It takes a village

A gentleman is never without his pipe. Or e-cigarette, as the case may be
A gentleman is never without his pipe. Or e-cigarette, as the case may be

Signor Crigio, who owns the men’s tailoring shop that used to be at the bottom of the building, is tiny, dapper and slim, with round glasses and a white, perfectly-trimmed moustache – the archetypal tailor. He’s recently closed the shop down, but when it was open he could usually be found outside it, sitting bolt upright on his moped, smoking an electronic cigarette and watching the world go by. One morning a year or so ago Davide and I were woken early by an insistent leaning on our buzzer: turns out it was Signor Crigio warning us that a delivery lorry was gouging and ripping wing mirrors off the cars parked on either side of our street right, left and centre as it tried to manoeuvre its way through the too-narrow space available. Davide’s jeep was in danger of being the next victim, and Signor Crigio had worked out (a) who it belonged to and (b) which doorbell to ring to find us. He’s the kind of neighbour you really need, in other words.

**********

“I said hello to you the other day, but you didn’t see me!” says the woman on the stall where I get my tomatoes, onions and lemons, with a big grin. I look up at her, wide-eyed. “Oh, I’m so sorry! Where were you?” She laughs. “Don’t worry! On Corso Italia.” I ask her for some red onions and she passes a paper bag over to me. “Here: I can’t reach – but you can!” We’ve never chatted before, but now that the conversation’s been started she’s bursting with questions, which could well have been brewing for months. “So how tall are you, exactly? A metre sixty-five, seventy?”  I stuff onions into the bag as I answer. “Try one metre eighty!” Her eyes go wide and her mouth drops open. “No! Wow! Where are you from, anyway?” I tell her I’m English and she gives a sage nod. “Ah, of course; you’re all tall over there. Not like us midgets here!” I can’t help but laugh at her turn of phrase, and tell her that my dad and my brothers are all even taller than I am. Her face goes inquisitive. “So are your family all in England? What are you doing here?” I give her the potted history: arrived in southern Italy to teach; discovered I liked it; met a boy; getting married. She chuckles, a cheeky grin on her face. “So is your fidanzato tall, too?” I shake my head. “No – he’s actually a bit shorter than me.”  The woman standing next to me chips in, “Yeah, my husband too – ballerinas all the way, right?” We glance down at each other’s feet and nod in humorous solidarity.

Unexpected conversation starter
Heavier than you’d think

**********

The shopping bags weigh a ton. I’m sweating buckets as my fingers cramp and my arm muscles quiver from the strain of hauling everything back from market, but I’m on the home straight, so tough it out rather than put them down to rest yet again. Half a kilometre never seems so long as when you’re laden down with kilos of vegetables; and said vegetables never seem so heavy as when you’ve only got ten metres to go. I reach the front door to my building and put everything down as gently as I can, given my shrieking muscles, before rifling through my bag with shaking fingers in search of my keys.

The door to my building is 15-foot tall and made of solid metal: to open it from the outside requires putting your full weight against it and leaning hard. Today, as I do this, the bag of apples and kiwi fruit that I’ve wedged between the door and my feet so that they don’t roll all over the place starts to slump. I let out a tiny wail, visions of my fruit and veg ending up covered in god knows what from the pavement running through my mind’s eye, and make a grab for the bag.

Two things happen: (1) I fail to reach it and (2) I unbalance myself completely, knocking over another bag of different vegetables in the process. I could cry. I almost do, but as I scrabble about, trying to steady my ever-more-precarious pile of shopping bags, I hear a soft shout from behind me. “Signora! Let me help!”

I've had better days ...
I’ve had better days …

I look round and see Signor Crigio, who picks up my bags and hangs onto them while I haul myself upright. When I’m up to full height I’m a good foot taller than him; his eyes crinkle with amused concern as he looks up at me. I smile back at him and hold out my hands for the bags that he’s picked up for me. He tuts kindly. “But which floor do you live on, signora?” He says it fast, and not in standard Italian, so I don’t understand him at first. I have to ask him to repeat twice, which he does with good humour, slowing down each time. When I finally get what he’s asking, and why, I’m so embarrassed and touched by his thoughtfulness that I can hardly answer, and my words tumble out in a mess of English confusion. “Oh no, it’s fine, honestly, I only live on the first floor, it’s barely twenty steps, I can easily manage, don’t worry …” He takes my wittering with good grace and hands over my bags with a smile. “Well, if you’re sure …?” I nod, flushing to the very roots of my hair as I feel my eyes, ridiculously, starting to prickle with grateful tears. “Yes. But thank you. *Thank you*.” He nods and gives me a broad smile with just the hint of a wink. “I’ll close this door for you, shall I …?”

3This post was written for the Italy Blogging Roundtable, a group of seven like-minded women – either based in Italy, in love with her, or both – all writing about a single monthly topic in their own, individual ways. 

This month, our chosen topic was Community. We love to receive your comments and feedback, so do let us know what you thought of each post, either in the comments section below each one, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Now, without further ado, here’s the list of posts for this month. Read and enjoy …

Jessica – The Dark Side of Community
Gloria – Why you should spend your vacation in a small community
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Partytime at Assisi’s Calendimaggio
Alexandra – The expat community in Florence
Melanie – In Rome, Communing Over Coffee 

Posted in Italy Blogging Roundtable, Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

On being authenticated

meat on scale, sign
Authentication in the balance

The guys selling the chicken, pork and beef from the stalls outside the butcher’s shop know me now. After eighteen months of me shopping there, they can guess what I’m after before I’ve even asked for it. The chicken guy is the friendliest (if still reserved), and will always give me a smile, as well as a bit of chat, but the little old guy who sells the pork also nods when he sees me coming. “Pork chops, signora? Nice thick ones?” Conversation doesn’t run to much with him, as he seems only to speak dialect and we don’t understand each other’s words, but a smile and some sign language go a long way.

The women inside, on the other hand, make being sullen an art form. There are always the same two behind the counter, weighing the meat and taking the money: mother and daughter, from the look of them. Then there’s a third, whose eyes give her away as another daughter, and who deals with the meat grinder and packing up cuts of meat when the men have their hands full. The daughters’ faces will relax just a fraction nowadays when the strange foreign woman comes in to pay, but the mother is always like stone. I don’t take it personally: she’s the same with everyone.

potatoes, cu mangia patati non mori mai
Sicilian greengrocer say, ‘he who eat potatoes never die’

There’s rain threatening today, as there has been all morning, but the shopping can’t be put off any longer if we want to eat tonight. The dumpy woman at the potato stall shivers while she weighs them out, and the clatter of my coins as I drop them into the plastic scoop that she uses to extend the reach of her arm over the stall seems overly loud in the absence of the usual market day chatter. It’s a slow day for the traders today; most right-thinking Catanese are closeted at home for fear of getting wet.

At the cheese stall a few weeks ago, when they asked where I was from and discovered that I was English, I was drawn into a conversation about the price of cigarettes in London. “They’re really dear, aren’t they?” Today, it’s business talk only. Everyone – not least me – is keen to finish up for the day and go home to get warm.

As I scrabble in my purse for change, the rain that’s been looming all morning begins, pooling on the tarpaulin above and dripping off the edges. With my head bent forward as it is, it won’t be long before one of those drips goes down my neck, but I don’t have a spare hand to pull my hood up. I squeeze closer to the front of the stall. The cheese guy gives an abrupt shake of his head. “Signora!” I look up and he beckons me round to his side, out of the rain. He holds out his hands for my tangle of shopping bags. “Here. Give me those.” I hand them over with a grateful smile, put up my hood, and find him the correct change.

Carrying the weight of the world - or so it sometimes seems
Carrying the weight of the world – or so it sometimes seems

Transaction completed, the cheese guy gives me a grave nod of acknowledgment and looks at the bags in his hands. I make as if to take them back from him, but he frowns and gestures towards the cotton shoppers with which I always come armed. In today’s hurry to get home before the rain started, I haven’t managed to stuff my accumulated plastic bags of produce into them, and they are still slung, empty, over my shoulder. “In there? I’ll help.” He holds the cotton bags open as I stuff the various plastic ones inside, stammering flustered thanks as I do so.

I’m about to cram in the final bag when he grabs it back out of my hands. “Wait!” In my English haste to stop bothering the poor man, I hadn’t taken note of what was in each bag as I shoved it into the shoppers. He extracts a bag of delicate mushrooms out of the shopper and hands them over to me with a satisfied nod at averting disaster. “Carry those apart, yes?” I nod in meek agreement. Bags packed to his satisfaction, he hands them back to me with the hint of a smile and a gruff, “Good day, Signora.”

charlie brown, rain
Maybe not, Charlie Brown, but try telling a Sicilian that

I stride on to the butcher’s shop, where I’m greeted with the usual transactional questions from the men, and dead-eyed cold indifference from the women. While I pay, it starts to pour in earnest. I walk to the doorway, arms full of groceries, and look outside in dismay at the torrents of rain sheeting down. I’m well-sheltered by the tarpaulin over the top of the meat stalls out front, but the pork guy mistakes my expression for one of determination and holds up his hands with a ‘stop right there’ gesture. I don’t catch what he says but his meaning is clear from his hectoring, fatherly tone: ‘there’s absolutely no way I’m letting you leave this shop in this weather, young lady!’ The chicken guy laughs at me. “No umbrella?” I shrug and shake my head, laughing along with him. He points his knife at me, still killing himself with laughter. “You’re stuck here until 2, then, according to the forecast!” I open my eyes wide and groan in mock-horror, then set down my bags and lean against the doorframe to wait out the worst of it.

The meat-grinding daughter comes to stand next to me. “Can you smell oranges?” I don’t realise at first that she’s talking to me, and am so taken aback when I do that I almost forget to answer. “Er – yes! Yes, I can.” She nods across at the kiosk opposite. “Must be from over there, I reckon. Strange how the rain brings it out, though, no?” She grins companionably, and I do the same.

We stare out at the rain, which is still absolutely belting it down. The street outside has turned into a river and the few people still on the streets when it started are huddled in doorways like miserable stray cats, umbrellas up against any stray overflows from above. Chicken guy turns to meat-grinding daughter and says something in dialect too rapid for me to catch. She says something back and disappears. He gives me, still standing in the doorway of the shop, a look of amused concern. “Do you live far from here?” I shake my head. “No, just a couple of streets away.” Meat-grinding daughter returns, brandishing an umbrella with a grin as wide as her face. “You want this …?” Chicken guy nods earnestly at me and I now understand what it was that he’d said to her before: ‘get the girl an umbrella lest she drown’ – or words to that effect.

It seems that I might be – despite previous evidence to the contrary – an authenticated local. And that means that – despite the rain – right now I couldn’t be happier.

10945668_877918802228277_6794141516962125727_n

This month, as well as the usual Italy Roundtable posts, you have some special bonus ones, as we ladies of the Roundtable have teamed up with the COSÌ bloggers to talk about our ideas on authenticity.

Enjoy …

Italy Blogging Roundtable

  1. Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
  2. Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
  3. Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
  4. Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
  5. Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
  6. Melanie – Everything is Authentic

COSÌ

  1. Englishman in Italy – How Authentic an Italian are you?
  2. Rick’s Rome – The Authentic Italian Culture Debate
  3. Sex, Lies and Nutella – How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)
  4. Married to Italy – The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land 
  5. Surviving in Italy – What does it mean to be authentically Italian?
  6. The Florence Diaries – Searching for the real Italy
  7. Girl in Florence – Real or fake? Shop smart in Italy
Posted in Italy Blogging Roundtable | Tagged , | 13 Comments

Things my Sicilian boyfriend and I fight about

Well, all right, not fight about. But they definitely baffle us. Welcome to the heady world of the cross-cultural relationship.

Item one: food

photo50
Cornish pasties FTW!

He’s Italian; I’m English. You may be chuckling right now, thinking that you’ve already guessed what the problem is. You’d be wrong. This Englishwoman can cook. And that Italian man is a staunch convert to the delights of Cornish pasties and sticky toffee pudding. (Maybe not so much Marmite, but a good 50% of Brits don’t like it either, so we’ll let that one go.) No, it’s not that English food is disgusting and Italian food is sent from heaven, as many would have you believe, but just that we have very different expectations of what constitutes a square meal.

A potted history of my eating habits: My mum’s early education in food was from my German-Jewish by birth, Surrey-raised grandmother. Mum then went on to train at a Cordon Bleu school and to work as an in-house caterer for a posh City investment bank. My dad, meanwhile, spent his early years in Malaya, before returning to English boarding school life. My culinary education has therefore been wide-ranging. I learnt to love strong tastes like pumpernickel, kümmel and curry from a very early age. Pizza and pasta appeared rarely on the table; meat and two veg (heavy on the veg side of things) was the more usual order of the day. If I drank a hot drink, it would be tea, and it would be scalding hot; the same goes for food. I’m not as fanatical as my mother, who heats all her plates, but I still prefer my hot food to be hot, rather than lukewarm.

Davide's idea of torture when we first met
Davide’s idea of torture when we first met

Compare this with Davide’s childhood foods, which were Sicilian, and nothing but. Until he met me he’d eaten (sub-standard) Mexican a handful of times, and had never tried Indian, Thai, Chinese or Japanese food. Mild spices had him gasping for air and glugging down litres of water. His dream meal was (actually, still is …) Catanese schiacciata: broccoli, tuma cheese and black olives cooked down until soft and chunky, and sandwiched in between two thick layers of pizza dough before being sliced into 8-inch squares. Coffee is his hot drink of choice, but he has to let it sit for ten minutes before he can drink it. Hot foods get cut up into bitesized chunks and spread out around the plate to cool before being blown on vigorously, just to make extra sure. In fact, on more than one occasion when I’ve served lasagne or moussaka, which retain nuclear levels of heat for unfeasibly long lengths of time, I’ve finished eating before he’s even started.

In the past two years, we’ve come to compromises over many things: he’s more of a chili fanatic than I am nowadays, chucking peperoncino flakes over everything and requesting Tex-Mex over every other type of cuisine, and I can’t function without coffee every morning. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to agree on the other’s unconditional love for tea or schiacciata, though.

Item two: cultural references

What do you mean, you don't get the cultural reference?!
What do you mean, you don’t get the cultural reference?!

Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ is playing on the radio. Davide turns it up. “Do you know this song, amore?” I snort ironically. “Do I know this song? Of COURSE I know this song!” He looks at me oddly. “Why ‘of course’?” I remind myself for the millionth time that we grew up in (a) different countries and (b) different decades.

Davide turns on the overhead light in the bedroom. I dive under the covers, squeaking, “Brigh’light! Brigh’light!” I know he’s seen Gremlins and loves it, so am confused when he doesn’t get the reference. All becomes clear when I remember that I’ve forgotten the vital fact that foreign language films are universally dubbed into Italian here.

Item three: layers and language

Language is an obvious hurdle in a cross-cultural relationship. It has more levels to it than just words, though. Vocabulary is the very tip of the iceberg. Factor in things such as local dialects and phrasing along with differing cultural norms and there are myriad opportunities for misunderstanding.

Welcome to my world ...
Welcome to my world …

I grew up in a cold house which was expensive to heat. Entreaties to my dad to put the heating on would be met with a quick retort to “put another jumper on”. Layering, to me, is a way of life. Davide, on the other hand, works on a ‘what you see is what you get’ basis. In the summer, he wears shirts or printed t-shirts; in the winter, jumpers over plain, short-sleeved t-shirts which he regards as vests. If we go to a crowded restaurant in winter, he swelters, unwilling to remove his jumper and expose either his arms or his ‘underwear’.

A while ago, Davide needed a new jacket for hiking in the mountains, so off we headed to Decathlon. He was on a limited budget, and I suggested buying something lightweight and waterproof which he could layer over the top of a fleece or hoodie. He, however, was set on buying an (admittedly gert lush) insulated jacket. My reasoning that the lightweight one would see more use in a country that only has three months of cold weather fell on deaf ears: the insulated jacket was bought.

Anyone could make the same mistake ...
Anyone could make the same mistake

The following weekend, out walking in the mizzle, Davide starts bemoaning the fact that his new jacket is too hot. Exasperated, I tell him that I’d told him so: “All you really needed was a lightweight one!” Now, I admit that I’m being snippy, but I’m unprepared for him to give as good as he gets and retort, “Actually, I need both.”

I’m gobsmacked. Have I heard correctly? Did he actually just use ‘actually’ at me? How dare he?! Furious, I step up my pace and march along the path, radiating spikes of pissed-off Englishness into the muggy air.

Five minutes pass, the silence broken only by stomping footfalls and pinched, huffy breathing, before Davide speaks again. “Have I said something wrong?” Turns out that he has no idea of the effect of using ‘actually’ against an English person who’s convinced they’re in the right in an argument.

I feel somewhat silly.

This post is my contribution to February’s Italy Roundtable, and this month, I’m excited to announce that we have a new member to welcome to the Table: Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso. Don’t forget to check out her – and all the other ladies’ – thoughts on this month’s subject: Lost in Translation.

10945668_877918802228277_6794141516962125727_nJessica False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria Senza parole…
Rebecca Lost in Translation: Lost at the Table
Alexandra The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Melanie Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art
Michelle Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

Posted in Eating Like a Maniac, Italy Blogging Roundtable, Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Getting residency in Catania – a story

dirty ashtray
8:30 in the morning and the ashtray’s already full

“Good morning. I’m English, but I’d like to get Italian residency.” The man in the filthy, nicotine-stained office with the overflowing ashtray on his desk barely gives me a glance. “You’re in the wrong department. Round the corner, number 28, first floor.”

Well, that was a good start.

Davide and I navigate our way up the rickety stairs at number 28, which are covered in plaster dust, and have trailing cables hanging loose from the walls. It hardly seems possible that we’re going to the right place, but then I spot a battered A4 printout on the wall with a crudely-drawn arrow pointing us to the office for foreign registrations. We carry on.

Upstairs, there’s a row of chairs fixed to the wall. I scoot to the only available one and sit myself down. There are two doors – one at the end of the corridor, and one to the left of the chairs. They’re both firmly locked. I peer along the line of people, all clutching various official-looking bits of paper, as I try to work out everyone’s stories. A good few people – including me – look like they’re here with Sicilian spouses, but there’s also a Chinese couple and a Sri Lankan family, as well as some people on their own.

This staircase might be in better condition than the one at the anagrafe
This staircase might be in better condition than the one at the anagrafe

The office is supposed to open at 9:00. At 9:10, the camp man who’s been flitting in and out of the door since 8:45 opens it and lets the Sri Lankan family in. Or part of it, anyway. The family consists of middle-aged Mum and Dad, and their young adult son. It seems like the son already has his documentation sorted, but that the parents’ Italian is a bit lacking, so he’s here as translator. They’ll only let two out of the three of them in at one time, though, so there’s some shuffling about of different family members while they deal with all the permutations.

The rest of us are left waiting in the freezing cold corridor, staring at an out-of-order photocopier. A large group of Senegalese men arrives. “Who’s last in the queue?” There’s a fair bit of confusion over this , so the head Senegalese guy – wearing darkest of dark glasses and whitest of white linen shirts, sleeves rolled up to the elbows despite the January cold – takes charge. “Let’s make a list. Everyone write your names down in the order you arrived.”

Camp guy emerges out of the door again. The Chinese couple who are at the top of the list dart forward – but camp guy holds up a hand. “Changing residency within Catania ONLY.” The Chinese couple slumps, defeated, as a round, partridge-like Sicilian man and his wife – who looks Italian but can’t be – get to jump the queue. Five minutes later he comes charging out of the door, identity card in hand and a harried look on his face. Davide nods in comprehension: “My guess is he needs a photocopy.” I look at the pile of papers in my hand. Stupidly, I hadn’t thought about photocopies – and I bet I’m going to need at least one, if not more, of every document I’m holding: work contract, passport and Codice Fiscale (tax code). It didn’t mention this on the website – but then again, when I emailed this office for confirmation of the documents needed, I received a reply consisting solely of their opening hours. It doesn’t bode well.

Creating order out of chaos
Creating order out of chaos

Camp guy opens the door again. “Catania to Catania ONLY.” We first registrants subside, muttering, as people who arrived after us get to jump ahead. The next time this happens, Davide and a few others push forward and stand in the doorway, demanding answers. Camp man shrugs: “What can I say? Primo iscrizione takes a long time …” Davide returns, chuntering. “There are four people sitting in there – and two of them are just twiddling their thumbs and doing nothing.” A rebellion starts to brew in the corridor. Somebody bangs on the door. Camp man opens it a crack. “All right; FINE – primo iscrizione. Who’s next?”

Davide and I enter. “Good morning. I’m English, but I’d like to get Italian residency.” The woman behind the desk asks for my work contract. I give it to her and she flicks a look at the headed paper it’s printed on. “So this is a letter of confirmation from your employers, yes? We need your CONTRACT, dear. Oh, and proof that you have workplace insurance.” She pushes it back over the desk towards me. It takes a second for what she’s said to sink in. I start to splutter. “What? No, this IS my contract. Here – look.” I jab my finger at the part that says, at the top, ‘Contratto di Lavoro’. “And here – here’s the part that tells you about the insurance.” She nods, supremely uninterested. “Yes, yes; well, you still need the insurance certificate. Your employers will have it, for sure. We’ll need to see the original, obviously, as well as a photocopy.”

A phone call comes in to her desk. She calls over to camp man. “Michele! Can you answer the phones? And if they’ve got any questions, just tell them to come down here and we’ll let them know what they need when they get here.”

Unhelpful
Not-so-helpful help point

While I fume, lost for words at the inefficiency and miscommunication, Davide grabs a pen and a piece of paper. “Signora. Please tell us *exactly* what documents we need to bring with us.” She reels off a list of dizzying length, then passes over a number of forms to fill out. “There. Come back when you’ve got everything.” She turns back to her computer screen. We are dismissed.

A few days later I’m back in the freezing cold corridor again. Davide is still downstairs hunting for an at least semi-legal parking space. Despite having arrived half an hour before the office opens, there’s somebody already in the queue – a tall, young, black guy. I smile at him and he nods back with a wry grin. “You can go ahead of me if you want – I’m waiting for my lawyer.” I thank him, and tell him that I’m waiting for someone, too, but if his lawyer still hasn’t arrived when the office opens then I’ll skip ahead. There’s a moment of that awkward silence you get after having started a conversation with a stranger who you then have to sit next to for an unspecified amount of time. He breaks it by asking me where I’m from. I tell him. His face lights up. “Oh, I so want to go the UK! And to America. One day, I hope …” He tails off. The fact that he’s at this office waiting for a lawyer indicates that it’s probably going to be a long road for him to get the necessary permissions to travel through Europe and the States. I give him what I hope is a sympathetic smile and ask where he’s from. Senegal, apparently.

We lapse back into silence.

Oh, those tights!
Nora, Compo and Nora’s tights

A tiny, elderly Indian woman stomps cheerily along the corridor, keeping up a mumbling commentary to herself as she goes. She’s your stereotypical crazy lady, dressed in a faded, navy blue padded coat, buttoned to the chin. The coat falls to knee level, below which is a pair of skinny bow legs encased in wrinkled, Nora Batty-esque tights, and bottomed off with carpet slippers. She heads for the door of the office, grinning blithely at us. “Is there anyone in there?” We tell her that there is, but that the office isn’t open yet. She chuckles. “Oh, well. I’ll just give them a knock anyway …” Davide – who’s arrived just in time to see the show – shoots me an amused glance. Crazy lady bangs smartly on the door. As expected, the jobsworths inside ignore it. She bangs again – and again. Camp guy opens the door a crack. “We’re not open yet.” Crazy lady isn’t in the least deterred. “But you’re all here! Why don’t I just come in …?” She takes a step closer, beaming and nodding as she does so. Camp guy steps back, taken by surprise at her insistence. She twinkles at him. “Ooh, g’wan. Let me in!” There’s a voice from inside – somebody has recognised her. “Signora!” A woman appears at the door and puts an arm around her shoulders. “How lovely to see you – why don’t you come on in for a chat?”

At 9:00 a large, grey tabby cat appears in the corridor, weaving its way through the legs of the back-office staff who are only now arriving, coffees in hand. She seems to know her way about, and heads directly for the door to the back office. One of the workers laughs. “She’s here to see her owner! Who does she belong to?” There’s general hubbub from inside the office as everyone denies responsibility. The cat pokes her nose through the open door but is shooed away. She trots back the way she came.

Crazy Lady reappears out of the office, just in time to spot the cat. She cackles with joy. “Hello, kitty!” The woman from the office pats her on the shoulder, her face tolerant but kind. It seems unlikely that Crazy Lady had any real business in the office today, but she’s content to have had a chat. Maybe the workers here aren’t so bad after all.

Yippee!
Yippee!

9:10, and camp guy finally opens the office door for business. “Who’s first?” Senegalese guy’s lawyer still hasn’t arrived, so he gives Davide and me a rueful shrug and waves us ahead. When we get inside, the woman from last time is there. She gives a giggle and points us over to another desk. “Hello again. Don’t worry – you can go to Rita today. She’ll sort you out.” We take a seat at the indicated desk and pull out the folder full of paper that we’ve brought with us. “Good morning,” I say. “I’m English, but I’d like to get Italian residency …”

Postscript: Second time around, all went well, and I’m now (pending a visit from the Vigili to confirm that I live where I say I do) registered as an Italian resident. Calloo, callay! If you’re thinking of going through the same process, I recommend getting in touch with your local anagrafe and finding out what documents you need. In my case, this was:

1. passport (original plus photocopy)
2. codice fiscale (original plus photocopy)
3. work contract (original plus photocopy)
4. workplace insurance certificate (original plus photocopy)
5. photocopy of landlord’s identity card
6. photocopy of landlord’s flat deeds
7. completed, signed form from landlord stating that I’m staying in his flat
8. completed, signed form of my personal details
9. €16 tax stamp. Phew.

Post-postscript: This post was written as part of the Italy Roundtable’s (newly resurrected! Yay!) monthly blog posts. This month’s theme was Changes; do check out what the other ladies have written, and leave us some comments to let us know what you think, either on our blogs or on our Facebook page.

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Jessica – The Beautiful Mess
Gloria – Changing climate, changing tourism in Tuscany
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing
Alexandra – Florence is changing
Melanie – Rome Revisited: What Has and Hasn’t Changed 

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Interview with an Unwilling Expat

This interview took place on camera in Italian. Luckily for you, I'm a bit more coherent in written English ...
This interview took place on camera and in Italian. Luckily for you, I’m a bit more coherent in written English …

Months and months and *months* ago, I received an email from Rochelle of Unwilling Expat, asking if I’d be interested in doing an interview for her blog. I shot her a quick email back, saying yes, why not? – and promptly forgot all about it.

Forward a month or so, and Rochelle sends me an email apologising for the delay, and including the questions she’d like to ask if I’m still up for it. I file it away for later – and promptly forget about it again.

Clearing out my inbox a month or so on again, I find said forgotten email. Swearing lightly under my breath, I copy and paste the questions into a text file and – (are you spotting a theme yet?) – forget about them for a third time.

A couple of weeks later, I finally get round to completing the interview. I check it through for errors, mail it back to Rochelle and (you know what’s coming, yes?) wipe all memory of it from my mind.

So it was a lovely surprise when, at the beginning of this week, Rochelle emailed me to wish me a Happy Christmas and to let me know that the interview was going to go up on the 19th (i.e. today). And it was an even lovelier surprise to read what I’d written. At this point in December, when it’s cold and rainy and my brain is exhausted from coming up with exciting ideas for lessons over the last three months of term, it’s good to be reminded of the things that I love about living here in Catania.

Go on: have a read. I think you’ll see what I mean.

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Acquarocca degli Zappini – a trek into the clouds

Autumn Etna by Kate Bailward
Etna’s trees, dressed in their best and showing off their full range of autumn colours
rocky gold and green by Kate Bailward
Into the woods …

 

trippety trap by Kate Bailward
… and over the bridge, trippety-trap

 

 

 

 

 

 

copper and clouds by kate bailward
A glow of sun from far above, and the damp, smoky scent of cloud all around

 

into the clouds by kate bailward
A crisp-edged broom breaks through its muffling layer of cloud

 

fruitful wasteland by kate bailward
With the cloud is at its thickest, and the slope at its steepest, we scramble through undergrowth and skid on crunchy, loose-lying, black ash on our final push to the top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… where the clouds – at just the right moment – clear.

Etna, you never fail to amaze.

our route
our route

You can also find a description of the route, and directions on how to follow it here

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Bread and wine and broken bridges – a day in the Nebrodi

A small part of a much greater whole
Greater than the sum of its parts

We’re in a panificio in Cesarò, picking up supplies for lunch. It’s a family-run place which looks like a normal house from the outside – stone-built, low-roofed, farm implements stacked up against the wall, that kind of thing. Inside, there’s one room with an enormous bread oven, one holding the breadmaking equipment – including an industrial mixer which stands as high as a man – and one room which serves as the shop. We go into the oven room first, as that’s where all the activity seems to be, but are shooed out again by a tall, solidly-built man who I assume to be the owner. “You need to go to the other part, Signori.”

We obey, heading out through one fly curtain and back in through another to a small, dark room with a glass-covered deli counter filled with meats and cheeses. Around the walls there are display shelves with pretty, cellophane-wrapped packages of chocolate-chip cupcakes and biscuits. My eyes grow large. Davide gives me an amused, sideways look and tells the owner that we want pane condito – sandwiches made to order. The man, a little shamefaced, admits laughing defeat. “Ah. Yes, you need to go back to the oven, in that case. Sorry.”

The oven room is full of bread-scented haze – neither smoke nor steam, but a mixture of both – and a group of odd-seeming, middle-aged people milling around an industrial steel-covered kitchen counter. Standing at the counter, busy filling up freshly-baked bread with cheese and salami and handing the resulting sandwiches to the crowd around her, is a woman of the same sort of age as the man we’ve just spoken to. At the oven, meanwhile, there’s a bleary-eyed younger woman dressed in a flour-covered black tracksuit and heavy gloves. It’s a fair bet that they’re mother and daughter, while the man in the shop is the father of the family.

Her hands protected by thick gloves, the daughter pulls loaf after ring-shaped loaf out of the cavernous oven on a long-handled pallet, and stacks them in rectangular, tablecloth-lined laundry hampers. The hampers, sitting on plastic picnic chairs with their mouths at waist height, and with white cloth draping down their sides, look like baby bassinets with dark-blonde heads peeping out of the top. The illusion is broken when Mamma calls for another loaf and daughter unceremoniously heaves one of the ‘heads’ out; she tosses it across the room to her mother, who wastes no time hacking into it with her fearsome bread knife.

No bread board required
No bread board required

The odd group are twittering about how warm their sandwiches still are. Funny, that, considering they came out of the oven not five minutes previously. I’m not sure whether they’re eating breakfast or lunch or just snacking, but when they head to the picnic tables outside, Mamma yells out to them, ‘There’s wine if you want. Or Coca Cola or whatever.’ I don’t hear what they reply, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t get stuck into the wine, despite it being only about 10am. They looked like they were in need of … something.

It’s our turn to get our sandwiches. Daughter pulls a loaf out of the oven and hands it directly across to her mother. Mamma grabs it and places it flat on the counter in front of her before pulling it back towards her so that it’s steadied against her stomach. Holding her bread knife as if she intends to commit hara-kiri, she stabs it into the far edge of the loaf and starts hacking towards herself, rotating the loaf as she does so. From behind, it looks like there’s a grisly disembowelment in process.

Steam furls upwards.

Mamma pours oil from the kind of can that looks like it should belong to the Tin Man, liberally onto the opened, soft stomach of the bread. She sprinkles salt, oregano; flips round slices of cheese on top. “What do you want in it?” “Everything you have, signora.” She yells to her husband in the shop part. “Bring some salami?” He does. She heaves it onto the meat slicer and sets the blade in motion, forcing the salami across it with the same bloodthirsty zeal that she used for splitting the bread. Seven neat slices slither out and get layered on top of the cheese in an overlapping ring. She looks at the bread, then at Davide, and slices more. Without looking, she gropes underneath the counter and hauls out a plastic gallon container filled with sundried tomatoes in oil; she fishes out a good few spoonfuls and scatters them over the salami. “You want olives?” I look doubtful; Davide wants them. Mamma suggests a compromise: “We’ll put them in a bowl for you. You want black or white?” She shoos us out of the oven room and tells us to go and pay as she jams the lid back on the bread and rips lengths of brown paper from a large roll in which to wrap it. “I’ll bring this through in just a moment.”

******************

Lago Trearie: no kangaroos allowed. Not even on a lead
Lago Trearie: no kangaroos allowed. Not even on a lead

We’re just short of Lago Trearie, our destination for today, and the highest lake (well, reservoir) in Sicily. There are two ways to get to it by road. One gets you to a point 4km below the lake, but leaves you on the far side of a locked gate unless you call the park wardens in advance and warn them you’re coming; the other is the way we’re arriving, from Maniace. This gets your car into the park, at least, but you have to drive a couple of kilometres along a road which becomes progressively more and more potholed until it stops dead at a bridge, which was deemed unsafe two years ago.

Rather than rebuild the damaged bridge, the powers that be have just closed it off at either end and left it to rot. When it first became unusable, it was completely closed, with boulders across both ends and an eight foot high barrier of heavy-duty wire mesh blocking even pedestrian access. At some point in the last two years, however, someone has cut a door-sized hole into the mesh and it’s now possible to walk across. Watch out for potholes that may or may not go right through the rotten concrete, though …

According to signs in the park, it’s a 1.4km walk from the bridge to the picnic area by the park gate. It’s then a 4km walk (uphill) from the picnic area to the lake. The lake itself is a coffee-coloured, muddy body of water held in place at one end by a dam made of large concrete blocks, and it’s nothing special. The hike to get there, on the other hand, is exhilarating, and works up an appetite for lunch. When we get there, it’s just started to drizzle, so we head for the pine forest on the far side of the reservoir and sit down on a convenient wooden pallet to eat the Cesarò sandwich.

I unwrap the outer layers of plastic bags and brown paper and break the loaf into pieces along the rough lines that Mamma hacked into it in the shop. The liberal coating of oil she gave it has soaked through the paper and slicked the inside of the first bag. My fingers covered with bread-warmed oil, I thank heaven that we had the foresight to wrap a second plastic bag around the first before putting it all in the rucksack.

The bread was still warm when I opened the rough package. Now that it’s been opened to the air, however, it’s a race against the cold. My hands go numb within minutes as cloud descends around us. The lake disappears into mist as Davide paces around outside the treeline, chasing brief moments of sunshine. He takes a second slab of filled bread and shoves it down as fast as he can – no easy feat. It’s delicious, but classically ‘casereccio’. My temples pound from the exertion of chewing it. Davide swallows his last bite. “Let’s go.” I eye the cupcakes that – at the last moment – I grabbed from the shelf at the paneficio and sneaked into the rucksack. Davide follows my gaze. “We can eat them at the picnic place, amore,” he says. “Come on – I’m freezing.” I ignore him and tear the sellotape off the top of the bag with my teeth, determined to get my sweet fix before we go. It doesn’t disappoint: somebody in that bakery has found the secret to proper cupcake sponge, and I’m in fluffy, chocolate-chipped heaven.

***********************

Dog or fox? Place your bets now
Dog or fox? Place your bets now

“Look! A dog!” says Davide, as we near the picnic area. My hands have finally regained a little pinkness, as opposed to their deathly whiteness at the lake, and I was too busy looking at them to see the dog appear. I see it running away from us, however. Davide hesitates. “Actually – is it a fox?” The dog-slash-fox appears at the top of another rise ahead of us, running towards the smell of roasting meat which we’re also following, and I see what he means. It’s longer-legged than an English fox, but the colouring’s right. I shrug. “Could be …?”

When we get into the picnic area, there’s a large group there and the smell of roast meat fills the air. Davide is hunting for the hikers’ hostels that a friend of his has rented in the past. He spots them, over the stream behind the main picnic area, and we head over to take a closer look. There’s a fluffy St Bernard puppy peering out at us from behind a mesh fence, paws up on the knee-high wall below it. We move closer to say hello, and the dog-slash-fox appears from around an unexpected corner. It’s scuttled around the back, probably to avoid the crowded picnic area. Davide whistles and it comes closer. She’s a dog, but there’s fox in her not-too-distant genes. She’s also female, we can see at these close quarters. She pricks her ears and looks up at us with honey-amber eyes, then moves towards the puppy to say hello.

Another dog – a large, brindle-coloured thing that looks like she has Dobermann in her somewhere – appears out of a previously unnoticed kennel to the left of us, on the far side of the mesh fence. She’s wearing a heavy choke-chain and doesn’t look like the kind of animal you mess with. I move out of range. The dog-slash-fox, however, is unfazed. She leaps up onto the wall and greets the Dobey like an old friend. The Dobey, in turn, dances about on her side of the fence, squirming her tummy and wiggling her little stump of a tail as she snuffles through the wire mesh, rubbing noses with the dog-slash-fox. So much for the tough-girl exterior.

We head back over the stream as it starts to rain, to shelter under the trees. When the rain stops, we get up to leave. The man in charge of the barbecue, however, has other ideas. “Guys! Do you want some meat? We’ve got loads! Wine? Go on!” We refuse politely, but he’s insistent. “Come on! Seriously, there’s loads!” We’re not getting out of here without being fed and watered. We laughingly submit.

Our host pours the wine out of the kind of container that would usually house a few gallons of petrol. His friends call over to him: “MORE wine, mbare?!” He laughs back at them and indicates towards us. “It’s for the guys, here, honest!” He pours two beakers full to the brim and hands them over. I take a sip. It’s murky red and sweet. Someone’s home-produced stuff, no doubt. I like it, but am aware of the fact that it’s probably hideously alcoholic and I’m the designated driver on the way home. I sneak over to the fence by the stream to try to surreptitiously pour some away.

Davide follows me. He’s also trying to jettison his wine, but for different reasons: he’s not a fan of the homebrew style. We giggle as we try to work out how to get rid of it without causing any offence. We’re nearly rumbled when one of the group appears, silent ninja-like, with a plate of sausages for us. He hands it over and disappears again, just as silently as he arrived; Davide and I choke back borderline hysterical laughter as we realise how close we were to being caught in the act. This wine is definitely more alcoholic than it appears.

Time to go home.

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Where there’s love, there’s flavour – a prequel

granita and brioche by kate bailward
Granita and brioche: the best way to start your day

May 2012. I’m in Pasticceria Dulcissima, talking to Maurizio and Silvana, the owners. He’s in the airforce and speaks excellent English. The shop is her dream. Se c’è amore, c’è sapore is the motto: If there’s love, there’s flavour. She makes the ice-creams by hand every day, measuring and balancing all the individual ingredients. The tastes can change every time she makes them, apparently, according to the weather, the ambient temperature, or just how well she balances her measurements.

Silvana fills up a coppetta with granita and hands it over. A little girl appears from the kitchen. “What are you doing?” Silvana answers her with literal honesty. “I’m filling up a cup with granita for the signora.” She hands it over the counter and I taste it. I’ve gone for mandorla flavour. You only have to look at it to see that it’s made with real, chopped almonds rather than just almond milk. The colour isn’t as brilliant white as others that you can find, and the texture is chunkier. Taste-wise, the sweetness of the sugar comes through more as well, not overpowering but complementing the almonds. This is proper, artisan granita. I smile at Silvana and tell her it’s good. *Really* good. She beams back. “I make it fresh every day.”

As I pay, Silvana asks if I’m English. Not, ‘where are you from?’, but ‘are you English?’ I tell her I am. Her face lights up and Claudia, the chubby-faced little girl at her side, looks up with interest. Silvana starts to talk about her dream of opening an artisan gelato shop in London. Do I think there’s a market for it? How easy would it be? I don’t know anything about the business side of things, but I agree that the English would probably go for good gelato. Is London the right place, though? Maybe a smaller city? Silvana bounces ideas around while I eat my granita and act as a sounding board.

cake_baking_qz4p2
You can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs …

There’s a loud alarm going in the back of the shop, and a smell of baked goods wafts out. Silvana calls to Maurizio, who’s on the phone outside. He makes as if to come and turn off the oven, but Silvana waves that aside. “She’s English! Come and talk to her!” She turns back to me to explain herself. “I speak only a little English, but my husband is very good. Sit down! Make yourself comfortable!” She ushers me to a seat at the side of the tiny shop, and disappears out back.

Maurizio comes in and introduces himself. “We can talk in English if it’s easier …?” I tell him I’d rather practise my Italian. At first he’s not very forthcoming. The shop is Silvana’s dream and, although he’s proud of what she does, he’s also reticent. He looks at the difficulties. 25 years in the airforce have given him strength but also caution. He talks about their two grown-up sons. One is a photographer, who’s recently finished his training in Florence and has now moved to Newport. When I talk about growing up near Bristol his barriers start to come down. Bristol would be close to the son, and would give them the smaller city feel that he seems to prefer. Would people buy the gelato, though? And how much would they pay? He wants to nail down the practicalities before committing to anything. I wish I could help more in terms of facts and figures, but I haven’t lived in the UK for three years. He nods in understanding.

“What’s Bristol like? How many days of rain are there a year?” Maurizio’s eyes crinkle in amusement behind his glasses. “Is it by the sea? That’s good. She doesn’t like too much sun. The weather’s better here than in England, but the people …” he pulls a face. “And we’re Sicilian.” He glances sideways at me. “We’re not from Catania, though. We’re from Trapani, on the west coast. Have you been? Where did you go? By the sea? Ah yes.” He nods and smiles. “Did you eat the couscous? She makes it for us every Christmas, with lots of garlic and fish. She can cook anything. I’ve been a pilot for 25 years but she can get a job far easier than I can. Tavola calda, gelato, granita – she can do it all.”

Silvana Ballistreri and il Maestro Cavaziel. Credit: Davide Cosenza. Used with permission.
Silvana Ballistreri and il Maestro Cavaziel

“She trained with an old traditional gelato maker here in Catania,” Maurizio continues. “Maestro Luca Cavaziel. He doesn’t take students any more. He’s 87. It’s a precision thing.” He pinches his forefingers to his thumbs and mimes tiny balances with his fingers. “She uses this -” he grabs a miniature calculator from behind the till and laughs. “It changes every day.” When I praise the idea of having only a few, really good flavours versus 50 not-so-good ones, he shrugs. “It’s expensive. It’s good, but it’s expensive. Here the price of gelato is about €30 per kilo. Elsewhere in Catania it’s about €14 or €15. In Florence it goes up to €35, but you’re paying for being in that city.” It seems that profit margins are a big stumbling block.

Claudia, who’s been hanging about while I talk to who I’d assumed were her parents, suddenly flies out from behind the counter. “Papà!” She flings her arms around the man who’s just come into the shop. Apparently Maurizio and Silvana are just babysitters for the morning. Her father leaves again and she returns to her place at Maurizio’s side, behind the counter. “My daddy’s happy,” she informs us.

Update: I wrote this piece over two years ago, but didn’t get round to publishing it at the time. I did, however, review Dulcissima’s granita in a post for Travel Belles.

Fastforward to the present day. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Davide, who’s the photographer son in Newport mentioned in the story, and who’s now back in Catania working on the website and social media side of things for Dulcissima. He asked whether I’d be interested in collaborating on some posts wherein he provides the pictures and I write the words. I said yes. So, in due course, there’s going to be more about Dulcissima’s excellent cakes and biscuits over on my food blog. For now, however, this has been a little slice of those future posts’ history. 

Photo of Silvana Ballistreri and Maestro Cavaziel © Davide Cosenza. Used with permission.

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Ibrahim and the game of Scrabble

As I always tell my students, spelling is important
As I always tell my students, spelling is important

We’ve barely set up the Scrabble board before we’ve drawn a crowd. Well, maybe ‘crowd’ is stretching it, but we’re certainly attracting attention by playing, as we are, in the park at Villa Bellini. A middle-aged Italian man cranes to see what it is that we’re doing as he walks past. Just as he’s about to dislocate his neck, his curiosity gets the better of his ‘ask no questions’ Sicilian-ness, and he shouts out, “Checkers?” Davide smiles. “No, Scarabeo.” The man doesn’t seem much enlightened, but having put himself out once, he’s not going to do it again. He hurries off.

Not like our next onlooker.

Ibrahim, as we will discover over the next half an hour of conversation and scrutiny, arrived here from Bangladesh five years ago. He has a wife and two daughters – one at university, one who’s much younger – still there, and he’s selling tat to tourists in Catania in order to make money to send back to them. He’s full of praise for the Catanese. “Other people, you know, they shout and they tell me to leave them alone. The people in Catania, though? No. Not them. They say, ‘no, grazie’ and they are polite.” He looks at the two of us – Davide with his Mediterranean colouring, and me with my red hair – and ponders for a second. “Where are you from?” Davide tells him and Ibrahim looks surprised. “You are from Catania? Oh!” His eyes flash across at me, betraying the source of his confusion. Davide’s and my cross-cultural relationship tends to throw people. The other week, in fact, Davide was asked by someone if he understood any Italian – and this after he’d asked a question, received a response, and asked a follow-up. Sometimes it’s as if the only thing people see is my Englishness, rather than his Italianicity.

But I digress.

Ibrahim smiles broadly at Davide and turns to me. “And you, miss? Where are you from?” I tell him I’m English. Ibrahim, at once losing interest in the non-Catanese, turns back to Davide. “Yes, the people of Catania are very good people.” He peers at the board. “So, how do you play – what is it called? – this … Scrabble?” Davide explains the basic rules as I concentrate on putting my next word down. Ibrahim is rapt. “Oh yes! This is a very good game! Very good for learning new words! I think my daughters would like this game.” Davide explains that it also exists in Italian – known as Scarabeo – and Ibrahim almost explodes with excitement. “Yes? So I can buy it here? Where can I get it?!” Davide and I look at each other for ideas. Our set was bought online, so we’re not the best people to ask for advice. It’s just as well that Ibrahim jumps into the fray and answers his own question. “In a bookshop, you think?” Davide and I nod enthusiastically. “Yes! That’s probably your best bet.”

Nothing worse than a cat getting onto your Scrabble board ...
Nothing worse than a cat getting onto your Scrabble board …

Ibrahim falls quiet, concentrating on looking at our letters while we play on. Every so often he gives a delighted, sotto voce, ‘yes!’ or ‘ha!’, but for the most part he’s letting the game continue. The quiet is broken by him giving a gusty sigh. “Ah … now I must get back to work. It has been a pleasure to talk with you and to learn about this interesting game.” We repeat the sentiment back at him, but he’s not quite finished. “You are very kind people. I think maybe …?” He shakes his armful of gewgaws gently. “It is my job, you know?” I smile at him. “Sincerely? I neither want nor need any of these things.” I reach for my bag as he hovers, anticipating what I’m going to say. “But I’ll happily give you what I have.” A crinkly-eyed grin spreads across his face as I tip the change out of my purse and pass it across to him. “Thank you, miss! Thank you very much.” His face becomes solemn and he looks up to the heavens. “Please, bless these two people for their kindness. Look after them and hope they have a happy life …”

Davide and I sit quietly as Ibrahim prays for us. He draws to a close and brings his eyes earthwards again. “It has been very much a pleasure.” He nods towards the board. “And now I understand! Very good game!” He grins and puts the palms of his hands together as he gives us a little bow and backs away. “I am Ibrahim, and now I must work. Goodbye!”

Goodbye indeed, Ibrahim. The pleasure has been all ours.

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The Last Good Day of the Year

Which beach where?
Which beach where?

“Signora!” Donato winds down the window of his battered turquoise car and calls to the woman sitting in the back seat of hers with all the doors open. “Signora – Lei sa dov’è la spiaggia?” The woman peers around the large bunch of flowers on her lap and gives him a look as if he’s from the moon. “The beach?” Donato nods. “Yes. Someone told us we could get down to the beach from around here somewhere …?” The woman gives him another look of amused confusion. “Well, yes, I suppose you *can* get there – but it’s *super* difficult! Wait -” She plonks the enormous bunch of flowers on to the seat beside her, and starts wiggling her large, black-clad bottom along the seat of the car and towards the open door. As she maneouvres herself out, she carries on talking. “Park your car over there – yes, just there – and I’ll show you. Then you can decide if you want to do it or not.”

Obediently, Donato flips his scruffy old car into reverse and scoots into the space behind the woman’s smart, shiny, black one. The four of us – Donato, Roberta, Davide and I – climb out into the scorching late-September sunshine and walk over towards the woman, who’s managed to heft her bulk out of the car and into the shade next to what I now notice is a little chapel. That would explain the flowers. The woman gives us a beaming smile. “Now, the thing is, kids, you’re young, so you can probably do it. Me? I wouldn’t even try! But if I show you the start of the track then you can at least decide if it’s worth it.” She moves, weeble-like, further into the shadows and points down the little path which is, now we’ve got past the chapel, obvious. “If you head down here you’ll reach the top of the cliff. You’ll find an old man there – that’s my husband, although don’t tell him I said he was old!” She chortles to herself in amusement and then changes her mind. “No, on second thoughts, actually, *do*!” She roars with laughter. “Because he is! And so am I!” I like this woman. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Donato doubles back to lock the car, and I follow him to dump my bag. For a recce mission in this heat, I’m not carrying anything more than I have to. When we get back, the woman’s still laughing with Roberta and Davide. “Go on!” She shoos us down the path then calls after us: “And *tell* him I said he was old, all right?!”

Trees are our friends ...
Trees are our friends …

We head down the twisty track, enjoying the shade cast by eucalyptus trees and ancient ivy. The brief moments when we lose the cool shade and are hit by sunshine seem, conversely, hotter and more stifling than ever and make Davide’s wistful sighs about this possibly being our last beach day this year seem like the ramblings of a sun-addled madman. Next weekend, he’ll be proved right, but right now? Summer seems like it’ll live forever.

The trees stop and we walk out onto the clifftop. Sure enough, there’s a man there, talking to a woman. Donato calls out to him. “Signore! Your wife sent us down here.” He grins cheekily. “She said there’d be an old man and a younger woman” – the man starts to laugh – “and that you could show us how to get down to the beach.”

“She said I was old, did she?!” The man picks his way up the path towards us, and holds out his hand to me. I take it, smile, and step towards him. I realise – as he does the same towards me – that, rather than being gallant, he was just making use of the nearest person to steady him across the uneven, rocky path. I flush with awkward English embarrassment. He, however, just grins and holds out his hand to Donato, the next person behind me, as he continues his train of thought. “She’s right, you know! I am!”

Having reached a level part of the path with the help of his handy chain of young’uns, the man stops walking and continues talking. “So you want to go to the beach, eh?” We nod, looking a little gingerly at the steep drop behind us. It’s a long way down. The man shrugs. “Well, you can see the path from here …” He waves his hand in a winding motion and looks down at our feet. Davide’s in trainers, I’m in Birkenstocks, and Donato and Roberta are both in flipflops. The old man looks back up again, pauses, and then comes to the same laughing conclusion as his wife. “Ach, you’re young! If you want to, I’m sure you can do it! Just be careful down the path. I haven’t done it for many years, but even back then it was a bit tricky underfoot …” We so-called youngsters peer down the path – and then the three Sicilians all look at me. It seems that being the token English person means that I’m the one who gets the final say on things today. “Kate? What do you think?” I nod. “Fine by me!”

The final beach day of the year is on.

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