“How far will I have to walk?” John asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Not far! We just take the train to Avola Station—twenty minutes max—then a nice stroll to the sea. Five minutes’ walk, that all! Look, here it is on the map…easy!” I pointed to the screen.
“Well…OK…” he said doubtfully, mentally reliving some other ‘easy’ trips we’ve made in the last two decades.
The next morning, at eight-twenty-nine o’clock, we were standing at the bus stop outside Bar El Cubano and the bus was due. I checked my bag.
“Oh, hell. I only have one ticket and it’s too late to get another one.”
But then I didn’t give it another thought. I’ll admit it, I was complacent. In three weeks of taking the bus, only two people (apart from me) had validated a ticket: two Germans and one Briton. There were never any conductors and the driver actually got annoyed if you tried to buy a ticket from him, waving you away and saying ‘Andiamo!’ as if you were wasting his time. It wouldn’t matter, I concluded, if we were one ticket short just this once.
The faces on the morning bus were unfamiliar. Our usual afternoon bus contains a dozen immigrant workers, a few tourists and a couple of elderly people. This time the bus was almost full of native Sicilians, who were talking nonstop, lively as tree full of budgerigars. That is, they were talking until we got on board. It was like a saloon in an old Western—the newcomer hush. A man sitting by the validator machine seemed particularly interested in us. He was a large man in a blue polo shirt and a golden chain bracelet. He elbowed his friend slyly and waved his arms at us.
“Monsieur, madame!” he shouted jovially and pointed to the ticket-validator machine.
Gulping, I went to the machine and made a show of punching the ticket, demonstrating that—unlike 95% of passengers on this island—I had taken the trouble of actually purchasing one in the first place. Then I set off to join John in my seat, where I planned to hide for the rest of the journey.
Not so fast.
“Uno…due…” said the man, who had been listening attentively and noticed that I had only punched one ticket when there were two of us. The bus was already rocketing along over the potholes. All eyes were on me. In situations like these, the only recourses that occur to me are loud argument or bluff. I pretended not to have heard him and walked to my seat.
What’s the worst he can do? I thought pugnaciously, Throw us out the window? I plunked myself down and for a minute nothing happened.
Then, in slow-motion, like some giant in a fever dream, I saw him get to his feet and walk slowly up the aisle towards us, steadying himself on the seatbacks. As he passed each passenger, he let a friendly word fall and they all nodded and smiled, approving.
He reached my seat, looking, and before he could speak I decided to make the first move, smiling and producing my change purse, “Purtroppo ho solo un. Quanto costa per un biglietto?”
“Un euro e trenta,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.
Relieved that this volatile situation was now reduced to a mere financial transaction, rather than a bloodsport for the amusement of local larrikins, I dug in my purse and produced one euro fifty—twenty cents more than needed to end the whole thing.
He nodded and made his stately way up to the front. After chatting amiably with the bus driver, he slowly floated back to us, waving a receipt and the exact change so everyone could see. It seemed to take a very long time. Finally, he gave me, with a gesture of exaggerated courtesy, the receipt. Mortified, I thanked him and the whole thing was settled except that neither John nor I breathed until we got to Siracusa. Meanwhile, three other people got on board without validating their tickets. Our friend the ticket-enforcing Cyclops showed no interest at all.
In Siracusa, we hurried out of the bus and headed for the train station next door.
“Phew, glad that’s over,” I muttered to John. “From now on I’m going to buy tickets in bulk so we’re never shor– Wait, do you hear…that?”
Loud farting noises were exploding behind us. The person producing the noises was so close I could feel droplets of saliva on the back of my neck. The sloppy raspberries were interspersed now and then with low, snarled invective. Already emotionally bruised by the ticket incident, I decided to protest and turned around to glare at the human whoopee cushion.
To my surprise, I came face to face with an emaciated elderly man in a suitcoat. He didn’t have any teeth and was walking in a jerky manner suggestive of mental illness. His reaction to my glare was that of a cowardly dog when a gate opens; absolute denial. He looked away, stuck his chin in the air and put his hands in his pockets. We stood by to let him pass and watched him limp into the distance, past the pile of human poo and bus timetables covered with hand-written signs saying routes had been cancelled.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city that was once so great fall to such depths,” John murmured wistfully.
Syracuse…capital of Magna Graecia…center of cultural brilliance… one of the major powers in the Mediterranean…centuries of military success…largest altar in antiquity…host to Plato and Aeschylus…birthplace of Archimedes—of pi!!! And now this.
Mourning past glories, we bought a train ticket to Avola at one of the automatic vending machines. The digital screen listing departures said that the platform was ‘B2W’. I didn’t know what that meant. As far as I knew, there were only two platforms, 1 and 2. John sat down to rest his sore knee, and I went in search of B2W.
The first stop was the ticket booth, but that was closed. Meanwhile, about two dozen of our fellow tourists were milling around with expressions of bafflement that mirrored my own feeling.
“Excuse me,” said a tall man with a Russian accent. “What platform is this?” He pointed to the one we stood on.
“This is one, that is two. Are you going to Avola?”
His wife, a smiling woman with blonde curls nodded enthusiastically.
“So are we,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I added, “I don’t know where to go.”
They laughed and they set off again on their hunt for the elusive platform.
Taking a moment to look around, I saw a clot of people at the end of the building . I set off to investigate and found, tucked around the corner, three terminal platforms: 1, 2, 3 ‘Ovest’. Eureka! B2W stood for ‘binario (platform) 2 West’. I jogged back to relay the intelligence to John.
When I got back, he was sitting next to a mournful German blonde. She listened to the triumphant news.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you know where I can go to get to Noto?”
“Ah yes. The platform is over there,” I pointed. “You can’t see it, but there are three platforms, and you want number two.”
“Thank you,” she nodded and sighed. “So now I know I will get to Noto.”
We all shifted over to the top-secret platform with ten minutes to go, waiting for a one-carriage train to open her doors. It occurred to me in an idle moment that the train was not big enough to contain the crowd. A dignified man with a clipboard walked solemnly to the train, said something to another uniformed man, then together they walked back towards the station. A woman with a backpack asked them something, then followed him. A crackly announcement rent the air. A few passengers walked away in the same direction as the tourist, then the rest of us followed en masse, wondering what was going on.
John saw the guy with the clipboard and asked where to go.
“Bus,” said the man, nodding in the direction of the street.
There it was: a large bus already three-quarters full. As soon as we boarded, the very last seat was taken. John and I looked at each other, perplexed. Standing for long periods hurts his knee, and it was clear that the bus wasn’t leaving any time soon. As we were right at the back of the bus, he sat down on the raised section of the back row.
Outside, three men in official uniforms conferred with one another, nodding and gesturing as if they were discussing the route. The conversation went on for a long time and never seemed to get resolved. Another, empty bus, pulled up behind ours. The line of people standing in front of us started getting off, eager to get a seat on the new bus. We followed them but, just to be sure, I spoke to the new driver.
“Does the new bus go to Avola?”
“No. Only that one,” he pointed to the one we’d just left.
“But…there are no seats on that one!” John exclaimed. “This is ridiculous! What a mess!”
Deciding to forfeit our tickets, we stalked away from the debacle. Gloomy and frustrated, we trudged back to the main bus stop, sat on a bench with three missing planks and discussed what to do next.
“We could go to the mall,” I suggested. I suddenly craved French fries.
“How do we get there?” John asked.
“The number 26 bus,” I said. “It stops right here.”
“There’s a bus coming now…it’s stopping… Is this it?”
The bus disgorged two passengers, slammed the door and zoomed off.
“I guess not.” I said.
“Look,” said John, pointing across the road, “There’s an Intercity bus going to Avola.”
We bought two return tickets and soon headed off for our original destination.
“So what’s at this Avola place, anyway?” John asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“I just heard it was a good place to go. I do know it’s by the sea, though,” I added hastily. “There used to be a tuna factory there.”
“A tuna factory. I see,” said John pursing his lips.
I decided to read my magazine. There was an article about top models being prone to depression, as if that was in any way surprising. I tried the little sachet of perfume, but it smelled like rubbing alcohol.
When the bus dropped us off, we were at a little roundabout near an ancient looking church. A big crowd had gathered there. Judging by the fancy clothes and profusion of frills and color, it was a wedding. A real Sicilian wedding! John zoomed over as if responding to a Siren call.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“It’s taken us FOUR HOURS to go a distance of ten kilometres. We’ve been toyed with, farted at, misdirected and messed around. If we’re going to go through all that to get here, we are damned well going to crash this wedding!” he said.
Unfortunately, it was almost over. The bride and groom had just been packed away in their car and the guests were beginning to disperse. We walked along a street with an unusual number of jewelry and discount clothing stores and ended up in a large piazza full of big beautiful old buildings.
Glancing down a side-street, we saw a tantalizing turquoise line at the end of it–the sea.
“It looks far,” John said.
“Well, ” he sighed, “Let’s go.”
Despite his painful knee, John’s long strides left me in the dust. We passed a little park lined with ancient olive trees where locals were sipping coffee in the shade. We passed several blocks of closed up buildings, closed shops, Vespas parked under windows covered with slatted wooden blinds. Everything was bathed in stark light and deep shadow. Closer to the sea were overgrown sections of grass behind high walls, streets leading nowhere.
When we finally got to the end of the road, the sea was a deep luminous turquoise hemmed with white frills. A few men were surf-casting. Along the promenade there stood a statue of Mary, Star of the Sea—the patron saint of this part of southern Sicily. Believers had draped votive rosary beads over her shoulders.
We stood for a while looking out at the Ionian Sea, then my stomach started grumbling.
“Let’s have a proper lunch here,” I said. “The bus comes back at 4 o’clock, so we’ve got a few hours to kill.”
There was a seafood restaurant directly opposite the statue, so we headed in there. The name of the restaurant was Giufà Bistoro. Giufà is a character from Italian folklore who was sort of a village idiot—completely guileless, gullible and trusting—but somehow he always triumphs. Some scholars think that the character was absorbed into Sicilian tradition when the island came under Arab rule, as there is an Arab folk character named Juha, based on stories about the popular philosopher Nasreddin.
In the restaurant, we forgot the morning’s transport tribulations and settled in for a seaside feast.
Every Italian meal involves bread. John doesn’t eat bread, so I personally took care of two slices of fresh sourdough bread lightly toasted and sprinkled with sea salt and dried oregano. The oregano was grown here, on the sunny rocky hills and it tastes of sharp sunlight and sweet grass. The whole thing was drizzled liberally with fresh and fruity local olive oil. It might sound strange, but two pieces of toast prepared like this (after four hours of transportation headaches) is amazingly delicious.
Sicily is famous for its wines, so we got a white wine grown on a vineyard on the slopes of Mt. Etna. One of my foodie friends says a reason Sicily is so famous for its agricultural produce is the quality of its terroir—a useful term that seems means something like ‘the growing environment’. The higher slopes of Mt. Etna offer a cooler climate for the vines and the volcanic soil is rich in minerals and well drained. I’m not saying I noticed all this when I drank it—I was just trying to calm down —but people who know what they’re talking about recommend Sicilian wine, so you might like to try some.
The antipasto was a bowl of fava beans in tasty gravy—an ancient dish called Maccu that may go back to Roman times. It reminded me a bit of a fava-bean dish popular in Iraqi Kurdistan, faoul medamas, which is often served for breakfast. This version of Maccu included fennel, tomatoes and onion. It was topped with thin slices of smoked tuna. Next to the bowl sat a couple of slabs of melt-in-the-mouth eggplant, ham and provolone cheese. These had been baked to the point that they were on the verge of floating up to Heaven.
Now for the primi piatti—the first courses. I got a plate of risotto cooked with mussels, shrimp and baby octopus. It had been cooked in a seafood broth and was garnished with green and yellow lemon zest. That was so interesting I dreamed about it. John had casarecce pasta in a ragu of boar sausage and little mushrooms.
For the secondo piatto—the meat dish—John had a big fresh tuna steak covered in a tomato sauce that included green olives and red onion.
Meanwhile, I had my eyes on the dolce—casatella di Sant’Agata. This is a single-serve version of cassata whose shape recalls a boob, thanks to the cherry ‘nipple’ (when Saint Agatha was martyred, her breasts were lopped off and ever since she has been associated with that part of her anatomy). Anyway, this concoction involved spongecake soaked in rum, fresh ricotta mixed with tiny chocolate drops and candied citrus peel, a brulee-like cap of crunchy green marzipan, and finally a glace cherry on top. If you’d like to try it, there is a recipe on this blog.
We were both full and fuzzy after this banquet. We reflected on the various elements of our morning adventure, I persuaded John to try the cassata. He tasted it carefully, thought a moment, then said, in a philosophical mood, “That’s the Sicilians all right; they want as much as they can get. They want ALL their garmanbozia.”