has it that the Fiat 500 was due to be used for the famous chase sequence, but the Mini burst onto the scene just in time. Like the British Mini, the Fiat Cinquecento has stood the test of time and remains to this day one of the most loved vehicles for all generations of Italians. Many of the older generation still own the Cinquecento that they bought as their first vehicle back in the Sixties; cars that have doubtlessly been to the local market and back close on a million times, and which are unlikely to have ever been taken over 50km/h. On the other end of the scale are the young boy racers who, not content with a Fiesta XR2i or souped up Vauxhall Nova, are turning to restoring old 500s with Abarth or Giannini racing additions for their kicks and weekend wheels. So what better year to invest than the 50th anniversary year of the Nuova 500 and the launch of the new 500 this year?

We have always harboured a vaguely obsessive and financially suicidal attraction to old cars, especially the Fiat Cinquecento. But there, sitting forlornly beneath a layer of pine needles in the local carrozzeria forecourt (body shop or panel-beaters), was a Cinquecento with what appeared to be an extension at the back. We had never clapped eyes on one before and almost caused a pile up as we screeched to a halt and pulled in to the entrance. The boss informed us that this was one of the last of the Fiat 500 Giardiniere (estate versions of the usual 500), was owned by a local family of some standing and was, regrettably for my wallet it turned out, for sale… Now, we decided not to tell our parents about this latest dream vehicle too hastily, having grown used to glazed eyes or strained phone silences at the mention of any vehicle that did not run and required “a bit of work”. The stationary (and rusting) 1976 Mercedes camper van, sat in my poor parents’ back garden for years, stands as unwavering testimony to our first youthful foray into classic car buying. Youngsters eh, they just don’t think ahead do they?

Informing Charlie a few days later that we should leave this one alone, that it was not the best time for us to be throwing money at a 40 year old rust bucket the size of a Matchbox car, I hatched my devious plan. After nearly 20 separate trips to the garage and an extensive restoration, it was ready to be driven away. A Ferrari red child seat was fixed in the back, matching the original upholstery, the new roof was pulled back and, yes, it started first time! Having never driven such an old motor, the chap had to teach me the routine of double de-clutching, as I crunched the old dear on its first test drive around the Umbrian countryside. The surprise gift worked a treat; by some fluke I had managed to keep the secret for all those months and Charlie was suitably dumbfounded at her new run-around. Having the Giardiniera certainly turns heads, we discovered to our pleasure as we drove it into Cortona for the first time. Even the guys with flashy 4x4s and sports cars were looking over their shoulders enviously, as they realised that it was actually cool to be small. We are often accosted by people asking after the car; how old is it, what is it and, most predominantly, how much did it cost? Perhaps the most unique feature of the Giardiniera is the doors, which open the opposite way to all other cars, and have been labelled “suicide doors”. They do have a positive side however, as long as you are a man; the Giardiniera used to be beloved of all young men back in the Sixties apparently, because young ladies alighting from the car could not help but flash their undies on the way out… The Fiat 500 in all its forms, from its original manifestation in 1957 to its decommissioning only 20 years later, brings to mind nostalgia for the Dolce Vita, Fellini films, the boom years, Sofia Loren and everything else that is Italian and good to look at.


Having missed the chance in 2006, due to the arrival of the young Cecily Grace, we could not wait to fill the car to the brim and head off to the west coast for a bit of beach action this summer. Leaving the vaguely threatening skies of Cortona behind, we hit the road, deeply glad that the superstrada to Siena was now complete to at least 90%; construction having started probably sometime before we were born. Being a weekday, we were lucky and escaped the usual misery of the Siena-Grosseto road; from June to the end of August only the Italian legal system moves slower than the traffic on this stretch. The route takes you through some of the most unspoilt and beautiful Tuscan countryside, blissfully unknown to the main tourist routes and offering splendid vistas towards the distant coast and the sprawling pine forests that characterise much of it. We were going, as the Italians can often be heard to say, al mare.

Loading ourselves up with the usual beach accoutrements, plus the half ton of extras necessary for the contentment of a small child on the cusp of walking, we head through the pine wood to the sand. We trudge past the umbrella-less youngsters on the free beach, me struggling with the “off-road” pushchair in the deep sand and looking for all the world like I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of near useless Weimar Republic banknotes, through a swamp, to the bakers. Time was that we would have been on that stretch of beach too; eschewing the costly pleasures of the Lido for the dubious right to free bathing without shade, clean sand or loos. But no, a combination of encroaching old age and parental practicality has us reaching for the wallet at the slightest hint of such discomfort; hence our beeline for the Lido Alessandro. On hearing the price of a day’s hire of an umbrella and two sun loungers, I consider asking the beach attendant if they accept wire transfer, or if perhaps there might be any holidaying mortgage brokers on this spread of beach who could hook me up with an instant loan. After all, I am only there to attain a slightly deeper hue of redness, with which to convince my contemporaries back home of the bella vita out here. After a swift call to the bank to arrange crisis funds, we settle back onto Alessandro’s sun loungers and wonder whether the great man moors his yacht at Cap Ferrat or Grand Cayman; we settle on both.

This trade in beach space is serious business; short of a major sea level rise, algae outbreaks or Etna obscuring the sun in a cloud of volcanic ash, nothing will stop the beaches being full to bursting point over the height of summer. Whether holiday makers actually enjoy themselves or not, seems to be up for discussion. Historically the Italians are a well traveled nationality, but these days only about a quarter of Italians take their holidays abroad. Of the remainder who stay at home, a large number will head for the same resort every year, most likely to the same hotel or campsite and possibly even booking the same sun loungers at the same Lido. This in turn creates a massive pressure to enjoy oneself, which one imagines to be difficult when faced with the same faces year in, year out. In many respects however, the Italians prefer familiarity and routine. This may have accounted for the episode I witnessed a few years ago, when a lady proceeded to inform anyone who would listen to her, as well as those who would not, that some young folk had had the effrontery to park their beach towels in front of her spot. I mean, can you imagine the horror? Awoken from my sun-induced slumber an hour or so later, I noticed that she had only just made it to the third row of ombrelloni, with no sign of stopping.

Of course, continuity does have its advantages; children can make lifelong friends at the beach, growing up together and remaining in contact even if their parents only see one another once a year for a fortnight. This is especially the case for the wealthier families, who for years have been sending wives and children al mare for most of the summer, with the husbands coming down for weekends. Due to the sheer number of kiddies, the beach proved to be an absolute winner with Cecily, who had an entourage of bronzed toddlers around her only minutes after we had made our contribution to Alessandro’s yacht fund. There is a spirit of camaraderie by the sea here that is difficult to describe, a sense that everyone is in it together. At the end of the day, this probably sums up life in Italy better than anything else.

Festa della donna

There are many symbols in modern Italy that have become synonymous with the country and being Italian; to my mind one of these is Mimosa, that bright yellow seasonal flower that has come to embody the day known as the “Festa della Donna”, otherwise known as International Women’s Day. The origins of this day are not entirely black and white. That the day is synonymous with female empowerment in the modern age is without question, although it predates the feminist movement by half a century or more. There is more than a fair share of politics thrown into the mix too; some of its early origins place it at the beginning of the Russian revolution, with protests by women marking the early stages of the Bolshevik uprising. The date of March the 8th began just a few years before the First World War, when women, who had become an integral part of the industrial age workforce, were campaigning fervently for better pay and working conditions. However, what began as a fundamentally socialist ideal, a “militant celebration” for “proletarian sisters” as a Russian revolutionary deemed it, and revived again by the feminist movement of the Sixties, has now become somewhat more commercial in nature, at least in Italy.

In truth, the reality of the “Festa della Donna” in modern Italy is really one great big, nationwide, oestrogen-fuelled hen night. This may be a slight exaggeration, but it probably makes for better reading and, besides, some of the stories I have heard cannot be put to print here… Traditionally on the 8th of March ladies from Piemonte to Puglia are bestowed with small, neatly crafted bunches of the yellow flower Mimosa, their stems wrapped in aluminium foil and, on occasion, couched in mouse-sized wicker baskets for added effect. The plant originates from South America, where the flowers were gifted upon news of engagement to be married. The same symbolism is at play here too, although being engaged to someone is not a prerequisite for receipt of the above-mentioned wicker basketry. Indeed any close relationship with a woman, whether she is your wife, lover, mother or work colleague, requires a man to do the honourable thing and cough up the flowers. Naturally if a man were to forget to buy some mimosa for his wife, it would be tantamount to a request for divorce, such is its importance. One can almost picture the florists rubbing their little green hands at the beginning of their lucrative annual trade of plucking, wrapping and miniature-basket weaving.

So, the flower giving tends to get done during the day, but it is what goes on at night that really demands closer inspection. Getting a table in a restaurant, for a man or men, on March the 8th is a bit like trying to find a decent, family run restaurant in Rome in the middle of August: almost impossible. For those of you who have not been to Rome in August, anything even vaguely authentic is closed, because the owners are lying on the beach, leaving the steaming city to us poor foreigners. On Ladies’ Day, everything is booked up well in advance and the country’s men folk are consigned to the kitchen at home. Of course, in true Italian fashion, the women have usually cooked the men’s dinner prior to donning glad rags and hitting the town; after all, men cannot be trusted to buttare la pasta and feed themselves properly can they? Restaurants, bars and clubs are festooned with the omnipresent yellow blooms and set menus echo with the clichéd names of girl-orientated antipasti and cocktails. From the way some of these ladies behave, one really does get the impression that they are only allowed out this one night of the year, such is the revelry that these testosterone-free tables incite. A friend told me that the first time she went to one of these evenings, she was stunned by the sight of 60 year old ladies creating phallic symbols from table napkins and talking, it seemed almost exclusively, about you-know-what. Once dinner is over the groups usually adjourn to a club, where a male stripper is, naturally, the order of the evening. The hysteria that this apparently creates sounds akin to a hundred Chippendales shows back to back. On Charlie’s first (and last) March the 8th, the stripper, apparently drafted in at the last minute as a replacement, hopped whilst removing his socks and then proceeded to neatly fold each item of clothing onto his chair after removal. Men are only allowed into these establishments after midnight, by which time, one can only guess, finding a new lady friend might just be the opposite of finding a decent place to eat in Rome in the middle of August…

Friday 13th

Friday the 13th, at least for Brits, is generally considered to be, at the very least, inauspicious. Fortunately for the Italians, the opposite is the case, with the 13th considered a good date for events to fall upon. So it was that on Friday the 13th of October 2006 one of the oldest institutions in the small community of Pergo, just outside Cortona, closed its doors for good. Giorgio and Marcella have run a bar, or shop, or both, in Pergo for fifty years now and the aforementioned institution has been on its present site since the early Seventies. As with many of the bars to be found in small Italian communities, the bar also acts as a tabaccheria (tobacconist) and edicola (newsagent), though the main purpose of its existence has undoubtedly always been to shell out caffè, grappa and Campari sodas in indecent quantities, as well as the ubiquitous (and quite incredibly cheap) local red wine, to anyone who has the stomach lining hard enough to deal with it. The bar has always been the focus of life here, with a great cross-section of regulars wondering in and out throughout the long day. Fortune had it that Giorgio’s three daughters, Stefania, Cristina and Rosanna were keen to follow the family business, allowing him to eat and catch some sleep at least some of the time. There are a lot of builders around here and they probably account for the majority of the business (they being the ones who consume most of the Campari and grappa), as well as the colour of the language that can often be heard flying about the place. It only ceases when the friendly local priest, Don Giuseppe, enters for a morning caffè, though he has probably heard it all before in his own fifty years in the village.

We have been frequenting the bar, affectionately nicknamed PB (Pergo Bar), for over six years now. When we lived in the centre of Cortona we only ever used to drop by on our way to or from work, but after moving out to the Pergo area two summers ago, we become, we like to think, regulars. Despite the fact that we showed our faces in there just about every day for two years however, did not deter Giorgio from failing to remember our names and insisting, still to this day, in using the formal Lei term when speaking to us. We realized that tradition was too entrenched to change his ways, so eventually stopped trying to convince him to refer to us in the normal tu (you) form. We grew to enjoy the many little idiosyncrasies of our beloved PB; the strip lighting which reminded me of one of my earliest memories, being wheeled on a bed through a hospital corridor aged three; the fact that there was not really anywhere to sit inside; the extensive hardcore porn collection nestling side by side with magazines about hunting dogs, rifles and Christmas recipe ideas. If there were more than two non-Italians sitting at a table together, their drinks would all be written down under the simple heading “stranieri” (foreigners), leading to complicated paying procedures and a bit of confused wallet shuffling. A visiting friend who had ordered a round of drinks was even written down as “straniero con cappello”, foreigner with hat.

So now PB, officially known as Bar La Dogana (due to its being on an old boundary line), has closed to make way for an extension of the next door mini-market. Where there were once groups of old-timers playing briscola, a local card game we have never managed to learn, there may now be rows of tomato paste. Along the ‘corridor’ section of the bar where the local lads used to squeeze in to watch heated Fiorentina matches, there will probably be a vast assortment of cleaning fluids and mop handles. We are sure to find out soon enough. Fortunately all is not lost for the Perghesi, as the ‘Andry’ Bar on the other side of the road opened its doors for its grand inaugurazione on the 14th. In Giorgio and Marcella’s place we now have Eddo and Patrizia, who chose to name their new bar after their son Andrea. There is no longer a ‘football corridor’, but a snazzy new seating arrangement, a shiny, modern bar and a loo that seems to be more like room temperature than fridge, it even has a window. There are many vestiges of the old local; the racy mags still sit alongside Hunter’s Weekly, the usual punters are crowding around for pre-lunch Campari and Cristina is carrying on the family tradition by continuing to work with the New Kids. Good luck to the Andry Bar, Eddo and Patrizia, as without them the place would never be quite the same. We may even see Giorgio propping up the bar from the other side. Either way, we look forward to many good times to come, glad that, in the grand scheme of things, nothing has really changed that much at all.

Pintoricchio Herald Tribune by Roderrick Conway Morris

If we were to believe the 16th-century Florentine art historian Giorgio Vasari, Pintoricchio was simply lucky to have enjoyed the success he did - an unlikely scenario, given the intensity of the artistic competition in Italy in the late 15th and early 16th century.

Vasari, of course, tended to denigrate anything that did not emanate from Florence. But in the case of the Perugian-born Pintoricchio, he was especially negative, and omitted, for example, any mention of the artist's impressive frescoes at Spello, a hilltop town near Perugia.

Pintoricchio was the "third man" of the trio of major artists that emerged from this region during this period - the others being Perugino and Raphael - but has long been the least appreciated.

Now some 550 years after his birth (he was born in the second half of the 1450s), he is the subject of the first solo retrospective ever devoted to him, in his birthplace and other local venues (which continue until June 29). "Pintoricchio," at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia, expertly curated by Vittoria Garibaldi and Francesco Federico Mancini, contains most of the artist's moveable works from collections around the world. A second, also very revealing exhibition, "Pintoricchio and the Minor Arts," curated by Mirko Santanicchia, is being staged simultaneously at the Civic Art Gallery at Spello, next door to the Santa Maria Maggiore church, in which the Cappella Baglioni (or Capella Bella as it is familiarly known) frescoes, overlooked by Vasari, are located.

The Spello show opens with a section on the 1907 "Antique Umbrian Arts" exhibition at Perugia, an important event in reviving awareness of the region's considerable contribution to both the fine and decorative arts of the Renaissance that attracted 30,000 visitors. Pintoricchio's painting, in contrast to that of Perugino and Raphael, is marked by an extraordinary close attention to detail - from fabrics and costume accessories to everyday domestic objects and landscape - rendered with consummate skill. And the rest of the Spello exhibition goes on artfully to illustrate how lovingly Pintoricchio depicted the contemporary material world and how craftsmen in turn drew on his paintings for decorative ideas in fields as diverse as ceramics, woodcarving, metalwork and textiles.

The decade before the 1907 show was notable for a sudden flurry of interest in Pintoricchio. This was substantially stimulated by Pope Leo XIII's decision in 1897 to reopen and restore the Borgia Apartments at the Vatican. These rooms had been frescoed by Pintoricchio after Rodrigo Borgia's election as Alexander VI in 1492. In 1503, his successor, Julius II, had them closed off and took up residence on the floor above. The former living quarters of Alexander, the most notorious of all the Renaissance popes, remained sealed off for nearly 400 years.

Rome was the making of Bernardino di Betto, nicknamed Pintoricchio (variously spelled Pinturicchio and Penturicchio), "the little painter," a reference possibly to his small stature or precocity as an artistic prodigy. His initial apprenticeship was almost certainly as a miniaturist in the studio of Bartolomeo Caporali, on the same street as the house of his father, a poor wool worker. Two of Pintoricchio's exquisite panels of the Virgin and Child here (one from Philadelphia and another from Valencia) show Mary holding open a book, while the Christ child, brush in hand, illuminates the text. Indeed, books figure regularly in his oeuvre, a reference perhaps to his early training and to his pride in acquiring an education despite the disadvantages of his humble birth. The artist's self-portrait in the Spello frescoes includes not only an emblematic arrangement of paintbrushes but a trompe l'oeil shelf with four books and half-burnt down candle indicating nocturnal study.

While still in his early 20s, Pintoricchio was a member of the team led by Perugino (who was around 10 years older) that frescoed the Sistine Chapel between 1481-83. Perugino might not have been appointed artist in chief of the project had the arrival of three prominent Florentine members of the group - Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli - not been delayed by hostilities between the pope and Florence. (As Umbrians, Perugino and Pintoricchio were citizens of the Papal States.>In 1483, Pintoricchio began his first independent commission for a fresco cycle - the Bufalini Chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. The subject was the life and works of his namesake San Bernardino.

The artist executed elaborate architectural settings, decorating the trompe l'oeil pillars with intricate "grotesque" designs inspired by the décor of Nero's Golden House, which had only recently come to light. This was the first time an artist used "grotesques" in the adornment of a chapel, and other painters followed his example, making "grotesques" a de rigueur element in architectural murals.