In Ferie

Service is likely to be a bit intermittent over the next month or so because – well – it’s hot and I’m on holiday. I’ll be back, though, never fear. I’m just taking the advice of many wise old farmers and making hay (for which read sunbathing/swimming/covering myself in volcanic mud) while the sun shines. I hope you’re all doing the same.

Have a great summer!

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The Boss

You ain't got nothing if you ain't got swagger ...
You ain’t got nothing if you ain’t got swagger …

The five boys outside the restaurant are competing for attention with the pretty young woman standing in front of them. She’s laughing as they puff out their chests and hold out triumphant fingers to show how old they are. They’re all five as Catanese as can be, swaggering in their sleeveless basketball tunics and hi-top trainers. One, bolder than the rest, stands up from the bench where they were all seated in a row and flicks his hair out of his eyes with a nonchalant toss of his head. “I’m going into terza media, you know.” He throws a scornful look at the younger boys beside him, the smallest of whom laughs and flings back a retort as quick as lightning, “Yeah, ‘cos that makes you the capo dei capi!

Both boys have identical sleepy-lidded eyes and hairstyles shaved short around the back and sides, but with the hair left long on top. At a guess they’re brothers, or at the very least cousins, and they’re probably all a part of the large group taking up most of the internal seating area, who have been getting more and more raucous as the evening has worn on. They’re currently singing traditional Sicilian songs at the top of their lungs while the kids take a break and hang out in the square. The older brother shrugs, uncaring, at the younger one, and carries on showing off for the girl. Lucky for her she’s probably ten years older than he is; if he’d reached puberty she wouldn’t have stood a chance against his disarming grin and overwhelming self-confidence. In a few years’ time fathers all over the neighbourhood are going to have to lock their daughters up against this one, for sure.

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Beach People (redux)

There haven’t been enough beach days for me yet this year. Not like the folks in today’s post, who I originally wrote about a year ago. Dedication – or maybe depilation – ‘s what you need when it comes to beachgoing. Never fear, though – I’m planning to make up for my slack behaviour with an intensive late-July-slash-August recuperation. Call it summer school for beach bums.

Aaaaand – relax …

black sand
Photo: Aloha for Two

Here at San Giovanni Li Cuti what sand there is is black. Not because it’s dirty (although it’s littered with rubbish), but because the rocks that created it were –
like much of the stone from which Catania is built – once upon a time lava from Etna. In front of the sand, big rocks line the shoreline, pitted with the characteristic pumice surface of lavic stone; as I sit, I absent-mindedly rub my feet against them, getting a free pedicure along with my pitiful English tan.

Pigeons bob from rock to rock, scavenging for bits of food. From the battered, harried look of them, there isn’t much to be found. Later on, when the sun drops a bit lower in the sky and the beach starts to empty of people, tiny brown crabs will scuttle out of their shady hiding places between the rocks. I don’t think pigeons are that keen on crabs, though. So they continue to peck about among the empty plastic cups and beer bottles, missing out on the goodies at the waterline, where – apart from the crabs – the rocks are covered in algae and limpets.

limpets, kimmeridge, dorset, kate bailward
Photo: Kate Bailward

More clued up than the pigeons, the pair of middle-aged women next to me
giggle like schoolgirls as they splash about in the water looking for shellfish. One of them clings to her zebra inflatable, worried that she’ll sink without it, while the other – stocky, with peroxide-blonde cropped hair, leopard-print bikini and a ready grin – chips limpets from the rocks and pops the flesh into her mouth. The beaky, pale woman sitting on the rocks close by grimaces – “Che schifo!”. Limpet woman responds in a language that sounds to my uneducated ear like Russian. From the gestures that she’s making and the way that she’s popping the molluscs into her mouth with gleeful relish, she seems to be trying to persuade Beaky that she should try them, but Beaky’s having none of it. She shudders from head to foot and turns her face away, revolted by the very thought.

Arriving at the beach with pizza in hand, a small boy in armbands wades out along the channel which is the easiest entrance point to the water. Mamma, weighed down with bags and an inflatable boat, follows behind, alternately urging him forward and scolding him for going too far. “Samuele! Sit on that rock there while you finish your food! I’m not buying you any more if you drop it!” Samuele, with a Joker’s grin of tomato sauce smeared across his face, doesn’t acknowledge that he’s heard her. He does sit down, though. Mamma drops her pile of bags onto a nearby rock and goes to sit next to him. For five minutes there’s peace: then she gets bored. “Hurry up Samuele! I want to swim!” Samuele, wise beyond his years, ignores her and continues to munch at his own pace while gazing at the schools of tiny fish that dart around his feet in the shallows.

barbiedoll-11
Photo: Reuters

Another small child – this time an unaccompanied girl in a pink bikini and multicoloured plastic necklace – makes her way deliberately to the shallows. In her hands she has three Barbies, their hair long and blonde. Hers is, too, but instead of perfect artificial peroxide it’s honey-coloured and mermaid-straggled from swimming. She sits herself and her girls solemnly on a rock, from which she dips them one by one into the sea for a controlled swim. Concentration writ large on her face, she then seats them in a row before wading away from them into deeper water. With her back turned and bent over as she swishes her hands through the water ahead of her to make a bow-wave, she doesn’t notice one of the Barbies falling off the rock and starting to float out to sea in her wake. I open my mouth to warn her, but as I do so she turns and sees for herself. She returns and gently places her wayward charge back above the waterline before sitting down with the reunited trio and, humming to herself, arranging their long limbs and hair just so.

The glamorous woman in black chiffon pulls her towel out of her bag with the tips of her fingers, as if it’s somehow unclean. Shaking out the folds, she tries to place it on a rock, but is unable to fathom the onshore wind, which blows it back towards her. Repeatedly she flicks it away from her, and repeatedly the wind blows it back. Eventually she gives up and drops it, wrinkled, onto the rocks, before folding one end back on itself to form a double-thickness cushion and patting a gleeful tattoo on it with both hands. Now comes the process of removing her outer clothes. She teeters unsteadily in her high wedge flip-flops as she pulls the thin gauze of her beach cover-up over her head and off into her bag. Plugging her headphones into her ears and settling back with her head resting on her bag she seems to be set for the afternoon, but the restfulness doesn’t last. She wriggles against the bag, trying to shift the contents to fit around her, but it won’t play ball. She sits sharp upright and, again with the tips of her fingers only, fastidiously shifts the contents of her bag over and over again until they’re in a pleasing formation. Twisting the neck of the cotton shopper around on itself and twitching her towel over the top of it, she gingerly stretches herself out again. Her head rests on the towel-covered bag, her butt on the next rock and her perfect, painted toes onto yet another one: this is less relaxation than Sicilian beach-style planking.

bikini adjustment
Photo: unknown

A generously-proportioned middle-aged woman battles with her bikini as she heads towards the water for a swim. First she fishes inside the top, hoiking her breasts into position. Then she pulls up the bottoms, which have folded over at the waistline under pressure from her rolling stomach. Almost at once, they fold back again. Undeterred, she starts to walk towards the water, along the channel where little Samuele is fishwatching, all the while continuing the infinite process of tucking her stomach back into its inadequate confines. She wades out until the water is waist deep, where – with a final tuck before she goes – she sinks into the waves with a grateful smile, able to relax now that her wayward flesh is hidden from public view.

With no such bodily qualms, a middle-aged man with an improbably yellow-tinged dark tan and bright orange speedos combs and smooths his highlighted mullet as he calls good-naturedly to his friends a few rocks away. Meanwhile, a teenage girl and her younger brother play cards while not five yards away a couple in their early twenties flirt and drape themselves over each other. The beach is a prime area for getting (almost) naked with your beloved, as the sunshine and acres of oiled brown skin melt all inhibitions.

On similar lines, the woman in the camo hat is here again. I’ve seen her a few times before, but didn’t recognise her at first today, as she had her hair down. It was her mirror that tipped me off. She comes to the beach armed with tweezers and spends the afternoon making good use of the light to do a head to toe depilation, including bikini line. I watch in morbid fascination as she cranes her neck forward, twisting her body to catch the best light and yanking at stubborn hairs with stolid determination. I, meanwhile, surreptitiously run my hands along my prickly calves, noticing all the bits that I missed in the privacy of my bathroom at home and wishing I had her lack of embarrassment. What it is to be English.

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How to play … ball games

children-football
MY ball!

“My ball! MY ball!” The toddler waddles across the scorched grass of Villa Bellini – one of Catania’s few green public spaces – as fast as he can. The ball in question is being dribbled away from him by a blissfully unaware boy of about nine or ten years old; the older boy is being called by what appears to be his grandmother from the benches on the far side of the grassy area. As the older boy and the ball move away and the toddler falls ever further behind, his insistent cries turn to wails. “MYYYYYY ball!” His dad – a tall hipster with tousled curly hair, matching beard and a chilled-out demeanour – turns from the conversation that he was having with another parent and lopes towards his son with gentle laughter. He crouches down in front of him. “Pietro! Eyyyy, Pietro! What’s up?” The toddler turns his wobbly-lipped face towards his dad. “My balllllll, Papà!” His dad smiles and ruffles his son’s hair. “Pietro, it’s not really your ball, you know.” Pietro opens his mouth to wail again but his dad forestalls him by calling the older boy over. “Francesco!” The older boy looks over his shoulder and Pietro’s dad beckons him closer. “Come here a minute, can you?” The older boy nods amenably, picks up the ball and ambles across the grass towards cool dad and little Pietro, whose eyes never leave the object of his affections. Cool dad puts his arm around Pietro’s shoulders and asks the question that Pietro, in his tiny, wound-up state, doesn’t quite have the words to formulate. “Francesco, would it be OK if Pietro plays ball, too?” Francesco shrugs and smiles with non-questioning acceptance. “Sure, if he wants.” He turns to little Pietro, who can hardly believe his luck. “C’mon, Pietro. Let’s play.”

everybody loves lassie
Everybody loves Lassie …

On the other side of the park, a group of adults are out exercising their
dogs. Or, rather, they’re out with their friends letting the dogs run about on the grass while they chuck a ball for the dogs occasionally and indulge in a good, long chat. The dogs – a couple of Jack Russell terriers, a cocker spaniel, and a Lassie dog – are, in the main, more than happy to fall in with this plan and are racing about amusing themselves playing chase with each other. All, that is, apart from Lassie. While the terriers and the spaniel run about like mad things, tongues lolling joyfully, Lassie stands at her owner’s heels, quivering with frustration. Her owner – a woman in her late thirties with an ample bosom – looks down at her and laughs. “You want to play? OK, let’s play.” She picks up the ball from where it’s been dropped at her feet by one of the other dogs and launches it across the grass towards the trees. She then starts to run after it. Lassie is beside herself. She gambols along next to her human, her long coat swishing at her sides as extravagantly as her mistress’ bosom bounces around her chest. The other humans fall about laughing, but Lassie and her mum don’t care: the grins as wide as their faces speak as clearly as words: “This is our game. Let’s play!”

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Journey to Paris

feet, light, shade, kate bailwardPiazza Borsellino, even at 9.30am, is blisteringly hot. I head for the small area of shade by the ticket office closest to my stop, which is already jostling with people. I squeeze in at the edge and prepare to wait. Five minutes later, I see an old man making his way towards us, slowly and deliberately. I shift my bag aside to give him some space in the cool shadows. He nods his thanks then stands, leaning on his stick and looking sideways at me while pretending not to do so.

After a minute or so of silent appraisal, it all gets too much for him. “Are you going to the airport?” he asks. It’s less a question than a conversation starter: I’m at the stop for the airport bus, with a wheelie suitcase, and I’m clearly not Sicilian, so he’s pretty much onto a winner. I acknowledge his deduction skills: “Yes. Yes I am.” He nods in satisfaction then, without missing a beat, says, “The bus has gone, you know.” This man is a master – he’s now got my full attention as I turn to him in dismay. “Really? How long ago?” He shrugs and smiles. “10 minutes, maybe?” I calculate in my head. “Well, there should be another one along soon, then. I can wait.” I turn back to face outwards, watching the buses coming and going in the hot morning sunshine.

picture credit: google images
picture credit: google images

The old man, meanwhile, leans on his stick and looks at the ground. He starts to giggle. I glance sideways at him, and he points at my feet, still giggling. “Look! They’re back to front!” I look down and realise what he’s talking about: I’m standing with my legs crossed, the feet a hip-width apart – something to do with knock-knees and flat feet? I don’t know why, but it’s much more comfortable to stand like that – and it does indeed look like my feet are attached to the wrong legs. His laughter is infectious and I chuckle with him. “Yes! You’re right! But look …” I uncross my legs and the feet appear normal again. “Magic!” I return to my more usual stance with legs crossed and the old man and I relax into the comfort of a shared joke.

“Where are you going?” he asks, confident now that I’ll talk to him. “Paris? Really? So are you French? I lived in France for 12 years! I had three children there! Near Nancy …” He talks about his life in France, telling me very little about himself, in fact, but quietly finding out more about me. I chat in response to his questions. “No, I’m not French, but English. I live in Catania, though, and have done for the past three years. No, I’ve got no plans to move on any time soon …”

paris, eiffel tower, kate bailward We talk on, him pointing out interesting people that pass through on buses, as well as telling me stories about Catania and its history. The conversation comes to a natural halt for a moment and he takes a breath. He steps down from the kerb, into the road, and turns to face me. “So, how old are you?” I consider riposting with something along the lines of the fact that it’s rude to ask a lady her age, but the words don’t come quickly enough in Italian, so I laugh and tell him the truth. He looks me up and down and gives me an impressed kind of a look. “37? Really? Complimenti! You look much younger.” He gives me a sly, sideways look. “How old do you think I am?” I pick 60, an age that’s plausible yet complimentary; I’d put him closer to 70, if I were being honest. He gives one, abrupt shake of his head accompanied by that Sicilian tut that signifies ‘no’, then asks me, “What’s 37+37?” The maths is easy, but I’m thrown by the apparent change of tack. I also have a tendency to mix up the words for 60 (sessanta) and 70 (settanta) in Italian when I’m under pressure. I therefore stutter over my answer, making myself look like an airhead who’s incapable of basic mental arithmetic. I kick myself mentally as he finishes my words with indulgent patronisation. “Seventy-four. Well done. OK, so now what’s 74+14?” This one’s easy and I drawl out the number straight away, determined to prove that I am, whatever he might think, capable of adding up. “Ottant’otto.” He nods, puffing out his chest. “88. There you go – that’s how old I am.”

As he’d planned all along, it’s my turn to offer compliments on how good he looks for his age. He basks in the glow of kind words for a moment, then looks at me and my little suitcase with an appraising eye. “So … are you alone …?” I tell him yes, for the moment, but that I’m meeting my boyfriend in Paris. And with that one word – boyfriend – the conversation is over. My would-be suitor shuffles off to shady pastures new, leaving me giggling to myself at the realisation that I’ve just been chatted up by an octogenarian.

cannolo, passport, kate bailwardAt Monzù pastry shop at the airport, the girls wear cream and black lace mini dresses which skim and cling in all the right places, finishing a demurely sexy inch above their shapely knees. On their feet they wear black high heels, just that bit too high to be comfortable to stand in all day. When I arrive it’s still early, though, so their smiles for the moment seem genuine. The shop itself is all cream and grey flock wallpaper, and elegant, understated packaging. A crystal teardrop chandelier hangs over the counter, adding to the baroque feel. The traditional Sicilian treats on offer, such as cannoli and cassate, are similar to those at Nonna Vincenza’s – the other pastry shop at the airport – but unlike at Nonna V’s, there’s no queue at Monzù. I’m dying for a cannolo, and am intrigued to try somewhere new, so, putting any misgivings aside, I decide to give Monzù’s elegantly styled offerings a try. The girl that serves me doesn’t seem too impressed at the fact that I’m not taking one of their enormous gift boxes, but serves me with a smile, even if it is a chilly one.

I head out of the shop and sit down to eat. It isn’t the worst cannolo I’ve had by a long shot – the cialda is good and crunchy, lined as it is with chocolate to stop the ricotta seeping into the pastry. However the ricotta itself is a disappointment. It’s under-sweetened, and the exposed ends have been sprinkled with, not the more usual grains of pistachio, but barely-toasted slivers of almond. Overall, it’s on the right tracks, but it’s too understated. A cannolo is not, and shouldn’t try to be, elegant. It’s a messy, phallic calorie-bomb, best consumed with gusto and a devil-may-care sense of delicious naughtiness. After eating this one I’m left feeling like I’ve just received a shy peck on the cheek from a polite, well-dressed accountant, when what I was really after was a raucous roll in the hay with a farm boy. Nonna Vincenza, I shall never betray you again.

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Paris, encore

paris metro sign, kate bailwardI’m going to Paris! Tomorrow! And this time I’m going with my amore (well, strictly speaking, I’m meeting him there, given that we’re living in different countries at the moment – details, details …), so there will be no need for Paris to try to matchmake me at every given opportunity. I’m also going armed with restaurant recommendations, so I won’t end up wandering in a hungry, hopeless daze again. In fact, the only thing over which I have no control is the weather which, rather than sizzling, is forecast to be just – all right. But, y’know, I’m going to be in Paris. With my love. Eating wonderful food and introducing him to a city which has, over the past few years, become one of my favourite places to visit. I can’t wait.

Now, all that remains to do is to try to banish Italian from my linguistically tangled tongue and reintroduce some French. Dio mio – au secours!

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Moonlighting

“As I left Termini, the sun was up, though hardly any people were. I wandered through deserted streets, sunglasses protecting me against the early-morning December sunshine, wearing a smile as wide as the Tiber on my face. Before the general populus of Rome had started to stir, I’d been bowled over by the majestic frontage of the Quirinale, pottered through the winding streets of the Ghetto, had a wander along the river and was at my hostel in its leafy courtyard in Trastevere.”

Killing two birds with one stone, today’s post isn’t here, but over on the Teaching House Nomads blog. What with it being exam period and my therefore running about the place administering Cambridge speaking exams to hundreds of nervous students in the Catania area, as well as teaching final lessons (still three weeks left of term …), writing articles in other places and the sun being out ‘n’ all, I’m finding that my time’s somewhat squeezed. Still, on the bright side, you’re discovering new places in more ways than one – blog pastures new, with a story about travelling to Rome.

Enjoy!

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On Winning at Gallipoli (redux)

It was around this time four years ago that I first realised that I was head over heels in love with Italy. Well, there’s something to be said for a country that can make me actively enjoy the sound of hooting car horns and riotously joyful football fans …

This story was first published on the blog in May 2010, but I reread it recently and it still makes me smile to think of that day. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did experiencing it.

Katja x

The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s strong, and not entirely pleasant, although not disgusting either, so long as you don’t breathe it in too deeply. It’s the smell of salt water and fish guts, with a strong undertone of diesel, all melded into one: the smell of a working harbour.  Further evidence of this is the sight of rows upon rows of fishing boats, and refrigerated vans lined up neatly waiting for their cargo. Of course, today is Sunday, so it’s quiet at the moment. The wind whips the waves up into a frenzy and catches at my hair, blowing it into an instant bird’s nest. A rusting sign attached to a bank of rock proclaims that this is Yachting Club Gallipoli. The only boats within sight are working ones, so presumably the pleasure-sailors have gone elsewhere, if they were ever here at all. This is the south of Italy, not France. It’s far more reminiscent of Cornwall than Cannes, and all the more interesting for that fact. I stare out to sea until I am rudely roused from reverie by a faceful of salt water, splashing up as a wave hits the sea wall hard. Gasping and spluttering, I hastily head for a more sheltered spot in the inner harbour.

In contrast to the breaking waves on the seafront, the water here is as calm as a millpond, and glittering in the bright mid-afternoon light. I bask in the sunshine and pull out my camera. Fishing nets are piled up on the quay, weighted down with old duvets and bits of broken board to stop them blowing away or being torn. The boats that the nets belong to are tied to stout bollards, which are flaking with rust. Being attacked on a daily basis by salt sea air doesn’t appear to do metal much good – or wood, in fact. The paint on the rowing boats pulled up onto the foreshore is blistered and peeling, which, combined with the cracks in the wood, creates beautiful patterns and textures. I snap away happily for 15 minutes, watched with benevolent bemusement by the bearded harbourmaster as he listens to the Inter match on his car radio.

Walking around to the front of the harbour wall again, I am hit with a blast of salty air. There is a breakwater – made up of huge concrete blocks, each of them four foot across – set out to sea a little way from the harbour wall. On a day like today, when the Scirocco whistles across the Salento, bringing bad weather in its wake, it’s needed. The waves crash against it, sending white spray ten foot up into the air. It seems that Gallipoli is more than used to receiving bad weather and is well prepared to deal with the force of the water crashing towards the shore.

Heading back onto the main promenade, I spy a large, weathered, sculpted fountain at the town side entrance to the harbour. Three dogs flop on its leeward side, sheltered from the wind. They’re a motley crew – one golden retriever, one bristly little rough-coated terrier with a happy grin on his muzzle, and an overweight labrador cross. They probably don’t belong to anyone sitting here now, but have chosen the spot for its prime sunbathing opportunities. As I move closer to take a photo, the terrier stretches to the very ends of his toes and sighs luxuriously, while the retriever twitches his nose at me, checking whether I’m bringing food.  (No.)  I leave them to their lazing, and head inside the handy next door cafe to start the important process of choosing gelato.

dogs, salento, gallipoli, italy, kate bailward

Ice cream cravings satisfied for the day, it’s time to head back home. Outside the cafe the promenade is full of cars draped in Inter and Italian flags. Inter have, apparently, won the Serie A, and everyone is out in the street to celebrate. In the UK, football fans go to the pub when their team wins. Italians, however, head for their cars and drive round and round in circles, shouting joyfully out of car windows and hooting their horns like crazy. I’m not a football fan but the excitement is infectious. If I were stuck in a noisy traffic jam like this in London, I’d be wanting to kill someone within a few minutes, but here I just enjoy the vicarious thrill of victory, and grin along with everyone else around me. I am suntanned, windblown, and very, very happy.

Images by Kate Bailward

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The credit card saga: part III

(The conclusion of the whole sorry tale. You can find part I here and part II here)

money-dye-pack-e1349867933354At 1.30 I head back to the bank. Again. I’m beginning to feel like it’s an unhappy second home. As I reach the outer door, there’s a girl just leaving the lobby, having used the cash machines. Her head’s down as she walks towards the exit and she nearly bumps into me. She jumps and babbles breathlessly: “Oh! Oh no – oh, just so you know, the machines aren’t giving out money at the moment – um – they’re closed.” I smile back. “It’s OK. I need to talk to someone inside the branch.” She giggles. “Oh. Oh, OK then. Well – bye …” We cross in the doorway and I ring the doorbell of the inner door.

Through the glass, I see dark-haired woman standing up. She spots me, too, from across the room; she’s already shouting as she stomps towards the door. “We can’t give you the card back! We’re closed.” She stands, combatively, on the far side of the glass door. I wait for her to open it, but instead she just carries on railing at me. Through a closed door. It would be farcical if I weren’t so enraged at her rudeness. I interrupt her in my haughtiest voice. “The manager told me to come back at 1.30.” She shrugs insolently. “Yeah? Well, the manager isn’t here. She’s at lunch.” Every phrase she utters is punctuated with Sicilian sign language – a flick of the fingers under the chin, a hand cutting through midair, a templing and wagging of fingers. “We can’t give you the card back.” I turn on my heel, sick of listening to her. “Fine. I’ll come back tomorrow morning.”

Her tone changes on being met with equal aggression to her own. She still doesn’t open the door, but she does at least sound a pinch more conciliatory. “Signora!” I pause, my hand hovering in front of the door release button. She continues. “Signora, we have to check the records of the machine. If the card issuer has reported a problem we’re obliged to cut the card up.” I turn back to face her. As calmly as I can, I tell her that the problem isn’t with my card, it’s with their machine. But that yes; if the records haven’t yet been checked, I’ll come back in the morning. “Better the afternoon,” she retorts. She stands, chin jutted with belligerence, as if daring me to say anything more. I take a breath and meet her stare, then plaster a fake plastic smile onto my face. “Fine. Grazie, Signora. Until tomorrow, in that case …”

romantic_gesture_slider1At 11am the next morning I’m back in the bank for the fourth time. I’m half-hoping that the dark-haired woman won’t be there, but it seems the bank’s staff is constant. Farrah Fawcett is still at her table; curly blonde woman is still staring at her computer with a ‘counter closed’ sign on her desk, and dark-haired woman is dealing with customers. The manager doesn’t appear to be in. I take a numbered ticket with a feeling of dread and sit down to wait.

The numbers climb closer and closer to my own. My palms sweat: there’s only one number to go before mine is called and I’ll have to speak to my nemesis again. I start to plan polite – and not so polite – strategies for dealing with her.

songbigA movement in the lobby catches my eye. Praise be! It’s the manager, returned from whatever she’s been doing outside. I offer up a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of banking and smile at her as she walks across the room to her office. She smiles back. “Good morning, signora.” She nods a welcome to the man sitting outside her office. “Doctor. How lovely to see you.” They pass a few pleasantries and she disappears into her inner sanctum. I roll my eyes heavenward and mutter an inward mantra. “Please let me not have to talk to rude woman today. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease …”

Somebody somewhere is listening. The manager comes out of her office and walks over to the dark-haired woman, gently but firmly interrupting her conversation with the customer at the desk. “Laura. Do you have the cash machine records and the Signora’s card?” Dark-haired woman looks up. Her face turns sour as she sees me, but she heads to another desk behind her and unlocks a drawer, pulling out a sheaf of paper to which I can see is paperclipped my card. It’s still in one piece, I’m pleased to note. She hands the entire bundle over to the manager and sits down again, avoiding my eye. The manager heads back into her office, smiling at me as she goes past. “One moment, please.” I wait, breathing a huge sigh of relief and hoping that I’m not about to be called into her office to have the card destroyed in front of me and be clapped into handcuffs for reasons unknown.

close-up of human hands cutting a credit card by scissors“Meess By-ill-vard?” I don’t hear the manager’s voice at first, but the doctor outside her office waves at me to attract my attention. “I think she means you?” I wake up and nod my thanks at him, before walking into the manager’s office and shaking her hand. She tries my name again. “By-ill-vard? It’s correct?” I smile. “Not quite. Bailward. But it’s strange even for English people, so don’t worry.” She gives a small smile and gestures to the seat in front of her desk. “Please. Sit down.”

I do so, eyeing my card on top of the pile of papers on her desk. She picks them up and looks at them. “Around ten o’clock yesterday, yes?” I nod and smile. “That’s right.” She runs her finger lightly down the printout, stopping by a highlighted entry. “I see that you tried twice to take out money. Was there a problem?” My heart thumps painfully as I explain about the first machine telling me that services weren’t available and my therefore trying the second. I have a horrible, sick feeling that dark-haired woman has been right all along and they’re really not going to give me my card back. The manager nods thoughtfully. “I see.” Her eyes are enormous behind her glasses as she pulls out two – what seem to be identical – forms and starts to fill them out without further comment.

I entwine the fingers of both my hands together and clench them together hard, feeling my nails digging into the skin on the back of them. The manager copies my name carefully, as well as the type of card. She looks up at me, her pen hovering over an empty field on the form. “Where is the card from, Signora?” I look at her in confusion and she clarifies. “From which city?” I stumble over my explanation. “Well, not from any city, really. I mean, I just got it online – it’s not from my bank.” She looks at me and blinks. “So – a Mastercard is a credit card? Like American Express?” I’m as mystified at her confusion as she is at mine, but the words ‘American Express’ seem to have put her mind at ease so I just nod my confirmation. The time for unravelling the vagaries of international banking systems is definitely not right now. The manager pushes one form across the desk towards me, indicating where I need to sign, and I scan the text on the document, hoping I can understand any relevant details.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A foolish grin spreads across my face as I work out that it’s a form to say that I’ve received my card in good order. I exhale shakily in relief and scribble a wobbly facsimile of my signature with a hand that’s shaking with adrenaline. The manager chats quietly as I do so. “I was studying English, but I had to give it up because my mother was recovering in hospital.” I look up and meet her eyes. “I hope all’s well now, Signora?” She nods and smiles. “Yes. We hope. Both for her and for me!” She laughs, a tiny, soft sound, and I beam back at her. She stands up. “I’m very sorry for all of this, Signora.” I brush her apology aside. “Don’t worry. I understand that there are certain protocols that need to be followed.” She bobs her head at me in agreement. “Yes. Yes indeed. Well … good day, Signora. Arrivederci.” We shake hands and I walk out feeling as light as air.

As I leave the manager’s office, dark-haired woman ducks her head and stares fixedly at her computer screen. I’m tempted – SO tempted – to go over to her desk and pile gushing, insincere thanks on her for all of her help. The satisfaction of watching her squirm would be enormous. However, winning with dignity is priceless, and for everything else – despite her best efforts – I’ve finally reclaimed my Mastercard. That’s good enough for me.

mastercard-priceless-london-2000-27416

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The credit card saga: part II

HUSTLE_800X600_TheConIsOn(To remind yourself of part I of the story, go here)

I wake up early on Monday morning. Despite Sarah’s calming influence yesterday, I’m feeling twitchy. What if the card isn’t in the machine after all? Or what if I can’t make the bank understand what happened? How about if the policemen weren’t, in fact, policemen despite their uniforms and marked car, and were actually con-men? They gave me a useless number to call, after all. Maybe the palm seller was in on it, too, stationed as he was outside the main door to eye potential marks and call his partners in crime at a moment’s notice. I do my best to shake the Hustle-style scenarios out of my head, concentrating instead on what time the bank might be open for me to be able to get in. I decide to aim for 9, and dress with care, to make myself look as upstanding a citizen as possible.

I get to the bank just after 9am, to find that they’ve been open since 8.30. I go into the inner sanctum – I’ve never been past the lobby before. It’s a large, marble-floored room with three women working, and four or five, mainly elderly, men waiting to be served. Just inside the door there’s a stocky man in his thirties chatting to a long-faced woman in her forties, with Farrah Fawcett hair and too much blusher. She’s stationed behind a table and clearly works in the bank, but seems to have a different status to the two other women behind counters, one of whom (dark-haired, severe-looking) is serving a customer and the other of whom (curly, blonde) is staring pointedly at a computer screen with a handwritten ‘counter closed’ sign in front of her. Welcome to Italian customer service. As I look around the room I see that there’s a number ticker on the wall, indicating who should be served next, but I can’t see the machine from which I should take a ticket. I do a surreptitious circuit of the room, and realise that it was right next to the door. It’s the old-fashioned type, like the ones that you see at the deli counter in the supermarket, which seems at odds with the smooth silence of the rest of the bank. I take a number and sit down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stocky man finishes his conversation with Farrah Fawcett and moves to a comfortable seat under the window. I look around the room, trying to remain calm, but instead going through the myriad linguistic situations with which I might have to deal this morning. I become aware that my foot is twitching back and forth and the heel of my shoe is threatening to clatter on the marble floor. I stop twitching and instead chew my fingernail, looking at the stains on the floor around the windows. They look like guano, but I think they’re just unfortunate water marks.

A thin woman in a charcoal-grey wool dress, matching tights and sensible black pumps with a gold trim emerges from an office that I hadn’t noticed before. Her thick glasses magnify her already large eyes and make her look like a terrified rabbit. She smiles around the room, greeting customers formally but with obvious recognition. “Good morning, Doctor. Signore; buongiorno.” I look up at the sign above her glass-walled office and see that she’s the manager. I wonder if I should try to talk to her, rather than waiting for my number to be called, but decide against it. I return to chewing my nail and staring at the water stains.

The numbers jump a couple. Some of the people who arrived before me must have already got bored and left. “36?” calls the dark-haired woman working behind the counter. Everyone shakes their heads. “Never mind. We’ll jump ahead. Who’s got the next number?” It turns out it’s number 41, the one before mine. I start to plan my opening explanation of why I’m here.

“42?” I stand up and walk over, my heels very loud on the hard floor. I greet the woman, who has a heavy fringe and wears large, wire-rimmed glasses. She smiles at me, lessening her initial look of severity. “Good morning, Signora. How can I help?” I start to explain. “I came to the cash machine yesterday but it didn’t give me my card – not the money either – but the police said I could get my card this morning – they gave me a number to call but it just kept ringing and nobody answered and…”

She interrupts me, her face as hard as stone. “If the card’s been taken there must be a reason. Do you bank with us?” I tell her that it’s an English card. Her lip curls. “Well then we can’t do anything.” She doesn’t add, ‘and I wouldn’t help you even if I could’, but she might as well have done. I feel like I’ve been punched, but her dismissive rudeness gives me the balls to treat her likewise. “So what am I supposed to do now?”

Sucker_Punch_(7378263378)She glares at me then stands up to come round the desk. She stomps across the room, snapping a question as she stalks past me towards the manager’s office: “You’re English?” I tell her I am. She doesn’t bother to say anything more to me, instead heading into the manager’s office and spitting out a tirade of harsh, rapid Italian at her. The manager’s voice, in contrast, is controlled and gentle. “Yes, of course I can speak to her.” The dark-haired woman barges out of the office again, flicking a disgusted up-and-down look at me as she goes past. “Wait here.”

She returns to her desk and calls the next customer, but she hasn’t finished with me yet. As I wait for the manager to finish a phone call and to greet an elderly family friend who’s popped in to say hello to her, dark-haired woman, who’s been furiously typing into her computer, shouts triumphantly across the room at me. “Signora! We *definitely* can’t give you the card back.” She sneers at me, challenging me to say anything more. I shrug and smile sweetly at her, while continuing to wait for the manager. “OK.”

In contrast to the aggressive rudeness displayed by the dark-haired woman, the manager’s demeanour is polite and gentle. She smiles at me as she calls me into her office, saying hello in English. “Please sit down.” I do so, and she explains, calmly and politely, that cards that have been swallowed by the machine are dropped into a locked safe, which they can only open at certain times of day when the bank is closed to customers. “So you see, we can’t do anything at this moment, but if you come back this afternoon then hopefully we can sort this all out. Can you come back around 4?” I grimace. “Sadly not. I’m working from 2 – 9.30. Is there any way …?” She nods in understanding, her eyes sympathetic behind the thick lenses of her glasses. “Well, we’re closed from 12:30 to 2:45, so if you come back around 1:30 then maybe we will have been able to retrieve it.” I nod, smiling in relief, and she holds up her hand. “I’m not promising – but if not today, then certainly tomorrow morning.” She stands up, smiling vaguely, and I shake her hand. “Thank you, Signora. Good day.” I click my way back across the marble floor of the bank feeling that, if nothing else, at least I’ve got one over on the unpleasant dark-haired woman. It feels good.

(To be continued …)

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