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Sunday, June 12, 2013, in Brindisi, Italy

Hi all. Well, it’s been a long time since I wrote to you, but until the last week there really wasn’t much to tell. And the length of this note will no doubt make up for the lack of communication from us for a while. We arrived in Brindisi on Monday, and we’ll stay here for a few more days.

We dug in for a leisurely time in Malta. It’s very familiar to us by now. We’ve done much of the sightseeing once or twice. We know which restaurants and marine shops we like, and the people in those places recognize us when we come back after a six-month hiatus. There are life routines, like movies on Sunday when there’s something to see, and our morning cheese pastizzi or qassata second breakfast ritual.

Art plays with boat systems; I play the guitar. We watch a little TV and surf the Internet. I groom the basil and chive plants in the cockpit by clipping off any flowers that have the temerity to bloom, like Morticia Addams. It isn’t that different from being at home. In some ways, it feels like home.

With a month in hand, the process of readying the boat for cruising was relaxed. Art polished the topsides and the stainless and put a shiny gloss on the exterior varnish. Every few days the wind would blow sand or dirt aboard, and Art would dutifully wash down the decks and topsides. I took my time to fill the freezer with meals that we could heat up easily on overnight sails. We knew that there would be at least two or three embedded in the year��s itinerary. Mostly, we just lived in leisure in our floating home. Rather than living like sea explorers, I��m afraid we resembled Maltese pensioners.

May weather wasn’t at all what we’d expected. The warmest day of the month was the day we arrived, the 2nd. Winds were stronger than normal. We’d wake up to a chill below, and I’d wear a jacket and slippers much of the morning, indoors and out. It didn’t matter much whether I wore jeans or shorts. By the afternoon, the sun would shine and sleeveless was the way to go. It all reminded me of summers in Norway, without the evening sunshine.

We spent some time with our friend Karolina, a Swedish expatriate now a Maltese resident. On one occasion we shared her with her son, on another with her daughter. We then ran into her son and his girlfriend while we enjoyed a harborside lunch in St. Julians. It always surprises us how often we run into the one person we know in a foreign place.

I tried to provide first mate support after I noticed the Malta courtesy flag had slid down from its perch on the spreader to the deck. Boldly, I offered to wear the bosun’s chair and let Art hoist me up the mast. It wouldn’t be a great distance to reach the errant line on the spreader, only a few meters higher than the place the boom attached to the mast. I got into the belt and got comfortable. Art clipped me in and secured the clip with a cable tie. The cable tie only makes sure that you don’t unwittingly pull the shackle apart while you’re hovering aloft. Then he went back to the winch, tied the line around it, and lifted me up.

I couldn�������t stand it. I couldn’t find anything to grab onto for support. All the lines oozing out of the mast headed in the wrong direction to meet my need for support; the shrouds were always out of reach or under me. I grabbed a line that I could reach, but it was the downward trail of the line that was hoisting me up and it didn’t serve me well as it kept sliding through my fingers while Art hoisted me up. I started to feel eerie about the elevation, which wasn’t even that high yet.

Disheartened, I abandoned my task. Art put on the belt, clipped himself on, and dispatched the task in no time as I hoisted him up and brought him back down. I have in fact gone to the top of a mast sometime in my sailing history, either the last boat or the one before. It wasn’t pleasant but I had been able to soldier through it. What is it now? Age? The height of this mast in theory, even though the elevation was only a few feet above standing head room?

A month went by, our plans beckoned, and we left the dock to anchor in the very same harbor of the marina. Our trip to Syracuse, at about 80 nautical miles, would require at least a moderate speed and a full day. When we have a very early morning departure, we find that leaving from anchor is less frenzied than departing the dock. For one thing, pulling up an anchor and rinsing it off is much simpler than retrieving cables and lines, stashing fenders, and worrying about collisions in the dark. While we motored about inside the harbor, people on a sailboat nearby began to shout our names. I looked up to see our friends from Gozo, the small island that actually makes the main Maltese island appear to be cosmopolitan. We’d just met this couple a few days earlier. There we were again, randomly seeing people we knew in Malta. I don’t think I say hello this often in the lobby of my own apartment building.

The morning sun was a sliver of fire in the direction of our course. We pulled up the anchor and began to cut through the still morning water. The sky was so big it held an entire rainbow. The water was deep blue as we headed away from the Maltese islands, but about halfway along our trip it became more translucent and a delicate shade of turquoise. Though Art had selected a day with light winds forecasted, we were able to sail very soon, and continued silently under sail until we were just outside the Syracuse harbor.

A welcoming committee of large gray dolphins joined us alongside. Dolphins must like the bow wave that we create. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re sailing quietly or motoring. As if we’ve magnetized them, when dolphins are nearby, they end up parallel to us and traveling along our course. I love their movements, and it’s amusing to watch them slow down on purpose (porpoise?) to match our feeble progress through the water. I enjoy them the way I enjoy being around cats. Dog lovers appreciate the unconditional needs of canines, but I like to imagine that a purring cat on my lap has made a rational decision to be there, and it will leave the moment I don’t offer the best of all possible worlds compared to their alternatives. Dolphins, too, come and go, and it’s rewarding in some odd way to realize that traveling in cooperation with us, as short as the visit is, must be the most entertaining activity that they’ve found for that particular moment.

Inside the harbor, I saw the familiar promenade of beige stone buildings of indeterminate age. In Syracuse, it’s hard to decide that they are half a century old, medieval, or ancient. After all, this town is the birthplace of Archimedes. The ancient cathedral was once a Greek temple. Greek columns spring up from a field in the center of town. An archeological park nearly rivals Athens or Rome for a dose of antiquity. The museum is huge and well-stocked.

But Syracuse, for me, has simply become a place I love to visit. Annapolis, Maryland was like this for me when we spent our summers sailing on the Chesapeake Bay in the US. Now Syracuse is familiar and comforting.

Early in the season, only a few boats were stern-to on the opposite wall and the anchorage was dotted with vessels with generous space dividing them. We dropped the anchor and put the boat back together after its day at sea, then scurried below for dinner and sleep after an early and extended outdoor day.

Syracuse has become one of my favorite ports anywhere. For one thing, the harbor is vast yet protected. There are few places to anchor in the Mediterranean and fewer yet where there is something to do ashore. Syracuse is not only a city, but a big city and an old city. It’s got sightseeing; it’s got commerce; it’s got cannoli. Most important to us, it’s got mobile phone shops. We needed to get our Internet back in business.

In the morning, we brought the dinghy to town too early for the shops to be open. Art noticed that someone was following a canal beyond the marina, so we tracked them under two tiny bridges. I felt like we were traversing the Paris sewers under the Opera House, or exploring an ancient Roman aqueduct. Through the bridges, small fishing boats of bright colors bobbed alongside a concrete dock that was punctuated occasionally with steps up to the road. We asked some fishermen if we could tie up for a few hours, and they encouraged us to come ashore, tying up our dinghy line for us.

It was too early for shops, so I steered Art to the market street. I simply love this daily outdoor market. The vendors shout the names of their specials to entice us to look at their carefully-laid-out tableaux of droopy octopus and squid, blood-red tuna slices, and the excised swords of fresh spade. I love the still-life tables and the selection of goods. I love to examine the vegetables and fruit that are recognizable but unfamiliar, watermelons severed to display their yellow interiors, strawberries the size of raspberries, zucchini flowers in a package ready for stuffing, pine nuts long and slender like cooked orzo. There are tall piles of whatever the fruit is that’s currently in season, apparently apricots in early June. We bought pine nuts from one vendor and pears from another. And, as I do every time I walk through this lovely place, I bought grizzled, oily, blackened peppers for me to disrobe on my own as if I’d made them myself.

We were at the mobile phone shop moments after it opened its doors. The woman behind the counter was knowledgeable and happily for us, bilingual. Art got our Internet and voice service sorted out while I browsed the equipment shop next door for a stylus for my tablet. A man and a woman came into this shop in search of batteries, and I noticed that the man wore a Phillies cap.

Well, you never know whom you’ll encounter in Europe, and both the man and the woman were raised in Northeast Philadelphia, Art’s hometown. Indeed, the pair met in third grade in the very school that Art attended in a year that wasn’t all that far from theirs. We greeted each other like family, and enjoyed a cup of coffee together at a nearby café.

For our first Italian lunch of the season, we stole down a skinny alley to enter an equally-skinny trattoria for a plate of grilled vegetables followed by local pasta specialties. On the way back to the dinghy, we noticed that the city is renovating – or recreating – a large stone building festooned with ancient-looking carvings. Whether the place is Greek or Roman or modern is lost on me. Syracuse is simply a great first stop in Italy.

With a commitment to be in Brindisi soon, our schedule was strict though not reckless. In the morning, we hauled up the anchor to begin another long day of travel. It was still dark well before 6 AM, and Art helped me with the anchor until it cleared the water and he needed to go back to the helm. I still had the hose, but it took me quite a long time to get at least most of the mud off. In time, I decided that I wanted to be back in the cockpit once we left the harbor, and the residual mud would just have to wait for the next rinse at a dock.

The winds were forecast to be light again, and this time they were always too light for sustained sailing. A dozen times during the day, Art would see ten-knot winds on a close reach. We’d put out the jib, and sometimes we’d sail for fifteen minutes. Then the winds would drop, our speed would decline, and we’d see how much more of the 93-mile trip we still had to make. Art would groan and restart the engine and we’d motor for a while under Art’s watchful monitoring of the wind speed. One time, the wind dropped from ten to three knots while we were rolling out the jib. Back around the forestay it went, and we motored on.

The people at the Roccella Ionica marina couldn’t have been nicer or more responsive to us. Art had emailed them in advance. On our first visit to this marina, on a shallower vessel, we touched the bottom in the entrance. Our contact gave us explicit instructions on how to avoid this problem in two return emails and over the VHF when we finally arrived and called in. They assigned us a spot along a broad T-head and helped us dock. Francesco was attentive to our needs, all in perfect English. He recommended restaurants, provided brochures, encouraged us to stay, and apologized for bothering us with the marina formalities we face in every marina we visit. It’s clear that he wants this marina to draw visitors.

He’s got an uphill battle. Though the place has been built for at least a decade, with strong docks equipped with water and electric, none of this infrastructure is functional. So we were tied to a dock with the same amenities we had at anchor in Syracuse. One benefit of being at a marina is that you can step ashore, and we could do that. But the actual town of Roccella Ionica is three kilometers away, and this town doesn’t make it into either my hard-cover or my electronic travel guides of Italy. So this is a marina that doesn’t offer much with a town that requires some investment to visit that offers only a little bit more. I agree that this is too bad, because the brochures show a lovely and historic area that compares reasonably well with any corner of Italy. On the plus side, the dockage isn’t expensive in a country where marina fees are generally inexcusably high. And Francesco might be enough of a reason to visit on his own.

Alas, he was unable to solve the one problem we had with the boat. This was a small problem; the side refrigerator needed refrigerant. The last time this occurred was more than a year earlier; we’d look for a leak, but it would probably be a slow one. In any case, Francesco insisted that the person he had in mind could not help us until the next day, and that he would never recommend another person for this task. So we called ahead to Brindisi, and arranged for the work to be done there. This meant that we’d probably travel with a bit more diligence and fewer lay days, but we’d be on Italy’s east coast in three more sailing days. We’d need to hustle anyway, as the forecast showed high winds a few days along the way that we didn’t want to face offshore.

With another early morning departure, we navigated the tricky, shallow entrance to Roccella Ionica harbor. Art made very sure that we were well clear of the shoals before we joined our GPS course.

It was another day of some sailing and some motoring, more motoring than the day before. When you watch nature films, you often see small mammals have a sixth sense of approaching predators. You know that because they first prick up their ears and then their bodies rise up. Well, Art’s like that with wind. We’ll be motoring along in very calm seas, under a dodger that dispels all of the breeze, and Art will suddenly sit up and say “Let’s sail.” Sure enough, the wind has put little ripples on the water and is showing in double digits on the wind display. So we roll out the jib and sometimes it stays out for a while and sometimes it doesn’t. But if we roll it up again, sooner or later my little mammal will rise up and announce that it’s time to sail.

Crotone is a day’s sail away on our journey across the boot, and we arrived in mid-afternoon to the municipal marina. A man met us at the quay, helped us with our lines, and took some money from us, a good price for June. He didn’t seem to want to bother with our documentation and insurance most marinas require, although he did have us fill out a form that contained the sort of data you’d provide at a hotel reception desk.

When we were settled in, we took a walk through the town. I’ll say charitably that Italy was probably undergoing a country-wide strike of maintenance workers, because every dumpster and trash can we’d seen on the mainland was filled three times higher than its capacity. I didn’t remember Crotone to be a very attractive place, although it’s very friendly and genuine. But I didn’t remember the streets being paved with bits of paper.

Beyond our little walk, some light provisioning, and an afternoon granita, we wouldn’t be drinking up Crotone on this visit. On our last visit, we’d stayed a week. We’d have another opportunity to spend a full day on our return trip to Malta if it made sense within our schedule.

We were leaving earlier and earlier each day, and we crept out of Crotone harbor while the town was still silent. The sea was still and we anticipated a dull motoring to our next port. After some time, although I hadn’t detected any change to the winds, Art perked up, set the sails, and we sailed along for the rest of the day.

Santa Maria di Leuca is at the bottom of the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot. The breakwater looks as though someone tumbled a bunch of oversized concrete jacks in a line parallel to the shore. White boxy holiday homes, softened by Moorish arched doorways, dotted the hillsides. It calls itself “the town between two seas”, as it straddles both the Adriatic and the Ionian. Virgil mentions the port in his Aeneid, and it’s likely that Saint Peter stopped there on his way to Rome.

The marina at Santa Maria di Leuca has the amenities you’d expect, and it’s overlooked by the harbor walk of an energetic resort. Even in this early-June part of the season, vacationers were strolling about, and strains of an outdoor concert wafted across the harbor from an enormous man-made waterfall across the way.

At about seven in the evening, we made our way to join the promenade. It was an off hour for Italians: too late for lunch and too early for dinner. A festival was underway, celebrating the century-old mansions that lined the harborside. They were open for our inspection, and we stuck our noses into a few of them until we realized that we were getting hungry. We followed a crowd to a pizza place, where we were served a half-meter slab of deliciousness. Each outdoor table was perched on a terraced level above the previous level, and the place filled up while we sat there. Most of the visiting men reminded me of Roberto Benigni, or what I imagine that the actor looks like now. The evening cooled off, and we strolled back down the marina driveway back to the boat to rest up for another early start.

Our departure would have been uneventful if we hadn’t added some early-morning excitement of our own. We dropped the two mooring lines and pulled in the stern lines. I took the helm to keep the boat steady in the harbor circling at a slow pace. Art went into the dinghy to clip it to the davits, climb aboard, and lift it up for travel. But for some reason, Art had removed the towing line from the cleat on the boat. When I turned around to see how he was doing with the dinghy, I noticed that I’d left our berth, but he hadn’t.

A better idea, and the approach we usually took, would have been for him to stay tied onto the boat, maneuver the dinghy to its proper spot, and fasten the clips. By now, though, we were several boat lengths apart, too far for Art to clip on. I couldn’t go back to the dock safely. Art said sheepishly, “I must have let go.”

Against the better judgment that sarcasm is never the answer, I retorted, “You know, the dinghy has a line.” Wisely, Art didn't reply, “Well, it's a good thing the dinghy has an engine.” as he motored over to me. And we were off.

We were able to sail immediately with the wind behind us. It would be an uncomfortable day for someone going in the opposite direction, into the wind. We had a taste of those waves when we tacked around to change the jib from one side to another. At some point, the wind behind us was so strong that I had to take seasickness precautions, making sure that I was warm, lying down below, and generally pretending we weren’t at sea. Even Art restricted himself to a yogurt for lunch.

The winds calmed down as we approached Brindisi harbor, but they picked up again just as we were getting ready to dock. There was one person at the dock to help us, but because the dock wasn’t very full, there were no boats on either side of our berth to keep us from sliding to one side or another. This reminded me of a similar situation when we were in Marzamemi Italy about ten years earlier, the kind of thing you laugh about much later. At least that time, we had four people aboard. So we did what we could with lines and winches and the help of the poor guy on the dock, and eventually we were secure enough that we could adjust the lines to a safe and more permanent state.

I hitched a dinghy ride to the office, which was well across the large marina. The office complex included a small grocery store and a restaurant, necessary additions to a marina in the middle of nowhere a bus ride from town. The new, spare office building was landscaped with oleander, bougainvillea and jasmine, and the wind kept blowing the flowers inside the elevator foyer. Thus it appeared to me that someone had prepared for our arrival by casting blossoms along our path.

I checked the boat in with an amiable young man with 1960s-mysterious-foreigner-leading-man looks. Art had asked about getting some help with our ailing side refrigerator when he’d called several days earlier. It would only need a booster shot of refrigerant gas, but we operate under the philosophy that getting work done in a real port like Brindisi will generally have better outcomes than finding help in coastal resort towns. Thus, sailing into the broad, industrial entrance to the harbor had been reassuring rather than picturesque.

The marina man answered all of my assorted questions with dispatch. Here’s a map; there’s the bus station and the train station; buses go to town every half hour; here is the office to clear out of the European Union. When I asked about a specific taxi excursion, he called his trusted Roberto and got a quote for me. Then he called to check on our refrigerator man. Art had earlier instructed me to ask about marina office hours so that he could come back later and ask about the arrangements for repair. But instead, I heard bits of Italian that included that we were arrivati and our berth number.

“He will be at the boat in a half hour.”

I was delighted to hear that, and I knew that Art would be relieved. Indeed, the technician arrived, he reviewed the problem, and then he left, saying that he’d be back soon. By now it was already about seven thirty, though, and by nine o’clock he hadn’t returned yet. Art called him, and was cheerfully told that he’d be back in an hour. We decided instead to have him arrive first thing in the morning. He did, the refrigerator was back in business, and we set about to find our second breakfast. I picked up a newspaper and tried to read about the elections that had just taken place. There were lots of photos of happy winners and diagrams of voting counts. I turned the page and saw a photo of yet another Italian who looked just like Roberto Benigni. Oh wait, this one was Roberto Benigni.

Brindisi isn’t a tourist destination for us, but we had errands to do in town. First, we scoped out the supermarkets in the city center, which were somewhat underwhelming. Then, we sorted out what we’d need to do to clear out of Italy on our way to Albania. Last, we had a delightful lunch at a tucked-away trattoria recommended by my guidebook. We weren’t hungry for a real meal for the rest of the day.

We found a more familiar supermarket in the suburbs of the city, and hired a taxi to take us there and bring us home. But this trip was the dress rehearsal for several future engagements with our taxi. They’ll have to wait until the next time we write. I promise it won’t take this long.

Summer is nearly here. Have some outdoor fun.

Love, Karen (and Art)