imageONE NIGHT IN ITALY

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Bari. It’s a substantial place in the south of Italy, a seaport on the Adriatic coast. Some people call it the Paris of the Adriatic but it reminded me more of Liverpool, a busy port with lots of old buildings, a few modern highlights and some serious urban dereliction. We had come to Bari for one night only. Our flight from Manchester landed quite late, so we had booked a night’s stay in the local Best Western. Next morning we were moving on into Basilicata, the rural heel of Italy, to stay in a flat we had rented in a hill town called Irsina. So, just one night in Bari.

We did have one little thing to do next day before we left. A friend of ours had told us that her father lay in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Bari. He had been killed in Italy in 1944. We’d agreed to go along, take a plant for the grave, say a few prayers, sign the register and come home with a few photos. Anne was delighted with this idea but I thought it was just common courtesy. I hope others would do the same for me if one of mine lay in a foreign field.

But first, the Best Western. We landed at Bari in the dark. I had no idea of the geography of the place or of the pattern of the streets but I did have the official location map from the Best Western website. We picked up the hire car and off we went, following the map, to find our one night’s accommodation. Now, I’m good with maps – I really am – but it soon became crystal clear that this particular map was utterly, totally and completely useless. It might as well have been a map of the Bari Region of Somalia for all the good it was. Within a couple of minutes, we were totally lost and we finally stopped in a small square.

On one side was a slip road leading to an overpass. That was the way we had entered the place. Two other sides were filled by blank, windowless walls, possibly factories or warehouses. On the fourth were a couple of shops, closed, of course, at this time of night, and an exit to a narrow street lined by what seemed to be apartment blocks. There were two scrubby trees in the middle of this abandoned spot. It was pitch dark and there wasn’t a living soul in sight.

We decided to go back to the airport and try again in the opposite direction. Soon, we were leaving the city behind, following the perimeter fence of a military airbase, with numerous signs threatening arrest if we entered and equally numerous graffiti casting doubt on the ancestry and character of Signor Berluscone.  We turned off this road to nowhere, following a sign marked “Centro” and a minute later found ourselves back in the same square. Same slip road, same overpass, same walls, same shops, same flats, same scrubby half dead trees. It was pitch dark and there wasn’t a living soul in sight.

Yet again we went back to the airport. By now, I had dug my torch – never travel without one! – out of the luggage and was huddled desperately over the deceitful and inadequate pseudo-map. I was totally lost and neither of us were surprised when we returned for a third time to the square of desolation.

The atmosphere in the car was now becoming frosty and Meg suggested I might like to get out of the car, throw the map in a bin and ask somebody for help. I was only too happy to do so, except for one small problem. There wasn’t a living soul in sight.

I wandered aimlessly across the forsaken square with an increasing sense of desperation. I had no idea what to do. Midnight in a strange town with no decent map and no real grasp of the language.  The square and the street were empty except for our hire car and a small van parked in a corner.

And then, a door opened in one of the apartment blocks and a man stepped out. I noticed at once that he was carrying a large pile of pizza boxes. If anyone would know his way around Bari, it would be a pizza delivery man.

I quickly crossed the square and halied him in my best, if limited, Italian.

–          Buena sera, signore! Sono inglese e sono perduto

–          (Good evening sir. I’m English and I’m lost.)

–          Where do you want to go? he asked.

I showed him the booking confirmation sheet from Best Western with its miserable apology for a map.

–          Oh yes, I know where this is.

And he proceeded to give me long, detailed instructions in fluent, rapid, musical Italian, accompanied by many elegant gestures with his right arm. His left arm was heavily encumbered by a dozen or so pizza boxes. Italian is a beautiful language to speak and to listen to but these instructions were too complicated for me to follow.

–          I’m sorry, I said. I don’t understand

–          Follow me, he yelled and leapt into the small van.

I got back into our car and away we went. There is no Bari Grand Prix but if there were, the pampered stars of Formula 1 would have no chance at all against the Flying Pizza Man of old Bari town. Meg clung grimly to his tail lights as we hurtled through the midnight streets.

We soon entered a very different part of town. The shabby buildings we had seen so far gave way to large elegant house, the kind of buildings that house consulates, language institutes and the town houses of minor rural nobility. Suddenly our guide tuned right into a driveway and stopped in front of a large white building bearing the magic words “Best Western”.

–          Ecconoi!!, he shouted. (Here we are)

and off he sped into the night before I could thank him, pay him or even grovel in gratitude before him on the ground.

My brother often says we pass angels and demons every day without realising it. He should know all about demons. He works every day with some of the most disturbed and violent young offenders in Britain.  He encountered his own angel in Liverpool when his youngest son, at the age of three days lay in desperately ill in hospital with respiratory failure. A priest he’d never met spoke reassuringly to him in the Cathedral and next day a team arrived from Addenbrooks in Cambridge with a new and untested treatment that saved Matthew’s life. My midnight encounter in Bari was far less significant and life-changing. My Italian angel came to me that night in an abandoned square under an overpass, disguised as a pizza man.

What do your angels look like?

Bernard Fyles

October 17 2013


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