A pizza snob’s top tips, with hilarious comments from guardian reading pizza eaters. Mr Naylor would be horrified if he saw some of the combinations not only available but frequently ordered around these parts. Oven chips and frankfurter sausages anyone?
Prima volta in barca a vela..
Last weekend my boss took us sailing, a little voyage out to the islands. We saw some lovely parts of Vulcano and Lipari that you can’t reach without your own boat. The swaying, even on calm waters, made me feel a little wobbly on the inside but fortunately I wasn’t called upon to assist with the pulling of ropes or tying of knots.
Spring is here. Since the drenching in Siracusa, it has mostly been lovely weather.
Etna errupting in the distance last weekend
Living beside the beach is finally starting to pay off. In less than two minutes from the front door, we can be at the water’s edge.
Sitting there, somehow the traffic noise from the road above and the ever present barking dogs become imperceptible and all you can hear is the lapping waves. Sometimes it’s so still there are almost no waves at all. Sometimes the sky and sea blend into one; hazy, shimmering and blue. It’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins.
Vulcano and Lipari in the distance
Sometimes it looks like someone has spilt milk, long stripes of pearly white on the surface of the water. Other times it looks like a holiday brochure for some exotic place, rings of colour getting gradually darker from turquoise green to inky blue. My photography skills aren’t up to the job of capturing the magic.
Not the right time
Last week, I went to the supermarket twice. The first time - around 1 o’clock, just before closing time - I was surprised by how easy it was to navigate the narrow aisles, indeed even when I reached the cheese counter there wasn’t a single soul waiting. I had paid and left within 10 minutes of arriving. The second time - mid morning - was sadly a more typical experience. Middle aged ladies with bulging baskets pushing past and obstructing my way in equal measure, a scrum around the cheese counter and an epic queue for the one open checkout.
Anyone who’s ever read a book about Italy can tell you that Italians have strict rules about coffee. The big cliche - which is no less true for being called upon by every writer under the sun in attempt to show us how very far beneath the surface they have scratched - is that cappuccino is only for drinking at breakfast time and that this rule is only broken by idiot tourists from Germany or England who know no better. What often goes unmentioned is that “the right time” to do something extends far beyond drinking cappuccinos. 1pm is not the right time to go to the supermarket - the middle aged ladies are all at home by then, making lunch. And anyway, where would the fun be in going to the supermarket when no-one else is there? There’d be no-one to gossip with or about…
Grey skies blue doors
On the second January weekend in a row that we tried and failed to make an unorthodox, out-of-season visit to Salina, on realising the boat we had hoped to catch was cancelled, we decided instead to take a walk through the old part of Milazzo, past the castle and down through a picturesque but seemingly deserted part of town.
And by deserted, I mean even more deserted than the rest of Milazzo on a wintry day. No bars, no vegetable sellers, no bakeries, no people at all. Two excessively aggressive dogs barking from behind gates of big houses hinted at possible life within, but otherwise nothing. The houses are pretty there. I am always surprised to find that so many people genuinely enjoy living in cheaply constructed blocks of soulless flats with neighbours on all sides when there are alternatives which seem so much pleasanter.
Sicily is a funny place, extraordinary natural beauty and rich cultural heritage but at the same time decay and decline, negeleted and crumbling architecture that gives a little glimps of how things were once upon a time. Once upon a time, someone cared enough about this wall to put those patterned tiles there. And there they remain, with only would-be island visitors like me to appreciate them.
Finding the interesting, the beautiful and the good from the mundane, the dull and the ugly. Perhaps that’s the secret to having a happy life. Sometimes it is most definitely easier than others. At times this week it has been difficult to see any colours at all from under the gloom of grey skies and human pettiness as sad as the weather.
Anyway, positive thinking. Here is a link to a my new photo-blog project. Inspired by a lovely weekend taking photos of blue doors on Stromboli last summer, it is a collection of nice things from this part of the world.
Last week, a kind student gave us a huge bag of agrumi, aka citrus fruits. Oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, grown and picked in his garden.
It was a well timed gift. The lovely fresh juice we’ve been drinking has been a much needed reminder that the sun does shine here quite a lot.
The sun itself has been absent without leave. The sky, normally one of these shades of blue, has been black with clouds. The islands, all seven visible on a clear day, have disappeared into the gloom. The rain that we were unfortunate enough to get caught in was one step away from Bogota levels. The wind is often loud enough to keep us awake at night. Milazzo is not a good place in bad weather. Once you have exhausted eating pizza and drinking coffee, there is quite literally nothing to do. Determined to get out of the house, we went to the “public library “:
Elderly librarian: Can I help you?
Us: Err… this is the library, isn’t it?
Elderly librarian: Yes. Do you need a book?
Us: No, we just want to have a look around.
Eldery librarian: Ok. Well, this is the first room…. [standing up and gesturing forwards]….and here is another…..[ushering us through an arch]…..and another room….. [opening a door]….one more room….and here is a kitchen, with a pizza oven, it’s very old…….and the exit’s down there.
So not a place to hang out then. What do local people do at this time of year? I think the answer is not much. As far as I can tell, they mostly stay at home and watch American comedies badly dubbed into Italian on their televisions. It’s like there is an unwritten rule that says whilst life officially goes on during the colder months, it goes on only in the most basic terms. Going to work or school (by car, wearing your puffa jacket), is ok. Doing your shopping is ok. Drinking coffee in a bar, providing you don’t sit down at a table, is ok. If you must indulge in a social activity, eating a pizza is ok. Other than that, exposure to the elements is to be avoided.
Even on the worst day, we can’t pretend that Sicilian weather doesn’t beat English weather hands down, but in England we have libraries, museums, galleries, exhibitions; places where you can go and spend an hour or two on a rainy day. Even the smallest villages have pubs and cafes that are warm and welcoming, where you feel encouraged to linger. More importantly, probably due to the unpredictability of our summers, we continue to go places and do things during the rest of the year. If we waited for reliably good weather we would never do anything.
It’s a week since the bag of oranges. Time to get out of this town for a few days. Tomorrow, we’re going to Catania for the weekend. Fingers crossed for sunshine on the other side of Etna…
I love Holga shots. Here are some of last year’s from around Milazzo.
Check them out the rest here: Milazzo Lomography, a set on Flickr.
Big castle in a small town
We visited Milazzo’s castle on Sunday - a priviledged private tour from a student friend of an otherwise closed-for-renovations historical site. It hasn’t been open to the public since I arrived over a year ago, and it looks set to remain that way for the time being, so we were lucky to have the chance to look around.
Once upon a time a Greek acropolis, and at various points in history built on and changed, adapted and renovated by the Arabs, Normans, Spanish and others right up to the watchtowers built and used during the Second World War. You can see why the attacking soldiers of times gone by thought scaling its impenetrable walls was worth their efforts. The views from the top for once actually warrant the Lonely Planet style superlatives.
On one side you can from the port all along the coast to Messina, and further to the distant mainland; turning slightly and all of Milazzo is spread out on the peninsula; then the beach stretching along the coast towards Cefalu and Palermo; and then finally the islands, all seven of them on a clear day, Alicudi round to Stromboli which is pointing up from behind Capo Milazzo.
south to Milazzo/north to capo
The history of the castle is like the history of Sicily in miniature. Invader upon invader, one defeating the next, each taking what was left by the last and building on top of it, improving on it and making it their own. Milazzo’s most famous and important landmark, a melting pot of all those thousands of years of lives and loves and deaths and stories. Change upon change upon change.
gates of the inner walls/cornerstones of Etna lava
And yet from looking at life here today, you would think nothing had ever been different. The strict routines, the unwritten but very much acknowledged rules, the barely concealed disapproval for even the slightest deviation from the right way of doing things. This translates to everything from the amused expressions on the faces of the barristas on ordering anything with milk after lunch to the contrast between the lunch hour rush circa 1pm when everyone - and I mean everyone - is rushing home to their mother or wife and a plate of pasta, and the deserted streets of 3pm, when no-one has yet re-emerged from their post-pasta slumbers. From the reactions of shock and borderline offence when mentioning that despite a less than perfect weather forecast, and knowing that they would rather not, that you might nevertheless take advantage of a day off to visit someplace you’ve never been before to the uniform belief that any illness however minor or severe can be cured by eating only pasta with olive oil and the smallest grating of pamesan cheese. From the bizarre insistence that windows must be opened at regular intervals even on the coldest of January days to the equally odd reluctance to give up the puffa jacket until June, and therefore summer, has officially arrived, despite the temperatures in April and May regularly approaching and even exceeding 30 degrees.
I suppose this is what it is to live in a place. It’s easy as a tourist or a travller to see only the good - or perhaps only the bad. Some people I’ve talked with here are surprised that I’m not more homesick I tried once to explain that to be happy living and working abroad you have to be able to find the good things in any place you end up and recognise that there are nearly always downsides - and that this is equally true of wherever you call home, but some folks really can’t imagine being away from everything that’s so familliar and controlled for more than a few days. Perhaps it only takes a lifetime of staying in one place to become convinced that your way is not merely yours but the way, of doing things. I wonder if that makes those people happier than the ones who are always comparing this place to that place, one way with another way.
It’s a big question. For the time being, I guess I’ll keep putting garlic in my spaghetti bolognese, try to ignore the coffee disapprovers and puffa-jacket police and think more about the islands right on our doorstep, looking at Mt Etna from our balcony, and eating fresh fish straight from the sea.