It was a busy morning, rushing about (well, as well as I was able) getting a few last things done before joining forces with fuego for our flight to Catania, nestled at the foot of Mount Etna. The flight was simple enough, and we hit the ground on time and in good shape. Standing on the tarmac I looked over at the volcano, relatively quiet for a few years now (due?). The air was heavy, shadows softer, not the hard-edged briittle clarity of light I had experienced in Southern Spain. It was certianly plenty warm standing on the airport tarmac, however.
One quick Bankomat score later, we set out to find a place to sleep. The first stop on our quest was the train station, where after some wandering around we found the nicely-camoflaged tourist info center, where they were not able to help us much. A couple of vague suggestions and markings on a frightfully inaccurate map, and it was back into the city proper for us. We were trying to get to one of the main Plazas in town, but where the signs said the busses went seemed to have little relation to where the drivers planned to go. Each driver had his own theories about which of other busses would take us there.
Meanwhile, there was a guy there offering to drive us to the piazza for 10 Euros. Then eight, then seven. “No, that’s OK, we’ll just take the bus.” Finally he gave up. Not log after that we gave up as well, and decided just to walk. The driver chased us down. “Five Euros!” he said, and we relented. We followed him to his car, which was quite obviously not a licensed taxi of any sort. We piled in and while I tried to figure out how to close my door with no handle or anything to pull on, our driver set to work starting the car. For a while I thought we would be walking after all, but he got the thing going, made it a few feet before it died again (my door still open), got it going again and off we went, with me managing to pull the door shut just in time as we joined the thousands of other certifiably insane people on the roads of Catania.
I’m sure you’ve heard about traffic in this part of the world, so I won’t go into detail, except that there was a road with one lane devoted to busses moving in one direction and motorcycles moving the other. You get the picture.
Our private driver dropped us off at a Hostel we had already called, only to find there was no room. There was some confusion, however, that led to us asking again to discover that they did have beds after all. So that worked out well. “I’ve got one dorm that’s almost empty,” the friendly Hostel girl said, but it’s by the bar. It can be loud at night. I assured her (and myself) that we could handle it. There was even a chance we’d be the ones at the bar making noise.
Then we were off to explore the city, and come to understand just how bad our map is. It didn’t help that the guide book mentioned places but street, cross-streets and other landmarks didn’t show on the guide book map or the official tourist map.
Still, in a city like this one, serendipity is the rule. With a single turn you can find yourself in another, unexpected world. It was when we gave up trying to find the Friggatoria that we made our turn.
The street we walked down was quiet, swept but somewhat run-down. The bhildings became more ornate above the ground floor, and the overall feeling was no one of decay but of age, Cats — mangy, awful-looking things — lounged in abandoned doorways. In other doorways we passed older woman, all of them big, most smoking, watching us as we wandered down the street.
“I know what they’re selling,” I told my brother, “but they sure don’t make it look appealing.” Scattered among the fat old whores were transvestites, equally corpulent, equally tattered and dissolute. . No one spoke to us, but one ot them smiled my way when I said hello to her little dog, which was barking at us. Other than a few more energetic cats, wer ere the only ones moving in that narrow street. On side streets younger men moved, but this street was left to its particular trade. Although the street was long, it did not go through, and it was only after a few twists and turns that we found our way back onto a main street.
Catania has been a busy port for a long time, and I suppose that this street or one like it has been around since Greek times or even earlier. I think some of the whores themselves have been around that long.
“I wonder what that place is like at night,” fuego said, echoing my own thoughts.
We made our way back toward home, stopping for a snack along the way. We got our little fast-food pizzas to go and enjoyed the cool evening relaxiing on a bench in a little park. Around us groups of old men gathered, for all the world like punk-ass kids wasting their time hanging out together, although then we call them gangs and are afraid. (Considering where we were, ‘mob’ might be a more appropriate term in this case.) I commented to fuego, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many men just hanging out, withough any alcohol.”
We relazed there for some time before completing our journey back to the hostel to redeem our two-for-one drink coupons at the attached bar. We lingered there for a good long time as well, and as we sat there they began to put the bar into it’s night configuration, which meant filling the entire little piazza with folding tables and chairs. They were ready to have a lot of customers. My confidence that we would be able to tolerate the noise was further eroded when I noticed the big speaker in the window directly below mine. fuego and I began to wonder just how late the bar would be open. Clearly there was only one possible course of action. We took naps.
At nine p.m. when we reemerged into the world, it was still early for most places. The residue of the fish market had been scrubbed away and we had read that some of the restaurants right there had good seafood at a reasonable price. We ended up at a table separated by a rattan curtain from a now (mostly) quiet fish-chopping area, being served by a guy who spoke next to no English, and in the end having no idea whatsoever what we would be getting (except that there would be five of something. Five of what, I had no idea, but the man had been very careful to make sure we wanted five of them.
Five sea urchins, it turned out. Five spiky hemispheres, with trace elements of what I assumed to be food inside. The girl who seemed to be somewhat in charge, and who spoke very good English, gave me instructions when I asked. Squeeze in some lemon, use the little spoon to scoop out the urchin gonads, and eat the trace amounts of goo.
Meanwhile, a host of little dishes began to arrive, all sea delicacies, some of which I could identify and others I couldn’t. The octopus was tender, the calamari was delicious, the eel was mighty tasty, the shrimp/something else dish was excellent, and the tiny clams were far more work to eat than they were worth. Of course, there were also fish dishes. It all added up to a mighty fine antepasto. Then came the pasto. The second dish was mighty damn tasty, but it was just too much. We passed on desert, at which point the girl who spoke English gave us a stern lecture about the importance of a sorbet after a meal — especially fish. “But, it’s up to you,” she finished, in a voice that obviously meant instead, “but, it’s your funeral.” The bill for the evening was quite reasonable, considering what we got.
It was pushing eleven when we got back to the hostel, and things were getting started at the bar. We lingered for one drink (it was too late to redeem our second two-for-one coupon, alas), but while we sat there the piazza filled completely and customers were being turned away. The noise was the usual large-crown murmer, however, and the music wasn’t that loud, so when fatigue caught up I went inside and wrote the first part of this episode and went to sleep.
In fact, I wish the bar had stayed open all night, because when it closed two of the guys staying in our room came in, wasted, and listening to one struggling to snore, breathing with his throat, wetly and irregularly, I thought he might be on the verge of throwing up. Finally he settled into a more regular snore, and after a while even that couldn’t keep me awake.
That, my dear readers, is the condensed version of day one of the Seeger Brother’s Tour of Sicily. Hopefully some of the other days will be less eventful. I have work to do.