“Neighbours…..everybody needs good neighbours……”

And the expat literature available to me before I embarked upon my own Italian adventure led me to believe that mine would be 95 yrs old, dressed head to foot in black, with poor dentistry and penchants for Holy relics. They would eat their own weight in lasagne on a daily basis, take me grape picking (and treading) and help me to plant my very own olive grove for the generations of mini-Not-Treadings to come. They would be harsh, and suspicious of me, the furrin incomer, but this grumpy and sun wrinkled exterior would hide a heart of gold, and I would awaken to find produce so fresh it was still dripping with dew on my doorstep, and eggs from chucks which had never seen a cage. I would be invited to attend extended family Sunday lunches under canopies in the baking August heat, where people would randomly leap up to demonstrate ancient folk dances and send me home with granny’s recipes filling my head. They would all muck in to babysit my barefoot and bilingual Italish children and it would truly be an earthly paradise.

Well, pah and chuh….I don’t know in which part of sundrenched Italy the people who come up with this rose-tinted gobbledegook reside, but it sure isn’t anywhere near me.
Whackjobbery on the neighbour front was not, I admit, something new to me. When I lived all too briefly in Spain we had Pedro Downstairs. Pedro hated us. Pedro hated everyone. Pedro threatened to kill people with an axe on a daily basis. We got used to him, checking the lift for evidence of his fetid presence before getting in, and always travelling, like the agents on Spooks and policemen, in pairs. There were hairy moments when he’d go off on one and chase us down the road brandishing a big leather belt and shrieking obscenities- but by and large, we co-existed. There were tipping points of course, hey, there are moments in all blocks of flats when the police get called by the neighbours because they are  convinced that the blonde woman upstairs is a prostitute no? We did get a bit fed up though when the willy-flopping over the windowsill started. I mean, any need? It wasn’t like any of us 19 year old language students had never seen one before and at much closer quarters to be honest. It was all rather Emperor’s New Clothes. There we’d be, sitting in the kitchen drinking our tea and eating our marmite sandwiches, and a quick glance sideways and downwards and there it would be. Menacing. Threatening. Small and a bit pathetic. “Oh Pedro put it away”. But he kept doing it. Until the day we got the camera out and photographed it, in all its puny middle-aged glory. Next minute, pitty-pat up the stairs and a timid knock. “I really like all of you, you are just the best neighbours a 50 yr old train driver could hope for, but could I possibly have the film out of that camera?”

Chronologically after Pedro, there was Andrew and his Mac…He lived upstairs in a house full of bedsits and had a lovely Chinese girlfriend. We saw his willy a few times as well. He would wait to hear our alarm clocks go off and then come flippy flopping down the stairs in a beige flippy floppy mac….(cliche’d much?) Thank the lord I rarely had my contacts in that early.

And so to Italy…..One of our first neighbours in Italy was MadPsychoWoman. Apparently Mr MadPsychoWoman had once had a torrid affair with a young blonde woman who Mrs thought might be a foreigner (you can see where this is leading no?) and so I always had to be very very careful going past her door. An ashtray to the head here, a broom to the backside there. Battle scars are worn with pride. It made me feel marginally better (but only marginally) when the lovely (and blonde) girl in Benetton recognised my scars and told me she’d met Mrs Mad on a few occasions as she was opening the shop up. One fateful night we were awakened to hear her crashing round the street smashing (presumably) blonde people’s wing mirrors and we did find “Die Bitch Whores” carved into our front door once, but obviously, it must be stated for legal purposes, we have no proof it was Mrs. Mad. We moved out of there quite quickly, especially as the lift kept breaking so, short of learning to abseil, we had to walk past her door and take our lives in our hands.

I live in a nicer area now…..by the sea…. I glance out of my window……. it’s warm out there, and out there he is…..Uomo Mutanda…..Pant Man……in his pants. Y fronts, grey ones, white ones, black ones….and other times the dreaded leopard skin budgie smuggler. But they’re always pants, and he’s always in them. Underneath my house. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve gone onto the balcony to hang *my* pants out and shrieked “aaargh” and run back inside holding my eyes. Pant Man is neither young nor old, but his pants are not what one would want to meet on a dark night. Or, come to think of it, a bright sunny day…. He likes the sun. He likes his garden. He tends it lovingly. Being, I imagine, clad as he is, somewhat scantily, wary of the thorns. He has three sunloungers down there, meticulously placed with scientific precision to catch the optimum amount of sun when his gardening is done and he lies down to soak up the rays. In his bloody pants. And resolutely with his legs akimbo to avoid white stripes. We live opposite the sea. The beach. Literally, Pant Man could go out of his gate, and taking less than 30 steps be on a beach with other half nekkid people. This is clearly Not What Pant Man is Into. Pant Man likes to feel special. On a beach he’d be one of many. Under my house he is, very definitely, unique.

Next door to Pant Man are the Pontipines. One person goes in, 46 come out. Must be a lot of bunkbeds in there, that’s all I can say. Before the Pontipines moved in there, there were the transexual prostitutes. Now I’ve sat in the doctor’s surgery with these two, and I can’t honestly say I’m *sure* they were men in frocks, but local gossipmongers maintain t’is so. And that the little old mammy living with them was not only their little old mammy, but their little old business manager. There did seem to be a brother too. Now, I confess I never saw the brother and both of the MenWomen at the same time. Soooo. Whatever, and it’s not for me to judge, but they had a favourite song. The Cranberries, Zombie. Which I can never listen to now, without imagining stubble rash, biceps and lipstick.

Her Downstairs (on the other side of the building to Pant Man’s garden) is a fortune teller and card reader. She hurls sea salt round the building whilst burning incense and listening to (loud) Italian love songs. She has the kind of voice which casting agents for Eastenders look for. She is big and scary. She moved a boyfriend in whose Mammy came round with the police to fetch him home. He was about 45 but even magic spells and voodoo are no match for the Italian Mammy.

Her Upstairs tends her face with the love and precision that Pant Man uses to pick out his underwear. She has spent so much money going under the knife that her fat sausagey lips reach round the back of her head to kiss each other and her face has that weird grimace permanently etched on it that, were it to break into a proper smile, would cause half her head to drop off and clatter onto the marble tiles. We have it on good authority (my sister-in-law) that so much money has been spent on perfecting The Trout that the utility bills get hidden under the bed. Trouty herself did tell me once that someone was clearly plugging themselves into her sockets and pinching her current because there was no way she could really owe the electricity board that much. The truth, as ever, is more mundane. Apparently, due to her plugging herself with the butcher’s lad, her husband had a mini-breakdown and lost his lucrative job and had to Go Away for a while…….

Them Next Door are lovely though.The HommaMommas. Car salespeople by day. Buddhists in their free time. Head Buddhists for the region. They have meetings every Monday when people come round to chant with no clothes on.( I might have made some of that up.) When I asked Mrs HommaMomma once about the chanting I came away a bit concerned she hadn’t quite understood about Buddhism as she told me she was a devout Catholic who did Buddhism in her free time.

As you see, I am still waiting for the wizened old Grannies to bring me bowls of sunblushed apricots and freshly laid eggs…..but as said Granny would have to battle her way through men in pants, transsexual hookers and members of the occult, I shan’t be holding my breath…..

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