Thursday, December 10, 2009

Making sense of Sicily

I awoke to see mountains in every direction, as far as the eye could resolve. Flying over the Alps was breathtaking. The jagged snow-capped peaks, the drifting snow, and the few low clouds that clung to them, made a scene painted purely in white, the contrast coming from textures alone. Colour would have been a vulgar addition.

Catania is a curious place, glowing of functionality over form. Perhaps there's something about living in a sunny, beautiful place that makes you careless about the details. The streets are littered with old fliers and remnants of billboard paper. The medians, even in the town, appear to be scrubland - left untouched since the road was laid - a handful of coarse plants cling to life in the rough grey volcanic scree that characterises the soil here. The buildings are extremely angular - mostly rectangular blocks, with balconies protruding like cancerous growths from their sides. The roofs are mostly flat, and (save the dome of the cathedral, which stands out like a nun in a crowd of Rangers fans) there's not a single curve to be seen. From up on the hill where the lab is situated, the city looks like a pile of pale Lego bricks carelessly discarded along the coast. By submerging oneself downtown, one finds an equally interesting environment. Old buildings, seemingly decaying, draped with time-worn faded flags. The only paint not peeling is the unskilled graffiti adorning the lower levels of the buildings. There are little dark courtyards and wide piazzas, the latter filled with stalls selling hundreds of magazines, roasted nuts and little stands selling beer and coffee. I'm reminded of the Italian Job - for little seems to have changed since the Sixties. The dimly lit backstreets are full of shops selling junk. Many sell old items that you'd expect only at a charity shop or car-boot sale. There are dozens selling nothing but cheap chains of coloured stones - each shop with an alleged theme (one claimed to be Indian, another Italian) but all appeared to carry the same tacky wares. How all these businesses survive is beyond me. The main street, which runs for well over a mile, contains almost exclusively clothing shops. The majority of these are either expensive looking designer boutiques, or else underwear stores. The people here are all 'beautiful' - well dressed, and meticulously presented - but are in stark contrast to the city itself.

Finding a restaurant was actually quite challenging. Whether I was in the wrong part of town for dining, or whether it is true that the local culture is much more oriented toward eat in peoples homes, rather than in restaurants, I cannot say. Eventually, I found somewhere to eat, and sat outside. I spoke but a dozen words of Italian, she no English, but we communicated sufficiently. I ordered some marinated seafood to start (sardines, octopus and prawns in olive oil, lemon juice and parsley) followed by a seafood rissotto. Both were quite acceptable, though neither outstanding. I finished with an interesting espresso - served sadly in a plastic cup (!), but so dark and rich that it reminded me more of pure chocolate than of coffee.

Food is, for certain, one of the main draws of the place. The morning break of the meeting is filled with coffee (served in short, fragrant shots - each one about half the volume of a typical shot of spirits), fresh fruit juice and the most delicious fresh, hot pastries (my favourite being one containing a warm orange preserve). Whilst everyone stands around inside, I take these out, though the little courtyard and its lime trees, up to the roof overlooking the bay, and sit in the sun. In doing so, this place finally makes sense.