Well, we’ve got the four corners in place. Residency, health cover, Italian driving licences and getting the car registered are all done. And we’ve got most of the edges in place too: getting the house and teaching work sorted out; indeed, they are starting to fill in much of the overall picture too. But there is still one large gap at the heart of the giant jigsaw of creating our life in Italy: a forge for Mr Blue-Shirt to resume his career as a blacksmith.
For over a year his forging tools and equipment (along with the contents of the garden shed, and sundry other bits and pieces that were too big and/or heavy to come over in the van) have remained tightly packed in a shipping container in the corner of a Lincolnshire goods yard. But for the past couple of weeks, this has at last been trundling south, just another another anonymous brick-coloured metal box on the back of a mile-long goods train snaking down through Europe. And what a slog is has been to find someone who could deliver Mr Blue-Shirt’s ‘forge in a box’ to Italy. Not that outlandish a proposal, one would have thought in light of the tens of thousands of identical such containers that on a daily basis are shuffled back and forth across the continent like a giant game of draughts. For goodness’ sake, twenty years ago, just such a container holding most of our worldly goods made it safely from the UK, via the mega-port of Singapore, to our tiny tin-roofed bungalow at the edge of the jungle on the northern coast of Borneo without a hitch (although it did take eight weeks to get there). So how difficult could it be? – to coin one of the favourite phrases of the eternally optimistic, never-to-be-thwarted Mr Blue-Shirt. Well, the answer turned out be ‘a damned sight more difficult than you’d imagine’.
A long list of big ‘we ship anything anywhere’ shipping companies were rejected once it turned out that this only applied if the said ‘anything’ was packed in one of their swanky containers, and even then, only upon payment of an eye-watering sum of money. Several hours of intensive Googling in search of smaller shipping companies that regularly transport good between the UK and Italy resulted in another list for Mr Blue-Shirt to plod through, this time of companies in Romania, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as well as in Italy and the UK. And the responses – such as they were: several companies didn’t even bother to reply to his comprehensive enquiry – were enough to dent even Mr Blue-Shirt’s resolutely positive outlook. There were those that simply weren’t interested in a one-off private job; there were those whose quotes suggested that they were deliberately pricing themselves out of the job, and then there were those that quoted an ostensibly attractive, or at least reasonable price, but then added a catalogue of ‘extras’ – for instance, £750 just to lift the container onto a truck. Things were complicated further by the fact that while a couple of companies would normally have been happy to quote, they just didn’t have capacity to handle the job at the moment. The inexorable ticking down of the Brexit clock had meant that they were not only all overflowing with containers full of emergency supplies of essential goods in readiness for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, but were also tearing their hair out, trying to fathom what paperwork, checks and other rules they would suddenly need to deal with should this disaster actually come to pass.
Against this background, it was not hard to appreciate why Mr Blue-Shirt’s optimism was wearing thin. Never one to be beaten, however – ‘failure is not an option’ is another of his favourite sayings – he decided to see this impasse as a challenge rather than a problem and so set in place a campaign of direct action. This involved sniffing out goods yards and haulage companies while out and about on various missions, eyeing up what vehicles and equipment they had, and then if things looked promising, visiting them in person, armed with photos, dimensions, serial numbers, weights and packing lists – and a determined look in his steely blue eyes. Having met only apologetic shrugs in a couple of places, he eventually tried his luck at a yard down by Porto Recanati, right next to the toll booths where we join the autostrada that runs along the coast from Rimini to Bari. While such things are simply not on my radar, Mr Blue-Shirt had clocked that they had cranes and forklifts aplenty as well as a fleet of trucks and a designated storage area stacked with containers awaiting delivery. Storage is a critical to Mr Blue-Shirt’s requirements, incidentally: in the absence for the time being of a permanent home for the container (ie his new forge, when he finds it), it can’t be stored at the house. Despite having enough space and even a suitable spot for it in the south-west corner of the olive grove up against the boundary hedge and largely hidden behind a large conifer, the location of power lines combined with the laws of physics and geometry conspire to make it impossible for a crane to lift the fully laden container from a truck, swing it over the 2.5m-high hedge and lower it into position.
Feeling confident, Mr Blue-Shirt ran through his now well-rehearsed pitch with Federico the very business-like owner. Yes, he shipped goods between Italy and the UK; yes he’d be happy to do a one-off private job; yes, he could do it for somewhere close budget. By this stage, Mr Blue-Shirt could happily have leant across the paper-strewn desk and planted a kiss on Federico’s deeply tanned cheek. But then the killer blow: he just didn’t have the storage capacity. Mr Blue-Shirt inhaled, closed his eyes and tried to organise his face into a smile before thanking Federico and taking his leave. “But you can try my friend Antonio in Porto Potenza Picena. He regularly ships stuff between the UK and Italy, and I don’t think his yard is full.” Clutching Antonio’s business card in one hand, he waved Federico a grateful farewell with the other as he clambered back into the van. “Mi hai salvato la vita!” he called as he crunched it into gear and sped off to Antonio’s yard.
Bingo! Antonio could do the lot; he even had a shipping agent in the UK who could organise that end of the journey. But the clincher was that he could also store the container at a very modest monthly rent, and so they shook hands on the deal there and then. Mr Blue-Shirt’s relief was palpable when over dinner that evening he told me how helpful Antonio had been, and how reassured he had been by Antonio’s genial manner as well as his forces background: something which always creates an instant bond and a sense of trust. Over the following days, Antonio proved to be as good as his word and all the necessary documents were provided and information exchanged; the crane was hired, the truck booked, the container shifted and finally placed onto a goods train at a railhead somewhere in the depths of Leicestershire. From there it has doubtless been lifted and lowered, cross-loaded, stacked and shunted about countless times as part of that giant continental game of container draughts, for its trans-European trek, which will end at the railhead in Pescara, some 100km south of us, will have taken over two weeks by the time it is driven back up to Antonio’s yard in the next day or so. And Mr Blue-Shirt will finally be re-united with his much-missed forging tools. Now he just needs that forge to put them in. How difficult can it be…?