Friday, 30 November 2012

Maria Orans

As I was making my way back, laden with shopping - wine and fruit juice for the Sunday after service apertif - a clock struck midday. Instead of the Angelus, recorded bells playing the tune I know as the chorus to the Walsingham Hymn crackled out over the Piaza Sta Caterina. Nobody seems to have time to punctuate the day with real bells. But the curse of modernity might be leavened a little with better quality audio. However, I did hear a young mum singing along as she pushed her infant along in a buggy. Wherever I go, I notice small shrines to the Virgin built into house facades, not neglected relics, but well tended - so all is not lost of traditional culture, before Berlusconi.

I notice there are more statues of Mary praying than there are of Mary presenting Jesus. I says something about the widespread reception of first Vatican Council dogma about Mary. A week tomorrow is the feast of Immaculate Conception which dates from then. How it is observed locally is something I look forward to discovering. I used to wonder why the image of Mary praying had become the more popular one over the past couple of centuries. It doesn't much appeal to me. I prefer the ancient and traditional iconography of Mary as God-bearer. I understand that the Mary praying image reflects the habitual use of the Ave ... ora pro nobis in the common prayer of Western Catholics. 

No matter what you think of papist dogma about the intercession of the saints on our behalf, even if you disapprove of it, this is a gentle image - one of influence rather than of force. Perhaps that's why it retains its place in popular religion in societies still dominated by masculine power games. It's an unconscious protest against the violence in this world which we fail to eliminate.

Home cooking at last

The temperature dropped several degrees overnight and although the sun shone, there was a hint of rain in the air. After breakfast I donned a rucksack and walked to the larger of two small supermarkets - about the size of a UK Tesco Metro - at the other end of town. My route took me along the lower road past the Parco G Colonna, Duke of Cesaro, who was behind the town's acquisition of the land, with its spectacular views of the sea and Mount Etna in 1923. It contains some very tall dark green conifers quite densely packed, providing a grand expanse of shade in the heat of the day. Needless to say, the ground cover is rather sparse, mainly shade loving flowering bushes planted in enclosed beds, framed by a pattern of pathways using brick and big pebbles laid in a rather stern minimal pattern.

The fascinating thing about the park, however is its arrangement of odd looking brick buildings of rough rustic construction. Some are simply human shelters, others are aviaries, considering the metal cages attached to them, but the largest is five storeys high with a basement at a lower park level. It's enclosed by security fences, as if for restoration, or because construction is incomplete, with interconnecting stairs and rails missing. It's hard to tell from how the building materials have been used. Even harder to imagine what its function might be. Is it the shell of an old mansion, being repaired? Or a whimsical play house, too dangerous in its present state for kids to use? Sooner or later I guess I'll find out.

On my way through winding back streets to the supermarket, I discovered an unusual site containing the remains of a Roman gymnasium, part of the town's forum buildings. It's in a long wide alleyway between two streets. Foundations of a 100 metre stretch of housing in the upper street rest on the top of a ten metre high arcaded brick wall built against a steep hillside. Houses at lower street level have courtyard gardens or are built out to a boundary wall, in the case of restuarants. One lower courtyard house is linked to a building in the street above by an iron staircase draped in foliage, possibly both are part of an hotel. As with other local archaeological sites there are daily opening hours. In this case, the evening hours are extended to allow restuarant-goers to leave through this atmospheric floodlit passageway. What remains of the glorious past is not only taken care of, but imaginatively integrated if possible.

I stopped to buy lemons from the same farmer as I bought fruit yesterday. He joked that they were worth fifty million, and praised the virtue of the lemon for its medicinal and well its food value. Three lemons for fifty cents - that's about 14 pence a lemon.

Finally, I got around to cooking lunch for myself. So far I've used up food left by the locum who left the day before my arrival - forgotten travel picnic food, he told me in an email. Anyway, having soaked some white fava beans in preparation last night, I fried some panchetta with a red onion, one small tomato and a clove for garlic, then adding the beans and liquor, some rosemary and black pepper, thickening the mix with a pinch of bread flour, and squeezing half a lemon over it to conclude. I've wanted to try this out since we were in Nerja eighteen months ago, but the obstacle was finding the right beans. At last, both opportunity and motive co-incided. A most enjoyable culinary start.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Town exploration

None the worse for wear, I got out of bed at ten o'clock, breakfasted, took some photographs of the church, its surroundings and interior, then I went out to discover the locality - where the nearest shops are, where the bus station is, where the town piazzas are located. I work out in circles from where I'm based. There's a Tabac for phone cards, booze, ciggies and newspapers quite close, also a gas station with a cafe cum pizzeria for added value. A hundred metres further on is the bus station a vital link to the world beyond the mountainside, along with the cable car, a hundred metres in the other direction. This descends from 197m to 25m, just above the foreshore and beaches. It's a long walk down and a tough climb returning!

Further uphill, beyond the road where the church is located, the main body of the town is spreads out over the mountainside. It's just 500 metres walk to the Messina gate, a portal in the ancient town walls. The town is at the boundary between the urban district of Messina (north) and the urban district of Catania (south). Apparently a river course runs through the town marking the dividing line, although I can't find evidence of that on the map. There are two further portal arches, the southernmost of which is the Catania gate. Three piazzas with handsome churches are linked by the main thoroughfare (corso). These overlook the bay below and offer spectacular views not only of many miles of foreshore, but also snow clad Mount Etna, inland to the west, and today cloaked in cloud for most of the time.

Running off the corso both uphill and downhill are networks of narrow streets and alleys, some with steps others with winding narrow roads linking them. Buildings seem to be heaped on top of each other, as if they are about to overflow downhill. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and Spaniards have all been in control of Sicily at different periods of history, and there are hints and glimpses of many different building styles to be found wherever you walk. It's a less structured environment than anything classical, Greek or Roman, not as contour hugging as moorish Spanish hillside pueblos. The organic layout reminded me of the higgledey-piggledey character of Greek hill villages, albeit with larger more sophisticated buildings. 

I bought my veggies from the back of a farmer's truck in the Piazza Sta Caterina, then went hunting for grocery stores to get the rest of my supplies. There are many small alimentari, a few bakers and even a couple of smallish supermercati but they are not easy to find. The corso and many of its offshoots are given over to fashionable retailers and souvenir shops, aiming at the huge casual tourist market on which the town's economy clearly relies. But it is good to see so many small shops, and few of them empty, despite the recession. I could do with a trip to a big supermercato to stock up on several items I need to buy in bulk, but the nearest is a bus ride out of town, down the hill. Another day. This was a moment to enjoy sunshine and cool breezes - and take lots of photographs. You'll find some of them posted here.

Arrival in Sicily

The Palermo flight was full to the last seat. An unusual amount of luggage had to be stowed under seats, as overhead lockers were crammed tightly with regulation sized cabin bags. Even after boarding, some slightly oversized bags which had escaped consignment to the hold during the departure lounge appeal were extracted and sent below. Neverthless, we took off on time and landed five minutes or so late, due to navigational changes to avoid turbulence en route. That didn't dispense us from quite a bumpy ride for the last forty miles into Palermo. The captain explained it was due to "windy conditions, and the big rocks that cause turbulence in the vicinity of the city".

From take off until the last bumpy stretch, we flew over unrelieved cloud for nearly fiteen hundred miles, but as we made the final descent, the cloud broke up spectacularly into large dark grey lumps. Through it, the last orange and yellow glimmers of sunset in the clear sky beyond were visible to the west of us. As the plane turned off the main runway after landing I saw, straight behind us over the runway, the full moon in a clear sky dotted with clouds. It was most moving. I started singing to myself: "I'm being followed by a moon-shadow ... (Cat Stevens), because it popped into my head as we were rolling toward the terminal.

I walked out of passport control just as my bag was passing on the luggage carousel. Within minutes I was on the shuttle bus on my way to the city's bus station. It was rush hour, so a twenty minute trip became an hour and five minute exercise in traffic queuing, so I missed the seven o'clock to Catania. I had an hour and half's wait for the last bus of the day to make the two and three quarter hour bus trip by moonlight along the Sicilian mountain autostrada to Catania. There at the empty bus station, I was met by a taxi arranged by the church for the final leg of the journey to Taormina.

We arrived at St George's Anglican Church at midnight. The caretaker Signor Salvatore and his wife Mima welcomed me and showed me around the apartment and church. Finally, after nineteen hours I come to a halt, and through the apartment window I can see the sea shore below me. We must be 200 metres above sea level here, and the drive uphill from the autostrada, down near sea level, was two kilometres. It's another two kilometres to the top - the hill town of Castelmola, which seemed suspended over us in the dark as we drove uphill.

The entire coastal region is urbanised both horizontally and vertically. The mountainside seems to be a series of built up layers linked by tunnels and winding roads. From up here I can even see the votive lights attached to the walls of several rows of columbaria that make up a local cemetery, embedded in the hillside. I'm too thrilled to sleep yet. None of the photos I take, after labouring over the settings and taking long exposures, can do justice to this particular urban nightscape. Roll on dawn!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A winter assignment

I woke up at five, ahead of my alarm clock, got up, breakfasted, and being in good time, I walked to the bus station lugging my case. It took me exactly half an hour and I was twenty minutes early for my six thirty bus. This got me to London ten minutes early, and I met my sister June at Victoria Station at the time the bus was due to arrive. She accompanied me on the forty minute journey to Gatwick North Terminal where we had time for a coffe and croissant before we parted company.

I'm flying EasyJet to Palermo, and from there I will travel to Taormina to stay until New Year to serve there as locum Pastor to St George's Anglican Church congregation during the season of Advent and for the first eight days of Christmastide. 

The departure lounge is crowded with people carrying far too much cabin baggage, and the staff are appealing over the tannoy to laden passengers to relinquish additional bags to the hold, at no supplementary cost. So, a little Italian craziness has penetrated one little corner of this sceptred isle.