February 2017 - Italy in one's cups. A lesson learnt.


Italy - in one's cups. A lesson learnt.

There are many occasions that stand out in an annual holiday, but usually there is just one outstanding event that makes it memorable. Mostly good. But sometimes not so good….

Italy was responsible for my headache – one of those propitious events that had the semblance of a malicious one!

It was September, and I was on my first visit to the Mediterranean world, but at that moment the hour or day escaped me. I couldn’t think why I had a headache. I don’t normally suffer aches of any sort, so that was a strange thing. I sensed other things that were odd too; that I was about to wake in a strange room, in a strange bed, and before I even opened my eyes knew that if the body next to mine was a strange woman, I was in trouble. Deep trouble. If there’s anything worse than deep trouble, I was in that as well.

In these circumstances it took courage to open an eye – only one in a misplaced effort to half avoid the consequences, which might be dire – so I half opened it to quarter the repercussions, of a sort I leave entirely to your imagination.

I blinked, and swiftly shut my eye again. The light was painful, temporarily eclipsing the throb in the back of my skull that had pounded away to a rhythm like a table tennis ball. Tap! Clack! Tap! Clack! I hadn’t realized that you could actually hear pain.

Try again. Open a slit behind the lashes, sheltered by its shade. Better.

I could make out a window, not very large, deep in shadows, and after a moment or two could make out the shutters, set slightly ajar, through which a sun, so piercing, that if I looked at it for long enough, would surely incinerate my eyeball.

I rolled to one side so the closed eye was buried in the pillow. Through the one that remained open I could see a head of hair, so close that the boundary of its shape was out of sight; an ocean of softness that swept in waves to the top of my eyelid, a sea I knew instantly with its own particular fragrance of bouquet lapped tides that might have done little for my headache, but assured me I was in the right bed.

So I lay there a little longer listening to the waves of breathing, slow and fathoms deep in their slumber, before it rose again on the tide of inhalation.

Still disorientated, I had some trouble remembering anything, but it was creeping along slowly, seeping into the little grey cells that were as jaded as I was.

The only annoyance was that it unravelled backwards, at the sort of gradualist pace you experience when learning Latin. After a moment or two I found the fast backward button, overshot the mark, and ended up in a day before yesterday where I was definitely sober.

That’s a good thing, insobriety being out of place in a Romanesque church.

Lurch a little to the right and I’m in yesterday. Fine-tune-it, and I locate a group sitting down in a trattoria near Cortona joking about the weird concoctions on the menu. Eventually the ‘lady in my bed’ established for us that the confusing word meant nothing more innocuous than sausage, which brought forth another round of laughter, and another bottle of the red stuff that was beginning to familiarise itself with our taste buds. No meek Beaujolais this, reeking of the Saône, but a rough red Chianti that was never going to be a classic, let alone a Classico.

Some five courses later, with the red having constantly returned the palette back to neutral, we were a merry bunch piling into the Volvo - a din in a drum - and hoping it could find its own way home.

Instead, it found the local bar, which reminded us that we’d missed out on the digestivo with the coffee. Some people learn the local customs too quickly for their own good. So by general consensus, with no abstentions, we signed up for a nightcap by plunging into Luigi’s to correct the omission with a ‘correction’.

Luigi, who went by the name of Lorenzo, had a face half hidden by blue stubble, with dark brown eyes, and the continuation of the stubble on the top of his head. He was the sort of man who gauged your nature by the lines in your face rather than the size of your wallet. I liked him. He just placed six Triple Sec’s on the bar without a word, while we were working out how to ask for a digestivo. I suppose, heading for midnight, that’s all his late night customers could manage.

It was my turn to settle the bill, in golden pre-Euro days, of nine thousand lire. We all laughed until someone calculated that was fifty pence a glass the size of a tumbler. Fifteen hundred lire a glass of Triple Sec was an indulgence to be embraced, not with both hands, but one in each.

I stayed on with another male member of the group, while a spoilsport took the girls home. “You’ll find the key under a brick.” he called, as they left, leaving us to doggedly persevere with things Italian.

At that point I hadn’t quite forgotten where the scorpions slept, and unlike me, they can see in the dark!

Abandoned to our fate we were determined to go down in toper history. Where we came from, any sort of tipple was end loaded to restrain the excesses of the thirsty proletariat, but here was a veritable Elysium right before our eyes, at prices anyone could afford. Spotless glass shelves heavy with a gallimaufry of exotic spirits and herbal liquors from every corner of the peninsula, enough to make as many Harvey Wallbangers (or merely ‘head bangers’) as you wanted, besides a flush of Singapore Slings for the ladies.

On reflection we didn’t have any ladies, who as far as we knew, were already tucked up in bed.

In absentia we were on our own with the Triple Sec.

Lorenzo, it appeared, was in a loquacious mood, pouring himself one of the same, and folding his arms in a meaningful manner on top of the the bar, an inquisitive look crowding an ocular stare. His English was straight out of a Pizzaria; dropped guttural spirants, and adjectives following the noun. Somehow he half managed to decipher our clumsy attempts at Italian. Unfortunately, this had the effect of attracting the only other two customers, who sensing a possible impasse, joined in with our ‘battle of the vowels’. Of course it became total chaos, this ‘Speaking in Tongues’, with the two locals valiantly arguing with Lorenzo over what we had said, or indeed, hadn’t.

Occasionally, it sounded as though they’d managed to get it right, and we all nodded and cheered while Lorenzo spying the half empty glasses topped them up to a round of applause. As we were trying to empty the same at a fair pace this was actually no laughing matter, something which eluded all five combatant who were past caring.

At some point, possibly when the second bottle was empty, we were prepared to call it a day, and delving in a pocket came out with a crumpled ten thousand lire note. My heart sank. Surely this wasn’t going to be enough. We’d lost count of the number of glasses that had passed our lips. I felt seriously embarrassed. Lorenzo whisked the limp note out of my hand, and placed seven thousand lire in notes on the bar.

“Cos’è questo?” I asked in the babble language.

“Spiccioli,” he said. “Triple Sec’s two.”

I asked myself: Could anyone get under the weather on just two Triple Sec’s, and a pound sterling?

The answer to this wasn’t long in coming. Leaving the safety prop of the bar made negotiating the chairs and tables an assault course with numerous roundabouts. What the next two miles walk to home would be like, I dared not think. We might not even get there – wherever it was.

But this is Italy, and the Lord takes special care of the sheep that have gone astray. And we’d gone astray. Way way astray.

Lorenzo, making a sign of the cross, ordered us to stop, more for our own safety than any damage we might have done. One of our new friends - and this being a communist bar we’d all naturally agreed we were comrades – thought it better if he took us home. I gathered he was the local policeman, who knew the country like the back of his hand. I fleetingly considered this might be a trip to the cells rather than to my comfortable bed, but discounted that as he had a sympathetic face, and a ‘one-too-many’ look in his eyes. He certainly wasn’t going to kidnap us for the ‘spiccioli’.

With the aid of Lorenzo, and a lot of noise, he got us into his car and proceeded at break neck speed and a lot more noise to get us home, tearing up the villa drive like a rally driver, and spinning round on the gravel by the front door. Depositing us there, his rear lights vanished before we could give thanks for our salvation.

I just about remembered where the key was, the ten minutes trying to get it in the lock, and the stairs we crawled up, shushing each other in the absolute silence. Perhaps, if we were lucky, everyone would be asleep - like the scorpion under the brick.

Reaching the top on all fours, and staring at the blank wall at the end of the corridor was the last image I recalled before a welcome amnesia switched off the light.


So that’s where we were, the next day then, with a glory of a hangover. Even my hard earned tan, in the words of a contemporary pop song, was a ‘whiter shade of pale’.

‘The lady in my bed’ felt I ought to confess my sins; make a clean break of it, absolution for letting the side down, by missing breakfast, and making a complete nincompoop of myself in front of the locals.

Real ladies worry about images you see, and this one felt I’d seriously sullied mine. She even drove me to church.

I said my penance in San Domenico, just outside Cortona, staring in a morose gaze at the Fra Angelico, thinking the figure of Peter Martyr in the lunette looked just like Lorenzo with some hair.

I promised the Lord, there and then, that in future I’d ‘pass’ on the Triple Sec, and stick to wine like the sacerdote.

My wife, in what might have been considered a cautionary bribe to the Almighty, lit a candle.


We went back to Luigi’s quite often that holiday, taking in some more of the the wild extravagant benevolence of the Italians, and I’m glad to say that despite their effusive hospitality I managed to keep my promise.

In fact, the nearest I get to Triple Sec these days is my wife’s orange marmalade.