From Aristos to The Oxford Bar (The Italian Connection)
Simple cultural differences are sometimes the stuff of amusement and its almost a devil of a job to get a cup of tea in Aristos. The concept of sitting, lingering over a long hot drink doesnâ€™t exist here in Italy, with the possible exception of a cappuccino which is taken, as a rule before high noon.
The idea of cafe on the other hand is revered and it is intense : maximum flavour; maximum quality; maximum caffeine; maximum hit; minimum quantity and minimum time to drink it, minimum cost.
â€œTEAâ€ – what do you mean â€œTea,â€ Marino would berate me with and on one occasion when I asked for a pot, I thought I may even be shown the door.
This all reminded me so much of the legendary Oxford Bar in the new town of Edinburgh. Itâ€™s a beautiful and tiny bar with a great atmosphere and one of Scotlandâ€™s best kept secrets. Thereâ€™s a lovely giant snug just off the main bar, the scene of some mighty traditional music sessions in the old days.
Now; back to the connections – in those old days and before he was dragged kicking and screaming into the second half of the 20th century, the landlord only really had beer and whisky on offer – several taps of the finest real ale on the bar and a gantry full of the best malts. I must recount a legendary story though, which has maybe almost become apocryphal. A couple of women came into the bar one night (an unusual enough sight in itself in those days) and asked for two Gin and Tonics which was a bit of a shock to the landlord – â€œWELL WELLâ€ – but after much huffing and galumphing, a bottle of gin was found somewhere under the bar or possibly even in a back room. It has to be said that it wasnâ€™t a popular choice and the pressure was rising. The big, big mistake though came later when a packet of crisps was requested – WOW – what an explosion followed —
â€œwhat do you think this is :- a flippin restaurantâ€
and with that they were shown the door.
Failte Gu Alba / Welcome to Scotland.
At least Marino was only joking (I think).
The Oxford Bar is of course where old Rebus (the Edinburgh detective) hangs out in Ian Rankinâ€™s celebrated novels.
Rebus – I couldnâ€™t believe it.
While at Babbity Bowsterâ€™s last summer, another famous traditional music bar, this time in Glasgowâ€™s Merchant City, I spotted Rebus himself, (at least the actor who plays him) Ken Stott, an old friend from School. His brother Jo was in my class and their dad was our English teacher. His Dad, (bouncer !) having an Italian wife, spoke the language fluently. He started The Italian Society at school and through this I did Italian for one term in my sixth year. Apart from basic pronunciation and a few words of vocabulary, I donâ€™t seem to remember learning much Italian, the incentive being very much more to do with getting to hang out, feeling very cool, in some Italian cafÃ© in Edinburghâ€™s east end and drinking cappuccinos with the girls from Holy Cross; very exciting and enticing for us who were at an all boys school, and the girls from Holy Cross were all Scots Italians and as I remember vividly, very exotic and very beautiful.
As well as this, being friends with Ken and Jo had added bonuses. We used to be invited back to the Stott family home where Mrs Stott, who was Italian and originally from a Sicilian family fed us fantastic bowls of pasta done in oodles of olive oil and garlic at a time when the rest of Scotland knew only the spaghetti variety which came out of a Heinz tin.
All this came at a time when I had had a couple of trips out to Rome to meet my Dad. He worked then for F.A.O. and their headquarters are in Rome. I had just read Michelangeloâ€™s biography and spent much of my time admiring with awe much of his work in Rome.
My Italian connection and love affair with this amazing country was indeed at this point well established. As well as the marvels of Rome, we made trips to The Amalphi coast, Napoli, Capri and Pompei.
Back though to the Stotts and last year I learned more of the family through Ken being featured on a television programme back here in Scotland.
Ken and Joâ€™s Mumâ€™s parents were Sicilian, but they had to flee hurriedly to Milan when news came of her mumâ€™s pregnancy.
Her Dad was a priest in the catholic church !
Following their departure from Sicily, he studied law in Milan and went on to become a successful lawyer there. This tail was recounted by Ken on a T.V. documentary which I had seen last year, the format of the programme being to take a famous celebrity, trace the origins of their family and take them back to their roots, and it was indeed amazing to see Ken out fishing with his Sicilian cousins.
I have had a couple of trips to Sicily myself about fifteen years ago. I took a Pipe Band out, over Christmas – twice ! They drank the bar dry – twice ! We ate squid for Christmas dinner – can you imagine !? We played Christmas Carols on the pipes, met The Zampogna players who played more Carols, sang songs in the back of the bus and had a snow ball fight half way up Mount Etna.
Because the gigs were inevitably at the other end of the island, we always had early starts and it was a nightmare to try and get them up and away in the early mornings. We cracked a system though: they would stay up late, drinking and then when the time was right, they would get dressed up in their uniforms : kilt, belt, spats, long hairy sporran, plaid, etc. after which they would collapse flat on their backs, on their beds, till the alarm call usually at 5.00 a.m., at which point they would sit bolt upright, grab their pipes and with a robot like gait, stagger on to the bus and instantly fall back to sleep.
I signed three lots of contracts for those trips, all official,
and was entertained to a luxury long weekend trip to somewhere beautiful (which shall remain nameless ) in north eastern Italy to do the signing.
Three Contracts required – Three Contracts Signed
one for the amount I was to be paid (x),
one for the funding body (2x)
one for the tax man (1/2x)
Benvenuto caldo a Italia.
Hamish Moore – Barga – 29th June 2008. – The ninth article from Hamish Moore – the premier small pipes bagpipe maker in Scotland now working in Barga as artist in residence 2008 – all of his articles can be read here