Thursday, 22 April 2010

Good Neighbours, Bad Neighbours

Most of us have them, unless we are rich enough or for other reasons live somewhere so remote nobody gets closer than, say, a 2 km radius: neighbours.
Sometimes we need them, sometimes we like them, and sometimes we curse them.

I've had quite a contrast of neighbourly experiences last night, and decided to write about it here.

My place is one of six flats in two semi-detached houses sharing one wall, three flats for either semi, and mine being the middle one of the house on the left, seen from the front door.
None of the names on the six doorbells and mailboxes is German (mine isn't, either, mind you), but apart from me, everybody else is of Turkish origin.

The couple below me are Nesla and Murat, both in their late twenties; they married about two years ago. Murat is a teacher and Nesla works at a travel agency at the airport; they have a 7 month old cat and are very pleasant neighbours; they have also been very kind to me when my husband died last year, with Murat and his father (who lives in the flat above mine) even attending the funeral we had here in Germany, something I had never expected.

Yesterday, when I came home from work and opened my windows to let some air in, Nesla was outside in the small garden behind our house, playing with her cat. I said hello, we chatted for a minute or two, until Nesla spontaneously invited me to join her for dinner; she was going to cook fish and vegetables in the oven.

Given the choice of (yet another) lone meal of bread and cheese (I simply can't be bothered to cook for myself) or having a proper home-cooked meal in nice company, it did not take me long to decide, and a few minutes later, I was downstairs at Nesla's, where I spent an enjoyable evening.
We prepared the meal together, and while it was in the oven, played with the cat who was quite happy about receiving so much attention. Nesla told me about her childhood; she is the 5th of seven children from a farm, and some of the stories reminded me of the two years I lived in a small village near the French border, where my friend lived on the biggest farm of the village - paradise for us kids!
The fish & veg was good, and we talked some more, until at around 10 pm I thanked my dear hostess for the lovely evening and went back upstairs.

It was too early yet for me to sleep, so I read for maybe an hour.
When I was just about to switch the light off, next door (same level as my flat, but the other semi) a male voice started to shout.

Of course I knew whose voice it was.
Maybe a year ago, a young man moved in there; I had always assumed he lived there on his own, because almost from day one he tried - in vain - to chat me up and get a date with me (my husband was still alive by then).
Now, I could clearly hear a female voice answering back, although not shouting.
His shouting grew more aggressive by the second, I could hear household objects being thrown around and crashing, and by the sound of it, I was pretty sure he was hitting her.
Since it was all in Turkish, I had no idea what the argument was about, but frankly, I didn't care - nothing, I repeat, NOTHING justifies hitting your partner, no matter if male or female - unless it is hitting back in self-defence.

I banged my fists against the wall separating my bedroom from what I think is his living room, and was about to get my phone and call the police, when all noise stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

For a while, I was rather upset and kept my phone on the bedside table to call the police in case they'd start again, but all remained quiet.
My light switched off, I finally settled down to sleep, and last thing I remember is that I heard someone's telly, but it wasn't loud enough to really disturb me.

Next time I happen to come across Mr. Chat-Up, I am going to tell him in no uncertain terms what I think of his behaviour. I am not that stupid as to endanger myself, but people like that make me so very, very mad.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

On the Beach

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part VII

Still in Porto Empedocle, and still in October 1987, Brigitte and I have recovered from our trip to Agrigento and decide we want to have a lazy day for a change.

To stay home with our hosting family is certainly not the kind of lazy day we are looking for; both the children and Nunzia herself are sweet, but there is no such thing as privacy and quiet time to oneself to be found in their house, and so we agree to have a look at the beach.

We are, after all, on Sicily, and so far, I have not even set foot anywhere near the Mediterranean - having arrived on a ship does not count, since that was a huge ferry and the water was far below the deck where we spent the journey.

The beach it is, then, and although I have no recollection of how we got there from the house - whether we walked or a bus took us - we spend a very relaxing day on the beach, equipped with towels, books, water bottles and most likely something to eat, lovingly prepared for us by Nunzia.

Of course, at this time of the year, the beach is deserted. The tourists have all gone, and no native Sicilian is to be found at or in the Sea after August, unless they have to, because they make a living by fishing.

We are German, though, and so to us, the sand and the water still feel pleasantly warm, and we enjoy the solitude.

At some point in the afternoon, when we begin to think about getting back into town, a group of three or four men appear on top of the hill or cliff rising above the beach (sorry, I really can't remember whether it was one or the other, and I have no pictures from back then to freshen up my memory).

Wary of what happened during our day in Agrigento, we only need to look at each other, at the men who have now started to climb down the path in our direction, and start immediately to gather our belongings and, most importantly, put our clothes on over our swimsuits.

By the time we have packed up everything, the men have reached us, and while two of them are instantly recognizable as Sicilian men, the taller one in the middle introduces himself in English with an immaculate British accent. It could be that he says his name is Robert, but my memory is not very reliable after 23 years, so let's just call him Robert for now.
He asks where we are from, and a short conversation ensues, during which we repeatedly tell them that we are leaving now, since our friends in town are expecting us back.
Robert tells us he is an English teacher at one of the schools here, and that he is pleased to make our acquaintance - and would be especially pleased to get to know me a bit better.

This time, I don't need Brigitte to interpret for me. My English is good enough to tell him that we are going to leave tomorrow anyway and now we really must get back into town, and no, tonight we can't come to the piazza to meet him and his friends because it is our farewell dinner.

I am 19 years old, very inexperienced when it comes to boys or men, and certainly do not intend to start that kind of experience with a total stranger who appears to be much older than myself and who, in all likelihood, I am never going to meet again.
So we politely say good-bye to the three men, and are just glad we had almost all day to ourselves.

Tomorrow we are to take the train to Catania, almost at the opposite side of the island.
We are sorry to leave Nunzia and her children, and at the same time very much looking forward to the next chapter of our holiday.

(both pictures pinched from somewhere on the internet)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

La Valle dei Templi

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part VI

We wake up in our huge matrimonial bed under the mournful eyes of Jesus, who looks down on us from the pastel background of his painting, exposing his bleeding heart for all the sinful world to see.

Last night, I was too tired to object, but on this beautiful sunlit October morning in 1987 in the small Sicilian harbour town of Porto Empedocle I feel stronger and more my usual self, so I tell Brigitte of my intention to either put the picture down from its nail on the wall or turn it over so that I do not have to look at it again tonight.
The Catholic fascination for blood-stained images has always puzzled me; I remember how, when I was little, our parents would often take me and my sister on a day trip to some town or other in our area, where we would look at museums, palaces and churches, and how the statues and images of martyrs used to spook me in a way that I had nightmares - people being tied to a tree and pierced by numerous arrows, burnt on something that looked like a grill, have their limbs chopped off and all kinds of cruelties (un)imaginable.

But I digress, so let's return to Porto Empedocle - or, rather, to Agrigento and the valley of the temples (valle dei templi), because this is where we want to go today.

Over breakfast (which in Sicily is no big affair; just some coffee in a lot of milk - caffè latte - and, if you're lucky, a croissant-like thingy or some biscuits called merendina) Brigitte asks Nunzia how we best get to Agrigento.

There is a bus between the two towns, but apparently, there are no proper bus stops or a fixed time table for it; you just go out on the street, hope and wait for the bus, and when it turns up, you raise your arm and signal for it to stop. If the driver sees you and feels like stopping for you, he will do so.
Nunzia has no doubts the driver will stop for two such exotic looking girls like us, but all of a sudden, Brigitte feels a bit shy at the prospect of waving for a bus to stop, and so one of the boys is sent out with us, and this time, Anna's younger sister who had to stay home last night when we went for the passeggio, is allowed to join us, too.
She very much clings to Brigitte's arm and keeps asking her many questions in a rather squeaky voice, starting each one with "Brigidaaa?", the sound of which Brigitte is quickly beginning to hate, but she does not have the heart to tell the girl to please call her Brigitte and not Brigida.
Anyway, after a short while the bus does indeed appear amidst a cloud of light brown dust, and is duly waved to a halt right in front of us.
The two children wait until we are safely on and the door closes behind us, and wave frantically with huge smiles until we round a corner and are out of sight.

The distance between Porto Empedocle and Agrigento is less than 8 km (no, I do not remember that - I've looked it up; thanks to google maps!), so it does not take the bus very long to reach our destination for the day.
To the valle dei templi, where the famous temple ruins are, it is another 5 or 6 km, and we have to take a different bus to get there.

That bus is going from the central bus station, and while we are waiting (this time, there are proper bus stops and time tables), a group of young men approaches.
Whether they are actually set for travelling somewhere or just hang out at the station is unclear; what is clear, though, is their interest in us, the voluptous girl with the blond curly hair and the milky skin and her tall friend with the long red ponytail.
To their delight, they do not need to rely on their limited knowledge of very badly pronounced English, but Brigitte understands and speaks their language.
It seems that, before they came close enough for us to listen, they have already agreed on who is going to try and chat up Brigitte and who is going to focus on me, because they instantly divide their attention equally between the two of us. Brigitte's manner is very relaxed while she is talking to them, and so I am not worried. I smile politely at my "admirers", and Brigitte tells me that this one has just asked me whether I want to be his fidanzata (literally, this means fiancée, but it is largely simply used to describe a girlfriend, not necessarily one that is intended as future wife). When I point out the obvious, i.e. that I do not know him at all and therefore certainly won't be his fidanzata, he has Brigitte tell me from him that he promises me if I get to know him, I will love him.
So much self-confidence makes me laugh, and we all share an amicable round of laughter.
Just like we do not take these boys seriously, they are not serious - and in hindsight, I am glad they weren't. We were, again, entirely on our own, and had they decided that they wanted us to force to get to know them, we wouldn't have stood much of a chance, I believe.
The bus comes, and we separate from our fan club.

After a short journey, we get off at the foot of the long gentle slope rising above the valle dei templi, with the impressive temple ruins on top.

At the beginning of the path leading up the slope, a trailer kiosk is set up. We assume this is some sort of tourist information, or maybe we need to buy a ticket to access the temple area, and Brigitte asks the young man (not another Mr. BlueEyes, sadly!) what we need to do to see the ruins. It turns out that we do not need to pay, but he has maps and postcards on offer, and is also able to tell us when the bus will return.

Funnily enough, even though Brigitte speaks to him in Italian (and she is fluent, apart from her stuttering which is always there, in any language), he insists on replying in English - something I find quite amusing, but he probably is grateful for the chance of using his (not very impressive) skill; at this time of the year, we are the only tourists for miles around.
So off we go, to the ruins of the ancient temples.

I may have mentioned it before: I do have a thing for neglected, overgrown places with the former residents long gone, and that is what these ruins are.
The October sun lends a golden gleam to the ancient stones, and there is gorse growing everywhere between the columns, some of them still upright, giving an idea of the former grandness of the buildings, some others long fallen, their pieces seperate from each other.
Prickly pears line the dusty paths leading in and around the various sites; this was once a very important place of cult, large enough to hold thousands of worshippers and onlookers.
The bustling crowds of old are gone, the only noise is that of the crickets in the tall grey-green grass, and the only movement is that of small brown lizards flitting away as soon as our shadow falls across them.
What I remember is that there was no rubbish around, no signs of the 20th century visible other than Brigitte and myself.
We probably rest on one of the fallen pillars at some stage, having some water and a panino each, but I can't remember that.

Eventually, it is time to return to the kiosk where the bus was to pick us up, and we slowly walk down the hill, not speaking much.
The bus arrives, and we get on, being the only two passengers. There is another man on the bus apart from the driver, he checks our tickets and so we assume this is his job, and sit down somewhere half way down the aisle, Brigitte near the window and I next to her.
I recall exactly what I am wearing that day: a vanilla coloured straight cotton skirt, ending just above the knee, and a white t-shirt and espadrillos. I also remember how I feel something on my bare leg, and, still looking out of the window at Brigitte's side, assuming it is a fly, brush it off with my hand. A moment later, there is again something on my bare skin, and this time I look - realizing to my horror that it is the ticket controller's hand, lightly trailing his fingers up my leg!
I scream and hit at his hand, almost jumping out of my seat and on Brigitte's lap.
She has been looking out of the window, too, and had not noticed what was going on, and so angrily asks me what on earth is the matter?!
I shout that this guy has been touching me, and although he has by now perfectly well understood that I am absolutely NOT having it, Brigitte tells him in no uncertain terms to leave us well alone.
The man gives me a leering grin, gets up from his seat across the aisle from me and joins the driver in the front, talking to him and sharing raucous laughter.

I am scared now, because it has just dawned on me that we are on our own in this bus with the two men, on a lone road still some distance to the city, and if these two were to take a little detour, there would be nothing we could do. Nothing but scream, really.
But, for the moment, frightened like a rabbit, I have finished screaming, and just hope that there won't be any detours but the men decide we are not worth the effort.
Our huge sigh of relief when we recognize we are heading towards the central bus station must have been audible all the way to Porto Empedocle.
Without another word, we hastily get off the bus and join the crowd of people who by now have gathered to wait for the next bus back to where our dear host is most likely in the middle of preparing our dinner.

We choose not to tell Nunzia about this; she would never allow us out of the house without male protection again, convinced as she is anyway that all Sicilian men are crooks (her own words).

(Credits for the pictures go, as usual, to the kind people who allow me to find all this on the internet)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Why Today of All Days?!

Am I the only one who manages to get herself into more or less embarrassing situations?
Somehow, I doubt it.

So, here's my latest "goof"...

Have to give you a bit of a background for the scene.
An ex-colleague of mine has the surname Schön, which means beautiful in German - and a very handsome man he is. I remember that I thought, when he was introduced to me in 2002 when I started to work there, "that's a fitting name if I ever saw one".
Anyway, Mr. Schön and I were simply colleagues, nothing more.

Then he left to work somewhere else, and we lost touch.

Maybe two years ago, I bumped into him at the gym. We exchanged latest news, he asked about some of the others at work who he still remembered, and that was it.

Recently, I happened to be at the gym at the same time as he again.
I am not kidding if I am telling you that he looked me up and down in my (admittedly rather tight-fitting) sports outfit and smiled and said "You really ARE keeping in shape", and we talked a bit, and again, that was it.

To say I fancy him would be far too much, but he is a very good looking guy, and I suppose if he asked me out for coffee or a meal, I wouldn't say no.

Today, I went to the beautician after work. Now, this is a once-in-a-hundred-years thing for me - usually, I can't be bothered with things like that, apart from it being very expensive. But someone had given me a voucher for my birthday (how very tactful of them, yes), and so I had that appointment.
If you have ever been to a beauty treatment for your face, you probably know that, by the time you leave, your hair is in disarray from the funny little cap they make you wear to keep your hair out of your face, how shiny your face is from all the cream they smother you with, and generally, in spite of it being called a beauty treatment, you look not exactly your best.
Add to this a rather drab office outfit I was wearing - brown dress, brown striped tailored jacket, brown shoes and the dress not short enough to nicely show off my legs (which was just as well since a ladder had just started to develop in my tights), and you have the complete image of me, leaving the beautician and entering Aldi for a spot of groceries shopping.

You can already guess where this is leading, can't you?
Exactly - who should pull up next to me with his shopping trolley but Mr. Schön?!
Aaaargh!! Why did it have to be today?! And why did he have so much time and really was in a chatty mood?
I was longing to get home as quickly as possible, to get rid of the excess cream on my face and the laddery tights, but there we were, chatting like the two ex colleagues we were!

Eventually, he extracted from me when I was next going to be at the gym, and he told me (without me having asked) the exact building where his new office is.

I would have been really pleased to meet him by chance like this, but NOT when I was looking a total clown!!!

Oh well.
There went my dignity - and I hope at least I provided some of you with a laugh when you read this :-)

(I am actually still laughing myself)

Monday, 5 April 2010

No Two are the Same

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part V

Monreale, that is where Gianni and Luca intend to take us on what I think is our last day in Palermo in that sunny October in 1987.

The small town on the slope just above Palermo is quickly reached by car, and even though I may have forgotten some of it in the course of the past 23 years or so, I honestly do not think there is that much to see there apart from the cathedral and the cloister.

That, though, is truly worth seeing, especially the latter!

Far from being an enchanted place like San Giovanni degli Eremiti where time seemed to be standing still for me the previous afternoon, this cloister has a fascination entirely on its own: the columns.

The arches surrounding the cloister are supported by pairs of slim marble columns, alternatingly plain and covered in mosaic work from top to bottom, and no two are the same.

It is true - the geometrical patterns are unique to each column, sometimes similar, but never repeated, and all 216 of them are beautiful.
Brigitte and I walk around, admiring the columns adorned in gold and rich colours, and we are impressed by the skill of those who, back in the 12th century, made all this, still there for us to see.

Sadly, this really is the only thing about our visit to Monreale that I can remember. Most likely, Gianni and Luca took us for a meal as well, and later they probably went back into Palermo with us, helping us with our luggage to get to the train station - or did we use a bus next?

It is too long ago, but I do at least know the name of the place we went to after saying good-bye to the pair of friends who were so generous with their time, never expecting anything back from us for their kindness.

We never saw or heard from them again, and I wonder whether they sometimes remember those few days back in October 1987, when they were taking two girls from Germany under their wings, two girls who almost managed to get themselves into serious trouble when they so stubbornly insisted on going out on their own.

Brigitte has friends living in a small harbour town called Porto Empedocle, and that is the next station of our trip. The town's name refers to philosopher Empedocles, who was supposedly born there early in the 5th century.

There is a big family with many children ready to accomodate us, and I am a bit overwhelmed by everybody hugging and kissing me and asking me lots of questions - none of which I really understand, because I am tired and they are talking too fast for my brain to disentangle one word from the other (which is, back then, the stage of "understanding" of the language I have).

Of course, Brigitte does all the talking, and after a while, we are left in peace in the big bedroom where we are going to stay for the next few nights. I wonder where the usual occupants of the bedroom are, and Brigitte tells me that the husband is away to work in Germany, while the wife, Nunzia, is going to sleep on a mattress on the balcony while we are here, and of the four children, only the girls have their own room, while the two boys always sleep on the settee in the living room.

Although I feel bad about Nunzia sleeping on the balcony, Brigitte convinces me that it is what our hostess wants, and she would be most offended if we did not accept her arrangement.

We can hear loud voices through the closed door; I don't know what Anna, the 15-year old, is arguing about with her mother, but I can tell they sound very angry with each other. Brigitte tells me the girl wants to go out tonight, but none of her brothers feel like going, since we are here and it is far too exciting to have visitors from Germany. Anna is not allowed out after dark on her own - one of her brothers has to be with her at all times. After all, she already is a Signorina - meaning she has started to have her period some time ago, which for a traditional Sicilian family back then means the girl needs watching with eagle eyes, not so much because of herself but because of the menfolk out there, and even more so when the whole town knows that her father is 2000 km away and can not act immediately if anything... should happen.

For teenagers like Anna, though, going out for an evening stroll ("passeggio") is very important; it is THE way to see and be seen, as Brigitte explains to me. Why spoil the girl's evening, then? I suggest we all go for a walk after dinner, and when, over an excellent meal, Brigitte tells Nunzia that I would like for Anna to show us around town in a bit, the face of the girl lights up instantly - now her mother can't say no, can she, with a guest expressing a wish!

Nunzia graciously concedes for Anna to accompany us and of course sends the boys along as well, while the younger daughter (whose name I have forgotten - not so, though, her extremely ugly specs and spotty, pudgy white face with a little moustache) is to stay home and help with the dishes.

I remember Anna taking my arm and squeezing it and smiling at me, and at some point stopping to touch my straight, thin, henna-red hair, which is so totally unlike what she is used to seeing.

Once again, Brigitte and I stick out among the others promenading up and down the main street and around the piazza. Anna is proud of us, and there seems to be no end of schoolmates and friends who want introducing.

It all turns into quite a blur, and eventually, we head back home, really grateful now of Nunzia's sleeping arrangement for us - we can shut our door, which feels like an undeserved luxury. No more arguments tonight!

(To be continued. All pictures, again, nicked from elsewhere.)

Saturday, 3 April 2010

An Enchanted Afternoon

Souvenirs from Sicily, part IV

On this beautiful day in October 1987, we intend to do our sightseeing in a safer manner and stick to the tourist routes.

Brigitte and I both have a thing for Frederic II, known in German as Friedrich II or Friedrich der Staufer. The Staufers were a Swabian dynasty of kings who, from the year 1194 onwards, also had the crown of Sicily. "Our" Frederic, the II. (1194 - 1250), was the grandson of Frederic I who is more widely known as Frederic Barbarossa, for his red beard.
Both ruled and lived in Palermo for the best part of their lives; from what I remember having read in his biography, the younger Frederic hardly spoke German and only went to Germany when his personal presence was requested for political reasons. The centre of his life was Sicily and Southern Italy.

In his day, Frederic II was known as "Stupor Mundi" - "The Wonder of the World". He spoke five or six languages and was very interested in science and art; rather uncommon for a monarch of those times. Also (not uncommon for a monarch), he was at odds with the church, to the point of actually going to war against the pope and being accused of heresy; partly because he was more tolerant and open-minded than many of his contemporaries and admired the scientific and cultural achievements of the Saracenes, who, as Muslims, were automatically considered enemies by the pope and his allies.

Frederic's tomb is in the cathedral of Palermo (the sarcophagus is made of red porphyry), and so our first stop is the cathedral. Other than the tomb, I remember little.

We then go on a guided tour of the Palazzo dei Normanni, of which I mainly recall that there is a lot of gold on the walls, and the vaulted ceilings are so high it is really dark up there.

Our next stop is a place that becomes one of my favourite spots on the whole planet: the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, an overgrown, forgotten inner court where hardly anybody goes because there is actually not much to see, but where I instantly feel like I never want to leave again.

Brigitte and I spend the whole afternoon there. We sit on the crumbling stone walls in the sun, drinking water from the bottles we bought on the way here, and feeding half (if not more) of our panini to a very skinny sand-coloured cat who has three or four equally skinny little ones.
The sky is an intense blue, and the old stones warm in the golden afternoon sun; time stands still and I feel calm and at peace, a state of mind I achieve rarely enough.

Had it not been for Brigitte reminding me of our appointment later on with Gianni and Luca, who wanted to take us to a restaurant in Mondello (which back then was little more than a fisherman's village just North of Palermo), I think I would have stayed until nightfall or beyond.

Instead, we make our way back to the hotel, which is not difficult this time because we only have main roads to walk along, and a map to follow. We shower (sitting on old stones in the sun really gets you quite dusty) and change into clothes more suitable for a restaurant, and wait for our two teachers to pick us up.

Of Mondello, I do not remember much; I don't remember the name of the restaurant nor what we ate, but I am pretty sure we all had fresh fish, since it is the specialty of the place.
Gianni and Luca are pleased that today we behaved like normal tourists and good girls, they smile a lot, and Brigitte does not need to translate all the time; slowly, I seem to be getting the hang of the language, although I am still far from being fluent in conversation.

No meal in Italy (or Sicily, for that matter) is complete without an espresso afterwards, and we take ours in a small bar at the harbour. Bars in Italy are not the same as a bar in, say, Germany; here, most people go to have coffee, not for alcoholic drinks, and a barista is someone who specialises in serving coffee in many different ways, not a bartender who knows how to mix cocktails and such.

Before we head back to Palermo, where Gianni and Luca take us straight to our hotel and make Brigitte promise that we will not, under no circumstances except for a fire, leave the hotel until it is daylight, they suggest a trip to Monreale on the following day.

By now, we are so tired - full of excellent food and lasting impressions - that we just nod our agreement, thank them for the evening, and retreat to our modest room, where we both sleep soundly, looking forward to tomorrow.

Sadly, I have never returned to the place, but maybe it is for the better; to recreate the enchantment of one afternoon when you are not yet twenty years old is probably impossible and would only lead to disappointment.

(To be continued. Again, the pictures are not mine.)

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Oranges and Horse Heads

Souvenirs from Sicily, part III

Exploring Palermo is quite an ambition, as you will know if you have ever been there!
The city is big with over 600.000 inhabitants, noisy, bustling, and full of places worth seeing as well as places you should not be seen at, especially not if you are, like Brigitte and myself, so obviously not a native Palermitana.
Imagine the two of us leaving our cheap old-fashioned hotel, a narrow sooty building squeezed in between equally sooty buildings:
Brigitte does not quite reach 1,60 m, she has milky white skin, blond curly hair and a figure like Marilyn Monroe after two or three pregnancies, while I am taller than most men here at 1,74 m, most of which is legs, skinny compared to Brigitte, a coppery tan, and my hair dyed henna-red.
We truly stick out, and it is an experience I have not made before in the 19 1/2 years that I have been around.

Heads turn when we walk past, women look away and men look our way. Two guys are carrying a long wooden ladder. They see us, both turn around, and PLONG goes the ladder against a cast-iron lamp post (we are, after all, in the old part of Palermo). We start giggling and they can not help but laugh, too, at their own daftness, and we walk on.
Brigitte advises me NOT to look any guy straight in the face - they will get the wrong idea.
That is something else I am not used to, but it will become a habit during the next 2 1/2 weeks.
She also recommends keeping a firm grip on my modest handbag. And generally be as invisible as possible.
Right... how do you become invisible when you look like me in a place like this? Or like her, for that matter?

Instead of thinking about myself, I focus on the place.
Palermo has the sort of shabby glamour that tells of old, more glorious times; it smells of car fumes and the Sea, heavy sweet perfume that the ladies seem to prefer here (not just the ladies, actually) and garbage. The noise is ceaseless and the sunlight very bright - this explains why almost everyone here is wearing sunglasses. Yet another characteristic I do not share - I simply can't afford sunglasses made to the specifications I need for my poor eyesight.
There is a lot of charcoal black in Palermo: the slabs of the pavement, the roads, the sooty facades of the old buildings, the cast-iron lamp posts and balcony rails. I learn that a lot of the building material used here is lava, hence the colour - and the dust. Lava makes for sturdy surfaces, but it rubs off if it is not kept moist with grease or wax, and of course nobody waxes the pavement and the outside of the buildings.

Brigitte and I keep walking until we find a small paninoteca. Our first meal on Sicily consists of a panino and some bottled water - I have not yet developed the habit of drinking coffee, and with all the dust, I am really thirsty, so water is the best choice. We purchase two more bottles to carry around, and move on.

1987 is a long time ago, and I'm afraid I can not recall our route on that first walk through Palermo in detail. But I know we walk a lot - and that is exactly what we want after two days of not being able to move around much; first, the long train ride from Heidelberg to Genua, and then the 20 or so hours aboard the ferry.

At some stage, we reach the Vuccirìa. Here, we find much more than just a groceries market. The maze-like assortment of streets, alleyways and tiny squares was originally (in the 12th century) the meat market. It was then called bucceria, which derives from the French boucherie, meaning butcher. Over time, other merchants added their goods to the flourishing market, and people began to call the market Vuccirìa, meaning "confusion" in Sicilian - a fitting name if I've ever heard one!

Any ingredient you can ever imagine using in the (Sicilian) kitchen is to be found there - along with the merchants offering them with voices as loud as possible, each of them striving to be louder than their neighbour, to make sure customers buy at their stall and not somewhere else.

We walk past stalls where the head of a horse tells us people do indeed eat horse meat and horse salami here (another first for me - we do not eat horse in South Germany, at least not anymore), where beautiful vegetables in all colours and shapes are piled into the most astonishing pyramids, where silvery fish stare at the sky with dead eyes from their bed of crushed ice, where the scent of freshly baked foccaccia fills our nostrils, where oranges and cactus fruit are laid out in endless colourful rows, and herbs and spices add their multiple aroma to the mixture of sights, sounds and smells.

People are busy, the modestly dressed mammas brushing past us with their ample round figures, skinny children weaving in and out between the stalls, chasing each other (or being chased by some angry merchant whose stall is suddenly missing a particularly juicy fruit), while others take their time chatting and gossipping and haggling.

Again, we stick out, and eyes follow us; nobody approaches or speaks to us, though. We do not buy anything; walking and watching is already overwhelming enough without having to haggle (you do not buy there without at least some haggling).

Finally, we come to a quieter piazzetta with a dry fountain and walk across, enjoying the relative quiet. For a bit, we sit on the rim of the fountain and rest.
Then we decide we want to get back to the hotel, buy some postcards on the way and write them in our room.

The decision is good - the direction we take is not.
Without really knowing where we are, we stick to the quieter street ahead, and walk, and walk some more in the direction we assume we should be going.

All around us, the buildings start to look shabbier and the street dirtier. Soon, the buildings are not really buildings any more, but ruins. And people live in those ruins. Some have strung up a piece of cloth in front of a hole in a wall - and ready is a home for a family of six or more. Children with filthy black hair run after meagre cats and dogs, chicken are scurrying about. Women throw us glances alternating between aggressive and worn out. Men throw us glances we do not really want to know the meaning of. We have landed, let's face it, in a slum.

Brigitte keeps close to me, and we both keep close to our handbags. Good for us that we really look what we are - foreigners, yes, but certainly not wealthy tourists - and that we manage to keep walking at a pace that suggests we know where we are headed, even though we haven't got a clue.
It is close to sunset already, and if you have ever been on Sicily, you know that there is no such thing as dusk - the sun sets, and that's it; the natural light dies so quickly it feels as if someone has flicked a switch.

The idea of still being here when that switch is flicked is far from appealing.
We have no choice but to walk on and keep moving; just don't stand anywhere, don't look lost, not even for a moment!
In unison, we sigh with relief when we finally arrive at a piazza where the houses are houses again and there is normal (meaning chaotic) traffic. And there is an even bigger sigh of relief when, at the far end of that piazza, we make out a public telephone - and miraculously, it works.
(In 1987, we did not have mobile phones. We really didn't!)

Gianni and Luca had given us Gianni's number when they dropped us off at the hotel earlier, and while Brigitte is dialling, I fervently hope that he is at home.
He is, and the following short conversation ensues:
"I think we are lost," she tells Gianni. "OK... where did you go when you left the hotel?" he asks. The VuccirÍa, right. And after that? Umm... not sure. "Well, where are you now?" he wants to know. Brigitte looks around and finds a road sign and reads the name of the street out to him, describing the small piazza with the telephone booth and naming one or two shops she can see from here.
The line goes silent for a second, then even I can hear him shouting: "Per l'amore di dio, stai dove sei!! Non muovere, hai capito? Stai là e aspetti che vi veniamo a prendere!"
("For the love of god, stay where you are!! Don't move, do you understand? Stay there and wait for us to pick you up!")

Minutes later, our saviours arrive in Gianni's car on screeching tyres. They practically command us to get in, and take us straight back to the hotel (which happens to be almost the opposite way of where we went after leaving the market). During the ride, both repeat how lucky, how extremely lucky we were not to have come to any harm. Apparently, we have managed to land ourselves in the worst area of all Palermo.

In retrospect, I am not sure how much of it is true and how much of it is meant to impress on us two silly girls that it would be so much better for us to only leave the hotel in male company.
We dutifully thank the two of them and accept the offer of being shown a not too expensive trattoria where we can have something to eat before going back to the hotel.
Their next offer, to spend all day with us tomorrow, we politely decline - but we solemnly promise to be more careful and to stick to the maps and main touristic sights this time, and report to them in the evening.
Reluctantly, they leave us, and our first day on Sicily ends an hour later, when, truly exhausted, we fall asleep in our rickety double bed in the cheap little hotel.

Still no postcards.

(To be continued. Again, the pictures are not mine.)