January 7, 2010
New Year optimism
Looking at my last blog I think I was gripped by a kind of fin de décennie grumpiness and an uncontrollable desire to let it out. But that’s past now; we’ve had Christmas and the New Year has started. To see it in we went to Sanremo. It’s renowned for its firework display and we’d wanted to go a year ago, but it had rained all day and only stopped just as midnight approached so we’d abandoned the idea. This time round it looked set to repeat the pattern, but as darkness fell the clouds rolled away and the stars appeared, so we piled into the car and set off.
In Sanremo an hour and a half before midnight all the central parking had naturally been taken and hopeful visitors were circling farther and farther from the town centre. We found just about the last semi-legal space in the nearer car parks, jammed up against a camper van and half across a pedestrian crossing. Safe in the knowledge that there would be few parking officials about to give us a hard time, we strolled into town down the elegant promenade that helps make the city such a pleasure to visit.
The town centre itself wasn’t as busy as we’d expected from the lack of parking spaces. Of course, Italy has the highest rate of car ownership in the world, with most families owning several, and I’m by now convinced they move them around in a kind of continuous rota to prevent them being labelled as abandoned and towed away. You never see an empty car park, which lends weight to my theory. There certainly didn’t seem to be enough people in the town centre to fill all those vehicles. Perhaps they were all in the bars but it didn’t look like it.
In the main Piazza Colombo the roadies were just finishing setting for a concert by a band called Time Travel, billed as performing disco music from the 1970s. Due to start at 11pm and with a pretty well immovable finish time at midnight, by which time the audience would have decamped to the harbour for the fireworks, they managed to get on stage no more than ten minutes late. You couldn’t fault their enthusiasm and the musicians were actually quite good, but the two female singers let them down with below average singing ability and poor coordination, occasionally not even singing the same words. I’m probably being unduly hard on them – it was free, after all – but last summer we came to the same place and were treated (also for free) to Alexia, one of Italy’s top performers, so there was no way Time Travel were ever going to match up. All the numbers were British and American pop from such as the Bee Gees, and I think the band’s main claim to fame was a video show synchronised to the music, though it was difficult to tell, really.
After about ten minutes we drifted away in the direction of the old port, where the firework display was to take place. It soon became apparent why the centre of town seemed quiet; this is where everyone was. New Year in Sanremo is very different to any British equivalent. There you’d get locked up (or hospitalised) for staging your own firework display by the roadside or in among the litter bins, with thousands of people, including children, milling about. With midnight still half an hour away we sat around a table we were fortunate enough to find vacant outside a cafe, our conversation frequently rendered impossible by huge explosions taking place all around as enthusiastic revellers let off industrial-scale fireworks in a determined effort to add their small contribution to the night’s fun. And nobody objects; not even the groups of police here and there as a reminder that this is a civilised country with rules. In Italy it seems order is a state just short of chaos, but the one rarely descends into the other. As Jeremy Clarkson once observed, “It’s not difficult to govern the Italians – just unnecessary”. The same seems to apply to public events, which are mostly left to run themselves with only the lightest of touches from the authorities.
This isn’t to say that things are poorly organised, though. Quite the reverse. Anyone who’s been to the Dolceacqua firework display in late August will appreciate the effort that goes into staging such events. The Italians take fireworks very seriously and usually win international competitions. However, the Sanremo New Year show, although lasting a good half hour, was a little disappointing. The promise was to “light up the old port”, but though the display itself was immense it all took place some distance away, seemingly out at sea. I suppose with all those plastic boats in the harbour someone might object to tons of half-burnt-out rockets descending from the skies. But it all seemed a little remote; the bangs followed the flashes a good half-second later, so anyone who knows the speed of sound can compute the distance.
I’m always struck by how good-natured these events are, even when people get high-spirited. It’s reminiscent of an earlier age in Britain before it became obligatory to be plastered in order to have a good time. You only have to look at the cafe tables full of empty coffee cups, not beer glasses, suggesting that the locals can can enjoy themselves on a mild caffeine high rather than a full-on alcoholic one. It’s also noticeable that all ages are represented, from young children to the elderly, all mixing together rather than being segregated. Perhaps this also helps curb the tendency of young adults to behave in a rowdy and antisocial manner when they get together in exclusive groups. If anything, they seem to be enjoying themselves more than their British counterparts if the lack of aggression is anything to go by.
Global warming- brrr!
Pity the poor climate change activists, whose message is now well and truly sidelined as the new decade has started with a mini Ice Age. The BBC has pulled out all the stops to report on the chaos (in Britain, of course) brought about by the hardest winter spell since… OK, the last hard winter spell. If you’d forgotten, that was as far back as 1981, or 1963, or 1947 depending on your age, where you live and how much you want to impress your friends, listeners or viewers. It’s at such times we all turn into Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen and compete to outdo each other with increasingly unlikely tales of how hard life used to be. As stocks of rock salt dwindle, the 4×4 “Chelsea Tractor” has gone overnight from gas-guzzling villain to life-saving hero, and the wartime community spirit has returned, as it always does when plucky Brits are faced with adversity.
Since to receive local TV would mean a second satellite dish I have to rely on the British channels for all my news. Occasionally they tell us something of the world beyond Dover, from which we build a sketchy picture of what’s happening outside what is now officially called “Frozen Britain”. There was that train somewhere near Beijing in China, all of whose carriages were buried to the rooftops in snow for 36 hours, requiring 2000 local people to come and dig them out. Hey, they have community spirit there too! In Poland the rivers are in danger of flooding because they’re blocked with ice, and even in the major cities of India it’s unusually cold.
I’d like to regale distant readers with tales of how evil the weather is down here on the Riviera, but I’d have to fib a bit. Yes, it’s rather chilly; we’ve had snow dusting the mountains right on their most southerly points as they fall into the sea, and there was frost on all the cars in the car park this morning. That gives us ample excuse to complain, of course, and we do have the excuse that our houses tend to be far less well insulated than those in more northern parts. Who needs insulation, central heating and wall-to-wall carpeting when you bask in blazing sunshine for most of the year? The reality is that it’s a reminder of how life used to be in northern Europe before the inhabitants wised up and started to install these things for their own comfort. Down here, stone floors are the norm, and with or without central heating that’s not the most friendly of things for your tootsies first thing on a winter morning. But so as not to frighten off visitors we go on pretending that winter doesn’t really happen here. I suppose people in Britain would agree.