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Palermo → Reggio di Calabria → Crotone
sparkles
amw
I just had the best Italian meal in ages. It was some kind of local dish, a simple red sauce pasta, but the noodles were tightly-rolled shells that looked like puffed wheat and were deliciously chewy, and the sauce also included some kind of chewy salty blobs that if i didn't know better i would have called tofu, but was probably curds or whey. It was fucking good. The bread was good. The grilled eggplant and zucchini were good. The jug of wine was good.

Yes, the jug of wine. I think i went to a serious working man's place. Everyone was in scuffed up jeans and woolly jumpers or denim shirts or flannels. My God, i can't tell you how good it felt to go out and not be far and away the worst-dressed person in the room. Pretty much everyone was ordering 40s of beer and eating all manner of seafood and giant (American-sized) plates of pasta. I went with a vege option and asked for "vino rosso". I got a jug. Not a bottle. Not a carafe. A jug. And all of this for 10€. Fuck Northern Italy in the ass. This is the real business right here.

I'm mixing things up. I have decided to post my summary at the start instead of the end of the post, because i like how it ended. It's midnight in Crotone. After the break, we rewind to yesterday morning, Palermo...

-o-

There are times when i am traveling that i only realize something is a "destination" after the fact. Take this morning. The internet is so bad in the B&B i have resolved to just go to the bus station and take the first bus east and then figure out a place to stay when i get wherever i am going. But, before that, i needed to wash my clothes. Turns out there is only one laundromat in Palermo and it is not 24 hour, so i stood outside the front like a dope with a South Asian guy and his Santa-sized sacks.

Anyway, back to the point. There's a market nearby. Ths usual stuff - fruit, veg, meat, fish, cheese, nuts, olives, cleaning products, toilet paper... Hey, everyone's gotta poop. So, waiting for the place to open, i went over to get some juice and buy a couple bananas. Then - after a couple days of not hearing anyone but me speak English - Americans. So many Americans. Apparently a market is a noteworthy enough spot to unload the bus and kick off an audio tour.

I am not really a market-goer usually. I admit, i enjoy the convenience of getting everything at the one store. But pretty much everywhere i have ever lived - both big cities and small rural towns - always had some kind of open-air markets. I didn't think it was that unusual. I guess there must be some lifelong suburb dwellers who have never been anywhere besides the mall.

Watching these Americans gape in awe and take photos of normal people buying groceries, it did give me a different perspective. Seeing it through their eyes and all. Perhaps this is why people have kids, because everything for a kid is brand new so you can vicariously enjoy things you have long since forgotten were interesting.

-o-

The smog is thick today. The poor tourists trying to get photos of anything with a bit of sky in it are going to be disappointed when they are all washed out. I realize i have only really walked around Palermo after dark. It was much less threatening during the day. And there were a lot more tourists around too.

I jumped on the first bus east. It's challenging to find buses that stop along the way. Some of them go direct to Rome, which is an overnight trip. I decided to bus to Messina, mainly because the drive will be along the coast, and then i can decide whether i want to spend a night there or head on to Calabria.

The haze is not letting up. The sea and sky are the same shade of gray, but the sun is still baking our little steel capsule. I think those citrus trees might be lemons. So far this coast seems a lot more developed than the inland valley i traveled through yesterday. The villas here look maintained. Less fodder for the imagination. In the age of antiquity they probably didn't have these crazy long tunnels either.

-o-

Tunnels are the fucking worst. They take all of the joy out of travel. You might as well just be in an airplane. At night. Above the clouds. I don't need to see five-star views when i am on the road, but i do want to at least see the road. If i'd known this trip was going to be mostly tunnels after Cefalù i would have taken a different route.

A problem with tunnels - and viaducts, and bypasses in general - is that they leave the communities in between even more isolated. No travelers coming through. No opportunity for the exchange of ideas or values. It makes me sad. It reminds me of those rural "islands" in America that don't even have a Greyhound stop. Between Sault Ste Marie and Vancouver/Seattle you can't cross the border except by private vehicle. To those who don't know North American geography, that's a very very very fucking long way (~3500km). It's so depressing. These sorts of barriers to public freedom of movement do the opposite of build healthy communities. Everywhere should always be on the way to somewhere else.

I guess at least here in Sicily the train stops in between. Perhaps i should have taken the train... Or perhaps i am just upset the the tunnels hide the places in between. I am probably not, but i feel like i might be missing out on something.

I guess what i am missing out on is a whole bunch of Sicilian hillbillies.

-o-

Have i ever written about how much i adore Mediterranean resort towns on the low season? I must have, after visiting Croatia and Spain off-season.

I should rewind a second and explain European holidaying rituals. In Europe there is a very specific "high" and "low" season. The weather is irrelevant. At certain times of the year, like clockwork, everyone in Europe goes to the Med. I think it is June through August. During that time, there are lots of low-cost flights to otherwise unused airports, hotel prices balloon, and lots and lots of temporary bars, clubs and restaurants spring up on beaches from Málaga to Lesbos.

In the low season, half the businesses are closed. The beaches - having been seasonal tourist destinations for thousands of years - are strewn with abandoned huts and garbage and forgotten gear. But the water is still clear and the palm trees still sway in the breeze and the sunsets are still gorgeous. Why doesn't anyone come to enjoy it? Who knows. I got a room with a sea view for a third of the summer price, and that was with a travel agent markup.

I went to a travel agent becase i find it kind of quaint that they still exist. And today was a throwback day. Walked to the bus station. Spoke mangled Italian to the clerks in an effort to find a bus heading east. Jumped off the bus in a town i knew nothing about. Found a pedestrian ferry heading to the mainland. I figured a pedestrian ferry would drop me somewhere more interesting than a car ferry. What next? Information kiosks are closed in the low season. Ask a travel agent. I even got my hotel booking in an embossed plastic sleeve and everything.

This place is beautiful. Sicily is across the strait. On this side the hills are gentle and unforested. It feels very open and free.

I wouldn't mind a bar on the waterfront, though.

But it's still great to sit here and watch the locals walk hand-in-hand. Old men getting a quiet spot of fishing in before the hordes descend. Young men kicking about waiting for the high season so they can get some tourist tail. Love locks hang from the chains along the boardwalk. Statements of undying love to people's sweethearts - their "principesse" - spraypainted on every surface the ultras and street artists didn't already get to. It's filled with memories. Hope. The times in between. Places like this are exactly what i enjoy when i am traveling. Places with untold stories and mystery.

-o-

I have walked around for way too long looking for a bar. It seems the bars only open around 8pm here. Before that, everyone is eating fucking gelato. Or the kids are. They cluster around certain corners. The cool hang-out spots. The boys with their coiffed hair, straddling their mopeds. The girls in tight leather jackets giggling and chattering and playing hard-to-get. It's so old-fashioned. I guess the parents are still at work - all the shops are open, advertizing their fashionable wares with that universal runway music - house.

Everyone who turns their nose up at beach house has never spent time on the Med. Yeah, it's cheezy. It's feel-good. But it was made for this climate, this place. And it's here where - 30 years ago - a handful of forward-thinking British DJs introduced the latest dance tracks from American black and hispanic gay clubs to European holidaymakers. Who knew white people could dig this new, raw take on disco? In the hot summer nights under the influence of a bunch of drugs i guess they got it. Et voila, the rave scene was born.


Rune RK - Calabria

-o-

Aaand there we have it. South of Italy kills the north. Eventually i found a non-touristy bar playing jazz and reggae and ordered a drink... and found another free buffet. Aside from blocks of salami and cheese, everything is vegetables. Green beans, white beans, chilis, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, peas, mint, oregano, celery, carrots, potatoes, some kind of giant-sized couscous (or mini-grits?)... All kinds of good stuff.

I also finally understand the joke from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about gin and tonic, a drink i previously considered quintessentially British. When i asked the bartender what the local favorite was he said "local speciality or local favorite?" The speciality is probably limoncello or grappa or some shit. No one drinks that. Everyone drinks gin and tonic. Just like they did in Florence. And here, worlds away, in Reggio di Calabria.

-o-

[Unlike my usual stuff which is recorded in the moment, this passage is reconstructed from brief notes after the fact because i was too drunk to write full sentences.]

Things have gotten pretty wild. I got into a conversation with the locals, which was tricky to do because only two of them spoke English, and only very poorly. I realized i was very old when the conversation came to Italian music and i immediately said Giorgio Moroder. They don't know who he is. Then i named Black Box. Cappella. Eiffel 65. That's 4 freaking decades of fairly commercial Italian music, and they had no idea. Then they played a few songs and did some sarcastic disco moves. My bubble is burst. There are entire genres named for this country - Italo disco, Italo dance - and the people who live here have no idea. Giorgio Moroder is one of the most influential figures in electronic dance music, period, but ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So i got an education on "real" Italian music. It is mostly from Puglia. Both in Sicily and here in Calabria everyone talks about Puglia. Puglia Puglia Puglia. As the lyrics of one of the songs went. I guess what's hip with the southern youth is some kind of tarantella/folk/chanson style mixed with hip-hop. I don't know. Local heroes.

Another local (well, Italian) hero, Rocco Siffredi. "He's a white man on the outside, but a black man on the inside. Or, well, you know." Oh fucking dear. Also Che Guevara. He's the people's hero! Welcome to the bizarre world of smalltown Italy where you can somehow be a socialist and also a racist. I guess it's just ignorance, like the Germans who find nothing wrong pulling their eyelids back when they are talking about the Chinese. But, you know, great bunch of people to drink with. They took photos of me and gave me their address so i can send them a postcard from China. I am traveling "like grandpa did, in the 70s". I guess they have kids young here too.

-o-

Who is this guy? This is the guy who saw me on the boat from Messina yesterday. He was just a dude i gave "the nod" to and then forgot. At the Reggio train station dude yells out "hey bella, how you doing today?" I was about to roll my eyes, but then i remembered him too. We got to chatting.

He is traveling from Trapani to some small town in the ass-end of Calabria because he got a short contract on a farm. He asked me where i was from. I have started saying Germany, because going further is too complicated for short conversations. This didn't turn out to be a short conversation. "Ah Germany is rich! So rich! But i like the Germans, they give money!" The guy explained that he works for about 25€ a day, wherever and whenever he can get work. I - in my ignorance - was shocked. I am like, what the fuck, like isn't there a minimum wage? He relayed my incredulence to his buddies in a mish-mash of French, Italian, English and some other language. They busted up laughing. Nope. No minimum wage in Italy. The farmers give migrant workers 2.50€ an hour. And this guy is traveling two days to get there. He says the only good thing about Italy is that they make contracts, so at least if you go you are guaranteed the paycheck.

Dude was black. He said there are no jobs. It is so hard to find work. If he only works a couple days a week, how can he live? "How can i live like this?" He said he likes Americans, because they say hello to him. They shake his hand. Italians don't want to talk to him, don't want to touch him. They won't serve people like him in restaurants. They won't give blacks any jobs other than farm laborer. "They think we don't notice, but we see everything, we hear everything! We can think!"

My heart was fucking breaking. I got really upset, sitting there in the train station. And you could tell the conversation was making the Italians who could understand English a bit uncomfortable. But none of them said anything. Maybe they couldn't understand English and they were just scared of the loud black men and tattooed trannie. Some of them stood up and left. I said how can people be so cruel, how can they not understand that we are stronger together? That we need to lift each other up? That the only way to build a strong community is to let more people in, to share with one another and learn from one another? God, racism and xenophobia make me so fucking sick. And to hear it so plainly, so clearly from a person who is a target... I can't.

I realized that the only people i have spoken to outside of bars in Italy have been people of color. Africans. South Asians. Oh, and a Greek guy. Italian men just leer and catcall. These guys smile and start a conversation. They're not working a con, they just want to talk. How sad that white Italians are closed off to that. How sad that unless they are drunk they appear closed off to me too.

-o-

Now here's a pair of actual grifters. Got on at one station, acted all ignorant about having to buy a ticket when the inspector came by and told them to get out at the next station, moments later they bolt for the toilet to hide. Not sure how much luck they'll have when the whole train is only two carriages long.

Siderno, man, holy fuck. This place is struggling. Abandoned buildings, abandoned factories. The entire coast from Reggio to here is littered with derelict houses and incomplete construction. This is much more depressing than Buffalo (or Detroit for that matter). Rolling hills and glorious wildflowers on the left. White sand and turquoise water on the right. Sugar cane, rust and ruins along the tracks. It looks like a bomb went off in paradise.

The guy back at the station said there were no jobs. "What can i do all day? I can't just sit around and do nothing!" I guess some people try to sit around on trains doing nothing.

-o-

God, sunset on the east coast is bleak. Out in the distance? Offshore rigs. But turn around and there's a lovely row of different colored apartments, typical beachside restaurants and people (of color) playing football and (white) people walking their dogs. On the hill, surrounded by acres of those amazing flowers, magnificent villas. I guess that's where those mafioso-looking types in their fine suits and black cars come from.

I really like this town. It doesn't feel so much like a resort town as just a small town that happens to be on the beach. No great sights to see (though, being Europe, there is a castle and an oldtown), just beachfront and stores and auto shops and regular old everyday stuff. It hasn't been hit by the poverty stick as bad as further down the coast.

And then there is the horizon. Bleak as fuck.

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i am really loving your travelogue. your conversation with the farm laborer was fascinating and depressing. it's really interesting that americans talk to him and italians don't, because i'd bet that if he was doing the same work in the us, it would be the exact same thing - locals wouldn't give him the time of day, but foreign visitors would say hi and have a conversation with him.

I was wondering if Americans would be as friendly with Mexican migrant workers at home, and i think you're correct that they wouldn't. Perhaps people who are traveling are more open to interacting outside of their usual social circle because they are outsiders anyway?

I have a really hard time getting into the mindset of xenophobes, because i have lived in so many countries i have always been the outsider, even though i am privileged enough to blend in some places due to my skin color and language skills. I find it difficult to understand how people do not just have a prejudice about other cultures (we all have prejudices) but then also actively work to ignore, exclude or denigrate them. It seems so counterproductive to me, assuming we all want to live in a healthy community.

There must be some kind of difference in core values. I personally think it's fundamentally important to being human that we meet new people and listen to and learn from one another. I think perhaps some people find tradition is more important than communication or cultural exchange? This is a difficult topic to broach, though, especially when there is a language barrier. I am still learning how to be a good traveler/gonzo journalist and let people open up enough to really illustrate the reasons behind their bigotry. Though even professionals like Louis Theroux struggle sometimes, so perhaps there really is just not much reason to it.

>>Perhaps people who are traveling are more open to interacting outside of their usual social circle because they are outsiders anyway?<<

my guess is that's part of it. i bet that for americans at least, when they go overseas everything is foreign and thus exciting and exotic, and even if they'd never talk to migrant workers at home, guys doing the exact same work in europe are european, and that's cool.

i think there's some psychological reason people from group a are sometimes so resistant to accepting people from group b, but i have no idea what it is. but i'm with you that we need to meet people from different cultures and talk to them and learn from them, and let them talk to us and learn from us. well, as much as we can when there's a language issue. i think it makes the world a better place and it makes us better people.

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