Tuesday 17 June 2014

The Italian Blog


Keep Right On To The End of the Road – If You Dare

As some of you will know, my husband and I recently spent a lovely week in Italy, sampling the delights of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, the Amalfi Coast, assorted volcanoes and a few bottles of Prosecco. Needless to say, I took my trusty copy of The A-Z of Understanding Italians by Steve Emmett with me. Now, if you haven’t already got your copy of this indispensable little book, I suggest you remedy that right now because, I’m telling you from experience, very little of what you encounter in Italy will make sense without it.

I’ve asked the author of this little gem – my friend and fellow horror writer, Steve Emmett – to join me today as I share with you some of my experiences, in particular those relating to road etiquette. Steve is eminently qualified to shed light on the quirkier aspects of Italian life as he lived there for many years.

Now, Steve, let’s talk about road behaviour in Italy. The first thing we encountered was the Italian disdain for traffic lights, signals and even directions. We were on a coach, on a single lane carriageway, about to join the autostrada when, all of a sudden, this bloke in a car came towards us. He swerved onto the side of the road, narrowly missed us and sped off, to the accompaniment of much horn blaring and gesticulations from other drivers. I understand that this is quite usual behaviour in Italy. Surely this must lead to tons of accidents – although, I have to say, I never saw one.

Steve: It is amazing that there aren’t more accidents and fatalities to be honest. Whenever I used to raise the issue of their aggressive and foolhardy driving, my Italian friends used to say that it makes them very safe because they drive fast, take ‘calculated risks’ and, as a result, their reaction times are the best in Europe. But I have my doubts. Did you notice how many cars did NOT have scratches and knocks? I had a colleague who used to insist on driving me around in his Mitsubishi off-roader whenever I visited. He was all of 5’1” and used to have his seat fully forward, hunched over the steering wheel, leaning forward to peer out of the windscreen. I guess he was keen to keep his eye on the car in front, which he kept at a distance of 1cm while maintaining a speed of no lower than 100Km/h. He used to laugh when I told him he would have an accident. The last time I saw him he was on crutches and the Mitsubishi was no more.

Now you mention it, pretty much every car I saw - even the big, flash ones - had dents and scrapes in the paintwork! Another time, we were enjoying a beer in the main square of the little town where we were staying. Cars, vans and those infernal little Vespas and Hondas (more of them later) jockeyed for position, as they converged on the square from any one of four different streets. It seemed that whoever had the loudest horn had right of way. A local policeman, all dressed up in his smart uniform, just stood and watched them. When the inevitable snarl up happened, he watched it for a while and then wandered off back to his car. Is this usual?

Steve: Whaddya mean, infernal Vespas? I love them and you cannot be an Italophile if you don’t! But yes, why would the policeman want to risk spoiling his uniform by doing any work? It’s all image, you know.

Another thing we noticed was the Italian attitude to parking. It seems that, in Naples at least, if a driver cannot find a suitable parking space he (or maybe she, but we mainly saw males doing it) just stops his car anyway – even if it blocks the road. Much gesticulating and colourful language from angry fellow drivers may ensue, but the police seem to vanish into thin air and the car stays ‘parked’ where it is until its owner returns. Is this a peculiarly southern Italy thing or does it happen everywhere?

Steve: It is worse in the south. The further you get from the Swiss border, the more relaxed the Italians become, and that includes in their attitude towards parking. You have to remember that Italians do not have a sense of personal space like northern Europeans and tend to think of what they want – I am told it’s a result of centuries of fragmentation. So if Giovanni needs to stop the car and he blocks you, so what? Why would you mind? It isn’t an aggressive action at all. Daft maybe, but aggressive, no.

The most entertaining parking I saw was in Rome. A mid-sized Fiat pulled up to assess the size of the space between two cars and decided to go for it. When the space proved too short, a bit of gentle shunting back into the front grille of one, and forward into the boot of the other soon solved the problem.

That explains quite a bit.
Our coach was negotiating the steep climb up Mount Vesuvius when a carload of policemen flagged us down. They were coming down the mountain. They casually told our driver that another coach was on its way down and its gearbox had failed. Our driver, equally as casually, acknowledged the warning. The police drove off and we carried on. A couple of minutes later, this coach comes hurtling down the road. Its driver and occupants – who all looked as if they might be Italian – seemed unperturbed by it all, whereas us Brits feared for their safety. Are Italians just naturally braver than we are?

Steve: The line between bravery and stupidity is so thin that you don't know you've crossed it until you're dead.

Now then – those Vespas and Hondas. Nifty little things, I grant you. But they’re everywhere. And I mean everywhere. You think you’re in a pedestrianized area and, all of a sudden…well, put it this way: We were ambling along a crowded street in Amalfi, minding our own business and looking in the windows of the many souvenir shops when, all of a sudden, I was caught in a pincer movement between a Vespa, ridden by a chap in a bright yellow helmet and a Honda whose owner was a young woman dressed from head to toe in black leather, with sunglasses and a determined, slightly aloof look. Neither spoke. I, on the other hand, squeaked and leaped for safety. From the casual way they rode off I can only assume this is a regular occurrence, would I be right?

Steve: Cat, you’re getting the hang of it now. Soon you’ll be able to survive in Italy all on your own. Just wait until you are sitting inside a trattoria and a Vespa buzzes past your elbow – it will be the chef, late again.

I think I would need liberal doses of Valium - or even more Prosecco!

Onto another subject. I understand that the Naples area is the most densely populated in the whole of Italy – three million people. And they are all living in the shadow of Vesuvius which, it is thought, will erupt again before long, creating much the same catastrophic devastation as occurred in AD79. Do Italians have a death wish?

Steve: You forget that even the biggest mob boss with blood on his hands is a devout Catholic and the entire nation has god on their side. And they go to confession. So they will be saved. I also refer you to an answer I gave some moments ago ;-

Well, I have to say that despite several instances of my life flashing before my eyes and having to leap out of the way just in time to avoid being mown down by a Ferrari on a pedestrian crossing, I had a wonderful time in Italy. Pompeii and Herculaneum were stunning, the food and wine were delicious, and nothing can beat sitting on our balcony, resting our weary feet while gazing out over the Bay of Naples at the deceptively peaceful Vesuvius. What are your fondest memories of your time in Italy?

Steve: Oh, so many, Cat. Despite my love of poking fun, the people. I laughed so much when I lived there. Then: sun, big skies, the light, the rain, the wind, the thunder, lightning, sand storms, food, wine, nature, sea, sand, cicadas, driving over vipers and hearing them go ‘pop’, endless nights down the garden with the fireflies – and the buzz of Vespas in Rome and Florence.
Ah yes, now you mention the wildlife, I fell in love with these little lizards. They were everywhere - one even came to visit us on our balcony. So sweet. The one in the photograph deliberately posed for his close-up, then scurried away. But you can keep the Vespas!

Thank you for being my guest today, Steve! 

You can buy The A-Z of Understanding Italians here:

About the Author:

Steve Emmett is a British author, occasional book reviewer and a member of the Society of Authors. Born in Harrogate, the genteel Yorkshire spa town where Agatha Christie hid away from the world thirty-two years earlier.

But Steve’s home town is actually Knaresborough, once a fiercely independent Urban District Council which was led for many years by Steve’s grandfather William Emmett. Knaresborough is now part of the Harrogate District and retains a small Town Council with little power. In the 1980s Steve served on both councils before breaking loose and heading back to big city life. Knaresborough is famous as the home of Mother Shipton, a cave-dwelling hag who foretold the future. Was she a witch as some say? Doubtful, but as a child Steve often visited her cave and petrifying well. He thinks this may have something to do with his interest in the dark and mysterious.

After attending King James’s (Grammar) School in the town Steve went to the York College of Arts and Technology where he took a diploma in construction and surveying, then to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London where his eyes were opened.
Steve’s Yorkshire father had no time for the artistic talents being developed at the AA and all but dragged him back to Knaresborough to provide slave labour for the ‘family building firm’. After building a few highly compromised houses Steve returned to London in 1987. For over twenty years he ran his own real estate agency specializing in Italian country homes and, for almost ten years, lived by Lake Trasimeno in Umbria, the setting for his horror thriller, Diavolino.
Born at the end of the 1950s, Steve grew up on Dennis Wheatley novels and Hammer Horror films, and on many occasions started to put pen to paper. Completely dissatisfied and unfulfilled with his career, Steve decided in 2008 that he wanted to write and began Diavolino. Right now he is completing three dark, psychological novels and some short stories. Steve’s work is influenced by the writing of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Stephen King, M R James, Anne Rice, Yasmina Khasra and Joanne Harris (and one or two others), but he has his own distinctive style. Steve is an avid reader of horror and psychological suspense, and works as an occasional reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. He currently lives in the Yorkshire Wolds with his long-term partner, and visits his adult son in London as often as he can.

Steve is a member of the Society of Authors, the British Humanist Association and a BHA Funerals Celebrant, and a member of the committee of Galha LGBT Humanists. He is about to start work on a full-length humorous novel loosely based on his adventures in Italy.

Friday 6 June 2014

Inside A Writer's Mind - Jim Pyre, He's Just Strange!

My guest today is budding writer and the first person to receive the Horror Writer’s Association’s scholarship, Jim Pyre.  Jim is sharing his thoughts and frustrations on becoming a “legitimate” novelist.

I’ve collected stories about the weird as long as I can remember.  Do you remember Mysteries of the Unknown, Fate Magazine, or even UFO Report?  I have them. I have them all.  (I might be a hoarder, but books and such…they don’t count.)

Admittedly, I own a great deal of DVDs, CDs, and even VHS tapes.  They contain everything from Patterson footage to Hill testimony.  I can’t get enough.  I’m even a bit of a ghost hunter in my own right.  Have I even experienced anything?  That’s for a different venue.  Has it effected my choice of fictional reading?  Goodness yes.    

When I was much younger I read the “Greats.”  Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dostoyevsky.  I enjoyed them all, there is no argument that they have earned their spots in humanity’s hall of achievements.   In a sense though they did me disservice.  I enjoyed writing, but did so gingerly.  However, when I finished the greats it’s as if I stood before Everest.  Better people would been up to the challenge or would have at least tried.  I assumed writing a good story was insurmountable.  I became just a brick in the wall.  Went to school, more school, and settled into writing briefs and demand letters.  Adamantly. Even my reading suffered.  I was a preverbal reading snob….You know, like those dorks you hate in your book club.  You know it’s true!   

There was still a spark in me through, slumbering I suppose.  Then I read Chandler, King, and Lovecraft. Raymond Chandler gave me a love of Noir. Shockingly, I read Pulp Fiction and loved every minute of it.  I also learned that he was 45 when he began to write.  He was a writer, and he started later in life.  The spark in me shined just a little brighter.  Then Stephen King taught me Horror could be sharp, relevant, and even funny.  I was hooked.  Then from him I went to Herbert Lovecraft.  I know the guy carried a lot of baggage, but his works blew my mind.  

Something happened. It had always been pounded into me…if you wanted to write well you wrote what you knew.  I knew weird!  I started to write. I wrote in my spare time, at home, in my office, whenever I had a spare moment.  I put all my blurbs in a little book I still carry. 

Below is my first bit of fluff.   Don’t laugh. I’m not sure have a writer’s thick skin yet.

The wave smashed against the shore. The rhythm of the lake always drew him to this place. It was old, old enough for most of the folks in this backwater town to forget it even existed, but not him. The rhythm would never let him forget.
He had loved her, hadn't he? He showed her this special place. How he could call the things in the lake just by the sound of his lips scratching along reeds. He had wanted to show everyone, but she was special. They had told him to share with only those special girls who followed him to the shore.
He thought of her as he played the reeds to the beat of the crashing waves.

My spark grew and grew. I took another monumental step.  I showed my wife.  Instead of recoiling in disgust, she thought it was pretty good.  (I, of course, discounted her judgment, as being biased by love.)  With her help I took another step.  I started sending my little stories out into the world.  There were many rejections. MANY.  My first acceptance came from a Podcast.  (Something Lovecraft hadn’t even dreamed of when he began his career.)  Tales to Terrify picked up my little fiction.  Here it is:


I’m not the greatest guy, at least that’s what my ex says.   I party a little, but who doesn’t want a buzz after putting in concrete slabs all day?  She thought otherwise, at least that’s what the divorce papers said.  It’s hard to imagine that after eight years and a beautiful daughter it would all turn to ash.  I still got to see my daughter once every two weeks though, and that’s after the all the crap about supervised visitation.

When you love a child, it’s like nothing else on earth.  We went to the Zoo, the Park with the little trolley, even the movies.  Problem is being the twice-a-month parent isn’t always a trip to the amusement park.  I only had so much time and so much money.  And let me tell you…beer isn’t cheap.

I grew accustomed to her playing in her new little room in the apartment; now that my house was gone, things needed to be downsized.  She played alone in there most of the time because she didn’t like the way I smelled.  I should have known something was wrong then.

She liked to keep her door closed a lot, especially when she stayed overnights.  I had no problem with that.  Little ladies needed their privacy.  It wasn’t until I heard the voices that I started to worry.  At first, I thought it was the TV, but she didn’t play with it on.  I’d go in to check on her and find nothing.  She was just looking at the wall.  Sitting there doing nothing.  I’d ask her what she was up to.  She would tell me she was playing with her friend.  Kids have imaginary friends all the time.  No big deal.  We made a game of it.  She’d come over and play with her pretend friends.  I’d drink and watch mine on TV.  Things were great until her mother bought those damn paints.

The girl had a knack, I’ll tell you that.  After a while she knew her color wheel and even a little bit of perspective.  Scholarships here we come.  Everything was fine, better than fine…great.  She would go to her room and paint and I’d get down to partying… until I heard the voices again.

It was the first day of spring, things just starting to get green.  Work started picking up again.  I should have called and told her mother I was too tired to for the visit, but I’d be dammed if I’d let her use that against me.  Friday I was at the house promptly at seven, just like the court orders said.  The kid and I were at my place at seven thirty.  No problems.  Imaginary friends for everybody.

It was about nine when I heard the voices again.  I was walking past her room to the toilet and it was in her room clear as day.  It was a boy’s voice too.  What’s a father supposed to do?  I stormed in ready to catch the little bastard and I saw…a little red door.  It was perfect, except for its size.  She had painted it on the wall.  That same damn wall she would sit and stare at.

What can I say?  It freaked me out.  I got mad.  Mad at her, Mad at the divorce, mad at the whole damn thing.  Things get fuzzy then.  I remember yelling, her crying, and me needing to get rid of the damn door that was at the root of it all.  I threw the beer at it. It hit the wall with a pop and exploded.  I wiped the mess off with my hand and then my shirt.  Then when it was gone; all that was left was a big red stain.  There was more yelling, and finally the quiet of a post-adrenaline haze.
It was hours later on the couch when things went crazy.  I woke up; why I don’t know.  My head throbbed and my mouth felt full of broken glass.  I must have fallen asleep, but I didn’t know for how long.  It was dark though, and only the flickering light of the TV kept the room from total blackness.  That’s when I saw her.  My angel.  She had red paint all over her hands…her face.  “Daddy, why did you do it?  I can’t put the door back and now he’s lost.  He can’t go home.”

It was standing behind her.  Its head attached to its body as if by ribbons.  Its arms nothing more than string, like some creeping dancing nightmare from a child’s mind.  I felt an old sickeningly sweet taste rising from the pit of my stomach as I tried to focus on it.  How it danced behind her, the smile it had on its face.  I did what only a father in my condition could do.  I ran to her…stumbled, slipped on something.  That’s where they found me.

It wasn’t a week like the newspapers said.  I mean how could it be?  I had to bring her back by Monday.  How they found the body in her room I can’t say.  I only remember that thing behind her, the way it shimmied and swayed.  They said a lot of bad things about me at the trial.   I’m beyond all that.  Things should be better now.

They don’t let me drink in here.

Looking at it now, I think “Yuck.”  I could have done something else, changed that, or added this.  But, I cannot tell you how amazing it is to hear someone else read your story for the first time.  I’ll never forget, it’s up there with birthdays and graduations.  The spark go bigger and bigger…it almost came out of my hide.  

When I stared writing my first novel I was frightened and giddy.  Scared because I didn’t think I had the skill.  Giddy because I knew I finally had the drive.  Later, on a whim, I submitted the first part of my novel to the Horror Writer’s Association.  The winner would get a scholarship to improve as an artist.

I won.  

I was also so incredulous with the result, Rocky, the HWA president had to tell me twice.  

So here I am. I’m taking classes, finishing my second draft, and having a lot of fun in the process. 

Its cliché, I know, but follow your dreams.  

Look at the damn mountain and start walking. 

And…er…always listen to your spouse. 

Thank you Jim!

You can connect with Jim, tell him a spooky story, hunt some monsters, or just say “hi,” at the following places: