Piazza 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.
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 …”
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.
At 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.