Saturday, April 16, 2011

Via dei Scopari

Via dei Scopari is legendary in Milazzo, scopare being the verb to have sex, though the street name comes from scopo, which means broom - and Scopari therefore means broom-maker. Apparently teenagers make it their aim to pass this way at least once for their romantic encounters … there is no evidence of this today as I walk the stroller down Broom-maker street. It is one of the oldest streets in the town, running parallel to the fishering port in the Vacarella area, and is an odd jumble of old and new: low town-houses next to ruins, abandoned weed-ridden lots next to four storey 1960s apartment blocks. A couple of buildings are nothing more than the façade with vacant windows revealing long grass and wooden beams hanging dejectedly. One has the stone gargoyles but no balcony, another has the rusty balcony railings, but no bottom to the balcony. A potted nespola plant bearing the small yellow plum-like fruits shows that there is life in the ground floor house below one such derelict house-front. The radio can be heard through the battered salt-worn wooden shutters. But there is a bit of spring-cleaning going on in the street: white lace curtains waver on washing lines in the breeze from second-floor apartments; plastic bottles full of water protect a mint plant from cats; a little blue jug, a tourist trinket from the Aeolian islands, has been placed on the windowsill of a toilet window; on the corner, a ragged plot has been carefully gardened and turned into a herb garden. Opposite, set into the loose stone wall there are colourful mosaics telling of the life of San Francesco di Paola, who founded the church just above in the twelfth century. Little objects of beauty in a dirty old town heaving and sighing under the weight of its history. A scrawny cat arches its back as it scrounges over a stinking, overflowing rubbish tip. Other grey cats don’t take their yellow eyes off me until I’ve passed. Neither does the old lady stepping out in black on the broken cobbles. Protecting their territory from the straniera.

We come out on the port to find the fishermen working together to tidy a clearing around a palm tree and fix up old stone sinks where people used to wash their clothes. They have a whole workline in operation – some pushing wheelbarrows, others collecting stones, others raking the mud, others with buckets. Rare to see Sicilians working together in such harmony and with such industry … There is no one else about, although it is 4.30pm. Most shops don’t open in the afternoon until 5pm; some open at 3.30pm or 4pm, but customers don’t risk going out since no one is clear about the commercial hours. Even if l’edicola, the newsagent, for example, usually opens at 4pm, if the owner had a late lunch or simply doesn’t feel like it, he might not open until 4.30pm. Just another of the grey areas in Sicily.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Spacca il silencio – Break the Silence, a threesome from Naples who do Italian singer-Songwriter covers, played last night at ours, after the aperitivo. They arrived two hours late, having got lost on the way, and then need showers and food. But they are not bad, apparently. This morning my suocera phones concerned that there is no sign of them at 10am since they were supposed to see mio suocero at 9am to get their instruments etc from the bar. I go to wake them in the attic space above the restaurant. A smoky voiced tall thin guy comes to the door in response to my Buongiorno. 10 minutes, he says. I bump into them later at the bar having granita and brioche, the Sicilian summer breakfast special. The singer is currently listening to The Virgin Prunes, I am impressed to hear. I intend to recommend him Las Grecas, but forget. Only he works, in Ikea, as well as having the band; the other two are full time musicians, they proudly tell me. They are based in Bologna and came all the way to Sicily to perform their covers. Though they tell me they write their own tracks (they had a few of their own songs interspersed with the de André, Paolo Conte, and Vinicio Caposella, mia cugnata tells me). They want to know where they can get some arancini. They are so clearly not from Sicily, with their bedhead hair, their trendy t-shirts, and long gangly look. A breath of fresh air on a Monday morning in Milazzo.

Il bello e il brutto di Sicilia

Strolling my bambino along the marina, I reflect that the view encapsulates much of what is bello and brutto of living here: colourful fishing boats bringing in the fresh catch, the Nebrodi mountains and Mount Etna still snow-capped against the blue April sky; we are in short sleeves already, while Spring has hardly registered a change of temperature elsewhere in Europe. But looking past the fishing boats, there is a huge oil tanker in front of the sprawling funnels and smoking chimneys of the oil refinery and the electrical plant – and one is reminded of the pollution. Mio marito remembers clothes on the line covered in ash when he was little. His mother remembers how beautiful Milazzo was before the oil refinery was built in the 60s; the centre was free of the ugly high rise apartment blocks in dirty green and mustard purpose built to house the employees of the new refinery, and so the old 17th century buildings had much more visibility and majesty.

But the fact is that Milazzo is one of the most polluted towns in Italy, according to a recent survey, along with Gela and other refinery towns in Sicily. The people who chose to locate the refinery will have known well that they were putting an end to the nascent tourism in the 60s when Milazzese were just beginning to enjoy the lidos along the coast that now look on to the refinery. The survey places it in the top 40 most polluted towns according to deaths by lung disease and cancers … Great.

We were visited by the polizia di finanza on Friday night. At midnight, just as things are kicking off. It’s always bad news when you see any polizia coming, especially the Finance Police: you know you are in for a fine, and the aim is to stay calm and courteous so as to have the fine fall in the lowest bracket possible. Even if you have everything in order, they will invent something. Which, of course, these two did. ‘A girl outside got her drink here but didn’t have the scontrino,’ their threatening opener. My husband assures them we always give the receipt – the infamous scontrino – as it is the only way we know people have paid. The barman won’t serve drinks unless the customer hands over the scontrino. The polizia harped on about this for a while and then changed tack. ‘Is your cash register new? Let’s see its documents.’ So at midnight on a Friday night, our best time for business, my husband has ot go to the backroom and get out the papers for the till. All present and correct – except one. ‘Did you get it serviced last year? Every year it has to be serviced.’ Aha, now they have got us. We didn’t know about this. Every year, like your car, the till has to be serviced to make sure it works correctly and stores all your transactions so you can pay up all your taxes to the Italian state. Nice one fore the police. But they put the on-the-spot fine in the lowest bracket – could be anything from €250 to €2000, we won’t know until the official fine comes through in the post. ‘We got off lightly,’ says my husband. Lightly? This country RUNS on fines. There is no such thing as giving you a warning and a week to get things sorted. No such thing as an efficient accountant who should advice of such things .. I cannot believe our accountant didn’t tell us of such a simple thing, so easy to avoid. Why are we even paying him? But of course, he couldn’t be expected to think of everything. Not in this laid back land. My husband isn’t even that bothered. Don’t blame the accountant, he says. If they hadn’t picked us up on that, they would have kept on about the scontrino, or found another reason to fine us. They were actually quite polite, he says. He told them they were creating difficulty for him, showing up at the busiest moment of the week. They said they were doing their job, and he said so was he, and invited them to come on a week night! They then admitted that they had been SENT. Sent! That means they got a tip off, from someone who wanted to get us in trouble. ‘We wouldn’t have come otherwise,’ they said. Probably some other bar, jealous of our popular weekends. It is true – everyone says we are the bar that is most consistently busy. Only at weekends, and the bar does much better than the restaurant, though things are picking up there too, as if we are finally getting some recognition.

Now the accountant says the supplier should have reminded us to get it serviced. And the supplier says the till should have reminded us with an automatic warning. But it didn’t. Perhaps because he didn’t programme it to do so? My husband engages in lengthy, wordy discussions with these various accomplices to our omission. The supplier says if we pay €50 immediately we will avoid having to pay the fine. Our accountant should have told us this, he says. With all these random figures floating about, and buck-passing … I just wonder is there anyone capable of doing their job properly in this country?