Well, hello again! An update from the tram, still a-flying, still plotting its course not as a matter of course but riding the waves of life, the tides of constant change.
Ah, that’s about as romantic and indeed pretentious a description of my itinerant existence as I will yield to at the moment.
Nearly one month ago, on 19 September, I arrived in Italy. Today I am writing this in coffee shop Manna—”Food and Yoga”—on the Rua da Conceição in Porto, Portugal. Oh Oporto, this beautiful town on the river Douro, home to the famous port wine houses of the world and to so many incredibly warm, kind and downright Nice people. My Dao, but the Portuguese are friendly! I think I like all of them, just all.
Porto has also been my home for the past ten days, the place where I turned 42 and made a Big Decision. More on that later. First, la bella Italia!
It was about half past eleven in the morning when the Superfast Ferries ship that had carried me and assorted HGV drivers from Igoumenitsa gingerly pulled into the port of Bari. The sky shone blue, a diminutive pilot boat bobbed along on the backwash and the local fishermen angling on the pier did not blink twice as our towering vessel, escorted by gluttonous gulls, performed a majestic 180-degree turn so that it docked on the quayside arse-first.
There it emptied its bowels in a steady stream of lorries, punctuated by a few mobile homes and automobiles. The elderly Italian couple and I were squirted out from the side as an afterthought and there I stood, my back to Greece and my nose already glowing in the hot Italian sun. A long plod out of the port and into the city began. First I passed through an apparently hastily erected security checkpoint where I spotted an ambulance and an officer who took my self-declaration of health form, glanced at it and entirely skipped the part about my having to undergo a coronavirus test upon arrival. He then waved me through with a welcoming flourish that so exhorted me to trot on that I completely forgot to address the issue myself. Also, I was rather sleepy still. In hindsight…but let’s not now go down that particular mental cul-de-sac.
I crossed massive HGV parking lots, mostly empty, container storage spaces, an abandoned terminal, an imposing circular square whose purpose I could not determine, got lost, walked back to the terminal, found a lady fighting with a photocopier and asked for the way into town. She pointed vaguely and mumbled a few words in Itanglish, which I interpreted as “Straight on, past the second exit sign, take a left and two more rights, then kneel and ask the Virgin Mother for divine assistance,” so I carried on and did as instructed.
Twenty minutes later, I stood in Bari’s historical city centre, which appeared completely deserted. A dog barked in the distance. A pigeon alighted with a flutter of wings on an empty bench. I tried to orient myself. A typical example of Italian antiquity’s city planning, straight lines were few and far between. Every twisted street seemed to take me back to where I had started. I crossed a square, looked right, turned left and stared into an alley that had a sign that bore the name for which I was looking: Corte San Triggiano. Number 35 was on the right-hand side, its mirror-glass door securely locked. My backpack crash-landed on the flagstones, I peeled my sweat-soaked shirt from my back—I hereby propose a more accurate term, “sweatyback-packing”, for this mode of travel—and called the provided number on my sticky phone. A Marco answered and said he would be there in seven minutes. Fifteen minutes later, two ladies, clearly a mother and daughter, showed up, let me in and explained all there was to explain about the delightful little studio that was my home for the next twenty-four hours. Only its name, Dimora Acqua di Sale, can trump the aesthetic pleasures of this dwelling, which I found to be complete, smart, and advocating alcoholism wherever I looked.
I wish I could regale you with stories of what adventures Bari has brought me, but there is only one to mention as there was only one day for me there: the Continued Quest for a Corona Test. I first went to a local pharmacy. I had been sent there by the mother-and-daughter welcoming committee, which had assured me a coronavirus test could be taken with the resident doctor there and yes, it was sure to be open on Saturdays. It was not. Another pharmacy down the street was, so I politely enquired there. This one was manned by a bitchy apothecary who mocked me with his eyebrows for asking if there was a doctor who could administer the requisite test. “There are no doctors here and we don’t do these tests!” he berated me. He glared at me superciliously, which was no mean feat as he was at least a foot shorter, and suggested I try an independent, commercial laboratory. I must have looked particularly exasperated or perhaps it was my blond curls that made his knees buckle, for his stern visage suddenly softened as he scribbled an address on a piece of paper. He handed it to me and at once laughed a bitter laugh: “Ah no, of course not, it is Saturday afternoon, so they are not open!”
Ten minutes later, I found a helpful teenager in a tourist office near the station, who googled the issue for me and scribbled another address on another piece of paper. This one was “guaranteed to be open 24/7”, as it was one of the few official, government-run testing places. It was well out of town though, a 45-minute walk away. As there were sure to be a few hours of light left in the day and I was just being like water like you wouldn’t believe it, I decided to walk as much of the distance as possible. I took a taxi for the last ten minutes. The driver took me past a marina, a vacated sports palace with the phenomenally unpronounceable name “Sportello Regionale per l’Internazionalizzazione” and around a corner from a long, long boulevard, dropped me off there and drove off. There I was, in front of a gate that told me I had come to the right place.
Everything was quiet. There were hardly any cars; I saw no other taxis. I followed the arrow on the sign on the gate door. Went down a lane, saw no one. Rounded a corner, walking all the while where, this being a drive-in clinic, you’d expect a row of cars, their drivers eager to have their nasal and laryngeal swabs taken. Neither vehicles not drivers were present. An empty medical tent sat forlorn in a parking lot. I exhaled with some force. Like the pharmacy before, the drive-in clinic was obviously closed. Clearly, the 24/7 testing location was not all that 24/7. A lady who happened to be coming towards me with some file folders under her arm explained to me that it would open again on Monday, two days later. I could try the hospital, she said, but only with an appointment, also for Monday.
I gave up. I walked back into town, which took me nearly an hour, time I used to have a chat on the phone with my dear mother. Once back, I stopped by the railway station to sort out my ticket for the next day. Briefly I considered extending my stay in Bari but by then I had had it with the place. Unfair, to be sure, but you know, I just wanted to do my civic duty and these people apparently considered their weekend more important than public sanity—I mean health. I had tried Kalampaka, Ioannina, now Bari; there was simply no way to comply with the “test before or upon arrival” obligation. Perhaps I would have more luck at my next destination. So I booked the train for the next morning, had a meal, drank exactly none of the wine in the studio, and was woken in the middle of the night by a street party around the corner that featured a live band and, I am not making this up, fireworks. Dead by day, it would appear that the historical centre of Bari is revived at night. Inches from my pillow.
At 7:10 the next morning, Piglet and I sat down in the first of several regional trains to Pompei.
Oh yes, our brave little Piglet travels responsibly, too. Like Greece, Italy is all about face masks, hand disinfectant always within reach, walking routes, hygienic (why call it “social”??) distancing and other antiviral measures that appear to work in these countries. Minimal infections, low R rate, people just doing what responsible adults do and still managing to go out, to shop, to visit museums and cinemas, to have social lives, to live. On the train to Pompei, I read about the rising numbers in the Netherlands and the utter lack of response, dare I say responsibility, from the authorities as well as the general populace. “Surely this will be the long-predicted second wave,” I said to Piglet. “But don’t they recognize that this is an exact reprise of the baffling February/March performance, when the general attitude was one of laissez-faire?” Piglet, who does not speak much French, just stared out the window and sighed a tiny sigh of sadness.
A delay here and there and at 3:30 pm that Sunday I took this picture; we had arrived in Pompei:
Don’t let the forced photo smile fool you; I felt quite happy to be there! Pompei, below the mighty Vesuvius, the fabled doomed city and I was going to stay in it. Well, near it. As I learned while I was there, Pompei and Pompeii are in fact not the same! This makes sense, as the latter was buried by volcanic fire, rock and ash, whereas the former is the immensely unattractive little village mainly providing for tourists who come to visit the excavated latter. Say again? Pompei: modern Italian town, not worth a visit; Pompeii, antique Roman ghost town, well worth several visits.
More on that in the next post!
You’re still wondering about that Big Decision, aren’t you—the latest in a modest series of BDs, rather. I won’t play around with you, you are far too dear a readership for that. It is this:
Come Monday, 19 October, I am travelling from Porto to Valencia, Spain. That’s not so big, I know. But wait. There I will be staying longer than in any of my European destinations so far: for at least two months and quite possibly all of winter.
¿Cómo? ¿Qué? What?!
I know. I’m still a bit flustered by it myself. I’ll tell you all about it—later.
But first, in the next post: Pompei(i). Then Bologna. Then Venice. Then Pontito and Florence. Then Porto.
Yes. I have my work cut out. Does anyone know of a way I can get paid for this lovely blogging? 螺