Tuesday, 23 October 2012

My Guru Marlene

My Guru Marlene Oh Marlene, I love you! Saint Marlene of Montone (where I met her) or Melbourne (home stamping ground). A loud-mouthed sassy Oz with baggage on a three month solo sojourn in Tuscany. Reader, are you old enough to remember the soap Prisoner Cell Block H (broadcast simply as Prisoner in its antipodean homeland)? Remember Bea? Bea the top dog; Bea who must be obeyed. Even Vinegar Tits the sour-faced screw had to suck up to Bea. Marlene looked so much like Bea I couldn't stop staring across that Montone cafe. To cement a burgeoning reputation for celebrity stalking, I didn't resist asking. The question buttered no parsnips, "Thanks a bunch love, she's at least 25 bloody years older than me!"

Pen sketch of Gazebo & Tenuta Savorgnano by Paul Bijlveld
Marlene had blown into sleepy Montone like a hurricane, "I booked into this B&B for a month except I'm the only person there and there's no bloody breakfast! How do you like that?" They couldn't handle the Presence. Baristas were suddenly busy when she loomed in the doorway, "How does a girl get a bloody drink around here?" I liked her instantly. She plonked herself down right next to us, took a slug of prosecco and muscled in on the conversation of well-to-do Santa Barbarians at the next table. She cut through the tiresome pompous cant on the subject of the best wines, with a strident comment that was so undeniably true it derailed the babble of chatter all around. "The best wine", she boomed, seizing everyone's attention, "is the one you like you bloody fools." The Baristas got busy and I felt a curious mixture of embarrassment and admiration. The Californians looked fidgety. Marlene, sensing cowardly approval turned to me, "You shoulda heard 'em here last night. Complaining that the hotel doesn't have air conditioning and the pool's too cold. I mean who could've predicted Tuscany would be hot in the summer. Whadda shock! Air's too bloody hot and the water's too fuckin' cold!" She pulled her chair up to our table as the Americans retreated, "Why bother going somewhere if you want the same experience everywhere." She had a point. It's struck  me often lately how averse folk are to difference, to stepping outside their comfort zones. Maybe the trend towards the bland-out of global monoculture makes us too timid to experience anything other than the super-safe Disney version of wherever we go? As my friend Darren would say, we all want to be soothed and bathed in warm water all the time.

Marlenes' story was quite a poignant one. She'd lost a husband and son in the same accident a year previously. Her daughter had married and moved a thousand miles away. She lived alone in the sticks a couple of hours from Melbourne. Tuscany was a distraction and a way of setting off in a new direction. I suspect, she was a pretty no nonsense type before this, but you could see how the experience might amplify it. There was a lesson in there somewhere. I told her what we were doing here and she asked if it would be okay to come for just one night and have dinner. No promises mind you. I gave her a business card, but she never called.

Gay life in Tuscany She stood in the middle of the road, arms flailing like a windmill leaving us no choice. We stopped.
"Need a lift?"
"I don't know what happened to the courier." She sounded a bit put out. Around here informal transport for the elderly is so deeply ingrained, it's taken for granted. The inquisition began.
"Are you on holiday?"
"We live near the abandoned church at Savorgnano,"
"Yes, I heard some Germans had moved there."
We thought the right-hand drive British registered VW sporting a big GB sticker in the rear window was a dead give away. Evidently not.
"We're not German, we're English."
"Stop!" She blurted as we passed a frail lady hobbling along. Like an extra from Dick Whittington, she carried a knotted bundle tied to a broom balanced on her tiny shoulder. She caught up with the car and opened the door. Placing the bundle on the seat she wedged the broom in awkwardly and breathlessly asked the other lady, "Who are they?" It sounded vaguely accusatory although to be fair, you can never really tell with Italians. "They're the nice German boys who live near the church at Savorgnano." Gossip is currency. This ambiguous claim to prior knowledge, an unspoken 'didn't you know?'In unison, "We're not German, we're English." The second lady continued the inquisition.
"Are your wives there?" (The rumour mill had been in motion)
"No, we haven't got wives."
"Are you brothers?"
"No, we're not brothers."
I could sense where this line of inquiry was going. A bit of shuffling and throat clearing signaled the build up to the next question or a thunderhead of judgement gathering. I couldn't tell which.
"Are you fidanzati?" The last word carefully enunciated. The expression threw me for a second as it means 'betrothed'. It's usually reserved for engaged couples or couples living over the brush to preserve a veneer of respectability. Suddenly, it seemed apt.
"Yes, that's right."
"Oh, there's a lot of that these days."
End of chat. The conversation turned to ailments and petty complaints and not disapproval. The old ladies said thanks and disembarked hesitating only to ascertain if their return plans might fit in with ours.

We've never personally encountered censorious attitudes in Italy. Except for a notable incident with a couple of British expat B&B owners, gay coupledom seems pretty unremarkable nowadays. Indeed, some guests are so eager to evict the elephant-in-the-room that they mention their support for gay marriage within a nanosecond of arrival. (I have so far resisted morphing into Catherine Tates closet gay character Derek; but I long to exclaim, "How very dare you.....").Strange then that there is no gay venue in a city the size of Arezzo. Florence has a couple of clubs that operate in an almost clandestine manner - you have to be introduced by a member. Just like the UK 35 years back! There just doesn't seem to be anything with the visibility or confidence of Canal Street in Manchester, Soho in London, Hurst Street in Birmingham

Rooftops: Monte Santa Maria Tiberina
Things might be different in the big Northern cities. One of our Italian guests this year was a volunteer for a gay helpline in Milan. The gay newspaper Pride is written and published there. The other side of the coin is that numbnuts politicians like Berlusconi brazenly cast aspersions on gay arch-rival Nichi Vendola. Wonder how far Cameron would get campaigning that Milliband is not a 'real man'. See what I mean? Another anachronism, I've seen personal ads for 'cover marriages' - men advertising for women and vice versa for social acceptability.

Earlier this year BBC radio 4 featured some sociological research among schoolboys on Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed strand suggesting that these days they are mutually supportive, physically affectionate and indifferent to the sexuality - real or supposed - of friends and schoolmates. Obviously there has been a real cultural shift over the last 20 years in representation when personalities like Graham Norton are generally popular and influential opinion formers, and characters like Daffyd Thomas in Little Britain are portrayed as looking down the wrong end of the telescope. I don't think Italy has experienced the same transformation. Sure, Italy's always been a homosocial culture, men are much more touchy-feely with eachother, but the messages are mixed. A couple of men have 'come out' to us confidentially, but told us that not even long established friends know their secret. They simply accept this as the way it is and I suspect they are ill at ease around us in public: guilt by association perhaps?

And Finally........
Planet Fun. Sounds like the place for a bunga-bunga party perhaps or an underwear night maybe? A place where you might hear Margarita Pracatan any night of the week. Of course I have only read of such things. One of our guests was recently directed to the Planet Fun in broken English by an eagerly helpful sales assistant. Alas he couldn't find it. "What were you looking for?" I enquired. "A new SIM card." "Oh, that'll be Planet Fone." I said, suddenly a whole lot less interested.


  1. Hi Johnnie,

    So good to hear you are having fun - Knaresborough is much the same as ever, wet and censorious.

    Met my wife over "Prisoner Cell Block H", so lovely to be reminded of Bea and Vinegar Tits - may have to see our Swedish friends (@TPB) for a catch up...

    P x

  2. Hi Jon,

    Great blog, very funny. It's the real Tuscany when you have those kinds of experiences with visitors and the locals.

    Our neighbour Mrs P who is 91 years old referred over the telephone about us to a third person as the 'signori di due', the 'gentlemen of two'. We rather like that. see you soon Darren. X

  3. Hi Jon,

    Great blog, very funny. It's the real Tuscany when you have those kinds of experiences with visitors and the locals.

    Our neighbour Mrs P who is 91 years old referred over the telephone about us to a third person as the 'signori di due', the 'gentlemen of two'. We rather like that. see you soon Darren. X

  4. Dear Jon,

    What a great bog, very funny. Those experiences with visitors and the locals are always the best and most interesting. I met some tourists in the summer who had been to Pisa for the day. Well, they said, We did not think much of it really, there's only a tower! I thought of the glories of the Field of Miracles at Pisa wistfully and then bit on the inside of my mouth hard. It was a little like the Alan Bennett quote when a couple in Egypt were over heard saying, 'there nothing you can tell us about palm trees were are from Torquay'!

    Our neighbour who is 91 years old recently referred to Malcolm and I over the telephone to a third person as the, 'signori di due' Gentleman of two', we like that.

    See you soon.