Thursday, 21 July 2011

Bella Italia

A couple of years ago I was getting ready for my annual holiday to one of my favorite destinations - bella Italia.  Exact location, Castellina in Chianti (Chiantishire as it’s fondly been nicknamed as so many British have bought property there), to a house that my family and I have rented many times over the last decade.   It is a lovely 16th century country house that has been carefully reconstructed and renovated according to the style of the region by a German couple and is high up on a hill in and amongst this forest of pine trees, cypress trees, chestnuts, oak, beeches and fir trees.  Very isolated, very quiet, just what a stressed out city worker needs on vacation.  Look at these pictures, see them and weep, ahhh fabulous.

our terrace view at dawn
Castellina in Chianti

I’m an avid reader and unfortunately read also very fast and go through books like nobody’s business, depending on the size of the novel, to about 2 books a day.  So of course my holiday trips are not suitcases full of millions of outfits per day as some of my friends, but rather millions of books as I cannot bear to be without a good book and I am rather old fashioned and love a proper book and not all these electronic readers as it’s just not the same. 
A friend had given me a book as a present for this trip and she choose it purely by its title ‘a death in Tuscany‘ by Michele Ferrara, a crime story, very tongue in cheek, was she trying to say something?  I really enjoyed the book, and the style it was written and decided to look into more books by this Italian author and at the same time I stumbled across another Italian author called Andrea Camilleri who writes this crime series about a detective, Commissario Montalbano.  This series is set in a Sicilian town, featuring this Commissario,  who loves good food, is quite moody, eccentric, egotistical bit of a loner, much to the disgust of his long suffering girl friend who lives in Genoa and tries to get him to marry her and have children and he is very set in his ways.  

Commissario Montalbano (or better known as Luca Zingaretti)

The stories are really entertaining as it brings to the reader the culture and nature of the Italians and of course, Sicily being just that tad more.  This author really has a way with writing and some of the characters in this series just makes me laugh out loud.  The crazy policeman who mans the phone at this police station, who can never get the names correct of anyone who calls and you end up having a guessing game.  The forensic team, the politics with the Police Commissioner, the politicians, the mafia families in that area.  It totally brings to mind how life is out there.  
I found out that in Italy they have made a television series of these books and the series have been dubbed in quite a few languages.  So a few weeks back I bought a DvD just to see if I would like it and have just had a Montalbano fest.  The casting was also spot on, just what I imagined it to be whilst reading the books.  Very well done RAI (Italian state owned broadcaster for television and radio) I, of course, bought all the rest of the available DvDs and have spent 2 weeks watching it and if you love crime series like I do, then you will like it and the scenery of course is amazing.   Most of the series is almost entirely shot in the Sicilian city of Ragusa and surrounding towns  (in the book it’s a fictional town called Vigata).

Ragusa - Sicily (fictional town Vigata)
There is something about this country.  If you have travelled a fair bit to Italy, or have Italian friends, you will know what I’m speaking about. What a beautiful country, everywhere you go there is history, beautiful buildings, amazing scenery, I don’t think I have gone somewhere yet that I have not liked in this country.  
This is a race of people, who love good food, good life, La Dolce Vita! good clothes, fabulous cars, houses, wine, gelato, the list is endless and I for one am a huge fan of all things Italian.  They know how to live, what is important to them and I think when you are in that country you sense that they have it very well balanced.  None of this crazy running around, rushing to work, not having lunch, or just popping out for a quick bite to eat, working weekends, not taking your holidays and so on.  
Now my dear readers, if you are an Italy fan and have travelled there, you will know what I’m speaking about.  
I love that in these little towns, the people live and work there and behave as they please.  They have opening timings on their shops, but its not necessarily the case that they will be there to open the shop as mentioned.  When they do eventually turn up, they just shrug their shoulders and offer you an espresso and if you can understand each other’s languages start chatting and just like that you find your agro of waiting for them just disappearing in a puff of smoke and you end up being charmed by them. 
In the evening, there is an Italian ritual, where people go for a walk, ‘passeggiata’ as they call it.  A gentle stroll through the old part of town, or where the shops are.  Where new romance blossoms, where you sit and have a glass of wine or bubbly and gossip, or for people to meet up with friends or neighbours and catch up with each others news, some old boys as I call them watching out for the pretty women, enjoying the fashion show, especially on a Sunday.  Italians even will drive to another town, or to the coast just for passeggiata.  I love this tradition, you dress up nice, the sun is slowly going down, people passing each other, exchanging smiles, flirting with cute guys and then, in my case, going out for an amazing meal to end the wonderful day.   Ahhh La Dolce Vita!
One time, whilst enjoying a glass of wine and reading one of my many books in this gorgeous villa up on a hill, my mother noticed smoke from a neighbouring hill and a fire seemed to have started.  My mother, bless her, all very stressed from her job started running around, in a panic and getting very annoyed that I just kept on sitting there and reading on the lounger.  Convinced we were going to die on this hill top.  I told her that there was no way I was going to drive through this hillside, on these really tiny, dirt tracks , where we could go no faster then 10km per hour and possibly be driving towards the fire.  That if the fire came close to us, I would just get into the pool and wait for firemen, wearing uniforms made from Armani to come and rescue us.  Well you can imagine my mother’s reaction to this.  I then had to phone up the local fire station, where the chap couldn’t speak a word of English and there I was with my few sentences of Italian trying to explain what was going on and my mother in my other ear telling me to tell him everything she was saying.  What, do I work for the UN?  Has someone failed to tell me this.  Needless to say, the conversation got both of us no where and the fireman kept telling me, its ok, no problemo, calma etc.  Eventually he got fed up and disconnected the line.  That did make me laugh, but my poor mother was not amused.  Running around, flinging clothes into the suitcase....  I eventually called up the owner of the villa in Frankfurt, got him to call his buddy in this town in Chianti and we were then called back to say, the fire is all under control, to not worry and if we need to evacuate, they would call us.  Now not to mock my mother, the fire was serious, they had two fire copters flying overhead for near enough 5 hours, dropping what they drop onto fires to put them out.  Which they did!
Or one time when my friend and I were in Turin for a long weekend and at the end of our evening dancing, we wanted to get a taxi to go back to our hotel, we couldn’t find a taxi at all.  The area was by the river, only clubs there and it was very late at night.  Eventually we walked up to a group of Carabinieri (the national gendamerie of Italy, policing both civilian and military) and asked them if they knew the telephone number of a taxi company.  It was priceless, all these guys and not one of them had a telephone number of a taxi company.  One chap called his girlfriend up to ask, the other a friend, it was too cute for words, mixed of course with lots of flirting and conversation.  They were willing to drop us off, but they were there to work and we didn’t want to get them in trouble, so eventually I told my friend, lets forget this, thanked them and then walked back to the hotel.   
Or being in a restaurant and having a bottle of wine sent over because the old boy at the next table thought we were beautiful (and he really didn’t want anything from us) and you toast him with the glass of wine, grazie mille (thank you very much) and continue your dinner.  
Or when I was holidaying on the Amalfi coast, during one of the world cup football year and my sister in law didn’t appreciate us watching football during the day so much so we were sight seeing in Sorrento and for lunch ended up in this restaurant where the staff let me go every now and again into the kitchen to watch the first half of the game with them, what fun, Italy vs (I think) Korea game.  Then using the local bus service to go back to Priano (little town next to Positano).  Now picture this, if you have never been to the Amalfi coast, you have this road meandering along the coast, where sometimes its so narrow the cars almost touch each other whilst passing, with a bus driver who was listening to the second half of this game, upset and frustrated with his national football team as they were losing, shouting out encouragement whilst driving this treacherous road, screaming at the radio, obscenities and all and the bus erratically careening around corners, just missing the oncoming traffic.  In the middle of all this, I was seriously getting car sick, what with my tummy full of food and in hysterics, laughing at this driver and the situation.  Well I lost my lunch just outside our hotel by the bus stop and luckily blamed it on my 6 year old niece (much to her disgust) hey, what do you have children for, if not to blame them for something.  So embarrassing, but makes me still laugh out today.   

Positano - Amalfi
Ravello - Amalfi 
To end this blog post on another Italian delight, Fabio Cannavaro - ex captain of the National football team - I had to put him in girls, for the more prude please look away now!!

Viva Italia!!

I love this country, I think in my past life I must have been Italian because when I go there, I just have this really familiar feeling, like I have been there before.  Nowhere is perfect, but I do think that this is one of the places on my list, warts and all.   

Friday, 15 July 2011

Havana to Kew

It’s that time of year again when the summer is nigh and we have some fabulous concerts in this lovely city.  One of my favorite places to go to for an outdoor concert is at Kew Gardens.  
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, usually referred to simply as Kew Gardens and often shortened to ‘Kew’ are 121 hectares of gardens and botanical glasshouses located between Richmond and Kew in southwest London, England.  
It has the largest herbarium in the world (collection of preserved plant specimens in plain English), important seedbank, one of the world’s largest botanical collections, forensic horticulture, world’s largest surviving victorian glass structure and has one of the largest compost heaps in Europe, made from green waste from the gardens and the waste from the stables of the Household Cavalry.  The compost is mainly used in the gardens, but on occasion has been auctioned as part of a fund-raising event for the gardens.  You didn’t think I would put that point in about the compost heap did you... but I didn’t want to bore you with the usual list of things at Kew, although these are just but a few. 

Now, the concert we went to see was a 13 member band called “Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club”.  
 “The Buena Vista Social Club” was a members club in Havana, Cuba that held dances and musical activities, a popular place for musicians to meet and play during the 1940s.  The genre: salsa, bolero, guajira and son. 
In the 1990s, nearly 50 years after the club was closed, it inspired a recording with traditional Cuban musicians, some of whom were veterans who had performed at the club during the height of its popularity.
The recording, named Buena Vista Social Club after the Havana institution, became an international success, and the ensemble was encouraged to perform.
Several surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club currently tour worldwide, to popular acclaim, with new members and occasionally the solo singer Omara Portuondo,  who by the way was the only female member of this group and a legend, as part of a 13 member band called Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.  Omara Portuono is 80 years old and my word is she a live wire.  I hope I can still dance and move as she does at that age.  Such a beautiful woman with an amazing voice and such a character. 

Concerts at Kew are rather special, not only are they set in these beautiful grounds but also that you turn up an hour or so before the start of the concert and people bring along food and drinks and it turns into this massive picnic in front of the stage and it’s great fun.  
The weather at first was overcast and the greatest fear was rain, but just as we got there, the sun decided to make an appearance and it was a lovely summer’s evening.  So the afternoon started off with lots of food, wine, bubbly and of course good friends which is in my opinion a great recipe for a fab evening.  
Now just to give you an idea of the event, you obviously have this lovely garden all around with hundreds of people having a picnic, then an area where once the music starts you can get up and dance and behind the stage, which is the background to all concerts at Kew, Temperate House - the world’s largest surviving victorian glass structure.  

I love this music, there is something about salsa that just makes me feel happy and seems to have a direct connection to my hips as I have to get up and dance.  It brings to mind the sun, the sea, mojitos and passion, a passion for life, for fun and for love.  

The atmosphere was amazing, it makes me think of times when people dressed up in beautiful dresses, went to these dance halls and you would have these orchestras and singers and people would dance all night.  I often wish I had a time machine so that you can go back in time to experience this first hand.  How amazing would that be.   
Most of us who couldn’t sit still whilst this music was playing went to the front to dance, or rather try to dance salsa, it was something, but I wouldn’t call it salsa, but hey, it’s the thought or rather effort that counts.  Of course, there always has to be someone or some people who can’t behave in public and unfortunately I and the lovely Kerstin found them.  Now really, I have to complain, who, at a concert, with all these gardens around us brings a six year old child on the shoulders, of his father I’m assuming, who of course by then is drunk into this massive crowd of dancing people and decides to body slam his friends with this child on his shoulder and then you have the other set of people who decide to bring their drinks onto the dance floor while they just stand there drinking and looking on.  Needless to say, this was going to end in tears and it’s a shame that my mother taught me better manners as you would have seen a grown man cry after I body slammed a certain part of his anatomy.  There I am innocently enjoying myself with my friends, dancing away, only to be drenched from head to toe down my back in beer by one of the morons who stands and drinks and the other moron who is drunk with a child on his shoulders body slamming away.   Seriously!!
As you can imagine, I was not happy and the look on my face said it all.  There I am, soaked and stinking of beer with these utter idiots around me.  It always happens to me.  After a few choice words which I won’t repeat as I would probably be banned by the blog society, I had to push this away and just try and enjoy the rest of my evening.  The occasional glare ensured that they moved away from us slightly.  Why do people have to behave like this, what is it with people who think that unless they are drunk they won’t be able to enjoy themselves, it really spoils it for the rest of the people who are there to dance and listen to music.  
Thus ended my beautiful evening, with me going home and people looking at me as if I were some alcoholic as I was reeking of beer and looking rather worse for wear with stained and smelly clothes.  NOT AMUSED. 
I would like to thank my lovely friend Lannah who arranged this all for us and for the rest of the girls for making it a lovely evening and of course to our personal photographer, Kerstin, who always ensures that we have the memories recorded - see you all there next year!