Monday, October 31, 2005

Earthquakes and Volcanoes

At 1:00 A.M. today, I was awakened and nearly shaken out of bed by an earthquake (which is terremoto in Italian). It only lasted about five seconds, but it shook the house, rattled the dishes, and made my heart pound. I jumped out of bed, but it stopped and there was nothing else to do. Only the day before, Sunday morning, we had three tremors, the third being pretty strong, too. Since the houses are all made of cement, they don't move, usually.

I found out today that these were "little" earthquakes of 3.9 and 3.7, but the epicenter was only six kilometers or so away. That's a bit frightening, especially when you consider I'm ALSO ON A LIVE VOLCANO!! I'm not quite sure how the two react together, but I also don't want to find out the hard way.

Sicily has pretty much been destroyed in every quarter by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over the centuries.

I found an awesome website that tracks every single reported earthquake activity in the world 24/7. You just have to scroll down and find Sicily on 10/31 and 10/30 and you get maps a a short, detailed seismological report like this:

Event reported by INGV
Content-Length: 1065
Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia
Centro Nazionale Terremoti, Sorveglianza Sismica
Via di Vigna Murata 605, 00143, Roma, Italy
Event Number: 17477
Origin time (UTC): 31 ott 2005 00:02:00
Origin time (Local): 31 ott 2005 01:02:00
Ml: 3.9
Latitude: 37.63
Longitude: 15.06
Profondità: 8.6
Region: Etna
Provinces: CATANIA
UTC: Greenwich time.
Closest towns:
- the towns are listed in order of distance from the epicenter (es. Roma<3Km, Roma within 3 Km from the epicenter)
- the names of towns with more then 5000 inhabitants are in capital letters.

So, I can see that I was the second closest town (Nicolosi) to the epicenter. I'm thinking I need a plan in case something serious happens . . .

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Signs of Sicily

This is my favorite street sign. I pass it every day in the town of Gravina on my way to work. Can you imagine trying to read this, make sense of it, and maneuver through Sicilian traffic all at once??

My daughter liked this one and took a shot of it for her office. Basically it says, "Don't enter if you don't intend to work!" I guess we could all use this in our workplaces.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Strait of Messina Bridge

Right now, as it has always been, the only way to get from the "toe" of Italy to Sicily is by boat. There's a booming ferry business between Reggio Calabria and the city of Messina in Sicily, which is at the northeast corner. Even trains go via the ferries. This is how I originally got to Sicily in August, 2004, and it's what anyone traveling by car,bus, or train must do for the quickest way onto the mainland. It's only a twenty-minute ride, but buying tickets, lining up, driving onto the boat, etc., adds another hour, at least, to the total crossing.

Apparently, they've been talking forever about a bridge to span the Strait of Messina, which is what this body of water is called. Guess what? They FINALLY actually awarded the contract and it looks like it's going to happen! For a mere 6 billion Euros, this bridge will be built over a six-year period and is supposed to last 200 years.

There is a truly awesome website that tells everything about the project and even has simulated pictures of what it will look like (like this one).

Here are some of the more interesting facts:

It will be the longest single span suspension bridge in the WORLD at 3,300 meters. More than fifty institutes, companies, and associations were involved in the design of the new bridge. Theoretically, it will be able to handle 6,000 vehicles per hour and 200 trains a day! It will cost a car between 9,50 to 16 Euros for a roundtrip ticket. It's going to create 40,000 new jobs during the construction.

There's been a lot of concern about its safety in a known earthquake zone. Messina was totally destroyed by a quake AND a tsunami in the early 1900's. The old men still talk about their fathers and grandfathers from all over the island going to Messina to help bury the dead. However, this bridge is being built with a seismic resistance of 7.1 on the Richter scale and a wind resistance of more than 200 km/h, given its aerodynamic configuration. It should be open 365 days/year and 24 hours/day. Since this IS Sicily, we shall see about that!

I, for one, am very excited about this prospect. It might be done just about the time I'm ready to retire!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

In my beautiful, my beautiful balloon

Although this didn't exactly take place in Sicily, the idea originated there, as did the players . . .

Last weekend, Columbus Day LONG weekend for us government employees (aka your tax dollar$ at work!), a group of about a dozen of us drove a million miles and back (so it seemed) to a hot air balloon festival up near Naples . . . and it was well worth it! Despite a horrible ten hours each way in the world's most uncomfortable tour vans, we all seriously enjoyed the balloon rides and the festival itself.

Probably 12-20 balloonists from different countries in Europe were there, and the coolest thing was that we all rode in different balloons. Two colleagues and I were lucky to ride with a handsome young Frenchman (Matthew) and his pretty wife. The only condition of his taking us, besides paying, of course, was that we had NOT voted for Bush. No problem.

Early Saturday morning, it was foggy and not too promising. However, patches of blue sky were appearing, and suddenly all the balloonists began at once to unpack, unroll, and inflate their balloons with large fans and jets of fire. When our balloon was indeed upright, we hopped (or rather scrambled, struggled, hoisted ourselves) into the wicker baskets and OFF we went!

This was not my first balloon ride, but it was as thrilling, even without the champage breakfast. The coolest thing about the balloons is that you don't feel any movement, any sensation of rising or lowering, but you can see that you are by the position of the earth.

This captain was great. We skimmed the tops of huge pine trees and then shot up through the clouds and came out above them to bright skies and sunshine. Delores and I recalled a few lines of "Up, Up and Away" ala the Fifth Dimension (remember them?). As we drifted, the sun burnt away most of the clouds and fog and we could see the gorgeous Italian countryside below before landing (a little roughly) in a plowed muddy field. I took a hundred photos, as did all the others. Every one of us loved the experience!

We celebrated afterwards with a fabulous special "ballon festival menu" at an agriturismo restaurant where every couse was a beautiful work of art as well as a gourmet delight. That and plenty of wine sent us all back to the hotel for a long afternoon nap in preparation for an evening at the town's festival. There, I saw for the first time the "knights" on galloping large horses attempting to grab the brass ring with a long lance. The horses were large! And the galloping fast! Sparks flew from their hooves on the pavement. We all bought little balloon souvenirs and generally just enjoyed the quaint and picturesque little town, the vendors, the contest, and each other. Bravo for ballooning!

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Invasion/Liberation of Sicily, 1943

My godfather and uncle Pete Kutz took part in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. He had joined the army early in the war and was stationed with General Montgomery and the Brits in Africa. We have a photo of him, tall and very skinny, in front of the pyramids. So, from his stories, I knew at least that there was an invasion of Sicily by the Allies. What I didn't know was that it was the largest invasion force ever assembled (bigger than Normandy with 478,000 invading troops) and that it was before D-day and Normandy.

The funny thing is that the Sicilians call it a "liberation," not an invasion. Technically, the Italians were on the side of the Germans. Remember Mussolini? He was a joke of a dictator and Hitler couldn't stand him. Anyway, the Sicilians like to say that they were never part of that whole deal . . . like they were neutral or something. In fact, there was a large German presence in Sicily, and even today you can see bunkers all over the place, even right near NAS I Sigonella.

There are two large war cemeteries nearby. The British cemetery (LEFT), located near the Catania airport, has over 2,000 men buried in it,and the German one, near Misterbianco, has more than twice as many. I've been to both and also to the World War II Museum in downtown Catania. In fact, Kendra and I took our tenth grade Integrated Literature-World History students there last spring. It is a FABULOUS museum! It's very interactive and realistic throughout. You go through a bomb raid, get inside a machine gun bunker, see films, artifacts, wax figures, and end with a very moving memorial for all who died in the invasion. Even the tenth graders liked it, and they were a group who didn't like much.

Our former ROTC teacher, a retired Navy captain, was quite a WWII buff, and he accompanied us to the museum. He told us the story of "Mincemeat," a decption plan which the British used to throw the Germans off the track on where the invasion would take place. They took a fresh corpse and dressed it up as a British officer, complete with a briefcase of phony papers indicating that the invasion would take place in Sardinia and Greece. Then they threw the body into the ocean off the coast of Spain, where it was found by the enemy, who promptly bought the story and shifted many troops off the island of Sicily and onto Sardinia and Greece, making the invasion of Sicily easier.

It came as quite a surprise to the Germans, apparently, despite heavy bombing beforehand. It took a few months for the Allies to overtake the entire island and push the retreating Germans over the Straits of Messina. But the losses were heavy for the Axis--172,000 were killed, wounded, imprisoned or missing. The British, Canadian, and US losses were light in comparison--8,300 killed or wounded.

Remember the scene in the movie _Patton_ when the general slapped the enlisted soldier who was in tears and called him a coward? That took place in Sicily. There are stories of how the Mafia helped the Allies, how the Italian soldiers simply gave up, smiling, and how the Sicilian-American soldiers felt they had "come home" to their roots. My mother's friend, now in her mid-80s, wrote to me, "The boys came home from the war and said it was just beautiful over there (in Sicily)."

By the way, no American soldiers were knowingly buried in Sicily because the USA's policy is not to bury them on "enemy territory," which Sicily technically was, at the time.

The war museum tour finishes with quote by Pope John XXIII: "Peace is the ultimate good. To forget this is pure madness."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Italian "Untersetzer"

Apparently German beer is becoming more and more popular in Italy, because many bars, pubs, and restaurants have it on tap. We held a teachers' union TGIF at an Italian restaurant near school and they had Paulaner, one of Munich's "big six" beers on draft. Many of us enjoyed it with the excellent pizza we were served.

Even more enjoyable were the funny beer coasters they had. You have to understand that beer coasters (called untersetzer or "under-sitters" in German) are a sub-culture of their own in Germany, where beer is the national #1 drink and it's always served in a glass. Coasters are not just advertising, they are an art form, and many people collect them.

These Paulaner coasters, though, were in Italian AND they made fun of the Germans!

Coaster 1 translated: "Germans don't have a sense of humor. When their glass is empty, the fun is finished." The picture is of a German with an empty beer glass and a pained look on his face, raising his hand to get another beer.

Coaster 2: "Germans are assets. It must be so because Paulaner Weissen beer is drunk gladly." This picture is of a Bavarian beermaid carrying a tray with about eight large beers on it.

Coaster 3: "Germans are punctual. And when the appointment is with a Paulaner Weissen beer, no one arrives late." Here we see a man and woman laughing and drinking beer in a beergarden.

On the flip side of the coaster, is says "Paulaner . . . good, better Paulaner. Typically German. The Weissbeer of Munich with German quality."

Ok, so it loses something in the translation, but those of us who have lived in Germany think there's something funny about a German beer company making fun of itself for the Italians . . . because, really, the Germans don't have much sense of humor!