Thursday, December 31, 2009

Coca Cola fridges and offensive bills 25/10/09

What were we greeted with upon our return from holidays but a coca cola fridge, with its red neon writing gleaming behind the counter and chrome finishing. This was not part of the original deal, I pointed out. Mio marito’s frind works for coca cola and I knew it was only a matter of time before he brought his multinational wheeler dealings into our restaurant. The deal was we would use coca cola bottles instead of cans and in return they would cover the costs of our black shirts with the Pachamana logo written on them, and of course a small coke emblem on the left hand side. But apparently the bosses had come to see our locale to gauge the potential coca cola exposure and had deemed the bar a perfect spot for their new mini-bar style fridge. But it upsets the symmetry of the white shelves and the neatness of the area behind the bar. Mio marito, strongly supported by the barman, think the bar area is still too bare. Nothing better than a coke fridge to fill the gap. The friend came in to take a photo of it, and I said when you’re done can you dismantle it again and take it away with you? He looked at mio marito and said yeah but that changes the deal with the t-shirts. Later on the barman joked that in the company of friends the Sicilian male will play the macho but that behind the scenes they all are only too aware it is the woman who decides. He is just your broom behind the door! he said - some Sicilian expression.

A blond girl and darkhaired girl sat all night at the bar fawning over il barman. They had two glasses of wine and later I noticed two more glasses that hadn’t been written down. They were funny girls, now and again I would catch them watching me or staring over provocatively. But I had given them not a moment’s attention, they seemed nice enough girls when they came in anyway. A restaurant owner at home had confided to me that the worst thing for your bar are pretty girls because the barman will be only too delighted to offer drinks on the house. So I was keeping an eye. So at the very end of the night, at 3am when I was about to go, the bar was cleared and just this pair were left so I sent over the bill thinking I would head home... The next thing, when a guy who manages another bar in town had just come in to say hi, il barman comes over and does this awful performance. Did you send over the scontrino he said? Why? I said I was about to head home and we were closing. It seemed obvious. But he pranced and puffed the chest out and clicked his cowboy boot heels together and said but you can’t do that! They are offended. One of them is my ex and we were chatting and it is very rude of you to send over the scontrino. I said I didn’t know it was your ex, I don’t know the girls and no offence was intended I am just closing up shop basically. But he went on and on, raising his voice higher and higher, puffing the chest out and contorting his face, and that whole river of words coming out that just confuses me. I simply don’t know where to begin to reply when I get that heated torrent of Sicilian diatribe. He continued, I know you did that because you have that Irish mentality and in Ireland you close bars at two and people leave and that is how you think. But you have to trust me, do you not trust me? He ranted. I said, have I ever said anything to you? (it’s true – I leave him to it, and he knew that was true). Most offensive was that he said altri. Hai persi altri due clienti (you’ve lost another two customers). The only way to stop the ranting was to say this is not the time nor the place. That whole show was for him and his ex and his pride. The Sicilian male ego, I could so do without it. The friend from the other bar disappeared and the waiter glanced over sympathetically. Il barman went back over to the girls and slabbered over them and I was left there on my own. The foreigner. The ridiculous foreigner. Altra was the word in my head as if he was saying I had already lost customers because of my foreign ways. I thought that was so mean. Even if I have offended the delicate Sicilian soul, it has never been intentional, and also, others have come back precisely because of the foreignness, something new for this town.

Anyway, to make matters worse, he then sidled up to mio marito to tell him, as soon as I went off to put chairs up. I came straight back over and he moved away. I was not going to have im snitching on me to my own husband. So in the end he came over, grabbed my face in his hands and planted two kisses on my cheeks. God, the Sicilianness of it. And in a voice loud enough for all to hear, for mio marito anyway, he said, ‘Sorry I said those things in front of people, I wasn’t aware they were there.’ I thought he could have handled it totally differently. He could have apologised to the two girlfriends for my appalling foreignness and mentioned it to me later.

It appears to be difficult to get anything right here.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Local tabloids 28/09/09

While I was having a coffee at the bar down the road a woman stopped at the next table, hand outstretched for money. To my surprise the three women immediately, though reluctantly, opened their purses, and the woman started praising them and blessing them for their generosity. She was a gypsy woman, but dressed in normal enough clothes for here, so I wouldn’t have known. You could tell from the way she spoke, pointed out mio marito. They gave her money because they will have been afraid she would put the mall’occhio on them (evil eye)!

The most outstanding kind of news gets into the Giornale di Sicilia and the Gazetta del Sud. Both kind of tabloidy though they are the main papers of the region. The former today was delighted that the German woman has been elected as prime minister for Germany, she is rightwing and from former east Germany. 35000 road accidents since January as registered by police, and 900 fatalities, not to mention those seriously wounded. A third under 30. A terrible accident near Rome on Saturday night involving the death of 4 people, some of them 20 year olds, and two pregnant women in the other car were injured, one of whom lost the baby. How awful. Reports on a journalist getting death threats from a mafia guy who told him in the street not to mention his name again in the paper, and a criminal lawyer who got his tyres slashed and a threatening letter as warning not to send a Mafioso to jail. Then some stupid football manager said he wanted the media to write that he accredited his team’s victory in the regional final (some agrigento team) to his ‘brother’ in jail, a mafia capo of some town who has just been arrested. So the mafia is well reported on in the paper, or apparently, so. They probably can only print certain things. I don’t know yet how free they are to report on it. But it freely alluded to anyway. Is it al true, or is It just the spin docs of Sicily making sure the islanders are kept in check with the oppressive mafia mentality?

Berlusconi just back from Pittsburgh where he met Obama and Michele and said to the press that he thought Obama was a fine man and he must go to the beach with his wife because she was abbronzata as well, alluding to his stupid comment from last year about the president being ‘inteligente, simpatico and … tanned’. How embarrassing. An ex prison centre policeman killed his wife from whom he was separating in a town outside Venezia, then killed himself. There are so many crimes like that, once a week I’d say here. Left behind three kids, 25, 21 and 17. Imagine surviving that. How would you feel? Too much violence and anger here. Such extremes of emotions. And who knows what kind of domestic violence preceded the murder. My in-laws have told me about various local women they know or have worked with who had to leave their husbands because they were beating them up.

Yesterday’s paper commented on the alarming smoke coming out of the refinery in Milazzo and the harm it has caused and causes still to its citizens …


Sicilian smoking laws 21/09/09

7.10pm and it is dark. The lights are winking at me across the water to the Refinery side and beyond. The old yellow church opposite our house is lit up. and separation. The only thing keeping me sane is the voice of Seamus Heaney I hear when I read his Stepping stones interviews about his life and poems. He is talking about where I come from and that keep me sane and lucid in this forgotten land.

‘Non ti esporre mai cosi’. That is what mio marito said: ‘never expose yourself’. I didn’t get it at first. I thought he meant only that I, the owner, shouldn’t get annoyed with the customers smoking. But he actually meant more than that: that I shouldn’t deal with the customers at all because they were Mafiosi. ‘That guy was in prison, for money laundering and arms trading,’ he said. I had been over once to the girl in the sideroom and said in surprise, ‘But you can’t smoke here.’ She had said sneakily, finding the excuse, as usual – that since there were ashtrays on the table she thought she could smoke. But I knew there were not. She had helped herself to the sideboard where we kept them for outside tables. Later the same group had been joined by a short dodgy man, and I discovered he was calmly smoking away when I came down about an hour later, the astray full of stubs. So I said, ‘But you can’t smoke here,’ really surprised again, because he was with the girls I had spoken to before. I lifted the remaining two clean ones and then lifted the one they had been using along with the peanut bowls, suspecting they would use them. I clattered them about so they could tell I was annoyed. Well, when I went to the kitchen to leave the bowls to be washed, apparently the squat guy went over to mio marito to complain, haughty and irate. ‘I’m 40 years of age and I will not be treated like that. That young girl (figliola he called me – probably thinking I am much younger than I am, and just a waitress – which may in the end, have been an advantage), That is no way to treat your customers, do you know who I am?’ He probably made some mean little Mafiosi threats. Mio marito said, I just hope he doesn’t get obsessed, because I said, well they wont be back and good riddance. But he is afraid they’ll come back and smoke again on purpose, or do worse … how there sickening evil mafia minds work...

I heard him say that the problem was that the anti-smoking law had to be followed, or we all coul get fined. But mafia-man will have been thinking, ‘no one’s going to fine me!’. ‘This isn’t Dublin or Arezzo or Bath,’ said mio marito. ‘These people are dangerous and expect to be respected and do what they want.’ God, like the restaurant the English School director was telling me about on the sea front where people brought their own food and drink and the place had to close down because it went bankrupt. So mio marito is actually afraid of mafia. I asked before coming here if there was any mafia activity around and he assured me there was not. What a lie. It is full of it. He even denied it the other day when the guy at the agriturismo asked us how it was going and I said the bureaucracy and the mafia society made everything difficult or impossible. Mio marito actually said no, what do you mean, they haven’t come near us for money. I said, no, not for money, but in other ways their presence is felt and our disadvantage in not knowing the right people.

He blew up in front of the waiters. ‘You can’t react like that, you can’t deal with the customers like that.’ I said, it is funny how I am always always, always the only one who notices the smoking; it is right under your nose and you never do anything about it. Later, when I was drying dishes with the cameriera while the cameriere was washing because our dishwasher had taken sick, I came down because mio marito had let more people in (it was 3am) and one was smoking, the tall guy I had told earlier not to smoke. They hold the cigarette away from their body when you say something, stretching their arm in the vague direction of the door as if that will help things. So pathetic. I said to mio marito, you better say something to that guy. Makes a complete mockery of me. He said he hadn’t noticed. How can he notice everything else but not that? He said to the waiters - what are you doing, you know the antismoking law, you have to tell the clients not to smoke. So now, not only can I not take in the tables at the end of the night because I basically throw people out, but now cannot tell them not to smoke apparently.

Our dishwasher is a complete liability. Since he got his contract he has been sick all the time … First he put the stem of a wineglass through his hand and we had to take him to casualty; then he poured boiling water over his foot and it swelled up like a balloon, both occasions meaning a good bit of time off for him and dire straits for us trying to find good dishwashers – people we tried were either too slow or too puny. Last night we had the dance of the dying swan. He sank down into the steps outside the kitchen complaining of a headache, asking the waitress and cuoca to touch his forehead to see if he had a temperature. In this heat we could all seem to have temperatures, the waitress smartly pointed out. Could it be a chemical in the cleaning products? Could it be the fact that he had skipped lunch? They had to give him fruit juice and salt and sugar concoctions to try and bring him round, but nothing was working and he suggested a cigarette might help. The waitress, sharp girl, told him to catch himself on. He then worked on the cuoco’s sympathy and had him help him walk around outside to get some air. Having that weight leaning on you would not be desirable, in fact the couco looked relieved to get back in. Go home, he said. But no, instead, having exhausted the kitchen staff he came and flopped around the bar! He leaned over the bar counter and cradled his head in his arms and sighed like it was his last hour. If you felt that bad you wouldn’t want people to see you and you would get yourself home. He wanted to wait until his ‘fidanzata’ came to get him. La cameriera said, I'll give him a good talking to tomorrow, since we had to stay on to do his job!


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bella figura e brutta figura ... 20/09/09

We interviewed a potential cook today. He was recommended by a friend of the family who said he had a good reputation. He made comments about how he worked in a restaurant all summer on Salina and served many insalatone (big salads) there. We wondered if this was a little dig (because we had gone to check him out a few weeks before, and had eaten insalatone!) I hardly recognized him. Tiny little Sicilian man, about 60. Sicilian men all seem to shrink as they get older, apart from those whose gut expands. He had managed the kitchen by himself all summer every day. So he has the energy. He assured us that he feels a strong sense of responsibility. Maybe when you are a cook and have a reputation you feel differently than our two aiuto cuochi. But he became reluctant when I explained the tapas etc.; he withdrew a bit and said he didn’t know the dishes and that it would be like starting a whole different technique at his age. That he had a career and his dishes. Which is the problem with cooks of his age. They don’t really see it as an opportunity to do new things. But he said if he just had to do primi and secondi that was un altro discorso (a different matter). And he said he would help the under-cook if s/he were busy and he wasn’t doing anything, that he never sat about doing nothing. Which sounds totally different to the situation we have at the minute with our two aiuto cuochi - any chance they get they are outside smoking.

Then we saw il barman who had come to load up the fridges, and I remembered I had dreamt of him last night; he had put his hand on mine and said everything is going to be all right. So he said he had worked here since 2003 and that October was always a dead month, and in November and December things would pick up again (not so reassuring since it is still September!). Then he told a big story about how the previous manager had asked him to leave to save money, doing bar, kitchen and front of house all by himself. Our barman thought it was crazy because people always came up for his cocktails. He said the manager used to tell him off for offering too many shots. Afterwards mio marito and I thought he had gone on about it so much that he must think we are watching him too much. I was concerned last night because he offered the English architects shots, and the girl was already drunk and had to drive back to their house by the refinery. They had had a few mojitos but cocktails here are about triple the strength they are back home, never measured. I heard the barman tell the trainee to count to three when pouring the alcohol into the glass! Depends how fast - or how slow - you count! Also I think they aim to cover the ice in the glass as a gauge. And of course here it is common to drink and drive, there never seem to be any check points. The English pair were entertaining: they were wondering how come everyone is obsessed with la bella figura here? (looking good, making a good impression -fundamental tenet of every Italian's life)She was saying ‘I don’t know how they manage to be so dressed up all the time, the men must spend ages getting the hair just right, this greasy look - how do they get it so greasy? They must oil every curl to get it in place.’ And the boy kept saying all the men think they are gods, real studs! Where are the ugly ones? They’ve all been crushed. They are all bullies, kicking out the ugly ones from the public.’ Funny. They went on about how famous it appeared their tutor architect was and how he had friends everywhere and everyone knew him. They went up the castle at Santa Lucia and it was closed but when they saw their tutor they opened and said come in we will show you around and turned on all the lights and it was like magic they said, this would never happen in England. I like it here, she said. At first I thought, oh my god, it is awful; but the people are so happy, they just get excited about going into town, going for a walk at the marina and their drink up at the borgo, how simple their lives are. I said, you say that now because you know you are leaving and she laughed. They said their tutor brought them for coffee with famous national cyclist, and that everyone jumped up as he was leaving the café to get their photo taken with him, but they couldn’t care less. He kept coming into the office as if he were someone important but they didn’t care. And I said yes there is a big celebrity culture here, and they said maybe there is in UK too, though people tend to respect your privacy a bit more. They said something about the prevalence of porn and how they all know the names of porn stars here. It isn’t really a taboo topic here, in fact some ‘good’ porn stars are viewed with respect and admiration almost. They laughed away and said so that is what they do at home.

Then along came very drunk Lucia wanting to practise her English. In her snobby English accent she confided that she didn’t like fat people pushing her,’ and looked down her nose at some large people near her. There is always a certain amount of jostling in front of the bar as people try to squeeze past. She reappeared later, livid and hissing like one of the Mafioso cats of the borgo at her boyfriend who was practising his English with the two architects. 'What are you waiting for? Do you want to stay con questa (with this one - sounds very derogatory in Italian), she indicated the poor English girl who was oblivious andwandered off to the toilet. HOw possessive they are, marvelled the boy! Later on, Lucia got in a catfight outsde. We could see it from our bedroom window. She shouted at another girl, 'You are from 1961 and you are still out here doing the rounds!' The other shouted back, 'You are a prostitute!' The next thing was, her boyfriend rushed to defend her honour, and pushed the other girl to the ground. Immediately two other men wanted to beat him up, and anoter bar manager had to ntevene with his booming voice; ' 'Hai alzato le mani a una donna, you pushed a woman to the ground shame on you!’ Che brutta figura! It was all show, such a performance.

Mio marito was so low today when we remembered the fight: ‘I can’t be doing with these lowlifes, working to serve these uncultured drunk drugged people.’ It is not the Pachamama we wanted, it is not what we dreamed of, the people are not open to our ideas, we’ll never get anywhere with our new ideas.’ He said there was no point; Sicily would never get out of this rut and it made him sick that he had come back. He says ten years ago when he and his family opened the restaurant there was a positive atmosphere; it was a new thing and nice people came up for a quiet evening with their families etc, but now it was drunk and drugged people coming for the last drink so we got the worst end of society. He says he doesn’t feel Sicilian at all, and needs to get out of here. But the Sicilian is in him. I can understand this rejection of the less than salubrious side of life though; the small-town mentality feels even more stiflng when you add the mafioso dimension. All that he left behind.

The news in the Giornale del Sud paper today was about a mafia guy getting 16 years only for 5 murders because he is a pentito and collaborating with the police. His worst kill was three women: mother, sister and aunt, as a vengeance kill against a man they had lost in the late 80s...


Rain and table service 19/09/09

Last night it rained a lot around 10pm and so everyone came in to sit down rather than get a drink at the bar and go outside. I really don't see the point of table services for mere drinkers and think like in an Irish pub, get your drink at the bar and then go and sit down. We don't have cover or service charge for drinks, and there is always the risk that the table will leave without paying. Plus they never take more than one drink, and often have one drink between two on average. They came piling in looking for seats. One group of 13 I had to arrange and clean the table for questioned the bill of 50€. They had a few cocktails, something to eat and bottles of water. A group like that in Ireland would have generated double, if not triple the price. I heard them and went down with la cameriera to mio suocero on the till. He said he added on €4 for the service, since they ate salads and desserts and got drinks brought up to them. Mio marito was over like a flash, and said no, we won’t charge that, and glared at me as usual in front of the waiters. I said your father put on the service charge, and I agree. Mio marito said no, again, and mio suocero said, ‘I see it in a different way,’ quite calmly, and stuck with it, so mio marito gradually moved away and la cameriera said she said to them, ‘Look it is service charge and other places charge cover charge just for sitting in the place so you could have been charged a lot more.’ Good for her – she manages to say what I would like to say, but they wouldn’t accept it from a foreigner, they’d be off complaining with my husband. Other tables assumed I was Spanish and told me where they had been in Spain and how they wanted to have Spanish lessons.

A table of 4 waited 45 minutes for their main course last night. They had the tapas to start and then two swordfish roulades and two tuna steaks, so the cook had the perfect amount of time to start them. They also requested strozzapreti (pasta twists) al pesto siciliano to be brought with the seconds, an unusual request, so I had brought it to the cook's attention when I stuck the order on the board. I had seated them at 9.30, and saw that at 10 there was still no sign of the seconds and had gone in to check – there were no other orders at the moment. Who knows what they were up to. Anyway, as they hate me checking up on them, the cuoca then sent the waiter off to ask me if I had made a mistake when I wrote the pasta was to come out with the seconds – the cuoca was trying to get some kind of school girl revenge! Today I went to speak to the two cooks when they were having coffees after dinner; can you be more collaborative? I suggested, ‘can you,’ I asked the aiuto cuoco who does the tapas and starters, ‘give her a hand if you are not doing anything?’ But she got uppity again, challenging everything, complaining she was doing it all single-handedly. She didn’t seem to understand I was actually trying to support her so things would run more smoothly next time. She disputed the time factor, but she was unlucky that I had actually noted the whole procedure since they were the only table dining at that time. The tuna steaks and the swordfish rolls take five minutes on the grill … I can’t say anything to these people – yet they wouldn't say a thing to my husband.

The lovely Rex Sicilia crew came up with a few friends and recommended heartily the Gnocchi Pachamama. The Palermitan complimented me on my green stone necklace, and asked how my trip to Spain had gone, and the girl told me she is going back to study lettere and anthropology in her office in Rome where she researches. How interesting she does something different all summer, to get out of the office. Very down to earth. Captain Maurizio caught us as we were flying past – ‘Please, come and have a drink with us, it’s not every day we are here!’ It was great to sit down for a minute because we were run off our feet. ‘You weren’t expecting all these people,’ they smiled. And I said, ‘no, but every time you lot come, it is busy: come more often!’ He declared it was the best restaurant they had gone to all summer, that we had everything right; atmosphere, service, décor, food, cocktails, everything! he said beaming, a compliment indeed as they go round all the islands and Calabria and Sardinia. How nice. Emmanuela said it was the only place he stayed on after 10.30 and they all laughed. Mio marito said every day we think of improvements, and I said, every day we ask ourselves why? Is it worth it?’ and she laughed.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Being tourists: Nebrodi mountains 16/09/09

Today on way back from the Nebrodi mountains we stopped at a salumeria to get typical deli stuff. We were there about an hour as mio marito sampled and listened to the non stop talking man. Sicilians don’t market themselves as well as Tuscans, he said. He made us smell the oil he has freshly pressed. But I like the Tuscan oil better, the green spicy fragrance. ‘Oh, you just like Tuscan oil but experts say that that isn’t even the way good oil should smell!’ said my husband. Honestly I can’t say anything at all. Hmmm, but Tuscan oil must surely have something, as it is the most prized and exported in Italy. And he was thinking the same thing I’ll bet. There was a brochure about the local wheat festival with a guy driving an old Sicilian style horse and cart, the big yellow gypsy wheels and the old style dress, stripy shirt, waistcoat, neckerchief. In the inside page there was a rugged man, head leant back while he guzzled some wine.

Things hadn’t changed much in that town, San Fratello, because we stopped in a bar on the way, having noted there were no women in any of the bars nor on the street. It was 3pm or so. The bar we stopped in had a circle of little men talking loudly, not playing cards or smoking as we had seen the others do. The oldest man was in traditional old man gear, the checked shirt and braces holding up the old chords, the coppola (Sicilian old man’s hat). I asked the barman after eating the very good cheese sandwich, why there were no women and he said he had had to put a sign on the bathroom door and lock it for women because men kept trying to go in on the women when they were in the bathroom! That desperate! It seemed so. They all had a good stare at me. I wondered what it would have been like had I gone there alone.

It was nice to go to the Nebrodis and get fresh mountain air. Lovely view of Etna from our mountain perch on the first day’s walk up a path. At the crossroads there was a man in a caravan selling salumi and formaggi and takeaway panini. He said he had been there 25 years. Quite a strategic spot. We had a nice walk to the lakes, a brief picnic and then it looked like rain. Wild horses, wild black pigs galore (being fattened up for pork), goats, and sheep that looked to me like goats but which mio marito said were Sicilian sheep. Cows and enormous staring bulls. All with tinkling bells around their necks.

The second night we ate in the ghostly Villa Miraglia, full of wooden pictures of medieval soldiers and white washed gritty stone walls inside. Horns from some animal protruding from the wall, and some stuffed animals, of course. Our man Vito (have always wanted to meet a Vito in Sicily) had just returned from being abroad. Funny moment when mio marito said the same and Maurizio said how do you feel about returning. Mio marito was about to launch into the usual lament of nothing has changed and nothing works and how backward it is, but Vito got there first with his joy at being back in his native land and with la famiglia. Now he was having this experience, alone in the woods in that ghostly old building with its smelly dark old rooms they had shown us quite proudly too.

The first night we had met Danilo and Gordon, Sicilian and Yorkshireman. Danilo talked non stop showing off his knowledge of the world to poor dumbstruck Gordon. We wondered about the relationship. They gave little away but were sharing a room because he said Gordon had woken early and he hadn’t been able to sleep for the cold. ‘Go on ask for some heating and blankets,’ he urged me, ‘I can’t be the only one to ask for everything!’ He told Gordon, his not so eager listener, about food and music he had sampled around the world, his travels in Belem and the Amazon and the ‘sex tourists’ there. Oh really? said Gordon, in his Yorkshire accent. But we wondered what Danilo was up to over there as he didn’t say who he was with. He also was most annoyed he had deleted a picture of a beautiful Brazilian girl who played piano and sang in a bar round the corner from where he lived in London. A hotel foyer where no one listened to her, but he always popped in and clapped he said. He was kind about Sicily though and our plight. Give it a chance he said, give it a go, because it isn’t that great in Ireland or UK right now, with the bad weather and who knows if you’d get a job now. And Brazil so far away with all the mosquitoes and other developing world inconveniences. Grass is always greener, he said. At least here you have your own comfortable house. You could never get a mortgage in a good place in Dublin or UK and then you’d be tied down to that.

Now that the heat is gone and I can think more clearly, I think we have done a good job in setting up this place. But as soon as we get home the phone rings: mio marito’s boss from his previous job with a development organisation, calling to congratulate him on the approval and EU funding for the last projects he wrote for Brazil before leaving. Hmmm, it was a shortlived peace …

Rain - divas - sunken ships with dangerous waste 13/09/09

13 September 2009

Torrential rain and thunder and lightning. That is how the autumn introduces itself in Sicily. It started suddenly last night and guests were on the terrazza. I was downstairs and didn’t even notice. I always seem to miss the drama! The cameriere and mio marito moved the chairs and tables and the cameriera dealt with getting people inside while I was on the till and dealing with people downstairs.

Il barman annoyed just about everybody last night. He has no social manners. All he is good for is simpering and kissing around the girls who come. He is probably trying to make us feel that he is indispensable because they come for him …. Mio marito says he always hears him telling people, no, fortunately this is not my real job, I work in the marina (he gets to wear a uniform). He loves saying that. When the torrential rain came down he was off in the bar next door with our glass of wine and the pasta cooked by the lady cook there who is now flirting with him … He doesn’t know a thing about wine, he had told me. But when I poured myself the glass of wine for the risotto, he said give me some too. So I did, a typical Italian measure. But far from a basic ‘thanks’, he immediately opened the fridge and filled up the glass. I should have said, ‘oh, excuse me, did I not give you enough?’ Mio marito made a few sharp comments later. ‘So where were you when it poured? Next door? Oh yeah, I forgot, he doesn’t have a terrazza so you wouldn’t have had to do anything there.’

I wonder with all the discounts do we actually make any money. I think I could be as rude as I like all during the table service but then give a discount and people would come back … that is how it is here. The 3 guys who came and sat at table 1 downstairs wanted panini so I explained the tapas were the wonderful alternative and they took them and were a bit concerned but I said you can ask for more if you particularly liked something. So later I saw them licking the plate of the salsa brava and joked that they liked it and asked about the tapas - they said erano pocchi, they were very small. I said of course, you were afraid to order them and asked for a portion for one person. You can get it for three people and pay three times the price, I thought. In fact we must do that, insist on two portions if they are 3 people. Of course it will seem little. Anyway they enjoyed calamari and couscous and then said ‘trataci bene’ (treat us well) for the conto. So I gave a little discount but that wasn’t enough, they wanted the amaro too (which we offer automatically to big tables or people who have had a large meal, or regulars – these guys didn’t tick any of those boxes and were just trying it on). Was there a Spanish amaro they enquired? I joked, but I gave you a sconto. They started to get angry almost! Looking at each other, ah she says she gave us the sconto. They didn’t get my humour. So I had to insist, please, what amaro would you like! They said they would come back if we treated them well. When could they see me again they asked. Il barman, as usual, pricked up his ears.

Today the rain is reminding me of home. The smell your clothes get, and the smell of earth outside. Fabulous. How I longed for this. Have put on jeans first time since May. And trainers.

A ship has been found under the sea off Calabria, with dangerous waste on board. It has come out that in the 90s and 80s the mafia made deals with the waste disposal companies to get money from them, so that instead of dealing with the waste they would sink the ships. All the dangerous carcigenous waste etc. How awful, it could explode and pollute the waters, the fish, and us. Who know how many ships there are. I said, we need to get out of here. This is a forgotten country. Dirty and a health hazard. Mio marito agreed, let’s get out of here, he says. It is awful for me to have come back to this rubbish. Nothing has changed in fact it seems worse, he says. It is third world here. It is so frustrating. A forgotten land. Abandoned, not connected to the outside world at all. You can only stay here if you are so ignorant you don’t care or just not interested. Italy was never a real democracy, said mio marito, it was just a shambles of a monarchy and then a republic that didn’t work well either and now it is a dictatorship in disguise. Berlusconi’s latest gaffe – his orgies at his villa in Sardegna with under age models and other European politicians. Pretty depressing.


Table dynamics 12/09/09

The director of the English School asked me half joking if I would teach at the Oil Refinery. I’m thinking about it as I think it would give me another reality. An English pair of trainee architects doing stages here said it depended very much on the circumstances in which you meet Sicilians, because they were always treated really well when their boss took them to parties and introduced them to friends, but they noticed a kind of suspicion or disdain in general when in shops or cafes etc. I would meet lots of new people there – well, lots of men, as only men work there - an insight into the Sicilian male’s mind. Get me out of this borgo, get clients for the restaurant, a life of my own. You get free lunch, she said!

We had blues music last night – the singer actually had a nice voice and nice way about him, not the usual big ego. The waiters were complaining that they couldn’t hear a thing, and the kitchen staff were laughing at how ridiculously loud it was. So I asked Gaetano, the guitarist who plays quite regularly for us with different groups he plays in, to lower the volume. He seemed to think it was fine, but I looked at the singer and said – they need to accompany you, but they are drowning you out, and your voice is at the right volume. So he listened to them and agreed, and had them lower the volume. Good man. Mio marito was straight over later asking me what exactly I had said to them; Gaetano apparently told him we had a scuffle. I can’t say anything …

We had a lovely group of people last week who are doing an Italian course for a few weeks. One of them was our Swedish regular, sent here often for consultancy engineer work at the refinery (he says it is so illegal and dangerous over there that it should be closed down before it blows up - I think I’ll pass on the English teaching). He dines with us once a week, sometimes with his British boss (an Indian sikh), mostly alone. They love our food, and have made it their business to try every single thing on the menu. They love it because it is different, they say, offering the best of local specialities, but with a new twist, and also offering more adventurous food. The Swede with his Austria and Spanish companions from the language course were one of my favourite tables so far; they sat out on the candlelit terrace and just beamed and photographed every dish that was put before them, from the Sicilian ‘sfizi’ or appetisers and the tapas, to the desserts. The Spanish lady gave me her congratulations at the end, for the perfect combination of atmosphere, service and quality food. Delighted!

Another group from the same language school came last night, but were not so pleasant. Germans and Hungarian and a Russian with the Italian teacher. He was full of himself that he couldn’t decide what to have as if there wasn’t enough choice or he wasn’t convinced it would be good. The Germans were happy enough to take the sfizi to sample local fare. But the Russian couldn’t decide; he wanted something typical so I said the involtini (swordfish roulades). He hummed and hawed and they explained what kind of fish it was, and then I spent ages trying to explain that he wasn’t going to get a big fish, but rather the little rolls grilled with breadcrumbs and pistacchio crust. He hardly listened and just kept saying he didn’t understand. He just wanted attention on him. He was the typical annoying student, pretending to be thick just to get attention. I could see the Germans were fed up with him. Later on, I came to see how they got on and no one was that excited. I think they were all just bored with each other’s company because even the teacher was boring, he must be the one who was demoted that our Swedish friend had told me about. He said the couscous was lacking in juice (the same could be said of him), though he may have had a point, as I am always telling the cuoca to put more tomatoes and juice on it to give it some colour. I am not convinced about the fish couscous – stick to paella and risotto al pescatore I say, if you want seafood, or our wonderful Garbuglie di Venere – fresh pasta strips like linguini with baby tomatoes, rocket, shaving of tomato and fresh mussels. I then asked how the involtini went down with the Russian as I could see he was itching to talk; but he made a whole palaver, saying he could get them in the frozen section of the supermarket and microwave them at home or something really sarcastic. So he could finally speak Italian, I thought. I was raging. My cook prepares them every day fresh with her own hands (con le sue mani - I've picked up this Italian saying!), I said; she marinates the fresh swordfish and dips it in breadcrumbs and pistachio and rolls it up and it is grilled for you just before serving. I am sorry if you didn’t like it but it is one of our most requested dishes and it is a Sicilian speciality. It is, in fact, my mother-in-law’s special and one of the things that people remember from when they ran the restaurant – they are still coming back and asking for them. It was so funny, there I was defending a Sicilian dish and our cooks. Cocky little boring twerp. The German girls were totally embarrassed by him. People like that should stay at home, said the cameriera.

The tavolone out on the terrazza were among the nicest people we have come across in the restaurant. A large family with uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews, they appeared to meet up to try out new restaurants, as we heard them talking about other places too. They stopped me to ask me the recipe for the salmorejo and I was delighted. They said are we the only people who like it? And I said, no, but they don’t get it really, they don’t know it is the typical tapa for the summer in Andalusia and they said, ah but you have it just right; they had had it in Cordoba during the summer, but this one is better, they said. I said, yes it comes from Cordoba but we put in less garlic and vinegar to suit Italian tastes. They laughed, saying that their guidebook had warned Italians to avoid gazpacho as they would find it too strong in flavour (similar to salmorejo, but also has raw peppers, cucumber and onion, as well as the tomatoes and garlic and dried bread). They then wanted desserts and I came up and they all wanted crema catalana and the lemon cream. I said the crema catalana was the recipe of a friend from Catalonia (actually a lady having coffee next to be at Barcelona airport in June) and the lemon cream my mother’s recipe. And they all said well,then, I want that. And then there were only four lemon creams left so one friendly guy said mi sacrifico io, what can I have and I said the chocolate mousse is also my mother’s recipe, and he said ok then no doubt about it. Mio marito heard them complimenting them on the way past and they cleaned their plates.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Winter menu 14/09/09

We went this morning for a coffee and granita etc at our local cafe. It is so hot didn’t even feel like the coffee really. While mio marito was outside under the awning a guy started chatting me up at the bar. Ciccio, my favourite café barista asked me how to say umbrella in Spanish because there were two Spanish girls outside and they were decorating the drink with cocktail umbrellas. So the guy goes, ‘sei spagnola?’ and I said yeah, not bothered to explain, it was too hot … He said his parents had just been to Barcelona and asked where was I from etc. So how long are you staying here? I said I lived here. For work, he asked? Yeah, I run a restaurant in the borgo. ‘But I’ve never seen you, are you in the kitchen?’ I said no, I run it. There you go again, the Sicilian male putting the woman in the kitchen! He didn’t seem too convinced, even when I said I ran it with my husband. Haha, Ciccio was laughing to himself taking it all in.

Over our coffees we read that the mayor now wants to put another tourist floating pier down at Vacarella, which would take away spaces for the fishermen’s boats, so they got almost violent in protest at a meeting with him yesterday. I am not surprised. That part of Vacarella is the most picturesque and charming of the whole of Milazzo. The postcard fishing port. Stupid stupid man. The fishermen all sit there playing cards and chatting in the shade under the big old trees, watching all who pass and commenting. On my own I get long lecherous looks. All of them short with the same sunbattered faces and fat noses and beer guts. One of them fed the cats the fishy leftovers while we sat under the shade of a tree.

Then we talked of the menu and changes for the new season. Mio marito would like to have ‘sfizi invernali’ – winter appetizers, just like we had summer appetizers, like stuffed aubergines and aubergines rolls and caponatina … lots of little tasters with aubergines and swordfish and gratin of mussels, because it was the season. Also the thing that takes most preparation in the kitchen, as there were about 8 different things per plate. On top of all the tapas available. I think they are part of the reason the cooks spent so much time preparing and also were not able to keep an eye on best by dates etc. Also I don’t think we will have the turnover in the winter to put on all these fresh daily specials. I think we should have excellent tapas. Instead the tapas will all be frozen fried things that no one will want, and the sfizi will be all lovingly handmade Sicilian delights. We should have five tapas, said mio marito. But the whole point is, that it is a tapas bar! I have already spent ages working on the menu. I am going to find a definitive list of the best most flavoursome tapas, a range of meat, fish and vegetarian, so he cannot possibly say no! The cooks won’t be so keen on sfizi invernali when they see that they have ten new tapas to learn.

Being tourists: on Salina 13/09/09

We got away for a couple of days to Salina, thank God, after the mayhem of the last non-stop month. It is the third Aeolian island you get to on the boat, behind Vulcano and Lipari,distinctive because of its two huge volcano humps, like a camel.

Salina was full of space and colourful beautiful flowers, mountain smells and shade from the two mountains, wonderful to drive round them on the scooter. Also cooler here, there was even a bit of cloud when we walked up the fern mountain, ‘monte dei Felci’. Winding awkward cliff paths down to the rocky beaches – you had to rent out big lilos to sit on over the volcanic rock, but the sea was so calm you could just lie on them in the sea. Stromboli is still more magical for me. But Salina is lovely for the space and colour and the amount of greenery and sprays of bougainvillea and jasmin and other bright Mediterranean flowers. We had the fabulous Sicilian speciality at the famous restaurant by the sea - da Alfreddo - the pane cunzato (condito in Itaian) - 'dressed' or 'garnished' bread ... basically a hge pizza-like hunk of break, flavioured with salt, origano and tomates, and the topped wth whatever you fancied from te menu, going from lighter versions like tomato and mozzarella, to tasty little anchovies and baked ricotta ... We had to have some lemon granita after in order to get up from the table ...! Clear views of nearby Lipari rising ou of the sea.

Returning from our aperitivo (the refreshing spritz – campari and prosecco, plus olives, sundried tomatoes and nuts) at a cute white bar on the cliff overlooking the sea and the sunset we ran into the Rex Sicilia lot. The captain invited us on to the fabulous wooden schooner and showed us around. Everything was made of dark polished wood, down to the fabulous wheel of the helm, but it had the top technology, as he showed us on the electronic maps and charts. He told us more about the terrible boat accident a few weeks ago; two boats foundered on some rocks, the first a dingy, and the second a caique (light mediterranean fishing boat) which tried to rescue them. Half of the family died; the other children were asleep on another boat. He said they were probably on cocaine and alcohol and had been stupid to go there by night, as it happened at a point called ‘le tre pietre’ three huge rocks jutting out close to the island of Lipari, clear to be seen on any updated map. The water is to shallow to even go close there anyway, he said. Very very sad.


Charming regulars 9/09/09

Last night mio marito had a night off, so I was alone with a trial barman who just wants some experience. Ethnic Andrea came in; he runs an ethnic furniture store where we bought a lot of the lamps for the restaurant. He confided that he and his wife were basically finished and she wasn’t coming back from Argentina, where she had supposedly gone for the August holidays with their young son. He said he was flying out to Buenos Aires the next day with his other son from a previous marriage, to visit and try and come to an arrangement. She’ll probably have heart failure when she sees me, he said, she has no idea I’m coming! He had some saying, which he excused himself with me first (I think for being foreign, as opposed to the chauvinistic tone): ‘donne e buoi di paesi tuoi’ – get your women and your oxen from your own country. I smiled and said, don’t worry that can be easily adapted to ‘uomini’ instead of ‘donne’ (‘men’ instead of ‘women’).

He was with Lurch from the Adams family, an ex-heroin addict who was from a high society family with money to burn; he was an excellent mathematician before the drugs burned his brain. Now he is whiter than white, with a knife-thin face which makes his protrusive nose seem even larger. I have never smelt anything like his cologne, it almost knocks me out. He puts on the innocent good guy face but looks like there is an anger underneath . Drunk Domenico, a regular at the bar next door, rolled up and insisted on buying him a drink. Lurch said, ‘No, no - I don’t drink,’ – it’s bad for him, but he accepted a tonic water. Then when the practice barman, whom I could have done without since he left a real mess behind him, gave him the tonic he said a stick a wee drop of gin in there too. So he got a bit wasted immediately because his thin ex-junkie body can’t take it. Domenico then vomited outside to everyone’s disgust. What bad luck, why couldn’t he have gone next door usual? He came back in and insisted on having another drink, something awful like gin with apple juice. I tried to discourage him but didn’t want to push it, having seen how dangerous these Sicilians can become if they feel threatened. No sooner had he drunk it than he spewed it up in front of the counter. Gross. I couldn’t believe this was happening in our nice locale.

This place is for the people who got left behind.


UFO sightings 6/09/09

Our friend Cristiano phoned in great excitement to tell us he had seen UFOs. Mio marito was jealous he didn’t see them. There have been a series of sightings along the peninsula and in a nearby small town over the last few years there have been many inexplicable occurrences, like sofas going on fire and mobile phones flying through the air for no apparent reason. Scientists suggest they are attracted by the volcanic energy here, and are probably coming in for closer observation of life on our planet. Recent sightings have been near open air restaurants along the coast, where groups of people have all witnessed the phenomenon thus giving credence to the whole thing. Not that much persuasion is necessary in this highly superstitious country. Our friend claims to have seen what other witnesses have experienced. A set of lights rising out of the sea at great speed, hurtling through the air towards him and making fast neat circles in the air and then retreating again, all in the space of 30 seconds.

Could it not just be some sort of mirage brought on by the heat, like those in the desert? It’s hot enough ..

Sick of heat, sick of pasta 4/09/09

One of our elderly mad neighbours came over for a chat while I was setting out the table on the terrace. He told me he and his family were from Rome and they were down here just for the summer. This is the man who threatened my father-in-law and told him he would ruin him! Because he didn’t like the fact that my in-laws had opened the first trattoria in the old part of town. But a few years later he cashed in on the new affluence that the burgeoning of new restaurants and bars brought to the borgo and now he rents out the bar next door to ours! He is trying to make amends I think, through me, the foreign daughter-in-law. ‘It’s not you who play the loud music, it’s that bar down the road that keeps us all awake,’ he said, nodding his head in that direction. I said yes, apparently the police have been calling in on them and telling them to stop around 2am. The other neighbour complains about them too, I said, Malvasia, who appears in his white string vest and raises his fists in the air at them when they blast at 1am and 2am disco music from their Olympic-size speakers. This guy used to throw bread and tomatoes at guests dining in our terrace in the days when my in-laws had it! ‘Hmmpf, have you noticed how he always scratches his balls?’ asked Alfreddo before wandering off.

I am sick of pasta and risotto. I want all those tasty earthy soups I usually make in the autumn, but September here is still full summer. We are reviewing the menu again for winter now, adapting to the fish and vegetables available in the changing of the seasons. I would like to put some hearty soups on the menu, but they tell me that soups are something you have at home here, not in restaurants. But I bet they just have vegetable soup and minestrone and plain lentil soup. They don’t know the wonders of wild mushroom soup, root vegetable soup, spiced lentil soup, butternut squash and spiced apple mmm. In the end, I fear we will become a halfbaked Sicilian trattoria, just trying to lure some locals in who want local kind of food. This summer there quite a few customers who wanted Spanish stuff, but in the end I thought the tapas were a joke because they were all Sicilian - we had to replace things that weren’t selling with local alternatives: Like the Mediterranean sfizi of marinated olives and salted almonds etc, the aiuto cuoco never got them right – he microwaved the olives when the olive oil coagulated in the fridge sending them out hot and the salted almonds were always soft and soggy with oil. The crostini with salsiccia looked awful, supposed to be chorizo. The broad bean salad never was any good. The skewers of prawns in breadcrumbs were too soggy and frozen so they became marinated prawn salad and the polpo alla gallega became octopus salad Sicilian style because the Galician style didn’t suit the local palate, the octopus being cooked in a way they weren’t used to. The only Spanish things left were the tortilla and the salmorejo. So disheartening.

I have lived in 35 degrees for a year now apart from March and April and my body is wrecked; my legs are like lead, my eyes halfclosed all the time in the heat. I am so sick of it, I hate anything to do with heat. I can’t think straight. I can’t do anything. My brain is cotton wool. God I hate this heat. I hate what it does to me, I am going mad. And this heat explains why the Sicilians are the way they are, the volcanic energy.

Spanish visitors 3/09/09

Finally September but the heat is still drastic. Everyone is tired of it. Everyone is exasperated. They keep talking about how August usually brings storms and the weather breaks but so far none of that has happened. Our house is still a greenhouse at night, the restaurant is still a sauna, the kitchen a furnace. I don’t know how the cooks bear it.

Yesterday la cuoca was off with me because I left a note on various things to be done among which to clean under the cookers as requested – they left the stuff there even though I had asked them to clean, the clams and the bits of beans were still there. So unhygienic. You can’t even ask them to do their job but they take the huff. The problem is now la mamma is no longer there to do all the dirty work. The mousses were off on Sunday; I tasted a few and they were acidic with little condensation balls on top. How do they not see this?

What does the Italian state do for Sicily? Nothing, said the group of espanoles from Valencia. They were marvelling at the fact that the Sicilians are all nationalists as well as ‘regionalists’, and the fact that it is polluted and dirty and the tourist attractions are not well looked after and exploited. Nothing works here, and the Italian state does nothing for Sicily. They were hilarious when they talked about the driving in Palermo – totally illegal they said. Their local friend lead them down one way streets where in Spain you would get a big fine if not crash into a car going the right way. The three-lane roads in the centre where five lines of cars were driving. The way a car would start edging towards you from the left and you would immediately go to the right but there would be a car there too and you would close you eyes and wait for the squash but it never happened. And mio marito can’t understand why I don’t drive in the town centre here in August with all the angry drivers and overcrowded streets! The filth in the Vucciria market they said, produce all thrown around to each other and to the ground. The dodgy people hanging around like at a souk in North Africa. And we are Spanish, used to this kind of ‘rollo’, they said laughing. A little lift in the middle of the full-on Sicilian summer. I put on ‘los Chichos’ for them, a 1970s flamenco rock band and they couldn’t believe it. They gave me loads more Spanish music and rumba to check out on youtube, which I’d love to play in the bar.


la mamma leaves 30/08/09

This afternoon we said goodbye to the mamma (mia suocera), each of us sweating in the heat, the baby sweating in his nappy. My sister-in-law had the four year old by the hand, bags all packed, car stacked up for the migration to the north where she has found a teaching job. Emotional moment. Get a cook, said la mamma. Because those two chancers in the kitchen are going to try it on now. They know you need someone and will ask for more money. My younger sister-in-law (mia cognata) heard them saying this as she was going down to the kitchen yesterday; they were complaining about how they would have to come in earlier the next day and so would they get paid more. Well, if you want to get paid less for the days you show up at 6pm! Last night we opened a bottle of prosecco and got an icecream cake in her honour and there they all were, our Fawlty Towers crew, drinking to her health, the kitchen thinking how to turn to their advantage the new state of affairs and my husband and I wondering how we will manage without her.

The aiuto cuoco got the crema catalana completely wrong - he electric-whisked it. It’s a custard, a crema pasticciera - who ever heard of whisking custard? He doesn’t worry too much if he messes things up, as the mamma said. She said at least the previous aiuto cuoco, if you checked him on something, tried to do it better and showed up on time to get the work done and didn’t grumble. He had that sense of responsibility but she said neither the cuoca nor the new aiuto cuoco have it, they don’t care. They want to get away with doing as little as possible. Why is there such a shortage? It appears to be impossible to find good reliable cooks here.

A new film is coming out by Salvatore Tornatore, called ‘Baaria’, about Bagheria, the area of Palermo where he grew up. I read in an interview he said that every time he comes back to Sicily he sees the contradictions and frustrations, la rabbia (the anger) and the impotenza, ahhhh what an awful collection of things! He loves Sicily but has to be far from it to express it in his work.

We understand, said mio marito.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Volcanic heat 29/08/09

The last few days have been too hot to even go to the beach. I can’t stand being cooped up in the house any more with the limited aircon on, breathing in artificial air. The Sicilians get browner and I am getting whiter as I can’t even go out in the blazing sunlight it hurts my eyes even through the super strong sunglasses. There is nowhere to go. It is too hot to even go for a coffee under the blinding glare of the sun. And if I do go anywhere I will be spotted; by neighbours, clients, family, friends. If I go for a walk at the fisherman’s port, a swim at the levante beach or a coffee, mio marito generally knows about it before I am even home. Talk about neighbourhood watch! It is wearing me out. So today I went to the island of Vulcano, beyond the regard of the locals. I was safely there, browsing the touristy shops, enjoying a panino at the beach café and sweltering on the hot volcanic sand – the black sand burnt my feet – but got a quiet spot under some bushes away from the crowds roasting their flesh. Lovely pink and purple shades in the evening on the yellow rock by the sulphur mud baths. They reeked in the heat. I wouldn’t fancy a hot mud bath in August – even the sea here on Vulcano is warm. But such a relief just to get the change of scene. Away from the small aircon room in our flat, the chaos of the restaurant, the prying eyes of the locals. Peace. Freedom. Mio marito called and was most surprised. He’ll understand one day when he thinks about it. At least I hope so. He doesn’t suffer from the heat, having grown up with it; there are no foreigners to sympathise. It was actually never part of the deal that I’d be here in August, I knew it would be unbearable heat for me. But of course I couldn’t abandon ship now …

Last night at 3.15am the people at the tables outside were showing no sign of leaving so I told them we were closing – the entire restaurant was closed, tables up, barman finished, waiters waiting to carry the chairs inside. They more or less ignored me, and ten minutes later I went back and said it again, politely and they kind of laughed and made some funny comments I didn’t quite get. I thought of how it would be at home, with bouncers and waiters calling ‘Time folks!’ and sweeping you out on to the street. So I started clearing their table of empties shortly after. They started to look like they might be contemplating leaving, but then unfortunately I took a glass that looked like it had the remains of water in it, but was actually vodka. As I found out when the owner of the drink came back from the toilet and shrieked that her glass had gone. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘it is just sitting inside on the counter.’ But she came back most perturbed that there was already another glass stacked on top. I said we’d get her another, but at this point it seemed the table had had enough and they made a big fuss about leaving as if they were being kicked out. They were probably drunk, hence the rudeness. Or maybe not. Anyway, inside mio marito wanted to know exactly what had happened as if I had devised a whole campaign of kicking out these people. The waiters had informed him. The barman was watching. Again, the foreigner got it wrong.

So it was good to get away to Vulcano. Mio marito’s friends asked what I thought later on. I am sure it caused quite a stir that went off there on my own. Not one of them would ever contemplate doing such a thing.

Peter Pan and the bikeshed gang (mio marito and his mates all approaching 40) were all whispering at the end of the night, making cryptic comments and signals; where to go for their nightly smoke, and how to get there without attracting hangers on to their exclusive circle. So cool. Such rebels.

Delicate digestion 27/08/09

Now the most asked question has become, ‘Quando parti?’ When are you leaving? As the immigration of Sicilians back to their jobs up north begins again. Officially the end of th summer is in sight. Some friends told me with glee they had got teaching jobs up north. The bizarre thing is that there is no work for them in Sicily at all. Most of the teaching jobs are in the Milano, Torino and Veneto area where the economy is better there is more industry, higher population growth and … more need for teachers. One of the massive imbalances in Italy. My cugnata is one of these people. To keep up her points she has had to accept a teaching job in Torino, leaving her husband back here, and taking her one year old, and four year old with her, with the mamma in tow to babysit. Thus affecting three families; her own, her mother’s – leaving behind her husband on his own, and leaving us without our star cook! As my sister-in-law said, all the business she will give to the town in Torino – the food etc she will buy for her family – will contribute to the growth of the region of Torino, and is business lost for this small town. Multiply this by the hundreds of Sicilians who live in the north of Italy for work and you can see why Sicily has not developed or grown in the way the north of Italy has in the last few decades. Basically, all the educated young people are forced to move north in order to find work, leaving Sicily bereft of new brains, innovations, research.

This morning we bumped into two friends in the fabulous café down the road. They were having granita – the slushy ice which you can have coffee/lemon/fruits of the forest/raspberry/strawberry/almond flavoured…. It comes topped with whipped cream (much sweeter than our whipped cream) and a big bun they call a brioche, a bit like a plain hot cross bun. Miranda confided gravely that they were only having ‘baby’ granita (little half portions) because they were going to the beach and wanted to be able to swim. And no bun either! We are talking about breakfast of slushed ice and a plain bun. But an hour will pass before you swim, but the time you get to the beach etc. I said. Ah, but our digestion. We might get cramps, pointed out Daniele. ‘My mother always said the change in temperature when you go into the water could cause a nasty dose of indigestion.’ I couldn’t help but laugh. If it was a bistecca alla fiorentina, (t-bone steak), sure, you’d need to leave some time, but your body will have digested that by the time you get to the beach. Here I was tucking into my big custard-filled croissant and cappuccino, ready to hit the beach as soon as I was done. But I obviously have a less delicate digestive system than the Sicilians, who have been mollycoddled by their mothers up to the tender age of 33.

After mio marito was worried I had offended our friends; he takes these kinds of lighthearted comments as serious criticism of Italy from a North European perspective (lumping me in there with all the other countries from the North of Europe is meant as negative thing, as if North Europeans think they are superior). I begin to think Italians must have an inferiority complex in this regard. I would never have imagined mio marito being so touchy. When I lived in Dublin for three years the majority of my friends were Spanish, with some Norwegian, Portuguese and Korean there too, and they all had their views and opinions on Ireland – which didn’t bother me – Ireland is far from perfect. If I say that it is appalling that there is no proper waste disposal here, that there is a terrible smell of the rubbish smoldering away in the 40degree heat and what a disgrace there is no recycling (expecting that he will agree with me, as these are his own thoughts) – he riles up and says, ‘well, you wanted to come here anyway, and it isn’t all about mafia interests and it is hard to work against the system.’ But if I say that I can see such potential here, if only the town council would develop some interactive programs for kids and work on recycling education … he says, ‘ah but you know, we’re in Sicily, it is so backward here, what do you expect?’

It is like they say – you can criticise your own family, but don’t criticise someone else’s. I need to find a less direct approach to bring about change here. See? I am learning...


Harmless flirtng 26/08/09

A few tables were taken inside last night because of the 40 hooligans who were partying on the terazza. So I was serving a table and noticed a guy sit at table 5 in the corner, and he was watching me. So la cameriera took the order and I checked with it to see what it was and set the table. ‘Hai preso il carpaccio di pesce spada?’ I said, ‘hai fatto bene’. (Good idea to take the swordfish carpaccio)‘Sono stato bravo?’ he said, in that coquettish male way of seeking approval. All chat about how he was an actor in Roma and what was I doing here, and languages we spoke. When he heard I was Irish he spoke in English as he had studied at acting school and his English was good. ‘I love how you speak, it is very hot,’ he tells me. I was delighted at last at someone daring to flirt and I realized he didn’t know my husband was in the vicinity.

‘Your dress is lovely too,’ he said, ‘very frufru, it matches my eyes.’ A classic Italian male vanity moment. I couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Mine too,’ I replied, and he looked up from my colourful dress to agree, but soon moved on from the banalities of eye colour. La cameriera arrived with his carpaccio, ‘Are you from Spain too?’ he asked, in a jokey way. I said, no, she’s my sister-in-law, and watched for the change in approach. But he handled it better than most: he hesitated a second, barely a second and then introduced himself to her and she went off so he said ‘So she is married to your brother?’ and I laughed again at this jester, ‘Or your sister?’ ‘Yes, she is beautiful.’ He wanted to know how we met and the background to us coming here, so I filled him in and he concluded that I was ‘pazza’ (mad). He was fully recovered when mio marito showed up, ‘Ah you are the husband?
You have a brilliant wife I suppose you know it. She can do everything – languages, human rights music and travel.’ My husband could only agree. I left them chatting as it turned out they were the same age.

Later I was checking the noisy party on the terrace and the Romeo came wandering out. ‘Do you want a job?’ I asked. We had Manuele, a new dreamy waiter who had worked at the locale a few years ago, and seemed to be enjoying his work, slow motion though he was. Romeo, his father and uncle have set up a theatre company in Rome, as I discovered when I complimented him on not closing down the conversation once he discovered I was married. ‘My job – human resources!’ he grins. He had come to see his Sicilian girlfriend only to discover this very day she had gone off camping with friends. He seemed upset under the banter. ‘You have no idea how people change when they know I am married - they physically back away. And the regulars don’t even talk to me, they might look or smile, but no men ever talk to me. Only those who don’t know, and they ask what are you doing here and I said my husband and I run it. End of conversation they don’t say another word to me.’ On his way out, he tells me, ‘You are wonderful!’ Lovely encouragement in the midst of the usual criticism and lack of empathy. I had the impression he had a sense of the difficulties here.

The guys at table 5 and 6 outside were very sweet too when they asked for more wine and beer, joking that they hadn’t liked the ones I had brought them before, since they had drunk them so quickly. The chatty one shook my hand when they were leaving and the friend kept watching me. The two playboys got lively at the bar, ‘Everything was wonderful,’ they said, ‘We loved it, but where are you from?’ ‘We are compadres, soy de Mejico,’ said the chatty one about the Spanish influence and he babbled away about the food. But then he asked what I was doing here and my habitual reply ended the chat. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that’s your husband on the bar, and so is this your dad.’ He started chatting in Spanish loudly with my father-in-law and mio suocero laughed, enjoying the craic. If I want to chat to customers I’ll have to make up another reason for my being here ...


Mafia mentality 25/08/09

The latest ‘mafia’ activity: last night the police came to us at 1.30 punctually and got out of the car to make the group we had playing outside in the square stop. Mio marito ran out frantically to tell the band to stop, in fact the band were not amused and Daniele later was giving off to Salvo. We have no choice though, the group cost 300€ and probably only played an hour and a half for God’s sake, 1.30 is still the middle of the evening. Plus, the live music continued until 2.30 at the bars on either side of us, ON THE SAME STREET. I mean, what is that about? Who is it that has it in for us? Is it the police, or is it a resident? I was upstairs on the terrace and didn’t see them; I would have asked why we had to stop and the other bars didn’t. But mio marito says these are not questions to put to the police on duty. It could get you a fine.

His friend Cristiano said to go to the police HQ tomorrow and ask to talk to one of his friends about it, just to ask for equal rules for all. But mi marito said this would expose us and he wouldn’t want to cause animosity with the other bars. I don’t think it would, I think it makes perfect sense, it is so unfair. This is third time the have come to us while other bars have had live music OUTSIDE on till much later. Everyone is so afraid to speak out here. Mio marito is afraid if he says something that they will send more inspectors here to find fault with us and give us a huge fine for no good reason. This culture of fear, that is how it works here. Everyone has a guilty conscience and everything works on the basis of this climate of threat and fear. Unbelievable. This is the mafia mentality here – a whole vicious circle based on rumours and threats and rules for some and different rules for others. It makes me sick. This is why the Sicilians are so oppressed and therefore so explosive and volatile and suspicious and prickly.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Entertaining customers 24/08/09

The summer is passing and mio marito and I have hardly had time to draw breath. Unbelievable that it is nearly the end of the summer. The most beautiful month lies ahead according to many Sicilians; September is lovely with fabulous sunsets and cooler air but lovely weather still and a mirror-like sea.

Yesterday there were posers at table 3 on the terazza. A tall muscular guy with a mop of white hair and big grey sideburns and a t-shirt with graffiti phrases all over it. An attractive woman in a long dress with long flowing hair, and two blond twins in a pram and a curly blond 4 year old running around in the two terraces, with some friends. I was sweet to the little girl since she was playing with the candles - I told her it was dangerous and also annoying for us if she blew them out! Then she was eating salt directly from the salt cellar and the flashy father saw and didn’t do a thing. He didn’t do much for the kids which is why I wasn’t sure they were his. At the end I asked a friend who was there with them and she said yes, he is a great dj ( in compensation ..). I said really ? I
thought he was John Travolta (he looked like he came directly from the set up Saturday Night Fever). My friend smiled a bit but no one else laughed because John took himself so seriously with his designer belt and designer t-shirt; it was too funny, a total example of how Italians take themselves so seriously. No self-irony.

We also had a tragic tale of lost love. Saverio popped up last Thursday full of charm and chat and was very taken with me. Undeterred by the fact that mio marito was around, he chatted away and was most interested, unlike all the others who run a mile when I mention my husband. It was quite a relief to have a normal conversation with a man. He had come down from Rome to see his Sicilian girlfriend (a dancer connected to his acting company), but she had refused to see him! So the next day he showed up with a girl he had met while out running that evening. The next night he came with the actual girlfriend, and was all over her upstairs and gazing at her intensely. Then he introduced us to her and he was a bit agitated and not so jokey. She smiled and looked pretty, ‘ti piace?' he asked, but I didn’t like that objectification, and I said I don’t know her. But she is bella, he insisted and I said ok she is bella but that doesn’t mean anything. She seemed arrogant and manipulative really. They left and the next day he came back alone and said it is over and he dined with me and then with mio marito. He chatted a bit more normally that night about his family and told us about the film his dad Deodoro had made about cannibalism ostensibly to prove the point that journalists will do anything to get a scoop but it sounded horrific. Apparently it was the 1970s and there was still talk about the last cannibal tribe in South America. How Tarantino sat beside his dad at the screening and couldn’t watch it and how he cited his father as inspiration afterwards. How his father also invented the handheld reporter style filming later user by so many directors ( like The Blair Witch project). So he lives in the shadow of his father.

Last night the girl showed up but made scenes and twice left the table, reported our latest temporary waiter. She uses her beauty as a weapon, he said, and for me she is not pretty she is just arrogant and that is so unattractive. She is full of herself and was really mean to him, even if he was a bit jealous or overprotective, as she accused him. Saverio came back like a stray dog and walked past the backstreet behind the terrace, strangely just as I was watching the old man opposite who was on his patio and looking grievously at the noisy bar blasting music just down from his house. Saverio was all the forlorn actor but I said, anyway be comforted by the fact that you certainly would not want to grow old with that awful screechy voice beside you. And he said yes, I have often said to her to modulate her voice but she never even did that for me, he said, sounding wounded.


August bank holiday and no waiters (16/08/09)

No one is happier than an Italian on the beach on Ferragosto (Feast of the Assumption) with the towel stuck next to them of the next person on the beach. They all moan and pretend to be annoyed that the beach is so crowded but they love it really. Like those postcards of tacky resorts on the Costa del Sol. Oiled men and women wiggling around in skimpy bikinis and tight Speedos, all eyeing each other up and down to see who has the best tan and best boobs, remade or natural. All the usual useless beach chat, I so totally cannot be bothered with it. Mio marito likes it though and seems to need these social occasions outside of work and thinks they serve to ensure people come to us.

It is true we have become the place to be for the summer two weeks … packed out and exhausting. We have worked three weeks non-stop without closing even a single night, in 40 heat. It is too much. It was never part of the deal that I would work through August! But it would be hard not to come in, with his mother on duty in the kitchen every night and the father on the till, but physically and mentally we are both exhausted.

Many compliments last night for the cooking and desserts. Our aiuto cuoco has handed in his notice, he is gong off to do a course in September. WE are relieved. Mia suocera is also leaving to accompany her daughter up north where she has a new job, and the granny is required to look after the children. We have even found a new aiuto cuoco already, with experience in London, so hopefully he will be a bit more international. Mia suocera has worked out that she knew his family and told us the following background: his grandmother was a gentildonna, a real lady, always polite and kind. But his father was a bit crazy, and known as Il bruciato because he had had his face burnt by the mafia (mia suocera told this with utmost normality like it was a regular occurrence). Anyway, all through school the father courted a girl who was friendly with ma suocera, they were like Romeo and Giulietta she said, only the balcony was missing said mio suocero, joking. He failed his final school exams because he was a rebel but his girlfriend made sure he studied and got them second time round, and then they talked of marriage but her family was completely against it. In the end he got another girl pregnant and so they married instead. And this was the aiuto cuoco’s mother. A good woman says mia suocera and a hard worker. But now the father has got back with the original love of his life at the age of 60 - she never loved another man and was ready and waiting for him! Like Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the time of cholera’.

During our brief hour of relax on the crowded beach we got an urgent phonecall from the kitchen to say that the waiter had fallen and hurt his hand at home and had turned up with a sling to work. Our only proper waiter. So we had to leave the beach in a hurry and find a solution. We thought of getting the dishwasher to serve tables and get his mate back to do the dishes but he was in a religious procession for the Assumption. I suggested calling his sister, but my proud marito woudn’t call her. Ferragosto and we have no waiters! Unbelievable. It just seems that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong …


Difficult waitresses 12/08/09

Madame cameriera came back last night, but was most unpleasant. When I arrived she was busy having a smoke outside with the other waitress we were trying out, and neither of them bothered to say hello, so engrossed they were in their gossip – probably about us. La cameriera’s low serious monologue, so convincing. The other waitress – I shouldn’t even call her waitress – had tried out a couple of hours the night before just to get a feel for things, but she had arrived in clothes that would have looked good in a club in Ibiza, but were just not suitable for serving tables. So today we gave her the black t-shirts the waiters wear, but half way through the evening she came up saying she was getting ‘bollicini’ little pimples on her chest, a heat rash. I could see no such thing, but you can’t force someone to wear something, so soon she was back flaunting herself. It’s just not the right image for the restaurant, I don’t know where she thought she was going. She dragged herself slowly up and down the stairs serving tables, and when she didn’t have a specific task, she sat watching us slyly on the stairs, moping around and complaining about the heat. Tell me about it, it is hell to have to work in this sweaty, humid heat, but you have to prepare yourself for it. I have had to take ‘polase’ the last few days – minerals and salts in tablet form to keep up energy levels. And cooling aloe vera gel on the legs, they feel heavy and bloated in this sweltering heat. She really had no idea about what she was doing, and had clearly no desire to work. She said at the end that she wasn’t suited to this kind of work, which was fair enough, we all agreed on that one.

Madame cameriera insisted on talking last night: any normal person would perhaps think of apologising for having left us in the lurch on the busiest weekend of the year, but no, she didn’t quite see it like that. She was still harping on about how she had sent the text message (to say she was going on holiday and wouldn’t come to work on Friday night!) and it would have been fine if mio marito had seen it ... We said again that you can’t send a message like that at such short notice and to communicate such important information. She harped on about all her usual problems, that the dishwasher had taken her work that week he gave us a hand, that my sister-in-law was able to take holiday time, that she wanted her time off (she only works 3-4 days a week …). Mio marito suggested she had some sort of complex: ‘no one wants your work and my sister told us in April she wouldn’t be here’. I said your commitment is with us anyway, it doesn’t matter what others do; and we have tried to accommodate you as far as possible. She was giving me a headache with her low droning voice. She kept interrupting me when I was speaking, talking over me with that low continuous voice. Nothing was good enough for her, she is just a complainer. She left in silence, still surprised that we felt she had been unprofessional.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bedlam 10/08/09

It is about 40 degrees. I am melting. This is not the time for work, it is the time for being on holiday. This time last year we were staying with friends in the south east of Sicily at Pachino and we went to the beautiful white sand beach. We went to the Isola delle Correnti, beautiful white sand beaches where the water splits between the Ionian and the Mediterranean sea with a rocky formation in the divide where the lighthouse used to be. Later we went to the beach of San Lorenzo for aperitivo at sunset and the falò (bonfires) for the night of San Lorenzo. The bonfires lined the whole beach with group of friends standing round them, some singing with guitars, some drinking, others just lying back watching out for shooting stars.

And this year? Staff troubles at the height of the season!

Our cameriera announced ten days ago that she would not be here for the weekend of 7, 8 and 9 August. We were annoyed and said so, because it is one of the busiest times of year and we had no one to replace her with experience of working with us. She immediately blamed the ex-waiter (the boozer) and my husband’s sister (who is also abandoning us to be on holiday with her boyfriend – a luxury permitted to family staff). I didn’t know she was taking holidays and he wasn’t going to be here, she said. I said they did not come into it, that she had an obligation with us to work, we had hired her with a contract and couldn’t risk not having her at that busy time. She had all her excuses prepared; ie., she wasn’t asking she was telling …. How can that be? Anyway, she said she was going, she had to have a break, if she didn’t go now when would she be able to have a break ?(in a few weeks, in September …). So I asked my friend Georgia to do those nights and luckily she was available. But when she came by to check things, Madame cameriera said her back hurt so there was no point in going camping. I said but if your back hurts you probably need a break anyway. But my friend felt she was nicking her work, and said it was no problem for her not to work. Then on Friday Madame simply didn’t show up. No sign at 8pm so mio marito called her. Didn’t you get my message, she said? I’m camping - on holidays. Mio marito was raging. You don’t communicate such important info by sms. You need to check that I have received the message. And you don’t decide at 4pm (which is when she says she sent the message) that you aren’t going to work. We don't want to see her again, but it will be very hard to get a replacement at this point. He then texted her yesterday to confirm that she would be on from Monday, and she replied - can I not have my time off like everyone else? Don’t know what that meant, possibly a dig at the sister.

Friday was bedlam with just me and il cameriere in sala and no waitress. In the middle of all, our ice machine wasn’t working, and the ice we had got simply wasn’t enough. With all the cocktails and especially the mojitos we ran out and it was only midnight, so I was sent off to get ice. I asked the bass player to come with me for the company, but then he kindly carried the ice back, because it was so heavy. My feet were aching. We had to go to two places, it is really awkward asking for it; but we will give it back for sure. This is how it is.

The lavapiati (dishwasher) is still off, for our two busiest weekends. We tried out a dodgy neighbour in need of work, tall and thin as a stick and white as chalk despite the sun. But he was utterly useless and I caught him outside smoking while mia suocera was tucking into the dishes. Err what ? I said and she said he was no good and smiled. He said nothing but asked for his pay for the two nights and left. He simply didn’t show on Saturday night without telling us, and there was bedlam. Just the aiuto cuoco and mia suocera in the kitchen (since the cuoca is still looking after her mother) and there were loads of tables, several tables had second sittings and with no dishwasher, the dishes mounted up. Mio marito was washing dishes and sorting the orders because the aiuto cuoco messed up the two big tables that came in of course. He forgot the end of the tapas orders and got the tables mixed up and sent a paella out before the tapas mixtas (antipasto) … what a nightmare. Mio marito can’t stand him any more. The salmorejo was soso (lacking salt) and I told him to taste it and add more garlic but instead he added more vinegar so it tasted like pee. And he shoves on the prosciutto with all the fat on to garnish it, it looks most unapetising. So i have told him to not bother putting the ham on top. Garnishes not his speciality. The hummous still tastes of nothing and at last I discovered he has been putting double the amount of chickpeas for the rest of the lemon juice, garlic and tahini… aggghhh. I had ravioli with two friends who came to dine on Sunday night and they were hard. How can he not even get the pasta right? I have told him to put in extra ravioli to taste them.

Last night a semifreddo was served with a worm in it, a worm that had got into the nuts. A worm. How depressing. I was so shocked I just laughed. If the aiuto cuoco had made the fruit sauce like I had asked him to, this wouldn’t have happened. The Tupperware wasn’t closed tightly. I can’t stand it. The biscuits were left out too, and not closed properly. He hasn’t a clue. We would sack him immediately if we had someone else. It is agony not being confident at this point that the food will be good. I can’t go over to tables to see how they are getting on, I am too afraid of a complaint. A huge stress.

Today mio marito got overexcited again since I didn’t want to got to the trendy beach with all his mates, accusing me of not wanting to hang out with his friends. After the weekend we have just had, all I want is a spot on the beach with no one I know, my book and the sun shade. I have spent the entire weekend with his friends and family, a joke and a word for everyone, chatting here and there, looking after them when they come to the bar. Talking to them about their jobs and lives away from here, and what it is like for us here. What more can he want? Aggghhh I cannot wait till this endless summer is over. The heat is driving everyone to distraction.


Mad musicians, mad heat 5/08/09

All mio marito’s mates are back for the August holidays. They all congregate at the trendy beach bar, just like they did when they were teenagers in fact, most people are now in their thirties there. For them it is like going out, another occasion to chat, flirt, and eye each other up, with the added bonus that you have next to nothing on. My husband’s two recently separated mates try to convince us to go there but I can’t stand it for the posers and waxed men and overtanned people with ridiculous beads and designer hats and artificial crap. The beach is four lines of towels deep and you can hardly find a path to the water and it is WAY too hot, our house is a sauna. My mind is soggy cotton wool.

At night I watch these proud arrogant people through the window by the till. The tacky girls in high wedges and mini skirts, chest exposed and bums sticking out. A bit like Brazil. The girls watch me, the exs talk about me watching slyly as I pass. I smile and look good, and interesting.

We had another Brazilian night last night – a guitarist and percussionists from Palermo and a local flautist Max, who is known for his wild changes of humour and rages. I was annoyed with my husband for giving the band three bottles of wine for free; he says that is how it is done, but then I have his father telling me that this is not how is used to be. I’m on the till when the flautist comes in roaring that I cam to come now and sing with them right now! They hadn’t been sure as the singer’s girlfriend was to come and sing a bit with them; but since she hadn’t come, they wanted some female vocals to lighten things up a bit. The flautist was having a fit because he had introduced me at the mic apparently and I hadn’t heard him – we couldn’t hear anything properly at the bar as the music was outside in the piazza tonight. So I almost laughed at the fit he was in and followed him, checking that there was no one at the bar. We did a few bossanova numbers, and the percussionists were fun, though the guitarist kept turning round and shouting at them. The flautist did his solos and I came in nicely at the right time to sing through the songs again. I could hardly hear myself because the music was so loud, so I doubt if il publico could hear me well, but afterwards people who came to the bar were complimentary. When the band finished playing the flautist was much more relaxed and suggested we form a group with another guitarist friend he has to do bossanova music. I’m inclined to run a mile. Though he is a great musician, his temperament is just too much for me. Maybe he cools down a bit in the autumn. We’ll see…


Our work as psychologists 2/08/09

Drama and melodrama continues in the heat. All the talk is of the ferragosto (the August bank holiday on 15th) and the return of the Milazzese who live abroad for the August holidays. At the same time la cameriera and others lament the fact that there are less people than normal because of the pollution from the sewage treatment plant and the rubbish problem.

Our cuoca has had to take time off because her mother is unwell and she has to accompany her to Milano for an operation. The aiuto cuoco and mia suocera are convinced she is just making it up as she never said anything to them before about her mother. Whatever, we are one cook down and it is the peak time so we need to fin someone else. We interviewes a gril who responded t our ad on the internet and she seemed so promising but then ddn’t show up and we had to call her number. Her distressed mother replied that she had returned to her old employment (which she had told us she left because they were exploiting her, paying her as an apprentice but having her work long hours as cooks really). The other person who answered the as was a 19 year old who said he would do anything we asked but had no experience. He wanted to make some money before going to university. So he was brought in as aiuto cuoco to chop and prepare food for my mother-in-law and the aiuto cuoco. But no one likes him; he asked for more money because he had to wash some dishes and asked everyone else what they were getting paid!

The aiuto cuoco texted mio marito also asking for a raise in September and wanting to know how much he would get paid for the Mondays we would be open in August (we are not closing though August which is apparently standard practice in the holiday season, but for me is not feasible. To have to work in this heat is surreal, but to hae not even one day off would be impossible. I need that day to recover form the madness. But everyone does I think, especially the cooks. I think we will all be ‘esauriti’ as they say here, wrecked physically and mentally, by the end of August. But we are very dubious as to whether to keep him on. Our friend says the tapas are made without love, and mia suocers said yesterday, he is made for work, like a Trojan horse but he doesn’t have style or passion, it is a routine of productivity. He can’t manage his stress either; last night he couldn’t find the prawns he was marinating; he had all of us searching for them and in the end mio suocera spotted them on the top counter under his nose! He had left them thre just an hour before … My medication causes memory loss ! he proclaimed immediately. I never saw anyone with so many excuses. All of them are like that, with justifications and excuses, even la cameriera – who has asked us for three days off next week; 7, 8, 9 August. But everyone knows you can’t have time off in August, and how difficult it would be for us to find someone a this point of the summer. Anyone who wants to work has got themselves a job for the summer, and everyone else is on holiday. She says she needs a break and her back hurts though she is hoping to go camping … she has only been working a couple of months and only works 3 or 4 nights a week..)

The latest disaster was the dishwasher – while cleaning a wineglass it broke and he speared his hand. Mio suocero rushed him off to A&E while the kitchen staff quickly wiped up the bllod off the floor. The dishwasher was very upset because he needs the money, but he will get insurance cover anyway, thankfully we renewed it this week. The aiuto cuoco told us that this mother is dead and the father doesn’t look after him and his siblings have all moved out. Honestly PM is like a psychologist's clinic, everyone has issues. Mia suocera, being the great mother she is, is prime counsellor. The aiuto cuoco is messed up, the dishwasher is an abandoned child; the cameriera has to maintain herself (which for her is a problem, but at the age of 28 it should surely be normal and expected???) , the ex-waiter was divorced, two kids, two lovers, drink problem; the barman has his ego, the cuoca’s mother is ill, and our new younger male waiter had to leave at 12.30am yesterday because his grandmother is dying … everyday there is a new staff issue!


Lola on stage 31/07/09

Last night Lola Montez performed with a trio of musicians on the terrace: classical guitarist, bass guitarist and longhaired drummer (who looks like the typical rock drummer but assures me he plays reggae and ska and jazz). We have been rehearsing for a few weeks, and tonight was the deadline. A lot of the rehearsal time was spent with the guitarist and the bass player disagreeing over which chords to go for, and we didn’t rehearse even once with the drummer. I was concerned he would play loudly and drown out my soft singing voice, but not at all, he just completed the group perfectly. It was his idea in the first place; he had heard me singing a few weeks ago and suggested if I wanted to sing bossanova that he would find me the right group. Rehearsals were always a breath of fresh air in the stifling summer air; the guitarist has travelled far and wide with his guitar and had plenty of stories about his experiences, while teh bass player would make funny asides if he thought he was being too self-indulgent. I was nervous about this first real performance, but the lighting on the terrace and the small but captive audience put me at my ease. I don’t know which were better, the more rousing Spanish songs or the smooth, soft bossanova. But in the middle of girl from Ipanema a trumpeter friend showed up and blew us all away with his beautiful sound; he just fitted right in with the song and his sonorous notes floated over the jasmine scented air. Punters came up from the bar downstairs and lingered behind me in the doorway, but mio marito said we’d have t perform next time downstairs, even though it was inside, even though the sandy façade of the back of the building with the old balcony makes a perfect backdrop to the stage for outdoor summer concerts. The locals are too set in their ways and want to hang around drinking outside the bar where there is a street connecting our bar to other bars on either side, so it is a natural passageway or catwalk for them all to check each other out. Music is not the most important thing here anyway; it is seen more as background to their noisy chatting. The trumpeter was full of compliments for the Girl from Ipanema and the Piazzola’s tango ‘Vuelvo al sur’, and we wondered might we play again some time in the future.

After, a character I call Frank Zappa because of his flashy style, came up and had nice things to say. ‘You need something in your hand, a percussion instrument,’ he said. Probably right, maybe next time, last night it was just enough to get up there and sing! But his ex had sung these kind of songs too he said, in Messina, though now she was doing more commercial things. I had met her as it turns out, singing jokey duets with another girl at the bar up the road a few weeks ago. Zappa was a musician too and now they write their own songs; I said I had done that too, the other way around, but he was encouraging, that singing covers help to build up your voice and use it in different ways and connect with the audience. He asked what I was doing, was I on holiday or just working here for the summer, and his mate pointed out I was married to the man behind the bar. At which point Zappa withdrew for a smoke outside. This happens a lot, to my amusement and irritation at times too. Whether I am at the till or taking orders or just checking things are under control, men who strike up a conversation often ask if I am just working here to learn Italian or spend the summer here. They don’t even look that convinced when I say I manage the locale, but as soon as I say I am married to the other gestore a light of understanding comes on in their eyes; unfortunately it also kills the conversation and they cast furtive looks around to make sure my husband hasn’t been watching them.