Saturday, December 22, 2012

Playing Tombola this Christmas

Looks like most people are staying at home and playing cards or Tombola (bingo) this Christmas. Yes, the recession can be felt here in Milazzo. It's always quiet in the run-up to Christmas, but this year even more so. Of course, the stormy weather doesn't help - thunder, lightning and hailstones. Let's hope people come out for festive drinks over the next couple of weeks

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Trend-setters

Mio marito and I dined in a restaurant in a nearby village during the week. It was recommended by a friend and we liked the place - the decor, the service, the food. We were the only customers on Thursday night - in fact we didn't open our restaurant because the period just before the run-up to Christmas is always so quiet. The chef assured us that they did good business at the weekend, especially on Sunday night when they had their aperitivo. Aha? Our ears pricked up. His list of aperitivo dishes could have been ours, in fact, we suspect, it was directly inpsired by ours - right down to the home-made focaccia and couscous and greek salad, the buffet-stlye service and the price! Just as well we have a new aperitivo menu since November. In this business, the key is to keep renovating, reinventing, improving all the time...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stories behind battered doors

The beautiful Gole di Alcantara have something of the Giant's Causeway about them. Why do battered doors and terracotta rooftops have such a fascination for me? I don't know, must be because I feel they hold stories ... These ones are from Castiglione di Sicilia, a hill-top town which is twinned with Killarney, interestingly ...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

South America in Sicily

I went to the next town this morning to see the owners of a language school. They would like me to work for them but I don't know if I can spare the time - I need to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to marketing my book (Water Will Find its Way), now that I have published it. You can check it out here - it's already available as an ebook and will soon be out in paperback. I also am thinking about the next book, which will be set in Sicily. Inspiration was everywhere as I walked the streets of Barcellona (not to be confused with the one in Catalonia!). It felt like I was in South America, and I mean this in a good way. Old men gathered on benches in shady piazzas, palm trees scratching the pale pink paint off an old Art Nouveau villa on one of the main streets, 19th century houses barely standing next to ugly 1960s constructions ... And to complete the tableau, a police car screeched past me at a corner, siren blaring. I investigated the park (with bambino) and an old man came in with red, wild, unhealthy looking eyes and a black binbag held swag-like over his shoulder. He started shouting at the first man he saw. Unfortunately I couldn't understand his toothless dialect. There is always a crazy man on the loose in these places. Another old man, who appeared to be nodding off outside the butcher's, greeted me with 'Madonna, what beautiful eyes your child has, signora'! The huge battered door of a decrepit stone building had two notes of bereavement on it. One said, 'For my brother', the other 'For my brother-in-law'. Both yellowing at the edges, who knows how long they had been there. But there was post jutting out from under the door. There is a note like this on a door on my street 'For my wife'. It has been there for twenty years.

A summons

Mio marito and the owner of the bar-next-door both received a summons from the carabinieri to attend an interview. They worked out it was regarding one of our customers. This guy appears to be innocent at all times, but if there is ever any trouble, he is there at the heart of it at 4am - 'breaking up the fight'. Yes, he is our coked up peace-maker. His car was burnt out last week and the carabinieri are trying to get to the bottom of it. When asked what nocturnal habits he had, he gave the name of our locale as a good establishment, hoping to make a good impression on the carabinieri... At the interview mio marito and the next-door-bar-owner were asked the same questions, separately. Did they know any people from X (mafia-ridden town 10km down the road)? Did they know any people from Y (Dodgy mountain village) ... And then they had to examine some photos of dodgy men. The policeman asked if they were ever asked for a pizzo - bribe -money - since his theory was that the guy's car was burned out because of a refusal to pay bribe money, as if he was our protector ... Luckily, they were able to answer in the negative to everything. My husband didn't know whether to be amused or disgusted at having to partake in such an interview ...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Italy loves children ? (Part 2)

So on to the second piece of interesting information. My bambino was playing with another bambino who is 9mths older than him. His mother told me - told me! - that my bambino needed to go to the crèche. She actually got very heated on the subject. You're going to have to send him some time, she insisted. This time next year, definitely, she said. My bambino will be two at the end of the month. So this time next year, he will be three. The difference between a child of two and one of three, is huge. They grow and develop so much! I pointed out. She also thought it was a legal obligation to send one's child to school at three, but in Italy, it is 5years old. She obviously did not know what she was talking about. In September I did take him to a crèche where his other Italo-Irish friend goes, but he didn't like it, and neither did I. He was bored. There were about 7 children to every adult. The young girl who was assigned to settle my bambino in (daughter of the owner, no formal childcare experience or qualification) was never going to convince him to stay because at any one time she had two kids who were fighting, one who was crying, one whose nappy needed changed, one who had fallen ... She half-heartedly tried to interest him in some toys (mostly broken, no battery-powered toys had batteries) ... I looked around me and saw a small, cramped, dark space. It was very noisy because the pre-schoolers 3years+ were in the next room, all 15 with one teacher. They were all nice people, but I could totally understand why my bambino didn't want to be there. He hung over the stairgate pointing to the door, calling 'Outside, outside', over and over on each of the occasions that we went there. What most annoyed was the woman's arrogance in assuming she knew what was best for my child. She got so excited about it, I wondered was she just trying to justify the fact that she sends her kid to the crèche - she is not working at the moment. Sicily is clearly not ready for attachment parenting ideas of those presented by Steve Biddulph in his Raising Happy Children books ... that children are best off with one primary caregiver (one or both parents) until the age of three. I thought that was a universally acknowledged truth ...

Italy loves children ? (Part 1)

And you thought they were mad about children in Italy? Last night, during an aperitivo at Pachamama, I was given two interesting pieces of information on the subject. Let's start with the one I preferred. A writer/thinker/teacher told me he was in Ireland in the summer. The thing he liked best, he said, was the number of large families on the beach. Couples have three or four kids, he said, compared to Italy, where the average is one child. He said it reminded him of his childhood. It is true. Most of my Irish/English friends have two or three children. Most of my Italian friends have none ... In Sicily, there are on average two children per family. And as soon as they can, they farm them out to the crèche. There is a very high amount of crèches in this town, which is surprising - I thought the grandparents raised the kids in Italy. And it is not just bacause both parents are working. There is a lot of unemployment in Sicily. But they find the money for the crèche.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sailors from home

Last week I was delighted to hear my own accent in Pachamama. At first I thought the couple talking was American, making the mistake that many make about me. This couple opened one of the first restaurants in my home town thirty years ago. They ran it for fifteen years and then sold it at a good time. Wanting to escape the confines of the restaurant business they invested in a sailing boat and have wintered in the Mediterannean since then. They were coming back from Malta (where they got Kerrygold butter - if only I had known they were coming!!) and did a little tour of Sicily before heading back to their winter port. Lots of stories about chaotic souks in Syria, and the UN and Israeli interrogations they underwent before being allowed to moor in Haifa (even asked their children's names and why they had chosen to stay in Haifa at 5am ... scary). Plus some restaurant lore. All in the mother tongue. Great. Mio marito, who has just acquired his sailing licence, is most encouraged and sees us travelling by sailboat in the future. If only I didn't get so seasick ...

Pachamama online

Here is Pachamama's website

Pachamama on Trip Advisor

Being on Trip Advisor has definitely made a difference this summer. So nice to get good feedback from customers, both local and foreign. At the weekend I got talking to an Israeli couple who were delighted when I was able to talk a little with them in Hebrew (essential for travel in South America apart from the Spanish I already spoke). I hope they got on well on their travels, I recommended some good places on Panarea and Stromboli islands. There were also Australians, German, Dutch and Polish customers in with us during the last week. Great to feel connected internationally at last.

pesce fresco

Out and about with the bambino this morning. Shopping in various places. He breaks a little bottle of Bach Flower Remedies in the health food shop. We park in Vaccarella, along the fishing port. I bump into an old jalopy of an ape (three wheel mini-pickup truck) as I reverse into a tight spot in the shade. All the fishermen looking on chorus their dismay. One of them must have been the owner. It was only the lightest of taps. To further irk them, my two year old stands on the long nets they are straightening while I get my bag. We duke into a bar to escape their dirty looks. There we are greeted by a fisher friend who tells me he stinks of fish. Just in case I don't believe him he sticks his fingers under my nose. Yes, pesce fresco indeed! By the time I get home, mio marito knows exactly where we have been... His suppliers (who do the rounds of the bars in the morning) have spotted me on the road...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Counter-petition

Since our friendly neighbourhood petition has had such immediate results with the local police, we thought we had better get a counter-petition going, so that those who frequent the borgo could lend their support to all the bars and restaurants here. Mio marito's article about running a restaurant in the borgo also was published in the local paper and suddenly he has become quite famous, locally! Since he can express himself quite well, the other bars and restaurant owners are happy that he has undertaken the role of spokesperson. He is also practised in the art of diplomacy and so, less likely to blow his top when he comes across challenging situations, in the form of local authorities etc ... (The other restaurateurs might not manage to keep their volcanic temperaments in check). One bar-owner in particular, however, maintains that he is wholly disinterested in the entire affair. He thinks the petition is all about making money (this comes from someone whose family got rich by exploiting all sorts of channels - including the refinery - in recent decades, without having to put much actual hard graft into the money earning). This character argues with the 'borgo consortium' every time the restaurant owners try to work together. It's a pity, because if we could all work together, maybe we would have a chance of improving the situation here. Basically, if we had some more regulations in force, both neighbours and bar-owners would be happier. We would all like the streets to be cleaned and the skips to be emptied on a Sunday morning, for example. Imagine: the town council says it does not have enough money to pay street cleaners on a Sunday, the day after the Saturday night chaos. So by Sunday night, skips are stinking and overflowing. Our waiters do their best at 4am on a Sunday morning, and then, at 7am my suocero comes to sweep up the cigarette butts in front of the locale ... but not all of the bars put in the effort. Also, as the neighbour whoe wrote the newspaper article noted, our music is inside - and it is a DJ, not live music. There is one bar in particular whose music is slap bang in the middle of a piazza, starts at around 1am and goes on until 3am and can probably be heard within a 10km radius ... We can hear it clear as a stadium speaker in our house ...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The third Saharan anticyclone of the summer

We are having the hottest summer of the last fifty years in Italy (rivalled only by the summer of 2003). June brought the first Saharan anticyclone, called Scipione, after the Roman General Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War. That heatwave had barely ended when anticylone Numero 2 - Caronte - came along. Caronte, or Charon in Greek mythology, was the ferryman of Hades who transported souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Acheron and Styx that divide the world of the living from that of the dead. In Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, Charon is the first named mythological character that Dante meets in the Underworld, in the third Canto of Inferno. Now, hot on the heels of Caronte, comes Minosse, the third suptropical Saharan anticyclone of the summer (Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, judge of the dead of the underworld). Temperatures will reach the mid-forties in Sicily. Too hot to be outside. Too hot to stay inside.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Neighbourhood Petition

Now that summer is here, the police have started to frequent the borgo, as usual. Last Saturday a carabiniere came by in plainclothes at 1.35am, and stopped the music. It was an amicable encounter and the policeman even seemed to understand the difficulty of our situation - that no one comes up to the Borgo at weekends until well past midnight. So we end up paying the DJ and the hefty SAIE taxes (Music Performing Rights Society) all for one hour or so. At weekends, diners stay from 9.30pm to midnight, and the younger crowd come for drinks and the so-called movida from midnight until around 4am. In the summer there is little else for young people in Milazzo to do, apart from a disco by the sea on Friday nights. Many go to Messina or Capo D'Orlando, but that means taking the car ... Last night the Finanaza (tax police) came by to check us out - but all was in order. Later, three poliziotti came by at 1.42am and stopped the music. Mio marito had already asked the DJ to stop the music at 1.30am but he had forgotten. The policeman tapped his watch and said he would have to give us a verbale (a ticket), since it was twelve minutes past the time limit for music. It was the same poliziotto who gave us the verbale this time last year, and which ended up in a fine of €1 200. There was no reasoning with him: it didn't matter that it was a question of twelve minutes, or that we turned off the music immediately ... so on Monday mio marito will have to go down to the police station, like a common criminal, and have a riunione with the poliziotti who, depending on how they are feeling and whether the state could do with some money (ahem), will probably give us the same fine again. And tell us we are lucky to get away with that, because it is a criminal offence. The DJ felt so bad that he wouldn't take his pay. This little episode has been spurred on by a little petition that has been going around the borgo. Sixty-six residents of the Borgo have signed a petition to have all the locali closed , including our neighbour, who rents one of the locali! The mayor, warned us about this, as he said the residents have taken their petition to him, to the polzia, to the carabinieri, to the finanza - all places which could do potential damage to the Borgo bars. An article appeared in the local paper yesterday about this - with a picture of our restaurant, as if we were the main problem. In reality, our DJs play indoors, and the real source of the problem is a bar up the road which has very loud live music on a stage in between two rows of houses so that it reverberates and carries quite far ... A kind journalist came to interview mio marito and a couple of other bar owners yesterday for the counter-article, published in today's paper. Among the positive factors of the Borgo bars he mentions the tourism value, the employment it provides in these difficult economic times, and the fact most of us who work here have families to provide for. Also, it helps Milazzo's economy, since, without these bars, many more young people would drive to Messina and Capo d'Orlando for entertainment. The presence of the bars has also given a new lease of live to the Borgo, which, twelve years ago, was a rundown, forgotten part of Milazzo, despite being the most beautiful and ancient part of the city, with its Spanish castle found on the site of a Greek acropolis, and its winding, cobblestoned streets. The situation could improve, I think, if the council provided street cleaning on Sunday mornings. At the minute, the only cleaning on Sundays is that which we do ourselves in front of our bars (no small task - on Sunday mornings the street is full of cigarette butts, beer bottles and plastic cups - not enough bins around and even if there were, many people are not sure how to use them ..) This means that the skips opposite our restaurant are full to overflowing by Sunday evening, disgusting in this heat. Also, if the Milazzesi could leave their houses before midnight and make it to the Borgo a little earlier, they could enjoy the music until 1.30am. Last night people told me that they have a siesta after dinner and get up at 11.30pm to go out ... Mio marito is completely fed up and is considering putting a stop to the music - it's certainly not worth it at this rate ...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Festa di San Francesco

Weekend of festivities in May for the Festa di San Francesco, the feast day of Saint Francis. The statue is taken from his altar in la chiesa di San Francesco, and taken on a special route around the city, on a float carried by a specially chosen troup of men. Traditionally people throw petals from balconies to bring good luck as the statues passes. The klu klux clan in white herald his arrival... remants of the Spanish Easter processions. Luckily the town council hadn't turned off the street lighting back then. This, we had huge carneval florescent lights in garlands outside the church, and cannoli (ricotta-filled pastries) for all. Followed by the usual magnificent firework display. Since then, the town council has gone back to its state of crisis, and is little by little cutting the street lighting in many streets around the town ...

The Godfather moment

Sooner or later in Sicily, you come across a Godfather moment. Even when you live here amidst all the humdrum frustrations of daily Sicilian life. At last: a day trip to Savoca, where we had the obligatory coffee at bar Vitelli, were some of the most famous scenes of the original Godfather were shot, in 1972.

Siesta and stroll in Taormina

We went to Taormina recently. Took the usual photos of Mount Etna from the piazza and some of the arches over the narrow sidestreets. But my favourite photo was this one. I want to know this: who is that man sleeping his siesta on the bench in glam Taormina's main square? And, more interesting still: who is the dignified elderly man dressed in the exquisitely tailored suit, out for a silent digestive stroll?

Kitch fish

If you want pesce al sale - oven-baked fish in a salt crust - this is how it will come to you at Pachamama...
Mid-week we get a request for a booking for a party of twenty, for a girl's birthday. She wants to spend a maximum of €60 - four bottles of prosecco. A bottle costs €16, so she wants a little discount, plus she will bring a cake which our waiter will slice and serve ... and of course, service is included - the plates and flute glasses and the dishwashing, and the laying out of tables for the twenty or so people. Although they will occupy most of the upstairs room, there is no rental fee for the space. Never mind that a table for two would generate €60 with much less effort. On the night itself, she saunters downstairs every so often, 25 years old with the ways of an 18 year old. She apologises that many of her friends haven't turned up and so she would like one less bottle ... this happens several times throughout the night, despite the fact that the waiter notes all twenty places are occupied at the table, with more standing. When she tries to renegue on bottle number two, he mentions this. In the end, the young lady pays a grand total of €35 for entertaining her large group of friends. The following night we have a booking for another party of 15 this time. They want prosecco and antipasti and fruit - plus the service and space, naturally, all included in €100. So €60 for the 4 botles of prosecco, leaves €40 for the fruit and antipasti - just over €2 per person. Errr, profit? And the man who made the booking asked for a discount on this ... As if he were doing us a favour. We decided that we need to ask for half of the total amount up front. I would have done this long ago, but my husband is afraid of offending customers. I think by now, though, that our reputation is well enough established. Otherwise, what is the point?

England Vs Italy, Quarter Finals, European Cup

We have had a group of English guys up at the restaurant for the last few weeks. I met them coming up the steps to the borgo one fine evening in May. They greeting me in English, and when I replied in the same language they immediately asked me where they could find a restaurant with an English menu... Look no further, I said, and led them to Pachamama. They said they were tired of pasta and wanted to know what it was they were eating! On a six week contract at the refinery, they are responsible for cleaning the waste tubes, the areas where the burnt residues of oil collect. Needless to say, this is the filthiest refinery they have ever worked in. This was particularly reassuring to know in May and early June, when experts were predicting hugh earthquakes in the South of Italy ... The six English gentlemen from Licoln munched their way through many steaks, to my surprise (rather than the seafood options), and downed copious quantities of beer (to everyone else's surprise). The waiters were amazed that they drank 23 pints and two vodka tonics between them during the England-Italy match - pretty normal - and yet made faces of disgust when they drank the shots of vodka at the end of the match - offered to all who watched it with us. However, they made the atmosphere. The Italians were all nervous and excited about the match, but the presence of the jolly bunch of inglesi made it all the more tense. Great banter was exchanged though there is a lot of doubt as to who understood what! Outside one of the waiters and one of the Englishmen smoked their way through a packet of cigarettes to calm their nerves, and pigeon English and sign language abounded. The Sicilians were all impressed by the English handshakes and pats on the back at the end. The Englishmen went home on Monday, telling me it was the tastiest steak they had ever had. Compliments to the chef!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Christmas 2011

During the week before Christmas I was speaking to Tuskani, a 17 year old Nigerian boy who is in a refuge in the borgo with other African boys. They came to Sicily by boat from Libya a few months ago. He has the most dazzling smile and pronounces my name better than any Sicilian. But his whole face changed when I asked him about his family. He told me he had no family left. His mother was killed in Libya during the civil war there this year. She was a Christian, he said, so he goes to church sometimes, 'to keep his soul clean'.

Another time we were talking he said he preferred American hip hop to African Music - he didn't know Ismael Lo, Baaba Maal, Cesaria Evora, Miriam Makeba - the great singers and musicians of Africa. He shrugged and said they were from other African countries. But he wrote down their names and said he would look them up on Youtube. His fate? He will stay in the refuge till he is 18 and then probably be moved to another holding centre, similar to a prison, until the government decide whether or not to send him back to Libya.

He was the first to with me a happy Christmas on Christmas morning - in English, that splendid smile lighting up his face.