I HAVE JUST finished reading a book about an incident that made a great impression on me and my close family many years ago. The slender volume, “Florence. Ordeal by Water” was written by Kathrine Kressman Taylor (1903-1996), who was an eye-witness to the event that troubled our family so much. The book was first published in 1967.
During my childhood, my parents, who were keen on the art of the Italian renaissance and Italy in general, took my sister and me to the city of Florence every year (until about 1969), except 1967. Visiting churches, museums, and art galleries was not exactly my ‘cup of tea’ when I was a child, especially when I knew that my best friend was enjoying what sounded to me like a far more exciting holiday than mine. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that the experiences that my parents gave me were actually far more valuable than anything I could have gained from annual holidays at a seaside resort in North Wales, where my friend went every summer.
I mentioned that in 1967, we did not make our annual visit to the city on the River Arno, Florence (Firenze). This was because the city was severely affected by a flood in November 1966. This inundation was caused by heavy storms and ill-advised opening of a dam on the River Arno upstream from Florence. The water caused much damage. I remember that when my parents heard that it had happened, they appeared to be as devastated as if a close, much-loved friend or relative had died suddenly. They decided that visiting the stricken city in 1967 was inadvisable, so we returned in 1968. What we found in 1968 was distressing. The flood water, which had become mixed up with central heating fuel oil, had stained the walls of the city’s buildings, leaving a tide line at the often-high levels that it had reached. These marks remained for several years. In low-lying parts of the city, the water had reached the upper floors of buildings. In addition to damaging the buildings, the water also destroyed many irreplaceable works of art. Dad was particularly upset about the heavy damage suffered by a crucifix painted in about 1265 by Cimabue, which hung in the Church of Santa Croce. He used to mention this often. I felt that this affected him more than the damage to the rest of the city.
Miraculously, the surging waters of the Arno in spate and laden with tree trunks and other heavy debris did not significantly damage any of the many lovely bridges that cross the river. This is unlike what happened at the end of WW2 when the retreating Germans destroyed all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio.
Kathrine Kressman Taylor, whose book I have just read, was living in a palazzo in Florence when the great flood hit the city. Her book is a diary of what she and the Florentines experienced when the waters of the Arno almost destroyed the city, and the aftermath. It is a compelling account of the tragedy, filled with vignettes and anecdotes that illustrate the true horror of what happened. What shines out in her account was that despite overwhelming odds, the Florentines refused to be defeated by the events that rendered many homeless and caused an even greater number to lose all their worldly possessions and their livelihoods. As soon as the oil-filled, filthy waters began to subside, the citizens of Florence as well as foreigners who had become trapped there began to work on restoring the city.
Reading Kressman Taylor’s account has given me a much clearer idea of the extent of the disaster than I had as a youngster just after it had happened.
By the way, I must mention how I ‘stumbled’ across this marvellous book about Florence. A friend had given me a copy of the recently republished novella, “Address Unknown”, by Kressman Taylor. First published in 1938, this book subtly drew her readers’ attention to the plight of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Having read and enjoyed it, I looked to see what else the author had written. When I saw that she had written about the flood that had upset us so much in 1966, I had to read it, and I am pleased that I did.
IN THE EARLY 1990s, I was invited to a wedding in central Italy. Although I could have flown or driven to Italy, I decided to travel by train and ferry (the Channel Tunnel had not yet been opened for use). In my bachelor days, I was not a careful packer. I used to stuff my clothes and other belongings into a rucksack in a disorderly way. I was puzzled about what to do with my smart suit that I planned to wear at the marriage ceremony. I was concerned that it would become badly creased whilst stuffed in my rucksack. I consulted one of my female colleagues at the dental practice in Kent, where I was working at the time. She gave me some useful advice that did not include asking the hotel to iron it for me.
On my way to Italy I stopped for a few days to visit some good friends who lived in Basel in Switzerland. They lived near to the terminus of a tram line that ran from the French Border, close to my friends’ flat, across the Swiss city to the German border. Although they no longer live in Basel, we now have other friends who live at the end of the same tram line, but close to the German border. Getting back to the early 1990s, I spent an enjoyable time in Basel. Before leaving, I bought an immoderate number of large bars of Swiss chocolate. My rather unhealthy plan was to take this chocolate to Italy and then after the wedding festivities were over, I would spend many happy hours eating obscene amounts of Swiss chocolate on the train while travelling back to the French coast. It seemed like a splendid plan at the time.
I arrived at the hotel in the Italian city where the wedding was to take place. As I was not yet trained to hang my clothes in wardrobes, I left my full rucksack on the floor for the duration of my stay. Following my colleague’s advice, I extracted my creased jacket and trousers from my ruck sack, put them on hangers, and hung them in the room’s attached bathroom. Following the instructions I had been given in Kent, I turned on the hot water and closed the bathroom door so that the bathroom filled with steam from the hot water, and then I went out for some hours. On my return, the suit looked respectable enough to wear after its steaming.
The wedding festivities stretched enjoyably over three days. On each day, I attended meals in restaurants and the marriage ceremony in a municipal office. We all ate well and drunk fine Italian wines. As the saying goes, ‘a good time was had by all’.
At the end of my stay, I crammed everything into the rucksack lying on the floor of the hotel room, and then made my way to the city’s station. I boarded a train heading north through Italy towards Switzerland and then Paris, where I had to travel between the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, from where trains to Calais departed.
As my train headed across the plain of the River Po south of Milan, I began to feel the urge to make inroads into my stash of Swiss chocolate bars, which at that moment I treasured as if they were bars of gold. I opened my rucksack in which they had been stored while I was staying in the hotel in Italy, my heart sunk, and I was filled with gloom. No, they had not been stolen. Far worse, they were still there but completely and utterly inedible. Each bar of chocolate had melted and then re-solidified. However, when they had been in a molten state, they had been distorted in such a way that the silver foil in which they had been wrapped by the manufacturers had become intimately intermingled with the chocolate. After it had cooled down and solidified, all of my chocolates were welded to the silver foil in such a way that it was impossible to separate what was potentially edible from the inedible distorted strata of foil running through the chocolate. What had happened, you might well wonder. Well, there had not been a heatwave during my stay in the Italian city. What I had not realised when I was staying in the hotel was that my hotel room had under floor heating and it was this that had been warming my rucksack filled with chocolate that had been lying on the warm floor for several days.
Looking back on this after so many years, it was probably a good thing that I had not been able to consume a huge amount of chocolate all in one binge, but this is not what went through my mind at the time.
I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.
A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:
“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”
These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.
Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands. During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.
With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:
“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”
And, he asks:
“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”
Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927. Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:
“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”
Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.
I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.
On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:
“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”
Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:
“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”
This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:
“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”
Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.
Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.
My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:
“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”
Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:
“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”
Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.
Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.
I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.
My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier. Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.
Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.
During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.
My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.
In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry. As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.
Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:
“You won’t like them”
Defiantly, I responded:
“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”
“You will not like them.”
“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”
“You won’t like them”
“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”
The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”
The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.
In August 1990 before the downfall of Yugoslavia, I made one of my many visits to Italy. On this particular visit, I stayed with Italian friends, who lived in Tolmezzo in the north-east corner of Italy close to its borders with Austria and Slovenia, which in those far off days was part of Yugoslavia.
There was a town near to Tolmezzo that had interested me for a long time because the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran through it dividing it into the Italian town of Gorizia and the Yugoslav town of Nova Gorica. Prior to the end of WW2, the place was entirely in Italy because Italy included a large part of what was to become the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. I was curious to see this divided town.
I drove into central Gorizia and discovered a typical small north-eastern Italian city – attractive, but unexceptional. I wandered amongst the city’s back streets trying to see where they ended and then became part of Yugoslavia. My quest was disappointing because the border ran through eastern suburban districts of Gorizia, beyond which there was open countryside.
After looking at the Italian part of the city, I drove south of it to the nearest border crossing, which was located in the middle of open country away from Gorizia. I parked my car and strolled up to the Italian border post, who showed no interest in me or my passport.
I walked across a short stretch of no-mans-land to the Yugoslav checkpoint, where my passport was stamped and I was waved on. I had arrived in the middle of nowhere, it seemed. I spotted a bus stop and asked people waiting there if the bus would take me to Nova Gorica. I was told it would.
When the local bus arrived, I was able to buy a ticket with money I had kept after previous holidays in Yugoslavia.
We drove what seemed like a long way through the country side, eventually arriving in the aesthetically unexceptional centre of Nova Gorica. Unlike attractive Gorizia, which was established many centuries ago, the relatively unnattractive Nova Gorica was established as a new town in 1947 after the Paris Peace Treaty left the important market town of Gorizia outside the border of Yugoslavia. The new town had been built a little away from the border, which is why I did not find any streets in Gorizia that ran into Nova Gorica. It was not like Berlin, where the Wall sliced through pre-existing streets, bringing them to a sudden dead end.
I disembarked, found a coin-operated telephone box and made a quick call to one of my many good friends in far-off Belgrade. Then, with some of my remaining Yugoslav money, I purchased a box of the superb cherry brandy chocolates called ‘Griotte’, which used to be made in Croatia by the Kraš confectionery company, and are still made today. I wanted to give them to my hosts in Tolmezzo.
I returned to the bus stop and travelled back to the Yugoslav border post. Both the Yugoslav and the Italian border officials waved me and my box of chocolates from one country to the next without any problems.
Thinking back on this brief international journey lasting no more than two hours, I realise that it was the very last time that I visited Yugoslavia. I had visited Serbia (and other parts of Yugoslavia) earlier in 1990, which is why I still had some Yugoslav Dinars. Since then, I have made one trip to Slovenia, several years after the break up of the Yugoslav Federation.
Sometime in the 1980s, I was visiting Italy in order to see my sister who lives in the Emilia Romagna region. I landed at Milan and rented a car.
The SEAT vehicle which I hired was tiny and very basic and seemed to lack many items that can be found in other low-cost cars. However, I benefitted from it because it did not consume fuel at a high rate. This was lucky because in those days fuel was extremely expensive in Italy as compared with other countries in Europe. In those days, the petrol price in the UK had just exceeded £1 per GALLON (4.5 litres). In Italy, at the same time, petrol was available at about 1600 Lire per LITRE, and the exchange rate was about 1570 Lire to the Pound Sterling. Nevertheless, I ‘beetled’ around Italy visiting various friends in different places.
Driving practices in Italy differed from those in the UK. One day, I gave a lift to some Italian friends. At each village or small settlement on the Strada Statale (main road, not a motorway or highway) there were traffic signals at intersections. At one of these, I began to slow down because I could see that the signal was about to turn red. My friends said:
“What are you doing? Why are you slowing down?”
“The signal is turning red,” I replied.
“Don’t be silly, speed up. Don’t let the signal hold us up!”
I cannot remember what I did, but I have lived to tell the tale.
A day or so before I was due to meet my sister, I decided that I ought to have a haircut in order to look presentable. I stopped in a village, where I had spotted a barber shop as I was driving past.
I entered to smart looking salon, and sat amongst three or four other gentlemen awaiting the caring hands of the barber.Eventually, I was invited onto the barber’s throne. I explained what I wanted as best I could with my very rudimentary Italian. However, the barber, a true experienced professional, knew what was needed.
He began rummaging around in the mop of hair on my head, and then suddenly stepped back as if he had been confronted by a deadly poisonous snake. He raised his hands high above his head, and shouted:
The other men in the salon shrank back, one or two of them hiding their heads under the newspapers that they were reading. I sat, amazed and wondering about the meaning of ‘forfora’ and why it had caused such alarm.
Then it dawned on me. The barber had discovered dandruff in my hair. He explained something to me that I worked out meant that he needed to apply a special treatment to my hair. I told him to go ahead. He rubbed some oily liquid into my hair. After a moment, I felt a strong burning sensation. It felt as if something was burrowing down the roots of my hair and into my scalp. As it worked, I thought that whatever had been applied felt as if it was strng enough to kill anything. I just prayed that my hair would not fall as a result of this terrific chemical onslaught.
After a short time, my head began to feel normal, and the barber carried out my haircut. I do not remember how much my cut cost, but I do remember having to pay an extra 5000 Lire for the special treatment.
I doubt that I will ever forget the Italian word for ‘dandruff’, but how often I will make use of this knowledge is questionable.
The short Via dei Tavolini was another of our regular morning destinations in Florence. Situated in the heart of the city between the Duomo and the Uffizi, we visited this street frequently during each visit to the city. It contained 3 important shops: the ice-cream shop called Perché No? (‘Why not?’), a dress material shop, and a shop with the name ‘Busti Biondi’. It was in the latter that my mother had her brassieres made to measure.
During my earlier visits to Florence, when my parents were less confident of their spoken Italian, they were assisted by Giorgio, who owned the material shop between the ‘bra’ shop and the ice-cream parlour. Giorgio, who had learnt English from British soldiers during WW2, translated for my parents. Like so many Italians, he was fond of children, and we grew to like him. For years, he used to send my sister first day covers of newly minted Italian postage stamps. His patience must have been impressive because my mother was not an easy customer. She and my father spent what seemed like hours in Busti Biondi whilst the bras were tried on, discussed, and returned for endless alterations.
My mother was buxom, a trait shared by many ladies in her family, and extremely particular that things should be just right. As far as I was concerned, the positive feature of these visits to the Via dei Tavolini was seeing and talking with Giorgio as well as the chance to enjoy cups of some of Florence’s best ice-cream. We thought that Perché No? was the best ice-cream place in the city, but others favoured Vivoli, a gelateria close to the church of Santa Croce. We did try that place, but it failed to change our high opinion about our favourite place close to my mother’s bra shop. If it had not been for my mother’s breasts we would not have met Giorgio and might have never discovered Perché No.
This is a brief extract from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me” available on Kindle and also as a paperback by clicking HERE
THE FLIGHT FROM BANGALORE to Chennai (Madras) is short: about forty minutes flying time. Some friends collected us from the airport in Chennai, and plied us with a tasty lunch. They recommended hiring an Uber taxi to ferry us from Chennai to Pondicherry (now ‘Puducherry’), a distance of about 100 miles. After three abortive attempts, a fourth driver pitched up and we set off for Pondicherry.
Our Uber driver was excellent and drove carefully. After just over two hour’s journey southwards along the luxuriant, verdant, well cultivated coastal plain, we reached a Pondicherry check post.
From 1674 until 1954, Pondicherry and its environs was a French colony. Occasionally, it was taken over by the British, but most of the time it was part of France. In 1954, a large majority of city elders voted in favour of ceding drom France. That year it became, and remain, an Indian Union Territory, independent of its hige neighbour Tamil Nadu. Old Pondicherry still contains many fine French colonial buildings and the policemen wear képis. Many of the road names are bilingual: Tamil and French. In addition, the town has no shortage of restaurants offering what is described as ‘French cuisine’. Although well populated with both Indian and foreign tourists, Pondicherry is a delightful place to relax and enjoy warm sea breezes.
To enter the Union Territory of Pondicherry, drivers of cars with registration plates from outside Pondicherry have to buy a permit to drive there. Our Uber driver’s car had Tamil Nadu plates. He stopped at the check post, which is about ten minutes drive from the heart of Pondicherry, and told us it would take about five minutes to get the permit. He gathered up his relevant documents and headed inside the checkpost. While we were waiting for our driver, we were parked next to an unpretentious stall serving Bengali food. It bore signs in three scripts: Bangla, English, and Tamil.
Instead of taking five minutes, we sat waiting for him for forty five minutes. This was because he had set out with one document missing. I sat waiting in the car thinking that without the entry permit, we were so near yet so far from our destination.
After some time and several telephone calls, our driver re-entered the checkpost, and emerged with the desired permit. He explained that he had bern sent a photo of the missing document by WhatsApp. This image of the document, rather than the original, satisfied those who issued the entry permit. We continued our journey. Just beyond the checkpost, I saw an obelisc, which looked old enough to have been put up by the French colonial authorities.
After settling into our accommodation, which I will describe at a later date, we took a pre-prandial stroll along the lovely seaside promenade. I was very pleased to discover that a place that had opened on the promenade a few months before our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago was still flourishing.
The Gelateria Montecatini Terme is a superb ice cream shop. It was set up just over five years ago by an Italian who has a business making luxury boats, anything from canoes to millionaires’ yachts. The gelateria is fully equipped with Italian equipment and refrigerated ice cream display counters. Stepping into this popular ice cream parlour in Pondicherry is just like stepping into a gelateria in Italy, and the ice cream is top class. The queues of customers attest that I am not alone in saying that.
The so-called ‘French food’ in Pondicherry is popular, but in no way matches up to the high standards often encountered in France. In contrast, the ice cream served at the Gelateria Montecatini Terme easily rivals the best in Italy. India never fails to be surprising!
I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.
Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.
Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.
Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.
When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.
One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”
In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.
It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.
Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.
Until I was 16 years old, I accompanied my parents on annual holidays in Florence (Italy). We always stayed at the Pensione Burchianti, which was run by two ageing sisters. Almost every evening, we ate dinner in a nearby restaurant (the Buca Mario). This excerpt from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME describes how I began to acquire some limited skill in speaking Italia. Here is the excerpt:
” … After dinner we would walk back to the Burchianti. It might have been during one of these evening strolls that my father came up with a new version of the saying ‘a penny for your thoughts’, namely: ‘a penne for your sauce’. The traffic in the streets would have quietened down by the time that we had eaten, and all of the traffic signals, or ‘robots’ as my South African parents called them, had flashing amber lights instead of the usual sequence of three coloured lamps. The pedestrian signals, which alternated between the red ‘Alt’ and the green ‘Avanti’ during the day, simply flashed both messages at the same time at night.
When we arrived back at the Burchianti, the residents, who had been eating supper, were usually still lingering at their tables. Many of them almost lived in the Burchianti. There was an elderly commendatore, who took all his meals there but slept elsewhere. There were also a number of business people who spent the week working in Florence, but resided some distance away in the weekend. They lived in the pensione during the week. One of these was a lady pharmacist from Parma who spoke Italian with a curious accent, rolling her ‘r’s in an exaggerated way.
On entering the dining room, we would be greeted like old friends, which I suppose we were. We would be invited to sit at the sisters’ table, and then I had to perform. One of the sisters would ask me in Italian what I had eaten for dinner, and I had to reply in Italian. Everyone listened to my reply which usually went something like this: “Primo piatto o mangiato spaghetti con pomodoro. Dopo o mangiato bistecca con patate fritte. E dopo, profiterole.”
It was not difficult to relate what I had eaten because every dinner I ordered the same thing or substituted lombatina di vitello (veal chop) for the bistecca. This nightly recitation gave me the confidence to try to speak in Italian, even if badly. When I did not know a word, I tried using a Latin word but pronounced it in a way that I believed made it sound Italian. Often, this worked! ...”
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