'In the South, they do things differently,’ a Tuscan friend had explained. ‘Most of us, we don’t understand it — the life, that is … they disappear in the afternoons for an endless lunch break, and then resurface, at six, only to shut their shops and start drinking by seven.’ I took this to be an exaggeration of a much lighter characteristic, the sort which is all too common when a person from one region talks about another, inimical one.
I arrived in Brindisi in the mid-afternoon, hungry and eager to check into my hotel. On arrival the receptionist wasn’t there. After several attempts to phone him, I got through. ‘Fifteen minutes,’ he said, ‘wait. Relax.’ It felt as if my importunity had caused offence. I sat on a small bench and smoked a few cigarettes, looking at the city around me. It was bleak, and I pitied the people of Brindisi: the sun-kissed Pugliese, whose only representatives seemed to be a few old men, making lethargic passeggiate, stopping for beers, cigarettes and games of cards in empty bars, or else sitting on steps, resting one hand on their olive faces, thinking those Mediterranean thoughts. There is a kind of knowledge to the Mediterranean which only those ancient waters can transmit and understand.
Alberto, the receptionist, arrived and led me up the thin, steep staircase. My suitcase knocked against each stair, and as I reached the top, my face was covered in sweat. Alberto then told me I was not allowed to smoke in the room, something I had assumed. But he drilled this knowledge into me, until I repeated ‘I will not smoke’ several times over, like a naughty boy reciting his Hail Marys.
Brindisi was a stopping point: a place where I would end and begin. Ever since reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Greek Islands and Prospero’s Cell I had wanted to take the ferry from Brindisi to Corfu, to see how the two countries differed, to see how, as Durrell described, ‘somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins.’ It did.
I visited the Crusader’s Church, modelled on the Temple at Jerusalem, which had been built to give passing pilgrims a vicarious reminder of what lay ahead. It served, then, the same role which the city itself did for me. It was a reminder that to journey is often a noble thing, that it’s worth the strains and discomforts. The nearby Cathedral was closed. I peeked my head in through a half-jarred side door and discovered that there were two squawky middle-aged women having a singing lesson. I returned to my hotel and took a nap.
I went back out at seven. The city was alive. It confused me at first, and then I remembered the words of my Tuscan friend. There were people everywhere; it was a Friday evening, after all, and
I struggled to find space at a bar. I drank an Aperol and watched, as the city played out its nocturnal rituals, unaware of my presence.
I moved on to a restaurant. It seemed like a refuge for the lonely, as all my fellow diners were, like me, sitting alone, reading books, or playing on their telephones. In broken Italian, I asked them to bring me a typical Pugliese meal. I had to repeat myself twice before he understood. I ate orechiette, that bizarre and alien ear-like pasta, which wouldn’t have been out of place on Hannibal Lector’s plate. They served it with a thick tomato sauce and a salty local cheese; it was the cheapest thing on the menu, but it was utterly delicious. It went down nicely with the cold red wine they’d given me in a carafe. I headed to bed, then, a little tipsy from the wine and the salubrious Adriatic air.
The next morning I took a taxi to the port. The driver was so carefree he watched football on his telephone as he navigated the thin Brindisian streets. I had asked, specifically, to go to the Grimaldi Lines check-in desk at the port. For some bizarre reason, he took me to the airport, far on the other side of the town. I reminded him of my intended destination, and he then offered to take me to the port for no extra cost, as if it were a particularly kind offer to take me to the place where I had asked to go to.
The port was huge. It struck me that much of Europe’s traffic must take this route. I checked in, without showing my ticket, passport, Covid test, or Passenger Locator Form. I then walked about a mile to reach the ferry, dragging my suitcase through the dizzying heat. I was one of the only foot-passengers. I walked up the ramp into the stomach of the shop, amongst large trucks and campervans with exotic driving plates. I was determined to stay on deck until I had seen Italy dissolve into the horizon, nor would I miss the sudden emergence of Albania and the islands which I hoped would rise like phantoms from the brightening blue.
Notes written on the Ferry:
Italy kicks its heel out at us one last time, and then draws away, fading into the horizon. It leaves us landless, with eyes for sea and sea only. The sky’s blue is unrecognisable from that which had hung over Brindisi. I am sitting on the deck, watching the ferry’s interminable wake scar the water.
The ferry itself is quite bizarre. It’s the daily Grimaldi Lines service which stops at Corfu on its way to Igoumenitsas. There are several truck drivers on the ferry, one of whom is quite threatening. He stood in front of me in the queue for food and shouted at the server for being too slow. There are some older tourists: a few, semi-obese couples, who seem to be here for a cheap cruise alternative. They’ve spent most of the journey bent over slot machines, feeding small ten cent coins to the moloch of fate.
For lunch, I eat a gruelly Carbonara, with soft, smoked, undercooked bacon, and, strangely, some zucchini too. I look into the serving tray and a few chips have fallen into it. The server picks these up with his fingers and places them in the correct tray. My beer was flat, too, and it tasted as if it had been left open, in the sun, to spoil for a few days before being served.
Albania now appears. Its mountains seem to collapse into the sea, with the force of a landslide. The clouds hovering above create the impression of snow-capped peaks. It seems as if there’s no green there; only the pale, Illyrian dust, and the dying shrubs.
Three islands appear. These are Merlera, Mathraki, and Othonoi: Corfu’s dramatic prelude. Each rises, phantomlike, from the water, as if they were a spectral vision dreamed up by an old and forgotten Prospero. The sunset begins quickly. A yellow sun sets in a blood orange haze. It presses itself down into the sea, halving itself, before extinguishing into the dusk.
Arrival in Corfu:
A crackled announcement came through the speakers. The noise broke and so I heard only the first syllable: ‘Corf’. There was some commotion and so I headed to the reception area so that I wouldn’t miss the stop. I queued for a lift and then emerged on the bottom floor: the great, dark underbelly of the ferry. A few foot passengers had congregated at the back-left, near the ferry’s stern. I waited for several minutes until the ramp, like a whale shark’s mouth, opened as if to consume the harbour. I noticed we were still moving. The ramp screeched as it descended and thankfully it landed on hard ground. As it moved downwards, a steward stood on top of it, smoking a cigarette.
I was the first off the ship; and so I hit customs first, where neither my passport nor my Covid Test nor my Passenger Locator Form were checked. The taxi which I’d booked wasn’t there and so I sat, on the Terminal Steps, for an hour, smoking persistently dull cigarettes and watching a crowd of Italian students, who played football and flirted, waiting for the return ferry.
I sat there, anticipating a feeling of differentness, that feeling of having crossed a boundary, a natural border, which Durrell so vividly described. With each vapid and pernicious drag of a cigarette, it became ever clearer that there wouldn’t be such a revelation. Globalisation has, to a large extent, done away with borders of personality and characteristics. It was a geographical change, not such a cultural one.
By Cosmo Adair