We'd just crossed the Po on the final stretch of a gruelling winter drive from rural Tuscany back home to Verona in the north east. With freezing temperatures and heavy snow forecast, we had abandoned our normal route home through the scenic mountain pass, il Passo delle Radici (1,529 metres), that connects Tuscany with Emilia-Romana. Instead we took the more circuitous route, avoiding the high northern Apennines, that would see us first head south towards Lucca, then swing west to Florence, before finally turning north past Bologna, Modena and Mantova.
By late afternoon we were on the final stretch of fast flowing motorway between Mantova and Verona. The worst of the weather was behind us and our spirits were beginning to lift. All going well, we'd be home within the hour. The poor souls who were heading south, on the other hand, faced 60 km tailbacks between Brennero and Modena as they returned home after a long weekend skiing.
Having thoroughly exhausted our current cd of choice, La dolce vita (a crowd pleasing compilation of singalong Italian classics), we now opted for Stevie Wonder's Definitive Collection to see us through the final stages of our journey.
A musical education for my two young kids in the back, my wife and I blasted our way through hits like Superstition, Sir Duke, Masterblaster and Isn't She Lovely.
Fifteen tracks in comes the unmistakable piano intro of For Your Love. By the time the drums kick in at 30 seconds we are deep in the groove. Thirty seconds later comes the voice. Rich, resonant, sincere.
"All the gold in all the world is nothing to possess..."
With me on drums and the wife on lead vocals, it was one of those fleeting moments where the music, the moment, everything just clicked.
"Well", I said to my rather bemused looking kids, who seemed to have enjoyed our performance despite themselves, "it really doesn't get much better than that!"
And then, catching me completely off guard, came this...
More like this...
As those of you that follow me on twitter will know, I enjoy the daily ritual of perusing the local paper (in my case usually L'Arena of Verona), preferably accompanied by a suitable beverage, in keeping (of course) with the hour.
This week I delivered a lesson about the British print media to a group of Italian chartered accountants. As well as discussing British newspapers in general, we also dissected a copy of that august pillar of British journalism, the Daily Mail (in my defence, it was the only UK title I could get my hands on in Verona this week). Each student took an article and reported back to the rest of the group.
From beached whales, to ISIS death threats, bikini selfies as a means to weight loss and the feared extinction of an iconic species of banana, this lesson provided a somewhat perverse insight into the current state of the British media.
Of course Italian media isn't without it's faults (don't get me started on television), but, notwithstanding the merits of the Daily Mail, in terms of conveying a serious news agenda, Italian newspapers are far superior to their British counterparts, which seem to me to have descended into a tabloid style, sales driven, celebrity obsessed, race to the bottom.
One question that I wasn't quite able to answer at the time was how circulation figures for Italian newspapers compare to those of British titles. So I checked. The results, illustrated in the diagram below, are interesting.
I didn't realise it at the time, but after 10 years in Edinburgh, my relocation to Verona 4 years ago came at just the right time. Professionally, personally and geographically, I was ready for a change. And so, I've no regrets about coming to Verona. Of course there are things (like diluting juice, baked beans, afternoons spent in the pub, fish and chips, a fry-up and a good curry) and people (family, friends and former colleagues) that I miss, but we've generally just been too busy getting on with life here in Verona to dwell much on what we've left behind. Anyway, Verona isn't exactly a million miles away and, with Facebook and Skype, events at home never seem too far away.
But with the illness and tragic passing on Saturday night of a great friend and former colleague, the short distance between our lives in Verona and our family, friends and former colleagues in Scotland suddenly seems much wider.
Jude was a wonderful colleague. When I joined the research department from another part of the Scottish Parliament, Jude's was the warmest welcome. I was fortunate enough to share an office with him during my last 3 years in Edinburgh. If he was approaching, you would invariably hear him before you saw him. His contagious fits of laughter would frequently reverberate around the Scottish Parliament's hushed research library. But Jude was so much more than the just an office clown. He had genuine (and first hand) expertise in his field (unlike me who just pretended) and knew better than most the political environment in which he was operating. His passing will leave a gaping hole, not just in SPICe where he worked, but throughout the organisation as a whole. He was an unsung hero of the Scottish Parliament, a genuine character whose personality transcended the various silos that inevitably exist in such an organisation.
Jude was more than just a colleague.
We would often share a couple of drinks together after work (following his kidney transplant, he wasn't a big drinker, but would enjoy an occasional Jack Daniels and diet coke). Again, with his warm sense of humour and contagious laugh, he was a consummate and generous socialite. He was also a great armchair companion and we enjoyed watching many memorable football matches together. Cheering on Scotland to yet more glorious failure, following the Old Firm in Europe as (ahem) interested neutrals and, on one indelible occasion, encountering a particularly voluble follower of the so-called "pope's eleven" while we enjoyed a quiet pint in a Rose Street hostelry.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend a rainy afternoon with Jude at his home in Joppa. With his kidney problems and then his recent illness, Jude had more reason than most to feel hard done by, depressed, angry, subdued. But he wasn't. Despite being gravely ill, he was the same old Jude. Warm, funny, engaging. Full of gossip and curious about my life in Italy.
Surrounded by the well-wishes of his friends, colleagues and neighbours, and above all by his devoted wife Ali and his beautiful children (of whom he was justifiably so proud), and fortified by his faith, which was profound, he didn't fear death. His thoughts, typical of the man, were for those who he would leave behind, and above all for his wife Ali, who he told me had been his rock throughout his illness. He was genuinely surprised and deeply touched by the outpouring of love and support he had received in recent weeks - in his humility, somehow he had been unaware of the genuine respect and affection in which he was held by so many.
It was bitter-sweet life-affirming afternoon for me. It was such a pleasure to be in Jude's company again, but heartbreaking to contemplate that it might be for the last time.
Until the very end I was hopeful of a miracle (if anyone deserved one it was Jude), so the news, when it came, was still a gut-wrenching blow.
Jude, it was a privilege to work with you and an honour to call you a friend.
I miss you.