JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 2 September 2018

Why Old Calabria now, on a drizzly day in County Cork, with territorial bad dreams occupying my head? Old Calabria is a thick-papered hardback from a 1990s Picador travel series, written by Norman Douglas about a hundred years ago. He was a friend of Elizabeth David, who was roaming food in France and Italy when he was a grand old bon vivant, a taste of European Englishhood in the era after Grand Tour travel. Norman Douglas, though rich, wasn't quite an aristo, he was a cultural refugee with a strong nostalgie de la boue, in need of the liberty of someone else's history, someone else's landscape.

OId Calabria is a rich, eccentric read in 2018, era of saturation tourism, with European cities foundering, visitors lodged in all styles everywhere. Norman Douglas, ex-Scot, ex-diplomat, adoptee Italian, writer and seeker after the perfect moment, finds lodgings that airbnb could not conceive. Here he is at a railway station late at night:
On my arrival in the late evening I learnt that the hotels were all closed long ago, the townsfolk having gone to bed 'with the chickens'; it was suggested that I had better stay at the station, where the manageress kept certain sleeping quarters specially provided for travellers in my predicament.
Certain sleeping quarters exhale an indescribable esprit de corps, he says, at the start of an eventful night in which we acquaint with his scanty stock of household remedies: court plaster and boot polish, quinine, corrosive sublimate, and Worcester sauce (detestable stuff, but indispensable hereabouts, he says), and the possible interest of the flea-ridden, already occupied couch in a cowshed (I would like to know what is corrosive sublimate).
Herein lies the charm of travel in this land of multiple civilisations—the ever-changing layers of culture one encounters, their wondrous juxtaposition.
Such a traveller, sleeping in cowsheds and worse, researching flying monks and ravening Saracens, walking all day to find no food at the inn. I read more than half the several hundred pages this afternoon, while the drizzle tried to occupy the dry land, and large earth-movers down the lane prepare for tarmac. Norman Douglas found that towns that cleaned up lost their charm. My dreams echo this almost every night. I can't engage with the history he seeks out, but his instincts as he travels Old Calabria ring true.
A landscape so luminous, resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong ....  The sage, that perfect savage, will be the last to withdraw himself from the influence of these radiant realities. ... From these brown stones that seam the tranquil Ionian, from this gracious solitude, he can carve out, and bear away into the cheerful din of cities, the rudiments of something clean and veracious and wholly terrestrial—some tonic philosophy that shall foster sunny mischiefs and farewell regret.
We travellers go where we will, even at home. From gracious solitude to cheerful din. Sunny mischiefs  and farewell regret. Norman Douglas first spoke German, then Russian, then Italian.; he wrote in English. No wonder he reads like a translation; he is a translation. A Scottish not quite aristo with German & Russian experiences at loose in Old Calabria, reshaping at will in chicken and cow sheds. 

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