10th June 2015
IN THE MOOD
Oh shock! Oh horror! Look what I’ve become,
An aficionado of travelling for fun.
The coffee is perfect, the wine cheap and good.
The pastries, the foodstuffs, the bread, and the mood
of the people is one of great bonhomie.
And the sun, it is shining for just you and me.
But if, when it’s drizzling,
I write with disdain
Of the people, poor plumbing – which causes blocked drains,
Of communication, or lack of it really,
Of lugging ones baggage through stations that nearly
Are big as one’s home town but much more confusing
(’cause they’re on six levels, with post, banks and shopping).
Of moving and moving and breathing exhaust fumes!
Of so many sad losers, lives wracked and in ruins! . . . Well, pay no heed ‘cause I have discovered . . .
The Italians are long-time leaders in the style and design stakes. And while their economy is shrinking daily, with unemployment creeping up and its better educated youth leaving its sunny shores for better economic climes out of necessity, evidence of that stylishness fortunately still abounds. We see it in simple matters, like the clothing of the locals: a simple silk scarf wrapped casually around a man’s neck; the ‘mans’ shoulder bag; women’s insistence upon wearing attractive high-heeled and platform shoes – in spite of their often walking on perilous old cobblestones and pavers; women wearing dangerously tight-looking coloured jeans and men unashamed to wear bright colours of any hue. We also see it in a bar’s bathroom tap-ware, or its lighting, interior design colours and materials and so on (though not all bars we frequent are glamorous, of course.
In a similar vein: Mediterranean man may well have invented the word machismo as they can appear overtly macho when it comes to women, yet when it comes to methods of motorised transportation – how different they are to the Australian & Kiwi male. Here, where I sit in a piazza in Agrigento, your typical male is quite happy to drive some small, sawn-off version of a car (the occupants still managing to retain their stylish appearance) and/or happily ride around on a scooter (helmeted or un-helmeted) with jaunty nonchalance – this is so all over Italy. Your ‘everidge’ Australian & Kiwi male, however, would curl up in embarrassment if forced to ride anything smaller than a ‘Harley’ or equivalent monster bike, or drive anything less than a V8 or beaut ute (only Ford or Holden) or SUV. And I suspect that Italians have been subjected to just as much American brainwashing as Australians so I can only conclude it is a bizarre form of machismo – big bike/car = ‘big’ man. The Italian male, as Rachel has remarked to me more than once, appears very comfortable with himself, seemingly having little to prove.
Manual Testicular Self-adjustment
I am going to adopt this masculine Sicilian habit upon my return to Perth, though I am uncertain as to how it will be received. Perhaps I’ll start a trend. It involves the visible manipulation of the male genitalia to achieve a better degree of physical comfort and is carried out at anytime, anywhere: a truly liberating movement. The feminine version of this appears to be that international feminine movement – the removal of discomforting pinched knickers from between the lower cheeks of their derrières – but many an Australian girl can be seen unashamedly carrying out this manoeuvre. It could be that the instigator of the masculine habit is an inferior design of underwear, as may well be the cause of the feminine activity. But I can’t bring myself to ask a Sicilian man what the cause of his jiggling his genitals is – that might cause me some serious harm.
It is almost sacrilegious to stay only one night in this famous city of Agrigento, but from our fifth floor apartment we had great views out over the countryside and sea and could see three of its renowned Greek Temples (which we visited two years ago). Unfortunately, the apartment had no elevator and we had to hump our bags up those five floors. However, we are nothing if not fit in the legs now what with all our walking and climbing steep streets. But Sciacca awaits. Heard loud thumping rhythmic beating music while out that night and tracked it down to some disco trance type scene which I figure would have been part of the students’ end of term celebration (we met and talked with two students on separate occasions on our journey to Sciacca – one a Linguist graduate, the other a Mathematics student and both spoke excellent English). It was a gated entry but we were able to watch from the street above. I enjoyed the music and the laser light show was amazing.
An easy two hour bus ride through generous, if not verdant, lands of olive groves and all the other necessities of life, like grapes, takes us into the southern Sicilian coastal town of Sciacca. When we do eventually find our accommodation we deliberate for about one minute before extending our stay to six nights with an option of seven. But who knows, I may never leave. Rachel found this little apartment for us, and for me it is perfetto, as they say hereabouts.
Our room is on the fifth floor (though only up two flights of stairs at the back due the steepness of the terrain). From the apartment window’s open small balcony I am looking down over a fully working fishing port. If I lean (perilously) out to the left I can see two restaurants on this side of the narrow street that separates us from the harbour. The first is on one level, but the next is on four levels with spacious open verandas with tables and chairs for the diners. Leaning to the right I can see a working shipwright’s yard with three fishing boats up on the slips – two are wooden.
I am in heaven. It’s a busy little harbour. Many of the fishing boats (nothing over about 60 feet) are taking advantage of the good weather and little moonlight. They utilise small boats with bright lights to attract and concentrate the anchovies – something that can’t be done in bright and broad full moonlight. In port, they stay alongside only long enough to offload their catch before heading off-shore again, returning about mid-afternoon with their catches.
From our windows I can see the public crowding the boats to buy some of their fresh catch. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why New Zealand and Australia don’t allow this simple exchange – perhaps then we could then have access to really fresh fish. We later stroll over and walk the wharves and watch up close the off-loading and interactions between fishermen and their buyers. A lot of the catch goes into large chiller vans, and while the public can pick what they like from the prawns, scampi, skate, grouper, sardines, anchovies, herring, dog-fish, john dory, cuttlefish, squid, octopus large and miniature and a host of fish we fail to recognise, a lot is taken away in the small three-wheeler vehicles which buzz about this area. They rush the catch to small roadside market stalls.
We inevitably (by accident, I can assure you) find the arse end of a waterfront, and this was no exception. As we walked along the shore away from the marina the sign prohibiting swimming brought a wry smile to our faces – there is no way in hell that I would let even my dog (if I owned one) swim in the water near to this very busy little fishing port city, and the smell alone was enough to have us trying not to breath. We have struck this in many a harbour and/or village around Europe, not only on the Mediterranean, and I can understand the difficulties they face with waste-water disposal, having built cities upon cities upon cities for thousands of years. The logistics of carrying out a total upgrade of waste-water disposal would be a total nightmare and the cost immense – that is if it were even a possibility. Of course, busy fishing ports add to a harbour’s detritus as the fishermen, who live on the water nine tenths of their lives, have little interest in preserving the purity of the harbour’s water. They go way out into the deep, clean ocean, catch the fish and bring them back for sale – end of story. Their boat, its security and its ability to provide a livelihood is their priority – the fish, their saleable product.
So we have a double whammy. Nearby along the coast (but sufficiently removed from where we are located thank goodness) we have insufficiently treated (if at all) sewage disposal, and here in the inner harbour the fishermen who treat the water alongside them as a rubbish disposal unit – except it doesn’t go away. We have noticed the same thing in a significant coastal fishing village in Vietnam where people just threw their rubbish (which included lots of plastics) into the river, which dispersed along the nearby beaches where it joined seafarer’s detritus.
We don’t do a lot of swimming on our travels. However, the bustle of this fishing port and its bars and restaurants is infectious (perhaps an unfortunate choice of word considering what I have just written) and both of us are enjoying this spot immensely with the room’s great views and the loud cajoling banter that goes on between the men at street level beneath us, a bonus. We have also taken to frequenting Bar Charlie just next door. It is predominantly a local male (fisher folk) establishment though very modern, selling good food: from gelato to pastas, pizzas and delectable pastries along with alcohol, and the young, hard-working owner has been treating us very well indeed. Sciacca goes on our list of favourite stays.
At dusk the swallows (could be swifts – I‘m never sure) start screeching as they feed ‘on the (scimitar shaped) wing’ catching aerial insects. They are the common bird of Italy, but we often see bats on the wing, too, as on our walk down that gully in Ragusa. The sea gull here is that huge breed which is typical in New Zealand and those I recall from Christchurch – the Black Backed gull – and their call is that of the English gull too; a call that always brings to my mind the UK coast. Rachel pointed out today something about them I had never taken notice of before: they have big webbed feet. The smaller sea gull of the West Australian coast has small, toe-like feet with a minuscule web. Hmmm
An Ancient Profession
I was going to talk about fishing but distracted myself sufficiently to think of prostitution – both equally ancient. And that reminded me of our visit to the Archaeological Museum in Naples where we came across the large display of pornographic depictions recovered from Pompeii. It takes the form of statuary, sculpture, paintings, mosaics, and pendants depicting penises (peni?). Anyway, I was looking at a depiction of a man humping a goat, and an English lady upon seeing it said in a shocked voice (probably to her husband who was nearby), “That’s bestiality. That’s not right, is it?” I couldn’t help myself, and said to her, “It’s all right, it’s not any old goat, it’s his pet,” implying loyalty. She didn’t get it, but her husband did, and I heard him trying to explain it to her as I wandered off to the next affronting display. My humour can be a bit obscure at the best of times – but at least I get it.
Fishing? Ah, yes. It’s been going on for yonks.
Eating and drinking locally we get to connect with a few people: both fishermen and restaurateur/bartenders. But walking about Sciacca’s upper streets, too, we often have interesting encounters with these friendly people. Our ears are becoming attuned to the language and it is becoming easier to communicate. This morning, while photographing a very old lady at her upstairs window an elderly gentleman imposed himself asking if we (Rachel) were photographing her, and informed us she was 100 years old, and we went on to have a very pleasant chat via our mangled Italian and his one or two English words. Lovely people. Earlier, with the same linguistic disabilities, a gardener came out of his shed in a local park to chat with us and we had another enjoyable discussion, this time about his char grilling of fish bought from the port here, at his home (he can buy a whole case for 10 Euros straight of the boat). He first coats the fish with a mix of olive oil blended with fresh mint (here he mimed the mortar and pestle), salt, pepper and oregano, and his description had all three of us all ‘mmmm-ing’ and ‘buono – ing’. He also recommended we take a bus trip to nearby Caltabellotta, a village way up in the mountains, which we are going to do tomorrow.
These encounters, we conclude, are a result of our being on foot for a start (as opposed to driving around in a car), but also because of the nature of Sicilians – they tend to be a most approachable and friendly people.
Now where was I . . . Ah, yes, the view from our apartment window. The shutters are back, the windows wide open. It is near dusk. The swifts are swallowing (insects) and the big gulls are gliding, cruising perchance to pick up another morsel from the harbour before roosting. All the fishing boats are at rest; we haven’t yet ascertained the time they depart but when I wake up for a pee in the early hours they are all gone. The harbours’ waters are reflective calm. Aromas of baking bread and pizzas waft up to and through our window from Bar Charley just next door down below (their prices are amazingly low with impressive service and food and drink quality). Yep, Rachel sure found us a gem of a place here. In respect to what I have written above about water quality – that concern fades into insignificance with the sheer visual and audial ambience (those noxious fumes are further down along the waterfront – not here). The talk, the bantering, the effusive cajoling of the off-duty fishermen and those associated with the trade and those involved in the feeding and watering of such folk rings pleasingly in our ears. The Sicilian tongue, though it may be a dialect of Italian here, is, to be quite honest, musically pleasant and, dare I say it . . . enchanting to our ears. Though this journey of ours is far from over, this place will be one of our highlights.
In addition to . . . As cat lovers, we are pleased to observe that the people (who, we will never know?) put food out for the multitudinous cats, whether in a fishing port or elsewhere in this land. Cats are everywhere, though there are dogs but they are not liberated like the cats – thankfully. It is a strange phenomenon (coming from such a cat unfriendly nation as Australia) to see this acceptance of felines but we have noted this same thing in Greece and throughout Spain and Portugal. They are wild, free-roaming creatures and hard to befriend, but I can’t help but wonder if this affection for felines harks back to ancient times – viz: the Romans who were here just a few thousand years ago, and their affection for felines.