Monday, 29 June 2015

Three Amici Part III

View from Agrigento apartment
I did say I fancied her. That may have contributed to her panic.Of course when I say fancied I mean I complimented her on her beauty and confessed that the younger man in me found her very attractive. Well, the older man too to be honest.

When I look at photos from the trip; of me and of her I can understand her panic.Richard Gere I am not. I can't seem to find that "best" camera angle to capture my inner beauty. Perhaps the lens is telling the truth? I did sulk for about five minutes then headed out to buy a navigation device as a replacement for her. For about 100 euro I got a "Tom Tom" to replace Nicky and her iPhone. How fickle one can be.

Over the next five days I had a ball. First the fishing village of Sciacca with the beautiful piazza set high above the fishing fleet and the Mediterranean. It's a magic word Mediterranean. I never tire of the idea that I am sitting beside a body of water with such history and such  a sense of romance.

In Marsala I found my second home where I could lick my wounds and steady myself. I decided to make it my base for a few days. I had a simple but lovely apartment in an old palace refurbished by the owners. Two big rooms and the most bizarre bathroom and shower I've ever experienced. The hot and cold tap for the shower was in a different room. You get the picture.

The days were great: sunny, friendly, surprising, delightful, great food and art. I fell in love with ugly Marsala and she loved me back. From here I visited Erice, a thirty minute drive away and shrouded in moody clouds..The evening meals were painful.There's nothing quite so forlorn than sitting at a table set for four by yourself in a restaurant full of people celebrating friendship and family in a language you can't understand. It seemed there was always one table vacant and it was always in the very centre of the trattoria. I felt like a fish in a bowl observing the life of others, opening and closing my mouth not in conversation but only to accommodate my fork making its return journey from my plate.

Nicky and I exchanged emails. I apologised for my role in her panic; she (patronizingly) said she was happy I was having such a good time "Hadn't she told me that I would." She confessed that she had fled to Piazza Almerina and the donkeys in the mountains rather than face her friends in Ortigia and their inevitable comments: "I told you so." " It was a stupid idea." She never told them the truth. I did find some satisfaction when she told me she'd had to sleep on a camp-bed in the disability toilet for two nights.

She writes songs. I could hear some Nora Jones in her voice. She didn't know the Ravi Shankar connection (I'm presuming you do). Like I said she writes songs so I sent her some lyrics.


I met this man under the moon in Ortigia
He said let's split we can travel in my car and
If asked why we did it we'll call it our seizure.

His brain was in tune, No sign of dementia
My guitar is my best friend I told him day one and
It seemed to make sense, so began our adventure.

I am a gypsy
I was from the start
I need my own spaces
A song in my heart.

The days went so smoothly, the sights they were stunning
Modica and Noto,  Scicli, Armerina.
Moltalbano was nearby, he saw me tan sunning.

My feet they were hurting, my itches were stinging
We talked about Tolstoy, my love of Keith Richard
Age makes no difference it's all in the singing.

I am a gypsy
I was from the start
I need my own spaces
A song in my heart.

And then came the day that had too many churches
Escape urged within me I could not resist it
I needed to breathe and to fly with the breezes

Was it something I said he asked me in horror
It's just my free spirit I said in reply
It was great on the road but I run without sorrow.

I am a gypsy
I was from the start
I need my own spaces

A song in my heart.

She didn't like it much. She writes lyrics much better than I do. She has poetry in her.
And what of Lampadusa my other travelling companion? He succeeded in providing the thin gossamer thread that continued to connect we three - the tourist, the escapee and the noble Sicilian.


Favignana Tuna Cannery Museum







Saturday, 27 June 2015

Three Amici - Part II

And then there were two. I think I said that this fortnight would be a bit trippy in the weird sense of the trip word. After  two weeks with my brother here I was in the company of a stranger more than half my age.And a beautiful young woman to boot. What could go wrong?

The first four days flew by. We were like brother and sister (only born 44 years apart (poor mum). The scenery rolled by as did the hours. On day one visited Noto and another beautiful place I can't even remember the name of (Avolo possibly) and finally entered Modica like two triumphant tourist warriors riding our good steed - an almost new Peugeot 208 into the wilds. Modica was magnificent. The town sweeps up on both sides of a deep ravine with the main street dissecting it along what would have been the riverbed. We decided to stay two nights. Why rush away from heaven?

And then the mountains beckoned. Piazza Almeira via Cas..........nore (my memory is perfect). to a small B&B run by a hyperactive but enthusiastic host, Salvatore and his beautiful extended family. Nicky fell in love with Georgia, the three year old daughter who led her a merry dance ending at the donkey enclosure. (Salvatore runs programs for school kids with his thickly coated rust-coloured quartet: Marisa, Fulvia, Luna and  Fiamma.

Nicky became entranced by the family and the notion of returning some day to work there.

Forming storming norming and transforming. You might be familiar with that sequence. Everyone who does leadership training gets introduced to these phases of team development. It has application at the personal level as well. Three days in and we were still getting on. Each morning I would ask: "Are you okay? Are you up for another day in my company? Shall we continue the adventure?" and each day we chose to go a little further along the road. Our understanding was that either of us could call the experiment off at any time at our discretion. I was committed to arriving in Palermo at the end of twelve days. I had no option but to continue. I had a plane to catch.

Something changed at the end of day four. Not storming exactly but the transition towards "norming" hit a speed bump. In Agrigento, in an apartment perched high above the "Valley of the Temples" overlooking the sea we faltered. I was loving every moment of the journey. Nicky, unbeknowns to me, was getting a little jittery. She was faced with another eight days stuck in a car with this bloke who wanted to talk about life and books and history and I think she suddenly sensed that it might just be a little too much. Maybe her impetuous nature had led her into a blind alley.

Nicky has a bit of gypsy in her. She hails from Kent in the UK, has been living and working in Syracuse for the past year. She's a singer; writes her own songs, and doesn't like to be tied down. There was the gypsy bit and there was the money. We were doing it pretty cheaply but it was still costing 40-50 euro each night between us. There was the cost of the hire car, petrol, meals etc etc. and being young and footloose she has been working largely for her meals and accommodation in a restaurant in Ortigia. She often gets paid nothing for long days. The "Work Away" system where young travellers get offered work for no pay seems okay in the short term but is flawed when people become staff rather than volunteers.

That Thursday evening we went out for a meal, laughed a lot, got excited by yet another Sicilian town with night life and vitality, wandered the laneways and went to our beds; but not before I read her some of my novel and she returned the favour with a song. Lovely innocent young girl that she is, she paid me the biggest compliment by thinking I was reading from Lampadusa's "The Leopard." If only! Nicky then sat up half the night stressing, texting her sister and friends for advice and going over and over the budget in her head and she couldn't make it work.

I added to the confusing mix by suggesting that the storming norming forming framework might be about to move us to a new level (though I didn't use those words). What would we be talking about in three days times I wondered out loud. Where would our relationship get to in eight more days of close quarter travelling? Why had a young girl of 21 been so  trusting of an almost complete stranger I asked thinking we were at a point where we could explore these "big" questions? I was concerned for her safety. Not from me but from herself - her willingness to trust. I think that contributed to planting the seed of the idea that I might just be a serial killer she had inadvertently agreed to travel with. Steve from "Wolf Creek"

Next morning she was gone. Not literally but she had left mentally some time during that night. Over a pathetic breakfast provided by our host who had the hide to suggest we give his apartment a 10 out of 10 rating (it was good but Salvatore had set the benchmark with home baked cakes for breakfast, freshly squeezed orange juice, fruit picked that morning from his orchard and espresso coffee (all for the same price).she announced that she was returning to Ortigia. I was gobsmacked. How had this happened? I had become dependent on her as my navigator (she had tthe iPhone I had a paper map). In my mind we had formed a bond. How would I survive? She was quite clear. 'You'll survive. It'll be great to explore Sicily by yourself' I heard her saying. Fuck me - that wasn't part of my plan. I wanted company. Travelling alone can be great but at times it sucks. 'We had an agreement' she reminded me, and walked out the door without even looking back.

To be continued.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Donnafugata Winery

 Donnafugata Winery.

Okay so I've been reading "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampadusa. The country which Lampadusa describes in his novel he calls Donnafugata. The owner of the winery has a literary bent and decided to name his winery after the book because the area where many of the grapes which this family winery uses come from vineyards growing in that same area. Making sense?

He/she/they then named some of the vintages they produce after characters from the book. "Tancredi", one of the main characters, a young hot-blooded Sicilian siding with Garabaldi and the new order, is an elegant complex red (fits his character); the "Anglehi" (Angelina, the fabulously beautiful peasant girl on the rise who Tancredi falls for) is its companion wine.  You get the picture.

Simona, pictured with me, was our guide and tasting expert. She was great. Good English though very apologetic (She should apologise? What about our awful Italian?) She is also a writer - writing is her passion and food the object of her passion.
In addition she is from Palermo so was able to give me some tips on markets and street food.
Try her website and then get the translate version

Thank you Simona for a very informative hour and a half ending with tasting five superb wines.

Strangely went to dinner tonight at a chic little place (Caccio) run by Francisco and Anna and Anna works at Donnafugata in their marketing area.

Add to that the many parallels between Lampadusa's novel and this trip (more to come) and it was all very bloody good. I didn't even mention the first half of the day on Favignano island swimming in crystal clear waters and visiting the museum set in the old tuna fish cannery. Good day.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fish stories - Good and Bad

This trip to Sicily has had a few themes. Fish is one of them. It's hard to avoid when you're on an island in the Mediterranean.

Julian P has asked me to look out for a local marlin, a spearfish (Agugghia imperiale), which is caught in the Straits of Messina . No sightings so far maybe because I'm at the wrong end of the island. Palermo could be a possibility as that's starting to move towards that part of the world.

Good fish story. This fishmonger (pescetorio) at the Antico Mercato explained to me how the swordfish (pesce spada) are caught. I took it that they are line caught on single lines. a sustainable practice.

He gave me this hook as a memento of my visit. The market still operates just inside the 17th century gateway. Mainly fish but also fruit and vegetable and some deli outlets though it looks like it might be heading the way of the Valletta market which has been killed by supermarkets.

They still set their fish up on hundred year old marble tables slightly scooped to contain any ice and juices.

Bad fish story.

There is a fishing tradition in a number of fishing communities of Sicily and Sardinia, an annual ritual called the "tonno'. It's got religious and pagan origins and signals both the opening of the tuna fishing season and the blessing of the fleet. The fishermen are very superstitious (the world over) and this seems to be an offering to the gods that, if not carried out could mean a bad season for the community which is dependent of the sea for its survival.

Problem: Its bluefin tuna which I glean is endangered in these waters (correct me if I'm wrong Julian) and it's seen as a rather grotesque and cruel ritual (the practice is banned across the rest of the Mediterranean).

The fish are herded through a series of nets set over kilometres of water beginning with the widest possible setting and over the long distance becomes ever narrower until the fish are corralled into the final net - the only one with a bottom. At this point it becomes a bit of a killing frenzy where the net is slowly raised and the local and regional fishermen join forces to jag the tuna with long poles and drag them onto the docks/boats where they are killed and bled.

They take about 100 tonne this way and the tuna cannery comes alive to begin the canning process. Many are exported fresh, mainly to Japan, at up to $500 a kilo for sushimi etc. I reckon my fantastic tuna meal last night may have made me complicit in this harvest but, Gesu Cristo, it was beautiful fish..

Monday, 22 June 2015

Marsala Rocks

Yep. I'm in heaven. Albeit an unlikely heaven. It's Sunday. The devout attend mass across the road from my balcony, sneaking out for a quiet cigarette when things get slow.

In the afternoon Marsala was closed. Not a shop open. Not that I can fully vouch for that because I was at the local saltworks, just outside the city having a break and a beer having worked up a thirst after my day at beautiful Erice (I've decided to skip Trapani - SHOCK! HORROR!).

Tonight I sauntered forth expecting to have to search for a place to eat. I assumed all the good Catholics would be at home kneeling in penitence begging forgiveness for what they might have got up to on Saturday night BUT to my surprise the place was pumping. Kids, adults, babies in strollers, grandparents ..... There was a pop concert going on in the main square (which is quite small - something I like about Marsala); It's butt ugly to drive into but intimate and charming once you find the centre - marble paved laneways, human scale piazzas, most of it pedestrianized.

Found the Osteria I was looking for and had what might be my most delicious seafood meal ever - so simple. Tuna, lightly seared both sides (olive oil and salt) and topped with lightly grilled and chopped zucchini, mushrooms and slathered with pureed Sicilian mint. MMmmmmmm. A complimentary glass of Marsala which reminded me of my father - I'm sure the only heavy wine we had in the house was a Marsala. Sweet and rich. Plus a plate of sweet orange slices to finish off. Come over (or invite me to cook) when I get back and I'll see how close I can get to tuna Marsala style.

And then.

Yes there's more. In the back streets, in the shadow of the giant (and ancient) stone city gate, now named Porta Garabaldi and dated 11 maggio1860. Garabaldi made Sicily his first stop (I hope I'm correct in this) in leading his red shirts on their campaign to unify Italy. We Venetians didn't appreciate our loss of independence and held out until 1866; the papal state opposed unification for even longer. Where was I? Oh the gates. Yes in the shadows of the gate, a bar - La Marinara (its a seafood city); and at the bar a band, five piece playing funky rhythms and Italian vocals. It was infectious. So there I was dancing in the street surrounded by all those previously mentioned but particularly young women (25 - 35) dressed for a big night out (at the bar?) and also grooving along to the music.The Sicilian ladies go to a lot of trouble for a simple night out - even Nicky used to do the make-up thing before accompanying me to a cheap Trattoria. She couldn't bear the thought of being seen as a scruff - pity about her choice of company!

And so a night out in Marsala comes to a close and I haven't got a photo to show for it. That may be a good sign. Too busy enjoying myself to be bothered with a camera.

Here's a couple of Erice and the salt pans of the Marsala lagoon.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Sciacca - my adopted family

One night in the beautiful fishing village of Sciacca was enough for me to feel adopted by my B&B hosts. I awoke for breakfast and quietly ate my croissant and drank my coffee and then went to check out. What followed was an hilarious conversation about sharks, Sydney, fighting kangaroos and other near death experiences all shared in mangled Italian and English. The tree are mother (Angela) and son (Mario) and employee (Maria). Maria had visited her zio (uncle) in Sydney, loved the harbour but only ever swam in a pool for fear of sharks. The mother's niece (I think), is an illustrator of books and so we spoke of writing and books and artists. They got me to sign my postcard (Paradiso) and made me feel like a rock star insisting that I should return next year to speak at their writers' festival (and offering their niece as an illustrator for the book if required).

Bon Jovi,  they told me is a local, returning to visit regularly but incognito; Bono, they also claimed as one of their own - a connection through his father I think. I  asked if Paul McCartney was also from Sciacca but they pointed out that he is English. Silly me.

Nicola has returned to Siracusa. Her budget was not going to last so she's gone back to earn some euro in preparation for the visit of her sister in two weeks when they want to travel the north east corner.. She may join me in Palermo to finish the odyssey.

Traveling alone has its benefits. I miss the company but would probably not had the mad Sciacca conversation if Nicky had been there to translate everything. Poor kid. I think she was getting sick of it.

I'm in Marsala and have decided to stay for a few days and explore the area from here. I have found some divine and cost effective accommodation. Things are looking good.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Three Amici in Sicily Part I

I've become interested in the essay form of late. It seems to me it's a cross between memoir, opinion and reflection. I've written a couple of pieces - each still in their formation stage. In one I wrote about my Malta experience (2014) of utter loneliness and compared that with the desolation my peasant ancestors must have felt finding themselves in the wilds of New Guinea in 1880 with the slimmest hope of survival. Get over yourself Steve I thought, but then realised that my feeling of devastation might not be as intense as the hopelessness they experienced but was nevertheless real. I survived. So did they. Why do some people survive and others perish in the face of overwhelming adversity? Do the optimists have an edge - never giving up hope? I am one of those, though optimism was not what pulled me through. It was hard work and the support of distant  friends. Was Lorenzo an optimist? I am prepared to give him that quality because my father was one and maybe his father (though he was more bloody-minded than optimistic as I remember). Maybe the genes flowed through.

And so I have set myself another challenge for 2015. Why, I might ask myself? And my answer would not be clear. It has been a little addiction of mine since I was in my twenties - a desire to take on unexpected challenges. I am not pretending to be special here or in any way compare myself with the real risk-takers of the world but nevertheless I have made some "odd" choices over the years. Malta was the most recent. One of the early ones was to give up a perfectly good job which I enjoyed immensely (primary school teacher) to accept a three month contract as a clown in a distant city dragging my pregnant partner with me. This one is: "travel for two weeks in Sicily with an almost complete stranger one third my age". You work it out.?

.In a sense I have two travelling companions on this trip. Nicola (aka Nicky), Kent born, Siracusa domeciled (for the moment) of Campanian descent with Italy and Sicily in her blood (one quarter in cold mathematical terms) and Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of "The Leopard". Lampedusa is not here in the flesh but in spirit. He died in 1958 and his novel (his only novel) was published posthumously. Nicky is my Italian speaking companion and Lampedusa is my guide to the Sicily of old which in many senses is still present.

Lampedusa evokes Italy in transition when Garabaldi and his red shirts were entering Sicily to begin the transformation to a united Italy. It is a time of change from the power of the Princes to that of the proletariat (later another structure emerged where other families became the source of power and wielded ruthless control over aspects of Sicilian life). Lampedusa writes like a poet. Every line is infused with rick imagery and with sharp insight into the human condition and its complexities. His world is one of politics and family and relationships. One of the most satisfying novels I have read. Regarded as a masterpiece of 20th century writing.

Nicky is the new generation. She is unaware of many of my core reference points which is why I had dubbed us "the odd couple". I write. She sings. I read fiction and write historical fiction. She reads biography - Keith Richard for instance, one of her heroes. Nicky is an artist, a musician with a voice which has hints of Nora Jones. Her modern  musical knowledge is extensive (particularly from the 60s forward). She loves a broad cross-section of modern pop while Tolstoy, Nabokov, Hemingway - the great pantheon of writers translated into English she has not yet discovered. May never. Though she has a delightful open mindedness to new experiences and new knowledge.

We three have decided that we are not "the odd (couple) trio" but maybe three companions seeking to inform each other of our worlds. We are learning as we travel - about history, music, culture, relationships and life in Sicily. It's a rich mix. There's a lot more to come.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Medea at the Greek Theatre in Siracusa

 Medea, beginning to end in Italiano. Magnifico. Bravo, Bravissimio.