Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop

To me the best day of the year is my birthday. The 22nd March … not the 21st March or the 23rd March. I am quite unable do that. For, as long as I can remember, my joy has been to celebrate my birthday in my home, surrounded by friends and family, and I cook. A sort of lousy Babette’s Feast, for I am no cook to write home about, but this is the day that I pull out all the stops.

This year for the first time we were in Tuscany. ‘I’ll feed them all here,’ I told my brother, who was visiting from the Cape.  ‘Us, Mila and Mauro from Venice, and Kira and Mirko from Florence. I’ll set the yellowwood table beautifully. I’ll use Ouma’s old dinner service and I’ll cook something nice – with a real Cape flavour’.

My brother, a long time sufferer of my culinary experiments, looked at me dubiously: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just go to a restaurant?’ he said. ‘Nope!’ I said, ‘I’ll ring Kira and see if she can come’. Now Kira is a legendary cook of note. Liam would walk the 32 kilometres from our house to Florence simply to taste her risotto. ‘Oh oh,’ said my brother, ‘THAT Kira.’

And so the doubt set in …

‘Kira,’ I said on the phone, ‘do you perhaps know of a nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant in Florence where we can go for my birthday?’

duomo fixed

The nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant lay just behind the Duomo. It was packed to the brim with locals enjoying good Tuscan fare. Doors and windows were closed against the March chill, scented waves of ribollita, lasagne and pasta competed with the chat and general laughter of people simply having a seriously good time. The local Tuscan red flowed and our table was enjoying it all immensely. ‘No matter that I did not cook,’ I thought, ‘I feel as happy as I have on every birthday.’ My brother glanced across the table at me, lowered his eyes and smiled gratefully at his plate.

It was late afternoon by the time we walked out of the door of the restaurant. The men walked ahead while us women set a more leisurely pace, strolling down the narrow cobbled streets and gazing at the beautiful displays in each window that we passed. Every now and then we stopped to talk about owning one of the stunning Florentine creations on show.

We were almost at the parking garage where we had parked the car when another and different window display sprang to light – it was a bicycle shop. On display were beautiful gleaming bikes of all shapes and designs … pedal, electric, fold-up … Fold-up? ‘Just the thing!’ I cried, ‘Let’s go in and have a look.’

Full of red wine and bonhomie we very soon forged an excellent friendship with the owner of the shop. ‘What I need,’ I said, ‘is a fold-up bike that would fit into Campari. Then I can come into Florence on a Sunday and I can simply park anywhere, get the bike out, and off I go.’

‘Sure!’ said the owner – he was so nice – ‘but you don’t want an ordinary little one. You want one with style’.

‘Style, that’s it exactly!’ chorused the three of us, ‘It simply won’t do without style.’ And then he produced it. A magnificent white, gleaming charge ready to do battle with any of the rough cobbled streets and traffic jams of Florence. ‘Oooooh!’ we gasped.

By this time the men had doubled back to find us, and they were much more critical, if not a tad sceptical. ‘But how does it work?’ asked Liam. ‘Oh that’s easy’ said the lovely man ‘You just snap-click and the handle bars and front wheel fold back to double the bike back onto itself.’ The men walked around it. Finally Liam, with a twinkle in his eye, said ‘Well, if it can fit into the back of Campari you can have it. It’s your birthday present.’

backseat fixed

Campari was duly fetched from the parking garage and positioned on the pavement outside the bicycle shop door. ‘Snap-click’ went the man and onto the back seat of Campari went the bicycle. A perfect fit, and a perfect end to a perfect day.

The next Sunday Liam folded my gleaming new toy onto the back seat of Campari and off I set for Florence. ‘Enjoy’ he cried as he waved good-bye from our wooden gate at the bottom of our valley, ‘Explore Florence and come back to tell me all about it’.

Passing Pasquale in his orto I called out to him. ‘Buongiorno … I’m going riding in the streets of Florence. ‘Let me see,’ he replied and came up to the car, ‘Oh, one of those’ he said. ‘Better you take the bus’. And muttering something suspiciously like ‘new fangled rubbish’, he set off back to his vegetable patch.

I decided to park Campari just in front of the American Embassy. ‘It’ll be a nice ride along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio,’ I thought, ‘and then I’ll take it from there’.

I got the bike out and set off. I crossed the Arno at the Ponte Amerigo Vespuci and cruised slowly along the south bank of the river. A light breeze played softly in my hair. ‘Oh this is the life’ I thought, ‘so step it up girl.’ I pedalled faster. In front of me I could see the Ponte Vecchio, its beautiful medieval shops basking in the morning sunlight. I headed for it.

Just about at the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita and Via Maggio there is a row of dust bins – those funny big grey ones on four little wheels. It was there that I heard a snap, but no click. With that the handle bars and front wheel folded in on me and I found myself airborne. With an unceremonious flop I landed on top of the dust bin with the broken lid. Tourists gasped, onlookers gazed … and I?

Dustbins fixedIgnoring my grazed elbows, and not even attempting the ‘snap-click’ I lifted the awkward beast up and beat a hasty retreat down the narrow side road running towards the Santo Spirito.




© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 20 – Campari

Beryl Fawcett. I’ll never forget her name. She’d come from Malaysia and I met her at a party in Cape Town. It was 1961 and I was about fifteen, just ready to leave school. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a social worker.’ she answered. I’d never heard of one. ‘Tell me about it.’ I said. Beryl worked among the rubber plantations, tending to the desperately poor and needy. She seemed exotic and well heeled, but had a deep commitment to society. I was hooked.

Back home I faced my father in his study. ‘I want to go to the University of Cape Town next year.’ I said. ‘What on earth is this about? he said, ‘Your academic track record’s bad, and as far as I can see, you have spent most of the past two years on Clifton beach!’ My father was incredulous. Girl cousins in my family leave school, and very soon marry nice suitable husbands.

But, I knew my father valued education. I knew that eight years of war had caught him. He’d wanted to study engineering, but by the time the war was over he had my mother and me to support.

I also knew that he wanted me to study further, but he was also right. Up to now I had paid far more attention to parties, the beach and the razzmatazz crowd of the Cape than to any studies. I could see him mulling it over. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘This is the deal. I’ll give you one year at the University of Cape Town. Pass everything and I’ll give you a car. Fail even one subject and you’re out.’ ‘Deals on!’ I said happily and bounced out of the study.

I'll give you one year at UCT ...
I’ll give you one year at UCT …

The University of Cape Town’s results come out in December. They post them on boards outside the Administration Department and you have to go and look them up. In front of everyone. It’s nerve-racking. Searching, searching for your name you go … Social Anthropology? Yes! Political Philosophy? Yes! Social Work? Yes! Social Administration? Yes!

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ I yelled through the front door. Celebrations all round. The weeks passed, then the months, but no car. Then, six months into the new academic year, I came home to find a small bubble on four wheels standing outside our front door. What on earth was it? I walked around it curiously. I’m not tall, but I could see right over the top, and I could definitely see a sun roof. I opened the front door … nice little dash, gears. I opened the boot – crikey, that’s the engine. Puzzled, I glanced up, only to see my father’s amused face looking at me through his study window.

"Its a Fiat 500"
“Its a Fiat 500”

‘It’s yours,’ he said coming out the front door. ‘It’s a Fiat 500. ‘Now let me tell you about it. It’s Italian. They were launched about five years ago. It was a time when Italy was still suffering economic shock waves from the aftermath of war, and this little car was said to bring wheels to the masses. They’ve had wonderful write-ups in all the car magazines. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Italians. When you were born I was given special leave. But the very next day I was sent back to Italy. I stayed there long after armistice, as part of the mopping up operations.’

My father doesn’t talk about the war, I thought, so why’s he telling me this? ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘Every Italian family that we came across, whether in the country or the small towns, welcomed us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The warmth and hospitality made a bloody awful job bearable. And what really impressed me was that they’ve got style – they can’t make a garden without a fountain, and they can’t build a bridge without an arch. So when I read about this little Fiat 500 I thought … That’s the car for my daughter. It’s got style, it’s got panache, and it is virtually indestructible. Now go and enjoy it.’

Enjoy it? From the very first drive around the block I was in love with it. This was the ultimate fun car of the sixties, and as students we were there to have fun. I have no idea how many friends I stuffed into my little Fiat, but it was akin to sardines lined up in a tin. The sun roof open, the tallest friend would stick her head out like a giraffe. ‘Left, left!’ she’d yell from her lofty perch, ‘Oops, no, right, right!’ The petrol lasted forever, and so I’m sure did the car. But there came a day when we had to part. Married and with a small baby, my beloved Fiat had to go. Safety and sobriety won the day.

It’s forty years later now, and no, I’m not old. I don’t feel as if I have adult children. I don’t feel as if I am about to become a grandmother in six months time. Rather, as I sit here in the peace of the Italian countryside, with the noise of the tractor running up the vineyards behind me, and the fountain playing on the terrace, I feel exactly the same as I did when I got home that day in Cape Town -the day that that tiny Fiat 500 stood outside the front door, with my father hiding behind his study window. For … I am waiting for my Fiat 500 to come driving down our bumpy track.

How did this come about?

It’s three years since we bought the wing of the old farmhouse in a beautiful Tuscan valley, and we love it. Living in London, up to now we have hired a car at Pisa airport. It’s easier, and my husband’s quite right – we have no worries of lifts to and fro from the airport, of batteries running flat, or dirty cars. And, yes, rental cars are the answer, but where’s the soul?

Last year I found a new friend. She lives in the village of Castellina nearby and she is a gardener. I met her in the nursery near Poggibonsi and very soon we were chatting plants. When we parted I followed her out to the car park. And there, in front of my eyes, was a little Fiat 500. A bright mustard colour Fiat 500 …  station wagon! I’d never seen that before. ‘Where did you get it?’ I gasped.

‘Oh, I’ve had it for ages,’ she said. ‘I love it. The station wagon version was built especially to take a 55 litre demijohn of wine in the back. Only in Italy! It’s my baby. Because of its colour I call it the Baked Bean.’

I call it the Baked Bean …
I call it the Baked Bean …

Well, I felt exactly as Toad of Toad Hall felt when he set sight of his first car. ‘Poop poop,’ he said, ‘Poop poop! Ratty, I must have this!’ From then on every time I saw Jazz I dreamed about the possibility of owning one. ‘I’ll have a look,’ she said. But Fiat 500’s are prized these days, the prices go up, and who is a reliable dealer? The months ticked by. Then came the phone call. ‘My sister’s got a Fiat 500 that she’s thinking of selling,’ my friend said. ‘They live in the UK and she feels that she’s just not over here enough to warrant keeping it. Are you interested? ‘Am I indeed!’ I say, ‘What’s the colour?’

‘It’s red, with a sun roof, and we all love it,’ she said. ‘It’s called Campari.’

It’s called Campari.
It’s called Campari.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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