The Teeth-Gnashing Frustration and Sly Charms of Sicilian Public Transportation

This week’s train trip from Siracusa to Taormina was easy and enjoyable. Catching the bus from Giardinii-Naxos was easy enough too. It took only three inquiries to figure out where to catch the bus and a helpful TripAdvisor expert had told me to get off at the penultimate stop to be closest to my hotel. Since I had no idea where any of the stops were, however, we whizzed right by it. Still — only a slightly longer walk. No big deal.

The return trip: Not so much.  I had a ticket on a train leaving the Giardini-Naxos train station at 5:53 PM. The receptionist at my hotel told me the buses left Taormina every quarter hour at that time of day and it was a 15 minute trip. So, I aimed for the 5 PM bus to be super safe; figured I’d actually catch the 5:15 PM; and still had the 5:30 to fall back on if something went wrong. I arrived at 5:05. There was a parking lot full of busses at the station, most of them dark with no destinations marked. And thus, my saga begins.

 I ask at the ticket booth in my half spoken/ half-pantomimed bastardized Italian-English. “Bus per estacion Giardini-Naxos, per favore?” The guys there point generally at the parked busses and say something in their own version of Italish that seems to mean “look for the sign on the bus”.

So, figuring maybe the correct bus hasn’t arrived yet or it’s one of these busses, but it isn’t marked yet. I watch for it, eagle-eyed, until 5:20. No Giardini-Naxos sign on any of the busses that leaves. Now I’m starting to get a little alarmed. So I try the ticket office again. This time, one guy points to his watch and says something that seems to indicate “next bus at 5:45”. Whoa. No 5:15 bus? No 5:30 bus? I’m going to miss my train. But I can’t seem to communicate that question; I just keep getting the next bus, 5:45 answer. So, I go approach two bus drivers standing chatting near their idling busses. One shrugs and walks away. The other, god bless him, smiles and says “Giardini-Naxo estacion? Si” and walks over to check with another driver. In a minute, he grins and indicates in his fractured Italish. “Now. This bus.”

So, I get on that bus and sure enough it hauls off in a few moments. I go along thinking “Great.  Plenty of these people are probably going to the rail station, and I know the trip is supposed to take about 15 minutes. I’m sitting anxiously watching the minutes tick down, figuring I need to be ready to run when the bus stops at the station. At just about 5:48, the bus pulls up to a stop. I double check with the driver: “Train station?” “No, no” he says pointing backwards. We’re well past the train station. I didn’t know I had to signal a stop and wouldn’t have recognized it till we were past it anyway.

OK. I guess I’m not taking that train. I get off the bus anyway, since I have no idea where it is headed now. Two kind strangers with good English help me figure out that in a few minutes another bus should come along that will possibly take me all the way to the Catania bus station. We know it goes to the airport and think it stops at the bus station first. I know from reading posts on TripAdvisor that if it does, I should be able to change at that station to another bus headed for Siracusa. And, I figure, the worst that will happen is I’ll end up at Fontanarossa airport, where I know I can get a bus to Siracusa.

So I wait and sure enough another Interbus bus comes along shortly. Who’s driving that bus? The kindly driver who helped me find the “right” bus in the parking lot. He looks flabbergasted when he sees me and is clearly asking me in the Italian I don’t speak “what happened? ” Then he laughs and answers his own question: “Disaster, si?”

In our mixed languages, we establish that yes he goes to the Catania bus station and will tell me when to get off. I need a new ticket, but he says get on. A stop or two later, he motions for me to get off the bus. I know I’m not in Catania, so I’m a bit concerned, but then I finally get that he wants me to buy a ticket at the kiosk there and get back on the bus. So I do, squinting my eyes at him and saying “Now you’re not going to leave without me, right?”. He laughs and says “No, no”, but then jokingly shuts the door on me as I try to reboard. We both laugh and the bus moves on. When we get to the Catania station, he tells me. OK, get off here and I do, thanking him profusely. A few minutes later, when he starts his return trip, he sees me standing on a nearby corner, hesitating to plunge into the three lanes of whizzing Italian traffic to get across the street to the other busses. In a last fillip of kindness, he pulls to a halt and motions for me to cross in front of him, waving and smiling.

Now I’ve got to figure out which of the dozens of busses is the one that goes to Siracusa and where I buy the ticket. I wander around the huge staging area and ask few times, before I am pointed to a little storefront with a blue Interbus sign that’s more than half hidden by some scaffolding and I recognize the blue busses across the street. Phew, this is going to be OK. I manage to buy the ticket and establish that the next bus is in an hour, at 8:30 and leaves from slot 7. “Dove?”, I ask. Where? He points vaguely across the street to the blue busses.

I wait in the air-conditioned station till 8:10, then head across the street. I find signs for slots 4, 5 and 6 with an unmarked additional slot next to them, before another bus company’s area starts. So this unmarked slot is number 7, right? I wait for the bus to arrive. I wait and I wait some more. At 8:30, I’m nervous when there’s still no bus. But I figure: This is Italy. It’s probably just late, right?

At 8:35, as I head back to the ticket office, the guy who sold me the ticket is lounging outside. He spies me and looks quizzically at me. I ask “Bus per Siracusa?” The guy shakes his head and gestures. It’s gone. I clearly look dismayed. Where was it, I ask? “Dove?” This time, he points down the street. Number 7 is apparently half way down the block rather than in the plaza with the other slots. I sigh. My fault. “Next bus?” I ask, hopefully. “Domani”. Uh-oh. I know that Italian word.

But, wait, there’s hope. I vaguely remember that there was a late night train from Catania to Siracusa. So, I head to the nearby train station. YES! On the departures screen, there’s a 9:30 train indicated. I go to buy a ticket. “Una per Siracusa, per favore”. The agent shakes his head and says “No train.” What? I point to the departures screen, “Siracusa?” Again, he shakes his head. “No train,” he repeats, then pausing, says “bus”. I try to explain: No, the bus station ticket agent says no more busses tonight. He clearly doesn’t understand and just keeps rather mournfully repeating, “No train. Bus.”

I go to the waiting area thinking. OK, so I’ll find a hotel. But I’m still puzzled about the train on the departures board. and I ask a woman waiting. “Train per Siracusa?”, pointing at the board. She nods yes and says in Italian 9:30. I try to explain that the ticket agent won’t sell me a ticket and says no train. Though she speaks no English, she understands that I’m in trouble, takes my arm and comes with me to the ticket office. Now there’s a new guy there. I ask, “Train per Siracusa, tonight?” He nods, yes, and points to the departures screen. Now I’m relieved but skeptical and look confused. He motions for me to wait and heads off to find someone else. The Italian woman and I figure he’s hunting for an English speaker. But he comes back and repeats the now familiar “no train, bus” refrain.  Mysteriously, however,  he motions that I should buy a ticket from the other agent anyway. So now I’m back to the first agent. I heave a big sigh and try him again. ” Una per Siracusa, per favore ” This time, he’s willing to take my money, and says simply “bus?” I think, what the hell: “Si, bus.” Then I remember I have a bus ticket. So I show it to him. He looks at it and tosses it back derisively, shaking his head and saying. ” no, no — bus ticket”. By now, I have no idea what’s going on, but I fork over another 6 euros for another ticket to Siracusa. (I’ve now paid for this trip 3 times) and silently issue a little prayer that somehow — bus, train or magic carpet — it will get me back to Siracusa before dawn.

He gives me the ticket and repeats 9:30. It’s now 9:00. I ask “Dove?” He points vaguely outside. I figure I’ve got 20 minutes to figure this last mystery out. I head outside to look around. But before I get far, a young woman with some English comes out of the station and says to me “Excuse me, Siracusa? ” Yes, yes, I think, I’m saved! In halting English, she indicates the ticket office guy inside. “He says that way ” and points to the right of the station. I’m about to head that way when the other more-helpful ticket guy comes out and guides me to a bus parked 50 meters away to the left . The bus is empty. It’s dark. But there is a driver lounging nearby. I say hopefully “Siracusa? “. He nods yes and I get on; I”m not letting this bus out of my sight till it takes off. Sure enough 30 minutes later it fills up, with all the passengers who have now arrived to take the apparently cancelled 9:30 train, and takes off. I now have only one last hurdle to overcome. This time, I sit directly behind the driver. Every time the bus stops I lean over and say “Siracusa?” and he shakes his head no, until finally at about 11;30, he grins and nods “Si, Siracusa.”

Tomorrow i head to Noto, then Modica and Ragusa — all by bus. I’m crossing my fingers.

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How to Make A Sandwich, Sicilian Style

Not for nothing is Andrea Borderi called genius. Every day a small crowd gathers IMG_2815at his shop at the edge of the daily outdoor market in the old section of Siracusa, to watch him ply his trade. Over the course of a few hours, he’ll make perhaps a hundred sandwiches, each of them a work of art.

IMG_2914Like other artists, Borderi has complete creative license.  Customers don’t tell him what kind of sandwich they want. They simply tell him how many sandwiches they want and he takes it from there, drawing from his palette of meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments as the moment’s fancy takes him. But the basic format remains the same.

1. Slice a foot-long loaf of Italian bread and scoop out a bit of the middle to allow more room for the scrumptious fillings.
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2. Start with a layer of flavorful vegetables: Sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, a bit of golden corn or perhaps a combination laid out in careful separate dollops along the bread.
3. Throw on a handful of greens–romaine, arugula, red leaf lettuce, etc.–along with some raddichio, all quickly and expertly chopped.
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4. Dice one ripe red plum tomato per sandwich and scoop it on. Now grate fresh parmesan directly on the growing mounds. To complete this layer: Give it a squirt of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze on the juice of a freshly cut lemon half.
5. Add a layer of creamy white, slightly salty fresh mozzarella. While you’re slicing it, be sure to cut some extra pieces, handing them out to the customers in line. After all, no one is complaining about the long waits and most turn down the offer to have a sandwich made more quickly by an assistant, preferring to watch the show and enjoy the genius’ work.
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6. Pare a few thickish slices from a bright yellow cheese and place them on top, along with  few black olives.  Be sure to give the olives a smack with the broad side of a knife and remove the pits first!  If so inclined, sprinkle on a few small slices of a mildly hot red pepper for some extra color and zing. At this point, too, you might add a slice or two of a pungent sausage–salami, pepperoni or the like.
7.  On a sheet of butcher’s paper, layer some slices of your chosen Italian cold cut–ham, mortadella, proscuitto or the like.  Place a row of thick chunks of thrice-baked, creamy  ricotta on top of it. Depending on your choice of meat, you might sprinkle on some fresh basil leaves or dust the meat with wild Sicilian oregano (accomplished by simply shaking a dried bouquet of it over the food). Maybe drizzle a bit of local honey on top.
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8. Now carefully use the paper to turn the meat and cheese into a neat roll. This is the point where the sandwich genius double checks his work, inhaling deeply, to ensure that the meat and cheese are seasoned correctly.
9. Plop the roll of meat and cheese on top of the already huge mound of goodies on the bread.  Top  it with the other half of the bread and carefully cut it in half, wrapping each half in butcher paper.
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Time required to prepare two Borderi sandwiches simultaneously: about six minutes, while maintaining  interaction with the customers throughout. Borderi asks them  where they’re from, periodically hugs and gives the Italian two-cheek kiss to old friends, and hams it up for photos. It’s a show that his audience delights in. (“Obama!” says Borderi to Americans, offering them a high-five and a wide grin.)

And the sandwiches?  They’re phenomenal, as well as a tremendous bargain: only €5 for one big enough to feed at least two people.

Dolce Far Niente in Sicily

Summer in Sicily reminds me powerfully of childhood. True, it’s a much more exotic setting than the small working class town I grew up in, and the thermometer indicates that it’s at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter most days than southern New England ever got. But there’s much that feels the same. The tempo of life, for instance.  The languor of Sicily in August feels a lot like I remember summers as a nine- or ten-year old: Waking late, with the sun already well up in the sky. Spending hours reading a book or just sitting idling, daydreaming. It’s what the Italians call dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s a freeing carelessness that feels like childhood, too. Most days I don’t bother with make-up, just smearing on some sunscreen. And much as I did as a youngster living close to the waterfront, I often simply put on a swimsuit and a light cover-up first thing in the morning, because it’s cool and comfortable and I know that at some point before the sun sets, I’IMG_2240ll end up in the water. Those of you who know me well will recognize this as highly unusual behavior. I typically avoid occasions that require scanty clothing and don’t particularly like swimming either in pools or at beaches. But in Sicily it’s easy to leave behind the self-consciousness about dimply thighs, sagging boobs and ginormous butts. Women (and men) of all shapes, sizes and ages have no compunction about revealing far-from-perfect bodies—pasta-bellies and wrinkles be damned. (Of course, some of them do look pretty good!) I’ve even taken to wearing sleeveless tops in the only slightly cooler evenings, letting my usually camouflaged underams flap freely.

The neighborhood I grew up in was originally a summer community, made up mostly of small homes where families parked for the summer. As time passed, many of the homes were insulated and enlarged for year-round occupancy or new ones meant for that purpose were built. But there were still a number of summer-only residents when I was young; many of the neighbors had boats of one sort or another (I, in fact, had a canoe); and community life centered around the local beach.

IMG_2335In Syracuse, the homes aren’t wooden and are centuries older than the summer houses of Laurel Park, but they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems. And just as in my hometown, here wet swimsuits and threadbare towels hang outdoors on railings to dry; flip-flops are the footwear of choice for all ages; and meals are casual affairs, often eaten outdoors.

Although there’s no actual beach in Ortygia—the small island that is the antique and cultural heart of the working city of Syracuse—the sea is very much present. While three bridges connect one side of the island to the rest of Syracuse and a marina occupies another stretch, much of the island is surroundIMG_1625ed by a steep, fortress-like seawall, adding to the sense of Syracuse as a place  with a long history of cultures repeatedly clashing  and commingling. At one or two spots, long, steep staircases lead down to small sandy areas outside the seawall and a handful of tourists and locals spread their towels there to take in the sun and jump in the waves.

But I, along with most of the inhabitants, prefer the Solarium—a large wooden deck-like affair accessed by a metal stairway down an outcrop of boulders. Hovering over the water, it’s large enough for a couple dozen souls to spread their towels and bask in the sun until the heat drives them to IMG_2264jump off into the sea. An adjacent spit of boulders shelters those who prefer a more natural, if less comfortable, place to park their bottoms and a higher diving point for the more intrepid teens and tweens.

The water is clear and its temperature perfect—cool enough to refresh, warm enough not to chill. Some people swim vigorously or snorkel, but most, like me, simply float, bobbing up and down in the modest waves, grinning at the deep blue sky and endless sea ahead of them.