Italian journalist Giovanni Vallone found himself in lovely Bantry when the lockdown was announced. He describes his unusual experiences in West Cork and the life lessons he has learned during his stay
WHEN, in May 2019, we left Ireland after a month-long holiday, I remember that, leaving Bantry, we promised ourselves: ‘We’ll come back soon, West Cork’.
Within five months, we were back!
We travel a lot, mainly for work, but Ireland (and West Cork in particular) has been the greatest, most gorgeous and lovely experience of our lives.
I am a writer and a broadcaster, and my wife Silvana is a renowned chef.
So, last year I convinced the Italian public network (RAI, like your RTÉ) to let me make a documentary focusing on Ireland. When they said yes, we were the three happiest creatures on the planet.
I spent my days during that October filming the magic of this island, conducting interviews with some older people, having a stroll with our little dog Pedro in lush West Cork and, after our dinner (pasta almost every day of course!) reading Frank Delaney’s Ireland, listening to Morning Ireland and watching rugby on RTÉ.
Some years ago I came to Dublin en route to the USA. I was interviewed by an Italian journalist at the Italian Cultural Institute in Dublin (Concetto La Malfa) who said: ‘The first time I came here they said me: “Do you like beer? Do you like sheep? Do you like the colour green?” I answered “yes” to all three questions and they said me: “Ok, now you’re Irish!” ’
For me it’s the same. But I can add that I like the people too, so friendly and hospitable … like the Sicilians! We are both world-famous for being maybe a little too friendly and hospitable!
Last autumn we were living the dream, almost every day we danced an Irish ‘jig’ in our drawing room, with happiness at our good fortune.
But then, along came March. And Mr Corona appeared!
And our life changed.
What happened to the highlights of my documentary … my Italian espresso at Box of Frogs, my meetings with the ‘Fins’ – Finula and Finbarr – our tea with Mary and Greg, our walks to Schull, Glengarriff, Ahakista … my chats with the locals, the strolls with Pedro at that dog ‘paradise’, also known as the airstrip in Bantry!
Mr Corona of 19 Covid Street, took the stage, and took our travel dream away.
I remembered Frank Delaney’s wonderful book and in the first two months of lockdown I wrote a book along the same lines, but with a Sicilian as the storyteller and Sicilia as the title.
There have been some very strange days since lockdown in Bantry. On one day a man claimed I had done something with his dog’s lead. ‘You’re a stranger, behave or I will call the gardaí,’ he told me.
Even when I persisted, asking him what I had done, he just kept repeating: ‘Behave or I will call the guards.’
Another day I had a close escape when the wheel blew off my car.
Then I lost Pedro’s beloved coat!
And all this time I was in great fear for my elderly mother in Sicily, in the middle of Europe’s worst pandemic.
I had been invited to talk about my beloved Sicily at a meeting of Bantry Historical Society but, of course, that had to be cancelled. On another day, I picked up a ball I found on the road outside a house. A garda stopped me and I was ordered to apologise to the man who owned the ball. It was a very odd encounter indeed.
I told our vice-ambassador and he laughed a lot and, at the end of our conversation, he said: ‘Behave Giovanni, don’t pick up a ball in Ireland – or a banana in Palermo!’ (He was referring to the famous Roberto Benigni movie Johnny Stecchino, involving a parody with a banana and the mafia in Palermo).
You know, this coronavirus seems to be making everyone a little bit mad, but I am almost sure the ball was just outside the gate of the house and even if the ball was inside the gate, I believe the reaction was a bit over the top!
Maybe it’s a reflection of West Cork, if that is seen as the biggest crime of the week!
I can certainly say that I feel very safe here, much more so than in Italy.
But now, hopefully, we will soon return to some kind of normal. Soon it will be time to hug one another again, to rejoice and to live a more spiritual and happy life.
And, Mr Corona, you behave. Otherwise, I’ll call the gardaí!
• Giovanni Vallone is a Sicilian broadcaster and author, and president of Splendid Sicily