“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.
“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 …
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.
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.