I had a great time in Catania, Sicily in September 2010 at the first ever SF con held on the island, called Aetnacon because Mount Etna is just a few miles away. Etna shouldn’t destroy Catania any day soon because Etna releases pressure by frequent little explosions that can be heard in the city and occasionally it puffs out some ash, whereas Vesuvius next to Naples is the big danger building up. Catania’s a city of grand streets that probably looked best in about 1800 because Italian unification stole previous industry and wealth away from Sicily to the north, leaving Sicily as a mostly peasant place. The composer Bellini is honoured everywhere, and in the Parco Bellini is a remarkable calendar made of resilient cotton lavender plants; thus when 9 June 2010 becomes 10 June, the 9 is rearranged overnight into 10, for instance. A bit of a race on New Year’s Eve, perhaps. This has been happening for the past 200 years, and I am intrigued; a story may be brewing.
There’s a huge variety of fish, meats, veg, fruit, mushrooms in the street markets all over, and we had several very memorable feasts courtesy of Aetnacon, such as a 6-course fish banquet in a restaurant overlooking the Med, surrounded by palms and banana trees and giant cacti. The local speciality, though, are frieds ball of rice mixed with seafood or meat and tomato rolled in coats of twice-fried brown crumbs, called arancini. Imagine a large hand grenade. One is quite enough for a lunch, but nobody seemed to know if a singular arancino was even a linguistic possibility.
Aetnacon happened in a densely vegetated botanic garden, where Italian cosplay schoolgirls were imitating Japanese schoolgirls imitating anime characters, to the delight of the local mosquitos excited by more rain falling the day before the con than I’ve seen except in Africa in the rainy season; so most of the streets became rivers, which is apparently very unusual in Sicily; but sun blazed for the rest of the weekend. How appropriate to launch the Italian translation of my Gardens of Delight in a botanic garden!
Then, in Feb 11, I sallied (not sailed) to Genoa only to discover a slowly dying botanical garden, which few of the Genovese seemed to know existed. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since Genoa could have been designed by Escher, with stairways and funiculars and public lifts and roadways ascending and descending, and tunnels burrowing through. From a bridge, look down upon a street; look up to another, higher street. Walk into a building from the road, take a lift to the sixth floor, and step out into an alleyway. The almost deserted botanic garden was naturally on various levels, and when we finally descended to the cactus house a dapper young botanist popped out and revealed that there used to be 11 botanist-gardeners. Some had died, some had gone away. Now there was only himself and the best he could do was to slow the demise of the garden. We were the first visitors he’d seen for months.
Not an orang-utan playing with a bird’s nest but a fern unfurling:
Could it be that some of those Genovese gardeners were seduced away by a gardening cult at the other end of Italy that controls the calendar in Catania, with potentially cosmic implications? I shall almost certainly write a story, hoping that Umberto Eco didn’t get there before me. The Name of the Lavender, maybe.
I rode on the symbol of Venice captured by the Genoans, their deadly rivals, which is why the lion looks moody.
And in a street market, a large history of urology leapt out at my eye from a distance; filled with disconcerting illustrations, as I found. Since the book looked as though it might come in useful some day, I bargained for it.