Cigarette lighter
Blog Words : My life as an Expat | 26 October

How to preserve one's dignity in Calabria

Our man in Calabria discovers that preserving his dignity, like everything, is much cheaper in the south

Over the last couple of weeks Maria and I have spent a lot of time with friends at their homes.  We arrive about 9.30pm, have a dram and eat a cake or two before sitting down to chat and play cards… and take as much money off each other as possible. These evenings, as you can imagine when you’re losing  your shirt, can go on for some time.

During a lull in one of these visits Maria’s friend, Mario, turned to me and asked whether I‘d managed to come to grips with driving on the other side of the road.

“To be honest Mario, it hasn’t really been a problem," I said. "After all, I’ve driven in the US, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal before here. But there is one instinctive driving-related move that I can’t fully control yet."

“What’s that?” said Mario, no doubt a little irked by my blasé attitude.

“Well, just a couple of days ago I dropped Maria off at the station in the morning, as I do most days," I explained. "Then, on the way back home, I pulled up and parked outside Luca’s newsagents to buy some cigarettes. I went in and hailed Luca as usual. Luca, as usual, had my Winston Blues waiting on the counter before I’d even walked in the door.  No problem.”

At this point the rest of the evening’s guests have stopped talking about Mario’s wall-to-wall nativity scene (complete with waterfalls and a city of tiny lights) and are now listening to my story.

“So what’s that got to do with driving on the other side of the road?”

My story is this.

I purchased the cigarettes, saying "ciao!" to Luca, and walked sunnily out of the shop. I strode straight to the car, unlocked the door and got in. In one easy natural movement I  grabbed and fastened the seatbelt before turning round to grip the steering wheel... Which wasn’t there! I was holding thin air. I was all securely belted up and ready to go, in the passenger seat!

This might not have been a major problem if it hadn’t been for the five or six people on the pavement chatting. Had they seen me? Had they noticed what I’d done? If they had, then it would be all round the town within a matter of hours. This is when you have those Victor Meldrew moments. Ooooooh Nooooh!

How the hell do I extricate myself from this with any sense of dignity? I couldn’t sidle over to the driver’s side without really drawing attention to myself  – it’s a very small car and my sharp bony knees could well have created a new sunroof – and I couldn’t just unbuckle, open the door and whistle while I walk round to the other door, now could I? What in God’s name could I do?

Then, genius struck! In a moment of pure inspiration, I dived forward to the glove box and started fishing around with my right hand while, at the same time, casually unbuckling the belt with my left. I pulled out documents, manuals, empty mint packets and old parking receipts and then tried to look puzzled.

"Where could it be?" I hopefully animated to the now-puzzled onlookers. Then, and with only a momentary hesitation, having not found anything in the glove box that could possibly get me out of this, I started patting all my pockets. No luck there, I mimed to my audience with a very Italian shrug.

I got out of the car, checking my pockets one more time as I walked back into the newsagent,  bought a lighter and came back out brandishing it with a sheepish smile for all to see before getting into the right (correct) side of the car and driving off with a squeal not quite appropriate for the motor I was trying to control.

Did I get away with it? No doubt I’ll find out one day.

The price of dignity? One Euro!

I was sure to lose more at the card table.

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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