Monday 24 November 2014


Great grandfather Lorenzo

A strange thing happened last Wednesday. In the midst of a wild late afternoon thunderstorm, lightning flashing, thunderclaps blasting, I realised that if I kept writing for another hour I might just put the final full stop on the first draft of my manuscript.

'Paradise' - the working title of my epic story of 350 peasant Italians seeking a new life in the far flung Pacific has been a labour of learning and more learning. It has been challenging, informing, frustrating, exhilerating and energising.

In the end it all happened really quickly. At times I thought I would never see that final spot on the page but this final section, set in Noumea, seemed to gather pace as I wrote it. The elements came together, in some cases in surprising ways, and I think I have resisted the temptation to tie up the loose ends too neatly.

In my process, while I have lived with these characters for two years and some of them are my relatives from 130 years ago, I never felt that I really knew what they were thinking or about to do next. They kept surprising me and in the end still have lives beyond my knowledge. That too surprised me. Wasn't I supposed to know them inside out, back to front? How could I write about people who I didn't know at that depth.

Well, now I sit here and reflect that life is a very existential experience. Does any of us really know another? I hope not. Otherwise there would be no surprises in our relationships. While I value being loved by someone who thinks they know me, I know that deep down, they will never know my world fully because a lot of it is internal and much of it is too complex to share. I know myself enough to get by, but I am still surprised at times by my responses to things which seem to come from unconscious places that I am not fully aware of.

Today I begin the second phase of this project. I will begin reviewing what I've written to date, not rewriting, but organising the 250 odd pages into a restructured draft ready for reading by a select few to help me understand what I need to do to move it from draft 1 to draft 2.


Monday 3 November 2014

Strolling the Flood Plains of Hill End

This is a map of the Kurilpa Peninsula in the great 1893 Brisbane flood. It peaked three times in the one month. The shaded area marks the flood plains comprising the suburbs of South Brisbane, West End and the locality of Hill End.

Named Kurilpa, the aboriginal name means 'Place of the water rat'.

I've just completed a local history walking guide which covers the area, the river plains in the south west corner of this map. Hill End. It's where I live. In the most recent major flood, 2011, my house was well above the flood line but in 1893 we would have gone under. That's almost unbelievable given how high we were above the water in 2011 despite the fact that it approached our front gate.

The West End Making History Group, of which I am part, has created four walking guides to the peninsula, this one being No. 4. I'm learning more about the difference between writng a history based guide and leading a history based walking tour from this process (this is my second guide).

The publication tells a story with the river and its impact on the community and its evolution as its focus. The river is the skeleton around which the guide is built. And I would have thought that the walks we lead would simply be a translation of that guide into the spoken word. Wrong! When confronted with a group of humans standing expecting to be told a story (the same one?), it becomes clear that there is a whole back story which needs to be told to fill the gaps and turn the skeleton into a body.

So I've spent the last week (after the guide has gone to the printer) researching and revisiting every aspect of the walk to find more flesh for those bones. It's surprised me but has given me a new appreciation of those who call themselves professional historians. They read everything available, whereas I read what I need to read to create the story. It's my theatre background - tell the story, tell the story - edit! edit! Simplify, find the essence!

I'm close to understanding what I need but now I need an historian's mind to remember all the details. Oh God. I thought I had finished all the hard work.

The guide, "Strolling the Flood Plains of Hill End", gets launched this Friday 7 November at the local bookshop - Avid Reader in West End. Come along at 6:30pm and say hi if you're in the area. An electronic copy of the guide will be available on our website by the end of the week.  

Monday 27 October 2014

Vale Don Batchelor.

Don Batchelor passed away last week after a battle with cancer. He was a beautiful man with a mind as big as the Pacific Ocean. Being a writer and theatre director and a little bit anal, Don had written his own funeral service, chosen the poetry and readings, the final song and written his own eulogy. It could have been self indulgent but it was great,

Don's sense of theatre was spot on. The only awkward moments came when his "cast" deviated from his script. The cast included John O'Toole, Rod Wissler, Christine Comans, Judith Bell, Graham Bruce and his brother Ron. Don  generously allowed his brother to write his own account of Don's life - a story full of hardship (Charleville), cheek and surprises (Don was a schoolboy sports hero - football and athletics).  Michael Billinghurst (son of Robby Nason) sang the closing song, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. A confirmed athiest Don might have been surprised at the sound of 120 voices singing the chorus - felt like church just for a moment.

Don had a love of theatre and politics. He was the one who supported me in my time teaching at QUT when I was arguing for a community stream to be included in the Drama course. He was always interested in ideas and in stirring the pot.

As a final ironic twist (conscious or unconscious) Don had chosen St Barnabas Hall at Red Hill for the celebration. Ironic? It was the base for radical theatre company, the Popular Theatre Troupe, for a lengthy period in the 1970s. I chuckled seeing some of the conservative theatre community singing along in this space, the scene of political and community theatre and the 'democratising of theatre' movement. Most had no idea where they were. Errol O'neill and I were perhaps among the few present who had previously seen the inside of this hall.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Malta and Gozo photos - some favourites

The beach at Xlendi on Gozo.

Fort St Angelo early morning from Valletta.

Near the Victoria Gate, Grand Harbour, Valletta

Valletta streetscape looking towards Sliema

At rest, early morning.

Dr Who's Tardis near the Bridge Bar and above Victoria Gate
Fort St Angelo early morning.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Me Missing Malta

10 things I miss about Malta

1. The bustling street life within 100 metres of my front door day and night.
2. The sense of community that comes from living cheek by jowl with families and kids and grandparents who all look to say hello.
3. The choice of four family run taverns withing 100 metres.
4. Walking to the market to buy fresh fish from the local fishmonger
5. Being able to walk to one of three swimming spots withing five to ten minutes
6. Walking from one end of the city of Valletta to the other in 15 minutes.
7. Views of the Mediterranean and the everchanging harbour scene
8.  Cheap (E1.50 all day ticket) (sometimes unpredictable) bus services to every point on the island
9. The sense of history contained in every building and on every street corner.
10. The relaxed attitude to life. A siesta between 1
and 3pm is mandated.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Sally port - Malta Coat of arms.

Coat of arms of Malta
Coat of arms of Malta.svg
Armiger Republic of Malta
Adopted 1988
Crest A mural crown with a Sally port and five turrets or

Sally port is the entrance into the fortress.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Holy Malta! St Domenic sets the city alight.

St Dominic’s Festival (and my last post from Malta)

I was brought up Catholic. I was quite a devout young lad. Attendance at nine first Friday masses (first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months) earned me a plenary indulgence (guaranteed entry into heaven). At thirteen I seriously considered that becoming a priest or Christian brother might be my vocation - until puberty kicked in and pleasures of the flesh and guilt and more guilty pleasure made me reconsider. Incense assaulted my nasal cavities regularly; Latin masses were powerful (if unintelligible) rituals. I was confirmed and took the confirmation name of Francis which I subsequently refused to acknowledge as it seemed like such a goose of a name - why hadn't I chosen Paul or Patrick or some saint with a cool name?

I was, at that stage, definitely in the mould of the apostle who pretended he wasn't. Although my religious inclinations continued into my tertiary life (where I was the president of the Tertiary Christian Students group at UQ for a year before I had my final crisis of faith) I never went back. I now go to weddings and funerals and can't see Catholicism as anything but a cult.

All this is by way of saying that this background did not prepare me for Malta and its saints. Let's get some statistics nailed down here. Malta consists of two islands whose combined total area (316 sq km) is a little larger than Stradbroke Island off Moreton Bay in Australia. Stradbroke is a beautiful sand island with a population of 2500 and maybe five places of worship, each the size of a large matchbox. Malta has 460,000 residents, 350 churches, each built from limestone and each a majestic work of art. The largest has a dome taller than St Paul's in London. There are tens of thousands of public shrines and statues and devotional entrance niches, not to mention the household shrines and images of devotion (the lift to my apartment has two!). Malta is 97% Catholic. The crusading Knights of St John and their version of the Inquisition made sure of that.

There is an old Jewish quarter by the Jews Sally Port, the only entrance through which the Jews were permitted to enter and exit the city, but there are only a handful of Jews remaining in Malta (they were forcibly expelled by the Knights in 1492). I had understood this archway to be called the Jew's Gate (as this was the colloquial name by which it was introduced to me) but learnt that a Sallyport is a general term for a controlled entrance to a fortification or a goal. We still use the word when we talk about sallying forth for a stroll or a look around. It's actually a military term meaning that troops would sally forth - on a raid.

The Muslims/Arabs were here for 400 years; there is one mosque. The Romans were here for six hundred years and there are only a handful of  Roman ruins. There is a substantial Anglican Church which, ironically, features on many Valletta postcards. It was commissioned by Queen Adelaide in the 19th Century when she visited her island and realised that there was no place of worship for her English subjects. If she was attempting to establish a religious foothold on the island it failed miserably. The three percent non catholic population are, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

Malta is a nation of true believers. The Catholic faith arrived quite late following in the cultural footsteps of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians (from north Africa), the Romans (600 years), the Byzantines (Constantinople based), the Arabs (400 years), the Normans (200 years), the Spanish (300 years) until, in 1523 the Knights of St John were offered Malta as a secure base after they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans. They ruled the islands for almost three hundred years until Napoleon arrived. It became French for two years and then the British, at the invitation of the Maltese, liberated them and they themselves ruled until 1964.

I hope you're not finding this too tedious, it's just that as an Australian this sequence is mind boggling, almost inconceivable (and I haven't even mentioned the ancient prehistoric temples which dot the island and date from close to 5000 BC). Malta might be in the centre of the modern Mediterranean shipping lanes with regular cruise ships dropping by but, for the previous 3000 years, these were two islands in the middle of nowhere, beyond the horizon from Sicily or north Africa, barren and inhospitable.

Bear with me as I inch closer to St Dominic. Back to the churches - three hundred and fifty across the two islands of which twenty five are within Valletta (population 6500, area 0.3sq mile or 0.8 sq km), each with their own saint on their own saint's street (my apartment, for example, is bordered by St Dominic, St Paul, St Ursula and St Christopher streets) and each with their own festival week. There is  some doubling up of saints, (multiple churches devoted to the same saint), a miracle of sorts, which means that there is a festival taking place somewhere in Malta every week during festival season, May to September. And there are eight religious orders resident in this 0.3 sq miles. The Maltese seem to have become addicted to invasions - they set off explosives using mortar shells each night to alert the community to the fact that there is a festival on their doorstep (as if they need any reminder). So small is the island that I have heard the noise, like rolling thunder, from across the island almost every night for the past ten weeks.

Here's a few of my favourite saints and their special intercessionary powers:

St Paul (Pawl) – a Jew, shipwrecked here in the first millennium; beheaded in 65AD in Rome, his patronage includes writers, musicians, journalists, rope makers, saddle makers and tent makers. His festival here has occurred every year since 1690.

St James - disciple of St John the Baptist, put to the sword by Herod. Patron saint of blacksmiths, equestrians, veterinarians, apothecaries and of course pilgrims. Legend has his body being transported by angles in a rudderless boat to Spain and hence the pilgrim's walk to Santiago de Compostela.

St Lucia - Sicily born. She is often depicted carrying a tray containing a pair of eyes. She gouged them and presented them to her jilted lover before being murdered by him. She  had chosen the life of a nun over him. Patron saint of the blind, writers and those suffering sore eyes and sore throats.

And skipping the other three hundred we come to St Dominic (Diminuku).

Where should I start? Born of Spanish nobility in Castile in 1170, he is a fairly recent saint. He is patron saint of astronomers, scientists, of the falsely accused and of Valletta itself. His mother may have been a little bizarre as she had a vision during her pregnancy of her unborn child as a dog carrying a torch in his mouth - which is why Dominic is often depicted accompanied by his puppy with his torch to light up the world.
St Dominic's festival filled the week leading up to the weekend of his feast day (actually August 8th). Typical of Malta's festivals it combined explosives, fireworks, incessant bell ringing, with daily/nightly parades of his statue through the streets born by eight white robed heavily sweating men with disfigured shoulders (their badge of honour after many years in the role of bearer of this weighty statue), and accompanied by a brass band which played for close on three hours each circuit. Dominican monk's wear white but are also known as Blackfriars as a reference to the black hooded cloak they wear as an over-garment.

This was not a parade to be rushed. Each outing St Dom inched his way through the narrow streets, confetti raining down on him from the balconies above until the streets were ankle deep in shredded snow. The streets themselves were lined with oversized statues of angels and other saints each on an individual plinth and framed by heraldic cloth hung along and across the streets transforming them into avenues lined with sumptuous red and gold fabric. This was accompanied by Holy Masses celebrated several times a day in the basilica which was also decked out in red. Rich red velvet hung from every flat surface - pillars, walls, window frames etc.

St Dominics also happens to be the parish which includes the Presidential Palace so, on the Saturday, the parade wound it way around the palace and at one point was greeted by the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, who arrived in her black limo, accompanied by her security contingent (black sunglasses, dark suits) and alighted to pay her respects to St Dominic and his devotees. She was greeted rapturously and led into the palace by a Maltese man carrying a stubby of beer. She was giving her minders hell as she kissed the babies and shook hands with all and sundry and then invited the masses to follow her into the palace courtyard where more kisses took place and a spontaneous rendering of the national anthem was sung. The parade then continued for another two hours.

Andrea, who had witnessed the Presidential moment while shopping for food, came home to share her experience and an hour later we headed out for a stroll and met the parade, still every bit as enthusiastic, returning from its two hour palace circumnavigation. Those poor brass band musicians were still blasting away on their trumpets and trombones and still in tune.

Come the final night (Sunday) and Andrea and I headed off to a concert in the Knights Hospitalier, a huge 16th Century building in our immediate vicinity which was built by the Knights as a hospital and continued as such for over 400 years including up until the end of WWII. As we left the concert we assumed that the festival had run its course but something drew us the few blocks to St Dominics for one last look.

Talk about good timing. We arrived to see St Dominic a mere fifty metres from his final destination, the front door of his basilica. The crowd was thick with passion and expectation. The brass band played, the parade inched forward, the crowd chanted, the children on their fathers’ shoulders called supplications to the saint high above their heads, church bells rang and fireworks exploded above. At one point a woman with a microphone led the crowd in the national anthem. That fifty metres took close on an hour. It was hard not to be moved, such was the emotion of the moment. I am not a believer, despite my early devotion to all things religious, but I could appreciate the power, some might say mesmerising, intoxicating power, of this experience. This annual festival (repeated many times over across the nation) is a true community celebration of a fundamental set of beliefs which may explain how these people have weathered so much adversity over hundreds of years and survived emotionally, culturally and finally become an independent self governing nation.

As I sit here writing this another salvo of explosions bursts outside my window, launched at 7am on this Friday morning from a barge in the middle of the Grand Harbour heralding the beginning of St Lawrence's Festival at Vittoriosa, across the water. Move over Saint Dominic it's Larry's turn.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

The Ghost of St Dominic

Photo by Jo Lynch
H and his confetti dance at St Dominik's Festival in Malta

Kantilena - Contemporary Maltese Folk Band

Malta contemporary folk band Kantilena take you on a ride around the villages of central Malta. Andrea and I saw them last Sunday night and they were fabulous.

We only have 5 days left so we're packing the last gems in day by day. Yesterday was the island of Gozo (6 hours travelling - 6 hours on the island); Tomorrow is the old capital of Mdina (pronounced Mmmmmmmdina), the silent city. It only has 240 residents and no cars and sits atop the highest point on the island. You'll see it in the distance in the u tube clip.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Alessandro of Rome

To link with Alessandro's website click here.                                                                           
Alessandro of Rome
We are standing outside the Circus Massimo Metro station opposite the roman chariot raceway of Circus Maximus. Traffic roars through the massive roundabout as if re-enacting the roman charioteers. A young man of about thirty with a spring in his step, jeans hanging off his bum, runs across the intersection followed by three girls with large bags. Two are platinum blonde the other dark haired. Finns we later learn. A dark eyed southern girl (Napoli it transpires) who has been standing beside us for the past five minutes suddenly answers my thoughts. She says they’re taking their bags to the shop on the far side of the Circus to store them while we do this walk. A few minutes later they emerge and the young man shepherds the Finns through the chariots towards our corner of the circle.

This is our introduction to Alessandro, a young history nut from Rome who runs free walks twice a week to the places tourists and other tour guides don’t go, the back streets the hidden sites. The group has meanwhile grown to about twelve people – the three Finns, two Belgians and a scattering from other nations including North America, Sweden, Poland, Argentina, other Italians and we two Australians. We think we blend in amongst the largely twenty something group but in reality we are the grandparents of the cluster.

Alessandro beckons us to form a tight group around him and begins. He apologizes for not being in good health. He has an allergy of some sort and is on medication. He hopes he will survive the tour. 

Before we leave the curb he tells us his three rules for crossing the roads of Rome (he has not lost a guest yet and wishes none of us to be the first). Rule 1. Make eye contact with the oncoming driver; check they are not texting. Rule 2. While maintaining eye contact, confidently (as if you own the road) step into the traffic walking steadily and allowing the traffic to flow around you if necessary. Rule 3. Never run, never hesitate - any sign of fear will only encourage drivers to revert to their instinctive wild state – programmed to kill and maim. The exception to these rules involves buses and taxi drivers.  He then leads us into the melee.

He is full of knowledge and apologies for his health – though none of us can detect any sign of his malaise. If anything it seems likely he might have had a big night out the previous evening. We don’t care. He throws us questions, the answers to which we are rarely able to answer which introduces his next gem of information. We leave the circus Maximus and I am immediately lost. We are below the walls of the Paletine Hill and Rome has no sky scrapers by which to navigate. A moment ago the Coliseum was in sight and now a lane or two later, my sense of N, S, E and West have abandoned me. In addition it is approaching late morning and the sun is scorching down from high in the sky. I can’t even use my old boy scout’s trick using my watch and the hour hand to get my bearings.

The group is largely quiet and attentive except for the Finns who talk loudly to each other as we try to understand Allesandro’s accented English. The other exception is a Belgian girl who begins the tour (within the first 100 metres) accusing Alessandro (and all Italians) of cheating in the recent World Cup. (Belgium was knocked out by Italy apparently – I don’t care, I am Australian with an Australian flag flying proudly from window in Malta). Thus begins an argument that continues for the duration of the walk.

I’m sure we walk at least two kilometres by which time we reach a farmer’s market full of local cheeses and olive oil, meats, fish and homemade delicacies. I’d love to come back here so I ask Alessandro where we are on my map and he points to a spot about 500 metres from our beginning point.

Alessandro has a great sense of humour and reserves his most mocking comments for the ugly white monolith which was built to honour the first King of the newly united Italy (1861), King Victor Emmanuel II. This monstrosity could have been designed by the Third Reich’s Albert Speer such is its scale. It features oversized statues and overwhelming friezes and seems to herald some terrible return of another Roman Empire and perhaps hints at the emergence, in the 20th Century, of Mussolini and his grandiose aspirations. Alessandro is passionate about his city.

He has his rhythm now and races ahead with his commentary. His English is good with the occasional charming mispronunciation. Ironically the tour is in English but only three of us are native English speakers. Allesandro’s medications have kicked in and he shifts a gear resulting in some of the others getting lost in his rapid fire comments.

The noisy Belgian girl is an exception. Her English is excellent and she continues her battering of the Italian football team at each pause in the tour.  Alessandro meanwhile is not short of an opinion. In pretty much everything Italian he claims expertise. And yet he is not pretentious, just confident of his knowledge and unable to resist a challenge. 

During a break at the half way point he shepherds us into his favourite ice cream shop (there are many ‘best’ ice cream shops in Rome depending on the “private arrangement” guides make I suspect) and over macadamia and vanilla bean ice cream he discusses (most vigorously with our friend from Belgium) the authentic Roman recipe for spaghetti carbonara and the important place of offal in traditional cuisine.
Alessandro lays his trap by inviting Miss Belgium (as if she needs any encouragement) to describe her carbonara and then begins his dissection. Mushrooms – NEVER! Bacon – OUTRAGEOUS! And NO cream. Miss Belgium is baffled. What about the creamy consistency? It should come from the pecorino and parmigiana cheeses cooked, not in oil or butter (well, perhaps a little olive oil) but in the juices from the pork cheek (remember, never bacon) and then the egg. Miss Belgium argues strongly and objects frequently - pepper and salt for seasoning? Pepper yes, salt NEVER!  Alessandro is unshakable and wins this round. Simple food with quality ingredients. It’s peasant food he reminds us - Alessandro scores a simple goal. It’s beginning to look like the Netherlands v Brazil game.

At the half way mark it is Italy – 3, Belgium - 0. The topic has broadened to encompass all World Cups and European Cups. Miss Belgium cites a game played in 1910 as evidence of something which none of understand or have any knowledge or interest in. Alessandro responds with the information that the game was actually played in 1912. Miss B is silent. She has scored an own goal. Italy – 4,  Belgium – 0.

On the walk Allesandro’s hyperactivity continues. He checks his mobile constantly. In the middle of his comic exposition on Roman statues (he has found an example of an ancient ‘selfie”) his phone buzzes. He checks it and mid-sentence breaks off to take the call. We all sense that something important must have caused him to do this. ‘Mama, no…….. not now ……….. Yes I’m okay. Yes, I’m taking the medication. No I’m not going to die. …” The call between Alessandro and his mum continues for three or four minutes while he prowls the square, waving his hands, bending double as if in pain, embarrassed at his mother’s attention. When he returns he regales us with the story. He sneezes and his mother wants to call an ambulance. He doesn’t call her and she thinks he is dead. The girls in the group are in fits. Italian boys and their mothers. They think it’s hilarious. 
Alessandro leads us into secret courtyards and up alleyways behind the crowds of tourists, at each point allowing the story of Rome to unfold. The most remarkable thing I learn is the amazing amount of Roman buildings, foundations, walls, remnant buildings which have survived and been incorporated into subsequent buildings. At one point we are looking at a building which incorporates four different eras of construction into its fabric. We avoid the long queue of tourists waiting to kiss the feet of Jesus at a church built on a Norman structure, follow a narrow winding lane full of hat makers and end the tour in the courtyard of a small square. A tiny space entered through the ubiquitous arch surrounded on all sides by ochre walls. Hidden marble steps lead to the 2nd and 3rd levels where washing hangs from balconies and garden ferns drape from the windows. The square is lush with greenery. We all want to live here. It is romantic Rome at its simplest and best.

The football argument continues in this small space. Miss B for belligerent is determined to score a goal. Alessandro is unwilling to concede. Eventually I suggest a truce with as much tact as possible and there is a moment of quiet as Alessandro brings his story to a close and bids us farewell.

I score him a perfect 10 for his knowledge and entertainment value and Andrea and I offer him a generous tip for his services. The others offer nothing except their adoration. They are all students and are not as cashed up as we are (in fact the three Finnish girls and their bags – remember their bags? - are sleeping on his floor tonight. Couch surfing). Alessandro does not even ask for money or a donation.
His passion has been sated for another week. His audience has been enthralled. That has been his reward. We have been with him for four hours.

Eight of us then join Alessandro at a small pizzeria nearby for lunch. The Argentine boy invites Andrea and I to join him at the Argentine Embassy for the final of the World Cup later in the evening; the Polish girl who is about to begin  the final year of her medical studies offers to  assess Allesandro’s allergy symptoms; the Finnish girls eat like horses and we have a beer. Notably absent is Miss Belgium who has retired to the change rooms to lick her wounds.

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 thirteenth century hymn - Sabat Mater (a meditation on the Virgin Mary) by eighteenth century composer 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.