Thursday, 31 July 2014

Calabrian Train Heist in Three Acts

ACT I. Tickets Please.

Andrea and I have been up since 5:30 this morning. Beginning at Praiano we have taken a bus to Amalfi and then a second bus to Salerno. We are booked on the 10:29 train to Taormina in Sicily, six hours away. Our experience of Italian public transport has mostly been good, though the trains can get crowded. I stood for the first hour of the two hour trip from Rome to Naples (the train emptied at Pompeii) and the Naples to Sorrento train was a standing room only cattle class experience. Thankfully we have booked seats for the long ride to Sicily - we're in Caretta (carriage) 4, Seats 90/91.

The train is on time. We man-handle our luggage (a backpack, a cabin sized bag with wheels, a day pack, camera, handbag etc) down a narrow corridor looking for 90/91. I see it ahead of us but am perplexed when we reach the door to find all six seats occupied. Six sets of eyes turn our way as we stop at the door while I check our tickets thinking - oh shit, an Italian double booking fiasco. I check my tickets and they are correct. We're in the right place. And so begins a conversation in sign language and halting English and mangled Italian where I am clearly saying 'WE HAVE A BOOKING FOR SEATS 90 AND 91. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?' My sign language becomes louder and may, by accident, include some of the swearing I am thinking. No way are we going to stand for six hours. Out of character, I become the chivalrous male and indicate my poor (pregnant?) wife as part of the exchange (that would help my argument; get the sympathy vote, but would also be miraculous).

Everyone is waving their hands but no one seems to know how this has happened. Everyone has tickets. I show them mine and ask to see theirs. The couple in 90 and 91 are in the wrong seats. It turns out the two older ladies by the window have tickets but they are for tomorrow's train. They have boarded a day early. They simply shrug and make no effort to resolve the situation. I indicate that they are the problem but stop short of grabbing them by their mantillas and dragging them into the corridor. It's a stalemate. I stand and stare at the two matrons, each in their early seventies, and clearly well versed in the art of stonewalling. They avoid my gaze and I begin to smell a rat -a  Naples rat, as that is where they have boarded.

The couple in our seats (90/91-  in case anyone is not clear about this), are lovely and amidst a lot of shrugging and gesticulating offer us their (our) seats. They don't seem to want to press the matrons to relinquish their booked seats. It is a case of keeping the peace, not causing a fuss (very un-Italian it occurs to me). We hesitate, as this hardly seems fair, but accept with an appropriate level of reluctance. The woman, well dressed in high heels (Italian women don't seem to be able to cope with flat soles - some podiatry problem?), and her equally well dressed husband are relegated to the aisle where there are a couple of fold down bench seats, but also a constant flow of human traffic requiring them to stand or swivel at each passing.

The plump matrons remain silent, unmoved with an attitude of 'what's the big deal? It happens all the time. We can't be asked to leave the train or our seats now. We are three hours from our home. What's done is done.'

ACT II  Death Stare

I load our relatively small pieces of luggage on top of their giant bags above our heads. They look a little taken aback. How dare I load  my bags into their storage space. I am furious. I wear my version of a Julie Bishop death stare (an Australian politician famous for her steely killer look in situations such as this) and don't hide my displeasure, my anger at this injustice. Andrea, sitting opposite me, is watching my face and reports later the sparks flying, the daggers piercing, the smoke emitting from my ears. She thinks this amusing, wondering how it is being received by our travelling companions.

I am in avenging mode. I am determined that my death stare will triumph; will result in such discomfort that guilt will force a change of heart and justice will be done. The other two occupants, a mother and teenage son who have failed to enter the story so far and who are in their seats as booked who, I suspect, understand much more of my rantings than they are prepared to admit, keep their eyes downcast and avoid becoming involved.

My death stare fails to make any difference. At this juncture my frustration is again rising and I pose a question to the compartment and to the matrons in particular: 'Are you going to let them (the couple in the corridor) stand for the full six hours?' It's in English/Australian and so fails to have any impact (or at least fails to be acknowledged). Avenging angels (myself) are clearly not fully rational.

After an hour I insist that the standing woman take my seat and I move to the corridor. The mother of the teenager has engaged in what seems to be friendly banter with the frumpy matrons and I begin to develop my conspiracy theory. Occasionally one of the matrons, the one who has dyed hair so sparse that I can see her scalp, offers her seat to the standing couple but makes no pretense of any real intent, not even shifting in her deep comfortable seat. The other, who fills her seat to capacity, starts to sing - a jolly little Italian number which speaks of her smug victory. I ask the mother (to test my emerging theory)  if they are all friends? She understands enough to say No.

The hours clickety clack by. The sea follows the train. At every curve a scene of a flat seascape with a volcanic ash or pebble beach lining the shore and kids playing, families sitting beneath umbrellas presents itself. The villages also follow the rail line and to the east the land rises sharply from the flood-plain. Mostly we speed through the stations, occasionally we stop. The villages are recent, filled with boring rows of ochre two story buildings and little of the romance of the ancient towns we have seen.

The compartment settles and there is a peace of sorts. Perhaps a resignation.

ACT III. Mafiosi

At around the four hour mark there is movement in the compartment. The frumpy bloated matrons indicate that they will be alighting at the next station (Paolo). Everyone stands. I am asked to move my bags to allow them to access theirs. I am also invited (remember I am the only adult male in the compartment) to help bring their bags down, a task which I carry out with some grace despite my still simmering anger (the passing hours have mellowed me - I have been unable to maintain my death stare, unlike Julie Bishop who has much more staying power). The bags weigh a ton. Are these mafia matrons carrying the dead bodies of their husbands in these things. Are the bags stuffed with high grade heroin? Have we stumbled into something more dangerous than we realise?

As we pull into the station it becomes clear that all six are alighting here. A strange coincidence? One of the matrons hands the standing wife her large handbag which I now realise she has been nursing for the last three hours. In a bizarre and somewhat false ritual we all shake hands and bid arrivederci as if we are a group of old friends who have had a minor tiff but patched it up and all is forgiven. The matrons are particularly gracious. They seem to be in a jolly mood - their ruse having worked as planned.

They exit and we have the compartment to ourselves and I am left with the sense that I have just participated in a Calabrian scam worked on us by a team of six. Did the final handshake mean that I am now an honorary member of the cosa nostra? Luckily there were no kisses involved. I hope none of our companions were part of the Sicilian Corleone family for that is where we are headed.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

MOON in Syracusa

We were on our way back from the Ortigia supermarket (there is only one) with supplies for dinner (chicken, a few salad vegetables, buffolo mozarella - so smooth). We had booked an apartment close by the water with a full kitchen. We cook for ourselves when we can. It saves a lot of money (almost pays for the apartment) and we cook local ingredients with ( and I am trying to sound humble) some success - Andrea's spaghetti vognole (clams) was every bit as good as the local version.

Anyway, as we walked down the Via Roma on this island at the tip of Syracusa, the original Greek settlement of Syracusa, we were distracted by the sound of an orchestra. I say distracted because Via Roma itself is mesmerising. The narrow street is lined with charming three story limestone buildings, every balcony a wrought iron work of art and many bedecked with bougainvillia. An orchestra was not something we expected at five oclock in the afternoon when the rest of Sicily was asleep.

A tall woman, long dark hair falling across her shoulders informed us that there was a concert in the restaurant that evening, a chamber orchestra and singers.We paused and Barbara (as I later learnt her to be) told us it was E20 a head which included food - a generous tasting dish per person. We looked at each other and at our two large food laden bags, realised we hadn't had a chance to properly celebrate Andrea's birthday of the previous Monday and booked a table.

Now this is a story not only of music and food but of dangerous choices and bravery.

We arrived at 8:30 to a packed restaurant and were treated to a performance which I, in my ignorance, simply took to be a 'best of' selection of classical vocal pieces but which I later learnt was a full performance of a thirteenth century hymn - Sabat Mater (a meditation on the Virgin Mary) by eighteenth century composer Pergolesi (for those of you who know your music). It was sublime. The acoustics were perfect, the soprano and contralto's voices soared and plunged and filled the room with prayer (and as you know I am not a prayerful person).

Barbara was there in charge. It was, after all, her restaurant. Also there was a young English girl who heard our accents and introduced herself at the door as we entered. She too was arriving - to work in the kitchen.

Where's the bravery you might be thinking. Well Barbara and her husband had only recently opened this venue as a vegetarian restaurant in seafood and pizza and cured meat mad Sicily. Francesco, her husband, is from Salerno on the mainland and she is a northerner from Bologna. They are attempting two difficult challenges - first the vegetarian menu and second, establishing a viable quality local music venue on this tiny island outpost where the most often heard music is the accordion of the gypsies wandering the streets and bars seking tips.

As I said the place was packed and that after only two months of operation. MOON, as they have named it, has a clever acronym as a tag line - Move Ortigia Out of Normality - but I think that a moon, a new moon, any moon, is evocative of romance and beginnings and reaching for the stars and doesn't need any assistance. Barbara swept from table to kitchen to bar ensuring everything ran smoothly. I have a photo of her in a moment of pause late in the evening leaning against the portico leading into the garden calmly observing the soprano and contralto in full flight, her tall frame and dark eyes accentuated by a long black silken shift with a dramatic black and white top that flowed with the music.

The English girl was in the kitchen all night. Our only contact had been the brief exchange on arrival. At this stage she was just a young vibrant traveler holed up in a vegetarian restaurant in a place far distant from home.

It was two nights later that she gained a name. Andrea had gone to bed early to read. She is half way through Robert Dessaix''s 'Night Letters', a lovely piece of writing in the form of a series of letters from an Australian to a friend back home written from Venice and Padua. I, meanwhile, wandered back to MOON looking for more music. There had been a young ukelele player the previous night and this night Dario Chillemi, a Sicilian (Catania born) guitar virtuoso, based in Berlin, was performing. Sadly only about a dozen people were there to share his mix of classical, traditional and contemporary pieces all delivered with intensity and wit.. He told us a little of his life, of his campervan in Berlin which needed a new gearbox - not a plea for sympathy, more a way of helping us understand the life of the itinerant musician.

The audience of English and non English speakers couldn't understand much of what he said but that didn't faze Dario. He told stories and introduced the pieces in an excited mangled English that had everyone charmed. But where is the English girl in all this.

I had arrived at 9:30. Dario was having a break and was standing at the front entrance and beside him was a young woman in burnt orange, her dark hair and skin glowing.. I recognized her but the transformation from kitchen hand to this new self was remarkable. Dario was talking as if he needed to tell us his whole life story in the next five minutes and we listened. When he returned to his guitar I purchased a glass of red wine and chose a comfortable leather bean bag with a good line of sight. I was joined by Nicola and when I left at 11:30, two hours later, I had heard something of her story.

What was she doing in Syracusa? I wanted to know. Why was she at MOON every night even when she wasn't working? And the answer? Here's the brave part.- I'll try and keep it brief.

Raised in Kent, hated school, had some confidence issues which were exacerbated by an unwelcome stint as an exchange student in France with a family all of whom were barking mad. She was fifteen at the time and returned shaken. Her final three years of school were in the Steiner system - the best years of her school life she said.

Two years later as a twenty year old, having spent time studying cooking and other practical skills (the nature of which I can't remember) at an institute of technology (Polytechnicals I think the English call them) she knew she had to escape, to find her feet in the world and risk growing into an independent adult. Brave? Well yes. She sent off a swag of emails across Europe seeking a position and Barbara responded and here she was in Syracusa. Nicola, the girl raised in Kent with a rounded English accent and the skin and eyes of a southern Italian (her father is Calabrian from the Amalfi) has had the courage to be alone and at times lonely. She's finding it hard as I, a man in his sixties, also did when faced with ten weeks in Malta with no connections to family or culture.

My experience surprised me. Fears, self doubt, a sense of being trapped rose to the surface and an inner voice suggesting that I didn't have the guts, the wherewithal, the mental toughness to survive was my constant companion. But it passed as my friends at the end of my email system assured me it would. Nicola is experiencing much the same and if she can tame her demons then she'll know that when the next challenge arises she can meet it. We talked about survival and mental games we play to cope and she admitted that she, the girl who never cries, had found herself in tears more than once.

As Dario played for his small but appreciative audience, his fingers approaching the point of pain, and in between gypsy girls offering budgerigars for us to nurse and fondle (for a price) and over that long glass of wine something happened. That strange thing that can happen to travellers who seek human contact when away from the familiar. I thought we connected. I may be deluded but I felt part father, part grandfather and part friend for that brief two hours. Dario completed his marathon set with a traditional tarantello and we bad farewell probably to never cross paths again.

Except for the fact that Ortigia is a small community and the next morning as we dragged our luggage along the gray cobble stones towards our bus thirty minutes walk away, there on the beach below was Nicola sunbathing on the lumpy pebble beach. Hey Nicola, I called. She craned her neck to look up. Arrivederci,
 I shouted. Is Andrea reading again? she called. No, we're leaving. We have a plane to catch in Catania. And with a doff of my hat and a final 'enjoy Malta' from Nicola we bumped our way towards the Via Roma and past MOON one last time - where Dario was playing again (still playing perhaps) and Barbara was at work behind the bar in another elegant black shift.

Guido of Sinita

'Don't go down there.' I'm sitting in a tour bus on a bridge which overlooks the Sinita area of Naples. 'You have to go down in a lift.' The guide says it as if it's a descent into hell. 'Why didn't you stop at the drop off point?' 'We did' she insists. It was more like changing down a gear and hoping no one approached the exit door; as if tour buses might be attacked by the wild Sinitas.

As it turns out it's a stroke of luck. The next stop brings us to the catacombs of St. Genarro where we join a guided tour. It's led by a young man dressed snappy Napoli style and sporting an Italian haircut of the day, short sides, long on top, a derivative of the punk era but chic. A good looking boy. I didn't catch his name. Let's call him Guido for the sake of this story.

Guido's tour is enlightening and frustrating. I am frustrated at having to hear everything twice, once in Italian then repeated in English (though it's not as if I have a pressing engagement I am running late for). It drives me nuts for a while but there's not a lot of options but to learn patience in an underground crypt. There are bones here that have been dated from well before Christ and I'm a newcomer. Like the public transport in Malta and the no. 87 bus in Rome (which rarely ran and often failed to materialise), I lot and, in the presence of St Genarro's bones, (which are not really here since they were removed by one of the Popes who wanted them in his province, later returned and then removed again and now reside at the Naples Duomo), I practice silent prayerful meditation.

I've never been in catacombs before. This one is like a time capsule with its history dating back to pagan eras and evidence of each subsequent culture carved into its walls and adorned with painted frescoes which tell ancient stories. Now calm and attentive the equally interesting contemporary story begins to unfold. The locals, the Sinita dwellers, knew these catacombs existed but, for well over one hundred years they went unnoted, unnoticed and neglected. The demand for burials alongside a saint whose bones weren't even there had lost its attraction. It became a playground for the kids.

The fact that they were located in Sinita was also problematic. This is the 'bad' part of the city. The down at heel, poor, working class community living on the fringe of the city romanticised in song and film with the Bay of Naples and Mt Vesuvius holding it in their embrace as you approach land from the sea. Sinita is down both geographically and economically. It's invisible, certainly to the tourist. That lift ride "down" divides it from the affluence above.

But back to Guido. He's a Sinita resident as is the young girl selling the tickets above ground. She and Guido are part of a cooperative of young people who maintain and operate the catacombs as a 'social enterprise'. Guido wouldn't call it that. He described it in much simpler terms telling us that the parish priest had, five years previously, suggested to a group of young people who had grown up playing on the church steps and in the catacombs below, that perhaps they could make a move to manage their own destinies and start by taking an interest in their own history. And maybe they could share it with others. It could begin as a way to build confidence and pride and perhaps it could grow to become a business with potential to create jobs and build a new economy within the community. What an impossible idea I thought, but I'm a sucker for a dream and this was an exciting one.

Five years later they are a group of fifty - guides, plumbers, electricians, ticket sellers, restorers, stonemasons, cleaners etc etc. He told us this at the end of the tour and, as he told us, my resentment at his extended Italian commentary fell away and I was left moved by his story. That final explanation was not accompanied by any request for donations, nor was it self congratulatory. It was Guido's statement to us that Sinita is much more than a ghetto for the poor. As the young woman on the ticket desk said to me 'if you come to Naples you must visit Sinita. It's the real Naples. It's the heart of the city.'

And we did. I have to admit to a certain apprehension as we navigated twisting, narrow, noisy streets, for we were very much outsiders. These were not streets designed for tourists. There was not a gift shop in sight, and a notable absence of bars and glass fronted display cabinets full of pastries, and there were few eating outlets. There were plenty of bike repair shops, fruit shops, a fresh fish outlet, men gathered in groups on street corners and twelve year old boys riding Vespas.

Eventually we came to the base of the fabled lift which would take us back to heaven and I felt sad that the tour guide would never recommend such a visit. Strangely, Sinita was the only place in Naples where I was given the correct change for my coffee and pizza purchase.


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Death in Sicily

The Italians are very public about death. They post notices in the streets announcing anniversaries and funerals. The Irish have a similar attitude (there's a theme emerging).  Each morning they announce the deaths, anniversaries and preparations for funerals on their local radio stations. Far removed from our custom of discrete notices in the newspaper. The Italians and Irish appear to mark death in a most vigorous and community way. I fiirst noticed this in Veneto in the north. The Sicilians do the same. The main street has numerous pasted notices, each announcing a different set of funerals or anniversries.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Love in Naples

It's official. I am in love with Naples. I thought it might just be a one night stand but the passion has intensified over the past 24 hours. Now it's a two night relationship. Naples is wild. It's a love or hate relationship. Its passionate or its painful. It's sexy or it's just plain dirty. So full of life and energy and madness. As far as rules go - forget them. Here's a few examples: texting while riding a Vespa with no helmet and weaving through oncoming traffic in laneways only one vehicle in width; a 12 year old, no helmet, jumps on his motorcycle in Sanita district and speeds off; two women and two children under five, on a Vespa in the busy back streets (Spanish quarter) - no helmets; u turns in the face of oncoming traffic as a matter of course; short changed at the Central station when buying tickets for the Metro from a very helpful member of Trenitalia; short changed at the local deli when buying ingredients for dinner; overcharged in pretty much every transaction. Tourists are simply an obvious opportunity to make a few extra biucks. I'm wearing a label on my forehead - 'Tourist, take me for a ride.' So what's to love. It's the adrenalin, the energy of the place. I've always been attracted to taking risks and this is the city for risk takers be it taking your life in your hands crossing the road or riding your motorcycle or wandering in narrow laneways from which there may be no escape. These days I've mellowed and take very calculated risks but there's something about this place that has me reliving my mis-spent youth. It's LOVE. Not Rome and romantic love; not Malta and slowly falling in love with the relaxed style and ordinary everyday things; not Lisbon and its sophisticated charm. This is Naples and it's full on passion which might burn out quickly but I suspect this will be a love that will linger. My previous love of this intensity was probably India almost thirty seven years ago and before that Andrea forty years ago this year.

Pizza Australiano

Alice Springs marked clearly and the Simpson Desert is a mozarella desert
Sanita from above. Don't go down we were advised.
Pizza Australiano from the Sanita district which we were told we should avoid because of its bad reputation and where they recruit priests very young.

Had my confession heard at Basilica Santa Maria della Sanita

Thursday, 17 July 2014

In Naples

Naples, Napoli, capital of the south, home of the Mafia and gangsters and exploding Mt Vesuvius and Pompeii frozen in time. A risky place; a place with a reputation.
The moment I stepped into the sunlight eight hours ago and began the trek to our accommodation down Via Toledo I knew that this place had something special for me. Rome has elegance and ruins and history, but Naples has the edge - charm, energy to burn, street life where the locals outnumber the tourists, rough edges abound and superb old palaces and civic administration centres sit in a state of decay Rome could not cope with.
Palazzo Reale is enormous and sits at the end of Via Toledo fronting the expansive square which is Piazza del Plebiscito (the name says it all). It is a functioning administrative centre but almost impossible to navigate and it is in great need of some tender loving care. There was a protest going on by some builders on the Pallazo scaffolding (they've begun restoration work) exhorting the lavorare (workers I think) to take action about something. They banged metal rods against the iron work creating a shocking piece of music.
Naples just seems to speak in a really unpretentious way while full of contradictions and surprises. A case in point - the Central Station where I fully expected to be mugged and robbed as I arrived has been transformed into a shiny piece of world class architecture.
That was my first shock. And then it just kept getting better. I love it L.O.V.E. IT.

My apologies for my over enthusiastic review.I'm not usually one for superlatives - in fact i am normally an enemy of the over use of the superlative. In this case I make an exception. Of course day two may prove me to be a naive fool.

Louis Vuitton and me

'Scusi, can you help me?' A well dresed middle aged man, blue shirt, tie, gray hair has pulled up beside me. He leans across the passenger seat of his little car.
'Do you speak English?'
'Si" I reply. We've reversed languages.
'Can you help me? I am from Milano. Where is the Colosseom from here?  He has a map on his lap which he thrusts at me.
I try and take in my location and get my bearings. Then, like an expert I offer my well informed advice - I've been in Rome almost 36 hours.
'I'm from Milano,' he repeats his plea.
'You are at the Piazza Republica' I tell him, 'You need to go back. It's the opposite direction.'
'I see,' he is so grateful 'Where are you from?' ' he enquires. ' ...Australia! My wife is Australian, from a place in Victoria. Melbourne' he turns this into a question as if asking me to confirm his wifes birth place.'And you?' he hurries on. 'From Brisbane! Yes I know Brisbane.' I have a moment where I sense there is something not quite right. "Melbourne? A place in Victoria." He is unsure of the status and whereabouts of the city of Melbourne? But I am the good samaratan and choose to ignore my doubting voice.

He reaches across and grasps my hnd in a firm manly grip s if we are having a reunion. We are best mates.
'And your wife?'
'From Brisbane also' I say.
'You have been most helpful' he races on. 'I work for Louis Vuitton. You have heard of him?' He shows me his card and his folder of fashion shots. Beautiful women in beautiful clothes. The folder is bent badly in one corner and a luittle dog eared.
'Here,' he says reaching behind to the back seat. 'I would like to give you this for your wife. A gift.' He has pulled a large plastic bag on to the passenger seat and flashes a huge handbag at me, metal studs blinking at me in the sunlight as if they are blinded by the sudden light. 'and for you..' He has in his hand a black box. For a moment I think he is going to ofer me a diamond ring to go with the handbag. He flips he lid. 'For you.' he proffers a silver watch with multiple dials and functions but only long enough to have me believe I am the luckiest man on the Viale today. Reward for good deeds.
I am dumbstruck. 'But why.? I thought you needed directions!' All I did was show you my map. I don't know you.'
'No. Take it' he urges
'Why?' I say.
Now he is saying something and pointing at this dashboard. 'I am short of petrol,' he says. 'Can you help with something, anything, so I can fill my petrol tank?' He sounding a little desperate all of a sudden. This is a weird moment. I almost can't believe that he's asking me for petrol money in exchange for a watch and a Louis Vuitton handbag. My voice says 'walk away' But I'm still here at the window. He has my hand again. Thanking me, asking me to help with petrol.
'But I don't understand.' I'm still in his thrall. 'You are a highly paid Louis Vuitton representative and you can't aford petrol?' I am hearing myself make this stupid statement as if it is reasonable and can't believe myself.
He has one more try. 'Just something for petrol. My wife is Australian.'
I shake my head partly to say no, partly in disbelief at both our performances.
It's over.
'Okay. If you're not interested. If you don't want them Okay I will not waste my time.'
nd he drives off iin the opposite direction to the Coloseum.  

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Kev and his roman nose.

My father always said we came from the Po Valley in the north of Italy, which was true in the broad sense - the Po being an absurdly broad valley. He also sported what was referred to in the family as a Roman nose. I share his nose as do a range of my cousins. 

I found a fellow Roman Nosed personage in the San Lorenzo cemetery in the suburbs of Rome. It could be Kev in marble.

The cemetery is full of grand and grotesque images of the dear departed.
This veil is killing me.

Drinking is part of a monk's life.

Maccas made me.
You'd go cross eyed too.

Taaa Daaaaa1!


Thursday, 10 July 2014

Sad Suq

Valletta has been in decline since the sailors went home in the 70s. Half way down Merchants Street where market stalls take over the pedestrian space every day, there's a little gem. You can't read the sign. It's hidden by the tents and cafe signs of the new trade. Its almost invisible. It's the old Valletta Market, the Is-Suq tal-Belt market, which has fallen on hard times because of the shift of population to other shiny areas, and the competition from supermarkets. There are no supermarkets in Valletta which makes it pretty special in my mind for the opposite of convenience reasons. It's all small, local traders, The prices are the same or better than the supermarket but////....?

Anyway back to the suq.  It was built in the 1880s and was the first steel framed building built in Malta. Maltese is an Aramaic/Arabic based language and suq/souk is one word which carries such a lot of memories when I think of Istanbul and Morocco and the big bazaars of the east. This one is tiny. Three  floors lined with shops, only a few of which have traders operating from them. There is a set of escalators at the entrance which stopped working years ago and the place feels like it has been left to rot. It's unloved and shabby.

I go there every day to get my fresh meat, fresh fish, fresh fruit and deli needs. That's four shops out of the nine operating - another twenty shop fronts have signs and names but no traders. The place has been abandoned. It's a bit sad. The traders are talking about how to revive it. If they did, it could become a real tourist attraction for all the right reasons - full of local life and colour, fresh, local, historic and, underneath that crumbling exterior, quite beautiful.

The quality of the produce is outstanding. Fish to rival any fishmonger, fresh every day from  their own boat; a deli as good as Mick's nuts, and four or five butchers. The other lovely thing is that the only people there each day are local women shopping for their daily supplies. I'm the random tourist.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Keats and my mother.

My mother loved poetry. She had an anthology of English poets - Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, which sat on our tiny bookshelf. It had a dark blue cover as I recall and thin, slightly musty pages.My brother, who has a memory for these things, tells me it was Palgrave's Golden Treasury. In the margins were notes and jottings. When she wrote these I have no idea. In all my 21 years living with her I never saw her pick up that book. Perhaps it was pre me when she had more time - pre kids, pre husband, pre housewife duties, and later pre work. She did occasionally mention her love of English, by which she meant poetry, almost by way of convincing herself and us, that she had had an education beyond grade six and, despite living in a bland suburb of Brisbane and doing her daily washing and ironing chores, she did still have a brain and had once used it in a way that she, perhaps, could only remember and marvel at.

I hated those Romantic poets. At school we were forced to read their works with their fancy and, what seemed to me, convoluted language and words I couldn't understand. I think I was a little overwhelmed by them. They were supposed to demonstrate the heights of the English language and I couldn't get it at all, apart that is for Coleridge's 'Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner'. It had a bit of derring do and action and some great lines - 'Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink' is almost a cliched phrase today but he wrote it down. When I later fell in love with poetry it was with Bruce Dawe and William Carlos Williams who spoke less about melancholy love and more about my life. Simple, straight forward, grounded.

So I surprised my self when I found myself standing outside Keats House in Hampstead London this week thinking that I'd like to know a bit more about him. Of course the 2009 Jane Campion film, "Bright Star" had piqued my interest. In the film Keats was played by young English actor Ben Whishaw and his love interest Fanny Brawne by Abbie Cornish, an Australian actress. Given that Campion is a New Zealander it was quite a mixed team that put it together. Whishaw played him as a melancholic romantic and succeeded in stopping short of portraying him as the cliched tortured poet.

He didn't have it easy. Father dead when he was 9. Mother died when he was 14 from tuberculosis and brother Tom, also dead in his early twenties from TB. TB or consumption was rife. He trained to be an apothecary, a pharmacist with extra duties as assistant to a surgeon, for five years and then threw it in to write. His poetry doesn't seem to have been influenced by the horrific scenes he would have witnessed in an era before anaesthetics where surgeons were adept at swift amputations; where young Keats may have been restraining the patient at the same time as passing tools to, what by some accounts, were more butchers than surgeons. His poetry was full-on romantic. His betrothed and neighbour, Fanny Brawne, separated from him by only a wall in the duplex he shared with his mate on one side and the Brawnes on the other, was the inspiration for his love poems. At this stage, 1818/19/20, Hampstead was still a village in the tranquility of the hills north of the one square mile of London. He was prolific.

So here I am standing in the parlour looking through the window at a 300 year old mulberry tree (why did my father remove ours at 20 years - I assumed it had reached the end of its natural life). Soaking up the life of a poet I will never read but feeling chuffed that I've been in the same house as him. A bit weird. Am I a celebrity chaser?

There's a lot about Keats here, but very little about Fanny. Apparently his relationship with her didn't get much recognition until after she died when letters they had shared were discovered.  She had married and had three children and died in her eighties.

Keats fell to the family curse, TB, and in an effort to beat it went to Rome for the climate but died there within a year. Fanny never saw him again. I'm beginning to understand why my mother was captivated by him, if, that is, she knew of this hopeless romantic story.

 He was dead at 25.

My connection with him? It's still pretty thin but when I discovered that he was born on the same date as my son I wondered if he, having the same star sign might also be a deeply romantic person. So I sent him a couple of quotes to use when the appropriate occasion arises:

" A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ Its lovliness increases; it will never pass".

And "Parting, they seemed to tread upon the air / Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart / only to meet again more close".

And " It is a flaw / In happiness to see beyond our bourne / It forces us in summer skies to mourne / It spoils the singing of the nightingale".