Essay: A Town Called Paola

Perhaps it’s a bit self-indulgent to go to a town just because it shares my name. But in England, I’m the only Paola I know. With that in mind, David and I decided to include Paola in our holiday of Southern Italian resorts. After all, this tiny dot on the map between Naples and Reggio di Calabria at the toe of Italy had earned a paragraph in a tourists’ guidebook.  It was bound to have the things that tourists like us expected from Italy—or so we thought.

On the train going in I imagined it as a quaint little town, similar to others we had seen on the coast, with narrow winding medieval passages and slanted seventeenth century edifices and stairs. All of this would lead down to a small beach, nestled between mountains and full of boisterous Italians on holiday, bustling restaurants and the aroma of espresso lingering in the air.

As it was late morning when our train pulled in, we agreed to do the beach first and the town part later before the beach got too crowded – it was recommended in the guidebook. So, I prepared myself, imagining a search among the beach parasols and oily sunbathers for a rectangle of sand large enough to lay out a beach towel. But when we got there the stretch of beach some quarter of a mile long had a mere doPaolaMapzen families on it, a handful of people actually in the water. A stark contrast to the loud and splashy crowds I had seen in the neighbouring coastal towns of Maratea and Diamonte. I suggested to my other half that the town of Paola had a history of shark infestation. He wasn’t particularly amused.

After a string of jokes about Paola, Italy, we both sensed something spookier, more surreal still. For on this day with a sweltering sun the obligatory bars and gelateria, a strip of them along the shore, were closed. In fact, long since closed, battened down, grafittied and rotting. To make the ghost town complete there was an abandoned amusement park. It was now a shell of its former self, only a rusted carousel, a deflated castle.

We trudged through the heavy sand and eventually found a place to eat along the sea. It was the restaurant of a hotel where the locals came in for their midday meals. As we waited for a table, I glanced around the empty hotel lobby and wondered if the hotel was something like the Bate’s Guesthouse from Psycho, where people knew not to stay anymore. Despite these oddities, I cannot say that it was unpleasant as we enjoyed a perfect view of the sea and the rocky coastline which was to either side of the town and as it curved, my imagination could lose itself in distant green covered mountains.

Between the insalata caprese and the pesce spada, I checked the guidebook again to see if I had misread something or confused Paola, the derelict beach, with some other shoreline resort. Ah, yes, Marina di Paola just gets a small mention with the euphemistic phrase ‘relaxing,’ instead of the more accurate ‘boring’ and ‘sad.’ According to the guidebook, everything in Paola was happening on the other side of the rail station, where the old historic town was and where we’d find the sanctuary of San Francesco di Paola, the saint who drew in the tourists no doubt.

From the restaurant, the historic centre was about one kilometre uphill. The path was a grey, littered pavement, which ran along drab 1960s residences, a petrol station and a row of small businesses—accountant, computer shop, estate agent—all closed for the midday nap. Neither of us was optimistic at this point. When we reached the top we found the streets, now cobbled, narrowed into their medieval width and we started to regain the feeling of tourists’ Italy. As mentioned in the guidebook, the sanctuary was there with its Renaissance-baroque façade. I took a couple of snaps and strolled around, aware that we were the only tourists in the height of the Italian tourist season.

Depicting the life of San Francesco were a few murals worn by time and weather.  If they were in Florence, they’d be under glass and viewable at five euros a head.

Then it dawned on me. These murals were so faded, they looked black and white. In fact the unwashed grey of the buildings, the charcoal grey cobblestones and the aluminium grey shutters that sealed up the businesses while shopkeepers rested made the entire place appear as if in a black and white film. We had landed in a Fellini neo-realistic epic.

The only way back to colour was to return to the train station. With any luck, we could be in Maratea for a late afternoon swim. But we couldn’t do that, not having come so far, and maybe there was something more to this San Francesco than my now totally worthless guidebook led me to believe.

San Francesco di Paola was born in this town in 1416 and founded the order of the austere Minim Friars. In his later years, he travelled to Naples, where today a Basilica bears his name, and to France, where he died in 1507. Today he is the patron saint of seaman, which seems appropriate given Paola’s place along the coast. What really struck me about this character-saint wasn’t his years living as a hermit, nor the accounts of his performing miracles on the infirm and diseased as all good saints do. Rather, Francesco saw the town of Paola, then a mere village, as a religious and social point of reference for pilgrims on their way to Rome.

Perhaps it was in this spirit that the modern day expansion of little town went down to the seaside, making it a stopover on the way to someplace else. For me it was just that, a stopover, but not a stop between two places as such. The town of Paola was a resting point between expectations and reality, a chance to take a breather from the beach combers and the tourists. A rare glimpse of Italian life in its past and the shadows that remain in its present at the same time.

Taking Back The Promenade des Anglais

Over the last three days I’ve been hearing back from friends and neighbours in Nice, saying that they are ‘okay’ – alive and not among the injured – but deeply shaken. A few friends were at the fireworks with their partners, but had left minutes before the lorry attack, grateful that theirs was only a close call. Others had been on the Promenade earlier that evening for the music, one of them saying ‘the Prom will never be the same again.’ Sadly, I think she might be right.

According to the papers, the attacker started his drive on to the Promenade at Lenval, near the children’s hospital. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know this part of the Prom as the place where every year a giant-sized Santa is put up for the children to see from across the road. It’s about a twenty-minute walk from our apartment. Now that part of the Prom will evoke visions of the white lorry turning and then careening on to the wide road lined with palm trees.

From there, heading towards the festivities the lorry took its first two victims at Magnan. That’s where David and I often go for coffees after walking some 25 minutes along the seaside. I wonder now if I will think about the dead every time I pass that spot or drink an espresso at the café across the way.

One friend shared with me a message from one of her French friends who was near the Negresco: “I’m shocked. I see the white truck in front of us. It was so quickly. Before me it run on a baby and after it don’t run of me because I took to the pergola. I just heard a woman who cried because the baby died. I have seen the baby [who] died. It was so horrible. And I can’t do nothing.” Will these images and words haunt our walks to and from the Negresco, where we listen and chat at the piano bar, or when we are across the road at Blue Beach, the meeting place of the British Association and the Society of Authors.

Now, when I go to the International Women’s Club coffee mornings at the Palais de la Mediterannee, will I always think of the twenty dead across the way or the lorry riddled with bullet holes at its doorstep?

Maybe the Promenade des Anglais will never be the same again after this vicious massacre for those of us who knew it well like an old friend. But that’s not to say that we can’t take it back iNice summer 2011 017.JPGn our own way. I’d like to think that our brains and hearts can process the horrors of what happened and at the same time enjoy what has always been there – the sea front and sunshine and all that they bring – walkers, joggers, cyclists, swimmers, buskers, tourists, posers and the occasional prostitute. Friends can change, but some things about them never change – it’s almost as if they are reminding us that they are still our friends.


Attack on Nice: an awkward sigh of relief

David and I have a second home in Nice and this past year we spent the winter there and then returned at the end of May for a five-week visit. In other words, we just missed the terror attack on Bastille Day by a couple of weeks. From our home in Ely, Cambridgeshire we’ve been watching the news unfold in horror through television and social media and this morning hearing the rising death-toll figures on radio. Part of me wishes I had a private jet to fly me there right now to be with French neighbours and ex-pat friends at a time like this. But another part of me is breathing an uncomfortable sigh of relief. Had we been in Nice, it’s likely we would have been on the Promenade watching the fireworks or listening to the live bands. Our little apartment there is some 100 meters from the famous seaside thoruoghfare, though we’re away from the city centre, some two miles from where the attack occurred. While I’m thinking about the dead and injured, many – if not all – could be strangers to me, I’m also thinking about our friends who have used our apartment over the years – I’m grateful none of them were there. 2014-01-03 16.42.46.jpg

We were in Nice in November of last year when Paris was attacked. Here’s an excerpt from my journal the following day:

“After breakfast, we decided to walk into the centre of town – a health walk with the aim of picking up a British newspaper along the way, as we normally do on a Saturday. On the Promenade des Anglais we saw a few French flags that would normally not be there. The road was unusually quiet without the Saturday morning traffic we had grown used to. I guessed that most people were inside watching television or in the halls of apartment buildings talking to neighbours, sharing the experience of shock and worry – was it safe here in Nice?”

The answer to that question is now “no.” I’m feeling sadness and anger. This beautiful city, which we have made our second home, has been brutalised and turned into a place of fear and confusion.

Switching from Journals to Blogs

I’ve done some blogging over the past decade in Tumblr and, but now that I have a site all to myself I feel obliged to make a more of an effort. Blogs to me are a lot like journals and I’ve been keeping journals since I was a teenager. That was in the olden days when people only wrote on paper. I still have my earliest journals and they sit on my shelf along side more recent ones. The first one I kept, which looks like a bjournalsound book, was the Kahil Gibran diary for 1977. That was when I was a teenager, hooked on David Bowie and anything ‘spiritual’. My first e-journal was kept between 1995-98, when I was in South Korea. Now I keep journals on my laptop and in a spiral notebook. While I have used some of my e-journals for essays and other creative writing, I haven’t dared to look back at my early paper journals for writing material – I don’t know if I want to step into the mind of my younger self or relive the angst and anxiety of my youth. As for this blog, it will serve in some ways like my journals, with thoughts about writing and the world. But I’m still keeping an e-journal (about my life in France) and my spiral notebook for my deepest emotions and thoughts I don’t care to share with the world just yet.

Gore Vidal’s Burr

I’m very pleased to see that my article on Gore Vidal’s novel Burr has now been published by the Literary Encyclopedia. I enjoyed reading this classic as it’s far from your typical historical fiction. Though meticulous in its detail about the once Vice President Aaron Burr, placing the reader into the end of the 18th century through to Burr’s death in the 1850s, the fictional elements are also prominent. I do wonder if Hilary Mantel was inspired by Vidal.

Here’s the link: