Robin Ashenden

My battle with a Puglian pugilist

He thought I was just another British yob

  • From Spectator Life
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To nearly any English tourist, the small southern Italian town I’m currently living in, half an hour from my daughter’s school, would seem idyllic. It has an old castle, a monastery and olive groves in all directions, but in Puglian guidebooks it barely rates a mention. It’s the scruffy, down-to-earth cousin of richer or bigger towns nearby, places like Monopoli or Bari, but has nearly everything I could want. There are arches and stone stairways, pot-plants everywhere (80 in my alleyway alone), and that delicious, ivory-coloured stone which paves the streets in Puglia and which long use has polished to a shine. At night the street-lanterns turn the white buildings orange, and the sky above is inky blue with stars. The only problem here – the mosquito, if you will, in the Chianti – is that my apartment’s just doors away from a particular hotel, with whose owner I had a ferocious online argument last year. 

He warned me against losing my temper or behaving like a ‘galletto’ (rooster) in his country ever again

It happened when I was on holiday with my ten-year-old daughter. Half an hour before check-in, our B&B sent me an email (a mistake, we later learned) saying there’d be a hefty surcharge to my bill for having a child in tow. It had been a week of being fleeced almost everywhere we went, and my sense of decorum and restraint – of how a visitor should behave abroad – was now kaput.

My daughter, who speaks basic Italian, offered to phone and cancel, but the hotelier spoke too fast for her and eventually she hung up. Soon the emails were flying back and forth between us, mine vowing a bloodbath on TripAdvisor, his demanding payment and venting a lifetime of disgust with snooty, ill-bred foreigners who dared get uppity on his turf. The hotelier’s messages, once Google translated them, proved to have a distinctive tone. In addition to making clear he spat on my threats, they were punctuated by shouty capitals and a kind of manic laughter: ‘THIEF, go tell it ELSEWHERE. I already say by phone YOU DON’T PAY EXTRA! The trouble from you, the threats, the CHATTER… Ahahahahahaha! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!’ But in among all this, there was one sobering sentence that hit me. ‘You are NOBODY to talk to me like this. RESPECT Italy and the Italian people.’ 

This got under my skin because since childhood, when a Milanese girl called Paola used to stay with us each summer, I’ve had a soft spot for the Italians. As a teacher, I’ve had numerous Italian students and, whether they came from Pisa or Palermo, had rarely met a bad one. I’d holidayed in Taormina and the Dolomites, seen Cinema Paradiso and Amarcord countless times, boned up on my Sciascia and di Lampedusa and devoured the cookbooks of Marcella Hazan. Yet this man had seen the very worst side of me and concluded, not unreasonably, that I was just a standard-issue British yob. There was the nasty feeling of jetting into someone’s country, kicking up a squall and leaving bad will, even rage, behind me. When I got home to England to find another seething message waiting, I decided to write a very different one back. What was the worst that could happen? He could only tell me, from 1,000 miles away, to va fa ‘n culo. 

So, at length, I explained to this man why I’d got angry, how stressful it could be to travel alone with a child, how the euros had been squeezed out of us in different places – as doubtless happened daily to the Italians themselves. I told him about my long experience with Italy, all the films and books I’d loved, the encounters with his countrymen I’d had in the course of my life. I regretted bringing a whirlwind of anger into his day but begged him, for his own sake, not to send accidental last-minute surcharges to anyone again. It would, I suggested, bring out the very worst in visitors – even those wanting to be as open and friendly as the Italians they met on their travels. I put all this through Google translate, and then pressed send.  

Half an hour later a response arrived and rather nervously I opened it. Still the shouting capital letters, but a sentence at the top which even I understood: ‘TI ASPETTO PER UN CAFFÈ’ – ‘I’m waiting to have coffee with you’. All the hostility had gone out of him. Below he warned me against losing my temper or behaving like a ‘galletto’ (rooster) in his country ever again: ‘Here in Italy and especially in the region of Bari, it’s a very bad idea…’ But if I ever got into difficulty, he said, I was to call him at once: ‘You not only have a free room. But also daily meals. You will see the ITALIAN hospitality that is unique in the world!!!’ He wasn’t going to charge me for the cancelled room and had deleted my credit card details. He wished me a good life. ‘I am waiting for you,’ he repeated, ‘to come and drink coffee with me next time you’re here.’ 

I didn’t expect ever return to this town. My daughter lives 15km away, but fate and a scarcity of flats near hers has dragged me back. I pass the hotel each time I leave the house, and my neighbour not only knows the owner – ‘Alberto’, I discovered – but says he’s ‘like a brother’ to her. She will introduce us, she promises, when he’s back from holiday. 

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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