Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Impressions of Venice

March 2006

* Arriving by bus, boarding a vaporetto and travelling the length of the Grand Canal before arriving at our hotel, marvelling the entire way. Just like the pictures!

* Our first evening meal in a cheap and friendly bar/restaurant we found by chance. Two free rounds of drink to entice us to wait for a table (sparkling white wine on tap, which greatly impressed our party). Nice plates of steaming tagliatelle with greens. Four desserts between three of us – one was a gift so that we could sample the cream-and-biscuits delicacy. There was a big birthday celebration at a long table nearby, with lots of thirty/forty-somethings with one child between them – typical spoiled but charming little Italian prince. A cake with candles was brought in with darkened ceremony, to the sound of 'Happy Birthday' in Italian. We very improperly drank sparkling wine with our meal and spent the first of several merry evenings.

* On our restaurant-hunt, as we explored silent darkened lanes, we suddenly came across a random alley with a heaving bar, an explosion of drunken student types milling inside and out, trying to accost us in the narrow alley, staggering and calling: 'I love you! I love you!' in their best English.

* The horror of being bitten by mosquitoes in such cold weather and so early in the year.

* On a wet night my friend was overjoyed to see two Venetian rats – fat rats they were; presumably gorged on refuse and canal-dirt.

* Being ogled by the police. Three carabinieri (military policemen) staring in the window of Florian's at us, loitering and laughing. Then peering around the other side of a column. Then sauntering behind us when we set off on our way. We speeded up to escape (did we have something odd splashed on our faces? surely being female wasn't unique around here), passing another cafe where we noticed the jazz pianist and the double bassist both staring out through the glass and grinning suggestively at us while bobbing their heads and playing their instruments. Perhaps women really were thin on the ground around St Mark's??

* During our gondola ride, the sight of a well-built young gondolier appearing suddenly on a little quay overlooing the narrow canal, and just posing there in his hat and stripes.

* The rather spooky experience of ascending the campanile of San Giorgio, where a silent and solemn monk whizzed up and down in a fast and noiseless lift. Exactly as my father remembers from 40 years ago.

* Being perversely disappointed at not seeing the sinking city's stacked duckboards in use.

* Teenage schoolboys play-fighting in the street, but stopping as we nearly walk into them, eyeing my friend up and down and promptly flashing her a dashing all-Italian grin.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Two girls abroad

With a new friendThanks to J for the reminders of two more 'that wouldn't have happened if we were boys' occasions. Late night drinks with the owner in a Positano bar (see photo) and an entertaining boat trip on Lake Garda. We took the boat up the lake and somehow ended up sharing the crew's delicious meal below decks. After lengthy chats in halting English and Italian, a photo-session on deck and a wickedly alcoholic dessert (liqueur generously poured) we rolled merrily off the boat to wend our unsteady but ambitious way up hills and along the shore.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Ortigia and too much Italian TV

Sicily Travel Journal Part Three
Sunday evening:
By mid-afternoon the sightseeing has taken its toll, so I head back to Casa Mia for a rest, to catch up with the football and to see a bit of peerless tv show Buona Domenica. Walking back downhill I saw many traditional 'RIP' posters pasted to the walls. These are usually put up in memory of recently-deceased locals. But one, rather peeling now, was for 'Inter' where 'tifosi nerazzurri' announced the demise of the football club. More evidence of the Italy-wide obsession is on show outside the striking modern church (apparently the church is designed like a 'teardrop' and dedicated to 'Madonna of the tears' because of a statuette in a couple's bedroom which began weeping – I love these stories ), where a souvenir stall was labelled 'Oggetti sacri' and sold football kits (Del Piero's Juve shirt etc) alongside the rosaries and religious tack.

While following the football scores using a combination of teletext and my little radio, I marvel at Buona Domenica. This programme is utterly mad, lasting most of Sunday afternoon and evening, featuring minor celebrities, miniature ballets, the latest Big Brother types and weeing puppies. Popular tunes are sung by guests and studio audience, everyone jiggling and smirking and thrusting for the camera's attention. 'Ordinary' guests wheel out tales of tragedy, showgirls wiggle and pout and there are usually games thrown in for good measure (my favourite was the limbo dancing contest for the show's guests, or possibly when couples played musical statues while impersonating piazzas in Rome).

After hearing the good news about my team, Lazio, I head out again in late afternoon for a walk over the bridge to Ortigia. I walk around the island's circumference, and explore some of the interior. It's all quite empty and atmospheric, with loads of gorgeous crumbly buildings, some of them empty and abandoned. Occasionally a second glance showed that what looked like a window box or balcony display was actually wild things making a home in a house going to rack and ruin.

Along the seashore I came across what was obviously the Sunday passeggiata stretch, by Siracusa's much-vaunted spring. Locals were standing around in groups, posing in sunglasses that were much bigger and blacker than mine. Some of the bars looked nice, but I feel rather cowardly and self-conscious walking along there alone, female and blonde, in front of all the bars and all the loiterers, trying to avoid eye-contact. I hear a 'Mamma mia' but no-one approaches me. Good thing as I have a strong feeling I wouldn't understand the dialect.

I dine in a typical local eating-place, La Siciliana. Dining out alone is can be slightly uncomfortable, but I feel at ease here. There are other foreign diners, no-one is staring and the atmosphere is friendly. I have a nicely-positioned table too. I order a pizza with funghi porcini, mozzarella and tomatoes, and am tempted by the cheap local wine, which turns out to be very nice. I make a private toast to today's goalscorers.

There are some Sicilians here too: a young man sitting opposite me in the pizzeria came in with his girlfriend, but now he, the owner, and the owner's son are all involved in a big discussion about how many goals Roberto Baggio has scored in his career.

The walls are covered with historic photos of besuited Sicilians walking around town – the Ortigia scenes aren't that different now – it's only the people in front of the faded palazzi who've changed. And the fact that now there are cars everywhere and, as I know to my cost from when I was trying to take photographs myself, balloon sellers.

In the pizzeria the owner's son is now sitting at the table of the Italian couple opposite and discussing school. When I was new to Italy I would often assume in chummy situations like this that Italians knew each other, now I understand a bit better, it seems that frequently they don't. I don't think this lot were previously acquainted. At the table next to me another Italian couple have arrived, youngsters in the made-up, sunglasses-on-gelled-head style, ordering complicated customised pizzas.

The owner is tubby and I was reflecting on how pizza chefs are generally large, testament to the quality of their pizzas and also to the fact that the rest of us should be careful not to overdo things. Then the pizzaiolo came out from behind the counter and he's huge.

When I return to my B&B, I find that the talent-contest tv show that was starting when I left my room is still going strong. It's a ridiculous programme, although some of the dancing is not bad. There's a lot of weeping and hugging. When two competitors are dismissed everyone cries. Even the tough rasp-voiced presenter is mopping her eyes: 'I've never cried on television before' she says.

Interesting fact of the day: there used to be mini-elephants in Sicily (at first I doubt the museum's skeletons but it's true).