Today is Wednesday 22nd September 2010, and I ache in places that I’ve never ached in before. Why? Have I been engaging in nefarious activities with the underbelly of society, or have I undertaken a new high octane sporting activity? No, I have come to spend a few quiet days at my rural retreat in Italy. So why the aching bones, and whilst we’re at it, why no diary writing for a few days?
At midday on Saturday the 18th September, I loaded my trusty car, (Bertie Berlingo) with a off the shelf kitchen and other items of household accoutrements and at 18.15 I set off for Italy.Ipod as usual switched on and Sham 69 shout, ‘Borstal Breakout’. The drive to Dover was uninspiring and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. Now having never before been on a ferry from Dover, I wondered what the procedure was, so we drove into the terminal only to be told we were too early, we’re given a card to hang from the rear view mirror and told to come back at 02.30. So no departure lounge then! Now Dover at midnight isn’t particularly busy, lorries and motor-homes trundle into the port but that’s about it. We encamp at a BP petrol station which has a small supermarket attached, we soon notice the other cars have the same owl shaped card hanging from their mirrors.
We strike up a conversation with the car next to ours, it’s two Polish men, one is about 28 the other about 48. The young one is telling me about his job at Canary Wharf, he explains that it’s very expensive to live in Poland, and the wages are so low, people there are living below the poverty line, hence the large influx of migrant workers in the UK. My Polish friend is telling me that after Christmas he’ll stay at home with his wife and two daughters. As he talks his companion; (in the driving seat) eats a huge turkey leg and swigs neat vodka straight from the bottle.
I wont go into the ferry journey, suffice to say it was dull and the food served was bordering on inedible. We arrive in France at 07.25. Taking the time difference into consideration, I have now been awake for 23 hours and 25 minutes. The drive through France is drab, flat plains roll out either side of the motorway, and apart from a brief stop at a Carrefour to buy some bottled water, it’s mind numbingly boring. We enter Belgium; now here is a country with a reputation for being boring, and it certainly isn’t. The scenery is beautiful, lush pockets of green, sandwiched between hectares of pine trees delight our scenic starved eyes. I’m desperate for a pee, so pull into a rest stop and use the bushes, almost as soon as I’ve done this, car doors open and men pile out and do the same, as if waiting for a sign.
Luxembourg next, we stop to get some lunch, bad idea everything costs enough to support a Polish family of 4 for a day. (Slight exaggeration, methinks). Next it’s back into France, for what seems to be an eternity of nothingness before we reach Basel. I’ve been driving all the way and it’s now 20.10. I’ve now been awake for 36 hours and 10 minutes. We decide that it’s time to find a hotel and rest. (At the hotel we discover we took a wrong turn somewhere at Metz and have driven many miles more than we should have…….Satnav!!!!!)
Our hotel is a 1920’s sprawling mass of rooms, with wide staircases and lifts that wouldn’t look out of place in an Agatha Christie film. We have a couple of glasses of Polish vodka. (The only shop open on Sunday evening being a Polish store), and sleep creeps up with the swiftness of thief.
Suitably refreshed, I wake to the smell of burnt toast, possibly croissants. Breakfast taken we set off once more, heading for the Gotthard tunnel and the Swiss Italian border. Switzerland initially is disappointing, it’s all concrete and boring flatness, this changes after we pass through a few tunnels into a healthy landscape, however as I’m driving I don’t get to take much of it in. We reach the Gotthard tunnel, and another disappointment, I expected some sort of border or filter system, no we just enter this grey tube which stretches on for 17km without any ceremony. The petrol gauge is hovering above the red, and I’m hoping we don’t run out of fuel inside the tunnel. Girls Aloud spring onto the iPod with an extended remix of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, and a blue Citroen chugs along the confines of concrete with a gay bloke singing along.
Once out of Switzerland and over the Italian border, the driving proper begins. We skirt around Milan, teeth clench and knuckles suitably whiten. Here cars veer off at tangents, lanes change at a moments notice and horns honk. It’s frenetic to say the least. Once out the Milan catchment area, things quieten down; well as much as a motorway in Italy can go quiet. The drive takes us down through Le Marche, and in this region driving becomes a chore. Because of the weight in the car we’ve barely got over 60 mph, and now we’re sandwiched between lorries, and barely achieve more than 40 mph, add to this the dwindling daylight and the trip ceases to be fun.
We arrive in Casoli at 10.20 and our friends have a chilled Gin and Tonic waiting for us. This night I fall into bed and sleep like the dead. (What does Macbeth say- “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, /The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,/ Chief nourisher in life's feast." Until on time at 07.00 I wake to a cool Italian morning.
We open our house up, doors let the light rush in banishing the blackness of the shuttered rooms. There’s evidence of rodent activity, and we begin by sweeping the droppings up, rat poison was laid previously, but there’s no dead bodies. The iPod shuffles its first tune in our new house, the classic by Carol Douglas, ‘Doctor’s Orders’, which is in fact the 334th track to play since we first left the UK.
I begin sorting out the overgrown patio outside the front door, when I get called into the house, we have a live rat in the upstairs toilet, the door is closed on it and it makes its escape back down the lavatory. (The septic tank hasn’t been used for 10 years, so has dried out and the rats have been using the pipes to get into the house) We secure the toilet lid down with several large stones and continue cleaning. I decide I want my view over the valley now, and set about chopping down trees, the first time I’ve ever done this and I’m like a maniac. Whack, one falls, hack, and another creaks and slithers down the slope. Three hours later amid the carnage I have a clear view down over the valley. Satisfied we get cleaned up and have lunch with our Casoli friends and two other’s who’ve travelled down from Teramo. The day ebbs away and I again have the satisfaction of a good nights sleep.
Today I wake and my body is screaming, letting me know that yesterdays tree cutting and ground clearing has not gone un-noticed.
We have a meeting with our lawyers, we have to sign contracts for the electricity supplier and also have our council tax: (ICI, pronounced Itchy) calculated, we almost laugh out loud when we’re told it’s €46, that’s better than the £1,500 we pay in the UK. We have a trip to a DIY merchants to look for a new toilet, but no luck, all they have are sets, no single items,but to feed my fervour for land clearance, I buy a large scythe. We then nip into Globo and I buy my first and only ever pair of trainers, okay they’re not really trainers per se, but they do have panels of bling along the sides to make them stand out……..Definitely Barry footwear.
Back at the house more trees are felled, and we check out the boundaries of our land, I name another of our olive trees, this one is Ariel, as it has a slit trunk, that resembles the tree that Sycorax imprisoned the spirit. We open up the downstairs and are discussing the bathroom layout when we hear squeaking, it’s coming from a bag of baling twine, upon inspection we find a mother rat with babies. We take the bag outside and the mother runs away, leaving her babies squealing. We don’t harm them, and leave them in the hope that when we’ve gone she’ll return for them. (Okay, so we’re soft hearted pseudo-Italian peasants)
Thursday 23rd September, is cool, the oppressive August heat has now dissipated, I trek up to the house and see for the second day that we have no evidence of rat visitations in the upstairs, looks like the stones on the loo lid are working. I have breakfast outside and type this as Blondie play ‘Angels On The Balcony’ from their not so clever ‘Autoamerican’ album.
We spend the day with our friends Dave and Carol, and visit the old town of Citta Sant Angelo, it’s very pretty and the sun has come out to escort us through the streets. We lunch at the modern shopping centre, the food is very good, I have a salad with gnocchi and a gorgonzola sauce, oh and a small carafe of vino rosso.
We’re very lucky,we have some very lovely friends that support our move abroad, Terry and Brenda gave us a post box for outside our house, and Dave and Carol have got us a big machete for a house warming gift. Surprisingly I was looking at the big choppers when I got the scythe for the grass.
Friday is spent sanding down the front door, It’s a lovely original one that we want to keep. After a trip to the local builders merchants, we come back with wood filler and primer. At the end of the day we no longer have a green door, now it’s primer grey and looks much better, when we replace the door handles and give it a new coat of green paint, it should look wonderful.
I am enjoying a glass of wine outside when I’m called over by Adda our neighbour. She gives me a bunch of grapes, cut directly from her vines. This is very important in a small community like this one, it indicates that we have been accepted.
Saturday 25th arrives and it’s raining, I check with the news and it says the storms around Milano are making driving treacherous, we decide to delay the drive back by a day. We travel into Pescara, and here the sunshine is blinding and it’s short sleeve weather. In Obi we get a couple of bargains, a water heater saving €60 and a chainsaw saving €49. I buy two nice big knobs for the front door and after a brief sojourn around Centro and Mercatone Uno, we drive back home and I fit one onto the newly restored door.
The evening closes in, the grey clouds regroup over Piane d’ Archi in the distance, Christina Aquliera sings ‘Infatuation’, a Spanish lilt, drifting out over the Italian valley. I have an aperitivo and as the minutes tick away to 18.00, I think it’s time to consider dinner.
Our drive back is going really well before we know it we’re over the Italian/Swiss border, once again we’re lucky no one stops us and asks us to purchase Swiss motorway tax, a saving of around €40. We reach the Gotthard tunnel and traffic stops, we have a three hour wait before we can pass through, why? We have no idea, we all just sit and wait. Eventually we get moving and I video the drive through the 10.5 mile tunnel. Once out again we continue on our merry way until we see the road at Luzern is closed due to snow, we have no choice but to find a hotel and bed down for the night. Our choice is the 4 star Cascada, it’s nice and clean but not really 4 star, more a 3 I’d say. Breakfast is not very impressive, but it sets us up for the drive.
We arrive at the ferry at Calais and within minutes we’re on board and sat next to UK band, We Are Scientists, we set sail for Dover. Suffice to say the drive home is boring, blackness and road-works stretch out before us as we drive up the UK’s spine. Eventually we pull up outside the house at 03.00 and the 763rd song to have played since we left on the 18th mocks us. It’s in Italian, ‘Non Ti Scordar Mai Di Me’ by Italian X factor runner up Giusy Ferreri.