La Pasquetta: picnicking at i laghi di Monticchio and the Lord of the Rings.

“Bank Holiday comes six times a year,
days of enjoyment to which everyone cheers.
Bank Holiday comes with a six pack of beer
….then its back to work A.G.A.I.N.”

After the abuffattà (lit. “the stuffing”) that is Easter Sunday, the Monday that follows, one would be foolish to believe that this day would not adhere to a similar format. Surely, Monday is a day of work? That day when familiar glances and shrugs greet you on your way into the office in the morning. “How are you?” you ask habitually. “oh I’m fine” responds a colleague, “only, I wish it was Friday, AND NOT Monday”. Easter Monday is not that day, however. And today it is definitely NOT that kind of Monday either in the United Kingdom, they are instead geared up for a regular event that arrives at this point of the year, it is indeed the barbecue. This meal is very important to the English. It is an opportunity, rain or shine, to let go and release all that pent-up ‘Monday stress’ pertaining to the office-world, usually reserved for the Coffee machine that irritably refuses to function at 9am.

This Monday is a Bank Holiday. As the lines go in the Blur song Bank Holiday (see above) it is clear that this is an important day for any English family. For Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs and the two kids (little Joe and Jolina or Joely for the working and middle classes respectively) the meat is laid out and prepared for its ritual roasting on primal fires, akin to a Roman or Greek sacrifice of old. The beer is served in metal cans, from which drip frozen sweat-beads forged in economy-sized freezers especially for the occasion. The parking permits have been prepared so that Auntie and Uncle Bloggs, and their own spawn, have room to park outside the house on what is invariably an overcast day, despite what Joe clad in shorts and string vest will have you hear of it.

The family are in place and the rites may begin. The garden is our setting. Even if raining little activity takes place indoors: there is often the familiar gazebo, or Marque to hand. There will be, in no particular order, the ritual of drinking as much as you can between the hours of 1pm and 10pm; the consequent argument that ensues between Auntie and Uncle on who exactly it was who agreed to drive so that the other could drown in cheap Iceland lager; the ball perpetually kicked against the garden fence by the younger Bloggs, much to the annoyance of Mrs Jones the elderly Pensioner next door who is trying to watch Antiques Roadshow. The two Aunties, no not a 60’s spy series, but our two main female cohorts will do their best to ‘watch’ their figures, but will invariably drink more beer or wine than the men, and “hold their own” in the Burger queue, while slapping litres of suntan lotion about their person, even in the rain. There will also be the ritual discussions by the male Bloggs on whether those “Burgers are [actually] done yet?” and whether to add the Pork chops now or go and get another frozen ‘Iceland’ lager? “Oh, but Manchester United are playing today”, and even though we are in a London suburb, “we gotta put the Sky on” says our very ‘Red’ Paternal protagonist born and brought up in South London. Then out comes the Karaoke, a hideous invention: the neighbours don their feathers and begin a raindance…..

Peas in a pod?

In Campania, this day is also a Bank Holiday! And what better way to put off returning to work than to ape the rites undertaken by their Northern European neighbours? They must have much in common: the need to dust off those Monday Blues, the arrival of family relatives, the ball-that spherical symbol of the Italian heart itself, the kids/i bimbi, the need to be “together” as the guy from Birmingham in the advert once shouted. Surely, these two opposing sides in a football contest for the Barbeque Cup would understand, respect and even share the other eleven’s tactical choices?

No. There is no other way to say this, but his shared commensal feast, could not be more different, if filmed on the moon. In the Barbecue Cup, there would have to be a respective trophy and accompanying separate competition played in the two separate countries. Any other Englishman would view this Italian spectacle as “just not Cricket”.

Before we look into this we need to highlight that there are similarities and that these do need to be acknowledged: the family are present, the meal, again is of the utmost importance, alcohol even bought from an Iceland equivalent, such as Supermercato Deco, a store much in the same league as a LiDL (http://www.mydeco.it:6001/) will be gladly consumed. There will be the compulsory family argument (“Why doesnt Luigi like my carne?”), there will be a lull after the eating, and in contemporary Italian culture there is now the increasing chance of Karaoke, even if it is without a mike. Yet there are aspects here which if we go beyond the superficial, could not be more different. Even if we bottled this aspects, pickled them in a very British Sauce (ie Worcestershire), slapped a Union Jack label on the bottle with the Words “English Barbecue”, these aspects would still find a way to bring out the Italian in the Jar.

Yes the food in both Bank Holidays is central to the show, the family are there, in fact even with the similarities shared with the British Barbeque, this meal even shows similarites with the Pranzo of the day before. But there the comparison stops: this time it is the location itself that has changed. And it is the change of location that brings out a whole different kind of Italian day.

Se asciàmm ògge? or shall we go out today?

Plans are made the day before, or with large families, even days, weeks, months before. La Pasquetta, or little Easter (literal translation) is by no means a day of small dreams. The destination will have been mulled over in the minds of the family elders for sometime. A deliberation will occur at some form of family meeting, possibly even the Easter Sunday meal. This deliberation may look something like the ‘The Council at Rivendell’ in the Lord of the Rings: stalemate and animosity between the elder siblings on where the sacred meal should take place, until one little Hobbit stands up and suggests “Pecché non jamme o’mare?” Why dont we go to the Sea? A great idea agrees Babbo and so the expedition begins.

In terms of Campania, this trip generally takes the form of a trip to the sea, to the woods, to a park, to a riverside somewhere in the countryside, to an ancient ruin such as Pompeii, where lunch can be taken in the foro triangolare. But in our case, our hobbits have chosen to visit i laghi di Monticchio, two small lakes in the province of Potenza in Northern Basilicata, close to the border with Campania from where our holiday base in Irpinia is found. The Council of Rivendell have decided. “It is secret. It is safe”: we are on our way to deepest, darkest Mordor.

Whenever such a consensus is arrived at there is much to organise. If other family members are accompanying this fellowship, they will need to be contacted ahead of embarkation. Various mamme will need to contact each other to ascertain what food to bring. This undoubtedly happens in England too, but mainly when Auntie enquiries if she needs to make a Russian salad, or for the less sophisticated, or 1970’s influenced families, maybe the request will be “want anyfink from Iceland”? The Neapolitan mama will be hard at work before and on the morning of this day. It is important for her to bring food to the table, even if told not to bring certain dishes by the other mamme she will cook them regardless, for to bring ’nuffink’ to the Italian table is akin to arriving beerless at a Bloggs Barbeque.

With the table itself, Babbo will busy himself about the house looking for the best candidates to fill various seating requirements. There is usually a store in every Italian house, no matter what form this takes, which will be loaded with all forms of plastic seating, blankets and camping equipment perfect for the task. The conscientious Italian family will make plans to leave particularly early on la Pasquetta. There are no Black riders, or Nazgûl here. No, there is worst: the dreaded autostrada. The perilous path itself, which if choosing to strike will consume many a witless driver. The fellowship must therefore be prepared.

With the macchina or car loaded with food, wine, chinotto, chairs, tables, Barbeque equipment, members of the family and pets (often of the most bizarre varieties, for they “cannot be left at home”), rendezvous are arranged with Uncles and Aunts. The fellowship is ready to begin its voyage.

Simm arrivatt’ mo?  Simm arrivatt’ mo?  Simm arrivatt’ mo?  Simm arrivatt’ mo?

Are we there yetAre we there yetAre we there yet? A dumanna (domanda in Italian) or question that even the grandparents will ask. This question is peppered with directions by backseat drivers: Ùeh Gianlucà, nun si còrrere! Oi, Gianluca, dont go so fast, shouts mama. While if in the car too, Grandpa will also offer his own snippets of advice: Stu strada cca’ oggè è n’pocc pienn, si mme téne a mènte nun e statt a sèmpe accussì. Or “This road here today is a little busy….if I remember well, it wasnt always like this” or words to that effect blah, blah, blah and etc, etc, etc. Father, unimpeded, braves the autostrada and the other drivers. He journeys on.

The perils of the Italian road can be read about in books by many authors, especially Tim Parks, Beppe Severgnini and others so we dont need to mention them here. Suffice to say that although I intend to skip further ahead and discuss the event itself, this shouldnt be taken as a sign that the autostrada is a “piece of pastiera”. No, it is a hazardous means of travel, and deserves a blog entry of its own. We shall skip that for now, because now we have arrived at the lakes. The next hazard is finding a parking spot.

For general parking, please see Signor Sevegnini’s take on Naples in his book La Bella Figura, here we have managed it with ease by following suit and squeezing the small vehicle into an unfeasibly smaller space between two other cars, with one wheel in the roadside ditch and the other in the middle of the road. Horns, or Clacson’s as they are known here, are the symphony of the hour, but these are soon displaced by other sounds. The lakes cant actually be seen from the road, so once the other family members have been traced, the decision is to head down to the waters edge for the Picnic.

This really is a beautiful spot. It seems as though the lakes, and us included, are actually located on the floor of what was once a large volcanic crater. This is formed on one side by the Mountains of the Vulture, the towering peaks of Northern Basilicata. This has obviously brought a high level of fertility to the natural environment surrounding these two lakes, inventively called the Lago Piccolo and the Lago Grande, or the small and the big lake. Such inventiveness would be dumbfounded on visting the Lake District, I think to myself. Windermere as the small lake anyone?

I Laghi di Monticchio

 

Vicin o’mare.

Monticchio itself is so small it does not even qualify as a village. It has around 150 inhabitants on any other day of the week and is referred to as a frazione or “fraction” of the town of Potenza. This gets me thinking back to school and dreaded maths lessons, but even our classroom in London never saw such fractions as today. The 150 have been conquered by the mighty armies of Mordor: this number has swelled to around 15,000 by my estimations. And boy have the Teddy Bears come out for their picnics: Bigtime!

They are out in all shapes and sizes. There are mums carrying their kids or pushing them in pushchairs, behind comes nonna carrying mums coat and a very large ‘industrial’ size freezer bag. Behind that is the eldest son with the darkest pair of sunglasses and a leather jacket on looking too cool for school, tight on his arm is his fidanzata (girlfriend) with a shot of dark hair, well styled and eagerly scowling at any other passing females who may glance at her uomo, they are followed by another son bouncing a ball. Next comes Granddad carrying the plastic chairs and a coolbox full to the brim with bottles of home brew, behind him is his son, il babbo and he shoulders the table, some blankets, Barbeque equipment and another large freezer bag. Children are holy in Southern Italy, and so it is the parents who carry the food. All of them, though, will do their fair share of the eating of course.

Hearing each passing family, none of which are speaking sottovoce, tells us that the visitors to this volcanic basin are a real mix of the South. There are people from Basilicata especially Potenza, who obviously make up the majority, there are also those from Southern Campania and Irpinia, and even some twangs of the Pugliese accent soming through, indicating that even Foggia is aware of the Lago Piccolo and the Lago Grande today. Reaching the Lakeside is not easy however. First you need to be aware of the passing traffic: cars will not get out of your way, but neither will Signor Cool and his fidanzata. There is some form of stand-off in the middle of the pavement between families passing upstream and those down. Even if one of these families is loaded up to the nines with bags the other will not move to one side in gentlemanly fashion…“None shall past” shouts Gandalf. They negotiate the passage eventually through a series of shrugs and the accompanying exclamation “boh!” and encounter the next family. This place is packed to the rafters. A miracle really when you think that the small lake is in fact a nature reserve for the European Owl. If they are as wise as Gandalf though they’ll stay well hidden deep in the trees.

The Lakeside is thus far from tranquil. This is expounded by the existence of a typically Italian custom at any such beauty spot. Any place gilded by natures glance in Italy is far from free. Along vast sections of Italy’s coastline, next to river and even here next to our two tiddly lakes we encounter the sign Privato! This section of the Lake, like much of its contour, is privately owned by a campsite and it can only be entered for a small fee. This fee includes a charge to have a picnic or you are free to choose a smaller fee for a post-picnic passegiata, or walk around the lake. Read the smallprint though! This walk is permitted for a maximum of 20mins…enough time for a skinnydip?

Next to the Campsite there are many shops lining the road. These sell a myriad of items, from a suvenir ro laghi, or souvenir of the lakes from small figurines and the touristic gift plate to the larger models of the lake and its hinterland itself. These shops also sell things to amuse oneself and look as cool as Signor ‘too cool for school’ such as sunglasses, books, disposable camera’s, hats and caps, but no “kiss me quick Kate’s” here. Alongside these are the plastic football’s, bows and arrows, lazer guns, counterfeit barbie-style dolls and many other toys that any bored bimbo or bimba would love to own, even if just for the day. Two large queue’s have built up which need further investigation, for the Italians are not known for their queuing skills. One of these is for the toilets, a very small amenity added almost as an afterthought, and a queue for the pedalò’s allowing a jerky, clumsy journey around the Lake, and which the sign tells us have been run by the same family since the 1950’s.

While many opted for the private car-park and picnic table facilities offered by the campsite, the next option on the menu, have other attractions. Similarly private are the restaurants lining the lakeside. These blear out dance music from stereo’s positioned right next to the lakeside tables, but even this cant drown out the music of the people itself. Seated at each table are families such as those described above seated 15-20 around small tables, or couples both old and young enjoying the romance of the Spring Air. All are tucking into at least their first or second course on the five course menu. This comes in at around 20 euros a head. For the family that wants to save some money, though, there is only one other option.

As the majority of the lake is private and accessible for a charge, there is much in the forest or bosco facing the lake to entice the Family on such a day. Mirroring the stereo’s at the restaurants are those concealed by logs and branches on the mulch of the leaves underneath the thickness of the foliage. You cannot see from where exactly this dance music is being transmitted, but you can see its effects. Groups of giuvinòttì or youngsters are balanced on plastic tables, holding plastic plates (luckily empty) and dancing feverently as though on a beach in Ibiza. The neighbouring picnic table sees a family sat around similar plastic, awaiting babbo who is flipping sausages and carne on the portable Barbeque, all are wearing jackets and coats, because under the trees fa ùmmeto (or in Italian, damp or umido). They are patient and await their pranzo, but do not once ask the table next door to kindly turn down their “godforsaken racket” as Mr Bloggs would have called it.

It is here that we positioned ourselves. We laid out a blanket and an old shower curtain upon which to recline. I didnt hasten to ask what the shower curtain could possibly be doing in the car…I have seen Psycho enough times to avoid such questions, and we were after all in the forest which was eerily dark, but come in useful it did nonetheless and thankfully no cadavers were in sight.

The only bodies found here were the 6 of us, five Italians and one Englishman (o’ furastiere or foreigner) who tucked into a course of frittata o pasta. A kind of equivalent to bubble and squeak, made by using up the previous days pasta which is fried into a round pie shaped object of yumminess. This was accompanied by local wine given to us by a neighbour who makes his own up the Irpinian village, highly potent. We had not brought our own Barbeque and were content to observe the other families.  Next came tortonno the small baps from the day before, that are filled with chunks of salami and pecorino cheese.

Then came slices of parma Ham, not from Naples but wolfed down by all regardless, these were met side-on by their fearless formaggio cousins the mozzarèll o’ buffalà and provola, basically Buffalo Mozzarella and then slices of Provola smoked Mozzarella cheese. Leaning back ‘abuffattà’ or stuffed, I sipped my wine carefully and pondered which fruit to have, a banana or an orange. Then came sizeable chunks of chocolate, the remnants of an Easter egg, ritually bashed into triangulation. The conclusion of the meal would not be right without a Coffee and so o cafè is poured from a Thermos flask into the smallest of plastic cups imaginable.

Feeling sleepy I gladly accept the digestivo of cynar e chinotto, a mixture of a liqueur based on artichokes and a cola style fizzy drink. On my back with my arms behind my head, I hear the group to our right have started singing famous Italian songs. Out of tune screeching at the top of their voices, beers in hand, I ponder whether the two Barbecue’s are that different after all. Especially as the Lord of the Rings is the likely candidate for Bank Holiday film back in blighty. But for our fellowship tucked under the trees, away from Sauron’s eyes or the boss’s eyes, this meal is worthy of a King and can stave off work for another day. Give me la Pasquetta any day of the week!

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About giacomomuratore

Giacomo Muratore, or "Jimmy the Brickie" blogs on his Pensieri da Campania. These include his reflections, observations, comments and general remarks on being an Englishman in Campania, Southern Italy. With a background in Archaeology and Classics these 'pensieri' range from social and political comment to reflections on the history, values and cultural mores of a city that forever delights, infuriates and never ceases to amaze.
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