Italy With Kids, Without Sex

An early morning amore is arrested by three small children, only partly unaware of their poor timing, leaping onto the bed like puppies. ‘They’re becoming more intense aren’t they?’ remarks my wife in one sustained exhalation.  Time to get up and at least take pleasure in smelling the Segafredo.

I light the gas and charge the pot.  A gecko patrols airside on the flyscreen, each jerky advance consuming moths still dazed and confused by last night’s lights.  Outside, splashes confirm that childish obsession with parental chastity, not flushing the lav, supporting the Chinese plastic toy industry, losing my tools and creating global entropy has now shifted towards maintaining the swimming pool as an adult-free zone.

Job Done...

My wife drags a chair into some shade and loses herself in a novel written for the blind, at least that’s what the heavily embossed cover suggests.  In the kitchen half a dozen bottles of alarmingly modest Italian wine stand reassuringly shoulder to shoulder – I can lose myself later.

This early the World Service is still audible above static whistles and clicks and with ears plugged and a thumb on the tuning knob I follow the story of a man in a shed who believes that 1936 marked the pinnacle of British endeavour.  He cites automotive manufacturing, scientific prowess, and the quality of valve radio sets to support his assertion – I don’t think he’s got a girlfriend.

I’ve just been shot in the neck by ‘the boy with the plastic air pistol’ – my time is up…

If you’re still inclined to take a family holiday in Italy, even after my recollections, a friend of mine has good quality apartments to let near Montone, Umbria – see As well as excellent olive oil and er… characterful red wine, both produced on site, Ben is happy to expound dryly on life as a foreigner in Umbria.

If you’re after something a little more modest then there’s our place

Curry Paste to Italy

Curry PasteMango chutney – twelve jars, curry paste – ten jars, HP sauce – twelve bottles, basmati rice – 25kg, mature cheddar – a box, baked beans – an entire shelf, brussels sprouts – a sack, dog wormer… don’t ask.  You’d be forgiven for thinking our next stop was a local newspaper photo call followed by a date with an orphanage in eastern Europe.  However, dog wormer excepted, the modest philanthropy of our various Red-Cross-style parcels was destined for Italy and expatriate friends still harbouring a vestigial taste for ‘Britain’.

Like many with continental holiday homes, this time of year heralds MOT runs back and forth to the UK keeping villa cars legally on the road.  In our case a Brit can’t buy a car in Italy without residency and an Italian revisione (MOT) isn’t valid on a UK registered vehicle.  If your MOT expires whilst your car is abroad insurance becomes invalid and the only legal solution is to trailer the vehicle back to Britain.  Internet expat forums are filled by dubiously imaginative solutions to this problem but the most common course of action remains a long drive home.

For Martin and I this year’s MOT Gumball was a reciprocal event.  His car was freshly MOTd and in the UK, mine was in Italy with its ticket fast approaching expiry.  We would be doing each other a favour and free from the metaphorical treacle of encumbering children and delightful though complicating spouses the task was a simple one – drive to Umbria as quickly and cheaply as possible, turn around, drive back to Leicester and Newcastle in similar fashion.

Despite the unexpected ritual suicide of three jars of Pataks whilst loading, after a quick dive into Tesco for replacements we were soon in the outside lane and up to speed.  In Martin’s left hand drive Espace, ‘Daphne’, the sat nav was doing her best to keep us right, and had laid in a course for the Alps, the Frèjus Tunnel and Italy.

Soon our thirst for miles was slaked by kilometres of rainy péage, the companionable reassurance of Radio 4 smothered beneath comic bursts of maniacal accordion music.  However, sustained by podcasts of the News Quiz and carefully selected jazz classics, at around 10 PM we were south of Reims.  Pulling off the road in Chaumont, both Martin and I eagerly tucked in to hearty repast of a shared bowl of peanuts, two beers and the winter Olympics on TV – Hotel L’Etoile D’Or really knew how to put on a welcome.

Leaving before dawn, ‘Daphne’s’ clipped consonants urged us ever southwards, and it was only when Nice began to feature with increasing frequency we noticed our Fréjus and hers were not coincident.  A sharp left turn, an extra hour, and amidst the sodium-lit subterranean gloom of the tunnel a diminutive Euro-starred flag nodded us into Piedmont.
Emerging into brilliant Alpine light, a morning of exquisite caffeine-denial was finally consummated at the counter of the first Autogrill  – queuing, paying, then ordering, due cappuccini e due panini, and that was just ‘Martino’ as he thenceforth preferred to be addressed…

Leaving the autostrada at Cesena, through darkness familiar potholes in the E45 maintained our alertness along the Upper Tiber Valley into Umbria.  As fatigue gnawed hard at our competency (which way around the roundabout?) familiar waymarks saw us through – the dormant emergency mobile kitchen – Italians have their priorities, the everlasting haystack, the empty church of Santa Maria, and atop a final precipitous stretch of strada bianca, with two flat tyres, la macchina vecchia, my venerable Subaru estate parked where I’d left it in October.

By the headlights of the Espace I rummaged for a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa keyring, turned the ignition, and the engine thrummed into life.  Okay, so the clutch was stuck, there was an issue of pneumatic incontinence and mice had eaten both the still-valid MOT and logbook, but otherwise tutto bene.

After a morning checking over the car, a considered circuit of the local supermercato, and an evening in Umbertide appreciating wine and cuisine offered by a former mortuary, with the steering wheel on the right side the morning saw Martino and I heading north once more.

Blue skies and sharp snow-covered peaks larger by the kilometre preluded ritual last orders of cappuccini and panini before 13km of the Fréjus expectorated us into the damp grey gloom of France.  Narrowly avoiding the parsimony of another Swiss motorway vignette adding to my already brightly coloured windscreen collection, we pushed on as far as Châlons-en-Champagne.  A beer amidst the oil-rig chic of nearby La Taverne led to a second in only marginally improved ambience followed by a disorientation tour of the centre-ville.  Smuggling a fragrant bag of frites back into our hotel we surveyed the ‘deux lits monsieur’ but one coverlet.  Sleep was fitful, perhaps I was simply unused to being in close proximity to such hairy eyebrows.  Anyhow, at some point before six AM I turned over, bleary eyes finally focussing on a recumbent, fully clothed and hatted Martino.  What was his problem?

On the road again, a ten o’clock ferry taunted us as Belgium-plated saloons zipped past in fast and furious formation, and as Dunkirk grew closer we merged into the ubiquitous traffic of retreating Brits… the rest is history.

Fact Box

Stuart Collins & Co ( 01792 655 563) is a specialist insurance broker covering extended foreign use for UK registered cars.

The RAC ( via its website, provides a free European route planning service for those who prefer to eschew the siren call of ‘Daphne’ and her ilk.

Norfolk Line ( regularly offer the best value one way ferry crossings Dover to Dunkirk and vice versa.  Prices start from £17 for a car and four passengers.  Those in the north may want to consider DFDS ( overnight sailings from Newcastle to Amsterdam.

French budget hotels close to main arterial routes include, and Booking is recommended during peak times.  Advance rates from £24 per room per night.

Railsavers ( 0845 293 2715) has the solution for those who can travel June to September and prefer to let the train take the strain.  Autoslaap motorail trains run from Den Bosch on the Dutch Belgium border, within easy striking distance of Channel ports, to Livorno and Alessandria.  The cost of taking the car on the train is higher than self-driving but when fuel, accommodation, and fatigue are all factored in there’s a strong case to be made.  Early season prices start from £199 per car and from £74 per couchette.

My Gaff in Italy

It’s All Nick Clegg’s Fault

Dunroamin Chez Eric
Dunroamin Chez Eric

A long-awaited child-free few days in Malta with the girlfriend I married has turned into one night in Eric Tweddle’s caravan over in the Lakes.  Now, not that I have anything against Cumbria, but swapping a 5-star press junket for a night in a stationary tin tent located in England’s wettest county doesn’t seem the most equitable exchange.  OK I know, mustn’t grumble, at least we’re not stuck in Bangkok, Bishkek or  Ballarat – though two of those would at least have offered the sniff of a good story and taken my mind off the oncoming train of an impending tax bill.  I have to admit feeling not a little satisfied that the wind has now changed and those cod-swaggering sons and dottirs of Iceland are now ash-bound themselves – see how they like it.

However, all this aerial drama has spawned a thought.  How about amalgamating a few of the year’s Bank Holidays into  an annual no-fly week?  Advance notice and the occasional exception for emergencies would turn an uncomfortable and inconvenient drama into a celebration of our island nation.  Timed accordingly it’d give domestic tourism a boost, increase consumption of local-produce, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, lend those Radio 4 listeners living under a flight path the chance to listen to the Archers uninterrupted and allow pilots and cabin crew the rare chance to have a few drinks and party…  In addition, consider the collective benefit to the mental and physical health of low-cost air travellers by eschewing, even for a short time, exposure to yellow and orange aircraft cabins, just saying ‘No’ to metallised ‘baggies’ of vodka, and kicking the scratchcard-eating habit – Britain  would surely be a better place.  Perhaps I should suggest Nick Clegg adds my no-fly initiative to the Lib-Dem’s election manifesto, somewhere between pledges for a rural fuel duty discount and scrapping council tax.

Anyhow, all these televised political sideshows are enough to drive a man to Dushanbe, which is exactly where I’ll be on the 6th May.

Have a good weekend.

Weblink of the week is…

Fair Lady?

Until recently my only sighting of The Lady was a glimpse of a mid-September edition which had filtered down though the mixed media detritus of our verging-on-the-out-of-control home, to reside semi-permanently on the cistern of the downstairs lav.  This was a one off voucher copy following the placing of a speculative small ad describing our Umbrian holiday apartment.  Two enquiries resulted, each spawning a flurry of email exchanges, then… in true ‘Lady‘ style our little Italy was deemed ‘not quite what we want’.

The current television ‘documentary’ following The Lady’s travails borrows from Big Brother – new editor Rachel’s big brother is Boris Johnson – all that’s missing is a hot tub and tattoos.  ‘Pfeffel!’ I hear you say, but there  are evictions – a ‘too-loud’ literary editor was the first; housemate jungle trials – rodent infestation and leaky roofs; and then public votes where, according to Rachel, circulation figures reflect the reality of  ‘a piddling magazine that nobody cares about or buys…. (er) sorry, I didn’t mean that.’

All in all, The Lady’s gaga combination of politicking, claustrophobia, and the need to keep a straight face whilst believing in the kabala of business, makes me glad I’ve chosen freelance penury – or perhaps it’s chosen me.

See new Lady Ed Rachel Johnson’s Channel 4 interview here –

Counting Holes

Any Glass, Any Car‘ say Autoglass… er… well, not a Tata Safari, Puna’s finest, and if the Indian promotional literature is to be believed ‘a premium MUV targeted at the upper strata of society.‘  However monsoon-proof Tatas purport to be, it has to said that their windscreens are not best suited to the cracking northern winter we’ve just experienced.   Thus it was that I found myself in a steady descent from the rarefied upper stratum of Northumberland heading towards Blackburn where, in between rounds of uncontrolled clog dancing, a couple of Lancashire lads were happily occupied unscrewing the oily bits from a car similar to mine – the windscreen was ‘champion’ apparently.

As usual the sat nav issued instructions on where to go, without offering a sense of where I was.  Passing signs for Samlesbury Hall, Church and C of E School, I realised this was the scene of my father’s childhood.  Here the Graf Spee ruled the sawmill pond, pram wheels came off runaway bogies and zeppelins hung in the sky – escape from a lifetime on the home farm came courtesy of Adolph Hitler – my dad never hated the Germans, he had a good war.

‘You have arrived at your destination.’ Amongst steep streets of red brick houses Blackburn was a scene from ‘the day after’.  After what I couldn’t be sure, though there was certainly a sense of being too late and of having missed it.  White youths paraded jarhead haircuts that framed faces too old for their years, uncertain Pakistani patriarchs rode similarly elderly Mercedes, and uniformed Asian kids filled the pavements by a string of halal snack bars.

Miraculously the cheery chappies from Lancashire Windscreens were expecting me, having successfully removed the ‘champion’ windscreen from the wreck, and were primed with glue to replace the existing crazed glass .  While the adhesive went off and whilst the law still allowed, I took the opportunity to have a quick pint – the Griffin – ‘grand pub, lovely inside.’

‘Psychic Night’ announced a board propped by the door,  and even without ‘the gift’ I had a premonition of what lay within… Tortured whispers strained across the bar, ‘What you ‘aving in there Al?’ It seemed that Sheffield style guru John Shuttleworth been here first, offering a range of services from feng shui to fashion makeover and elocution lessons.  ‘No, were not doing food.  Just ‘ad to make a call t’ospital.’ I made do with a packet of crisps and supped my pint of Thwaites, waiting patiently for the certainty of death along with the other afternoon regulars.

How many holes are there in Blackburn, Lancashire?  Maybe that’s the wrong question…

This post’s weblink reminds me of finding Jilted John on cassette in a field and having evicted the nest of earwigs, playing Gordon is a Moron to destruction on a friend’s state-of-the-art ‘music centre’ –

Sheikh Down in the Snow

Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi drops it down a cog and gives it some welly in a Swedish forest...
Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi drops it down a cog and gives it some welly in a Swedish forest...

A few days ago I waited on the tarmac at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport whilst twin turboprops wound themselves into sufficient frenzy for flight.  A blond female flight attendant, who save for the strings of supermarionation bore  outsize resemblance to Thunderbird’s Lady Penelope, went through the safety briefing.  40 minutes later, over miles of snowy forest and frozen lakes, Karlstad hove into view.  F.A.B.  I thought

I was in Sweden to interview Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi, a driver with the BP Ford Abu Dhabi race team and former winner of the Middle East Rally.  Khalid was scheduled to first scare me witless on a shakedown lap in his £500,000 car – or at least that was the plan…

34″ waist, long leg, big head – my flameproof longjohns and racing suit seemed made to measure as I waited, heart quickening, in the warmth of Abu Dhabi’s Oasis hospitality trailer.  Outside temperatures hovered around a chastening -22 deg C.  Khalid’s car came in, was subject to feverish mechanical attention, and then went out again.  ‘He just needs a couple more runs.  It’s been two of years since he’s driven on snow.’ Now they tell me…

This cycle of rising adrenalin and unresolved anticipation ran a couple more times, before a downcast PR woman entered the trailer. ‘He doesn’t want to do it I’m afraid. ‘

Well, I could hardly blame the guy.  Sand and snow are different beasts and as such it wasn’t worth killing a journo, or worse still pranging the motor.  Disappointed, I stripped off my race gear, though after an unfortunate experience in a Builth Wells launderette, first sought privacy behind one of the oasis’s metaphorical palm trees.

With wit intact, I did the interview.  Khalid turned out to be a personable and considered ambassador for his sport and for Abu Dhabi.  He finished 14th, climbing 12 places as he atuned to both the surface and studded tyres.  Abu Dhabi hopes to join the World Rally Challenge circuit following a proving event later this year.  If the venue is successful maybe Khalid will be too and perhaps I’ll get another chance to wear flameproof underpants.

Today’s website of the week is some footage of Khalid’s 2008 Rally Sweden.  Just bear in mind that most of these spectators have all day been intent on fortifying themselves against the cold with various dilutions of lingonberry hooch.  Mind you they’re quicker than the RAC…

Chim Chim Cher-ee

Hearth and Home
Hearth and Home

Yesterday saw chimney sweep Jeff’s annual visit.  At 62 and a former Coldstream Guardsman with an army pension, Jeff’s once taught fighting man’s physique had in retirement inflated to that of a leaden balloon, leaving him awkward and wheezing at the least exertion.  Say what you like about Dick Van Dyke’s accent, his fancy footwork would have left Jeff asystolic.  Still, as Jeff struggled, red-faced to shove brushes up the chimney and displace a year’s worth of our soot he seemed content enough.  ‘I can live off the land you know.  On camp in Germany I always got in with the waldmeister.  Some of the other blokes had no time for them but I always kept them sweet with a bottle of scotch.  One old fellow turned up, ‘ankommen’ he says, and in his truck was a wild boar.  Me and the lads strung it up in a tree and butchered it there and then.  Beautiful it was when we roasted it.  The officers’ mess wanted some, we told ’em ‘Get away.’ Jeff was in his element recounting stories from three tours of duty, occasionally diluting his stream of North East vernacular by a perfectly enunciated German word or phrase.  ‘So are you busy Jeff?’ I enquired.  ‘I could work 12 days a week if I wanted, but the wife just says ‘You calm down Jeff!’ And she’s right, I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.  I do three days now.  If I do any more the tax man takes the lot anyhow.’

I paid Jeff £45 for his hour’s work and considered soot removal as a more dependable source of  income.  I wondered if being an associate chimney sweep would scupper my prospective BGTW membership application?

Have a good week…

Today’s website has to be Dick Van Dyke –

Haiti – Devastating Earthquake Hits Poorest Nation

Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti?

Port au Prince, Presidential Palace and statue of Toussaunt Louverture
Port au Prince, Presidential Palace and statue of Toussaint Louverture (Nick Redmayne)

In early December 2009 I was on freelance assignment in Haiti. Here are a few reflections upon my experiences.

Floating, looking up at the sky, my ears were occasionally muffled by cosseting Caribbean swell entering the sheltered cove – God, is this really Haiti?  Well, it was certainly Cyvadier Plage, a few kilometres beyond the south coast town of Jacmel and given its derivation from ‘Ici va Dieu’ there remained the outside chance of divine confirmation.  Lobster sautéed in garlic butter, a green salad and banane peze (fried plantains) digested pleasantly in my stomach assisted by the waves’ gentle rocking and the semi-euphoric effects of a cold Prestige beer.  Yes, this was indeed Haiti.

Given half a chance, Haiti and Port au Prince in particular rush to confirm preconceptions; crushing poverty – tick, piles of refuse – tick; crumbling infrastructure – tick; a highly visible UN military force – tick; and bad French…  However, a country should not be measured solely by the extremes of its capital and it’s all too easy to allow media ‘analysis’ to define real life, spoon feeding us infantilised pre-chewed portions of reality.  Few have heard of Jacmel’s beautiful New Orleans-style architecture, the laid back resort of Port Salut, the pretty fishing villages of Île à Vache, and the Caribbean’s most remarkable castle of Citadelle Laferrière?  The truth of Haiti has long proved an awkward story to process, and even before Tuesday’s earthquake, one that has suffered from misleading packaging.

After 29 years of corrupt and despotic Duvalierism, a proceeding period of chaos, disappointment and broken promises so bad that in some areas it spawned a dark nostalgia for Baby Doc, things did finally seem to be improving for Haiti.  Mobile phone and internet provision was better than neighbouring Dominican Republic. In the north near Cape Haitien, USD$55 Millions had been lavished on Royal Caribbean’s faux Haitian Labadee© beach site, following downgrading of foreign governments’ travel advisories inland excursions for its float and flop cruise clients were being promised.  Elsewhere, USD$1 Million was to be spent upgrading Port au Prince’s international airport and before Christmas foreign hotel chains had committed to open new properties providing further resources for the country’s small but growing tourism industry.

Last month, passing the pre-earthquake catastrophe of Citie Soleil’s slums, I watched a stream of Port au Prince’s characteristically colourful tap tap buses.  One bore the epithet ‘Le Bon Samaritan’, another a flattering portrait of Barack Obama, behind it ‘Chuch Norriss’ – right now amidst settling dust of 12th January Haitians are still waiting, increasingly desperate for any of these buses transporting salvation to arrive.

During my time in Port au Prince I stayed at a guesthouse attached to St Joseph’s Home for Boys.  Funds from travellers using the home as a base supported the work of St Joseph’s to bring impoverished boys off the street and into a safe and stable environment.  The earthquake has almost levelled the seven-storey building undoing much of the good work started in 1986.  To find out more and to donate towards St Joseph’s see

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