Friday, December 31, 2010

74. Italian holiday

The journey from Milford Haven back to Milton Keynes was uneventful. I now realised that the length of time I had planned to be away from South Africa was too long and I did not know how to keep myself occupied. A chilly October morning is not the safest time to gaze into the window of Thomas Cook Travel, especially with a couple of weeks to kill before returning home. Visions of beautiful bodies on golden beaches throwing oversized beach balls to one another teased my eyes. I missed the African sunshine which creates a type of warmth that goes right through to the marrow of ones bones.

Tom, Jeni and I had spent a disastrous camping holiday in Italy long ago. Disastrous because, many years later, Tom developed a nasty “thing” on his nose which the medics could not identify. At first it was treated as a rodent (gnawing) ulcer which was removed by plastic surgery, but still the problem persisted until half his face was disfigured. After much questioning about where in the world he had served and travelled, it was discovered that the very camping site we had used, just a ferry ride from Venice, was the tail end of the region inhabited by a particularly nasty parasite. This insect infects humans and animals, and many men infected while serving in these specific areas during the war had died as a result. In fact there are 60 000 known deaths recorded annually. Tom had been bitten and the infection had lain dormant for years. Gruesome it was, and the treatment required was so drastic that it nearly killed him. The disease is called Leichmaniasis, after Dr.Leichman who had isolated it, and a great deal of information is available about it on the Internet

During this same holiday Jeni and I had visited Rome and the Vatican City, Tom preferring to laze back on the camping site being bitten by parasites. The extreme wealth of the Catholic Church has always bothered me. Visiting a little church in Tenerife once I saw, under a glass dome, a small statue of the Madonna. Diamond rings hung from her fingers, strings of pearls were draped around her neck and gold watches lay at her feet. She looked highly embarrassed and very uncomfortable. The glass, the statue and the jewels were dull and dirty. A bent little old woman in worn black clothes came and made the customary bob towards the altar, then paid for a candle and knelt to pray, her feet were bare. My instinct was to smash the glass dome, sell the jewellery and get the poor old lady to a chiropractor and buy her some decent shoes.

I don’t think it is possible to count the wealth contained within The Vatican. The thousands of unread books behind locked glass doors must contain all the wisdom in the world and they should be translated and published for all to read and not locked away. The ceiling of the Sistine chapel had not yet been restored when we were there, but even so its beauty was dazzling. The treasures in the Vatican must be preserved for all time as works of art; it is the cost of the pomp that bothers me. It is so far removed from Christ and his example of simplicity. It is the above the theatrical extravaganza I associate with the Coronation, the Trooping of the Colour and the opening of parliament. Jeni’s bottom was pinched in the Vatican. It was the venue, not the assault that surprised her. Florence was cleaning up after disastrous floods when we visited one church. A priest walking up and down rattling a box for donations reminded me of a Father Christmas standing outside a departmental store in New York in December. Of course I will give a donation, magnificent historical buildings cost a lot to maintain, but I will give it discreetly, and on my way out, not to some portly priest rattling a box under my nose.

But all that had happened many years ago and was forgotten, and the girl on the poster did not look as if she had been bitten by anything more lethal than the bronzed Adonis waiting to catch the ball. She was having a lovely time; the sun was shining, so why not give Italy another chance.

The travel clerk assured me that the Don Pedro on the island of Ischia was very popular. The brochure was printed in English; there were beautiful views with dinner, bed and breakfast offered at a reasonable, all inclusive rate. What I have found in my travels is that the most expensive, essential item is bottled drinking water, especially in hotels where there is no other source of supply. At my grandson’s wedding I drank only water, thinking to keep the bar costs down, only to find that the most expensive item on the final account was bottled water, and I bet a pound to a penny that much of the water charged for came out of the tap. Every hotel should have its own water filter system and water should be free. But, to return to Italy.

The Italians had organised a general strike to commence at 0900 hrs on the day of our scheduled arrival in Naples, the Pilot wished to arrive before the airport closed and so the flight was brought forward by two hours and we boarded at 0400 – repeat 0400 hrs. I don’t think I have been up and awake that early since the children were weaned. Breakfast was served at 0500 hrs. Unlike other nauseating airline breakfasts, this one was extremely good. At 0500 hrs. most self respecting stomachs would be daunted by the sight of vegetarian sausage, omelette, potato, tomato and savoury sauce, brown roll with butter and marmalade, blueberry muffin, peach melba yoghurt and coffee, but my stomach is not easily daunted. It works on the theory that there is no such thing as bad food, only badly cooked food. Oh! I forgot the orange juice. Fortunately the weather was clear and there was no turbulence!

We landed gently and afterwards, with immigration and customs all behind me, I was surprised to see all the other jolly holiday makers from the plane, getting on to one coach, leaving me behind. Did they know something I did not? Apparently so. After a while a Charlie Chaplain look-a-like greeted me with “Signor Winter?” I nodded. “You will please to come with me?” So I was the only passenger going to the Don Pedro. I wonder where all those other folk were going. Charlie stowed my case in the back of the minicab while I climbed into the front. As we drove off, I enquired where the slot for my seat belt was located. Taking both hands off the steering wheel and waving them in the air he said, “Ah, do not worry, in Italy it does not matter.” It might not have mattered to the Italians but it mattered to me. I clung to the dashboard and my seat and almost to the driver. His only concern was to get me to the docks and the ferry boat before 0900 hrs. My only concern was to arrive there alive. Although it seemed that all the drivers were madmen they were in fact very skilful, because as Charlie told me “Here there are no rules!” No rules indeed, only very loud motor horns. One would expect every car to look like entrants in a stock car race, after the race has been completed, but they were surprisingly dent free.

There were two types of ferry boats, the upmarket Hydrofoil which reached Ischia in fifty minutes, and the rusty old tub waiting for me which takes the best part of two hours and has no below deck seating. The clock struck nine as the ferry pulled out of the harbour and away from the General Strike. The coastline was quite lovely and we passed lots of pretty islands and a huge American aircraft carrier. The sea was choppy, the wind fierce and very cold and the deck was like a roller coaster. Mercifully, my 0500hrs breakfast stayed firmly anchored. The most interesting passenger was a big black scruffy canine who fought a valiant battle to stay upright on the rolling deck, capitulated and anchored himself behind wooden bench. People commute between Ischia and Naples daily and the ferries run as frequently as a No.14 bus. There was a snack bar on board and I made the mistake of ordering an Espresso coffee, which turned out to be about 100 mls of black sludge in the bottom of the smallest paper cup I have ever seen. Why did I think that Espresso was drinkable with frothy stuff on top? Well, we learn something every day.

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