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.