The heavy rain that woke me this morning ceases and is replaced by fine droplets, barely visible to the eye, but there’s a quivering in the light between my window and the dark hedge telling me that it’s still falling. The sky is the sort that photographers detest. It’s one solid pale grey block. It’s not that it lacks character, dull can be a character trait too, but it’s so consistent that it gives nothing to draw the eye. There’s no spontaneity. The rain will keep falling and the sky will stay grey and not even the wild cat will show up today. She’ll be hiding somewhere safe and dry.
Last week, curled up in my father’s rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, I felt a sudden pull of nostalgia for the two weeks I spent in the south of Sicily. It was the fire that did it. I stayed in Sicily, near a town called Noto at the end of November in 2016 and although during the day there was frequently warm sunshine, in the evenings the temperature suddenly dropped. We had no central heating and the electricity was limited. If it had been sunny in the morning, we might get enough energy through the solar panel to run the washing machine, but dinner would have to be eaten by candlelight.
For some, such an environment might feel somewhat limiting, but for me it was a remarkable moment of quiet. A quiet that I desperately needed. In the evenings I’d take a book from the library and curl up in one of the guest bedrooms where I’d light a fire in the wood burning stove and contentedly read, write or stare at the flickering flames. Contentedly alone.
Staring at our fire here, lit because the windows had to be propped open as they’d just been varnished, I couldn’t help but think about Sicily and the perfectness of those quiet, solitary evenings.
Some people, I know, hate being alone. It makes them uncomfortable. They actively avoid solitude. I’m not sure what it is they fear or dislike about being alone with themselves, and I guess it’s something I’ll never quite understand, but still they talk of being alone with great distaste. Other people cling to their isolated-ness as an identity. As if somehow being able to survive being with themselves somehow makes them not need a thriving active social life. I fall into neither category. It’s the combination of quiet moments of solitude and comfortable connection with people I love that make me thrive.
That evening, in front of our fire, I picked up my Sicilian diary from the bookshelf and flicked through it, wondering what I had written about. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe that my diary would be me writing all about me. That I’d be self-pitying or excessively analytical. It wasn’t. In my diary I write about the flames, how the logs burnt and the heat warmed my skin, I quote passages from the books I’m reading and muse upon the writer’s thoughts. There’s a long paragraph where I’m sitting out on the patio in the sunshine watching a lizard devouring a grasshopper, I record the battle with an obsessive fascination which falls into a contemplation of the act of dying and how the grasshopper fought back.
Page after page, I write about the steam in the shower and the sun on my skin. I write about arguing with a god I don’t believe in. I write about the beat of the hammer falling in the yard of the villa the far end of the valley where a Sicilian man laboured.
And I’m not normally the nostalgic type, but sometimes when life is busy all around me, I think of the incredible quiet that I felt those few days in Sicily. And I long to go back to it.
The morning began when I asked where the coffee was – in the fridge duh – and Maria started making tea. That is tea with rosemary, red berries and orange peel.
Maria looked at me, “Candle?”
Being English wasn’t working.
At eight in the morning with my coffee unmade I observed the commotion in silence. What does anyone want a candle for anyway? I figured it was the wrong word, and that the ideal word was lighter. We needed to light the gas to use the hob to heat the hot water for the coffee and this so called tea. Either way I couldn’t help.
It turned out, the candle was for the tea. A lighter was, as I presumed, also required, and found. The kettle boiled. Maria poured the hot water into the teapot and stood it above the tealight – to keep it warm. A jam jar lid went on top because the original lid is missing.
That was breakfast. We worked for a while, until lunch, which Maria forgot, half started and then abandoned with flamboyance. Moving faster than I’d ever seen her move before, Maria instructed me to tell Leonardo to stop working. We were late and… the children. Until this point there had been no prior mention of any children. Missing or otherwise.
I said, “Ok.”
Confused because my instructions had been given in Italian, I went to the workshop where Leonardo looked at me and had the same panic as Maria. He ran out of the house behind her. I’m not sure either of them were wearing shoes.
The children appeared sometime later trailing behind a joyful Maria and a singing Leonardo. We ate. Thankfully. Then Leonardo made them wooden toys out of the scraps of wood that remained from making the Christmas letters.
In a moment of chaos, mid-afternoon, when numerous neighbours appeared, the children disappeared again.
I discover, that due to Maria’s need to be productive, I’m cooking dinner. But I don’t know what dinner is, or when we’re having it. Nor do I know what I’m cooking. Lentils and carrots float around in a pot.
A debate, in Sicillian/Italian/French, followed about how one doesn’t need a fork for soup. With Leonardo shouting from the workshop that Maria had to ask me how to say spoon in Italian. All I could think of was the French, which I started shouting back. At least I now knew I was making soup.
To add to my difficulties, the stove required constant feeding with wood. But hey.
Furthermore, dinner required salt. It was my job to taste the food and add the correct amount of salt. I’m ungenerous with salt at the best of times. I save it for special occasions.
And the ‘sale’ jar was empty.
If it was just dinner, or just the salt, I might managed to remain restrained.
Just as we’re sitting down for dinner, there was a commotion about the ladle. I waved my hands in despair. Some shouting and laughter. Leonardo handed me the ladle and I repeated its name three times.
Everyone laughs because I’m saying the wrong thing again.
I lift my hands in a big Italian gesture.
Now I’ve raised my voice, it’s feeling more Yorkshire.
And I’m like, “What?”
Although tempted to swear, I don’t. This is just what it takes to adapt.
As we sit down for dinner, everyone seems more relaxed. I realise it’s me. And my English restraint is as hard on them as their Italian cresendo.
What’s the most challenging kitchen you’ve ever had to cook in?
For good reason, travelling alone is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it can, on occasion, seem preferable to travelling with a friend.
Travelling with a friend can stir up a whole set of small irritations that in normal circumstances would pass unnoticed. Imagine spending every waking, and non-waking moment with someone, more time than if you were in a relationship, every little friction intensifies. Happy interdependence heats up, until you realise you’re bound together and can’t escape. Or at least can’t escape without breaking an unspoken contract.
You entwine your plans around each other, because you love each other, and only later wonder why in this travel – which is supposed to be freeing – you feel trapped. Aren’t you having fun?
I’ve travelled alone, but not everybody has. Alone, with nobody else to please, I’m capable of walking around the central streets of a city for half an hour trying to decide where to have coffee and a croissant for breakfast (Modena). And that’s without anyone else to appease. That’s just taking in my desires for the right looking croissants, happy clientele, serving staff who smile. Coffee that smells good. A week of such behaviour and even my most loving friends are going to be going batty.
Expect the friction
DeepThought and the Circumvesuviana
In Italy, on the first Sunday of the month there’s free entry to the tourist sites of Pompei, Herculaneum and the scattered villas that Mt. Vesuvius buried with its volcanic spread of AD. 89.
DeepThought and I had been going crazy visiting places and seeing things. Neither of us are concerned by a 40-minute walk here or there, so we’d also done a lot of walking. Mostly searching for an elusive pizza restaurant with a chimney, but that’s another story (and all my fault).
Sunday morning, I overslept. We disagreed on the urgency of lunch. At the train station, acting out of habit, we got on the wrong train. On realising, we then got off the train, took another train back and then a third train to get to where we’d wanted to be. Finally at the station we were heading to, we became uncertain as to whether we were at the right station. There were no obvious signs to the mysterious villas, and this being lunch time on a Sunday there was nothing open and nobody about.
We started walking in a direction. The threat offered by the grey sky was no bluff. Only I had a coat. We began again, walking in a different direction. Changed our minds, and finally ended up at a cross roads where a small sign pointed down the road to a villa.
Since it was the first Sunday of November, in the ticket office there was a visitor book that one had to sign. I signed my name in all the boxes, recording DeepThought’s home city as a squiggle of my own name.
At Pompei, the rain would have been miserable, but although the villa wasn’t architecturally as exciting as anything we’d seen in the previous few days, it was at least mostly covered. This was something to be grateful for.
After viewing that villa, we walked along the road to the next villa (taking another wrong turn along the way). There was no path. And it was so late when we finally arrived that the villa was closed. Quiet.
Ravenous, I bought and consumed a large packet of chocolate brioche from an open supermarket.
Sicily and the loud house
It’s not such a different story from what happened only a month later, when, confined in a house with two Sicilian’s and not enough space I found myself angering at the slightest provocation. It felt like an impossible situation but it was simply a matter of too much all at once.
Sometimes it’s just not so easy to be having fun.
“But we’ve been friends forever.”
Sadly, it doesn’t matter how well intentioned the other person is. Neither Maria asking if I was alright, telling me that my happiness really mattered to her, nor DeepThought gritting his teeth and behaving with supreme English gentleman’s reserve was enough. It happens every time I travel with anyone.
And it’s not just me.
When I pull up my chair in a café or bar, and start listening to people who have travelled a lot, everyone seems to have stories to tell about travelling with friends. Home friends, that put up with our not being there and don’t let our never-ending supply of photos of sunny beaches grate on them too much, especially while they’re in the office on a Monday morning, are valued and precious creatures. These are people who know us by more than first impressions. And that mix of history and knowledge makes for an intimacy and belonging that lonely travellers long for.
And yet, everyone seems to have cautionary tales of mixing close friends and travel. I’ve witnessed enough exchanges of horror stories where one person ends up leaving the other in South Africa or India alone. Or two people have a spat and a breakdown in the supermarket, on a hostel floor, or in the middle of some tourist’s photo of the Arc De Triumph…
Don’t waste your time blaming, plan space
I’m going to irritate anyone travelling with me.
I’m going to get crabby at some point as I wear out if they have too much time without a decent and whole chunk of solitary space to recover and rejuvenate. The least I can do is be upfront about it and encourage whomever I’m with to call me out on any sharp or snide comments that escape. It’s not personal.
Sometimes it seems like a waste of good time that you could spend together, to have days apart, to visit coffee shops alone, or endeavour to accomplish a lone 10km run. But space is what makes getting along possible. If I don’t read a book, write my diary and go for a walk or a run I’m insufferable.
I used to feel bad about not always being attentive. But now I know that in the long run, escaping a while is a kindness.
In the Bay of Naples, with DeepThought, when we arrived back at our apartment, I hid in the kitchen and cooked. Cooking is a great solace. An apartment offers more space than a hostel or hotel.
What to do if being alone scares you
Budapest. I’ve pushed Midget for days, forcing her beyond her comfort zone. Her feet ache from the walking I’ve made her do.
Budapest is big. It’s heavy and it’s dirty. The stunning buildings scream the richness of Vienna but look like Miss Havisham is in charge of the housework. Midget, quite frankly, had reached a point of enough.
So, she curled up on the bed and read a book.
And I went outside, not so far because when she’s feeling uncertain about things it’s not worth worrying her about where I might be. But I went outside, leaving her alone in our apartment, and I sat on a bench which she could have seen if she’d peered out her window, and I sat and sketched the parliament building.
And when she’d finished her book, she was ready to play again.
Don’t let intense emotions surprise you
“Which of us was crying?”
“I think it must have been me.”
“By the coffee shop by the metro station.”
“Yeah that’s right.” Understanding pause. “So where shall we go next?”
It’s just an acknowledgement of reality. You can’t keep up an illusion or pretence of perfection, which is itself a precious freedom. Travel isn’t about just exploring the scenery. It’s as much internal as external. When you travel with a friend you’re taking them on that journey with you. You’re going to have intense moments, deep conversations and as cliché as it is, you’ll change.
Laugh about how you’re going to get it wrong
So, if I were to give one piece of advice to any friends travelling together, it would be this, laugh at how you’re going to irritate the hell out of each other.
As one friend joked, on a particularly vexing afternoon: “At least being stuck with me is good practice for when you have children.”
I appear and am instructed to an armchair, in front of the armchair is the stove. My Sicilian host, Leonardo, is wearing a fleece hat that reminds me of my school PE teacher whom we nicknamed Dopey after the seventh dwarf. He used to tuck his hat behind his ears in the cold English months of school hockey.
Leonardo pointed to the stove and explains, in gestures and a word or two of English, that the stove is the central heating and will warm my room; it’s also the heat for the kettle so I can have a cup of tea (I wonder how exactly as we have no teabags); since I need it to stay warm, when the wood burns through I’ll need to reload the stove; and I should relax with the company of my computer in the armchair.
We have a common language, but it doesn’t involve words. It exists through the mutual understanding that comes from having similar cultures. It’s easy to notice the differences when you travel, but such communication happens through the similarities. It’s action and hand waving, and what you might call common sense. It works surprisingly well when you stick to the concrete. The abstract less so.
His partner, Maria, is away, returning tonight. In the meantime, we’re having our meals at Francesco’s house, our neighbour. He runs a home for stray and abandoned dogs with the help of a volunteer who’s staying there. Dinner time company is therefore two Sicilian men, smoking, drinking wine and talking with their arms; a grounded nomadic Swiss woman, Greta; and little English me.
During dinner I learn that Francesco has a philosophy of resorting to Nutella mid-afternoon to fill the empty hole in his soul that’s caused by the absence of love. Greta says Nutella is bad for our bodies and bad for the environment and sugar isn’t going to solve lovesickness. She does the cooking and believes in eating with kindness. She also is fluent in at least four languages including Italian and English.
Enough. The kitchen is also home to supposedly two dogs – the house dogs – but frequently four because, like me, they don’t understand the rules.
First, find something you don’t know how to say. Gesture wildly, play charades, describe the word or phrase in high speed Italian (or Sicilian). Ignore my confusion.
Halfway through an elaborate sentence, pause. See that I’m trying to say something that might be useful. You’re sure it’s wrong, so keep gesturing until I say a word you prefer the sound of. There are many English words. You can pick and choose vocabulary. You avoid ugly words and choose emotionally. Maybe you don’t know why you like it, but that’s okay.
It’s probably wrong. Take both words. I’ll use them as pairs, defining one against the other ‘audacity’ fights ‘courage’, ‘to learn’ takes on ‘to find’. Somehow, I’ll convince you that ugly words are worthwhile too.
Sing a song. ‘Find’ is similar to ‘discover’ but you think it’s uglier, and Columbus discovered America, and at school Leonardo learnt about Columbus – on the 12 October he set off from somewhere in Spain. Don’t worry if you’re now lost. Comprehension is a bonus. Dance. If there isn’t enough space in the room, it doesn’t matter. Sing in any language. ‘We are the champions’ followed by ‘My bonny lies over the ocean’, if you like.
Discover, or find out, that this verb, to learn, is not regular. I fumble and speak in staccato. I gesture with the whole length of my arms. My gestures have become wild.
“No, no, no, no, no!” Who sounds Italian now? Slam the table.
I will watch as you argue in Italian, without breathing. Raise your voice until it’s indiscernible from shouting.
And keep shouting.
Then in a normal quiet voice turn to me, repeat the ugly word and clarify its meaning.
It took a full day of travelling to cross Sicily: a falling apart car, three trains, and then a yellow van.
I’m still a fan of the Italian trains. One of the three was a tiny train up through the hills across Sicily. It was beautiful. The scenery reminded me of the North of England for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe I was just thinking too much about home. In another train, I stared out of the window, as we followed the stunning Mediterranean coastline. No train arrived on time, but all of them had enough room that I could keep my suitcase close by. I panic about leaving my suitcase out of sight.
Then there was the yellow van. By the time I was strapped in the van seat, my suitcase safely tucked in the back beneath some large sheets of wood, I was tired.
We took a detour to the house of Maria’s mother. Maria, a Sicilian craftsman, is my current host.
I exchanged pleasantries in a British fashion with her mother, a wonderful Italian nonna (grandmother) who insisted on giving me a pomegranate.
“My mother,” Maria explained.
An enormous pomegranate filled the fruit bowl and I admired it as was pointed out. You could have played football with it. Maria’s mother and I discussed the wonder of the night’s sky. Her father turned up fully dressed, with the addition of a dressing-gown, holding a pair of binoculars.
Leonardo, Maria’s partner, and I got ready to go; Maria’s mother disappeared to find me a plastic bag for my own small pomegranate. Maria shook her head despairing affectionately.
“The house of my mother – perfect, mine no.”
This not so perfect house – which I’d describe as lively – is where I’m living for a little while. Lively is an understatement.