Grandmother’s birthday. It seems to be the year of me meeting grandmothers. Last night we went to the birthday party for la nonna of the lady that runs our local bar. She is 85 and whilst she wheezes a great deal she is amazing for her age. Last Thursday while filling the drinking water bottles at the fountain by the bar I heard her voice shouting ciao Mike. It took me time to place where it was coming from as she is elderly and so I was looking around at ground level. I soon realised the voice was coming from above me and there at the top of an old wooden ladder, way up in the foliage of a thirty foot fig tree, was nonna collecting her figs, clutching a large bucket in one hand and picking with her other, whilst balancing on a rickety wooden rung with both feet. Never mind health and safety I would think in the UK Social Services would confiscate the old lady from the family. Down the ladder she came to give me a few of the figs and then back up she clambered.
As befitting of a lady of 85 in Puglia a disco was organised by the family and took place after the ‘snack’ of pastries foccacia, pizza and fruit . Beer rather than wine was served with the pizza as is normal down here. Pugliese rarely drink wine with pizza.
One of the other daughters sitting next to me was given the job of opening all of the bottles not with a bottle opener but with the blunt end of the fork. Now this is a trick I have been dying to learn since I got down here and so she kindly gave me a few lessons much to the amusement of the other 30 or so guests. I have almost mastered it except for one key point. Whilst the daughter’s tops dropped gently onto the table after opening mine became missiles whizzing off the table. Luckily nonna who was sitting alongside me seemed oblivious to this aerial assault as tops flew past her ears and over her head. I shall have to work on this aspect of the trick.
The disco went into overdrive once the food was finished with the DJ gently encouraging everyone on to the dance floor by dragging them kicking and fighting out into the centre. However quite quickly the dancing turned into the ubiquitous line dancing that has grown so popular down here. Every town now features at least two line dancing schools where for €30 an hour a very few men but loads of women and girls can gather to learn the latest steps. They dance mainly to Spanish music with some Brazilian and a few new Italian songs tossed in. It is like a lively hokey cokey which I did at infant school
so I took to it like a duck to water or at least until they moved on to a few more complicated steps when I went back to launching lethal missiles with my fork end.But this one I could do and it’s good for learning Italian as well.
What is odd to me is that none of the women seemed to enjoy this form of dancing. This family group were like all the others I have watched at various parties and various restaurants that have dancing. They dance as if robots with completely blank expressions on their faces. They are like The Stepford Wives and dancing seems like just another chore they have to perform like doing all the cooking, cleaning, clearing, washing up etc.
I tried without success in all the noise to ask nonna about September 8th 1943 when she would have just had her 15th birthday. Today is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Italy to the Allied and American forces in World War II . It was announced by General Eisenhower in Benghazi that morning though the actual capitulation had been agreed on September 3rd. The head of Italian armed forces in his statement ordered the Italian forces not to lay down their arms to the Germans who also on the 8th launched Operation Axis to seize Italy. However the same guy had in August whilst trying to persuade the Germans that Italy was not negotiating a surrender signed an agreement with them that Italian troops would from now on fight under their command. So an Italian officer not obeying the Italian order to resist laying down his arms could face an Italian court martial and be shot but if he did resist then the Germans also had the right to shoot him for mutiny . It was to have catastrophic effects for Italian soldiers in Greece later in September 1943.
Under the terms of the surrender Italy agreed to hand over the two Puglian ports of Taranto and Brindisi without resistance. The newly formed British 1st Airbourne Division was given the task of taking them. However because of a lack of transport planes which was synonymous with the disastrous way the whole Italian campaign was managed by some very inept generals they had to be sent by ship from North Africa .
Under Operation Axis the Germans sent by air the crack and battle tested 1st Parachute Division to Apulia this day 70 years ago.
At 1700 hours 70 years ago this evening the task force led by Admiral Cunningham left North Africa. All of the decks were ladened with trucks and supplies whilst below decks half the 1st Airboune division most of whom had yet to see a shot fired in anger tried to find a place to sleep that night before landing in the morning in Taranto which was to be seized first. During the evening the convoy was joined by the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Howe in support. The operation was given the ominous code name of Slapstick.