On Saturday morning, awakening to pulsing, dry heat, we decided to enlist the help of the Unintentionally Camp owner of the local trattoria. We needed to find a supermarket. The previous day we had followed the instructions of the wife of the Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner but had ended up driving three towns on from where we were supposed to go. The Unintentionally Camp trattoria owner was planning to set off from the village at 10am, so I had to learn “May we follow you in your car please” in Italian immediately after breakfast, which did not sit well with my indigestion.
The heat is so relentless that the only way to sleep is naked and splayed, like a starfish, or like one of those butterflies that are dead and sellotaped inside frames before being hung on walls. On Saturday morning I woke up gasping for air and hydration, having knocked back three glasses of the local Sangiovese the night before. We had in fact been having a superb dinner at the trattoria owned by Unintentionally Camp man, a truly splendid fare, marked only by Mother Bluebird’s intense belief that Unintentionally Camp man is, at heart, a brute.
“Oh, I wouldn’t like to see him angry,” she says. (Oh she would, she would.) “I bet he’s a bully I can see it in his eyes,” she says sotto voce, as the man in question gently lays a bowl of ragu in front of a small dog. This appears an unshakable conviction throughout the holiday. Unintentionally Camp man said he’d meet us at 10am in front of our complex. When he doesn’t appear, Mother Bluebird decides he’s “back in the kitchen giving her what for”. Although perhaps it’s just a case of laid-back Italian timekeeping. By the time he turns up, forty minutes late, we have both melted in our tiny Fiat in boisterous heat and I am so desperate for the loo I can barely move.
“So sorry!” he zooms up, resplendent in shades and bright yellow trousers.
Down the hill we go, desperately keeping up with Unintentionally Camp Man / a.k.a. The Secret Brute. “Wheeee!” I say as we go round a corner on our way down the mountainous road. “Weeeeeeeeeeee”. I get told off and asked to stop. At the bottom of the hill we turn right and potter along white dust roads of a small town built mainly in the early 1960s, turn right and suddenly there it is – the enormous building we failed to spot the previous day. The one with a supermarket sign at the top of it.
By now I have self-diagnosed either appendicitis or a kidney injury. But I have to get things that I like at the supermarket otherwise there’ll be nothing that I like back at il appartamento. Italian supermarkets contain a whole range of eclectic items : tomatoes, fishing rods, nappies, barbecues, apples, water, dresses, plastic hula hoops, biscuits and beach balls. All of this is crammed into an area a quarter of the size of your local Tesco. Despite their unsurpassed reputation worldwide for the quality of their local produce and the grandeur of their cooking abilities, there is a huge amount of junk food in Italian supermarkets. Much of it is the kind you would never see in the UK : squares of pink ham in tins filled with a plastic-based cheese sauce, boil in the bag rhubarb flavour compote, and miniature, plastic brown cups called EspressoShot! that are essentially cold chocolate mixed with cold coffee to swallow when you’re on the go.
Unintentionally Camp man is on the go. “I have to find some food for my son,” he announces, sunglasses on his head just above his brow, standing with his hands on his hips and the stark midday sun catching the yellow trousers. He disappears into the bowels of the store. We don’t see him for the remainder of the day.
I have to find a loo. Halfway through explaining to Mother Bluebird how to ask for lettuce in Italian, I leave and walk the third of a mile back to the town in search of a loo. There are three bars in the town. The first one, bright and air-conditionned has a loo, which is locked and I decide I cannot wait. I go to the second bar. The bar is closed. Cross-legged, toxic and wilting in the sun, I go to the third bar, a dark, gloomy brown affair in the middle of the town that looks like the home of a serial killer.
“Il bagno?” I ask. I wonder how long it takes to poison your kidneys slowly, from the inside out.
“Si. Si. A li.” “Li” is Italian for “there.” “Li” in my urine-soaked mind is therefore Italian for “LOO”.
“Accendere la luce a sinistra,” he says, pointing at a dark space behind the bar. This means “Turn the light on on your left”, but before I get a chance to do so I stumble and fall over a mop and bucket which has been left in the dark, and all six of the octogenarians currently enjoying a morning spritzer from Mr Serial Killer turn and stare at me. The bathroom is very small, so small that I can only hold my handbag if I put it on my shoulder first. There are three doors, the first into a utility area which smells strangely of cat, the second into a small wash basin area and then finally FINALLY! the third. THE TOILET.
There is no toilet. There is only a hole in the floor. I have to take off my trousers, socks and shoes in order to go to the loo. Already by hellish intuition, my bladder has determined how close it is to the source of release and appears to be making a break for the border. As a child I was always taught never to sit down on a public loo. Never, never, never. But the European innovation of the piss-hole-on-the-floor model has obliterated any temptation to sit down. There isn’t a seat, so instead, I hover, half slack-kneed, like a sumo wrestler.
By the time I walk back to the supermarket, avoiding treating on razor thin lizards that are scurrying through dry grass in the sun, Mother Bluebird has bought half of the town’s supermarket stock and is reversing the Fiat out of the car park. We return to the cafe with the locked toilet door, the one I had been unable to use. It is the cleanest and freshest in town and we had the most delicious espressos there, sitting in the grateful aircon and reading Italian coverage of the opening ceremony of London 2012. I catch the occasional word: “Londra e il Regno Unito hanno messo tutto quello che avevano : da Shakespeare a Mary Poppins, fino a Mr Bean.” (“London and the UK have put everything they had into this : Shakespeare, Mary Poppins and Mr Bean”.) Is this what we are to the rest of the world? A cruel collage of Mr Bean and a made up Edwardian nanny, with a little bit of Oh-there-goes-Queenie-flirting-with-Bond sifted on the top? Come to think of it, that’s not half bad! It could be worse. We could be French.
Exhausted and slightly frazzled we return to the boiling car and from there back to the apartment where we prepare for yet another fight with the Belgian lesbians over the 4 precious umbrellas around the pool.