Sunday, 31 October 2010

"Tu es une fille avventurieuse!"

(This is, finally, the continuation of my "Souvenirs from Sicily" series; it is part XII, and the continuation of this post.)
Come back with me once again to the month of October, to the year 1987, to Catania, a big bustling city on the Mediterranean island of Sicily.

My friend Brigitte and I have now been here, enjoying the hospitality of Brigitte's friends at their flat, for several days. So far, we have done some sightseeing, attended a birthday party and I have spent a morning at school, talking to a class of students learning German.

What's next?

Next is something that has been arranged for us during Maria Pia's birthday party: an evening out with some of those who were present at the party.

Back then, my Italian was limited to a few words, so I had not known anything about the arrangement until shortly beforehand, when Brigitte informed me that we were going to be picked up by a friend of Maria Pia's in a bit, and would be driving out to Aci Reale, a smaller town on the Sea front in the greater Catania area.

Getting out of the bustling city with all its noise and dirt was quite welcome; I remember how everything was constantly covered in black dust and a cloud of car emissions was hanging over the place every day. Mind you, this was before catalysators for cars were invented!

One morning I made the mistake to go out on the balcony barefoot, to have a look at the city in the morning sun; when I came back into the room, I left dark grey foot prints on the floor - in spite of the girls sweeping the balcony every other day or so. And every time I washed my hair in Catania (which was almost every day), the water in the sink was a mucky colour which made you not want to think about all the stuff you'd been breathing all day.

The evening came, and so did Maria Pia's friends, ready to pick us up.

We all piled into one car; I can not be entirley sure but I guess there were six of us; Brigitte, myself, Antonio, Gaetano, Anna and her fidanzato (fiancé) whose name I have forgotten.

Does the name Antonio ring a bell?
If you have read "Maria Pia's Birthday Party", then maybe you remember that he and Brigitte met at that party for the very first time, and got married years later. In hindsight, I am quite sure that Antonio was smitten with Brigitte even back then, and maybe it was he who engineered this evening out so that he would get to see her again before the two of us would be leaving Catania and travel back to Germany.

It is probably an unspoken rule the world over and not just valid on Sicily that, when you go out with friends, you try and make sure to get an even number of boys and girls, unless it is a "girls only" or "boys only" affair. We were sticking to the rules, and assigned to me was a very healthy-looking, relatively tall (for a Sicilian) man with black curly hair named Gaetano. He was also the driver (and probably the owner) of the car, and the only one to speak French in a manner that allowed for a conversation.
As I have mentioned before, back in 1987, I did not speak Italian yet, but my French was quite good, and so I welcomed the possibility to speak to someone else than Brigitte.
Gaetano was wearing what in those days in Germany we would call a "Popper" outfit; in other parts of the world, I guess you'd call it a "preppy" or "Sloane Ranger" type: cloth trousers with a front pleat (no jeans!), a polo neck shirt and a cashmere jumper casually slung around his shoulders. The jumper was of a shell pink and looked (and probably was) very expensive.
Well, this was the upper middle class of Catania's young, well-to-do intellectually inclined set of young people, so it is hardly surprising that I felt a bit underdressed in my pair of jeans and some t-shirt or other (funny, isn't it, how I can remember exactly what Gaetano was wearing, but not my own clothes).

Aci Reale (often spelled Acireale) is part of a small set of towns neatly lining Sicily's East coast just out of Catania: Aci Reale, Aci Castello, Aci Catena, Aci Sant'Antonio, Aci Bonaccorsi and Aci Trezzo. These communities have their name from the river Aci (Sicilian: Jaci; in ancient times known as Akis or Acium).

To get from Catania to Aci Reale by train takes about 10-15 minutes; by car it takes somewhat longer - the reason for which is obvious if you look at this picture, showing the typical traffic on one of Catania's main roads leading in and out of the city.

Of course, we take one such road, and a hair-raising drive ensues, with what is actually a four-lane road made into a six-lane one by all those drivers who are convinced that they have to be there first, and fast!
Strangely enough, nothing happens, no accident, just what our hosts assure us is the normal chorus of car horns, and we arrive at the port of Aci Reale all in one piece.

There, only few other people have chosen to walk, and the relative peace and quiet of the small harbour is welcome.

We stroll along the harbour walls, and to have a better view of the Sea, I climb on the rocks that line the quai. Gaetano watches me and says: "Tu es une fille avventurieuse," * which I find rather funny because to me, this is simply something I habitually do when my view is blocked by a wall of rocks and not something I would consider to be adventurous in any way, but of course the girls he usually accompanies for walks all wear high heels and pretty dresses and would not dream of scrambling up some rocks only to have a better view.
Not much else I can remember of that evening.

I suppose we went for dinner somewhere, and it must have been then that Brigitte and Antonio exchanged addresses, because we did not meet this very kind group of people again; only much later I learnt that my friend had begun to receive letters from Antonio which eventually lead to the two of them getting married and having three children.

For us, the time had come to say good-bye to Catania.
* "You are an adventurous girl."

(All pictures found on the internet, not my own.)

Monday, 25 October 2010

A Monument To Friendship

The first king of Württemberg lived and reigned in my home town, Ludwigsburg.
He was, of course, not always king; up until he made a deal* with Napoleon, Württemberg was not a kingdom but a dukedom.
When he was still young, Friedrich had a friend, Johann Carl.
Their friendship (some sources say they were probably lovers as well) must have been really strong, because it withstood military and political intrigue as well as the ever-changing scenery of the time, what with Württemberg being at war against Prussia, the French, the Turks, and finally Russia.

When Carl died in 1801, Friedrich had a monument built for his friend, a mausoleum.
Inside the mausoleum, a white marble statue by court sculptor Johann Heinrich von Dannecker was placed, the "Grieving Friendship". An inscription outside on the portico of the mausoleum reads "Dem vorangegangenen Freunde", "To the friend who proceeded me".
Underneath the mausoleum, Carl's coffin was placed, and Friedrich's intention was that after his own death, he would be put to rest there, too.

The "Grieving Friendship"

Alas, by the time he died (in 1816), he was king - and protocol wouldn't allow for him to be put anywhere else but the dynasty's own crypt beneath the castle.
So, to this day, Carl's coffin is the only one there, and the two friends who wanted to be "reunited" in death are still apart.

I had the chance to go inside the mausoleum (normally it is closed to the public) with a guided tour I took on Saturday.

*The deal went like this:
Naploeon: "You give me soldiers for my war against Russia, and I make you king."
Friedrich: "Deal! Here are 15.000 men. Now, where's my crown?"
And thus Württemberg became Kingdom. It didn't last very long - in 1918, the last king of Württemberg was forced to abdicate, when Germany became a federal republic.
Of the 15.000 men sent to Russia, 300 returned alive.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Thirty Minutes, Three Encounters

My lunch break has to be at least 30 minutes long; this is a rule not made up by my bosses, but, I understand, by the government, stating that if you work six hours or more, you have to get the chance for a 30 minute break. Going against this rule would lead to problems with the insurance if, for instance, someone driving their car on the way home from work had an accident and it would come out that they did not take the required break.

Don't worry, I am not going to bore you silly with any more excursions into the fascinating world of rules and regulations for the working, but if you have been reading my blog every now and then, you may have noticed that I like patterns and symmetry, and therefore the fact that I had three encounters during my lunch break of 30 minutes finds mention here.

It was on Wednesday when, as almost always, I took the leafy path leading along the railway and towards the small town's centre, where I get my staple lunch, ciabatta with mozzarella and tomato.

The path, but on a different day when, obviously, it was not raining.

Coming towards me was a little old woman, anorak-clad (it was raining) and wearing sensible shoes and warm trousers. The hair showing from underneath her anorak's hood was of a very bright, vivid red, the kind that can only come from a bottle - tomato-red, really. The little old woman nodded at me, and smiled, and when I smiled back, her smile went even broader, and she nodded once more. If I am not very much mistaken, I heard her giggle when she was past me. What she found so enjoyable about her walk in the cold rain I do not know, but it was nice to see that there are some little old (maybe slightly mad) women about who do not, like so many other people, go miserably about their daily business.

Once I was past the railway bridge where strong winds tried to nick my umbrella or, seeing that I was unwilling to relent and give up this highly treasured possession of mine, blow me from the bridge and on to the rail track, I was pushed round the corner where the nursery school is and there, on the narrow path seperated in the middle by a fat white line into a cycle path and a foot path, a red squirrel was bouncing about.
View from said bridge, again, on a different day when it was not raining.
It stopped in its tracks when it saw me, then hurried a bit further up the path and into the shrubbery on the side, where it stopped on the thick layer of yellow leaves accumulated on the ground, and looked at me in what I presume was mild curiosity as to whether I was going to come too close for comfort.
Obviously I must have done, for the red squirrel decided to climb the nearest tree, and disappeared from my view.
The glass door to the bakery was open, as it is almost all year round except for when temperatures reach below freezing, and I went in, shaking the water off my umbrella.
One ciabatta with mozzarella and tomato was left, and without me having to say anything, the lady behind the counter who is as wide as she is tall (not the counter, the lady) waddled to that end of the counter where the sandwiches are kept, put the ciabatta into a yellow paper bag and handed it to me, saying that it had obviously been waiting for me.
She was in a very chatty mood, and as there were no other customers in the shop waiting to be served, I spent a few minutes listening to her plans for her own lunch (Quiche Lorraine) and for the afternoon (big meeting at the seat of the central administration of that chain of bakery shops). We exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then I walked back to where I work.

This time, I met neither squirrel nor mad old woman.
But it was thirty minutes well spent, and I was ready to tackle the afternoon's tasks.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

People On Trains

People using means of transport together are always good for some observing, and since I do not drive (I have written more about that topic here), I get plenty of occasion for such observation; for instance, today, when I travelled back home from Munich where I had been since Thursday afternoon to work at a trade show.

Travelling for business for me is, as for probably everyone else, getting from A to B in what I hope to be the most hassle-free manner. Usually, the intercity trains fit that description, although I do not understand why it is so difficult to get the temperature inside the carriage to an acceptable level. Summer or winter, rain or shine, I am always invariably cold on those trips, and today was no exception.

(Let me assure you I am adequately dressed most of the time.)

That was actually not what I was going to write about now, so let me try and get back to topic: People; people on trains and how they behave.

There may be billions of us on this planet, and each and everyone an individual, but of course we do follow patterns of behaviour. Different patterns, yes, and some more and others less so, but patterns nonetheless.

Take what I like to call the average train carriage combo; it often consists of the same type or kind of people.

You get families with children, and while the majority of them are well-behaved, there are almost always one or two who either whine, cry and complain, or play games involving ceaseless repetitive noises that make everyone glad when said family is making ready to get off the train and you hear a collective sigh of relief when they are gone (while nobody dares to protest in their presence, since it is soooo well known that we are a nation of child-haters!).

Then there is the chatty elderly lady who manages to entertain not only the passenger happening to be in the seat next to her (and whose aquaintance she makes instantly, before the train even leaves the station, on her initiative) but the whole carriage by recounting funny incidents based on her own 84-year-long life experience, interspersed with gems of homebrew philosophy and cackling laughter.

(The one-woman-show I witnessed today was telling some hair-raising stories with refreshing political incorrectness, all of which portrayed her as the modest *cough cough* and open-minded and oh-so-tolerant polyglott lady with the heart of gold and the razor-sharp mind who, in the most casual manner, solved an entire crossword puzzle for her immediate neighbour on the short distance between Munich and Augsburg.)

We all know the suit-wearing V.I.E. (Very Important Executive) who is either tapping away on his laptop or notebook nonstop, or on the phone about some business or other (or both at the same time), none of which is very interesting to observe.

It is as good as impossible to find anyone just sitting there and doing nothing but looking out of the window; people listen to music on their ipods or play games on their mobile phones or send and receive messages, or - still very much en vogue - read books, papers, or magazines.

Depending on the length of the trip, its scope, whether I am in company or not, and of course the mood I am in, my activities on train rides vary.
And in spite of being a confessing full-time egoist, I do aim not to be a nuisance to my fellow travellers (the word "ring tone" comes to mind...).

Things are just so much easier for everyone if people show some consideration towards each other, don't you think?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Fine Days

October is almost half way over, and so far it has been a good month for me.

It has seen my return to work and full steam ahead back into my social life; both work and life beyond the office are whirling about with lots of things to do, places to go and people to see.

We have had some foggy mornings and clear starry nights, making for temperatures near freezing point and very chilly mornings.

(View from my kitchen window on one of those foggy mornings)
During the day, glorious sunshine and all those beautiful colours we love about this time of the year.

(This is where I often walk past during my lunch break)

I wouldn't mind it staying that way for a while longer - although I do not like the frosty nights and mornings.
Hooray for being able to do everything I like doing again!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Push the Button...

...and then what happens?

I have no idea!

Do you experience that, too? Periods during which you can hardly remember any dreams when you wake up in the morning, whereas at other times, your sleep seems to be filled to the brim with colourful images, intense feelings and scenes that you can recall in great detail the next morning.

Lately, I am undergoing a "dreamless" phase, and I must admit I miss my dreams; usually, they are of the kind that leave me either amused because the story is so absurd, or deep in thought because I am trying to decipher the message my subconsciousness is transmitting to myself (if there is a message in there, which I am by no means sure of).

This morning, when I woke up, I knew exactly what I had been "looking at" just before opening my eyes: a button.

A black round push button, a bit like a door bell, and it was set in a black square of the same material. The material was not plastic, although it was smooth and shiny; it had a bakelite look to it (yes, I am old enough to remember telephones, light switches and other things made of bakelite).

In the dream, I did not know what the button was for, nor could I see whether it was mounted to a wall or on a door or a machine of some sort. In fact, it seemed to be invisibly suspended in mid-air, at eye height for me. There was no sound, and no clues at all as to the button's function.

I did not push it, but not because I was scared of the possible effects this could have; instead, what I felt while I was looking at the button was a mild sense of curiosity.

And then I woke up.

Possible interpretations are wide and varied, and your guess is as good as mine!

(Thanks to whoever uploaded this picture to the internet in the first place - it was not easy to find a photo showing what I saw in my dream, but this comes as close as I managed to find.)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Notes to Self IV

Goodness! Is it really so long ago since I last posted a Notes to Self blog? That was back in March... with most (and the best!) of this year still ahead of me.

Not having mentioned it here since March does, of course, not mean I have not taken any notes in order to support the not very impressive capacity of my mind to remember things; I often use my mobile phone's "notes" feature instead of bits of paper, especially when travelling, which is what I have done to quite an extent this year.

This leaf from a notepad starts with "7/8/2010 Rob gig".
Rob is my late husband's cousin in England who plays in a band; before I went over to see the family in early August, he had told me when he was going to play next and the original plan was that my sister and I would accompany him and watch the gig. For various reasons, this did not come about, and so to this day I have not seen Rob play live.
In case you are interested, here is his website:

Next are three ideas my co-moderators and I have come up with for possible guided "behind the scenes" tours for our local XING group (see if you are not familiar with it; XING is a social network mainly for business, but there is a huge number of groups such as local ones, or for specific areas of business or interests). We are working on getting such tours for the group at our inner-city shopping mall, the water reservoir and the porcellain manufacture here in town. The tours we have had so far were all hugely popular with many more members interested than what was possible.

The line "Grillabend" Garten Eberhard Ludwig refers to an event for the XING group we organised in June; it was an Italian buffet-style dinner in the beautiful rose garden at the restaurant where we usually meet once a month. The food was excellent, the company good fun and the conversation interesting - a success from all aspects.

Where it says 9.40, Bst.10, Bus 422, that refers to the day before I had to go to hospital for my operation. I was expected there for the pre-operation procedures (mainly of an administrative nature) at 10.00 in the morning, and to make sure I'd be there in time, I checked the online bus schedule; also to find out which stop at the central bus station would be the right one.

Some rather cryptic numbers follow; these mean minutes and seconds on the archived video of a television program I watched a few weeks ago. It was a studio discussion about a current topic in my area, and I actually only watched it because a friend of mine had told me he was going to be in the studio as a spectator, but if the moderator was going to ask the spectators' opinion, he was prepared to say his bit. My friend was not asked, but the times I wrote down were when he was clearly visible, and I originally wanted to show him to my mother (you are welcome to draw your own conclusions from that) but in the end didn't; other things gained more importance.

"Lost Gardens of Heligan" is the next line.
Now, I guess some of you know about these gardens and possibly have even been there.
While I was in hospital, I read "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton - it was just the right kind of book at that time; not too demanding, but entertaining the mind enough to make my stay in hospital nicer. When I was back home, I went to check out the
author's website and found the Lost Gardens of Heligan mentioned there, which lead me to check out that website, too.
Since then, I have heard from a friend who has been there that there are gardens to see that are much more beautiful and less overrun by visitors, but still, I think it looks like a great place for a day out.

You guessed it - the number 926682 is a phone number; that of my doctor who I called several times during the two weeks I was home after the operation and before I went back to work on Monday.

The next line refers to an item I was supposed to receive by mail but which was lost; I needed to remind myself to ask the sender to send it once more.

The name in the square is that of an author; Stieg Larsson was recommended to me by a friend who had read the trilogy during his holiday. I have almost finished the first in the series. Of course, there is a
website for Mr. Larsson, too.

Now that I have finished writing this, I think it is time for the next installment in my "Souvenirs from Sicily" series. Would you like to read it?