Thursday, September 15, 2011

La fiesta que tengo ....

Aha! At last the music we play is starting to have its fans. Italians are usually pretty conservative where music is concerned, so I have dedicated much time since we opened to compiling playlists of music - world, jAZZ, Gypsy, flamenco fusion, hiphop, triphop, African, folk, singer/songwriter along with Italian, Sicilian and American/British/Irish songs which might be more familiar to their ears. While I was away mio marito had one of the playlists on and the DJ was fascinated with Amparanoia's 'La Fiesta que tengo'. He copied it and played it during many nights throughout the summer, but also at his slot at the beach. Next year he wants to do a 'Pachamama on the Beach' for sundown ... I have longed for the hip strains of flamenco fusion that gracefully accompany the puesto del sol on the playas de Cadiz .... but little other than Deep House seems to get through here. So it is a cause for celebration that Amparanoia is leading the way to more openminded appreciation of interesting music. And not only that, but to have chosen a song which is about empowering women, and which is now becoming our themetune! .. not that the DJ was any the wiser ....

August at the restaurant

August was a good month for Pachamama. We have a nice returning clientele among the seafarers: captains of chartered yachts and caiques come up to us for the third summer running; Milazzese who have gone to live in the north of Italy or other parts of Europe come to dine. Many compliments this year, not one complaint. Wish I had been around to hear some of that! At last, our travaglio bears fruit. It is fun to see lots of people enjoying their cocktails to the sounds of the DJ you have hired, the river of suntanned bodies doing their summertime thing on the road outside, nights drift on until 4 or 5am when the mint from the last mojito is thrown away and couple straggle off into the nascent eastern dawn.

The polizia called once to deliver a hefty fine: it was 1.20am and the DJ was still playing. Indoors, it must be emphasized, since the four other locali in the neighbourhood had their live music on outdoors. But the police do not appear to differentiate between inside and out. Music must stop at midnight, and that’s that. We even risk having our music licence taken from us, they threaten, when mio marito points out that the music cannot be heard outside, so cannot be annoying the neighbours. The following week the music cut-off point is moved to 1am. Interesting. We appeal the fine, which amounts to something like three days’ work, at the weekend … But are simply told that we are fortunate our licence will not be removed since we were so prompt in the payment of the fine …

Now that the police have been doing the rounds of the neighbourhood doling out fines for cars parked in the borgo without the Residents’ Pass (all our staff get fined – they cannot get the Pass and there is little available parking anywhere near), and free parking in the centre has been stripped and parking meters set up all over town while traffic wardens swarm the streets – this freehanded fining can be understood: the Comune needs to make money, so what better way to do it than at the hands (pocket) of its citizens. Park and Ride? Multistorey carkparking? No such sensible solution. Nope. A fine is always a handier way out for the powers-that-be in Sicily.

Bichos in my bedroom ...

Been back a couple of weeks now. The heat still hasn’t let up. After the greeny fresh air of Ireland, the grit and dust and humidity is particularly hard to bear. The locals are feeling it too; people are starting to fray at the edges, tempers simmer, the elderly moan about whether or not to use the air conditioning, fa male, they conclude, and turn it off to lean listlessly in their doorways, hoping for a gust of wind to reach them.

It’s the perfect clime for bichos of all sorts, and Via Montecastro has seen its fair share lately. On our first night back I hear shuffling; the merest hint of a noise, like paper being crumpled quietly – and nearly step on the cockroach as I enter the bathroom. A 2am chase after the scarafaggio ensues. I manage to daze it with spray then almost finish it off with a good whack from a brrom – but it is still alive enough to slither into the dustpan. I keep the lid on it until I get outside and shake it over the side of the terrace. But is that still more shuffling I can hear when I go back to bed? Oh yes. As if that’s not bad enough, the following night I wake with one on my pillow – a mere 10cm from my sleeping bambino’s head. Its antennae quiver at me, its beady eyes ogle. It’s HUGE, and red brown, so I know it’ll be camouflaged once it hits the floor. It doesn’t move as I shift bambino into his cot; luckily he doesn’t wake up during the hunt. This time it is more difficult. Who wants to cover their pillow with cockroach spray, or bang it with a dust-ridden broom? Desperate times: I spray anyway and the loathsome creature scuttles away into some dark corner of the room. I get my glasses, turn on more lights, keeping one eye on bambino to see if he stirs. Tricky: you don’t want to get too close to the creature, but you do have to discover which dark recesses are hiding it. So I’m down on my hands and knees poking with the brush, spraying under chests of drawers. It flits from one hiding place to the next, immune to my deadly spray – I then have to open the window to avoid intoxicating myself and bambino. But I get it with the broom in the hallway. Gross. I sweep the squishy mess into the pan and out to the terrace with it quick as I can. How hard is to sleep after that? Any more friends in the dark?

My neighbour, always the optimist, tells us how she missed my walking the bambino up and down the street (merely a pleasant preliminary), before launching into the details of her recent encounters with rats. On our street. One came right across our rooftop and into her house, apparently. Another was discovered by a little boy, under her chair. Sounds like a joke; ‘Scusi, signora, there’s a rat under your chair!’ She wasn’t able to move, so mio suocero came to the rescue; one nifty clout with his foot finished it off.

Mosquitoes are in their element.

All in all, I’m just delighted to be back.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

pushy policeman

Ha! spoke too soon on the police-visit front. We had the polizia (different from the carabinieri) in on Friday at 1.30am when the dj was still playing (inside). Our waiters had been checking all night outside and were sure the music could not be heard past the wall five metres in front of the locale, where all the punters sit with their drinks. Plus, the live music OUTSIDE the bars just down and just up the road would have drowned it out. But the polizia probably couldn't be bothered to make their way up the steep hill to the next bar, so they stopped at ours. As usual. This hugely overweight policeman and his sidekick were in plainclothes, so we didn't have the chance to spot them and stop the dj. They asked had all our staff got contracts, did we have permission to play music in the bar and various other questions along those lines. We do have all our papers in order, even though this lazy poliziotto didn't even bother to check. He was just interested in finding a way to give us a fine. Fines must be evidence to their superiors that they are doing their duty. As he was filling out his form he asked what the name of the restaurant was. He didn't even know! That proves, though, that the police had not been called to go to us on a complaint from neighbours about the noise levels. The phonecall is what generally sends up the carabinieri. Mio marito protested that everything was in order and the speakers were turned inwards so as not to project the music outside, so there was no way it was causing 'nocturnal disturbance', as the plump policeman was alleging. But the policeman had latched on to the fact that our music permit is only for live music up to midnight - which is prolonged to 1.00am in summertime, though the policeman wasn't aware of this. He told mio marito he would have to present himself on Wednesday morning at the police station, for 'una fesseria' - a token fine, just to prove the policeman had been out doing his rounds. Mio marito didn't know at the time that the live music continued until 2.00am at the bar just up the road, or he might have protested. Last year we wouldn't have wanted to get other bars in trouble, but the bar up the road seems to be immune to police visits. Partly becasue of the owner's connections, but also because it is up a steep incline packed with revellers, and not so enticing for police to have to have to push their way through. Much more convenient to give us a fine and be done with the beat.
Can the police themselves not be reported for not doing their duty properly here? Instead of stopping the live music outside which does annoy the residents, they stop at the first bar (with most people outside) and waste our time and money when our music doesn't annoy anyone, and we make a point of not having live music outside, not even on the beautiful terraces at the back. The plump policeman even made a joke on his way out that since there were so many people outside the bar, we should have to pay for the use of public space. Mio marito smartly retorted that not all the people outside had got their drink at our bar. The policeman just trying to push his power around. It's as if they want to punish us for the fact that the bar is now doing well - due to very hard work on our part. As if my husband has nothing better to do on Wednesday morning. As if there aren't loads of drug dealers, mafioso wheeler dealers and thugs around on a Saturday night whom the police would be better-off investigating. Too much effort. Especially in this heat, and with so much pasta in your belly.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friendly carabinieri!

We haven’t even had any hassle from the carabinieri this year – touch wood. They have called in a few times on their beat, but fortunately on both occasions the dj had just stopped so there was no music on. But we can’t really be faulted on that since we have music inside only, while the four other bars within a 100metre radius all have live music outside … which doesn’t go down well with the neighbours. It is completely illegal to play live music at the volume they do, in a residential area, but this hasn’t stopped anyone until now.

The mayor called a meeting of all the bar/restaurant owners and said we were to be mindful of the neighbours and keep the music at a lower volume – but it wasn’t a definite prohibition, certainly not enough to prevent any of our competitors from having live music at the weekend. The mayor says he will now be responsible for issuing permits for live music etc, which is as it should be, but we are not convinced he will be attentive to the other borgo issues. The rubbish collection problem was not mentioned. Stagnant overflowing skips festered all week across the road from our restaurant, the fetid stench invading our front terrace and bar. And there is never any street cleaning. The scirocco south eastern wind has been blowing up dust, sand and dirt for a month now and the streets are filthy with litter, but still no street cleaning. The dirt gets into the house as well, even with shutters; it’s enough to leave the window open for half an hour to have a layer of dirt across the tables, floor etc. I want those superb lorries with the hose that clean the streets at night in Spain.

The carabinieri have another target though: the bar that opened last summer in the beautiful old square with the church below our restaurant. The owners put out tables all over the square, catching many a tourist who doesn’t know that we have beautiful terraces at the back. He also plays live music in the piazza at the weekend, which reverberates between the two churches and shakes the foundations of the houses all along the street. So the police have visited the restaurant several times saying people are complaining. They even took the manager away to the police station for a good talking to, where he apparently insulted the superintendent. The police then gave him a hefty fine for not having paid for the right to have tables out on the square. It’s a lengthy process, which we gave up on; we thought it would be nice to have tables on the small square in front of our restaurant, but not worth the bureaucracy and queues and endless paper pushing. So now there is silence in the church square, no tables, no live music. I’m sure once the permit comes through he’ll make up for it.

Meanwhile my husband was summonsed to the police station, without being told why. We wondered about music but thought it couldn’t possibly be. It turned out to be an investigation into our DJ; since he works in the marines, he isn’t allowed to have another job. The carabinieri made a huge deal out of it, had mio marito swear not to perjure etc, wanting to know when the DJ played and for how long etc. But mio marito told them he plays for us for free; he’s a good, clean-living guy, our DJ. As if they haven’t anything more serious to be doing … eh, preventing drug trafficking, mafia dealings, street patrol at night in the borgo … The best of it was, the superintendent complimented mio marito on his manners: ‘Yours is the only locale where we have had no problems. You and your staff are always polite and compliant.’ It is probably the only drug-free, underage-free, Mafioso-free place in town, judging from reports of other places. We worked hard to keep the low-lives out, not easy. Nice that the police, finally, have recognized this. Someone once joked that it was the restaurant with the highest percentage of third level education, since we and our staff all have degrees and masters. Not that university education necessarily means good manners prevail, but a little bit of intelligence, as opposed to hot-tempered resistance, goes a long way when dealing with the carabinieri.

Tutto va bene

Dare I say it? Things are going well at Pachamama. We have a good team in the kitchen and in the sala and all work more or less in harmony. It is a relief to feel so secure at the start of the busy season – and a novelty, looking back to the previous two years! I can see it in our attitude to potential customers; no longer are we falling over ourselves to explain our menu and ethos, we are assured, friendly and confident in recommending our place.

Our aperitivo is the best in town, reflected in the numbers on a Sunday evening and also the increase in party bookings wanting aperitivo-style service. We went to another bar in the centre for a friend’s birthday and after an hour of waiting there was still no sign of the aperitivo. The sangria that my friend had ordered wasn’t ready when we arrived so she asked for a few bottles of wine, but when they emptied there were no waiters around to bring more. At ours we agree a number of bottles beforehand according to the size of the group so the bottles are all ready on the tables once the party arrives, and we allocate a waiter to attend … no comparison. Made us feel good though!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Via dei Scopari

Via dei Scopari is legendary in Milazzo, scopare being the verb to have sex, though the street name comes from scopo, which means broom - and Scopari therefore means broom-maker. Apparently teenagers make it their aim to pass this way at least once for their romantic encounters … there is no evidence of this today as I walk the stroller down Broom-maker street. It is one of the oldest streets in the town, running parallel to the fishering port in the Vacarella area, and is an odd jumble of old and new: low town-houses next to ruins, abandoned weed-ridden lots next to four storey 1960s apartment blocks. A couple of buildings are nothing more than the façade with vacant windows revealing long grass and wooden beams hanging dejectedly. One has the stone gargoyles but no balcony, another has the rusty balcony railings, but no bottom to the balcony. A potted nespola plant bearing the small yellow plum-like fruits shows that there is life in the ground floor house below one such derelict house-front. The radio can be heard through the battered salt-worn wooden shutters. But there is a bit of spring-cleaning going on in the street: white lace curtains waver on washing lines in the breeze from second-floor apartments; plastic bottles full of water protect a mint plant from cats; a little blue jug, a tourist trinket from the Aeolian islands, has been placed on the windowsill of a toilet window; on the corner, a ragged plot has been carefully gardened and turned into a herb garden. Opposite, set into the loose stone wall there are colourful mosaics telling of the life of San Francesco di Paola, who founded the church just above in the twelfth century. Little objects of beauty in a dirty old town heaving and sighing under the weight of its history. A scrawny cat arches its back as it scrounges over a stinking, overflowing rubbish tip. Other grey cats don’t take their yellow eyes off me until I’ve passed. Neither does the old lady stepping out in black on the broken cobbles. Protecting their territory from the straniera.

We come out on the port to find the fishermen working together to tidy a clearing around a palm tree and fix up old stone sinks where people used to wash their clothes. They have a whole workline in operation – some pushing wheelbarrows, others collecting stones, others raking the mud, others with buckets. Rare to see Sicilians working together in such harmony and with such industry … There is no one else about, although it is 4.30pm. Most shops don’t open in the afternoon until 5pm; some open at 3.30pm or 4pm, but customers don’t risk going out since no one is clear about the commercial hours. Even if l’edicola, the newsagent, for example, usually opens at 4pm, if the owner had a late lunch or simply doesn’t feel like it, he might not open until 4.30pm. Just another of the grey areas in Sicily.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Spaccanapoli

Spacca il silencio – Break the Silence, a threesome from Naples who do Italian singer-Songwriter covers, played last night at ours, after the aperitivo. They arrived two hours late, having got lost on the way, and then need showers and food. But they are not bad, apparently. This morning my suocera phones concerned that there is no sign of them at 10am since they were supposed to see mio suocero at 9am to get their instruments etc from the bar. I go to wake them in the attic space above the restaurant. A smoky voiced tall thin guy comes to the door in response to my Buongiorno. 10 minutes, he says. I bump into them later at the bar having granita and brioche, the Sicilian summer breakfast special. The singer is currently listening to The Virgin Prunes, I am impressed to hear. I intend to recommend him Las Grecas, but forget. Only he works, in Ikea, as well as having the band; the other two are full time musicians, they proudly tell me. They are based in Bologna and came all the way to Sicily to perform their covers. Though they tell me they write their own tracks (they had a few of their own songs interspersed with the de André, Paolo Conte, and Vinicio Caposella, mia cugnata tells me). They want to know where they can get some arancini. They are so clearly not from Sicily, with their bedhead hair, their trendy t-shirts, and long gangly look. A breath of fresh air on a Monday morning in Milazzo.

Il bello e il brutto di Sicilia

Strolling my bambino along the marina, I reflect that the view encapsulates much of what is bello and brutto of living here: colourful fishing boats bringing in the fresh catch, the Nebrodi mountains and Mount Etna still snow-capped against the blue April sky; we are in short sleeves already, while Spring has hardly registered a change of temperature elsewhere in Europe. But looking past the fishing boats, there is a huge oil tanker in front of the sprawling funnels and smoking chimneys of the oil refinery and the electrical plant – and one is reminded of the pollution. Mio marito remembers clothes on the line covered in ash when he was little. His mother remembers how beautiful Milazzo was before the oil refinery was built in the 60s; the centre was free of the ugly high rise apartment blocks in dirty green and mustard purpose built to house the employees of the new refinery, and so the old 17th century buildings had much more visibility and majesty.

But the fact is that Milazzo is one of the most polluted towns in Italy, according to a recent survey, along with Gela and other refinery towns in Sicily. The people who chose to locate the refinery will have known well that they were putting an end to the nascent tourism in the 60s when Milazzese were just beginning to enjoy the lidos along the coast that now look on to the refinery. The survey places it in the top 40 most polluted towns according to deaths by lung disease and cancers … Great.

We were visited by the polizia di finanza on Friday night. At midnight, just as things are kicking off. It’s always bad news when you see any polizia coming, especially the Finance Police: you know you are in for a fine, and the aim is to stay calm and courteous so as to have the fine fall in the lowest bracket possible. Even if you have everything in order, they will invent something. Which, of course, these two did. ‘A girl outside got her drink here but didn’t have the scontrino,’ their threatening opener. My husband assures them we always give the receipt – the infamous scontrino – as it is the only way we know people have paid. The barman won’t serve drinks unless the customer hands over the scontrino. The polizia harped on about this for a while and then changed tack. ‘Is your cash register new? Let’s see its documents.’ So at midnight on a Friday night, our best time for business, my husband has ot go to the backroom and get out the papers for the till. All present and correct – except one. ‘Did you get it serviced last year? Every year it has to be serviced.’ Aha, now they have got us. We didn’t know about this. Every year, like your car, the till has to be serviced to make sure it works correctly and stores all your transactions so you can pay up all your taxes to the Italian state. Nice one fore the police. But they put the on-the-spot fine in the lowest bracket – could be anything from €250 to €2000, we won’t know until the official fine comes through in the post. ‘We got off lightly,’ says my husband. Lightly? This country RUNS on fines. There is no such thing as giving you a warning and a week to get things sorted. No such thing as an efficient accountant who should advice of such things .. I cannot believe our accountant didn’t tell us of such a simple thing, so easy to avoid. Why are we even paying him? But of course, he couldn’t be expected to think of everything. Not in this laid back land. My husband isn’t even that bothered. Don’t blame the accountant, he says. If they hadn’t picked us up on that, they would have kept on about the scontrino, or found another reason to fine us. They were actually quite polite, he says. He told them they were creating difficulty for him, showing up at the busiest moment of the week. They said they were doing their job, and he said so was he, and invited them to come on a week night! They then admitted that they had been SENT. Sent! That means they got a tip off, from someone who wanted to get us in trouble. ‘We wouldn’t have come otherwise,’ they said. Probably some other bar, jealous of our popular weekends. It is true – everyone says we are the bar that is most consistently busy. Only at weekends, and the bar does much better than the restaurant, though things are picking up there too, as if we are finally getting some recognition.

Now the accountant says the supplier should have reminded us to get it serviced. And the supplier says the till should have reminded us with an automatic warning. But it didn’t. Perhaps because he didn’t programme it to do so? My husband engages in lengthy, wordy discussions with these various accomplices to our omission. The supplier says if we pay €50 immediately we will avoid having to pay the fine. Our accountant should have told us this, he says. With all these random figures floating about, and buck-passing … I just wonder is there anyone capable of doing their job properly in this country?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sicily for Sicilians

Today it rained – typical scirocco weather. Interesting to watch the Sicilians in the unusual weather. I took bambino out for a walk anyway as he was oblivious to the light rain in his sturdy rainproof stroller. My husband’s cugina pulled up in her car – ‘It could only be you, out walking the baby in this weather!’ she says. A light drizzle, nothing to worry about. Warm enough to sit outside under the canopy while I have my cappuccino and bambino sleeps. Four middle-aged men, one shorter than the other, join me but chat among themselves. Some people are well-prepared for the weather – an elderly gentleman in a tweed coat and dapper cap steps carefully. Others hold a magazine over their head and scuttle from A to B (never far as they park as close to their destination as the flexible parking laws allow). Nothing like the bowed-down hunched-shoulders marching against the elements you see on the streets of London or Dublin. There are good things here too.

Though an English girl married to a Milazzo-man told me he was talking seriously of coming back. They both have good jobs and live in a nice place in England, and can come here to their apartment to visit the nonni whenever they want. ‘Don’t be seduced by the sun!’ I warned. You both will be too used to life in the UK. The state here gives you nothing. No child benefit, rubbish pension (you only get about a quarter of the taxes you pay for pension when you reach 65), no rubbish collection, poor health system –(never get sick here!), poor education for your kids, and serious lack of opportunities for them. Is the sun and the sea enough in compensation? And what would you do? Your husband might not get a job here (he’s a doctor) and you would have to give up your career and teach English- Is that enticing? You’ll have no friends, because all the interesting people our age have moved away long ago. Think long and hard and if you agree to come, make sure you have a goal for yourself so the move is not just for your husband’s sake. That is the only way to survive life in Sicily. Sicily is for Sicilians, I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Yes, you are ‘accepted’ once you have kids with your Sicilian man, but you are still 'straniera'.

tre signorine

Yesterday was like summer’s day. Three signorine had granita on the terrace of my local bar and admired bambino while I had my cappuccino. ‘He’s big for his age,’ they nodded wisely, not more than 13 years old. They wanted to know where I was from and what language I spoke to my bambino in and where I had lived. They said their English teacher at school was no good and that they planned to go to stay with their friend’s grandmother in England in the summer to improve their English. I gave them some tips on learning English, feeling the teacher in me respond to this obvious need. Teaching is so old-fashioned here, even these teenagers knew it – we just copy off the blackboard and repeat our teacher’s bad pronunciation, they said! ‘Sei giovanissima, quanti anni hai?’ they asked – ‘You’re so young, how old are you?’ Bold as brass, two of them. The third didn’t say a word, just dipped her brioche into the lemon slush. Like three young ladies out for a chat. The two interviewers remembered seeing me and bambino in the photo shop last week.

Poor bambino had no chance of sleeping with those two clucking over him so I had to wheel him round in the sunny piazza afterwards; midday is a great time to be out on a Sunday in Sicily since everyone else is at home stuffing their faces. A gecko slithered over the bench into the shrubs – sprawling mother-in-law’s tongue and stiff cacti.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Slow yoga

I tried a yoga lesson this week, time to get a bit of flexibility back with all the hauling around of big bambino. A nice morning lesson, I had high hopes. But it was very slow, with lots of talking (of course) about the third eye and chakras and the point of strength 5cm below the belly button and 5cm inwards. Some rotation of wrists and ankles and one downward dog. Perhaps your evening class is more dynamic, I suggest. Depends what you mean by dynamic. Oops, she has taken offence, despite the fact that I complimented her on the lovely lesson first. Well, more toning. ‘Ahh, toning,’ she sniffs, ‘if it’s toning you want, go to a gym. The effetto tonificante of yoga is just a result of holding the positions.’ I know, I say patiently, the asanas … do you do any of these in your evning lesson? The triangle, the warrier, fish, bridge etc? ‘I was thinking of introducing them next month,’ she says, reciting their Sanskrit terms piously. Ahhhh, pazienza. The problem here is, when people get a ‘titolo’, they think they are way above everyone else and that the rest of us are ignorant. Two of my best friends are yoga teachers so i do know something ... It’s just that I had a baby four months ago, I say, and I wanted to regain some flexibility, I feel like an old woman, I joke. But motherhood is the most beautiful, energy-giving moment of one’s life, she says. SIGH. I sense a lecture coming. As if I didn’t know that. As if I am not loving every moment of bambino’s four months and three weeks. But he was 10pounds and stretched my whole pelvic area, not to mention his now 20pounds hanging off my shoulders etc. He’s almost double the expected weight for his age. I do yoga every day at home, and am convinced the yoga I did throughout my pregnancy enabled me to birth my big baby so beautifully and without any problems in water – and I managed to turn him, with his occiput posterior (head into back instead of stomach during labour) presentation by sitting on a pilates ball for 6 hours. But I though I might be able to learn something new at this course – plus it would be a little hour of me time, because it is not easy to get the downward dogs flowing when bambino is hollering because his little gums hurt, or he’s hungry or he wants me to play. But no. I try a last shot – well, what time is your evening class and how long does it last? Hoping for some final elucidation. ‘I don’t wear a watch,’ she smiles, superior. Oh God, a patronizing yogie master. Actually neither do I, but I don’t tell her that. I need to know to make arrangements for my baby I manage to smile, thinking, there is no way I want to see her again. And all this (an hour of stretching fingers and toes, thanks)for 10€ when the shop had assured me the trial was free. As if we were in Dublin.

Silent neighbours

Someone has broken the wing mirror on our car. It happened yesterday between 4.30 and 5.30, because I went out at 4.30 with bambino and it was fine and my in-laws were out on the street at that time too as they were heading to the restaurant. Bambino and I came back from our stroll at 5.30 and the mirror was broken. I looked up and down the street: the builders who are working on a dilapidated building just down the street were gone – and wouldn’t admit to seeing anything anyway. I scan the neighbours’ windows, because you can bet your life that someone will have seen what happened, but not a stir behind the craftily angled shutters. I look down the street – the cars parked in front of ours all have their mirrors pointed out, except one car which has turned it inwards for safety. There is plenty of space to get past where we are parked though, and even if another car had been parked opposite ours there would have been space. My sister in law is convinced it was the Pazzo, the madman on the street, who hates their family. A repressed gay, she says, and also not right in the head. He came back after a few years in Rome and was never the same. Dangerous, she says darkly. If her father ever leaves the car parked near his house she moves it, she says and always turns the outside wing mirror inwards. They believe it is he who is scratching all our cars. Every few days a new scratch – the kind of deliberate scoring you do with a key – appears on our car, but overnight, not in the broad daylight. My next-door neighbour, a large housebound woman due to hip problems, is permanently sitting at the window, but no sign of her today. Another doting old man who walks the street wrapped up as if for snow in the warm spring days, has every day the same question – is it a bambino or bambina ? He then smiles at my buggy, and then forgets that it is a bambino. And wishes me buongiorno, adding that good manners are important. He’s nowhere to be seen. The suspect and his two side kicks, Walrus (beer gut and long whiskers) and Hunger (the thinnest palest creature in Sicily) are of course absent from their usual meeting spot opposite the dilapidated building. Who am I kidding? Even if anyone had seen what happened, they wouldn’t say.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Staring fishermen

I ran into difficulty yesterday while out for a stroll with a friend along the marina. Bambino needed fed but each time we stopped at a bench a few fishermen would gather to stare at us, the fair haired foreign girls. They should know me by now! I complained to another foreign friend. Her partner is a fisherman and she knows them all, so she promised to come with me some time and introduce me. Can’t wait.

busy nights, quiet nights

It’s hard to predict what way a ‘serata’ will go; Friday, the restaurant did very little, but the bar was packed with lots of people dancing to the tunes of DJ Giuppy … Saturday, the restaurant was packed and the bar too, so that the road outside was full of people like a summer weekend. And yet on Sunday night, the popular aperitivo attracted few punters this weekend – perhaps because we didn’t have a DJ last night. The SAIE – the PRS, or music rights people, to whom we have to pay €50 every time we have live music or DJ (As IF that money ever reaches the authors) warned us that they knew we were having DJs on Sundays (we pay up for Friday and Saturday, but it simply didn’t seem fair to have to do it on Sundays too … SAIE friends are exempt of course. We are not their friends, but at least they warn us, rather than coming to fine us directly). We didn’t have th barman either, so his mates didn’t come. We’ll have to decide if it’s worth the expense of barman, DJ and SAIE …

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, we now have to keep tighter tabs on the cook who has been making enormous quantities of everything. We need to check the shopping list (we were left with SEVEN bags of rocket left over last Sunday, plus various bags of mozzarella going out of date and desserts which were well past their sell-by date …), and also at the beginning of the evening discuss what preparation needs to be done.

noisy lunch

During the week we went out for lunch for my mother-in-law’s birthday. We had the small agriturismo to ourselves. There were ten of us in total, including two children, but the noise levels would have woken the dead. When Sicilians get together over a meal they tend to shout at each other across the table. Plus, there was music on too, which I discreetly turned down once I had spotted the remote. But bambino didn’t like it! His nonno said, ‘It’s because you don’t take him out!’ what? I said, he’s out every day of the week. ‘Yes, in the outdoors, but not in noisy restaurants.’ Well, we’re in a different caffè every day of the week, where bambino is greeted by all (shouting ‘che bello’ into his little face) but apparently they are not noisy enough. Noise training is what my bambino needs. I see. … This is the third day in a row we have had lunch all together and the noise levels are getting to me too. At one point I ask the 5 year old does he not have a book to read. He and the three year old are running riot around the restaurant. There’s a difference: at home I think parents would usually have some game for the children – colouring books etc to keep the kids quiet. But here no such effort is made, so the kids end up whining in their parents’ laps when they are exhausted.

Monday, March 14, 2011

poetic postman

One of my favourite institutions in this town, which is backward in so many ways, is the poetry-writing postman. Always in good humour, a tall handsome man, tanned from his mornings on the scooter bringing the mail – apologising when it is obviously a bill – he whistles and sings as he goes about his work. He passed me this morning as I was having coffee with bambino, and raised a finger as he remembered something, after flashing his winning smile and wishing me a buongiorno. ‘Signora, I have a parcel for you! But I will deliver it to your house!’ It seems I am the only person who gets parcels so regularly in Milazzo. He never leaves it at my house, as it is slightly off the road, preferring to ring my in-laws’ bells, since their house is right on the street, so he doesn’t have to get off his moto. And he once brought the nonna a book of his poetry. Fantastic. Where else would you get such a personalised postal service? It almost makes up for the stinking, overflowing skips.

On my way home, as I struggled up hill, the ery steep hill up to the borgo, two men ahead of me turned round to offer their help. They lifted the front of the stroller despite my assurances that I would make it on my own, and whizzed me and bambino up the long steps to the borgo. It worked out sorer on my arms, though, since I had to keep the back end of the stroller held high to avoid banging it off the steps. I ended up more breathless than ever at the top of the steps, with the rest of the steep incline to negotiate alone! But it was very kind of them. You appreciate these gestures especially when what you usually find it a huge jeep sprawled over the zebra crossing and massive kerbs on either side.

Sunday aperitivo

Lovely aperitivo at Pachamama last night. Cosy lighting with candles everywhere and good chilled out music. Thankfully no DJ in fact many of the regulars commented there is no need. After the live music on Friday and DJ on Saturday, it is nice to be able to come and chat over a few drinks. Plus the music on the iPod is way better than either ;) Our regular DJ tells us that the bar across the road from has started an aperitivo exactly based on ours. They sent their DJ over to spy one night and he started it off last night. Will they have the same food? Same sequence of snacks? The couscous and the faro, the Greek salada and the tortilla, the chicken nuggets and the fried savoury our Neapolitan chef cooks up? Our aperitivo has been such a success – apart from the great deal – because it offered something new hear in Sicily. A common social event in northern Italy, the aperitivo doesn’t really exist in Sicily with real food, just nuts and olives.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

why do we get all the freeloaders?

Mid-week we get a request for a booking for a party of twenty, for a girl's birthday. She wants to spend a maximum of €60 - four bottles of prosecco. A bottle costs €16, so she wants a little discount, plus she will bring a cake which our waiter will slice and serve ... and of course, service is included - the plates and flute glasses and the dishwashing, and the laying out of tables for the twenty or so people. Although they will occupy most of the upstairs room, she there is no rental fee for the space. Never mind that a table for two would generate €60 with much less effort. On the night itself, she saunters downstairs every so often, 25 years old with the ways of an 18 year old. She apologises that many of her friends haven't turned up and so she would like one less bottle ... this happens several times throughout the night, despite the fact that the waiter notes all twenty places are occupied at the table, with more standing. When she tries to renegue on bottle number two, he mentions this. In the end, the young lady pays a grand total of €35 for entertaining her large group of friends.

The following night we have a booking for another party of 15 this time. They want prosecco and antipasti and fruit - plus the service and space, naturally, all included in €100. So €60 for the 4 botles of prosecco, leaves €40 for the fruit and antipasti - just over €2 per person. Errr, profit? And the man who made the booking asked for a discount on this ... As if he were doing us a favour. We decide that we need to ask for half of the amount upfront. And because there is so little work mid-week we are obliged to accept these customers. Hmmmm

To top it all off, the band on Friday night get ratty. Like all the groups who play, they have their meal and two drinks on us; but this was not enough for this Depeche Mode cover band. They wanted their 7 Santa Teresa rums (that's practically the whole bottle given the big italian measures) and 6 beers on top of that for free too. They have tried this on the previous two occasions they played with us, so they know the limits. Instead of thanking us for their meal and the fact that we also let their girlfriends eat for free - the singer and his sidekick made a huge scene, calling mio marito stingy, of all things. Outside the bar, of course, so others could hear. Luckily, there were only a few people left. My husband stayed calm and told him he was probably being so obnoxious because he was drunk. That was no doubt true. This brings on a Sunday depression about the kind of people we have to deal with. Rude, arrogant, figli di papa (spoilt little rich kids), provincial, narrow-minded freeloaders. Most of whom have rarely if ever left this town, never mind Sicily or Italy, to get some manners and culture. Hmmm I begin to suspect there is limit to the time we can keep doing this...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Local personality

Mia suocera launches into a tale about a woman who used to work with her in the creche down the road. Her daughter works in a bar I go to often with the bambino, and finally after two years she greeted us with a smile. Since we are always given a great welcome in this bar her stony-faced service always seemed strange to me. So this is how my mother-in-law got stuck into her story. Every now and again she likes to regale me with some local lore. Her eyes light up, the voice lowers and she takes up her story-telling position. This time it is about Domenica, her ex-colleague. Domenica was very strict with the daughter when she was little, giving her hardly any freedom. The creche was opposite the child's school, so she was themost punctual of mothers and the daughter never got to roam around town with her friends. So she rebelled and ran off with a married man and had a baby with him bringing shame on the family at the time, 50 odd years ago. The married man divorced his then-wife and has lived with this daughter ever since. Domenica had three children in total, and managed to buy houses for all three of them, all on her own, as her husband left her.She had no formal education and was illiterate - otherwise, mia suocera says, she would have been an excellent businesswoman. Apart from the creche, she did all sorts of odd jobs, most frequently cleaning houses and shops and even the long marble staircase in the creche itself. She also managed to get the best house of all for herself, right in the cnetre of town on the main street, in one of the beautiful old palazzi dating from the 19th century. When the owner of the house came to tell her he was selling the whole palazzo she refused to leave, telling him she would buy the apartment she was living in. He woudln't agree and sent in the builders with their buldozers. But Domenica refused to budge and such was her conviction that the builders took fright and told the owner they couldn't work there. So the owner gave in and named his price. Domenica had no money to buy it but that didn't stop her. She went out one day determined to get the money - she stepped out in front of a car and let herself get knocked down. She made a huge scene at the hospital even though she wasn't hurt that badly ... but the insurance claim covered the cost of the house! The word for this in Italian is 'grinta', of 'faccia tosta'. She made the system work for her in other ways too: she couldn't afford to take holidays because they were unpaid. SO when she needed to stay home for whatever reason, she got herself into such a statethat her blood pressure would go up, so that the doctor could easily give her a sickness certificate.

My husband asks who we are talking about. Domenica. He raiseshis eyes to heaven. Mad woman. Wild red hair out to here. We all know Domenica.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mafia update

So what’s the latest on the mafiosi scene? The most obvious thing, and the one that affects everyone, is the rubbish collection issue. Heaps of it, 2 metres high and occupying the space of three cars on the street every 100metres or so, make Milazzo a very smelly place to be. The new council promise that shortly it will be all resolved but I don’t think anyone really believes them. The mafia make money out of the rubbish not being collected so it is in their interest to block any progress there.

Something that affects us more directly is the gang from the nearby town who come to drink every now and again. They came in last Saturday night, on a very good night with good music and everyone having a good time. These smalltime gangsters had a few shots of vodka without getting the scontrino at the till, and were loitering about outside. Mio marito had dealt with their boss effectively the first time they came and he had paid up, albeit with a small discount. But the bossman was very drunk and puked up at the bar just as he was about to pay. This coincided with the arrival of a plainclothes carabiniere who said they had received a call about the noise being too loud from a neighbour. Since our doors were closed and the speakers were turned inwards, it is highly unlikely that any neighbour would have called. Also, the bar 50 metres down the road is much louder, with an open roof top and music so loud it makes our windows rattle. Mio marito says it must have been another locale whose owner was jealous at the success of our Saturday night. Anyway, the bossman and the carabiniere exchanged glances, the carabiniere looking disgusted at the puke on the guy’s shirt, the mafiaman looking annoyed at getting caught in such a compromising situation, andmio marito dismayed that the carabiniere had come in just at that moment, as he will think these are the kind of regulars we have. The mafiaman took advantage of the confusion of the moment to slink away without paying, despite the fact that mio marito had kindly given him a towel to clean himself with and save his bossman ego.

Mio marito is now part of a consorzio del borgo, a committee of restaurant and bar owners in the borgo antico. They hope to work together to promote events up here in the Spanish quarter, keeping it clean and safe and offering cultural activities. I am curious to see what will happen as I have yet to see a group of Sicilians working well together. Indeed, after every meeting mio marito usually has a story about how so-and-so disagrees and how another wants to do it his way etc. … One of the older people and more experienced in local matters said that if anyone was asked for a ‘pizzo’ –bribe- by the local mafia, that they had to tell the consorzio, so that they would all stand up against them. This was news: Milazzo is not known as a pizzo place. But this man knew of a small family business in the marina from whom the mafia are taking €1000 a month. The poor guy probably doesn’t have much to take home after that.

The most disturbing of all is that one of our regulars, a guy in his late twenties has spoken openly in the local newspapers about the murder of his brother by the mafia. They live in the nearby town, which he called the new black hole of mafioso crime in Italy … Great. His brother died under suspicious circumstance a few years ago due to an overdose of heroine. At the time it was put down to suicide. But his family and friends knew he was in no way suicidal; he was a brilliant young doctor with a promising career ahead of him and very happy in his personal life, and did not use drugs. Also, the biggest clue was that he was left-handed, and the injection had been put into his left arm. Also, his body showed signs of a struggle. His brother did some research and discovered that his unfortunate brother was forced to operate on Provenzano to save his life. He was at a medical conference in France where the famous mafia boss was hiding out – no one had seen his face in over 20 years. At the time the young doctor didn’t know who it was; he merely carried out the life-saving operation. But several years later the mafia apparently had news that he had realized who his critical patient was, and so the order was given to get rid of him. Not nice.

Cook poaching

Our cook told my mother-in-law that the owners of a new restaurant down by the sea have approached him to go and work for them. What makes it even more unethical is that these owners are good friends of my husband’s sister. She is appalled: ‘Here, where friendship has ‘un certo valore …’ Hmmm. Friendship didn’t count for much in this case. Imagine he decided to go? But he knows they are famous for not paying up, and also they made him a very poor offer. He would be foolish to go anywhere! He’s landed where he is. All god news for his ego da cuoco.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Signorina or Signora?

This morning at the bar down the road, the barman - a waiter dressed in black and white like in Spanish traditional bars - called me signorina as he handed me my cappuccino - the best in town. He then corrected himself, Signora! spotting my bambino. 'Ha, you liked that, didn't you?' he laughed. A signorina is an unmarried Miss, while signora offers more respect to the married lady. But I rarely get called Signora, only if I'm with mio marito, and even then i get signorina. Which is a compliment, as the barman pointed out. But when I go out with mio bambino now, I am Signora everywhere. Interesting ...

Explaining apple crumble

Explaining new desserts to the cooks has always been a challenge. They can all do tiramisu blindfolded (I imagine). And their strong point is always, always without fail the semifreddo, a frozen icecream dessert, and their favourite for me to try is always al pistacchio. So when I come up with apple crumble (ap-play croom-blay) it’s a big challenge to his ego. I have to build him up first by telling him how good his risotto is, and it helps that for the first order I take since August I convince the couple to try his risotto al profumo di limone with courgettes and prawns. The grated lemon zest really does the trick. His involuntary smile as he squints at the order (all our cooks are halfblind but pride prevents tem from wearing glasses) makes me warm to him. It also helps that he made a fabulous chocolate cake alle mandorle e all’arancia earlier which I was able to praise. But more on that later.

It would help if I was a baker myself. But no, I am just the daughter or one of the best dessert makers ever. My mother is the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson evoked in her cookbook. So, although mia madre has explained how to make the simplest dessert on earth – the one you make in Home Economics class when you’re twelve – the cook stumps me on a couple of issues. Just how small do the apples need to be chopped? Because my mother said a few minutes in the microwave would leave them slightly glutinous and stop them from going brown of course, so they would keep a few days in the fridge. But the microwave here must have different settings, we conclude, because the cook is getting increasingly frustrated that his carefully timed attempts have just produced slightly soft apple slices. I try to explain that it needs to be a kind of lumpy apple sauce. But he doesn’t get it, because salsa in Italian is only used for savoury dishes, really. Compote? I know it’s the French word, but in the international world of haute cuisine …? No good either. (He was spoofing to me one day about the wonderful sauce he makes for meat, ‘è internazionale,’ he insisted, giving me some Neapolitan French – I still don’t whether it was jus de la viande, or sauce brune, he was trying to say, the accent just didn’t quite make it – it was GRAVY he was going on about. Ah yes. That would be the sauce I grew up on, my mother’s own homemade special My mother-in-law ha capito – a purea, she says, a purée. Yes, that will do. He’s got it now. Well, we’ll have to chop the apples into small cubes then, he decides, a bit more confidently. But the kind of apple also provokes plenty of discussion. They don’t have cooking apples in Sicily; cooking apples are best because of their texture, they shred easily into mush. The most similar thing seems to be mele renette, but they appear to be hard to come by. He uses Golden delicious, which are very sweet, I probably would have chosen Mele Stark or Pink Lady … but he experiments with the sweetness and adds much less sugar. And the result is not bad. It is less lumpy and more compote than it should be … but I can’t be too fussy. Plus, no one here knows how it should be really. He gets the croom-blay right first time. I have added some crushed almonds to the recipe and they give it just the right crunch. But my sister-in-law says that he isn’t fond of this dessert because it takes 15minutes to cook it properly in our old oven as the heat only comes form below, and he can’t put the paella in the oven if they are in it because of the smell of fish. Definitely to be avoided.

As for the chocolate cake. This one is a masterpiece. But so simple to make, according to my mother’s recipe. Everything just gets thrown into the magimix and then into a cake tin then into the oven and an hour so later it is transformed into a delicious torta. The cook is nervous again since his experience of chocolate cakes is of the Sette Vele variety, a veritable bomba or all types of chocolate and cream and and icecream in seven layers, the current favourite in the pasticceria here. Sicilians like everything to be full on, no half measures. But this cake, which is called Chocolate amaretti cake in mum’s recipe, is exquisite. The crushed amaretti and crushed almonds give a slight crunch to the velvety smooth stiff mousse texture of the dark chocolate, and the fresh orange juice and zest of course, is a classic association. I change the name, because amaretti reminds people of stale biscuits in their grandmother’s cupboard in Sicily, but it’s the description that is difficult. My sister-in-law tells me people turn up their noses when she starts telling them about it, because anything different is scary. She says most people think of big puffy sponge cakes when they think of chocolate cake. She has tried telling them it is a wonderful Irish recipe, but it turns out in Sicily Ireland is not noted for its dolci … it takes just one person at the table to be intrepid enough to try it, and then someone else at the table plucks up their courage. Because she tells me on Saturday night two separate tables already had come back for the apple crumble. Yeay! And it’s only been on the menu a couple of weeks. By Sunday all our desserts were gone. And on Friday I was concerned we had way too many when I checked the fridges. All sold out. Crema Catalana, crepes, Baileys Cheesecakes, Apple crumble, chocolate soufflé (or flan, the one baked in the oven with the runny centre – amazing) and the new torta di cioccolato alle mandorle e all’arancia).

But the best thing was the cook’s reaction when he had made the cake and I sampled it. I pretended not to know that he had misread the recipe and put 500grams of amaretti biscuits instead of 50 into his first attempt. (Mio marito told me) But I took a slice of his second one home to eat in peace before putting it on the menu. Mio marito told me he put on a show of being nervous when I phoned up to give it the go ahead. It’s ‘spettacolare’ I told him, ‘you must taste it, because this is exactly how it should be.’ ‘Of course it is,’ he declares, ‘didn’t I make it myself.’ As if he had come up with the recipe.

I found three plates of crepes in the fridge last Monday. So on Wednesday I left a note for him not to make so many … there were about 30 crepes in total. And they are not nice after a couple of days in the fridge. Also they were tasteless. And the lemon and orange zest was missing – though he assured me he had put it in ‘You can taste the orange zest when it is there,’ I said. Because he has an excuse for every single thing you say to him, just to get the last word. So I reckoned he was following his own recipe, as most cooks here know how to make crepes. But not necessarily the best recipe. My mother has the best, naturally. And that’s the one to be followed so I left the recipe under my little note to him. The proportions of egg and flour are just right and make a runny mixture which allows for proper thin crepes, not the thick spongy things he was coming up with. He will start wishing I had never come back! But it is the attention to details that makes the difference. And all the other restaurants around here offer pannacotta or semifreddo or tiramisu basically. So we have to make sure our desserts are good, our unique selling point!

Being napolitano, the cook makes quite a good foccaccia and pizza bread. Quite light and not oily or with the strong taste of raising agent from ones in the town. But with his accent, everything he says sounds like a threat. Last night he was making up some foccaccia for the aperitivo. I asked for a few slices without meat, as he puts prosciutto in everything and then forgets to tell me …. Ughhh. ‘Tre pezze ti bastano?’ he asks me as he hands me the plate. He barely opens his mouth as he speaks, so it is all a bit cotton woolly, like the Godfather movies, though Marlon was Sicilian of course. So I usually have to get him to repeat. ‘Are three slices enough?’ he says again, in a slightly raised voice, giving even more of an aggressive effect. They better be enough, is what it sounds like, ‘cos that’s all your getting.

How is the restaurant going?

And how has the restaurant been in my absence? Did they miss me? The waiters said they were glad I was back because mio marito was getting more grumpy without me. Mio marito says that he had to play the role of the strict manager, which he had let me do while I was around … while he got to be the laid back, approachable boss, saying ‘I’ll need to ask my wife about that’, for anything he disagreed with. Ha.

We have the same cook as before. He started muttering after the summer period that he would need to be paid more, once the restaurant started closing Mondays and Tuesdays through the winter. I would have been harder to convince on that one, because I think he has an easy time of it. The only time he might have some work is Saturday and Sunday, on week nights three or four tables max – and they might have piadine or panini which the second cook takes care of – and Fridays are really the worst night for the restaurant strangely. But he started muttering about how he was sending his CV to places in the north of Italy – I seriously doubt it, his family are here, he lives a ten minute walk from the restaurant, and he’s getting well enough paid. Other places he has worked we know he didn’t even get paid at the end of the month. Anyway, the classic situation. As mio marito maintains that there have been no more problems in the kitchen since he been working for us and actually quite a few compliments, he was willing to give him a bit more to keep him happy.

Now that I am back though, I keep him on his toes. He wanted us to sample his sformata di salmone: a kind of smoked salmon parcel stuffed with Philadelphia cheese and rocket – and with a dash of Tabasco. Even before I tasted it I knew the Tabasco was out of place. I didn’t give him the whole ‘I’m Irish – we have the best smoked salmon in the world and the only way to do it is with good Irish butter and brown bread.’ I just said that Tabasco is a Mexican sauce. It doesn’t go with smoked salmon. And the rocket already gives a peppery flavour – which goes quite well with the smoked salmon and the cream cheese. And the smoked salmon needs to be of good quality. It is hard to get good smoked salmon here. It is usually over smoked, extremely salty and very slimy, whether it comes from Scotland, Norway or Ireland. It was a very unusual association, I though. And it made me wonder about his tastebuds as a chef.

Even more so when I sampled a ‘torta salata’, a kind of pastry he made mid-week of mushrooms, smoked provolone cheese and rocket. Unfortunately the rocket goes bitter when cooked, and the smoked cheese tasted way too strong for the mushrooms. Plus, as the waiter pointed out (the waiters are very skeptical of the cook’s abilities), it was burned round the crust. So, again, I tactfully (I hope) pointed out that the smoked cheese was too strong for the mushrooms and maybe a soft cheese with less flavour to it would go better. I wonder does he taste his experiments? That pastry was inedible. I wouldn’t even have sent it out on the aperitivo on Sunday …

But we are doing better than last year. We have regulars who come to the restaurant, one of whom has asked us to do an aperitivo for their wedding, after the church ceremony. We have regulars who come for the desserts, and those who come for the tapas and the paella. And the new pasta dishes are going well. Also, the addition of hamburgers – mio marito got inspired in Ireland – is turning out to be popular. This time last year it was very very quiet and we were not happy with our kitchen staff. So we’ve made progress.

We’ve painted the bottom half of the bar area green, which somehow gives it a more Andalusian touch, and placed a large round mirror behind the bar which reflects off the long mirror opposite. And there is now a flat screen at the back of the room, making the corner area more interesting. Don’t worry, it’s not for football, we’ve no intention of getting Sky. We show old movies, Carlo Saura, Almodovar, Woody Allen, documentaries, music videos – on silent, while the dj, or stereo system play other music. Good conversation point to while away the winter nights …

Monday, February 21, 2011

two local scandals

When I arrive back at Christmas there were a couple of local scandals. One was that two English teachers from the language school had been harassed by five locals on a Saturday night. They followed the two girls right up to the door of their house and then tried to get in the gate. One of them hit one of the girls and she fell to the ground in the confusion. The good thing is that the police caught them straight away. Though the girls say that in the police station the guys were making threats to them the whole time. Result? The two girls left for England the next day. No hanging around. They had only been here two months. In an interview in a local paper one of their students, a man in his mid twenties, said he wasn’t surprised they left, but that it was a terrible impression to give them of Sicily. He said he sees the English girls arrive every year to teach but that few of them ever stay longer than a year because there are no tourist amenities here. Bad infrastructure (for example, the infrequent shuttle bus connecting the train station to the centre stops in the early evening and there are no taxis so if your train arrives late at night you are stuck …). Plus travel in Sicily is not easy if you don’t have a car. Infrequent and long bus and train journeys would discourage even the hardiest of travellers. Piles of stinking refuse every 100 metres. The odd rat. No entertainment – little decent live music, no real cinema (there is only one cinema with one screen dating from the 50s and it hasn’t been renovated – the ugliest and most uncomfortable I have ever been in). Add to this the unwanted attentions or intentions of the locals … the sun and sea (usually polluted in summer) just aren’t enough, and by the time it is hot enough to swim the English teachers have gone home for the summer anyway. The student said that the locals aren’t used to the openness ‘modi expansivi’ that the English girls have, in the sense that, at night, in a bar in the UK people mix and chat up or accept being chatted up without it necessarily leading anywhere. Most people can read the signs of interest or disinterest. The harmless flirting and social interaction that a few drinks will bring about. But here in Sicily, where less drink is consumed, particularly among the females, this openness is not so common and girls will usually stick to their own group of friends. This is true. It is also true that last year there was an English teacher who drank herself comatose and slept with anything that moved, unfortunately garnering herself and all other English teachers a bad reputation. Luckily, I came here already married and haven’t had to deal with any of this, apart from a bit of chatting up at the restaurant which came to a hasty end when they asked how come I was in Milazzo and I pointed to the man behind the bar.

The other scandal was more minor and much closer to home. One of our dodgy neighbours (he looks like he has been on a hunger strike his entire life – white bones walking) showed up outside the restaurant one morning over Christmas when my father-in-law was checking something. His best grey suit was hanging over his bony shoulders like a sack of potatoes. ‘Signore, I am going to the carabinieri,’ he announced, solemnly. ‘Someone has stolen my babbo natale (Santa Claus).’ Oh dear. What was it like, was it expensive? ‘He was an inflatable babbo natale I had on my balcony. This morning I woke up and he was gone.’ Can you imagine the carabinieri taking him seriously? While the whole family fell about laughing as they told me this – of course, it was one of our waiters who played the trick, since he was able to pinch it from our balcony - we wondered was there perhaps a link to this theft and the scratches which had mysteriously appeared on our car. Every day for about a week a new scratch appeared on the car, the kind you get when someone scores their key across it. Give him back his Santa Claus! I said.

Sunday morning socialisers

Today, Sunday, we-re on our Sunday morning stroll downtown, trying to decide which bar to have coffee in. I try the one which gets most sun in the mornings but all the tables outside are taken by dodgy looking people in shiny black bomber jackets and shades. We try inside anyway but don’t even get some much as a buongiorno or a smile from the staff. That’s important. So I reverse the stroller out. Dithering outside about whether to go to the quiet but expensive bar on the pedestrian strip to my left, or whether to go to the bar on the corner of the roundabout by the sea, I sense some eyes on me, and realize I have just sailed past some cousins who are getting a good eyeful of myself and the stroller. They come over for a chat and to check out bambino who is blissfully sleeping. Just out for a coffee and glance at the papers and stroll with all the other parents on the promenade, I tell cousins, with whom I will be shortly having lunch at the nonna’s, to mark a year since the nonno died. We make it to the bar but poor bambino’s sleep is over. He’s a celebrity. There is a kind of hush as I wheel the stroller in and get settled with my coffee and book: people are busy trying to place me. Who’s this straniera? But then the man at the next table turns around with a great hello for us, a saxophonist who has played at the restaurant, and everyone sighs in relief. So she’s known round here. In fact, I sit for the length of my cappuccino kissing cheeks and handshaking all the Sunday morning socialisers: the exact same people who will have been up at Pachamama until 3am. It occurs to me that they are not really so much pleased to see me as pleased to be able to greet the nice foreign girl with her funky stroller and cute bambino. Because it’s all about appearances. Maybe I’m just being cynical. Maybe they are genuinely pleased to see me. I beam at all concerned anyway.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Walking with bambino

It is quite an experience to go out with the buggy in this town. Now I am stared at even more than before. First for being foreign. But now I have the fancy three-wheel Phil & Ted stroller, without which I would never be able to leave my house due to the state of the streets here. The street we live on in the borgo antico is cobblestoned, but full of pot holes and all the stone slabs are chipped and broken making the surface extremely uneven. Impossible for the regular buggy to travel. So we brought the Phil & Ted over from Ireland. Meno male. I have joined the other strolling parents who walk their babies down along the marina. On Sundays it is a whole social event. Some families coming from mass, another social event in Italy, others just out for the passeggiata before stuffing their faces with the family, all don their Sunday best and strut their stuff down by the yachts and fishermen’s boats, since it is the only street wide enough to walk in twos, and smooth enough to enjoy with a buggy. I prefer to do it during the week as I have the whole pavement to myself, apart from a few fat fishermen who all stare at the straniera when we go by. Now and again mio marito joins me just so they know I am not a lonely single mother – I am the only person strolling alone. Sicilians would find no pleasure in walking alone.

But to get to this point there is an entire obstacle course to negotiate. Many crossing points on pavements will not have the gradual slant to wheel down the buggy so you have to jolt it down from the unusually high pavement. More often than not, the zebra crossing will have a car parked on it, on both sides making it difficult to get out – high pavement – and on coming traffic can’t see you. Though it is not customary to stop at zebra crossings anyway in Italy. This week I had to stand on the zebra crossing in the middle of the road while the man parked on it, blocking my access to the pavement, got into gear – while on his mobile phone - and drove off. There was quite a queue of traffic waiting for me to cross. Also this week I opened the door of my house to find a car parked right outside my gate completely blocking my way out! We had to lift the stroller over the bonnet of the car. Just as well mio marito was around. I wrote in red lipstick across the windscreen, ‘Thanks for parking here. I can’t get past with my buggy.’ I keep that red lipstick in my bag now, and on courageous days I think I just might leave such notes on cars blocking my way. Sounds OTT? Imagine how frustrating if five times in as many minutes you can’t cross at a zebra crossing and have to take your life in your hands and your baby’s and edge out on to oncoming traffic. Imagine that you can’t cross the road at another point because the cars are so tightly parked on either side of the road that there is no space to get your buggy through. So you end up walking on the road until you can get on to the pavement. Then you need to watch out for the dogpooh, or the huge lamp post placed inconveniently right in the middle of the pavement leaving you without enough space to pass on either side of it. So you need to go on to the road. But the cars are so tightly parked that you can’t get out on to the road. SO you need to backtrack. Or indeed, there is a car parked up on the pavement. Same problem, cars are parked so tightly around it that you can’t find a space to get out on the road. Very frustrating.

Add to this the mountains of rubbish growing at every overflowing smelly skip ... another mafia problem which the new council will apparently do away with .. I'll believe it when I see it. It is so disgusting and redolent of developing world coutnries ... We are talking about every 100metres having to pass rubbish heaps the size of a house. Think of the rats. On my first walk with mio bambino in the sling to the piazza a stone's throw from our house what did we see jumping into the wall? a rat. Despite the fact that the rat buster lives roud the corner from us with his Ratidion van proclaiming its disinfesting powers right outside. Not working. Familiar eh...

But by the same token, people will hold open doors for us, reverse their cars to let us pass at a regular crossing, and just smile as we approach. That's nice.

meeting and greeting with bambino

Even more so than when I was pregnant, people are pleasant to me. I know that sounds as if I am surprised, and I am, when I consider how I was treated with circumspection, if not suspicion when I first arrived here. This is not an Italian thing – in Tuscany I was received with open arms. But Sicilians are notorious for their ‘sfiducia’ with regard to ‘forestieri’ or foreigners, but which I mean someone from outside their town, whether or not they are foreign. With good reason, too, considering their history.

Regulars from the bar and restaurant clamour to see our bambino and regale us with complimenti on how cute he is and often bring ‘regali’ too. The blue eyes win them over immediately, the wee charmer. I had him over at the restaurant for the Sunday aperitivo, now a regular and popular event (eat as much as you like, plus cocktail for €6: in Dublin the alcohol would run out, here it’s the food …). Well, bambino had a little fanclub gathered round the buggy. And the DJ (male) looked after him for me while I got something to eat. He even played nice chill out music until we left.

Men in particular are interested in him and in how his birth went. Last Saturday in the café down the road, one of our favourite local councillors and head of proposals for resuscitating the moribund castle asked me how I managed since he was such a big baby. Did you not have trouble with stitches? He asked. How funny, imagine an Irishman enquiring about your stitches. No, thanks to hypnobirthing techniques and a water birth, I didn’t need any. They are all fascinated with the idea of the water birth. You look great, he tells me, much better than before, luminous skin. Motherhood agrees with you! Grazie indeed. This is all accompanied by magnanimous hand gestures indicating my face, my hair and the general shape of me. Wonderful. Only Italian men can pull it off. Another male friend tells that he saw me at our wedding, when pregnant and now in the early days of motherhood, and he says, you are at your best now. Sei una donna completa. Will you listen to these Italians. I fear it is all to do with the hormones and once I stop breastfeeding this luminosity will leave me, the hair will fall out and the blackheads will return!

Old ladies have a habit of coming right up to us, right up to bambino’s face, whether he’s in the stroller or the babybjorn carrier, and screeching, yes, screeching into his little face, ‘Beddu!!!!!!!!!!!!’ Sicilian for bello. I feel frightened by these witches, so I don’t know how my poor bambino must feel. Here, it would appear, it does not come naturally to whisper at babies, as you would expect. Men shout, quite aggressively, ‘o giovanotto!’ (young man) and at first poor bambino cried, as you would expect, it sounded like he was being reprimanded. Now he’s a bit more used to the Sicilian rough treatment.

One of the nasty neighbours, the old lady who throws her rubbish into my in-law’s garden (!), stopped us as I was out for a stroll the other day. Pretending to rearrange her washing, hung out on the street in front of her little corner house, I knew she had her beady eye on us from way off. ‘Look at the picciriddu’ (Sicilian for piccolo, little one), she squawked. I winced, anticipating the ‘beddu’ screech, which duly came. I tried to walk on but she followed me down the street. ‘How come I have never seen you before?’ she mused. Yeah right. ‘Ah signora, sure you see me every day pushing the stroller up the hill,’ I reply, ready to give her the benefit of the doubt, but suspecting a ruse. She beams, innocently. ‘Ah, is that you pushing the pram. Sure I didn’t recognise you. Well, where do you live?’ Over the road there, I nod vaguely. ‘Where exactly? Which house?’ I repeat over the road, and amazingly she comes up with the exact house number. As if she didn’t know who I was. ‘So you are married to -?’ Aha. ‘And what do you do here?’ She enquires, all in Sicilian dialect. I am beginning to tire of her little game. ‘I run the restaurant across the road from your house,’ I tell her, looking her in the eye. And walk on. Not good to spend too much time with these nasty neighbours. My mother-in-law tells me not to trust any of them, that they know what’s going on before it has even happened. Watching everything from behind their purposefully half-closed shutters. And commenting among themselves. Never to your face, she warned, they are too sly for that. But they will be discussing everything about you behind your back. So it’s not just my imagination when I go out the door that many eyes on me ...

In fact mia suocera has just told me to make sure mio bambino is wearing something red tomorrow to ward off the mal'occhio at a family dinner tomorrow. But if it's family? All the more reason she says ... Her mother had her sew a little red heart into her children's clothes and so she had her daughter put a red chilli pepper from Naples under her grandchildren's mattress ... the eye is more powerful than anything people can say about you, she assured me. Wow. Reason enough to leave this crazy land...

Returning to Sicily with bambino

The most long-awaited bambino in Sicily came back with me just before Christmas. The whole street turned out to greet him. Well, not quite. But all the neighbours wound down the slats on their shutters to get a good look at the Irish-Italian joining the street of losers and loopers. And at me of course, to see if I had regained my pre-pregnancy size. The in-laws feted him at every Christmas dinner and were disgusted when I took him home just before midnight on New Years’ Eve – I had no idea, nor did I care about the time – mio bambino was 7 weeks old, poor thing, and both of us were exhausted. Babies shouldn’t be up at midnight for noisy parties with champagne bottles popping and 30 adults all shouting auguri at each other across the room. Plus they had all had plenty of time passing him round and gawking at him and analysing whom he looks like during the previous large family dinners over the festive period. My north-European idea of a routine for the baby, involving a three hour loop of Eat-Play-Sleep came in for a bit of eye-rolling and I decided to steer clear of a certain sharp-tongued aunt with her old opinions on everything from dummies (I am not a fan and use it a quarter of the time they would use it) to sleep to whose eyelashes he has. Every part of my little bambino has been attributed, from his hair (very contentious, as it appears to be dark at first glance, like my husband’s, but underneath and at the temples it is fairer, like mine) to his fingernails. The chin? His paternal grandfather’s. His eyes are blue like mine and also the shape is mine, says the nonna, since they are not big like their eyes. Any bigger and they would be falling out of his little face. His Irish grandfather just smiles every time he sees him on skype because we all know that the person he most looks like is him. Everyone has their opinion, of course. Some exclaim ‘he’s the image of his father’, while someone an hour later will say, ‘è tutta sua madre’.

His grandparents see him a couple of times a week, either looking after him for a couple of hours to let me get something done, or when we go to their house for lunch. Then there are the brief encounters if I drop in to their house or to the restaurant or bump into them while out for a walk. But this is still not enough apparently. I begin to sense my cognata (sister-in-law) whispering that I am over-protective and they never get to see him. Since the older sister-in-law brings her two children over every single day for the entire afternoon to get time to herself, I can’t really compete. This is Sicily, where everything is full on. There is, of course, the way I want things done, and the way they do things here. That’s not particular to Sicily, every new mother has her issues with her mother-in-law or indeed her mother on how she wants things done for her baby. But here I am under more scrutiny and the north-European criticism is no doubt flouted often (as soon as I leave the room). For example, our houses here, being built into the side of a steep incline, are all full of steps. Steps to get into the house, and once inside, steps into the hallway. Then steps up or down to the kitchen. Hard concrete terracotta steps. I hate going up or down them carrying mio bambino, let alone someone else carrying him! But at the in-laws’, they like to carry him in the buggy down the steps to the kitchen, which is not necessary, I protest. He can stay in the hall if he is sleeping. But for them the ever-present ‘corrente’ is a much bigger danger. The draught in the hallway might cause him to catch pneumonia. On the other hand, when they are all dosed with the cold, or l’influenza , (the ‘flu) as any remote nose-dripping or slight cough is called here, they have no hesitation in looking after him for me, since the antibodies from my milk will protect him. Hmmmmm ….

Being pregnant in Sicily

Here I am back in Milazzo, after a four month absence. I went back home to have our baby because the Sicilian hospitals – and staff – were not at all convincing. I stayed until the end of August, doing my duty through the high season, carrying my seven month bump through the humid terrace where curious diners congratulated me, and sat under the air-conditioning near the till when not dealing with customers.

The best thing was that no one smoked any longer inside the bar. I just had to move my bump nearer to the would-be smokers and they would lover the cigarette and go scuttling outside, usually with a shamefaced smile, most unlike the typical defensive attitude I met with before. The other, most interesting phenomenon was how attitudes towards me changed. No longer the north-European foreigner, to be regarded with suspicion and kept at a distance, I was embraced by one and all. Neighbours who had never exchanged a word with me, nor looked directly at me (while staring and observing my strange foreign ways from behind their shutters, be sure) suddenly started smiling and greeting me with a barrage of questions. Not necessarily a change for the better. In this strange community, the less your neighbours know about you, the better. But I couldn’t help smiling back and giving them the kind of information they wanted. I desisted, though, from revealing whether we were having a boy or a girl. It was always the second question, hot on the heels, after how many months pregnant I was, so that they could judge whether I had put on a lot of weight or not (I grew a lovely cartoon bump, or designer bump as someone called it, and didn’t put on much weight elsewhere). Whereas in Ireland/UK often it is hospital policy not to tell you the sex of your baby, here it is considered the norm to find out. But I didn’t think it was anyone’s business, much to mio marito’s amusement – and frustration – as he was dying to tell the world we had produced the heir. My duty was done in the eyes of my in-laws, who magnanimously said they would have been equally overjoyed if we were having a girl, the important thing, of course, was that the baby was healthy.

Luckily, after the first few months of slight anaemia and morning sickness, I enjoyed a healthy happy pregnancy, blossoming, as they say you do. Work at the restaurant became more fun, as any table I served wanted to get the lowdown on all the pregnancy details they could wheedle out of me, depending on the hunger levels. The difficult thing was the antenatal care. Nothing stateside can ever be simple in Italy, and of course it started out with the fact that I had mislaid the piece of paper with my doctor’s name on it (never having been to see him before). You would think such things would be registered on a computer system, but no, we are in Sicily … so when I went to the health centre to get the piece of paper printed again, the clerk told me non EU citizens had no right to free health treatment. Such was his lack of desire to print the measly piece of paper. I looked round me. Whom was he talking to? One Geo-political lesson later, and I got the required paper. I should have changed doctors while I was there though, because the dottore di famiglia turned out to be useless. He wrote me the script for the usual first blood/urine tests to be done, but when I showed up at the blood clinic (everything is separate in Italy … how I longed for the NHS) the receptionist told me I would have to go back to him for an amended script since he had omitted some of the blood tests. Two of the main ones, to be precise. When I took the results to him he turned almost as pale as me in my lightly anaemic state, and told me I needed to eat more meat despite the fact that I am a pescatarian. This was obviously too challenging for him so he told me I needed to get myself a gynaecologist for the rest of my antenatal care. He then gave me the script for the 12 week screening tests, the only free one in Italy, but he got the entitlement code wrong, as we found out when we went to Messina, the regional capital, requiring a further visit to amend the script and return to the hospital in Messina. …

In Italy, like in the US, antenatal care is provided by a gynaecologist, which you pay for privately upon each monthly visit. It’s a whole money-making game, since as my doctor friends told me, you don’t really need a monthly check-up, if it is a healthy pregnancy. Plus, the care consists of numerous expensive blood tests, a visita – internal exam, and scan, each month. All my UK/Irish doctor friends confirmed that all of the above were unnecessary, that the usual 5 or 6 blood tests and 2 or 3 scans during the course of the pregnancy were more than sufficient. The internal exam cannot reveal anything which can affect the gestation period, or birth, and the traditional hands-on-tummy and measuring tape were as good as the scans. So. You can imagine how overjoyed the gynaecologist was to have me as a patient, with all my awkward foreign questions and disagreement over her treatments. It was hard enough to find a female gynaecologist, there were only 3 or 4 in total, and the one we ended up with was a nervous creature. She was convinced I needed many blood tests, despite my healthy record, and an internal exam at every visit, which added €50 to the fee, or subtracted since I declined her the pleasure. This was a huge deal for her and when I would phone to make appointments, she would immediately ask whether I intended to have one or not … plus when I skipped a monthly appointment, since we had the 20 week scan with another sonographer who was able to assure us that everything seemed fine, she joked that I was skimping on checkups. I assured her there was no need … all about making money. One time I left the images of the scan behind, and when I called her to ask her to send me them, she said there was no way I could do that because she hadn’t given us an invoice. She was terrified our 28 week scan pictures might fall into the hands of the finance police who would then jail her for not paying her taxes … this does happen, actually. My friend’s doctor, a specialist in hip replacements in the neighbouring town of Patti, has just been sentenced for making thousands in this way.

But my main reason for wanting to return home (to civilisation) was that during the birth here no pain relief is offered. By that I mean they have nothing from the most basic gas and air, to pethidine, remifentanol or epidurals. In fact, the ‘parto con epidurale’ is known as c-section because you only get the epidural if you are having a caesarean section. Not that I wanted a drugged birth experience. I wanted a natural birth (and had one) but wanted to birth somewhere my hypnobirthing techniques would be understood, and somewhere with pilates balls and birthing pools. None of which is available in Sicily. Unheard of. My doctor feigned disappointment when I said I was leaving, said she had been imagining a wonderful birth with her obstetrician friend. They don’t even have midwives here, which for me, was fundamental in my vision of an unmedicated, intervention-free birth. Here, at the slightest whiff of a complication, you get a caesarean section. So take into consideration that my baby didn’t move into position until 37 weeks (described as breech until then, though most first time babies don’t move until between 34-37 weeks), and the fact that he was big, weighing 3.8kilos at the 40week term appointment, I would have been politely told that it was in my best interests to have a c-section. The fact is, that doctors in Sicily do not want to take the risk if any complication presents. Or is it the fact that the hospital gets paid for every caesarean performed? Or perhaps the fact that the doctor in question gets the job done in half an hour, rather than a 24 hour labour? I had only just arrived home when a local case made international headlines. A certain gynaecologist got into an argument with an obstetrician about whether a labouring mother should have a caesarean or not. The obstetrician told him that it wasn’t up to the gynaecologist to decide anymore, his job having ended before labour commenced. It came to fisticuffs and the gynaecologist put his fist through a window in front of the poor woman in labour and her partner. Meanwhile her labour got complicated and she ended up having an emergency caesarean, and the baby was born in a coma … The gynaecologist was struck off. He did my 12 week scan.