Sunday, 27 May 2012

Bad Ideas in Business: Karaoke Kamping

My Mum worries that I'll do something stupid on this trip. Well, Mum, get worrying because for the last three nights I've camped in life-threateningly dangerous places.

The night before last, I set up camp only a denarii's throw from the ancient city of Pompeii and, given what happened there in AD 79, I doubt that my tent would be much protection. I'd always wondered how the people of Pompeii could have been caught so unawares by Vesuvius but now I know. In every Italian city, attached to one lamp post per kilometre or so, is a clock. And, without exception, that clock is always wrong. And not five minutes wrong. We're talking hours wrong. I suspect that, given the financial crisis, batteries are low on the priority list. Pompeii was suffering its own internal problems before the eruption. Someone probably predicted the eruption at six o'clock, their clocks told 'em it was three and they all thought they had a few hours to kill before they had to get moving.

A Pompeiian regrets not buying his own watch

Anyway, the night before Pompeii, my campsite was on a similar theme but even dodgier. I actually slept inside the cadera of an active volcano in Pozzuoli, just outside Naples. Patches of the ground were bubbling and spewing smoke and the whole place smelt of bad eggs. It was an official campsite but I can't help thinking that their insurance was quite high.

Bubbling mud - not the best place to pitch a tent

But last night took the danger to new levels. After a long day in the saddle I was prepared to sleep anywhere, which was just as well. I found a campsite that, from its entrance, promised a bar and a minimarket and all the, er, luxuries of camping life. There was no one at reception and so I wandered inside. Curiously, apart from one delapidated, 1970s-style motorhome it appeared lifeless. Where was the bar? The minimarket? Other campers?

Luxury campsite

In the far corner were a couple of rudimentary bungalows and then some trees. Perhaps the bar was lost in the forest. I went for a look. Suddenly a barking dog burst forth from the house, followed by its owner. I asked him if the site was open, which I suppose is a question that should worry any businessman. "Si, si!" he replied emphatically. And where is the minimarket, I asked. He told me, in Italian, that whatever I wanted he would go and get for me. Now, I suppose his system works like a minimarket, but it's not a minimarket, is it? Anyway, the price was cheap enough, and though the toilets and showers were skanky, I decided to stay. I was too knackered not too.

I set up my tent and cycled back out of the site, found a real supermarket and got some grub for dinner, brought it back and cooked it up while doing some maths on my Kindle. And then it started.

I assumed at first that the campsite was near a large hotel, maybe a specialist hotel, one that catered for the tone deaf. At disturbingly loud levels, karaoke kovered the kampsite and kudgelled me with its kakophony. But there was no hotel. The din was emanating from one of the bungalows in the corner of the site. I listened for a bit, unable not to. All the songs were in flat Italian and at the end of each tune the singer would thank an imaginary audience. Sometimes he would introduce the songs too, just like a real singer. After half an hour of this, and with no let up likely, I went to investigate.

Inside the bungalow were Nico - the campsite owner I'd met earlier - his mate Gino and Kika - the dog who wanted to eat me. Despite the rundown look of the campsite, their living room was like a NASA control centre, deep with computers, screens, mixing desks and a loudspeaker a dwarf could happily live inside. On the wall was a clock showing twenty past eight. Wow, I thought, an Italian clock that works! I was impressed. They invited me in and offered me a beer. Thanks, I replied. Then Nico got in his car and went out to buy it. See, he's a man of his word. His minimarket had sprung into action.

Nico and Gino

Once Nico was back, and after he'd performed another song, dancing like he was on X Factor, it was clear that in return for the beer I had to sing too. Who was my favourite artist, he asked. Ah, that's easy. Unfortunately their karaoke machine had no Radiohead. Damn, I thought. Damn and double damn! So they went on to YouTube and got me some Radiohead that way. Bugger. A microphone was thrust into my paw and I had to choose from a shortlist. I went for No Alarms And No Surprises (which is a cheat because I play that at home on guitar and so I know it quite well). I crooned and they seemed diplomatically impressed. What the thousands of others in the neighbouring town who could also hear it thought, we'll never know.

Their beer and encouragement got me in the mood and we took it in turns to progressively murder songs. My Karma Police was acceptable, my Bublé's Haven't Met You Yet began the descent (there's a sodding key change near the end) and I apologise to the population of southern Italy for what I did to Coldplay's Viva la Vida.

I'd been there for too long - a couple of hours at least - and, great lads though Nico and Gino were, it had to leave. What time was it, I wondered. I looked at the clock. Ah, it was still twenty past eight. Viva la Crisis!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Drinking Holy Water in the Vatican

I'm sad, but you knew that already. No, I mean I'm with sorrowful heart. I've just left Rome and, as you know, there's no place like Rome. The Lovely Nina has flown off too. We had four days 'doing' Rome, but not in the way I think the majority of its visitors 'do' Rome. First of all, very few visitors cycle into Rome and that's because, to be fair, it's a bloody silly idea. It's fun though, in an extreme sport sort of way.

Last year, in Berlin, Nina researched our temporary home and put us right in the heart of Berlin's funky grungeland, Kreuzberg. Attempting to do the same in Rome, she opted for Pigneto, which to me sounds like the worst idea for an ice cream ever. Pigneto is famous as the location for a number of 1960s Passolini films. It also recently featured on the cover of a Morrissey album although he's basically lying on some railway tracks and, to be honest, he could just have easily shot it in Manchester, the big ponce. At least in the UK he would have been in no danger of getting run over by a train.

Like Kreuzberg, Pigneto is working class and bohemian and almost entirely devoid of tourists. In fact, it falls just off the edge of the official city centre map and so, to all intents and purposes, doesn't actually exist. Pigneto's main thoroughfare, with its graffiti-covered walls enhancing an already colourful daily market, morphs at night into a student-filled street party with more bars than Strangeways and, at times, a similar police presence. It is, after all, called Pigneto. But this was real Rome, where the smiles weren't attempts to sell you something and where the beer didn't need to cost six euros a pint as it seemed to in most of the tourists traps closer to the centre.

Our first full day was a typical tourist fortnight. We saw the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and, er, absolutely everything else that Rome has to offer. In total we walked three hundred and sixty seven miles. This allowed us to take it easy for the rest of our stay, absorbing our base and its surrounding areas, eating far too much pizza and waiting for feet to grow back on to our bloodied stumps.

Speaking of pizza, I highly recommend the potato and rosemary pizza at Super Pizza in another student area of town, San Lorenzo, although Nina mockingly described it as 'a crisp pizza'. Super Pizza provides its grub in a manner similar to rolling sushi. The chef at the back knocks out a giant rectangular pizza, 18 inches by 36, a different flavour every few minutes, and punters queue for a slice or two of whichever flavours grab them. Even if it's a crisp pizza. And it wasn't a crisp pizza. She just had a burnt bit.

More importantly, I had a challenge to complete. With only an hour or so in the Vatican - a country in its own right - I needed to consume something I'd never had before. Finding something original in Popeland (TM) was always going to be a problem. The Benedict-faced lollipops that Stewart Lee talks about were either an invention of his or they are no more. At least that's what Elaine, a Canadian OU student and Rome tour guide, told me and she should know. The religious tat shops liberally scattered throughout Rome certainly didn't have any. I always had that black Chinese Egg of Doom to fall back on just in case, but surely there would be something. And then we saw it. A roadside fountain, spewing forth what, given its location, could only be - ta-daaaah! - Holy Water. So I drank some and I saw the light, but then again it was quite a sunny day.

Holy Water is a difficult concept to grasp. I can understand the instant at which the water might become holy - after a blessing or, of course, when piped through a Vatican fountain. But when, if ever, does it stop being holy? Does Holy Water have a memory? Homeopaths believe in the memory of water and they usually talk a lot of sense, if by 'a lot of' I actually mean 'absolute non'. And if Holy Water touches non-Holy Water, what happens? Does it all become infected with the spirit of the Lord or is the holiness diluted and the combined water only, say, Partially Pious Water? And what about when it passes through my body? Is my subsequent urinal outflow now spiritual? When someone says, "I wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire", could I now actually offer this as a sort of resurrection service? There could be money in it. And, finally, if the Holy Water merges in my stomach with the pizza I had for lunch, does that mean that twenty-four hours later I will have a Holy Shit? I think the Church needs to provide some answers. Mmm, that'd be a first.

Anyway, we came, we saw, we conked out. Rome is no more, but Naples comes in three days, and Malta is a week or so after that. And The Lovely Nina will await me in spicy Istanbul, wearing a fez, just like that. Life is good. Especially now that I'm holy.

By the way, God says hi.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

San Marino 1 - Blackburn Rovers 0

Welcome to San Marino or, to give it its full title, The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.

The most serene person in San Marino must be the centre forward of their national football team, stood up front the whole game knowing that he's never going to get a kick. San Marino are officially the worst team in the whole world, right at the bottom of FIFA's rankings. Since their inception in 1986 it took fourteen years before they won a game. Fourteen years is bad. That's Graham Taylor bad. They do, however, hold two world records. The first is that they were on the receiving end of the largest thumping in national footballing history when Germany battered them 13-0. And what can the other record be? One more of humiliation perhaps? No, they scored the fastest ever goal - after only eight seconds - in World Cup competition in 1993. Against Liechtenstein perhaps? Or the Faroe Islands maybe? No, against England. One of our better days.

San Marino apparently has no natural level ground. None at all. If two Sanmarineses serenely want to play, say, a game of Subbuteo they have to take their felt pitch and little plastic fellas to Italy for want of a large enough flat surface. And I know that this is absolutely true and not something that I've just made up. I cycled up to the town of San Marino that sits atop a 750 metre hill in the middle of the country that is San Marino. And I didn't see a single person playing Subbuteo. It's bloody hilly!

As you might expect, the views are spectacular. From the top of San Marino I could see my mum and dad's house on the Isle of Man. OK, no, I couldn't. But I could see a mum and a dad, and a house, and a man. No one else was up there on a bike. This keeps happening to me - going over the Pyrenees both times, cycling up the rock of Gibraltar - why is that? Perhaps for biking up a huge hill I'd earned some mini-star appeal and that's why a Japanese girl wanted to take my photo. A little later a young Italian waved his camera towards me. Aw shucks! So I posed once again but then his impression changed to one that said, "C'mon, you dick, I want you to take a photo of me and my woman." Fair enough. But that must happen to Brad Pitt all the time.

Anyway, fearing the potentially poisonous Chinese black egg that was going to be my contingency plan should I have failed to find anything truly original to eat in San Marino I managed to assemble an entire meal. For main course I had a couple of piadinas, which I suspect are simply San Marino's answer to paninis and which I also suspect I should have cooked first. This was followed by genuine San Marino coffee yoghurt, which was pretty foul and certainly worse than that poo sausage. And this collection of goodies was flushed down the neck hole with Hell Beer. Now, knowing a little German I know why the beer is probably called Hell (although you wouldn't spell it exactly like that) but this is an Italian beer and so I reckon they've opted for that moniker just to annoy the Catholics.

I was expecting San Marino to be another Liechenstein, a boring, pointless historical relic that should long since have packed up and quit. But it wasn't. It was stunning. Go and see it!

To top the evening, I noticed that the campsite's internet room had a telly with a Sky controller. Could it be true? Y'see, Blackburn were playing Wigan tonight on Sky in the game of the season. If Blackburn didn't win then they were definitely relegated. And yes, even on Italian Sky, the Blackburn game was on. Except that it wasn't really because the players didn't seem to turn up, with only, from memory, a single attempt on target. And so to end a lovely day I watched Blackburn descend into the Championship.

Mmm...maybe San Marino aren't the worst team in the whole world after all.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Great Bullshitters Of Our Age: Amorth the Ghostbuster

"Old exorcists never die. They just give up the ghost." I'd like to put that on a t-shirt and send it to Gabrielle Amorth - Roman Catholic priest and lifelong president of the International Association of Exorcists - but he'd never wear it. He prefers dresses like the rest of 'em.

I left Parma, full of prosciutto and pancetta and pasta and beef and chocolate mousse, courtesy of the wonderful Silvia (see the OU Platform's blog) and headed towards Modena. Modena is the home of just about every Italian sports car manufacturer, but surely it should be more famous for generating the world's most famous bullshitting Ghostbuster.

In his career Gabrielle Amorth claims to have performed 70,000 exorcisms, which works out at eight per day. It sounds to me like he's been on the spirits. Seventy thousand exorcisms might be feasible if you sit in an office all day and have the demons come to you, but I would have thought that, if you were really possessed - Linda Blair possessed - you probably wouldn't catch the bus, turn up at his place and ask to have Caspar removed. You'd be strapped to a bed vomitting pea soup. And so if he really did perform 70,000 exorcisms he must have worked his arse off. In fact, he must have worked like a man possessed. And surely that would have caused him some worrying moments of reflection.

So what's the secret to being a successful exorcist? According to Amorth, the key is to be "completely detached from monetary concerns, profoundly humble and treasure obscurity". As he obscurely wrote in his book on the subject. Just before doing the Sunday Telegraph interview. Or the one on telly with Anthony Head. That kind of obscurity.

I mentioned Linda Blair earlier. Amorth claims that his favourite movie is - can you guess? - yes, The Exorcist. Really? That's a bit like gardener Alan Titchmarsh choosing his favourite film as Day Of The Triffids. He claims that The Exorcist is very realistic, but that some of the effects have been exaggerated. What, you mean the rotating heads and stuff like that? He's just trying to make his job sound sexy. Besides the priest in that film ends up dead. When did that ever happen to Amorth? Silly sod.

In that film, Linda Blair famously screams the insult: "Your mother sucks cocks in hell." I've always found that to be more of a comfort than an insult. Given the range of agonising fates that could befall you in Hades - y'know, fish hooks in the eyes, lava on the gonads, spikes up the arse - I would only be too happy to opt for the Cock Sucking Department. In fact, I'd write a little note to that effect upon entry and hand it to Lucifer personally. Please don't think me sexually confused. I just don't like pain. And besides, I've got at least one Facebook friend who, based on her regular posts on the subject, would consider that punishment a very Heaven. (And no, it's not you. I'm safe. I'm pretty sure she doesn't read this.)

Anyway, I've digressed. I cycled around Modena looking for ghosts. Perhaps Amorth had been inspired as a lad by the sheer quantity of ghouls in his neighbourhood. The only ones I could find were in the photo collection at the base of Modena's lovely Ghirlandina Tower, a tribute to the young blokes killed fighting the Nazis.

Oh no. I've finished on a downer. What we need is someone to raise our spirits. Who you gonna call?