BAILDON: Italy remembered
My wife Val and I were dining at Mimmo’s an Italian café in Baildon not far from where we live. The owner is stereotype Italian, bonhomie is in the blood. In our short conversation I mentioned my love of all things Italian; the language, cuisine and culture.
“You have been to my homeland, no?” He asked.
“Yes, Milan and Lake Como,” I answered, thinking of a holiday with Val. Then a memory of a holiday with my brother comes to me. As teenagers in Rome and Naples, a long time ago, in the 60s.
“I once stayed near a place called Castel Volturno.” I added.
“Castel Volturno,” said our host, “Castel Volturno, I know well, very, very well.”
We never found out why or how well he did know this particular Italian town near Naples. The café was busy and he had other diners to attend to.
But I too remember Castel Volturno very well. While I wait for my pizza I remember. It is late one night in the August of 1968. I am the pillion passenger on a Vespa scooter, precariously balanced behind my brother. We arrive in a square, a piazza in the town. The two-stroke engine stops its incessant rasping noise as Willie turns the engine off and, as we sit looking around the piazza the silence and the oppressive heat envelops us. Willie and I dismount and walk, in the manner of cowboys too long in the saddle, towards a brightly lit bar, empty, apart from a heavily moustached barman.
“Buona sera, Come stai?” A tooth pick like a miniature conductor’s baton under the moustache. “Mi chiamo Frederico.”
“Buona sera…… do you speak English?” Willie asks optimistically.
“Sì, a little.”
“Do you have a room… eh… a stanza?”
“I regret, no.”
Our faces fall. We are the end of our tether.
“But I think l may help you,” smiling, a line of nicotine stained teeth still gripping the toothpick appear beneath the moustache, “follow, please.”
I glance sideways at my brother, apart from the outline of his aviator sunglasses his face is spattered with the bloody corpses of flying insects: a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Was this a kidnapping attempt? Did Federico think we were members of a wealthy family? Was he a member of the local Mafia? Not many years later John Paul Getty III would be kidnapped by Italian mobsters who would cut of his ear and sent it to his obscenely wealthy, and it is said, disinterested dad. Our dad was a banker but not in the obscenely wealthy range.
We wait on the pavement while Federico locks up the bar, then follow our new amico around the corner. We are more than a bit apprehensive; our last ‘amico’ had enticed us, unwittingly, into a Roman brothel, with disastrous results.
So, yes, I remembered Castel Volturno, the turning point during a holiday that could have been a catastrophe.
EDINBURGH: The plans of mice and boys.
The idea of an Italian holiday had been floated, literally, in a bar in Edinburgh. There were at least five of us, all students, drinking copious pints of Heavy and Special beer in the Cambridge bar. At that time, in the 1960s drinking time was called at 10 o’clock followed by a ten-minute period of grace to complete the consumption of the drinks we already had on the table. Grace didn’t quite describe the rush to the bar to get in yet another round of drinks; the space in front of the bar was like the penalty area at Easter Road during extra time with a corner kick about to be taken. Of course, we then drank the drinks already on the table and then the fresh round of drinks before staggering out into Young Street. The combination of the sudden intake of excessive alcohol and the cold Scottish air resulted in us all being, what is known in Scotland, as ‘miraculous’. Our excited discussion about the holiday in Italy continued, appropriately enough, in the Capri restaurant in Leith Walk. This was one of our regular haunts. It had a great atmosphere, an Italian ambiance. Most of the clientele were, like us, miraculous. Toni, the proprietor, in black evening dress with bow tie and swept back silver hair had the air of a mafia godfather. We sat watching our pizza being prepared, dough spun in the smoky air by flapping hands then placed in the fiery wood fired oven, a process occasionally interrupted when the chef would vault the counter waving his pizza shovel as he barged through the door to pursue a diner leaving without paying. As we consumed our pizzas the holiday plan evolved. We would fly to Rome, look at the Colosseum and other ruins, then travel to Naples, visit Pompeii to see more ruins, and of course climb Vesuvius.
As an experience it would have been truly been miraculous, but a miracle if we all actually went. Of course, in the end, as the months passed, the group number slowly dwindled to two; my elder brother Willie and me.
ROME: Veni, vidi, vici.
Our father dropped us off at the Turnhouse Airport on the outskirts of Edinburgh, hugging us as if he never expected to see his sons again. He handed Willie a piece of paper with an address scrawled on it. My brother looked at it with a frown.
“Take care of this, don’t lose it,” said our dad as though he had just headed over a segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “This is the address of a friend who lives near Naples. A place called Castel Volturno. If you’re stuck, got any problems, he’ll help you.”
We looked at our dad in mute curiosity. He had never mentioned that he had a friend near Naples. Then we were in the air on the first leg of our holiday.
We arrived at Heathrow and then on to Rome in an Alitalia jet. In the days before mass foreign tourism the plane was empty. We felt like important businessmen or celebrities on a private jet. Late at night, very late, we landed at Fiumicino Airport. Of course, it would have been sensible to sleep on the seats in the airport terminal and wait to catch a bus in the morning. But, we fell for the friendly taxi driver routine, the taxi driver who knows of an affordable hotel. Tired after the long journey we gratefully accepted the offer naively failing to ask how much the fare would be. Which needless to say was eye watering. The drive from the airport ended in the centre of Rome going the wrong way up a one-way street. Predictably this illegal manoeuvre ended in a heated argument between our taxi driver and fellow irate Italian, annoyed to find his way blocked. The archetypal Italian motorist, he stood protruding through the sunroof of his Cinquecento, the archetypal Italian car, his arms waving about and his voice waking everyone in the neighbourhood, some of whom hung out of their apartment windows, adding a backing chorus. A truce was eventually declared and the taxi mounted the pavement skirted the Cinquecento and pulled up outside the hotel. The unremarkable appearance of the entrance gave credence to the description of ‘affordable’ but the interior design of the bedroom, on the other hand, worryingly looked luxuriously unaffordable. We had not realised that had been dropped off at the rear entrance. In the morning we woke, at least I did, as Willie was never an early riser, to the sounds of revving cars, car horns, rasping scooters and sunlight forcing its way around the edge of the expensive drapes. I pulled on the cords and the curtains slid smoothly open. Our room overlooked a large ornate fountain, the Trevi Fountain, famous from the film ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’.
We were enjoying the hospitality of the Hotel Sant’Angelo. Expensive hospitality; we would need all the coins in the fountain to cover the bill. I roused my brother and we dressed and walked through the ornate reception under the suspicious scrutiny of the concierge concerned that we were doing a ‘runner’. We stepped out into the searing sunlight, searing heat and stinking exhaust fumes, to look for the Italian equivalent of a greasy spoon.
After a continental breakfast we sought out a more suitable, affordable hotel and returned to the Sant’Angelo, paid the eye watering bill for our one night’s residence and carried our suitcases out, passing the sour faced concierge who clearly had given up expectation of a tip. For a few days we settled into a routine; sleeping, eating and drinking, and sightseeing. We were impressed by the Colosseum, enchanted by the views over terracotta roofs washed by the light of the setting sun, sat with the hippies on the Spanish Steps, dodged the insane Italian drivers as we crossed roads and wandered through the Basilica di San Pietro: St Peters, Lilliputians awestruck by the scale and grander. At night sat outside restaurants and cafes in the warm evenings we dined cheaply on pasta and pizzas washed down with cold lager. The Romans were friendly enough.
One evening an exceptionally friendly Roman sat down at our table introducing himself as Chico. It’s funny how, friendless in a large alien city, you tend to overlook the swarthy, rodent features of a new companion. We ignored, at our peril, the furtive feral eyes beneath the rim of the stained leather trilby hat. As well as being naively open to friendship our judgement was impaired by the state of near lager induced miraculousness. For an hour or so we enjoyed Chico’s broken English banter before he suggested we go to his club, an exclusive one, of which he was a member. The idea that Chico could be a member of an exclusive club was ludicrous; another warning sign that flew over far above our heads.
We followed our new friend who was energetically navigating through a piazza thronged with strolling family groups: mothers, fathers, children and funereal grandmothers. We turned sharply left up a dimly lit cobbled side street and arrived at what appeared to be a corner cafe undergoing an interior refurbishment, the insides of the windows covered with newspapers. Steps led up to an entrance door with a rectangle cut in the newspapers, a viewing aperture. Chico rapped on the glass. After a few moments, a pair of eyes appeared framed by the slot followed by a rapid exchange in Italian. There was a series of clicks as the door was unlocked and opened by a man, a doppelgänger of Toni, our friend, the maître d’ of the Capri restaurant in Edinburgh; now a world away. We were ushered through the door into the mysterious café, a portal into another world. There was a faint smell of cakes, a counter on one side and shadowy figures sat at tables. In the far corner, an orange glow emitted from a stairway illuminated the ceiling. Chico gestured to us to follow and he disappeared down the stair. Then disappeared altogether. At the bottom of the stairs we found ourselves in a large cellar. It was older than the modern retail unit above, with a vaulted brick ceiling, stone floors and sumptuous sofas upholstered in cream upholstery, that stood on, appropriately as things turned out, shag pile rugs. Large table lamps, standing on glass and chrome side tables, cast a warm subtle light over what, as an interior design student, l could see was a stunning modern Italian interior.
We sat down, sank into one of the sofas and looked around the stunning modern Italian interior then looked nervously sideways at each other. Our admiration of the room was cut short as our attention was diverted to a group of women who sashayed soundlessly through an archway, one bearing a bottle of champagne and glasses balanced on a tray. The cork popped and drinks were poured and the scantily dressed creatures arranged themselves around us. They were the most beautiful, alluring women we had ever seen. At first, we were intoxicated, not only by the champagne or the heady cloud of perfume, but by the interest the bevy of beautiful women were showing in us as they chatted in exotically accented English.
“You are Amerrikan, no?” Enquired the lady sat next to me as her slender hand tiptoed across my thigh on long red talon tipped fingers that stabbed through the fabric of my chinos.
I looked down at her hand in alarm. “No, I’m Scottish, from Scotland.” I muttered.
“Skot-land, mmm.” My companion, mulled over the name of my homeland, “Skot-land, where is Skot-land?”
I enlightened her. “It’s part of Great Britain, above England.”
“So, not from Amerika?”
The finger tips hesitated, ceased their slow march across my thigh.
“Mmmm…….” She considered this; a diner in a restaurant, expecting a spicy taste but finding the soup disappointingly bland. “……. Yes, l think l hear of Scozia.” I didn’t think she meant that she had heard the rumour that the Scots had invented almost everything on Earth. More probably she had heard the more reliable rumour that the Scots had invented the word ‘parsimonious’. I was not one of the American youths, sons of millionaires that loitered at the bottom of the Spanish Steps affecting to be Hippies, with allowances the size of the NASA budget. Her disappointment was tangible.
It took a while, at least three cork poppings before it dawned on me that we were sat in a brothel. We were way out of our depth. We needed to leave. Ignoring the wandering fingers stabbing through my trousers l half turned to look at my brother. A hand had slipped into his cheesecloth shirt and was rummaging about like a hamster building its nest; older and wiser than me, it was hard to tell if he was enjoying the experience.
This was not the first time we had happened by chance to find ourselves sat in a bordello. It had been years before, when l was 12 years old, on a family holiday, a sort of chaotic family tour of Europe. Arriving at Antwerp on a freighter from Leith we had travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany ending up in Holland to catch another cargo ship back. Near the end of the holiday our dad had led us into, what he thought was a restaurant in Amsterdam. We sat at a table for quite a while before, what appeared to be a waiter, appeared suddenly, like a ninja, at the table to whisper discreetly in dad’s ear before resuming his position near the bar. Dad, his face, wearing a rosy glow, shepherded our bemused mother and his two sons out of the brothel into the street.
Unlike our dad we didn’t need to be told what sort establishment we were in. But it wasn’t just a brothel we were in, we were in trouble. Big trouble. Disentangling ourselves, we muttered our excuses and headed for the stairs leaving the prostitutes milling about, predatory insects watching their prey escape. But escaping the clutches of the Ladies of the Night was one thing, getting past the Mafiosi minders upstairs was another.
“Un momento, per favore.’ It was our doorman, now standing behind the café counter.
We looked around feigning puzzlement, as though we thought he was speaking to someone else while Willie reached desperately for the door handle to open the door. It was locked.
“There is the small matter of the champagne, signors,” said the man behind the bar in a heavily accented English, laced with menace. “Quattro bottiglias, signors.”
We protested. We couldn’t possibly have consumed four magnums of champagne. But apparently four had been opened and four had to be paid for. The two shadowy figures sat at the table behind us stood up, chairs scraping over the tiled floor, to stand close behind us. Very close.
This tacit threat, accompanied by a warm garlic laced breath persuaded us to produce our now woefully thin book of traveller’s cheques. With trembling hands we signed away another small fortune. With the cheques scrutinised, the thug behind the bar nodded to one of his associate thugs who, with calculated politeness, opened the door and ushered us out. As we stood on the pavement, stunned by the evenings events, the door swung open and Chico, less politely ejected, stumbled down the steps and landed in an undignified pile at our feet. As we stared down at our erstwhile friend contemplating whether take him to the hospital or steal his wallet in compensation, the door partially opened and his hat spun through the air to land on his inert body.
Resisting the urge to kick our companion while he was down, we set off for the local police station to seek redress. We were shown into a small office with a desk, two chairs, and, surprisingly, as it was two o’clock in the morning, a polite and attentive policeman. The telling of our tale of woe was met with sympathetic shakings of the head followed by shoulder shrugs. Nothing could be done. As he held the door open for us to leave the policeman pointed at our feet, sketching the shape of a shoe box.
“Count yourselves lucky,” he said, “you could be at the bottom of the Tiber wearing….. what do you English say? Concreta shoes.” As we walked away his mirthless laugh followed us down the corridor.
But luck was what we needed now. Three days into our Italian adventure all we had left were a few traveller’s cheques, the return plane tickets and a scrap of paper with the address of a friend of our dad who, our he assured us, would help us if we were stuck. The friend lived in Castel Volturno, not far from Naples, at that time, in the late 1960s a long, long way from Rome. We needed a miracle and a means of transport.