The distance from Calabria to Sicily is so small that you can see one from the other. The Messina Straits are, at their narrowest point, less than 2 miles wide. Unfortunately, to cross them you must jump over various fiendish hurdles. From my small Calabrian town to the port of Villa San Giovanni, where one can catch the ferry to Messina, is less than 30 minutes by coach. However, the coaches only run once an hour, stop for lunch in the middle of the day and – potentially most disastrously – run along the A3. Anything can happen between here and there.
Today the coach runs smoothly and we pull into the drop-off area outside the train station (which is, conveniently, slap bang next to the ferry port) right on time. I’m feeling nervous. By the Law of Italian Travel, something has to go wrong somewhere along the way. There are three stages to the journey from Calabria to Catania. The coach is part one. The next bit is the ferry across the Messina Straits. This is my favourite part of the journey. Were it up to me, I’d happily spend my days getting the boat back and forth across this choppy little stretch of water, feeling the wind in my face, tasting salt on my lips, and dreaming of Greek legends. An early childhood by the sea has left its mark on me for life.
Before I can get on the boat, however, I need to buy a ferry ticket. These are bought from a newsagent’s on the train station platform, and cost €2.20. When I paid for the coach earlier, I realised that I wouldn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry as well. No matter – there’s a cash machine across the road from the bus stop in Villa. I lug my bags across and insert my card. The machine chunters a little, then spits my card back at me, telling me that there is no cash in the machine. I swear softly, and haul my bags back across the road to the newsagents, to ask if they’ll take a card. The young man behind the desk smiles sadly and shakes his head. There’s a cash machine over the road, though … I explain that it’s not working. His face falls and then brightens again. Don’t worry! There’s one in the next square, too! Go straight on, then it’s on the left. You can’t miss it. At this point I become aware of his grandfather nodding behind him. He’s not convinced that his grandson’s directions were clear enough. He jumps in to the rescue, guiding me by the elbow to the shop entrance, where he points the direction I need to go. It’s just there, look. Can you see the big banner? Yes? OK, go along that street and you’ll see the bank on the left. Good luck! He waves me off with a smile as I heft my bags back onto my shoulders and start walking.
5 minutes later, as I arrive at the bank, I’m sweating like a pig and cursing my decision to do away with my wheeled suitcase in favour of a cheap rucksack. Thankfully this cash machine has money in it. I reshoulder my rucksack, which is getting heavier by the second, and trudge back to where I started.
On my return to the newsagent’s Grandpa greets me like an old friend. A ticket for the ferry, was it? Just one way? Certainly! What’s that? You want to top up your phone as well? But of course! What’s the number? He pulls his glasses to the end of his nose and smiles at me expectantly, stubby finger poised in readiness over the top-up keypad. In some shops the keypad is passed over for you to type the number yourself. In others you dictate the number to the shopkeeper. It would appear that this is one of the second. This is always a fraught time for me. Firstly, I have to remember my number. Secondly, I have to remember how to say it in Italian. Today, there’s the added interest of Grandpa’s deafness. I start to dictate the number and he stops me mid-flow. What’s that? Did you say five-SIX-three? My number is therefore bellowed for the edification of every customer. For good measure, Grandpa then repeats it at full volume to check that he’s typed it in correctly. You know, just in case any passers-by hadn’t heard.
As my phone beeps to let me know that the top-up has been successfully received, he points at it triumphantly. There you go. All done! What’s that? What, you want a ticket for the ferry as well …?
… to be continued …
Image by Express Monorail