Wednesday 26 May 2010

Men, laughing in the rain

This almost sounds as if it could be the title of a painting, doesn't it?
Well, it is, in a way, a bit like one, as it describes a brief moment in space and time, framed by my thoughts on the situtation while becoming witness to it as I was walking past.
So, if I had an artistic streak in me, maybe instead of writing about the following scene, I'd be painting it right now.

As usual, I was out for a walk during my lunch break today.
It was raining on and off, and I managed to catch a gap in between two showers when I left the office.
Walking past front gardens and houses, I filled my nostrils with the delicious green smell of freshly cut grass - to me, the very smell of summer.
About half way through my break, it started to rain again, and quite heavily, too, so I was glad I had brought my umbrella.

In one of the narrower streets, builders were at work, and half of the road was dug up to make room for new cables or maintenance on the already existing ones.

Next to one of the heavy diggers, three of the men stood together, facing each other, talking and laughing.
All three were dressed in the sturdy type of working clothes roadworkers usually wear here, with strips of reflecting fabric sewn on, shoes with metal caps and so on. They were a bit rough looking, with hands like shovels and arms almost the size of my thighs.

I could not hear what they were talking about, but I heard them laughing. Especially one of them - he was rather on the stocky side, not very tall, and stood there in the middle of the road, bending back and laughing aloud all over his broad, stubbly unshaven face, while he was holding his belly with both hands.
Wondering what they were laughing about, I walked past. Was it a nasty joke on the expense of a colleague not present, or just some good-natured humour shared with friends?
No matter what the reason, at that moment, they were content and enjoying life, that was for sure.
Maybe one of them would go home in the evening and beat his wife; maybe another one was so homesick in this foreign country that it made his stomach burn; and the third one was in serious trouble with the authorities for illegally working on the site - I have no idea, and, frankly, can only care so much.

The whole little incident simply gave me a glimpse on three men, laughing in the rain.

(You can read more such glimpses

Monday 24 May 2010

A Day At The Park

I wonder what - if anything - this posting will be able to do for me when I am eventually going to re-read it on a cold, wet and dark winter day. Will it be soothing, remembering how good such a day is for my overall wellbeing, knowing that at some stage the sun will be back, or is it rather going to make me sad and restless with a longing that can't be fulfilled until many months later?
For now, I am content in the way only a sunny day spent without any schedule to observe, any pressure can make me.

It's been a fantastic fun-filled weekend in my town with the International Street Music Festival having taken place. For three nights in a row, I've been to the festival and enjoyed the music of 40 different bands from all over the world.

Today, in Germany it's been a day off for most people, including myself, it being Pentecost Monday.
When I woke up, I felt a bit flat at first; sad that the festival was over and I had had to say good-bye to my musician friends last night. But once I saw the gorgeous weather out there, I was determined to make the most of this day, and go to the park.

(View from my kitchen window this morning)
So I got everything ready I was going to need:

my paper (it arrives each Thursday, but I hardly ever read it before the weekend), a blanket, something to eat and something to drink.
As for the food, I decided to make myself a tomato-mozzarella-sandwich. You can see all the ingredients in the picture. My mum baked the bread on Saturday. The basil is always fresh from the pot; the mozzarella and "olive" tomatoes (named that way because they are similar in shape and size to olives) were from the supermarket.

Doesn't it look appetizing? It's a shame I can not transmit the scent along with the picture; fresh basil is so nice!
Wearing my bikini underneath the summer dress, I was soon set to leave.

After a twenty minute walk, I arrived at the park.

This meadow behind the small castle is where I often go when I want to spend some quiet time in the sun away from the hubbub and noise of the town.
I like the spot near the bench, as I can put my bag with the water bottle and sandwich underneath in the shade.

The next hours I spent sunbathing, reading my paper, more sunbathing and occasionally snoozing.

Many birds live in the park, and their song, along with the buzz of an insect and the low comfortable murmur of people walking past in the distance, provided the acoustic background, while the first sight each time I opened my eyes was that of the buttercups and daisies in the green, green grass.
It was during one such snoozing period that, half asleep, I heard an odd noise quite close to my ears. It was a sound that I can closest describe as grunting - only that it was no grunting!
When I opened my eyes and fumbled for my specs, I found that a small group of the mufflon sheep that live in the park had come to sniff at my blanket!
As soon as I was stirring, they gallopped off to the far end of the meadow and disappeared among the trees. By the time I managed to grab my camera, they were already quite far away.

Only when I had nothing left to eat and drink, and finished my paper and really had soaked up enough sun for the day, I walked home.

Somehow, I find it difficult right now to imagine myself back at the office tomorrow...

Thursday 20 May 2010

Shared Space

Are you familiar with the road traffic concept of shared space?
Until very recently, I wasn't - but then I learnt that the road that I cross twice every day on my way to and from the train station is supposed to be just that, shared space.

Shared by cars, buses, bikes and... pedestrians, me being one of them.

The West exit of our train station was only opened last year in September. Before, everybody who wanted to take a train or arrived at the station had to use the only exit, facing town centre, and if you happened to live (like myself) on the other side of the rail tracks, in the Western part of the town, you walked down a road, through a very noisy and dirty tunnel, and had to walk back the road on the other side of the tracks.

So, that West exit was (and still is) very welcome to a lot of people, including me.

What is not welcome, though, is the road that cuts across just before you enter the station.
There are no traffic lights there, no zebra crossing or anything else to indicate to those cars and buses racing past (and race they do!) that this is a point where people really have to cross the road, not out of can't-be-botheredness to use a different path, but simply because this is where you have to go in order to get to your train.

Several letters have appeared in our local paper, complaining about the lack of safety for pedestrians; there are children, too, who use the West exit on their way to and from school, and of course it all happens during rush hour.
Last week, someone suggested that the town council did not have enough money left for a bucket of white paint and we should set up a donation fund for poor Ludwigsburg.

After this letter, an article appeared in the paper, explaining that it was certainly not lack of money or not being safety-conscious that lead to us not having a zebra crossing there, but that the whole area around the West exit was paved with different stones to indicate that this is, in fact, shared space.

They went on to explain that the concept of shared space builds on the considerate and polite behaviour of ALL participants in road traffic; that pedestrians should make eye-contact with car drivers before they cross the road, and so on.

Have you ever been to Germany?
Have you ever seen what people here are capable of as soon as they get behind a steering wheel? (The area where I live is Daimler and Porsche country. Need I say more?)
The words "considerate" and "polite" simply do not appear in most people's vocabulary when it comes to driving - they need to be there FIRST and FAST.

Today, I have put the shared space to a test.
I looked the driver of the approaching car in the eye and stepped on the road (of course on the specially paved part of the road). I took another step and then another, always looking at the driver.
Had I not stopped, he would have gone right over my feet.

Shared space indeed.

By the way - when you see this, you've made it:

this is what you reach after you cross the road.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

The Widow in the Window

To her neighbours, she is a familiar sight: the woman on the window sill.

Of course, only a fine day will make her appear there; dressed according to temperature, she will sit on her window sill for hours on end, sometimes reading, sometimes with her eyes closed and her face turned up to catch some of the precious few sunrays a typical mid-European summer has to offer.

She is rarely seen without a book, a glass of water and her mobile phone nearby.
Every now and then, she will open her eyes, put her glasses back on, and glance around the gardens and the road she can see from her vantage point, usually when some sound has caught her attention.

Sometimes the big doves forget that she is there and fly past very close on their way to the big old tree in the next garden where they like to sit and talk, so close in fact that she thinks she can feel the flapping of their wings.

A big fat bumblebee is paying a visit and the woman politely moves to make room, whereas a wasp can induce her to jump down back into the room when it does not quickly continue its quest for food or a nesting place elsewhere.

On the road nearby, cyclists are shouting to each other, unsure of which turn to take. Someone is walking past pushing a pram and talking to the little one in it. The elderly lady from upstairs is weeding her vegetable patch in the garden below the window, and calls out to the woman up there, for fear she could fall asleep and end up breaking her neck on the small patio.

The woman does not sleep, though. She is listening to the world around her, while her mind is either busy with some mental image or the brewing process of ideas in full swing. And sometimes, she enjoys just thinking of... nothing, letting her mind drift where it takes her.

Which could be practically anywhere.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Sightseeing in Catania

Souvenirs from Sicily, part IX

How different is the Catania of 2010 from the Catania of 1987, the year this blog entry is set in? Really, I don't know; the last time I set foot on Sicily was in 1998.
But I guess the places I am going to mention are still there, pretty much the same as they were back when my friend Brigitte and I explored this big, bustling city at the foot of the Etna.

When I say "bustling", I mean it - as my first and most lasting impression of Catania is the traffic. There are not only the big orange buses and an incredible number of cars, but also motorini weaving in and out of the lines as well as the odd lapita (a small three-wheeled car, still widely in use all over Southern Italy) - no bikes, though, at least not enough for me to remember them.

Out of a four lane ringroad, the average Catanese driver has no trouble to create eight lanes; traffic lights are a mere suggestion. But because everybody drives like that, surprisingly few accidents happen; it just adds up to a very high noise level, not to speak of air pollution.
Though how much of the black dust I see in the sink in the evening when I wash my hair is volcanic dust from the Etna, and how much of it comes from the cars, I can't tell.

Brigitte and I want to do some proper sightseeing in Catania, and because the place is really too big to walk it all (even for someone like me who is used to a lot of walking), we take one of the big orange buses. I find the bus fare extremely cheap, but then again, I come from one of the most expensive areas of South Germany where public transport is concerned.

The exact order of sights we visit as well as the number of days we actually spend in Catania is a bit muddled after 23 years, but the general atmosphere is still very much present in my mind.

The Etna is not very far, and just like in Palermo, a lot of lava was used as building materials, for pavement slabs and so on.
Catania's most famous piece of lava rock is undoubtedly the elephant:

It is ancient - in fact, the obelisk on the elephant's back is a genuine ancient Egyptian one, bearing inscriptions honouring the goddess Isis - and possibly of Byzantine origin, but nobody seems to be quite sure about its true age or meaning, which does not stop people from making up a number of theories, some quite plausible, others less so. The cross on top of the obelisk is dedicated to Saint Agatha, while the elephant itself is said to symbolize strength and longevity, attributes the people of Catania like to claim as typical Catanese.

Do you remember my blog entry about "Stupor Mundi", my old friend Federico II ?
Well, he has left his mark in Catania as well, not just in Palermo, most notably in the shape of the rather forbidding Castell'Ursino, which, to my big disappointment, is closed for visitors when we arrive there.

October can hardly be called the tourist season on the island, and so Brigitte and I only get to see the castle (which was begun in the year 1239) from outside.

A stroll in the park is a rather welcome break from the noise and traffic, and Villa Bellini is where we go.

It was opened in 1883 in honour of a famous son of the city: Vincenzo Bellini, composer of operas such as La sonnambula and Norma.

After a day of sightseeing and travelling by bus and on foot, we are glad to get back to the flat where the third girl (sorry, still can't think of her name) insists on cooking for us, in spite of Brigitte telling her that we can really rustle up something for ourselves. I must admit I am glad that it is not me who has to use the gas cooker; being used to electric kitchen stoves only, I have the utmost respect for gas.

When Anna comes home from work, we tell her where we've been and what we have seen; later, Maria-Pia comes home as well, and announces not only that she will be hosting a party tomorrow evening, but also has a suggestion for me.

More about that in my next blog entry :-)
(Credits for the pictures go to the people who have put them online originally - not to me.)

Thursday 6 May 2010

Walking in the Rain

Yes, yes, yes - I know, I'm on about walking a lot.
But it is what I do most of the time to get from A to B (see "Why I do not drive") and I enjoy it - most of the time.

Today, ceaseless rain is falling. It started some time during the night and has not stopped for a minute, plus it is so cold that I have to wear a coat and scarf again, and the heating had to be turned back on at the office.
All this did not deter me from going out for a walk during my lunch break, and I am actually glad I went, even though I came back in with the legs of my red jeans wet almost knee-high (they were just about dry by the time I went home, so that they could get soaked all over again...).

There is a lushness to the gardens, hedgerows and trees at this time of the year that I find very beautiful.
The shades of green are very different from what it looks like in summer, and only now the chestnut trees look their most glorious (and we do have plenty of chestnut trees in this area).

Originally, I only wanted to walk to the bakery where I often get myself a sandwich to eat later back at the office (ciabatta with mozzarella and tomato being my favourite), but I was so deep in thought today that suddenly I realized I had walked on, almost all the way down to the post office.

So I turned round, shaking my head at my own absent-mindedness, and was at the bakery just in time to buy the last of the mozzarella sandwiches, and to exchange a few friendly words with the large elderly lady behind the counter who knows what I want and never fails to wish me a nice afternoon when I leave.

Still, I prefer summer - or any day on which temperatures reach my comfort range of 25 - 35 Celsius.
I do hope we will be back to that soon!

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Off to Catania

Souvenirs from Sicily, part VIII

We are still in the year 1987, still in October, with my friend Brigitte and I still on Sicily.
The next leg of our (more or less) round trip will be Catania - almost at the opposite end of the island from Agrigento, on the East coast.

As with all the places we've seen before, I know next to nothing about Catania, and so I have not really an idea of what to expect.

Brigitte says we can stay at a cousin's of Nunzia, who so kindly put us up in Porto Empedocle.
Anna - that's the cousin, same name as Nunzia's daughter (Anna being a very common name in this part of the planet) - shares a flat with two other girls, and we can sleep in their living room.
The family looks at Anna with a kind of puzzled pride; in 1987, it is still rather unusual for a young woman to go live somewhere else for an additional education and work, and not simply stay home until she gets married and then move in with her husband (and, more often than not, his parents, some younger siblings as well as unmarried or widowed aunts and uncles). Of course, not only for economic reasons but also in terms of moral and honour, it is important that said young woman does not live on her own, and so Anna, who works at a bank, shares the flat with a teacher at a Catanese high school and another girl whose job I have forgotten.
But - we're not there yet, are we?
First, we have to cross the island, and we do that by train.

It is October, yes, but the sun is still powerful during the day, and when our train takes several unexplicable stops along the line, out in the middle of nowhere, it gets almost unbearably hot and stuffy in our compartment. I remember being fed up because I have finished the book I was reading, Brigitte is not at her most talkative today, and I can't talk to any of the other passengers since I am not yet fluent in Italian or Sicilian, and none of them speaks any of the languages I know.
So I stand at the open window, leaning on my elbows and letting the sun shine on my already tanned face, which makes it even hotter, but at least I do not have to breathe the stuffy air from the train.

Eventually, the train pulls into Catania; whereas I really have no clear memory of how we get from the station to the flat, I am quite sure that Anna and her fidanzato (= fiancé; every good Sicilian girl above 15 has to have one, or else she will be regarded as an oddity) pick us and our heavy bags up in the young man's car.

The flat is in what here is called a condominio, i.e. a rather tall apartment building, in a quarter that, to my eyes, looks chaotic, but really is quite average and considered middle-class here.
There are balconies everywhere, wooden shutters and blinds, washing on an intrinsic network of lines criss-crossing between the balconies, and, most of all, there is traffic - a LOT of traffic.

We make it to the flat and up the stairs and are introduced to the other two women.
The one whose job I can't remember has light brown hair pulled back into a curly ponytail; sadly, I can neither remember her name nor anything else about her.
But the other one...!
If at the outset of our journy we met The Bluest Eyes of Genova, we are now for sure standing in front of the Venus from Catania.
Maria-Pia is without exaggeration the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my 19 years on this planet.

Her wavy brown sunkissed hair cascades halfway down her back and comes to rest very attractively on her pretty shoulders, framing a beautiful face with big dark brown eyes, an elegant nose and luscious red lips that smile at us in such a friendly and charming manner that we instantly feel welcome here, not only by Anna who by default has to put us up since Nunzia, her older cousin, has pracitally ordered her so.
If I was a man, I guess I would have fallen in love with Maria-Pia there and then. But since I am neither a man nor have any homosexual inclination, I can nothing but admire such jaw-dropping beauty, probably gawping at her in a most embarrassing manner.

Preliminaries over, we settle for a cosy evening at home, with the girls cooking for us and listening to our adventures so far on this trip (of course they get only to hear the version Brigitte decides to share. She later tells me she omitted the episode on the bus as well as the fact that we let strangers pay for a meal at a restaurant in Mondello).
I learn that Maria-Pia, the teacher, is not only stunningly beautiful but also blessed with extraordinary intelligence - can she be real? She is not just any teacher, but actually professor for mathematics at a private school not too far from the condominio.

After the meal, we help clearing up and washing the dishes, and when the other girls retreat to their bedrooms, Anna stays with us for another hour or so, making sure we have everything we need and are comfortable on the makeshift bed in the living room.

She shows us the computer printouts her fidanzato has made for her (remember: this is 1987!) - an extremely kitschy picture of a rose (it is composed of letters, like the "pictures" we sometimes produced at home on our ancient typewriter, of cats and bunnies and flowers) and a heart and her name intertwined with the rose, plus a second one representing Jesus and a heart in flames, again adorned with her name.
Anna is very proud of the fidanzato who gives her such romantic tokens of his love for her, and both Brigitte and I duly smile and admire the printouts.

Funny, isn't it, how I remember such things but can't for the life of me think of the third girl's name?

(All pictures here are, again, not my own.)