Bread and wine and broken bridges – a day in the Nebrodi

A small part of a much greater whole
Greater than the sum of its parts

We’re in a panificio in Cesarò, picking up supplies for lunch. It’s a family-run place which looks like a normal house from the outside – stone-built, low-roofed, farm implements stacked up against the wall, that kind of thing. Inside, there’s one room with an enormous bread oven, one holding the breadmaking equipment – including an industrial mixer which stands as high as a man – and one room which serves as the shop. We go into the oven room first, as that’s where all the activity seems to be, but are shooed out again by a tall, solidly-built man who I assume to be the owner. “You need to go to the other part, Signori.”

We obey, heading out through one fly curtain and back in through another to a small, dark room with a glass-covered deli counter filled with meats and cheeses. Around the walls there are display shelves with pretty, cellophane-wrapped packages of chocolate-chip cupcakes and biscuits. My eyes grow large. Davide gives me an amused, sideways look and tells the owner that we want pane condito – sandwiches made to order. The man, a little shamefaced, admits laughing defeat. “Ah. Yes, you need to go back to the oven, in that case. Sorry.”

The oven room is full of bread-scented haze – neither smoke nor steam, but a mixture of both – and a group of odd-seeming, middle-aged people milling around an industrial steel-covered kitchen counter. Standing at the counter, busy filling up freshly-baked bread with cheese and salami and handing the resulting sandwiches to the crowd around her, is a woman of the same sort of age as the man we’ve just spoken to. At the oven, meanwhile, there’s a bleary-eyed younger woman dressed in a flour-covered black tracksuit and heavy gloves. It’s a fair bet that they’re mother and daughter, while the man in the shop is the father of the family.

Her hands protected by thick gloves, the daughter pulls loaf after ring-shaped loaf out of the cavernous oven on a long-handled pallet, and stacks them in rectangular, tablecloth-lined laundry hampers. The hampers, sitting on plastic picnic chairs with their mouths at waist height, and with white cloth draping down their sides, look like baby bassinets with dark-blonde heads peeping out of the top. The illusion is broken when Mamma calls for another loaf and daughter unceremoniously heaves one of the ‘heads’ out; she tosses it across the room to her mother, who wastes no time hacking into it with her fearsome bread knife.

No bread board required
No bread board required

The odd group are twittering about how warm their sandwiches still are. Funny, that, considering they came out of the oven not five minutes previously. I’m not sure whether they’re eating breakfast or lunch or just snacking, but when they head to the picnic tables outside, Mamma yells out to them, ‘There’s wine if you want. Or Coca Cola or whatever.’ I don’t hear what they reply, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t get stuck into the wine, despite it being only about 10am. They looked like they were in need of … something.

It’s our turn to get our sandwiches. Daughter pulls a loaf out of the oven and hands it directly across to her mother. Mamma grabs it and places it flat on the counter in front of her before pulling it back towards her so that it’s steadied against her stomach. Holding her bread knife as if she intends to commit hara-kiri, she stabs it into the far edge of the loaf and starts hacking towards herself, rotating the loaf as she does so. From behind, it looks like there’s a grisly disembowelment in process.

Steam furls upwards.

Mamma pours oil from the kind of can that looks like it should belong to the Tin Man, liberally onto the opened, soft stomach of the bread. She sprinkles salt, oregano; flips round slices of cheese on top. “What do you want in it?” “Everything you have, signora.” She yells to her husband in the shop part. “Bring some salami?” He does. She heaves it onto the meat slicer and sets the blade in motion, forcing the salami across it with the same bloodthirsty zeal that she used for splitting the bread. Seven neat slices slither out and get layered on top of the cheese in an overlapping ring. She looks at the bread, then at Davide, and slices more. Without looking, she gropes underneath the counter and hauls out a plastic gallon container filled with sundried tomatoes in oil; she fishes out a good few spoonfuls and scatters them over the salami. “You want olives?” I look doubtful; Davide wants them. Mamma suggests a compromise: “We’ll put them in a bowl for you. You want black or white?” She shoos us out of the oven room and tells us to go and pay as she jams the lid back on the bread and rips lengths of brown paper from a large roll in which to wrap it. “I’ll bring this through in just a moment.”


Lago Trearie: no kangaroos allowed. Not even on a lead
Lago Trearie: no kangaroos allowed. Not even on a lead

We’re just short of Lago Trearie, our destination for today, and the highest lake (well, reservoir) in Sicily. There are two ways to get to it by road. One gets you to a point 4km below the lake, but leaves you on the far side of a locked gate unless you call the park wardens in advance and warn them you’re coming; the other is the way we’re arriving, from Maniace. This gets your car into the park, at least, but you have to drive a couple of kilometres along a road which becomes progressively more and more potholed until it stops dead at a bridge, which was deemed unsafe two years ago.

Rather than rebuild the damaged bridge, the powers that be have just closed it off at either end and left it to rot. When it first became unusable, it was completely closed, with boulders across both ends and an eight foot high barrier of heavy-duty wire mesh blocking even pedestrian access. At some point in the last two years, however, someone has cut a door-sized hole into the mesh and it’s now possible to walk across. Watch out for potholes that may or may not go right through the rotten concrete, though …

According to signs in the park, it’s a 1.4km walk from the bridge to the picnic area by the park gate. It’s then a 4km walk (uphill) from the picnic area to the lake. The lake itself is a coffee-coloured, muddy body of water held in place at one end by a dam made of large concrete blocks, and it’s nothing special. The hike to get there, on the other hand, is exhilarating, and works up an appetite for lunch. When we get there, it’s just started to drizzle, so we head for the pine forest on the far side of the reservoir and sit down on a convenient wooden pallet to eat the Cesarò sandwich.

I unwrap the outer layers of plastic bags and brown paper and break the loaf into pieces along the rough lines that Mamma hacked into it in the shop. The liberal coating of oil she gave it has soaked through the paper and slicked the inside of the first bag. My fingers covered with bread-warmed oil, I thank heaven that we had the foresight to wrap a second plastic bag around the first before putting it all in the rucksack.

The bread was still warm when I opened the rough package. Now that it’s been opened to the air, however, it’s a race against the cold. My hands go numb within minutes as cloud descends around us. The lake disappears into mist as Davide paces around outside the treeline, chasing brief moments of sunshine. He takes a second slab of filled bread and shoves it down as fast as he can – no easy feat. It’s delicious, but classically ‘casereccio’. My temples pound from the exertion of chewing it. Davide swallows his last bite. “Let’s go.” I eye the cupcakes that – at the last moment – I grabbed from the shelf at the paneficio and sneaked into the rucksack. Davide follows my gaze. “We can eat them at the picnic place, amore,” he says. “Come on – I’m freezing.” I ignore him and tear the sellotape off the top of the bag with my teeth, determined to get my sweet fix before we go. It doesn’t disappoint: somebody in that bakery has found the secret to proper cupcake sponge, and I’m in fluffy, chocolate-chipped heaven.


Dog or fox? Place your bets now
Dog or fox? Place your bets now

“Look! A dog!” says Davide, as we near the picnic area. My hands have finally regained a little pinkness, as opposed to their deathly whiteness at the lake, and I was too busy looking at them to see the dog appear. I see it running away from us, however. Davide hesitates. “Actually – is it a fox?” The dog-slash-fox appears at the top of another rise ahead of us, running towards the smell of roasting meat which we’re also following, and I see what he means. It’s longer-legged than an English fox, but the colouring’s right. I shrug. “Could be …?”

When we get into the picnic area, there’s a large group there and the smell of roast meat fills the air. Davide is hunting for the hikers’ hostels that a friend of his has rented in the past. He spots them, over the stream behind the main picnic area, and we head over to take a closer look. There’s a fluffy St Bernard puppy peering out at us from behind a mesh fence, paws up on the knee-high wall below it. We move closer to say hello, and the dog-slash-fox appears from around an unexpected corner. It’s scuttled around the back, probably to avoid the crowded picnic area. Davide whistles and it comes closer. She’s a dog, but there’s fox in her not-too-distant genes. She’s also female, we can see at these close quarters. She pricks her ears and looks up at us with honey-amber eyes, then moves towards the puppy to say hello.

Another dog – a large, brindle-coloured thing that looks like she has Dobermann in her somewhere – appears out of a previously unnoticed kennel to the left of us, on the far side of the mesh fence. She’s wearing a heavy choke-chain and doesn’t look like the kind of animal you mess with. I move out of range. The dog-slash-fox, however, is unfazed. She leaps up onto the wall and greets the Dobey like an old friend. The Dobey, in turn, dances about on her side of the fence, squirming her tummy and wiggling her little stump of a tail as she snuffles through the wire mesh, rubbing noses with the dog-slash-fox. So much for the tough-girl exterior.

We head back over the stream as it starts to rain, to shelter under the trees. When the rain stops, we get up to leave. The man in charge of the barbecue, however, has other ideas. “Guys! Do you want some meat? We’ve got loads! Wine? Go on!” We refuse politely, but he’s insistent. “Come on! Seriously, there’s loads!” We’re not getting out of here without being fed and watered. We laughingly submit.

Our host pours the wine out of the kind of container that would usually house a few gallons of petrol. His friends call over to him: “MORE wine, mbare?!” He laughs back at them and indicates towards us. “It’s for the guys, here, honest!” He pours two beakers full to the brim and hands them over. I take a sip. It’s murky red and sweet. Someone’s home-produced stuff, no doubt. I like it, but am aware of the fact that it’s probably hideously alcoholic and I’m the designated driver on the way home. I sneak over to the fence by the stream to try to surreptitiously pour some away.

Davide follows me. He’s also trying to jettison his wine, but for different reasons: he’s not a fan of the homebrew style. We giggle as we try to work out how to get rid of it without causing any offence. We’re nearly rumbled when one of the group appears, silent ninja-like, with a plate of sausages for us. He hands it over and disappears again, just as silently as he arrived; Davide and I choke back borderline hysterical laughter as we realise how close we were to being caught in the act. This wine is definitely more alcoholic than it appears.

Time to go home.

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Where there’s love, there’s flavour – a prequel

granita and brioche by kate bailward
Granita and brioche: the best way to start your day

May 2012. I’m in Pasticceria Dulcissima, talking to Maurizio and Silvana, the owners. He’s in the airforce and speaks excellent English. The shop is her dream. Se c’è amore, c’è sapore is the motto: If there’s love, there’s flavour. She makes the ice-creams by hand every day, measuring and balancing all the individual ingredients. The tastes can change every time she makes them, apparently, according to the weather, the ambient temperature, or just how well she balances her measurements.

Silvana fills up a coppetta with granita and hands it over. A little girl appears from the kitchen. “What are you doing?” Silvana answers her with literal honesty. “I’m filling up a cup with granita for the signora.” She hands it over the counter and I taste it. I’ve gone for mandorla flavour. You only have to look at it to see that it’s made with real, chopped almonds rather than just almond milk. The colour isn’t as brilliant white as others that you can find, and the texture is chunkier. Taste-wise, the sweetness of the sugar comes through more as well, not overpowering but complementing the almonds. This is proper, artisan granita. I smile at Silvana and tell her it’s good. *Really* good. She beams back. “I make it fresh every day.”

As I pay, Silvana asks if I’m English. Not, ‘where are you from?’, but ‘are you English?’ I tell her I am. Her face lights up and Claudia, the chubby-faced little girl at her side, looks up with interest. Silvana starts to talk about her dream of opening an artisan gelato shop in London. Do I think there’s a market for it? How easy would it be? I don’t know anything about the business side of things, but I agree that the English would probably go for good gelato. Is London the right place, though? Maybe a smaller city? Silvana bounces ideas around while I eat my granita and act as a sounding board.

You can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs …

There’s a loud alarm going in the back of the shop, and a smell of baked goods wafts out. Silvana calls to Maurizio, who’s on the phone outside. He makes as if to come and turn off the oven, but Silvana waves that aside. “She’s English! Come and talk to her!” She turns back to me to explain herself. “I speak only a little English, but my husband is very good. Sit down! Make yourself comfortable!” She ushers me to a seat at the side of the tiny shop, and disappears out back.

Maurizio comes in and introduces himself. “We can talk in English if it’s easier …?” I tell him I’d rather practise my Italian. At first he’s not very forthcoming. The shop is Silvana’s dream and, although he’s proud of what she does, he’s also reticent. He looks at the difficulties. 25 years in the airforce have given him strength but also caution. He talks about their two grown-up sons. One is a photographer, who’s recently finished his training in Florence and has now moved to Newport. When I talk about growing up near Bristol his barriers start to come down. Bristol would be close to the son, and would give them the smaller city feel that he seems to prefer. Would people buy the gelato, though? And how much would they pay? He wants to nail down the practicalities before committing to anything. I wish I could help more in terms of facts and figures, but I haven’t lived in the UK for three years. He nods in understanding.

“What’s Bristol like? How many days of rain are there a year?” Maurizio’s eyes crinkle in amusement behind his glasses. “Is it by the sea? That’s good. She doesn’t like too much sun. The weather’s better here than in England, but the people …” he pulls a face. “And we’re Sicilian.” He glances sideways at me. “We’re not from Catania, though. We’re from Trapani, on the west coast. Have you been? Where did you go? By the sea? Ah yes.” He nods and smiles. “Did you eat the couscous? She makes it for us every Christmas, with lots of garlic and fish. She can cook anything. I’ve been a pilot for 25 years but she can get a job far easier than I can. Tavola calda, gelato, granita – she can do it all.”

Silvana Ballistreri and il Maestro Cavaziel. Credit: Davide Cosenza. Used with permission.
Silvana Ballistreri and il Maestro Cavaziel

“She trained with an old traditional gelato maker here in Catania,” Maurizio continues. “Maestro Luca Cavaziel. He doesn’t take students any more. He’s 87. It’s a precision thing.” He pinches his forefingers to his thumbs and mimes tiny balances with his fingers. “She uses this -” he grabs a miniature calculator from behind the till and laughs. “It changes every day.” When I praise the idea of having only a few, really good flavours versus 50 not-so-good ones, he shrugs. “It’s expensive. It’s good, but it’s expensive. Here the price of gelato is about €30 per kilo. Elsewhere in Catania it’s about €14 or €15. In Florence it goes up to €35, but you’re paying for being in that city.” It seems that profit margins are a big stumbling block.

Claudia, who’s been hanging about while I talk to who I’d assumed were her parents, suddenly flies out from behind the counter. “Papà!” She flings her arms around the man who’s just come into the shop. Apparently Maurizio and Silvana are just babysitters for the morning. Her father leaves again and she returns to her place at Maurizio’s side, behind the counter. “My daddy’s happy,” she informs us.

Update: I wrote this piece over two years ago, but didn’t get round to publishing it at the time. I did, however, review Dulcissima’s granita in a post for Travel Belles.

Fastforward to the present day. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Davide, who’s the photographer son in Newport mentioned in the story, and who’s now back in Catania working on the website and social media side of things for Dulcissima. He asked whether I’d be interested in collaborating on some posts wherein he provides the pictures and I write the words. I said yes. So, in due course, there’s going to be more about Dulcissima’s excellent cakes and biscuits over on my food blog. For now, however, this has been a little slice of those future posts’ history. 

Photo of Silvana Ballistreri and Maestro Cavaziel © Davide Cosenza. Used with permission.

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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.

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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.

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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!


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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.

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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!


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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.

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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.

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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!”

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