Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Favourite winter tapa and Sicilian dishes of the moment

Our Gambas PilPil are going strong at the moment. Most of our customers have realised that tapas are not Mexican (they confuse them with tortillas, since we have of course, the Spanish potato omelette on the menu), and that they are nothing to be afraid of (Sicilians are most distrustful of any food other than Sicilian).

Gambas Pil Pil are really easy to make, but as you will see in the photo, we have the advantage of having the wonderful pink Mazzara prawns freshly off the boat ... Just sauté the prawns (they need to be big, as they shrink in size in the pan) in their shells with some olive oil, white wine, garlic and fresh chili pepper.

Our Garbuglie di Venere are a favourite too, and have been going strong since the summer. Fresh pasta (like linguini - which is dry pasta), with vongole (clams) tossed in the pan with fresh tomato, and a handful of rocket and slivers of parmesan to serve. The combination in delicious.

Another favourite of the moment which goes well with a glass of Nero D'Avola or Etna Rosso (red wines from vineyards on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna) is our tagliere di salumi e formaggi - a platter of finely sliced local hams (we have great salsiccia from the black pigs of the nearby Nebrodi moutains) and thick wedges of local cheeses with jams and honey. Mmmm

Pics of Stromboli and Salina

My favourite Aeolian island is Stromboli - no street lighting, at night you wander the streets guided by the white washed walls and starry skies with night-blooming jasmine perfuming the air. By day - swimming between black sand coves with crystal clear water, spotting Strombolicchio rising up out of the water 2km off shore, with the majestic Stromboli volcano always at your back.

We were on Salina island at harvest time for the malvasia grapes - delicious dessert wine. The vineyards cover the lower slopes of the extinct volcanoes in between sprays of bougainvillea, caper bushes, olive groves and lemon trees.

More Pachamama pics

Pachamama pics

Pics of trip near Catania

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'We Sicilians are Norman, Greek, Spanish ...' 17/01/10

There are rubbish collection problems again here. Piles of stinking plastic bags on top and on either side of the skips all over town. A weeks' worth of rubbish. They are every 100 metres or so, along some of the main squares in the centre, and there is one on the other side of the square outside our restaurant. Hope we don't get rats! Just to remind us we are in Sicily, which is not exactly Europe.

Last night started quiet. The only customer we had around 10pm was Gianni Moro, the harmonica player. He was laughing at how people now think it is cold (it was around 16 degrees during the day, and then at night the damp made it cold - bone cold but not snow cold.) I poured him a massive rum accidentally and was about to say something about it, but then thought oh well, it is just one and he is keeping us company. But when I was off seeing to other customers he asked mio marito for a second one, and then complained that it wasn’t as big as his first. Sneaky. I was distracted by his waxed eyebrows. They were like Audrey Hepburn’s or like fake rubber ones stuck on underneath his glasses. More manicured than mine. Hard to take one seriously when they are like that. But it is not an uncommon sight among Scilian men.

Since it is colder than usual now (I can’t say it is cold because to me it feels likes winter still hasn’t arrived) people keep asking for a smoking room. ‘Look there’s no one around, is it OK if we smoke?’ They always smile hopefully as if we’d be delighted. Apparently we are the only bar/restaurant in town where you cannot smoke inside. Everyone follows their own laws here.

We had a trumpeter playing with a dj which worked well, though it wasn’t as busy as usual because it was ‘cold’. The trumpeter said he was going to Spain soon to visit his (Sicilian) girlfriend. Are you worried she’ll go off with a Spaniard? I asked, testing his jealousy levels. He put down his beer for a second to think about it, but said ‘No, come on, the Spanish are brutti (ugly)!’ He said he had met lots of Erasmus students at gigs in Palermo and how they were really taken by Sicilians. ‘They like how different we are,’ he said. ‘Take me for instance, I am a Norman.’ (He stood up tall to show he wasn’t the typical short dark Sicilian. ‘Siamo normanni, greci (Greek)…’ he told me proudly. ‘You’re also Spanish, and Arab,’ I added. This is part of the Sicilian fascination. The castle at the end of my street was built by Frederick II of Swabia in 1239-40 on the site of what was once a Greek acropolis, and later an Arab-Norman citadel. It was under Aragon domination for a long period too. This history of invasion and foreign domination maybe explains the pride Sicilians have in their heritage and at the same time their distrust of foreigners, and even of each other. Greek myths abound: in Homer's Odyssey's Ulysses had trouble with the winds round the Aeolian Islands and Milazzo is the place where he ends up shipwrecked and meets the dangerous one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. His cave is said to be built into the cliff face down dear the beach - it was turned into a disco in the 70s but had to be closed due to safety reasons ...

Mad Max and Diego, the depressed DJ, showed up. Not so depressed tonight since he was proposing they do a little aperitivo night for us on Sundays. I watched them dance around mio marito, getting more and more enthusiastic as they tried to convince him to give them the slot. Seeing them on the offchance is bad enough but a routine night would be too much. I left them with Giorgio, another regular, propping up the bar – the three stooges.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

la Nonna's Story 13/01/2010

You never know what the morning might bring. Which is why it is always good to go out for a coffee in Sicily. Yesterday I went to English Bar and the sweet elderly father was sitting in his usual seat with the newspaper, meeting and greeting 'Buongiorno Dottore! Arriverderci Avvocato!' (Italians make much of professional titles, so you are referred to as Doctor, or Lawyer directly). His daughter, who was on the till, was reading out a postcard from New York so I looked up and said something, being the only customer at that moment. It was cosy there, my cappuccino perfect and the apple pastry freshly baked. She asked me was I American, in English, and I replied that I was irish. She sighed that it was so important to travel, always travel, that their cousin had gone to NY for capodanno. She said she had lived in Canada, until she was 9, then came to live in Milazzo. Her husband had lived for several years in Manchester, hence calling it English bar. He was the smiley bushy grey haired man. She was so smiley and doing her best to chat in English. She lamented the fact that they don’t get to practise and that most tourists stay at the port and go to the islands that nothing is made of the beauty in Milazzo.

Today, invece, I went down to a bar by the sea, which is not nearly so welcoming, in fact he didn’t even put the heater on for me to sit in the covered area outside. But the cappuccino was good, and I got the Gazetta del Sud. No more news on the Haiti earthquake than I got this morning at 2am when we came in from work. But I read that Miep Gies, the keeper of Anne Frank’s diary and their guardian angel who had kept them hidden for two years in her attic, died at the age of 100. Remarkable woman.

It was this fact that sparked the chat with the nonna on my way past. I came by all the fishing boats of Vacarella, all the fishermen in their thigh high green wellies with the fish out on display. Slimy eels, pinky mullet, pink prawns and anchovies. One man was happily rearranging his fishing lines. Another was fixing his nets in his boat, another was gutting fish a bit further back from the pavement, with a few cats lurking nearby. A crowd of seagulls floated contentedly near the water’s edge, occasionally sticking their beaks in the water to pick up a minute fish. All the men had a good gawk as I went past. Plenty of action, despite the mizzle. Met the postman on his motorino with his bundle of letters in the little boot, and his luminous yellow waterproof jacket with Postino printed on it. I heard him park and holler up to a woman to open up for her post: ‘Maria, c’è posta, mi apri!’ In fair weather he goes about his rounds singing and whistling. A happy man, one of my favourite characters, especially now that the nonna just told me that he writes poems and brings them to her since he knows she likes them! A poetic postman. Fantastic.

La nonna had her door open when I was passing, since the bread man was just at the next house. He comes by every day with fresh loaves. So she invited me in and we went in to see the nonno, who was in bed. He waited for her to go and get the bread and as soon as she was gone he said, ‘here, open this glove for me.’ The knot was very tight and I understood that the aim was to keep the saw inside the glove locked up! But I opened it anyway – he wants to get his old tools out to remind himself of the man he once was. The nonna came back in and was very annoyed 'What are you doing with that od pruning saw?!' - and put it away. He asked me did I want some gamberi, their daughter had come round with lovely fresh gamberi. Every time I see him he wants to give me something. I said I had some already, grazie. We went into the kitchen then and the nonna showed me the fresh prawns. I told her about Miep Gies dying and she told me she had been there at Anne Frank's house, since her son and his Dutch wife live nearby. She then said she’d love to tell me her own account of the wars, of both world wars and how her family had been affected. Through her son she had met Elvira Battaini, a writer from Milano, who had made notes on things the nonna had told her down through the years, as she had wanted to publish them in some form. But she passed away in the summer, said la nonna sadly, ‘she was like a sister to me, always with a word of comfort and great flair and courage.’

La nonna said she had written down what she remembered of her earliest years. She remembered feeling abandoned by her father, who went off to work in Argentina when she was little, came back to fight the first world war and then returned to Argentina. She was close to her grandfather instead, who acted as father to her, though he grew older very suddenly and as a young girl she had to look after him. She said when she was a girl and was out walking with friends one night to hear the prophecies of a fortune teller, as they passed by the gates of the cemetery, not far from her house, her future husband whispered his declaration of love in her ear, saying he was going to send her a love letter. ‘Look at the stars! Listen to the whoosh of the waves!’ he said, ignoring their tenebrous surroundings. She laughed at the incongruity of the place with his romantic words. His letter reached her via a cousin. She had to keep this romance secret from her strict mother especially a kiss he gave her at their next meeting, during a walk in town; he kissed her on the cheek and she was so worried her mother would see the mark that she ran into the toilet with her little cracked mirror in her purse, and checked. She said they had been through many ups and downs together but had always managed to love each other through 68 years of marriage: some achievement. He had an irascible temper she said, he would often offend her with the way he spoke to her, but every day when she would see him off at the end of the road, he would expect her to give him a kiss on the cheek. But, she said, if he had been particularly offensive over a period of a few days she would put her foot down and not accept it. These Sicilian men, I said, are very volcanic, thinking ‘chauvinistic’ would be the wrong word to use. Oh, she said, he was 100% volcanic. I have heard about the nonno’s temperament before; one day at dinner with all their four children (in their 50s), and the grandchildren (aged 15-25- including my husband) he swept his arms round the room, and said, ‘Look at what one cock can do!’

As a young woman, the nonna got a job in Palermo in an ‘Aiuto Materno’, a kind of shelter for abandoned children and women who got pregnant as the result of rape during the war, or through prostitution. They would be found in rags, sleeping rough in the streets or at the train station, and brought to them where they got washed and fed and a bed. She had to keep her courtship with her fiancé secret, because the job was only for single women.

Come back, she said, so I can tell you more about my life story.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

4am, and no one wants to leave 10/01/2010

Last night began well with several tables of returned customers who came to dine. The kitchen ran smoothly, and all the customers dined well. I was delighted to advise some vegetarian customers and see that they enjoyed my bessara Moroccan soup. Just before midnight the place started filling up; the sideroom was taken over by a table of 15 – regulars who had been in during the week and whose drinks I am beginning to know, and groups of 4 and 6 starting taking up the tables in the room upstairs and in front of the bar. But as usual, they all arrived together, and the waiters had to go into overdrive finding tables and chairs and rearranging seating as people lingered in any free space available hoping we would find them a table out of nowhere. At one point when a table of 6 was hanging on for a table, a girl asked if we had a table for 17! A stressful two hours of keeping an eye on tables in the three rooms, reserving tables as soon as they became available, lifting chair over heads ... making sure the bar kept dealing with the orders as well as the customers down at the bar. Complete chaos. So different to the booth kind of seating in most Irish pubs where table service simply doesn’t exist.

In the middle of trying to do bills for the two waiters and mio marito, all requested at the same time, Mad Max appears with his usual aggressive charge. I said, hang on a sec, which no doubt tweaked his non-existent patience. He had misunderstood something that had happened earlier in the evening, twisted it in his head to suit his agro, and come to seek revenge. He started shouting and his face went pink then purple. I explained what I had said, but he said I’m not deaf I heard you! And I said well then you are accusing me of being a liar and I am no liar; this is what I said. His eyes popped out of his head, almost. Ricorda, he hissed, che qui io sono un principe e tu non sei nessuno. (remember that I am a prince here and you are no one)! Charming. What is he on? And he moved off, satisfied he had had the final word.

Due to huge efforts by all involved the night went well and customers were happy, in fact I think they love the fact that the place is so busy and bursting at the seams. But at 2.30 the night was still in full swing and at 3am large parties were still seated in all three rooms. So the waiters started putting up chairs in the sideroom and upstairs and the lights went on downstairs and the music stopped.

But downstairs all went haywire. Several people were smoking and the waiters and mio marito asked them to go outside. It is as if the rules don't apply after 3am. Our friends didn't help either as some were smoking too and all were drunk. There was something in the air last night, everyone seemed determined to drink as much as possible. Anyway I let it go for a while but then the mafioso at the large table downstairs caught my eye - they were the last table, and were not in a hurry to leave. He said, putting on a fake pleading look and slimy smile, 'Just me, just let me smoke!' What a mafia thought, he is king and gets to bend the rules. 'But the others will see and think they can too,' I pointed out. He obviously thought they would know he should be allowed to bend the rules! He said, 'Your husband says I can smoke.' As if. I said, 'Ah, but sure you know it is the woman who decides,' thinking - this is their kind of mentality, best joke about it. Anything to get rid of them, it was 4am. But then there was a near fight outside - mio marito had to close the door as they wanted to bring it inside - and this Mafioso got involved (not before sneering at mio marito - 'your wife says it is she who decides' - ) and then stormed off without paying. And of course he had done the whole ‘offro io’ business of offering to pay for two bottles of prosecco and drinks at another table ... I don’t imagine he will be back tonight to pay. Mafiosi don’t lose honour or face by not settling their debts.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Foreign Woman's Tongue 6/01/2010

Last night was jam packed. We had a singer-songwriter present his new album and all his mates came from the next town. You can tell they are from the next town because they drink more, are more hippy-looking and actually dance and get a bit drunk. The locals in our town are usually too uptight to let their hair down and risk making a brutta figura by dancing or doing anything that might attract attention. They don’t drink as much either, though we sense some of them take cocaine. Loopy Lucia came up to me with her eyes burning bright and asked me for a shot of vodka for herself and her boyfriend. But they were jigging around like they needed to go to the bathroom, so I said go to the toilet first and then I’ll pour you your shots. But they said, ‘We were at Blue in town but the toilets were dirty and we couldn’t use them. So now we are desperate. But we’ll have the shot first.’ There is the strange and suspicious tendency here of going to the toilet with your partner. Couples disappear into the toilet (one room upstairs and one room downstairs) and who knows what they get up to. But this pair came down about ten minutes later with their eyes even more shiny and made a hasty exit without meeting my eye, as I glanced over to say good bye. So this is what we have been reduced to.

The lovely sister came in the early part of the night, the girl with the Irish boyfriend. Aren’t you great, she said, having moved over here, adapting to this, you have all the chat in Italian. Good for you, she said. She understood. How I wish she was around more. Warmed to her so much.

The Mafioso mentality
Here is proof that you can’t say a thing without it coming back at you here, not even a wee joke. Especially not a wee joke. A few weeks ago at the end of the evening Blue brother (Blue is run by two brothers and is in the centre of town near a couple of other locali) was at ours having a snoop around, as he does regularly (he checks out what groups we have coming up, and then quite often he has them play at Blue right after …). It was the night of the young djs, nothing exciting. But I joked ‘hey, Vincenzo, next week they’ll be at Blue, right? He got a bit offended. È rimasto un po’ male, as they say here, which I didn’t expect, not having foreseen the repercussions or the deeprooted rivalry they feel with us. ‘Competition is another thing altogether,’ he said, curtly, ‘nothing to do with the groups you have. You guys should come to ours, at least I come up here sometimes.’ Anyway, a few nights later he was back up and he spotted Lola Montez was playing and joked about me and said, ‘Oh I’ll definitely be up to see you.’ And then he grinned; ‘and next week you’ll play at Blue.’ I had seen that comment coming and finished his sentence for him and we laughed and he put his arm round me. ‘I’d love you to play at ours,’ he says. ‘Me too, if you pay me well!’ I reply. He was on the phone to his girlfriend in Canada and said she was a bit jealous of his barman lifestyle and I joked of course, she knows you’re Sicilian. He joked, ‘well you married one!’ But that’s different I assured him. Anyway, we are on these kind of jokey terms, but I obviously went too far with my little joke earlier in the week, because as I soon found out, Mad Max then asked if we could play there and the other brother, whom I don’t know, said no.

Mad Max my sax player comes roaring up to me when the night is in full swing, the band is playing, the customers are lined up in front of me, desperate for their drinks. In his aggressive usual manner, he comes right up to the till elbowing clients out of the way, clients in a fairly orderly queue but who look alarmed as they see his red face spouting forth at me. I am trying to serve glasses of wine, bottles of beer and keep the queue moving, while he is roaring at me, ‘Ma hai avuto qualche discussione con I fratelli Blue?’ – Have I had a row with the Blue brothers? No, I assure him, at first not connecting. One of them I don’t know and the other is a kind of friend, I say. But he insists, between one bottle of beer and one receipt issued. He doesn’t know how to behave and when to say things. My head is throbbing, the queue is lengthening and here is this redfaced madman bellowing at me like a sick bull. You made some comment, he insists. I said, ‘You can’t be talking about that joke I made? ‘See?’ says Mad Max, getting the confirmation he was after. ‘You need to learn to keep your mouth shut!’ Devi tenere la lingua firma. Keep your tongue still, he says. Yes, here we are in 2010 but in Sicily we’re back in the Middle Ages. So I couldn’t hold in any more, the queue was getting more impatient and annoyed at the bull distracting me from dealing with their drinking needs. ‘You are the one who needs to watch his tongue,’ I say! ‘You are the one who fights with everyone!’ He is quite shocked, ‘me? I am trying to sort out a gig for us.’ But he prob knows what I mean underneath. Offended, he pays for the beers he owes and I give him the receipt and say thank you and look at my next customer. ‘ How upsetting.

Understanding Local Provincial Behaviour Sermon
Mio marito says the friendly Blue brother probably just passed on my comment and not the fact that we then joked about it. Also he has now gone to the Canadian girlfriend and we are left with the more provincial minded brother. That the Blue brothers feel fierce competition with us. That my comment expressed what we all know, but no one actually says. He would never have made a joke like that, it is too close to the bone. But I say that they have latched on to my comment as an excuse. They would never have let me sing there anyway, it would be too touchy a subject. Too strange for the competition to step into the competitor's den and sing and bring clients. Maybe they think it wouldn’t be good for business relations. But it is easy to use the woman’s comment as an excuse. The foreign woman’s tongue.

Capodanno Sicilia 31/12/09

Yesterday I went down to the capo again where something good always happens. I took my time going down through the sunny olive groves and macchia mediterranea covering the cliff, and when I got down to Venus’s Pool, there was a blond lady in swimming, in her late 50s or so, her husband just got out of the water when I came down. She was there like Venus, herself. She was enjoying having the pool to herself, it was a moment like that in the Dolce Vita when Anita Ekberg prances around in the Trevi fountain. She said it was a bit cold but worth the thrill.

Who was there but the lovely boy I met in the early days when we had just opened. He works in Brussels in immigration. Little by little it came back to me. The was girl smiling in the sun on the rock where I had been yesterday, was his sister – who has an Irish boyfriend, and lives with him in London, as it turns out. He said but when you come back here and find this splendour, beautiful weather in December and the capo you think of coming back. I said mio marito would say no way. I mentioned the recycling and rubbish problems, among others, and the sister ‘who stayed’ as they called her, the other sister, said – ‘We who live here, and see this every day, we hate this stuff too. I think loads of people would collaborate if we had the option of recycling.’ They said it was the nicest locale in town.

These people would be our friends if they lived here. Sometimes it feels like all the most interesting people left. They were such fun. So happy. The sister is doing a PhD on the religious symbolism in the mafia. How interesting the way they were different to the sister who had stayed behind. They spoke differently, had a light in their eyes, whereas she had a sadness, a frustration, even though she had the positive energy too. But she said, ‘It is sad to see so many people leave amareggiati, bitter and frustrated. We are frustrated we too who live here and face it every day.’

On the way back up the cliff people kept stopping to look back at the orange glow of the setting sun behind the last promontory justting out into the sea to the west. Dinner was back at my suoceri, and even more uncles and aunts were there last night – about 25 people were stuffed into the kitchen and sitting room. You could have dined on the antipasti alone. There were torte salate – pies with sundried tomatoes and primo sale cheese and another with anchovies and capers, savoury pastries my brother-in-law’s mother had made, marinated prawns, fried neonati fish (the name put me off trying them – 'newborn'), a courgette ‘torta’. Then smoked salmon risotto. Then huge, tasty grilled prawns in breadcrumbs, braised over the barbecue outside, it was such a warm night. Of crouse there was stock fish, as expected. There was so much food being passed around the table, there was hardly time to eat with all the passing around of dishes. The table was so long you had aunties calling from one end, ‘Where did those prawns go? Pass some down this way!’ or, ‘OK, stop sending food down here, we have enough!’ Limoncello and almondy torroni came afterwards, but we left before the card playing and prosecco began, to get to our friends’ party in time for midnight. In fact, we got there with two minutes to spare, before the house erupted with prosecco tops flying off, and kisses and auguri galore. Musician friends took up their instruments and played to get us all dancing, while guest helped themselves to leftovers on the sideboard and drinks on another sideboard. Capodanno in Sicily.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Venus's Pool 27/12/09

It is boiling here with the scirocco wind blowing over from North Africa. I made mulled wine last night and the people said it was too hot for it! It was also a bit bitter unfortunately. Need less orange and lemons and more sugar and cinnamon. People greet each other clutching their stomachs and moaning about how they have overeaten again, but still compare notes on what was on what they had to eat!

We are now known as the communist bar apparently. In Italy the distinct political factions formed in WW2 have remained, though communist does not hold the Eastern Europe connotations it would have in the rest of Europe. It basically covers anything from left of centre, to anti-establishment to bohemian lateral thinking. I wonder is it the world music that we play sometimes, or the South American artisan crafts on the walls, or the tapas we serve or what, exactly, has gained us this reputation?

The other night a hippy smiling crowd who ordered special spritzes from me and then the best Scotch whiskey from mio marito, left without paying. Unbelievable. That is the problem with table service for drinks.

I escaped for a peaceful walk out at the beautiful Capo (headland) after the liveliness of the last few nights. I had the Piscina di Venere (Venus’s Pool …) to myself, the sun light on the water leaving the rocks in relief against the cloudless blue sky, the odd fishing boat passing by just beyond the inlet, then a canoeist, and myself drenched in sunlight, about 25 degrees, roasting with my book. Two guys came along and apologised for intruding, they were thinking of a swim though they had no towels and when they saw me were inhibited and said maybe tomorrow. The second guy said, ‘What more could you want, where would you want to go? - You have Venus’s Pool all to yourself!’ It was gorgeous. Peace, feeling loved by the sun.

When I left my sheltered spot behind the rock there was a group of musicians playing hippy guitar music and the groupie girlfriend taking pics. Three other boys sat together watching the sunset behind the headland of Capo D’Orlando.


Christmas in Sicily 25/12/09

We closed on Christmas Eve as that is when families get together for the big dinner here in Italy and exchange gifts. The nonni (grandparents), zii (aunts and uncles) and some cugini, along with the sisters-in-law and the kids packed into my in-laws’ kitchen. The big tree tastefully decorated in the corner, and a fabulous crib mio suocero made out of driftwood found on the beach and volcanic stones collected over the years sat on the dresser adorned with the usual nativity scene figures, plus little animals, and villagers cobbling shoes, carrying milk pails, forging horseshoes.

The starters were laid out on the table. Everything was based around fish. Tasty marinated anchovies, smoked salmon and rocket, whitebait fritters, olives from the garden. This was followed by a fresh prawn and asparagus risotto, and then some grilled and oven-baked fish – San Pietro, one of my favourite (similar to John Dory), bought from the fishermen just in off the boats in the morning. Wonderful big chunks of aniseedy fennel to digest and then some card playing until midnight, in keeping with tradition. The game was sette i mezza, the aim being to get the equivalent of 7 and a half points with the cards you were dealt, against the dealer. The stakes were low, everyone threw in a couple of euro to the pool. Great merriment ensued, with limoncello in the centre to aid concentration. Mio suocero and mio marito bluffed their best, the nonna played her good hand, the younger sister-in-law implored her father to remember she was his daughter and to go easy on her when he was dealer and it was her turn, the young cousin picked up tips on how to play from his grandparents and an older and very quiet cousin raked in all the winnings, sharing a big smile with me. At midnight the young cousin and nephew sprang into action lifting gifts from under the tree and presenting them to their designated owners. ‘Auguri’ and ‘grazie’ were called across the room while the mamma got down to business with the pandoro, the ‘golden bread’ of Christmas, sprinkling a good dollop of icing sugar over it and handing out hefty slices. Mio marito whipped out the prosecco bottles and filled the glasses and more shouts of auguri and clinking of glasses followed.

As if that wasn’t enough eating for one week, the next day at lunch time, we were all invited to the nonni for Pranzo di Natale. This time it was all about meat, but my suocera had thoughtfully made a spinach lasagna for me, which myself, the nonna and mio marito enjoyed while everyone else had a meaty one. The main dish was spaghetti with ventre – stomach of some animal, I was too afraid to ask which – and potato and carrot. Kind of like a stew except it was with spaghetti. Then there was pesce stocco – the regional speciality, stock fish, in a tomato stew, which was passed around the table. There were huge slices of ham too, looking not dissimilar to ours but no sign of cloves for spicy Christmas flavour. Again mia suocera had kindly thought of me and placed some small calamari (squid) in front of me, stuffed with capers and breadcrumbs and tomato. Soft and very tasty and piping hot. The nonno (granddad) treated me as special guest and kept checking I was getting enough to eat; he was most concerned I wasn’t having any of the local wine he was having, and then offered me some of the sliced pear he had after the main courses. Mio marito played draughts with his little cousin on the new set he had just received, the latter getting advice on all sides, but keeping a cool head nevertheless for his first game. One of the aunts had made two huge tiramisu welcomed by everyone, and washed down with prosecco. Card games and board games followed – the granny and granddad with mio marito and a sister-in-law, and the uncles and aunts with other cousins at another table with a new board game.

We then left to digest and prepare for the hectic night ahead…

The restaurant wasn’t too busy, as expected, though some people came for panini and piadini and desserts. The bar was busy with requests for bottles of prosecco and toasts all over the place. Once the band started playing the place packed out. All the returned ‘migrants’ from Milano, Torino, Roma and other northern towns were out socialising and we were busy ourselves meeting and greeting in between serving tables, making cocktails and holding fort at the till. There were hardly enough wine glasses to do; in fact there were often delays while we had to wait for the dishwasher to produce some clean ones. They break so easily, though the barman reckons that clients nick them if they are left outside, or that the bar next door mistakenly picks them up for theirs!

Fabulous festive atmosphere. There was hardly time to be envious of the meeting and greeting going on, and wish I was among my own...


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Duca di Avarna's deserted village 9/12/09

For Festa dell’Immacolada we went up the hills, even though we were working last night. Lovely colours on the hills, yellow and golden in the midday light, then stark purple grey shadows silhouetted against the sky at sundown. Amazing stripy sunset. Ruins at the corner of a scenic path with loads of bamboo and olive trees and mandarin and orange trees, the orange trees seemed to guide the path and then fell like a carpet down the green steep banks of the jagged valley. Old ruins of a farmhouse, with the outer shell still standing and quite grand but inside looked like there had been a fire. Roof and walls inside made of bamboo for insulation. Another outhouse had the stairs still intact though we proceeded with caution and got upstairs, wonderful views.

Down another road we came to the Duke of Avarna’s village, 'Gualtieri Sicamino'. A whole street for him, with school church, and a long low row of houses with a few more behind, and then opposite, houses on three streets called Serro 1, 2 and 3 going up into the hill, with steep steps linking the houses together. The last one on serro 3 seemed to be looked after now and again, had a fabulous lavender plant which we took lots of strands from for our idea of putting it on the tables, now I have it drying. Also a rosemary bush and mandarin trees and green lemon trees. Some of the houses were totally wrecked, ruins with no roof, others you could look into and they had stores of wood and tiles, strangely. A family came along and climbed over the gate of the church and got up to the bell tower and rang the bell! We saw them later down a lane chatting to the only inhabited house, a man asking if somewhere was for sale. There was no one else. Deserted village, quite eerie at that time. There was even a massive cantina for wine, with stone wine presses and big grooves in the stone for keeping the wine barrels, on a square the Duke had called Garcia Lorca square.

The Duca, Giuseppe Avarna, known for his eccentric nature, left his wife and three children in 1980 when he fell madly in love with an American air hostess 40 years younger than him. Due to some twist in provisions in the will, the couple were not allowed to live in the ducal manor, where his ex-wife continued to live, but had to occupy a room in the deconsacrated church. But they lived there happily, she playing the guitar and he writing poetry. Every night after they had made love, he climbed into the bell tower and rang the bells, to annoy his ex wife and proclaim his love to the skies! He was killed in a fire at his home ten years ago.

The kind of place that in Tuscany would be restored and a major tourist attraction, here in Sicily totally abandoned, that is the sadness of Sicily, so much ruin. Even at the catarate, the waterfalls we went to see, the visitor centre had been stopped half way through – there was a huge carpark but no other amenities, overgrown grass encroaching on the picnic table of the designated family area… the waterfall itself disappointed mio marito who remembered standing under the huge torrent with his mates 20 years ago all in the nude with fig leaves taking a picture. Not so much water now and it looked like the stone had crumbled away from the cliff. We went to a bar nearby to warm up after the dampness by the woodburning stove.


Being tourists: Syracusa and Noto 6/12/09

The one good thing about not working so much in this off-peak time is that we get to travel more. Had beautiful weather. We wandered the windy damp streets of Ortigia, the island on Syracusa, the narrow streets and concealed courtyards of the Jewish quarer, past magnificent churches, along to the huge gleaming square of the magnificent cathedral, Saint Lucia's basilica and down towards the water, to the fonte di Aretusa. Legend has it that a nymph called Aretusa, who was one of the Nereids of Greece, fled to Sicily after the river-god Alpheus fell in love with her, but was then changed into a fountain (the Fonte Aretusa) by Artemis. The Greeks are present in the amphitheatre (which we had all to ourselves - perfect) and the huge rock cave known as Dionysius's Ear, where we whisted and called and heard our echoes come back with the amazing acoustics - leend has it that Dionysius used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, and by means of the perfect acoustics eavesdropped on the plans and secrets of his captives.

We reached Noto at sunset, and wandered the main street of the old quarter with the pink light glowing on the yellowish stone. We sat on the steps of the baroque catedral and watched a group of small boys play football, and teenagers play table football by an old news kiosk.

Th next day, we made it to il parco dei Vindicari, a huge expanse of protected nature reserve, with beautiful white sand beaches, trails for trekking, though it was too hot for that! We got as far as a capanna for observing birds where a group of ornithologists were watching flamingos (fenicotteri). They let us look through their binoculars. Amazing,there were about 200 of them and we were extremely lucky to have spotted them. The Italian guide said they could have been in Tunisia or further south in Africa or in a different spot in Sicily. We cut on to the beach through some scrub and a gardener started shouting at us immediately. I was about to dip my feet in the crystal clear water and couldn’t believe he was shouting at us. He apologised when we went over. Listen, he said urgently, you need to get off this beach, this is private parkland, you aren’t supposed to be here. There is a sign, he said ,when we looked surprised, but it isn’t so obvious. But you’d be amazed, you’ll be spotted by a park ranger in an instant and given s huge fine. They have little else to do …we thanked him and hastily clambered back over the scrub and the wire on to the path. We went to see the ruins of a huge old tonnara (tuna factory). There are quite few dotted along the Sicilian coast line – for millennia tuna fishing played a huge role in Sicilian social and economic life, but now the fishery is under severe pressure due to depleted stocks. We drove to quaint Marzamemmi, a little village with cafés looking on to an old fishing port and old building leading down to a beautiful old square with an old church gracing the top of the square. One of my favourite sights in Sicily is from this square; last year we stood and watched a huge pink moon sink down into the sea behind the blue and white fishermen’s boats. Today the sight was not so enticing; we were happily munching on tasty lunch of cheese toasties and sundried tomatoes in the sundrenched square, its only occupants, when our café owner ran out and shouted urgently at us, ‘is that your car, run! The traffic warden is about to fine you.’ Mio marito ran down, but the nasty woman said she had already started filling out the form. Which doesn’t matter, she isn’t even a traffic warden said the café owner in disgust, she’s just an auxiliary. He said it in contempt. He looked at the clock. Look, three minutes past the hour. She’ll have just finished lunch and been delighted to spot your car there where it shouldn’t be. Again, another sign we had failed to see.

We drove on to the Isola dei correnti, a point where the Mediterranean and Ionic Seas meet, where two beautiful beaches meet, rough on one side, and calm waters on the other, with a little rocky formation in the division between the two, where the lighthouse used to be. But not to be seen today. The closer we got, the darker it got and the temperature dropped suddenly. When we parked the car it was ten degrees colder than it had been 5 minutes before. A huge damp mist was rolling in off the sea, and although we walked down to the water hoping it would lift, it just got colder and the mist even denser, we couldn’t see more than three metres in any direction! It was really quite spooky so we headed back to the car. It had been 28 degrees or so at mid day.

Feel quite privileged to have these beautiful places all to ourselves.


Out on the town 5/12/09

I went to the a bar in the centre with the Irish girl last night. On the way we passed two men who come to PM and they gawked over taking a second look. They started laughing when they realised it was me and that they had been caught out. Sono irriconoscibile senza il mio marito, lo so, (‘I’m unrecognisable without my husband, I know’) I said. I feel a bit like in prison here. It was so great to go out. The whole pub stopped when we walked in. Everyone stared. Mad Max was on the sax with the trumpeter and a couple of other musicians. Lost in their jazz moment. One fo the men we had passed on the street came in and took my hand and danced with me. The trumpeter came over at half time. So are we going to do this thing or not? For sure, I said, I’ve sent you an email of songs. He said he’d contact the guitarist. We’ll see. Anyway, Mad Max said the same, are we going to do this thing? He asked, and I said, sono pronta! Amazingly he called mio marito today to get to talk to me (he wouldn’t take down my number, preferring to call my husband …) I gave him the list and he said he knew most of the songs. We have a free spot in a couple of weeks’ time, the Friday night. He suggested a practice on Sunday. We’ll see.

Scapegoat ... 20/11/09

Mio marito is now happy to blame the aiuto-cuoco’s departure on me. Because the latter brings it all back to me telling him coldly (?) ‘senza battere ciglie’ (without batting an eyelid) apparently, that he would have only two days the next week. I remember clearly that day last week when mio marito asked me to tell them that. Business was so slow we decided to close three days, and have the cuoca the four days we were open, and the aiuto cuoco the Friday and Saturday. He knew they wouldn’t like the news and he got me to do it. And he also knows that my way of expressing is not his way, which is Sicilian and therefore more acceptable. Ah sure just blame the badly spoken foreign wife sorry she wasn’t more delicate. The aiuto cuoco simply couldn’t take the bad news from me, and now uses me as the excuse so he can get his job back. Of course he didn’t talk to me about it. Just explained his trauma to mio marito who tells me, oh by the way, the aiuto cuoco is back …

Salsa dancing, Sicilian style 16/11/09

Just had a hilarious salsa lesson and a half. The instructor went through the basic steps – God how many times have I seen them now? And we danced in lines facing the mirror with some Shakira like girls wiggling and stroking their hair. We laughed a lot though. The instructor talked a lot to my English-speaking companions (from the language school) at the beginning and joked that we didn’t understand him much. But as soon as I walked in there was a nice couple who have come to the locale a few times. So they said ah she is also Irish but really now she is a milazzese so the owner said who are you and who is your husband?! Can I not go anywhere and be greeted for just myself? I said we had had the idea of having a Caribbean night or tango night and would they be interested and he said they already did it with the another bar near us. I didn’t know it was they who organised it. But he said they were interested in getting the most exposure possible. I said the room upstairs was fairly big and that there was room on the terraces too. He said he’d come up and have a look. I said there was live music on Thursday if he was interested and gave him a flier! How funny, getting really into the advertising business. The girls were laughing when I also gave one to the two other English girls who teach in the other school, ‘hey you have them coming out of your bag like a magician!’ I said ‘yeah but it is all about communication, got to get out there.'

We had to dance in partners and how I missed those Brazilian classes then! The guys were not much good at all. One called Dimitrio was so funny, he was straight over to me like a shot when the instructor said choose a partner. So he asked was I studying or working and I said I was a teacher like the others but for now I was running a bar and he said he had heard of it.

Then the instructor got into teaching us about the rhythm and the clave the wooden instrument which marks out the rhythm the five tick tick tick tick tick, three slow and two fast which can sometime be inverted he said. He went on for 45 minutes and then made us dance to see if we knew how to start and when and to count the tick tick clave. I did it because the others didn’t know what he was on about, and felt put on the spot. Dimitrio was rolling his eyes and all the Sicilians were shuffling towards the door, so funny. But the instructor was undeterred by the blatant body language. Too funny.


Cook threats and sensual voice 14/11/09

It’s been a while now since we’ve had any major staff problems, so of course something had to come up. The aiuto cuoco wanted to talk last night. Horrible to have these aggressive talks at the beginning of the night. He said two days a week wasn’t enough and for him he was doing ‘extra’. Like when cooks are called upon to fill in for someone else. I knew he was too subversive to last long. Muttering quietly to his friends in the corner. Anyway, he threatened that he wouldn’t be here next week if we didn’t start paying him a lot more for the two day week. Mio marito calmly said that this was just the second week it had had happened, that we were doing our best but the situation had changed dramatically, and that in any case he had done 6 days a week for two months when he had only wanted three or four days week. So now he has two days less instead of two days more but in any case it would all even out. ‘I’d rather be at home’ he said, 'than do just two days a week.' Well stay at home then. It was blackmail. Knowing that we need someone. Mio suocero said, ‘He wouldn’t be able to permit himself this luxury if my wife was here. You know, I once went to work in a kitchen as a cook in Australia. You know what I did for two months? Washed dishes. So who knows what experience he even has.’ We were very annoyed. I said I could make the tortilla and the smoked salmon paté and the two desserts he does and then on Friday and Saturday mio marito would work in the kitchen. This guy has been sitting and reading the papers for the last few nights, it has been so quiet. He lets the aiuto cuoca do all the washing up.

The guy from the piano shop came and suggested I get the old piano he had in the shop, for €500, the one I had noticed in the corner, but take out the instrument and put in a keyboard! As if it would contribute to the aesthetics of the restaurant and not have the problems of tuning. But I don’t want a things that looks cool for the restaurant I want the real thing. Business must be slow if he actually came the whole way to town to have dinner in our restaurant, I thought. Anyway it was nice of him to come and dine with us, we were pleased to see him. And another guy from Montalbano came down, the guy who organises the pageants. He’s a nice guy too. The trumpet player came too; he had played with a saxophonist and keyboard player a couple of weeks ago and they had asked me to sing a few songs with them on the spot. He was telling me how he had liked my singing, I sing just how he likes it and ‘hai una voce molto sensuale’. Wow. He especially liked Summertime which, he said, was much smoother and less carico than people here sing it and he thought it was great. He wants us to play together with a guitarist from Palermo and we’ll chat next time. He probably needs to organise return gigs for the ones his Palermo friends have invited him to. Would still be fun. 'You have a beautiful way of expressing yourself, when you sing it is like this' – he drew a line in the air - 'smooth and flowing, you have this intuitive sense of timing and fit in perfectly with the other instruments. You move people, you move me, mi fai emozionare, and I am a musician so think how the audience feel it. Trasmetti emozioni … I hate playing with singers here in Sicily, mi stanno su le palle, they have huge egos and they impose themselves and sing all over the place. But it would be an honour for me. I have only played twice with you but you struck me immediately, and have played with so many singers. I would take you to play in Palermo, Messina with me ... but you need to believe in yourself more, put yourself out there, you need more ego!' he grinned.

Nice end to a night that didn’t start so well.


'Sicilians are tired ...' 7/11/09

Loads of food got thrown out yesterday. It is the cooks’ job to manage the food. I asked on Sunday about everything in the fridges and the cuoca went through everything. And still the chicken had to be dumped. I spent DAYS on that menu trying to minimize wastage, we gave them the cooks the raise they wanted and what are the results? It was very quiet last night and the cuoca was supposed to cook the cozze (mussels) because they had been there two days in a bucket of water but wouldn’t be good the next day. But she didn’t do it – and today they had to be dumped as they were starting to open their shells. It’s no good just asking them to do things: you have to actually then check that they have done it. And they really hate it when I check on them … They ordered 3 or 4 more packs of potato chunks for the patatas bravas but unfortunately mio suocero bought the wrong kind. So when an order came for patatas bravas they were about to send the waiter off saying there were none; but I remembered three huge sacks coming in from suppliers not long and had a look in the freezer; sure enough, under a few crates at the bottom, were two huge bags of potato chunks … the cuoca said cheerfully, to avoid blame, ‘We’re in luck! Look two packs down here!’ I said, ‘yeah, where were they when you were writing the shopping list?’

Yesterday I was looking at ‘Il Gattopardo’, ‘The Leaopard,' Tomaso de Lampedusa’s classic about the disintegration of a noble Sicilian family in the 1800s, though written in the 1950s and intended to show the cracks underneath the surface of contemporary Sicily. Lampedusa writes that Sicilians should leave Sicily at the age of 20 and make their lives elsewhere … ‘or they will not be saved’; and how the climate is really harsh - scorching heat beating down on your head for 6 months of the year and then torrential stormy rain for the winter. Which is true so far. The unbearable heat of summer has been followed by fierce wind and immense rains causing big leaks in our house.

I said I had the impression that Sicilians don’t even like each other; mio marito said ‘True; they only become Sicilian when they leave Sicily. They are Italian here in Sicily.’ But people here trust no one, only family and only just about I reckon. There is such a sneaky air around of being watched. You always expect to be truffato (cheated) here. With the history of repression and mafia and being controlled, said mio marito, are you surprised? 'Sicilians are tired,' says Lampedusa, tired of being repressed and watched and colonized. No more patience left. Great.


Transsexuals on TV 5/11/09

Last night on TV all the news programmes were about the trans scandal. A top politician was filmed going to a transsexual in Rome, a guy who is married and has kids. Who cares, I said? Let him do what he wants in his free time. Most of the trans are Brazilian. That I do remember in Brazil, you see quite a few about the place and not a bother on them. For the World Social Forum last January they put on a show or did a parade, we were having a drink at the Café da Republica right where it was all happening and the café was full of them flirting around and joking and fluttering their fans and pushing their boobs up and no one batted and eyelid but rather enjoyed the craic with them, one was getting photographed in a marquee in a shiny shimmery outfit. Also in Spain it is quite common in the underground life there – as Almodovar films have shown. But I haven’t seen it much in Italy so far. But it apparently now is an underground trend. Last night one famous trans was getting interviewed on one programme and another show had a psychologist and a lesser known trans in to talk about the rights of trans. The long haired man/woman was waving his hands around, saying transsexuals wanted to be treated like everyone else and have equal rights to employment, and that not all trans were prostitutes. This programme had Mussolini’s granddaughter on shouting off her big gob about how appalling the state of the nation was with the trans running around freely. The other programme had Brambilla the minister for tourism on shouting away in her loud awful voice and the famous trans explaining who her/his clients were – some gay, some heterosexual, some bi … some famous but she couldn’t say because she would lose the client. But it was all taken very seriously and I just thought how this would be impossible on Prime Time or any of those political insight shows at home. And this was on two Italian channels on current affairs programmes (on channels owned by Berlusconi, let’s not forget). Unreal. The whole of Italy focused on the drama of the trans. But now they reckon it was all a set up by Berlusconi. He got such bad publicity over being snapped in his villa in Sardegna with the underage girls and the orgies etc. so in order to get attention off him he is going for this leftwing politician, because apparently it is too implausible that the police could have got there and made the video and other things just don’t add up. How ridiculous. There were police and witnesses and paparazzi photographers being interviewed and explaining how their involvement but we reckoned it was all false. You can’t believe anything about Italy. What’s more, Italy has many more serious issues to deal with. As Berlusconi knows only too well …


Fishing boats and Pilates 3/11/09

The restaurant and bar are a lot quieter these days, so we have decided to close Monday to Wednesday. Such a difference after the stress of summer. This morning I sat by the boats at Vacarella, the fisherman’s port. Bright sunlight over the mountains behind the bay lighting up the sky blues and whites of the fishermen’s boats all hoisted up just out of the water. I passed the fishermen in their rolled up socks over their trousers, some in wellies selling plump silver fish, looked like all had the same stuff. Spilling the guts on to small tables, with cats snooping around for leftovers. Elegant motor boats with two mates hanging out together, on the tourist pier, and then a fisherman rowing out to the slightly bigger fishing boat and setting off, a lone figure at the helm. Silvery light on the water and a boat coming in was stamped liked a dark print on the horizon, one plump beer belly and a young boy went past, two dark figures in relief. The wakes from the boats sending back ripples so the boats roped in by the pier rode up and slapped down again on the water. The tinkle of their masts and length of the poles swaying against the blue sky.

Not a soul around and was just getting into my book, when two girls come along and chose the boat next to mine to take photos. When they saw me one of them said, ‘non è la moglie … di quello del bar’… and trailed off a bit as I turned round (‘isn’t that the wife of your man from the bar?’). How annoying. Spotted in what I had thought was a moment of privacy. I can’t go anywhere without being spotted. They’ll go home and say, guess who was there all on her own with her book sitting on a ramp, the Brazilian/ Spanish/ Irish wife of your man ... No one else here would dream of taking a book down to the port. Most rarely read, and no one likes to sit on their own here, Italians are like sheep and must stay in crowds. The fishermen got out their cards and sat under a large shady tree.

The gym was packed of course. We are trying out all the Pilates classes and all the gyms are packed. Italians LOVE the gym. There is nothing they like more than saying they are going to the gym. It is their religion. They never miss the gym. Partly because they have to pay the monthly fee and don’t want to lose their money, but also because of the image thing. It looks good to say you are going to the gym, it is like talking about the weather in Ireland, here you talk about which gym you go to, what the teacher is like, which classes you take, what time you go at, the kind of people who are in your class. The Brazilian teacher was in his orange capoeira headband and white top and tracksuit bottoms. The black shiny shoes were the give away that he was gay said mio marito after. There was floaty Indian music on. I found myself mentally correcting his Italian as he gave the instructions, which were short and fairly clear. Though the moves were quite basic, pretty basic stretching, while the man in the other gym did a more advanced level because the people went last year too. But he wasn’t good at explaining the moves and left out some vital things. Like where the hand should be when lifting the hips off the ground – in the centre of the back I asked? He prob hopes I won’t come back. I noticed now the Brazilian varied facciamo – faccio and fate and fai … when he used the singular tu form I put the plural in my head. And he would get destra and destro mixed up. Torna instead of tornate. I was imagining how I would do it if I was teaching a class. Not easy to be clear. The Brazilian made some jokes - a bit brusque perhaps for the Sicilians but they laughed anyway. Look at how you are sitting, all slumped forward and hands in the wrong place, he kept chiding one guy. Are you tired today? And another girl said, ‘ho mangiato il riso oggi’, sharing her lunch habits with the whole gym. But he said, riso, allora sorriso, and the girl laughed obligingly, and another girl looked at me and rolled her eyes a bit laughing. The whole pandering to the instructor. We have yet to try a girl in another gym. I still don’t think he is Mr Pilates.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

private party 31/10/09

Our cameriere has the waitress way, ‘cosa volete ragazzi, sieti pronti?’ 'what are you having guys, are your ready?’ They know where they stand with her direct approach. It takes me ages to understand and write down all the extra ingredients they want in ther panini. I got caught with a bunch of Panini customers who wanted to know all the different kinds of ham and meats available, words I find hard to pronounce since I am not a meat-eater. I struggled through the tongue-twisting list: prosciuto crudo, prosciutto cotto, salami, bresaola. Then I said excuse me to lift the big yellow menus from the table, but the girl didn’t move much, just kept gassing away. So the big floppy menus passed close to her face, and I said excuse me again, smiling pleasantly but she just made a face as if to say how awful. I took their meaty made-up Panini order to the kitchen. As if the wonderful split pea soup with toasted cumin and chilli pepper will ever be requested. There was a surplus of mushrooms and so I made a mushroom soup, seemed the logical thing to do, following a lovely recipe from the Avoca book. But mio marito was surprised and made a face when he stirred the gloopy mixture. I took some just now to mio suocero for him and the nonni (grandparents) but he was surprised too: ‘oh we have mushrooms with pasta,’ he said, as if that was the only way. I know, I said, so do I, but we also have mushroom soup, a classic autumnal lunch. They will think it is heavy no doubt. But is a great soup. They will appreciate the gesture anyway I guess.

I was having a quick pasta dinner when people started arriving for the private party upstairs, so I ate round the corner in a less conspicuous spot. Mio marito was over like a flash; you always eat on the high tables in front of the bar, why not tonight? He demanded. He was perhaps tense because the private party was for the 30th birthday party of an ex from many years ago. This girl is not a regular, lives in the next town and in fact I don’t think has ever been over to our restaurant. But she wanted to spend her 30th birthday here with us. Great.

I went up to check if all was running smoothly once they had started serving the buffet food. I spotted the cameriere behind the serving table and was on my way to him, when whom did I spot but mio marito standing with arm round the birthday girl posing for a photo. In her glamorous shiny dress and heels and feather I thought someone got Halloween mixed up, but such overdressing (she could have been going to a wedding – her own) is typical here in Sicily, where things are best done in extremes, if they are done at all. Arms round each other, he tucking her in close to him by the waist, smiling away all the charm turned on. I could have turned and gone down the stairs. Or just calmly watched from the stairs, but no, nothing like being spontaneous. I marched over and pinched his waist so he sprang back. I pinched hard too. He was justifying it later, ‘I have been working hard all night,’ he kept saying, ‘you just came at that one unfortunate moment, she had just said facciamo la foto.’ (‘let’s take a photo!’) Of course she did. She turned and recovered herself well, ‘tu sei la moglie’. (‘You’ll be his wife.’) Not just a pretty face I thought, and just smiled broadly when she offered her hand and said, ‘piacere’. ‘I recognize you,’ she said, ‘from Facebook.’ So she is one of those Facebook people, of course she is. I am not a jealous person, (seriously) but this felt like an invasion of my place, the place I have created with mio marito.

It wasn’t very busy below, even though it was a nice mild night. The English architect students came along. The girl came out with her usual totally accurate comments in her very bizarre drunken way. She said there was no one in the other bars. She laughed, ‘oh no it’s winter, no one leaves their houses now. What do they do?’ She asked, perplexed. She heard the music from the party upstairs and said oh is that the group who played before, Milazzo’s best eh? They love it.’ The boy said, ‘hey they are attempting to play Michael Jackson live, that’s brave!’ She laughed, ‘But they don’t realize how crap they sound.’

Three guys stopped me when I was going up the stairs and asked if they could come too. I said it was festa privata and not worth it. They laughed and got me to chat to them and one seemed familiar. He was just back from Sevilla where he had been for 6months as physio to the football team. He said he had loved it and lived with his sister there. His friend had come to visit and liked it too. Which is better Milazzo or Sevilla, they asked. And laughed when I said Seville. But I said the islands were good and the volcanoes. Il barman was watching me chat to them coming over to wash things at the sink, ears pricked. They were asking what I was doing here, was I on holidays. I said I worked here and they laughed, thinking I was joking. La cameriera had a good look too, carrying a tray of glasses past. The three guys wanted to know what I did exactly. They nearly fell over when I said I ran it with my husband. Which one is your boyfriend? They asked in their funny English. Oh no, is he going to beat us up they joked. But disappeared at the earliest opportunity when a girl broke a glass on the table behind. No one stares at mio marito when he talks to customers.

Upstairs one of the party guests was chatting to the guitar player. ‘Have you heard her sing?’ he asked, ‘It’s sublime!’ the guitarist looked taken aback at such high praise. The guest said he had thought I was from Argentina when he heard me sing. Don’t worry, I said, it is a little known secret that I am Irish. Most people think I am Brazilian, including the staff!' The birthday girl was whispering about me slyly into the ear of another guest, whose glance over at me gave her away. He didn’t seem too interested though, and left her to it. I asked her was she having a good time, and she said she was, that the food was very good and they had been like vultures. That’s the important thing, I said. At the end I came up to give the waiters a hand to start closing up, and found a huge spray of red wine on the white wall. A nice job for the next day. Cigarette butts all over the floor. Birthday girl sprawled in a chair with feet up on a table, boyfriend stroking her legs. I have to pee, she said, and wobbled drunkenly off to the toilet. She gave me two kisses upon leaving and I thanked her; business is business. Her party will pay the suppliers.


Communication skills at the hairdresser's 30/10/09

A day of understanding or learning about communication … in Italy, or in Sicily. At the hairdresser’s … in one of the numerous dreadful hair mags and glossies there was an article on communication. It was for owners of hairdressers and dealing with their clients but related to general terms really. How so easily instead of communication we can create a misunderstanding, and how easily it can be remedied if you just say, forse ho capito male, o forse non mi sono spiegato … it is these details of polite discourse that I still haven’t got my tongue around, so important in Italy for the bella figura and to protect the delicate Sicilian anima from offence. Take time, advised the journalist, to think whether your prejudices or preconceived notions have influenced your comment. Ma non hai capito cio che intendevo dire is what is heard most often (‘But you haven’t got what I mean!) It is true even among themselves I think Italians misunderstand each other more than we would. Do you see what I mean? We would say, like their ‘Hai capito?’ But the Italians are quick to jump to the other side of the fence, accusing, ‘you haven’t understood what I meant’.

Having learnt a little bit about how Sicilians operate, I said nothing about being kept waiting about 40 minutes, looking through the mags. Then the nice guy washed my hair. It was full of people getting their hair dyed. I felt very much the foreigner though. Never ever go on a Friday again. I watched Francesco cut a boy’s hair (about 8 years old). He got the best hair cut I ever saw a wee boy get, all chop chop chop, and such care taken, then all the gel and the serum. The guy took it so seriously. And the wee girl getting her hair washed beside me I never saw such a thing. It looked so strange. I’m sure we always just got dry cuts when we were little. These two, Carlotta the girl and the brother got the best treatment; I was watching it in awe. The wanna-be posh call their daughters Carlotta. And the names in the hairdressers, the one who dried my hair, Maria Grazia, what a name, it is after one of the madonnas. Then the other girl was called Donatella. I don’t know how she can be taken seriously. She was quite a nice wee girl though. The beautiful red haired girl didn’t smile once, no greeting at all. The first time I came she had wanted to straighten my (very straight) hair and I had said no thanks, and she’s had it in for me since then.

Anyway, my hairdresser, the owner, chopped off the dry ends, and urged me to go for the caschetto (literally, ‘helmut’ I think it is a kind of page boy look which appears to be fashionable here.) It definitely wouldn’t suit me, especially not the fringe, and it always surprises me that she brings it up, because she seems to know what she is doing otherwise. She was all jokey about doing the caschetto but suddenly serious again and concentrated. It was all about timing and how much time she could give me, I realised. Maybe Friday afternoon was a bad time to ask for her, with all the regulars in getting their roots dyed and expecting her to look after them. I’d say compared to the average Sicilian customer I am very undemanding. She got called away to check how someone’s bleach was progressing and came back to me; I requested it to be a bit more choppy, but she said she would have to do a bit of layering and it might get a bit mushroom-like. It appeared there was no inbetween, it was either the smooth look, which seemed a bit boring, or the more drastic layering up the head. But she then said ok leave it to me I’ll do it a little bit. By this point everyone was staring. Why, I don’t know, it wasn’t such a big deal but the lady next to me was staring away and didn’t even smile or acknowledge me when I looked at her, so I wondered was she waiting. The curly surly red head was doing her hair and she was staring fixedly at my hairdresser so I nodded my head towards them to indicate maybe she should see to her. She was chilled though but this redhead was most impatient. I said ‘sorry I don’t want to steal your time’, as she was obviously keeping an eye on everything going on around her, which wasn’t very relaxing. You have to make very quick decisions which then can be radical for your hair! It was all too hot. Anyway she seemed to relax, just telling the girls to do what ever needed done, then took the straighteners to do a few loose curls. I was delighted and said so, and asked her was she tired, she’d looked a bit frazzled for a minute being so much in demand. She was all pleased, assured me she wasn’t a bit tired, and offered me a coffee. How the slightest little comment gets you so far in Sicily. Just asking her was she tired she softened. And when I apologized for using up her time, the effect was that she gave me more time and did the cool curls. At the end I said I’ll come back in a midweek slot next time and apologized for the extra time it took to explain what she was going to do; she was perfectly mollified and gracious.

That’s how to be with the Sicilians.