With the arrival of March things are now definitely warming up. February was mainly cloudy but the new month has started with much more sunshine. Still quite a lot of cloud but when the sky clears it feels like a fine June day in England. This is the only thing I can use for comparison as we have yet to experience (endure?) a full summer here. Anyway, sunbathing is becoming an option, usually combined with an after-lunch nap for an hour or so.
Our second visitors have come and gone, with some more useful lessons learnt. The first one being that if you intend to rent a car at Nice, do it when you book. They had expected to pick one up on arrival – well it was mid-February – but nearly didn’t get one at all. Finally a Smart was found hiding behind a bicycle and they crammed themselves into that. Just as well they had just the one suitcase as there really isn’t much room inside.
The second lesson is for us to expect our guests to arrive tired. Of course that’s normally the case when going on holiday but it’s easily overlooked. Everything’s fine if you’re on a package with a rep waiting for you and a meal ready in a restaurant, but after getting up at sparrow-fart, driving to the airport, going through the paper mill, waiting, flying, more waiting, getting a rental car and driving the hour or so to us you’re likely to be past your best. So my advice to stop on the way for a spot of food shopping probably isn’t good if it’s your first visit, especially when you don’t speak Italian and all the labels are in foreign. Likewise, finding and booking a restaurant is a strain and you’re unlikely to enjoy the meal. So we now offer a veggie lasagne in a dish ready for you to pop in the oven. At a modest cost, that is. If you don’t want it we’ll use it ourselves the next day. Then to make things even more stressful our guests had to endure me wading through a long list of do’s and dont’s, how to use the oven, the intercom, the TV, the stove etc. – it was truly amazing that they remembered any of it. Next time we’ll provide a typed list and leave them to zonk out till the morning.
During their visit we piled into our car with our guests and headed off to Monaco for a spot of shopping and some sightseeing. After a brief whirl round Carrefour to get essentials like baked beans and Cheddar cheese we left the car and set off on foot round the city. We arrived at the palace just in time for the changing of the guard, and discovered why it had been so quiet everywhere up till then. The palace square was packed with tourists, who then melted away again as soon as the ceremony was over.
Monaco isn’t a very big place and pretty well everything of interest is easily reached on foot. Between the palace and the sea are some semi-tropical gardens full of cacti and other exotic plants, with paths winding around them. This was all of considerable interest to our guests, who run a garden design company near Cambridge, so we took our time wandering along in the sunshine in the general direction of the harbour. Here we stopped for some lunch at one of the cafes that line the road beside which the Grand Prix begins and ends.
After lunch it was time for a stroll along the harbourside looking at the yachts, a grossly euphemistic term for what are in many cases floating apartment blocks, of course without a sail of any kind, just acres of plastic, glass and polished walnut. I dread to think how much fuel they guzzle just to get out of the harbour. Maybe most of them don’t actually go out but just sit there to be gawped at by rubber-necking tourists.
My picture shows one of these monstrosities in the background, but the small silver item in front was much more interesting; an 007-class water craft only lacking Daniel Craig to complete the effect. I have no information such as how fast it goes, but the inflatable next to it is the support vessel, and it carries two 150hp outboards on the back. That makes it seriously quick, but later on as we were walking past the casino both craft had set off and were out on the sea just in front of us. The inflatable was indeed no slouch but the silver bullet charged past it like a Porsche past a Mini, leaping from wave to wave with an audible crack. It must have been a bumpy ride for the passengers, and after a half-dozen or so runs they gave up and went back into the harbour.
We did consider looking around the casino but they must have spotted our missing millions and we failed to get the expected red-carpet treatment, instead being asked to check in our bags at the door before being allowed past. So Monte Carlo’s routette wheels were safe for another afternoon. In any case, gambling is a mugs game and who really needs to rub elbows with the rich and famous? So instead we walked back to the harbour area to buy some crêpes.
On the promenade, on our way back to the car, we passed a bizarre performance by the folk depicted here in their own poster; half a dozen individuals dressed in black, each standing on a motorized platform controlled – presumably – by the feet, allowing them to glide along, to steer and even to revolve. Daleks with human top halves, if you like. Weird though the appearance was, the music was if anything weirder. Given the perverse mixture of instruments I guess almost anything would have sounded odd but their choice was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, still recognizable but mangled to an extent impossible to describe. Bemused passers-by stood with looks of stunned amazement. I could be indulging in national stereotyping here but it seems that when it comes to surreal performances the French are in a class of their own.
The moon has been particularly noticeable the past few days. Most of February was cloudy so the moon barely showed at all, but March began with a string of sunny days coinciding with a full moon. Here’s the moon rising in the early evening over the mountainside opposite, which is still bathed in sunlight.
Then on March 3 came the first total lunar eclipse for six years. We had a beautiful clear night in which to view it, and even in England the rain stopped and the skies cleared long enough to permit a sighting before the monsoons returned. My picture below is a montage taken over half an hour or so as the earth’s shadow gradually crept across the moon. Unfortunately my camera wasn’t sensitive enough to be able to see the moon once the earth’s shadow completely covered it, so I’ll have to rely on memory of the faint pink mother-of-pearl glow from sunlight bending round the earth’s atmosphere. We’d been out for a meal at the Apricale da Delio, reputedly the best restaurant in town and recommended by no other than Michael Winner (enough to put off many people, I’ll bet). But the food was good and the prices not unreasonable. We came out into a mild, clear night with the eclipse due to start a half hour or so later providing a natural spectacle to round off the evening.
Also happening at this time of year is the Sanremo Music Festival, which I understand was the prototype of the Eurovision Song Contest and features much the same formula of lushy, slushy ballads mixed with easy-going rock’n’roll. Sanremo is only a few miles from here so maybe we’ll have a go at getting in to the event one year. The thing lasts about a week and dominates much of the national media, having at least the same coverage as – say – the Ashes Test Matches do in England. Of course no self-respecting English yoof band would go near it, but it seems not to attract the derision among the young that such an event would undoubtedly get if it were staged in the UK. Italian society is much less stratified by age than in the Anglo-Saxon world, and it seems that Italian teenagers feel less need to differentiate themselves by indulging in unpleasant and antisocial behaviour. The most significant evening activity (leaving aside anything to do with football) is the evening passaggiata, or stroll, in which people of all ages dress up in their finest clothes and simply walk up and down in the public places, the piazzas and promenades, the sole aim being to see and be seen. No bands of yelling drunken yobs and their shrieking girlfriends here; it’s simply uncool to behave like that. It seems there may be an inverse correlation between the price of and ease of access to alcohol and the amount of social disruption attributable to it, though I have no easy explanation as to why that should be.
Now I’m aware I have a couple of readers who are either already living here or planning to, so I make no apologies for an update on the boring nitty-gritty stuff of bank accounts. My experience is limited to the services provided by the Sanpaolo Bank, recently merged with Banca Intesa, and I have been told that other banks are not as computer savvy as this one (in fact, a couple are reputedly having trouble with the 20th century, let alone the 21st).
Anyone can open a bank account here as long as they have a Codice Fiscale – the tax code without which life in Italy is almost impossible. You can apply for your tax code online so that’s no problem, but without further documents the kind of bank account you’ll be offered is one limited to foreigners and other non-residents; a paper-based one with hefty charges and without a debit card or internet access. It was six months’ experience of this kind of account that made us believe the stories of Italian banking being outrageously expensive. But since we now have identity cards we were able to close this account and open a new one. Two types were offered; one with an annual charge of €50 or so but with free counter service; the other with no charges except when you use a cashier. The second of these is aimed at people like us who don’t use counter services but do everything online or with a debit card.
The services offered are quite impressive. The account comes with the debit card and also with an O-Key digipass; a small electronic gizmo that generates a password which changes every ten seconds or so and which is keyed to your bank account (and only to yours). It’s purpose is to help you log in to your account more securely than having to type the same password information every time. I’ve seen these before but neither Barclays or Nationwide have ever offered me one, so it seems Sanpaolo is ahead on that score. Another nice touch is an automatic SMS to your cellphone to confirm each transaction, so if someone else does manage to access your account you get to hear about it immediately. The account can be managed entirely over the Internet or even by text messaging if that’s your preference. And finally, they’ve integrated investments into the package so you can buy and sell shares on a variety of stock exchanges (not including London), again entirely automated. The only charges that ever get raised are when you use a cashier or when paper is involved, so statements aren’t sent by post. And naturally the government gets in on the act by charging an annual tax on each bank account, but there’s no way out of that one and it isn’t very expensive.
The last feature that impressed me is the cash machine in the lobby of the bank itself. As well as handing out cash it can also take it in. When you request to pay in a door opens; you pile in your readies then it closes and adds them to your account. This is pretty handy for people like us; we keep our working cash in the Nationwide and draw it at cashpoints (Nationwide don’t charge for this). Being able to immediately put it into our Sanpaolo account without paying for a cashier to do it – and to do it all from the same machine – is a really neat service.
So it seems I was wrong about Italian banking. If you’re a resident you can get a service that’s bang up to date, essentially free and has features not yet offered (widely?) by British banks. There’s no interest paid on current accounts, mind you, but then nobody in their right mind would keep large sums there anyway, especially as it’s a doddle to move cash around using the Internet.