It’s All Grik To Me

There are nine towns around Otranto that form a small region called Grecia Salentina. In this area the dialect is called Grik and  an ancient Greek landing here today would have little trouble understanding what the locals were saying.

One of these nine towns is Melpignano a little place of 2,000 inhabitants with a large church in the central square . It is a sleepy little town reliant on agriculture .


All that changes on August 23rd, this Saturday night. 150,000 people descend on the town to celebrate La Notte Della Taranta . 15 stages are erected in the town and 60 teams of musicians and dancers compete to be the best folk troupe playing the music of the Salento Region.

Melpignano festival

The Festival has only been going since 1998 when it was founded to try to rekindle the dances and songs that were disappearing from the region as people looked to modern music for entertainment.

To say it has been a success is an understatement. Some 400 foreign journalists will cover this years event coming from India, South America, South Africa and the USA.

A local Danish radio station is streaming the music live and its report said today that  Melpignano was now the cornerstone of European folk culture that is in danger of dying out in most countries.

It is live on Radio 2 in Italy and live on Rai TV as well. In between the dance troupes there are foreign and Italian ” stars” to entertain. I have to admit I have never heard of any of the foreign names but I have heard of some of the Italians like Alessandro Mannarino a popular folk singer

Not my cup of tea but I’m sure the 150,000+ crowd will love him.

The concert starts at dusk and finishes as the sun rises up over Greece in the far distance.

My only concern must be that the town is slap bang in the middle of the xyella outbreak that has killed so far over 2.5 million olive trees. The region is committed to containing the disease in the Salento region and not allowing it to spread . Yet here we are with 150,000 people from all over the world sitting right in it. Will they stop and have photos taken by some of the old olive trees? Will they take sprigs home? Will an insect land in their car or truck and be transported north ? The left hand and the right hand don’t ever work together in Italy. There are too many departments, too many chiefs, too much self interest and too much corruption for anything to function as a single unit. But Europe whilst applauding the saving of a folk singing culture might not be too pleased if the xyella virus is spread due to to a folk festival.

I remember landing in Australia one year during the UK foot and mouth outbreak that led to the slaughter of loads of sheep. All Brits had to paddle through an antiseptic tray at the aircraft steps and then our bags and we ourselves were sprayed as well. The Aussies were taking no chances. Maybe the Italians could learn from that.


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Our Own King Canute

I reported some time ago that Puglia alongside many other regions this year has had a drop in tourists. June and July are now officially 30% lower in visitor numbers than last year and the spend and duration of stay is down too. This is caused by two things , the poor weather that all of Italy has had this year and being reliant on mainly domestic tourism the crisis that continues to envelop Italy with it it again back in recession.

Early estimates for August point to a worsening of the tourist numbers rather than any hoped for improvement. The weather to be fair has been somewhat better after some early August rain but with many companies foregoing their annual closure or shortening the time and with unemployment at 12% there was probably little hope for any improvement.

In times of crisis the Italians tend to look to government to solve their problems. All surveys over many years show that Italians actually like big government and see them as the people to sort those issues out. Of course what Italians mean is payouts, subsidies or compensation monies. But government especially the Regional has little or no money this year.

Enter the Director and head of the Puglia Regional Council one Onofio Intona by name. He like Jeremy Vine on his lunchtime talk shows ” Feels your pain” that is those in the tourism industry in Puglia. Immediately tourism heads go up . This looks promising is he going  to dole out some cash they think.

Well no he hasn’t got any it is all tied up in paying wind and solar subsidies to Mafia owned businesses. No Intona has done what few politicians have bothered to do he has had a think about the problem and over an excellent lunch on the tax payer has come up with a solution that will  mark him down in history .

” Let’s keep the beaches open through September and October”  Intona intones.

Puglian beaches are mainly privately run. Lidos are required by law to open from the fourth Saturday in May until the second Saturday in September. Then they count their loot ( most of it black ) and depart after another tiring season. Intona says to make up the shortfall they just need to stay there longer. Mind you it is not so easy as all that anyway.

To achieve this simple aim which to be honest you might have thought the lido and hotel owners might have thought of  if it was worthwhile, needs an awful lot of approvals. This is big government don’t forget. The Regional Finance Ministry has oversight of the beaches (though god knows why) so they must approve it. Then the ANCI the Association of Town Councils must all approve it. The Beach workers union must approve it. So too the Captains of all the Ports and Harbours around the Puglian coast. The Association of Hoteliers must have their say as too the coastal town councils. Seemed a simple idea didn’t it Mr Intona ?

However the real elephant in the room ( where did that expression come from and more to the point why am I using it ) is the weather. There is a perfectly good reason why the beaches close in early September. The weather apart from the odd hot spell is bloody awful in September and October. It is normally the start of the autumn monsoon in Puglia especially over the past few years. October often has 10 inches of rain and Scirocco storms. I remember a few years ago dining in shirtsleeves under the stars at midnight in Patras in Greece in late October. Then arriving back here the next day to an heady 9C at mid-day in Ostuni and that night the mercury dropped below freezing. Beaches were definitely not on the agenda.

So our own King Canute. Hold back the bad weather and save the Puglian tourist industry. Well done Sr. Intona.

Actually it seems poor King Canute has always had a bad press. In fact he was a very good King of England. Denmark and later Norway. He governed well and showed immense care for the peoples he looked after. It appears that actually what he was doing when he put his throne on an English beach was to show quite the opposite that he couldn’t hold back Mother Nature. Only God he said can control the tides. It was his was of showing his piety. But hey once the story got around a few English pubs and was covered by The Daily Mail it got a bit distorted.

Last night in the bar we had a wonky table and every time I moved my shingled body to another less comfortable position I knocked it and spilt some beer. Now I get forgiven for lots of things but spilling my wife’s beer is never one of them. Fix it she hissed so I did what we all do I stuck a Dreher beer mat under the table.  But this morning I discovered that it is a mathematical problem and here is the solution

So you just move the table around by a quarter move at a time. Boy you learn a lot here don’t you



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No there isn’t one in Puglia but the death of Lauren Bacall last week , who I had the pleasure of having tea with in 1973 and indeed had a ciggy out of Bogie’s cigarette case, reminded me of the movie. It is my favourite movie and I was laughing last night about one of the famous lines in it when Bogie is asked why he came to Casablanca by the police chief.

“What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” “…My health, I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? There are no waters in Casablanca.” “...I was misinformed.”

The temperature last night fell to 12C which is cold for August and reflects the non summer we have had here. I therefore turned the quote to

“What in heaven’s name brought you to Puglia?” “…My health, I came to Puglia for the sunshine.” “The sunshine? There is no sunshine in Puglia?        “...I was misinformed.”

Perhaps I should try France.

The lack of a summer has had one benefit. The figs are incredibly late this year. They are just beginning to become ripe enough to eat when normally they are over by the end of July. The blackberries on the other hand, relishing the cool rainy weather, are out in force. So my walk each day now means I can have breakfast on the hoof as it were, reaching over stone walls to pluck the figs . Then adding 5 or so blackberries to the mix. Paradise.

With our social life curtailed by the shingles and most of Italy on holiday the newspapers are resurrecting old story after old story and so I have spent time researching our annual pilgrimage out of Italy for 6+ months a year. I tend to quickly get diverted as something else on the web catches my attention and I can only take solace in Dr. Johnson’s quote “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intelligence.”

One such thing was the launch of Surf Air in the USA. Now this is not just another airline launch that will end in tears as it is an entirely new concept for the airline industry.

The CEO used to work for National Security Administration ( he was a spy in other words) and during his time there he looked at the airport building programme undertaken by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He built an amazing 27,000 airports outside most towns in the USA as part of a home security initiative to allow swift movement of troops in case of invasion. They are still there. Seventeen have become the huge hubs we know now but most are still hugely underused airports catering for private fliers.  With this info to hand the CEO of Surf Air then gained access to the huge research that was undertaken during Obama’s first term into potential routes for high speed trains. This research highlights the numbers of people commuting on a daily basis from city to city.

Putting these pieces of info together he built a map of routes that would attract people to a new concept in airline travel. Subscription flying.  As he explains no one buys a ticket each day to go to the gym. You pay a subscription and go when you want. Well why not when flying. So with Surf Air you buy a monthly subscription for US$1,599 and you can fly as often as you want .

He bought four 6 seater luxury turbo prop aircraft and started his first route between Hollywood ( Burbank Airport) Los Angeles and Silicon Valley ( San Carlos Airport) both Eisenhower built airports. He took the first 1,000 people on his waitlist following an initial P.R. launch and left 6,000 others still on the waitlist !

So popular is the airline that he quickly has raised funding to buy 60 more aircraft and is busy launching more routes .  As he says we don’t have passengers we have members. There are no queues, bookings are done on your smart phone in 30 seconds.  Baggage is free, all drinks are free, all snacks are free.

Could it work elsewhere ? You bet your sweet bippy it can. Just look at the fuss Etihad made about government plans for high speed rail links between Rome and Milan. Renzi pretty well had to admit it was a politician’s promise ( it will never happen) to get Etihad to stump up the cash for Alitalia. It is Alitalia’s only profitable route. Fly from underused Ciampino airport in almost the centre of Rome to underused Malpensa in Milan and you could take them to the cleaners.

This concept is so novel and different that maybe for once Richard Branson’s reply to the question how do you become a millionaire in the airline industry which was ” Start as a billionaire” is not true. We shall see.


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A Tale of Two Families

It was the best of times , it was the worst of times. How right Dickens was, he knew something about writing that lad, could have been a blogger . This weekend being Ferragosto down the driveway came the grandchildren from hell for their first visit of the year. It seems our neighbour’s wife La Mia Maria as he describes her needs more rest and can only do short spurts with these appalling kids. I fear I would now be languishing in Taranto jail  on a quadruple murder charge if I had to spend two days under the same roof with them.

We tried hard as they unloaded their gear to give ourselves reasons why it wasn’t going to be too bad this year. They are a year older we said they must be better behaved, why the little girl is now 10 years old and the boys are 7 and five. There’s only the little one and he must be four now. It won’t be too bad. Ho ho ho.

Up the road from us the French families have kids almost the same ages as these monsters. They are also here for their usual month in the sun. The girl is now a little woman very sophisticated and un child like, the boys play happily on their peddle bikes roaring around the quiet country lanes and leaping in and out of Granny’s big pool when hot. Even the little one is happy pushing himself around on his small tractor tricycle. Brown as little berries all of them ( no British beach burkas for these French kids) clothes off and in the sun is the order of the day, they are a joy to have about the place.

Our neighbour’s girl, now 10, cycled down the driveway to near our gate and  then turned to cycle back and as she did she let out an ear piercing scream that would wake the dead. She then did this 4 times until an adult appeared and rushed to her to kiss her. The three others seeing this show of affection let out similar screams. Let the games begin we said those bloody parents have done nothing to stop their kids screaming. On went the two stereo systems , on went the outside speakers, on went the outside radio and we were back to our usual August days. Give ‘em AC/DC hell.

Why don’t Italian children grow up ? Why do they stay halted at the terrible twos level until well into their teens ? Well they are spoilt rotten with no semblance of rules or social responsibility which carries on into adulthood. Just down the road is a 29 year old still living at home. She works in Martina Franca and four times a day Mamma  appears and opens both the garage doors and  then the gates at the end of the driveway. The daughter saunters out gets in her car drives down the driveway and with a toot is gone. Mamma closes everything back up and awaits 1.10 p.m. when she opens it all up for he daughter’s return. This she does everyday rain or shine. The Italian kids are also dead tired. The French kids have set bedtimes that are rigorously enforced though down here the parents say they are so tired they can’t wait to hit the hay. It is though not at all unusual to find 3 year old Italian kids in Martina Franca in  August running around at 2 a.m. The six year old son of the bar owners still, when he feels no one is showing him enough attention, will lie on the floor and scream the place down like a two year old. He is at school now and yet is still running about the bar at 11 p.m. with the school bus at 7 a.m. Yes he is supposed to lie down in the afternoon but really he watches TV while the parents doze.

Let us give thanks to the guys who invented Bluetooth that gives me wireless speakers in the garden to drown them out. Thank you Jaap Haartsen and Sven Mattisson from Sweden for dreaming it up. You have saved my sanity and probably saved me from a life sentence too !!!


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Happy holiday from the blistered one. Today is ferragosto a holiday that is celebrated here in Puglia by Italians flocking out to their own or someones house in the country , lighting a wood fire oven and cooking industrial quantities of meat on funeral pyre sized bales of twigs that they collected and dried when they pruned their olive trees way back in April. These are stuffed whole into the oven and lit. Others follow dependent on the kilos of meat being cooked. Forget the Mediterranean diet and all that you hear about that style of eating, this is carnivore time in a big way.

The go out to the country idea was invented by the Fascists in the early 1930s to garner popularity with the what was then peasantry working the lands throughout Italy. They laid on day trips to allow workers to get to see the seaside which the majority had never done. They were hugely successful and Mussolini was able to seize control of parliament.

Today, of course, we don’t need such niceties. Just an octogenarian President working hand in glove with Brussels ( Mrs Merkel) who to date has placed three unelected Prime Ministers into power with no effect on the problems . At least with Mussolini we got an holiday at the beach out of it and the trains ran on time.

The local paper this morning has an harrowing story written by a reporter who sat yesterday in the call centre that handles phone calls from olive growers in the Salento region. He reports that of the 10 million trees in the region 2.5 million are now infected by the disease.

If a grower suspects that he has an infected tree he calls the centre and they dispatch someone to do tests and confirm or deny it. The phone centre is incredibly busy he says with calls coming in from morning till late a night. The callers are very worried people the disease keeps spreading and more and more of them are being affected by it. They are hopeful when they call he says, maybe it is a touch of drought they ask or maybe just the tree often thousands of years old has given up and simply died. Unfortunately the people in the call centre have to break to the grower as gently as they can that in 99% of cases it is going to be the disease and their olive growing days are over. It is more like a call centre set up after a disaster with relatives calling about loved ones that might have been involved. That is how most of the growers feel about their product.

It isn’t Puglia’s year this year. Yesterday nine mayors from the areas surrounding Bari filed for tens of millions of euros compensation from the Puglian government. The region around Bari is famous for its uva di tavola ( table grapes for eating). Mildew the bane of most grape growers has struck the area. Mildew a killer vine disease strikes after periods of heavy rain and cold winds is followed by short periods of sunshine and heat which sums up this so called summer. 50% of the crop has failed because of it and the mayors are claiming that weather is a natural phenomenon and so have put in their claim which follows the one they placed earlier in the year for the lost cherry crop. Quite where Puglia finds that kind of money I have no idea, nor do I suspect do they, but no doubt the EU will do something in the end. Let’s hope they put it in the in box for the time being and start to really focus on the problem in Salento.

Well I’m off to stack wood into my outside wood stove and hours after the Italians have sat in 30C+ temperatures eating lunch while sweating buckets we will eat as a cool evening wind fans the table. Never understood this lunch thing in high summer.


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Servizio Sanitario Nazionale

Public Health System. Until last week I had no experience of the system having only visited a private Doctor for regular checkups after my by-pass. He in turn is connected to a private hospital in Taranto. I did try to call him but like 90% of Italy he is, of course, on holiday this week .

However last Wednesday it seemed fairly obvious what I had got. The  internet graphically displaying other unfortunates with shingles in all their blistered glory.

I, rightly, am not allowed to make this kind of self diagnosis as I can see likenesses to almost any disease when comparing either symptoms or visual images and would therefore arrive at any Doctor’s surgery with a list as long as your arm for the Doctor to busily dismiss. However my wife, the daughter of a Doctor and one time trainee nurse till the glamour of  becoming a stewardess caught her fancy, is much more down to earth and rational. Actually by the time she joined the role of a stewardess was already transforming itself. By the time she left the airline it was not far removed from Tony Hancock’s description of a nurse’s role ” lugging great cart loads of mince up and down the wards “.

Resolved it was Shingles we happily put ourselves in the hands of our Italian neighbour and set off to meet our first State Health doctor in Martina Franca . His afternoon hours were she said 16.30-19.30 but we should not bother rushing as he was normally late.

He was indeed late a full hour and marched in at 5.30 and went straight into his office. He did, however, have the most stunning and sultry secretary who every ten minutes before his arrival flip flopped her way from her desk in her office to his office looking like a starlet from an Italian movie. So waiting seemed to pass in an instance for me at least.

We being English had got there just after 4.30 despite the protestations of our neighbour so were first through the door. His office was spartan, a large old desk a huge chair for him two smaller chairs for the patient and an examination table in the corner. It boasted no air-conditioning nor as far as I could see  any heating for the winter months. Given the 9 stairs up from street level to gain access to his office which made scaling Mont Blanc seem chicken feed, this guy clearly didn’t deal with problem patients.

On his desk was a computer circa 1995 that clearly was connected at best to his sultry secretary but not with the outside world. Into it he tapped my surname and christian name and then asked me what was wrong. I raised my t shirt and he said ” ah yes it is him” in Italian. Here they call shingles fuocco di Sant’Antonio or St Anthony’s fire . Brutto brutto (bad,bad) and pulled my shirt back down.

He pulled a well worn diary like book from his small Doctor’s bag and began to look in it. It was all hand written and seemed to be crossed referenced by using different biro colours. He deliberated for some time and then began to scribble on a prescription pad.

Dolore ( pain ) he enquired and I nodded. Again the hand written book was consulted and clearly he was cross referencing the tablet name on the pad with his own hand written list of pain killers that went with it. Satisfied he again wrote on the pad.

Senti ( listen ) he said and gave me directions on how many times a day to take the tablets and when to use the painkillers . ” I take other tablets” I offered and he glanced quickly at the proffered list. ” Per pressione sanguigna ” ( for high blood pressure ) and handed the list back.  We were dismissed.

I finished the course today at lunchtime but never took the amazingly strong painkillers he had offered  as they sounded pretty fearful when I looked them up. On tossing the packet of shingles prevention tablets away a leaflet dropped out with instructions for use in Italian.  It clearly stated that they were not to be taken by people over 65 years and not by people taking other drugs that affected the kidneys. Well I am over 65 and one of my tablets does indeed change the workings of the kidneys. No wonder I have been drinking full reservoirs of water each day !

Public healthcare down here is still way behind the north as this cutting from a large private healthcare organisation states “However, there are some state hospitals in Italy that are substandard, providing a comfort level below what most Northern Europeans and Americans would expect. These hospitals are normally found in Southern Italy.”

The site actually praises the North and says healthcare there is better than in the rest of Europe. It is telling that Italians down here we have known, who have anything serious wrong with them, have gone North for state funded treatment. The alternative is to attend the numerous private hospitals here instead. From now on I shall do the same.


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Hold the Presses

Not unfortunately the cry of a newspaper editor with a scoop but the oil presses in the Salento area south of Lecce.

It is one of the ideas that has come from yet another conference to discuss the Xylelle outbreak in the region. Stop people carrying olives around by closing the presses this year because as I do know personally when you take your olives to the press you carry in the boxes plenty of insects who are all capable of carrying the disease. You can wait up to 4 hours for your turn and you park alongside other trucks in the yard. Out hop your bugs and onto someone else’s truck and the rest is history.

Olive Disease

Quite how olive growers will handle such a decree is not known at the moment but the concern raised is that smaller growers will, if the decree is not really well enforced, find ways of getting the guys to open the presses . Bribery, shock horror drama, is not unknown down here and of course family ties are much stronger  here than any law from Rome or Bari.

The disease now covers most of Salento from Lecce to Lueca on the tip of Italy and 50,000 acres are affected. The conference that started yesterday is also considering an insecticide wall 2 kms deep and 45 kms long just north of Lecce where continuos spraying will keep bugs from moving north.  Almost every delegate and speaker has been contemptuous of the Regional Government who have and continue to spend time talking. “Action not words” is the call from the growers and all the Italian wide departments involved in containment ” olive growing in Europe is a risk”. The Regional Government is still considering proposals put forth months and months ago . Quite what our passionately “Green” Governor will make of an insecticide wall I have no idea. Mind you I don’t give much for his equally passionate quest towards  Rome and the Premiership if he goes down as the man that cost Italy it’s olive business. Probably always a politician first I would imagine.

Rome on the other hand is in the grip of yet another ice cream problem. Last year near the Spanish Steps some British tourists were charged €63 for four ice creams and now some American tourists have been as they see it ripped off near the Trevi Fountain where they were charged €42 for two at a small cafe nearby.

ice cream

“We’d just paid €59 for our entire dinner, including a litre of wine, and then were charged €42 for gelato!” James the tourist said.

“We’ve been careful in watching out for pickpockets in Rome, but I never thought I would get scammed here,” he went on which in fact is rather clever isn’t it?

In fact the the cafe has the ice creams for that price in their “tourist” menu and so the indignant manager of the bar said they had got off lightly as the waiter had forgotten to add the €2.50 a head cover charge to the bill !!

The cafe has quite a notoriety on Tripadvisor where 25 of the 28 comments say avoid it like the plague.

The manager also said that if they wanted it cheaper they could have had them to go but then pointed out that had they then started eating them in the proximity of the Trevi Fountain they would have been liable for a €500-€25,000 fine from the police.

Nice chap by the sounds of it. Clearly a man destined for great things in the Italian tourist industry.



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