To San Martino di Castrozza for what northern Italians call una settimana bianca or ‘a white week’. In fact, this is the white week, the week of carnevale when northern Italian schools shut for a ski break and everyone grabs the three official days of public holiday and adds to them the inevitable ponte of two more days which takes them to the weekend, allowing for nine consecutive workless days. At the lift where ski school meets, we overhear a woman asking her friend if her husband is working this week. The response is as if the dumbest question in the history of the world has been asked: ‘But of course not, this is white week.’ Even if Italy sinks back into the Third World, its holiday arrangements will remain forever sacrosanct.
I have to leave white week early to give a talk in Florida. But this isn’t so bad because I already had three Sundays skiing at our local Umbrian mini-mountain, Monte Nerone. Despite living 45 minutes away for eight years, this is the first year we have been. There is just a single button lift, but it is quite long and gives access to two good pistes of about 800 metres. Better still, the place is run by very nice people. My son was initially undone by a pair of skis from the sales that are almost twice as long as the ones he used the year before. I could do little to help him because, as part of my ongoing mid-life crisis, I started using a snowboard when I hit 40. So one of the young lift operators put on his skis and spent two hours teaching Luca. Not the kind of thing that happens in your average ski resort. And, after all that, there is a decent enough rifugio at the bottom of the pistes which serves pasta at Euro7 a plate. Given that there is a web camera overlooking the bottom of the pistes which allows you to see exactly how much snow there is in real time, and given that you can wake up and arrive after a fresh snowfall to find there are only 10 other skiers at 10am, it is a pretty good deal. Adults pay Euro18 per day, children Euro10; the lift is only open on weekends when there is sufficient, natural snow. Amazingly enough, the place has been operating since 1969.
Florida is not quite like Umbria. I arrive via New York, which is very deep in snow and very white and beautiful from the air. Florida is unseasonably cold too. Landing in America there is the usual double-take at the number of very fat people. And then arriving in Orlando, there is the supplemental double-take at the number of old people and the number of trousers with elasticated waistbands. Ten minutes in Orlando and you begin to think that Italians have found the Holy Grail itself with their determination to maintain an attractive outward appearance. I take a cab to the 750-rooom hotel with its obligatory man-made lakes, two golf courses, jogging trails and written warnings not to ‘jog alone’. Reckless as ever, I complete a run on my own and live to tell the tale.
The talk I have to give is to a group of people who definitely do not originate in Florida – steel producers and traders, the kind of Americans who still smoke and drink large quantities of beer. They want to hear about China and are friendly. Given that I have to address them at 8am and they were out drinking the night before, I write up a short note about the four points I told them to bear in mind when thinking about China in the next few years.
That done, I am looking for something to occupy me on a Saturday night in Orlando when I notice a poster of an aging blond woman who looks strangely familiar. The haggard, too-much-Prozac look makes me think of a kindly Delta Airlines stewardess who served me coffee on the flight in. But no. On close inspection I realise that what I am looking at is the current incarnation of Debbie Harry, lead singer of the eponymous band Blondie. A quick web search reveals that she was born in Florida, before being adopted by shopkeepers in New Jersey. As if this isn’t compulsion enough, while I am on my rebellious lone jog, my i-pod randomly shuffles Union City Blues to the top of the playlist – a song I have not heard for a long time. It is obvious that I am destined to attend a Blondie concert at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. Will it be better than the theme park gig in This is Spinal Tap, where the rockers open for a puppet show?
We must support the aged. I take back what I said about Ms Harry’s appearance on realising that she – singer of one of the first singles I ever bought, aged about 10 – is now 65 years old. We must respect the aged because it will not be long before we dwell among their number.
On which subject, it is worth mentioning that a major golden oldie, one who has been to crack hell and back, has just brought out an album that may be rather good. After many disappointing later-life recordings, Gil Scott Heron has released an album with a slick, modern sound that may be what the poet-singer has been looking for for so long. I saw him in London, years ago, in the midst of quest for something new and good and he was rubbish. But in this album there reside flashes of the tortured genius of his youth. You can have a listen here.
And so what of Debbie Harry and crew in concert in a theme park? Well, let’s just say I may have seen the future and it ain’t entirely pretty. Debbie darling, if you are reading: you cannot wear a bondage girdle and have a tea mug on stage. There has to be a choice.
Oh, when we were young.