Saturday, October 16, 2004

Salvatore, Salvatore, Salvatore!

I feel as though I’m living in one of those “house in a foreign country” books (Tuscany, Provence). In fact, there are a couple of them that have been written about Sicily, too, like Persephone’s Island and A House in Sicily. But I’m going to call my book Salvatore, Salvatore, Salvatore!

For the past eight days, a series of Sicilian workmen, seemingly ALL called Salvatore (translation = save this woman’s plumbing, electricity, etc.) have been in and out of my yard and house. It began last weekend when water, lots of it, appeared on the floors of both bathrooms. I called the landlord, a very nice man NOT called Salvatore but rather Sebastiano. He can’t be called Salvatore because he doesn’t fix anything; he just calls a series of “technical” people. I was having a patio party and the landlord, his wife, his son, and series of Salvatores kept walking through, trying to figure out what the problem might be. In Sicily, as in the rest of Italy, everyone talks at the same time, often getting louder and louder. The party continued and the water stopped seeping in. It became too late to do anything, but my landlord assured me that it would be fixed as soon as possible.

The first Salvatore came back on Monday, which happened to be Columbus Day so I was at home all day. He was an ancient tiny Sicilian version of Rotor Rooter in tall rubber boots. I swear he was at least eighty. His tools consisted of a bucket and shovel, complemented by my water hose. He started digging behind the house, where the bathrooms are, and all day long I “helped” him by running or turning off water and flushing toilet. He would bang on the windows and then indicate what he wanted me to do with gestures. Somehow, it worked.

In the afternoon, the second Salvatore came by to take apart my driveway and dig a large hole to expose the septic system. He was much younger but had no more technology than Salvatore #1. By the end of the day, we had three large holes and no solution. They both spoke at length to me in Italian while I looked serious and shook my head at appropriate times. They promised to come back “domani” (tomorrow), and I told them fine, but I would be working (lavore).

Sure enough, every day throughout the week, when I got home from work, something new had happened—a new hole dug or an old hole filled. Occasionally my landlord came by and told me “Patience, patience.” Did I have a choice? But I was very understanding of the whole situation. Sometimes the Salvatores would also come by the evening, usually with a friend, to show them their work.

Eventually, a blue pipe was attached to the backyard problem and to the back of my house. It ends in midair. All those holes were filled in and the that part of the problem pronounced “fixed.” Exit Salvatore #1.

The hole in the driveway remains, with dirt and bricks scattered all over. Apparently they are waiting for a part. Soon, they say, it will be finished.

Last night there was a rainstorm complete with lots of thunder and lightning. I was even awakened by it. I thought I was a light flash through the house, but I thought it was just lightning. This morning, the power was off, so I simply flipped the breaker, put on coffee, and went out to run. When I returned, the power was off again. I kept flipping the breaker, but it would go off again in 2-3 minutes. No matter what I unplugged, it kept happening. I called my landlord again and spoke with his son, Corrado, who speak a little English, luckily. He came over and checked it out, then returned with father, and, eventually, a third Salvatore! It took all day, but Salvatore the electrician was able to locate and fix the problem, finally restoring electricity throughout the house. He says all the ceiling lights need to be rewired. I don’t doubt it. It also is “the land of extension cords” like Germany, due to the lack of outlets. Anyway, while he was here, Salvatore #2 showed up, not to repair the septic system this time, but to clean the lava dust out of my gutters. The dust is constantly falling from Etna and causes a problem in the rain gutters of houses. He’s cleaning and flushing them all out. This is a good thing. Of course, he didn’t finish. He’ll be back tomorrow . . . I have not yet seen the end of the Salvatores.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Pete and Repeat
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How I acquired two special needs kittens . . .

It started innocently enough. I was having cappuccino and ricotta cheesecake on a Sunday morning with two friends, Mike and Kendra, and Kendra’s daughter Sarah. We were sitting outside on the patio of our favorite café in Nicolosi, basking in the sun and chatting. It was Sarah, I’m sure, who first spotted the two black kittens running around the parking lot. With the local Sicilians coming and going in their usual haphazard driving manner, this was a dangerous place for them to be. Clearly, they were abandoned, and furthermore, each of them had only three paws, one missing a right and the other a left back paw. It wasn’t like they were born that way, either, but there had been some kind of horrible accident that had severed them off. I don't even want to think about it.

The next thing I knew, we were coaxing them to our table and feeding them scraps of cheesecake. They were scrawny and starved. "Awwwww . . .," we all said (especially Kendra and Sarah).

“They aren’t going to last long in that parking lot,” said Mike. “This is just going to ruin my whole day!”

“Why don’t you take them home then?" I asked.

“I can’t have pets in my apartment.”

“Well, I don’t think my dogs would appreciate them,” added Kendra. She was right.

“Hey, Marj has the mouse problem. Let’s call her!” We did, but she was having no part of a pair of kittens with six paws between them. Marj is our principal. We all got glummer and glummer as the prospect of leaving them to get run over seemed likely.

“Well,” I said unwillingly, “ I DO have the perfect yard for them. I can’t leave them here to just get run over.”

Next thing I knew, we were all in our cars heading the two blocks to my house with the two kittens in Sarah’s lap.

It’s been ten days, and they are still here, now fat and sleek and loving little things. One’s stump is still not completely healed, and he’s the smaller one of the two. I supposed I’ll actually have to take him to the vet if it doesn’t heal soon. Kendra, Sarah, and Mike (godmothers and godfather) have brought them food and come to visit and play with them.

The little twirps even sit at the gate waiting for me to come home now. They don’t have individual names. They are just “the kittens.” Pete and Repeat? They are and will remain outside cats. They are now trying to sneak into the house, but I keep catching them and turning them out. Heck, I don’t even like cats that much, but they sure are cute little things.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Road Rage

There is no road rage in Sicily, I've decided. It's futile. You'd be raging all the time because the drivers and the driving are totally crazy and unpredictable. Every vehicle is bashed, dented, and/or scratched. It's really only a matter of time until I join them.

Every day I drive twenty miles to work and twenty miles back. A little less than half of that is through two towns as I go up or down the volcano--Gravina and Mascalucia. As I get further down, the traffic thickens, which makes it "more interesting."

Actually, while Sicilian driving seems random and chaotic, there really is an unwritten, unspoken set of "ground rules," and once you figure that out, you just "do as the Sicilians." So, that means I no longer obey any speed limits, stop signs, or traffic lights. Well, there is ONE that everyone knows you must obey, but this morning a Smart car zoomed right around all of us who where stopped and raced right through the light and the intersection. Luckily nothing was coming at the time, or he'd not be so smart.

Sicilians have two speeds--very fast and very slow. The only ones driving in-between are Americans. Still, I'm becoming more like the Sicilians every day. Person ahead of you going too slow? Just race around them. No problem if a car is approaching from the other direction, because they'll just move over and you can pass in the middle. Sometimes a long line of cars will be stopped for some reason and a little Fiat will come barreling down the middle of the road, passing everyone and then sqeezing in at the front of the line when he has to. Sicilians understand this. They don't get mad; they just let him in.

Traffic circles are especially fun places, and there are a multitude of them here. Who yields to whom? The person with the most guts and speed wins every time. You can't make eye contact or they take advantage of you. Just maintain speed and screw up your courage. They always understand this--it's how they drive. Just put a fender in and you're in! Hesitate, and you've lost.

The narrowness of the streets, random parking, and blind alleys and corners add to the fun. I think of it every day as a kind of video game which I must win in order to get where I'm going safely and in a timely manner. You can't daydream; you have to be ever vigilant! My friend was driving through one of these small towns with her SUV when a guy decided to open his door just as she was about to pass him. Bam! Off went her electric mirror. Her fault, of course. That's a pretty common thing here. If you have both mirrors intact, you're lucky.

There's only one thing I haven't gotten used to, and that's the kamikaze motor scooter and motorcycle drivers. They are allowed to pass on either side, in the middle, and do so frequently. More than once I've swerved just a tiny bit to avoid something only to find a motorscooter right at my side. I'm terrified that I'm going to take one out. They come like bats out of hell seemingly out of nowhere.

Traffic moves pretty well on the autostrada (freeway), but some of the same things apply there--passing in the middle, driving in the middle or on the shoulder, crazy motorcyclists. Often there are no lines painted, so it's a free-for-all.

Though it seems like no one knows what he/she is doing, they actually all DO. Once I learned that and got into their rhythm, I was fine with it. But vigilant, ever vigilant. Defensive driving at its best. No rage, just patience.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Pat, me, and Gaetano at "the farm"
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Gaetano's Farm

My friend and colleague Pat has a Sicilian gentlemen friend named Gaetano who owns what they call “a farm” on the slopes of Etna. I was invited to a party there last weekend on a sunny, summer like day. The “farm” is a large acreage of grapes, fruit trees, and other truck farm produce right smack dab in the middle of a half dozen little Sicilian towns and villages. There is a beautiful view of Etna to the north and the sea to the south.

The party was held at an elevated stone “hut” in the middle of all the fields. The hut is actually set up like a picnic area with a grill, tables, benches, etc. About twenty-five guests gathered to socialize, eat, and drink (our favorite activities here). We had lots of wine to share and wonderful food of all kinds all prepared by Gaetano and Pat and their friends. Of course, there was pasta—this one in garlicky oil with herbs and breadcrumbs. Delicious spicy and greasy Italian sausage was grilled and served all around. Apparently, one can go to the butcher shop and get this made with anything you want in it (i.e. olives, pistachios, peppers). There was a birthday, complete with a cake and candles, and then several types of desserts, from American brownies to delicate Italian decorated “cookies.” Mmmmmm. One of everything? I had to go easy, though, as there was another party (homemade pizza) that evening. Sigh.

Catania Market
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The Market Scene in Catania

Last Saturday, my friend Hope and I finally got to the Catania market, thanks to Mike, another colleague and friend who has lived here for several years. He goes just about every Saturday morning and has a perfect routine.

We met him at 7:45 and drove into the city, arriving at one of his favorite parking areas in less than half an hour. Catania is a city, and it sits right on the water. Before shopping, we had to have cappuccino and “una dolce” (a sweet) at the elegant Bar Kennedy near the market. Apparently Mike goes there regularly, as the waiter greeted him with much warmth and fuss. The warm ricotta-filled pastries were delicious and not too sweet.

Mike then oriented us and we agreed to meet at a designated place and time. The market, which is actually open every day, is Sicily’s answer to a shopping mall. It was all outside, under temporary awnings, but went on and on and on, around corner after corner. It had a little bit of everything you could want: fresh fish, meat, produce, cheese, clothing, leather goods, jewelry, carpets, spices, and more. Ladies underpants for one Euro ($1.20) and bras for two, Turkish carpets for 100-, Italian shoes for 10-, watches for 3-, grapefruit-sized peaches for one Euro per kilogram (2.2 lbs.), and “bargain basement” items for a Euro or two.
Hope found a beautiful silver and amber bracelet, and I ended up with a carpet runner for my hallway, a cheap watch, peaches, and a showerhead. We could have done much more “damage” with more time! But, hey, we can go ANY Saturday. We live here!