It all started with the arrival of a business card in the letterbox. I had visited Italy many times and had always been keen to learn ‘la bella lingua’. And here in the letterbox was a card from one Beniamino Petrosino advertising his services as an Italian language teacher.
I started lessons with some trepidation but all went well. I was aware from Beniamino’s overly wordy business card that he had written a book in English – “The Passage of the Frog and the Wild Strawberries of 1942,” a semi-autobiographical account of his early life in Campania and Basilicata, where the impact of superstition, religion and economic deprivation was profound. Reading this moving tale helped me understand the resilience of the character who is the subject of this story.
Lessons were such fun, Beniamino and I moved on to running social events showcasing Italian culture and cuisine and last year we escorted our first two luxury small group tours visiting the Mezzogiorno and the gorgeous lakes of Lombardia.
One of our first stops was picturesque Amalfi, where my sartorially elegant husband Richard decided he would like some cameo cufflinks. Shell cameos were everywhere but not the right sort. A casual remark to Beniamino triggered a quest to rival Tolkien’s. Up and down the narrow cobbled streets we went, past the ninth century cathedral with its stunning façade of Moorish stripes, arches and coloured mosaics, venturing into every shop that could conceivably house cameo cufflinks. None met with approval but the mission was set. It was now not only a matter of national pride but of personal pride on Beniamino’s part.
The search certainly wasn’t just a question of going into shops and viewing the goods on sale. In fact this happened infrequently because there was so much else to see and do as we moved inland to Basilicata, the fabled land of swords and kings. Beniamino’s preferred approach was to interrogate family members, our drivers and guides, restaurant proprietors and passers-by, wherever we happened to be. The lush and fertile countryside of the Val d’Agri dotted with Roman ruins held many delights but these did not include cameo cufflinks. However, under Beniamino’s tutelage we ate and drank like kings and managed to avoid the wolves and vipers he had so graphically warned us about.
We moved on to more desolate Mordor-like terrain and the hilltop town of Aliano where the political dissident Carlo Levi was exiled in the 1930’s and wrote his famous book “Christ Stopped at Eboli”. There were clearly not going to be any cameo cufflinks here but there was one of the best restaurants we visited in Italy, where the chef proudly displayed a photo of her father as a child with Carlo Levi. We didn’t see any orcs in this fascinating area but one could certainly imagine them here.
Beniamino had told me much about I Sassi di Matera, which is the third oldest continuously occupied settlement on Earth, stretching back 9,000 years, and it did not disappoint. As we gazed at the ancient caves across the stony valley and listened to the cowbells of the wandering cattle, I was transported back to biblical times. And what on earth was Beniamino doing? Foraging for wild asparagus, he told me in a voice which suggested that visiting the local supermarket left a lot to be desired. This was clearly not the place for cufflinks.
As we moved from Basilicata closer to the azure Adriatic Sea, Beniamino became noticeably more positive about ‘his’ quest. In Ostuni, he now engaged earnestly with two bank managers and a local barber. As Richard sat beneath a swathe of towels with his neck exposed to a cut throat razor, Beniamino and Antonio debated the finer points of cameo shells and the likely location of the best. Alas Antonio’s advice led to a dead end.
Beniamino was not daunted. We were now off to the north of Italy via Bologna and he assured us we would be so busy eating in Bologna that we wouldn’t be thinking of cufflinks. This prediction proved to be correct. From Bologna it was a short hop to Milano, where for two days the gems of Leonardo da Vinci and La Scala banished all thought of cuff links. But Beniamino had not forgotten and he had his sights firmly set on the lake-side villages where the film-stars live and where the quest would end.
With renewed optimism, we headed for Stresa and the Borromean islands of Lake Maggiore. The Baroque fantasy of a garden at Isola Bella was a riot of giant shell sculptures but the mournful cry of the white peacocks told us there were no small shell offerings there.
Had there been any chicken entrails on hand as we took a ferry to the enchanting hamlet of Varenna, nestled on the shore of Lake Como, I am sure inspection would have produced a positive result. We were nearing the end of a remarkable journey with Beniamino and the sun shimmered like gold on the lake around us.
Beniamino raced on ahead as we disembarked. Suddenly he reappeared in great excitement and grabbed Richard’s arm. They disappeared into a tiny jeweller’s shop, eventually emerging triumphantly. The right sort of cameo had been found in a pair of earrings. Giorgio had obligingly offered to take them to Milano so they could be re-set as cufflinks and then delivered to us at our hotel in Bellagio. It all seemed a bit too good to be true.
But true it was. On our last evening, as we sat on the terrace of the stunning Grand Villa Serbelloni sipping an Aperol spritz, we watched the ferry glide majestically towards us as the sun slowly dipped below the mountains. And here was Giorgio walking up the path to the hotel clutching a precious parcel. Did Richard like the cufflinks? I could see from his face that he certainly did and Beniamino’s smile was even wider.