Talk to the American

Life often offers up its little nuggets.

Sunday is often a “down” day for me here at Smiling Hill (unless there’s some exploring to do). I’ll sleep late (9am), have a big breakfast after my workout, work on my tan a bit, take a dip in the pool and spend the rest of the day surfing the Web or watching TV. Same as in any country, right? (But at least I have a pretty good premium TV program in the apartment.) Today was a typical Sunday.


The Smiling Hill pool at the Goodies Restaurant complex.

It was obviously going to be a hot one, I figured as I scaled the hill a few times before breakfast. Lots of sun, good for the tan. It doesn’t take long here, almost on the equator, for the sun to fry you. Then, Sumatran coffee, pancakes, Canadien bacon, fresh-squeezed OJ and cold milk. Fast forward to sitting at the pool and on the Web.

There were a couple of local families around the pool, and a few expats in the restaurant. Some stray kids were swimming. I was stting at a table poolside, listening to some music and reading the news.

Out of nowhere, one of the teen boys swimming came over and asked in very halting English if he could speak to me. Actually, he wanted to have a conversation with me – because he was taking a course in English and wanted to practice. He said he was 16 and had been in Batam a year (I think). He told me where he was from but I didn’t understand.

I offered him a seat at the table. He had trouble starting so I tried a couple of easy questions. Finally, I told him I was a journalist, and he understood and became more animated. Actually, he kind of smiled when I told him. Don’t know if that was good or bad. So when he showed interest in that I called my blog up on my laptop. He knew what the word blog meant. I figured the pictures there might be of interest and create some conversation.

Navigating the blog was too slow, though, and about this time his friend showed up. Wish I had taken pictures (I had my camera with me) but these were just two normal teenage boys, nice smiles, friendly and interested. Oh, courteous, too. I started showing pictures of Croatia, and then a third person showed up.

This guy was a little older, and spoke good English. He had been to Sweden and Paris, but was impressed with all the countries I have on my blog as having been visited. Turns out he was helping the younger two learn English and had encouraged them to approach me so they could practice. “Go talk to the American.”

I went through some of my Croatia photo files but thought they would be more interested in Rome, so we went through a bunch of those before my battery died. The boys thanked me, we shook hands and touched our hearts, and they went back to swimming.

You never know what life will throw at you.

Stuck at the airport – Thanksgiving

Managed to not oversleep this morning and easily made my 6:40 time for the shuttle pickup to the airport. After a stop to pick up a German couple, we made the rough ride out of town (cobblestones look cool but they are very bumpy), with a fortuitous one-last look at the coliseum. Dropped off at Blue Panorama Airlines terminal and found the check-in area almost empty, except for a couple of ticket agents. They looked at me puzzled before one came up and asked why I was there. Showed him my reservation printout. They offer two daily flights to Catania on Sicily; mine was supposed to be at 10. As we were talking, their morning flight was taking off (8 a.m.), rescheduled without my knowledge. I guess this was a good lesson about checking flights the day before. I was rebooked for their second flight at 4 p.m., so I’m stuck in the Rome airport for 8 hours. There goes several hours I needed to look for an apartment.

McDonald’s for breakfast again. It was either that or danish and coffee, not very filling for me. Managed to find Wi-Fi access but not sure how long it will last. Plus, I had to pay for it. Boingo now has a partnership with Skype so you can pay through Skype. However, there are no electric outlets, so I had to use limited laptop battery power. Finally, the wireless stopped, which is just as well because I was trying to watch video and it was not going well.

Killed 5 1/2 hours before deciding to head down to the ticket counter again. No problem checking in but they made me walk 100 yards to another counter to pay for my checked bag – 20 euro. Then back to the first counter to get my boarding pass. And then through the dreaded security. Long lines.

Once through I found my gate and then found some food – a tossed salad with tuna, egg, olives and gnocci. With a Beck’s – 20 euros. That’s $27 for a salad and a beer, folks! Too expensive here. Got to get to Catania. Also, found a power outlet where I bought the food so was able to power up again, although I couldn’t get Internet access.

Last night, I walked to the main street a block away and started walking side streets looking for an interesting restaurant. Not finding any, I ended up back on the main street where there was a place that had a good crowd. Why not? Ordered a drink and a rigatoni/bacon/Parmesan dish. It was OK but more Apple Garden than native Italian. Back at the hotel, I brought my laptop to the registration area, sat on the floor, with people milling past, and checked up on the news. After a long and strenuous day, slept well.

Safe in Catania

Made it! I’m in Sicily. My mother would be proud. Cross that one off my bucket list. Interesting end of journey, and maybe a nice surprise.

The airline I took from Rome is kind of like Southwest. It’s called Blue Panorama, or the Blu Express. It’s a cattle call getting on board, worse than Southwest. Seems the Italians are a little impatient. Should have known that from the traffic in Rome, which, by the way, is even worse in Catania. I secured an aisle seat on the 737-400 and no one took the other two seats. It was about a 55-minute flight.

Disembarked and looked for a shuttle service, the hotel name and address on an index card in my pocket. I could have taken a taxi but for about the same price I had a car and driver (25 euros). The airport is a long way from the center of town and we passed through some mean streets, and narrow streets, with small shops and lots of people along the way. Catania is not Rome, I’m thinking, in terms of architecture. In the dark, it looks like a middle-class, working class kind of place.

We had trouble finding the hotel and the traffic jams didn’t help, but eventually my driver found it – tucked into an alley near the center of town – the Hotel Catania Centro. Took a very small elevator up one floor to the front desk, where Giuseppe was waiting. He’s a young, energetic guy who speaks some English. Of course, the first thing everyone asks me is where in the U.S. I’m from. I’ve just decided to say Florida, as the truth is just too strange to explain.

Anyway, I decided to ask Giuseppe how I would go about finding an apartment. He seemed amazed I wanted to stay 2-3 months. Turns out he has an apartment in the center of town, right over a large pool hall. He has no one renting it and he will pick me up tomorrow (Friday) to show it. I told him my price range and he didn’t seem deterred. So we’ll see if I lucked out.

My room is far better than the one in Rome, large bed, large bathroom and a balcony. The only problem with it is I need bread crumbs to find my way – seriously. First you snake along a corridor behind the front desk. Then you go through some doors where an elevator is waiting. Then you go to the fourth floor. These elevators are really old school, too – wire cages, doors you open yourself. Once out of the elevator, I have to get buzzed in through another door, after which I snake around to my room.

After dropping off my bags, I went out for a short walk to find some Coke. Lots of activity on the streets, but then it is rush hour. Lots of young people on the streets. This is going to be such a difference from Vodice I’m not even sure how to explain. Basically, I’ve dumped myself right into a working class city of 300,000 population. This should be fun, especially if I nail an apartment right away.

The hotel has Wi-Fi in its lobby, where there is a couch. I’m going to ask Giuseppe about where to go for dinner.

Tomorrow is house-hunting and photo day. But don’t expect too much from the photos. All the buildings seem to be dingy from Mt. Etna smoke or whatever and I didn’t see much to rival Rome on the way in. My photos here will probably be more like real life in an Italian city, but then, that can’t be all bad.

I made it!