Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Southern Cross

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part II
Brigitte and I are about to embark on the next leg of our journey to Sicily: the ship.
Mr. BlueEyes has given us directions as to where we will find the vessel that is going to carry us down the length of the Mediterranean, and there it is: huge, white, massive, gleaming in the early afternoon sun.

While we stretch our necks to see to the top and try to figure out how to get aboard, a man walks by.
He is wearing crisp naval attire, a uniform of some kind, a cap in one hand; his age is difficult to tell because he is so well groomed, but in retrospect, I estimate he was in his early to mid forties in 1987 - I wasn't yet 20, so he would have seemed relatively old to my young eyes.

Smiling at the two girls who are so obviously foreigners here - we could have just as well have been carrying around big signs saying "TOURIST!" - he asks whether he may help us.
He may, and Brigitte politely asks him how to get aboard this ship on which we have just booked our passage to Palermo.
Upon hearing that it is this very ship we intend to get on, the man's smile grows wider, and even I understand that he is one of the officers, and there and then he decides to make it his mission to take care of us before, during and after the voyage.
Nothing in his demeanour suggests a vested interest, and so Brigitte and I graciously accept, following him onto the metal bridge that links the ship to the quai.

Our meagre budget does not allow for a cabin, and so we did not book one.
The plan is to stay close to our bags at all times, finding a bench on deck where to sleep, because the journey will take around 20 hours, reaching Palermo the next day.

Of course, our self-acclaimed body guard does not allow for such nonsense.
We are shown a small store room for the crew's items, and gladly leave our bags there. Not for one moment do we think we can not trust the man - and what would he have to gain from our bags full of girly summer clothing anyway?

He quickly shows us to the deck, where we are supposed to admire the view across the port and get comfortable, and then he has to dash off - duty calls; he is, after all, a busy officer.

Happily we stretch our arms, finally rid of the heavy bags for a while, stroll across the still rather empty deck and find ourselves a good spot in the sun.
With the progression of the afternoon, more passengers come aboard, and we find it interesting to watch the mixture of people and see what they do first - some head straight to the little "restaurant", others are desperately looking for the toilet, while others still settle with all their possessions and start getting out panini and coffee from their bags.

Finally, the time of departure is here, and depart we do!
Good-bye, Genua - I have never come back to this day, although I didn't know it then.
For some hours, nothing worth mentioning happens.

How it came about I can not recall, but at some stage, we find ourselves talking to (or, rather, being talked to) two Palermitans who curiously inquire about the two girls on their own who are serious about wanting to travel to Sicily without any male company for protection.

Brigitte feels at ease talking to them; they are not being unpleasant or the kind of slimy git you sometimes come across when travelling alone. Gianni and Luca are both teachers at a school for disadvantaged youths in Palermo. They are not 30 yet, but Gianni is already as good as bald, while Luca has very fair skin and ginger hair - yes, Federico Barbarossa's heritage is still very much alive in a good part of the DNA of today's inhabitants of Sicily, especially in the West.

At some stage in the evening, our officer walks past in a brisk manner, shooting warning glances in Gianni and Luca's direction. We are his protegées, and he will not hesitate to intervene if he notices anything untoward going on.

Gianni and Luca have a cabin, and eventually they retreat for the night, leaving Brigitte and myself to enjoy the spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean.

The officer is back. He asks us to follow him, and although Brigitte understands where we are going, she is suddenly so excited her stuttering gets to a level that makes it impossible for her to explain anything to me. I have no choice but to tag along.

Up we climb, first outside, then inside, the steps becoming smaller and the staircases narrower. And up again, and then some more, until a white metal door is opened, we step over the high threshold, and are... the most holy - on the bridge!

For the first time in my life, I set foot on a ship's bridge. Here, everything is done to make sure that the journey goes according to plan. Quiet, serious men in impeccably white shirts work alongside reassuringly buzzing devices; at regular intervals beeping or blipping sounds can be heard, someone says something into a microphone, someone else does something mysterious at a console of instruments, and all this is happening in almost total darkness.

The green glow from the navigational map and the radar sweep give a strange illumination and contribute to the overall atmosphere.
Our officer shows his white teeth in the glow when he smiles at our awe - that surprise really worked!

I am impressed, and do not dare to utter a word. Brigitte only nods at the whispered explanations given; she is beyond speaking.

And then - another door is opened for us, another high threshold requires for us to step carefully, and we are outside the bridge, on the highest and smallest deck, right on top of the ship.

The view is breathtaking - especially of what is high above our heads: the starry skies, far from any brightly lit city, so full of stars that I swallow hard; I don't know why, but to see all this out there, lightyears away from our little planet, almost moves me to tears.

Nothing I can see at first glance looks familiar here, and then I remember: I am a lot further down South than I have ever been before in my life, and of course the patterns our human eyes have assigned to the stars are different here from the ones I know so well from looking at the night sky over my hometown in South Germany.

Our officer points at a particular formation. "La croce del Sud", he explains.

Even I understand that - The Southern Cross, Das Kreuz des Südens...
Silently repeating the words in my mind, a shudder runs down my spine, and I feel goosebumps on my arms. The sound of that - Das Kreuz des Südens - is the sound of adventure, of sea-faring people, of travels and troubles and rewards alike.

Then it is time for us to leave the most holy and go back to where we, as normal passengers who can not afford a cabin, are to spend the night: on deck.
Brigitte and I thank our officer for taking us to the bridge and find ourselves a long bench, long enough for the two of us to stretch out.

Until then, I had not noticed, but now I realize: the night air has suddenly become warm!
We settle with our jumpers as pillows and our coats as blankets; after all, the month is October, and we needed those jumpers and coats when we started our journey in autumnal Germany.

I fall asleep, but it is not a deep sleep. The bench is not very comfortable, the sounds and smells are different, and the excitement of sleeping under the Southern Cross too big.

The morning comes, and we get up stiffly, and search for our officer. We need our bags, where we have several portion packets of muesli for our travel breakfast - anything to save money, so that we do not have to buy the expensive cornetti from the ship's cafeteria.

Of course, he is not far - nothing is far here, even though it is a big vessel - and takes us to the small locker room where our luggage is.
Dry muesli is difficult to eat, and Brigitte asks if we can have any milk.
The officer looks at her, hesitates a moment, then nods and walks away. Brigitte and I look at each other, shrug and decide to wait.
Minutes later, he comes back, with a rather embarrassed look on his face - he makes sure no-one is observing the scene and quickly hands us a half-litre carton of milk.
Brigitte and I thank him profusely, but he only makes a dismissing gesture with his hand and escapes, leaving us to get back to our bench, where we sit in the morning sun and have our muesli with lukewarm milk.

Why was he so different with us all of a sudden, I ask, and Brigitte starts to laugh and explains to me how deeply embarrassing it must have been for this man to be seen with a carton of milk in his hands - milk is for babies! Not for Italian men, and certainly not for Italian men who are officers of rather high rank!

While we are both laughing and finishing our muesli, Gianni and Luca reappear, politely asking whether we had a good night.
Brigitte tells them of our visit to the bridge, and I can see they are impressed. Being a young woman does have its advantages - it is highly unlikely that we would have ever got to know our officer in the first place, had we been male tourists.

The rest of the journey goes by without any event that I remember.
When we approach Palermo, Gianni and Luca are there with us again, standing at the railing, and waiting to get the best view of the famous Conca d'Oro.

It is a spectacular sight: Monte Pellegrino in the background, the big city sprawling in all directions but the Sea, and the curve of the Conca.

Gianni and Luca smile at each other, at their hometown and at us. Our officer shakes hands with both of us, and is finally convinced that the two teachers are not going to do us any harm. We take our bags and follow Gianni and Luca who insist on taking us into Palermo in Gianni's car, and to a hotel they know is "safe" for "girls like you".

Brigitte does not object; she knows that it is wise to listen to someone who knows the place inside out, and once again, not even for the fraction of a second do we think that there could be any danger from these two men.
The only thing she does object to (later, when they have left us at the small, cheap but clean hotel in a very old building in the old town of Palermo) is that Gianni has called her "figliola" - "little daughter"! She is 25, after all, and finds this "title" quite condescending of him.

After a shower and a change of clothes we set off to explore Palermo.

More Souvenirs from Sicily to come!
(All pictures shamelessly nicked from elsewhere on the web)

Tuesday 30 March 2010

The Bluest Eyes of Genua

Souvenirs from Sicily, Part I

The year is 1987, the month October.
I am 19 1/2 years old, soon to be a properly trained Librarian, and my best friend at librarian school has suggested we go on holiday together: two weeks or so on Sicily, and a few days in Florence.
All that on our meagre apprentices' budget.
No problem - my friend has friends on the island where, she says, we will be welcome not only to stay for several nights, but also well-fed.
Plus she is fluent in Italian (although heavily stuttering in any language), and I am confident enough in my own abilities to cope with a language I have never studied, but know a few basics of through French.

First things first - how do we get there?
Back then, flying was out of our reach. Connections were not as many as today, and tickets were very expensive before companies like GermanWings, EasyJet and RyanAir appeared.
Trains? Entirely feasible, but not very appealing. It is, after all, roughly 2.000 km from South Germany to Sicily.
Let's travel in style then, we decide, and approach the island by ship.

And so we board the train in Heidelberg, where my friend lives, and rattle along to Genua (Genova), where we intend to book a passage on one of the big white ships that regularly do the route Genua - Palermo and back.
Each of us is carrying one big bag (mine is of yellow nylon, hers is a rather unstylish rucksack in rusty red) and a rather unpretentious handbag (mine is of acquamarine-coloured nylon, hers of brown leather).
Brigitte's good advice is not to take anything with me that makes me look rich - easy, since I do not possess anything that could make me look even remotely wealthy.

The pair of us get off the train and find our way to the huge harbour. Genua's sea port is one of the biggest on the Mediterranean, it is a heavy-duty area with industry machinery and matching sounds and smells. But, undeterred, we weave between the huge machines and containers to where the ticket office is tucked away in a tiny, box-like building.
And there, we have an apparition.

Behind the counter, a thick glass panel between him and the rest of the world, resides the owner of the most incredibly blue eyes we have ever seen in our whole 19 1/2 years (mine) and 25 years (Brigitte's) of life. Those eyes are set in an extremely handsome, well-cut tanned face, topped by sunkissed light brown floppy hair. The whole room is illuminated by those eyes alone, and boy does he know it!

The smile young Mr. BlueEyes flashes at us reveals perfect white teeth, and the knowing twinkle, fully aware of the effect he has on us (as on probably every female and some males that have entered the small office before us), is not only visible in his eyes, but also audible in his voice.

Somehow, Brigitte manages to book our passage and pay for our tickets. The episode can't have lasted more than a few minutes, and yet I remember it so well: The tight grip of Brigitte's hands on the edge of the wooden counter, my slightly wobbly knees and an ever so tiny spell of dizziness each time I look (or, rather, stare) at that face with those eyes.

We stumble from the office, dragging our luggage along, and do not speak until we have reached the corner and are out of sight.

There, we drop the bags on the ground, look at each other, eyes still wide with astonishment and wonder, and simultaneously say: "What was THAT???"

An apparition, by all likelihood. Men so beautiful do not exist outside hollywood films and glossy magazines. And yet, right here in this modest ticket office in the port of Genua, we found the bluest eyes. Ever.

(More Souvenirs from Sicily will follow)

Tuesday 23 March 2010

My Little Non-Birthday "Do"

Although I love having guests, it is not that often that I manage to get a group of people together at my place. Last Sunday was such a rare and most appreciated occasion.
It was my birthday on Monday, but Mondays are very inconvenient for such things - I leave work rather late, and by the time I get home, it is too late to start on anything nice like home-made pizza, what with the dough needing to rise and all.
Instead, I decided to invite my parents, my sister and some of my closest friends for Sunday evening.

Preparations were easy and did not take very long; all I had to do was to put enough chairs in the living room, get the glasses out (I borrowed a set of six champagne glasses and six wine glasses from my mum, as I own only six of each myself), buy the drinks and the ingredients for the food, and give the place its usual Saturday cleaning.

My guests were treated to my home-made pizza and tiramisu. One of my friends had offered to make lasagne - and who am I to decline an offer made by a friend? My mum brought a giant bowl of salad as well as a dessert / cake kind of thing that we call "Cold Dog" (I will ask her for the recipe and some pictures to post it on here, if anyone is interested - it is very fattening and very yummy!), and so there was plenty to eat & drink for everyone.

For musical backdrop, I had asked for advice in a forum where I usually get helpful answers to all my questions. At first, I was thinking of internet radio; I do have a big collection of CDs, but I did not want to keep interrupting conversations and eating by having to faff with the stereo, and to be honest, there are only a few CDs in my collection which could be used as a gentle backdrop for pleasant conversation - most of it is meant for me to dance and / or sing along to (and I certainly did not want to scare my guests away!).
Someone told me of - a very interesting tool: you can set the dials on one or more different styles (my choice were funk, latin and jazz), on the general mood of the tracks (my choice was "positive"), and even on a specific year or period; I set that on "all", meaning the program would choose tracks from all available years.
It proved to be an excellent suggestion, and I must not forget to post my thanks to the person who directed me to the website.

All in all, there were ten guests, myself and my cat. I was given the most beautiful flowers (of course I ran out of vases, so that one bouquet had to go into a plastic water jug) and lovely presents, along with many hugs and compliments for the food.
I provided some more entertainment by showing the pictures I took during my recent mini holiday in Nice on the Côte d'Azur.

Shortly before midnight, everyone was gone, the dishwasher was humming away in the kitchen and the few leftovers were neatly wrapped up in my fridge. It was a wonderful evening, and, as always after such an occasion, I am telling myself I really should do this more often.

Monday morning saw the living room almost back to normal with the glasses back in the cabinet, the plates stacked away in the kitchen cupboard, and only the flowers and cards left to remind me that this was, in fact, my birthday.

Saturday 20 March 2010

An Unlikely Sight

When you live in South Germany and it is only March, with the trees still bare and only some of the most daring spring flowers out in the gardens, you certainly do not expect to come across parrots - and yet, that is exactly what I saw today.

Yes, you have heard right, parrots.
Three of them sitting cosily in the tree on the corner of the street where I live.
Very obviously feeling very much at home (I observed them for quite a while), not as if they had escaped from somewhere, but like natives.

They reminded me of the Alexander-Sittiche (sorry, don't know the English name), a kind of parrot, who are thriving in Wiesbaden. About 5 years ago, I had to go to Wiesbaden for several weeks into a rehab clinic (for my back, in case you were wondering), and one of the first things I noticed were the green parrots everywhere in the trees.
One of the doctors in the clinic explained their history to me; from a few escaped birds, in the span of only a few decades, the parrots grew in numbers and formed colonies (as they do in their natural habitat), and have developed enough resistence to survive German winters; some even consider them a new kind and not exactly the same species anymore as the one they originally started out as.

Today, when I walked home from the gym, I noticed these three. My neighbours noticed them, too, and one of them said that apparently there is a small colony in Stuttgart. Stuttgart is only 14 km away from here, so I suppose the three birds in our tree have either been on a day trip to my home town or are the first foreboders of more to come.

We'll see!

In the meantime, here is my photographic evidence, in case you think that maybe there was something not quite right with my coffee this afternoon:

Sunday 14 March 2010


Einbahnstraße is the German word for one-way road, and this is what the road sign looks like in this country:

It is also how I often feel these days when it comes to communicating (or, rather, trying to communicate) with some of my friends.
Sending messages that remain unanswered, suggesting things we could do together that are met with a shrug (if there is any reaction at all), asking questions that are never replied to.

They are busy, yes; aren't we all?
They are too busy for me - ok, that explains it.

Of course there are other people in their lives who are a lot worthier of their time and attention than I am; and yet, to be forgotten or dismissed in such an obvious manner has me wondering what makes my value as a friend so much lower than theirs.

When it comes to being busy, I am no exception. There is a long mental list of things I'd love to do "one day", of places I'd like to see "one day", of people I want to meet again "one day" and of languages and other skills I wish to learn "one day".
That "one day" might never come, though, if I wait too long.

My husband lived here for almost 10 years; none of his friends or family ever came to see him while he was still alive, although England is less than 2 hours on a plane from here. There was always the possibility to do this "one day", while everybody was busily getting on with their everyday lives. When he died, both his sisters and his niece came over for the funeral; all of a sudden, it was possible, and the things that had kept them from making the trip earlier, like work and school and other obligations, took a back seat on the list of priorities.

I am mentioning this here only as an example of how we should never take our friends for granted. They may continue making an effort in being in touch with us for another while, even for years to come, but if we never return their calls or messages, one day they might give up on us, and eventually we possibly wake up to regret that we have been too busy for them, and it is too late.

Honestly, I do not want that to happen with my friends.
They are far too precious to me - even though, sadly, I appear not to be for them.

On the other hand, if I have simply been to thick to get the message all this time, maybe now is the right moment to leave it, and finally become self-sufficient.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Notes To Self III

Many thoughts about possible blog entries have been (and still are) floating about in my mind recently, but none of them is ripe yet to be put into written form.
Instead, several notes to myself are waiting to be on here, if you are still interested.

Since it has been so long since "Notes To Self I" and "Notes To Self II", this time I am posting a two in one, so to speak.

First, the actual notes:

Starting on the top right corner of the white note, it gives you an idea of how long this has been around - I was planning to go to the pub quiz at my local on Monday, 15th of February. The emphasis was on MONDAY because usually, quiz night is Tuesdays.
Sadly, nobody was willing to go with me, and it is not much fun on my own.

The following are train times, referring to how I was possibly going to get home after meeting a close friend who I had not seen in more than a year and who finally happened to be in my area again. Since the last train from where we met would have left at 11.38 pm, that would have given us only about 2 hours together - too short when it is someone you care about and who you hardly ever get to see. The next train after that would have been at 5.08 the next morning - so in the end, it was a taxi that took me home somewhere in between those impossible train times.

"WÄSCHE", the word I have circled, means washing in German, and its only reason there was to remind me to take the washing out of the machine before leaving for work; I don't like my clothes to be crumpled beyond recognition when they stay in there for too long.

"Why I don't drive" was, as my dear elite few readers may remember, the title of a relatively recent blog entry. I did not want to forget writing it and so it ended up on this note.

The phone number is my aunt's in the Provence (Southern France). Of course it is not the full number; although I trust my readers here and am not much worried about anyone "strange" reading my blog and misusing the number, there is such a thing as data protection.

My aunt is providing her flat in Nice (Nizza) on the Côte d'Azur for me, my sister and two friends; we are taking the plane there this coming Sunday and will be back end of next week. It is a holiday I am very, very much looking forward to - not only because temperatures there will be a lot nicer than what we have to endure here at the moment, but also because I am convinced that a change of scene, even if only for a short time, will do me good.

Below that number you can (maybe) decipher a name: Mel Ramos.
He is an artist whose work I have known for a very long time without knowing his name. An art gallery not too far from where I live is currently showing his works; the exhibition is open until mid-April, and I do hope to find the time and occasion to go and see it.

At the bottom of the note there is another phone number. This is a friend of my sister's who has the idea of cooperating with her Italian language teacher to organize a monthly wine tasting (in Italian, with Italian wines) in her cellar, and she wants me to moderate the event (I am fluent in Italian and am used to moderate small scale events, so I understand why she wants me to do it).
So far, I have not been in touch with her about it, but I guess I will.
The first line on the yellow note is easily recognizable as the link to a website. If you want to have a look at, you will find that it is about a building project: Houses, water reservoirs and other structures built using PET bottles and rubble, drawing on the local community for the actual work, thus enabling those who otherwise would not be able to afford a house worth the name to live in a their own home, at the same time doing something positive for the environment and the community they live in.
The man behind the idea is Andreas Froese, a 53-year-old German who has been working in South America since the 80s. In 2001, he founded ECO-TEC, and the company have since realized more than 50 projects in third world countries and poor communities.
If there is anything in abundance in those areas, it is rubbish, and a lot of that rubbish are PET bottles.
So, why not use what is there?
This is how it works:
empty PET bottles are filled with rubble and then used as building bricks. The finished walls can be painted in any colour the inhabitants like, and there is another big advantage apart from the building materials being cheap and easy to find: the finished structure withstands earthquakes a lot better than a concrete wall.
Another positive side effect is what happens in the community. The local people have reasons to cooperate, they learn new skills, they have a tangible result of their manual labor, and sometimes young people who have started out by helping filling the empty bottles with rubble have gone on to learn the trade of carpenter or builder, thus having a better perspective for their own future and that of their families.
(Sorry, this was a bit long. But I am truly impressed by the whole idea and the spirit behind it and think it deserves attention.)
Next is the name of a plant, Myrmecodia pentasperma. The little "thing" next to the word is supposed to be an ant - to help me remind what Myrmecodia pentasperma is: a plant which provides ready-made "houses" for ants, thus forming a symbiosis with those specific ants. I came across it in the book "Climbing Mount Improbable" by Richard Dawkins, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a good science book with its own entertaining value.

Volvox is a multi-cellular organism and was mentioned in the same book. I have yet to investigate this particular kind of organism further.

The second half of the yellow note is the contact details for the porcellain manufacture in my hometown's castle; they provide guided tours for groups, and I am probably going to organise one. You can get an impression of what they do here:

That's it for today - and I think I have just broken my personal record of longest blog entry!
Have you fallen asleep yet? :-)

Monday 1 March 2010

Spring Things

After a glorious Saturday (see my previous entry), Sunday was still mild at 15 Celsius, but very windy, and so I decided to stay indoors and enjoy the sunshine from my window sill.

I did some spring things like eating raw yellow pepper (have I ever mentioned that I love yellow pepper?), and in the evening, my sister came to watch a DVD together and eat a pizza that I had made specifically on her request.

She brought the lovely tulips you see in the picture.
Shame I am at the office all day and only get to see the flowers in the morning and evening!

Today, I am going to walk to work again, as I often do on Mondays when I do not have to start until 1.00 pm. It will be good to be out on the fields and observe what progress the hedgerows have made since I walked there last.