Journey to Paris

feet, light, shade, kate bailwardPiazza 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.

picture credit: google images
picture credit: google images

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 …”

paris, eiffel tower, kate bailward 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.

cannolo, passport, kate bailwardAt 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.

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Paris, encore

paris metro sign, kate bailwardI’m going to Paris! Tomorrow! And this time I’m going with my amore (well, strictly speaking, I’m meeting him there, given that we’re living in different countries at the moment – details, details …), so there will be no need for Paris to try to matchmake me at every given opportunity. I’m also going armed with restaurant recommendations, so I won’t end up wandering in a hungry, hopeless daze again. In fact, the only thing over which I have no control is the weather which, rather than sizzling, is forecast to be just – all right. But, y’know, I’m going to be in Paris. With my love. Eating wonderful food and introducing him to a city which has, over the past few years, become one of my favourite places to visit. I can’t wait.

Now, all that remains to do is to try to banish Italian from my linguistically tangled tongue and reintroduce some French. Dio mio – au secours!

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“As I left Termini, the sun was up, though hardly any people were. I wandered through deserted streets, sunglasses protecting me against the early-morning December sunshine, wearing a smile as wide as the Tiber on my face. Before the general populus of Rome had started to stir, I’d been bowled over by the majestic frontage of the Quirinale, pottered through the winding streets of the Ghetto, had a wander along the river and was at my hostel in its leafy courtyard in Trastevere.”

Killing two birds with one stone, today’s post isn’t here, but over on the Teaching House Nomads blog. What with it being exam period and my therefore running about the place administering Cambridge speaking exams to hundreds of nervous students in the Catania area, as well as teaching final lessons (still three weeks left of term …), writing articles in other places and the sun being out ‘n’ all, I’m finding that my time’s somewhat squeezed. Still, on the bright side, you’re discovering new places in more ways than one – blog pastures new, with a story about travelling to Rome.


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On Winning at Gallipoli (redux)

It was around this time four years ago that I first realised that I was head over heels in love with Italy. Well, there’s something to be said for a country that can make me actively enjoy the sound of hooting car horns and riotously joyful football fans …

This story was first published on the blog in May 2010, but I reread it recently and it still makes me smile to think of that day. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did experiencing it.

Katja x

The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s strong, and not entirely pleasant, although not disgusting either, so long as you don’t breathe it in too deeply. It’s the smell of salt water and fish guts, with a strong undertone of diesel, all melded into one: the smell of a working harbour.  Further evidence of this is the sight of rows upon rows of fishing boats, and refrigerated vans lined up neatly waiting for their cargo. Of course, today is Sunday, so it’s quiet at the moment. The wind whips the waves up into a frenzy and catches at my hair, blowing it into an instant bird’s nest. A rusting sign attached to a bank of rock proclaims that this is Yachting Club Gallipoli. The only boats within sight are working ones, so presumably the pleasure-sailors have gone elsewhere, if they were ever here at all. This is the south of Italy, not France. It’s far more reminiscent of Cornwall than Cannes, and all the more interesting for that fact. I stare out to sea until I am rudely roused from reverie by a faceful of salt water, splashing up as a wave hits the sea wall hard. Gasping and spluttering, I hastily head for a more sheltered spot in the inner harbour.

In contrast to the breaking waves on the seafront, the water here is as calm as a millpond, and glittering in the bright mid-afternoon light. I bask in the sunshine and pull out my camera. Fishing nets are piled up on the quay, weighted down with old duvets and bits of broken board to stop them blowing away or being torn. The boats that the nets belong to are tied to stout bollards, which are flaking with rust. Being attacked on a daily basis by salt sea air doesn’t appear to do metal much good – or wood, in fact. The paint on the rowing boats pulled up onto the foreshore is blistered and peeling, which, combined with the cracks in the wood, creates beautiful patterns and textures. I snap away happily for 15 minutes, watched with benevolent bemusement by the bearded harbourmaster as he listens to the Inter match on his car radio.

Walking around to the front of the harbour wall again, I am hit with a blast of salty air. There is a breakwater – made up of huge concrete blocks, each of them four foot across – set out to sea a little way from the harbour wall. On a day like today, when the Scirocco whistles across the Salento, bringing bad weather in its wake, it’s needed. The waves crash against it, sending white spray ten foot up into the air. It seems that Gallipoli is more than used to receiving bad weather and is well prepared to deal with the force of the water crashing towards the shore.

Heading back onto the main promenade, I spy a large, weathered, sculpted fountain at the town side entrance to the harbour. Three dogs flop on its leeward side, sheltered from the wind. They’re a motley crew – one golden retriever, one bristly little rough-coated terrier with a happy grin on his muzzle, and an overweight labrador cross. They probably don’t belong to anyone sitting here now, but have chosen the spot for its prime sunbathing opportunities. As I move closer to take a photo, the terrier stretches to the very ends of his toes and sighs luxuriously, while the retriever twitches his nose at me, checking whether I’m bringing food.  (No.)  I leave them to their lazing, and head inside the handy next door cafe to start the important process of choosing gelato.

dogs, salento, gallipoli, italy, kate bailward

Ice cream cravings satisfied for the day, it’s time to head back home. Outside the cafe the promenade is full of cars draped in Inter and Italian flags. Inter have, apparently, won the Serie A, and everyone is out in the street to celebrate. In the UK, football fans go to the pub when their team wins. Italians, however, head for their cars and drive round and round in circles, shouting joyfully out of car windows and hooting their horns like crazy. I’m not a football fan but the excitement is infectious. If I were stuck in a noisy traffic jam like this in London, I’d be wanting to kill someone within a few minutes, but here I just enjoy the vicarious thrill of victory, and grin along with everyone else around me. I am suntanned, windblown, and very, very happy.

Images by Kate Bailward

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The credit card saga: part III

(The conclusion of the whole sorry tale. You can find part I here and part II here)

money-dye-pack-e1349867933354At 1.30 I head back to the bank. Again. I’m beginning to feel like it’s an unhappy second home. As I reach the outer door, there’s a girl just leaving the lobby, having used the cash machines. Her head’s down as she walks towards the exit and she nearly bumps into me. She jumps and babbles breathlessly: “Oh! Oh no – oh, just so you know, the machines aren’t giving out money at the moment – um – they’re closed.” I smile back. “It’s OK. I need to talk to someone inside the branch.” She giggles. “Oh. Oh, OK then. Well – bye …” We cross in the doorway and I ring the doorbell of the inner door.

Through the glass, I see dark-haired woman standing up. She spots me, too, from across the room; she’s already shouting as she stomps towards the door. “We can’t give you the card back! We’re closed.” She stands, combatively, on the far side of the glass door. I wait for her to open it, but instead she just carries on railing at me. Through a closed door. It would be farcical if I weren’t so enraged at her rudeness. I interrupt her in my haughtiest voice. “The manager told me to come back at 1.30.” She shrugs insolently. “Yeah? Well, the manager isn’t here. She’s at lunch.” Every phrase she utters is punctuated with Sicilian sign language – a flick of the fingers under the chin, a hand cutting through midair, a templing and wagging of fingers. “We can’t give you the card back.” I turn on my heel, sick of listening to her. “Fine. I’ll come back tomorrow morning.”

Her tone changes on being met with equal aggression to her own. She still doesn’t open the door, but she does at least sound a pinch more conciliatory. “Signora!” I pause, my hand hovering in front of the door release button. She continues. “Signora, we have to check the records of the machine. If the card issuer has reported a problem we’re obliged to cut the card up.” I turn back to face her. As calmly as I can, I tell her that the problem isn’t with my card, it’s with their machine. But that yes; if the records haven’t yet been checked, I’ll come back in the morning. “Better the afternoon,” she retorts. She stands, chin jutted with belligerence, as if daring me to say anything more. I take a breath and meet her stare, then plaster a fake plastic smile onto my face. “Fine. Grazie, Signora. Until tomorrow, in that case …”

romantic_gesture_slider1At 11am the next morning I’m back in the bank for the fourth time. I’m half-hoping that the dark-haired woman won’t be there, but it seems the bank’s staff is constant. Farrah Fawcett is still at her table; curly blonde woman is still staring at her computer with a ‘counter closed’ sign on her desk, and dark-haired woman is dealing with customers. The manager doesn’t appear to be in. I take a numbered ticket with a feeling of dread and sit down to wait.

The numbers climb closer and closer to my own. My palms sweat: there’s only one number to go before mine is called and I’ll have to speak to my nemesis again. I start to plan polite – and not so polite – strategies for dealing with her.

songbigA movement in the lobby catches my eye. Praise be! It’s the manager, returned from whatever she’s been doing outside. I offer up a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of banking and smile at her as she walks across the room to her office. She smiles back. “Good morning, signora.” She nods a welcome to the man sitting outside her office. “Doctor. How lovely to see you.” They pass a few pleasantries and she disappears into her inner sanctum. I roll my eyes heavenward and mutter an inward mantra. “Please let me not have to talk to rude woman today. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease …”

Somebody somewhere is listening. The manager comes out of her office and walks over to the dark-haired woman, gently but firmly interrupting her conversation with the customer at the desk. “Laura. Do you have the cash machine records and the Signora’s card?” Dark-haired woman looks up. Her face turns sour as she sees me, but she heads to another desk behind her and unlocks a drawer, pulling out a sheaf of paper to which I can see is paperclipped my card. It’s still in one piece, I’m pleased to note. She hands the entire bundle over to the manager and sits down again, avoiding my eye. The manager heads back into her office, smiling at me as she goes past. “One moment, please.” I wait, breathing a huge sigh of relief and hoping that I’m not about to be called into her office to have the card destroyed in front of me and be clapped into handcuffs for reasons unknown.

close-up of human hands cutting a credit card by scissors“Meess By-ill-vard?” I don’t hear the manager’s voice at first, but the doctor outside her office waves at me to attract my attention. “I think she means you?” I wake up and nod my thanks at him, before walking into the manager’s office and shaking her hand. She tries my name again. “By-ill-vard? It’s correct?” I smile. “Not quite. Bailward. But it’s strange even for English people, so don’t worry.” She gives a small smile and gestures to the seat in front of her desk. “Please. Sit down.”

I do so, eyeing my card on top of the pile of papers on her desk. She picks them up and looks at them. “Around ten o’clock yesterday, yes?” I nod and smile. “That’s right.” She runs her finger lightly down the printout, stopping by a highlighted entry. “I see that you tried twice to take out money. Was there a problem?” My heart thumps painfully as I explain about the first machine telling me that services weren’t available and my therefore trying the second. I have a horrible, sick feeling that dark-haired woman has been right all along and they’re really not going to give me my card back. The manager nods thoughtfully. “I see.” Her eyes are enormous behind her glasses as she pulls out two – what seem to be identical – forms and starts to fill them out without further comment.

I entwine the fingers of both my hands together and clench them together hard, feeling my nails digging into the skin on the back of them. The manager copies my name carefully, as well as the type of card. She looks up at me, her pen hovering over an empty field on the form. “Where is the card from, Signora?” I look at her in confusion and she clarifies. “From which city?” I stumble over my explanation. “Well, not from any city, really. I mean, I just got it online – it’s not from my bank.” She looks at me and blinks. “So – a Mastercard is a credit card? Like American Express?” I’m as mystified at her confusion as she is at mine, but the words ‘American Express’ seem to have put her mind at ease so I just nod my confirmation. The time for unravelling the vagaries of international banking systems is definitely not right now. The manager pushes one form across the desk towards me, indicating where I need to sign, and I scan the text on the document, hoping I can understand any relevant details.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A foolish grin spreads across my face as I work out that it’s a form to say that I’ve received my card in good order. I exhale shakily in relief and scribble a wobbly facsimile of my signature with a hand that’s shaking with adrenaline. The manager chats quietly as I do so. “I was studying English, but I had to give it up because my mother was recovering in hospital.” I look up and meet her eyes. “I hope all’s well now, Signora?” She nods and smiles. “Yes. We hope. Both for her and for me!” She laughs, a tiny, soft sound, and I beam back at her. She stands up. “I’m very sorry for all of this, Signora.” I brush her apology aside. “Don’t worry. I understand that there are certain protocols that need to be followed.” She bobs her head at me in agreement. “Yes. Yes indeed. Well … good day, Signora. Arrivederci.” We shake hands and I walk out feeling as light as air.

As I leave the manager’s office, dark-haired woman ducks her head and stares fixedly at her computer screen. I’m tempted – SO tempted – to go over to her desk and pile gushing, insincere thanks on her for all of her help. The satisfaction of watching her squirm would be enormous. However, winning with dignity is priceless, and for everything else – despite her best efforts – I’ve finally reclaimed my Mastercard. That’s good enough for me.


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The credit card saga: part II

HUSTLE_800X600_TheConIsOn(To remind yourself of part I of the story, go here)

I wake up early on Monday morning. Despite Sarah’s calming influence yesterday, I’m feeling twitchy. What if the card isn’t in the machine after all? Or what if I can’t make the bank understand what happened? How about if the policemen weren’t, in fact, policemen despite their uniforms and marked car, and were actually con-men? They gave me a useless number to call, after all. Maybe the palm seller was in on it, too, stationed as he was outside the main door to eye potential marks and call his partners in crime at a moment’s notice. I do my best to shake the Hustle-style scenarios out of my head, concentrating instead on what time the bank might be open for me to be able to get in. I decide to aim for 9, and dress with care, to make myself look as upstanding a citizen as possible.

I get to the bank just after 9am, to find that they’ve been open since 8.30. I go into the inner sanctum – I’ve never been past the lobby before. It’s a large, marble-floored room with three women working, and four or five, mainly elderly, men waiting to be served. Just inside the door there’s a stocky man in his thirties chatting to a long-faced woman in her forties, with Farrah Fawcett hair and too much blusher. She’s stationed behind a table and clearly works in the bank, but seems to have a different status to the two other women behind counters, one of whom (dark-haired, severe-looking) is serving a customer and the other of whom (curly, blonde) is staring pointedly at a computer screen with a handwritten ‘counter closed’ sign in front of her. Welcome to Italian customer service. As I look around the room I see that there’s a number ticker on the wall, indicating who should be served next, but I can’t see the machine from which I should take a ticket. I do a surreptitious circuit of the room, and realise that it was right next to the door. It’s the old-fashioned type, like the ones that you see at the deli counter in the supermarket, which seems at odds with the smooth silence of the rest of the bank. I take a number and sit down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stocky man finishes his conversation with Farrah Fawcett and moves to a comfortable seat under the window. I look around the room, trying to remain calm, but instead going through the myriad linguistic situations with which I might have to deal this morning. I become aware that my foot is twitching back and forth and the heel of my shoe is threatening to clatter on the marble floor. I stop twitching and instead chew my fingernail, looking at the stains on the floor around the windows. They look like guano, but I think they’re just unfortunate water marks.

A thin woman in a charcoal-grey wool dress, matching tights and sensible black pumps with a gold trim emerges from an office that I hadn’t noticed before. Her thick glasses magnify her already large eyes and make her look like a terrified rabbit. She smiles around the room, greeting customers formally but with obvious recognition. “Good morning, Doctor. Signore; buongiorno.” I look up at the sign above her glass-walled office and see that she’s the manager. I wonder if I should try to talk to her, rather than waiting for my number to be called, but decide against it. I return to chewing my nail and staring at the water stains.

The numbers jump a couple. Some of the people who arrived before me must have already got bored and left. “36?” calls the dark-haired woman working behind the counter. Everyone shakes their heads. “Never mind. We’ll jump ahead. Who’s got the next number?” It turns out it’s number 41, the one before mine. I start to plan my opening explanation of why I’m here.

“42?” I stand up and walk over, my heels very loud on the hard floor. I greet the woman, who has a heavy fringe and wears large, wire-rimmed glasses. She smiles at me, lessening her initial look of severity. “Good morning, Signora. How can I help?” I start to explain. “I came to the cash machine yesterday but it didn’t give me my card – not the money either – but the police said I could get my card this morning – they gave me a number to call but it just kept ringing and nobody answered and…”

She interrupts me, her face as hard as stone. “If the card’s been taken there must be a reason. Do you bank with us?” I tell her that it’s an English card. Her lip curls. “Well then we can’t do anything.” She doesn’t add, ‘and I wouldn’t help you even if I could’, but she might as well have done. I feel like I’ve been punched, but her dismissive rudeness gives me the balls to treat her likewise. “So what am I supposed to do now?”

Sucker_Punch_(7378263378)She glares at me then stands up to come round the desk. She stomps across the room, snapping a question as she stalks past me towards the manager’s office: “You’re English?” I tell her I am. She doesn’t bother to say anything more to me, instead heading into the manager’s office and spitting out a tirade of harsh, rapid Italian at her. The manager’s voice, in contrast, is controlled and gentle. “Yes, of course I can speak to her.” The dark-haired woman barges out of the office again, flicking a disgusted up-and-down look at me as she goes past. “Wait here.”

She returns to her desk and calls the next customer, but she hasn’t finished with me yet. As I wait for the manager to finish a phone call and to greet an elderly family friend who’s popped in to say hello to her, dark-haired woman, who’s been furiously typing into her computer, shouts triumphantly across the room at me. “Signora! We *definitely* can’t give you the card back.” She sneers at me, challenging me to say anything more. I shrug and smile sweetly at her, while continuing to wait for the manager. “OK.”

In contrast to the aggressive rudeness displayed by the dark-haired woman, the manager’s demeanour is polite and gentle. She smiles at me as she calls me into her office, saying hello in English. “Please sit down.” I do so, and she explains, calmly and politely, that cards that have been swallowed by the machine are dropped into a locked safe, which they can only open at certain times of day when the bank is closed to customers. “So you see, we can’t do anything at this moment, but if you come back this afternoon then hopefully we can sort this all out. Can you come back around 4?” I grimace. “Sadly not. I’m working from 2 – 9.30. Is there any way …?” She nods in understanding, her eyes sympathetic behind the thick lenses of her glasses. “Well, we’re closed from 12:30 to 2:45, so if you come back around 1:30 then maybe we will have been able to retrieve it.” I nod, smiling in relief, and she holds up her hand. “I’m not promising – but if not today, then certainly tomorrow morning.” She stands up, smiling vaguely, and I shake her hand. “Thank you, Signora. Good day.” I click my way back across the marble floor of the bank feeling that, if nothing else, at least I’ve got one over on the unpleasant dark-haired woman. It feels good.

(To be continued …)

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The credit card saga: part I

Snail_origamiIt’s Palm Sunday, around 10am, and I’m on my way to the station to catch a bus to Siracusa. I know I’ve got enough money to get my bus ticket, and the people I’m meeting in Siracusa have offered to buy me lunch, so I don’t really need any extra, but I swing into the bank on my way past anyway. I don’t like the thought of turning up with an empty wallet. It seems rude, somehow.

As it’s Sunday, the main door to the bank is locked unless you swipe a bank card. Forgetting that I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, I swipe my English credit card through the slot, first one way, then the other. It does absolutely nothing. I pull my Italian bancomat card out of my wallet instead. Despite the fact that there’s been nothing much more than cobwebs in the account for at least two years, it opens the door. I laugh to myself: the laziness which has meant I haven’t closed the account yet may be costing me in bank fees, but there are times when it comes in useful.

1-1204463487cJKyInside the lobby there are two cash machines, one on either wall. I go to the one on the right and insert my credit card, going through the rigmarole of entering my PIN by touch alone, with my free hand shielding the keypad in case there are any hidden cameras above the machine. A message flashes up on the screen: this service isn’t available for your card. Rolling my eyes at the pointlessness of cash machines which don’t have cash in, I move to the other machine and enter all the information again, jabbing at buttons automatically. Withdrawal. Italian. X euros. PIN. OK. The machine starts to chunter and I wait for it to spit my card and money back out at me.

It seems to be taking longer than usual. I glance impatiently at the screen. The machine’s whirring, but it’s not doing anything more than that. No sign of my card being pushed back out of the slot, and no sign of any money either. Then the screen flashes, and the message changes. Rather than telling me to take my card and that my money will arrive shortly, it says that the machine is out of service.

Out of service with my card still trapped inside.


I gape, open-mouthed in horror, like a goldfish. Then I start jabbing at the cancel button, in the vain hope that my card will be ejected. Result: nothing. Feeling sick, I grope in my bag for my phone, scanning around the lobby for a number to call to report a faulty cash machine.

It’s at this moment that I see the two policemen climbing out of their car and heading towards the bank.

My first thought is that they’re going to arrest me. It’s the only conclusion my panicked mind can draw at this moment. One of the policemen peers through the glass outer door, shading his eyes with his hand to cut out reflections. He sees me and points towards the door release button, asking me to open it for them. I don’t see what else I can do; I press the button and the door slides across.

Italian_PoliceThe two men enter. “What happened, signora?” asks the one who was peering through the glass. I start to jabber the facts as I remember them, words spilling out of my mouth with surprising coherence, considering that I’ve just lost my credit card and I’m speaking in Italian to a policeman who may or may not be about to arrest me. He nods, listening carefully. “Which machine did you use?” I explain that I’d tried both of them, but that it’s the one on the left that has my card. The peering policeman’s silent partner pulls out a torch, turns it on and shines it into the card slot, squinting, one-eyed, after it. He then takes hold of the outer section of the card slot and pulls hard. It doesn’t budge. The first policeman pulls out a mobile phone and calls a number. “Massimo? Yes, we’re at the bank. No, we can’t see anything.” He looks up at me. “I’m going to give you a number to call, Signora.” I fumble for my phone as the policeman carries on talking to Massimo, whoever he may be. “Yes. OK. Yes, I’ll tell the signora to report it now. She should come back in the morning? OK.”

He hangs up the phone and focuses his attention back on me. “OK. Call this number …” He dictates it to me quickly; in my current stressed state of mind, I fail to register it. Numbers aren’t a strong point for me in Italian at the best of times. He repeats, more slowly, and this time I get it. I show him the screen and he nods. “Call that number, tell them what happened, then come back in the morning to get your card. You do live in Catania, don’t you?” I tell him I do, then jump as an alarm starts to sound. We’ve been standing in the lobby for too long with the door closed. A robotic voice sounds from a speaker somewhere above our heads, telling us to get out. I’m not sure what the consequences will be if we don’t, but the policeman seems keen to obey. He ushers me ahead of him, speaking smoothly as he does so. “Well, the good news is, Signora, that your card’s definitely not in the slot – it’s properly in the belly of the machine. However, call that number I’ve given you, OK?” I press the dial button and put the phone up to my ear, too dazed to do anything but exactly what I’m told. The policeman holds up his hand in parting salute. “Buona giornata, signora.” I mumble the appropriate response, while thinking privately just how unlikely it is that a good day is now on my cards.

Glühwendel_brennt_durchThe phone rings and rings. Every minute or so the ringing is interrupted by a recorded message: ‘Lines are busy. An operator will be with you shortly.” I continue standing outside the bank, waiting for the phone to stop ringing and a person to answer. A woman arrives at the door to the bank and starts to pull her bank card out of her wallet to swipe herself in. I hold up a hand to stop her. “Signora, it’s dangerous.” She eyes me with suspicion. “What do you mean?” I explain that the machine’s taken my card for no reason, that the police have just been here and that I’m on the phone waiting to report it. She gives me the fish-eye. “Well, which machine did you use?” I tell her both, repeating my advice not to use the machines today. If I’d been expecting thanks for an act of Good Samaritanism I’d have been disappointed: she walks away, chuntering under her breath as if it’s my fault.

The man selling woven palm leaves by the door of the bank – who was hanging on every word of my conversation with the woman – watches me surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye. Another police car patrols, slowing as it passes the bank, the men inside looking across the road to see what’s going on. Presumably the alarm that went off when I was inside with the other policemen has set off an alert. I’ve been standing here for a good ten minutes now, waiting for someone to answer the phone. It’s clearly not going to happen, so I decide to cut my losses. With a final scan of the lobby to check that my card hasn’t, by some miracle, been spat back out of the machine, I head home to call my credit card provider, in the hopes that they’ll be more responsive than the Italians have been.

Telephone_operators,_1952“Hello, this is the Halifax lost and stolen card line. You’re speaking to Sarah. May I take your name, please?” I give my name and Sarah’s disembodied, lightly-London-accented voice thanks me. “May I call you Kate today?” I’m so surprised by this thoughtful addition to the usual helpline script that I forget to be stressed for a moment. I smile. “Yes! Of course.” She thanks me again. “What can I do for you today, Kate?” I start to babble out an explanation. “Well my card was swallowed by the machine but the thing is I’m in Catania, in Sicily – ” There’s a squeak from the other end of the line. “Ooh, lucky you! Sorry – go on …” I laugh and continue, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen to get all the relevant details in before she gets another chance to interrupt me. I finish on a gasp of breath “… and so, anyway, the police said I could go and get my card tomorrow, but I just wanted to make you guys aware of the situation, you know?”

Sarah pauses before speaking. “So, do you want the card blocked, Kate?” I chew my lip. “I don’t know. What happens if I do that?” She launches into a scripted spiel, telling me that it’ll be blocked with immediate effect and that a new card will be sent to my registered address within five days. I screw up my face, knowing the probable answer to my next question but asking it anyway. “So, um, can you send it to a different address? Abroad, for instance?” She thinks for a moment. “How long are you going to be there?” I tell her I’m probably not going back to the UK for a couple of months at this point in time, and she hems and haws a little. “I see. OK, well, it’s possible, but you’d have to change your permanent address, and I can’t do that over the phone, unfortunately.” We both pause; me while I think about what to do, and her while she waits for me to say something.

In the end, it’s Sarah who breaks the silence. “What do you want to do, Kate? Do you want me to block it?” I squawk in agonised frustration. “I don’t know! Thing is – if I cancel the card and then it turns out that the bank have got it safe, then it’s going to be really difficult to get hold of the new one.” She makes a sympathetic noise. “I know. It’s so hard!” Her tone changes to one of decisiveness. “If it were me, I’d cancel it. Just to be safe, you know? But I absolutely understand where you’re coming from.” I gnaw on the edge of my nail, thinking about the best course of action to follow. I can see her point – but if it turns up OK at the bank in the morning and I’ve already cancelled it then I’m going to be kicking myself.

Sarah’s sympathetic voice breaks into my thoughts. “Kate …?” I make the decision. “OK. I’m – I think I’m going to leave it for now. But if I get to the bank in the morning and it isn’t there …” She finishes my sentence. “You call us straight back, OK?” I let out a whoosh of air, relieved to have made a decision. “OK.”

Tension lifted, we both start to laugh. I make a flippant comment about the life of the traveller and Sarah sighs. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I went all round Italy last year but we didn’t get to Sicily. What’s it like?” I grin. “I love it here. It’s amazing – you should definitely come sometime.” She laughs. “Stop it! You’re making me jealous!” I laugh with her. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s grey and drizzly here right at this moment.” I can almost hear her beaming wickedly down the phone at me. “Actually, that *does* make me feel better, believe it or not, ‘cos it’s sunny here.” It’s my turn to be jealous – and I tell her so – but I finish the call feeling infinite times better than I did when I started it.

(To be continued …)

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No clothes, please: we’re British

No U-turnAs we pull into Bristol airport it becomes apparent what the boys have been whingeing about for the past week. A large sign looms ahead, telling us prices for the different parking areas – including pick-up and drop-off. It’s only £1, but it still rankles to pay for what amounts a two minute drive-through. I’d assumed when the boys had said that you had to pay a quid to get out of the airport that it was when you actually parked, but apparently not. “Bugger that!” exclaims Mum. “I’ll just – um – turn around here …” – she swings the Golf into a side road, executing a wide U-turn – “and then I’ll stop here …” – she pulls up at the side of the road (Strictly No Stopping) that runs along the front of the terminal – “and you two can hop out.” We do so, pulling luggage out of the boot and onto the kerb while keeping a beady eye out for airport security as Mum gets out of the car to say goodbye. Davide delivers his thank-yous in carefully-rehearsed English: “I felt very welcome.” Mum smiles and gives him one of her trademark bear-hugs. “See you again soon!”

As the car pulls away from the kerb, Davide and I look at each other. “Your mother is nearly Sicilian!” he whispers, referring to her refusal to pay for parking. I laugh, then shiver as a gust of wind barrels along the road towards us. “Brrrr! I’ll be glad to get back to the sunshine in Sicily.” I look sideways at Davide and smirk a little. “Good luck with your minus three temperatures in Sweden, yeh?” He gives me a withering look as, chuckling to myself, I pull my scarf closer against the biting Bristolian wind; it seems even colder than usual after an hour in the hermetic, overheated metal box that is my mother’s car. We pick up the pace, hurrying to get into the terminal and out of the cold.

Elsewhere in the south-west (Kimmeridge, to be precise). It's windy here, too.
Elsewhere in the south-west (Kimmeridge, to be precise). It’s windy here, too.

Once inside, we head straight for the nearest coffee bar. A girl in black leggings, scuffed shoes, and an official-looking lanyard is sitting with a bored expression on her face opposite a boy wearing dark office trousers and a button-down shirt. He’s only about 18, and he’s ruined the effect of his smart clothes by shrugging an enormous, shabby parka on over the top of them. The boy and girl are sitting at one of those tables which are designed for people to stand at, and which have uncomfortable high chairs bolted to the floor either side of them almost as an afterthought. The sleeves of the boy’s parka droop over his hands as he picks up a pen to write on the form which the girl has just pushed across the table at him. He fumbles the excess material back, looking nervous. Davide nudges me. “Is he doing an interview? Here?” I nod. “I think so. I assume for one of the shops …” I trail off as I look around the terminal. It’s got more to it than the last time I flew out of Bristol a few years ago, but it’s still not exactly buzzing. “Well – maybe for one of the ones inside the departure lounge, after Security.” I knock back my cappuccino, which is pretty good as English airport coffee goes. “Speaking of which – shall we?”

I fly four to six times a year these days, and have become accustomed to the security process. However, flying out of Italy is very different from flying out of England. In Italy, you could take a hippopotamus as carry-on luggage and no-one would turn a hair. And putting laptops, electronic equipment and liquids into separate bins to be scanned? Nah. Who cares? In the UK, however, rules are enforced. And Bristol, as a newly expanded, up-and-coming airport, is following every single one. To. The. Letter.

When we get into the queue there’s a family – Grandpa, Mum, a toddler and a babe-in-arms – just reaching the scanners. As we wait, they strip off all outer clothing, including Mum’s boots and Grandpa’s belt, lose the toddler under the conveyor belt, reclaim her, unpack all the bottles of baby milk, lose the toddler through the metal detector gate, get her back again, and send three rucksacks and a nappy bag through the scanner. Mum folds up the pushchair to pass it through as well; it’s at this point that the jovial security guard realises: “Ah. Sorry love – you’re in the wrong queue.” Mum looks at him in distracted disbelief as she calls the toddler to heel yet again. The security guard nods. “Yeah, they should have sent you to a different one for the chair. Don’t worry, though.” He grins at her. “You just need to take it over there.” He points at a different scanner. Mum, who by this time is holding the baby, holds it out to Grandpa. Grandpa, however, is doing his best to contain the toddler. He looks up helplessly, hands full of squirming, giggling child. Mum, still holding the baby out at arm’s length, wheels around and shoves it at the security guard with a disingenuous shrug. Baby dispatched, she grabs the pushchair and scoots over to the larger scanner in stockinged feet, leaving Grandpa and the guard in charge of the children. The baby looks up at the guard thoughtfully and the big man grins. “Whaddya say we just put you down here, eh?” He pantomimes putting the baby onto the conveyor belt to be scanned; a titter passes through the queue of people waiting.

UK airports and beaches: boot removal mandatory
UK airports and beaches: boot removal mandatory

A couple of girls pass through security between the family and us. As they do so, I pull my laptop and Kindle out of my suitcase and hand them over to Davide to hold while I zip the bag up again. We reach the front of the queue and he dumps them into a bin, along with his coat and belt. The guard points at his feet. “Are those shoes or boots?” Davide takes a second to process the rapid English but then realises. “Oh! Boots.” The guard gives him a wide smile. “Gonna have to come off, I’m afraid.” He pats a bin. “In here.” The guard chats as I pull off my jacket, scarf and belt and drop them into a bin. “Any electronics?” I have a moment of panic as I scan around for my laptop. “Yes! Somewhere …” The guard searches through the bins, and calls a satisfied exclamation over to me: “Here, love, found them! They need to go through on their own, though.” He pulls another bin from the pile and moves the electronics into it. “OK, off you go.” He starts to wave us through, but then puts up a hand to stop Davide, while pointing at his jeans with the other. “Hang on a minute, mate – are those jeans new or old?”

Having travelled through Italian airports alone at varying stages of linguistic ability, from zero to now, I know all-too-well that feeling of panic as you hope that what’s just been said wasn’t along the lines of, “Oi, dodgy-looking individual, go straight to jail without either passing Go or collecting £200”. However, I’m on home turf here, with full understanding of the language, and I’m no more clued-in than he is as to why Davide’s been stopped. We gape at the guard in confusion. He gives Davide a serious look, before asking again: “Your jeans. Are they new or old?” Davide pauses and looks to me for help. I’m just as befuddled as he is, but translate into Italian for him so at least he knows what’s been said. We both then start to explain to the guard, our words crossing and tumbling over each other, expounding the confusion even more. “They’re quite old, maybe? / Well, they’re not really *new*, as such … / They’re old, but not very … / A few years, I think …” The guard nods gravely. “Yeah. OK. I see.”

He pauses and looks at us, one after the other.

“They’re gonna have to come off, mate. Sorry.” Davide’s lost in translation hell and the guard – who’s clocked the situation and is playing it for all it’s worth – is still giving him and his jeans the most forbidding of looks. I, meanwhile, am roaring with laughter. Davide gives a nervous giggle and turns to me for clarification. “Amore …? What’s happening?!” Still laughing, I translate what the guard’s just said. “It’s OK, though, amore – he’s taking the mick. I hope …” The guard winks at him, his fun and games for the morning well-executed. “Go on, mate. Through you go.” Davide doesn’t need asking twice.

On the far side of the scanners there’s a machine with five different coloured buttons. Each one has a cartoon face on it: a smile, a frown, or somewhere in between, depending. A sign above asks, ‘How was your experience today?’ I hover my hand over frowning reds and straight-faced yellows, irritated by the inequality of security procedures in different airports. “If it’s necessary,” I tell Davide, “it should be the same everywhere.” I flutter my fingers, undecided, above the buttons, then press hard on the grinning green face at the far right. I turn to smile at Davide. “Still, at least we had a laugh, eh?”

Posted in Travelling Like a Maniac | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

… and breathe!

So, what’s been going on around these parts? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ve just got back from celebrating niece number one’s third birthday (cake and muddy dogs and small children – fabulous) and doing the whole international ‘meet the parents’ thing (which went very well, thank you) in England.

Not content with just one holiday, last night I booked a long weekend in Sweden over Easter. I’ve never been before, so I’m looking forward to to finding out if their coffee and cake are really as good as everyone says.

Then in between all this flitting about I’ve been teaching both in schools and privately, and writing stuff for other people – and to top it all off, the sun’s come out and doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.  So I’ve got lots to write *about*.  I just don’t have much time to *do* it. Sorry about that.

However, DLaM isn’t dead – far from it. So to keep you all occupied while I magic up some extra hours in the day, I’ve written a lovely, long, brand-new piece over at the Teaching House Nomads blog, all about how I learnt to love Italy. We got off to a bit of a shaky start, Italy and me, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And here’s why …

Posted in Living Like a Maniac, Teaching Like a Maniac, Travelling Like a Maniac | 2 Comments


If you’ve been thinking that it’s a bit quiet around these parts at the moment, you’d be right. However, it’s not that I’ve forgotten about you – it’s just that I’ve been having a busy few weeks. Along with my regular, part-time teaching job, I’ve been doing extra lessons on the side, as well as training to become a Cambridge speaking examiner – oh, and cramming in a visit to England for some long-overdue family catch-up time.

Most excitingly for you, however, I’ve been writing for Teaching House’s new Nomads blog. It’s a great resource for anyone involved (or thinking of becoming so) in the EFL world – and for everyone else, it’s a damn good read, with fun stories from classrooms all around the world, written by a group of talented, travelling teachers. So g’wan – while you’re waiting for me to get some new posts up here, head over there, have a poke about, and join in the conversation.

See you there! Teaching House Nomads

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