Sunday, 30 December 2012

Organising the home run

There were ten of us for the celebration of my final Sunday Eucharist in Taormina. The numbers were swelled by an Englishman and his two teenage children who lives in Belgium but owns an orange orchard business in the region.

After we'd made our farewells to the regulars attending, we had a quick lunch before driving out in Kath's hire car the 120km round trip to Pedara. It's the town on the south side of the paese Etnaese where the local Catania based Honorary British Consul Richard Brown lives with his Italian wife and family.

The fertile lowlands around Mount Etna are a rich agricultural region densely packed with small towns and villages, all of which seem to run into each other in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. There doesn't seem to be a long straight road everywhere. The layout of the environment is determined by the long confusing history of lava flow from the volcano. Interesting maybe to an extent, but a far from remarkable landscape until, I suspect you get much higher up the slopes of the mountain.

Here the Honorary Consul graciously welcomed us into his home just after lunch, which was when we arrived. We went through the formalities with him to arrange for Clare's emergency travel document to be produced by the main Consular office in Rome when it opens tomorrow. It will be sent by courier to a TNT depot near Catania airport in time for our flight home on Wednesday, IF and ony IF the courier service functions as normal over the capodanno holiday. Richard will find this out first thing tomorrow and let us know. If this doesn't work we will have to rearrange our home flight and the necessary document - an expensive one-off travel permit adapted accordingly. Otherwise flying will be impossible.

The British Borders Agency permits nobody to fly into the U.K. without an identity permit, even if they are a British citizen and can prove it. The EU Schengen Agreement allows us to go by bus or train from Catania to Calais with no obligation to produce a document to prove who we are as long as we behave. But, little fortress Britain makes its citizens pay and jump through bureaucratic hoops to come home. No wonder the trade in illegal immigration thrives.

If Clare could get on a flight and return with no other document than a declaration from the Italian police to say her passport has been stolen, she might be allowed in after questioning, but the airline would be fined €20k for carrying her without documents and honouring its obligation to the ticked sold to us.

British Consular and diplomatic staff are admirable and provide an excellent service to Brits abroad, and this is suffering cutbacks all the time. All calls to Consuls in Europe, no matter which Embassy you enquire of, are directed to a single call centre in Malaga. It may be staffed with the best trained personnel imaginable speaking all the necessary languages, but what they lack is local knowledge of the places in which the crises are taking place which they are called upon to manage. The aim is for the whole expatriate world to be served by just three call centres. We'll be sorry for this in the long run. The only people who don't hate call centres are those employed by them or profiting from them.

With so much going on yesterday, I forgot to mention what when we walked the Corso yesterday afternoon, the remains of both Christmas Eve bonfires had been cleared and the places where the fires had been bore only remnants of the fine dust from the protective soil on which the fires were burned. The next shower of rain will dispose of this, leaving the black basalt cobble stones as they were before.

When we got back, I went to Vespers while Kath and Clare went up to the Corso to join Anto and Rhiannon. Kath and I then prepared a meal together - rice with roasted veggies and a veggie ratatouille. Just right for a mild winter's evening. Writing this before bed, I took a stroll up to the bottle bank and then down the Corso back home. Although eleven o'clock at night some clubs and restaurants were still open, and there were a many people out as there generally are at nine in the morning. Thanks to the not so wintry weather. What a treat!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Sometimes the worst happens

Yesterday, I prepared lunch for us all after a late start, and afterwards we visited Taormina's Greek Theatre together. Fortunately the weather was kind during our visit, but changed during the evening when we went out to a restaurant to sample the joys of traditional Sicilian fare. But the time we'd finished the rain started. By the time we reached home there was rain, wind and thunder, for two hours we were just spectators to a dramatic storm over the bay to the north of us. In the end Rhiannon bedded down with us, and after the storm abated, Kath and Anto returned  to the hotel without her.

After a first breakast with us, Clare went off with Rhiannon back the the hotel for a second breakfast with Mum and Dad, just as they were surfacing after another late night. I stayed behind as I had some writing tasks to complete.

Half an hour later I was shocked to receive a text message from Anto to say that Clare had been robbed of her bag, with all her cash, bank card, phone and identity documents just at the bottom of the steps leading down to the SS114 coast road, at ten twenty in bright daylight. This threw us into chaos until we were able to organise ourselves to contact the bank card insurance company to get her cards blocked, then Orange to get her phone disabled, then finally with more difficulty to get hold of the British consular service to sort out emergency travel documents. The problem was that the Catania consular  answering service wasn't working, probably due to the holidays, so we had to call London.

Clare and I were booked to attend an ecumenical event at the convent at six, and finally were able to go. It was a splendid event with a full chapel. As we came out afterwards the phone rang and it was the local honorary Consul Richard Brown. The signal was so bad I had to return to the church house to phone on the landline so we could talk intelligibly, and a rendezvous was arranged for tomorrow to carry out the necessary procedures to obtain a temporary travel document. Earlier Clare had obtained new passport photos, and Owain had visited Meadow Street to find Clare's birth certificate and email us a copy, in case needed for verification purposes.

With as much in place as possible over the weekend, we went to a post celebration dinner at the Hotel Diodoro with others who had attended, including Lutheran Pastor Andreas and two of the Sisters. It was an amazing experience of Sicilian fish cuisine, plus cross-table talk in a mix of Italian, French, German and English. This sophisticated yet essentially simple fellowship was a great comfort after the kind of day nobody would ever want to repeat.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A family day Taormina

A late night left me starting the day slowly. We rose late, breakfasted, then went to the covered market for fish and veg for an evening meal. Once Kath texted to say they were up and enjoying sunshine on the beach near the hotel, Clare was keen to join them. She went down to meet them, I stayed and wrote, then walked up the Corso to get wine. By the time I was nearly home, they'd all arrived, having come up on the cable car. After a light lunch we took them for an introductory walk up the Corso, somewhat quieter than yesterday thankfully, and Rhiannon came home with a new doll from the wonderful shop specialising in dolls the near piazza Sant'Agostino. 

We visited the chocolate fair held in the piazza Carmine, and in the former Carmelite church, and enjoyed the amazing decorative artwork done in white chocolate coloured with vegatable dyes produced by ceramic painters from a town in central Sicily which has specialised in this kind of design pattern work for centuries.

We passed through the Porta Catania to show Rhiannon the presepio in Sant Antonio the Abbot church. The setting sun was close to the southern slopes of Mount Etna, and for the first time in a month I observed that emissions from two vents close to the summit weren't the usual white clouds of steam but coloured dark brown, blown by the wind into long brown clouds in a southerly direction, not changing colour at all with the setting sun behind them. It's the first time I've observed Mount Etna producing noticeable quantities of volcanic ash. Thankfully for the moment these are not blowing towards us in the north.

On the way back we sampled roast chestnuts from a street vendor outside St Anthony the Abbot church, then an ice cream from a shop of the Corso, concluding with a drink in the tea room on piazza Sant Agostino. I cooked us swordfish with ratatouille and pasta for supper, accompanies by a couple of bottles of Sicilian wine. Rhiannon, still tired adfter yesterday's journey, fell asleep after she'd eaten and needed to be awakened gently for the journey back down the steps to the hotel.

It was a delightful introductory day for them to the delights of Sicily.

Boxing Day arrival

The Corso was even more crowded with holidaymakers, plus an unusual number of dogs on leads when we went out to replenish food stocks this morning. The sun shone from a sky with wisps of high altitude cloud to A road train full of kids and a few parents, driven by Santa, was making stately progress from Porta Catania to Porta Messina with much bell clanging, as much to attract children as to clear the way. It was decorated with cartoon characters and called 'il Trenino dei sogni'- the little train of dreams. One mum walked alongside the train holding her three year old daughter's hand, while dad sat opposite.

It was just warm enough to eat lunch out on the terrace without a top coat. We had messages to say that Kath, Anto and Rhiannon had checked in at Gatwick and were awaiting their flight. We whiled away the afternoon, taking a stroll down to the cemetery. We discovered it was closed for the public holiday so we returned and started preparing for an early supper. Around six we had messages to say they'd landed at Catania and were on their way in the hired car travelling along the SS114 taking in night time coastal scenery and towns festively decorated. At eight we went out to meet them, on the say from their hotel, climbing the steps up to the Guardiola. As we approached the car park terrace half way, we saw the three of them just below, and were soon hugging each other with delight to be reunited in such an unusual place.

We prepared a meal for them at home, then exchanged Christmas gifts and drank some Nero d'Avola to celebrate their arrival. It was getting on for midnight when I escorted them to the top of the steps for their descent to a long night's sleep, looking forward to awakening to a balcony view of Isola Bella. It promises to be bathed in sunshine.  

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The brightest of Christmas days

Despite the late night, we were awake just before dawn, listening to the rubbish lorry working the street even on Christmas Day - impressive commitment to making ths town work all year round, for residents, workers and visitors. I started humming 'Christians awake salute the happy morn' - that's all I can remember of it. I need the hymn book to sing that one, but it's a great tune. We sat at the table together watching the sunrise bathe the mountains in golden orange light, breakfasted early and after I'd said Morning Prayer, we went out walking - in my case, inspecting the Corso by eight thirty. 

Already the street sweepers were out, working from north to south. We were amazed at how little litter there was after last night's high jinks in the section that hadn't been cleared by the time we were walking through. The bonfires were still smouldering, perfect for roasting spuds I thought. The sky was clear and the view of Mount Etna as good as it gets. All kinds of people were out on the street apart from municipal employees, hopefully on good overtime rates. 

Like last night, there warm festive greetings were being exchanged by individuals out and about early. The young woman running the Salumerie near piazza Sant Agostino was opening up, preparing for a fresh bread delivery. The Pharmacy nearby was also open. Everywhere else was closed, sleeping off the late night, and either preparing for a family meal at home, or preparing a meal for guests in hotel or restaurant. What a day for brilliant morning light!

There were just six of us for the Eucharist at St George's. So many regulars are either away for the holidays or completely occupied by family duties nearby. There were two regulars, a young couple, living and working in Catania, Clare and myself plus Salvatore.  All our efforts at external publicity yielded nothing. Nevertheless, we were glad to be there to sing carols in English and hear the mysteries celebrated in our mother tongue, keeping faith with generations past. They so appreciated this place as God's gracious gift to them, they built a church in which to offer the sacrifice of praise the best way they knew. After a glass of vino frizzante together, we parted company, grateful for each other to share the moment with.

Then, for Clare and I, a leisurely light lunch, a walk down to the beach to sit in the sunshine for an hour, then the ascent home, and the pleasure of preparing our Christmas roast dinner together. Rice with roast veggies - aubergine, onion, red pepper, fennel. Huge chicken pieces - Clare's with lemon chunks, mine with a baste of garlic and black olives mashed together - utterly delicious. Yoghourt, and fruit from the Sisters' orchard to follow. A lovely feast to conclude a memorable day, celebrating God with us, come in the flesh to transform our anxious hasty world.

Holy night in Taormina

We walked up the Corso Umberto around eleven o'clock, it was crowded with people, whole families, individuals walking their dogs romancing couples, old geezers who've seen it all before. The bonfires in the largo Sta Caterina and piazza del Duomo were well alight, shooting sparks up to the waxing moon in a clear night sky. It was a lovely happy atmosphere, with people greeting each other and stopping to chat. Even we did, as we ran into a group of people who'd attended the German Lutheran service earlier, and saw two of the sisters out in the piazza della Duomo, watching proceedings there.

In the Duomo, the half hour before midnight Mass was taken up by a lengthy congregational devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary led by several lay people, with some though not all in the congregation joining in. I didn't recognise the devotional format, but its framework was a strict metre syllables per line. When it was time start the ministerial procession came out of the south door and walked around to the west end in the piazza. To my surprise there was just one cleric, accompanied by a posse of men wearing Knights of Malta copes. It was the Archpriest who welcomed me to the ecumencial service a few weeks ago. He recognised me in the crowd and broke ranks to exchange Christmas greetings. I'm not sure what liturgical role the Knights played in the service, as everything is geared up to lay people running all aspects of the worship, mostly discreetly dressed in black. The choir sang the litrugical parts in Italian, the celebrant on this rare occasion used Latin.

We didn't stay long. It was a special experience to enjoy the whole occasion for a change and not have to get exhausted holding together a celebration which wouldn't finish until half past one. We walked back and found another midnight Mass going on at the Salesian church of San' Giuseppe on the piazza Sant' Agostino. Here, a processon had formed on the balcony at the church entrance with a squad of servers in scarlet cassocks and lacy cottas surrounding a richly vested minister clad in a dalmatic bearing the image of the Christchild. Before them, as they entered the church walked a man in traditional Sicilian costume playing the bagpipes. When I walk up to Castelmole, a lone piper was practicing in one of the narrow back lanes, it was an enticing reminder of the island's strong folk culture.

The celebrant received the bambino, then handed it to a robed server who placed it in a prominent position in front of Joseph and Mary in the presepio. The entire Baroque altarpiece was covered with a brightly painted 'Bethlehem' scene with windows in it containing statues of the various characters of the biblical stories., like a giant Advent calendar. I've never seen anything quite like it. This church was packed, as was the Duomo, with many more people outside. There was no midnight Mass at Sta Caterina, only the bonfire outside. Does this suggest that there are only two clergy available for duty at Christmas in this busy holiday town? Just like Britain?

We reached home at half past midnight, and before we went to bed, I spent half an hour cutting the stones from some soft oily black olives to turn them into a tapenade with crushed garlic to coat my portion of roast chicken for our festive lunch. An altogether different experience of Christams Eve to savour this year.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Cross cultural Christmas Eve

I awoke at twenty past five, well before dawn, and couldn't settle back into sleep, so I got up and wrote a meditation for Christmas Eve, by which time the coastline was bathed in pale orange light, and the sky clear of clouds. As there was no threat of rain, we did a load of washing and hung it out to dry. After breakfast we went shopping for Christmas food, visiting the town's covered market for some generous portions of chicken (head and breast sliced off in one piece) at the decent price of €4 apiece. We also bought a couple of sea-bass - 'spigola' in Italian for the same price, and more veggies. The fridge is full!

When we got back, the washing was still disappointingly damp. The line where it is hung on the terrace is in the shade all the time in winter. As it's Christmas Eve, I opened the church gate and entrance door, put on the lights decorating the presepio and a CD of British Christmas carols which Clare brought with her. It could just be heard from the road above, but whether that's enough to lure any visitors in to enjoy the church in festive attire, it's hard to tell. While I prepared lunch Clare went off in brilliant sunshine to look at the Greek amphitheatre. We'd only just finished eating when Pastor Andreas arrived, and soon after Suore Tarcisia, with an invitation for us to join in an ecumenical celebration at the Convent followed by supper on the 29th December. The occasion concludes 2012, designated by the Pope as 'The Year of Faith'.

The Lutherans had a congregation of nearly thirty, and we joined them for their Heiliger Abend service, ten carols were sung, the Lukan nativity Gospel was read in two parts and Pfarrer Andreas preached in a lively manner. It's notable that the expatriate community in Sicily has its own bi-lingual German and Italian version of the Deutches Gesangbuch. Interesting that it's not German and English with regard to the American Lutherans. There must surely be some in Sicily given the US military presence.  

Just before we started we were chatting with an American woman with German husband sitting in front. She was commenting about the beautful view from the church, then commented dryly "Those must be your knickers out there." We'd forgotten to gather in the damp washing and failed to realise that the oriel windows looking north from the church overlooked out terrace. In horror Clare ran out and rescued the situation just before the service began. I just sat there, laughing helplessly as quietly as as I could.

The Lutherans all departed early enough for me to get away to Vespers and adoration at the Convent, and to deliver a couple of posters aadvertising tomorrow morning's service on my way there and back. The spigola cooked for supper was just delicious, rounded off with two different kinds of orange from the Convent orchard. It's the first Christams Eve that I can remember spending on our own together.  

I've enjoyed getting used to participating in the Divine Office in Italian several times a week. Thankfully its layout and content are familiar enough and the Psalms well remembered after forty years of personal use in English. This afternoon, worshipping in German in addition, brought back rich memories of the epic Parish trip to Leipzig taken with Fr Geoff Johnston and six others just weeks before the German Democratic Republic collapsed and the Wall was torn down. I rarely use German these days but made an effort when we took that unique trip, and got a feel for the German Protestant ethos of prayer and witness, which remains with me across nearly a quarter of a century.

I'm very grateful that my lifetime's journey as an Anglican has been so very ecumenically diverse, allowing me to be at home in prayer with people from all over Europe and the rest of the world.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

O Emmanuel - Sunday before Christmas

After an early night I was out of bed to watch the dawn, promising a bright and clear sunny day. And so it turned out. With Salvatore the caretaker there were ten of us altogether for a combination of Advent Eucharist with lessons and carols. Clare accompanied on the electric piano/organ, frustrated by not having the right strength glasses to make sight reading the music easy, so she practised last night and after breakfast to be sure and made a good job of it.

We walked up to Castelmola after lunch, and sat outside the restaurant in the main square for a drink. It's quite chilly up there at 1,700ft when a breeze blows. Not the sort of place you want to sit for long. The proprietor has fitted white goatskin rugs to the seats of all his metal armchairs for the comfort of diners. It's certainly an encouragement to linger longer in the great outdoors. Rather than wait an hour for the bus, and get home in the dark, we made our way back down the via Saraceni warmed by the rays of the setting sun. It only took twenty minutes. We stopped to pick Marigold flowers to make fresh calendula tea with. The abundant orangey yellow flowers bring a dash of colour to cactus covered mountain slopes and olive groves.

We came back along the Corso as the sun was setting. There was a lively atmosphere with many more people of all ages out and about smartly dressed in their holiday outfits - not attending weddings or going to a church service at this hour. In fact, sounds of a rehearsal were emanating from the Cathedral as we passed. There's a spectacolo danza passione, whatever that is, going on later tonight.

In the Piazza Sant'Agostino, the Bobbo Natale disco for small kids was going on next to the Christmas tree. Bobbo Natale was being helped by a couple of young lasses and a deejay in Santa outfits, and all were dancing energetically, having lots of fun. While we watched the man who offers to draw a quick portrait of people while they sit there in the open air started chatting to us. Over his two eazels hung a couple of golden Greek icons of the Theotokos apparently for sale. I wasn't sure if he was the painter or someone in Thessaloniki - they were in the style of that region from my recollection of a visit there fifteen or more years ago, but he observed me noticing them. He asked where we were from and when we said Wales, he smiled appreciatively. He said he was Argentinian, with Welsh speaking Patagonian friends back home. It's a small world.

We both felt too tired to go to Vespers when we got home, so cooked the first thickest pair of swordfish slices for supper, frying them gently in olive oil with lemon juice and garlic, with a certain apprehension. Thanks to a good ceramic frying pan they were perfectly done. Served with steamed spuds carrots and chard, an enjoyable simple Sunday supper.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

O Rex gentium - holiday time begins

Another day of intermittent showers and rainbows. Not quite the weather hoped for by the team of sixteen young US naval personnel who'd pledged to come from their base in Messina to tidy up the church garden, as part of their community outreach programme. Nevertheless they were here by ten thirty and worked non stop with no concern for the weather for over three hours. On both occasions we went out, I had wet feet on return, as the streets were running with water draining away well after it stopped raining.

We needed to go out shopping to stock up in preparation for the arrival of Kath, Anto and Rhiannon on Boxing Day, Sant Stefano is it's called here. On our way we saw a second pyramid of logs being prepared for a Christmas Eve bonfire outside the Duomo. Meanwhile another of the weekend's weddings was about to start inside, and stylishly dressed people in customary black garb hung around socialising outside beforehand. There are more visitors around this weekend, and I'm noticing restaurants re-opening. The pensione Svizzera next to the church has unchained its gates and its garden is lit up again.

The checkout lady at the Simply supermarket told us they'd be closed Christmas Day and on Sant Stefano it's the normal Sunday half day opening hours. I guess like many other shops it'll be open all day tomorrow, instead of the usual half day. Shopping daily is fairly necessary without the benefit of a car to make an expedition to a big supermarket for week's worth of shopping or longer, so it's best to be fully prepared.

Two doors down from the Simply supermarket an establishment that's been closed for re-furbishment has re-opened today. It's a fishmonger's shop with an interesting selection of fish on offer, including tuna a whole swordfish, beak and all, freshly caught, and some varieties of octopus and squid we'd not seen before. We settled for a couple of slices of swordfish - and paid a lot for it, but when we got home we realised that we had enough for two full meals for both of us. Now we have a place to buy fresh fish at both ends of town and won't need to rummage through shop freezer compartments to fnd what we fancy.

Clare baked some biscuits after lunch to take as a little gift to the Sisters. It was a bit of an experiment as the temperature regulation seemed oddly drift, so that the biscuits took three times as long to cook properly as the recipe intended. We took them with us when we went to the convent for Vespers and adoration.

After baking, the weather cleared sufficiently for us to walk right up the via Crucis path to the Sanctuario della Madonna della Rocca on Monte Tauro. We got back before rain came again in earnest. Mount Etna was wreathed in stormy rain clouds as the sun heading toward the horizon. More snow up there tonight I imagine. Are they skiing by day yet? I wonder a little jealously.

Friday, 21 December 2012

O Oriens - Winter solstice

Well, the world didn't end today as predicted by Mayan calendar interpreters. "Nobody knows the times or the seasons" said Jesus, whose common sense on anxious matters is still widely disregarded.

Four ladies of the church congregation arrived at ten, decorated the church and set up the nativity scene on the north aisle altar table. It's a Sicilian 'praesepio', portraying in miniature figures the whole of a village, with the Holy Family right there in the midst of everyday life. My first photos are not very satisfactory, so I'll have to make an effort to figure out how to get the best results out of the two cameras I have with me.

When we went out to the shops, a crew of men were unloading logs from a truck in the largo Sta Caterina to build a bonfire 5-7 metres from the church steps. There was nothing by way of publicity to say what occasion this was for, or when. But, today's the shortest day Winter Solstice - so maybe this is an old pagan hangover I thought, equivalent to a St John's day bonfire on Midsummer day? Intriguing.

While Clare went hunting for things in the whole food shop at the far end of the Corso, I went to the covered market, having discovered there yesterday the only fresh fish counter I've found hereabouts. I bought a handsome fish called a 'palamito', eight hundred grams of it for eight euros. The fishmonger not only filleted it for me skilfully with a huge knife, he wrote the name of the fish on the brown paper wrapping with a smile after I enquired about it. Whilst everything on the slab had its price, names were una altra cosa. The locals know, but vendors here welcome curiosity.

Lots of small boats are parked on nearby beaches. Every night we see a handful out there fishing. Where do they sell? My speculation is that they supply directly to hundreds of restaurants within sight of shore, either up here at 200 metres or down there at sea level. The theory test will be when hotels fill and restaurants re-open in the next few days. Then, there should be many more boats out fishing in-shore.

Before lunch we  toured the town's major hotels with a revised Christmas services poster to replace one distributed last weekend, which forgot Christmas Day. I failed to keep the promise I made to myself that I'd prepare necessary vocabulary for this before leaving home, but somehow, without lapsing into any other language, I rejoiced to make myself understood. It's a mystery to me confidence doesn't evaporate and such flawed communication works. Somehow, stuff I learned thirty five years ago when we had a Torinese lodger in St Agnes Vicarage still works. Italian is such a lovely language, so musical, I love it.

Today was mild with rainy spells (plus the odd rainbow).End of afternoon, we headed uphill, climbing the steps leading to the via Crucis climb up to the Sanctuario della Madonna della Rocca. We got half way up, then rain and approaching darkness prompted us to decide that discretion was the better part of valour. A little damp, we arrived home and I cooked supper. One of the two fillets from the palamito I bought earlier proved enough for both of us. It had flesh with a taste similar to that of mackerel, but less dense and oily. Perfect, quickly fried with a mere suggestion of garlic to flavour the pan rather than the fish.

After supper I walked up to the Corso to see if the bonfire was alight, but no - my speculation was ill founded. An enquiry in the restaurant on the piazza Victor Emmanuele opposite revealed that the pyre will burn Christmas Eve. An efficient town service crew prepared a very neat stack of wood, on an insulating base of local black volcanic soil four days in advance. No doubt the presence of this preparation will attract interest from visitors in the next four days. Well done Taormina!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Welcome gift

Clare's EasyJet flight set off half an hour late and arrived only ten minutes late, although it took half an hour to get from plane to the arrival hall. It was an hours and a half until the next and last bus to Taormina, so we had a drink and a bite to eat in the arrival hall, next to the bus departure area just outside, while we waited.

We arrived at St George's at twenty past nine, had supper and then took an introductory passegaiatina the length of the Corso, almost deserted, before bed. We repeated the walk after breakfast to introduce Clare to the shops and show her Mount Etna from piazza St Agostino on one of the best days so far.

After lunch, we walked down the steps to the beach which contains Isola Bella. We walked as far as we could along the pebbles, and then went up and along the SS114 main road to check out the Hotel Isola Bella where Kath Anto and Rhiannon will stay when they arrive on Boxing Day. We noted a couple of bus stops outside, and it may be possible for them to catch the free shuttle bus up the hill from there, once they tire of the half hour walk up to St George's. At the moment they plan to make this part of their substitute for an hour at the gym. It's a challenging climb. This time my kneecaps weren't nearly as painfully distressed by the exercise as they were when I climbed a couple of weeks ago.

While we were out one of the sisters from the Convent called with a basket of the finest oranges and lemons from their wonderful garden as a welcome gift. There was also a Christmas present, a litrgical desk diary with comments on the daily Mass readings, prayer and inspirational quotes for each page per day. What alovely thought! I can work on improving my Italian all year round! We went to Vespers and adoration together at the Convent, so that I could introduce Clare and say thank you for their kindness.

Such lovely and inspiring friends and companions in prayer to have made!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Market pressures

Clare arrives today, and I was awake at first light, thinking about getting everything in order to welcome her. I cooked a minestrone soup ready last night, as we'll be late in from the airport. Outside, it's another day of thunder, rain and wind. It's also market day, so I walked early to the other end of town, to see if could buy some more of the exquisite green olives I enjoyed last week. Due to the weather, many stall holders were ate setting up, but the veggie stall I visited last week was well up and running. 

I stopped by the tubs of olives set out on the ground, three kinds, plus a tub of pickled peppers, a plastic sack of hazel nuts in their shells, another of chick peas, and another sack probably walnuts, but so big they looked like new potatoes through the translucent material. The little old man with crooked teeth and an impenetrable accent who served me last week was serving an old lady, gallantly helping her to distinguish her centestimi. When he saw me, he looked down at the green olives. "Si - ancora. Ci senti buonissimo" I said, and he nodded agreement. I was touched he'd remembered me from all the people passing through last Wednesday morning. I bought 1,150 grammes of olives, half green, half black for ten euros.

He then started eulogising about the wine and olive oil in his rich Sicilian tones, urging me to take some of  the wine. I picked up the red. "Cinque euros" he said, then insisted the white was very good and must be tried. 'E basta' said I. But he ignored me and put a bottle of white in the bag. I guess what he said was: "Try this, and you'll want to pay me for it next week." In my protestant way, I paid another ten euros for 2 litre plastic bottles of red and white wine. 'Confezionato da Musumeci Salvatore, ACI S. Antonio Italia', it said on the label. I wonder if that's him or his family? I crossed my fingers it would be OK, and managed to be firm and say that I didn't need two litres of freshly pressed unfiltered olive oil as well before Christmas but possibly after. In retrospect, maybe I did really, and should have bought some. Oil straight from the farm. What if there's no market on Boxing Day?  Anyway, the wine is young, it tastes good for a vino di tavola and I have no regrets about the unforeseen outlay.

By the time I had lugged my purchases home, the heavens were delivering hail as well as rain and thunder. It's not really cold, and conditions change often. In fact, it's like early Spring weather - quite entertaining.   Starting early for the airport and stopping over en route in Catania, risking a soaking to look around town for a couple of hours doesn't seem worth it. Better to relax and leave tourism to another finer day? 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Fast broadband day

After breakfast and while I was writing, the sound of chainsaw resumed in the distance, the guys were finishing yesterday's job in the garden on the south side of the church. This time, lots of cutting up to do, to get manageable chunks of palm trunk down from the terrace to where they could be loaded on to a truck. They'd gone by the time I went to the shops to find those last minute things that Clare will appreciate finding when she arrives tomorrow.

I chatted with my usual veggie trader, enquiring about his two varieties of smaller fruit of the orange variety. Were the clementines or satusmas I was wondering. I bought the ones he recommended, but he threw in three of the smaller ones. "Per se educare" he said with a smile. A vendor with a vocation to teach about the produce he sells - great! He noticed my cross, and asked what was I. I explained I was the capellano anglicano di Sant Giorgio. He smiled and corrected my fudged pronunciation of 'Giorgio'. "I belong to the other lot" (in translation) he said, "But I don't go." How very Established Church of him, I thought.

It's been another rainbow day, sunshine and showers and now this evening wind and rain. The apartment is unusually hot, however, since the wind that howls tonight doesn't chill the house, on the north side of the church, as much as when I first arrived. The outside temperate is 11-12 degrees, warm enough to stroll without a topcoat, unless it rains.

On examination I discovered that notices distributed on Sunday advertising Christmas services omitted the Christmas Day celebration. After an exchange of emails with a church warden and secretary plus a couple of phone calls, a corrected file arrived, and I headed off to a place in the Piazza San Antonio where I was advised I could get copies printed and decent internet access at a price. 

I've been nervous of this up until now, and as a result accumulated some 274 photographs to upload to my Picasa website, having been scared off the possible cost of uploading by mobile broadband, by stern notifications giving no idea of what the actual cost to end users of uploading or downloading data really means. At least with phone services you get an intelligible notification with prices. But how do I know exactly what a megabyte of data consists of, whether uploaded or downloaded? How many web pages, I can visit, how often, how many photos I can upload, and how many I can view? Please, service providors, tell me the bottom line, not in abstractions but in the real pages and files I want to shift.

Should I be bothered? A guy about my age in Edicole, the newsagents cum internet shop, was laid back and welcoming. I'd heard that i/d is requested, on counter terrorism grounds, thought not in my case. Silver hair and a european accent are passport enough of their own. It woudl be different too, if I'd been younger and browner skinned with an oriental lilt to my voice. It took a few minutes to print my poster copies. I paid €4 for 14, quite decent really - I was told it'd be expensive. 

The half hour internet access slot I bought for €3. It took thirteen minutes to upload fifty megabytes of photos. I then spent the rest of the time writing captions and sending a few of emails, delighted to have decent speed internet with no latency in viewing or accessing files. 

The other half of the downstairs part of the newsagents is given over to arcade gaming and slot machines. Thankfully it was a quiet time of day and only one person was playing slot machines. With half a dozen going at once it would have been unbearable.

Today I took a brolly for the first time, and joined the masses in using one. Here (probably) Tamil young men cruise the streets with an armful of brollies, hoping for custom from visitors caught unawares. They are bright eyed and charming, willing to put themselves out to earn a few euros. They fit in well to the Sicilian ethos.

This evening I'm cooking for tomorrow evening, as I intend to be out all day.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Palm Tree felling day

At half past eight, while I was at my desk writing, I heard sounds of voices and equipment being carried up the back steps into the church grounds. Then at nine, the first penetrating buzz of a chainsaw being applied to one of several diseased palm trees in the garden, needing to be taken down safely before they become a danger to the public.

'The axe is laid to the roots of the tree' said John the Baptist in the Gospel for Gaudete Sunday. Well, not here. Four metre high palm trees in a confined space must be taken down from the top, slice by slice, half a metre thick, weighing around a hundred kilos apiece. Each has to be manhandled away from the site. Fortunately, they can be rolled down the steps and out of the bottom gate. As each piece bumps down the steps, at the end of the terrace I feel as well as hear the vibration. When the crown of the tree comes safely to rest, I can see it's hollowed out to half its diameter, burrowed down half a metre by the insects which have taken its life. 

I hear the three guys chatting while they work, it's rich tones of Sicilian dialect I hear, although I hardly understand a word since it's not as clearly pronounced as Italian. There are four trees to do. It'll be a hard day's work for them.

The first trees they tackled stood beside the path leading to the apartment at the west end of the church, moving on by midday to two on the south side terrace. When I walked through to watch them working on the terrace, there was a faint sweet smell in the air, like hay in a stable, not as pungent as wood sawdust. Palms are, I believe, a giant kind of grass, so it's understandable. As well as Salvatore, keeping a keen eye on the work, a couple of men had come in off the street to watch the three at work.

In between taking photographs I prepared a pasta sauce for lunch. The chainsaw sound stopped, I went out to see how far they'd got. The three were seated around the garden table outside the church door enjoying sandwiches and a beer. Buon appetito I said, and they raised sandwiches in salute.

While I was out shopping for food, the guys had cleared away foliage and tree trunk sections and left for the day, with just one two and a half metre section of trunk to take down. Then it will be all safe and ready for the US Navy social outreach team to turn up on Saturday for their garden tidy up. Quite an unusual sort of day. So glad the weather was decent. Daytime temperatures have gone up to 14-15 degrees.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Gaudete Sunday

Yesterday I forgot to mention that while I was watching the wedding I noticed, along the Sant Agostino balcony railing overlooking the Gulf of Naxos, sixty-odd small padlocks attached to the ironwork. Some small, some old and rusty, some heavy and expensive looking. One even had a combination lock dial. I recall hearing back in the autumn a news item about a bridge across the Seine in Paris festooned with padlocks. Couples pledge their love to each other then throw the key into the river as a symbol of permanent dedication. I take it this romantic phenomenon has now reached Taormina as well 

Advent III, Gaudete Sunday, aka Ministry Sunday, but I forgot to remind them to pray for vocations. Today the ministry of President Obama was in our thoughts, raising the issue of gun control in the aftermath of the infant school massacre in Connecticut. There were six of us for this morning's Eucharist. Churchwarden Una came from Catania and bravely played the organ, declaring herself to be a still a learner. She had to practice two hymns before the service began, and played slowly, but we got through just fine. One member of the congregation brought her four year old granddaughter. During the service she stayed happily with caretaker Salvatore. "She loves him. He's a wonderful substitute grandfather." I was told.

Next Friday morning, the congregation, nearly all women, will get together to build St George's nativity scene. Next Sunday we'll sing carols. I think I'll rearrange lessons as well, and make the Ministry of the Word more of a lessons and carols type service, as some of the congregation will be unable to attend Christmas Day. And why not adapt. The important thing is that God's people are fed when they need it most.

I made another experiment cooking pleurotte mushrooms as part of lunch today with a mix of lentils, chick peas, onion, tomato, red pepper and garlic, served with rice. They still taste a bit bland to me. Next time I buy them, I'll try marinading them first.

It was mild enough to walk out with no top coat on this afternoon. The setting sun in a cloudy sky was once more spectacular and unique. I've taken more photos of Mount Etna in all weathers than any other subject. It's irresistible, spellbinding in late afternoon. Which makes me wonder at what time of day do lovers come out with their padlocks in this most public of places?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Testament Lesson

It turned warmer overnight, and I switched the central heating off for comfort. With sun shining through haze, I walked to the piazza Sant Agostino, where people dessed in their most stylish back outfits were arriving for a wedding, and kept arriving for the next thrre quarters of an hour. Apparently the bride and groom were already there, to judge by the occasional round of applause and faint sounds of music coming from within.

A Fiat Cinquecento nuovo decorated for a wedding car was parked in front of Sant Guiseppe church. A young lady in party dress was in charge of it, and spent the first half of the ceremony outside on the church balcony, dangling the car keys and smoking a cigarette with the guys, before squeezing herself in through the crowds blocking the entrance. Parked in front of the wedding car was a shiny vintage Cinquecento. I saw it there last week, used as a prop for the Korean fashion photo shoot I watched. The fifty year old model is two thirds the volume of the modern version with its innovative turbocharged flat twin cylinder eco-engine. The Nuovo looks roughly the same, but doesn't have grandad's charm.

I was amazed at how people came and went from the church taking a peek, then stopping outside to chat. Some guests didn't go in at all, mostly men. I watched two expensively attired older guys walk up and down talking intensely arm in arm for the best part of an hour. When their spouses turned up near the end, they came from the shopping street rather than the church. Either bride or groom, or both, must work for the 'Protezione Civile' as several of the guest donned their official jackets to form a guard of honour for the exit, and posed for photographs together with the happy couple. They'd been in church for at least an hour and a quarter, somewhat longer than an British wedding, though the photo/video shoot following took just as long. The guests strolled off up the Corso toward the Porta Catania, to retrieve their cars and go to the reception. 

Bride and groom left the piazza last, with him driving the Cinquecento Nuovo after a photo in front of the Christmas tree. Just then, an electrician on a mobile platform was hanging lights above and behind them on the tree. He didn't stop working, nor did he hide. Will he be cropped out of the official photos I wonder? Not in mine for sure. Earlier I observed the caretaker, removing decorative ornamental trees, then sweeping up rice from the church balcony, working around guests still there photographing the bride and groom. No sense of deference to the occasion as you'd find in Britain. Even so it was a time for happy meeting and greeting for scores of people, before during and after. Parking half a kilometre away and walking to church chatting on the way is part of what they're used to, part of making time for important moments in life.

It was business as usual for Vespers at the convent this evening. Their simple presepio is erected in one of the central arcades of the nave in front of a votive altar. Joseph and Mary stand gazing down at an empty crib, ready to welcome the Christ-child. The blanket awaiting the baby in the crib is a Jewish prayer shawl. Underneath is a sheep's fleece, either side two recumbent china lambs The holy couple stand with backs to a rustic stable door, with a key-hole in it. Framing the key-hole is a golden star of David. In front is a dish with seven tea-lights - one for each day of the week before Christmas, the days of the great 'O' Magnificat antiphons. How well thought out this scene is, to remind us, as Suore Tarcisia did in her Thursday evening talk, of the Jewish roots of Christian faith. Not in the Old Testament as we're used to calling it, she reminded us, but in the First Testament, the one in which Jesus was raised and nurtured.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Preparing for the feast

On my way to get food for the weekend from the supermarket this morning I was out in the open when I heard the noise of the recorded midday Angelus from above the town. I noticed it seemed to come from the Sanctuario della Madonna della Rocca, well placed for sound propoagation, 200 metres above the town on Monte Tauro. I've listened to it a number of times down below, also when I was outside the Duomo up at Castelmole, where the sound was much better quality. I wondered if the church had a mechanical carillon of bells, and if a recording of this was relayed from the Sanctuario. The sound from Castelmole would be most likely inaudible in Taormina because Monte Tauro, site of the Sanctuario blocks the sound propagation.

As I got to Porta Catania the penultimate decorative garland was being hung in the southern section of the Corso. From Porta Media to here must have all been done this morning, as nothing in the second section done when I walked back from the Cathedral yesterday evening, although the first section, completed on Tuesday was lit up. I don't imagine anything could be done in yesterday's rain either. So the lighting installation crew have worked hard. Winter wonderland it will be, for visitors and retailers alike.

This afernoon I explored a steep narrow valey, almost a ravine, to the north and west of the Messina gate. Despite the forbidding terrain apartment blocks and houses, some of the small hotels were plumbed into the mountainside. Castelmola towers directly above but there no direct path up. A little lower down is the Scala Branco, another long flight of steps which ascends to the ridge, which joins Monte Tauro and its Saracen Castle to the heights of Castelmola. I climbed up, went along the ridge, packed with houses, apartments and hotels, visited the Sanctuario della Madonna della Rocca - this time closed - pausing to confirm that there is a tannoy type loudspeaker up there facing Taormina, and then descending the via Crucis steps to return home. A decent short hike, only just avoiding a soak, as it started to drizzle when I reached the Corso.

No Vespers at the convent tonight, as the sisters are all engaged with building their 'presepio' - nativity scene - in place of the usual community Office. Looking forward to seeing it. After all, it was Italian Franciscans in the 13th century who originated an idea which spread across the world.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Santa Lucia II

At the end of a quiet afternoon, I walked to the Duomo down the Corso, enchantingly lit for the first time this festive season, to rendezvous with Suore Tarcisia for the ecumenical meeting after the Mass of Santa Lucia. She took me into the sacristy resembling a wood panelled Oxbridge college common room complete with ancient portraits and a refectory table surrounded by a group of men in discussion. There I was introduced to the priest in charge. Or was he an arch-priest, since this is an archiprestal church, like the one in the centre of Vinaros. Both buildings, a thousand miles apart shared the same fortress like exterior - a reflection of  Spanish rule here in the 17th century. He welcomed me publicly at the start of Mass, and to my astonishment, I was given a round of applause. 

For the Eucharistic Prayer, he used the ancient Roman Canon, which mentions Lucia by name. I remember when this was only said in Latin, and when it was first awkwardly translated for in modern English before the the other eucharistic options were added to Roman rite, setting a precedent for every other denomination with a liturgical committee. Following in Italian was no problem. Its unusual structure remains lodged in my memory from liturgical studies at St Mike's, and hearing it used at university chaplaincy Masses during my time at St Francis Hall Birmingham, 1973.

There were about sixty people at Mass on this dark rainy night. Half of them stayed on afterwards for the ecumenical meeting. Suore Tarcisia spoke to an excellently produced Powerpoint presentation on relations between Jews and Christians, outlining two millennia of history, explaining the Vatican II document 'Nostra Aetate' and its implications for people in the pews. I had the impression this was an event for young people. The age range was between 25 and 75, and they were sympathetically engaged with the speaker and subject, to judge from sotto voce comments made throughout.

I was invited to contribute afterwards, with the promise that Suore Tarcisia would rescue me through the emergency medium of French if necessary. I used part of my little Italian script, and struggled to exclude interference from stray Spanish and French words, so stupidly determined was I not to lapse into English. The audience was so open and sympathetic (and probably cosmopolitan, given the town they live in) I could have spoken in any European language and been understood to a degree. 

I said a little about how dialogue and evangelization belonged together, because of a love of the Word of God all people of faith shared. I spoke about the struggle to communicate and live together with differences, and how important silence was for letting the Spirit in to work on our hearts. All in broken language for sure. But as Kosuke Koyama said thirty years ago in Japan, it was communication of good news in broken language which introduced his father to Christ, around the turn of the twentieth century. In mission, we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

At the end, the priest in charge thanked me, and made a joke about what being retired means, then invited me to give the blessing. I was a little overwhelmed by this. I gave the final greeting in Italian, the Aaronic blessing in English and concluded with the trinitarian invocation in Italian. I've never done that before.

What a privileged evening for a restless old geezer like me. The more I reflect on the many things I've experienced of modern global Christianity and its cultures throughout my adult life, the more each piece seems to belong to the others and somehow finds relevance here and now. Nothing is wasted or redundant, and there's joy to be found in every fresh connection made.

Santa Lucia I

The apartment was chilly when I woke up, but thankfully the heating hadn't broken. I'd accidentally switched it off last night without realising. Rain was falling copiously and cloud obscuring the horizon and the mountains overhead. Last night, I washed some clothes and put out a shirt and some trousers to drip damp dry overnight. When I rescued them they'd had an extra rinsing. The weather is forecasted to stay like this for several days to come. I laughed out loud at the short scripture reading for Lauds. It opens: "Rain righteousness you heavens, let the skies above pour down ..." I'll have to pick my moment to go out and inspect the Christmas preparations.

Today is Santa Lucia, though her festival is only observed with with style in Syracusa where she was martyred in 304AD, not further afield. Syracus is a city with a 2,700 year history. It's where Archimedes, archtypal scientist and inventor was born and worked when the place was in Greek hands five centuries before Lucia met her death in Diocletian's reign of terror. Norma called me to check if I'd made a rendezvous with Soeur Tarcisia for tonight's ecumenical meeting at the Duomo, and said that Syracusa, two hours travel south of here, was the most rewarding of all places to visit for its history and buildings, with free parking on arrival, if going by car, a bonus. Perhaps a family outing in the last week of the year?

The rain eased around midday, so I went out to get some olive oil and dates. Decorations were finished as far as piazza Sant Agostino, also the Christmas tree. Rain suddenly poured again with a vengeance on a newly-weds descending the steps from Sant Giuseppe with a milling crowd of guests. Scores of umbrellas went up in an instant. Bride and groom plus many others made a dash for the sheltering arch of the adjacent Porta Medio. I lost sight of the happy couple under cover of an umbrella gridlock. A few moments later, members of the bridal party took shelter in the beautifully stylish foyer of the Hotel Metropole the other side of the arch, leaving the remaining guests to walk up the southern stretch of the Corso under their brollies. I caught them again on camera after shopping, just as they were leaving the hotel, escorted to their car by a sword bearing best man in military ceremonial dress, grinning from ear to ear.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

At last, the weekly market!

When I looked out at seven fifteen this morning, the hillside opposite was bathed in golden orange light from the rising sun. I ran on to the terrace in my pyjamas to take a photo. It was milder than expected so I didn't get chilled. The photo looks as if it's been artificially re-touched - one of nature's surprises. I made porridge for breakfast and added a persimmon/cechi for sweetness. It was a delightfully sensuous taste to start the day with.

After writing my meditation for the day and saying the Office, I headed across town for the open air market. The second phase of overhead Christmas decorative lights installation was well under way on the Corso. Piazza Sant Agostino was a hive of horticultural activity. A Christmas tree was erected, around its base, a bank of black volcanic earth, foundation for a fringe of potted poinsettias, holly bushes and topiary creatures, kept in place by grass turf. It'll look enchanting when finished. 

The car park above the old town with a view of Mount Etna was full of market stalls and farm trucks, around thirty. Clothes and shoes predominated. Four stalls sold electrical and household goods, half a dozen, fruit and veg. I bought a 1 litre pan with a handle for €10. That'll make cooking easier when there's two of us to cater for. Pistaccio, almond, chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts are all on sale,   brought straight from the farms, but I didn't buy any this week. I went for end of season purple plums and green olives, which are in season this month, along with oranges (memories for me of Palestine). I was offered one to taste. Its rich flavour stayed fresh on my palate most of the way home.

Product promotion here isn't necessary. Shoppers know what they're looking for in a market so ruled by the seasons. The only certain packaging with purchases in Italy is a plastic bag, hard to refuse except in supermarkets. They don't litter the landscape now like they did thirty five years ago when we first travelled south camping with the kids. Black bin bags are used in public trash cans but not that much elsewhere. Retail plastic bags get re-cycled for household waste and taken to communal bins emptied daily. Most streets have them. Bottle recycling stations are fewer and far between.

This afternoon I descended the steps to the SS114 main road, and went northwards along the coastal 'lido' strip through Spisone to Letojanni. Of hundreds of hotels and restaurants on this 5km stretch just one small bar was open for business. I walked on the beach for a while. The only sign of life was a few swifts hunting for insects in front of a white marble sea scoured limestone outcrop with a hotel perched precariously on top of it. It looked a bit abandoned and neglected. Few signs here of a tidy up in preparation for Christmas holidaymakers.

Letojanni is exclusively a holiday village, apart from a couple of dozen in-shore fishing boats parked on the beach, a hamlet transformed by a train station. The town, about 400 metres wide, is hemmed into the shore by the railway line and the via Nazionale. Behind them, the autostrada runs along the coast through tunnels over 50 metre high viaducts. 150 metres above the town, stands a huge holiday complex built into the mountainside. I can see its lights from where I'm sitting writing, but I doubt if it's open now. I wonder if its occupants go down and overwhelm the beach in summer months?

Returning to Mazzaro just as darkness fell, I rejected a quick ride home on the cable car in favour of the walk up the steps to Taormina . The ascent took me half an hour, an eleven kilometre walk had taken its toll, but I recovered sufficiently to join the nuns for Vespers and adoration, recharging spirit and body in one go.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Countdown to Christmas

I bought some freshly picked clementines from the veggie seller with his little truck in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and also a tray of three smaller 'cecchi' - persimmons, which he said were sweet. I was curious about the difference between these and the larger one I bought last Saturday. As it turned out, a world of difference. The were all as soft to the touch as an over-ripe tomato, and I wondered if they were going off when I took them out of the bag at home. They have no characteristic aroma so I decided to try one. I was amazed at the difference between this and the larger firmer one. It's as deliciously soft, sweet and juicy as a mango, best opened and eaten with a spoon. On my shopping list in future, definitely.

A team of contractors was out by the Messina gate hanging the first public Christmas decorations from balconies either side of the Corso. I could see garlands of artificial greenery and electrical cables going up and when I passed again later in the afternoon, lights were suspended from them, ready for the big switch on, whenever that will be. Another work team was out in the Piazza tidying the huge evergreen canopy of the grove of trees in front of Taormina's congress hall. The countdown the the Christmas holday season with a surge of additional guests has started.

It's a pretty tidy town, with plenty of well maintained litter bins. You don't ever see much litter in the streets considering the number of visitors daily. I haven't yet come across any of those horrible noisy street sweeping machines here either, just street cleaners, un-ostentatiously doing their job. I heard a mother by the Catania Gate reproach her three year old for dropping a sweet paper. Then she stopped and picked it up to put in a bin, setting the right example to her little one.

Just outside Catania Gate I found this afternoon a small paved memorial garden to civilian victims of the bombing of Taormina, dedicated on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. I sat there for a while, enjoying the warmth of the setting sun. No chill breeze today. One of the local old men was perched on the wall nearby, observing and commenting to me, as it turned out, on the obstructive behaviour of some of the motorists stopped outside the Gate.

I didn't quite understand him, which meant I didn't admit to speaking any Italian, thereby depriving myself of an opportunity of conversation. He wanted to know where I was from and tried out his smattering of English, French and German chat up lines on me - no doubt used on the ladies when he was younger. He told me proudly that he was eighty, and looked at least ten years less. Then a van drew up and he got in. It seems he was waiting for a lift home. The van was driven by the veggie seller. From the resemblance between them, I imagine they were father and son, or uncle and nephew, on their way home at the end of a winter's day in the sun.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Bobbo Natale

Thunder and rain bustled away overnight, leaving a clear bright cold morning behind. Across the straits of Messina, 20 miles away the mountains of Calabria have their first white caps of winter. Europe north to south is in the grip of ice and snow, whether much or little. On my way to the supermarket, I stopped in the Piazza St Agostino to marvel at a beautifully clear view of Mouth Etna. The snow line has dropped another few hundred metres. Some higher villages in the paese d'Etna are digging their way out this morning, I was told by church secretary Jane, who rang me before I went out.

I mentioned to her that over the weekend I'd seen a photo in a local tourism brochure showing a ski slope. She said her youngsters regarded it as fairly easy stuff. But what great views! The common complaint was that when snow came, resort management didn't respond quickly enough to take advantage of it. Come to think of it, why bother early on? A change of weather can soon put everyone in shirt sleeves and melt snow cover in a few days, unless you have a several metres depth at your disposal. These days that's an increasing rarity everywhere, due to global warming.

I noticed a couple of kids' events in the Christmas festive schedule posted all over town, featuring 'Bobbo Natale'. Who's this? I wondered before checking the giant dictionary the house is blessed with. Obvious really - Father Christmas, who else? More festive decorations are gradually appearing in shops and on the balconies of apartments in the narrow back streets, though it's not wildly excessive, and that's a holiday for the eyes to this visitor.

I followed the road down past the cemetery again this afternoon, re-tracing my steps in daylight to the point where the descending footpath became a night mare one evening last week. I noticed a small hotel and a house on the edge of a steep slope locked and barred - dangerous because of landslip, built on a not very stable foundation, definitely not limestone bedrock. I wonder how they got permission to build? 

The road beyond the cemetery winds down a few curves and leads to a large plateau the size of a couple of football fields put together. It was overgrown, there were several ruined houses and a notice saying private keep out, beware of dog, but no gates. It looks as if it should be prime building land, not idle waste land. But maybe the steep sided hill standing about 130 metres above the sea is made of unsuitable material for building on. It's a puzzle, must find out.

I joined the nuns again for adoration and Vespers tonight, and walked back the long way to pass through streets still active, warmly lit by shops open for business, even if most restaurants remain shut until the big Christmas holiday influx begins. I really noticed the chill, being out after dark.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Second Advent Sunday

Showers of rain punctuated the day from first light, presenting unending cloud variations over the sea rendering the air chilly. The church apartment is nice and warm but the church heating isn't on yet! There were seven of us plus Salvatore the caretaker for this Sunday's Eucharist. Two men came from Catania. One works in Brussels and attends Holy Trinity Anglican Church when he's there. We invited our guest to read the lessons. Several of the few regulars will be away for Christmas. It's hard to imagine who will attend services, although visitors every Sundays are the norm. While I was preaching, there were rumbles of thunder. It awakened a memory of preaching in a thunderstorm, in country church at Black River Jamaica thirty years ago. I couldn't resist telling this to the congregation afterwards.

After lunch I went for a walk down the steps to the sea shore, having found an alternative route for the upper section of the walk, past the football stadium just downhill from the church. Both are about the same length. The route I just discovered has a steep section of road and few steps. It's a steep climb either way.There wasn't a single bar, restaurant or hotel open along the coast road, and not a single person on the beach by Isola Bella. It was like a ghost town, but lovely in the light of the afternoon sun.

When I got back, Pfarrer Andreas, German Lutheran Church chaplain for communities in Sicily had just arrived and was preparing for their five o'clock service. We chatted in English. He also speaks French having worked in Brussels, and is already pretty competent in Italian, as he travels all over Sicily ministering to German expats. The Lutherans have another service this month, on Christmas Eve at three. I'll be the only service that day as there aren't enough people to sustain a celebration other than one on Christmas morning, so hopefully we shall join them. That will make our festivities somewhat different from usual.

Suore Tarcisia rang the bell just before the Lutheran service was about to start, she had come to convey greetings from the Vicar General of Messian who had been due to come to the service this evening and welcome the new Pastor, who's only been in Sicily four months. She came to tell me about a meeting on ecumenism for young people in the Duomo this Thursday, which she's involved. I'd seen it advertised on the Duomo noticeboard yesterday and that made me curious, so I enquired this morning of Norma. All trails led back to Suore Tarcisia! She'll be introducing the group to the Jewish roots of Christianity, preparing for a meeting with Sicily's remaining rabbi from Syracuse and she's invited me to join her in this venture. If I get stuck speaking Italian, we have French in common to fall back on. I'm in my element here.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Immaculata Day

Up at dawn, I arrived at the convent for Lauds and Mass by ten to seven. I watched the light percolate the clouds and gently illuminate a grove of citrus trees below the driveway. The grove is planted over the site of a 10th-11th century Byzantine-Arab necropolis. The via Pirandello runs along the base of it, where remains of a columbarium wall stands in a strip of garden just above the street. Sant Pietro church across the road down a flight of steps 200m away, is said to be Taormina's oldest church, dating back over a millenium. It seems to have been used as a cemetery chapel for centuries, and has a communal grave within it. Pity it was locked when I went to see it after the service.

I enjoyed a serene hour of prayer, easy to participate, but with one exception - nowhere could I find the Lord's Prayer printed out for me to read in Italian. So on various occasions I said it in French or in Welsh instead. Not printed? The book editors assume regular service book users know it off by heart. This presumes a common text in use, unlike English and Welsh rites which both have two.

Public holiday maybe, but apart from offices usually shut on Saturdays, all that was open yesterday was open today. Including the ironmongers. The pans he'd ordered had arrived. I was delighted with my small purchase. The Corsa Umberto was alive with tourists, and locals greeting each other in exuberant stage voices which make me think of 'Inspector Motalbano'. The chorus of 'ciao' people greeting each other  sometimes  sounds like a rookery. In the middle of Piazza San Agostino, a statue of the immaculate Virgin stood displayed on a plain cafe table. Was from a restaurant? Or from San Giuseppe? Visitors circulated, giving it a wide berth. When I returned later it had gone. An eccentric local custom I wonder?

In the piazza del Duomo kids were running around, adults were dressed for church, suggesting an event within. Inside a happy couple with a newly christened child posed for family pictures in front of the altar. A statue of the Immaculata was installed in the high altar tabernacle niche, just for the day. The altar-table standing before the high altar has a 3-D terracotta frontal based on Leonardo's Last Supper iconography. A notice appended to it solicits donations to cast this image in bronze - like the north and west bronze doors. It's good that a classic decorative form of sculpture is still being proposed to enhance a liturgical space.

I spent the afternoon getting the Sunday sermon ready to preach. My early morning start caught up with me compelling me to nap for half an hour before my evening passegiatina. This time out, I scanned shop windows for different nativity representations, such variety on offer to buy. I found a shop with an outside show case housing several miniature representations for sale. But for some, like the sportswear shop, mounting a nativity scene was clearly something they just do in December.

Using a picture dictionary I found on the shelf this evening, I identified the strange fruit which I ate half of at supper last night and half with my porridge this morning as a 'cachi' - persimmon in English. Now I know what they look like, and what to ask for next time I buy one. Not that there's that much attraction to eat one again soon. To my mind it's decent filler for a fruit salad, but not that interesting a flavour to eat on its own.

Friday, 7 December 2012


More rain and wind in the night, but it was clearing up by the time I awoke after a good long sleep. The climb to Castelmola yesterday took its toll on me. While sweeping the terrace of storm blown detritus this morning a three legged white 'n ginger cat came to inspect me, then scampered nimbly away when I acknowledged its presence.

After a couple of hours writing and praying, I went for my daily walk up and down the Corso Umberto. Yesterday was St Nicholas' Day. Today I noticed life sized santas had appeared outside two shops - one of them a tacky inflatable. Stylistically incongruous in this setting. I bought veggies in the covered market,  also piece of fruit the size of a small melon I don't recall seeing before. It has smooth yellowy orange skin, like a giant berry. Cut open, it has peach coloured flesh and star shaped marks radiating from its core, with tiny pips. It tastes like a cross between a kiwi and a peach, with similar texture. There wasn't a recognisable name on the box containing them, and I forgot to ask the man who sold it to me.

After yesterday I didn't fancy a long afternoon walk, so after lunch I went down to inspect the public cemetery, about a kilometre away. It contains what's known as Anglo-American cemetery with earth graves only, and monuments reflecting the occupants. Why it's not called the expatriates cemetery I don't know, as a quarter of those interred there are German. I found two Anglican retired clerics buried there, also someone from Porthmadog whose Celtic cross monument would be worthy of a place in Llandaff Cathedral's graveyard.

Most touching was the grave of a mother and three daughters who drowned themselves off Taormina in 1939. They were Jews taking refuge here from Nazi Germany, only to see the horror about to repeat itself when they thought they were safe. I read about this the day before yesterday in a book given me by Suore Tarcisia, which she wrote on the history of the Taormina Franciscan missionary community. I also found their little corner of the cemetery overlooking the sea, simply ordered and well tended.

They family were buried in a large plot, covered with an inscribed stone citing a verse written about them by a local poet. Either side are graves surmounted by crosses. The grave was chosen and paid for by expatriate well-wishers to defy anyone with designs on consigning these tragic victims to an obscure corner where they could later be quietly forgotten as a local embarrasment.

The point of this gesture has not been forgotten seventy years on. Many tombs throughout the entire cemetery have votive lamps burning before them, these days electrically powered. This facility doesn't extend to the older expatriate sector, but someone with a heart has run an extension lead from four storey tower block columbarium in the next sector, to power a light for this grave only. Recognition that this story still touches popular imagination.

On the way home I bought some post cards, wrote them, then walked to the Post Office where I queued for fifteen minutes to buy stamps. No stamp machines. The lady in the Tabac opposite the church told me they didn't sell them any longer. There was a guy in a wheel chair busking with blues style harmonica under the arch of the Porta di Mezzo, close to where the post boxes are situated. No post pox outside the post office! It seemed a strangely incongruous sound. However, when I passed by earlier in the day, I saw a Korean crew doing a photo shoot with a clothes model and an old fiat cinquecento in the Piazza. What amused me was her attendant with a hair dryer. His job (out of shot) was to make the girl's hair take off as she smiled to camera. Also incongruous.

To complete the day, before supper, I joined the Sisters for the first Vespers of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and a half hour's meditation to follow. Tomorrow, I'm told, is one of Italy's many Bank Holidays to honour the occasion. We'll see what impact this has on life in tourism town.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Castelmola in the rain

St Nicholas Day began with a rain shower and gusts of wind, but sun poked through the clouds, encouraging me to walk to the far end of town to see if there was an open air market going on. There wasn't, but for the first time, at a crossing up the hill beyond Catania gate I saw a sign declaring traffic regulations in the narrow streets for market on Wednesdays. It's the only place I've seen any public information on this matter. Well, now I know.

Not wanting to squander the climb so far, I carried on uphill until I found the via Saraceni and the start of the climb up and around the steep hillside to Castelmola. There was a cold wind but the sun shone, so conditions were just right for going up, and up, and up! The steps were less well maintained than those containing the via Crucis I climbed last Saturday, with attending street lamp standards broken or missing and the wooden handrails rotting and collapsed in parts, but it was fine underfoot and the views were ravishing, even of approaching rain clouds.

I made it off the mountainside and into the lowest street level, and was surprised how much more of a climb there was through narrow lanes to reach the main square, and above this the ruins of the old castle. The via Saraceni continued into the village, and didn't seem to link up at all with the tenth century Saracen fortress sitting on a separate peak 400 feet below us towards the sea. Castelmola's highest point is 1,700 feet above sea level, so I'd climbed up 1,100 feet to get there.

The wind was pretty chilly and before long the rain clouds loomed over the town and showers began. I took refuge from the showers in the main church. It was first raised in the sixteenth century, but rebuilt in 1936 in an eclectic mix of Gothic, Moorish and Norman styles. The west front with a terrace looking out towards Mt Etna was pure Romanesque in its fine carved decoration. It was ranked as a Duomo though no more than a big village church. Is there a bishop of Castelmonte I wonder?

I drank a welcome hot chocolate in the bar on the main piazza, and set off to walk back down the road. I'd not gone more than a kilometre when the wind and rain pciked up. There was no placd to hide, so I retraced my steps to a large ugly coach and car park behind the town, furthest from the pretty side, and here sat out the cloudburst in a bus shelter for twenty minutes until a rainbow appeared.

Fearing a repeat performance I returned through the streets abck to the steps to descend the quick way. Finding where they started was less than easy in the opposite direction. The lunchtime streets were almost deserted, but I met a man returning from feeding his rabbits and enquired. When I found them, I jogged town the steps, which aren't too steep thankfully, and dodged a soaking. It started in earnest just after I got home, precluding any further outings. I cooked lunch and did some washing instead, glad to have escaped a complete drenching high above. Later I learned that going down by the road is a two hour walk. Glad I didn't discover that the hard, wet way.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Missionary Fellowship

I got to Suore Tarcia's convent in time to join the community for a half hour's silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament preceding Vespers. The convent has a beautiful square cloister reminiscent of moorish architecture, although the building is not that old. The chapel is built in simple classical Graeco-
Roman style. 

The property was a friary until 1866 when the government of the newly unified Italy suppressed relgious community houses. It was bought and sold three times, the last owner being Sir Edward Hill, builder of Cardiff's dry dock. He lived there in retirement with his daughter Mabel. They had a chaplain and held Anglican services there. Mabel was active in creating local educational projects, working with Catholic religious orders. Her zeal led to the building of St George's Church when they sold their home and returned to Britain. The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary bought it, and still live there.

After the service I was invited to supper with the community, both an honour and a delight, as many of the nuns, like Suore Tarcisa spoke French, from their early training and their African missionary work, so conversation was lively, even if it didn't do my Italian learning much good. It's great to have so many like minded people praying together close by. I'm welcome to join them for prayer any time I can make it. Saturday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is one of their special holidays, and an Italian public holiday too. That'll do my Italian language exposure good.

Co-incidental meetings

Gusts of wind, rain, dramatic clouds and then sunshine painting land and sea with light made the morning interesting to behold through the window as I wrote my daily reflection and said the Divine Office. Having finally found the nearest local bottle re-cycling bins yesterday I went out to deposit them and met Suore Tarcisa on my way there. She asked when I was coming to Vespers, and I told her that yesterday I discovered the convent front drive and gate control system. She confirmed that I only had press the button and ask for her, and we agreed on a rendezvous at five to six this evening.

Delighted, I went my way, deposited the empty bottles and continued into town. Small groups of people chatting, dressed in black, were walking down the steps as I walked up. They looked as if they'd come from a funeral. Then, I met Marcia, my companion at Saturday evening's ecumenical outing, walking along the Corso Umberto. Such a co-incidence that I should meet the two of them so close together. We chatted in the sunlit street for ages, outside a restaurant where someone indoors was practicing classical piano with great skill, while a jack russell terrier stood at the glass front door, silently staring at us, wagging its tail.

Marcia reminisced about previous chaplains, and about earlier generations of the family which has taken care of St George's church since it was built in 1920. I asked her about the funeral and she said that people had been returning from a wedding at San Guiseppe church in piazza San Agostino. Surprisingly, black is as customary for women and men weddings here as for funerals. Marcia told me that often in warmer times of year several weddings can occur on any suitable day in different churches. For many couples this is a dream location and they come at great expense from far and wide: if not for the prayer, for the photo opportunity Taormina presents.

The 16th century church of San Agostino, which gives its name to the piazza wonderfully overlooking the
sea and Mount Etna, was once the home of an Augustinian hermit community, but in the last century it was acquired for the town's public library. Next door to it is a public WC with a real live guardiana taking your cinquanta centesimi a visit - it's the first time for years I've encountered this little remnant of a more civilised former era.

Home for lunch: fava beans and panchetta again, but this time with added melanzana (aubergine). I bought one a few days ago, of the white and purple variety, the size of a small beach-ball, with good texture and the usual flavour. I've had two meals from now and expect two more. Cooking experiments are all part of the pleasure of being here.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Walk to Giardini Naxos

Winter loosened its grip a little today. No wind, no rain, but plenty of bright sunshine with a few clouds to enhance the mountains behind, and great blue expanses of sea and sky around and below Taormina. The beauty of the landscape is truly inspiring. Goethe loved the place. D H Lawrence lived here from 1920-23, in a villa not far from this church. Apparently it was here he got his ideas for writing 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. Funny to think that St George's church was being built while he was staying here.

I rose and breakfasted early, and was out walking by nine, searching for a street market understood to be taking place somewhere at the edge of town. No advertising notices can be seen. Local inhabitants are the main users. They know the customary day. There's no need to promote it to outsiders. Most of Taormina's visitors are more interested in the fashion boutiques and jewellers which have ousted mainstream domestic retail from main thoroughfares. I'm keen to find a decent ironmonger's stall to buy a small extra pan for cooking. There are plenty of big pans, but one small isn't enough.

I walked up, and then along the 'circonvallazione' road, and discovered another side of Taormina - the extension of this hill-town in the late twentieth century, re-locating its indigenous population, so that the much older heart of the town could be re-vamped for tourist accommodation and retail, on which the local economy new depends entirely. Housing standards here are far better than those in the old town were, prior to renovation that's for sure. The streets don't give the impression of being forced on the environment, perhaps because their construction was piecemeal.

The layout design probably evolved in relation to landscape and land values, with that quasi-organic 'Greek village' feel repeated as in the old town. Set piece grand plan buildings in this context appear imposed on, rather than adapted to the setting. There are few open spaces in this district, and no new churches, not that any are needed. There is a large piazza with parking and a spectacular view of Mount Etna and its surroundings.  I was lucky with the weather, and got some of the clearest of many pictures taken so far. But, no street market.

Frustrated, I returned home and lunched on the other half of last night's confection - green lentils, an onion and two tomatoes recommended by the guy who sold them to me from his farmer's truck in the Piazza Sta Caterina: "ci sono buone da cuocere" he said. It was as tasty cold as it was hot, with the tomatoes having a pleasing consistency, like properly cooked red peppers, albeit a different taste. I must do that again.

To make the most of the sunshine, I soon set out for the other set of steps down to the SS114 main road, descending past the Hotel Monte Tauro, wedged into the hillside just below where the via Roma begins.  The steps come out a few hundred metres from the Taormina Giardino railway station, a fine building in the best tradition of high quality public building construction. It's a station that's so top notch it has an exhibition case containing several local archaelogical finds in its classy entrance lobby with original  bigileteria, one of the six of which is now working. There are multi-lingual ticket machines elsewhere. English is the second language when it comes to train announcements. How much is this homage to the American military presence in this region, as well as tourism, I wonder?

I walked the length of the neighbouring town, Gardino Naxos it is called. It was the site of the first Greek colony in Sicily with a settlement here in 734BC called Naxos after the island from which the settlers came. It is modern costal strip development as a tourist resort, on account of its decent beaches. There are still many small inshore fishing boats parked up however, and prohibitions posted on public notices about swimming from beaches where they go to sea. These are evidently important to the local restaurant economy and hospitality industry. No ironmonger's or cook utensil shops here, that's for sure.

Having gone as far as I could comfortably go in one direction, the return journey from the far end of Naxos beach was somewhat slower than arriving there, although the ascent to Taormina via the steps was none too painful. On my walk back to St Georges through town using the via Domenico I found a store open which sold pots and pans and a lot more. The small size pan I wanted was in stock but a top of the range model I couldn't afford. I'll have to wait until Saturday when new stock arrives.

Monday, 3 December 2012


I wonder if we've seen the last of mild sunny weather now? It was a really wintry day today with mist coming in over the sea, after first light, enveloping the mountain side briefly, bringing rain, and gusts of wind, overturning the tables on the terrace and making the trees thrash wildly. The turbulence was interspersed however with sunshine and a magnificent rainbow touching land at the end of the bay in the direction of Monte Scuderi to the north against a background of dark storm clouds. 

I made a couple of brisk excursions to get fruit and veg, but it wasn't a day for sightseeing or exploring further, but for sheltering, and going inward. So, I spent most of the day quietly at home thinking and writing. I've started posting a series of Advent reflections in a separate blog, giving myself a a five hundred word daily limit to concentrate the mind. A crazy idea maybe, brewing for a while. You'll find it here.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

First Sunday in Advent

I had plenty of time to get ready for today's Eucharist, preparing the after-service drinks trolley, familiarising myself with the layout of the big complex Common Worship altar book. I've used it again in College occasionaly this last year or so, but it's hardly familiar, as I've had little recourse to using it since my time in Geneva and Monaco over a decade ago. I got the impression it was a less than familiar book layout to preceding locums, given the number of tabs and post-it notes decorating the page fringes of different sections. One thing church liturgical publishers strive to be good at is usability, but they invariably fail due to the complex variabilities of basic liturgical practice. It keeps us all on out toes I suppose.

Come eleven o'clock, there were five of us, plus Salvatore the caretaker. It's a time of year when regular worshippers are more likley to be visiting elsewhere than visited. It struck me that the last Eucharist I celebrated was at College in Welsh, and the same number of people took part. This is just how it can be for minority language worshippers, and here in Sicily It's English that's the minority language. There was one newcomer however, a young US Navy medical corps nurse called Megan, stationed with her husband at the base near Catania. She had weekend time out and that enabled her to come and find the church. Apparently it's not unusual for St George's to welcome military personnel and their families during their three year tours of duty.

During the service, a few visitors poked their heads around the door but didn't stay to pray. Salvatore went out at the end to talk with a potential contractor offering a quite for the removal from the grounds of four palm trees, dying from some insect infestation. The church is looking at a bill of two thousand euros to pay to have them pulled out and taken away. It may be possible with a crane as trees of this kind have shallow roots. When dead they may fall over too. The one nearest the gate is in a state of disarray since it was windy last Friday, and several huge palm branches broke partly at the base and hung down pathetically, some over the path. I removed to a place of safety as many branches as I could reach. It looks awful but is less of a hazard than previously.

I cooked a chick pea curry for lunch, and experimented with a new method for steaming rice, as available pans were all too big for a small amount. A big supermarket trip would be useful in the coming week to acquire something extra to cook small amounts with. There are no pans with handles either. It's coming back to me from decades ago that this is a feature of the Italian kitchen. Or did I just make that up?

After spending an hour or so writing, I went out for a walk to enjoy being out among Sunday afternoon strollers. I went into the chapel of St Nicholas to look at the all year round Nativity scene set in its reproduction Sicilian hill village. I noticed it had been completed for dedication by one craftsman in 1983. The chapel also contains figures of St Nicholas, our Lady, and of Jesus in his Good Shepherd guise in conversation with a woman, whom I assume is meant to be one of the penitent women who came and ministered to him. Devotees could pay to light an electric votive candle at a couple of stands provided. 

While I was there a young couple with an infant came in, encourage to go in by nonna. The child was lifted up in silence by its mother to look. It reminded me of moments I witnessed outside St John's when passers by would stop and look at the outdoor Nativity in the tower garden. Altogether a timeless scene. By the time I returned home, the temperature was dropping and it was twilight, and before tea time.

Three weeks to winter solstice already.