23 August 2005
When I returned to the church in Manfredonia with my new batteries there was only time to take one picture as a wedding party was arriving. Here she is, on the left.
I went outside to join the crowd of onlookers and found myself apparently on the set of a “Godfather” movie. There was the beautiful bride, all in white, with friends, bridesmaids, in all colours but many in smart black. A lone trumpeter followed the procession. As the ceremony proceeded, I noticed a lot of men in ice-cream coloured silk suits standing around outside in the square, vigilant. As I approached my car, one quizzed me and I gave him to understand that I was leaving, didn’t want to intrude. He was very happy to hear this and helped me out of the tight parking space. Who were they? My guess is brothers of the bride, perhaps more distant relatives, too. Was my imagination working overtime? Were they there as protection from rival families, or, surely more likely, for tradition, protecting the honour of the bride?
I drove to Lucera next, in search of my next Madonna, in a 12th century cathedral, but unfortunately when I arrived all was boarded up and work going on. I hoped the cathedral would be open anyway, but on walking round found doors locked and scaffolding everywhere. The building was in appalling condition, so I’m glad something is being done, but sad to miss another Madonna.
It was still fairly early so I decided to drive towards Reggio di Calabria (where I take the ferry for Sicily). Eventually I joined the motorway heading for Taranto, where the road begins to follow the instep of Italy, and was driving along minding my own business when a chap in another car started to harass me – he would pass me, slowing down and making obscene gestures, then slow or even stop until I passed, and repeat the process. I was driving along pretending that nothing was happening, of course. As time went on he was moving closer and closer to the back of my car and I began to get really scared. Would he force me off the road? With this thought came anger – I would NOT be his victim! Part of me – a large part – wanted to stop and confront him, but I realised I probably wouldn’t be understood in any case. Dammit, I can make myself understood in four languages, why the hell don’t I know any Italian? I couldn’t see how big or old the man was, didn’t want to look too closely and he had dark glasses on. In Britain, maybe I would have confronted him in a service area or somewhere else very public, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea here.
Exits are infrequent on Italian motorways – probably because of the toll booths on each one – but I got lucky and spotted one coming up just as the man was passed my car again (this had gone on for about 50 miles). Without indicating, I drove off the motorway, performed a series of hair-raising manoeuvres (probably just normal driving to most Italians) and drove off in a random direction.
I was really scared and also surprised – hadn’t expected to attract any sort of unwelcome male attention, but clearly my age is less important than my “unprotected” status. Because the unwanted attention didn’t stop there. Today, I got lost in Reggio di Calabria, couldn’t find the place I was staying. After an hour, in despair, I saw three old guys round a car and stopped to ask for directions. They looked blank, then one brightened and said something that sounded like “Sigue me”, which in Spanish would mean “Follow me”. “Si, si, grazie,” I said and he got in the car and set off like the clappers. After about half a mile he drew up, jumped out of his car and came to my window – I had started to feel uneasy as this looked like a pretty random stopping place to me. He then started to ask me questions – who was I with, when did I plan to leave, what time would I like dinner … I kept saying I didn’t understand and made sure he saw the wedding ring I’d decided to wear while here. He didn’t get it and came closer, so that I could smell his alcoholic breath and sweat. At this point I lost it a bit – he got some of the anger from yesterday – and yelled at him in Spanish. “What is the matter with you? I’m a grandmother, leave me alone! Act your age!” He stepped back in surprise and I drove off quickly. From the rear window I could see him gesture, as if to say “Women! Who can understand them?”
I don’t get it – I am discreet to the point of disappearing, as much as possible. I think it is the foreign car, my long hair (which has got very light in the sun). I’ve noticed that older Italian women don’t wear their hair down, and am considering getting mine cut short when I can find somewhere. I don’t want to look, or feel, like prey. This all seems unfair, I have seen young women walking round alone, unmolested, in bikinis.
Pity about all the hassle – it made me forget that on the Adriatic Coast motorway I passed a town with the truly wonderful name of Val Vibrata. Sounds like a minor member of an feminist punk rock band! Calabria is beautiful, as almost everywhere has been. Very mountainous, there are incredible views of sea and mountain all the way down to Reggio and when I finally saw Sicily, I could see that it is no further from Italy than the Isle of Wight from the south coast of England – in fact, not quite so far.