Dispatch #193 - Rich with Sicilian treats
We left Greece expecting rumply seas left over from ten days of stormy weather. But as we entered the Ionian Sea under motor power, we found only the slightest of breezes ruffling the placid surface of the water.
We left harbour as a convoy of three: Northern Magic and two boats from Sweden that were heading for the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the boot of Italy. We were travelling on a more southerly route and so lost our travelling companions within a few hours as our courses slowly diverged.
The three of us had left on the strength of my dad's forecast of a slim 72-hour window before the next storm front came through, while two other boats had stayed behind, hoping to leave the next morning. We only needed 48 hours to make the westbound passage, and Dad's forecast proved correct: the slight breeze we did receive came from the south. But the winds were so light we could only put up our jib for a total of about four hours in the entire passage, and our mainsail remained flaked on the boom. Although the swell made us roll from side to side, we didn't mind motoring; we were just pleased not to have to beat into the wind.
We had a stowaway on the passage, a warbler with a vivid yellow belly who flew around Northern Magic several times at dusk on our first night at sea. It alighted on different places before being brave enough to fly inside and find a roost for itself on top of the boys' schoolbooks. The boys called it Yeller Beller, and we watched for a long time as Yeller Beller hopped from book to swaying book, trying to find one that was steady enough for him to relax on and fall asleep. He slept there all night, in the cosy comfort of our cabin, but in the morning got a little alarmed because we had closed the hatch for warmth. Once released, however, he stayed around Northern Magic for an hour or two, hopping from perch to perch outside before setting off to wherever he was going.
As the sun was setting on our second night at sea, still 70 nautical miles (125 kilometres) away from our destination, we caught sight of the tip of Italy's boot, as well as the very top reaches of Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, poking its smoky head into the low-lying clouds ahead of us. In ancient times, the often fiery top of Etna served as a natural lighthouse for weary sailors seeking land.
We slowed down overnight, so as not to arrive before dawn, and motored into the harbour of Siracusa just as the sun rose over the castle that guards the harbour entrance. We congratulated ourselves and sent a thankful e-mail to Dad on having successfully made the passage without any bad weather at all. A day and a half later, our friends on the British boat Panache arrived, having left the morning after we did and encountering headwinds for part of their trip. The Belgian boat that had also left with them had veered north, unable to make progress against the headwinds, and made for mainland Italy instead. Tsk tsk: they ought to have listened to Dad!
Siracusa turned out to be a great city with an unexpected number of attractions. It used to be an important part of the Greek empire, and in ancient times was powerful and wealthy enough to rival Athens itself. One of the most important maritime battles in history took place 2500 years ago, in the harbour in which we now lay, in which the Siracusans trapped the entire Athenian fleet inside the harbour and sank it. Siracusa was also the home of the mathematician and inventor Archimedes, who designed the war catapult that helped Siracusa defend itself against the Romans.
We were tied up, stern-to, to a concrete quay alongside the old city. It was a beautiful warren of narrow alleyways and marvellous architecture, punctuated with cathedrals, plazas, fountains, outdoor cafes and vivid bunches of blooming bougainvillea. Our feet always slowed down while passing the numerous pasticcerias, offering the most amazing selection of delectable pastries and marzipan fruits.
But we had chosen to stop in Siracusa for a reason other than its picturesque old city, its extensive Greek ruins, or even its pastries. Long ago in Australia, we'd met a Sicilian sailor named Peppino, along with his wife, Lucia, and his son, Blu, nine years old at the time. Sadly for Peppino, Lucia and Blu had decided to stop sailing and had flown back to Sicily from Australia so Blu could go to school.
In order to rejoin his family at home as quickly as possible, Peppino had foregone the delights of Asia and had sailed his boat across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea, back to Sicily virtually non-stop, in a difficult marathon trip. It had been two years since we'd seen him. Jonathan was especially excited to see Blu again, since they had been good friends.
Michael was the only one of us who was not so keen on going out of our way to visit Peppino in Siracusa, where he works during the week. He hadn't liked Peppino much, since Peppino had been on his back almost daily about Michael's failure to greet him properly. In fact the phrase, "You forgot to say good morning!", said gruffly and with an Italian accent, has assumed icon-like status in the Northern Magic pantheon of jokes.
The morning we arrived, we e-mailed Peppino that we were moored in the Grand Harbour. No sooner were we back on the boat than Peppino himself was standing there, a muscular, robust fellow of 53 with a salt-and-pepper beard. It was definitely the same old Peppino - gregarious, voluble, almost overpowering in that passionate, uniquely Italian way.
Within minutes Peppino was whisking us away to his apartment for lunch. "I hate going to restaurants," he told us, "not because of the money, but because they don't know how to cook the way I do."
As we sat at the table watching Peppino make spaghetti, we grabbed the chance to settle a longstanding Stuemer family feud on this very topic. To use knives, or not to use knives, that was the question. Jon and Herbert think fork-twirling is the only way, where Christopher, Michael and I feel knives and forks are much more efficient and civilized.
But here we were, in Italy, with a real Italian making spaghetti for us, and it seemed necessary to ask the question.
"Tell me, Peppino," I ventured, "do Italians use knives when they eat their spaghetti?"
Peppino whirled around from the stove, where he was cutting great chunks of garlic, his eyes ablaze. "Knives?" he bellowed.
The room was silent. Jonathan and his father looked smug. My lips were pressed together. But later, Michael, Christopher and I defiantly used our knives just the same. What do Italians know about spaghetti, anyway?
We caught up on all of Peppino's adventures since we'd seen him last. Like us, he'd gotten himself arrested for stopping where he wasn't allowed to, but he actually ended up in a jail cell on the verboten American naval base at Diego Garcia for a few hours when he had tried to stop there to fix a broken windvane rudder.
At the end of his circumnavigation he had arrived at his hometown of Catania in a raging gale. It was pelting so hard he couldn't see the breakwater wall only 300 metres away and was forced to navigate by radar. His family, friends and TV cameras were all waiting to film his grand entry, except they could no more see him than he could see them. They drove their cars to the end of the breakwater, enduring huge waves that were crashing over them, flashing their headlights and honking their horns to show him where to go. Both Peppino and Lucia are still yearning for the cruising life, and are hoping to set off again in a few years once Blu is off to university. In the meantime, they're getting their beautiful 42' Swan boat ready to charter.
The expansive, generous Peppino we met in Sicily was very little like the grumpy "You forgot to say good morning!" Peppino of Michael's memory. Immediately, what was Peppino's was ours, including his own car, which he insisted we take for the duration of our visit. Peppino whirled around us like a tornado, whisking away our windvane paddle, which had snapped in two during a storm, and constructing a new one; arranging to have a European fitting made for our North American propane tanks; phoning and faxing to help track down a missing package sent from home; providing hot showers, laundry facilities, internet access and meals; and flooding us with bottles of wine ("There is no wine like Sicilian wine") and wonderful pastries named cannoli, filled with a cheesecake-like mixture of sweetened ricotta cheese. Fantastic! If we'd asked for the shirt off his back, no doubt Peppino would have instantly peeled it off and asked whether we wanted his pants, too.
One night Peppino came over to Northern Magic for dinner (fried chicken and potato salad -- knives permitted). As we sat together in the salon, he brought up the subject of his confrontations with Michael back in Australia. "Do you remember when I used to correct him for not saying good morning?" he asked. We smiled and cast a secret look at each other. Oh yes, we did remember.
"And then one day," Peppino continued, "when Michael appeared carrying a huge poster with 'good morning' written all over it in different languages? Oh, I bet he thought I was a mean old Sicilian then, didn't he?"
"Yes he did," I answered, "But now I think you've wrecked your mean old Sicilian act for good."
Later, I asked Michael how he was getting along with Peppino this time. Michael had done himself proud upon their first greeting, and had even given Peppino friendly twin cheek-to-cheek pecks in the Sicilian style. He'd also voluntarily hung around during our hours and hours of storytelling, laughing at Peppino's stories of disaster and triumph at sea and apparently enjoying his company as much as we were.
"He's a lot better," answered Michael, "but -- I always remember to say good morning!"
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