The credit card saga: part I

Snail_origamiIt’s Palm Sunday, around 10am, and I’m on my way to the station to catch a bus to Siracusa. I know I’ve got enough money to get my bus ticket, and the people I’m meeting in Siracusa have offered to buy me lunch, so I don’t really need any extra, but I swing into the bank on my way past anyway. I don’t like the thought of turning up with an empty wallet. It seems rude, somehow.

As it’s Sunday, the main door to the bank is locked unless you swipe a bank card. Forgetting that I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, I swipe my English credit card through the slot, first one way, then the other. It does absolutely nothing. I pull my Italian bancomat card out of my wallet instead. Despite the fact that there’s been nothing much more than cobwebs in the account for at least two years, it opens the door. I laugh to myself: the laziness which has meant I haven’t closed the account yet may be costing me in bank fees, but there are times when it comes in useful.

1-1204463487cJKyInside the lobby there are two cash machines, one on either wall. I go to the one on the right and insert my credit card, going through the rigmarole of entering my PIN by touch alone, with my free hand shielding the keypad in case there are any hidden cameras above the machine. A message flashes up on the screen: this service isn’t available for your card. Rolling my eyes at the pointlessness of cash machines which don’t have cash in, I move to the other machine and enter all the information again, jabbing at buttons automatically. Withdrawal. Italian. X euros. PIN. OK. The machine starts to chunter and I wait for it to spit my card and money back out at me.

It seems to be taking longer than usual. I glance impatiently at the screen. The machine’s whirring, but it’s not doing anything more than that. No sign of my card being pushed back out of the slot, and no sign of any money either. Then the screen flashes, and the message changes. Rather than telling me to take my card and that my money will arrive shortly, it says that the machine is out of service.

Out of service with my card still trapped inside.

6m-1-

I gape, open-mouthed in horror, like a goldfish. Then I start jabbing at the cancel button, in the vain hope that my card will be ejected. Result: nothing. Feeling sick, I grope in my bag for my phone, scanning around the lobby for a number to call to report a faulty cash machine.

It’s at this moment that I see the two policemen climbing out of their car and heading towards the bank.

My first thought is that they’re going to arrest me. It’s the only conclusion my panicked mind can draw at this moment. One of the policemen peers through the glass outer door, shading his eyes with his hand to cut out reflections. He sees me and points towards the door release button, asking me to open it for them. I don’t see what else I can do; I press the button and the door slides across.

Italian_PoliceThe two men enter. “What happened, signora?” asks the one who was peering through the glass. I start to jabber the facts as I remember them, words spilling out of my mouth with surprising coherence, considering that I’ve just lost my credit card and I’m speaking in Italian to a policeman who may or may not be about to arrest me. He nods, listening carefully. “Which machine did you use?” I explain that I’d tried both of them, but that it’s the one on the left that has my card. The peering policeman’s silent partner pulls out a torch, turns it on and shines it into the card slot, squinting, one-eyed, after it. He then takes hold of the outer section of the card slot and pulls hard. It doesn’t budge. The first policeman pulls out a mobile phone and calls a number. “Massimo? Yes, we’re at the bank. No, we can’t see anything.” He looks up at me. “I’m going to give you a number to call, Signora.” I fumble for my phone as the policeman carries on talking to Massimo, whoever he may be. “Yes. OK. Yes, I’ll tell the signora to report it now. She should come back in the morning? OK.”

He hangs up the phone and focuses his attention back on me. “OK. Call this number …” He dictates it to me quickly; in my current stressed state of mind, I fail to register it. Numbers aren’t a strong point for me in Italian at the best of times. He repeats, more slowly, and this time I get it. I show him the screen and he nods. “Call that number, tell them what happened, then come back in the morning to get your card. You do live in Catania, don’t you?” I tell him I do, then jump as an alarm starts to sound. We’ve been standing in the lobby for too long with the door closed. A robotic voice sounds from a speaker somewhere above our heads, telling us to get out. I’m not sure what the consequences will be if we don’t, but the policeman seems keen to obey. He ushers me ahead of him, speaking smoothly as he does so. “Well, the good news is, Signora, that your card’s definitely not in the slot – it’s properly in the belly of the machine. However, call that number I’ve given you, OK?” I press the dial button and put the phone up to my ear, too dazed to do anything but exactly what I’m told. The policeman holds up his hand in parting salute. “Buona giornata, signora.” I mumble the appropriate response, while thinking privately just how unlikely it is that a good day is now on my cards.

Glühwendel_brennt_durchThe phone rings and rings. Every minute or so the ringing is interrupted by a recorded message: ‘Lines are busy. An operator will be with you shortly.” I continue standing outside the bank, waiting for the phone to stop ringing and a person to answer. A woman arrives at the door to the bank and starts to pull her bank card out of her wallet to swipe herself in. I hold up a hand to stop her. “Signora, it’s dangerous.” She eyes me with suspicion. “What do you mean?” I explain that the machine’s taken my card for no reason, that the police have just been here and that I’m on the phone waiting to report it. She gives me the fish-eye. “Well, which machine did you use?” I tell her both, repeating my advice not to use the machines today. If I’d been expecting thanks for an act of Good Samaritanism I’d have been disappointed: she walks away, chuntering under her breath as if it’s my fault.

The man selling woven palm leaves by the door of the bank – who was hanging on every word of my conversation with the woman – watches me surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye. Another police car patrols, slowing as it passes the bank, the men inside looking across the road to see what’s going on. Presumably the alarm that went off when I was inside with the other policemen has set off an alert. I’ve been standing here for a good ten minutes now, waiting for someone to answer the phone. It’s clearly not going to happen, so I decide to cut my losses. With a final scan of the lobby to check that my card hasn’t, by some miracle, been spat back out of the machine, I head home to call my credit card provider, in the hopes that they’ll be more responsive than the Italians have been.

Telephone_operators,_1952“Hello, this is the Halifax lost and stolen card line. You’re speaking to Sarah. May I take your name, please?” I give my name and Sarah’s disembodied, lightly-London-accented voice thanks me. “May I call you Kate today?” I’m so surprised by this thoughtful addition to the usual helpline script that I forget to be stressed for a moment. I smile. “Yes! Of course.” She thanks me again. “What can I do for you today, Kate?” I start to babble out an explanation. “Well my card was swallowed by the machine but the thing is I’m in Catania, in Sicily – ” There’s a squeak from the other end of the line. “Ooh, lucky you! Sorry – go on …” I laugh and continue, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen to get all the relevant details in before she gets another chance to interrupt me. I finish on a gasp of breath “… and so, anyway, the police said I could go and get my card tomorrow, but I just wanted to make you guys aware of the situation, you know?”

Sarah pauses before speaking. “So, do you want the card blocked, Kate?” I chew my lip. “I don’t know. What happens if I do that?” She launches into a scripted spiel, telling me that it’ll be blocked with immediate effect and that a new card will be sent to my registered address within five days. I screw up my face, knowing the probable answer to my next question but asking it anyway. “So, um, can you send it to a different address? Abroad, for instance?” She thinks for a moment. “How long are you going to be there?” I tell her I’m probably not going back to the UK for a couple of months at this point in time, and she hems and haws a little. “I see. OK, well, it’s possible, but you’d have to change your permanent address, and I can’t do that over the phone, unfortunately.” We both pause; me while I think about what to do, and her while she waits for me to say something.

In the end, it’s Sarah who breaks the silence. “What do you want to do, Kate? Do you want me to block it?” I squawk in agonised frustration. “I don’t know! Thing is – if I cancel the card and then it turns out that the bank have got it safe, then it’s going to be really difficult to get hold of the new one.” She makes a sympathetic noise. “I know. It’s so hard!” Her tone changes to one of decisiveness. “If it were me, I’d cancel it. Just to be safe, you know? But I absolutely understand where you’re coming from.” I gnaw on the edge of my nail, thinking about the best course of action to follow. I can see her point – but if it turns up OK at the bank in the morning and I’ve already cancelled it then I’m going to be kicking myself.

Sarah’s sympathetic voice breaks into my thoughts. “Kate …?” I make the decision. “OK. I’m – I think I’m going to leave it for now. But if I get to the bank in the morning and it isn’t there …” She finishes my sentence. “You call us straight back, OK?” I let out a whoosh of air, relieved to have made a decision. “OK.”

Tension lifted, we both start to laugh. I make a flippant comment about the life of the traveller and Sarah sighs. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I went all round Italy last year but we didn’t get to Sicily. What’s it like?” I grin. “I love it here. It’s amazing – you should definitely come sometime.” She laughs. “Stop it! You’re making me jealous!” I laugh with her. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s grey and drizzly here right at this moment.” I can almost hear her beaming wickedly down the phone at me. “Actually, that *does* make me feel better, believe it or not, ‘cos it’s sunny here.” It’s my turn to be jealous – and I tell her so – but I finish the call feeling infinite times better than I did when I started it.

(To be continued …)

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No clothes, please: we’re British

No U-turnAs we pull into Bristol airport it becomes apparent what the boys have been whingeing about for the past week. A large sign looms ahead, telling us prices for the different parking areas – including pick-up and drop-off. It’s only £1, but it still rankles to pay for what amounts a two minute drive-through. I’d assumed when the boys had said that you had to pay a quid to get out of the airport that it was when you actually parked, but apparently not. “Bugger that!” exclaims Mum. “I’ll just – um – turn around here …” – she swings the Golf into a side road, executing a wide U-turn – “and then I’ll stop here …” – she pulls up at the side of the road (Strictly No Stopping) that runs along the front of the terminal – “and you two can hop out.” We do so, pulling luggage out of the boot and onto the kerb while keeping a beady eye out for airport security as Mum gets out of the car to say goodbye. Davide delivers his thank-yous in carefully-rehearsed English: “I felt very welcome.” Mum smiles and gives him one of her trademark bear-hugs. “See you again soon!”

As the car pulls away from the kerb, Davide and I look at each other. “Your mother is nearly Sicilian!” he whispers, referring to her refusal to pay for parking. I laugh, then shiver as a gust of wind barrels along the road towards us. “Brrrr! I’ll be glad to get back to the sunshine in Sicily.” I look sideways at Davide and smirk a little. “Good luck with your minus three temperatures in Sweden, yeh?” He gives me a withering look as, chuckling to myself, I pull my scarf closer against the biting Bristolian wind; it seems even colder than usual after an hour in the hermetic, overheated metal box that is my mother’s car. We pick up the pace, hurrying to get into the terminal and out of the cold.

Elsewhere in the south-west (Kimmeridge, to be precise). It's windy here, too.
Elsewhere in the south-west (Kimmeridge, to be precise). It’s windy here, too.

Once inside, we head straight for the nearest coffee bar. A girl in black leggings, scuffed shoes, and an official-looking lanyard is sitting with a bored expression on her face opposite a boy wearing dark office trousers and a button-down shirt. He’s only about 18, and he’s ruined the effect of his smart clothes by shrugging an enormous, shabby parka on over the top of them. The boy and girl are sitting at one of those tables which are designed for people to stand at, and which have uncomfortable high chairs bolted to the floor either side of them almost as an afterthought. The sleeves of the boy’s parka droop over his hands as he picks up a pen to write on the form which the girl has just pushed across the table at him. He fumbles the excess material back, looking nervous. Davide nudges me. “Is he doing an interview? Here?” I nod. “I think so. I assume for one of the shops …” I trail off as I look around the terminal. It’s got more to it than the last time I flew out of Bristol a few years ago, but it’s still not exactly buzzing. “Well – maybe for one of the ones inside the departure lounge, after Security.” I knock back my cappuccino, which is pretty good as English airport coffee goes. “Speaking of which – shall we?”

I fly four to six times a year these days, and have become accustomed to the security process. However, flying out of Italy is very different from flying out of England. In Italy, you could take a hippopotamus as carry-on luggage and no-one would turn a hair. And putting laptops, electronic equipment and liquids into separate bins to be scanned? Nah. Who cares? In the UK, however, rules are enforced. And Bristol, as a newly expanded, up-and-coming airport, is following every single one. To. The. Letter.

When we get into the queue there’s a family – Grandpa, Mum, a toddler and a babe-in-arms – just reaching the scanners. As we wait, they strip off all outer clothing, including Mum’s boots and Grandpa’s belt, lose the toddler under the conveyor belt, reclaim her, unpack all the bottles of baby milk, lose the toddler through the metal detector gate, get her back again, and send three rucksacks and a nappy bag through the scanner. Mum folds up the pushchair to pass it through as well; it’s at this point that the jovial security guard realises: “Ah. Sorry love – you’re in the wrong queue.” Mum looks at him in distracted disbelief as she calls the toddler to heel yet again. The security guard nods. “Yeah, they should have sent you to a different one for the chair. Don’t worry, though.” He grins at her. “You just need to take it over there.” He points at a different scanner. Mum, who by this time is holding the baby, holds it out to Grandpa. Grandpa, however, is doing his best to contain the toddler. He looks up helplessly, hands full of squirming, giggling child. Mum, still holding the baby out at arm’s length, wheels around and shoves it at the security guard with a disingenuous shrug. Baby dispatched, she grabs the pushchair and scoots over to the larger scanner in stockinged feet, leaving Grandpa and the guard in charge of the children. The baby looks up at the guard thoughtfully and the big man grins. “Whaddya say we just put you down here, eh?” He pantomimes putting the baby onto the conveyor belt to be scanned; a titter passes through the queue of people waiting.

UK airports and beaches: boot removal mandatory
UK airports and beaches: boot removal mandatory

A couple of girls pass through security between the family and us. As they do so, I pull my laptop and Kindle out of my suitcase and hand them over to Davide to hold while I zip the bag up again. We reach the front of the queue and he dumps them into a bin, along with his coat and belt. The guard points at his feet. “Are those shoes or boots?” Davide takes a second to process the rapid English but then realises. “Oh! Boots.” The guard gives him a wide smile. “Gonna have to come off, I’m afraid.” He pats a bin. “In here.” The guard chats as I pull off my jacket, scarf and belt and drop them into a bin. “Any electronics?” I have a moment of panic as I scan around for my laptop. “Yes! Somewhere …” The guard searches through the bins, and calls a satisfied exclamation over to me: “Here, love, found them! They need to go through on their own, though.” He pulls another bin from the pile and moves the electronics into it. “OK, off you go.” He starts to wave us through, but then puts up a hand to stop Davide, while pointing at his jeans with the other. “Hang on a minute, mate – are those jeans new or old?”

Having travelled through Italian airports alone at varying stages of linguistic ability, from zero to now, I know all-too-well that feeling of panic as you hope that what’s just been said wasn’t along the lines of, “Oi, dodgy-looking individual, go straight to jail without either passing Go or collecting £200″. However, I’m on home turf here, with full understanding of the language, and I’m no more clued-in than he is as to why Davide’s been stopped. We gape at the guard in confusion. He gives Davide a serious look, before asking again: “Your jeans. Are they new or old?” Davide pauses and looks to me for help. I’m just as befuddled as he is, but translate into Italian for him so at least he knows what’s been said. We both then start to explain to the guard, our words crossing and tumbling over each other, expounding the confusion even more. “They’re quite old, maybe? / Well, they’re not really *new*, as such … / They’re old, but not very … / A few years, I think …” The guard nods gravely. “Yeah. OK. I see.”

He pauses and looks at us, one after the other.

“They’re gonna have to come off, mate. Sorry.” Davide’s lost in translation hell and the guard – who’s clocked the situation and is playing it for all it’s worth – is still giving him and his jeans the most forbidding of looks. I, meanwhile, am roaring with laughter. Davide gives a nervous giggle and turns to me for clarification. “Amore …? What’s happening?!” Still laughing, I translate what the guard’s just said. “It’s OK, though, amore – he’s taking the mick. I hope …” The guard winks at him, his fun and games for the morning well-executed. “Go on, mate. Through you go.” Davide doesn’t need asking twice.

On the far side of the scanners there’s a machine with five different coloured buttons. Each one has a cartoon face on it: a smile, a frown, or somewhere in between, depending. A sign above asks, ‘How was your experience today?’ I hover my hand over frowning reds and straight-faced yellows, irritated by the inequality of security procedures in different airports. “If it’s necessary,” I tell Davide, “it should be the same everywhere.” I flutter my fingers, undecided, above the buttons, then press hard on the grinning green face at the far right. I turn to smile at Davide. “Still, at least we had a laugh, eh?”

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… and breathe!

So, what’s been going on around these parts? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ve just got back from celebrating niece number one’s third birthday (cake and muddy dogs and small children – fabulous) and doing the whole international ‘meet the parents’ thing (which went very well, thank you) in England.

Not content with just one holiday, last night I booked a long weekend in Sweden over Easter. I’ve never been before, so I’m looking forward to to finding out if their coffee and cake are really as good as everyone says.

Then in between all this flitting about I’ve been teaching both in schools and privately, and writing stuff for other people – and to top it all off, the sun’s come out and doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.  So I’ve got lots to write *about*.  I just don’t have much time to *do* it. Sorry about that.

However, DLaM isn’t dead – far from it. So to keep you all occupied while I magic up some extra hours in the day, I’ve written a lovely, long, brand-new piece over at the Teaching House Nomads blog, all about how I learnt to love Italy. We got off to a bit of a shaky start, Italy and me, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And here’s why …

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BRB …

If you’ve been thinking that it’s a bit quiet around these parts at the moment, you’d be right. However, it’s not that I’ve forgotten about you – it’s just that I’ve been having a busy few weeks. Along with my regular, part-time teaching job, I’ve been doing extra lessons on the side, as well as training to become a Cambridge speaking examiner – oh, and cramming in a visit to England for some long-overdue family catch-up time.

Most excitingly for you, however, I’ve been writing for Teaching House’s new Nomads blog. It’s a great resource for anyone involved (or thinking of becoming so) in the EFL world – and for everyone else, it’s a damn good read, with fun stories from classrooms all around the world, written by a group of talented, travelling teachers. So g’wan – while you’re waiting for me to get some new posts up here, head over there, have a poke about, and join in the conversation.

See you there! Teaching House Nomads

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Carnival redux

A couple of weeks ago I pulled a jacket out of my cupboard that I hadn’t worn in a while, because it’s too lightweight for winter. Spring’s well on its way in now, though, so it was time to break out a different wardrobe. Running late as always, I flung the jacket over my arm, ran out of the flat, and barrelled downstairs to head out for the evening.

As I hopped into the car and leaned over to say hello to Davide a piece of confetti fluttered to the floor. This must have been the jacket I wore to Carnival last year, and that little piece of coloured paper had been hiding in a pocket all this time, just waiting for the right moment to come out and remind me that spring, sunshine and silliness are only just around the corner. 

Sadly I didn’t make it along to see the floats this year, but hey! That’s why I have a blog – so I can relive what happened last year at the mere click of a button.

Carnival. It’s what spring was invented for.

(WARNING: contains confetti. Lots of it. Yay! )

 sicily, acireale, carnival, carnevale, confetti, coriandoli

“That guy just threw confetti in your hair,” hisses Kate as I lower the camera and walk away from the enormous, primary-coloured float that I was shooting. I grin at her, not bothering to shake it out. “I know.”

We’re at Acireale Carnival, also known as ‘Il Più Bel Carnevale di Sicilia’ (the best carnival in Sicily). From what I’ve seen they’ve got a fair claim to the title. Catania, despite being a big city, doesn’t have anything like this. Today is a display of allegorical floats, enormous mechanised structures made of papier maché and covered in flashing lights, blaring music from giant speakers. On other days there might be floral floats or displays of children’s marching bands. More than anything, though, there’s a sense of fun and silliness. Bags of confetti are sold at 50-metre intervals along the roadside, along with silly string, masks and wigs. Kate and I are two of the very few people not dressed up. Scraping silly string from my coat later on, I realise the hidden value of wearing a costume to carnival – it protects your clothes. I’m not worried, though. Everything washes out and I’ve had far too much fun in the sunshine to be bothered. I’ll still be finding confetti in my bed nearly a week later; it’s like glitter that way. It creeps in everywhere. Then, just when you think it’s all gone, a little piece shows up to make you smile.

sicily, carnival, carnevale, acireale, confetti, coriandoli

A girl across the road peels floating whirls of candy floss from the giant bundled cloud in her hand. She crams it into her mouth without looking as she gazes in awe at the enormous float coming down the road towards her. In common with most of the kids running about the carnival today she’s dressed in costume. The most dedicated parents buy costumes a few sizes too big and bundle warm weather clothing underneath to avoid ruining the overall effect. However, either this girl’s parents aren’t that forward-thinking or she’s had this costume for a few years; there’s no space underneath for extra layers. Instead, over the translucent powder-blue gauzy material and shiny turquoise satin that make up her princess dress, she’s wearing a heavy knitted Aran cardigan of the kind that you’d see Shoreditch hipsters wearing with thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans. It comes down nearly to her knees, at which point the chiffon of her skirt explodes outward like so many clouds of pale blue, shimmery mist. Her parents steal pinches of spun sugar from the stick in her hand. She edges away and starts making efforts to stick it to the back of her ears as she dives into it, mouth first.

sicily, carnival, carnevale, acireale, confetti, coriandoli

A family of penguins walks past. Mum, Dad and baby in a pushchair, all bulging fur-fabric stomachs and flappy wings, complete with beaked hoods and giant, webbed orange feet attached to their shoes.

A row of teenage boys lines the front of the float, smirking with the insouciance of being 18 and part of the inner circle. They lounge as they roll their cigarettes, too cool for school in their leather jackets and skinny jeans. A younger boy runs up to the side of the 4×4 bike that pulls the float, giggling with glee, and one of the teenagers shouts across at him. “Get back here now!” The boy glances over but continues to bounce along beside the bike. The teenager – an older brother? – launches himself off the float and onto the street, grabbing the younger boy gently but firmly by the arm and propelling him backwards. “Sit down and stay out of trouble, you hear?” The boy nods and clambers up onto the slow-moving float, swinging his legs over the edge as he settles himself next to the older kids with an open-mouthed grin and sparkling eyes.

sicily, carnival, carnevale, acireale, confetti, coriandoli

A group of friends shriek and giggle in their glittery eye-masks as they chase each other with bags of confetti. Proving that Carnival is not just for the kids, they’re all in their mid-40s and having the time of their lives as they compete to see who can get the most confetti in the others’ hair and coat hoods. As I point my camera at them, one woman laughs and throws a handful of confetti directly at me. It flutters to the ground in a cloud, clinging to my hair and my eyelashes and my coat collar as it falls. I grin back at her, snapping a photo as retribution.

sicily, carnival, carnevale, acireale, confetti, coriandoli

Kate wants a cup of tea. We go into the nearest bar and she orders, but in a whisper, unsure of her Italian. The man behind the bar squints at her. “Cosa?” I call over her head, telling him that she wants hot tea with lemon. He grins and gives a thumbs up. She looks back at me, confused. “That’s what I said to him.” I laugh. “Say it louder next time.” I order myself a coffee and knock it back before heading back outside to continue taking pictures as Kate works her way through the pot of tea and plate of biscuits that’s appeared in front of her. Five minutes later, she comes outside with the guy from behind the bar in tow. “Can you translate for me? I don’t understand what he’s saying.” He’s chatty and friendly, talking about the enormous float that’s directly in front of us. “Do you think it will win?” He points at Kate and grins. “She’s nice. She liked the tea and biscuits.” It turns out he’s from Catania, too. His break’s over, but before he goes back to work we all shake hands and make hopeful noises about maybe seeing each other around town sometime.

sicily, carnival, carnevale, confetti, coriandoli, acireale

At the train station, a twenty minute walk from the centre of town, we find that there’s an hour and a half to wait for the next train, despite what Trenitalia’s website had told me earlier in the day. It’s hardly worth walking back into town again, so we sit and wait. The ticket machine has frozen and doesn’t respond to my jabbing at the screen, so I give it up as a bad job and resolve to buy a ticket on the train. Kate fusses over the silly string on the back of her new jacket as I turn my face to the winter sunshine and close my eyes, drinking up the warmth on my eyelids and cheeks. Ten minutes later, the sun’s gone in and we’re both cold. We head inside. There’s an Indian guy standing next to the ticket machine. He waves me over. “Do you speak Italian? I don’t understand.” Pleased that he’s got it working and I won’t have to go through the charade of paying for a €4.50 ticket with a €50 note on the train, I take him through the various screens, chatting to him in Italian as I do so. He has no problem following what I’m saying and I wonder why the machine is a stumbling block. It doesn’t occur to me until we’ve finished the process that he didn’t want to say he couldn’t read.

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Sounds in the city

34-Street-Games-GettyThe crazy guy from the family that lives downstairs is cackling fit to burst, while the little girl with the dog whines at him. “Noooo! Pleeeeeeeeease!” The sound of these two reverberates up and down the street every day. He bursts into gleeful, harsh snippets of song out of nowhere while she bellows – for him, for her dog, for her nonna: each of them in their own tiny bubble of childish selfishness. Today it sounds like he’s keeping something away from her – maybe her toy piano. It’s not playing its plinky-plonky christmas tunes at the moment, anyway.

“Rosita!” The cigarette-hoarse voice of the nonna of the family bounces off the walls of the alley. “Rosita!” The woman herself never seems to answer, but all day, every day la nonna yells for her along the street. Grandmother stomps along the alley, thick black cardigan wrapped around her and hands tucked under her armpits for warmth, yelling as she goes. “Rosita!” Her voice lowers for a moment as she goes inside the house, but it’s still audible, with its harsh-edged crackle of overuse, as she fires a volley of words at the quiet woman inside. Having got the answer to her question she turns and heads back to her own home, only to yell again quarter of an hour later. “Rosita!”

MotorcycleDiaries2The pretty boy who spends his days outside singing Bruno Mars songs revs the engine of his elderly motorbike. There’s something wrong with the injection; it needs long minutes of warming up every time he starts it. Some days it’s worse than others, and this is one of them. He revs it higher and higher, the engine screaming in protest, for ten minutes before he’s satisfied. He leaves it ticking over and heads inside for a moment, returning with a red motorcycle helmet. He stands beside the bike, smoothing his shoulder-length black hair off his face and tying it in a topknot before shaking his head back to get rid of the final stray hairs on his forehead and sliding the helmet carefully over his head, front to back. He swings his leg over the bike, gives one final, screeching rev of the engine, and swings the bike round in a wide arc and out of the courtyard into the alley. The absence of noise once he’s gone is deafening.

The sound of a clarinet playing perky French jazz floats down from the flat above. It has that sound: the sound of a million sunny, happy French film sequences that feature dancing-eyed, fresh-faced girls in delicate ballet flats, who cycle along sun-drenched river paths and wave hello to the boatmen from their shabby-chic sit-up-and-beg bicycles with the baskets on the front as they head off to market to buy delicious cheese and crusty baguettes, before returning home to prepare an effortless, perfect lunch for all of their equally fresh-faced and bright-eyed friends, as they laugh and talk and chase each other through an endless, lavender-scented, dust-moted summer.

audrey tautou bikeDreams of rural France are interrupted by the sound of an electric guitar from the other side of the building. Every day, around 5pm, it starts. From a technical point of view it’s good, but – let’s face it – sunning yourself beside a French canal is always going to be preferable to sweating it out with a lone, bloody-fingered metalhead, no matter how talented they are.

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Castelbuono – the town of the good castle and excellent food

Castelbuono is a small town in the mountains near Palermo. Now – full disclosure time – the only reason we went there was to go to a restaurant of which I’d read great reviews. (Yes, I am totally becoming Sicilian: it was a three hour drive there, and more than four back once we’d been diverted multiple times off the road we wanted; these are the things you do for good food.) We stayed, though, because the town itself was as delicious to the eyes as was the meal we’d just eaten to our stomachs.

tower, arabic, castelbuono, kate bailward

The unexpected things you see when you look up – like Arabic-inspired towers with shimmering blue fish-scale tiling …

moped, balcony, streetlamp, castelbuono, kate bailward… or the problems of first floor apartment living: where to keep your moped? On your balcony, of course.

latin, gate, castelbuono, kate bailward

Latin inscription over the gate to the 14th century Sicilian castle which gives the town its name. (The castle was originally called Castello del buon aere – the good air castle – owing to its breezy position at the top of a hill.)

belltower, sky, castelbuono, kate bailward

 Belltower and blue sky

roof tiles, kate bailward

 The beauty of simplicity: terracotta roof tiles held in place with rocks

roof, view, castelbuono, kate bailward

… which turn to burnished gold in the late afternoon sunlight.

roof, tower, view, castelbuono, kate bailward

The view from the castle over the town, to the hills beyond

old man, steps, kate bailward

While the rest of the town punctuated their Sunday afternoon passeggiata with cake and ice cream in the piazza, he sat on the church steps, and watched, and waited ..

manna, honey, kate bailward

Manna! It might not be the stuff from heaven, but apparently it’s good for all manner (ha!) of ailments, and is a speciality of the Castelbuono region

shopfront, castelbuono, kate bailward

Manna Conoscenti: they know a thing or two about manna, they do …

fountain, statues, castelbuono, people, kate bailward

A wellspring; a fountain; most importantly a meeting point

statues, castelbuono, kate bailward

Two and a half wise men above a grand but battered doorway

 

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Food and laughter

etna, clouds, kate bailward“There’s something brewing, guys,” says the volunteer guide in front of us. “For sure.” He juts his chin towards Etna in the distance. “Yesterday there were rumblings; today there’s black smoke. Yep, she’s up to something.” We nod, and I play tourist, pointing my camera in the direction of the mountain.

It’s just gone 9am, and we’re standing by what’s reputed to be the largest tree in Europe. Or maybe the oldest. I lost patience with reading the blurb in the car park. When we arrived at the tree itself – the chestnut of the hundred horsemen – a quarter of an hour ago, we found that it was bounded by spiked metal fencing, a locked gate and hand-painted signs forbidding climbing, smoking – anything that could damage it. Unable to get any closer, we wandered around the fence perimeter taking photos and were just preparing to head off for breakfast (hiking is a great excuse for eating ricotta pastries) when the tour guide arrived.

The man’s wearing huge aviator-style sunglasses and a lightweight hunting vest, and is as camp as Christmas. He unlocks the gate and calls over to us. “You want to have a look?” I glance over at Davide and shrug – in for a penny, in for a pound. The guide takes a drag on his cigarette, in flagrant disregard of the no smoking sign at his elbow, and looks at us with curiosity as we walk over to him. “Do you speak Italian?” he asks. I nod, and he looks at Davide. “You?” Davide smiles – the kind of weary smile that doesn’t reach the eyes – and replies, “I’m from Catania.” The assumption that because I’m not Italian neither is he was amusing when it happened the first few times, but the novelty’s worn thin. The guide looks surprised. “Oh! All right then. So … do you want to take some photos?” To be honest I don’t – I’m hungry and would prefer to get going for some breakfast – but it seems rude to leave when he’s so keen. We trail along as he talks nineteen to the dozen about the myriad forms he sees in the tree.

castagno dei cento cavalli, sign, kate bailward

“Look there. No, up a bit.” I adjust my eyes obediently. “See the crocodile?” Davide nods and laughs. “Yes!” I suspect he’s faking it, because I can’t see a bloody thing. I try the same tactic, but our guide isn’t fooled. He manhandles me into position and cosies up behind me, pressing up against my back and pointing over my shoulder. “Look! There!” I clutch at Davide in front of me, and stifle a hysterical giggle. I’m ninety percent sure the guide’s gay, but he’s still too close for comfort considering we only met five minutes ago. I try again. “Oh yes! Now I see it! How funny!”

The guide backs off, satisfied, and I point the camera in the general direction of where he was pointing before. This has the unfortunate effect of renewing his enthusiasm, and he proceeds to take us on a tour of the whole tree, pointing out knots and twisted branches that may or may not look like wild animals and familiar faces. Davide enters into the game with gusto. I, meanwhile, trail behind waving my camera about and wondering how soon we can go for breakfast.

*****

A month later we’re having lunch just up the road at Case Perrotta, a lovely little agriturismo in Milo. I’m transfixed by the sight of a mother and her son at a table close by. She’s fashionably slim, bordering on angular, and freezing cold from the looks of the thick, fur-trimmed, padded jacket draped over her expensively cream wool-clad shoulders. She stares into middle distance, a fork laden with food hovering in front of her child’s face. He’s about six years old, and would be more than capable of feeding himself were he to put down the iPad on which he’s focusing all his attention. Pity any future partners …

broken wine press, kate bailward

A couple sit down at the table next to ours and start to discuss the menu as I gaze around the room, drinking in the details. The dining room is in a converted barn, all open rafters and shelves at unexpected heights. The back wall is covered in window frames and shutters. Not windows: just the frames, ripped from other buildings. Above our heads there are two machines of similar form but differing sizes, which could be for making coffee – or could be for something else entirely. They remind me of minarets, with their curlicued metal and shiny red paint. They’re gorgeous. And the food’s delicious, too. I’m smitten.

I grin at Davide. “We need to come back here again.” He nods with greedy enthusiasm, then crinkles his eyes at me affectionately. “I’m so happy to be here with you.” I smile like a goofy idiot, and he slides his eyes sideways at the couple next to us before continuing: “Those two” – he drops his voice to a whisper – “Those two were having a discussion about whether to take the menu completo.” He takes my hand across the table and squeezes it. “But the woman said, ‘oh no, amore, I don’t think I could manage to eat it all’.” He leans back in his chair with a smug smile and a satisfied nod. “*You* wouldn’t ever say that.” His eyes light on the lemon gelato which has just been put on the table – the final part of our four-course meal – and he sits forward again to scoop up a spoonful, which he holds out for me to try.

empty plates, chocolate, kate bailward

It’s only when I’ve got the spoon in my mouth that I realise and start to laugh; I hunch over in my chair, coughing up tart, sweetly sour gelato which has just gone the wrong way. Davide giggles with me; the clueless but amused reaction of someone who can’t help but be infected by the silliness of a situation. “What? What’s so funny?” I mimic my judgmental outrage of half an hour before when I told him about iPad boy and his enabling mother. “Even my ONE-YEAR-OLD-NIECE feeds herself!” Unfortunately for Davide, at the moment I speak he’s just taken a mouthful of gelato. Fortunately for my pride, he’s no more elegant at dealing with food gone the wrong way than I am.

Food and laughter: they make the world a better place.

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A day in Caltagirone

Caltagirone 19“D’you need a guide?” asks the bushy-haired middle-aged woman hanging about at the entrance to the museum. We nod and she disappears into the office. I hear a mumbled conversation, then an excited shriek: “There’s PEOPLE!” I look at Davide and start to giggle.

We’re in Caltagirone, for no better reason than the fact that he hasn’t been since he was a child, and I’ve never been. On a grey Sunday afternoon there isn’t much going on, which is why we’ve ended up in the civic museum. Trailing after our guide, we discover that it’s about as interesting as most small civic museums are. Our guide isn’t helping much. “This is a room of eighteenth century paintings.” Having made the announcement, she stands mute in the doorway, her large hooked nose twitching as she sniffs in the cold. Davide ventures a question about one of the featured artists. “Who was he?” Her jowled cheeks wobble under her liberally-applied blusher as she replies. “An artist from Caltagirone.” Davide waits for more, but it isn’t forthcoming. He and I glance at each other and I start to get the giggles again. I duck my head and scribble in my notebook.

Our guide, having decided we’ve seen enough of this room, marches ahead of us, arms wrapped tight around her body and hands tucked in under her armpits. Whether it’s a defensive pose or just for warmth I can’t work out. Either seems strange: she’s wearing a heavy parka with a fake-fur-edged hood, thick black jeans with leather flashing down the seams, and padded, zip-up boots that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a 60s sci-fi movie, so it seems unlikely that she’s cold. On the other hand, someone who dresses like that and works as a tour guide,  however inept, doesn’t seem the kind of person to have issues with insecurity. The jury remains out.

Just a short post today, for three reasons: (1) I have the day off work because it’s the last day of the Festa di Sant’Agata, which means that I can take advantage of the fact that (2) the ski slopes have finally reopened,  and (3) It’s World Nutella Day! Triple woo! Don’t forget to check out my special WND recipe for almond cake with Nutella buttercream icing and toasted hazelnuts on my Quasi Siciliana blog, as well as the many others on the official website

Alla prossima!

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One for sorrow: snow and superstitions

sheep, road, snow, kate bailwardDavide points through the rain and mist to the giant bronze figure with the outstretched arms at the top of the mountain. With a wink, he says, “He must be cold …” Poor Cristo Signore della Montagna, doomed to spend the winter covered in snow while looking out for his flock. Sunny Brazilian mountains the Nebrodi ain’t, even in summer. It could be worse, though: at least he isn’t standing by the side of a motorway in Gateshead.

I see a streak of black and white out of the corner of my eye and give a surreptitious salute. Davide looks at me curiously. “Why do you keep doing that?” I giggle. Explaining superstitions to an engineer – someone who spends his days mired in facts and science – is a little embarrassing. I decide to just go for the jugular. “One for sorrow.” We’ve had the discussion about the magpie poem before, so this much he understands. I continue: “I should, as well as saluting, say, ‘Hello Mr Magpie – how’s the wife?’ – but I skipped that bit.” Davide looks sideways at me, the corners of his mouth twitching, as his eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline. “How’s the wife …?” I nod. “Yes. It’s to distract him, you know. From mischief? So he goes and looks for his wife rather than causing trouble.” Davide bursts out laughing. I join in – despite my actions, I am at least half logical and well aware of how ridiculous I sound. There’s no harm in covering all bases, though.

snow, mountains, kate bailward

We wind up the mountain and past the sign welcoming all comers to Cesarò. So far, despite the snowy covering further up, all we’ve seen is rain. I’m gazing glumly out of my window when Davide gives a shout: “Kate! Did you see that?” I jump and look across at him. “What?” He’s grinning. “Snow. All over that car coming down the other way.” I squeak with excitement and bounce in my seat. Now I’m looking out for them, there are other good signs, too, such as a sandstone brick pavement covered in fluffy snow. Strangely, there’s nothing on the bricks; only on the mortar, creating a kind of reverse relief effect. The road, meanwhile, has a thick border of slush which graduates out from muddy water, to wet, coffee-coloured ice, to white snow punctuated with sparse footprints.

snow, wild fennel, kate bailward

We climb further, out above the town. The rain starts, ever so gradually, to get thicker and whiter and the light changes until, without us quite realising when the rain stopped and the snow began, we are in a scene from a Hollywood Christmas movie. Thick, fat flakes fall on the car and the trees are laden with powdery frosting. The roads are no longer slush-splashed, but dolloped with snowdrifts. Previously untouched snow crunches and creaks under the tyres, and the light is so bright it’s blinding, despite the enveloping clouds. Davide glances across at me. “I’ve never seen snow here before. It’s usually higher.” He brings the jeep to a halt and puts on the 4×4 lock. “We may not make it to Monte Soro …”

snow, warning sign, kate bailward

A triangular cattle warning sign looms out of the cloud, its sharp red borders made fuzzy by their coating of cold, white powder. Many of the black and white poles which mark the edge of the road and dangerous corners are buried up to their necks. All that remains visible is their topmost red markers – like chilly noses – peeking out between their new white hats and coats.

We continue to climb. The snow comes at us in clouds, whiting out the view ahead; Davide turns up the wiper speed and I clap my hands, as excited as a small child to be making brand new tracks in fresh snow.

snow, trees, kate bailward

The jeep skids as we round a corner and my heart thuds in my chest as my hand slams out to brace against the door. Davide regains control within a second, but the thrill of exploration is now tempered with a sense of unease. From the look of the tracks on the road, only one or two others have been up here since the snow started in earnest; if we came off the road, how long would it be before help passed? I look down at my phone: it hasn’t had a signal since we climbed out of the top of civilisation, half an hour previously.

We drive on in silence.

The junction to Monte Soro is the only one for miles along this road. And when we reach it, it’s blocked by a knee-deep wall of snow, pushed aside as the snowplough barrelled on through to clear the pass. Portella Femmina Morte – the road that we need – is open only to walkers and the seriously snow-equipped type of off-road vehicle that’s currently doing hot dogs at the junction. It buzzes past us as we climb out of the car, chucking up cold, white plumes of powder as it goes. We walk in its tracks, sound muffled by the insulating layers of snow and clothing that surround us, and I drink in the strangeness of a landscape that I last saw on a misty afternoon in early September. Then, it was all warm browns and shiny greens covered in a fine silver gloss of water droplets; now it’s as monochrome as my unlucky magpies.

snow, branches, kate bailward

I’ve left my gloves in the car and after ten minutes I’m beginning to lose the feeling in my hands. We wade back through the snow, which has already started to cover our outward footprints, and climb into the car, where we peel off damp outer layers and turn up the heat to maximum. Davide turns the car around and we start to head back down the mountain; I pull off my walking boots and tuck my feet behind my knees to warm my frozen toes.

A large, bi-coloured bird flashes in front of us. I salute, but Davide smiles and shakes his head. He slows the car to a stop and nods towards the trees: it’s not a magpie, but a jay. He’s settled on a snowy branch, fluffing his feathers and giving us a wary, sideways look. Davide winds down his window and I lean across to take a photo – but no sooner do I move than the bird’s gone in a swoop of brown wings and flash of blue. Better luck next time, eh.

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