Friday, June 30, 2006


When I first came to Sicily, in 1992, Giovanna told me that you should always put a halved potato in the pot when cooking pasta. I have done so ever since and my pasta usually turns out fine! I don't know why this works or if it stops the pasta sticking, as I am one of those who puts a teaspoon of olive oil in as well. [Chefs and individual cooks differ over whether or not this is necessary.]

And this week I learned from Linda that the water in which you have cooked your pasta is great for cleaning plates; it gets all the grease off! I suppose it must be the starch that does it.

So there you are: Nisciunu è vecchiu pri 'mpari - Sicilian proverb roughly translated as, "You're never too old to learn".

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Here are the photos for the previous post: bancarelle, the testo romagnolo pan and the record sleeves.


Yes, yet another festa tomorrow: this one's a holiday as it is that of San Pietro, whose statue will be carried around Modica Bassa. People put out offerings of local food which will be given to the needy afterwards.

As part of the festivities there are long lines of bancarelle [stalls] down by the fountain area. Last year I bought the interesting pan you see in the photo* - a testo romagnolo - from one of these. It made a good substitute for a flat, unridged griddle pan when I wanted to make Welshcakes for the amici last St David's Day and I have also used it for fatless cooking, its real purpose. It's quite versatile but takes up as much storage space as a wok. Marco tells me that some people keep their receipts from the bancarelle from one Festa di San Pietro to the next, so that if there is anything wrong with their purchases, they exchange the items or get refunds a year later!

The singer Orietta Berti came last year to sing at the Duomo di San Pietro, an event which got me all nostalgic again for the days of [you guessed it!] 1969, when her catchy song, "L'Altalena" [= "The Swing"] was in the Italian hit parade. It was one of the records which all we students brought back with us that year, along with Rossano's "Ti Voglio Tanto Bene" [= "I Love You So Much"] which still makes me go all soppy. [The song was revived by the "Three Tenors" a few years back.] Then there was "Lisa dagli Occhi Blu" [= "Lisa with the Blue Eyes"] which Mario used to sing to me, changing Lisa's name to mine. I still have the discs, in their original sleeves, and for those of you who are as sentimental as I am, here they are in the photo*. Orietta Berti is still popular and I still play her Italian version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" when I feel low and want a wallow! I didn't go to the concert last year as I can no longer stand for long periods but I did hear her singing from outside the casetta [I hadn't moved into the flat at that time] and it took me back 36 years to when my love affair with Italy began!
So, as his festa a year ago reminded me of such a happy - and fateful - time for me, I hope San Pietro enjoys his outing and has a buona festa tomorrow!
* I am having to put the photos on the next post, as for some reason I am unable to upload them here. Pazienza!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I omitted to write on Sunday about the Festa of the Sacro Cuore Church here. I was feeling the heat too much to go out and watch the Parade but in the evening I did hear it pass by to jolly music and could just see, from the balcony, the top of the statue of Christ being taken up the road. Again, it seems to me that joy in your religion is a good thing. Even up here in the flat, I felt uplifted by the event and caught up in the atmosphere. I'd seen pretty lighting hung around the church the previous evening, too.

I do love that charming little church and often go in to contemplate or to have a few words with God, whose mysterious ways I often don't understand or agree with. [I'm not a Catholic - not anything, really - but I am sympathetic to the Catholic faith.]

The photos show the little church as it used to be and as it is now, following a face-lift. I'm not sure which way I prefer it. If I were ever invited onto "Desert Island Discs" [dream on, Welshcakes!] one of my choices would be a recording of the bells of Sacro Cuore.

Monday, June 26, 2006


I wasn't watching the match - I was quietly reading the British newspapers online - but I knew when Italy scored a goal in the 93rd minute, all right! The entire street suddenly erupted in a collective cheer and there was prolonged whistling; car horns beeped even more loudly than usual; and even the neighbourhood dogs made approving noises! [Simi did not, however, as we are a very unsporty doggie and mummy!]


Simi and I have just been for our afternoon walk and, whereas the streets are usually buzzing with activity at this time, today they are devoid of men. All those who didn't have to go back to work at 5pm are indoors watching Italy v. Australia, of course. The poor dears can't just "take a sickie" to watch it, as so many would in the UK., because here, as soon as you call in sick, they send the medico fiscale round to check you out!

Friday, June 23, 2006


The health stores or herbalist's shops are excellent here and they give good advice. This morning I learned from the owner of one of them that almond oil can be used in the same way as tea tree. I have long been a devotee of aloe vera products, especially for the skin, and here, where the plant grows abundantly, it is believed to have cancer-fighting properties, too.


"Chi viene ad Ispica compierà 100 anni" = "Come and live in Ispica and you'll live to be 100", they say. [Ispica is a little town of charming balconies about 10 minutes away in the Siracusa direction.]

I was cheered to read* yesterday that an old lady was celebrating her 102nd birthday in a nursing home run by the nuns there. A big party was planned, to be attended by the Mayor and other dignitaries. Sadly, I read* today that the lady died at 10 am yesterday, exactly 102 years and 2 hours after she came into the world. So the flowers intended for her party are now on her coffin.

The party was also intended to be a tribute to the nuns and the good, kind and loving care that they undoubtedly give. In my opinion, they are still to be congratulated.
* Neither of the articles to which I refer is available online.


Just two more photos for you today:

[1] Countryside at Camarina, an area of many Greek remains.
[2] At the Nature Reserve of Vendicari, looking across at the old tuna processing plant. Note the purple hues of the sea. The first time I went there, I thought, "I recognise that smell in the air" and then I realised it was the scent of zagara [orange blossom], from which they make a very good cologne here.


Here are a few photos to show you how varied the scenery of the island is and, hopefully, to whet your appetite for a visit!

[1] The Tempio della Concordia at Agrigento.
[2] Paleochristian tombs at Agrigento.
[3] The Greek Amphitheatre at Siracusa being prepared for a performance.
[4] Part of the Temple at Segesta.
[5] Modica - San Pietro.
[6] Many Sicilian towns have "corners" which, with a little attention, could be charming. This, in Modica Bassa, is one of them.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


I am often asked what image British people have of Sicily and what Sicilians can do to increase tourism. The one has to improve in order to augment the other. One word will come to the lips of most Britons when Sicily is mentioned; yes, you guessed it – “mafia”. They also imagine an extremely backward island of grinding poverty where everything is in decay. They know nothing of its natural resources, food, expanses of open country or its culture. Many of them, I’m ashamed to say, don’t even think of it as being part of Italy! Among the questions I was asked before I came [apart from, “Aren’t you scared of the mafia?”] were, “Do they have phones and internet?” and “Where will you buy your clothes?” Of course poverty exists here but professional people have a higher standard of living than their British counterparts and everybody seems to eat well. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the fashion shops, even in a small town such as this, are on a par with any that you could find on mainland Italy and technology is state-of-the-art, as you’d expect in the country of Da Vinci, Marconi, Volta and Zanussi.

Last year Modica staged its annual palio [medieval-syle horse race]* and I watched on TV as an interviewer desperately tried to seek out tourists to speak to. It soon became apparent that nearly all the tourists were from other parts of Italy, not further afield – well, I think they found one Japanese – and this is a pity both for the comune and for the potential tourists who are missing out on such an interesting place. So here is my advice to Sicilian mayors, tourist office and site managers , hotel and restaurant owners and anyone else who is listening!

[1] The single, most important thing you can do to encourage tourism on this island is, at tourist attractions, to stay open all day! Yes, I know you love your pranzo at home but it is no good telling someone who has got up at 5 am to get to you and who only has a day in your area to “come back tomorrow”. This happened to me once in Palermo; it had taken me ages to find the famous building in the heat – I forget which one – and when I got there at 12.45 I was informed, by the type of elderly custodian employed all over Italy for their ability to be unpleasant and hiss, that they were closing there and then and would reopen at 9am the following day. Even if you are going to reopen at 4 or 5pm., what is the tired tourist without a hotel base to do until that time, if everything else is closed as well? You can’t make your restaurant lunch last that long! I read a few months back that, even at a site as renowned as the Greek Theatre in Taormina, they are closing on some afternoons because they can’t afford to pay the staff! Come on, Sicily! This is ridiculous!

[2] Market the culture and market the island as part of Italy.

[3] Make places easier to get to! It is still impossible to get from Modica to Agrigento and back in a day, for example, and you cannot get to the part of Piazza Armerina where the mosaics are by public transport. You can get to the main town, but then you have to get a taxi to the site and it is quite a way. The first time I came to Sicily, I did manage to get to Agrigento and wanted to visit the nearby birthplace of the playwright Pirandello. What a palaver! I wrote in my diary of that time that “I found the bus but it went all round the suburbs on a circular route and took forever. I got to the Casa Natale at 12.55 pm but I pleaded with them and they let me in.” The Valle dei Templi in Agrigento is stunning, by the way; I wrote that “it took my breath away, like the first time I saw Florence.” And people in Britain don’t know it exists! – Nor will they, if the transport links to it are not improved. Even getting to less important places is not easy, because of the daft system for buying tickets: the Ragusa bus, for instance, stops at the tobacconist’s near the church here but you can’t buy your ticket there, oh, no! You either have to buy it in Modica Bassa the day before or you have to get off the bus at the terminus down there, run across the road to the bar to buy the ticket and run back! If this has caused me difficulties and I speak Italian, how do you expect the average tourist to work it out or do it? Also, make all bus stops more obvious and put some form of seating near them! It’s not rocket science!

[4] Get on with restoration work. We all know it has to be done but sometimes here it just stops! I’d been coming here for years before I could get into San Pietro in Modica Bassa. Spare a thought for the tourists for whom this is a once in a lifetime trip!

[5] With regard to food, most tourists who venture this far will be happy and curious to sample the local fare. However, if you are going to use foreign names for food, serve it in a recognisable form to an American or Brit! For instance, if you put something called “hamburger” on your menu they will look for the bun! And warn them that a “bistecca” isn’t going to be like the steak they get at home. [The nearest you can get to that is the “fiorentina” cut.] Serve food hot, not tepid, stock spirits in all eateries and switch the heating on in them in winter!

Attend to these matters or the British, in particular, will declare that it was “very nice but I wouldn’t go again” and the following year they will return to Spain, where they feel looked after.

I don’t want the place to become like the Costa Brava but if you want tourists you do have to pay some attention to what tourists want, and make these things easier for them to obtain. I reckon anyone serving an English or American-style breakfast could make a fortune!

*I gather that this year there will not be a horse race as a horse fell last year and had to be put down, but there will be other ceremonies and a parade of horses.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


A lot of floaty, transparent fabrics are being worn in layers, cut into handkerchief-style sleeves and hems.

It is hot, hot, hot here now so the sundresses have appeared.

In my opinion, one of the most elegant looks that Italian women wear is a simply cut, black dress or trouser suit accessorised only with big, turquoise-stone jewellery. They carry it off well.

Monday, June 19, 2006


In the photos you can see Irma's gel alla mandorla, just after it was poured into the moulds, then cooling on her balcony, and gel al limone [on the green plate] which I made this very afternoon! See previous post for recipes.


Gel, made with lemon, almonds, cinnamon or a mixture of all three, is one of the most refreshing desserts that the Sicilians make.

A few weeks ago, Irma invited me to her home for a “masterclass” in the making of gel. Here are her recipes:

Gel al limone

6 lemons [use unwaxed ones in Britain]
1 litre water
90 - 100 grams cornflour
150 – 200 grams sugar

Grate the skin of the lemons into a bowl, or use a zester. Pour over the water and leave overnight. Strain into another bowl and stir in the cornflour and sugar. [There is some controversy over whether you should put in 90 or 100 grams of cornflour and whether you should use 150 or 200 grams of sugar. I used the larger amounts in both cases.] Heat gradually in a saucepan, stirring all the time. Let the mixture boil for 1 minute. Pour into wetted moulds or dishes and leave to set. Chill in the fridge. This quantity makes 6 – 8 servings, depending on the size of your moulds / dishes. Gina sprinkles cinnamon over her gel al limone and this looks very pretty.

Gel alla mandorla

200 grams fresh almonds
1 litre water
90 – 100 grams cornflour
150 – 200 grams sugar

Irma grinds the unskinned almonds in a food processor. She then squeezes them in a clean, thin cloth so that the almond milk pours into a bowl. Some people buy the almond milk ready-made here. Bring the milk to the boil, stirring all the time and carefully stir in the sugar and cornflour, making sure no lumps form. Let the mixture boil for one minute. Pour into moulds and chill as above.

Gel alla cannella

3 cinnamon sticks [the ones we get here are large, not those tiny things you get in small spice jars in Britain.]
1 litre water
90 – 100 grams cornflour
150 – 200 grams sugar

Pour the water over the cinnamon sticks in a pan. Bring to the boil and let it simmer for c. 15 minutes. Cool. When the mixture is quite cold [Irma says this is important] stir in the cornflour and sugar. Pour into moulds and chill as before.

Many thanks to Irma for allowing me to use her recipes here. I haven’t yet tried mixing the flavours but will let you know when I do!

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Some random thoughts:

Regarding the move, I seem to have done things the right way around, albeit by accident: if I had not had the use of the casetta for a few weeks after arrival but had just come out for a week before relocating in order to find somewhere to rent, I would not have had enough time to obtain the necessary documentation and utilities contracts [see “Bureaucratic Trail" post]. You really do need to be on the spot.

I could not have managed any of it without the help and support of kind friends in both countries. My friends here have been unstintingly loyal.

I had expected the nature of some of my friendships here to change – simply because you are not the same person, when you are the “settler”, as you were when you were the “visitor” – and it may yet do so. I do need to work on widening my circle but there is time for that.

Going through Culture Shock has been a humbling experience. You do come out the other side of it and you relearn what you value in both cultures. It is normal to “grieve” a little for what you have left behind.

Do not even think of making a change such as this unless you have at least a get-by level in the language and really I would say you need more than that. [It may be different if you want to go and live in an enclave of Brits somewhere but if you truly want to embrace the new culture the language is the key. It sounds obvious but I must emphasise it.] I have a degree in Italian and am fluent but I have nevertheless had my difficulties.

Do not assume that being an EU citizen will enable you to skirt round the bureaucracy. Check your entitlement to medical care meticulously.

As I sit in the apartment with Simi, perhaps watching BBC World, I reflect that I seem to have achieved the best of both worlds: indoors, I can live on a “little UK” planet when I want to, whilst outside the door I have the vibrancy, bustle, noise and colour of glorious, beautiful Italy. It is still, to me, the “land of lands”.

I do think I have proved that, “To get what you want, you have to give up a little of what you have.” And I really don’t know who originally said that!

Friday, June 16, 2006


I didn’t get around to registering with a doctor till December: I’d registered Simi with a vet first, as she is the more important of the two of us!

I did have an E111 form which would have covered me during the first couple of months but you are not supposed to use it once you are officially resident here.

All the books I read before coming indicated that, as an EU citizen, I would be entitled to medical care here as I was in the UK. WRONG! I have been caught out on this. It is my own fault, for, if I’d had the sense to check with the UK Department for Work and Pensions I would have been forewarned; but I hate financial stuff and choose to ignore the fact that I am fast reaching official retirement age.

If you are working in the new EU country, there is no problem, as you are paying contributions into that country’s system. As I understand it, it is also OK if you have retired at the official age for Britons. I, however, took early retirement from teaching on medical grounds and, although I have worked ever since, I have been paid on an hourly rate and have not received full pay during holiday periods. Therefore my National Insurance contributions only entitle me to limited cover: I had to apply for Form E106 from the DWP [which I couldn’t have done before I left as you have to have a permanent address in the new country] and I am covered until next January. Even if I did have more NI “stamps” paid, this form usually only covers you for a maximum of two years. After that, you are on your own! Some people may be covered again when they do reach 60 or 65 but this is unlikely in my case. So it is that an EU citizen can be without medical cover in an EU country! Surely this is an anomaly and surely something should be done about it. So many Brits retire early and live abroad now! I will have to get a private medical insurance, of course, and I need to do that soon. I am fuming about this! SO IF YOU ARE THINKING OF RELOCATING WITHIN THE EU, DO NOT GET CAUGHT OUT ON THIS ONE!

The question arises, being on a limited budget, would it have stopped me coming here if I’d known about this? - No, I’d already reached “now or never” point: you can always find a reason to hang on; “I’ll hang on till I get my state pension as well / till I can get another few thousand for the house / till I’ve got my stamps completely paid up”. How do you know you’ll be around? And meanwhile the years pass and the years become decades; then before you know it you’re an old woman.

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:
Di doman non c’è certezza
wrote Lorenzo De’ Medici. [= “Be happy if you want to; there’s no certainty about tomorrow.”] Or, as Verlaine put it centuries later:
- Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse?
[= “Hey, you there, crying all the time, what did you do? Tell me, you there, what did you do with your youth?”]

The health system as I've experienced it here is quite efficient: several GPs use the same surgery space on different days and most "receive" in several locations. I do not have to make an appointment with my GP; I just go and sit and await my turn [ a change from the UK where you can wait ages for an appointment!] though some doctors do use an appointments system. My monthly asthma prescription costs €4 to have filled and, as I've mentioned before, there are several conveniently located pharmacies. I received a free 'flu jab without any fuss back in the winter [as I would have in Britain] and you don't have to wait so long for routine hospital appointments.
Incidentally, my asthma is a lot better here whilst my arthritis is marginally worse - possibly because of the humidity in winter or possibly because of that thing I don't like mentioning - ageing!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Towards the end of June last year I received a call from the Swansea removal company informing me that the container of all my worldly goods would arrive at the Port of Napoli on Friday, July 1st. They also asked me to “take a copy of your passport in” to the Neapolitan removal company which would handle things from there, for all the world as if Napoli were just around the corner! I faxed a copy.

On the morning of July 4th I received a call from the Italian company telling me that it had all cleared customs and would be with me early the next day. Hooray! It had been just over five weeks but seemed much longer.

So I came up to the apartment on the Tuesday morning and dear Gina, bless her, came along to provide moral support and in case there were any unforeseen problems; and thank goodness she did.

The removal men – one Beppe from Napoli and his mates [one of whom had the eyes of Frank Sinatra] arrived at around 10 am. Beppe, had he been a Spaniard, could have stepped straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson: long, ringleted, black hair tied back in a ponytail, drooping, black moustache and long, black beard, an enormous gold earring and sporting culottes and a gilet.

The first problem was that all the men had heavy Neapolitan accents and I found it difficult to understand a word they said – even Gina found it hard – and the second was that they announced that they couldn’t get the container up the road! Luckily Gina’s husband had thought there might be a problem and had told her of a nearby small removals agency that might be able to help. So we all marched down there and they said they would be able to transfer the contents of the container up to the condominio parking space but that we would have to wait 2 hours or so for them to finish another job! Well, there was nothing we could do about it so wait we did. The container was parked in a nearby street and, whilst the men went to a café for refreshments, Gina and I walked along to have a look at it. Neither of us could understand what the difficulty was and, to this day, I still don’t; if the water lorry, which is longer and wider, can get up the road and reverse into the condominio parking space, I don’t know why the container couldn’t have been thus manoeuvred! Gina pulled me away from the container rather quickly when I suggested we take a hammer to it, such was my anxiety to get at my stuff! [The hiring of the van and the men from the local removal company cost another €200, by the way, on top of what I’d already paid.]

Finally the transfer was begun and all you could hear for the rest of the day were shouts of “Ehi, Beppe!” as all 175 enormous packages were loaded into and sent up via the lift. Then you would hear Beppe muttering, “Meglio cinque pianoforti che tutti questi libri” [= “I’d rather shift five grand pianos than all these books”].

Now, I had paid to have everything unpacked by the men at this end but Gina, being more fussy about dust than I am, decided it would be better if the 4,708 books and 912 ornaments [!] remained in their boxes so that I could sort them a little at a time. I’d wanted the books unpacked and stacked so that I could sort them back into categories easily – I’d been horrified, in Cardiff, when the men said they would have to pack them in boxes according to their size, not their subject-matter – and I knew I wouldn’t be able to lift the boxes. But Gina’s word prevailed .

She had to leave at 2pm for a meeting at work and, although the cavalry arrived later in the afternoon in the form of Marco, a lot of other, larger items that should have been unpacked by the men were not. What could I do? They said they had a load to pick up from Messina that night and they could have cited the delay in the morning as the reason for not doing a full unpack. It was also a blazing hot day and we were all tired. I thought of complaining but, my imagination perhaps running away with me, I decided that, on the whole, I’d rather not have a visit from the Camorra [Neapolitan mafia] so, with Beppe literally breathing down my neck, I signed the form saying the service had been good. To be fair, I was also somewhat mollified by the fact that everything seemed to be there and the only thing that had got broken over all that distance was a flowerpot which didn’t matter; that does say something for both removal companies.

The thingamajig that should have held my bed together plus the special screws needed to reassemble a wardrobe were nowhere to be found – not the fault of the Italian company – so the first night that Simi and I moved in we slept on the settee; I could have slept anywhere that night! The next day I got a carpenter in and all was fixed efficiently and he put up some bookshelves, too.

I swear that the piles of books grew surreptitiously during the nights because, although I’d brought all my bookshelves with me, both freestanding and wall-mounted ones, there just wasn’t enough space to accommodate all the precious tomes. So I ended up purchasing three new bookcases here.

It took me till September to sort all the books back into categories [yes, I should have been a librarian!] partly because of the lifting involved and also because you could only do so much at a time in the heat. Marco’s son and his friend came to lift the final boxes.

And now, as I sit in the apartment, g and t in hand and shutters open during these balmy evenings of another summer, I gaze around at my ornaments, pictures and books, all here and all in place. And I think back to the events of a year or so ago and wonder how I managed to re-sort everything and where I got the energy to do so!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Dip into the work of any writer on Italy who has lived here – Tim Parks and Tobias Jones immediately spring to mind – and they will very soon mention bureaucracy, as do all books which give advice about settling here. Therefore I was forewarned about this, but still had to experience it to believe it!

I had found this apartment soon after my arrival, the owner being a friend of a friend, and the paperwork with regard to my tenancy was completed quite quickly and smoothly [though Linda did have to remind me that “Time stops at Messina” whilst I awaited the contract !] The other required documentation, however, was quite a different matter and without this it would have been impossible to move in as I wouldn’t have been able to obtain the contracts for electricity, water, gas and so on.

As an EU citizen, you are not supposed to need any documentation, other than your passport, in order to live here. Ha!! You just try it with only that! What you do need is the CARTA CEE – permission to stay for EU citizens – and the codice fiscale [a sort of National Insurance number] and in that office you will be told that you first have to have the CARTA CEE!

So, a friend having fixed us an appointment at the police station in Ragusa – that is the way things work here – Linda and I began to negotiate the bureaucratic trail last June. I had to take with me my passport plus a copy of all its pages, even the blank ones, photos and a bank statement showing my means of support. I was given a piece of paper proving I had applied for the CARTA CEE and was told to call them in two weeks.

Both Linda and I had understood – she from enquiries she had made here and I from my reading – that, with the above receipt, I could register with the town’s authorities and thus obtain the utilities contracts. Nope! Not on your nonna’s nelly! We were told that I would have to await the “real” CARTA CEE. We begged and pleaded and Linda almost shouted, fearing I wouldn’t be able to get any of the contracts – but they couldn’t help us.

Next we went to the Agenzia Entrate to obtain the codice fiscale. At first the clerk said it was impossible; I wasn’t Italian, I had no right, there was no precedent, etc., etc. I was nearly crying but Linda suddenly seemed to grow about six inches taller, demanded to see a manager and lived up to her surname of Churchill by delivering a speech worthy of the man himself whilst I rabbited on about having given up everything to come to Modica. The result was that they decided the code could be issued and a few minutes later I emerged from the office with another piece of paper displaying the number. I began to feel I existed again!

Armed with this “magic number” [and it really is, for you can do nothing in Italy without it], it turned out that I could, at last, apply for the contracts. For all but the landline one, we had to visit the various offices – the gas one being helpfully located in an out-of-the-way spot unreachable by public transport. You have to fill in miles [I mean kilometres!] of forms and then you receive more weighty documents by post and even the Italians aren’t too sure which bits you have to send back and which bits you keep!

I do have to say that my utilities were connected quickly and efficiently the very next day – though I had to wait till September for the internet connection – and then, at last, I could make arrangements to move in!

In due course, I received the “real” CARTA CEE [which is not a card but yet another piece of paper] and could finally register with the comune – where the clerks were all smiles this time - so that I could have the privilege of being sent a refuse collection bill. Before you are actually deemed to be a citizen of the town, however, you have to await a visit from the police – you are not told when they are coming – so that they can verify that you do live where you say you live and that you are not destitute. [My “visitation” lasted about two seconds.] I originally thought this was ridiculous but have come round to the opinion that, this way, the Italians do have an idea of who is in their country and where they are.

So, dear reader, if you are contemplating moving to Italy, do bring with you every personal document that you have, however irrelevant or unnecessary it may seem, and don’t assume that “because we’re all in the EU” your path will be smooth!

Sunday, June 11, 2006


At night the town is softly and subtly lit and the effect is quite magical, especially when seen from the highest point. Nearby Ragusa is lit in a similar way.

Yesterday friends Giancarlo and Laura called to suggest we all go out for a pizza in the evening. So off we went to the "Irish Pub" in Modica Bassa and I must say they serve very good pizza there. [I can only ever manage about half of the enormous pizze they serve here, though.] Afterwards we strolled up to the Caffè dell'Arte for delicious cannoli; it was very pleasant and cool sitting at an outside table placed in the charming little street to the side of the café.

I love the animated atmosphere of Italian towns at night. In Modica the Corso Umberto [the main street in Modica Bassa] is closed to traffic from about 8pm to 10.30pm on Saturdays. This is not, as in some UK city centres [Cardiff being one of them], because the place is full of drunken yobs and "yobettes", but so that everyone can do the passeggiata - the walk up and down to see and be seen - in safety.

In Britain if you saw a large group of youths coming towards you, especially on a Saturday night, you would feel quite threatened. Here, they are out simply to socialise with each other and to have a good time innocently, so buon divertimento to them. [You would, of course, have to be more on your guard in larger towns all over Italy, particularly around tourist attractions.]

Saturday, June 10, 2006


You have to hand it to the Italians for business acumen: with the advent of the World Cup, the country has gone "offer" mad! According to an article [unavailable online] in La Sicilia today, you can buy a state-of -the-art TV now and, if Italy wins, you will get your money back. In addition, there are free flights available for every goal Italy scores against Ghana on Monday evening [provided you book in advance of the match]. The paper jokes that, in the event of an Italian win, Fisichella will drive round Silverstone in his underpants and Prodi will reverse the decision about the Messina bridge project! Of course, the article goes on to say, all the business people know the chances of an Italian win are slim, so they feel quite safe in promoting these offers.

I remember scenes of grown men crying in the streets when Italy was runner-up in 1970 and 1994. Do I take it that all the businessmen will cry publicly if the team actually wins this time?!


I love these tiny pears which appear at this time of year. The ones in the photo are locally grown. You don't see these in Britain.

Friday, June 09, 2006


The headlines here today are much the same as elsewhere in the world, I imagine: events in Iraq and the World Cup. In addition, four wounded Italian soldiers have arrived home in time for the funeral of another. [I cannot find the story online.] Whatever your feelings about this war [Prodi views it as a terrible mistake and Italian troops are expected to be withdrawn by the end of the year] you do think of the parents of the dead young man: how do you cope with losing your child and having to watch the return of survivors? And yes, I do know that hundreds of innocent Iraqis are being killed every day.

There has been yet another tragedy regarding a boat carrying clandestini [illegal immigrants], this time occurring because the boat was overloaded. It happened during the night just outside Maltese waters. It is believed that twenty-five people were drowned whilst sixteen were saved by the crew of a nearby fishing vessel. According to a later report, three of the sixteen have now died. The incident has mostly been reported sympathetically, with none of the "screaming" tone that you would find in certain sectors of the British press.
Finally, one to warm your hearts for the weekend: in Genova [Genoa] a St Bernard dog has adopted and saved the life of a baby deer. [Story unavailable online.]


Sorry, folks, but it's 1969 again! Lucia has to remind me every day to keep my fork from one course to the next, a practice which I found difficult, and even revolting, at first. Now, of course, I appreciate how sensible this is: otherwise, you'd never finish washing up in Italy! However, it does still get to me when, even in a restaurant, you are not handed a clean knife to deal with the fruit course [though, strangely, you usually are for other courses].

Plastic plates are often used for entertaining in the home and, again, I appreciate the practicality of this.

Italy's is an oily cuisine so serviettes/napkins are often placed on the table in a holder so that you can use as many as you need. I am getting out of the habit of placing them on my lap in a ladylike fashion; Italians sometimes place them next to their cutlery in order to wipe their fingers easily when necessary.

There is no waiting until everybody, including the cook, is ready to begin eating; everybody just digs in as soon as they are served, and a good thing, too, as food is often served tepid, not piping hot as in Britain. Once, dining at a friend's home here, I waited, like a reticent British fool, until everyone else was ready to eat and it was interpreted as my needing something else, such as bread.

As in France, there are no bread plates and no butter. The latter is not necessary, because of the texture of the bread. [Incidentally, I read somewhere recently that Sicilian bread is hard because, in bygone days, this enabled the shepherds to pocket it and carry it around with them all day without its going "off".]

I should say here that there is no elegant way to eat spaghetti - so forget your inhibitions, tuck in and get yourself in a sauce-induced mess!

Coffee is not a drink to be lingered over here and is not automatically served at the end of a meal. In some establishments I have seen people drink it standing up at the counter after the meal and I cannot, for the life of me, see the pleasure in that!

Most Italians eat in the kitchen, where they usually have a TV. [Indeed, many have perfect lounges which they rarely use.] My friends here were horrified, when I first arrived, to discover that I didn't have a kitchen table so finally I capitulated and bought one. But I draw the line at a TV in the kitchen! I'll live my life in the lounge, thanks! I have also capitulated and started using tablecloths: many British people use melamine [or similar] mats instead and I used to be no exception, being cursed with the modern British woman's aversion to ironing!


This week I am noticing very high wedge heels and multicoloured shoes and bags. A lot of linen is worn in summer for its coolness. [I hate it as it is such a bother to iron, but buy it, nevertheless.] It is hot, now, by British standards, but the women are not yet in anything resembling sundresses.

At this time of year a lot of the men wear beige suits with brightly coloured shirts - blue and red are the most striking - and très chic they look, I must say.

You do not see the general scruffiness that you do in Britain.

À propos of none of the above, really, an extremely handsome, thirtyish man [typical, very dark Italian looks] frequents one of the bars at lunchtime. I keep imagining him in a wet shirt like Colin Firth in "Pride and Prejudice"! I have a quiet giggle to myself as I peer at him from behind sunglasses - for of course, I don't merit a first, let alone a second glance now - and think that there are some compensations for growing old after all!

Thursday, June 08, 2006


And suddenly it’s evening”. The Casa Natale [birthplace] of the Modican poet Salvatore Quasimodo has been turned into a museum of his life and work and it is well worth a visit.

If you haven’t spent time in Italy, it may surprise you to know that there is no real twilight. Instead, darkness falls quite suddenly, at around 8.30 pm at this time of year. Whilst I miss the long, light, British summer evenings, there is a particular beauty in the early darkness of Italy. In about November it does get dark at 5 pm, but never as early as 3 pm, as it does in Britain. And by December it is already starting to get dark a little later. So you lose and you gain! What we definitely don’t have here is the greyness of Britain, which seems to go on forever in winter; it’s dark when you go out in the morning and dark by the time you come home. I’m sure that this, along with the sunshine, is why people seem to be generally happier in Italy [though I’ll admit, on the odd “down day” to even missing the greyness and everyone grumbling about it – but not for long!]

And suddenly it’s evening”: what a metaphor for our lives!


Here at last is the photo of my first anniversary "festa". [See June 6th posts.]

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Well, they are not all strictly on via Fornai, but on nearby via Fontana, but it's such a nice title for a blog post!

Simone and I were in the little house in that area for five weeks, and, on what quickly became our walking route, all the drinking fountains were functioning so that we could both stop and cool ourselves periodically.

Next door lived an old gentleman with some sort of leg problem. His cousin, who used to visit, told me he was a bit "gone in the head" but he was very kind to me. He helped me out on the second day when, coming back in the morning with Simi, I just couldn't get the front door open. I panicked because I didn't have my phone with me and I had visions of sitting outside all day in the heat. The old chap managed to get the door open with a push and then he explained to me that I had to push the iron bar across the other half of the door to keep it steady before locking it from the outside. He always used to make a fuss of Simi.

Then there was a group of elderly gentlemen who used to sit on the wall further up the street to gossip. Every morning they were there and every evening after about five o'clock. [I've mentioned before that in Sicily it's the men who gather in this way.] They used to pet Simi and talk to us, saying, "Oh, we know where you live - next door to quello colla gamba" [= 'im-with-the-leg] and to Simi they would try out their English, which consisted of, "'Elo, Bobby. 'Ow are you?" In vain did I tell them that she is a she and that she's a Simi, not a Bobby, for they were convinced that all British dogs are called Bobby! They were well-meaning souls.
A rather unpleasant elderly woman, always dressed in black, used to shout at me to walk my dog on the other side of the road from her house. [Simi never "messed" there, by the way, and whenever and wherever she does when we are out, I scoop it up.] In Britain I'd have retorted, "Free country, luv" but here I just kept my mouth shut, without crossing the road.
At the bottom end of the street is a large fruit lorry whose owner was always friendly and interested in us and a pet shop where I still get a discount. There is a nice little fruit shop lower down, too, and a good bread shop which is also open on Sundays. Then you come to the lovely church of Santa Maria di Betlemme [the one with the terracotta crib]. I used to want to twirl around in the square there and shout, "Yes! I've done it! I'm here!"


Sorry the photo's not there on the previous post. There seem to be technical difficulties today!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Just as, in the delightfully ironic film, "Sideways", Miles is advised by Jack not to "drink 'n' dial", so I have a little notice on my desk reminding me not to "booze 'n' blog". Hence my absence for a few days, as I imbibed rather a lot of the good stuff during a celebration I held here on Sunday to mark my one year in Sicily. Guests were Linda, Franco, their daughter Chiara and Roberto and Roberta.

For the foodies amongst you, this was my international menu:
cocktail bites of asiago and fresh cherries and of asiago and mortadella
olives; fresh almonds
melon and berry coulis
crudités and artichoke dip
bocconcini di pollo [chicken bites wrapped in Parma ham and tied with blanched chives] [Lorenza de' Medici recipe]
sun-dried tomato bread [Sophie Grigson recipe]
Stromboli bread [Ursula Ferrigno recipe]
rice salad
pork chops with apples and a honey and mustard sauce [an American recipe]
rosemary-roasted potatoes
green salad [fresh from Linda's garden]
dessert cakes made by Linda and Roberta

Asiago is a mild, white cheese which is good for cocktail bites as it doesn't crumble. The idea of using fresh cherries - which are just teeming from the fruit lorries here at the moment - with it just came to me last week. It's a pretty combination.
I used to make coulis from raspberries in Britain but they are hard to find here. [I'm no gardener but I would guess that it's too hot.] So here's the substitute I came up with:
Berry Coulis: Defrost a 450 gr. pack of fruits of the forest. Mix in c. 2 tablespoons vanilla-flavoured icing sugar. [This comes in small packets here. In Britain you could just use plain icing sugar plus a drop of vanilla essence.] Add grated rind and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange. Put in pan, bring to boil and boil c. 1 minute. Cool, strain and chill well. - Not strictly Italian but it does go well with the wonderful Italian melons.
Many Sicilians believe that black pepper, as a seasoning, is bad for you, whilst red pepper is OK. Therefore I am having to adjust my recipes accordingly.
It is the custom here - and I think, a nice one - to bring a dessert when you are invited to eat at someone's home. So here I am, in the photo, surrounded by Linda and Roberta's gorgeous cakes and other goodies.

Friday, June 02, 2006


I can honestly say that, notwithstanding all the heartache at leaving my little house, flying Simi was the most stressful and worrying part of the whole move, despite the fact that Airpets could not have been more efficient and caring.
When you fly a pet [I can only speak about within the EU] you can either have them go as "cargo" or as "excess baggage". In the latter case, there is a chance of the airline refusing the animal at the last minute if the flight is very full. So I paid for Simi to go as "cargo" in order to be sure. Airpets warned me that there was still a slight chance of her being refused at the gate, but only if there was something like a pressure problem on the plane and it was deemed risky to her health to go on that particular flight. They said that in 99% of cases, all is well.
But if you're like me - and you probably are, if you have a much-loved pet - you will be holding your breath till you are absolutely sure your baby is safely on board!
In the UK you need to talk to your vet at least 4 months before your departure, so that all the injections, tests, paperwork and, if necessary, the EU Pet Passport can be arranged. [The latter is only strictly necessary if you are flying the animal back again, but I wanted Simi to have it and it makes things simpler this end.]
Simi's carrier was built to measure by Airpets and it was roomier than I expected and had an easy system whereby she had water throughout the journey. She showed no signs of distress at any point, other than wondering where she was going!
My flight to Catania cost c.£60 and Simi's cost c.£1,100 [this included the pick-up from Cardiff, the carrier, the pre-flight boarding kennel costs and transport to the airport for her]. She is worth every penny.


Diary extract from 3.6.05
Modica, Sicily, Italy - at last!

Events of Thursday, 2.6.05:
Couldn’t bring myself to have a last ( for some time) cooked breakfast as I was feeling all churned up. Stuck with the fruit and toast (outrageously priced at 15.95 GBP, by the way).

Got the 10 am courtesy bus as planned, and Martha [who had surprised me a few days ago by announcing she was coming to Gatwick to see me off, making her own way there] was waiting for me just inside the terminal.

I had posted a few things – non-urgent documents plus the books and little things I’d bought in London – to myself c/o Linda, so I did manage to get most things in the case and therefore didn’t have to check in my in-flight bag. They marked the case “heavy” but I didn’t have to pay any excess as the flight was not full. I asked about Simi at check-in and they said I should enquire at the gate. I had phoned Airpets earlier and she had been sent to the airport and was OK according to them. [Incidentally I think it’s terrible that you can’t have your pet with you in-flight, even in the carrier ; I wouldn't mind paying for 2 seats! After all, no one puts babies in the cargo area! But vets would say that it is less stressful for the animal to be in that darkened section of the plane; just more stressful for the owner!]

Then Martha and I went off and had (very early!) g and t and crisps in the pub there. It was so good of her to come. The flight was boarding at 12.35 so I went through at 12. Martha told me not to look back so I didn’t.

Got a bottle of water for Simi as I thought I mightn’t be able to leave the taxi driver to get one at Catania and, anyway, might have to go upstairs for it which would have taken ages.

The gate number came up a bit late and when I got there I immediately asked about Simi. The gate staff told me to sit near them and they would check. But I had to wait till all the other passengers had checked in at the gate! The gate staff can’t see that you are anxious about your pet! Eventually a ground crew man came along and I asked him if he could help me. He knew all about Simi and said he had just given her water. He took me to the window to see her crate being loaded. Oh, my darling! Such a little crate it looked from up there, carrying all that I hold dear in it! I nearly cried. Simi’s mummy was still not satisfied, however, so I sat back by the gate ladies and asked them to double-check that she had been loaded safely. Then the co-pilot came along and he said she was a bit nervous – my poor love! – but had water and would be fine. A kind Scottish woman was waiting to board and she said she empathised as she had once flown a Westie from Scotland to London; not so far, but she knew how I felt!

Once on the plane, I spoke to the Captain, who was standing at the front talking to the co-pilot and another male crew member. They were very kind and said Simi would be just under where we were standing. I felt better, knowing exactly where she was. (If you are reading this and are not a “pet person” – or maybe you have never lived alone with an animal – you probably think I am mad; but to me Simi is like my child, you see.) But every time there was turbulence, I thought, “Oh! My sweetie!” and tried to tell her telepathically that her mummy was near.

After a passable meal for an airline – a bit of pork escalope, I think it was – I was so tired that I slept most of the rest of the way. As we came into Catania, I did not see Etna this time, but felt the familiar surge of emotion as we touched down on the soil of this most beloved land.

I spoke to the Captain again as I got off and he assured me that Simi was being unloaded. (Another of my fears was that they would forget and take her on to Malta!) I bet they were glad to see the back of this anxious woman who only cared about her dog!

For once the luggage came out quite quickly and also, for once, mine was not the last case to appear!

Then the taxi man was there with a card with my name on it; he looked relieved that I spoke Italian and he knew about the dog. He said he would take me to the Scalo Merci [where I had been told to collect Simi] in the car as it was a fair way from the terminal – and thank goodness he did as it would have been at least a 30-minute walk – and there a woman took my details and subsequently took ages to enter everything into a computer. I was getting worried and started to pray silently; the driver sensed it and asked if there was a problem. “Oh, no”, said the woman, “it’s just that I have to calculate the charge.” (I had been told that there would probably be a local charge.) I explained to her that this dog really was my family and she smiled and speeded up a little. I was thinking, “This is going to cost hundreds” – and I wouldn’t have cared if it had – when suddenly she finished and announced, “2 euros 70”!! So that was the local tax to bring my precious Simi into Sicily!

Finally they brought Simi out, in her crate on the back of a truck, and she looked so worried! Her fur always turns just the slightest shade darker when she is unwell or stressed – probably only I would notice it. But as soon as she saw me and smelt my finger through the cage she wagged her tail and was normal. I asked the driver if I could have her in my arms in the back and he said that was fine; then I had the cage open, Simi was in my arms and I was kissing her and telling her, “Sono la mamma, Simi. Siamo in Italia. Siamo in Sicilia.” The driver laughed and asked if she spoke Italian so I said of course! Then I put her on the lead and she was raring to go again! I had the water for her but she didn’t want it. She just sat in my arms, occasionally sleeping and occasionally looking out of the window. Cara Simi!

The taxi man was so nice and kind and we chatted. He was from Siracusa and had visited London several times. He offered to stop for Simi but she was OK and we pressed on. I spoke to Linda on the mobile and she said she would come and meet us once we were over the second bridge. (There are 2 bridges to lead you into Modica, one of which is among the highest in Europe.) So I called her again then and we stopped outside Bar Fucsia to wait for her. I got out with Simi to let her stretch her legs and much interest she caused among the local dogs! Then Linda and Franco arrived and we followed their car in the taxi.

At Linda's I gave the driver a good tip and she gave him a drink. Then he was on his way, happy with his evening’s work and his tip. Franco took a delighted Simi for a run round the garden on her lead. We all sat outside for a g and t and Linda presented me with a lovely basket full of food, coffee, tea, mineral water – and a bottle of gin and one of tonic! There was also a home-made photo collage of Modica with “Benvenuta” written on it - I am going to frame it – and a bunch of beautiful roses from their garden. After about 30 minutes, Marco, Giovanna and children arrived and we all traveled in procession to the casetta.

Marco and Giovanna had also brought food so I am well supplied. I have:
Linda's Modican pizza
Sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes
Fruit from the various gardens
Oil, vinegar, salt
Coffee and tea
Mineral water
Tomato sauce
Franco's home-dried figs
Almond milk

So much kindness!

Simi was a bit nervous when we got here; I think she thought I was going to hand her over to these [to her] strangers! But once they had gone and we were together she relaxed.

The casetta is of stone and is in the old town. It’s a bit cave-like downstairs. It has a shower downstairs, a rather rickety but functioning fridge, a sink in the kitchen area and one in the tiny bathroom, a table and 2 benches, an old easy chair and a very small unit with a marble top. Upstairs is lighter with the bed and a wardrobe, plus a shelf that I am using now for the laptop and some others that I am using for cosmetics. The stone, twisty stairs are banister-less and so a bit treacherous but Simi soon got used to them! And the house is blessedly cool. Oh! I forgot to say that there’s a gas burner powered by a bombola of gas: I am afraid of it but Linda says it’s a rite of passage, for everyone starts off with one of these here! I’ll have a go at cooking on it tomorrow.

After everyone had gone, Simi and I went to bed and slept well, despite the noise of the mad motorini till at least midnight!

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Diary extract from 1.6.05
Copthorne Hotel, London Gatwick, UK

Today was a bit of a wash-out (in more ways than one!) to be honest. I’d intended to get the tourist bus around London or go on the river, but in the event did neither.

First I went into Central London again and made for Oxford Circus. My idea was that there might be an internet café where I could use Word for an hour to write my diaries up but I couldn’t find one. Walked up to Selfridge’s, which has been my favourite London store since I was a child, and visited the new food hall I had read about- it's to die for! Then I wandered into the accessories department and soon started wanting the Mulberry bags, etc., so came out quickly!

Made for the Strand and the hairdresser’s where I had made an appointment for 12. It was quite obvious to me that the sylist was untrained and I ended up looking like an old mop! What can you say? What satisfaction would you get from a young whipper-snapper like that? So I walked on and found a Toni & Guy place that looked more hopeful and had it redone. [If you are guessing that I am obsessed with having my hair look OK, you are right! ] All that had wasted a fair bit of time.

I then found, in a side street, a quieter internet café but the machine wouldn’t take my disc or let me use Word. Sent a few emails then gave up. Next door, however, was a branch of “La Tasca” so I went in and had tapas for lunch. Felt a little sad, thinking of all the times I’ve enjoyed myself in the Cardiff one.

Went and said ‘bye to Nelson yet again and even at that point considered a river cruise. But it was raining heavily and you do need a nice day for it. Besides, it was getting on for 4 so decided to come back here. So I am in the expensive “Lion d’Or” again, writing.

Have had calls from Martha and from a friend in France this evening. The latter is very encouraging of my adventure. Dear Linda and Marco have called from Sicily, too.

I of course phoned to see how Simi is this morning and was assured she is fine. But I’m so worried! Even now, the airline could refuse to take her: they would only do that if there’s a pressure problem or something, but I won’t be happy until both she and I are on that plane. My contingency plan, if there is a problem and they can't load Simi - and Airpets say it is unlikely- is to go to on to Modica anyway, as the taxi is arranged and everyone is expecting me; if it does happen, they won't be able to get Simi on until the next flight on Monday and I'll go back to Catania to collect her and pay another taxi for us both. But I'll be hysterical with worry! So praying tonight.
And tomorrow, folks, I'll tell you all about our arrival!


Second diary extract from 31.5.05
Copthorne Hotel, London Gatwick, UK

Buongiorno, Londra!

Had a lovely breakfast here at the hotel – at last plenty of fresh fruit was available. So I had that, salame and toast. Thought I’d leave a “full English” till Thursday morning – a last one.

Oh, god! I am in the bar and they are playing “Moon River”.. “Two drifters off to see the world” – Simi and me!

Then got the 09.30 courtesy coach to South Terminal, whence the Gatwick Express to Victoria. (Bought 2 tickets, one for today and one for tomorrow, which allow me to use the G Ex and zones 1 and 2 underground all day.) I had previously determined not to venture out to Pinner [where I used to live] or anywhere connected with sadness.

My first port of call was “Books for Cooks” (where else?!) Had a tea and a muffin there ( this despite the fact that I had had breakfast!- Well, it’s been my tradition for several years on trips to London and I see no reason to change that routine now!) To my disappointment they had no new “BFC” collection out and I had to limit myself to one paperback. So bought an interesting little tome about the food of the Papal courts through the centuries.

Stopped at the “Spice Shop” for a packet of Garam Masala to take with me, then browsed in the “Travel Book Shop” where I stopped myself buying anything at all! I even passed on a luscious looking specimen entitled “Palaces of Sicily”!

Decided to go to Westminster, my idea, as it was a nice day, being to go on a river cruise. But coming out of the underground there was Big Ben opposite me looking particularly lovely in the sunlight, as was the Abbey and I decided to have a wander. I duly wandered up to Trafalgar Square and on the way, saw the Cabinet War Rooms signposted and remembered hearing on R4 that they had been moved back to their original location and that the exhibition had been improved. Decided to visit it on the way back. I was amazed at the number of police around, even given today’s high security requirements and didn’t realise why they were there till later.

At Traf Sq., I said, “Hello, Nelson, me old hearty. You’re cleaner than I remember but don’t you get fed-up up there?” Then wandered along the Strand in search of a link machine , found a hairdresser and booked a blow-dry for 12 pm tomorrow.

On, then, to Covent Garden as I needed an M&S: my black petticoats are either packed and at sea or have been left behind somewhere! Having bought a replacement and needing to sit down for a bit, I had an ice cream at an outdoor café in CG. Yet again, what is wrong with this country? Why can’t you get a simple ice cream that is not smothered in an unnecessary sauce? Actually, when it eventually came, after a good 20 minutes – how long can it take to dollop chocolate sauce on an ice cream, for god’s sake? – it wasn’t bad. But I’d still rather have had a nice, flavourful ice cream in itself. Then I noticed the girl was telling people who only wanted a drink and not something to eat that they would have to trudge up to the second floor! How welcoming is that?! I could have understood it had the place been full, but it was not. In a French or Italian establishment such as this, you can have anything you bloody well want anywhere on the premises you bloody well want!

Somewhat refreshed, I wandered back through St James’ Park, part of Horse Guards being closed off, and then I realised why; a full-scale rehearsal for “Trooping the Colour” was in progress – hence the strong police presence. It was very pleasant to watch this from various vantage points in the park and the atmosphere was good as people had not expected this treat. It would have made me proud to be British if I weren’t a republican!

Got to the War Rooms and they were very interesting. You really got the sense of danger and claustrophobia down there. There were sound effects, too, and the audio guide was very informative. I couldn’t help wondering what old Winnie would have made of the cheerful chappie in the gift shop who, putting a CD on as I left, announced,"Oooh, I think we’ll ‘ave some more raids now, luv”.

Finally I decided to pay my respects in the Abbey, which I’ve only ever rushed around before. Got in on the last admission at 15.45 and briefly greeted Elizabeth 1 and Mary 1. Strange that they should be entombed together. I hope they are reconciled now. I hate walking on tombstones: poor, forgotten people. Yet I hope that our footsteps give them some comfort, for even though we didn’t know them or of them, most of us would not be there if we didn’t have a sense of history. What I really went there for came almost last; a “goodbye” to the poets who have so influenced my life: a special farewell to Tennyson and of course to Browning, dear poet of Italy, my “land of lands” and “open my heart” man. I also had a special few words for Dickens, the king of effervescent prose.

I did not leave without lighting a candle: I’m a terrible one for the sentimental gesture! Italians,in particular, understand the need to do something physical in remembrance sometimes. To my down-to-earth friends I do not apologise. I think it is entirely appropriate that Mum and Dad, for whom I have lit candles in places of beauty all over Europe, and who loved London, should have a candle burning for them in Westminster Abbey tonight.
Present day note: "Why are you writing so much about London on a site that is meant to be about Sicily?" you may ask. Well, as I said, it's to do with the time of year. This is how I felt and what I did two days before my departure and it is the way I chose to bid farewell to my country.


Diary extract from 31.5.05
Copthorne Hotel, London Gatwick, UK

Yesterday morning I woke and couldn’t think where I was! - Nor could I figure out what day it was: did I have to go to the house today? Was the buyer arriving today? I must be in the apartment, because there is the wooden floor; then it dawned on me that I was waking up in Cardiff for the last time.

There was no time to dwell on my thoughts, though, as Martha was coming at 10.30 am to drive me round to the bus station and I hadn’t packed yet!

I ditched a lot of cosmetics, put remaining food and drink in a bag for Martha (I hate wasting food!) and got packed in time. (Packing, like everything else, is something I leave till – you guessed it! – the last minute!) The suitcase closed only under protest and my in-flight bag was much too full. (Remember, I had Simi’s things as well.) I concluded that I’d have to check both pieces of luggage in and pay the excess.

Martha came just as I was struggling up the Hayes with my suitcase and bags and a kind football supporter took pity and lifted the heavy case into the boot.

At the bus station, Martha waited with me till 11.00 (as long as she dared park). It felt surreal standing there watching the green buses coming and going just as usual (or as what passes for “usual” in Cardiff on a bank holiday which is also a match day!) There I was, knowing that I was going away forever, watching the city that I know like the back of my hand function.. and I know how it functions – or doesn’t, on match days! – Won’t start on that right now!

Then I got on the airport bus and it was equally surreal passing through the familiar streets, the bus having taken a “match day” detour to the motorway. It made good time to LGW and I slept most of the way. When we set down, I watched the other passengers and thought, “All these people are either going home or leaving a home temporarily and I have no home any more”.

Got a taxi to the hotel here as I just wanted to get to somewhere comfortable quickly. I just couldn’t be arsed going down to a courtesy coach stop and waiting, with all that luggage!

London prices proved a shock almost as soon as I got here (which is another reason for travelling often, if you can – so that you are not shocked by these matters). I knew the rate, of course, but drinks and food come very steep. I have decided I’ll just not have to mind about the money. And they do mix a mean g and t here! (I can’t stand places that ration the ice /put none /put the tonic in first/ make it taste insipid – not that I’m fussy or anything!)

When I first saw my room I thought it cramped after my spacious apartment. The room has an enormous double bed that takes up virtually all its space. But it’s very comfortable and I slept well last night. Before dropping off, I thought, “I am such a wuzz; am I now going to start missing somewhere (the apartment) where I have only stayed a week, and that periodically?”

Booked the hotel’s “Lion d’Or” restaurant for dinner last night. Everything was superbly cooked but: why do Parma ham and melon have to have Stilton sauce around them? They need nothing else! And what is this fashion for burying vegetables under everything else? Why does a rack of lamb – superbly cooked as I said – need foie gras with it, for god’s sake?! The dessert was good, too, but again, what is wrong with this country that you can’t get a simple ice cream or sorbet that is not drowned in everything the cat brought in? Who was it who said, “To eat well in England you should eat breakfast 3 times a day”?* Well, it’s not as bad as that any more but why do we have to disguise even the things that we cook well? Elizabeth David complained that everything was served on bloody salad leaves [well, I think she left out the "bloody"]; that has gone; now we serve everything hidden under everything else!

The bill for this one meal came to 70 GBP – outrageous by continental standards. Decided not to care. I will say that the service was excellent and the drinks well presented. At least they know that “a lot of ice” means just that!

I literally fell into the spacious, comfortable bed and had a very peaceful night.
* W. Somerset Maugham, I now remember.


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