Throw all your stagey chandeliers in wheelbarrows and move them north
To celebrate my mother’s sewing machine
And her beneath an eighty-watt bulb, pedalling
Iambs on an antique metal footplate
Powering the needle through its regular lines,
Doing her work. To me as a young boy
That was her typewriter. I’d watch
Her hands and feet in unison, or read
Between her calves the wrought-iron letters:
SINGER. Mass-produced polished wood and metal,
It was a powerful instrument. I stared
Hard at its brilliant needle’s eye that purred
And shone at night; and then each morning after
I went to work at school, wearing her songs.
Opera Robert Crawford
“Any results through yet?” I enquired, feeling like a stuck record.
“Not yet, sorry but she had a good night and took her breakfast” Smiled the cheery but tired nurse. I always thought that an odd expression, “took” her breakfast, took it where? I sat by her bed and we chatted, I was trying to project my voice so she could hear me without her hearing aid but not so loud that the rest of the ward could hear us.
“There’s a new man in that bed across there” she stated.
“No Mum it is a lady”
“A lady? No! looks like a man? I thought it was odd he was carrying a hand bag when he came in.”
Oh dear, just as well the elderly lady was out for the count and oblivious to our conversation.
“Any news of me getting out yet ?” she enquired
“No, sorry, they still want to do more tests and they are keen we get home help in place before they think of sending you home.”
“Och well, may as well stay put”
“Yes and the weather is awful just now, you’re safe and cosy in here” I said as I tidied her cabinet, folding her silk scarves and pairing her socks. “I’d better be going now, I think it’s your meal time.
“Ok pet, see you tomorrow”
I kissed her brow, skin as thin as paper and almost translucent.
I walked out the doorway and smiled to myself as a golden glint on her hospital table caught my eye, an Yves St Laurent lipstick heralding there is still life here.
The back and forth ferry surged its way across the Straits of Messina and arrived at the coast of Italy, dropped the ramp and more or less heralded, off you go! The packed ferry traffic surged forward and we joined the malay, unbelievably getting ashore and on the main road without a scratch. Unlike the lady beside us who squeezed past a lorry and tore her wing mirror off, she drove on oblivious. The drive north was scenic and I took in the views as we left the coast and made our way up into the mountains and into the heart of Calabria. The previous night’s search had found us a cheap Airbnb in a tiny village called Buonvicino. It was called The Old Tower and sounded cute. The road up to it seemed never ending and I did feel for J behind the wheel in the dark, no road markings, wrong side of the road and suicidal Italian drivers shrieking down the road towards us. We reached the road end in a paved courtyard and parked beside a pretty little garden area, complete with water fountain and round wooden band stand. Vincente our host drew up beside us and helped carry our bags up some wide stone steps and through some narrow alleyways.
“I thought it easier to take you than explain” he said
Too right! We arrived at a little wooden door at the foot of a round stone tower, a bit like an Alice in Wonderland door and indeed inside it opened up to a delightful fairy tale house with a balcony that looked down the hillside to the sea and a spiral staircase that lead romantically down to the bedroom. Perfect.
Buonvicino was a delight, we spent a couple of days there and found amazing walks along a deep river valley that snaked its way up on to the ridge line and led us to a monastery high on the hill top. The woods were in late winter mode but still offering up little surprises of mushrooms and flowers. Evenings were spent at the tiny bar with only two seats where we enjoyed Prosecco, the local drink of choice and nibbled on salty snacks, trying our best to chat to the locals in our very basic Italian. I think we were somewhat of a novelty, two Scots, well off the beaten track and off season. We enjoyed a meal at an empty restaurant when we were simply offered a meal choice of meat or vegetables! It was nice but awkwardly quiet and then the chef overcharged us, a lot! Returning to our little flat after dinner, there was another lunatic standing beside the doorway, a broom in hand again, I said “Hi” but she stared at me with wild eyes and ran into her house – I almost asked her if she had a twin sister in Randazzo! We settled down for a quiet night in this mountain retreat, closed the shutters and popped the heater on as the temperatures had plummeted, however the peace was shattered occasionally by our neighbour shrieking intermittently. Ear plugs in and a reassuring nod at the crucifix nailed to the wall!
Morning was sounded loud and clear by the church bells clanging 10 yards from our bedroom and just when our pulse rates had calmed down the workmen started with a pneumatic drill under the bedroom window, drilling out the stone on a walkway below us! Well it got us up to enjoy a full day and after a breakfast of fresh pastries and hot coffee we headed off further north. The distances were bigger than we thought but the road network amazing and put our dreadful home roads to shame, however we arrived at our next destination in Pompeii in time to meet our next host.
The flat was situated “a short walk from the ancient ruins” and it was indeed but also at the side of busy industrial road with a cement factory down the street, however once we were led back a few metres and up the stairs to the self-contained flat, it was an oasis of charm and peace. The gentleman spoke no English so his son’s pal had been hauled in to do the introductions, he had excellent English spoken with an Australian accent, the place he had learned the language some years ago. It was well appointed, the furniture was beautiful and the only issue was heat, as these places are not really rented out in the winter so not really set up for cold weather. We put the heater units on full power and sat around in jackets until the ceramic tiled floors and stone walls heated up a little. Dinner was chicken and chips from a roadside rotisserie, washed down with a local red, it was just fine.
Wandering around the ancient city of Pompei the next day was a real experience, we had no idea it was so large, a whole city. We self-guided and enjoyed having it to ourselves, save a few other off-season travellers clutching their digital recordings on their phones enlightening them of the marvels of this fascinating Roman city. Laundries, bathhouses, street food cafes, villas, brothels, they were all there intact and we wandered around for six hours, me trying to visualise myself as a middle aged Roman lady in long dress, shawl draped over shoulders, bronze armulets worn high up on my arm, hair braided back and leather thongs on feet that deftly crossed the stepping stones across the street to avoid the water and effluent that ran downhill. I imagined my captain as a master of his villa, a good man, perhaps a boat builder or a merchant and our three sons would be strong men, one perhaps a horse trainer, one maybe in the legions and one a scholar. As young boys my sons had indeed enjoyed stories of ancient Rome and Greece, the odysseys and the mythologies, Gods and Goddesses, boys being raised by she-wolves, maybe there was a little of that in them?
We stayed until it almost dark, the guides were locking gates and we walked the 20 minutes back to the flat quietly, reflecting on this lost world.
Leaving a clean and tidy flat we made this our northerly turn around and headed back south though J was persuaded to take a detour to see some of the Amalfi coast. I had briefly visited the Bay of Naples on the cruise with Mum years ago and we had visited Sorrento and I had been impressed by the picturesque scenery, though this day was wet and cloudy. The road was twisting, seemingly endless and coastline very built up. We arrived at Amalfi and wandered around a little but after being charged £18 for a coffee and pastry, we beat a retreat away from this touristy town realising we had been spoiled in our hidden villages, coffees and Proseccos for £1 each. I even decided it would be a waste of time, money and effort sailing up here as originally thought, as it was a very developed coast and we came to realise we prefer the empty coves and quiet beaches where only the sea birds parade on the shore.
We had found another random location for the next four days, again a pin dropped in the middle of the Google green, it was cheap, available and I liked the sound of the name, Spinoso, so seemed the ideal place.
We drove deep into Basilicata and round a large dammed lake, feeling slightly unsure as the road led right across the top of the immense dam wall. The Google maps led us right into the heart of the ubiquitous medieval stone built, hill top village, a few wrong turns and we ended up almost vertical on a single lane cobbled street facing a church.
“Don’t think this is it” I suggested. Eventually we parked at the right location given, beside a primary school under construction and sure enough there was the house, right in the village square. We had arranged with the host to meet there but there was no sign at all. We wandered around, checked times, called numbers, sent emails but nothing. We knew some Airbnb are self-let in, so we went to the door and J found a little key behind an open shutter, this in turn opened the gas cupboard and there was the door key. We let ourselves in, presuming this must be the system and gradually turned the house on, I made beds with linen and quilts found neatly stored in cupboards, while J turned on the gas heating, plugged in fridge, lit the oven and we felt quite a home in no time. Once settled in we skipped over the square to a café and ordered up Prosecco and salty crackers. I discovered coffee ginseng, a delicious caramelly espresso that I quite happily sipped until I realised it causes insomnia and literally lay awake until it got light the next morning! We were wandering back over the square when a fellow approached us and asked if we were the Ormistons? It turned out this was the owner Sergio, he explained he had received a message we had cancelled so he was not expecting us, then his mate called him and said there were lights on in his house! It all ended well and he was amazed we got in and figured it all out. I think he was re-evaluating his security system but he came in to check we were ok with everything and announced he’d be back in the morning with breakfast, result!
He did indeed but pretty sure it was second time around as we woke at 11am after I had eventually dozed in the early hours and there was a basket of fruit, bread, butter, jam and yogurts on the table. I was intrigued that he had a Singer sewing machine sitting proudly on the landing in his former family home and I explained my mother had one of these used regularly in her younger years making dresses and hemming curtains and they were made in Scotland – he was fascinated as had no idea where they came from. I recalled my Mum creating clothes from fragile paper patterns and even my Dad designing and making his own kilt jacket from brown velvet for my wedding, my mum cross at him breaking all her needles as the fabric was too thick! She still has the machine, protected in its wooden dome case, it in her attic I think.
We spent lovely days exploring this pleasant little province and meeting the locals. The café became our local and we “chatted” with the old men and ladies of the town. I shopped in the grocers for fresh fruit and veg and discovered a pastry shop with a very grumpy pastry chef – maybe it’s all those years of getting up so early – he made Christmas cookies with his face on them I am sure! I got friendly with the fruit and veg lady who was the mum of the dress shop lady, who was the sister of the café lady, who was the sister-in-law of our host Sergio. I loved it, a real community and they were so welcoming. I was suffering from a severe lack of suitable clothes having only cottons and linens and there was now snow on the hills. My shoes were trainers or mules and my feet were cold so I took myself over to the only ladies fashion shop probably in Basilicata and the delightful girl, Mima, dressed me in trendy trousers and a jumper and there sitting on the shelf were one pair of black suede boots with a fake fur trim. What size are they I enquired?
42, my size – oh there is a God!
I wandered back to the house with my bags swaying and a grin on my face, happy wife = happy life says the captain! I paid a few visits to this shop mainly to chat to Mima as she loved talking about other places and how life is in Scotland and she invited me for coffee with her sister and friend Consensa – our host’s wife. We then spent a great evening drinking Martinis and Proseccos and I met Palmira who was an English teacher and we talked for ages as she wanted to practise her English. We became friends and I am still in touch with her, inviting them all to Scotland and to stay with us. These were the nicest people and I realised what village life should be like.
The next day brought pale blue skies, dry cold weather and the snows that had fallen the night before tempted us to set off on a hill walk up to the mountains. We packed some bread, cheese and fresh tangerines from the market and drove up to the road end before we pulled our rucsacs on our bags and the edges of our hats snug around our ears. The path was delightful leading us around the edge of high pasture land with pretty beige cows wandering along, their bells tinkling, adding to the scene. The trail petered out to a single track and the snow was fresh and unmarked for a while. We came out of the woodlands and were now high up on the Apennine foot hills, the views splendid in every direction.
“Oh look there is someone else out and has dogs” I pointed to paw marks in the snow though these were big. We had seen sheep dogs lying out with the stock around this area so we reckoned it could be them however there was no stock way up here. The prints laced their way up the track then headed into the forest before returning again on the hillside, a scratched area where their feet had scuffed up the grass and urine sprayed around, still yellow on the snow. The footsteps continued on but the paw prints disappeared. We came out onto a plateau area and stopped to take in the views all around, the air crisp and clear, feeling so grateful to be in this place. We carried on upwards to the summit and saw a figure on the top sitting on the stones, his bag at his feet.
“Ciao” we greeted as we approached. He looked fairly surprised at our arrival and could not believe we were two visitors from Scotland here in December. His name was Antonio and he was from Spinoso, he called his wife to let her know where he was and to tell her of his encounter – she didn’t believe him so we had to talk to her on the phone and he showed us to her on his facetime call! He insisted we share his lunch and we could not refuse when he pulled out a hunk of salty crumbly aged cheese, rustic bread, a savoury herby sausage and a flask of deep red wine – all made by him on his small holding! It was the most amazing hill lunch we had ever had. We hid our pitiful baguette and supermarket cheese and spent time chatting to him about where he lived, he was simply out for a walk on his local hill to enjoy the day. I liked that, thinking I know how that feels when I climb Ben Lora or Sgulaird behind the house, the best adventures are sometimes right where you live, you feel bonded.
After a while I asked
“Oh, where are your dogs, we saw the prints?”
“No dogs” he said “Wolves”
Wow, we were gobsmacked, wolves here? He told us all about the Apennine grey wolf and how it had reintroduced itself and were now doing very well and had spread down the spine of Italy and into the Alps. He was pleased even though he had stock, he had his wolf dogs the Maremma, a gorgeous breed that live with the cows, sheep and goats to protect them so it was not an issue he said – there were of course others that were not happy with this species gaining strength and re-inhabiting their old territories.
We left Antonio and I watched him as he ambled off, napsac on back, stick in hand and new tales to tell his mates once back at the bar.
Another white summit beckoned us along a snowy shoulder and we found more tracks in the snow, so fresh we reckoned the pack had passed here maybe only a half hour previously, the little tops of snow still falling from the indentations made by their paws. I was enthralled. I love these animals and felt so privileged to just be in the same area as them. We had made on a canoe trip in Southern Sweden many years previously with our two of sons plus our eldest’s girlfriend and youngest’s school pal and were told there were wolves in the area we paddled through but we didn’t see them either.
I had seen them when leading a trip in Mongolia, high up in the Khentii mountains near the Russian border. I was leading a group of 11 teenagers plus their two teachers from Fife on a month long trip and we were travelling on horseback in a very remote area. We had been riding for a few days, all of our gear and food on pack horses and were moving through a dense woodland area before breaking out onto the low hill area when a cry went up from one of the wranglers. A pair of the pack horses had broken loose, tied together and ran off into the scrub. This was a real emergency as they were carrying all our food and we were at least four days ride from the nearest supply village. There was nothing we could do but dismount and take shelter from the sun under the trees and wait while some of the Mongolian riders sped off to look for them. We were told to stay with the horses and gear as there were bandits in the hills that would steal the gear. Hours passed and as the leader I was in a turmoil what to do. I had a satellite phone to use if needed and I was going through all the scenarios in my mind when the lead wrangler appeared on his motorbike, his broken leg sticking straight out ahead like a lance in its plaster cast. He had been alerted by the rest of his team of our plight and luckily had been nearby so came to assess the situation. He told us of a wooden hunting shelter not too far up the valley and suggested we move there for the night though the ground was tricky for the horses as it became really rocky and unstable. He swigged on homemade vodka from his plastic bottle, spat a lot and even though I speak no Mongolian, knew he was swearing a lot too! Just as it was getting dark and we were deciding to move out the woods, the riders appeared leading the two runaways out the bush, pack bags dangling from them and trailing on the ground! Thank goodness they were back but oh my lord what a mess the bags were in as they had run for hours through dense woodland and bush and across rivers before being caught. I had been told the sole goal for every horse we had was to return to their wild herd and these two had made a good go of it! We set to. Untied the bags and sorted out the remnants of two week’s worth of food that resembled a multi coloured porridge floating around at the bottom of the not so “dry” bags while the wranglers washed down the horses as they were covered in sweat and mud. The students and myself salvaged and resorted as much food as we could, though glass jars of jam had smashed with oats, bread, cheese, dried herbs and potatoes so much had to be discarded.
We decided to make camp here by the river as we had water and fire wood even though it was pretty damp. We set to and made a fire and I put together a meal for all 19 of us, cooked over the megre flames and we tied the horses to the trees around the camp. Then the fun started as the wranglers noticed a large wolf pack patrolling along the skyline above us.
“We need to keep the fires going all night and take turns to keep a look out” translated our interpreter. “The wolves have smelt the horses and will attack”
“Ok” I said calm as a cucumber on the outside but nerves jangling inside like an electric storm. We set up a rota for the overnight watch and after food and the rest were bedded down, we started our vigil. The wranglers sat round the fire, smoking roll ups and drinking vodka and occasionally standing up and waving burning branches towards the river as the wolves had come right down to the riverside and were stalking across the water from our camp, their eyes glinting in the dark.
I sat watching them with a mixture of excitement and fear – not that I feared they would attack us but this expedition was my responsibility and I wanted to get these kids though it safely.
Morning broke eventually and I had not slept at all, every time I drifted off I was convinced I could feel a hairy swish pass my tent but they had not crossed the river and the horses were safe though the pack did follow us on the ridge above the valley for miles until we returned to the village to restock.
We never saw the grey Italian wolves who had passed this way but counted four from the tracks. Good luck to them I silently bade, as we headed down from the hill and back to the village.
I wore my new clothes that night when we walked down the road to Sergio’s uncle’s pizzeria and enjoyed a tasty meal of pizza and pasta with a jug of wine and we felt quite at home in Spinoso.
We wandered back up the road and stood leaning on the rails that surrounded the village square and looked over the valley, the moonlight casting a silvery veil over the fields and woodlands, I tried to convince myself I heard a howl. If only.