It’s evening in Otranto. We wind our way up the steep steps to the cathedral square, tired after a day in the sun. Following a group of middle-aged Italians, I listen to their excited chatter about the events of the day. It’s Labour Day, and everyone has been out enjoying the sunshine. We make our way slowly (I’ve long given up on my London habit of walking fast – there’s too much to see and to listen to) through one of Otranto’s narrow streets, and I become aware of birds calling overhead. I look up into the fading light and see swifts darting above, swooping from building to building, and making one hell of a racket as they do so. I begin to understand why they could be seen as pests. I’d always thought it was just because of the nesting in eaves thing, but my *god* they’re noisy. It’s not just a benevolent tweet either: this is full on screaming. They’re ever so pretty, with their distinctive curved tails, but I’m very glad I don’t have to live with them. We break out of the street and into the cathedral square, and the noise of the swifts amplifies tenfold. The sky above is filled with flittering, zooming birds, rollercoastering from cathedral window to museum eaves to rooftop and back again, all at speeds that I can barely follow. I’m just aware of hundreds of black shapes skittering over my head, all the while keeping up their high-pitched shrieking. It’s beautiful to watch, and I stop in the middle of the square, a grin spreading across my face. The middle-aged Italians give me an indulgent ‘well, she’s not from here’ kind of a look and continue onwards, but I stay for a few minutes more, drinking in the sight of nature busy enjoying itself.
I’m woken the next morning by birds chattering outside my window. Something has disturbed them and they are in loud mode. I quite like the sound: it’s gentle twittering, rather than the shriek of the swifts, and is oddly soothing. I lie in bed and let it wash over me, unwilling to get up just yet. Their voices subside slowly until there is just one cheeping on the balcony. Next door’s dog begins to bark. I sigh: if I manage not to notice him then I can tune him out, but today is not going to be one of those days. He is shut outside all day, and keeps up a constant cacophony of noise, all day, every day. He’s not the only one, either. I hate the way dogs are treated in this country. I’m a country girl and not overly sentimental about animals, but I feel that getting a dog and then locking it out on a balcony all day is cruel. A *balcony*, for god’s sake.
The mosquito bites on my feet begin to itch again. The zanzare are feasting mightily on me at the moment, and it’s driving me crazy. It’s lovely not having to wear tights and boots all the time, but bare flesh is an invitation for biting. The mosquitoes round here also appear to be some mutant, giant breed, judging by the carnage they leave behind. These aren’t just little bumps: the smallest are the size of old 50p pieces, and the largest swelled to the size of a Wagon Wheel. (The biscuit, not the wooden thing on the side of a cart. Just in case you were wondering.) They take about 3 days to stop itching, but that’s not the end of it: they leave livid red marks and, in some cases, bruises for a further week or more. I look like I have a bad case of psoriasis, which is not an attractive look in the summer. Or at any time, in fact. I pop another of my dwindling supply of antihistamines, add citronella to the shopping list, and plan death to all biting insects.
Image by Kate Bailward