Monday, July 31, 2006

The passion of the south

There's a handy phrase in Italian that all outsiders should know: Acchiappasvizzeri. Or, "catch the Swiss". It may sound cute, but it's actually creepy and predatory. It refers to that moment when a clueless straniero (with agitated partner in tow, no doubt) is stumbling around the streets of an Italian city, map in hand, perplexed look on face, and comes into contact with a savior in the form of a local. This local is usually quick with a reassuring grin and indispensible advice about how to find, no, not that restaurant/attraction/museum, this restaurant/attraction/museum is much better. Within moments, he is handing you his number. Anything, and he means anything, you want, he can source. Have a nice day. Warning: These encounters can be costly.

We met one such Swiss catcher in Matera yesterday. His name is Franco and his mobile number is 33 - (erm, read on first). Xtina and I were not exactly lost (nor exhibiting much Swiss-ness from what I could tell) when Franco came into our lives. It's true. I had been repeating for a good 10 minutes "I swear. The restaurant, according to this map, is around the next corner", but we were nearly there. Nearly. While craning our necks to read a non-existent road name, Franco, in a blue poncho, glided up beside us on his motorino and asked where we were headed. In Rome, I would have had a curt "We're Ok, but thanks" dismissal, but we were on our third day in the south and we were feeling a bit disarmed by the locals. (Throughout Puglia, and now, Basilicata, we ran into the sweetest, most helpful people. I would love for the government to fund an exchange of Pugliesi for Romans, a dose of southern hospitality would be a nice image-cleanser for Rome, methinks). Uncharacteristically, Xtina and I, at that unnamed street corner, broke down and revealed all our hopes, dreams and priorities, as they were at the moment, to a complete stranger. We cannot find the restaurant, we began. We cannot seem to find a store open that will sell us the famous Matera olive oil, and, while we're at it, any gossip about Mel Gibson? Did I forget to mention Mel shot "The Passion of the Christ" here in this hauntingly beautiful town?

Franco nodded, escorting us across the street to the restaurant entrance. Yep, across the street. In the time it takes to check your watch, Franco had given us his phone number, offered us his mother's apartment the next time we're in town, promised to source some quality oil for us and gave me some dirt about the Warner Bros filming of the Nativity (according to Franco, due out in a cinema near you this Xmas). Franco didn't stop at the door. He followed us into the half-empty restaurant, stuck his head in the kitchen door demanding we be seated pronto and then hovered awkwardly before vanishing again. Impressed, we rang Franco after the antipasta and ordered from him 5 liters of olive oil. 10 minutes later he was standing at our table, olive oil in hand. (He rang the owner of one of the closed shops we had visited earlier that afternoon. Heartbroken, we read the words "Chiuso Domenica" and quietly set off looking for lunch to revive our spirits.) Sure, it was a bit awkward for somebody to deliver diners a giant cannister of oil mid-meal, but this was Franco. He probably does this all the time, we figured. We gave him a big tip, a tenner, and exulted in our Swiss-ness. Everybody wins.

(I will post photos of the trip in the next day or so. I'm waiting for a certain somebody to determine which of the 92 photos of random Poles, Finns, Germans and Italians taken at a series of dull-looking EU conferences can be expunged from the camera. No, that certain somebody is not Mario Monti.)

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