I have just been on holiday to Sicily. It’s a beautiful place, lots of history, amazing scenery and driving there is a seat of the pants exhilarating dance with death. But it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of your mortality. I find it makes you live life harder.
I was based in Syracuse, which has some pretty incredible sights, least of which is the gigantic modern Cathedral, built around a statue of the Virgin Mary that apparently produced tears for a week back in the 1950s.
It is quite amazing to see grown-ups bowing in homage to a plaster representation of a fictional character, when surely common sense dictates that this was an accident or more likely some kind of confidence trick. But then maybe the Virgin Mary likes to use her magical powers to make inanimate objects weep for a short period of time.
Anyway, the Cathedral, designed, I believe to resemble a giant teardrop, is an edifice to ugliness as well as stupidity. Much more moving in a religious sense was the crypt beneath the city’s original Cathedral which had been one of the gathering places of the first European Christians and has a 1st century altar at which it is likely that St Paul preached.
Now if I was a Christian that would be the kind of thing that got my juices going, not a lachrymose statue. Indeed my historian and ex-Christian heart jumped a little in any case when I realised St Paul had probably been in the little grotto in which I was standing. He arguably has more influence on the spread and the philosophy of Christianity, even than Jesus himself.
He is certainly responsible for the misogyny of the religion and there shouldn't be a man alive who doesn't thank him for that! He kept bitches in their place, whereas Jesus, the sandal-wearing hippie, clearly thought they should have equality or something. Thank goodness that sense prevailed. All women are good for is crying and preferably in statue form. That's what St Paul and I think and so I was pleased to have been in the same room that he had breathed his hateful words.
Whilst sight-seeing is fun, human watching is the most fun thing for me on holiday. I especially love watching couples interact. One breakfast time I was sitting next to an Italian couple who were probably a little bit older than me and from their studied silence and frostiness towards one another had clearly been together for a while - familiarity breeds contempt, always remember this.
They barely spoke to each other and when they did it was little more than a grunt. The man popped outside for a smoke. There was a fire door right behind their table, which closed behind him. Five minutes later he had finished his cigarette and his face appeared hopefully at the window. It was time for his wife to let him in. But even though she was no more than two steps away and could almost have reached over from her seat, she shrugged and sighed and indicated that he should go round the building and come in another door. Not surprisingly he was somewhat aggrieved by this suggestion, but who knows what slight had occurred earlier for him to deserve this treatment and he vociferously gestured for her to stop being so stupid and to let him in. She was indeed being ludicrously petty and after a couple of minutes made a big show of getting out of her seat and pushing the door for him. He entered and by now was too cross to thank her for this gesture and they sat in fuming silence for the rest of the meal. They were being more childish than the adults who worship a piece of stone which once had some moisture on it.
This was funny for me as a casual observer, but when one considers that they have to spend all their time in this battle of wills, scoring points off one another, it is actually mildly tragic. You only seem to see two types of couple on holiday, either those who have just got together or just been married who are ridiculously happy and demonstrative about their affection, or those who have been together for too long, have nothing left to say and can only derive any pleasure from tormenting their companion who is both their gaoler and their prisoner.
The new couples never seem to look at the old and see a frightening vision of their inevitable future and the old couple never seen to look at the new and remember that they once felt this way about their partner, which might rekindle some lost emotion and warm their heart (or more likely break it). Ultimately love is doomed and yet we all carry on despite the mountains of historical evidence ahead of us. You have to admire this triumph of hope over experience.