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July 2015

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Simpatico with Figs, Capers and Insalata Mista.

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The wooden tables are scattered around the tiled piazza under giant pines a few steps up from the sea. It must be 10 degrees cooler under here, or even more, if you sit for a while looking out at the cool blue sea. To the left of us is faded orange San Bartolomeo, whose bells ring at noon, sounding like the song, “Clementine,” a song I’m reminded our eldest adored when she was 3.

Behind the church is a wide olive orchard, pines around the edges here too, and sprawling fig trees we sit under while we wait for the bus on the days we travel to and fro the villages around the island or to Santa Marina to catch a boat to another island. Our first morning walking up to this spot, the scent of sun-warmed pine needles mix with the sweetest of smells we don’t recognize… then discover – the fig. Our youngest can’t believe how the fig smells of coconuts. We stand holding hands sniffing, noses in the air. When I wait for the bus there now, the warmed scent of coconuts surrounds me, the power of her suggestion and delight in it coming to mind.

The delight I have derived from the fig tree has surprised me. Recognizing it now, as the fig trees grow all over the island, smelling the distinct scent from a few feet away, admiring the large leaves so famous for their place in art, I am pleased to have made this new connection here, to take away this new knowledge of the plant world. But not only the fig, the caper plant, which the island is famous for, flourishes here too. Low growing, with round leaves, much like eculyptus, I recognized it, not by the leaves or lily-like white and purple flowers, but by the capers themselves, right there growing, and not in a jar. When you pinch them off, the unmistakable caper smell.

The path from our house to the sea passes a host of things to look at. Wild fennel high in the fields, lime and lemon trees whose fruit has fallen into the deep shadow beneath, and looks forgotten. Every time, I think I must pluck some fruit, but don’t, though I’ve been told no one will mind. I always seem to have other things to do, other things to mind and carry, bag of water shoes, towels, children, a dog. 

The olive grove is a pleasure in itself. Low in height, the trees have a silver-y quality that gives them grace and you can still see the orange facade and white bell tower of the church through the branches.

In front of us is the ever-present wide vista of the blue Mediterranean, the water, a sight I’ve come to feel part of, as if absorbed into this ancient island landscape, having been swimming every day now for 17 days, a record, for us, for sure. The island of Lipari sits in the distance, chalk cliffs on one side, and the length of the island visible, one end to the other, boats going by in between. To the left, a bit further out to sea is the smallest island Panarea, where we explored the Bronze Age stone wall remains and went swimming on the secluded stone beach.

The mountain, Monte Fosse, behind us, a gradual terraced slope of 3,000 ft, Andrew speculates could have been terraced hundreds of years ago. I sit and wonder and watch the other families at the other tables. One group has finished, the young children have started a game with the blue cloth napkins, tying them around their necks, waists. The grandfather has stretched out along the tiled seats that seem to always run along the walls here and from all appearances is napping. The others continue to talk, watch the children. We’ve finish our spaghetti alla cucunciata and wait for our insalata mista, a mixed salad that always varies with the maker. 

We all seem to have found something to love here. Jumpy rides on the big blue waves through stone arches, along high cliffs of islands (our eldest) fig trees, rock pools, wild twisty roads that drop down thousands of feet (our youngest), tufa cliffs, long views of the sea, there is enough to remind us it’s a great big world to know about and this summer we are lucky enough to get the chance, well, to sit under those coconut fig trees and appreciate the sweet-smelling breezes. 

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Shades of Blue.

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Southern Italy. A land of blue sky and sea. In the mornings, we wake flushed and humid, kick off twisted white sheets, open wooden shuttered doors onto the hot tiled vernada. We have mate tea outside, watching white sails go by. At 8am the day already shimmers. The dog growls at a lizard as it flitters across the white stones. We decide to go to Panarea today, the smallest of the Aeolians, it’s only 3km by 1.5km. We get the ferry and sail across and land in the tiny chic village, terraced with hidden hotels, boutiques, a place that makes leather shoes, an organic hotel where Andrew is keen to lunch. He finds the hotel, the restaurant sits high above the water, we lunch in the wind under white arches, eating from blue plates, the waitresses all wearing breezy blue dresses. After we take a golf cart taxi through white-walled alleys to Zimmari beach. From there, we walk up the gnarled outcrops of rock atop Punta Milazzese and cacti to the villaggio preistorico, a Bronze age village of huts and stone walls, an area inhabited since the 14th B.C. We’re searing in the sun, walk down stone steps to the quiet and secluded Cala Junca, a spectacular stony cove and stone beach, where we throw off clothes and dive into the turquoise water.

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Waking up in Naples.

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Summer vacation arrives after a June packed with visiting friends and family, exams, presentations, parties, then our own end of year bash with a jam band to boot! Nothing better than listening to friends sing their hearts out. Beautiful night with some beautiful folks.  

July 3 – we leave but miss our train by 6 minutes that morning in Paris. Standing at Gare du Lyon – 30 degrees already at 10am, we stand in a stupor wondering what to do. Luckily we wait only 2 hours for the next train to Turin, Italy. We find an air-conditioned cafe upstairs, claim a couch, and sulk on devices. Train arrives. It’s crowded. We’re not sitting together, but at least we’re heading out. 

Turin is even hotter than Paris. We have a 3 hour wait until our night train. Italy! So different than Paris, the buildings stucco, dark ochres and terra cotta colors, tiled roofs, tiled floors. There is not much open as we search for a place to wait and eat. Several attempts, then we find a restaurant on a side street not too far from the train station. Red velvet walls. Mirrors. Dark wood. An older couple greet us as we wheel baggage in. We’re the only ones in the dining room. A waiter in a white tux takes our order. I feel we’ve stepped back in time. We have the most delicious spaghetti pomodoro. Then berries and gelato. We draw out the meal knowing there is only a hot train station otherwise. I have a Sicilian digestive called Amaro, which the waiter suggests. Everything about it is right. The name, the taste: it sums up the heat, the color, the feel of Italy at that moment.

The night train sleeper compartments, we make room for each other, find pj’s, toothbrushes, we try to settle in, Andrew and the youngest are easy, they fall asleep fast. Our eldest is too alert to sleep. We both stay awake, aware of the hiss of the brakes, the steep descent through the Italian Alps, the tunnels, the many stops, then the racket of the train once we are on the plains flying fast. 

Waking up to Naples – a hot dense mix of beeping carhorns, graffiti on walls, buildings in shambles, peeling paint, a general chaos but vivid liveliness.  Andrew has been smart enough to predict our exhaustion, has reserved a hotel room, we shower and have breakfast on the terrace with lizards and bougainvillea climbing the walls. We walk through Naples, I’m in a haze of no sleep, but everyone else is fine, and we sit in many cafes, in an open air market I find tight highly patterned Italian-made bell bottom polyester pants I can’t pass up. Then I notice women wearing them everywhere. We eat lunch looking out at Mt. Vesuvius. 

The 6 hour ferry ride is intensely boring. I suggest our eldest go ‘interview’ passengers and write about why they are going to the remote Aeolian Islands. She does and meets 7 or so very interesting people who are nice enough to think it’s cool to chat to a teenager about their travels. I stand and look out at the sea, not loving a ferry ride, and wondering what the islands will be like. 

Then we approach. Stromboli, the active volcano is the first island and the sight of it is mythical, as it’s shaped in a perfect cone in the sea, with plumes of smoke rising from the top. It’s all very elemental, the sea, the sky, the wind, the lava. Where in the world are we? 

The Aeolian Islands are 7 islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sicily, named after Aeolus, the god of the wind. Extremely varied and wildly beautiful, each island has its own characteristics. Many have volcanic activity, whether it’s steaming fumaroles or thermal waters. All of them have great swimming whether in small coves, on black sand or pebble beaches. The water is turquoise and so clear you can see the bottom. We arrive at sunset and find our casa and a restaurant on the water in the little town and watch a red moon rising over the Mediterranean.

Check back next week to hear about figs, capers and insalata mista. 

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