Journey to the East

Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.

One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.

His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,

The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.

Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.

The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,

and finished up in Beirut.

At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:

A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.

A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:

Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:

Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.

A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.

Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis

and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz

to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.

Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.

The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.

From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.

A stay in Varanasi (Benares)

was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.

More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.

Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.

This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.

It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.

Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.

It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…

There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….




Other Ways of Learning Italian and some of my Favourite Italian Words

The new term of the University of the Third Age has started at Bagni di Lucca.


Here is the commitee:


This is the programme.:

Note the Christmas lunch and end of year lunch.. Always a treat!img969You may complain, if you are an x-pat resident of Bagni that your Italian language knowledge is not up to attending lectures delivered in Italian, especially when dealing with abstract subjects, without slides or any other visual aids.

Do remember that language is a method of communication which, if used properly, can connect you to a much wider world than you ever imagined. If you don’t develop your new language in your new environment then regretfully you will soon be lost and locked into an English-speaking clique. You might as well have stayed at home…

Learning a language isn’t just mastering the rules of grammar from some textbook. It’s grabbing every opportunity to hear the language as it is spoken on TV, on radio, in the shops, in restaurants, at meetings, indeed everywhere.

You are missing so much if you don’t make an effort to learn Italian even in its most basic tenets. There are language courses held at Bagni di Lucca library and other centres too and most of them are free!!

I remember teaching English to immigrants in the UK and thinking that one person from the Indian subcontinent had just arrived from India to my class. I was wrong. He’d been in the UK for five years but with a job working for his cousin’s family business, his living in an Indian family, watching Hindi film DVDs, going out with his Indian friends, made him suddenly realise he hadn’t integrated in any way into the wider community because he hadn’t learn any English! I’m glad to say that at the end of one year in my class he had already passed an intermediate level English exam not just because he did his homework but also because he began listening to English radio, meeting English speakers and viewing UK TV programmes.

If you want to integrate learn the language. Otherwise, stick to your local English-speaking group where you might as well be in Basildon if it wasn’t for the extra sunshine and vino to accompany you.

I speak as someone with experience of living in other parts of the world. In less than one year I was fluent in Hindi (that incredible amalgam of Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian) and could read its different alphabet symbols too. It made such a big difference to my life that’s it’s impossible to describe. When we lived part-time in Wales we attended and passed exams in that equally difficult language ‘iaith paradwys’ (the language of heaven). How did we do it? Practise and speaking to local language speakers. Basically avoiding Brits like hell!

My knowledge of languages is nothing, however, compared to my wife’s, a long-serving member of the Institute of linguists, who can speak not just English but fluent Italian, French, Spanish, and German to perfection not to mention Welsh and certain Italian dialects which are a language unto themselves……

There’s no excuse for not learning a new language (or not so new if you’ve lived around Bagni for over five years). You’ve either got a very restricted English environment you operate in or you’re just plain lazy. Some people, like a certain unpleasant Englishman who lives in the forest (luckily) some distance away from me actually said to me once ‘ I don’t need to learn Italian.’ What an absolute idiot!

Unless you learn Italian here in BDL (or wherever you find yourself in Italy) you’ve got no reason to complain if you can’t hear a word of English spoken on a bus in Ipswich (for example). Learn Italian and the Italians (unlike the French) will compliment you so much on it you’ll be encouraged to carry on learning.

End of rant. Return to main subject.


(From left to right Fabio Lucchesi, President of Unitre, Valeria Catelli course director and Riccardo Mauri, lesson deliverer)

The third Unitre lecture was given by Riccardo Mauri, a highly gifted young philosophy teacher (regrettably ‘temporary staff member’ as so many teachers are in Italy = ‘precario’ is the word to use) on Leopardi, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I was so glad to attend. To summarize Riccardo’s points:

  • Leopardi (in his ‘operette morali’), Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were uniquely united in their antagonism to the idealist philosophy of Hegel and his acolytes in the first half of the nineteenth century and the positivist (progress and everything is going for the best in the best of all possible worlds) philosophy of the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • The trilogy of Leopardi, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while declaring the essential tragedy and suffering of life, were against suicide as an answer. One might say in English ‘grin and bear it’. All, three, however, did have a life-enhancement policy: life is given to you – try to live it to the full then, however much suffering it gives you, for without experiencing suffering you will not know the ecstasy of deep joy.
  • Nietzsche’s philosophy was deformed after his death by his evil sister who collated certain of his unedited writings to form a blueprint for anti-Semitism and Nazism. What Nietzsche couldn’t really stand were the Germans themselves!

Any talk depends on its delivery and Riccardo’s was faultless. A lesson in spoken Italian could be had from it. His voice was clear, the words he used were easily understood and there were no hesitations. He was truly prepared with his text but spoke ‘a braccio’ (freely speaking without prompts). His thesis was logically exposed and his arguments backed up by firm evidence. Most of all, Riccardo’s approach and linking together of three of the most under-rated poet-philosophers of the 19th century was exemplary.

One important point I raised with Riccardo was how similar Schopehauer’s theses were to three of the Buddha’s four noble truths (ie, life is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, the escape from desire leads to liberation) as I had discovered them during our recent journey to Tibet. In fact Mauri confirmed that Schopenhauer was probably the first western philospher to pay serious attention to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and, together with Plato’s works, he always kept the Upanishads open on his desk.

I utterly enjoyed Mauri’s fabulous talk and am still awake now thinking about the points he raised. I just pity those people who have lived for so long a time in BDL and are unable not only to understand how important philosophy in the Italian educational system is but also how even more important it is to spend every spare hour you have to learning what, not just in my opinion, is the world’s most beautiful, mellifluous, sexy and musical language. There’s no other language to beat it and you will be seduced by every single new word you use.

Here are eight must-use words in Italian.  For homework work out what they mean and when to say them. Italian is such an alliterative language you could almost guess their meaning before opening a dictionary

  • Allora
  • Rocambolesco
  • Chiacchierone
  • Sfizio
  • Struggimento
  • Dondolare
  • Mozzafiato
  • Dietrologia

I think the whole world should learn Italian – there’s no more wonderfully harmonious  language to learn, to speak, to think in or to make love with.

Spaghetti All’Amatriciana

When in Italy don’t ask for a plate of ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ (don’t even dare to say ‘spag bol’). The dish simply doesn’t exist in this country but is a concoction made abroad (and, I believe, actually sold in tins in the UK!). Ask instead for ‘tagliatelle al ragù’.  The ragù is a sauce generally made up of the following ingredients (quantities are given for serving four persons):

55 g (1 ¾ oz) butter
55 g (1 ¾ oz) minced prosciutto far or pancetta
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
100 g (3 ½ oz) minced lean veal or beef
100 g (3 ½ oz) minced lean pork
1 glass of dry red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
3 tbsp. tomato paste
Salt and pepper

A short while back at Bagni di Lucca’s super-excellent Circolo dei Forestieri restaurant I had a pasta plate which delights me more than any other. It’s called ‘bucatini all’Amatriciana’. Bucatini is that type of spaghetti which has a hollow centre and amatriciana is a delicious sauce made up of the following ingredients:

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

4 oz. thinly sliced guanciale (cheek of pork) pancetta, or chopped unsmoked bacon

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup minced onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-oz. can peeled tomatoes with juices


1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino (about 1 oz.)


Amatriciana sauce originates from Amatrice and I shall surely weep next time I order it for Amatrice is now half destroyed, so many of its inhabitants lie dead or just alive waiting to be rescued under rubble, its lovely buildings, which made the town part of Italy’s ‘più belli borghi’ (most beautiful towns), wrecked or destroyed by a devastating seismic shock which I even felt during the night where I live in a hill village near Bagni di Lucca.

Italy, we all know is earthquake country, but this is cruelty indeed! For an earthquake to happen with such a force just four kilometres below ground, at the height of the tourist season on which so many these central Italian towns survive, in the middle of the night, with ever more explosive aftershocks and so, so ironically, days before the town’s great sagra (feast) of ‘gli spaghetti all’amatriciana’ is just too horrible to even imagine.

Italy weeps and will continue to weep as more bodies of men, women and children are extracted from the perilous rubble. We know that Italy, so disorganised in some other ways, pulls itself together heroically in human tragedies such as this one. The army, volunteers, sniffer dogs, everyone is together in this great tragedy.

I’ve lived long enough in Italy to witness the horrors of the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 which killed over 300 people, to see the aftermath of the Emilia Romagna earthquake of 2012 and to feel our own ‘little’ earthquakes. (For just a few of the earthquakes we’ve had in our area alone (seismic zone level 2) since 2005 see my posts at


Why should the most beautiful country in the world have the worst record for earthquakes? Why should the most wonderful buildings and towns one could possibly visit on this planet be destroyed by nature’s grimacing forces? Why should some of the earth’s most creative and special people have to continually suffer from the unseen clash of seismic plates by night?

God only knows!

Eating spaghetti with Amatriciana sauce will for me from now on have a deeper and so much sadder significance that even its delicious taste can barely allay….


(Amatrice yesterday)


(Amatrice today)







The Real Winners at Villa Fiori’s Extempore Painting Competition

At the end of a sizzling day the judges convened to deliver their verdicts on the best paintings in Bagni di Lucca’s 9th extempore painting competition last Sunday.

Here are the names and qualifications of the judges:

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It’s not an easy task and, frankly, if the judges agreed among themselves, the spectators often had differing views. But this is the nature of art. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life and who remembers much of the once popular Millais today?

Artistic Creation is certainly not an exact science and for us the real winners were those who organised the competition, the goodly affluence of people present, the lovely weather and the sheer energy of those artists who’d take the trouble to come along to Bagni di Lucca, some of them for the very first time, and so spread news to the rest of the world of our lovely part of the world.

Without comments I’ll present all those paintings submitted. If you want to know the prize winners you’ll have to consult Debra Kolkka’s post at

There was real disagreement among us as to the winners, although each painting was seriously considered with an account of why it was chosen by the jury to receive a prize.

As usual the top five winners were announced in reversed order. Moreover, eight further paintings were chosen for an exhibition at Barga’s Comune Art Gallery. Mayor Betti and other noteworthies gave short speeches emphasising the fact that the competition was a true festival for all the lucky citizens of lovely Bagni di Lucca:

The children competing all won first prize just for entering. I think, anyway, that a prize should be offered to everyone who had the boldness to enter – although, of course, the prize winners did get a cash prize amounting up to four hundred euros.

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Next year it’s going to be a very special year for the Extempore Art Competition. It’s its tenth anniversary. So all you budding Turners and Canalettos don’t forget to enrol!



How to Make a PB and J in Longoio

I can’t understand why peanut butter is not readily available in Italy. Having experienced the American Peanut Butter with Jelly sandwich (affectionately known as a PB & J) during my perambulations over there I was languishing for one nel bel paese until yesterday. Besides, taking a well-made PB & J can supply almost a quarter of daily calorie intake – useful if you need energy for a long hike in the mountains.

Peanut butter takes a peanut of a brain to make up and costs just peanuts!

First get your peanuts.

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Then take some oil. I used sunflower oil which is not too strong in taste. Some people go for olive oil to get a truly Mediterranean version, however.

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Place an Italian coffee-cup full of oil into your blender and then add a handful of peanuts.

If you want smoother peanut butter, keep the blender going for longer.

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However, if you prefer crunchier peanut butter blend the mixture for a shorter time.

Similarly if you like your peanut butter a little more runny add more oil. If you prefer more solid peanut butter then put a few more peanuts in the blender. Be warned, however, that the blender is already hard at work and could blow up if the mixture gets too tough for it to blend.

Fortunately my blender didn’t blow up and I was able to extract the peanut butter to the consistency I preferred.

Let the mixture stand for at least an hour until using it.

I took a jar of home-made quince jam which my wife had prepared earlier.

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I spread the peanut butter on a slice of bread:

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I topped the layer with a spoonful of the jam (in Italian marmellata di mela di cotogna) to cover the peanut butter layer

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and that was my first home-made example of a PB & J sandwich!

05102016 037So you PB & J starved expats there is a solution.


Forced to Pay for an Italian Television Licence?

Listening to news of important modifications to ‘Auntie’ BBC UK television this morning I was reminded  of equally radical changes to the procedure for payment of a TV licence in Italy.

If, as a payer of electricity bills to ENEL or an equivalent Italian electricity supplier (e.g. Edison, Eni, GDS etc.) , you hadn’t noticed, realise this grim fact: from July the ‘canone RAI’ (licence fee) will be incorporated as part of your total electricity supply bill.


The good news is that the fee has been reduced from Euro 113.50 to Euro 100.00.  (Presumably it’s better to have everyone pay a reduced fee than only some paying the former fee).

The bad news is that if you haven’t got TV programme receiving equipment in Italy you’ll have to go through a somewhat complicated procedure to cancel your additional payment to wonderful RAI.

There are various web-sites to show you how you can ‘disdire’ (cancel) the TV licence fee. All the sites are catering for an Italian-speaking market and require some knowledge of bureaucratic terms. Have you passed your exam in business and bureaucratic Italian yet?

Here’s one of the sites:

To deny yourself the pleasure of having a receiving TV in your Italian home you must fill in a self-certification form for Italian Inland Revenue purpose. In certain situations one may lawfully terminate paying one’s TV licence even if one possesses a TV set. The following categories may fill in this form to state that they don’t want to pay the licence:

  1. Those who don’t own a television set.
  2. Those who own a TV and are paying an electricity bill but already have a TV licence for their own home in the name of another member of the family.
  3. Those who are over 75 years of age, receive an income of less than Euros 6,713.88 per annum and live in a house with, at most, just their spouse present.
  4. Those who have electricity bill in the name of a deceased relative.

The deadlines for declaring that one doesn’t own a TV (self-certification) is May 10th for on-line transmission (this was available from April 4th) and April 30th for those sending their self-certification by post (address to send to is Agenzia delle Entrate Ufficio di Torino 1, S.A.T. – Sportello abbonamenti TV – Casella Postale 22 – 10121 Torino.

The reason for this forcible change is that RAI depends on two-thirds of its income on the license fee which is more than its income was seven years ago when just half the licence fee supported the national TV station. The rest of RAI’s income comes from advertising. Since tax evasion here is tantamount to a national sport, dictatorial measures have had to be imposed by the government to get its long-suffering citizens to pay up.

The quality of Italian television has been the source of complaints from many Italians and certainly not without justification. If one is into game shows, chat programmes and glitzy variety then there is certainly plenty to choose from!

My view is that careful programme selection can turn up some gems like the documentaries Superquark and Ulisse with Piero and Alberto Angela, frightening factual criminal investigations like chi l’ha visto (Italian equivalent of Crimewatch, only much more sinister), lighter programme like Bake off Italia (no translation needed) and, of course, the internationally well-regarded Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano) which has been running since 1999 and is based on Andrea Camilleri’s brilliant crime thrillers. I wish, however, that original English language films were not dubbed in Italian when shown on RAI. It’s rather surreal to hear Steve McQueen speak with a Neapolitan accent!

If you don’t want to watch Italian TV, don’t have a TV and don’t have TV programme receiving equipment then you must do a self-certification as described above and fill in the form to be downloaded at:

Once it used to be ‘can’t pay, won’t pay.’ Now it’s ‘won’t pay, must pay’. The deadline has been extended to May 16th. It may be too late not to see the TV license incorporated into your next Italian electricity bill but it’s possible to apply later than this date and, hopefully, have the extra license fee charge cancelled.

However, be warned: there are snooper vans going around the country checking up on people who say that they don’t have a TV but conversely have one receiving set. The penalties are confiscation of all TV sets and TV receiving equipment, including aerials, plus a hefty fine. Alternatively, you could resign yourself to watching the box and pay, even if you have no intention of viewing RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana).


(PS This doesn’t mean you’ll be shot by a canon if you don’t pay up- it means’ beware of the TV licence’)

What next? Italian car road tax on your gas bill?





Celebrating May in Fornaci (di Barga)

The first of May at Fornaci di Barga is unmissable. Each year it goes from strength to strength and has something to offer to everyone.

The high street is pedestrianized so one can admire some of the old villas that line it without getting mown down by vehicles. There are styles ranging from eclectic through art nouveau to orientalism and thirties modernism.

The stalls are plentiful and full of variety and there are many places one can be fed and watered at:

A master patissier was showing off his skills:

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This gentleman was demonstrating the rejuvenating properties of snail slime (in cream form, it should be said, no snails were actually present).

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This is a great way to publicise one’s Wedding Dress Shop!

There’s a new statue to the local Judo club at Fornaci which I found rather effective. It’s near the station and celebrates the foundation of the club which has won several national awards.

In the central square there’s an overflowing of flower stalls.

A highlight was the splendid display of vintage and not so vintage motorbikes and scooter. I particularly enjoyed the Ducati and Vespa section. Thanks to the Fornaci di Barga moto collectors group for putting on such a great display.

What’s this? It’s a separate starter motor for motorbikes that had to be pushed to get going! I’ve forgotten the Italian word for it…

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Nearby the geological society opened up their museum which is filled with minerals showing the rich diversity that is contained in the complex geology of this valley where one half is metamorphic and limestone and the other is largely sedimentary rock. There can’t be many valleys in the world like that with totally differently created sides.

A sales point gave one the chance to buy a specimen without having to search the surrounding mountains for them:

The fossil collection is also very fine. Among the trilobites and ammonites they include my favourite – sharks’ teeth from the cretaceous era. That’s what links this area to the Blackheath Beds in Abbey Woods, London SE where we enjoyed hours of harmless fun searching for these predators teeth.

I wonder when we’ll join them….

The tattoo studio had a very fine display of photographs from different persons of the area. We were invited to vote for the best photographer. I voted for this one:

Few people have recaptured the Garfagnana like Luca Famlonga has. I do hope there’s a book out soon with his amazing photos. You can see more of his stuff at

Among the other photographs I was amazed that the ones entitled Pop London included one of my favourite teenage watering holes!

As befits a tattoo studio there were also pictures of tattooed persons. I didn’t realise that tattooed western women were around in Victorian times!

I was quite impressed by the blues band outside the musical instruments shop. Their Creamy version of ‘crossroads’ was most effective.

The highlight of the events at Fornaci was the steam engine pulling a train consisting of an old diesel followed by characteristic thirties railway carriages. Yet again I missed the chance to be a passenger on this train. How evocative is the hiss and smoke of these wonderful machines which almost appear to be living organisms rather than mechanical contraptions!

Here’s a little video showing those amazing sound effects of an Italian steam locomotive.

If you’ve been there did you enjoy yourself at Fornaci’s First of May? What did you like most? I’d be pleased to know.