As promised, I can confirm that my observations about the asymmetry of sunrise and sunset around shortest day are indeed correct. One of my readers was kind enough to confirm it and when I chanced to look at one of the free calendars I was given by a local shop I discovered that as well as the usual information there are the moon’s quarters and the times of sunrise and sunset through the year. This also confirms that in mid-December the evenings start to get a little lighter, but sunrise still gets later until about the seventh of January. At which point the season hitches up its skirts ready for the great gallop towards summer. Unfortunately we have a month or two of winter still to suffer before we can break out the shorts and suntan cream. Naturally I’m assuming we have less time to wait than those of you in England; if that isn’t the case I’ll be asking for my money back.

After New Year the next major event in Italy is on January 6th. In other countries Epiphany is a minor note in the religious calendar, but in this good Catholic country it’s a spendidly ironic quasi-pagan event. The word Epiphany is related to the Italian word Befana, the name of the good witch, whose story goes something like this:

befanaWhen the three Wise Men were searching for the infant Jesus they weren’t sure where to find Him. Along the way they stopped at the house of an old lady and asked if she knew where the infant might be found. She didn’t know so they asked her if she’d like to accompany them on their quest. She declined their offer as she had some cakes to bake and there was a good film on the telly, and they departed into the night. After some reflection she decided she’d been a bit hasty and that it might be a good idea to search for the Holy Child with them, so she packed up some goodies and a few lumps of coal in a bag and set off to follow them. (Being a witch she was obviously prepared for anything.)

Well, the old lady didn’t find either the three Wise Men or the baby Jesus, but she spent the entire night looking, calling in at every house that had a young child. If the child had been good for the year she left a present, while to naughty children she gave a lump of coal.

This fable has much the same status in Italy as does that of Father Christmas and stockings left over the fireplace. It’s even been adorned with the suggestion that the Befana is in fact Mrs Father Christmas and that she lives at the South Pole. Which to my mind suggests they don’t get on too well – how much further separation can you get? The supermarkets and shops all have Befana dolls for sale like the one in the photo, on her broomstick and carrying a sack of presents, usually sweets. On January 6th children expect their presents – or lumps of coal – and the whole thing provides an appropriate closure to the winter festivities. Not, it must be admitted, a huge amount of relevance to Christianity, in which – aside from medieval burnings – witches don’t figure too highly. But hey – who needs an excuse for a public holiday?

Soon after Christmas I started getting some toothache, requiring a visit to the dentist. We rang our Italian neighbour to recommend one and by the usual workings of chance he has a cousin practising in Ventimiglia who he was naturally able to recommend highly. I turned up there first thing on the Friday and made an appointment for the Monday, but on Sunday morning woke up to find the pain gone, making me wonder if the cause was in fact neuralgia. According to my Google search there’s something called trigeminal neuralgia, which can apparently be mistaken for the pain caused by tooth decay. I record this in the hope it may help anyone with similarly confusing symptoms. So I used the appointment for a check-up and discovered that a crown fitted about five years ago at considerable cost by an English dentist had been badly measured and wasn’t sealing properly. The cost of a new crown here is a staggering 900 euros but the alternative is two visits to the UK. And if I can’t trust a (private) English dentist to do it right the first time, at a cost of around five hundred pounds back then, why should I risk another failure? So I’ll probably go with the local guy, but I need a week or two to think about it and sort out the necessary funds. At least the surgery is equipped with all the latest gadgetry, including a state of the art X-ray machine that revolves alarmingly round your head while you stand clamped in a frame trying to be nonchalant.

gardenI read once that heavy physical work can produce an adrenaline rush, and somewhere else that adrenaline is nature’s painkiller. So putting two and two together (and probably getting five) I threw myself into some work in the garden to help relieve or mask the pain of toothache. We’ve earmarked the lowest terrace as a vegetable garden in which to grow tomatoes, peppers, onions and so on. One of our neighbours reckons they kept themselves in tomatoes all through last summer from just three plants, and the area we’ve allocated will hold a lot more than that. There was the usual digging, plus a new dry stone wall to border another area we recently converted to a flower bed and which needed levelling. Most of the large stones for the wall came from the immediate vicinity, turned over while digging, and the smaller ones I’m gradually laying on pathways and pounding them in with the “punny” I brought from England. This is recycling at its best. Visitors will naturally be encouraged to come and admire our efforts.

On the edge of the new flower bed is a kako tree (persimmon) we found in one of the garden centres. These can be seen here and there dotted around the hillsides, sometimes in long-abandoned, remote places, but always full of fruit in December, so let’s hope this one turns out according to form.

This month it was time to take our right-hand drive car back to England and either sell it or re-tax it for another year. We bought a car here a month ago so had no need for the old one. I believe there are only two strong reasons for running an English car here. Firstly, it’s much cheaper to insure a car in England than in Italy, and secondly it can be difficult to find a garage prepared to sell you an Italian car before your Permesso di Soggiorno (permission to stay) arrives. You can’t legally own a car until then but there are mechanisms available to garages – not widely known – whereby they issue a temporary document allowing you to drive the car legally until the permission arrives.

meganeThe main disadvantage of keeping a right-hand drive car here is of course the obvious one of the steering wheel being on the wrong side. But there’s also the problem of obtaining parts when it needs them; the UK model is usually different in many ways and the bits have to be ordered from the UK. Guess who pays? Then there’s the controversial point about whether having an English car is a banner announcing “rich foreigner” to any car thief or house burglar. There’s a general feeling that houses with German-registered cars parked outside are a target, even though the Germans are nowhere near as rich as they once were. On the whole I feel it’s safest not to stand out, by running an average, older model with Italian plates.

So we drove the Renault back to England, and the picture shows the tearful farewell before handing it over to a local garage. Anyone in the Felixstowe area who’s looking for a nice automatic Mègane should head for Planbe Cars, though you’d have saved a lot buying it directly from us. £1200 cash in the morning; £2795 on the forecourt that afternoon.

The journey from Apricale to Calais took nearly 14 hours and was pretty uneventful; a tribute to the excellence of the French motorway system. And it’s a pleasant drive; the countryside is really beautiful, with tidy fields and well-maintained villages dotted along the way. We’d probably find it very isolated if we had to live there, but as scenery while travelling it can’t be beaten. France is an agricultural country. It’s big, square and relatively flat, giving an impression of having lots of room, whereas industrial, mountainous Italy has all its roads, railways, factories and towns squeezed into the valleys and along the coastlines, presenting the traveller with a view of non-stop urbanisation and industry. Of course you can get away from all the bustle by heading up into the hills, such as to where we live here, but you can’t get away from the fact that France has a lot more room than most of its neighbours.

Back in England we visited each member of the family in turn. Sorry friends; your turn comes another time. A week later it was time to return home, at which point we ran across one of the major differences between the cost of living in Italy and England. Most things here are similarly priced or a little cheaper, but some items stand out. Bank charges and insurance, for one, are unbelievably expensive in Italy. But in England, while the banks may be the cheapest in the world the public transport system is run by Dick Turpin & Sons. The Victoria to Gatwick Express covers a distance of maybe forty miles and costs £14.90 per head, whereas the train from Nice to Ventimiglia, a similar distance, costs 5.9 euros – about four pounds. It may be subsidised, which of course is a Bad Thing because… well I can’t remember why it’s bad to offer a fast, frequent, clean and comfortable service. In London it’s cheaper for two people to hail a cab than to go on the underground for a couple of stops; the result of a strange blinkered accountancy that can’t measure notions of public good or environmental benefit so simply ignores them. On top of which, although it’s possible to get discount cards, they’re only any use to residents or regular visitors, which sends out an unmistakeable “Keep out, we’re full” message. Hah, but I’ll have my revenge when the sea level rises owing to global warming and London disappears under the waves.

Oh and while I’m ranting, there’s the Channel Tunnel. Now I admit my experience wasn’t typical; it was a dreadful day of storms playing havoc with ferry sailings, and the French transport workers were indulging their national pastime, that of striking for no particular reason. So we were forced to pay double and use Le Shuttle. Which, in mid-evening and with queues of lorries taking up most of Picardie and Kent, was running one train an hour in each direction. I beg your pardon? Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t there two tunnels, one for each direction? And it takes 25 minutes to get from one end to the other, so even if you had to wait for the tunnel to be clear before sending the next train you’d still get at least two through every hour. Is the signalling done by carrier pigeon? Does somebody have to follow each train with a wheelbarrow, picking up bits that fell off? Small wonder the thing is buried in debt, allowing Little Englanders to regularly whinge that since it was all a nasty French plot to sink England under the weight of Albanian illegals, it should be wound up. But twice this month England was closed for a whole day owing to bad weather, so I for one am grateful for the Chunnel, expensive and inefficient though it certainly is.

camporossoThis weekend is one of festivities in Camporosso, about seven or eight miles from here on the way to the coast. As far as I can gather the village is celebrating an anniversary of having its town status confirmed ten years ago and there are all sorts of things happening in the piazza and on a green just outside town. We thought we’d pop down in the morning to see things kick off in the piazza. The place was full of local people and representatives of various local organizations such as pensioners and retired airmen and at least two TV cameras were there to cover it. A group of armed sailors stood at attention while a naval band played numbers we didn’t recognize. Most of the houses round the piazza sported national flags and the whole thing seemed quite jolly.

concertIn the evening they held a concert in the permanent aluminium-framed tent on the green. The programmes handed out at the door suggested there should have been a five euro entrance fee but nobody was collecting money. The musicians were the seven-strong Orchestra Sinfonia di Sanremo, who played a selection of light classics including Strauss walzes and extracts from Bizet’s Carmen. The programme lasted an hour, after which the local school’s music department showed off their pupils playing a variety of instruments and singing. The local supermarket provided food and wine and the evening ended with an impressive firework display, the bangs echoing from the hills around.

The whole thing was delightfully informal, and packed with local people enjoying a free night out. The acoustics of a tent aren’t great to start with and they aren’t improved by a main road right outside, children playing and dogs barking. But the orchestra, though small, is highly professional; the programme notes tell us they perform over a hundred times a year, mainly in this region.

I have to comment on the behaviour of some people when confronted with free food. As soon as the plates were laid on the table at the end of the room a group of mainly overweight people sidled up to it and with a slightly “who, me, guv?” guilty air started to lay into the focaccia, pizza slices and spinach bake. One large woman in particular returned time and again; she lurked constantly in the general vicinity and whenever another person came near the table she’d waddle over to them, recommend something or other and snaffle another piece for herself. While all the time wearing a strange half-proprietarial, half-embarassed expression. Perhaps she’s too poor to feed herself properly, though that seemed unlikely given her size. Which isn’t about to diminish after packing in enough food for about five normal people.

bignoneThis morning I went for a tour on the scooter, down to Dolceacqua, up the back lanes to Perinaldo and circled around the back of Monte Bignone. It was a little chilly in places, dropping to seven degrees, with the sun only just showing through the clouds. Between San Romolo and Bajardo there’s a road that leads to the top of the mountain; steep and with many hairpin bends. Just short of the top it turns into a dirt track but there’s a parking area with a couple of wooden picnic tables, surrounded by radio masts of all kinds. From there it’s a ten minute walk up to the top, at 1299 metres, where you’ll find the little church pictured.

Monte Bignone gets a lot of poor weather but today most of it was below the mountain; the coast and Sanremo were hidden beneath brilliant white clouds. The top is the start of a marked downhill route for mountain bikers,and three or four appeared while I was there, delivered by a van towing a trailer for the bikes. The area is impressively large and has a number of marked trails that should satisfy the most ardent walker for a few hours.

To return home I completed the circuit through Bajardo, I suppose about twenty miles in total, and passed through at least three very different kinds of landscape. The Mediterranean olives of home give way to a dense alpine forest as you get higher up the mountain, while near Bajardo there’s an area that’s mainly vines. It feels a little strange passing from one to another in such a short distance, but that’s the nature of Liguria, with everything from sunny beaches to ski slopes crammed into thirty miles or less.

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