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Low life

Off night

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

5 November 2005

12:00 AM

5 November 2005

12:00 AM

The active volcano Stromboli, one of the Aeolian islands, rises out of the sea off the north-east coast of Sicily. It is forbidden to make the three-hour trek to the top without a guide, so I signed on with a chaperoned party of 30 tourists for a night climb. Our piratical-looking guide was a fierce disciplinarian. At each resting place he issued very specific instructions in harsh and oddly guttural French. Here we must drink something. Now we must put on our anoraks and hard hats. Here those that need to must urinate. Now we must eat something. And then, about halfway up, just before darkness fell, he ordered us to stop, turn around and look at the moon.

Obediently we turned and looked. The light was just beginning to fail. We were high enough now to make out the Calabrian coastline on the eastern horizon, above which a very full, orange moon was rising. And it was indeed quite something, I thought, to stand on the side of a volcano and see the moon rise above the edge of one continent, while a sultry sirocco breeze fanned our faces from another. ‘OK. So that’s the moon,’ said a cynic, though not loudly enough for the guide to hear.

We zig-zagged up the side of Stromboli in single file. Above the tree line the guide ordered us not to talk to conserve energy. The majority obeyed, but I was walking behind a German with proper trekking shoes who had surplus enough to chat up the woman in front of him. Speaking good English, he asked the woman where she came from and what she did. She was Swiss, she said, and she was a psychiatrist. He complimented her on the social status being a psychiatrist implied, especially a Swiss psychiatrist. She made light of it, saying that the sad reality was that many, if not most, of her colleagues were insane.

Then she batted the ball back and asked him what he did. ‘Try to guess!’ he said. The psychiatrist politely went through the higher professions — architect, doctor, dentist, lawyer — as if nothing else were possible. And as we slogged across the slithering pumice, I wondered at the kind of mentality that pinpoints the socio-economic position before doing the introductions. ‘I’ll give you a clue,’ said the coquettish German. ‘It’s my job to ask a lot of questions.’

I couldn’t resist. ‘TV quizmaster!’ I said. Ignoring me, he told the psychiatrist he was a journalist. The psychiatrist made a squeak expressing surprise and delight, and pressed for details. He hadn’t expected that. He admitted that he worked for a trade journal ‘among other things’. ‘And you?’ he said, swinging round angrily to exact retribution for my facetious interruption. ‘What do you do for a living?’ I was a Coronation Day programme-seller, I said proudly. His English was good, but not that good, and he took satisfaction from the fact that I was in trade of some sort, which, in his eyes, and he assumed in the eyes of the Swiss psychiatrist, made it one-nil to him.

When we reached the top it was dark. The guide led us through the smoke to a point on the summit where we could perch on our haunches and look down into the vents, cameras ready to capture the explosions. But Stromboli was having an off night. Only two of the six vents glowed orange against the night. Now and again one of them belched out a feeble shower of molten stones. But there was nothing like the display depicted on postcards in the souvenir shops. Once there was a terrific roar, like a space shuttle lifting off, that shook the ground under our feet and scared us all half to death, but the visible results were negligible. ‘Gas!’ spat our guide contemptuously.

There was another group on the summit, whose Italian guide, a far gentler personality than our own Bluebeard, and very beautiful, spoke to her group in English. She told them that the travellers in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth had re-emerged from one of Stromboli’s vents. (Now why couldn’t our chap furnish us with romantic details like this? I said to my neighbour.) She also described how a few years ago a tourist from a party like ours had suddenly stripped naked and committed suicide by diving headfirst into one of the vents. A hand was raised and someone asked whether it was a German tourist, and she said, yes, in fact it was. And being reminded that it was a German tourist who had dived in seemed to stop her in her tracks and she became held by something so irresistibly funny about the idea that it was some few minutes before she could speak again.

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