At a shade after 7am – on what is supposed to be a day off – my resplendent grandfather is hovering in the doorway, modelling smokin’ hot underpants as though auditioning for a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement.
Tactfully skimming over any further details, let us concentrate on today’s events: For fifteen years now, Grandpa has waxed loquacious about the Gran Sasso, or “Great Rock”, and I’m incredibly keen to witness this marvel first-hand. It is, however, three hours’ drive away.
In Milan, the temperature was a glorious 22 degrees; at the Gran Sasso, the forecast is a chilly six. Sandals, even with socks in case it turns cold, might have been a poor decision. As we approach the Appenine chain of peaks, the weather worsens. It quickly reaches minus three.
With no snow chains, or indeed winter tyres, and in a foot of snow, we eventually have to admit defeat and reverse an appreciable distance down the mountain. Grandpa steers; I bark directions from a forward position; Grandpa’s wife Ursula contradicts my instructions; Grandpa steers perilously close to roadside snowdrifts.
This series of events continues for quite some time, and my feet get wet. So, after all these years, I have still not been up the Gran Sasso, but I have now at least been underneath it – we take a drive through the autostrade tunnel on the way home.
Grandpa makes me drive back – he is, after all, 83 and this is a 300km drive with barely a hundred yards of straight road. Relaxing in the passenger seat, he very kindly regales us with an embellished tale or two.
He can remember days before traffic lights when a man stood beside a belisha beacon, flicking a switch to enable pedestrians to cross. And it now seems extraordinary to have bought a Ford Model Y for just £7, or to have ridden a water-cooled Indian motorcycle through an allotment of runner beans in the ’40s.
On the way home, we discover an impregnable natural fortress town named Civitella del Tronto. And I mean “discover”: Central Italy is literally full of these slumbering gems, deserted but for a bored ticket clerk.
Over spaghetti, we find that the advantage to being in one’s eighties is that, as the body shrinks, the distance from plate to mouth becomes shorter. It’s a small advantage, but an advantage nonetheless when eating pasta.
Exhausted, back at the Umbrian residence, I smell burning. Neither Grandpa nor Ursula seem perturbed but, with lightning reflexes, I turn to rescue my Calvin boxer shorts from the brink of ignition.
Yet they are irredeemably scorched: the stitching is smoking and collapses when tentatively prodded. ‘Don’t worry,’ says my cheery grandfather, ‘I have some flannelette underpants with adjustable braces that you can have.’..