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Published: December 9th 2009
20th March '09:
Grandpa suggests a jaunt to the southernmost glacier in Europe. 'It’s no good languishing in bed all morning,' he says, leaning nonchalantly against my bedroom door jamb. At a shade after 7am - on what is supposed to be a day off - my resplendent grandfather is hovering in the doorway, modelling smokin' hot underpants as though auditioning for a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement. Tactfully skimming over any further details, let us concentrate on today's events: For fifteen years now, Grandpa has waxed loquacious about the Gran Sasso, or “Great Rock”, and I’m incredibly keen to witness this marvel first-hand. It is, however, three hours' drive away.
In Milan, the temperature was a glorious 22 degrees; at the Gran Sasso, the forecast is a chilly six. Sandals, even with socks in case it turns cold, might have been a poor decision. Yes, it was certainly poor judgement - as we approach the Appenine chain of peaks, the weather worsens. It quickly reaches minus three.
With no snow chains, or indeed winter tyres, and in a foot of snow, we eventually have to admit defeat and reverse an appreciable distance down the mountain. Grandpa steers; I bark
directions from a forward position; Ursula contradicts any instructions; Grandpa steers perilously close to roadside snowdrifts. This series of events continues for quite some time, and my feet get wet. So, after all these years, I have still not been up the Gran Sasso, but I have at least now been underneath it - we drive through the autostrade tunnel on the way home.
Grandpa makes me drive back - he is, after all, 83 and this is a 300km drive with barely a hundred yards of straight road. Relaxing in the passenger seat, he very kindly regales us with an embellished tale or two. He can remember days before traffic lights when a man stood beside a belisha beacon, flicking a switch to enable pedestrians to cross. And it now seems extraordinary to have bought a Ford Model Y for just £7, or to have ridden a water-cooled Indian motorcycle through an allotment of runner beans in the '40s.
On the way home, we discover an impregnable natural fortress town of Civitella del Tronto. And I mean “discover”: Central Italy is literally full of these slumbering gems. Over spaghetti, we find that the advantage to being in
one’s eighties is that, as the body shortens, the distance from plate to mouth becomes shorter. It’s a small advantage, but an advantage nonetheless when eating pasta.
Exhausted, back at the Umbrian residence, I smell burning. Neither John nor Ursula seem perturbed but, with lightning reflexes, I turn to rescue my Calvin Klein boxer shorts from the brink of ignition. But they are irredeemably scorched: the stitching is smoking and collapses when tentatively prodded. 'Don’t worry,' says my cheery grandfather, 'I have some flannelette underpants with adjustable braces that you can have.'..
21st March: (“The 05.29 to Milan”)
At 4.30am Grandpa waggles my foot, interrupting a splendid dream and leading me to the conclusion that I’m being overrun with marauders ransacking the bedroom. Three soothing, magical words swiftly bring me from this reverie: 'cup of tea?' A blizzard, unusual in late March in Central Italy, accompanies us to Spoleto train station. I smugly notice, in a borrowed jacket to combat hypothermia, that while trains to other destinations are delayed, the 05.29 direct service to Milano Centrale is due on time. 'It’s only coming a few miles from Terni, so no need to worry,' says my silly,
I mean sagacious, old grandfather.
Promptly, at 05.29 on the dot, the departures board wastes no time in showing a thirty minute delay. 'Ah,' says a suitably shrinking Grandpa, and we go for a latte macchiato. As we huddle in the station cafe, a spate of tinny, unintelligible Tannoy announcements heralds little except a train to Rome...which doesn’t appear to be going to Rome. In fact, if anything, confusion abounds and I contract a mild bout of tinnitus. At 7am, still standing like lemons - if lemons had bluish lips and loss of feeling in their extremities - Grandpa chats up a couple of girls from Yeehahsville, Arizona. By this time, the Milan train has simply disappeared from the screen.
A bus outside is reportedly taking passengers to Foligno, one stop up the line. I’m reluctant to board, however, as last time my grandfather waved me off on a bus it was an unroadworthy affair across Nigeria. Riddled with malaria - and with clumps of hair falling out, as though I was moulting - the trip was disastrous: I arrived home three days late to a mother on the verge of nervous breakdown while Grandpa snoozed contentedly in
the African bush, certain his grandson was back at school and tickety-boo.
Anyway, it turns out that Amber and Christie (excellent travel companions) are not in fact from Yeehah, but from Salt Lake City, Utah - named, quite sensibly, after a salt lake. They say 'si' frequently, thereby embracing the culture, and then fall asleep. Both are blissfully unaware that Americans are known around the world as “septics” - as are most septics, come to think of it, making it all the more fun. I should stop informing them.
At Foligno, we wait ninety minutes for a train to Florence. Admittedly, we’re a little closer to Milan, yet the ticket price has become €27 dearer and now includes a change. Thoroughly disheartened by the Italian rail system, I throw caution to the wind and book first-class, something I've always associated with stuffy, pompous grown-ups. But I need power for the laptop to write the blog. Imagine then, if you will, how fierce I become at the absence of power in first-class on this provincial train with tattered upholstery.
Talking of blogging, I rather blotted my copybook back at the Umbria residence - with not knowing the derivation
of the word “blog”. Grandpa blundered erroneously to the rescue. As we know, a log thrown off a ship’s stern - to measure speed in knots - led to record keeping becoming known as a ship’s log. So far, so good, but then Grandpa's font of knowledge dissolves into fatuous hyperbole. For a personal record on the internet, he intones, something a little punchier was required. 'The alphabet was accordingly sifted through, arriving early on at “b”. And there you have it, Barnaby: “blog” was born.' “B” for Bulls**t, more like? Yes,“blog” is actually a contraction of “web log”, but he was close..
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