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House & Garden, November 2003

As a family we laugh, drink and travel well. But underneath this surface jollity there’s a strong competitive streak. It is perhaps no coincidence that my sister lives in the Burren in Ireland, my elder brother in the Venezuelan jungle and my younger brother in the middle of the Alps. It is a family joke, that I, the so-called traveller, actually live in the centre of London.

This year I was going on my first trip to Sicily with my 74-year-old father to look at Byzantine mosaics. “Oh no”, he said, “I don’t think we should book any hotels. That rather spoils the spontaneity of travelling, don’t you think? Your mother and I caught a bus from the airport last time. Very cheap. I thought we would just wander around the alleys of old Palermo and sniff something out. I pack very light these days.” “No, we have never had any trouble. Certainly nothing to match Caracas anyway. Oh, but of course, you will be weighed down a bit by books, bags and your things. Well, why don’t you go ahead and book something for the first two nights. “In the morning I could show you one or two early Norman churches with some Moorish bits that I think might interest you before we go upto the Palatine chapel.”

It starts early, the subtle gestures of ‘gamesmanship travelling” with my father. It is a very tight competition indeed, for we have sparred for years. We are very similar - sharing many of the same interests, sound identical on the telephone, ignore all sports and wear the same size shoes and suits. However it has to be confessed that where I am one of life’s passengers, he has sailed across the Atlantic in Goering’s yacht, navigated an aircraft carrier up Mombassa creek and served from the age of ten to retirement in a navy that kept the Pax Britannica with a fleet in all the seven seas.

The essence of our travel gamesmanship is to sound as relaxed and carefree as possible while actually controlling every single movement. Picnic sites are especially fiercely fought over. We have had some legendary skirmishes in the past, over American Civil War battlefields in particular (which culminated in the Fort Sumter incident) but recently Byzantine church mosaics have become a favoured arena for outflanking manoeuvres. He champions those of Ravenna and Sicily, I am pretty strong on Istanbul and Cyprus.

After two flights and making our way through a Palermo grid-locked by traffic, we reached our hotel. Here he scored well – with an impromptu exhibition of skill at a postcard kiosk - correctly identifying three medieval faces of Christ and placing them in their Sicilian churches at Monreale, Cefalu and in the Palatine chapel. Although he had lately begun to use a stick on long walks he was clearly on fine form.

It was getting late and so after a quick wash and change it was time to look for dinner. Although none of us knew the way to our chosen restaurant, my father waved me off in an impressively relaxed and carefree manner and shouted from his balcony “No, you go on ahead and get a table, I’ll just have another whisky and then join you.” As we wandered down towards the notorious quarter of old Palermo by the docks, I rather regretted all my Sicily reading. A diet of Norman Lewis’s ‘The Honoured Society’, Simetti’s ‘On Persephone’s Island’ and Michael Robb’s ‘Midnight in Sicily’, now filled every alley and piazza with dark, murderous Mafia secrets. When I eventually found the place after a number of wrong turns -tucked up a dark alley, off a narrow street- I quietly doubted if anyone would be able to find it without getting lost. I am sure that he must also have strayed, but there was no mention of it when he finally staggered through the door. In much the same way my father has never once complained of a hang-over or ever experienced sea-sickness.

The pasta, the wine, the fish and the proud but friendly banter of the waitress launched us off immediately on an instinctive love for all-things Sicilian. What price political openness, legality, free-trade and an incorruptible civil service - I thought - if the end result is an England full of Macdonalds, Seattle coffee bars and pubs that serve Harvester Fayre. As we emptied more and more bottles of Corvo I began to see the advantage of the Mafia; the proud defender of an indigenous cuisine, that at this point in the evening seemed worth dying for.

My father agreed – always a dangerous sign- but then added quietly, “It must have been somewhere around here that I had my first Sicilian meal. There was a lot of shooting in the streets that night and the manager boarded up the windows and tried to close the restaurant.” I don’t normally like to reveal too much enthusiasm for these old tales but I found myself whispering, “What happened then?” as I put my fork down. “Oh someone in my party pulled out a loaded revolver and threatened to shoot the cook – if we weren’t fed. It was just after the war and people were still very excitable,” he explained. The other tables around us went quiet. My father, now assured of an audience, continued his story. “He was actually an Egyptian, on a training cruise with us…from an old Coptic family I believe, though very influenced by gangster movies… he proved decent enough, and insisted on paying the bill in dollars…so we left it at that but put another lock on the mess armoury the next morning.”

After dinner we walked back up the hill together, but the dark alleys no longer looked so frightening.

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