Monday, January 27, 2014

Under the Volcano

by Musetta Joyce   © 2014

Except for the strong currents cooling the Straits of Messina, in July and August the seas around Sicily are practically lukewarm. Our guests are happy to lounge on the quiet beach and swim in the transparent water most days, but when my son, on a visit from Madrid with his family, feels like doing something different, I suggest an excursion to Mount Etna, starting with the Gole Alcantara, and offer to be their guide. The volcano isn't visible from our town, but it makes itself felt whenever it erupts, for the wind carries minute grains of lava dust to prickle our eyes. When we last went past it on our way to the airport in May it had just erupted. It looked spectacular, as it was half black, where the lava had just spread, and half white, where the snows still lingered.
We decide to avoid the coastal route of the motorways and to shortcut across country.
As we head up through the Nebrodi Mountains the temperature, which at sea level was well over 30 degrees, drops dramatically. The dense vegetation is amazingly green, in spite of the lack of rain for months now; the steep slopes are full of wild oak and pine trees, while the more rocky areas sprout Mediterranean scrub, broom and tall willowy grasses. Every now and then a levelling of the slopes allows for the cultivation of olive and citrus groves and clusters of dull dwellings with doors opening onto the roadway, sometimes framing housewives sitting shelling peas or beans.
At Polverello we stop to let my small grand daughters run about while we stock up on the pure water that gushes from a spring at the side of the road. A couple of lorry drivers are queuing up to douse their sweaty faces in the icy water and fill a few bottles for their journey. The cool water is wonderfully refreshing - better than wine any day when the sun is scorching, and we drink thirstily. We have brought a few dozen empty bottles, because this particular spring is renowned.  In fact, although city dwellers in Sicily make do with cheap bottled 'mineral' water rather than drink from the taps, I have heard country folk argue about where to find the best water. They can distinguish between the different tastes and will travel miles to find their favourite source where they fill several ten-litre plastic containers. 
Since I last came here many wind farms have sprung up across the higher slopes; but there is hardly any breeze today and many are almost still. All along the roadside now there are poles to measure the height of the winter snowfalls. Friends have recently opened an agriturismo nearby, for tourists who seek to commune with nature.
Soon we cross the border between the provinces of Messina and Catania, divided by the Alcantara River. It was merely a quarter of a century ago that some of the waters of this swift flowing river began to be used to bring decent supplies of drinking water to the city of Messina. Before that, water would arrive in dribbles during the small hours of the morning and had to be stored, outside in rooftop tanks and indoors in sinks and bathtubs. The lack of precious running water during the day used to be a serious challenge to zealous housewives.
Soon the road swings downwards and Mount Etna looms ahead, smoking peacefully today. 
'Look!' I say, pointing to the dark town huddled at the foot of the volcano. 'That's Randazzo. It was built out of lava back in the Middle Ages. Even the streets are paved with lava, which is why it's so dark. Only the roofs are terracotta red. Well, back in 1981, Etna suddenly exploded through a new mouth overlooking Randazzo and the lava was creeping down the mountainside threatening to engulf the town. The terrified inhabitants packed all they could, fled for their lives and prayed. And they must have prayed hard, because, shortly before reaching the outskirts of the town, the lava mysteriously turned aside and spread its glowing embers over the deserted countryside way beyond the inhabited area.'
'Come on, that's just another old wives tale!' laughs my son.
'No, really, it's true. In fact, if you drive along the lower slopes of Etna you can see lots of little wooden signs giving thanks to the Madonna or some favourite saint for having spared their particular little cottage lying in the path of the lava that destroyed everything else before it. I once saw a tiny chapel, intact inside, with a wave of lava solidified outside the window, with one of these thankyou notices. We can try and find it if you like.'
My son shakes his head in disbelief. 'The girls will get bored with too much driving around; let's find somewhere they can play.'  
I first came to Randazzo a year after the eruption and walked on the black lava embers, some of which were still warm. Many years later I saw small plants beginning to grow there. Now, as we drive across the same area, there is no sign any more of the devastation. The dark desert has become fertile ground once more. There are even many nurseries established growing thousands of baby palm trees, taking advantage of the recent transformation.
By the time we reach our destination it is lunchtime, so we stop off at a small trattoria with a terrace overlooking the old railway line, which once encircled Etna, but is now defunct. The girls have fun scooping up spaghetti swamped in tomato sauce, while I regret ordering grilled scampi, a messy choice as they are still in their shells and too hot to handle. Lunch over; we cross the road to the free entrance to the Gole. This means we have to descend (and climb back up) hundreds of steps instead of paying to use the lift. At the roadside a large poster nearby announces that 'The magician Mago Merlino will solve even the most impossible problems of love!' while another depicts a photo of a mysterious lady called Madame Sahara who would be willing to reveal your future and share her wisdom – for a small fee.
At the foot of the steps we discover that the rapidly flowing stream is flanked by rocks and shingle on which entire families have spread themselves upon rugs and towels to picnic and sunbathe under the now scorching sun. 
'I need shade!' I complain. 'This heat is too much for me!'
'Look, let's cross over. There's more shade on the far side.' The river at this point is shallow but too stony to walk barefoot, and the water is icy.
I hadn't thought to bring my swimsuit, but the others have; soon they are all splashing about in the cool stream and the girls are clambering over the rocks. Well used to rock-climbing back home, these little girls are as agile as monkeys. It looks like they don't want to leave and I'm going to be left sitting on the rocks with nothing to do. I have even neglected to bring a book to read.
'Don't you want to go up to Zafferia and drive farther up the volcano?' I say. 'You could climb up and down the old craters, and run about on the lava. And, there are usually thousands of ladybirds and white and yellow butterflies flying around.'
No response.
'Or we could visit Etnaland and enjoy the water funfair, hmm? Or go back around the south slopes to Bronte to eat pistachios with everything – Pasta with Pistachio pesto, biscuits made of pistachios, and lovely green pistachio ice-cream?'
Only the idea of green ice-cream meets with a glimmer of interest, and is promised as a grand finale to the outing, on our way home – later. 
I gaze up at the cliffs enclosing the narrow gorge, over fifty feet high here, but much higher farther along the gorge, sprouting all kinds of wild flowering plants and prickly pears. The place is crowded with people of all ages, but it is mostly the younger ones who tramp upstream clad in hip-high boots bound for the deeper waters. As I am wondering why things have changed so much since I last visited the Gole, I spy a colourful leaflet lying by a rock pool which explains the reason for the transformation. It tells how the park was developed in 2001 and since then has become a popular resort for local tourism. It explains how some 8000 years ago the lava from Etna met the cold waters of the river; the rapid cooling caused the extraordinary lava rock formations that flank the river, and that nowadays all kinds of equipment for wading and trekking and body rafting and canyoning can be hired and guides provided for adventure sports.
When I see a group of young men and girls in wetsuits, red helmets and yellow life-jackets plunging from the top of a waterfall into deep pools whose gushing waters batter them against the rocks, I wonder why their guide is taking photographs of them,
I find the explanation in the leaflet.
Seemingly, legend has it that the god Vulcan loved the goddess Venus and kept the waters of this river warm, as she loved to bathe here. But, when they broke up, in a fit of rage Vulcan, to punish Venus, stopped heating the river water. Since then however,  the waters are believed to have a magical power to restore virility to the men and virginity to the women who are brave enough to immerse themselves in the icy rapids.
Hence the smug expressions on the faces of the body rafters as they emerge from the swirling pool. 
As I read on I find that there are far too many interesting things to see in one day. For instance, above the canyon, there is now a 250-acre park where olives, citrus fruits, herbs and prickly pears are cultivated organically and used to make liquors, preserves and jams, sold on the spot. There is a museum and ancient villages that have been renovated and larger houses that have been converted into accommodation centres. So much to see and savour!
I'll just have to come back another day. 


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Christmas on the Costa del Sol

by        Cecily Lynch     © 2013

The plane to Malaga was like the No 8 bus to Mayfield.  Loud cries of delighted greeting from neighbours and friends from the Barracks and the Glen rang out as I took my seat.
'Miss Lynch you're the spit of your mother!' It was heart warming.
An enormous crib adorned Malaga Airport, dwarfing even the planes.  We saw it as we made the descent; the figures were huge and dressed beautifully in rich velvet and lace. Everybody craned their necks to see it, it seemed to hover in the air. Somebody cried out that it was flying faster than our jet, but that must have been an optical illusion.
The velvet sea reflected the enormous stars and the miles and miles of coloured bulbs strung along the tiled promenades. Bells rang out in the warm darkness, for it was Christmas Eve.  A glittering liner passed smoothly, trailing Christmas music and balloons in its wake.  The air was soft and gentle, and smelled of palm.  I took off my raincoat. 
On Christmas morning the hotel orchestra played Strauss waltzes from old Vienna, couples danced among the palm trees on the beach. Bells peeled continuously, the population was in fiesta mood, the cafes were full to the brim, street musicians at every bend, children dressed in white marched through the streets singing hymns, boys dressed as pages scattered rose petals before the Virgin and Child, there were fanfares, marching bands and the Baby Jesus was carried in triumph onto the beach where the local fishing boats were blessed in a rollicking ceremony. 
I limped back to the hotel, exhausted. 

The next day the bull rings opened. Huge crowds, wild and excited, crushed into the stands. The bulls were released and promptly rushed the fence with much snorting and stamping.  The crowds seemed thrilled. 'Ole Ole,Ole'  they roared, screamed yelled.  The bulls were retired and dancing girls came on.  The crowd booed, and the bulls were released again, charging the gate and fences.  The crowds went wild.

My next stop was the Amusement Park.and Dolphinarium. There was an electric canoe which chugged up a hill and the rode the rapids down, like Niagra Falls.  The queue stretched a half a mile for this one.  In the Dolphin arena the trainers whistled and the dolphins leaped in huge arcs.   I   was charmed.  It was beautiful to watch. Parrots and cockatoos screeched in the next enclosure. A sea lion waddled into his pool.  What a novel way to spend Christmas!   I was entranced.

I then visited a Butterfly Park, the sweetest little paradise of fluttering beauty.  The temperature was forty degrees to suit the fragility of these pretty ones.  Gasping, I retired to the Buddhist monastery next door, where from the platform holding a gigantic golden Buddha, I could see the dark coast of  Africa
I  was on the Balcony of Europe at Christmastime
The plane touched down again into a cold and rainy Cork, but I was smiling, I had been to a magic land.

Nice Ice Cream

by Victor Sullivan
A story of crime, rewards, greed, retribution and unforgiving.

"Something's come in over the wall at the end of the garden," my wife, Jane, reported after a trip to the clothesline one fine summer evening. The possibilities were many so I waited.
"It looks like some sort of satchel," she added.
(That eliminated dead dogs, builder's rubble, underwear and live ammunition, all of which we had   experienced). 
I went to investigate and picked up a fairly worn looking canvas satchel with a shoulder-strap and bearing a well-known logo. It contained only one item, a thick notebook. The printed heading declared it to be the property of the largest ice cream manufacturing and distribution operation in the country. It was one of their order books, a very full order book and the most recent entries had been made on that same day. Our local corner shop was the last entry. What I was holding in my hand represented a major loss for many shops, supermarkets and restaurants and a crisis for the ice cream company. It was just a few days before the annual August Holiday week-end, the weather was hot and the heat-wave was forecast to last... peak sales week for ice cream... chaos and disaster if those orders from the many affected shops didn't get through. 

My wife had already lifted the phone to call the police.
"No. Wait! We'll tell them about it later. Call that phone number on the Order Book."  
I asked to be put through to the Financial Director and met an unfortunate reluctance on the part of an over-protective switchboard operator. 
My frustrated: "Whose side are you on, your company's or the criminals?" seemed to clarify the situation and I was instantly put through to the Financial Director and informed him that his company's satchel had been found in our garden. He replied that one of their drivers had reported that his satchel containing a considerable sum of money had been snatched from his truck.

"No money in the satchel," I reported, "Just the order book."
"Order Book? Did you say you have the order book?"
His shout across the office that the satchel with the missing order book had been found produced some cheering.
"There's no money in it," I repeated,  "just the order book."
"To hell with the money! Please, please hang on to that order book. I will send someone to your house to collect it within the hour. Don't give it to anyone else but our Rep. We have reported the theft so if the cops come to you, only give them the empty bag and don't mention the order book. They'd call it evidence and keep it for months. Tell them you have found the bag."

I gave my address and telephone number and within thirty minutes a man arrived in a car who insisted in proving his identity in several ways and he took away the precious order book.
His car had barely vanished at the end of the road when blue flashing lights arrived to amaze our neighbours, two uniformed men entered our house, asked questions, made notes, were escorted to the end of the garden to see where the satchel was found and finally departed contentedly with the empty satchel as official evidence of crime.
Result: Everyone in and around the city had plenty ice cream during that hot August Holiday Week.

We had almost forgotten the incident when, about two weeks later, the telephone rang and a voice asked if we had a freezer and if it had some empty space. Yes we had, it had plenty empty space and yes, we would be at home that afternoon.
The large, refrigerated, logo-adorned truck stopped at our gate. Neighbours appeared at doors and windows. The driver began to carry armfuls of cartons and trays from the vehicle into our house. There had been quite a lot of empty space in the big chest freezer when he started and no space whatever when he finished. The gratitude of the ice cream company was bounteous. Our three school-going children were ecstatic, their excited public announcements ensured they were the envy of all children on the street. They invited their many friends in for ice cream, initiating complaints from many parents, including their own. 

Rules had to be made. Strict rationing regulations were instituted and enforced and eventually life in our house returned to normal, almost.

There was a sequel worthy of record.
I was engineer at a large milk bottling plant on the outskirts of the city and the job sometimes involved unpredictable call-outs to deal with technical problems in the small hours of the morning. Returning from one such trip at around 3:00 am I noticed lights on in the kitchen area of our house. A little spying on my part established that my eldest son had been on a covert, culinary expedition to the freezer. On going upstairs, I pushed his bedroom door open and the dim landing light was reflected in awesome brilliance from a glacial creation beneath his bed; a frozen wonder in a cut-glass dish worthy of a five-star hotel dining room in Antarctica. The occupier of the bed appeared to be sound asleep. Well, I couldn't let it just sit there melting onto the bedroom carpet overnight, could I? Even a spoon and serviette had been provided. So thoughtful. So kind! Much planning, time and care had been invested in its preparation. It would be sinful to waste it. So, leaning against the door frame, I devoured every bit while the dear boy 'slept' peacefully. It was utterly delicious.

That was one parental intrusion into his life-style for which my eldest son will NEVER, EVER forgive me.   

Festival of the Dead

by Musetta Joyce   © 2013

On November 2 each year in Sicily children wake up to find their stockings filled with pieces of charcoal if they have been misbehaving, and rock hard biscuits made specially to look like dry bones, and amazingly realistic imitation fruits made from marzipan, if they have been good. Other more expensive presents are often given by extra generous parents to extra well behaved children: presents that are supposed to have been left by the Dead. The more expensive surprises not always bringing the happiest outcomes; for instance on one occasion a wealthy neighbour's 'dead' gave a motorbike to the sixteen-year-old son who, while riding it for the first time, crashed and was killed instantly. 
For the few days of the festa dei morti the cemeteries are packed with relatives bringing flowers to their deceased loved ones. They stay around the tombs for hours, chatting to neighbours, often bringing food to sustain them. For our yearly visit as my husband instead didn't want to meet up with anyone he might have to make small talk to, we went to pay our respects with bunches of flowers a few days before the actual festa.
The cemetery in Messina is enormous; it is enclosed with high walls and accessed during opening hours by a couple of guarded gates. It is overflowing with tombs of every description; only a few are underground like those in the English section, the only one neglected and overgrown with weeds. Those who can afford them have elaborate little chapels where their dead are slotted into cement and kept under lock and key. For thieves are rampant, stealing not only flowers but copper and brass fittings as the majority of coffins are slotted into walls, some twelve metres high, each with a small marble slab giving the name, birth and date of death as well as a photograph in a tiny oval frame, a brass holder for a vase and an electric bulb. Relatives pay a yearly electricity bill and, in order to put flowers in the vases, have to climb a mobile ladder while clutching a plastic bottle of water as well as the flowers, which are usually chrysanthemums or carnations. Out of season roses and lilies are more expensive but popular too, and as we pass by, we see many carefully cleaning the tombs and emptying dead flowers in preparation for the invasion of critics, for the bella figura goes beyond the grave. The whole cemetery has an air of activity and a scent of various flowers.
Unlike the smell when my mother-in law died and her coffin was placed in the entrance hall, where there were dozens of others awaiting burial.
Funerals in Sicily once began with the wake in the house of the deceased, but there is no 'Removal' ceremony, as we know it. The funeral begins with Mass in the local church and continues with the procession to the cemetery. Inside the gate of the cemetery the nails of the coffin are removed to allow the public to view the dead person for the last time. (No make-up added). Then everyone goes home. No final burial. No party. No consoling gathering of friends and relations. 
Our task this year is to find my late brother-in-law's resting place which, following directions, turns out, thankfully, to be on the ground floor. But there is no marble slab yet installed, as the family hadn't programmed for his sudden death. Only his name scratched on the cement tells us where to put our offering of flowers, which we stick in a plastic bottle of water.
Around the corner we find a new high wall with very small square holes, some of which are filled and adorned with names, details and photos.
'The coffins are pulled out and the bones exhumed after a certain period of time,' my husband explains. 'It's a question of space. In Milan it's sooner but here it's a hundred years at least before they are moved.'
'Well, that can't be so, for look at these dates, they're quite recent. I bet they must be cremated. It would make more sense, don't you think?'
Later we ask an old friend whose wife has recently passed away and discover that the nearest crematoria are in Salerno, near Naples and Palermo. But the latter hasn't been functioning for some time. Why? Well, cremation would eliminate a lot of profitable business, wouldn't it?
Next we head for my in-law's resting place. When they were still young they had started paying the local church for a place in a sort of condominium high-rise edifice. 
Their building is called 'The Resurrection' and, like many other similar constructions, it is kept locked. There is a basement, ground floor, first and second floor. On each floor there are five layers of tombs on each side with a ladder to access them. My mother-in-law had always said she only wanted fresh flowers, but when we find a nice bunch of plastic roses we know her daughter has been in the summertime, for she lives far away. As we carefully add our few blooms bought from one of the dozens of flower vendors at the gates I realise how soon they would wither and wish I had brought some bougainvillea from home which looks pretty even when dry.
Last year, while leaving the 'Resurrection', my husband heard sounds of distress from a neighbouring high-rise 'apartment' block. An elderly couple had got themselves locked inside and were getting frantic.
'Don't worry,' my husband told them, 'I'll get you out.' Off he went to the gatekeeper. But the man had no spare keys and things were looking bad until, luckily, a passing journalist, taking advantage of the dramatic situation, called the police and the fire brigade, who managed to break the lock and rescue the couple – and get a scoop on the Gazzetta del Sud the following morning.
Curious to see the actual festa effect, I visit our local cemetery on November 2. I was hoping to find the little chapel where our unlucky friend (another story) Maria Fortunata was buried. I don't manage to find it. Instead I enjoy the air of festivity. There are, of course flowers everywhere sending their scent in homage to the defunct and just a little cloying; the piped (religious) music a just a little too loud, and, as dusk rapidly gave way to dark as it is wont to do here, the lamps on each tomb are switched on to gleam with a warm glow that is – almost - welcoming.
My husband doesn't want to be a part of all this. He wants to be buried with my people; just like the old Irish proposal. He wants to order a marble slab with our names and our pictures to be placed there. He has even chosen the photos: Me in a meadow full of wild Sicilian flowers, he in a field full of wild Texan flowers. Romantic, yes?
No, I don't agree, and we have yet another argument.