Monday, October 4, 2010

Volcanology conference

We are providing the catering for a volcanology conference this week in the castello. They want breakfast and lunch provided on site everyday, with the occasional aperitivo and evening meal at ours. They checked out a few other local restaurants as regards menus and rates and chose ours. That's nice. We also heard from the Mayor's assessore who dined at ours during the week that the conference organisers had met with the mayor and some of his council to discuss the running of the conference and the catering. Other council members had suggested more established big name restaurants in town, insinuating that we might not be capable. But the assessore told them we would do a great job. So nice to have been chosen over the big names - for that is all they are: restaurants with flamboyant owners who swagger about spouting on about how fantastic they and their dishes are, heaving their convincing pot bellies from one table to the next with a handsome glass of red wine in hand (this tactic clearly works but it's just not our style).

I wonder what is being investigated: Mount Etna to the south, or the Aeolian islands - the closest one, Vulcano is a dormant volcano, could explode any moment. And excursions to the summit of Stromboli (the furthest from Milazzo - 30 km away) were stopped this summer because of larger explosions and a small tsunami on its shores. Two underwater volcanic craters between the islands and Sicily are apparently responsible for the rougher seas this summer too. Interesting ....

It's all about power and connections

The police came by on Saturday night at 2am. The place was packed. It had been a great night, no hassle from the Barcelona mafioso gang who have been trying to get free drinks for the last couple of weekends, just nice people enjoying the DJ music.

Apparently, someone had called to complain about the noise disturbance. This is very strange because you cannot actually hear the music outside Pachamama. Our DJ was playing inside, and the speakers were inside. 'Are you sure the complaint was not about the bar up the road?' asked mio marito, signalling the bar 20 metres up the street - DJ and huge speakers outside on a podium, disco and drunken dancers in full swing on the cobblestones with the Moorish castle as enchanting backdrop to the overplayed House tunes. The policeman was sure the call was for Pachamama. He summonsed mio marito to come down to the police station the following day to see whether a fine would have to be paid. There would be two potential fines amounting to €2000 in total: one for disturbing the peace and one for not having the licence to have music until 2am according to a new law (news to us that we need this licence - another arbitrary Sicilian law).

Just another example of how we are scapegoats; we don't know the right people, we don't have friends in the police. For the rest of the evening our customers sympathised wondering how on earth the police had managed to walk out of our doors and ignore the offensive volume of the street disco not 20 metres from our door in the middle of the residential area. The DJ suggested it might have been a jealous owner of another bar in the vicinity. Or perhaps the caller got the name wrong - few of the elderly neighbours get Pachamama right.

So my poor marito had the ignominious duty to report to the police the following evening. He reiterated the fact that our customers were concerned about the loud outdoor music being allowed to continue in the bar nearby, while our indoor music had to be turned off; he added that having a DJ is not our greatest desire since we are more interested in the restaurant side of things, but with the current economic situation we are obliged to get punters in and make a living, and that all through the summer we have respected the laws and caused no public disturbance. The policeman acknowledge these points but said he had heard that mio marito had behaved badly during the course of the last police visit (we had a little visit a few weeks ago from a plainclothes carabinieri, just a routine check, and mio marito had asked to see his ID - presumably this was the bad behaviour in question). But this policeman went on to say that he could see mio marito was a decent person simply trying to do his job and that there had not been much of a disturbance outside our locale. They didn't go to the neighbouring bar with the disco because they were called out to another case as soon as they left ours ( yeah, right). Woudl this happen anywhere else in the world? They walk out of our civilised Saturday serata and completely ignore the chaotic outdoor disco on their left, whcih surely must be preventing the slumber of numerous residents ...

The meeting with the police goes well, it seems. Mio marito goes on to say that he did his military service in the carabinieri and so it would never be his intention to violate civic laws. 'Well, why didn't you say so?' says the carabinieri. 'You should have told me that on Saturday night: it would have changed everything.' Mio marito said he didn't want to take advantage of the situation of that fact, and it hadn't occured to him that it would have made a difference (something which any other Sicilian would have done straight up). The policeman gets increasingly friendly and assures him that he will do his best to persuade the Tenente not to go ahead with the fine - which in any case would now only amount to €250 or so.

Another story along the lines of power ... connections ... neighbourhood watch in the borgo

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Sicilianised accent and the Paella success

My accent has been Sicilianised. All traces of the Tuscan are gone. I heard it when a fake Milanese (the Sicilians who go to Milan for work and acquire the Milan accent because it makes them feel superior) asked for a Curuuna. A what? Do you mean a Corona? But what I heard myself say sounded like Cohrawna, with the typical broad Sicilian vowels. Probably akin to a Castlederg accent if you are from Tyrone. Oh dear.

But having a more local accent helps when dealing with the locals. They understand me better. It makes me less foreign to them, less daunting. I can rattle off the house antipasto without batting an eyelid (la parmigiana, la caponatina, involtini di zucchini, melanzani ripieni, cozze al limone …), tell you what meat you can have in your panino : bresaola, carpaccio di manzo, prosciutto crudo o cotto. These words are a struggle for me since I don’t eat meat and so don’t actually know what the ham in question is like. But I sound convincing. Likewise I am most convincing on the beers, Sicilian, Italian and foreign, even though I haven’t tasted a single one of them. The Menebrea we have on tap, for example, is an award-winning birra artigianale from Biella, near Torino. And I can tell you what grapes are in your wine – Grecanico, Cataratto, Insolia (white), Nero D’Avola or Syrah (red) being the most common in Sicily, or recommend fruitier or crisper white wines, full bodied lighter reds. I’ve come a long way, managing to get these culinary tongue-twisters rolling off my tongue like a native.

Our billboard with the paella picture must be working because last night the two terraces were full and there was a paella at every second table. There is an increasing optimism at our tables, an increasing appreciation of the way we deal with our customers. Courtesy, humour and culture are served up in higher doses than in other restaurants. So we have noticed some locals, holiday makers or boat people (yachting staff) returning for more. Now they say on their way out, See you soon, or We’ll be back to try more from your menu … to try the paella, or whatever. Most encouraging. In fact, we are more relaxed now with the new cook in the kitchen. There was one slight delay yesterday for a paella, the fourth or fifth of the evening …but it came from a family who were getting steadily drunker on cocktails, most unusual, though we’d brought them nibbles on the house and a cheese and ham platter to start. But we can be confident now that the meat will be good, the fish will be good, the pasta will be tasty, the paella just right, the salads nicely presented.

Monday, August 2, 2010


We're putting up a huge billboard advertisement with this picture of our paella at the motorway exit for Milazzo for the next two weeks. Let's hope it lures some tourists up from the port.

Dirty waters

Heard a couple speaking in French last night on the terrace so went over to see if I could help, but it turned out they were from here but lived in Switzerland and spoke in French for the benefit of their two young children. (they picked up one of our cards in a bar at the port -yeah! our publicity efforts work!) They said there was no way they could come back and live here. ‘In Switzerland things work,’ said the man. ‘When you ask for something, you get it straight away.’ Not like here, of course. We have the wonderful Norman/Spanish/Arabic castle on our doorstep here in the borgo antico, but since its opening (after two years of closure for reconstruction work), nothing has been made of its fabulous atmospheric spaces. Mio marito proposed, at a recent meeting with a town council member, that concerts and plays be put on in its amphitheatre space. The meeting was about what ‘rules’ would apply this summer for the running of locali in the borgo; opening hours, hours when music could be played outdoors etc … But mio marito and a few of the others added that proper maintenance of Milazzo’s greatest heritage be assured; proper street cleaning with hoses and daily rubbish collection. Several restaurateurs complained about the presence of cockroaches and insects coming from the fact that the streets are not cleaned properly. Mio marito asked for (the umpteenth time) recycling facilities to be set up, since we are all such consumers of glass and plastic bottles etc, not to mention the organic waste. The councillor agreed he would do it best, but it's all a foreign concept for these shores. You can only live in hope for so long, in Sicily. After a certain time you just get frustrated and resigned like the locals.

Rubbish is a big problem along the beach, too. Most of the population not being civic-minded, bottles and coke cans and crisp packets get left behind, along with the rubbish the sea dredges up coming across the sea from the islands. Yesterday’s paper had pictures of some ‘exasperated citizens kitted out with rubber gloves and huge bin bags, collecting some of the rubbish strewn along the beach in front of their houses. Defining themselves ‘the Green Brigade’, they were watched by ‘incredulous’ and ‘curious’ passersby. Incredulous, I can imagine, at someone being civic-minded enough to take charge of something that the town council doesn’t bother about. It is rare to see such displays of citizenship. For all their pride in being Sicilian, Sicilians tend to disown, or shrug off responsibility about the state of their town/region, probably due to a sense of helplessness. The Green Brigade were also keen to water the Oleander plants (rose-laurels), highly poisonous but beautiful bushy trees with magnificent white or pink flowers. They are all over Mediterranean countries and often used as traffic separators in towns, or to separate lanes in the motorway (especially along mafia-financed stretches of the Messina-Catania motorway) because of their resistance to drought and hostile environment. But the palm trees planted last year along the beach were a lost cause, they said, already diseased when planted, now they are a playground for rats. So these locals had some disinfesting work on their hands too.

The council hasn’t even managed to sort out the sewage treatment plant's malfunctioning. Almost all of last summer there were warnings about polluted water, and last week signs went up again banning swimming from a few kilometres of the coast. The part of the beach we frequent is apparently safe; but I wonder what quantities of bacteria they use to distinguish safe from polluted … not encouraging. A marine biologist friend has seen many cases in hospital of people presenting with skin inflammations and stomach upsets after bathing; he won’t even consider swimming on the ponente side of the sea and prefers the levante, Eastern shores where the beaches are rocky and uncomfortable but, at least, clean. But there you have views of the oil refinery …

Great. The one good thing about this place in summer is the sea …

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Here are some photos of Milazzo's castle with its symbol grafted on to one of the outer walls; the volcanic island of Stromboli; and our gamberi in tempura and our famous paella!

Oops - telling the cook how to do his job

Today is the first day of August and I wonder will there suddenly be a huge surge in clients like there was last year. I have already noted a few returned faces. W have dj music on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays throughout August so that will no doubt bring in the punters, and damage my eardrums.

Last night the cameriere called me discreetly from the till. He had two bottles of wine in his hand so I thought he wanted to consult on which to bring to table. But no. His beady eye had spotted a sneaky cockroach on a table at the back of the room. Luckily no one was sitting nearby, and the dirty thing was brown in colour rather than the brighter pink-red they can sometimes be. SO it was camouflaged. We just had to get rid of it without anyone noticing. He gave me the two bottles of wine and went to grab it with a napkin. Ugh. It slipped off the table and scuttled towards the steps to the kitchen. But he got it just in time. Good for him.

I took lots of orders for paella last night. Our ads in some local magazines must be working. When I arrived a guy waylaid me on the terrace. ‘Thank God you’ve arrived, Can you explain the menu to her in Spanish?’ His friend was from the Dominican Republic and was over visiting, but they were finding communications difficult in their limited English and his culinary vocabulary was not up to it! She enjoyed the Tapas de Tierra and a simple pasta alla Sorrentina. It’s not on the menu and I found myself explaining it to the cook – it’s just passata with mozzarella melted into it … before realising I was telling a Napolitano how to make his own local speciality. Funny. Plenty of tapas and house antipasti going out, but we must sell more of our lovely homemade desserts. The problem is by dessert time I am usually needed on the till for bills and people arriving for drinks; but we’ve noticed that people will take my or mio marito’s recommendations more willingly than the waiters’. It’s only to be expected, I suppose, we have more confidence now in our food and our customers, whether new, regular or tourists, like to discuss their order with us.

Work Inspectors on the prowl

Last night, Friday night, again our aiuto cuoco is off – this time at a theatre performance where he plays a crucial part in the play apparently. We are going to have a serious talk to him about responsibility tonight. Then our waiter asked us for a loan of €2500 at the end of the night. What? What do these people think we are made of? Do they think that having 4 or 5 tables a night with moderately priced food and then selling cocktails for a few hours puts us in a position to offer bank facilities? Don’t they realise that we have big overheads? That we constantly pay, then owe then pay then owe our suppliers? He wanted the money to buy a scooter! These Sicilians ragazzi have not learnt basic work and responsibility ethics (I blame the indulging parents). Mio marito explained that the thing to do was save his wages and in October he would be able to buy a scooter. But he wants to go to Ibiza in October he says, on holiday. Ah yes, but at the age of 20 you can’t have it all, my friend.

The perfidious Inspettori di Lavoro were on the prowl last night. We got the warning from the bar next door that they were at the restaurant in the piazza just below our house. It has just recently opened, so like us last year, they were getting the full works. I walked down through the piazza to get a look at them so we would be able to identify them if they came our way while mio marito got out all the contracts and wages details. Even though everyone is in legal employment with us we still felt nervous. We had to tell the cook to get out of the kitchen because he is still on trial and doesn’t want a contract until August for reasons of his own. So mio marito was the official cook, with the dishwasher giving a hand and my sister-in-law doing most of the cooking. How are the gambas pil pil done, she came down to ask. Just garlic, white wine and chilli pepper? I took orders and tried to steer everyone towards panini, piadini or pasta or steaks which were within our competence – starting with the house antipasto, which most people went for too ( a fabulous mix of Sicilian seasonal treats, such as the caponatina, the parmigiana, stuffed aubergines, courgette roulades etc). Luckily, for the night that was in it, most people followed my advice. I had to offer the swordfish rolls (already made up earlier and just requiring the grill) instead of the swordfish tortino, which we didn’t know how to make, and we called in the cook briefly to do a prawn and courgette risotto and tagliata (beef steak). But the table in question, a Danish family, said it was the best food they had eaten on their holidays, and if vegetarian food was always this good (referring to the antipasto), that they would all become vegetarian! They said I was the first person who spoke English they had come across in two weeks’ holidays.

Meanwhile the Napolitano cook was stealthily monitoring the Work Inspectors' movements. He'd phone us every so often to update us, talking in such low spy-level tones, a mix of neopolitan dialect and Résistance urgency, that I could hardly understand him. An easy night's work for him. When the Work Inspectors drove off - five of them in total, serious (state money-making) mission, he donned his chef-gear again. 'Phew! Just as well we had all the antipasti prepared!' he said, sweeping his hand around the assorted dishes. Now let's get stuck in to work.' 'We've done it all,' said mio marito. And his sister whispered that her mother had prepared all the antipasti.

Apart from the newly opened restaurant, the work inspectors went to the noisy bar next to it and fined them for not having a permit for their musicians to play on the street (another state tax), and also visited a posh restaurant below the castle, where they had a heated discussion with the managers which nearly came to blows. The argument was keenly observed by bored locals delighted with the spontaneous entertainment.

Sexist advertisement removed

Cauldron took down the sexist advertisement. Result! The Donne Libere organised a petition-signing event for the ad to be removed, and one of the members held an interview with the director of the company on national radio, where he completely embarrassed himself. He offered a kind of written ‘apology’ where he said you can see worse images than these on Italian TV every day and on the promenade at the seafront in Milazzo! As if sharing the blame released him from responsibility … He also said that if the ad were placed in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Torino, Milan or Rome, no one would bat an eyelid as the residents would understand the irony … yes, he entirely missed the point and didn’t learn much from his mistake.

The billboard now shows a family picture of mother and young daughter flashing white teeth at the camera in the understanding that the husband/father is off installing the solar panels … yes, progress is limited here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Marzamemi and wild white beaches

We were supposed to go to Stromboli for a 2-day break before the high season kicks in and we'll have no more days off until September. But the weather got quite stormy and the sea was going to be rough for the crossing so at the last minute we cancelled, and opted for Marzamemi and the wild white beaches of Southern Sicily (near Syracusa). There's an international film festival on there in this quaint fishing village, with screens up in the main piazza and side streets. There is now a motorway the whole way there basically, so we were there in 2.5 hours, fantastic. After Catania the terrain changes, becoming lower and smoother, more open fields cultivated for vineyards, olive groves, hay, wheat etc and then around Marzamemi there are km and km of stretches of greenhouses – all semicircular, low-lying for the melons and higher arches for the Pachino tomatoes. I was most disappointed to discover that the Pachino,or cherry tomatoes are not indigenous to Pachino, as it would seem; but rather have been genetically modified to become the small sweet burst of juicy flavour that they are! And of course they don’t really have a season since they are greenhouse products.

Our agriturismo was in the middle of such fields with lovely views over vineyards, wheat fields, Pachino greenhouses and the sound of birdsong, very peaceful, and only five minutes drive from Marzamemi – and Pachino, not that there is much reason to go to Pachino.

We arrived 3.30ish since we found it really hard to get up on Monday morning. Our aiuto cuoco didn’t come to work Sunday night - had a fever - the Italian male phenomenon of the fever – and mia suocera was in Montalbano on holiday, so of course, as we should only have expected, it was our busiest night in months, and we were all run off our feet. The bad weather helped; everyone came to dine at ours because we have good space inside. A table of 12 in the side room who didn't book (of course not. Upstairs filled quickly, and downstairs tables had several sittings. Only one waiter. Our lavapiatti (dishwasher guy) tried to give a hand as aiuto cuoco but on his third Panini when he only had two orders in front of him, he was already in state of panic so mio marito had to keep checking in on the kitchen. The cuoco stayed calm and worked his way methodically though all the orders; I have to say there were no complaints, no mistakes and indeed several compliments, though a few tables did ask about their delay for their food, but all good natured. UNfortunately a table of 5 of our good friends were the last to order and so had quite a long wait. When we ARE actually busy we probably give the impression of being completely unprepared. Bad luck. I had to stay until 2am and mio marito later. My whole body ached with the effort of carting food and trays up and down the stairs so I was wrecked. But we got our delicious cappuccino on Monday morning at Bar Alexander, the best cream croissant in town.

We headed straight ot San Lorenzo and got sandwiches on the beach and the lido and then lay on the sand but we didn’t even get a swim because it clouded over dramatically with huge sweeping grey rainclouds and we all left the beach when the first drops fell. The sky was clear towards Marzamemi so we headed there for a stroll, lovely it looked in the evening light. The blue fishing boats in the tiny port, and the old stone building where all the cute bars are tucked away. Very pretty and picturesque. Got seated at Suruq, a cute bar on the piazza with great views of the screen. There was quite a breeze and it felt quite chilly, amazing after the tremendous heat and humidity of the last week in Milazzo. Depressing French film about immigration, called Welcome. But nice to be in the piazza. After there was an old Italian comedy about a man who collects sounds for the special effects on cartoons, so funny. Volere Volare. The next night the protagonist was sitting beside us!

Tuesday was a fabulous day on the Isola delle correnti (the Mediterranean and the Ionic Sea meet - the Med beach has choppy waves and lots of kite surfing, and the Ionic beach is calm with little breeze), beautiful beaches. We went to Pachino first in search of a newsagent. What a horrible town. Takes forever to get though it because of a weird oneway system weaving up through the high part of town, it is all built on a steep incline and the streets have no markings to let you know who has right of way. Run down houses with crumbling fronts, petrol stations in centre of town. Three old ladies gathered in the entrance ot a house fanning themselves, dressed identically in their below the knee smock dresses. Old men smoking in the piazza. Have never seen so many old people smoking. Also at our agritusimo, snow white hair, no teeth and a cigarette at the granny and the old granda’s lips.

Also had great walks on Caracois beach, just 4km from Isola delle Correnti down a dirt track. huge long wild beach with long white waves. Great beach for kite surfing. Two chiringuito beach bars but it was too windy to sit for an aperitivo. This beach is full of falò - bonfires - on the Night of San Lorenzo 10 August, we were there a couple of years ago gazing at the night sky to spot shooting stars aong with everyone else.

Best beaches in Sicily here.

Cook number 4

19 July 2010

The usual back-and-forth going on between the potential new cook and ourselves regarding the contract and pay. In this country it seems the power lies with the employee. Or perhaps it is just because they know we have no one else lined up. How they boast about their talents is quite something. Perhaps we are all just too humble in Ireland. This cook, or should I say ‘chef’, started off with an unattainable figure for his pay (again – it was he who named the sum, not us …), knowing full well that this would oblige us to counteroffer a high figure and that somewhere in between would probably be agreed. We watched him at work this week, but it was a fairly quiet one for the kitchen. While compliments were received for the food, we never got to see him deal with 3 or 4 orders arriving at once, or a full restaurant. Just as well for his first week, as he needs time to note how we do things etc, but it is hard for us in such limited time to discover just how competent he really is. I want to call up some of his previous employers, but again it appears that this would only further complicate matters. He accepted our proposed rate of pay – which will allow for a higher rate during the peak time in August – but it is easy money for him. If he has worked in these places he has shown us, in photos and on CV, he will have had to work a lot harder than he has for us, where the average is 4 or 5 tables during the week, and 5 or 6 at weekends, not forgetting that many orders are for panini or antipasti, which he does not deal with.

Mio marito’s mother has been in bad form all week and now I realise it is because she does not like this cook. They have little to say to each other. She thinks he is full of himself and all chat, probably because so far they have all been like that. He didn’t participate much in the extra Sunday cleaning last night either I noticed. He picked up things and pretended to be getting on with some cleaning when I came into the kitchen, but my sister-in-law confirmed that her mother and the dishwasher did the most part. Well, next Sunday she won’t be on, so he will have to get on with some of it. Though we will no doubt discover that things are not as well cleaned as when she does them. Without a more detailed CV and a chat to previous employers I find it is impossible to get a clear picture of what we can ask and expect of an employee. And in the meantime, I think they use every trick in the book to get what they want from us. Having accepted out proposed pay, it was almost like he was doing us a favour by accepting this compromise, but he said he was happy to do so since we are ‘good people’ and he is working with good people in the kitchen and he lives within walking distance (so no petrol money). He did the usual chat that all the others have come out with, I could nearly save them their breath at this stage: ‘You can trust me, I am a reliable person, I have years of experience and it has taught me that most restaurateurs are nasty, profiteering people, but I see you are honest and honourable people and I will do my best, it is all about respect .. blabla bla and so the person gets the job. WHY can’t we use some sensible North-European interview techniques at this stage? Every time we have been disappointed, each and every ‘cook’ we have hired has tried it on. I could see him in my mind replacing ‘nasty’ and ‘profiteering’ with, in our case, ‘young’ and ‘gullible’. Funny, but as soon as they do that whole ‘You can trust me, I am a reliable person’ speech, any hope or faith I had in that person just dissipates into the humid Sicilian air.

In the tradition of all the previous cooks, he made a semifreddo to try and impress me. He told me himself he wanted me to taste it and then mio marito told me that he was keen for ‘tua moglie’ to try it. The semifreddo alle mandorle, (almond) is just too sweet for me, like most Sicilian desserts. His had a layer of caramelised almonds on top, which just made it totally inedible for me, and then it was to be served with chocolate sauce. Way too much sugar for me, but the semifreddo itself was nice and I know that is what Sicilians like. He is at least the fourth ‘cook’ who has thought that impressing the wife with the desserts is a good way to get the job. Little do they know that it is a lot harder to win my sceptical North European heart.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

outrageously sexist solar panels

This obscenity is plastered on several billboards around Milazzo. It just clarifies, in case anyone was still in doubt, what Sicilian males think of women. Here, we have a woman, naked apart from her red shoes, advertising solar panels. This commercial says "Montami a costa zero." A play on words. Montami means 'set me up' ie in the sense of having your solar panels installed - but it also means 'Ride me' and the Sicilian males have photographed the girl in just the position in which they would like to do so.

Needless to say my Spanish friend and other members of the Donne Libere have already been on to the company to get rid of this degrading and volgar and chauvinistic advertisement. The director simply doesn't undersand what the problem is.... There is no hope. 2010 in Sicily.

Yet another chef ...

We had the new cook on trial last night. He just came for a few hours. He seemed capable of only speaking to mio marito at first, until I started asking him direct question about some dishes he was proposing for the summer menu. He is absolutely huge, built like a sumo wrestler, he’ll not be able to do much moving around in our kitchen! He did speak more convincingly than anyone I have seen in the last year who professed to be a cook. Indeed, this man calls himself a chef. His CV does cite several well-recognised hotels and restaurants, but no formal training. Our second cook has worked with him before and says he is a proper chef; this of course means that he will be pushing for high rates of pay. He is also from Naples.

My mother-in-law is still fuming about the fact that the German-Sicilian cook never appeared. We last heard from him when mio marito was away on a boat trip a few weeks ago and he got me on the landline. I told him to stay in touch and let us know if there were any changes to his plans, after he told me he wouldn’t be back until 7 July. I also said we might well have ot start looking for someone else as we didn’t feel reassured that he would show up, given his track record. Is aid this in a light-hearted tone, knowing he only takes mio marito seriously, but I made my point. Anyway, we haven’t heard a bleep form him since, and my mother-in-law is raging. She thinks he tried to take the whole family for a ride, especially her son. The strange thing is that her son was so convinced he was the man, especially since al of us, before he had even arrived, were suspicious, and then when we did finally meet him, felt even more suspicious!

This means, she says, after the catalogue of dodgy people we have had in and out of our kitchen – her kitchen – that she does not trust anyone anymore, and she would usually give anyone the benefit of the doubt. She’s dead right: every single cook who has been interviewed professed to be capable and worth much more than they were – which is always completely clear within a week. Our Napolitano is now pushing for more than we can give him but there is no point in starting on a level beyond our means. He has just left his last place of work because they weren’t paying im – a well-known, well-thought of place! All our staff know that we always pay them on time and are very happy with their working conditions – in fact, at last we have a great time in the kitchen and in the waiting staff – we just need a chef!!!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shut down at 2am and the Neopolitan Showman

The police came by on Saturday night saying we had to close at 2am. Luckily, a friend from another bar had warned us about this and we had a sign up saying Last Orders at 2am! Usually at 2am it is our busiest time. The bar was packed on Saturday at that time. We said we thought we just had to stop serving drinks, and he said, I’m sorry but the new rule is that the locale must close at 2am. I would be delighted to see us all get to bed a bit earlier except that it had a big impact on our takings for Saturday night. And we need Friday and Saturday night takings to survive as a business! The policeman had two guys form the army with him as backup, and we recognised them as regulars – they looked really sheepish and embarrassed. Apparently there is a new chief of police and he wants to make his presence felt. It will probably die down in a few weeks – it better do for August, which we all depend on for good takings for the rest of the year …

At least the policeman was decent and not throwing his weight around. Apparently he went to all the bars around here.

Meanwhile, Paco, the circus-style entertainer who has played twice for us (Paolo Conte and Viniscio Capossela covers – very good band) showed up with his platinum partner. At 2.30am they wanted to know where to stay. We have never had them back because they cost more than any other band (v. expensive) and also he is very arrogant and gets on everyone’s nerves, requiring personal assistance before, during and after the show. My sister-in-law – our waitress- can’t bear him. So amidst the whole police shutting down confusion, my husband then had to find him somewhere to stay. We reckon he was hoping we would put him up, but even if we had wanted to ( we wouldn’t), my sisters are in the spare room. Unlucky, Paco. He said he had tried various places to no avail, but he obviously hadn’t tried the hotels with their 24 hour reception – too expensive for this scrocconne (scrooge/sponge). So he called our friend who has a B&B and who keeps late hours sometimes. But she was sound asleep. She said no, not wanting the hassle but then, since she was awake, she agreed to wait for them. They got to her at 3.30am and she says they put on a whole show about how they were our great friends and played once a month for us and so could become regular clients of hers. She said he made it sound like they were doing her a favour by giving her business – at 3.30am. She told them breakfast was from 8.30-9.30am and check-out at 10.30am and they rolled their eyes wildly and said but we are only getting here now at 3.30am so can we have breakfast later and check out later? She said no, breakfast is always at that time, but I’ll let you have the room until 11.30am but no later, as my mother will be doing the morning shift and she likes people to stick to the rules. He made a fuss as if this was very inconvenient and he was someone deserving special treatment, and she said, there is a hotel with 24 hour reception just 100metres down the road. Please go there if you prefer. She was getting tired of his Napolitano ways. (She says he was a classic Neopolitan – sorry napolitani). He wasn’t in his room ten minutes when he called her mobile – at 03.40 asking where he could find a bottle of water. Where do you think, at this hour of the night? She replied. I will have to get it for you.

In the morning there was no sign of him at 11.40am so she asked her mother to go and get them out. Anticipating his request for a discount, she said, tell him that the price, €70 is already discounted. Of course the showman tried it on, saying do we not get a discount because we are such good friends with Pachamama and we only arrived at 3.30am??? Imagine. When the gate closed behind them, the platinum partner was heard to whine, ‘Not even in the Sheraton are there such prices!’ My dear, the Sheraton would have charged you a second night for leaving the room late. Our friend said she wouldn’t let them in the door again!

Airport taxi service swindle

My sisters arrived Saturday night in the most stressful circumstances. I was so annoyed that we had no one to pick them up. We would both be working Saturday night so we had to find out about taxi services, since the last bus was at 8.10pm from the airport, and they would not make the last train from Catania to Messina. The agencies all quoted €140. Megabucks. The bus costs €12!

I phoned the agency Garage delle Isole to see if their minibus might be picking up others on Saturday night and the receptionist said no, but she called on Saturday morning propsing €100. In fact it was SHE who called to suggest a taxi for €100. So the girls accepted.

But the girls were delayed getting their baggage, of course we are talking about Catania airport. SO they said the driver was calling them and seemed a bit agitated about the delay. Then half way into the journey I got urgent calls from my sisters. They said the agency had called, three times in Italian and then once in English, a lady telling them they would have to pay more because of the delay. They said that was not mentioned in the agreement and so the lady calmly said she would have the driver leave them at the side of the road. I called the agency to find out what was going on, and the owner was incredibly rude. He had some cock-and-bull story about calling my sister from 6pm to say the car wasn’t available anymore, but how he then managed to find another car – as if to say he was doing us a huge favour. I said I wasn’t interested in how many cars he had; but it was an absurdity to call my sister who was obviously in flight at 6pm, especially when he had my number and I speak Italian and live in Milazzo, whereas my sister, apart from being airborne, speaks only English. Also, had I known at 6pm that they could no longer provide the service, then I could have called another company. This was obviously part of their scheme, even though it makes little sense. He put the phone down.

I called back and he started roaring about how I obviously have no idea, signora, but this trip from Catania airport to Milazzo costs €240 usually. I said well that’s funny because all the other agencies quoted the same price, €140 and I chose you because you offered the lower price on the day and also because my parents had used their minibus service to the airport a few weeks previously without hitches. But i was talking to myself again. The rude man had hung up again!

In the meantime the taxi driver called me and reassured me he would bring the sisters safely to me (they told me after he was doing 150km/hr at times) and I said I would sort things with the agency. He sounded very kind on the phone so I knew I could trust him.

I phoned the agency back and said So are my sisters on their way to me then? And the man (the owner) replied – the taxi driver isn’t answering his phone any more because I have told him to leave the two girls at the side of the road. Comic value comes through now, but at the time I was raging. I said very good, I have the police below my house (they were doing checks on cars), I’ll just send them straight down to you. And I’ll report you tomorrow, and will give you bad press from now on. And what a terrible first impression you have given to two tourists arriving in your country.

So watch out people! This agency, based in Milazzo, is called Garage delle Isole.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

open air discos in the borgo

I left the locale after midnight having been there since 6.30pm for the book launch. Things were quiet enough. But I found our house to be the cross-section for about 4 different bands playing live outdoors, each of them belting out equally atrocious music. The band playing nearest was attempting terrible renditions of and 70s and 80s Italian rock music. I hardly recognised Paolo Conte’s lovely ‘Via Via con me’. The second nearest was a screechy woman trying to perform international rock music – I heard various U2 songs being murdered. The background din was so formidable I couldn’t hear the news on TV, even with the windows shut. Absolute nightmare when you know at 12.15am that this awful din is going to go on until at least 2am. However, I was aware that everything did come to an abrupt halt at around 2am due to a police raid on the nearest and loudest locale; they weren’t there to stop the music apparently, but rather were looking for a Mafioso, stopping punters and asking for documents. The Carabinieri also visited each of the other establishments with the loud music. Glad we stopped music for July. I think people actually come to our place to enjoy the peace, have a good chat and enjoy our lovely white Aeolian style terraces.

Lesbian book launch

Last night Pachamama hosted a book launch: ‘Lesbianism in Nazi-Fascist Europe’. Only our locale could have hosted such an event. The organiser, my Spanish friend, was highly excited when she came, with her projector and images and requests for fun music to lighten the atmosphere. Arci-Gay arrived from Messina laden with posters on safe gay sex and anti-gay and anti-discrimination slogans which he then plastered all over the front of the locale. It reminded me of the early 90s in Ireland, and the 80s in England. but being gay is still a taboo topic in Sicily. But apart from Arci-Gay and the Rita Atria Women’s Anti-Mafia group and a few of the Donne Libere there weren’t too many people. The usual. We had just enough chairs so it was perfect in the privé (sideroom).

I thought all was going well – young Claudia introduced the subject matter and then the two co-authors talked about the difficulty of researching a topic about which there is so much secrecy and censorship. Survivors, they said, were reluctant to talk. But when the writers took questions from the audience, a heated discussion broke out between the president of Arci-Gay and one of the authors. He accused her of not wanting to lobby or promote their cause with right-wing parties, and she defended herself by saying she had worked within Arci-Gay for many years and seen how this approach was fraught with difficulties because Arci-Gay used only certain channels and people in the right-wing parties and it didn’t work for her. The Arci-Gay president, a large man, got out of his seat and went up to the panel and stood right in front of the writer while vehemently putting his point across. This will have seemed intimidating to her as his stance was belligerent and forceful. So she responded on the defensive and this too came across very strongly. At one point she jumped to her feet shouting, ‘Well, if I am going to have to defend myself to the Arci-Gay, I’m leaving!’ The organiser managed to placate her and convince her to stay till the end. Afterwards, the president said he would right a damning review of this skirmish in the local press the next day, which seemed unnecessary and petty. The writer herself was very taken aback and upset, especially since her reasons for not dialoguing with right wing parties are based on previous negative experience of how Arci-Gay operates with the said parties.

My Spanish friend was upset by all of this and said this was a perfect example of why nothing worked in this country and no progress in anything regarding social issues, could ever be made. How can we work on environmental issues, refuse and recycling problem and equality for women in Sicily, if these groups, who ostensibly would appear to have similar agendas, cannot even agree or discuss things in a diplomatic manner? She despaired. She said it was evidence of how in Sicily everyone has their own agendas, people will only participate in an event/meeting if they can promote their own interests; rather than listening and sharing other ideas, they want only to talk over the head of other members of the group to voice their own concerns. There is no concept of working together for the collective group. She reckons this springs from two traits prevalent in Sicilians: protagonismo – each wants to be a protagonist, the main actor on their own stage playing out their own drama; and familismo or amoral familism (a concept coined by American sociologist Edward C. Banfield in his 1958 study ‘The moral Basis of a Backward Society’ based on research he conducted on peasants in Lucania in the South of Italy.) which, in short, translates as looking out for your family only and not caring for the collective good, or improving the world now for the benefit of future generations.

My Spanish friend wanted to have a meeting with mio marito and a friend who has been elected to the town council, today to discuss the recycling and refuse collection problems and women’s issues too with a view to meeting the sindaco (mayor) with a strong agenda; but even our councillor friend was off-putting. He said the new mayor seems open enough at this point to constructive projects, but it had to be remembered that he was mayor for 7 years before in which it became clear that he was heavily influenced by his corrupt brother who had a string of dodgy powerful friends needing favours. He said in local politics here you had to be aware that each and every person had their own personal and political agenda, and that it was never about working together on a project for the general improvement and benefit of society. How depressing.

Our Sunday Aperitivo

Our aperitivo on Sundays is going well, each week there are more people. Although now that the heat has arrived, we reckon people will tend to stay until late at the beach and either come late for the aperitivo or not bother at all. So we’ll have to see how it goes in July. I say we should play it by ear. Have a minimum of food prepared and then if necessary prepare more. Although that could prove difficult if we have to prolong the aperitivo until later as it could clash with customers who wish to have a meal – too much activity for the kitchen. We’ll see.

The locals love it, because our food is so good. When I think back to the aperitivos we used to have in Tuscany, ours is definitely more abundant and better quality of food, all freshly prepared. The whole idea of the aperitivo is that you don’t make money on the food, but rather on the drinks consumed, as people will want to have a second drink to accompany their second round of the dishes. That is how we operated in Tuscany anyway. But here, unfortunately, it is not quite so. Many people seem able to consume large quantities of food without having a second drink and have no qualms about coming in and filling up their plates again! There is one customer in particular, a cousin, who comes and indulges to the max. He actually said last Sunday, I haven’t eaten since breakfast, I was saving myself for this aperitivo. He and his wife fill and refill, but when it comes to paying, it seems to become painful for him. He limps towards the bar and reluctantly takes out his wallet. Now, the aperitivo costs €6, including your drink, and subsequent drinks are their usual price. Can’t do much better than that. But this cousin likes to get preferential treatment, meaning a healthy discount. When he and friends dine, they do get discounts, but it is hard to discount the aperitivo when only a couple of drinks have been consumed. The total was €17 as he did have a second cocktail and while he had a €20 note at the ready, he seemed to be shuffling rather obviously a couple of €10 and €5 notes, perhaps hoping for a discount? Since none was forthcoming, he then wanted a beer to round it off at €20; rather than choosing one that costs €3 (all of them bar three), he specifically requested a €4 one. I said, Well then we can give you a little discount, smiling sweetly. He said, Just as well, because I didn’t have any change! He’s probably annoyed he always gets me on the till rather than mio marito, his cousin, who would probably feel obliged to give him a good discount, even on the aperitivo – which is virtually free!

Busy Wednesday and Mafiosi Cats

Last night was very busy after the mere three tables on Tuesday night. We watched the Spain Portugal World Cup match on Live streaming.

But last night I had told mio marito to rest and I’d call if we needed him. But first the Fortunato Wine family arrived with a party of 9 and sat outside. Then a table of 6 came and sat outside, six women, who then moved because the cats were prowling around – the ginger has given birth to 6 kittens. The tabby cat and another silvery one chase each other on the rails of the gazebo overhead, while the kittens scamper between flowerpots. Our clientele is divided between those who love them and those who don't want them nearby while eating. I would be in the second camp but it is so hard to get rid of them. We have put plastic bottles fo water everywhere - apprently tis serves to keep cats at bay - but today we found a large cat poo right next to one of the bottles on the windowsill - clear marking of territory. Mafioso cats.

Then another table of 5 arrived and sat inside, and a couple who installed themselves on the balcony – these last two tables wanted the birra bionda, which was finished, and the doppio malto which wasn’t working. It always seems to be such a problem when you say there is none. With all the bottled beers we have for God’s sake.

Then another foreign couple and a table of three girls. I got the Fortunatos happy with their orders and the young kids with their piadina and promises of interesting crepes for dessert – the mamma wanted a plain crepe and I said have the original French butter, sugar and lemon juice – and the cousin was surprised to hear they were originally French. Mamma delighted with the possibility.

Then the French couple wanted to know what the risotto was – I struggled to remember gamberi (prawns) in French, knowing it wasn’t like Spanish - gambas or the Italian. Crevettes popped into my head, and courgettes of course. She was pleased. They were from Paris, a sweet little couple exploring the island. They loved the fact that I could speak French. They have struggled to be understood, they said. I can imagine. It can be ahrd to find people who speak Italian here, with all the dialect around, never mind French or English!

The three girls at the next table outside who had some tapas and Garbugli di Venere and scampi had come all the way from Capo D’Orlando. Wonder how they heard about us. Also wonder how the French couple knew to come because they came struggling up the hill all out of breath and sweating when they arrived. The large table of 6 girls wanted 3 tapas di mare and 3 tapas di terra and seemed very happy with them. And the table of 5 who sat inside asked for the paella di pesce but asked could they add chicken to it. I said no, not possible, and they said but we had it before, and I said, I know, laughing, I was very angry when I found out. That is a tourist trick they do in Valencia, but the true Paella is either only fish or only meat. My certitude convinced them and they forgot about wanting to add chicken. They had one of each and were happy with both.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Photos Panarea

The wheeler-dealer cook

Well, our joy in finding a competent cook is, of course, of course, now tainted with a little doubt as to his intentions. You can never take anyone at face value in this place. He’s only been here two weeks, that is, he has only been working for us for ten days, but already there are a few things that don’t quite figure. Or that hint at certain things. Especially one particular instance: on Sunday night he asked my husband could we lend him some money. Some money? Says my husband, thinking he perhaps wants an advance on his first salary to help with settling back into Sicily. But we are talking along the lines of €10 000. EH?????!!!!! As bold as brass, he explains he’s in a tricky situation because his money is all tied up in Germany, but his sister needs some money badly at the minute and can we help out. I am blown away. Amazed. Has he not seen that the restaurant is practically empty on weekdays? Or does he actually think that the fact that the place is packed on Fridays and Saturdays mean that we are rolling in it? Has he not contemplated the 6 members of staff plus the bands that we have to pay at the weekends? And the overheads and the suppliers and the fact we’ve only been open a year? Can he not approach his brother or children in Germany for cash? I think he is off his trolley.

Mio marito diplomatically tells him he’ll discuss it with me but thinks it hardly likely. When he gets back to him with the news that we are not able to ‘help him’, he tries for €5 000!!! ‘Can you not give me something at least?’ he says, expectantly. No embarrassment. It’s as if we are inconveniencing him by not stumping up the dough for his dodgy dealings. Who knows what he needs it for. My mother-in-law reckons, from some of the noisy phonecalls she has overheard, that his sister may be purchasing a property, in which he will in also invest, and that they need the deposit money. He has been declaring that he has – or will have - €300 000 to invest here in Sicily, once he passes the sale on his restaurant in Germany. Now that the castle has reopened after its two years of restructuring, he thinks we need to capitalise on this by opening during the day, and even running a kebab and sandwich joint for tourists. We had a short circuit in the kitchen the other night and he slapped his hands on the fridge doors; ‘It’s these fridges which consume so much energy. When I’m in Germany I’ll get you some decent fridges: small ones that we can stick in under the work surface and then use as worktops.’ No need, I reassure him, it’s not the fridges, but the bad wiring that causes the short circuit now and again. I notice that the wine glasses are not shiny as usual and ask is the dishwasher playing up. But my mother-in-law says they are using a new detergent and so writes down on the shopping list the old product they used before. Our cook declares that all glasses should be washed at the bar anyway, that we could purchase another small, powerful dishwasher for the bar for €500. He goes on like this all the time apparently, making sweeping suggestions about improvements (expensive) and investments (on our part) to be made. He even hints that he and my husband go into partnership, that his rich Russian friend will soon be arriving from Germany with masses of Euro to invest (‘his house is made of gold, pure gold, real gold, I tell you!’) and then we’ll all invest in new projects together, like one big happy family. In fact, the language he uses with my husband, is all, ‘fratello’ (brother), ‘io ti voglio bene’ (I really like you) – from the minute he heard his voice on the phone he knew he was a good guy he could trust - and all his kind of blether. We were looking out at the piazza in front of Pachamama one evening before work, with the palm tree and the old church – the lovely old church façade that many tourists stop to look at, but which is closed since it hasn’t been restored. It is very picturesque, in that decrepit, Sicilian way, especially at night with the soft street lighting. ‘This piazza is bellissima,’ he declares. ‘I mean, look at this church; do you know if it is for sale?’ It is hard to keep a straight face. This is a seventeenth century church we are talking about.

‘No one who has been his own boss for thirty years can make such a change and easily adapt to working for someone else,’ says mia suocera, shrewdly. She is certain that we are just his ‘appoggio’, his initial support for getting connected again in Sicily. In fact, he often pops down into the bar area to see how customers are doing – more to get talking with them and networking than to see if they are enjoying his food. He’s putting out feelers for potential money-making schemes or partners, sources of funding and who knows what ventures. He gets despondent and bored on weekdays and Sundays when orders come in for panini and piadine; perhaps he is beginning to realise that he will make no fortune through Pachamama.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Escaped for a couple of days to the magical islands of Stromboli, my favourite of the Aeolians. May is the perfect time to go as it is not too hot. As soon as you get off the hydrofoil you start to feel the Stromboli effect. No cars, just motorini, api (the three wheel moto-truck) and bicycles. The sounds of birds flitting among olive groves and lemon trees, and the low boom of the volcano when it erupts. Stromboli is a live volcano and you can walk to an observatory to watch it and have pizza by candlelight – which we did a couple of years ago when the volcano was particularly active, erupting every ten minutes or so, sending sparks of lava high into the air and molten rock tumbling down its dark silhouette. There are also guided tours which start in daylight and finish in darkness at the top with a picnic while you look down from a height into the crater before sliding and jumping down through the black sandy slopes.

This time we were staying in a secret garden – hidden from the outside by cypress trees, eucalyptus and pine trees, tucked away among rose bushes and olive groves this B&B nestles at the foot of the volcano, allowing unhampered views of the mountain and out to Strombolicchio, a huge rock looming out of the sea from its fragrant terrace. Our long cabin was so well hidden with sprays of greenery that we were convinced it was ‘abusivo’, built without planning permission, but it was the perfect accommodation to enjoy the full Stromboli experience. One of the benefits of having Mondays and Tuesdays off is that we have the whole place to ourselves. The only sounds up here are birdcalls and owl duets.

We head off to the Grotto di Eolo, our favourite bay with a huge cave providing me with much-needed shade. Plenty of walking on Stromboli but the fresh breeze and the pretty cobbled streets perfumed with jasmine and coloured with bougainvillea spray make it enjoyable. Our bay though, is packed with a large group of East Europeans, possibly vulcanology students of varying ages, and our peace is disturbed by their heavy drinking and Frisbee games with beer bottle tops. Also, the rough winter tides have rolled up masses of stones on to the beach, so now, where once there was soft black sand, there are uncomfortable spikey stones. Very hard to walk into the sea. The foreigners have the bright idea fo trying to rid their part of the beach of the stones and line up in a row of ten or so, flinging handfuls or stones at a time out to sea.

We head up the main piazza around 5pm for icecream at Ingrid’s bar (so called becaused Ingrid Bergman stayed on the island while filming and romancing ‘Stromboli’ with Rossellini). When I get to our table with my icecream I find my husband has been assailed by a little girl who seems to want money or food, or both. She flashes her toothless grin and I wonder just how often she plays this trick. Where’s your mother, we ask her. How come you are allowed to roam the streets so freely? Her older sister (Margherita, 12) soon comes along and it turns out she was getting the bread for dinner when her young sibling ran off. ‘You’re not to accept food from strangers,’ she scolds her. ‘You weren’t asking for food again, were you?’ Part of the double act or not? We’re not sure.

We’re back out before it’s dark to enjoy the sundown. The light at this time is magical on Stromboli. There is a sense of winding down, a smell of freshly cut hay on the air since our host is out tending to his nearby field. The volcano is bathed yellow in the last rays of the sun, creating shadows in its crevices. Seagulls and sparrows wheel overhead as we get nearer the piazza. We stop again for an aperitivo at the bar and this time Bartolo regales us with his mad wisdom. The wild fennel paste is best, he rants, about the bruschetta toppings.

Coincidentally, some friends from Rome have hired a sailing boat and we meet them after our delicious breakfast just for two on the magnificent terrace of our B&B. They take us out to bay where the old sciara is – where the former mouth of the volcano was- since it is too windy to be able to swim around Strombolicchio and the anchor would drag. My first swim of the season on Stromboli’s waters, not bad. ‘You have the life of Riley,’ say our friends. ‘Think of us in Rome, an hour to get to work, an hour and a half to get to the beaches outside Rome, when you have this paradise on your doorstep.’ It’s true: people come from all over the world to see these islands, in fact we see various groups of French, Swiss and German trekkers all geared up for the hike up the volcano.

We then head to one of the bays next to the Grotto di Eole and find one with lots more sand, rather than pebbles, and no one on it. Such luxury. Sail boats drift past. Not a sound, only the whoosh of the sea. Later we dine in a lovely restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sea and Strombolicchio disappearing into the nightfall till it becomes a beacon flashing three times from its lighthouse. One tasty occhiata later and we head back up to our secret garden, guided by the almost full moon casting our shadows onto the whitewashed walls.

Up at 6.30am for breakfast we see Stromboli at its best; the early morning light gives the clearest view of the volcano while Strombolicchio is just emerging from morning mists on the sea. A dawn chorus of owls and birds accompanies our caffè lattes and then we’re off to the hydrofoil.

A perfect break before the summer season kicks in.

Election fever

Election fever dominates the sound waves here since voting takes place finally on Sunday. Just like in South America, cars go around all day blasting their candidate’s names and jingles from huge speakers. 660 people have candidated themselves for the council – il consiglio. They hope to get some financial gain out of it apparently, network in high places; but I still haven’t worked out what the requirements and parameters for candidacy are. Even the young girl in my favourite clothes shop asked me for a vote; so many of her friends were candidates too that she couldn’t count on friends’ and family’s votes alone. So what will you propose be done for women, I asked her. But she hadn’t a clue. She said much was needed for children here, more sports facilities, more playing fields and swimming pools. If anything is needed for children here, it is something of a more educational nature; cultural exchanges, international opportunities, better use of the grants available from the European Union. I am preparing 14 year olds in a local secondary school for the KET Cambridge English exam as part of a well-funded EU scheme for extra-curricular activities; but out of 100 in the year group – ten showed up for the course. Parents obviously not aware how important English will be for their future, and head teachers unable to sufficiently promote it. The standard to English teaching here in schools is not good, by the teachers’ own admission – and from what I have seen; the children were slow to respond to my communicative, interactive techniques, and it is still, after 4 months, difficult to get them to speak in English in pairs, or to me! They are taught by rote, and can parrot off to me the past participle and simple past if I give them the infinitive, but that’s about the height of it. Constructing sentences is a mammoth task for them. Another example of ill-used resources – the internactive whiteboards in a room upstairs in the school complete with overhead projector, but useless because the keyboard to the computer is missing … and there is no internet in the school anyway. Meanwhile I have to use chalk on the blackboard. Reminds me of the wonderful windmills on a hilltop outside the lovely mountain village of Montalbano; these wind energy stations seem to frame the belltower of the town’s duomo, but do little else; they don’t work!

I am disappointed, though, that the shopgirl has no ideas for women; statisics gathered by the donne libere, the women’s group formed here by friends of mine, reveal that the unemployment rate for women in Sicily is 70%, and that thousands of women are violently assaulted, and even killed, in Italy every year; in Sicily only 2% of these women will go to the police about it; but the police, and the doctors who treat their wounds, are likely to tell them to go home nad be a good wife to try and avoid any more trouble. Women are too afraid to report here, and even if they do, have no support system to look after them. Police and doctors need training, the women need free access to counselling and psychologists. This was part of the aim of donne libere; they have already applied for funding and three paid positions within a local structure here where these services would be provided, along with an improvement in child-minding facilities to enable women to work or get to the gym instead of having to rely on family, as is the only option here. But since the reality of this ‘sportello donne’ came onto the horizon, my founder-friend tells me, the come of the women who have been flimsy frequenters of the meetings have now become strident in claiming their right to the paid positions in the sportello donne. Since my friend is now leaving, I fear it will all fall apart, sicne it was her vision and energy which drove the initiative. This would be a great pity since she is doing one of the most useful things for women this town has ever seen. Her networking skills and diplomacy have given the donne libere a visibility and standing which could finally guarantee some positive changes for women here.

Meanwhile, fears that the current mayor will be re-elected prevail. Despite the fact that he and other members of the commune (town council) are implicated in mafia-related extortion concerning the development plans for the waterfront area. The lungomare, generally a scruffy and pretty-much abandoned area all year round except for July and August, was undergoing extensive regenerating, including a walking and cycle path (since the area behind the pebbled beach is rough scree and dirt), and the planting of palm trees. But the work was interrupted because of the ‘regola del 3%’ the rule whereby the mafia get 3% of any funds directed at public works, and another €500 000 requested under threats by these certain members of the commune and the mayor. The investigating judge requested the arrest of these people, but it was refused. So the mayor continues to stand for election. And in the eyes of the populace, who look admiringly at the numerous palm trees he has planted along the restructured concrete piazzas (palm trees also go well with grass, Mr Mayor), the hastily reopened castle despite the many safety hazards (I saw it last Sunday – the mayor even put on a free lunch aperitivo which mio marito and I stumbled on, to our delight – massive walled city and castle, but yes indeed, keep your eyes open and kids on by your side), and the outlandish fireworks displays for local saints’ days – he’s probably doing a great job. A comprehensive, functioning health system with adequate resources? Higher standards of education? Job opportunities? Support for women? Who cares, as long as we’ve got out palm trees.

The new cook arrives

Finally the cook has arrived from Germany. After weeks of anticipation, procrastination and speculation as to whether he would actually come at all, he showed up en famille with wife, son and sister, for dinner last Saturday night. We were a little taken aback at his relaxed attitude after keeping s waiting so long; perhaps we would have preferred to see an example of his eagerness to work at this stage! But he dodged in and out of the kitchen between courses, commenting on potential changes and offering advice on presentation and cooking methods as if he was already in charge! Crucial to his performance in the kitchen, he explained, was his outfit; he didn’t dress all in white, but rather in the shirt and black trousers he was wearing at the moment, since he felt more himself. His wife nodded, strongly backing him up. I noted that the tiny 8year old son was dressed identically; was he going to be his father’s accomplice in the cucina?

In fact, on Wednesday, his first night at work, father and his replica, were in the kitchen together, since the wife had gone off to see her family in her mountain paesino. I wasn’t too happy to see him in the kitchen, fearing he would get in the way, or at worst, get us in trouble for child labour! But he made himself useful writing down the shopping list, though he had to ask the spelling of almost everything, since he is more used to talking in Sicilian dialect, than Italian. Halfway through the evening he went off to sleep in some cushions in the store room.

The aiuto-cuoco started on Wednesday too, on trial. He made a great impression on all of us. Only 20, he is doing the scuola alberghiera, the catering course here, and is keen to get all the experience he can get. Meticulous presentation of dishes, immaculate order and cleanliness in his work area and intensely focussed during the rush of orders on Friday and Saturday night, he was always courteous and speedy. His effeminacy gifts him with his presentation skills; he even made the Panini look good. He made me an exquisite fruit platter; the pears cut in identical pieces, the strawberries neatly sliced, the pineapple in homogenous triangles, the finished dish an eyecatching landscape.

Meanwhile, our cuoco made favourable impressions on all too, after his circus stage entrance on Saturday night. Excited about the orders coming in, energetic and quick at work and endlessly enthusiastic, nothing phased him and everything was beautifully presented. No troubled tables this weekend, no botched orders, not a single delay. This man is professional and knows we are counting on him. Mio marito brought him paccheri – large cannelloni-like pasta tubes, and he suggested paccheri all’ortalano, with a sauté of fresh seasonal vegetables and topped with shavings of ricotta di Ragusa, a salty sheeps cheese which works well with the sauce, since our cook is not as heavy on the salt as Sicilian cooks are. We brought him maccheroncini alla chitarra, tiny curved pasta tubes with grooved on the side like guitar strings and he rustled up a special of the night with fresh prawns and calamari with baby tomatoes. Very tasty and light. I thought the touch of chopped garlic enhanced the dish, but some customers who tried it found it too garlicky – Italians are terrified of garlic and its effects on the breath! So mio marito suggested flavouring the oil with a large garlic clove and then lifting it out to toss the pasta in it. I’m on his side where the garlic is concerned though, good to have it back!

In the midst of all, my mother-in-law is there, finally able to do her kitchen justice with its two new recruits, helping out wherever she can, guiding them as to where to find implements or store comestibles. She’s having a ball between these two playboys, flattered by the aiuto cuoco’s attentive courtesy and entertained by the cuoco’s stories and schemes. Much better than sitting in watching TV, says my sister-in-law, sure this is like having a reality show in your own kitchen. The cuoco already is coming up with ideas of running a kebab caravan from the garden, and she is all for it. ‘let’s make money,’ he cries, ‘who ever said Sicilians were lazy and didn’t want to work?’ He has been influenced by the large Turkish population in Germany, and also warns us that the Russians will soon be descending on Sicily to buy up property, as they did in the small tourist town where he was based in Germany. ‘They bring money,’ he assures us, with a confident, entrepreneurial air. God knows what he will be proposing to mio marito next. He already has suggested opening in the summer during the day, to make the most of the fact that the castle has finally been opened, after years of renovation. I don’t know where he gets his energy.

So, could things finally be looking up for us?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Glass-nickers, flower-waterers, receipt-cheaters

Who was it that came by on Sunday night asking for the Irish woman who wrote the blog about Pachamama? What a pity they didn’t come back! Mio father-in-law, who can perform well in English when required, was interviewed by some English speakers around 7pm. No doubt they were up visiting the castle and were hungry and then went back down to their hotel by the port and ate somewhere nearby and couldn’t face the trek back up to our place. They asked him was his wife Irish. How funny. Pity he didn’t find out where they were from. And how they got news of my blog!

On Friday night I was heading home around 2.30am, going out through the terrazzo which was closed at this stage, all the chairs up on the tables. I was surprised to hear male voices: two of the men came walking towards me to go back into the restaurant – but the third guy was left doing his business with his back to me by the gate. Yes, there he was watering the beautiful flowering plants tended to carefully by my father-in-law. “That’s disgusting,” I said, “this is my garden. There are two toilets in the restaurant, both of them free.” Three of our regulars, whom we treat very well. I had to walk right by him to go out the gate, but that didn’t stop him. Charming.

No one showed up on Friday until about 1am. We had a good group on too, from Palermo and Catania, they play a mix of Paolo Conte and Vinicio Capossela, and the singer is spot on. He heard my Django Reinhardt on upstairs in the restaurant and gave me a bit of Minor Swing. But the drummer, who would appear to be the band leader, quite the circus master with his twitching moustache and dapper waistcoat and his blond groupie partner got on our nerves in the end. He was a bit too pushy. They played here a month ago and we asked them back straight away because we thought they were really good. They had an excellent sax and double bass player. But this time they had different session musicians - the sax wasn’t as impressive and the double bass player didn’t seem very familiar with the music. I could hardly hear him and wondered had they turned him down on purpose; his eyes were glued to the sheet music and his hands left hand didn’t move much … They brought four friends along, and as usual we were expected to provide, gratis, food and drink for all. On Friday night we have two waiters, two cooks, the dishwasher and the barman to feed as well. Which goes without saying. But with the most expensive group to date playing, we needed a good Friday night to cover the costs. The drummer grabs me as if he’s about to tell me something hugely important – ‘Scusa, scusa, but I always forget your name…’ He gets the pronunciation wrong of course, and then takes a deep breath and tells me that he’ll need to eat again when they finish playing. That’s fine I tell him, but at two your choice will be limited to panini or piadine. He’s happy with that, but the cameriera then tells me that he complained to her that the pasta portions were very small. I saw the pasta go past, and thought they were very much in keeping with my mother-in-law’s generous hand with the pasta. A normal portion is 70-80 grams, but with the staff she always gives 100-120g. And fair play to the cameriera, who told him, “ My mother put in a kilo of pasta for 7 people, so I think you must be mistaken.”

The night is slow to begin with; people come in, get a drink and leave again, making us question ourselves for bothering to get a really good group. The locals just want a name or face they know, the same oul stuff they have been listening to for decades, and don’t particularly care about the quality. It’s possible most of them are not familiar with Vinicio Capossela’s work either; an Italian singer/songwriter and pianist, he is strongly influenced by Tom Waits, with a touch of the melancholy of Manu Chao and Eastern klezmir and gypsy music. Much too cultured for the local ears. But after 1am they all arrive in hordes, and some do appear to appreciate the music. No one dances, sadly. It is so hard to get an Italian to dance. I’d have thought the Sicilians would be less self-conscious, more party animals, but not in this town. They are all too busy watching each other and sipping that one cocktail they got to make it last all night, to let their hair down.

On Saturday night the restaurant is full; everyone wants paella. Apparently they saw our advert in the local magazine. Most gratifying. And not a single complaint, all compliments. The kitchen performs well – thanks to the vigilance of mio marito on organizing the orders as they come in, and the waiters do a good job too. Then the dj begins; he has good sound on the speakers and a nice selection of music, even managing a Florence and the Machine track. I assume he must had spent time abroad and hear that he is based in Genova. He and his posse also looks good and are pleasant and courteous to deal with. But then after midnight, it all deteriorates into house. Sicilians can’t move beyond house, it is the only music they know for night entertainment. Soul, hip hop, reggae, R&B, world, 70s… might as well not exist. He did have a good selection of dance music; he was a good mixer and good at sequencing but that kind of music makes everyone more aggressive. Customers at the till were impatient as they waited for me to serve beers, wine and tonic waters to keep the pressure off the barman and mio marito. Then, with their scontrino in hand they jostled and sighed at the size of the queue to get their cocktails. We ran out of wine glasses because of the many paella eaters, and I had to go next door and request some ice and some wine glasses – only to discover that the glasses they gave me were in reality OURS … my barman sighed. “Yes, this problem of glass-nicking goes way back,” he says. One of the partners next door does nothing but collect glasses all night, so he picks up ours with the rest of them. Once the previous managers here paid a young guy to collect glasses all night, and they were furious next door!’ he complains that our waiters don’t do enough giri outside collecting glasses. But with the restaurant being so big now that the terraces are open, it is difficult. Several of our customers have told us that they have seen staff the manager next door nick our glasses – we have black straws, and they use grey – so it is quite clear …

After I leave, a petty Mafioso type tries his luck. My sister-in-law is on the till and he pays for two glasses of prosecco. But he asks mio marito for “tri”, three, in dialect. Mio marito advises him that the scontrino says he paid for two, so he gets out two glasses. Mafiosi insists, “Ah, come on, it says two but I wanted three, so give me tri.” Mio marito checks with his sister who confirms he asked for two. ‘Look, we’re all Italian, so let’s speak in Italian. It says here two, so you get two. You work, don’t you? And you expect to get paid for it? Well, so do I.” Fair play to mio marito for staying calm under the circumstances. He sensed the atmosphere getting a bit charged so asked the dj to stop the dance music. He said he wasn’t going to give in to the Mafioso who was just trying his luck. How sneaky.

Glass-nickers, flower-waterers, receipt-cheaters …what lovely company we’re keeping these days.

On Sunday, maybe because we were all tired after the hectic Saturday night, there were a few hiccups. The major one was due to the new aiuto-cuoca on trial binning an order after having only sent out the first course. A table of 11 had come in around 9.15pm when the place was empty, and got their 4 portions of misto fritto straight away. But then other tables arrived, all at once, as usual, so our cameriera was on full tilt serving tables, while I was taking orders and getting their drinks at the bar. Meanwhile mio marito coordinated in the kitchen, but the aiuto cuoca – Joss Stone in disguise – assured him the tavolata was sorted and she ditched the paper without looking a the rest of the order. 11 piadine and panini. This table got upset when they saw food arriving at other tables and one of them came down to me at the till … I got the cameriera to investigate and the disaster unfolded. They were served almost immediately then, and I apologized and discounted etc and they became most charming again, but who knows what they will say around town. Another large table got set up downstairs but complained that their paella was lacking in salt – mio marito tasted it and had to agree … and they also complained that their steak wasn’t cooked enough, but this time he said it was, that it had been well and truly grilled on each side, short of burning it. But they were so happy with their discount that they stayed on for crepes afterwards. I was so busy setting up tables outside and in the side room (only upstairs is laid out for dinner), doing bills as tables left and clearing tables to give the waitress a hand, that we had to call upon my father-in-law to come over and give a hand. Which he did most generously, tackling the mountain of dishes in the kitchen. Last Sunday there was hardly a table, and indeed Sundays in general are manageable. So we don’t have the dishwasher in.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Life in an Italian democracy

Quiet weekday nights. The cook we are waiting for called on Wednesday night. ‘Sono Giorgio’ he says as if he were already part of the family. He babbles on for about 10 minutes, spouting the same stuff he has already discussed with mio marito. What is your kitchen based on, he wants to know. Ah, yes, just like mine, Sicilian pasta dishes, tuna, swordfish roulades, antipasti Siciliani … I tel him our paella is a big seller and he says he is not being into paella, because in his town in Germany the Chinese restaurants give you paella for €4 and who knows what would be in it. Hmmm. He assure me he will be with us next Saturday because he is just waiting for his son’s school to break up for holidays, sign his report card and hey presto he’ll be with his. ‘Sono dietro la porta’ he says – I’m just behind the door. Sure. I said well, I need to see you to believe it since we’ve been expecting you for the last month. How’s your car? Is it working? Did the spare part arrive? It is impossible to take this man seriously. He even tells me, in his familiar way, that he’ll show up for dinner like a customer, and let’s see if we recognise him. A regular prankster! I would write him off as a looper straight away, but my husband is still convinced he’s the man for us.

I catch my North European neighbour when I go home at 1am having a quiet cigarette under the stars. Thank God the scirocco wind has gone, it has wreaked havoc over the last few days: cars are covered in a dirty coat of sand, windows are stained with sandstreaks, rubbish has been blown up out of the smelly skips. We discuss the hazards of living in Sicily, but also the problem of the noisy weekend nightlife depriving us of sleep. The bar a couple of doors down has reopened after being closed all winter, bringing an undesirable druggy clientele back to the borgo. We can hear their music as loud as if we were in a nightclub, standing right next to the speakers. It seems to reverberate through the flimsy walls of our houses. On Saturday night she says the police came because a gang of them were beating a man to a pulp. They only come if there’s a fight, she says rolling her eyes. I know lots of the neighbours here – many of whom are anciani – call the police to complain at 1am and 2am when they can’t sleep because of the racket, but the police always says their car is being used elsewhere. The police station is hundred metres down the road … Basically the bar in question has put its Olympic size speakers outside – meaning we have a disco in the borgo, a residential historic area. Not the place at all for a disco. When you call the police, she says, they tell you to come down and make a denuncia, file a report against them; but who would expose themselves in that way here? And it is not necessary at all. Italian law states that the mere presence of speakers outside a bar in a residential area is an infraction of the law in itself. She tells me that various neighbours have gone down to the bar owners and complained, telling them they will file the report against them . and though bar owners say 'Go on then – if you don’t want to live. Just see what happens to you …’ Charming. The head of the police has even complained to us about this bar, and says they are well-known as trouble-makers. But nothing is done. And why not? Either these people are so well-connected the police are scared; or they are paying off the police with a huge bribe. I suspect it is the former, because our last cook was from the same town as them, and when her husband was knocked off his scooter by a local hooligan she said the didn’t dare even claim the insurance off him because they knew who he was and the kind of trouble he could cause for them. They say that the Barcellonese run Milazzo, that Milazzo is in their hands. Great. This democracy we are living in … or civilisation, Sicilian-style.

I went to the Sunday meeting of the Donne Libere – the Women’s Group which is trying to give support and representation to women in Milazzo. The subject was Sexuality and Identity and they had speakers from the Arci (cultural group) Gay and Lesbian. Several of them told their stories of ill-treatment at school and when growing up, of how long it took their families to accept them. But the thing that struck me as strange was that they kept repeating, ‘it is not an illness. We are not sick.’ Apparently their parents had taken them to the doctor’s when they were teenagers in the hope for a cure. That these days, in contrast to our Spanish neighbours, in Italy men can't walk hand in hand down the street, girls can't kiss in public; homosexuals are not free to live their sexuality in public in a country where heterosexuals can comfortably demonstrate affection. It is probably because of the heavy political weight of the Vatican in Italy that these outdated offensive attitudes prevailed (not that the Vatican can provide a good example ...). The Arci speakers said they tried to visit schools to do educational projects with the kids but many schools would not participate, saying it was encouraging homosexuality. No such things as PSHE (Personal, Social, Health Education) in Italian schools. No sex education. And they need it; there is little else to do all summer long – hot days on the beach hot nights under the olive trees ... A recent article by a psychologist said that teenage pregnancies were on the increase in Italy, but wondered why, with all the information teenagers get via the media and science lessons at school … : hardly the same as PSHE, and I don't know what lessons the media projects, with the bikini-clad women dancing and prancing on TV. Ah yes, equality and respect. The speakers said it was unacceptable, in a democracy, that taboos should still exist around this subject of sexuality and identity. What democracy?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

the Brazilian Bartender

On Thursday night one of the local musicians pops in to ask if his group can play at ours one night in May or June. He plays the accordion, there is a drummer and then the singer on the guitar. Latin, reggae and ska mostly. Sounds good to me and a bit more laid back than our usual fare at the minute. But he wants to discuss the matter with mio marito. In fact he hesitates before even telling me what he has come in for – when to me it is perfectly obvious that he wants to ask us for a night. My husband is busy in the kitchen giving a hand to the cook – his mother at the moment! – because there are three tables all needing antipasti and second courses. So there’s no way I am going to disturb him when I can deal with the musician perfectly well. But the muso thinks I’m only good for giving him a drink. The hand shoots up to the mouth in a drinking gesture and he asks for a shot of rum. I remember the last –and only time – he came for a drink I gave him a very generous glass of rum by mistake, so that when mio marito gave him a second one he complained and ended up paying peanuts for the doubly generous dose. So I make no mistakes this time and get the tiny shot glass out.

I have to coax it out of him: ‘So are you wanting to play a night here then?’ He says yes, but he’ll wait to discuss it with mio marito. I let him wait and get back to chatting to my friend at the bar, a non-Italian who is watching this pantomime with amusement. Mio marito comes forth bearing three plates, greets the muso and whizzes on about his business not giving him as much as a second to get talking to him. SO I try again, ‘Look, tell me about your group, I’ll discuss it with mio marito and you can call us during the week for a date.’ I don’t have the music agenda as my husband books the groups, but at this stage all this muso needs is a date, which can be agreed over the phone. I know he probably wants to discuss the fee, and I know very well he won’t want to discuss it with me. So I don’t bother mentioning it. He still prevaricates, saying he can wait another two minutes. But in the end he has to go as there is no sign of my husband having a secondo for him. He asks for his number – which is on our business card, along with the restaurant number, as I point out, knowing well that my husband lost his mobile the day before. But I don’t tell him that either.

Well, what should I expect at this stage? Another couple who were dining that night put me in my place too: the guy declared loudly - 'So you're Irish! I was convinced you were Brazilian.' He beams drunkenly. Now how come, I ask, genuinely curious. I thought that myth was over. Is it the striking white Gaelic skin, or the blue eyes that convinced you? But his brain is addled with drink and he can't come up with a reason, much to my disappointment. His companion lingers a while chatting to me; she's on an extended holiday here in her home town because in Rome she hasn't been able to find work in her chosen field, art curation. We saw quite a lot of this girl over the summer as she hung around with the beach crowd who frequented Pachamama. 'So what would you like to have done with your life, if you didn't have this?' she asks, gesturing around the restaurant. Yep, that's me in the corner, the Brazilian Bartender, not a single title nor diploma to my name.

Last night was packed out with revellers who will be enjoying Labour Day today. But our temporary aiuto cuoco, who has been doing a great job, tells us he has been called to work in the refinery, which is better for his CV; and our temporary waiter, who was going to get us through May until he went over to Stromboli island to do the season there, also tells us that he can’t work from Monday on. Such a shame as both were excellent and fitted in with the whole team really well. So hard to find people like that. so we are back down to no cook – with my mother-in-law doing it single-handedly, and two waiters. Our Friday and Saturday nights are so busy now, especially since we have opened the two outside terraces, that we really need three. Our German-Sicilian cook has promised to be here on May 15th – but who believes him? And in the meantime there are no other contenders …