Sunday, 16 March 2014

Happy in Napoli

It’s more than 3 weeks since I arrived in Naples and time I posted an update. It’s been a really good spell, and I already feel at home here in Naples. I’m pleased with the set-up in my student flat here. My new flatmates (all from the South of Italy) are all really nice, and they immediately made me feel welcome. The flat, admittedly slightly outside the centre (though that’s made up for by there being parking outside, very hard to come by in the centre), is very nice, modern and spacious.
As well as the big pluses about my new flatmates, I’ve also appreciated little things that I missed in the flat in Palermo.
-          Instantaneous hot water (as opposed to using hot water on the unreliable 1980s-style timer we had in Palermo)
-          A washing machine that doesn’t require 10 minutes of wrestling with to get it started and doesn’t take all day to finish
-          Radiators, for drying clothes and general warmth (not that we’ve needed much of the latter given it’s been 20 degrees outside much of the time)
-          Unlimited wi-fi (as opposed to having a small allowance and not being able to watch iPlayer or 4oD)

In terms of the social side, the last 3 weeks have underlined just what a unique opportunity a year abroad is to develop as international a group of friends as you ever will. I’m looking forward to plenty more nights out with the lovely people I've met and plenty more day trips like yesterday’s, when some of us went to the Palace of Caserta, a UNESCO World Heritage site built to rival Versailles. The grounds were spectacular, so we spent the whole day there, hiring bikes to cycle up and down the seemingly endless grounds. There are so many more places surrounding Naples to visit: including Vesuvius, Pompeii, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida. And, slightly further afield, Rome – just an hour by train – which I’ve inexplicably never properly been to.

Some things that I’ve experienced which are typical of Naples:
-          The pizzaiolo (pizza chef) who, when he heard the address we were ordering from over the phone, delivered pizza to us in person as he’s friends with my flatmate.
-          The shady figure who lurks in the Co-Op all day and asks customers to use his loyalty card so he gets points. It’s a similar phenomenon to posteggiatori, which are as much of a thing here as in Palermo
-          Drivers beeping like crazy at us on the way back from Caserta when I hesitated at a turning but then, when we stopped at traffic lights (unlike many Neapolitans), couldn’t have been any friendlier. I assumed they’d be mad at me but instead were laughing, interested in where we were from and helping us find the way home.
-          Trattoria Nennella, a typical Neapolitan restaurant we went to for an Erasmus welcome dinner. Typical not only in terms of the food on the menu but also the atmosphere. Waiters would stop every now and again to watch the Napoli football match on TV, yelling at the referee, while the restaurant’s manager would then lead singing of O Sole Mio and dance around. As we finished our meals, waiters suddenly gestured to us to stand up an and said ‘Ok guys, that’s it – time to go'! While we didn’t mind, as we were a huge group and there was a queue of people waiting, we were stunned – none of us had seen anything like it in restaurants in the UK, Germany, Austria, France or the North of Italy. 
The last point sums up one of the features seemingly typical of Neapolitans (and also Sicilians) that I really like. That people in bars and restaurants talk to you more as if you’re old friends than in (what in most cities would be) a formal environment. And that they’re unafraid to speak their mind or say what they want, without any pretence or façade. This doesn’t mean they go about offending people – in fact, I've found Neapolitans and Palermitani have been more friendly and caring than locals in any other city I’ve spent time in. But they seem to be much less obsessed with la bella figura and making every effort to show immaculate manners all of the time.

I also noticed this lack of formality among the 3 families in Palermo and Naples that have hosted me for dinner, which all either used plastic plates and cups or had a buffet sitting on sofas (or both). The food was as amazing as ever, being the South of Italy, but just because they had a guest (or guests), they didn’t feel the need to go out of their way to make it a formal occasion, even when they hadn’t yet met me before. That’s not to say that if I’m invited somewhere for a dinner where we use metal crockery, I feel pressure. But the plastic plates symbolised the total informality which made me feel at ease, as if I was more of a part of those families than a burden whose presence was making them make extra effort as hosts or go about a mealtime differently to how they normally would.

The lack of shallowness and superficiality compared to much of the North is the kind of thing that endears me to Naples and Palermo. As if they don’t make it obvious enough by how interested they are in myself and others who come to Naples/Palermo from outside and how we're getting on in their city, it’s by this sort of thing that the locals show that for them the most important thing is the company: that they're interested more in conversing and getting to know us than impressing. My experience has been that families just are themselves more, regardless of whether or not they have guests, even when that means arguing among themselves or doing things that we all tend to do around our own family's dinner table. That is to say, they don't seem to do anything they wouldn't normally in order to show just what a civilised family they are. It’s refreshing.

The academic side, as ever with Italian universities, has had good bits and bad bits. Two examples of this are class sizes and quality of teaching. For a Sociology lecture I went to, the lecture theatre’s 200-seat capacity wasn’t enough, so some of us had sit on the floor. For Contemporary History, however, there are literally only 6 or 7 of us – class sizes you’ll rarely find at undergraduate level even in the top European universities. It really is pot luck whether you’ll end up in a class of hundreds of people or with fewer than a dozen.

Similarly with lecturers, it’s such a lottery what yours will be like. By all accounts, I’ve been lucky with who I’ve ended up with both in Palermo and Naples. I’ve got on well with and been impressed by all of them. Well, apart from one, who in our first lecture wrote a Pascal quote on the whiteboard and asked what we thought, reassuring us there was ‘No wrong answer’. When one student said what she made of it, the lecturer snorted ‘You’re completely wrong!’, thus shattering the confidence of the first-year brave enough to raise her hand in her first ever lecture in front of 150 people. Worse, I’ve also heard numerous horrendous anecdotes of awful male lecturers who would give female students high marks when they wore low-cut tops and fail them when they didn’t. Hearing about this sort of thing, one Erasmus friend in Palermo who admitted he hadn’t revised for an exam tried to bank on his examiner (his lecturer) giving him ‘Marks for looks’. I saw him in the canteen one day dressed up and asked if he was going to a wedding or something. ‘No, just to an exam’, he replied. But when I next saw him and asked if it had gone well, he shook his head. 'A different lecturer - a guy - took the exam and wasn’t impressed’.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Roland the rat

I know this blog is devoted to my year abroad (and there’ll be another post about Naples in the next few days). But this morning’s news that my football club, Charlton Athletic, sacked our wonderful manager Chris Powell made me so incensed that I felt the need to write a quick piece about him and the direction English football is moving in general with the new generation of owners.

It’s easy to see why so many fans – of all clubs – are turning their backs on English football. Owners – like Charlton owner Roland Duchatelet, who owns 5 football clubs in total - swan in, change the team name (Hull), the stadium name (Newcastle) or the team colours (Cardiff), sack the immensely popular manager (Cardiff, Charlton and many others) or even move city (Wimbledon, now Milton Keynes Dons).

They tend to either be failed politicians (like Duchatelet), dictators (like Shinawatra, ex-Manchester City), fraudsters or tax-dodgers, like the recently-jailed Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung, Leeds’ Massimo Cellino, and QPR’s Flavio Briatore. The problem is not just that they don’t know much about football. It’s that the likes of Roland Duchatelet are convinced that they do and undermine managers’ authority by insisting. It was this – Duchatelet wanting to pick the team – that led to the row which brought about Powell’s sacking. However successful Duchatelet may be in the world of business, how can you expect anyone to know who to pick and which formula will bring success for teams in 5 different divisions? Surely that's what a Manager is for, especially one like Powell who saw for himself in his 3 years bringing Charlton from struggling in League 1 to The Championship what works and what doesn't.
But sadly, it’s a rarity nowadays to find a Chairman, like Middlesbrough’s Steve Gibson, who is both prepared to give managers time to build teams and prepared to leave them to it, not interfering in tactics or team selections. It’s especially depressing for my club to be in the hands of control-freak owner unwilling to do either of the above given how long we were lucky enough to have a board who backed Alan Curbishley for long enough for him to become the 3rd longest-serving Premier League Manager ever.

Powell didn’t just bring us two seasons of exceptional results. He brought more positive, attacking football than under his predecessors Alan Pardew and Phil Parkinson. And he also made us feel proud to be Charlton fans again, following an embarrassing period of disastrous transfers and 2 relegations in 3 years since Curbishley’s departure, by reviving the fight in his players that saw them grab countless last-minute equalisers and plucky away wins. Proud not only when we were the only Football League side to get over 100 points, beating Cardiff 5-4, Barnsley 6-0 away or enjoying similarly special results. Even when I saw us lose 4-0 to Fulham in the FA Cup in 2012, I was proud of how much the players put in and matched opponents who were then 2 divisions above us, even if the scoreline suggested otherwise.

After masterminding our 9th place finish in our first season back in the Championship, Powell told us in his post-game speech: ‘We’ve got our Charlton back’. We did indeed have our Charlton back. The Charlton grabbing the kind of results and showing the kind of spirit we hadn’t seen since the Curbishley era. Powell kicked every ball from the sidelines and showed how much the club meant to him, crying tears of joy on the pitch after promotion and swinging from the crossbar to celebrate reaching the FA Cup Quarter Finals. But then this new owner arrived. Lots of fans like myself gave Mr Duchatelet time. Even after selling our star playeron transfer deadline day for a cut price without leaving time for a replacement. Even after bringing in a hopeless goalkeeper from Standard Liege (another club he owns) and insisting that Powell played him ahead of our long-trusted Number 1. But this is the final straw.

You might point to our current league position, say ‘Ultimately it’s all about results’ and that I’m being overly sentimental towards someone who I admired even before he became our Manager after 9 seasons with us as a player. But we're just 4 points from safefy with 5 (!) games in hand and have been steadily improving since Xmas (the Sheffield United game aside). Even if this new manager does keep us up, things won’t be the same. If he keeps us up, it’s likely to just be short-term success built on loan signings. That's what Duchatelet has made it clear he foresees, as well as Charlton becoming a feeder club for Liege, who he has already warned we might sell our best players to. Charlton fans know only too well from our time under Parkinson that you cannot build a successful (or even surviving) Championship team around loan players. It was building a team of young, hungry, home-grown players plus the odd experienced (Captain Johnnie Jackson, Yann Kermorgant and Andy Hughes) that transformed fortunes at The Valley and got us promoted. Integral to that was one of the brightest, most promising managers in the country. Now, however, no longer with us not because a bigger club snapped him up (as I worried) but because our owner sacked him. Absolutely shocking!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Arrivederci Palermo, Ciao Napoli

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already had to say goodbye to Palermo and all the lovely people I met during my 5 months there. But last weekend, I boarded the ferry to Naples, where I’ll be spending the next semester. My exams in Palermo went surprisingly well. In hindsight, given that my results don’t count towards my overall degree (and that I haven’t got very far with my year abroad essay, which does count), maybe I revised too much. But I don’t regret it. I learnt an awful lot from reading all those books in Italian – be it new vocab or Contemporary History. It gave me something to work towards and a feeling of satisfaction when I got 27/30 and 30/30. And, besides, if I hadn’t revised extensively, I could have faced public humiliation. My Politics exam had to be done orally in front of the rest of the class (40 people). As if doing an oral exam in another language wasn’t already intimidating enough! Anyway, it went well and the others in the class – even those I didn’t know – were really nice, treating me like a hero after I passed and high-fiving me.

Among other things, the last few days saw my last Cannolo Siciliano, my last Arancina, my last road trip (this time to Mazara with my flatmate, who’s from there and showed me all its amazing features, including the casbah!), my last coffee in my Faculty bar that I’d go to at uni every day, my last SEL meeting and my last afternoon volunteering in the children’s library.
I also went in to the school where Giuliana’s mum works to answer questions from 13-year-olds studying English about subjects ranging from what my favourite colour is (a while since I was last asked that...) to One Direction. Just like my semester in Sicily as a whole, my last few days went extremely quickly, and before I knew it, it was time to say my goodbyes.

Something I really like about Italy is the ‘salutare’ culture. ‘Salutare’ basically translates as ‘to greet’ but in this context specifically ‘to say goodbye’. And it’s something Italians take very seriously when you’re about to leave somewhere (whether you’ve been there on holiday for a week or for 5 months, like me in Palermo). Outside Italy you’d normally just say goodbye to people the last time you see them. You might organise an evening out or leaving party for your last night, but people wouldn’t usually go out of their way to see you on the day you leave if they've already seen you the night before. Whereas here, even if you’ve seen someone the day before, they’ll often want to pop round or meet up the next day, even if you can only spare 5 minutes, to say goodbye. I’m with Larry David (who in Curb Your Enthusiasm laments how little people around him say goodbye anymore) on this one. I just find that it’s really nice. It’s a compliment to the person leaving who – like I was – is often sad to be going and makes them feel better. And it ensures that you see everyone you want to before you leave. I find it sad when you assume you’ll see someone again before leaving somewhere but then don't.

Anyway, you can probably tell from my general positivity over the last few months that I became more and more fond of Palermo. I have so many happy memories and memorable moments from my time there, and I’m so glad I chose it. It’s not for everyone, but I loved it. The countless kind gestures from people there – whether I knew them or not – made such a difference given how far away from home I was. As somewhere for a Londoner to spend 5 months, I just found it ideal. The food, the friendliness, the weather, the views, the beaches, the cost of living and the particularities. Even some of its problems and negatives added to the experience at times. They give you a lot to talk and think about anyway, and they often have a silver lining. For instance, if it wasn’t for all the rubbish and lack of infrastructure (public transport and hotels), a friend who works in the hotel industry tells me that Western Sicily would be full of tourists, who would flock to its wonderful beaches rather than the less special but more well-connected but inferior ones on the Adriatic coast. Palermo being devoid of tourists meant that I wasn’t in danger of speaking English rather than Italian much of the time (there were few English-speaking people around; staff in shops and bars rarely spoke it).

The last time I explained on my blog that ‘Arrivederci’ literally translates as ‘Until we next see each other’, I was commenting on the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi as PM. I added that I hoped we wouldn’t be seeing much more of him (as it turns out, he’s still calling the shots and far from finished in politics). Palermo and the friends I made, however, I hope to see more of in the future. The Palermo-Naples ferry journey was surprisingly comfortable. I’d never done a longer crossing than Dover to Calais before so was worried I’d get seasick. But I didn’t, and I found the whole experience a lot less stressful than flying.

My first impressions of Naples are positive. The locals, like in Palermo, seem incredibly friendly and helpful. The city seems incredibly colourful - I can see why Pino Daniele felt the need to sing about its thousand colours. The pizzas are incredible (it’s true what they say that after getting used to Neapolitan pizzas, I’ll never be satisfied anywhere else). I found a room in a really nice flat. I’ve already been to a Napoli football match, which was exciting, as it was the first time for me and all the Erasmus students I was with. The atmosphere was amazing, even if Napoli’s performance wasn’t (they were lucky to get past Swansea).
Not so keen on his politics, but Clinton knows where to find a good pizza

I get the impression that Naples and Palermo have a lot in common, and that I’m going to really enjoy living here. If I have half as a good a time as I did in Palermo, I won’t be complaining. The roads are one similarity, and I can see that driving here’s going to be another adventure. When looking for the hostel (where I stayed until finding the flat) with Amelia, the other Bristol student here, we asked 2 guys in the street if they knew an alternative route given that the road we could see which led to it was one way. And they said, in thick Neapolitan accents, ‘Just go [the wrong way down the one-way road]. This is Naples. We do whatever we want’. So we did. It probably sounds terrible, but within an hour of being in Naples, I’d already started doing what the locals do.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A little bit of politics... (and a new Prime Minister!)

So I figured that, given that I’ve been living in Italy for 4 months without writing about politics, it’s finally time to do so. I started a few days ago, but it’s especially timely to publish this given the developments of the last 2 days (at time of writing, it looks certain that Italy have will have yet another Prime Minister). The main reasons that I hadn’t until now were because I’ve had many other things to blog about here but also because I’ve become so depressed and downcast about the political situation here in Italy and also across Europe (it’s not that I’ve been any less active politically or that there hasn't been much to report in terms of developments). Today’s announcement that Matteo Renzi seems poised to become Italy’s latest unelected Prime Minister makes me even more disillusioned about Italian politics.

Just as Italy is 20 years or so behind the UK when it comes to immigration, integration and LGBT rights, 20 years after Labour elected Tony Blair as leader, its sister party (the Democratic Party, PD) did the same kind of thing here, electing someone who wants to break with 'the old left' and move towards the centre. But while Blair reached out to Gaddafi, Mubarak and Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, Renzi offered a hand to Italy’s very own rogue, Silvio Berlusconi, who he invited to the PD headquarters the other day. There, Renzi and Berlusconi – or Renzisconi – struck a deal to create an electoral law which increases their personal power and is bad news for virtually everyone else. Indeed, Renzi wasn’t the first but the third centre-left leader to resuscitate and hand Berlusconi lifeline. But critically, it came at a time when aged 77, hurting from the latest split within his party and ‘betrayal’ of heir-apparent Angelino Alfano and finally recipient of a binding conviction, Berlusconi was surely nearing the end of his political career. Yet Renzi and Berlusconi together put forward a new electoral system that has the worst elements of first past the post without any of its benefits.

The new electoral system involves:
-          A majority bonus for the largest coalition that is the highest in Europe and double that of Russia’s, meaning that a party with just 37% of the popular vote will command a whopping 52% of seats. This means each future Italian election result will be similarly unrepresentative to the UK’s in 2005, when Labour won 55% of seats on just 35% of the popular vote. But while that was something of an accidental symptom down to Labour’s effective vote distribution across the country, here this is encouraged but entrenched.
-          Closed party lists, meaning that voters will be unable to vote for a specific candidate so have to vote for a party and therefore support whoever party leaders like Renzi and Berlusconi choose to be their party’s candidate in that constituency.
-          Extremely high thresholds to enter parliament of 12% for a coalition and 8% for a single party outside a coalition to suppress smaller parties and seek to force them into merging into the biggest parties: those of Renzisconi. This has already worked for Berlusconi, who received a boost with the announcement that Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the ‘centrist’ UDC, would again support Berlusconi’s coalitions. With the UDC polling between 2 and 5%, Berlusconi has added 2-5% to his coalition’s total. Current polls show that were there an election tomorrow, Berlusconi and pals would win over 37% of the vote and command 52% of seats.
It’s partly because of that that the PD and Renzi running scared of an election that would most likely lead to defeat, launched today’s coup which will see weak and ineffective PD Prime Minister Enrico Letta replaced with the 39-year-old Mayor of Florence. I’ve never known anyone in politics sit on the fence as much as Letta and I can see why PD MPs were keen to get rid of him. But this almost misses the point. It should be down to the electorate, not the ruling class of the PD, to choose Italy’s next Prime Minister. Renzi will become the 5th out of the last 7 PM not to win an election.

Some understandably complained that Gordon Brown was unelected, which – aside from by his constituents and his party – he technically was. And every once in a while, maybe a coronation of that sort isn’t the end of the world. But for it to become the norm – for who should become Prime Minister to be decided by one party or backroom deals rather than the electorate – underlines just what a democratic deficit there is in Italy. And it helps explain plummeting turnouts and millions of votes for protest parties like comedian Beppe Grillo's 5 Star Movement.
One of the few positives about Renzi was that he had seemed to least want to move Italy away from this kind of politics – Prime Ministers chosen by backroom deals – which has characterised the country since unification. ‘No more grand coalitions’, he announced in October.  And yet now look where he is, about to head a government born without the the electorate having a say and full of centre-right ministers. I outlined some of his policies – even more austerity than Mario Monti, sweeping privatisations, weakening trade unions and so forth – in June. From a leader of a supposedly 'centre-left' party, the above are similarly astounding to his grubby ascent to power which has even surprised and disappointed his admirers – like The Economist’s Bill Emmott, a respected commentator on Italian politics who wrote one of my favourite books about Italy.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above, I want nothing to do with the Democratic Party and instead joined SEL, a left-wing, anti-austerity party which I’ve attended several meetings of and joined on demonstrations. In the autumn I went on a march against the American plans to build military bases in Sicily. Last week I joined SEL and trade unions in supporting call-centre workers threatened with mass redundancies. In SEL, I met the kind of like-minded activists like those I know in the Labour Party who are often the main reason why I’m still a member, even after frontbench support for Trident, social security cuts and a frontbencher breaking a picket line and not even being told off by the leadership.

One thing I’ve noticed about SEL meetings that gives me encouragement is the average age. I’ve been to my fair share of Constituency Labour Party meetings over the years and am always one of the youngest if not the youngest in the room. With SEL, the members that stick out are those who aren’t under 30.
But despite all this, not many Italians seem to see things the same way as us. We’re a small party and down in the polls, some of which give us as little of 2 or 3% of the vote. The Italian electorate opposed to the successive unelected governments have tended not to flock towards SEL but rather not vote at all or vote for the Five Star Movement, even though the xenophobia, misogyny and populism of Grillo is more reminiscent of Berlusconi and co. than an alternative. There was an excellent article this week about the outrageous insults from Grillo and others towards Laura Boldrini, the Speaker of the House and a member of SEL. Attitudes towards woman from a huge number of parliamentarians are shocking. As has been the racism shown towards Italy’s first black Minister, Cecile Kyenge, who has had bananas thrown at her, been likened to an ‘Orangutan’ by one MP and been called a ‘prostitute’ by a Deputy Mayor. Words can’t describe how embarrassing, disgraceful and shameful this all is. In short, it’s probably best if I don’t write much more about Italian politics during my year abroad, as I’ve been having such a good time here in Sicily otherwise, and Italian politics is one of the things that consistently brings my mood - and the mood of millions of Italians - down.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A bunch of firsts

So I’m back in Palermo after an enjoyable Christmas holiday in England. I’ve been here 10 days but in Italy since January 8th, as I stopped off in Venice, Padua and Turin on my way back here to see friends and relatives. Which was nice. But it’s good to be in Palermo again, and my time back here this month has reminded me how much I’ll miss it when I leave.

The 10 days since I've been back have been full of new experiences. Albeit not all as thrilling as some earlier on in my semester in Sicily but the type of thing that I imagine makes most of them virtually unique to Sicily. My first:

Swim in the sea in January
I’m used to distractions from revision (I’ve got plenty – I always manage to find a reason to give myself a break from revising). But a new one was the irresistible temptation to go to the beach last weekend when it was 23 degrees and Erasmus pals asked if I fancied it. So we went for a swim (the water seemed no colder than a beach in Devon in August) and spent the day there playing beach volleyball with locals and sunbathing. In January.

I’m pleased to say that my ageing Citroën Saxo passed its MOT without any problems this week. Given that doing an MOT costs the same wherever here, I stopped off at the first mechanic I saw on the way back from the centre rather than one of the mechanics I knew who live a bit further away. After he’d finished, the mechanic gave me his business card which on one side listed the services he provides (oil change, MOT, air conditioning etc.). On the back, however, was a photo of him holding a microphone and words that meant ‘Birthdays, Weddings, Private Parties’… It turns out that he’s a singer as well. It wasn’t so much the unusual combination of careers that I found amusing but the fact that he advertises both his work as a mechanic and as a musician on the same business card and uses the same phone number for both. When he answers the phone, does he say ‘Luigi Marchese, Singer…’? What if the caller says 'Singer?! I was calling to get some new tyres...'

Parking ticket

Last weekend some friends and I went back to Frida, widely considered the best Pizzeria in Palermo and so popular that you can face hours waiting for a table if you haven't booked. When we got back to my car, it was surrounded by the Polizia, Guardia di Finanza and a tow truck which was picking it up. Luckily we got there in time to stop the car being towed, and I got away with a 38 Euro fine and nothing more. I’m told that I would have been looking at paying an extra 100 Euros to get the car back had it been towed. No complaints - I was committing a parking violation. Given that it was a Saturday night, I wasn't blocking anything and I've never seen a tow truck here before (and that most cars here seem to park on the pavement, double or triple park, park in bus stops or in front of garages) I felt a tad unlucky though. But I suppose I was lucky to get there minutes before it had been towed.

Trip to the Dry Cleaners
I’d never been to a Dry Cleaners before. The only time I’d seen inside one was in sitcoms: be it Larry David’s run-ins with them in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Jack Dee’s in Lead Balloon. Apart from the fact that this Dry Cleaner wasn’t Omid Djalili (as in Lead Balloon),
the main difference was just that the Dry Cleaners here was tiny. No items of clothing on rails overhead or anything. It looked a bit like my grandma’s kitchen in fact: with not much in other than a counter, an ironing board and an old lady knitting. Anyway, they didn’t charge much, but I also didn’t get my jacket back when they said I would due to them ‘Running out of power’. Fair enough. I’ll see if it’s ready tomorrow.

Concert in Sicily

It’s fair to say that very few famous musicians play in Palermo or include Sicily in their tours. A real shame, and just one example of how we Islanders can feel cut off from the mainland at times. But anyway, Giuliana called me up last Sunday saying they had a spare ticket to a Beatles tribute band gig, and I went. It was all quite a funny experience – seeing four Italians dressed up as the 'Fab Four', singing in English and speaking in Italian between songs. The music was generally quite good, though I was puzzled by some of the song choices. They tried to close with Yellow Submarine (!) before thankfully rectifying this by doing an encore. And they didn't play anything from Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Let It Be or Abbey Road, choosing to stick almost entirely to earlier albums. Then again, it’s not exactly easy to put together a Beatles set-list. Where do you start?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

5 positives about Palermo

Acts of kindness from people I don’t really know

The other day, when I walked into the university’s merchandise store, the guy inside started chatting and offered me a coffee as he was already making some. He was interested in how I was finding Palermo and pleased to hear I’m having a good time. I worked in the merchandise store at Bristol Uni for a year, and while I hope customers found me friendly and helpful, I wouldn’t have offered someone I didn’t know a coffee like that. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to. Whether or not I might have wanted to, that kind of thing just isn’t done in urban England. I would have got a weird look if I had. Most customers in shops in huge cities like London are in a big hurry, or at least act like it (see the thousands of people on the tube that walk at a fast pace but then queue to stand on the escalators, which they would clearly walk up if they were in the rush that they made out to be). I’ve loved being in an environment where it’s normal to make a kind gesture like that for someone you don’t know at all – kind deeds that it's especially nice to receive as a student 2000km from home.

Other recent examples of kindness of this sort include the numerous mechanics giving me free lifts (whether it be 4 or 40km), a classmate spontaneously buying me a hot water bottle after I mentioned my flat doesn’t have heating, and a restaurant owner walking half a mile down the street to meet me to make sure I found his restaurant (I’d struggled to take in his directions over the phone). Small bits of friendliness like this and the way that people in shops you often frequent treat you like friends. I no longer even have to open to mouth to utter the words ‘Un Cappuccino e un Cornetto (Croissant)’ when I walk into the bar opposite my Faculty each morning – they’ll have already started preparing them when they see me walk in. It’s once you get to know shopkeepers and they get to know what 'the usual' is for you that things get rewarding and you feel a real part of the community here.

Palermo’s the fifth biggest city in Italy, but in many ways it’s as if it’s a village. This is something I particularly appreciate having spent 18 years living in London (and 2 in Bristol, which is friendlier but no comparison to Palermo). I know lots of Londoners like the fact that, aside from the odd tourist unaware of London's unwritten rules, there’s virtually no chance that a ‘stranger’ on a tube train will start talking to you. It means you can focus on your copy of the Evening Standard or whichever other method you use to avoid eye contact with the passenger opposite (usually either using phones even though you have no signal or 3G underground, or studiously looking at the tube map above). But I’m not one of them. One of my favourite things about family holidays to the Lake District was that people who you pass on walks or in the street say ‘Hi’. For me, the combination of my favourite aspects of villages in a sprawling city is a dream. And just one of the many reasons why I’ve grown attached to Palermo.

Local pride
I also like how keen the locals are for you to try local specialities and enjoy the things that they enjoy. I got an approving ‘Bravo!’from a street vendor when I announced that I’d like to try Pane con la Milza (he probably would have been even more impressed if I’d said Pane Ca’ Meusa - what it’s known as in Sicilian dialect). On my first day, I ordered a Lemon and Strawberry ice cream. I thought it was a perfectly respectable combination (not like Lemon and Chocolate or anything), but the gelatiere had other ideas. ‘Try this’, he said, handing me a spoon of ice cream which he explained was Fico d’India flavour: a special pear that 'You only find here' which seems as sharp as a cactus. He probably thought I was only here for a few days (rather than a few months), but I liked the way he didn’t so much recommend but rather insisted that I go for that flavour instead of one of the other two, keen to ensure that I tried something typical of Palermo while I'm here.

Food, which Sicilians are understandably proud of (even people I’ve spoken to from other regions concede that Sicily is the best food-wise), is just one area in which you get a sense of Sicilians' local pride. Local loyalties and campanilismo are strong throughout Italy though. People across Italy feel an attachment first to where they’re from exactly, whether that’s the town or region, and then the country (aside from during World Cups, when they all cheer for gli azzurri). Also because of the history and geography, with Sicily being an island, this seems especially strong here. There are nearly as many instances of ‘No Ponte’ (No bridge to the mainland) written in graffiti as ‘No TAV’ (no to more high-speed rail, which anyone who’s spent time in Italy will have noticed that they seem obsessed with all over). When someone in my sleeper train compartment asked me where I was from, I said I’m ‘Inglese’ (English). When I asked him, he said he’s‘Siciliano’. Most people here seem to consider themselves Sicilian first, then Italian. You might sometimes get that kind of thing with nations that are part of the UK – people who consider themselves Scottish or Welsh (or Cornish – those that do also consider Cornwall a nation, after all) first, then British. But rarely with UK regions/counties.

Brioscia, and fewer image-obsessed Italians
The ice cream episode was also my first experience of Brioscia, the popular tradition here of eating an ice cream inside a brioche. It works surprisingly well but is very messy to eat – think of a sandwich which you’re struggling to hold together full of ice cream which drips uncontrollably. But I liked the way that something so messy is so popular and, because virtually everyone has it, you don’t feel self-conscious eating it. I can see why people say that Palermitani tend to be slightly less image-obsessed than their counterparts in certain cities in the North of Italy. Can you imagine people walking around Milan eating Brioscia (and with the inevitable ice cream dripping onto their clothes)? I can't. To an extent, Palermo seems a welcome contrast to the compulsively image-conscious Italy I’ve witnessed in the past – refreshing, even if a Brioscia itself isn’t exactly that (you have the strange feeling of feeling full up, as if you’ve eaten a whole meal, rather than just refreshed like after a normal ice cream).

Try before you buy
Also I like how much they’re happy for you to try stuff before you buy – always encouraging and immediately offering, so you don’t need to ask, which I sometimes feel self-conscious doing. You enquire about a particular ice-cream flavour, and by the time you’ve finished your sentence, they’ll already have grabbed a spoonful for you to try (the gelatiere, I should add, did only decide what second flavour I was to have after I’d tried and liked Fico d’India). Owen and I, ahead of our dinner party, asked a seller in the market of Ballarò how spicy the chillies he was selling were. ‘Try one’, he said straight away. And, after a sprint to the nearest bar for some bread and water, we found out for ourselves just how hot they were, nonetheless buying a huge bunch for a Euro. In short it’s nice that ‘try before you buy’ applies with virtually any purchase (i.e. Not just clothes or other items you obviously expect to be able to try first) and that you never have to ask – they’ll just offer.


Finally, I love the trust in shops and markets, which is by no means limited to being between sellers and customers they know. In the Butcher (which is, for good reason, always busy) on my road, one member of staff weighs your meat, wraps it up and tell you how much your purchase costs. The cashier, without looking at what kind of meat it is, will then ask ‘How much?’ and you’ll tell them. It would be so easy to pretend it cost less than it was, but obviously that just isn’t done. If they’ve paid us the compliment of trust, the least us customers can do is pay them the correct money (and it’s damn good meat which you’d pay twice as much for in England anyway!). One food vendor I've got to know in Ballarò, who splits his shifts with his son. When he wouldn’t be there, his son, aware his dad knew me, would ask ‘How much does my dad ask for?’
(Note: these five are by no means the only things I like about Palermo, hence why I've enjoyed my time here so much, though I am looking forward to being home for xmas)

Sunday, 8 December 2013

On the road again

Had a couple of friends - Owen and Callum - visiting in the last fortnight, which was fun. The car meant I was able to do airport pick-ups and drop-offs (which saved time, and it was exciting to be waiting by the sliding doors in ‘Arrivals’ next to the people who hold signs with names on) and fit plenty in while they were here. Owen and I travelled up and down the coast, spent time in both of Palermo's main markets (Ballarò - my favourite - and Vucciria) and cooked for 5 Italians who we had over for dinner one night (no Come Dine With Me-style ratings at the end, but I think we did ok).
Callum and I went on several trips, including to a Palermo football match, to Trapani and up the breath-taking Mount Erice, a peak 2500ft high and with temperatures a good 10 degrees cooler than Palermo (nearly as cold as the UK!). That was quite an adventure – all we could see around us was cloud – and I was proud of my car or making it all the way up and down. The day after, though, it ran out of steam and broke down as we were on our way back from Corleone (which, being Godfather fans, we felt we had to visit, even if it’s not that picturesque by Sicilian standards).
Unfortunately, the breakdown happened 40km outside Palermo, so the mechanic who’d helped choose the car in the first place couldn’t help. But a passer-by kindly offered to fetch the mechanic from the nearby village of Marineo, and while I had to part company with a couple of hundred Euros to fix everything, things could have been much worse. It could have happened on a Sunday (when no-one works and there would have been no mechanic to pick us up). Or in the evening. Or halfway up Mount Erice. And I was going to take it to the mechanic anyway before the MOT due in January, so it just meant getting some things done to the car a month early.

The mechanic towed it into Marineo and then insisted on giving us a lift all the way home from there, all for free (he also offered me a lift when I returned to pick it up). Before leaving, he spotted a friend wandering about and called out of the window something which amounted to ‘What are you up to now? Nothing? Fancy coming to Palermo with me and meeting some English students?'
And the guy did. He wasn’t busy and, even though it was dark so there weren’t any scenic views or anything, and he’d been to Palermo countless times, he decided to hop in and join us to chat to us and keep the mechanic company on the way back. Our landing in Marineo was a big event (a dozen or so more locals in the main piazza also looked on with interest) – it’s not every day that Marineo has English visitors.
I went back there to pick the car up on Friday. I had the mechanic’s card, but the place wouldn’t show up on Google Maps, so I struggled to find it. The garage was called ‘Autoofficina Tuzzolino’, so when I found Via Tuzzolino I thought it would surely lead me there. But no. The road took me to a different mechanic. Embarrassed (it felt a bit like asking at a restaurant where another restaurant you were looking for is), I asked him if he knew where the place I needed was. He said he did but that it was a long walk so offered me a lift. So I took a lift from this other mechanic to the first one (Sicilians seem so generous in offering lifts, even to people they've only just met!). The one I’d left the car with had done an excellent job (my dad phoned to check what he was doing, as even if the guy had explained it all to me slowly and in English, I wouldn’t have known what it all meant and how much I should expect to pay, and he was impressed). The guy even changed the oil for free and gave me some books about Marineo.

The 4 days without a car reaffirmed just how grateful I am to have the Citroën here. Being reliant on the public transport again, especially during winter timetables in which buses are even less frequent, was immensely stressful. One particularly stressful episode was when we worried Callum would miss his flight because of train delays. We waited at the unstaffed station for over an hour as train after train got cancelled. (How can you leave stations like this unstaffed? It’s one thing to have no staff in a station in the countryside that only has trains stop there every couple of hours, but how can you employ no-one at a busy station in the biggest city in the region where people are reliant on trains to get to the airport? It’s unforgivable not to even have any members of staff there to inform passengers whether the delays are severe enough to threaten missed flights. Although that’s the kind of London Boris Johnson has in mind as he closes down every Tube ticket office, so I guess I should start getting used to it.) In the end we had to shell out for a cab to make sure he made the plane.

My opinion of taxi drivers in Palermo worsened further this week. On Monday night, a group from my Italian Language class helped an Algerian friend – whose visa sadly only lasted a month – load his luggage onto his ferry back, which didn’t leave until 1am. It was pouring with rain, we all had lectures at 8am the followig morning and it would have been over an hour’s walk home, so we decided to split a cab. One cab driver who I’d used twice said he wouldn’t charge more than €15 – which by Palermo cab standards is pretty reasonable – if I used him again, so I called him. But, just because we dropped off a couple of friends on the way (and when I say on the way, I mean on the way – he barely had to drive an extra 500 metres), he tried to charge double. ’€30?! No way!’ I exclaimed, refusing to pay more than €20, which is anyway all we had on us.
I’m reliably informed that cabbies here can get away with ripping passengers off largely because of restrictive licensing and the shortage of cabs. Because the licensing authorities struggle to increase the number of licences due to opposition from these taxi drivers, cabbies like him have a monopoly and can practically charge what they want. In London, by contrast, licensing is virtually unrestricted, and there's also the competing market of ‘minicabs’, which are often just ordinary cars driven by people with few special qualifications (but cheaper). That’s why, even though food, drink and accommodation in are two to four times as cheap in Palermo as London, cabs tend to be more expensive.

Which brings me onto the year abroad essay. I’ve decided to go with the car theme (I sent off my proposal last week). In case you haven’t noticed from the volume of paragraphs devoted to transport issues, I find them very interesting, and I'll be writing about things – both the lousy public transport and the conversion to car ownership – I’ve experienced firsthand here.

For now, my working title is ‘Why is car ownership in Palermo so high and what consequences does this have?’. I’ll look into why the overwhelming majority of adults here own cars. I expect this to be partly down to inadequate public transport but also things like the mentality and what, to simplify for now as I've gone on long enough, you could call peer pressure. Cars are seen as an indicator of wealth in Italy and used to judge one’s peers. While it's common for families (like my own) in cities with significant public transport investment like London or Berlin not to own a car at all, families in far poorer cities in Italy very often own two. It would be virtually unthinkable for an Italian man between the ages of 30 and 60 not to own a car (he would feel as much as the odd one out as me when I wore shorts in November). I anticipate the consequences of these sky-high figures to include congestion/inefficiency (a city moves a lot more slowly if everyone travelling to work is in a vehicle of their own), dangerously high air pollution levels and a higher death rate due to road accidents (although this is also down to the style of driving and lack of law enforcement, not just the volume of cars).