Just for the record, it actually takes a bit of humility to put yourself on the blog-line in such a way Yer Man does here. Too many of us stand on ceremony, and can’t face people thinking we ever do anything even a bit daft. Like, for instance, sticking your hand into a revving hover lawn mower to remove the last handful of grass cuttings. For the record, (this is the “Don’t try this at home” bit) trying to stop the rotor with your fingers doesn’t slow it down even the slightest, but it does make the grass a lovely red colour.
So, on the basis of communal intercontinental self-flagellation, I’ve been overtaken by an attack of something similar, so here goes.
The time is 1995, and the place is Italy. I am a manic photographer, but even I would admit that a holiday watching me wait for the right light, or the composition to gel perfectly could pall a little after a few days. It’s really a very selfish vocation – no-one takes pictures via a committee.
So off I went to Tuscany for a few days on my own, so I could concentrate on picture-taking. Before I left, I’d arranged a marvellous itinery staying one night in each of Verona, Siena, Florence and Portofino. I’d arranged to pick up a hire a car from Milan Airport so I could drive the 150 miles to Verona as soon as I arrived.
With huge anticipation, I arrived at Linate airport in Milan, went to the CarHire desk and presented myself. Passport – OK. Money – OK. Driving Licence – Ah. Yes. I distinctly remember taking that out of my wallet to save a bit of weight, and leaving it neatly on the desk in my study, back at home. Who’s a clever boy?
No Driving Licence, no car. No car, no Verona. Ringing home sets my wife off to try to inveigle an Italian pilot at Birmingham who’s about to take off for Milan to put it in his pocket and pass it on to me when he got there.
No luck. No-one was interested. So she put it on an Express UPS parcel delivery, which was great except it didn’t get to Milan until the next morning. So, instead of wending my way through the Italian countryside to Verona, I found myself on a bus heading for the centre of Milan, having booked a second hotel for that night.
To say I was not a happy bunny, would be a bit of an understatement. Off the bus, I dragged my suitcase and camera gear across the vast square in front of the Cathedral. Halfway across, I was accosted by a couple of young blind girls asking for money, one of them pawing at my arms and body. I was not in the best of moods and in spite of their ministrations, I blew them away.
Having found the hotel, I went through the registration process, and, you’ve probably got there ahead of me, found that I was travelling a little lighter than I wanted – to whit, one wallet.
Now, as a family we’d been to Europe 20 or 30 times over the previous ten years or so. We used to spread our money, all taken in cash, around all of our bodies, in various places in the car, in each of the suitcases and, and, and…... And of course, nothing ever happened to the cash. It was always there, and we never, ever lost a penny.
This time, learning from experience, I decided that you didn’t need to go to all that trouble, so I left everything in my wallet. The two girls, whose blindness I was now suspecting as conceivably being false, would have got home, and, although it was late May, would have thought it was Christmas. They were 4,200,000 lire to the good, and I wasn’t.
What to do? I’d ring home again, and get some money TT’d out to me. Excellent idea, Roger. Have you ever tried to get English coins into an Italian Telephone box? Well, don’t bother, they don’t fit. So I couldn’t ring the local consul either. Nearly 4pm, no money, no credit cards, no anything. Someone had clearly set me an initiative test which I was currently failing rather dismally.
I wandered around for a while, and saw a bank which had the rather magic name of “Abbey Nationale” above it. The meaning of this comes clear when you realise that my bank in England is (or was) “Abbey National”. But it had just shut for the night. It was 4.03pm.
Now, do you remember the bit at the end of “The Graduate” where Dustin Hoffman smashes his fist on the door of the church in the middle of a marriage ceremony to implore the bride, whose name I can’t remember (that’s because I was rabidly fancying her mother Anne Bancroft, by the way) to marry him instead.
Well, that was me. I was either going to break the door down, or they were going to unlock it and let me in. They finally took pity on me (I think it was bursting into tears that swayed the balance) and after a very strange conversation where I had to explain all of this in a language I could hardly speak, I finally got them to ring the Abbey National branch in my home town. Bless them at the home branch, they confirmed they knew me well but they couldn’t contact me because “I was on holiday in Italy”. Mille Grazia. A slug of replacement money flew over the ether instantly and I was back in funds. Yippee!
Too late for Verona, so a night in Milan, which is really nice – the Cathedral is a stunner, with around 2,200 individual statues adorning it. It looks like a stone wedding cake.
Next morning, back to the airport, and a bright red Fiat Punto’s keys were dropped into my grubby little hands. Vroom, vroom, and off to Verona.
What a super place. The walls are covered in frescos, the architecture is terrific, with statues everywhere, and it was simply a beautiful city. The centre piece is a fully working Roman Amphitheatre where, in the open air in front of 20,000 people, they perform opera under the stars, which can’t be bad.
Having settled in to my hotel, out came the new camera and off I went snapping away until the light went down, at which time my stomach called time. I found a simple outdoor restaurant next to the Amphitheatre, ordered a pizza and a bottle of Chianti, and settled down to watch the Italians promenading around. They do fancy themselves, especially the men.
Halfway through the pizza, I heard a kerfuffle going on a few yards behind me. I turned round and there’s a guy with my camera bag in his hand. The last time I’d seen it, it was nestling down just near my feet, but now this guy had £3,000 of my gear in his hand.
I went berserk. I am not a violent man, but over the previous 24 hours I’d had quite enough, thank you very much. So I shot up to him, shouting incoherently like a mad thing, and started to beat him up. I had lost it completely by that time.
Only to find out a few seconds later that this guy had actually seen the fellow who HAD walked past me and who had deftly picked up the bag without me even noticing its removal. He’d then shot off after the thief, recovered it when the guy dropped it and ran off, and was bringing it back to return it to me. Oh dear.
My Italian was strained beyond its limits as I tried to apologise, which, bless him, he accepted with remarkable grace. The bottle of expensive wine I bought him may have helped a bit, but I felt a total clown. I’d only been here 24 hours, and I was within an inch of being £6,000 worse off. And it was all down to my incompetence, as my dear wife inevitably pointed out. “You shouldn’t be let out on your own” seemed to be the gist of the argument.
Thankfully, the rest of the trip went swimmingly. The weather was good, the scenery was great, the food was terrific, and a good time was had by all, or at least me. On the last day, I wended my way back to Milan, to get the plane home, and thought it would be really nice to buy each of the family a really special present.
Milan is the home of really fancy silks and things like that. So I bought a couple of expensive scarves, a huge box of choccies , a silk shirt for myself, and a top drawer bottle of fizzy wine for one of my daughters.
Back to the airport, and off to get checked in – the boring bit. Into the Departure building, and up the stairs to the check-in desk.
Suddenly, a huge explosion went off right next to me, which scared me witless. Shit, what was that? I looked around and down, and there was the bag with all my goodies in it covered in foam and streaming with clear liquid. At the same time as the three Black Sunglassed Carabinieri rushed up to surround me, with their machine guns obviously ready for duty, I twigged that I’d very neatly caught the champagne bottle on the edge of one of the steps and it had exploded in the bag. The police seemed to find it intensely amusing, as I sat on the floor trying to dry the sodden gifts with a packet of tissues.
I didn’t share their sense of humour, as I wandered onto the plane smelling like an alcoholic. At least I got a decent amount of leg-room, with no-one seeming to want to sit near me.
It’s an ill wind etc. ……..