Friday, 24 January 2014

Down and out in Rome and Catania - Chapter 5

Once we were back in Cairo Renata and I parted ways. She headed off to Cyprus and beyond, whilst I boarded a plane bound for Rome. It was my intention to spend a few days taking in the sights of Rome before heading down to Sicily to meet up with Luke and his family. Luke's uncle had his finger in many pies around the city of Catania, so I thought that my chances of finding work there were fairly good.

The temperature change from the hot streets of Egypt to the cold air conditioning of the plane didn't do me any favours at all. Early into the flight I began sniffling, quickly followed by a sore throat and a banging headache. By the time my plane touched down in Rome, my joints were aching, and I'd been sapped of all my energy. This was not a good time to realise that I hadn't even got enough money to catch a bus from the airport to the city, nor did I have any access to any. Once again, looking back at this from my 24 year vantage point, it is very difficult to see how I got myself into this ludicrous situation. I mean, come on! How the fuck did I manage not to realise that I had no money left? It seems impossible that I was ever that daft; although I'm sure many people will argue with this statement.

Shit! What was I going to do? I exited Leonardo Da Vinci airport, with my tail well and truly between my legs. Even if I would have had any money I felt too sick to think straight. So I did the only thing that I knew how to do in these situations. I found myself a nice patch grass somewhere near to the airport entrance, where I cocooned myself into my mummy sleeping bag and went to sleep. I briefly considered that the security of my bags was in jeopardy, but I was feeling so terrible that the theft of my possessions seemed to be the least of my worries. Although I have to admit that I was glad to see that they were still there when I woke up eight hours later.

My bags, it turned out, had been guarded as I slept by two random Algerian guys. The guys, whose names I've long forgotten had chanced up my mummified body sprawled across the grass and decided that they would protect me in my sleeping hour.

"Hi my friend," they called out to me, as my eyes opened.

"Erm hello," I returned, feeling more than a little confused.

"We saw you sleeping, and thought we'd guard you, my friend," they informed me.

"That's really kind of you," I told them, whilst trying to conceal my mistrust of their actions. It's very sad that kind acts in this world are always treated with suspicion. But that's the way that we protect ourselves, especially when travelling.

We got talking, and it turned out that the guys had tried to emigrate to England a few years earlier but the immigration officers had turned them back at Heathrow airport because they couldn't prove that they had enough funds. Once the conversation started to head in this direction I had a suspicion that I was going to be involved in their future travel plans in some context. By now they were really babbling on and my mucus infested brain could not begin to take in their words. My mind drifted off and it was only brought back round when one of the guys shook my arm and said "so what do you think?"

"I'm not really sure," I told him. I had in actual fact, not got a clue what he was talking about, which made things more than a little awkward.

"Well, will you help us then?" one of them asked me.

I couldn't help but notice the look of sheer desperation in their eyes. Something was amiss. I could have kicked myself when I heard the words, "Yeah, OK then," slip out of my mouth. What the fuck had I got myself into?

The boys were onto my words before I even had time to finish my sentence. In the bat of an eyelid, their looks of desperation had turned into looks of ecstasy. They turned to face each other and I could almost see the jackpot symbols lighting up in their eyes. And who could blame them? They'd just stumbled upon a 20 year old English meal ticket, who was immobilised by sickness and therefore extremely vulnerable. Looking back I can almost share their joy.

To cut a long story short I had just agreed to be the sponsor for their lifetime dream to live in England. With haste they produced a pen and paper and I gave them my details. Thankfully there was no such thing as Facebook, mobile phones, or even email back then or I would have been screwed. I was far too honest to supply them with a fake address though and I spent the next year worrying that they were going to turn up at my parent’s house. They gave me their details too but (and it shames me to write this) I threw them out as soon as I was well enough to leave my patch of grass. That night, as they had agreed, the Algerians stayed up and dutifully guarded my stuff, as I slept.

The next day, when I finally gathered the strength to leave my grassy patch, I bid the guys farewell, deposited their details in the nearest bin and headed for Rome centre. My plan was to head to the British embassy where I would breakdown and plead for mercy. I even practised my act on the way there. Let's face it; I had a 16 mile walk to get things perfect. I then spent the best part of the day navigating my way there. Thankfully their address was in my guide book. Somewhere along the way, I spotted the Colosseum from a distance of about 500 yards. This was to be the only famous site that I saw in Rome during my brief but dramatic time there.

I arrived at the British embassy some time in the late afternoon and I was shown into a small office. This was to become the stage for my amateur dramatics, which flowed with such perfection that I actually ended up in tears. Or maybe I really was in a worse state than I imagined! Over the years, I've learnt to fully embrace disasters of such calibre and I must admit, I am quite fond of them. But on this day, some time in mid May 1989, I was a gibbering wreck. Not that my crying reaped much reward. For my efforts, I was allowed one free phone call to my parents. Fortunately they were at home, and I spent the next five minutes crying uncontrollably down the phone at the sound of my poor mum's voice.

As a result of my visit to the embassy Luke's uncle booked me on a flight from Rome to Catania, which I would take a few days later. First I had to wait for a bankers draft for £400, which my mum sent to one of the local banks. I had the £400 sitting in my bank at home but I had no access to it because I lost my credit card a few days before my trip was due to begin. I actually found it around a year later in my suit pocket. 

In the mean time I was able to book myself into a nearby pension which the embassy sorted out for me. The bankers draft came through a few days later and I was able to move on. That is, I would have been able to move on had I not locked myself in the shower. I spent an hour in there and had practically given up when I realised that to open it you had to pull the doors in the middle. I'd never seen a shower like that before. My inexperience had lead to my temporary incarceration. By the time I'd escaped I was almost late for my flight.

I had big ideas for Sicily, maybe I'd get a job working for the mafia (in my head Luke's uncle was a mafia guy), meet a beautiful girl, make loads of money and retire when I was 30. Big dreams for a 20 year old with less than £400 in his pocket. The reality was much different.

By the time I got there, Luke was indeed working for his uncle, as a delivery guy at his furniture business. And his uncle certainly was wealthy. His house was the first and possibly the only house that I have ever seen with a lift between the different floors. This fact impressed me very much and was to become my overwhelming memory of Sicily. So, how was Sicily? I was often asked, to which I would always reply "I stayed in a house with a lift between floors."

My own chances of finding work were practically non-existent. I spoke zero Italian and all the crap jobs seemed to covered by low paid immigrants from the Maldives. I did a few days helping Luke out on the delivery trucks but this was merely to pass the time away and not for financial gain. The reality of my situation soon hit me as my cash reserves started to dwindle. The only woman that I came into contact with was an inflatable sex dell which Luke's cousin had found. I was more than a little tempted to have my way with the doll, but there was a terrible smell emanating from between its legs.

Money or no money it was easy to see that Sicily was a beautiful island. It was still a little cold for the beaches but I took a day trip to the charming town of Taormina, which nestles into a rock face and looks down onto a perfect waterfront . It was my intention to find work in Taormina, but after a few beers the severity of my situation was downgraded and I spent the day relaxing. As a consequence of my day trip I made a spontaneous decision to relocate from Catania to Giardini Naxos. Giardini Naxos was only a few kilometres from Taormini and much bigger. I felt as though my chances of finding work would be greater there, because of all the tourists. I found a cheap pension and moved in.

Miraculously, somebody offered me a job as a waiter and I accepted the offer without a second thought. It was only when I got back to the pension that I started to reflect upon this situation in a more negative light. The main question that sprung to mind was; how was I going to be able to wait tables when I didn't know how to speak Italian? With a few days to go before the job started, I convinced myself that I would be able to learn the language. An hour later I could count to five, but I was bored shitless so I read my book instead. And the book was so good I didn't want to put it down. The book was Different Seasons by Stephen King, one story for each season, and all totally brilliant. Two of my favourite films came out of that one book, The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, both absolute classics. I ended up staying up all night to finish the book in one go.

The following day, I went around to the restaurant and told them that I didn't want the job. I'd made the decision; I was going to go home. With my money dwindling and with no skills to offer in the work place I was ready to be pampered by my mum. The kibbutz had been an easy way of living but as soon as I'd left I realised the reality of "normal" life. Accommodation that had to be paid for, the prospect of a shitty job, and only an inflatable doll to love.

The next night Luke came over to visit me and we had one last drinking session. We'd intended to sneak him into my pension at the end of the night but the manager of the place had different ideas. After several attempts to sneak past him past reception, and a warning that I was going to get thrown out of the pension, we gave up and resorted to plan B. This involved throwing a duvet out and pillows out of the window for Luke so that he could sleep on the beach in comfort.

I left Sicily a few days later some time around the end of May 1989. But this trip still had one little surprise left in store for me. Not long after the plane meal had been served people around me started to drop like flies. Everywhere I looked, people were doubled up in pain. The flight attendants were rushing around like Duracell bunnies attending to the ever increasing number of victims of food poisoning. Fortunately, it only appeared to be those that had eaten the chicken that were affected. I'd never eaten chicken in my life, so I was fine. 

As the plane touched down at Manchester airport, a fleet of ambulances were waiting to ferry the sick people to hospital. I knew my mum was going to be waiting for me, I only hoped that she hadn't heard about the scene that was taking place on the runway. I grabbed my bags from the carousel and headed for arrivals. As the doors slid open I spotted my mum checking the arrivals board. She looked so tired and small that I immediately burst into floods of tears for the second time in as many weeks. 

And that was it; the journey was over, almost six months after it began. I'd left Manchester back in January with plans to conquer the world, as I stood there and stared at my fatigued mum it felt that the world had conquered me. It was time for the "real" world again.

No comments: