Eager to put his linguistic skills to the test, Homer wandered around button-holing unsuspecting Greek passengers to their surprise and sometimes consternation. Most though appeared only interested in football which, not being available for the popular masses before Christ, made conversation nigh impossible.
After this inauspicious start and massive let down, Homer took to the Ouzo and became more and more unintelligible slumped at the bar as our Odyssey progressed. I tried to shake him out of his depression with an exploding Papastratos but to no effect. I do hope he finished his Tripos but I somehow doubt it.
We felt like Jason’s Argonauts marching expectantly up the gangplank onto the gleaming white Hellenic Lines vessel, big as a block of flats.
Next stop, Piraeus via the Corinth canal, overnight deck class.
I’d avoided Ancient Greek at school because what was the point when nobody spoke it except a bunch of nobs? We took a shine to Homer notwithstanding, a first year Classics student at King’s Cambridge, who caught our eye, vainly trying to practise his ancient Greek fruitlessly on a puzzled bartender. We had much in common to share; hitchiking tales, Cambridge and a firsthand taste for Ouzo.
I feigned a trip and threw a dry Martini over Allegra’s blouse - she looked daggers but it was enough to get us to the restroom where I calmed her down, explaining all.. She also had become increasingly unsettled, having nasty thoughts, like being sucked into forced prostitution whilst Salvatore clearly had no need of me.
We squeezed through a window, distancing ourselves from the wretched place with great relief, erecting our fly sheet under a starlit heaven.
The next morning looking over our shoulders we boarded the ferry for Greece with no apparent pursuit. Hitchhiking is not all plain sailing.
I’ve telephoned Palermo now so here goes...this account of our night in Tony Monelli’s Club is highly censored and you’ll have to read between the lines.
Basically the joint was full of gorgeous girls of dubious origins that came and went, quite literally - Baltic beauties and Polish pole dancers included. I’m not allowed to comment on goings-on behind the scenes.
Salvatore had designs on Allegra, no question trying to grope her in the dance floor scrum, the greasy sod.
I’m not a hero and was out of my league but this could not go on. I devised a plan.....
Sorry to have suspended my travelogue at the crucial moment of our arrival at the Diamond Club but there’s been a disturbing development that cannot be taken lightly. I’ve received an injunction from lawyers in Palermo to prevent publication of my story in any medium whatsoever. Whilst an occasional hazard for an author, the appearance of a horse’s head in my sleeping bag can’t have been a complete coincidence.
I’m plucking up courage to telephone Palermo to discover what this is all about, resolving it the best I can. Whatever the outcome I’ll have to choose my words very carefully.
Salvatore said he wanted to show us his night Club set in a vineyard and offered us dinner and drinks. I was torn as we had nowhere to stay, it was dark and the ferry sailed in the morning. The hope of a shower more than anything else, plus entertainment and a meal was appealing so I buried my fears and went along with the proposal expressing my fake appreciation in broken Italian.
We turned off the highway onto a gravel track and there above us was a huge pink neon sign blinking in the dark:
TONY MONELLIS DIAMOND CLUB
In retrospect we should have been less ambitious and taken the Mercedes as it would have been much more comfortable than what happened next.
Salvatore Tessio, it could have been himself, spent far too much time weighing up my girl in the rear view mirror for my liking. Whether in my imagination or not, he gradually morphed from a genial guy at first encounter into a brooding introvert consumed by other troubling matters on his brain.
Allegra was unaware asleep in the back but I started shitting myself as we passed the docks and headed out again into the country.
A free night’s accommodation and the chance of a shower in a proper bathroom is worth it’s weight in gold when hitchhiking. It could sway my judgement any day.
Fortunately Allegra is uncannily tolerant making her the perfect partner for me, who knows, perhaps for life?
Later that afternoon Allegra deployed her skimpiest apology for a skirt and three cars pulled up immediately one behind the other, bumper to bumper like three guys fighting over a parking space - we were spoilt for choice. Resolving a three way conflab, we went with the man travelling to Brindisi, our Italian departure port.....
The beaches around Rimini stretch for ever but might as well be mined. Staked out with regimented sun umbrellas and loungers - ‘divieto d’accesso’, NO ENTRY greets penniless students in need of a douche.
As a hitch unfolds personal hygiene suddenly tops the agenda, especially having an attractive girl in tow. Grab any opportunity you can - a basin at the back of a filling station, a mountain stream or the loo in a restaurant as there are no hotel comforts on our tiny budget. That’s why a free night’s accommodation in a sympathetic person’s house is worth it’s weight in gold.
I was reminded of Fellini’s Amarcord a devastating send up of pre-war fascist Italy in which the boy tries to cadge a cigarette from the voluptuous buxom tobacconist, in which holding his head between her massive breasts she chides:
‘Suck, don’t blow you idiot!’ and he stutters:
‘But I can’t breathe!’
She quickly loses interest and sends him home humiliated with a free Internazionale. Could our driver have been the same boy?
Several hours, dozens of peaches and bowl of tagliatelle later we parted company arms around each other despite a language gap as wide as the Mediterranean Sea.
Fortunes ebbed and flowed as we proceeded South towards Brindisi. Thumbing is a fickle occupation, a morning’s wait under a fig tree and no bite, next a screech of brakes, an effusive local, free lunch and a bed for the night.
Autostop is vietato on the Autostrada Adriatica - anyhow you miss the essence of Italy that way. With much traffic taking the old coast road to avoid the tolls, we decided to take the slow road to Rimini.
A beaten up truck laden with peaches ground to a halt. The driver, smouldering Internazionale hanging from his lip, signalled us in...
As a hitchhiker you either go right or left or straight on - back is not an option.
We went right, as our left turn had been in Bologna. Thus we rocked up in Predappio near Forlì, a cute village completely redesigned to feed Mussolini’s vainglorious ego. The village was turned into a military parade ground and its character brutally vandalised by clunky fascist architecture.
Benito’s tucked away in the family crypt hiding inauspiciously at the rear of the Predappio cemetery attended by a guard of honour standing waxwork-like robed like an ancient Roman senator. You couldn’t make it up.
This coffee communism was clearly infectious in a carefree sort of way judging by the competing voices and general hubbub ricocheting off the cellar’s stonework. Ironically outside the garbage was piling up, the buses paralysed, all whilst the dark menace of the Red Brigades hovered ominously in the background. Still, this beautiful small city of 80,000 students, whatever their political colour, was an intensely fascinating and energetic place to spend a day.
We sadly said ‘arrivederci’ to Gino and Bologna, not knowing what lay in store for us, unwittingly moving from one extreme to another at the whim of fate.....
The driver, Gino, a student at Bologna University was studying politics, the car minuscule, so small with only room enough for three and a rucksack forcing us to strap the other bag on the engine at the back.
Bologna isn’t known as ‘La Rossa’ for nothing - renowned as a hotbed of communism back then, revolution perpetually in the air, tangible amongst the red tiled streets and student bars. Gino was a Marxist too but approachable, charming in fact, who took us to a vaulted cafe packed with lefties in animated conversation as they plotted the downfall of the capitalist system.
Laughter slowly gathered pace and the Marc began flowing again.
The next day, head still humming, we stocked up with exploding pellets in the local joke shop and headed in the direction of Mulhouse on the Rhine.
Any thought of Angus had by now been literally blown away.
The weather was foul in Haut-Rhin and with Allegra’s mini-skirt safely packed in her rucksack no one seemed to pay any attention to us by the roadside. The only option was to cheat again and take the night train in search of sun to Milan. At least it was dry.
I was still compos mentis - my arms and legs were working but there was an acrid smell of burning facial hair. I could vaguely make out Manon’s consternation through the smoke and Allegra’s wide staring eyes.
The father was dressing down his son in machine gun French;
‘Zut alors, merde tu es idiot.. hooligan.... arêtes ces farces stupides’
I sat there stunned, the stub of the Gitane splayed like a peeled banana.
I had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker - the son had offered me an exploding cigarette, proving the French can be just as perfidious as the British.
In a final gesture of entente cordial Jean-Louis asked us to join his family for dinner and it was only a small step before we also had a bed for the night. For one tantalising moment I thought he was offering his daughter as they did in medieval days but it was tiredness playing with my mind following the long drive and anyway, because Allegra was not impressed with this idea - a non-runner from the very start.
Was it a case of ‘nearly but so far’ or had my suspect French got the wrong end of the baton?
Jean-Louis was the nicest Frenchman I’d met up to then. We had got talking en route at a pit stop in a Routier shortly after the French frontier. He bought us some beers, always a good sign, and challenged us to a game of French billiards, bizarrely a table with only three balls and no pockets. The essence of the game was lost in translation struggling with both the technique and the scoring but Jean-Louis was a sport, and let us win displaying none of the arrogance we expected of the French stereotype. He was an instant ami.
I had a haunting image of that arsehole Angus as we left, screwing his ugly face in anger with a muttered threat;
‘Thanks for ruining my holiday, I’ll get even, I always do. I’ll deal with Charles in my own way. Piss off now while you can. I never want to see you again.’
The others looked away deeply embarrassed or waved weakly as we turned away.
Putting my fears to the back of my mind, as I did not want to alarm Allegra, we reached Baccarat the home of fabulously expensive French crystal in a not so glamorous Simca.
In the event as it was getting dark we were allowed on board by the shell shocked group until we found a camping spot just short of Brussels from which we slunk away first thing in the morning to try our luck with our thumbs. It was getting too unpleasant, verging on dangerous, to hang around any further. Most people pass through Belgium without touching the ground but in our case, forced back on our feet, Angus had gained the upper hand so, putting this set back behind us, we headed towards the Rhine trying to forget all about it.