Does it exist? National ‘Hug-a-stranger’ Day? In the UK, the land of Stiff Upper Lips and formality?
I have not the faintest idea, but if it doesn’t, it should. Nothing is more surprising and uplifting than
being hugged by a total stranger in the middle of a supermarket. I should know, it happened to me this
There I was, cocooned in a persistent cloud of melancholy, minding my own business and perusing the shelves for ingredients for tonight’s supper. Should I buy broccoli? Or courgettes perhaps? Decision time! And something desperately needed to tax my brain…
Today’s wander around the supermarket was
by no means an isolated event, as a matter of fact it is pretty much a daily
occurrence. To keep my fitness level at
its optimum, my exercise regime consists of a daily one-hour long hike to the
nearest supermarket, backpack dangling off my shoulders. As I can only carry so much in one go, there
always seems to be something missing in the fridge.
Crunch time. I opted for broccoli in the end. As I glanced up from my shopping basket, my
eyes came to rest upon a fellow shopper standing right in front of me: a woman in bold, summery dress peering
musingly over her bespectacled nose, her face breaking into a broad, radiating
smile. I smiled back, it’s what anyone
‘Fancy seeing you here. Come here, let me give you a hug,’ she beamed. For a moment, I hesitated. Was someone standing behind me? But no, without further ado, we got tangled
into a very hearty embrace… ‘Go with the
flow,’ wisdom whispered in my ear, ‘no harm in a hug.’
I had a better look… Did our paths cross
somewhere before, I wondered. Did I
detect at least a modicum of familiarity??’
I scoured my brain as, inwardly, I raced from the doctor’s waiting room
to the chemist via the dentist, from the train station to the supermarket
aisles and random people I may have had
random conversations with in the last few weeks, but my mind drew a blank…
‘Do I know you?’ I hazarded. Call me suspicious, but it’s not every day I
get greeted with so much gusto and enthusiasm by a stranger… The woman retorted with a quizzical look,
clearly at a loss for an appropriate response. I briefly suspected a brush of amnesia, or a
touch of Alzheimer’s…
‘Oh my God,’ she blurted out suddenly, ‘I
thought you were my sister-in-law!’ And after another thorough scan, and a shake
of the head, she added, ‘You are her spitting image… Same hair style, same
glasses, same figure…’. We couldn’t help but burst out in laughter. Luckily, we were beyond the age and stage of
embarrassment. Haven’t we all done it
before… waved at someone on the other
side of the road who turns out to be a perfect stranger, or being waved at by
‘Who On Earth Was That?’ Rushed to catch
up with a friend’s back disappearing in a crowd, only to tap a lookalike on the
shoulder…? However, it seldom becomes an intimate encounter involving a
hug. Most of the time, we have sussed
out the error long before it gets to that…
At least from the very personal entanglement,
I would say she thought very fondly of her sister-in-law, but maybe more
regular contact to know what she looks like and her dress-sense may be
advisable. Would my double also really
go to the supermarket wearing flimsy, lace-rimmed shorts that are more at home
on a sun-bleached Cambodian beach than in a British supermarket and UK suburbia?
I had debated this morning whether something
a little longer in the leg might not have been more suitable. In my defence, we are in the midst of a
heatwave and we might as well have been in the Far East, even as early as 10
o’clock in the morning. And what the
heck, they’re my legs and they shall party if I want them to…
‘They say we all have a dead ringer
somewhere in the world. Mine is clearly
not too far from home,’ I filled the awkward void once we had composed
ourselves. ‘Better not tell your
sister-in-law about mistaking a stranger for her,’ I advised.
‘No, maybe not,’ she agreed at first. ‘But
come to think of it, I just might… She
will probably find it quite hilarious,’ she added with a big grin, adjusting the
spectacles that had slipped even further to the edge of her nose.
There was something special and more
personal in our goodbyes. ‘Well… um,
enjoy the rest of the day. And see you
around some time.’ I had a new spring in
my step and a wide smile on my face as I walked all the way home… Being hugged by a stranger can have
As it so happens, there has been such a thing as ‘National Hugging Day’ in the US since 1986, celebrated each year on 21st January and apparently observed in many other countries. And who knows, maybe members of younger generations in England are fully aware of this annual auspicious event, it is just that its existence has merely passed me by unnoticed…
And if you feel like partaking, either showering hugs or being happily on the receiving end, mark this date in your diary now:
It’s not what you think. No louche bars, no gaggles of giggling women,
no boisterous men brawling in crowded, dank corners. In Como, it is actual a very civilized, cultured
experience which only on certain occasions calls for a dash of something
intoxicating… But it does revolve around
potable liquid: coffee to be more precise.
I have landed in Italy, the land of coffee and cofficionados par
excellence!! And boy, do I love
coffee. Fuel for the morning, fuel for
the brain, fuel for the body, just not particularly good for the heart…
I happened upon the word ‘cofficionado’ perchance… It is entirely possible I had read it somewhere before, but here I was, totally convinced I had coined a new expression. An effortless blend of coffee and afficionado. It rolled off the tongue, as smooth and delectable as the finest Italian cappuccino. The word may not have yet found its way into the Oxford or Cambridge dictionary, but alas, it transpires cofficionados are responsible for the superior flavour of Kenco Coffee administered to the taste buds of British coffee connoisseurs since 1923… Furthermore, the online Urban Dictionary seems much more open to novel and inspirational ideas and has already embraced the expression. It will be only a matter of time before more distinguished lexicographers bow to the inevitable. No claim to fame for me, it appears.
I arrive at Malpensa – the lesser Milan airport where the budget flights end up – on a sunny Friday afternoon. I travel on my own this time, feeling very confident of knowing the ins and outs of Italy’s public transport! Of course, it helps that I have the expert advice of a friend in Como, a colleague and housemate from my teaching days in India. Add to that the mountain of tips from my Airbnb host in Como, and, without so much as the need to utter a word of Italian, I find my way across Lombardy, all the way from Malpensa to Como, changing trains in Saronno. I learnt the ropes of Italian trains and buses the hard way, some years back on a trip to Florence, only just getting away with a ticking off for not ‘validating’ my ticket. How was I supposed to know it was not sufficient to buy a ticket, you also have to poke it into a little machine to add a time and date stamp… This time I get it right though and immediately spot the green ‘convalidatrice per biglietti magnetici’ next to the platform… And just to ensure no tourist can claim ignorance, it even says so in English!
My first coffee encounter doesn’t happen until the next day, breakfast time. Caffeine intake in the afternoons tends to have an adverse effect on my sleeping habits, so I leave the elixir of drinks to be enjoyed exclusively pre-lunch… Although cooking facilities and coffee are supposed to be available at my accommodation, a rather prolonged Greek-brandy-infused bonding session with my Airbnb host the previous night did not stretch to breakfast practicalities. Instead it spanned all kinds of topics ranging from politics and the dire state of Venezuela (host’s native country), singles’ life in Como, the dos and don’ts of online dating and vague notions of some coffee bars to the left and right of the building. My bleary-eyed peruse of the kitchen does not immediately bring coffee making essentials to light. There’s the authentic Italian Bialetta espresso maker – brainchild of the Italian engineer Alfonso Bailetta – perched on the hob, but without any ground coffee to hand, or in the few cupboards I cautiously open, there is no quick route to my wake-up cuppa. Off I go to the nearest bar… It’s what Italians do for breakfast according to my friend who has lived in Italy for the last three years.
On a Saturday morning, the bar is empty,
bar the barista of course and a whole display cabinet full of breakfast
pastries. I would have preferred
something a bit healthier to start the day, but when in Rome – or in Como for
that matter – do as the Romans do! Not exactly
well-versed in the Italian coffee lingo, I stick to the familiar and my
friend’s recommendation: ‘Italians drink cappuccino in the morning.’ What I really thirst for is a simple,
no-nonsense Americano-type coffee, milk on the side. Not too strong, not too weak and definitely
not too milky. ‘Cannella o cioccolato?’ the barista enquires with
Saturday morning laze. Cinnamon may have
earned its place in many a spice cupboard, but not on my cappuccino. I play it safe and opt for the more
conventional, at least more conventional in the UK: ‘Chocolate, please.’ I choose a large croissant as accompaniment
and hope it will stave off the hunger until lunchtime.
When it arrives, I am blown away: a cappuccino of unrivalled frothiness, the like of which has never before touched my lips. Not the sugar-laden confectionery I have drunk in lesser countries, but an unadulterated, wonderfully smooth shot of espresso melting away into the heavenly foam on top… Just a dusting of chocolate, and not a single grain of sugar added. Perfection in a cup. The only drawback?? Small cups!! How can one cappuccino ever suffice as my morning caffeine fix? As Italians opine that just one milky, airy cappuccino is a meal in itself, I don’t want to appear greedy and move on. I settle myself in the next bar and repeat the whole process: another cappuccino and another croissant… I admit that by day three I am no longer encumbered by such civilities and order two cappuccinos and two pastries in the same bar at the same time with not so much as a single blush on my face..
I meet up with my friend in the Piazza Vittoria – Victory Square – with its imposing monument to Guiseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian general credited with liberating the city from the Austrians in 1859. From there we saunter through Como’s delightful little streets and squares, towards the lake in search of Ristorante/Bar Il Laria…
because, of course, how else to continue a day that has barely started than with another coffee… My friend’s gentle nudges towards a macchiato fall on deaf ears… Somehow this in-between coffee to be drunk at any time of the day and consisting of a measure of mind-blowing espresso topped with the tiniest dash of floaty milk just doesn’t enthuse my taste buds. Or perhaps a caffe latte, she suggests, but I prefer coffee with milk rather than milk with coffee if you get what I mean… And I am definitely not tempted to order a latte; in Italy I would be served a glass of milk. So mid-morning my fussy self – at least where coffee is concerned – sticks to the tried and tested Italian cappuccino. No one does it as the Italians do…
With coffee needs tended, we get on with sightseeing: a stroll along Lake Como and a fun ride on the funicular up to the little town of Brunate for spectacular views of Como’s historic centre as well as the lake. And for those with energy to spare, there is a hike up to Volta’s Lighthouse, a hilltop lighthouse and memorial to electrical pioneer Alessandro Volta, that at night alternately flashes the green, white and red colours of the Italian flag. No such trek for me I’m afraid, as I begrudgingly concede that an hour-long climb up a steep hill might just be asking for trouble… Did I not spot a defibrillator box (minus defibrillator..) at my bus stop in the morning??? An omen, perhaps??? Better have another capuccino to smooth the day. The grey sky dulls the views but what the town and lake lack in lustre and shine on a moody, cloudy day is more than made up for by the glisten and glimmer of night-time Como.
After yet another evening of fraternising with my Airbnb host – just a little less alcoholic lubrication this time – she decides it is her turn to introduce me to the breakfast delights of Como… Sunday morning Como is slow to awaken and for a long while only our banter fills the empty streets. Nevertheless her favourite bar is busy with customers on the hoof, barely touching the ground as they gulp cappuccinos and munch breakfast pastries at the counter. My friend A. had explained this earlier, ‘Cheaper to drink your coffees at the bar, you will be charged more when you’re seated.’ But as it’s Sunday, my host and I want to enjoy our breakfast at leisure and decide to settle ourselves in a quiet corner.
I pay for my coffee and the barista pushes the receipt into my hand. ‘No,’ I signal, ‘I don’t need my receipt.’ She insists, I relent and immediately deposit the slip of paper into the nearest bin. Such a no-no!!! It is only later that I am made aware of the existence of Italy’s tax police. In order to curb Italians’ lifetime habits of dodging a bit of tax – don’t we all??? – and maybe giving a friend a freebie, customers are expected to be able to produce their receipt on demand within the shop or restaurant as well as in the streets.. Proof of purchase is essential, otherwise the tax police slap on a hefty fine for not just the customer but also the shopkeeper. I start my collection and on my return to the UK, purge trousers pockets and handbag from all the bits of paper that accumulate from then on…
With plenty of time on our hands on a leisurely Sunday morning, and my host not in a rush to head back home, she suggests another bar, another favourite… ‘You must try the Marocchino,’ she advises as she selects some mouth-watering nibbles to complement the sweetness of her drink. But as I am still craving my second cappuccino, I am not yet ready to give that one a go. ‘A mixture of coffee and chocolate,’ she muses, ‘often laced with a layer of Nutella at the bottom…’ Chocolate spread and coffee??? I make a mental note to give it a try, just not for breakfast… Cappuccino, please.
Today I am meeting my friend at the bus station for a trip to the neighbouring villages of Bellagio and Menaggio, with a quick glimpse of George Clooney’s Como residence along the way. No sign of George, of course… more’s the pity. Just a mere hint of his intended presence sets the town atwitter and these days rumour has it that George rarely visits Como, being too busy with wife and twins in more desirable parts of the world. What’s wrong with Como??? Unfortunately, the bus whizzes past, not even a chance of taking a blurry shot. Still the lake with the Alps as the backdrop is the real attraction and beautiful it is indeed, but better seen with the naked eye than through the lens of my phone camera. Somehow the pictures don’t do it justice…
It is pretty cold by the time we arrive in Menaggio and we immediately look for shelter in one of the bars. So is everyone else clearly and it takes us a while to find one with an empty table and two chairs inside.. Whilst my friend orders a cappuccino, I plump for a marocchino… let the chocolate extravaganza begin!! The addition of oodles of gooey chocolate happens to be quite pleasant to be honest, although not a patch on a cappuccino. Still, it pays to be adventurous and broaden the culinary horizons.
In the meantime a nasty wind whips up angry waves on Lago di Como. Not a good thing for us, and many other tourists, as ferries do not cross the lake on blustery days. Our plans for a boat trip to visit Belaggio on the other side thwarted, we trundle along the narrow, winding streets of time-honoured Menaggio and indulge in smoked salmon and pasta for lunch before heading back to Como.
Monday morning, after my last Italian breakfast cappuccinos for a while, I set off to meet up with my friend before she heads off to work and I board the train back to Malpensa airport and onwards to the UK… How better to say goodbyes than with another cup of coffee. I cannot remember what kind I chose, but for sure I never tried a real caffè… I leave that for my next visit, and might just ask for a caffè corretto: a shot of espresso ‘corrected’ with a shot of liquor!! That will definitely get a buzz going!
There’s much to be said about coffee in Italy, or Como for that matter…
It’s my first time in a helicopter. I’ve been in small aircraft before, as a
passenger though and never even made it as a guest in the cockpit. So how awesome to have my first helicopter
flight with my son at the controls…
I suppose it should not really have come as a surprise. Even as a child he was inseparable from Flight Simulator games, landing and crash-landing all kinds of jets and aeroplanes in far flung, exotic locations, albeit in the safety of our living room. Growing up he joined the Air Cadets and found his wings gliding over the Oxfordshire countryside. He dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force and cleaving the skies in the whirlwind of Typhoon and Tornedo fighter jets, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who served in the RAF during World War II. Instead, whilst still at university, my son became hooked on skydiving, his hobby for the last 10 years with well over 1000 jumps and an instructor badge to his name… I suppose it takes only one small step and a lot of courage to move from being in charge of a plane to jumping from its bowels into the surrounding nothingness. Still, destiny finally caught up with him and this March he gained his PPL: Private Pilot Licence… A helicopter pilot!!
And as a parent, it is quite rewarding to be able to reap the benefits of his exploits. A tandem skydive over Stonehenge and the Wiltshire countryside in August 2013, filmed by my son and photographed by one of his friends,
and just a couple of weeks ago, a bird’s eye view of the East Midlands, UK.
One hazy and sunny morning in late May, my son and I set off to the helicopter centre. As only the second person he has taken as a passenger on one of his solo trips – girlfriend of course taking priority – I feel quite privileged. The weather looks promising: not too windy, not too cloudy and definitely no rain on the horizon. Perfect meteorological conditions as a matter of fact! No choppy adventures in the chopper for me…
I have been given the broad outline of our flight plan and am happy to leave the minutiae up to my son. Finalising the flight plan actually takes quite some time, involves quite a bit of mathematics and calculator wizardry, and definitely some map-reading and geographically expertise… I sit back and marvel. Stumping up for many years of educating the brood has clearly paid off.
Wearing bright yellow high-viz jackets, we cross the tarmac to the dragonfly look-alike helicopter. It seems barely big enough to take the two of us up into the wild grey-cloud yonder…
And whilst I attend to the only task I have been entrusted with – holding the flight map – my son takes care of all the pre-flight checks. It is very reassuring to see that no corners are cut where safety is concerned… There is a lot of pressing buttons, pushing levers, swiping iPad screens, and eventually talking to the control tower in a language completely alien to the uninitiated. Anything involving sequences of numbers and letters would have me lost in an instance. Not so my son who clearly has a knack for retaining such random information…
And off we go… slowly hovering over the airfield before gaining some momentum and height whilst ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’ slowly unfolds beneath us: endless verdant pastures flecked with brown stubble fields; garlands of trees and clusters of woodland; rivers lazily meandering; sprawling towns; and ancient castles standing proud on hillocks overlooking the surrounding vales.
Although much of Blake’s England has stood the test of time, other parts have succumbed to the inevitable tide of change… Rather than being enveloped by the Victorian smog and fumes of the ‘Satanic Mills’, we glide over sun-seeking solar farms and lines of powerful wind turbines. We watch Matchbox cars on tarmacked roads below us rather than farmers with their carts and horses on muddy tracks. Towns have kept on expanding. In the midst of a large woodland in Staffordshire, we spy Alton Towers, the UK’s largest theme park full of thrill-filled rides. And of course, the very fact that we are able to glory in it all from a bird’s eye perspective was nothing but a dream in Blake’s England.
All in all, a two-hour long fantastic experience. Hopefully one that can be repeated in the future to scan different parts of England. Time will tell. Maybe by then I will have figured out how to reduce the reflections in the photographs… A cloudy day perhaps??