The Maltese chronicles.
It was time to let go, the removals guys were anting up and down the stairs lugging boxes, the house was being emptied plain cardboard box by plain cardboard box and there were dozens of them, Jakob, the landlord had managed to pack forty years of home away in cardboard, the contents of each and every box inventoried with his neat handwriting on a white label. These boxes here belonged in the living room, these boxes contained the kitchen, other boxes held papers and carefully wrapped knick knack from the Study, boxes full of bedroom, a boxed hallway, and boxes labelled "books" "Aa" through "Ac," "Ac" through "B," "D" through "E," boxes and boxes of books.
I had managed to do fifty of the eighty things that I had needed to do before blowing Basel for good, problem is that there are always another twenty things on top of the eighty that I simply had not thought about. To bad, what wasn't squared away by now wasn't gonna get done and what had not found room on Iron Pig was staying in Basel. I tried to find room for everything, pack, unpack, try a different way, pack again, unpack and start from the beginning, there was simply no way to fit everything on the pig that I wanted to keep together myself, so even after I had consigned almost everything I owned to the bin, I still had to lose more and with a heavy heart I parted with another load of belongings.
At the end of the day it's only stuff.
I was still trying to decode the Rubik's cube puzzle of packing my meagre belongings onto the bike when Jakob came by to say goodbye and wish me a good and safe journey. Jakob is past eighty and holds a Professors title and two doctorates simply for the heck of it. The best way to describe Jakob is to picture Dr.Nefarious, you know, the mad scientist from Despicable Me, Jakob comes complete with white lab coat, coke-bottle-bottom glasses and stooped gait, all that is missing are the black rubber gloves, but I am sure that he has a pair someplace.
He gave me his copy of Homer's "Odyssey" by way of a parting gift, a nice gesture that I really appreciated, but he probably would never be able to comprehend the profound irony of his gift.
I found Theresa (aka Mad Landlady) to say goodbye, just as she was getting ready to go out, she was wearing a fur coat that must have looked good on some boney model on some cat walk in Milan way back in the day, on her however it looked as if this little old lady was being eaten by a humongous tribble, she also wore a large brimmed black hat with two bright red cotton cherries in the hatband.
"Mr Slammer" she wailed, deep anguish in her eyes, "they are taking my things and putting them in boxes, why are they doing this? I don't understand, It's terrible, they are my things."
I simply did not know what to say, how do you explain that her home has been bought by a immobile investment company happy to have purchased this prime location in the center of Basel and now really need to turn it into luxury apartments as soon as possible and that it's nothing personal, just business.
"I am going to the police now, this must stop immediately and I have written to the president, here, have a look"
She held three crumpled sheets of foolscap paper under my nose, written on a mechanical typewriter that had not seen a new ribbon for quite some time; the papers were full of random key-stokes, disjointed sentences and random words.
I realized that I was holding the swansong of a dying mind in my hands.
"The president will help me, won't he Mr Slammer?"
"I'm sure he will, I am leaving now and want to say goodbye"
"Yes, yes, goodbye, I'll tell you how it went this evening when you come home, it's terrible, all my things."
I watched her walk down the street and waited until she turned a corner, I fired up the pig and headed to the motorway for another roll of the dice in life's great game of chance, perhaps I'll get snake eyes this time.
Winter riding is a curious thing.
It is said that the three great emotions are a good dump, sheer terror and a orgasm, on a motorbike in the middle of winter you can get all three at once, your mind starts to run different scenarios on what can possibly go wrong, jump out at you and then kill or maim you most horribly.
Actually it's not quite true, I enjoy riding in winter, however I do find it quite demanding, there are just so many more things to look out for.
I had calculated that I had a good six hours time to make the alpine transit before dark and the re-freezing of the run-off from melted ice, and although I had plenty of time I stepped up the gas, I raced past Luzern, past the lake and into the tunnel under the mighty Gotthard, a blinding white capped triangle of grey rock under a cerulean sky. Past the Gotthard and the first of quite a few pit stops, fill the tin tank, empty the meat tank grab a coffee and a bit of warm. Slammer still till got a load of riding to do.
It was cold but nothing I can't easily handle, fog, on the other hand, I hate. Just past Milan in the Po valley it came, thick, viscous dense, cloying, nasty, grey, icy fog, the sun was going down and the pig was low on gas, clearly it was time to quit.
Thing was I couldn't see , not even the side of the road, I took the next exit from the Autostrada and hoped that I would chance upon a town or something before I ran out of gas.
But with the sun down it went very cold very fast, Iron Pig was starting to get a build up of ice around the fairing and there was ice on my helmet and jacket, also I feared the road was starting to ice up to boot, every now and then a sheet of ice would slide off the windshield with a papery crinkle sound.
But I found a petrol station and filled up, also the pump attendant directed me to a hotel located not too far away.
The next morning the fog was still thick and the short run to the Autostrada took quite some time, Italian truck drivers on a time schedule don't give a hoot if a puny motorbike gets in the way, they probably would not even feel the bump anyway and they must have a built in radar to be able to drive safely that fast, I however couldn't see a thing and cowed right at the very edge of the tarmac, flinching every time a overtaking lorry whooshed by.
I needed to get out of this blasted fog, I ached to get out of this wretched fog, I so longed to get out of this icy, freezing fog.
Instead it became denser and denser, then I remembered a trick my father taught me, "When you are in trouble in dense fog/rain/snow/hail/alien invasion/acts of god, snick up behind a lorry and stay in it's wind shadow!" So I found myself a lorry with a 40ft container on the flat bed that was going my way and snuggled right up it's ass, then I thought that it may not be the wisest course of action to follow the advice of a man who had by self admission broken every bone in his body by way of various motorbike accidents, so I backed off until I could just make out the rear fog lamps, that kinda worked until the bugger turned off at a gas station and I found myself flying blind, A few hours more of this knife edge riding and I could just about make out a area of grey that was starting to become lighter and lighter, was that the sun? Come on, put some welly in it, burn baby burn.
At last the fog dissipated and I reached Genova and the ferry to Palermo on Sicily. Actually I had arrived mid day and the ferry did not leave until eight in the evening, I have been to Genova quite a few times and I know it well, it's not a pretty place so I stayed near the ferry terminal, reading and dozing, kicking stones into the harbour and being generally bored out of my skull.
The ferry was nice enough, one of these jobbies that are half dedicated to lorry trailer and container transport and the other half for passengers, their cars and a motorbike. I don't usually book ahead as a rule because I don't like having to ride under pressure, I'll book when I arrive, but I do know the prices and for 30 Euro plus I got me a cabin all for myself, a total of 150 Euros for me, the bike and a bunk, a price as good a it gets for a 22 hour cruise down the boot of Italy.
My war cry echoed through the cavernous hold of the ferry as I disembarked into Palermo evening rush hour traffic, quite a steep learning curve if I may say so, most cars had a collection of random dents and smashed lights, and I soon realized, that traffic rules are more like guide lines and the road markings simply a waste of perfectly good paint, for most part the drivers, totally unaware that there may be other people on roads, carried on driving the way they had done since the days of the Romans, arguing with their spouses, clipping their kids around the ears, talking on the phone or eating, sometimes all at once, but Iron pig has a secret weapon, the loudest horn in the BMW arsenal and boy did I make use of it, my street cred rose exponentially when I flamed that bad boy off. A first glimpse of Sicily, from the deck of the ferry it looked as if the Island was having a storm, but the closer the ship go to Palermo the clearer the skies became and a Mediterranean dusk brought in the night.
Little was I aware of the chewing I would get at the hands of Palermo traffic
I made it through and out into the countryside and before long I found myself riding on empty roads into the night, however around an hour later, I could not put my finger on it but something did not feel right, so I stopped to consult the map and found out that I was going in the wrong direction and that there was no alternative but to return to Palermo for another mauling at the hands of Palermo traffic, this time it cost me a shattered mirror, knocked off by a careless driver who simply shrugged as I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his pedigree.
I rode past a hotel and decided it had been a long day and that it was time to quit and get beered up.
The next morning I settled the bill to a girl behind the reception desk, she was a petite creature, almost elven in her appearance and sporting a hairdo that I had last seen on Barbarella, she looked cold in the freezing 20°C plus morning air. "Are jew not a da kold-a een your moto-bik-ah?" her voice soothed.
"Eyehem so kold-a" she told me and put her dainty hands into my twin ham hocks with attached fingers, "fheeehl my handz-a, zey are zhoo kold-a, eye em like-a da mhaahrble ston, no?
I swooned and would gladly have stayed as her personal human bouncy castle all day long until the goats come home, but I had to get to the ferry at Pozzallo, so really, I needed to haul ass.
Once out of the gravitational pull of Palermo the trip to the next way-point of Catania became a very nice ride indeed, the roads were up to standard and followed the landscape for most parts supported five to ten metes above a wilderness earth by concrete pillars, the sun was out, the landscape a green mountain high the sky was blue and I found myself whistling and singing in my helmet as the miles passed.
Sicily possesses an amazing landscape, a lot like a warm Scottish highlands, and literally throning above all in the distance, the mighty Etna, the top of the volcano blanketed with a cap of deep snow and with plumes of steam and yellow gas hazing the sky, the remaining signs of the recent eruption from last November.
All too soon volcanoes and mountains gave way to miles and miles of orange tree and olive tree monoculture and the other crop of Sicily, garbage, miles and miles of garbage lining the road as high as a man, thick and deep, picture the scene at the airport in the movie "the fifth element" it would seem that Sicilians simply don't care, but I think they do and that there is simply nothing that can be done, sad, really, really sad.
From another planet.
The harbor town of Pozzallo, on the south coast of Sicily has a strange, other worldly feel to it, a kind of dusty fronteer-y, wild-west-y kind of thing with wide empty spaces, apart from the town its self, it is a landscape seeded with ruined or run down buildings and jumbled stone blocks that at one time must have been a house or something. Huge cacti plants, with leaves that looked like spiky green toilet seats gave the impression of being in Mexico. I could almost hear Lola Beltran belting out Paloma Negra
But on every street dozens of African blacks glowered at me with either hostility or alcohol or drug induced indifference, the refugees from Africa, the ones that did not make it onto the news as statistics from another tragedy at sea.
They have braved, guns and desert and the Mediterranean, they have left their family and country for a better life and now find themselves washed up on the shore at the southern most part of a continent that has no use for them, it is a powder-keg and I fear that the match had been lit, soon violence will erupt, African style violence and Europe's south will burn. Refugee boats, stacked like so much firewood on the dock at Pozzallo, dozens of them, I tried to get some more photos but the chain-link fence stopped me from getting closer and a angry guard shooed me away.
But looking at this picture again makes me wonder just how many boats slip away in the night from the shores of Africa that are never seen or heard from again.
I had some time to kill before the ferry left so I decided to carry on down the coastal road for a few Kilometers, just to see what is around the next corner, nothing much, just dust and garbage, every now and then I would come across groups of blacks, men women and children, sitting, or living, under grimy transparent plastic sheets that were held up by tree branches or supported on top of crumbing walls of yellow stone, a nearby midden of rotting shrimp shells among the garbage gave off a truly gut retching stench, is this a little bit of African reality here in Europe? I don't know, and to tell you the truth, I don't care, it's not my problem to solve so I did what we do in these cases, I turned my back and let them fade from my mind.
I walked into the office in full biker gear, I could have been from Mars for the stare I got, I introduced myself to the girl behind the desk and drew a blank, I made a joke about the weather and that it hopefully doesn't get much hotter in summer, blank. "take me to your leader" blank. "I start on Monday" Ah, a reaction. "I'll get somebody to talk to you" she said and got busy on the phone. A few minutes later another girl came and took me to a office and asked a few questions, she was not much older than my youngest daughter and had a Miley Cirus screensaver on the computer. Then we went for a "checking out of the location" however she started to annoy me with the Kindergarten speak and I was about to ask if there was a grownup that I could talk to but before that happened I realized that she is my boss or as they call it here, a team leader.
This Malta-gig could be more difficult than I expected. My favorite place in Valletta, the saluting battery, the panorama of Valetta and the three cites is breath taking and yes they fire the cannon as the midday gun, it's quite a spectacle
. A nice day in Valletta
Now, two weeks into the job things are settling down, the job itself is a bit tedious, but much to my surprise Miley Cirus turned out to be a very competent team leader and as to the job? Well it is a roof over my head, food in my belly, Weizen in my mouth and the pig on the road.
Speaking of roads, the ones here on Malta are best described as 3D, Slammer is from Blackburn, Lancashire so holes are in my blood, but the Maltese ones are a real doozie and as a connoisseur of potholes they have me giving little squeals of delight as I dodge and weave and wobble my way along.
Of course it means that one kilometer on Malta equals 4.2 kilometers as measured anywhere else in the world.
I found a flat in St. Paul's bay and the procedure was a surprisingly painless one day job, here the streets are knee deep in hungry housing agents, for you who have rented in Switzerland or are currently jumping through the flaming hoops of renting in Switzerland the ease of renting here must seem like I pulled a Jedi mind trick. St Paul's bay, the new Slammer pokey-hole. Anybody up for a swim? I was
So that's all for now, 2014 has been around for almost a day and I'm ready for a new start on fantasy island. The Pig under the mighty walls of Valletta.