Six Days in Sicily - Philip W. Lupton - ebook

Six Days in Sicily ebook

Philip W. Lupton

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Opis

The author and his wife reluctantly accept their young Viennese friend`s inviation to join him on a week`s holiday in Sicily. There, they decline his offer to chauffeur them round the island, preferring to spend the time quietly, in a way more befitting their age. During their sojourn in Sicily the author reminisces, recalling many events of his, his friend`s and other people`s lives, some of them amusing, others sad and even strange, if not inexplicable.

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This Book is not a work of fiction. My thanks go to my friend for unwittingly providing the framework for its contents and to my wife for consenting to be part of it all.

The author, 2009

(A Viennese doctor invites his friends, an elderly Englishman and his wife, to spend a week with him in Sicily. This is the Englishman's account of their holiday together)

Table of Contents

John plans the holiday

We leave for Sicily

John rents the car

We find the hotel

Our first breakfast

We celebrate my birthday

The short stay in Palermo

An evening meal in Bagheria

Off to Cefalu

John gets lost

Through the National Park

Mondello

John goes shopping

About trains and train journeys

Doris’s birthday

I dream the future

The car race in Termini

Our last big meal out

We leave for home

Epilogue

1. John plans the holiday

John's suggestion came so unexpectedly – out of the blue – that both Doris and I were taken by surprise. We had gone out for a meal with him one day in April and were waiting to be served.

“What about a holiday in Sicily?” he said, looking at me, then at my wife.

“Sicily?” I said.

“The three of us.”

Doris and I exchanged glances.

“How long for?”

“Only a week. I can't get away from the surgery for longer.”

“And when would that be?”

“Soon. Before it gets too hot. You'd like it there. A friend of mine has just returned from a fortnight's stay. He was thrilled.”

“But you've been to Sicily,” Doris said. “You went with a Japanese girl.”

“She was Chinese, and we went to Stromboli, not Sicily.”

“Well, I know it was down there somewhere. You showed us photographs of the place.”

Perhaps John realised that Doris and I were looking for a way to get out of going with him without hurting his feelings. We'd just got through a winter that had seemed never to want to end and were looking forward to watching nature re-awaken in the garden we have grown so fond of. To go off to Italy in the month of May would mean missing just that.

“We'll think about it,” I said, meaning it, knowing how quickly a week can go by. John had so often wanted us to spend a holiday with him, but we had up to then always managed to wriggle out of his invitations.

“You wouldn't want to drive two old crocks around in Sicily.” That was Doris.

“You're not old crocks.”

“Born in 1928 and 1933 respectively,” I put in. “We may not be crocks yet, but we're old.”

I glanced again at Doris. She shrugged her shoulders.

“We'll think about it,” I repeated.

“Do that. I can arrange everything through the internet.”

We thought about it – long and hard. As I've said, we wanted to spend as much as possible of the dwindling time we still have left enjoying our wonderful garden. Apart from that, despite John's denial, we are old crocks, 30 years or more his senior. We are still pretty agile, but we also had the abrupt change of climate to consider and, like most people our age, are both on tablets for hypertension. I also have to cope with what medics, for want of a better word, term paroxysmal tachycardia, a condition in which, from time to time, when least convenient, the heart goes haywire. Our biggest concern, however, was John himself. He's a nice chap and we're very fond of him, but he's rather headstrong with a devil-may-care attitude to life. How would we three get on together. And then there was that other trait of his that called for careful consideration: his inability to be punctual. There's nothing, of course, abnormal in occasionally being late for some event or other, or in missing buses or trams, or even trains. That can happen to any of us and often does. But John misses aeroplanes; not just due to traffic jams in the city or holdups on the motorway. The fact of the matter is that John has made a habit of being late for everything, including plane departures, and I'm inclined to think it's because of the thrill he gets out of it. He's become addicted. He leaves everything till the last minute and then runs a race against time. Sometimes he wins and sometimes he doesn't. Repeating a phrase my mother often used when I was young, I've more than once said to Doris, referring to John, “That man'll be late for his own funeral.”

It was a funeral, incidentally, that helped tip the scales in favour of our trip to Sicily. My brother passed away in mid-April, not long after our conversation, and I had to go to England to help lay him to rest. John thus had a further argument to work on; a holiday in Sicily would take me out of myself and put new life into me, he said, and both Doris and I had to admit that he was right. It wasn't that the event itself had been so strenuous. My nephew, Alan's son, had taken care of all the formalities, so I had been what you could call a bystander. But laying a brother to rest is not something that increases one's zest for life. Add to that the hassle of a journey to England and back and a week spent in a house and surroundings I knew so well and would, I realised, never again see had obviously taken their toll of my otherwise cheerful disposition. I was too thoughtful, John said. Perhaps I was still trying to figure out why my brother, a convinced atheist (when you're dead you're dead sort of thing), had expressed the wish – to me and in his will – that he wanted to be buried and not cremated. Atheists shouldn't worry about what happens to their bones after they've gone, should they? Well, he's now bedded down under a yew tree, a stone's throw from the west door of the village church, a prettier and quieter place than has been reserved for either me or Doris, who like to believe that there's a hereafter for all of us.

Anyway, at the beginning of May, the phone rang. It was John at the other end.

“It's me,” he said. “ I'm phoning to give you the dates of our holiday. We leave on May 13th and return on May 20th.”

“May 13th? But it's my birthday on the 14th and Doris's on the 18th.

“Wonderful! We can celebrate both birthdays in Sicily.”

“And it's Mother's Day on the 14th as well. What will our daughter think of that?”

“She'll probably be pleased about it. Anyway, it's all fixed. It's the hotel my friend stayed at. He was very satisfied. I've emailed the hotel. The rooms and the flight have been booked, both ways.”

What could we do? We were faced with a fait accompli. We had condescended to go. We had only ourselves to blame. Then, slowly, it dawned on us how convenient the timing of the holiday actually was. Like many of our friends and acquaintances we seldom know what to give each other as sensible birthday presents. The week in Sicily would this year, for a change, solve the problem without more brain-racking. I would pay for the flight and Doris the hotel, or vice versa.

A few days before our intended departure John phoned again.

“We can't meet this evening.”

“Why not? I asked.

“My mother's been taken ill.”

“What do you mean?”

“She's been found unconscious on the bathroom floor. A neighbour alerted the police. We're waiting for the ambulance to take her to hospital.”

“Okay. Keep us informed.”

A mother found unconscious on a bathroom floor would have pulled the plug on anyone else's holiday but not on John's. As a doctor he was soon in full control of the situation. His mother, a widow, had lain there, it seems, for several hours, after slipping while climbing out of the bath, and wasn't yet quite herself. It hadn't been a heart attack or anything as serious as that. She was still in shock and it would take time, at least a fortnight in hospital, but she would be in the best of hands. And he wasn't an only child. He had a sister and a brother who could be relied upon to watch over their mother's progress and, via his mobile, keep him posted. We were somewhat less optimistic. What would happen if his mother died while we were in Sicily or, even worse, the day or night before we were due to leave? We were bound for Palermo, changing planes in Milan. That much we knew but no more. It occurred to us then how dependent on him we were making ourselves. Without him we would be more helpless than babes in the wood. The idea was rather troubling, but we didn't do anything about it. We hung fire and hoped for the best.

An important issue was keeping us awake at night and had to be discussed: how to get to and from Vienna airport. Should we go in John's car and park it at the airport for a week, or make use of the special taxi service Doris and I had often employed on our visits to England? As John had already pointed out, the difference in price was minimal, and it was much more convenient to travel in one's own car than rely on a taxi. But only ten days before, using his own car, he had missed a plane to Portugal and had been a day late getting to the conference there.

We opted for the taxi as the safer solution. Thank goodness we did! More about that later

“Both Doris and I think it would be better to take a taxi to the airport.” He could see I was adamant about it. “We always do that,” I added.

“Alright, I'll order a taxi and pick you up.”

“No, you won't. The taxi will call for us and we will pick you up.”

“Why that way round?”

“It's safer that way. We'll wake you with a phone call at 8 a.m.

That'll give you plenty of time to be up and ready to go, assuming

you've packed the night before.”

2. We leave for Sicily

We ordered the taxi for 9:15 with the intention of being at John's place by 9:30. The night before, I rang him to inquire whether he had packed. He had! That put our minds at rest. We had stuffed (neatly folded) all our things into one conventional leather suitcase (thank goodness) and had only two small holdalls, so that, when the taxi arrived, ahead of time, we were soon inside it and on the way to John's flat. Such was his reputation, however, that I couldn't control the butterflies within me as we drove to pick him up. Would he be ready or wouldn't he? And what if his mother had suddenly taken a turn for the worse? Her condition had been stable enough over the last few days, but what if she had suddenly deteriorated and John had had to rush her to hospital? At 8 o'clock, when I phoned him, as arranged, there had still been no cause for worry, but in an hour and a half anything can happen when somebody has been found lying unconscious on a bathroom floor. I was, therefore, more than nervous as I rang the bell and spoke into the intercom. But, wonder of wonders, he was ready and would be with us in a few minutes! I breathed a sigh of relief. Things were going better than expected. Five minutes later he appeared at the door of the building and began to cross the street through the morning sunshine to the waiting taxi. But what was he was pulling along behind him?

A case big enough to hold a corpse! Why that size? We were only going to Sicily for a week! I didn't ask him what he had inside it. I guess I was too overjoyed to know that we'd get him to the airport in time. As mentioned, Doris and I were travelling light. If the boot had been just that little bit less spacious and our one conventional leather case just that little bit larger we'd have had to sit with it on our laps to the airport. Big, wheeled cases like John's are easy to pull but now and then they require lifting. However, my friend, though stocky, is a strong man and, with the taxi driver's help, got it into the boot easily enough. On the way back, when the taxi driver (a woman) and I had to handle it, she asked me whether my friend was transporting stones. But let's leave that till later.

We were amazed to hear that John had been up since 6 o'clock. He had actually been round to the hospital to see his mother and speak to the doctors there. Everything was under control. His mother was slowly becoming more aware of her surroundings and could be counted on not to have a relapse within the next week or so. That helped put our minds at rest. But our friend hadn't had time to inform his relatives – brother, sister, uncle – of the latest developments. Nor, for some reason or other, had he told them of his plans for their mother's/sister's future, that is, for the time when she would eventually be discharged from hospital. If she was to stay in her own flat it would need adapting to her new needs. John had it all worked out and, having greeted the driver, settled down next to him and took out his mobile. During the half-hour trip to the airport he spoke – non-stop – telling the family what would have to be done, as soon as possible, preferably during his absence, to ensure his mother could, in future, continue to live alone. It was obviously the first time the young taxi driver had had such a passenger beside him. During the journey, from my seat at the back, I could see how distressed he was becoming. At the airport he and I unloaded the boot – John still had the mobile to his ear – and, to help him over the experience, I explained to him that our friend was a doctor and that his mother had been taken to hospital.

The driver's laconic reply "I gathered that!" made me smile.

In the back Doris and I had been able to find distraction watching the landscape slide by, but the driver's right ear had been exposed to a half-hour phone call, and I thought he deserved a reward. I slipped him an extra-large tip. His face brightened. I often wonder how he described that drive to the airport to his friends before the memory of it faded beyond recall.

***

On the motorway we had been ushered once or twice by mounted police (on motorbikes) into the slow lane to facilitate the passage of some EU politician or other from a recent conference. We complied willingly, acknowledging, as it were, the right to priority of people responsible for Europe's future, whatever that will be. And anyway we were making good time. In fact it had taken us only twenty minutes or so to reach the airport and, after checking in, we had two hours to spare before take-off. John had never before had so much time on his hands before a plane departure and, having finally stowed his mobile, seemed not to know what to do with himself. Doris and I, on the other hand, were both relieved and pleased with ourselves. Everything was going so unbelievably smoothly. To cheer John up we suggested the snackbar, the one with a view of the runway. Our friend is having trouble with his weight. It's not that he's fat. As I have said, he's thick-set and muscular, but he's sensitive about it, which is understandable, for one could sometimes assume that he'd bought his clothes a size too small. He hadn't had time for breakfast that morning and was ready to tackle a pizza, provided we share it with him. My wife and I are not pizza fans, far from it, but, to please him, we accepted.

We were still busy with our pieces of pizza when John came up with it.

“We shall need a car in Sicily.”

“To get to the hotel?” I asked innocently.

“Not only that. To drive around in. You want to see the island, don't you? This friend of mine has given me a list of the places worth seeing.”

A few days before our departure John had already shown us the ten-page report his friend had drawn up for him, and we had wondered then how we could hope to cram everything he'd suggested into our six-day stay.

“So what do we do about it?” I said, never having rented a car abroad.

“Leave that to me. I'll contact a car rental agency at Palermo airport.”

“How?”

“Through the internet. I can look for the cheapest offer, and it'll save time when we get there.”

Not being internet fans we didn't quite know what he was getting at.

“I can do it now, from the airport.”

“How long will it take?” I asked. We'd got him to the airport on time. I didn't want to lose him now.

“Half an hour.”

Our plane left at 11:55. The time was now 10:30. We had almost an hour to spare before boarding. It sounded safe enough to let him go. He had his ticket and boarding card. He would meet us at gate 35. The idea did actually occur to me that what he now intended to do could have been done a week before or more, when he arranged everything else, but I didn't mention it. He'd been worried about his mother and it had obviously slipped his mind. He left us with the solemn promise to be at gate 35 on time.

***

Watching the planes take off I began to recall the last time Doris and I had sat in that same snackbar waiting to depart.

It had been the year before, in July, and we were bound for England, to spend our holidays there, unknown to us our last, in Bognor at my brother's place. We had more than an hour to spare and, like other passengers around us, had been whiling away the time over food and drink. The clock on the wall showed 11:45; departure was scheduled for 13:20, meaning that we would be boarding in an hour's time. My brother and a friend would be waiting for us at Heathrow.

We'd be there by 15:30 BST and through baggage reclaim by 4 o'clock. My brother's friend, an able driver, would get us to our destination on the south coast by half past five, unless, on the way down, as was our wont, we popped into a pub for a pint. That's how we'd done it for ten years or more – smoothly, without a hitch worth mentioning. This time it was to be different, quite different! We'd been in the snackbar for ten minutes or so, it seemed, when I happened to glance at the boarding indicator. Could it be true? Our departure to Heathrow postponed to 14:20 CET? It was true! The announcement of the delay was now coming through over the loudspeakers. Another hour had been added to the time we would have to wait. Ours wasn't the only flight showing the 'Delayed' sign, but that wasn't much of a consolation. However, as Doris pointed out, delays can be greatly reduced by faster flying speeds; we would simply have to grin and bear it. The two men meeting us would have to do the same. They were probably already on their way up to Heathrow and were now in a pub enjoying a refresher, the surprise of a longer wait for them still an hour or so ahead. Compared to what happened to the plane we were eventually to fly with a delayed departure is a bagatelle. Had any of the 200-odd passengers waiting for it known what was in store for them, they would probably have opted to wait even longer, for the next plane to Heathrow, which, in fact, got there before ours did.

We now had over two hours to kill, so, having finished whatever it was we were drinking we strolled off to inspect Vienna airport's shopping area, much enlarged of late. In the old days we could have wandered round the duty-free shop and bought fags for my brother and gin or whisky for his friend.

But, to many people's delight, in particular wellness freaks and teetotallers and, of course, above all, the EU states' finance ministers, an end has been put to all that. So we chose to browse in a bookshop among the paperbacks, most of them translations of bestsellers by American and British authors. Nowadays almost every American or British book you pick up abroad is or has been an international bestseller, some of them up to 300 pages thick.

How people find time to read books that length and yet attend sporting events or watch them and similar stultifying entertainment for hours on end on TV is beyond me.

Get interested in something, even if it's only leafing through books in a bookshop, and time, clearly a figment of the imagination, simply flies by. I must have spent half an hour or more in that bookshop but, more careful with money than in my youth, I left empty-handed. Doris had wandered off to the other section that sold chocolate and magazines (What a combination!) looking for something to read on the plane. My thoughts turned, as they always do when I enter a stationer's, to the millions of trees felled annually to produce the magazines and journals that fill the shelves. Not only that! Periodicals, replete with adverts, are not only growing in number, they are getting ever thicker! And those who produce them boast about it! How many, I wonder, end up half-read in the world's waste-bins?

A glance at my watch told me that we now had only half an hour to go till boarding, but the voice again sounding from the loudspeakers quickly put an end to that assumption. Departure had been delayed another two hours! To cut the beginning of a long story short, it was nearing seven o'clock CET when we heard that our machine was finally ready for take-off, having waited half an hour or more for a slot. At that moment our chief concern was for the two men awaiting us at Heathrow: by the time we got to London it would be around nine o'clock in the evening; they would have been waiting six hours and would be quite worried. Fortunately, like us, they didn't know what was still to transpire before we met, or they would have been even more worried.

According to the stewardess I questioned, the delay had been due to a late departure from Heathrow. That was not quite the truth. While sitting in the plane waiting to depart we got the whole story from the horse's mouth – the captain. At Heathrow he had been asked to pilot a plane with a defective undercarriage. Unable to steer the plane and mindful, rightly, of his passengers' safety, he had refused to fly it and demanded he be given a different one, which he eventually got.

Transferring the luggage and passengers to the 'new' plane and waiting for slots to leave Heathrow and land at Vienna had delayed the machine by four hours or so. He, the captain, acting, he said, in the best interests of the passengers, whose safety was at all times for him of paramount importance, asked for their forbearance and forgiveness for the long delay. We forgave him, knowing we were in good hands – which, to the misfortune of many now no longer with us, is not always the case – and would soon be airborne. The Vienna-to-London trip is more like a long bus ride. We expected to be at our destination within an hour or two.

During the flight the captain was very chatty and kept breaking the 'silence' with one remark or another, one of them a warning that there was thundery weather ahead and that the ride would be a little bumpy. He was right about that! More than once my heart popped up into my mouth, but the sight of the stewardesses going about their business, oblivious to the buffeting the plane was receiving, set my mind at ease.

The sun hadn't yet set over England and as we neared our destination its rays began to enter through the windows, first on one side, then on the other. That meant we were circling. We were used to that sort of thing, but we had begun to circle much earlier than usual. Before long the captain addressed us over the intercom. He was no longer so chatty. A severe thunderstorm over Heathrow was preventing planes from landing. With 16 planes ahead of us in the holding circle it would be half an hour before we had any hope of landing. But that wasn't all! We were almost out of fuel! The plane was in contact with air traffic control at Heathrow.

The captain had requested permission to take the plane down at Gatwick airport and was waiting for a reply......

Even as we approached Gatwick we could see the now darkening sky light up from time to time and knew that we had run into another storm or perhaps the same one, circling, as we had been. But storm or no storm, we had no more fuel! We thought of the planes that had crashed while attempting to land in driving rain because the captains had not been more concerned about their passengers' fate, and, given the choice, we would have preferred to stay in the air.

But we had to land. We held our breath and prayed. That must have helped. Or was it the captain's skill that saved us?

We landed at an airport that seemed to have closed down for the night. The ATC personnel were obviously still at their posts and had been waiting for the luckless BA machine we had chosen to fly on, but everyone else, it seemed, had either gone home or was sheltering from the torrential rain. We remained parked at Gatwick for half an hour, waiting for the storm to move on. With lightning around, we were told, there was no chance of refuelling. My guess was that the ground staff responsible for that job were being turfed out of bed, but I may have been wrong. No-one was allowed off the plane – for security reasons – so we sat there, glad to be back on terra firma but still praying. What then began to get me worried was the lack of fresh air: the front door of the plane had been opened but not the rear one. And why wasn't the air conditioning system switched on? Many of the passengers with larger lungs were chatting and laughing as if the whole thing were some huge joke, but others, including Doris, who suffers from asthma, were beginning to wheeze for lack of oxygen. I pushed my way to the front of the plane, where the crew were standing at the open door, now chatting as if nothing unusual had happened.

“There are people at the rear fighting for air,” I said, butting in. “If you don't open the back door of the plane you're going to have a corpse or two on your hands.”

It was the captain himself who answered. I recognized his voice. “The door can't be opened from inside. We're waiting for ground staff. They'll be here any minute now.”

“What's wrong with the air conditioning system?”

“Out of order. Don't ask me why.”

“I thought it was a new plane.”

“So did I.”

Thank God the captain was right about the ground staff! A few minutes later the rear door was opened, and we were asked to sit down to let the fresh air through. Another ten minutes and the storm had abated sufficiently for the plane to be refuelled.

Within half an hour we were on the way to Heathrow, skimming, it seemed, the trees and roofs of houses as we went. We reached our destination around midnight, eight or more hours late and well behind the plane that had followed ours out from Vienna. My brother and friend were still waiting. Kept in the dark about the incident, so as not to become too worried, they had planned to give us till midnight and then return to Bognor. The salt in the wound came when we went to pay the £34 parking fee. Doubtless, some of the passengers sued British Airways for what had happened. We didn't! Instead, on the way down south, we drank to the captain's health.

***

We didn't board through gate 35. Our gate number had been changed to 31 at the last moment. As was to be expected, John wasn't there, but the bus was waiting to take us to the plane and we boarded it – without John! It was my fault. I should have phoned him before, while we were on the way to the gate, but I don't often make use of my mobile, and it wasn't until we were in the bus, speeding towards the waiting plane, that I thought of it.

“Where the hell are you?” I said. "We're in the bus! And it's gate 31, not 35.”

He must have been running when he got the call, for he was out of breath.

“I'm coming,” he gasped and switched off.

Yes, but where was he coming to? Had he listened to what I'd said. I hoped to goodness he'd had time to consult the indicator. He's done a lot of flying and knows that gates tend to get changed capriciously. But even so, how was he to reach us in time without transport? It was a small plane. The bus we had stood in for ten minutes before leaving, obviously waiting for John, was the only one provided. He'd missed it! He couldn't run across the apron. That sort of thing only happens in films, and anyway it was too far and he didn't know which plane to make for.

In the meantime the bus had reached the small Al-Italia jet and the passengers were already queuing to mount the steps. Doris and I stood and looked at each other. I could see that she was sharing my thoughts. Was this going to be another missed-the-plane story? If John had been alone I couldn't have cared less whether he missed it or not. But he wasn't alone! He was taking us on a holiday to Sicily! And we didn't even know the name of the hotel he'd booked us into! And what about the return tickets? The paper for those was still in his possession. Why, having got him to an airport early for once in his life, had we let him go off like that? The future began to look very bleak.

The narrow steps up to the plane were delaying us and giving us more time to think. They couldn't leave without him if his luggage was on board. Or could they? Other planes had left without him. So why not this one?

Our worries came to an abrupt end.

“Sorry about that.”

He was standing behind us, out of breath but smiling as if nothing of any consequence had happened. I flared up.

“What the hell happened and how did you get here?”

“That car brought me. VIP treatment.”

We watched the car drive off.

“Why didn't you get to the gate on time?”

“I was trying for the cheapest offer. And it was the wrong gate number they gave us.”

I didn't tell him he'd failed to consult the indicator. I was so relieved to see him that I didn't feel like saying anything more. I didn't even ask him if he'd managed to rent a car. There was something more important that had to be settled before we boarded the plane.

“Look,” I said, “we have no idea where we're staying in Sicily.

Where's the hotel and what's the name of it?”

“It's in Mondello.”

“And where's that?” I asked.

“It's a suburb of Palermo.”

Having said that, he produced a piece of paper, twice folded. It was the emailed confirmation of the booking from the hotel in Sicily. I took it and, without opening it, slipped it into my inside pocket and fastened the button. That would stay in my possession for the rest of the journey. Looking back that same evening, still in the car we rented, I felt like kicking myself for not opening that piece of folded paper, but if I had done so there wouldn't be so much to tell you about.

We climbed the steps to the plane.

“Buon giorno!” What a wonderful sound. So melodious. Much better than “Hello!” or even “Bonjour!”. I love the Italians. It was love at first sight. Maybe I lived in Italy in a previous life. The train had stopped in Udine all those years ago and had filled up with happy people, complete with food and drink, which they proceeded to share with me. Hardly a word had been spoken until then, but when all those carefree talkative people climbed in, the compartment came alive. The Italians take life as it comes, seeming not to worry about the future. It must have something to do with the weather. Until now it may have been a good thing not to worry about the future.

Whether anyone, of any nationality, can afford to continue not worrying about the future is doubtful to say the least.

On entering the plane we were offered newspapers. I chose The Financial Times, which, in addition to business news, often contains interesting reading. John, I later noticed, as he sat on the other side of the aisle, had taken the Wallstreet Journal.

“Going into business?” I said jokingly.

“Not really. I've bought shares in one or two companies and I'm keeping an eye on them. It's so easy now to buy and sell through the internet.”

So he was dabbling in stocks and shares, but how he would keep an eye on the world's stock exchanges while on holiday in Sicily was a mystery. It being a subject difficult to discuss across the aisle of a plane, I didn't pursue it further. I thought instead of all the people who, hungry for money, had gambled theirs away.

The refreshments on board were practically non-existent, but the flying time to Milan was less than an hour, so that didn't worry us. John didn't comment on it. Having downed half a pizza at Vienna airport, he probably wasn't hungry, despite the energy expended during his dash to the wrong gate.

***

The food served on short-haul flights has become absurdly meagre. Passengers were spoilt in the early days of air transport by copious meals, intended perhaps to take their minds off the hazards of flying. Better no food at all than what is nowadays offered you on short-haul flights, especially if you have false teeth that float around in your mouth.

The flight to Milan was over before we had time to get really settled in our seats. I tried not to think of the jagged mountain peaks below us. On the other hand, if a plane gives up the ghost at 10,000 metres it doesn't really matter what's below. You'll probably be dead before you reach it

Milan airport had us guessing for a while. The words "Uscita" (Exit) and “Transito” had been there for everyone to see but they hadn't seemed to be pointing anywhere. Thinking we'd missed an arrow somewhere, John forced his way back through the barrier to look again and was bawled out for doing so by a plump female official. Through her lips Italian didn't sound quite so enchanting. She didn't look Italian. Foreigners don't quite get the pronunciation right. But they have to be found work somewhere, so why not at airports? With his usual disregard for authority John ignored her and came back to us the way he had gone, upsetting the turnstile and probably breaking it. We didn't stop to check on that, but the plump lady's remarks followed us for quite some time as we made our way through the hall.

We had been warned what to expect at Milan airport. It was difficult, but we soon got the hang of it. You simply have to find the escalator and take it to the next level for inland flights. John had talked about a brief visit to the city but with only an hour or so to spare and my powers of dissuasion he decided against it and sauntered off to inspect his surroundings. We were now less worried about losing him. I had the email in my pocket with the name of the hotel on it and assumed that if he got lost and missed the plane he would know where he had chosen to spend the coming week with us. That assumption proved wrong, but let's take everything as it comes.

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I still haven't figured out why the self-service snack bars in Italian airports are so organised: the cash-desk at the beginning of the array, the food spread out in the middle and the drinks at the end. That means you have to choose and memorize what you want before paying. As a foreigner with little knowledge of Italian you choose, then look at the cashier and gesticulate. However, given enough patience, on both sides, you can usually succeed in buying what your heart, or palate, is set upon.