Thursday, 31 July 2014

Calabrian Train Heist in Three Acts

ACT I. Tickets Please.

Andrea and I have been up since 5:30 this morning. Beginning at Praiano we have taken a bus to Amalfi and then a second bus to Salerno. We are booked on the 10:29 train to Taormina in Sicily, six hours away. Our experience of Italian public transport has mostly been good, though the trains can get crowded. I stood for the first hour of the two hour trip from Rome to Naples (the train emptied at Pompeii) and the Naples to Sorrento train was a standing room only cattle class experience. Thankfully we have booked seats for the long ride to Sicily - we're in Caretta (carriage) 4, Seats 90/91.

The train is on time. We man-handle our luggage (a backpack, a cabin sized bag with wheels, a day pack, camera, handbag etc) down a narrow corridor looking for 90/91. I see it ahead of us but am perplexed when we reach the door to find all six seats occupied. Six sets of eyes turn our way as we stop at the door while I check our tickets thinking - oh shit, an Italian double booking fiasco. I check my tickets and they are correct. We're in the right place. And so begins a conversation in sign language and halting English and mangled Italian where I am clearly saying 'WE HAVE A BOOKING FOR SEATS 90 AND 91. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?' My sign language becomes louder and may, by accident, include some of the swearing I am thinking. No way are we going to stand for six hours. Out of character, I become the chivalrous male and indicate my poor (pregnant?) wife as part of the exchange (that would help my argument; get the sympathy vote, but would also be miraculous).

Everyone is waving their hands but no one seems to know how this has happened. Everyone has tickets. I show them mine and ask to see theirs. The couple in 90 and 91 are in the wrong seats. It turns out the two older ladies by the window have tickets but they are for tomorrow's train. They have boarded a day early. They simply shrug and make no effort to resolve the situation. I indicate that they are the problem but stop short of grabbing them by their mantillas and dragging them into the corridor. It's a stalemate. I stand and stare at the two matrons, each in their early seventies, and clearly well versed in the art of stonewalling. They avoid my gaze and I begin to smell a rat -a  Naples rat, as that is where they have boarded.

The couple in our seats (90/91-  in case anyone is not clear about this), are lovely and amidst a lot of shrugging and gesticulating offer us their (our) seats. They don't seem to want to press the matrons to relinquish their booked seats. It is a case of keeping the peace, not causing a fuss (very un-Italian it occurs to me). We hesitate, as this hardly seems fair, but accept with an appropriate level of reluctance. The woman, well dressed in high heels (Italian women don't seem to be able to cope with flat soles - some podiatry problem?), and her equally well dressed husband are relegated to the aisle where there are a couple of fold down bench seats, but also a constant flow of human traffic requiring them to stand or swivel at each passing.

The plump matrons remain silent, unmoved with an attitude of 'what's the big deal? It happens all the time. We can't be asked to leave the train or our seats now. We are three hours from our home. What's done is done.'

ACT II  Death Stare

I load our relatively small pieces of luggage on top of their giant bags above our heads. They look a little taken aback. How dare I load  my bags into their storage space. I am furious. I wear my version of a Julie Bishop death stare (an Australian politician famous for her steely killer look in situations such as this) and don't hide my displeasure, my anger at this injustice. Andrea, sitting opposite me, is watching my face and reports later the sparks flying, the daggers piercing, the smoke emitting from my ears. She thinks this amusing, wondering how it is being received by our travelling companions.

I am in avenging mode. I am determined that my death stare will triumph; will result in such discomfort that guilt will force a change of heart and justice will be done. The other two occupants, a mother and teenage son who have failed to enter the story so far and who are in their seats as booked who, I suspect, understand much more of my rantings than they are prepared to admit, keep their eyes downcast and avoid becoming involved.

My death stare fails to make any difference. At this juncture my frustration is again rising and I pose a question to the compartment and to the matrons in particular: 'Are you going to let them (the couple in the corridor) stand for the full six hours?' It's in English/Australian and so fails to have any impact (or at least fails to be acknowledged). Avenging angels (myself) are clearly not fully rational.

After an hour I insist that the standing woman take my seat and I move to the corridor. The mother of the teenager has engaged in what seems to be friendly banter with the frumpy matrons and I begin to develop my conspiracy theory. Occasionally one of the matrons, the one who has dyed hair so sparse that I can see her scalp, offers her seat to the standing couple but makes no pretense of any real intent, not even shifting in her deep comfortable seat. The other, who fills her seat to capacity, starts to sing - a jolly little Italian number which speaks of her smug victory. I ask the mother (to test my emerging theory)  if they are all friends? She understands enough to say No.

The hours clickety clack by. The sea follows the train. At every curve a scene of a flat seascape with a volcanic ash or pebble beach lining the shore and kids playing, families sitting beneath umbrellas presents itself. The villages also follow the rail line and to the east the land rises sharply from the flood-plain. Mostly we speed through the stations, occasionally we stop. The villages are recent, filled with boring rows of ochre two story buildings and little of the romance of the ancient towns we have seen.

The compartment settles and there is a peace of sorts. Perhaps a resignation.

ACT III. Mafiosi

At around the four hour mark there is movement in the compartment. The frumpy bloated matrons indicate that they will be alighting at the next station (Paolo). Everyone stands. I am asked to move my bags to allow them to access theirs. I am also invited (remember I am the only adult male in the compartment) to help bring their bags down, a task which I carry out with some grace despite my still simmering anger (the passing hours have mellowed me - I have been unable to maintain my death stare, unlike Julie Bishop who has much more staying power). The bags weigh a ton. Are these mafia matrons carrying the dead bodies of their husbands in these things. Are the bags stuffed with high grade heroin? Have we stumbled into something more dangerous than we realise?

As we pull into the station it becomes clear that all six are alighting here. A strange coincidence? One of the matrons hands the standing wife her large handbag which I now realise she has been nursing for the last three hours. In a bizarre and somewhat false ritual we all shake hands and bid arrivederci as if we are a group of old friends who have had a minor tiff but patched it up and all is forgiven. The matrons are particularly gracious. They seem to be in a jolly mood - their ruse having worked as planned.

They exit and we have the compartment to ourselves and I am left with the sense that I have just participated in a Calabrian scam worked on us by a team of six. Did the final handshake mean that I am now an honorary member of the cosa nostra? Luckily there were no kisses involved. I hope none of our companions were part of the Sicilian Corleone family for that is where we are headed.




Tuesday, 29 July 2014

MOON in Syracusa




We were on our way back from the Ortigia supermarket (there is only one) with supplies for dinner (chicken, a few salad vegetables, buffolo mozarella - so smooth). We had booked an apartment close by the water with a full kitchen. We cook for ourselves when we can. It saves a lot of money (almost pays for the apartment) and we cook local ingredients with ( and I am trying to sound humble) some success - Andrea's spaghetti vognole (clams) was every bit as good as the local version.

Anyway, as we walked down the Via Roma on this island at the tip of Syracusa, the original Greek settlement of Syracusa, we were distracted by the sound of an orchestra. I say distracted because Via Roma itself is mesmerising. The narrow street is lined with charming three story limestone buildings, every balcony a wrought iron work of art and many bedecked with bougainvillia. An orchestra was not something we expected at five oclock in the afternoon when the rest of Sicily was asleep.

A tall woman, long dark hair falling across her shoulders informed us that there was a concert in the restaurant that evening, a chamber orchestra and singers.We paused and Barbara (as I later learnt her to be) told us it was E20 a head which included food - a generous tasting dish per person. We looked at each other and at our two large food laden bags, realised we hadn't had a chance to properly celebrate Andrea's birthday of the previous Monday and booked a table.

Now this is a story not only of music and food but of dangerous choices and bravery.

We arrived at 8:30 to a packed restaurant and were treated to a performance which I, in my ignorance, simply took to be a 'best of' selection of classical vocal pieces but which I later learnt was a full performance of a thriteenth century composition - Sabat Mater (a meditation on the Virgin Mary) by G. B. Pergolesi (for those of you who know your music). It was sublime. The acoustics were perfect, the soprano and contralto's voices soared and plunged and filled the room with prayer (and as you know I am not a prayerful person).

Barbara was there in charge. It was, after all, her restaurant. Also there was a young English girl who heard our accents and introduced herself at the door as we entered. She too was arriving - to work in the kitchen.

Where's the bravery you might be thinking. Well Barbara and her husband had only recently opened this venue as a vegetarian restaurant in seafood and pizza and cured meat mad Sicily. Francesco, her husband, is from Salerno on the mainland and she is a northerner from Bologna. They are attempting two difficult challenges - first the vegetarian menu and second, establishing a viable quality local music venue on this tiny island outpost where the most often heard music is the accordion of the gypsies wandering the streets and bars seking tips.

As I said the place was packed and that after only two months of operation. MOON, as they have named it, has a clever acronym as a tag line - Move Ortigia Out of Normality - but I think that a moon, a new moon, any moon, is evocative of romance and beginnings and reaching for the stars and doesn't need any assistance. Barbara swept from table to kitchen to bar ensuring everything ran smoothly. I have a photo of her in a moment of pause late in the evening leaning against the portico leading into the garden calmly observing the soprano and contralto in full flight, her tall frame and dark eyes accentuated by a long black silken shift with a dramatic black and white top that flowed with the music.

The English girl was in the kitchen all night. Our only contact had been the brief exchange on arrival. At this stage she was just a young vibrant traveler holed up in a vegetarian restaurant in a place far distant from home.

It was two nights later that she gained a name. Andrea had gone to bed early to read. She is half way through Robert Dessaix''s 'Night Letters', a lovely piece of writing in the form of a series of letters from an Australian to a friend back home written from Venice and Padua. I, meanwhile, wandered back to MOON looking for more music. There had been a young ukelele player the previous night and this night Dario Chillemi, a Sicilian (Catania born) guitar virtuoso, based in Berlin, was performing. Sadly only about a dozen people were there to share his mix of classical, traditional and contemporary pieces all delivered with intensity and wit.. He told us a little of his life, of his campervan in Berlin which needed a new gearbox - not a plea for sympathy, more a way of helping us understand the life of the itinerant musician.

The audience of English and non English speakers couldn't understand much of what he said but that didn't faze Dario. He told stories and introduced the pieces in an excited mangled English that had everyone charmed. But where is the English girl in all this.

I had arrived at 9:30. Dario was having a break and was standing at the front entrance and beside him was a young woman in burnt orange, her dark hair and skin glowing.. I recognized her but the transformation from kitchen hand to this new self was remarkable. Dario was talking as if he needed to tell us his whole life story in the next five minutes and we listened. When he returned to his guitar I purchased a glass of red wine and chose a comfortable leather bean bag with a good line of sight. I was joined by Nicola and when I left at 11:30, two hours later, I had heard something of her story.

What was she doing in Syracusa? I wanted to know. Why was she at MOON every night even when she wasn't working? And the answer? Here's the brave part.- I'll try and keep it brief.

Raised in Kent, hated school, had some confidence issues which were exacerbated by an unwelcome stint as an exchange student in France with a family all of whom were barking mad. She was fifteen at the time and returned shaken. Her final three years of school were in the Steiner system - the best years of her school life she said.

Two years later as a twenty year old, having spent time studying cooking and other practical skills (the nature of which I can't remember) at an institute of technology (Polytechnicals I think the English call them) she knew she had to escape, to find her feet in the world and risk growing into an independent adult. Brave? Well yes. She sent off a swag of emails across Europe seeking a position and Barbara responded and here she was in Syracusa. Nicola, the girl raised in Kent with a rounded English accent and the skin and eyes of a southern Italian (her father is Calabrian from the Amalfi) has had the courage to be alone and at times lonely. She's finding it hard as I, a man in his sixties, also did when faced with ten weeks in Malta with no connections to family or culture.

My experience surprised me. Fears, self doubt, a sense of being trapped rose to the surface and an inner voice suggesting that I didn't have the guts, the wherewithal, the mental toughness to survive was my constant companion. But it passed as my friends at the end of my email system assured me it would. Nicola is experiencing much the same and if she can tame her demons then she'll know that when the next challenge arises she can meet it. We talked about survival and mental games we play to cope and she admitted that she, the girl who never cries, had found herself in tears more than once.

As Dario played for his small but appreciative audience, his fingers approaching the point of pain, and in between gypsy girls offering budgerigars for us to nurse and fondle (for a price) and over that long glass of wine something happened. That strange thing that can happen to travellers who seek human contact when away from the familiar. I thought we connected. I may be deluded but I felt part father, part grandfather and part friend for that brief two hours. Dario completed his marathon set with a traditional tarantello and we bad farewell probably to never cross paths again.

Except for the fact that Ortigia is a small community and the next morning as we dragged our luggage along the gray cobble stones towards our bus thirty minutes walk away, there on the beach below was Nicola sunbathing on the lumpy pebble beach. Hey Nicola, I called. She craned her neck to look up. Arrivederci,
 I shouted. Is Andrea reading again? she called. No, we're leaving. We have a plane to catch in Catania. And with a doff of my hat and a final 'enjoy Malta' from Nicola we bumped our way towards the Via Roma and past MOON one last time - where Dario was playing again (still playing perhaps) and Barbara was at work behind the bar in another elegant black shift.

Guido of Sinita

'Don't go down there.' I'm sitting in a tour bus on a bridge which overlooks the Sinita area of Naples. 'You have to go down in a lift.' The guide says it as if it's a descent into hell. 'Why didn't you stop at the drop off point?' 'We did' she insists. It was more like changing down a gear and hoping no one approached the exit door; as if tour buses might be attacked by the wild Sinitas.

As it turns out it's a stroke of luck. The next stop brings us to the catacombs of St. Genarro where we join a guided tour. It's led by a young man dressed snappy Napoli style and sporting an Italian haircut of the day, short sides, long on top, a derivative of the punk era but chic. A good looking boy. I didn't catch his name. Let's call him Guido for the sake of this story.

Guido's tour is enlightening and frustrating. I am frustrated at having to hear everything twice, once in Italian then repeated in English (though it's not as if I have a pressing engagement I am running late for). It drives me nuts for a while but there's not a lot of options but to learn patience in an underground crypt. There are bones here that have been dated from well before Christ and I'm a newcomer. Like the public transport in Malta and the no. 87 bus in Rome (which rarely ran and often failed to materialise), I accept.my lot and, in the presence of St Genarro's bones, (which are not really here since they were removed by one of the Popes who wanted them in his province, later returned and then removed again and now reside at the Naples Duomo), I practice silent prayerful meditation.

I've never been in catacombs before. This one is like a time capsule with its history dating back to pagan eras and evidence of each subsequent culture carved into its walls and adorned with painted frescoes which tell ancient stories. Now calm and attentive the equally interesting contemporary story begins to unfold. The locals, the Sinita dwellers, knew these catacombs existed but, for well over one hundred years they went unnoted, unnoticed and neglected. The demand for burials alongside a saint whose bones weren't even there had lost its attraction. It became a playground for the kids.

The fact that they were located in Sinita was also problematic. This is the 'bad' part of the city. The down at heel, poor, working class community living on the fringe of the city romanticised in song and film with the Bay of Naples and Mt Vesuvius holding it in their embrace as you approach land from the sea. Sinita is down both geographically and economically. It's invisible, certainly to the tourist. That lift ride "down" divides it from the affluence above.

But back to Guido. He's a Sinita resident as is the young girl selling the tickets above ground. She and Guido are part of a cooperative of young people who maintain and operate the catacombs as a 'social enterprise'. Guido wouldn't call it that. He described it in much simpler terms telling us that the parish priest had, five years previously, suggested to a group of young people who had grown up playing on the church steps and in the catacombs below, that perhaps they could make a move to manage their own destinies and start by taking an interest in their own history. And maybe they could share it with others. It could begin as a way to build confidence and pride and perhaps it could grow to become a business with potential to create jobs and build a new economy within the community. What an impossible idea I thought, but I'm a sucker for a dream and this was an exciting one.

Five years later they are a group of fifty - guides, plumbers, electricians, ticket sellers, restorers, stonemasons, cleaners etc etc. He told us this at the end of the tour and, as he told us, my resentment at his extended Italian commentary fell away and I was left moved by his story. That final explanation was not accompanied by any request for donations, nor was it self congratulatory. It was Guido's statement to us that Sinita is much more than a ghetto for the poor. As the young woman on the ticket desk said to me 'if you come to Naples you must visit Sinita. It's the real Naples. It's the heart of the city.'

And we did. I have to admit to a certain apprehension as we navigated twisting, narrow, noisy streets, for we were very much outsiders. These were not streets designed for tourists. There was not a gift shop in sight, and a notable absence of bars and glass fronted display cabinets full of pastries, and there were few eating outlets. There were plenty of bike repair shops, fruit shops, a fresh fish outlet, men gathered in groups on street corners and twelve year old boys riding Vespas.

Eventually we came to the base of the fabled lift which would take us back to heaven and I felt sad that the tour guide would never recommend such a visit. Strangely, Sinita was the only place in Naples where I was given the correct change for my coffee and pizza purchase.


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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Death in Sicily

The Italians are very public about death. They post notices in the streets announcing anniversaries and funerals. The Irish have a similar attitude (there's a theme emerging).  Each morning they announce the deaths, anniversaries and preparations for funerals on their local radio stations. Far removed from our custom of discrete notices in the newspaper. The Italians and Irish appear to mark death in a most vigorous and community way. I fiirst noticed this in Veneto in the north. The Sicilians do the same. The main street has numerous pasted notices, each announcing a different set of funerals or anniversries.