Bloody hell but it’s hot. The coach was air-conditioned, but stepping off it at just after 3pm on a June afternoon in Calabria is like being wrapped in a suffocating pillow of heat. Within a minute the sweat is pouring and it’s hard to take a breath in. I slow my pace and cross to the other side of the road, where there’s more shade.
I used to walk along this road a lot last summer, on my way to and from choir rehearsals or the supermarket. It’s good to be back. There’s the same stinky bin blocking the pavement, meaning you have to either step out into the traffic or be knocked out by the smell. San Francesco still stands, in statue form, at the top of the hill looking out over the bay, arms outstretched, friendly bird perched on his shoulder for all eternity. The view from here is gorgeous on a clear day, but today the heat is hazing and Sicily and Stromboli have disappeared from view as sea and sky blur together in a closer horizon than usual.
The arrangement with my host for the weekend, Meg, was that I’d call her when I reached Palmi, but my phone battery is dying. It’s my own fault: I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the sea as we drove along the coast road. Never mind. I head past Piazza Matteotti and the old folks sitting on benches, past Oscar Bar, resisting the lure of gelato, and on into school, reasoning that’s probably where everyone will be.
They are. Nothing changes.
Well, maybe some things. Meg’s 7 months pregnant and I’m half the size I was when I left. We joke about sharing out the weight. Apart from that, though, Liv’s hair is longer but her grin’s still the same, as is Carly’s dirty laugh, and the school is as busy as ever. Sam, the boss, comes round the corner and is about to pass by with a quick ‘hi’ when she stops herself with a chuckle. ‘I almost forgot you didn’t work here any more.’ There’s a flurry of conversation interrupted by students coming in to collect exam certificates. We promise to catch up properly later at the end-of-term party.
Meg appears back at the house just after seven. ‘We’ve got half an hour. Sam’s stressed and we need to be at Tahiti at quarter to eight. Chop chop, Katie!’ We race through showers and make it out of the house just after we’re supposed to be at Tahiti, which is a 10 minute drive away. Oh, and we still have to pick Liv and Carly up. They climb noisily into the car, making rude comments about us being late. ‘Have you got your bikini? We’re going swimming later. Yes, we bloody are. Oh, and I need cigs. Can we stop at the shop?’
There are lots of lidos at Tonnara, the beach town below Palmi, but Tahiti is the ‘cool’ one: all white-painted boardwalks, trestle tables and billowing sails. During the day the bar is full of people drinking beers and eating pizza. Now, however, at eight in the evening, the beach-goers have been turfed out and the Brits are taking over. I look across and see what looks like a load of Union Jack bikinis in Carly’s hand. Has Sam really gone that far?! No, it’s just a pack of bunting. Phew.
As could have been predicted, nobody arrives much before 8.45. We’re in Italy, after all. We have plenty of time to decorate the place and have a few cheeky glasses of prosecco before the students start to arrive. None of my teenagers will come tonight – it’s far below their level of street cred – but a lot of my adults appear. It’s so lovely to see them all. Chat segues into food and drink. A plate of fritti misti the size of my head arrives. I assume that’s the meal and happily stuff it all down. But no – now there’s pizza arriving as well. And it just keeps coming. I remember why I was twice the size I am now when I lived here last year. The pizza’s so good, though! I take another piece.
The meal’s finally finished and I’m lining up a camera shot of the bunting. There’s a welcome breeze blowing through the lido this evening after the still humidity of the day, but it doesn’t half make taking photos difficult. As I wrestle with f-stops versus shutter speed someone comes up behind me and kisses my shoulder. I turn round to see Domenico, one of my best friends here. We both yell and throw our arms around each other. Ti voglio bene! Come stai?! It’s so good to see him. He’s only here briefly at this point but says he’ll get Emmanuel – another one of my good friends here – and come back later on. I return to my fight with the camera.
Later, having had a good go at drinking the bar dry, Liv and Carly decide they want to sing. Giuseppe, one of the students at the school, is a fantastic pianist, and a plot is hatched for him to accompany them in a rousing round of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. The band is ousted from their spot and the girls take over. Somehow evenings out with the Stamford teachers always ends this way. Everyone cheers them on. Then the call goes out for me to sing, too. I’m a little bit too tipsy to do this, and I haven’t sung in public for a good year, but my protestations go unheard. Giuseppe drops the opening chords of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ into a moment’s silence and I start to sing. He couldn’t have chosen a better song. Domenico, my staunchest supporter, appears out of nowhere and sits in the front row grinning up at me. Emmanuel’s here now as well, standing behind him, and as I look around the room I see familiar faces everywhere.
It’s good to be back.
Image: Hey Mr Tambourine Man