Ibrahim and the game of Scrabble

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

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

Not like our next onlooker.

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Last Good Day of the Year

Which beach where?
Which beach where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final beach day of the year is on.

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thank Crunchie it’s Friday!

Crunchie_barOr – er – Wednesday. Well, this post has started well, hasn’t it? Let me clear things up for you.

For logistical reasons (among other things, the fact that, in this new school year, my working days are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, so Wednesday is therefore now the day when I have to do stuff like clean the flat and go shopping for all the food that we don’t have in the fridge haha), DLaM’s publishing day is going to move to Friday, instead of Wednesday. Hence the (mildly confusing) title of this post.

Also, because it’s the first week of term and I’m therefore running about like a headless chicken meeting new students, DLaM’s shiny new publishing day will be being put into effect not from *this* Friday, but as of *next* week, 10 October. Although now I’ve distracted myself with thoughts of Crunchie bars (mmm … Crunchie baaaaarssssss …) it’s anyone’s guess what might happen in terms of content.

See you next Friday!


Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Wake me up when September ends

plemmirio, siracusa, sicily, woman, beach, seaIt may be the dog days of summer in Sicily, but there are still beach days to be had. A pair of sisters (cousins?) sit on a rock, reading. One, as brown and flat-chested as her cousin (sister?) is pale and ample-bosomed, mutters the words silently as she reads, her lips moving constantly as her eyes fly down the page.

“Elisabetta!” There’s a shout from a middle-aged woman a few rocks away. The pale cousin looks up enquiringly. The middle-aged woman juts her chin towards the girl’s book. “Cosa leggi?” What are you reading? The pale girl, in answer, holds up the book so her aunt (mother?) can see the cover. Her mouth – immobile while her cousin’s moves apace, but with the same rosebud shape – makes a little moue towards her tormentor, and she raises a cool eyebrow. Happy? Her aunt nods. There’s a pause; Elisabetta returns to the words on the page.

However … “Is it good?” blurts her aunt. Elisabetta, her patience waning, nods with a tight smile, itching to be left alone to get back to reading but too polite to say so. She’s not off the hook yet. Her aunt has packed her beach bag, ready to leave, and calls her goodbyes across the rocks. Elisabetta starts to get up, but her aunt bats the idea aside. “Nonono! You stay right there! It’s fine – we’ll see you later …” Elisabetta, knowing better than to take this at face value, wags templed fingers up and down in front of her midsection, in the universal Sicilian sign language for ‘what, are you crazy?!’ and her tormentor stops her halfhearted protests. She kisses her niece extravagantly goodbye, and waves to her daughter, who – presumably by dint of being a closer relation – is getting away with being far less dutiful than poor Elisabetta. “See you later, yes? Yes. Bye for now …”

A conspiratorial, long-suffering look passes between the two girls as they watch their relative chattering her way across the rocks, calling goodbyes to everyone she knows – which seems to be most people. Finally she’s away. Peace at last.


The tow-headed toddler across the way is a classic second child, with a strong streak of bullheaded independence, backed up by a more relaxed parenting style than her older sister probably received. While Mum unpacks the bag of beach paraphernalia, therefore, child two is hauling the straps of her vest top down over her shoulders in a clumsy attempt to undress herself. Her movements aren’t quite coordinated enough to manage it, however; she gets it stuck at waist level, tangled with her shorts, her arms trapped inside both. She pushes outwards, against the stretchy material, determined that she’s going to get out of it somehow. Mum finally notices what’s going on. “Wait! Come here …” She pulls her daughter closer and with a quick, practised movement, hauls the vest top up and over the little girl’s unprotesting head before turning back to her giant beach bag.

Free of her impeding top, daughter now starts battle with her shorts. She tugs at the front waistband, but fails to realise that the back is hooked over the bulk of her nappy. She crouches, presumably to get the shorts closer to the ground which – in toddler logic – should mean that they come off more easily. Mum, seeing what she’s up to, scoops her up and removes both shorts and nappy, replacing them with a pair of pink baby swimming pants.

Kiddo is all set; she starts to stagger, gung-ho, towards the water. “Hold up!” Dad realises what she’s up to and grabs her arm, stopping her in her tracks, before plonking her down onto her bottom. Holding on tight to make sure she doesn’t escape, he hauls an armband over first one small arm, then the other. “OK, let’s go …” He swings her up onto his hip and – at last! – she’s seaworthy. Let babbling, watery joy commence.

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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!


Posted in Living Like a Maniac | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

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.

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , | 3 Comments

How to play … ball games

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!”

Posted in Living Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Living Like a Maniac, Travelling Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

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!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Posted in Travelling Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments