You can't marmalade without a guitar

Expat Scot Charles Winning discovers it's not what you know but who you know when buying a guitar in Calabria

3 mins

“She canna handle it captain! The bridge won’t respond to any more pressure from this warp factor!” said my chief engineer.

“She won’t take the turbulence.” He shook his head, his mouth grim with this synopsis as he looked down at my old guitar on the work bench. 

“Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to go without for a while when I move to Italy,”  I replied.  “Perhaps it’s a sign to give up.” 

I arrived in Calabria, in southern Italy, trying to get used to the idea of not having something to strum, just when the lazy weather lent itself to sitting on the porch and humming tunelessly to the butterflies. 

Maria knew the sadness in my heart. “When you’ve been working for a while you could get a new one,” she said sweetly.

For the next few months I contented myself with the unhappy trail that so many amateur musicians have taken through their lives… Wandering from shop to shop trying out another dream purchase for ten minutes while the salesman hovers over them, only to sigh “Maybe next month” and place it back on the wall.

There aren’t a lot of instrument shops in Reggio, but in one I found the guitar that I wanted. It fitted like a glove and suited my guileless style. Of course, it was way beyond my budget.

I gave up and gradually forgot until our first Christmas in Calabria when I was introduced to Demetrio at a friend's house over the holiday. Demetrio was a musician and talked about his mouth-watering collection of guitars. Maria told him I was a guitarist too.

“We should marmalade sometime,” he cried enthusiastically (jam is marmellata in Italian). 

I told him about the guitar I had seen, mainly as a way of getting out of embarrassing myself in front of a good player. 

“Which shop did you see this guitar in?” he enquired. 

I told him and he smiled. “The owner is my best friend. Why don’t we meet there on Saturday?”  

I was certain that it would make little difference. We met outside as arranged. 

“Marco, this my friend I was telling you about; do you think you can look after him?”

"Of course Demetrio," replied his friend, "For him everything is half price!” 

I gawped. I had expected a small discount perhaps, but 50%? 

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He was. Suddenly half the shop came within my reserve, guitars more exotic than the one I’d had my eye on were placed in my eager hands to try. In the end I chose the one I’d wanted all along and walked away… With a large chunk of my budget still in my pocket.

This was my introduction to the way that the Calabrian economy works. You never think about spending until you’ve met at least a cousin or a friend of the man who sells the item you want, be it a car or an evening meal. Drop the name and see the price drop too. It’s a wonderful arrangement all round; cementing old friendships, building new ones and all the while it keeps business turning.

Of course it also means that your own services may be called upon one day, to look after a friend of a friend, but it’s such a small price to pay for survival in hard times as well as prosperity in good.


Charles Winning is a Scot and Blue's guitarist who has started a new life in Southern Italy. You can follow his adventures in this largely ignored part of Italy on his blog, Winning Over Italy.


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