Monthly Archives: July 2009
It’s official: I need a waterproof camera. When Monsieur and I were caught in a Sicilian deluge in the little town of Trapani, I couldn’t help myself; I kept on snapping. Even in the grey of the downpour, shooting Trapani’s buildings was worth getting a little wet. Or so I thought. Meanwhile, Monsieur’s camera stayed safe in a dry pocket. Ah, such wisdom.
Everything seemed fine until we got back to the hotel that evening. I tried to take a shot of our room, only the LCD screen on my trusty little Canon Powershot SD870 IS started to act up. First it went pink, then dark, bit by bit, kind of like those black spots that appear before your eyes just before you pass out. Then there was nothing. The lens was open but no one was home. The screen showed nada. Oh, hell.
Taking my camera to hospital was definitely in order, but we wouldn’t be able to do that until we got to Taormina the following evening. And that evening would be New Year’s Eve, so I was likely to be without the ability to photograph anything until the New Year rolled round, IF I could even find a photographics shop that was open over the holidays. Monsieur scolded me. “You shouldn’t have used it in the rain. It’s probably got water in it and that’s going to take a while to dry out.” Bummer.
Periodically, I’d get the camera out and try, try, try to get some sort of image on the screen. Sometimes I was rewarded for my efforts, but everything would appear tinged with a strange purply pink before going dark after a mere few minutes of action. Still, some of the shots turned out quite interesting, so I kept them. Here are some shots of Sicily through rose-tinted lenses.
This was our room, with Amityville lampshade, at the moment when I realised that something was wrong.
In Taormina, things seemed to return to normal, for a moment or two. Then suddenly, THIS:
Miraculously, a photographics shop was open in Taormina on New Year’s Day. I trotted into the shop, offending camera in hand, and in my best Italian explained that it wasn’t working. To demonstrate, I pulled it out of its case and turned it on. Wouldn’t you know it? The screen showed a perfect image, no pink anywhere. What a stupid ‘Inglese’ I was. As I left the shop I could still hear the three assistants laughing at my error. Hrmph.
And so, for the next day or so, the camera behaved just as it should, but on the drive back to Palermo, it had a relapse. As we stopped to photograph Etna, all was going well:
But minutes later The Canon and I were once more tainted in our outlook:
It seemed we were into apocalyptic-style photography now.
By the time we got home, the camera was perfectly happy once more, doing precisely as it was told at all times, so I put its pink episodes down to internal damp and a change in air temperature around Etna.
And so, months and much use later, Monsieur and I sat in the sun on our first day in Sardinia. I took out my camera, turned it on and BOOM it went all pink on me again. Perhaps it’s something about these Italian isles that makes it blush so. This time it only lasted for a minute or two before behaving perfectly for the entire trip. I guess it must have been disturbed by the in-flight air pressure. What a delicate little thing my camera is. Lesson learned: never, but never should I use my Canon to take photos in the rain.
(I’m considering my next digital camera as this one is going to die soon. Its LCD screen is growing a big black hole. My previous powershot was bulky and needed batteries but had one of those little turn around screens on the back so when you weren’t using it, you could close it up against damage. Any recommendations you have for the next Epicurienne camera would be most welcome!)
It’s a bad day in the Epicurienne household if we run out of lemons. Monsieur and I use them for just about everything – squeezed over salads, in sauces for fish and seafood, in lemony vinaigrettes, on spaetzle, on roast potatoes… So imagine my delight on finding gigantic lemons in Italy!
The first time I saw such mammoth citrus was on walking to the car after a steamy day spent exploring the ruins of Pompeii. “eeee” I squeaked, in a fit of excitement, causing Monsieur to stop abruptly. He thought I’d been stung by one of the many wasps hanging around that day. Nothing so painful, I’d simply spied a fruit stand selling the biggest lemons I’d ever seen in my entire life.
To give you some idea of what we’re talking about, the two crates on the bottom right of the photo contain lemons of about five to six inches in length.
“Let’s take some home!” I suggested to Monsieur,
“No,” came his firm reply, “they’re too heavy.” and I’d regretted it ever since.
Then in January, I visited a Taormina grocer to stock up on packs of South Italian herb mixes. On the fruit and veg stand outside the shop were huge artichokes, fire engine red tomatoes, chilli plants and the massive lemons I’d seen at Pompeii, only even larger.
Monsieur wasn’t with me and therefore couldn’t say no. I bought two to take home. As long as it was in my luggage, he’d have nothing to complain about.
In fact, these gargantuan citrus fruit are known as ‘CITRON’ with the most ancient evidence of its existence being seeds found at Mesopotamian sites. Alexander the Great and his army reputedly aided the distribution of this citrus, as did the Romans who sent bushels of the fruit to China as a gift in the 4th Century AD. It’s around the same era that cultivation of the fruit on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily was first recorded.
At home, I carefully unpacked my giant yellow fruit with pride. They were surprisingly light, given their size, something to do with the fact that once open, they’re mostly white pith, with very little flesh.
(Citron on the right with regular lemon on the left to give idea of size)
Unfortunately, my darling citrons had not survived the flight in great shape; they now had a light dusting of white mould, but that wasn’t going to stop me from having fun. After all, I love cheese and cheese is mould.
And so, I chopped them open. The fleshy part was only the size of a regular lemon. The rest of the interior was white pith, but according to my research, this was edible white pith. The flesh was sweeter than a regular lemon, gladly lacking in eye-stinging sharpness. No wonder some folk eat the citron like a grapefruit.
In Sicily, citron are often candied, used to decorate cannoli and other sweets. They can also be added to ricotta cakes or made into marmalades. But the recipe I love best is for Citron Salad.
Remove the outer yellow peel from the citron, then chop the fruit into chunks. Place in a bowl and toss with a sprinkling of salt. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.
(You can prepare oranges in the same fashion for an equally refreshing salad. )
For a variation, once the lemon chunks have been tossed with the salt and olive oil, dollop them onto a bed of watercress, sprinkle with pine nuts and serve. The sweet lemon taste goes so well with the bite of watercress, and the pine nuts add a subtle quality of taste and texture.
Now all I have to do is work out how to get citrons in London. If you know, please leave me a comment.
Yesterday everything got a bit serious on Epicurienne, with an Irate Reader making an Irate Comment about my views on Sicily, Sicilians and the influence of the Mafia là-bas.
To lighten the mood, here’s a Newsbiscuit story from the Wise Woman of Wandsworth. Made me snort all over my keyboard. Again. Now where are those anti-Swine ‘Flu wipes?
This morning I received a comment from an American reader of Sicilian descent who finds what I write about Sicily to be racist. Crikey!To him, and to anyone else who might feel the same, I apologise as that was never my intention. (I’d also recommend not watching Bruno at the cinema.) However, I do reserve the right to be open about what I observe when I travel. The whole point of visiting different countries is to experience cultural variances, such as I found in Sicily, so if some of what I’m trying to figure out about locals is related to the Mafia’s reputation in such a place, then I will write about it. I won’t be the last to do this, besides which, to pretend that the Mafia have no influence in Sicily’s history is like writing about Silicon Valley and not mentioning Bill Gates.
To kick off, The Irate Reader asked me why I went to Sicily? That’s simple. Sicily is an island of tremendous contrasts – in landscape, in people and in history. Its culture never ceases to fascinate as it has been occupied at different times by Ancient Greeks, Carthaginians and Catalans and more. This creates a jigsaw of influence, both genetically as well as in its architecture, art and food. Far from feeling a fish out of water in Sicily, I love it there. If I’d found it to be a disappointment on any level during my first visit, I would never have returned and I hope to go back in the future.
On my first visit to Sicily, the presence of the Mafia barely featured, apart from occasional mention in anecdotal form by our Sicilian guide, my Italian tutor or his Sicilian friends. This time, I was keen to learn more about the influence of the Mafia on the locals. So I read The Last Godfathers and visited Corleone. The latter had a negative impact and, as I wrote in my Corleone post, I felt that the people there have had enough and just want to be left alone. This is an observation, not a criticism. I just felt awkward for having joined the Mafia trail in such a stereotypically tourist manner, because Sicily has so much more to offer the traveller than bottles of tourist-quality liquor with Don Corleone’s face plastered all over them.
But the Irate Reader was not done with me yet. No siree. He called me a WASP who would feel more comfortable in Nordic countries where everyone is blonde and blue-eyed with pointy features. Sounds to me like something from a puppet movie like Dark Crystal. As for calling me a WASP, well, that’s akin to the pot calling the kettle black, no? Fair enough. I am white. But the -ASP bit is quite inaccurate. I’d also point out that some of what may have offended was tongue-in-cheek commentary. Ah, well. I’ll have to be more serious in future, lest such humour falls on deaf ears.
To the Irate Reader, I would only say: please calm thyself. There are many more posts about Sicily on their way. They’ll cover the ancient site of Agrigento, the dreamy seaside village of Cefalu, the glistening Cathedral of Monreale, the hill-top town of Taormina with its Greek Theatre and friendly cannoli man with windows filled with postcards from his fans, not to mention lip-smacking gelati and the glorious views of a snow-capped Mount Etna.
On reading matter, it might interest Irate Reader to learn that once I’d finished The Last Godfathers, I moved onto di Lampedusa’s classic called The Leopard. Then, thirsty for more background on this fascinating island, I ploughed through Midnight in Sicily. After that came Peter Moore’s Vroom by the Sea and a charming tale of village life in Sicily called The Stone Boudoir. Perhaps once he’s read a little bit more of what I find so fascinating about this island and its occupants, he’ll realise that I’m not such a “pathetic miserable thing polluted by (my) own racist hate and bigotry”. Then again, in the interest of freedom of speech, he’s entitled to his opinion.
Here’s the full comment from Irate Reader:
I am a Sicilian American and find your remarks quite racist and insulting. Why did you go to Sicily? Apparently you went just to degrade, insult and condemn its entire people as criminals and murderer. You are the typical WASP racist. You cannot see the difference between the good and evil because all Sicilians to you are evil. Why, because they are racially different from you. Before WW2, most Anglo nations, Australia, New Zealand etc. strictly forbade any immigration from Sicily, or any non-white country, because in fact the Sicilians where classified as Blacks and thus totally unacceptable. This racism is now veiled by racists like yourself as “mafia’ remarks and labeling. Apparently you are a pathetic miserable thing polluted by your own racist hate and bigotry. The Mafia is a criminal group that makes up a tiny percentage of the Sicilian population. Its negative impact on the good people of Sicily and of all Sicilians worldwide is not from its bad deeds but from all this racist literature and other media that feeds the racist appetite of whites like yourself. Racism and bigotry is an evil worse that any “mafia”. Your next trip go to Sweden or some place like that where all the people have fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes and those pointy northern European features that people like you worship. I am sure you will not make one remark about them.
On the subject of ‘Anglo’ countries not admitting Sicilians prior to WWII because they were considered ‘black’, I was shocked enough by this claim to look into it further. To be fair, New Zealand only has a population of around 4 million people and has never had a hefty influx of Italian immigrants, so I couldn’t find much about this. As most foreigners moving to New Zealand tend to be our Polynesian or Pacific Rim neighbours, the issue of skin colour preventing anyone from crossing that border, Sicilian or otherwise, makes me wonder about the accuracy of this claim.
Conversely, across the Tasman in Australia, there is a very lively Italian community, including a sizeable population of Sicilian descent. Their presence in Australia dates back to the 19th Century. Nowhere could I find reference to Sicilians being turned away from Oz based on the colour of their skin. However, if the Irate Reader would care to share such information with me, I’d be most interested to check the facts.
In the meantime, here are some interesting articles about Italian (including Sicilian) migration to Australia.
Reading list for books about Sicily – warning! Some include Mafia references. Hell’s bells.
(Image courtesy of Toonpool)
London’s Hammersmith, where I work, is full of what some might call ‘colourful’ characters. There’s the evangelist who shouts “are you a SINNER or are you a WINNER?” through a loudspeaker at lunchtime, the He-She who bums cigarettes off anyone who hasn’t yet encountered him/her, scoring a big, fat FAIL from those who have, plenty of teenagers with prams and pushchairs (they’re not babysitting), and your fair share of people of working age who do everything but between the hours of 9 and 5.
Most of the time, it’s okay working around here, but sometimes I really do wish I could transport my entire office to a quieter part of town. Take last week, for instance. I was having a typically busy time at work so I popped down to a local deli to pick up a salad box to munch at my desk. “Back in five!” I called to my boss. Little did I realise how optimistic that was.
As I was chatting away to the deli girls, a couple of cars screeched to a halt in true Dukes of Hazzard style across from the shop, their occupants jumping out and breaking into immediate violence. Shouting ensued, attracting our attention away from food (not so easy) and onto a couple of women laying punches into a third who’d been pushed off her feet. Had speech bubbles been hanging in the air around the trio, they would have read “Kapow!” “Whallop!” “Bang!” “Crack!”. Please note: these were NOT teenagers in some petty brawl, rather grown women of some proportion who were apparently quite skilled in the art of beating each other to a pulp.
As one of the deli girls called the police, we locked ourselves in, just in case the thugs ended up punching each other so hard that they landed on our side of the street. They didn’t, thankfully, but we stood, mouths agape, as a valiant passerby attempted to stop the fight, only to have the girl with the strong left upper cut round on him. The poor chap backed off from an unrelenting torrent of verbal abuse until the three women went back in the ring, so to speak, hurling one practised punch after another.
Next, the burly men from the two cars joined the dispute, punching each other, trying to drag the women off each other, then punching the women. That wasn’t enough for one of the guys, who marched up to his chief opponent’s car, punching the windscreen so hard that it shattered. Meanwhile, the singled-out woman was being dragged along the ground by her hair by the two other women, so hard that her trousers were pulled down by her weight. A flash of wobbly, white butt later, she was back on her feet, pulling up her trousers with one hand as she jabbed the air with the other in a continuation of her display of temper at all the others, both men and women.
At this point community officers had appeared in force, encouraging the men to retreat to their cars in an attempt to drive away, but the officers stood in front of the cars to stop them, in spite of the fact that they could easily have become road kill. Then the real police arrived, cuffing the men, one of whom had had his wife-beater vest ripped apart at the shoulder, revealing a very unattractive whale of a belly. These fighting folk were definitely not English; Albanian sprang to mind, as their reputation for domestic and other violence is renowned throughout Europe, but I couldn’t be certain. All I knew was that whatever it was they were shouting sounded Eastern European and one of the deli girls who’s Polish said it definitely wasn’t a language with which she was familiar.
In the deli, we stood glued to the scene outside. Had teeth flown across the street and struck the window, we’d hardly have been surprised, such was the violence playing out before us. In spite of police intervention, the woman who’d been dragged along the footpath was now trying to punch one of the men, the police struggling to hold her back. Sirens wailed, announcing the arrival of yet more uniforms. Before long, the group was under control. Ish. But still I hung back for a couple of minutes, just in case it all kicked off again.
Once back outside I could see that crowds had gathered to watch the unfolding of this real-life drama. Overhearing one bystander tell another that the argument concerned a watch, I hesitated, keen to find out more.
“Yeah, the guys were all shouting something about a watch,” he explained, eyes wide.
“A watch? What, in English?” Now I was confused.
“ No, not in English. Someone over there understood what they were shouting about and said it was a watch.”
Ah, a classic case of Chinese whispers. Unconvinced, I turned away.
“This is what happens when we open our doors to other nationalities,” said another man, stood in my path, nodding wildly,
“You wouldn’t see this on the streets of London if it weren’t for filthy immigrants like that!” he continued, gesturing at The Punch Bunch now being cuffed by police, forgetting that plenty of local crime is committed by born-and-bred Londoners. Just a couple of years back, a sixteen year old was stabbed to death in broad daylight, just down the street from our office, his youngest killers a mere 13 years old. They were Londoners. So were the Krays. Oh, yes, this Ranting Ronnie was doubtless a living, breathing member of the BNP, physical proof that such right-wing opinion is growing in this country. Lips firmly sealed, lest he twig my accent and tell me to go back to wherever it was I came from, I slunk away from the man, leaving two police cars, one police van and a lot of uniforms to get Mr BNP’s so-called filth off to the clink.
The whole episode made me shaky. Back in the safety of the office, I recounted the drama to my colleagues.
“Could’ve been Albanian,” commented one, “I knew a woman who was married to an Albanian once. He used to beat her all the time. Her kids were taken into care and then, years later, I bumped into her. ‘How’s your husband?’ I asked, wondering if she’d seen the light and moved on. ‘In a word? Dead,’she told me, ‘His uncle shot him.’ “
As it turns out, The Punch Bunch were all related, so what we’d witnessed on the streets of Sunny Hammersmith was the latest episode of a long-standing family feud. I can only imagine the amount of polyfilla stuffed into cracks in their walls at home, or how many gummy gaps they display when smiling. For a few days after the brawl, I found myself checking the footpath for leftover clumps of torn-out hair. After all, it’s not every day that you see a woman being dragged along the street by her long, black tresses. I’m only grateful to have escaped being born into a family like that, if you can call it a family…
When Jaz Cummins of Londonist approached me for an interview for their London blogger series, I was naturally delighted to oblige. As usual, I’m late with posting the result, which went live on Monday 6 July. And, as usual, ‘better late than never’ is my catch phrase. Voilà – the Epic answers to some Jaz-y questions.
The London Blogger Interviews #22: Epicurienne
(Villefranche sur Mer, 1 January 2008)
If you had to describe your blog in less than 15 words how would you do it?
Tales of travel and culinary adventure in London, Paris and Auckland (and the places in between).
Why did you start blogging?
I’ve always been one of those people who suffers irrational panic attacks if I don’t have a notebook and pen with me at all times. For that reason I wouldn’t last a day in the Big Brother house. I’ve been keeping journals since I was about nine years old, mostly filled with jottings about travels and restaurants and recipe ideas and inspirational quotes… A blog seemed like the logical next step to take.
What about London inspires your blog?
London full stop inspires my blog. I love the melting-pot atmosphere and the fact that if you can’t be it/ wear it/ try it on the streets of London, then you might just say it’s impossible. I particularly appreciate the fact that it’s possible to eat a different cuisine from a different part of the world every night of the month if you were really so-inclined. And I love the parks and green spaces all over London. Come rain or shine they’re a great place to go and observe Londoners and visitors to London, undertaking all manner of activity from picnicking to roller-blading or sitting quietly under a tree with a book.
What’s been your favourite cause, series or post on the blog?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing about our travels in Malaysia, which earned me a few fans in that part of the world and an interview with the Malay Mail, and you don’t have to ask me twice to write about Italy. But my favourite ever post has to be the video entry I made for the London Bloggers’ Meetup competition stating why I deserved to win a ticket to Blog08. I promised to wear big, wooden clogs to the conference, which someone obviously decided to test, because I did in fact win. And yes, I wore big cow-pattern clogs to the conference, earning me more than my fair share of odd treatment, but I’m pleased I did it.
Tips I can share with wannabe clog- wearers are 1. take them off before taking stairs OR take out comprehensive medical insurance before attempting to go up or down any number of steps. 2. they’re very warm. 3 wear thick woollen socks to make them really comfy. 4. they’re completely waterproof and 5. they make great pot plant holders when you get home.
What are your ‘last supper’ essentials if you had one day left to eat in London?
This is a really tricky one. I think if it were my last day in London, I’d go to Borough Market for breakfast, taking whatever was seasonally available for a snack. Needless to say, I’d take a tonne of photos to remember it by, and probably splurge on a few culinary bits and pieces for my new kitchen cupboard, wherever that might be.
I’d probably lunch somewhere Asian, like LiKo in Lisle street, where the tempura noodle bowls are fantastic value and you really get the feeling of being somewhere completely different from London, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. If my bank balance was looking really healthy, I might be persuaded to go to Nobu. But the main event of the day would be dinner. I’d invite our friends over for a big raclette buffet with asparagus and new potatoes, garlic button mushrooms and sweet vine tomatoes, with some fine French charcuterie courtesy of Monsieur, Epic’s herby chicken fillets and some crusty sourdough bread from the Hammersmith Farmer’s Market. I guess my last day in London had better be in May, given how much I love asparagus! The raclette would come from La Fromagerie in Marylebone, and I’d ask the nice chap at Nicolas to supply a few bottles of his driest Provençale rose to wash it all down. I have a tendancy to make myself hungry when describing food. That would be right now.
Would you feel more or less connected to London, or missed out on things without your blog?
I’ve lived in London for 15 years now, so you might say there’d be something wrong with me if I didn’t feel connected to London by now. However, the blog has made me feel a greater connection to London through extending my London-based community.
It also makes me think twice about things we take for granted as Londoners, which can be of interest to readers elsewhere in the world.
How has your blog connected you to another community of bloggers in London? The world?
In my earliest blogging days I found out about the London Bloggers Meetup Group, run by the most welcoming self-confessed marketing blagger Andy Bargery. Through the Group I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of London-based bloggers, which is definitely helpful when most of the people you might get to know through a blog live miles away. The LBM Group gives a sense of reality to writing in the ether.
As for the rest of the world, I have had the great good fortune to ‘meet’ a group of regular readers, who give me a kick up the backside when necessary, are also funny, supportive and intelligent folk. I count them as friends and they live as far afield as the States, Japan, Australia and Paraguay.
What’s the most underrated thing about London?
It might sound crazy but in my opinion the weather is the most underrated thing about London. Why? Because when the sun shines, even if it’s just for a few hours, it transforms everyone’s demeanour from grumpy to friendly. Admittedly, it can be too grey, too cold, too wet, too depressing at times, especially in the winter, but even that’s good because it means we don’t take the good weather for granted. Ever. Even the heavy snow in January seemed to unite neighbours as they moaned about not being able to get to work, whilst secretly enjoying building their snowmen and igloos.
And for some general London chat…Where do you live and why do you love it?
I live in Maida Vale, which neither Monsieur nor I knew very well before moving here. It didn’t take long to convince us that it’s a great place to be in London, though. It’s handy for getting to the West End and has good connections to most parts of London. It’s not far from Paddington. It’s leafy in summer with hidden communal gardens where we can picnic. There’s a great sense of community. On Guy Fawke’s Day there are some fantastic fireworks displays in the area and at the end of a rough day at work, it FEELS like home. There are some great pubs in the neighbourhood and people are as friendly as I’ve ever found them to be in any part of London.
At our tube stop there is one London Underground employee whom I swear must be the happiest man in their employ, writing silly messages on the whiteboard each morning to cheer us on the way to work, and Little Venice is a picturesque place to visit – with canal cruises to take with visitors and decent eateries with water views. Right now, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in London, although now I’ve said that, we’ll probably find ourselves on the move.
What’s your favourite place in London?
My favourite place in London would have to be around the river. At lunchtime I sometimes walk down to the Thames near Hammersmith, where I work. There’s always a tonne of interest going on down there – rowers in training, people walking their dogs, runners, pub-goers, interesting places to eat, strange buildings… The river gives a sense of openness. When entertaining visitors to London, it gives a lot of options. I love walking along the various sections of the South Bank, be it in Battersea Park or past the Tate Modern, or hanging out at Butler’s Wharf, or taking photos of Tower Bridge, or having a pint by the boats at St Katherine’s Dock… There’s the wobbly bridge to cross, strange river traffic to watch, not to mention the wonderful views of the city, including St Paul’s and the Gherkin. If you want to invite me somewhere, just make sure it’s on the river and I’ll be there, bells ringing loudly.
What do you know about London that noone else does?
I once met a woman whose husband fell seriously ill quite out of the blue. He went into a coma and the doctors were quite certain he wouldn’t come out of it. The woman had heard about the Tyburn Convent at Marble Arch, going there each day to pray for her husband. He subsequently made an astonishing recovery, encouraging his doctors to write about it in medical journals. They couldn’t explain it. Everyone called it a miracle and the woman has no doubt that that’s exactly what it was. So if you’re ever in the honest need of a miracle, I would recommend visiting the Tyburn Convent, which is dedicated to the Catholic nuns who were hanged during the Reformation on the site where Marble Arch now stands.
Have you ever been sick on the tube?
No, thankfully I have never been sick on the tube, as in physically lose my lunch all over someone’s Jimmy Choos. I’ve felt faint in summer and claustrophobic on sardine days and certain armpits have made me gag at times, but luckily I’ve always made it to my stop without having an Exorcist moment. Having said that, as I was thinking about this question, I overheard a guy on the street chatting to his friend about having vomited on the tube the night before. That made me chuckle.
Anything else we should know?
Nope, I think that covers it. Thank you for asking me to do this interview.
For a link directly to the page, please click here.
Leaving Trapani proved a little more troublesome than we’d anticipated, mostly because of the downpour that drenched us minutes after leaving the wonderful little Cantina Siciliana, where we’d refuelled in anticipation of an afternoon packed with activity. Just before the deluge began, Monsieur and I had been happily photographing Trapani’s buildings. We dashed between dripping awnings all the way back to the car where we sat for some minutes dabbing at wet faces with inefficient paper napkins. No, we wouldn’t be going to Segesta today. Greek ruin complexes + rain = mega-uncomfortable.
“So what next?” asked Monsieur, somewhat unhelpfully. You see, Monsieur books the flights and I come up with full itineraries of where we go and what we do, including plan Bs in case of uncooperative weather like today’s. I didn’t really have a plan B. Yet. But in a place like Sicily, teeming with interest and culture (and gelato), how hard could it be to come up with one?
This wasn’t to be as easy as I thought. The nearby town of Erice, on cliffs overlooking coastal Trapani (where we now sat steaming up our car windows for all the wrong reasons), would have been an obvious alternative to Segesta. Our guidebooks raved about a couple of pasticcerie, and strange rituals of ‘sacred prostitution’ once practised in the Venusian temple now buried beneath the castle ruins, made us intrigued to visit. Alas, the best part of visiting Erice, which sits 750 metres above sea-level, is the view. Usually, you can see Erice from Trapani. With the current rainfall, the town was completely obscured by low, grey cloud. There wouldn’t be a lot to see in Erice today, besides which we’d eaten far too recently to take full advantage of the town’s renowned cannoli. In summary? Plan A – abort. Plan B – ditch. Plan C? Crikey. Whatever could we come up with now?
In the end we settled on a drive down the west coast to Marsala, home to the sweet Marsala wine. The drive was unexpectedly interesting, taking us along the SS115, which follows the line of the sea. It is here that the salt with the best reputation in Italy is produced, big, white piles of it lining the road, the salt pans lying flat to either side.
Around this point I started my own game of Count the Ape. An Ape (ah-pay) is a small three-wheeled workhorse of a vehicle much favoured by Italians, especially those in rural areas. The typical Ape is a flat-bed in miniature, with room for one person only at the wheel. En route to Marsala we spotted so many Apes that I had to stop counting. Piaggio, the Ape manufacturer, must really like Western Sicily, and I ‘m sure the local salesman does, too.
It was pouring in Marsala by the time we found our way into the town. Some local chaps at a stationery store kindly helped us do our scratchy parking card, before we set off in search of interest. We were only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, yet getting there took a while in the rain. As we dashed along the side of the Cathedral towards its front entrance, a gush of water from the overloaded gutters above splashed directly onto our heads. Monsieur looked at me with that “Are you okay?” frown, but he needn’t have worried. I was completely sodden now, as was he. All we could do was laugh like a pair of bedraggled hyenas.
The Cathedral itself was a bit disappointing. It was so large and cold that it felt unwelcoming and empty. No, we wouldn’t stay here. Running past the twinkling Christmas tree in the piazza outside, we sheltered in the Caffeteria Grand Italia, in spite of its reputation as a magnet for octogenarians. Apparently all the octogenarians were wiser than we were, sat safely in comfy armchairs at home. A couple of espressi were now required, as was gelato, a small reward for braving the rain.
Once we’d dried ourselves with yet more malabsorbent table napkins, we set off to visit one of Marsala’s museums, but in spite of the posters stating that it would be open, it was firmly closed against us and we were wet once more. So we dashed from shop to shop in an attempt to stay dry. I bought a Tiziano Terzani book in a small libreria, where we were treated like unwanted foreigners until I asked the right question about the right author. Then the shop clerk couldn’t do enough to help me.
The next shop clerk we came across was even more unpredictable. We’d run into a Marsala wine specialty shop, disturbing the sole proprietor who had the malady of mobile phone permanently attached to ear, as shown by the fact that when we’d passed him earlier, he was chatting away and was still now in the state of permanent chat. It must have been a slow afternoon for him because when we entered, he cut the call short and focussed his full attention onto us. Bearing in mind that he looked strangely like Hutch from Starsky & Hutch, only with the deep orange skin of a fake-tan addict, it was difficult to take him seriously. First he tried to steer us away from the Marsala wines which are now owned by big liquor companies, thereby losing their seasonal variance in favour of the supermarket shelf-friendly reliability of mass production. Then he allowed us to taste three or four different breeds of Marsala, feeding us morsels of bread with some of his cupboard wares – tapenades heated in a terracotta bowl over a tealight and a creamy garlic sauce. Our new curly-haired friend was a little too attentive to me, however. He asked me how I knew Italian, so I explained that I’d lived in Venice for a while.
“Ah, Venice. Beautiful place. Have you been anywhere else in Italy?”
“Yes, all over,” I answered,
“So if you love Italy so much, then tell me, how come you are with this Frenchman?” he asked, grimacing unsubtly in Monsieur’s direction.
“Because I love France, too.” I replied, keen to get Monsieur away from perm-head as quickly as possible, in case he’d understood.
We left leery Mr Hutch with a bottle of Marsala, some tapenade and garlic sauce, which we’d started to assemble just before his studliness got out of hand. Paying up we wasted no time in getting out of there. The rain was now subsiding, but we dashed away from that shop and Mr BadFakeTan almost as if the rain were still torrential.
It was completely dark, the roads slick with wet. Now we just had to get back to Palermo. Our map looked straightforward enough, but the route was far from. With a combination of impossible signage, lousy back roads, windy ways and a lack of street lighting, the next couple of hours were to be the most stressful of our Sicilian adventure. When we finally found the way to a decent autostrada, the relief of being back on a well-lit road was truly something else. We wouldn’t be taking the Sicilian motorways for granted again.
I don’t usually write about feet or shoes, apart from the fact that I’d rather spend my annual footwear allowance on travel than on a pair of Manolos and I just might have set up a site called Clogblogger once upon a time. However, if you’ve ever worn Fit Flops, you’ll know why I’m writing about them today.
Last year, I invested in a pair of these flip flops with ‘the gym built in,’ that claim to help you tone and exercise muscles in your legs and back whilst simply walking. A couple of friends already had them and swore by them, so I bought a pair of rather unsubtle gold-sequinned Fit Flops with the suitably flamboyant style name of Elektra. By the end of last summer, including a full two weeks in Vietnam where I seldom wore anything else (on my feet, to be specific, because clothes definitely did feature. At times.), I didn’t want to take them off. No, it’s worse than that. My feet, a couple of particularly sensitive souls (pardon the pun), grieved the advent of autumn, for it meant that their beloved Fit Flops would be exiled to the back of the wardrobe. Poor feet!
Here’s the gold variety that stirs an alarming amount of interest from my male colleagues. Oo er, missus! Who knew they’d be such attention-grabbers?
And this is the black equivalent that I wear on more sombre occasions:
There are one, two, three, four more Fit Flop wearers within 5 metres of me right now. Most of my girlfriends are advocates, and when I went to a wedding recently, my feet were understandably NOT happy about abandoning the Fit Flops in favour of something high and elegant. No siree. In case of a Feet-Against-Heels uprising during the day, I stuffed a pair of ballet pumps in my bag, but as it was, most of the girls went barefoot in the grass at the reception, so the ballet pumps were surplus to requirement. Chatting to an acquaintance, I admitted being relieved not to have to trot around in my heels all afternoon,
“My feet are spoiled. They’ve been in Fit Flops all week.”
“Mine, too!” confessed the acquaintance, “and I have a pair of ballet pumps in my bag, for dancing, later.”
“Me, too!” I squeaked, so happy to have located a kindred spirit with high-maintenance feet like mine. High five, girlfriend!
Even so, I couldn’t wait to slide back into my Fit Flops when we got home.
The next question is inevitably: do they work? Well, it’s hard to tell, because my legs are the most-utilised part of me and are therefore pretty fit already. But a good test was during the recent 48-hour tube strike when I had to walk to and from work each day. That was a total of 4 hours and 40 minutes fast walking, in Fit Flops, over a two-day period, and boy, did I ache by the end of it. The aches were in unusual places, too, usually untouched by regular walking or hiking. (At least, that’s how THIS particular body behaves.) So the Fit Flop’s claims to give you a workout while you walk seem to be true. Having said that, for me it’s kinda like TV. I’m not interested in knowing how it works, as long as it works.
Long may the summer last, though, because in spite of Fit Flop’s foray into winter-weather alternatives, they’re lacking the funk of the spangly Elektra, and I’m not a big UGG fan. But I may have to eat my words soon, because this here high heel-phobe has been invited to an evening with Jimmy Choo. Help. I’ve never spent £368.00 on a pair of shoes in my life and I really can’t afford to start such an expensive habit now. Besides which, £368.00 could pay for a long weekend in Venice, in my Fit Flops, and that’s what I’d really rather do.