On the Jasmine Coast at the southernmost tip of Italy, where warm winds blow from Africa and the turtles come each summer to lay their eggs on my beach, time stands stubbornly still.
Non cambio (‘I don’t change’) is the watchword here. If nothing ever changes, we will all be happy. While the rest of the world rushes ahead at terrifying speed, my small slice of blue Mediterranean heaven will resist with all of its Calabrian heart.
My house beside the sea, La Villa Buntessa, is in a part of Italy known as Mezzogiorno, the Land of Eternal Lunchtime.
The spirit of the people here can be summed up in five words: ‘Drive fast — everything else slow.’
Quite how slow, I could never have guessed . . . until in a fit of delirious optimism I decided one day, without even consulting my wife, to make this land our family’s holiday home.
Even when the Calabrese rush into projects, they soon slow down. The natural speed of life in southern Italy is piano, a softly-softly philosophy that applies in all situations except, of course, driving. So while I was anxious to speed up the works before my wife’s arrival, Pasquale and Gianni lost all urgency
Ian Ross and his wife Bunty are pictured together (left) at their home in Calabria, Italy. Shown right is their supermodel daughter Liberty, whose mere appearance at the home would force workmen into a sweat
The boathouse is pictured in 2002. To help with the much-needed renovations of villa and boathouse, I was introduced to Pasquale, a man of infinite resource who would probably be prime minister of somewhere, if he had been born elsewhere in the world. He roped in his cousin Gianni
When I first came here, more than ten years ago, thoughts of the Durrells were in my mind. If only I could find somewhere to compare with their 1930s Corfu and bring my extended family of 23 children, grandchildren, in-laws and so on, to holiday here, I could be happy.
I had lived in London, Los Angeles and many points in between, and I craved peace and solitude. I can’t really explain what I wanted, except that I was certain I’d know what I was looking for when I found it.
The airport at Brindisi, where I first touched down, was small and palm-fringed, a bit like Palma de Mallorca in the 1950s, where I used to fly on holiday with my parents by propeller-driven Vickers Viscount. The sense of nostalgia was palpable.
After a couple of days of meandering in a hire car, getting lost and panicking at the lunatic road sense of other autostrada users, I spotted a bay between the villages of Capo Spartivento and Spropoli — a sickle of sand with a couple of fishing boats drawn up, and something white twinkling through the pine and eucalyptus.
It took me three attempts to find a sandy track down to the water, watched by interested locals who gathered to stare at this alien Inglese.
At last I found a lane that bumped down and under the Seaside Line railway bridge, and I descended into a different world.
When I first came here, more than ten years ago, thoughts of the Durrells were in my mind. If only I could find somewhere to compare with their 1930s Corfu and bring my extended family of 23 children, grandchildren, in-laws and so on, to holiday here, I could be happy
It has taken many years and caused many headaches, but the wooden house has now been painted white on the inside and multi-coloured on the outside, by Bunty. The ongoing programme of improvements never seems to end, and nor do the frustrations and the expense
All I could hear was birdsong and the hush of small waves. Crunching across the sand to the water’s edge, I breathed in, drinking deeply of ozone and satisfaction. There wasn’t a soul in sight but, following some rough steps made from railway sleepers, I found myself in a courtyard of Moorish splendour. Two small boys saw me and fled into the house.
It turned out the children had taken me for a vagabondo or worse.
In my torn Hawaiian shirt and a pair of checked trousers with an elasticated waistband, I did look somewhat disreputable, and Italians even in their tender years are sensitive to sartorial issues.
They fetched their mother, Celeste, who seemed relieved to discover I was an Inglese — a virtually unknown species so far south, and so entitled to wear anything, however tatty.
Southern Italians are far more mannered than the English, and everything is done with a certain formalised ritual. High-fives and casualness have not replaced the handshake, the embrace, the kiss on both cheeks, the words of polite enquiry after one’s health, even among the young.
I explained that I was looking for a holiday property, and after a phone conversation with her husband, Pino — a man of some local importance, as it transpired — Celeste and the boys led me up the beach to a pair of large locked gates beside an old, twisted tree.
I felt as if I had fallen into a dream state, from which I wouldn’t emerge for a long time.
There was a villa, set back behind a wide tangle of vegetation, a shanty-shack and a boathouse opening onto the shore for a fishing boat — the sea here teems with fish. It all belonged to a Signor Tralongo . . . and I was assured he was eager to sell.
It didn’t help that our old friend Tony, a builder from home, had joined us and at first assumed the grey expanse was to be a helipad. When I told him it was for a pre-fabricated wooden house, he retorted that I could build a skyscraper on there
That evening, I felt so much at home that I decided to go bathing in the sea. As the warm, silky water closed over me, I felt reborn. A good chunk of my Anglo-Saxon uptightness was washed away and in my soul I became part Calabrese.
Next morning I met Celeste’s husband, Il Dottore Pino Tuscano. Tall, broad, imposing, wavy-haired, fortysomething and forever smiling genially, he extended his hand with a regal dignity.
Pino was not merely the local doctor and dentist, and president of the local choral and poetry societies, but the protector and chief fixer of a family system that ran the length of the Jasmine coast.
His presence was essential, because he was taking me to meet Signor Tralongo.
This is one of the many important rituals of southern Italy: an intermediary worthy of respect by both parties effects the introductions and stays to act as an umpire, to see fair play in negotiations. The fact that Pino was an old friend of Tralongo was not supposed to influence him in any way.
Renato Tralongo had the most expressive face I’ve ever encountered. Every emotion passed across his concertina-like wrinkles, heightening it to absurdity, like a medieval court fool. All his explanations about the place were incomprehensible to me, so I adopted a policy of trying to laugh in the right places.
What if I couldn’t afford it? ‘Quanto costa?’ I blurted out —’how much?’
Tralongo went into a huddle with his wife and, after some delay, called out a figure: 500,000 euros. My heart sank. I hadn’t a hope of paying that. But then I realised —the price wasn’t 500,000, it was 155,000 euros.
My terrible ear for Italian had garbled the sum. I was so overjoyed that I made a classic negotiating blunder, one that has never been forgotten locally.
With no attempt to haggle, I spat on my hand like a gipsy horse trader and agreed to the full price.
It wasn’t until morning that the ‘full consciousness of my position’, as it might politely be termed, dawned on me.
There was no question of backing out, not in a place where the concept of ‘sleeping with the fishes’ was first devised as a solution to business disputes.
On the other hand, I couldn’t very well go ahead without my wife’s agreement. I’d have to find a way to tell her what I had done.
The omens weren’t good when Bunty flew down a few days later.
I still speak very bad Italian and the Calabrese dialect passes all understanding, but laughing has worked very well for me. I realised I’d never find a better place to gather my family for holidays. But grave doubts lingered. What if my wife Bunty didn’t like it?
An important Mafia figure was being escorted through the airport on his way to trial, and the place was bristling with military police in battle fatigues, toting automatic weapons.
When my wife emerged from passport control, she was muttering about ‘bandit country’. But she was quickly converted when she saw the view from the villa.
‘It’s incredible,’ she said. ‘This beach is amazing. How much are they asking?’
‘Well,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve sort of said I’ll buy it.’ And a few months later, I did. With the papers signed and the money paid, I thought all my troubles were over.
They were just beginning. As the Calabrese say, ‘Sempre problemi’ — there are always more problems.
To help with the much-needed renovations of villa and boathouse, I was introduced to Pasquale, a man of infinite resource who would probably be prime minister of somewhere, if he had been born elsewhere in the world. He roped in his cousin Gianni.
‘Gianni will be your Capo di Operaio. He will arrange everything,’ Pino announced. ‘He is Celeste’s cousin.’
Gianni smiled the stubborn smile I was to come to know so well.
‘But we don’t know what we’re doing yet!’ I said, using our usual mix of signs and odd words from either language, Gianni nodding sagely throughout. Bunty and I had talked about simply converting the boathouse into a little place to provide more room for our extended family to come to stay.
‘Architetto Napoli is preparing a skitch.’
The ‘skitch’ arrived the next day, along with Napoli, his assistant, Pino, Celeste, Gianni and various other people. There seemed to be a swimming pool and several other things I’d never mentioned. In fact, I’d never mentioned anything and the whole project came as a complete surprise.
Bunty had said something about building ‘a little cottage’. The skitch looked more like a palazzo.
When I mentioned this to Pino, he simply shrugged and said: ‘It is only a skitch.’
Whenever Pasquale and Gianni didn’t want to do things my way, which was most of the time, they simply pretended not to understand: ‘Non si capisce!’
The following morning I was woken by the deafening racket of Gianni’s tractor clanking down the drive. It was barely 7am. When I emerged, he was smashing down the whole boathouse terrace structure by bulldozing it with his tractor, then finishing it off with a sledgehammer.
I hadn’t said he should do it, had no idea it was his plan. On the other hand, it was too late now.
I was just about to say something when down the drive came a lorry with a mechanical digger on the back, driven by Nino, the second member of our team.
Nino was burly and taciturn, very much the proud Calabrese. His truck and digger gave him a certain status and he climbed down from the cab like a conquistador.
Gianni introduced me, but my mind was on that digger. What on earth was going to happen now?
I pointed to it and made various other agitated gestures.
‘Tranquillo, Ian!’ said Gianni. ‘Non ti preoccupare.’ (‘Don’t worry’). This is what they said to me, and they’re still saying it.
In a big picture-book called Seaside Style that Bunty had given me, we’d seen a house in the Aeolian Islands with a beautiful blue terrace, surrounded by white seating that looked like rolling waves with flowerbeds behind low, blue-topped walls. Whenever I showed the men this picture, I got wry smiles and a shake of the head.
Despairing of getting my own way in my own house, I switched my attention to the patch of grass by the gates. At first I thought it might be a good site for a static caravan. But ambition got the better of me, and soon I allowed Pasquale and his friends to persuade me of the merits of a casa di legni, a wooden house.
I could order the pre-built walls and roof from a firm in Romania, and have it constructed on site. It wouldn’t need planning permission because technically all building in southern Italy is illegal: it was just a question of paying the appropriate people to overlook it.
What I didn’t know about houses was that they all, even wooden ones, need foundations.
My workforce decided that for the structure to be sound they would need to create an apron of cement that stretched all the way from the garage to the gates.
Within a few days, a crater big enough for an Olympic swimming pool had appeared where my wooden house was to stand, and a cement lorry appeared. A giant nozzle was guided over the back fence, and it began to flail.
I stood by the pit, a helpless bystander watching three desperadoes struggle with the nozzle as the grey lake slowly rose.
To make matters worse, Bunty was due to fly in for a site inspection.
Even when the Calabrese rush into projects, they soon slow down. The natural speed of life in southern Italy is piano, a softly-softly philosophy that applies in all situations except, of course, driving.
So while I was anxious to speed up the works before my wife’s arrival, Pasquale and Gianni lost all urgency.
It was January and clear days were getting fewer. The Calabrese don’t like working when it’s raining (or when it’s hot, either). As February approached, the heavens opened and all work ceased.
With no sun, no work being done, no furniture in my bare-tiled house, no one to talk to in any language I understood and not even a TV, I started to feel quite sorry for myself.
It was as if the gods were issuing a celestial reprimand for my classical pretensions. All over the garden, huge piles of earth and crater-like holes filled with water added to the general impression of the Battle of the Somme.
And this is how it looked when Bunty arrived.
I’d known she was coming, of course, just not that the place would look its absolute worst.
Bunty wasn’t impressed by our progress, especially the cement foundations. I believe her exact words were: ‘Oh God, Ian, what have you done?’
The sun still shines on 326 days of the year, the fish continue to teem, goats graze on the mountainsides and the fruit, vines and vegetables I planted still grow prodigiously in the warm volcanic soil. My family keeps going back, and I’m sure I always will, to the place that never changes. Life is good. Non cambio
It didn’t help that our old friend Tony, a builder from home, had joined us and at first assumed the grey expanse was to be a helipad. When I told him it was for a pre-fabricated wooden house, he retorted that I could build a skyscraper on there.
Little did he know that whole skyscraper cities could be built in the time it took Pasquale and Gianni to erect a wooden house.
Months passed. It was nearly August and my family of 20 or so were preparing to descend by the time the builders took delivery of the prefab building.
The Romanian men who brought it were supposed to erect it, too, but after spending one night in my boathouse they announced they had been called to an emergency and never returned.
More humiliation awaited.
Hours before Bunty and my whole family arrived, a mountain of sand appeared on the driveway, 20 times more than I would ever need. Gianni offered generously to cart it away but it was obvious that I would be expected to pay for the whole consignment.
My wife was horrified but I was resigned: I had been through similar trials with lorryloads of potted palms and cypress trees.
But it turned out there was one way to get Pasquale and Gianni to do their work without argument.
When my family turned up to stay, I noticed the extraordinary effect my daughter Liberty, a supermodel, had on workmen, who hurled themselves into their labours whenever she was around. And among our other summer guests was Carolina, the girlfriend of an old family friend’s son.
With her friendly smile, willowy arms and cascades of honey-coloured hair, she was like a mermaid with legs. And she spoke Italian, learned from her full-blooded Tuscan mother.
My workforce were enchanted by Carolina. The reaction of Gianni in particular was little short of mystical, like a novice meeting Aphrodite for the first time. When she spoke to him in Italian, I thought he would swoon away.
She was wearing her yellow bikini at the time, a minimal affair which emphasised her curves in such a way that Gianni found it difficult to cope.
In these circumstances, it was easy for Carolina to issue instructions that were followed faithfully, without argument.
The walls of the wooden house seemed to fly into place. And by the time Carolina departed, it was practically finished.
Even today, you only have to say ‘Carolina’ to Gianni and he blushes to his ears . . . then his wife slaps him round the head.
It has taken many years and caused many headaches, but the wooden house has now been painted white on the inside and multi-coloured on the outside, by Bunty. The ongoing programme of improvements never seems to end, and nor do the frustrations and the expense.
‘This is just the way it works,’ I say to Bunty. ‘I am the padrone, the boss. It has been the custom in southern Italy since time immemorial: the padrone must be cheated and pretend not to notice. It’s just a game, really, and without it life wouldn’t be the same.’
But the sun still shines on 326 days of the year, the fish continue to teem, goats graze on the mountainsides and the fruit, vines and vegetables I planted still grow prodigiously in the warm volcanic soil.
My family keeps going back, and I’m sure I always will, to the place that never changes. Life is good. Non cambio.
Adapted from Beached In Calabria, by Ian Ross, Arcadia Books, £9.99. © Ian Ross 2019. To order a copy for £7.99 (valid until July 9, 2019), call 0844 571 0640. P&P free on orders over £15.