Travel: Calabrians just don't see the bright side

HAS ANYONE ever whispered in your ear that Calabria in the south of Italy might not be all bad? I doubt it. Everyone knows this is the fag-end of Italy, the stubbed toe with chilblains, the place that all good men leave as soon as they are old enough to shave. The place that never gets any EU funds because if it did the mafiosi would get them. And I'm not just reporting the words of some snobby Milanese stockbroker in a lamb-skin jacket. This is what the locals keep telling me.

I wonder where the Calabrians lost their self-esteem. Friends who are supposed to be showing me the positive side of local life can't help lapsing into gloomy self-recrimination at the slightest opportunity. "Oh, good people don't live here," they say, pointing at some innocent passer-by with bandy legs. "We have only the mediocre ones. The ones who were left behind. It's so strange. Look at these people. Dark clothes, dark cars, dark glasses, dark houses. Everything dark. This is not a modern country like Britain you know."

If that isn't a masochistic self-perception, I don't know what is. Look at this place. It is slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean. It is the place - once known as Idalo - that gave all of Italy its name. What I see from where I am sitting is bright sunshine pouring on to stone tiles through an open door. Just outside is an orchard of trees loaded down with oranges. The vines are budding. The air smells of mountain pines and wood-smoke mixed with faint suggestions of Sicily, the Aeolian Islands, the Tyrrhenian Sea and the ships that once ruled the Mediterranean world. Perhaps I am insensitive but I can't quite see the badness and the loathsomeness in all this.

Perhaps the people are just bad. Well possibly, if you believe in the Hollywood version of southern Italy. And if you insist, yes: perhaps a handsome boy with a black chin and a beautiful girl with red lips and white skin will kiss somewhere in Calabria tonight, and perhaps they will have a child, and conceivably some bad godfather who had had other marriage plans for the girl will then have her shot to death, causing blood to splatter over her dress on the steps of the church.

But I suspect plenty of other people will not be shooting their friends or relatives. My experience of the Calabrian people so far is this. Last night I arrived with the address of one Calabrian in my pocket. By 11am today that friend had asked another friend to call his aunt to have a word with her lawyer to send a message to the mayor to suggest to the carabinieri to persuade the Italian military to provide a snow-plough to clear a road for me to visit the ancient forests of Sila in the mountainous interior of Calabria. Why? Because the Latin poet Virgil mentioned them, that's why.

But to judge by the way the Calabrians talk about themselves, the children are still begging in rags, the towns are still locked into never-ending cycles of self-inflicted poverty and misery. If only I could put them all into psychotherapy. I want to take them away from their oranges, their olives and their wine, and send them to England to live in a dark, draughty castle and eat dry scones for a month. Then I want to bring them back to the sunshine and see how much progress they have made in the field of self- esteem. They deserve the break.

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