There was a time when I spent a lot of my life in the Italian Dolomites. I had a regular UK job, with great annual leave, and a boss with a very enlightened attitude to what he called “extra-vehicular activity”. This meant ample chances for unpaid leave too. Latterly, I also had frequent opportunities to lead holidays for a well-known mountain holiday operator, now sadly no longer with us, which kept my personal costs down.
It’s unusual, spending slightly less time in an area than you need to put down roots, yet significantly more time than ordinary tourists. I had local friends, and at one level, felt very at home, but I was well aware how far down the local food-chain I was. Never more so than when I found a semi-regular place to stay.
We’re talking about somewhere near to Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s still there, and owned by the same lovely people, which is why I am being circumspect in its identity here, because I love them like family. It was a one room garret, upstairs but separate to what was probably once a garage or workshop. It had a view, cold water “facilities” outside, and occasional mice. Twice a week, however, it was directly instrumental (pun intended) in developing in me a deep hatred of piano accordions!
I have friends of a Morris dancing persuasion who will demand to know why, so let me explain.
Cortina is just on the edge of the Tyrol. The Tyrol is an area its inhabitants have always regarded as a separate country, which spans what, since 1919 has been the land on either side of the Austria/Italy border. In the Tyrol and its fringes, the locals love what has often been called “oompah-yodel music”. This description may be unkind, but in my experience, there is a keen accuracy within it. The genre shares with Morris dancing some obscure origins, a love of dressing up, quite a lot of physical violence, wooden implements, … and piano accordions.
The building in which I stayed was thirty or forty metres away from any other building, meaning that the vacant space downstairs was out of earshot to most of local humanity. Thus, it made the ideal practice area for “Die Blümchen der Wald” (The Little Flowers of the Forest”) as I believe they styled themselves. These were a bunch of lads, and one stunning, buxom blonde, who were into, shall we call it, “proto new-wave oompah-yodel music”. Requirements: tuba, trombone, good adenoids, and two piano accordions. Late evening, every Monday and Thursday was rehearsal night. Without fail, I seemed just to have dropped off to sleep when the eternal opening practice number began: “The Birdie Song”, arranged for two accordions and tonsils of a vaguely matching key.
Now, I have heard the accordion played by some of the very best. I am in awe of my friend Guido, who lives above Italy’s Lake Garda, who used to play in a drum-and-bass-and-accordion trio. I also love the work of English players John Kirkpatrick and Chris Parkinson, for example. However, these have studied and practiced for years. The two players in “Die Blümchen” only played every Monday and Thursday, I think. I assume this, as I only ever once saw a poster advertising a local gig featuring them.
I have few hands-on musical skills these days myself. However, then, as now, I had a keen ear and could spot something off-key. Actually, back then, it wasn’t hard to spot the absence of key, with its companions: several missing notes, and the lack of any real talent.
It was around this time that a local bar-owner I’d befriended (an Italian who’d worked in Hull) told me of the guy who had left his valuable Baffetti accordion on the rear seat of his car. The driver in question realized he’d left the car windows open too. However, being at work, it was several fretful hours before he could get back to his car, which was parked in a distant car park. When he returned, he was amazed. His accordion was still on the back seat. Sitting next to it were three other accordions. My friend’s favourite joke.
I needed help to translate for him: “What’s the definition of perfect pitch?” “Throwing an accordion into a rubbish skip and hitting the two banjos already in there.”
The photo atop this piece was shot within ten miles of where the story is set. Unless the guy in the photo has subsequently taken up the accordion, there is no other connection.
Postscript: I later came to know “The Flowers of the Forest” as a funeral tune. Very apt. Please don’t play it at mine.