Understanding the Italian Post Office.

No, this isn’t a rant about the non-delivery of something in the post (you know, what the Americans think is the “mail”).
This is your insider’s guide to using a post office in Italy.
The first thing you will notice is that there are nearly as many counters as there are staff. And they are scattered around the building so that some can only be found after a little journey, or two…
The principle is that there is a different counter for each type of transaction. So posting a letter would be at counter “P”; buying a stamp would be at counter “S”; drawing cash would be at counter “B” and so on.
Italians don’t really go much on queuing. It gets in the way of greeting old friends, relatives and chatting up any pretty girls in the vicinity.
So they use the numbered ticket system. Very logically, there is a numbered ticket for each counter. Press button “P” to get a number for the Post A Letter counter, right?
If you want to draw some cash so that you buy some stamps in order to post a parcel to Spain you will need a numbered ticket for each of those counters. Simple. Until you realise that it is entirely probable that your numbers will be called to the posting counter before the stamp counter and way before the cash counter. The only safe way is to get the tickets for each as you finish with the previous. Of course that does make the job a tad longer – maybe half a day or so.
If you are Italian, you will immediately recognise that I have misrepresented this. Of course stamps and posting letters and parcels are done at the same counter. I just wanted to get the principle across without making it seem as complicated as you and I both know it really is!
OK. You have walked in and have located the counter you need first and, with a bit of careful surveying, you have located the machine that issues the numbered tickets. Good. Your ticket says you are in position P125 and the large sign above the P counters say “Chiuso”, 41 and 92. Chiuso is closed; 41 went off on other duties before calling customer 42 and the person running the only working counter is serving ticket number 91. So, 125-91=33 people ahead of you in the queue.
For lots of different reasons, not so.
As you sit down and watch the next 5 customers being served, you may be tempted to do a bit more maths. Each of the 5 customers were at the counter for approximately 10 minutes each. You have 33 ahead of you so you can expect to be served. It is now 11am. 33 x 10 = 330 / 60 = 5:30 + 11am = 4:30. But they close for 2.5 hours from 1:30 till 4:00 so you should be dealt with at 4:30 + 2:30 = 7pm.
Wrong again.
You will be out of there all done and dusted well before lunch time.
You may also think to yourself, “I could go and sit outside in the sun for half an hour rather than sitting here watching a series of repeating advertisements on the plasma screen. Now don’t get me wrong. Italian post offices are nice smart, well equipped places. But sunshine is better…
Don’t do it.
You may well lose your place and have to start from the bottom of the first ladder.
There are techniques available for you to deploy here.
1. “Can I have a form, please”
You may need a form that needs filling in. Hover by the person currently being served and when you see them start to fill in their form or get some change, ask the teller for your form. Now you have established a relationship with the teller and can come back to him or her any time there is a break. These people are brilliant at multi-tasking and can quite happily serve three or four people at once, albeit a little slower, and only one of them needs to be the person with the right number. This fends off any complaints about queue jumping.
2. The Dead Tickets
So you just did the maths and worked out that you have a 3 hour wait. You are 125 and 91 is being served. Then suddenly the numbers wizz through at the rate of 1 per second and there is just a couple ahead of you!
Did a string of people decide not to post that day after taking their tickets? How did the teller know they weren’t waiting behind a pillar? Being a foreigner, I was taken in hand by the other attendees. As the number display did its spurt towards my number, several people told me to go to the counter. I showed them that mine was still 4 away from the current but it seemed they all knew what number I had and I was almost pushed to the counter. I was still one away from the displayed number when the teller smiled at me and held out his hand to take my parcel. I am nervous, expecting 124 to come screaming out of the background demanding retribution for taking his or, worse, her place. I confess, I haven’t worked out if there is some form of telepathy at work here. Would a runner have fetched me from outside the door if I had just popped out? I really think they might!
3. The Ticket Swap
You have ticket 130. You hover near the counter carefully placed so you can see the display and you can see anybody approaching the counter. Ticket 93 is called but nobody is approaching the counter. You go immediately to the counter, screwing up you ticket and throwing it in the bin. You are now presumed to be ticket 93! This explains why most customers don’t display their tickets so that anyone can see what they have got…
I must admit to be somewhat surprised that there were no recent immigrants offering to give you an earlier number ticket as you come in – for a small consideration. If they made the deal an exchange for the one you have just taken, they should be able to keep that scam going all day without ever having to take another ticket themselves…
There may be other sub-plots involved in the queuing system that are far too subtle for me to catch.
Now comes the process of posting a parcel. It is going to Spain.
First it must be measured and the dimensions entered into a computer. Then it must be weighed. This is entered into the computer. This is necessary because, like some in the UK, carriers charge by density which must be calculated by the computer and, again like the UK, the postal system often uses private contractors along the way. Quite how many decimal places are required in the final specific gravity result was not clear to me.
There are three services which we offer that will get this parcel to Spain. Which would you prefer to use?
I decided to just point out that it was a laptop computer which was worth about €800 but as it was going back for repair, I really was not concerned with the time taken to arrive. What I was clear about was that I wanted it fully insured.
“In that case, please fill in this form here, sir. The cost will be €48.” As I am filling in the form, the teller asked, “Is there an invoice in the parcel?”. I tell him there is and that I have a copy of it but not with me.
“That is fine. We don’t need it unless the parcel gets lost. But it does mean that you could have better insurance for very little extra money.” I agree to that and am asked to fill in the other half of the form. The cost has gone up to €50.76 so I am happy enough.
Everything looks set to go but…
“Have you got a Codice Fiscale? We will need a copy of it.”
A Codice Fiscale is an Italian Tax Number. I had discovered that they were needed now for a lot of different transactions in Italy – like getting a Pay-as-you-go SIM card. But anyone can have one. You just go onto the government run taxation site, fill in a form which doesn’t require an address and you get a code immediately.
“I haven’t got it with me”, I explain. The teller is very understanding and asks if I can remember the number. “Well, your parcel cannot go until you give us the Codice Fiscale”, says my teller friend. (We have established quite a good relationship by now.)
It is now 1pm and they will close for the two and a half hour lunch break at 1:30. Off I go back to the van, fire up the computer, find the document and think to myself – if I stop to break out the printer, I won’t get back before they close. I have the GPS which can display photographs quite well so I transfer the image of my CF card to that and rush off back to the post office.
At 1:25pm, I am greeted by two tellers like a long lost friend. No kissing but hands are shaken and certainly no question of waiting in any queues. I offer the image of the Codice Fiscale in full colour.
“Ah, we need a copy of it. I will see if it will photocopy off the GPS!”, says one of the tellers and disappears out the back. A few minutes later, he comes back and tells the other teller that it hasn’t worked. A quick conference is held. I am shown a bit of black paper so that I can see that the photocopier has worked. “we are going to try and send it without the copy. It may or may not work. We will just hope.”, says my friend.
Whilst we are waiting for the teller behind the desk to do his stuff, the guy on my side is chatting about the state of the Sicilian world, we find we have acquaintances in common, and he explains how so many customers do not show proper respect for the guys working at the post office. “They just won’t keep silent while we try to work”, he tells me. At this point I catch the eye of the other guy who rolls his eyes at me!
Suddenly, there is great excitement from both members of staff. The system has accepted the parcel. I am given the receipt and escorted outside by one of the tellers. We continue to set the Sicilian world to rights for another ten minutes and part the best of friends.
There are many ways to pass the time in the sun. This has been one of them. I wonder wether the parcel will get to Cartegena.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Goodbye to Old Smokey

I have smoked a pipe since before I left school 55 years ago. Alright, I always smoked a “boy’s tobacco” and only about 2oz (50 grams) a week. It has always been part of me. I couldn’t really do without it. I even used it to measure the severity of life’s little problems – how many pipes it would take to solve one!
Two weeks ago I put Old Smokey away together with half a packet of tobacco and about 15 lighters. Not required anymore.
No, this isn’t some steel willpower. I didn’t even know I was going to give it up. No-one even suggested that it would be a good idea. Yet I am very content with … well, another pipe which doesn’t need tobacco!
Smoking the pipe.JPG (560x600 pixels)
I bought an e-pipe. It is really an inhaler like people use when the suffer from asthma except that this one is designed to look like a really nice rosewood pipe. I can puff away at it and instead of smoke it gives me water vapour, rather like cooled steam and has nicotine mixed with the steam. The hat has nothing to do with it – I was talked into buying it by a part-time Monk, but that is another story!
The idea is that nicotine is the stuff us smokers are addicted to, not the rest of the 4,000 odd chemicals that processed tobacco contains. And because the steam evaporates almost instantly, there is no chance of anyone getting a dose of it from me. And nicotine isn’t carcinogenic! I’m even able to spell that word now.
No more mucky hands. No more burnt clothes. No more pockets full of ash. No more ash trays full of stinky tars and wet leaves. No more smell of old ashtrays – yes, I knew I smelt like that!
But this last week has been much more of a journey of discovery than I could ever imagined. It has taken me into a strange new world of people who call themselves “vapers” and talk about “attys” and “carts”. That is atomisers and cartridges, I have learnt. They rabbit on about juices that they have tried. There are 410s, 501s and 901s. It seems these are all models of e-cigarettes! There are forums full of people talking about how many days they have been “vaping” and off the “analogues”. It makes Dungeons & Dragons game plying nerds look sane!
Apart from the strange language these guys get into, there is the chemistry. Actually, it is more about maths.
As a vaper, I can choose how much nicotine to add to my basic vegetable glycerine “juice” which is the “wicked” on to the hot element and turned into the steam – which is what I happily suck at as if it were the old tobacco smoke. But how much nicotine do I need?
I had to start from the basis that I smoked 50 grams of tobacco a week. But here is a very strange thing. Cigarette packets have to carry their exact nicotine, tar and Co2. But pipe tobacco carries none of this information. Cigarettes, on the other hand tell you all that information but never tell you how much tobacco they contain! So finding out how much nicotine I am accustomed to taking in becomes a problem. Probably at least a six pipe problem…
I cheated and having discovered that a pack of 20 “normal” cigarettes contain 0.8 grams per fag, I am equating my 50 grams a week to 10 cigarettes a day. Now that is 40 cells of Excel spreadsheet just getting that far.
A little more surfing the net and I discover that the strongest nicotine solution that is legal is 7.5%. The strongest actually sold is 5.4% and the common “full” strength is usually 36mg per millilitre. Whoaa! There is another little mathematical trap for the novice chemist. We suddenly swap from % to absolute weight. Burn up a few dozen more Excel cells and I calculate that what I am used to puffing equates to about 6mg per ml – about half of the lowest manufactured juice. I am forced to mix my own juice using the concentrate and mixing it with zero-nicotine glycerine to get the wimpish strength that I am used to smoking.
Here is the portable lab:
The Kit.JPG (781x600 pixels)
The good news is that all this stuff is readily available. Even the flavours are easy to come by. Did I mention flavours? There is a whole new dimension I’ll tell you about in just a moment!
The whole vaping scene is about making up the right juice for an individual need and taste. The basic glycerine is used in everyday cooking so easy enough to buy. But flavouring? Yes, we are talking about tobacco flavours but we are also, it seems, talking about food flavourings. That is what the happy vaper buys. Candy flavours, as the Americans will insist on calling it. The stuff they put into boiled sweets. Of course, the vaper’s chemistry is all water based, so the oil based flavours are out of the equation.
So, if you see me happily “smoking” my e-pipe with a satisfied smile on my face, it is quite likely that I am actually enjoying a Chocolate smoke, or Strawberry, or Bacon Sandwich or…  Of course there are tobacco flavours too. I guess there has been a bit of a row between the tobacco manufacturers and the flavouring manufacturers as many of the flavours have been renamed. Mailboro is now called Cowboy Country; State Express 555 is now M4 Highway and, my favourite but not as a flavour, Camel is now called Dessert Hump! Anything Lorann.com sells in their food flavourings may now be legally “smoked”.
For those interested in going down the vapour route, the result of my calculations in Excel form are is here: http://kvisit.com/S-Ydv I shall try and do a more detailed description in the next few days.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Visit to the Market – Not for the Squeamish!

Sunday is market day at the small port in Catania. I hate to see my food looking anything like it did when it was alive but I also have to know what I am looking at and I just love the colours and images at a place like this, So I took the camera for a walk hoping that some of you more knowledgeable people can tell me what I saw. This fella in the Nike hat also had the same thoughts, I reckon.
Row 1.png (800x284 pixels)
I assume that A, B and G are all some sort of Squid but they all look different.
C & D are clearly flat fish but that is far as I can get though maybe D is Skate?
On the basis that anything that looks like a marine worm is an Eel, I am going to guess that covers E & F but I only recognise the jellied variety.
Is H an ugly fish? That has to be true…
Row 2.png (800x210 pixels)
I am fairly sure Liz had I for dinner last night. She said they were squid so maybe G is Octopus.
J look to me like those fish that leap out of the sea when you least expect them and K is much too pretty to be eaten! But maybe there are two different models in that box?
Row 3.png (800x214 pixels)
The Snr L was making a lot of mess with whatever M is. Cuttlefish? But why the enormous knife?
I am fairly confident that N is either a prawn or a large shrimp and I know that P is Anchovies. Is O Mackeral?
Row 4.png (800x200 pixels)
Q has to be an Octopus but R is something else again (see insert) but is very popular and expensive at €25/kilo but saying that it is “new born baby” neither encourages me to buy it nor tells me who or what the parents are..  No doubt about what S is but some doubt in my mind as to what one might do with the sword bit…
Row 5.png (800x190 pixels)
The box of fish in T are a complete mystery to me. They may be just assorted odds and fins. U is undoubtedly Oyster which, at €8 the kilo, must be a bargain. The mussels at €3/kilo look good and taste good in a risotto.
Row 6.png (800x205 pixels)
Common cockles or clams seem to be the same things. At €10/kilo suggests they may not be local. The pink ones marked X didn’t have a price and that, I suspect, is no mistake. Then we come to Y. This must be some sort of seaweed that requires a lemon. I always thought that Chinese Seaweed that you get from the take-away was really fried cabbage but now I am not so sure!
Row 7.png (800x208 pixels)
These two, Z & a, I know about. We eat a lot of Anchovies in the Z form but not sure we could cope with the salt they stuff into the barrels. Just how long does it take to stuff a full barrel so neatly?
Row 8.png (800x224 pixels)
We have seen the Urchins at “b” before but “c” and “d” are still confusing me. The latter feature strongly in every fish restaurant of note in the area.
Row 9.png (800x191 pixels)
These are just for local colour!
Row 10.png (800x175 pixels)
“e” is labeled Telline which my dictionary says is clams or Vongole but these look larger than W above. Could it be that Clams are large cockles?
At least the olives are obvious and the cauliflower, whilst painted purple must be just that.
Row 11.png (800x213 pixels)
Ignore the ubiquitous sword fish and the squash. What are the multi-coloured veg at “f” for heavens sake? Do you think you just boil them?
Ok. Enough of the market. Isn’t it interesting that it is at the local markets that you become painfully aware of the culinary isolation that even the sophisticates among us suffer?

Leave a comment

Filed under Sicily

Teaching Windows a Foreign Language

This is a technical post for the non-technically minded.
It started this morning with a knock on the door from a German lady. She and her husband had just been to the supermarket here in Catania, Sicily and bought a new netbook – just like the one they already owned.
They had asked the guy in customers services wether it could have its language changed from Italian to German. “No problem!” said the guy.

The netbook has Windows 7 Starter on it.

The first problem for the new owner was that he didn’t have enough Italian to understand how to ask it to change its Mother tongue. So a neighbouring Dane had suggested that the English gent would be worth asking!

Now I haven’t progressed beyond Vista yet and my mind is still pining for XP. My Italian is only slightly better than my German. I can just about manage to eat with my rudimentary Italian and would starve in Germany without the aid of others less linguistically challenged. So looking at the new netbook left me not much better informed than the frustrated owner.

Having spent a while looking at the Microsoft website and others, I learned that the Starter version is a cut down version of the real operating system. I had thought that that meant some of the new features of Windows 7 wouldn’t be available in the “Starter” version that tends to be pre-installed on new netbooks.

I hadn’t appreciated that it meant that they had removed a lot of the functionality that was present in older iterations of the product. It is a bit like buying a new model of car where the tyres are no longer supplied as standard – or did Mercedes already cover that ground? In this case, you only get one language and that will be the one for the country where it is being sold. No, of course no-one ever buys a netbook whilst in some other country than their own. It would be sort of rude, wouldn’t it?

The Microsoft website is quite enthusiastic about the fact that their downloadable language files are available for free and in 95 languages as long as you don’t want Chinese. Seems there is a political issue with offering Chinese. Not at all sure what since you can get it from lots of other sites and it almost certainly has been assembled at Microsoft. When, however you go to the download page for your copy of politically safe German, there it is. The file with a warning sign saying that Mr Gates’ team have ensured that it won’t work unless you have bought the Ultimate or Enterprise version of Windows 7.

Cost of Netbook: €200.
Cost of upgrade operating system so that it stops talking in a foreign language and lets you use it: €180.
I think my German friend was right to be a little disappointed with his purchase.

I know that I have a character flaw that causes me to get unreasonably upset when I think people have been ripped off. More so than when I get ripped off! Neither of us really fancied the discussion with the supermarket management in a language neither of us could really speak.

At this point, I was so incensed that I would have been willing to indulge in piracy against Microsoft without a second thought. Actually, I had the XP installation disks from a laptop that had long since died on me so I felt entirely righteous about offering to put XP on the machine in place of Windows 7 and he clearly thought that would be an even better solution. We discussed the effect on his warranty and agreed that this wos the way to go. I took the machine away to do the deed.

An hour or so later, I had a better idea. If I were to partition the 250Gb hard disk and make it a dual boot machine, maybe the warranty would still be valid. Simples.

I soon had a clean formatted 108Mb E: drive ready to take XP. I had dusted off my external USB CD/DVD drive and satisfied myself that I had set the netbook so it would boot from the CD in preference to the hard disk.

OK. I am a dinasaur. My main machine these days is a quad processor with 8Gb of Ram but I still run ancient DOS software like FoxPro and Power Basic in DosBox so it shouldn’t be any surprise that I still have a bootable CD with DOS 6.2 on it. That is my trusty testbed. It booted the machine up just fine and quickly. It is wonderful to see the speed of the antedeluvial software running on a wizz-bang modern PC but that is another story.

I fetched my XP CD and tried the boot. Oh dear, it couldn’t see a hard disk at all. A little head scratching and I realised that SATA drives weren’t around when they devised XP so it wasn’t really surprising. But, hey, there is a facility in XP installer for supplying drivers for storage devices it doesn’t know about. There is the solution.

Wrong again! XP installer is absolutely convinced that your machine has a floppy disk drive A: on it and wants that to be where the drivers are. I tried spoofing it into thinking that a pen disk was the floppy. No. Couldn’t evev assign the CD as A: because it wants the A-drive before it lets you have access to DOS.

At this point I was ready to give up and go and buy a floppy disk! Having recently put DosBox on my machine, to have a floppy disk drive would really have made it look like an original IBM 8086… Fortunately, it was getting on to 10pm so I couldn’t go to the local Media World and had to try another route.

Back to Google and another search brought salvation with a bit more information about Vista and Windows 7. It seems that they have just restricted the system to a single language in the registry. Change the registry entry and it will allow you to add another language. The problem then is that whenever Windows does an update, it puts the registry back where it was and you lose your second language. The answer to this one might be just to stop it doing the updates but that would seem an unfortunate way to go. Then I came across a free bit of software called Vistalizator (www.vistalizator.com).

Although this little gem was written for Vista, they have a Windows 7 version. It makes the change to the registry and installs the second language for you right up to the point where you select the new language as the primary one.
You do have to download the MUI Language file from Microsoft – a snip at102Mb. However, Vistalizator also stops the update from changing the registry back again. But even if it didn’t, it is a very easy matter to re-run the program to set it back again.

Of course, I then had a netbook in German which I didn’t understand any more than I had the Italian but its owner was very happy with it.

At last I have the answer to the language problem which is useful for the next time when it might be Japanese to Swahili knowing my luck! All I need to find now is how to get Windows & to allow me to set a workgroup name for the LAN. Why, oh why, does Microsoft think we will learn to love them if they persist with these silly games?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What do we do all day?

People do ask me what I do with my time as a fulltime traveling pensioner. So I thought I might have a look at a couple of days when we didn’t do any of the obvious things like shopping or sightseeing.
This blog is a rambling account of those two random days.
Can’t cope without problems…
Traveling around Europe in a motorhome or caravan is a lifestyle that has problem solving at its core. It is easy enough to adapt to the limitations of living, even cooking, space. Thinking back to living in a house, we didn’t really use most of the space we had. You can only sit in one chair at a time and only sleep in one bed at a time. The fact that we now use the same chair to eat, read, “work” and sometimes just sit and watch the world go by, is no great hardship.
The difference lies in the reaction to the things that break or malfunction.
Back home, a blocked sink; a blown fuse; leaking roof or flat car battery can all be addressed by a call for the relevant “expert” if you can’t do it yourself. For the long-term camper, that is a much more difficult solution. First you have to find the “expert” and the Yellow Pages are not in English. Then you have to explain the problem in a language which, even if you can get by in, will be difficult when it comes to the technical jargon relating to your problem.
Enter the community of the camper. Most sites of any size have a collection of residents who have a life time of experience and a wide selection of skills to offer. And offer, they do!
A trip to the dustbin to empty the rubbish will almost certainly involve a conversation on the way there and another on the way back. You get to meet everyone within a few days. Here we have a farmer, a structural engineer, two teachers, a taxi driver/mechanic and a florist – just to name a few.
Not only have they their formal skills but, since most are well over 55 years old, they have hundreds of years of experience between them.
We tend to become aware of anyone struggling with a problem. Help is readily offered because they are your neighbours.
Help can be mandatory.
When we arrived in a fairly large van on to this fairly tightly spaced Sicilian campsite, we wanted to get into a pitch that overlooked the sea. But it was not going to be easy to get onto the pitch because of the many obstacles like the sun canopies etc. Within minutes, I had a team of half a dozen people watching every corner and side – all giving instructions from their vantage point! Now this might be annoying and confusing in the real world but, hey, there is no rush. No-one is hurrying you along. You can take all day to maneuver you van into just the right spot and it doesn’t matter.
Is Denmark the right way up?
Yesterday, I was wondering what I wanted to do after breakfast when there was a knock on the door. A Danish neighbour had a problem with his laptop. His screen had suddenly turned upside down and he didn’t know why or how to get it back the right way up. Somebody had told him that this was something I might be able to help him with.
Now, this is a matter that is different for each make of laptop and, of course, his machine is all in Danish. But it doesn’t really take long with the help of the internet and the owner providing translation of what the screen is saying. And within half an hour the matter is resolved.
Is Sweden switched on?
An hour later a Swedish neighbour asks for help with his electrics. It turns out that in two years, the mains fuse has never blown before so he has never needed to know where the mains fuse box was located. That one took a little longer.
Each job is an interaction that develops into a conversation and an exchange of tales from our histories.
This time, I discovered that the Danish pay 180% tax on the purchase of a car or motorhome… I learnt that you can buy a Mercedes car and run it for two years as a taxi and then sell it without the tax at a figure that means you have had the car for the two years without costing anything!
I also learned that one of the Swedish shipyards built a ship so big that it wouldn’t fit under the bridge to get it out of the Baltic Sea. The only way that it could be done was for the ship to be driven at full power that the stern went down under such acceleration!
And there are always things that you can volunteer to do.
Problems don’t have to be real.
As I sat and watched the waves breaking on this rocky coast, I started to wonder what could be done to get some of that energy harnessed. I know it is being done but various schemes but they all involve putting machinery into the sea. That seems to be asking for very high maintenance costs. So the idea came to me that it might be possible to put a plastic tank in the waves which would cause air to be sucked in and blown out. If one could bring that air movement ashore so that there were no moving parts in the sea, there might be a better sort of wave engine to be had.
Wave engine.jpg (5.0KB; 144x173 pixels)
On the way to the rubbish bin with the recycling, I stopped to talk to Gunther, a German Structural Engineer, and told him of my idea. He said it wouldn’t work in the Mediterranean because the waves weren’t big enough and patted me on the head!
Now, you will understand that this is a challenge that has to be met. Back in the van and a little research with the Italian Meteorology department and a lot of refreshing of memory about things like the number of foot pounds to the kilowatt-hour produced a spreadsheet that showed to my satisfaction that the average wave height of 1.2m would be enough to produce 800 watts of electricity from a 2 litre piston/tank. It might have confused any onlooker as to why I would have been standing on the rocks at nearly midnight with a torch and a stopwatch but I hadn’t thought till then to find out how many waves you get to the minute!
Tomorrow, I shall present my findings to Gunther and see if he still feels inclined to pat me on the head…
The pleasure of doing a job – just because you don’t have to do it.
Yesterday, I decided that something needed to be done about the campsite WiFi equipment.
Guiseppe had had the engineers in to fix it. I saw him wandering around the site with his laptop. I guessed he was trying to check that the signal was getting to everywhere. But I also know that you can’t really tell that way. You may get a signal which is too weak to be sustained. You may get a signal that is coming from a mast that won’t reach the same point tomorrow. T really find out what was what, he needed to a site survey using the right software.
I can do that, I thought!
A day of looking for the right software on the internet and then half a day, off and on, getting to know how to run them (couldn’t find any one bit of software that would do the whole job) and finally, half a day putting together the survey and a report to explain the findings.
I presented the report to Guiseppe, an hydraulics engineer by training, who immediately wanted to find out why the two repeaters he thought were working, weren’t working at all.
Off we set with his screwdrivers and my kit to investigate.
What we found inside the repeaters was a mass of rust! The engineers who had set the equipment up had used good sealed weather-tight boxes but then drilled a large hole in the underside to get the aerial cable in. Sadly they hadn’t taken into account that the repeaters are within reach of the breaking wave spray when stormy. This, of course, had resulted in water being driven into the boxes from underneath which they hadn’t sealed. Guiseppe used some Italian which needed no translation even though I had no idea what any of the words were! I also understood that my report would be sent immediately to the IT engineers for action. In a month or two, they should have a working system…
Dept. Of Transport Acquaintances?
I remember working with an engineer who had spent most of his working life thus far working on the Cross Chanel ferries. He had made many friends in his job but always refused to acknowledge them as such because ships move on and he never knew when or if he would meet them again. . They were always referred to as Board of Trade Acquaintances.
We said goodbye to an English couple off to explore more of the island and to the Swedish couple off to visit the Mars factory on the West coast. Both will probably be back in a week or two.
The French couple with the delightful deaf child will be away in the next day or so. And so we, too, will move on to have a look at the other end of the island.
Are they friends or Dept of Transport Acquaintances? Only time will tell…
And then there is the rest…
Bear in mind that there are books to be read; emails to read and send; forums to be contributed to and Face Book to be dealt with. And we have talked to all the children on Skype.
There is shopping to do; water to fill, waste water and loos to empty; running repairs to fix; the van to wash the Sahara off; cooking and washing up and the laundry…
From this, you will appreciate that even finding time to go sightseeing and shopping becomes a matter of careful time-management.
What should the answer be to “What do you do all day?”


Filed under Uncategorized

Monkey on a Tractor

Monkey.JPG (135x131 pixels)
One of the things which happens on campsites in the Winter is that the residents get to know each other and even become friends.
The point was illustrated for me some time ago when I talked to a fellow whose wife had died two years earlier.
He had gone home but become bored and longed to be out and about in his motorhome again as they had done together.
So he had gone off on his own.
His daughter was much concerned about this and kept ringing him up and telling him to come home.
“What do you do all day, on your own?”, she asked.
“Well,” says the septuagenarian, “the rubbish bin is about 200 yards from where my van is parked. That is an hour’s journey and about 6 conversations away!”
Perhaps one of the joys of the lifestyle is the constant supply of new people who haven’t heard all your stories and jokes. And, of course, one gathers stories and jokes as you go.
Tractor.JPG (142x120 pixels)
Bjorn (named changed to protect the guilty) is Swedish and of similar advanced years to most of us traveling pensioners. He is a retired farmer, he says, but actually I suspect he was a senior engineer for a major tractor manufacturer on the sales and marketing side. He is certainly one of those men for whom the phrase “A thing of duty and a boy forever” was coined.
It seems that his company decided to sponsor a European circus troupe. As part of the deal to get the tractors publicised, an act was included in the show.
The basis of the act was a clown trying to direct traffic opposed by a monkey driving a tractor. Great fun and a lot of scope for laughter.
Obviously the tractor was driven by remote control with Bjorn hiding in the audience.
On the night in question, the monkey was particularly excitable and was playing with everything on the tractor it could reach.
At the same time, a Red Indian troupe was establishing their act which followed the monkey’s but erecting an Indian Tepee at the other side of the ring.
Sadly the monkey finally found a way to reach the all-important switch that cut off Bjorn’s radio link. The result was a panic-stricken Bjorn rushing out of his hiding place to get to the tractor and stop it. Not before it had run right over the top of the tepee, narrowly missing several surprised not-so-braves.
Kind of inevitable?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to make a real Pizza

There is, of course, a good reason why I travelled 1,827 miles from Halifax to Catania, Sicily.
It was not the Winter sunshine. It was not even the chance to visit Salzburg, Venice, Rome or even Naples on the way.
It was the chance to learn how Sicilians make a pizza!
The venue for this discovery of the secrets was the Restaurant Jonio at Camping Jonio in Catania under the regime of Antionetta.
For those of you who are unaware, the pizza originated in Sicily, if not in Catania itself. S it is here we had to come to learn the secret of the perfect pizza base.
Should it be thick or thin? What flour is correct? Do you have to have one of those ovens that look as if they were really designed to house small bats?
First, Antoinetta introduced us to the ingredients.
1Kg 00 Grano Tenero
1Kg Semola Rimacinato Grano Duro
100 grams Unsalted butter
650ml Water
1 tablespoonful dried yeast
1 tablespoonful Salt
1 tablespoonful Sugar
2 tablespoonsful Olive oil (Extra Virgin, what else is there?)
The mixed flour is important as the soft 00 flour provides the mixing properties that deliver a truly elastic dough whilst the hard grain semolina flour provides the lightness.
All the ingredients are blended together by machine for about 20 minutes. Antoinetta saw no advantage in doing this by hand – it just tires you out!
Having said that, the next stage was to take the 3Kg lump of dough and to beat it into submission on a bench.
I am not clear why but Antoinetta’s enthusiasm for this violence did not encourage me to be seen to enquire if it was necessary…
Antoinetta beats the dough into submission. Who was she thinking of...?
The dough was then parcelled up by weight; in this case 1 Kg lumps, before being placed on teflon-coated trays to rise.
Risen dough
The trays were left in an unheated cupboard for around 2 hours to rise. The ambient temperature would have been about 22°C.
While we waited for the dough to rise, we discussed the great mystery of how we had seen less than three kilograms of ingredients weighed out to make 6 1Kg balls of dough.
Clearly, there was a secret of Italian cuisine that was not being shared with us and, perhaps, this was why pizza was such a staple of the country’s take-away industry…
Sadly, the truth was prosaic in the extreme. While we hadn’t been paying attention, Antoinetta had mixed a second batch of dough!
Now should have been the point where I was to learn the spinning dough trick. The flashy bit when the chef spins the dough ever thinner by throwing the dough in the air using centrifugal force to do the work.
Sadly, Antoinetta just laughed at me when I asked if this was not part of the procedure.
Spreading the base. No fancy twirls here.
However, the spreading out of the dough on the oven trays, by merely pushing it about by hand, did give me a chance to hide behind a pillar and ask which was better, thin base or thick base?
I got my answer in the manner which owed more to Joyce Grenfell than Delia Smith. If you eat pizza in Sicily, where pizza was invented, it will be thin base. In the North of Italy you will get thick base. Clearly, the reason for Tuscany believing that thick base was a good idea was sheer ignorance on their part.
The pomodore is spread with care and contemplation.
Now the tomato paste is spread on the dough.
I knew that it would be important to discover the ingredients of this concoction and asked her.
Again, the response brought into question the wisdom of me being allowed out without benefit of a collar and lead, “Pomadori – tomatoes, eh?”
The tomato covered dough bases were now put in the oven warmed to 200°C and cooked for about 20 minutes before the strange ritual of what I could only see as checking the baby’s bottom.
The super oven is stacked and ready to go
After about 20 minutes, Antoinetta would open the oven door and lift a corner of the pizza to check the colour of the bottom. Only when it reached a golden brown were they taken out for the remaining ingredients to be added.
Let me make it clear that the oven being used here was no ordinary domestic affair. This beast is about twice the size of the cooking cavern. The remainder is taken up by a boiler full of water which enables the oven to mix heat and steam.
In the case of the pizzas, Antoinetta assured me that no unfair tactics were being employed and the steam capability was not being used.
When it comes to the toppings, I got the impression that the way was to add whatever you fancied – or had left over in your fridge or larder. The topping is just an incidental add-on. The important part is the cooking of the base. That was now complete.
Corgettes - they even look nice!Egs, ham & mushrooms - of courseMozzarella ready fo use
Gabriella applies the ham under Dutch supervisionAntoinetta applies the corgettesGabriella moves on to eggs
For the ubiquitous Margherita, all that is required is Mozzarella cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.
First the Mozzarellaand then the Parmesannot forgetting the Oregano
And don’t forget the Organo!
Anything that is put on top of the pizza base is already cooked so the last stage of warming the whole pizza is simply a matter of getting things up to serving temperature.
The final warming in the super oven
before being taken to the table and enjoyed by the assembled students of the day…
The students of Camping Jonio have enjoyed the fruits of Antoinetta and Gabriell's labours. With our encouragement, of course.
Mi dispiace, something must have distracted me from taking a photo of the meal before we had eaten it!

Leave a comment

Filed under Sicily

Francesco Cafiso

Francesco Cafiso at the Teatro Massimo Bellini
I am not a great fan of modern jazz, preferring the traditional fare. But our Swedish neighbour suggested we joined a party to visit the Teatro Massimo Bellini on Monday night.
Now the theatre itself is a magnificent building that is well worth a visit just for its architecture:
Photo stolen from Cicciofarmaco on Flkr. Thanks
The inside is even more impressive.
Built with neither circle or upper circle, it has five levels of, in effect, boxes. They rise from the flat auditorium floor vertically to be topped by the upper gallery.
Photo stolen from Corinasicily on Flikr. Thanks.
View of stage from rear of auditorium
Photo stolen from Umbattista on Flikr. Thanks.
The rear of the auditorium
Photo stolen from Misscharo on Flikr. Thanks.
Part of the ceiling.
The concert we went to see featured Francesco Cafiso, a 22 year old saxophonist who started playing in concerts all over Europe at the age of 9. He is self taught although he has since been taught to Master standard to play the Flute. He won the World Saxophone Competition at the London Jazz Festival in 2004 when he was just 16. He was also a guest musician at President Obama’s inauguration.
Photo of Francesco Cafiso stolen from Italia.allaboutjazz.com. Thanks.
As if this were not enough talent, the lad also writes his own compositions, three of which we were to hear that night.
At one point he played a solo where he sounded to be playing a duet with one instrument responding to the other in a different voice and yet he was the only saxophonist on the stage and he had only one saxophone!
All of this in a setting with the most superb acoustics was a pleasure indeed.
After the concert we were treated to a short guided walk around the center of the city by Guiseppe and his wife followed by him cooking an impromptu supper back at the campsite – spaghetti al’ olio in huge quantities.
The cost of this evening? Just €13 a head and a round of drinks at the Irish Pub.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sicily

The Elephant of Catania

The Elephant of Catania

Every city has its emblem. Catania has an elephant:
Photo stolen from Peter J Bury on Flikr. Thanks.
And the elephant stands proudly in the center of the central square of the city, the Piazza Duomo,
Statue de l'éléphant à Catane .jpg stolen from dullhunk on Flikr. Thanks.
and he looks very fine indeed!
Now, I say “he”, because if you go round the back, you will see that it is very obviously a “he”.
Original photo by xtaxta on Flikr - slightly modified. Thanks.

But those who know about elephants as a breed will tell you that this is anatomically incorrect because a male elephant does not have testicles on the outside; he modestly carries them internally.
So what happened to the Elephant of Catania?
Well there are two stories.
1. When the elephant was erected, the men of Catania were very distressed because the gender of their city mascot was unclear and had the “missing” element added on.
2. The memory of the artist, having returned from viewing an African elephant, proved not to be accurate and he invented what he knew must be there.
Either way, Catania’s elephant is very special and may be the only mammal on earth with a spare set of testicles, assuming that the original set are present internally.
In recognition of this special status, my informant, Snr Guiseppe Svengali BSc (Catania), tells me that every July the students rally round and ceremoniously wash the external extras.
Now you know about The Elephant of Catania.
And I hope you will thank me for avoiding all the many jokes like “Is this a load of…” and “Maybe this is the reason a male elephant is called a…”

Leave a comment

Filed under Sicily

St. Agata

The Festival of Sant’ Agata is judged to be the second largest festival in Europe, closely following the chasing of bulls around the streets somewhere in Spain.
The underlying principle is that Sant’ Agata’s relics are taken around the town once a year. This is achieved by mounting her shrine on a large sledge, which is then dragged by her devotees through the streets over a three-day period.

DSC_0007.JPG (800x531 pixels)

The first thing that we should be aware of is that this combination weighs a few tons and, since it is on skids rather than wheels, takes a considerable amount of pulling. Fortunately, the streets of Catania are mostly made of lava blocks which can stand the wear better than tarmac would do. This material is courtesy of nearby Mount Etna which is still spitting the stuff out from time to time, keeping the locals well supplied with building materials. Just as well since it also destroys a few every time it erupts.
There are well in excess of 5,000 devotees of all ages, men,women, boys and girls. They all wear white gowns, white gloves and black caps.

These two must be related! I hope that he will pass his beard trimming skills to his son in due course. I think this young man had just been given the medal he is wearing around his neck. The youngest devotees have difficulty reaching the rope but at this head end there are a number of short thin tails with handles to keep the rope end organised.

The whole atmosphere is very much of family and friends
The shrine sledge has two heavy ropes, probably 100 meters long, tied on the front for them to pull.
The normal pace is a very slow walk.
The shrine is stopped at various points of significance where the shrine crew continue their normal tasks:
    • Taking candles, unlit, from the crowd. Some of these are lit and placed at the back in a holder. Some are not lit and placed in other racks or bins.
    • Taking flowers which are placed around the base of the shrine.
    • Giving out single flowers to anyone who asks for them. These do not appear to be the same flowers that are taken on board yet there seems to be no lack of space for flowers taken in and no shortage of flowers to give out.
    • Giving out pictures of Sant’ Agata.
    • Taking in donations of money, usually €5 notes.
At each stopping place, the senior priest delivers a brief prayer and sermon using a PA system which is deployed around the crowd. This is followed by a blessing before moving on to the next stopping place.
As the procession continues, the lead priest delivers blessings. It is not clear as to whether he looks for eye contact with an individual who seems to want a blessing or whether he delivers whenever he feels appropriate. Either way, a blessing is delivered about every few minutes.

DSC_0019 - Copy.JPG (800x715 pixels)

On the front of the shrine cart, sits a man who looks much more serious than any of his colleagues and I surmise that he is the “mule” driver in charge of controlling the logistics.

DSC_0008.JPG (800x531 pixels)

He has good reason to look serious as his task is not an easy one – in fact I have no idea how he does it.
For a start, there are corners. Now the devotees could just come to a corner and go round it. But this would not work on two counts:
    • The power can only be delivered in a straight line. If they went round a curve, the final point before the shrine turned would have but a very few devotees able to apply pull.
    • More probably, the whole cortege would be dragged into cutting the corner and there are buildings it would collide with.
The solution is that the devotees go past the corner and stop when the shrine is at the corner. They then walk back with the ropes and re-extend them in the new direction. The shrine is re-aligned by other devotees and progress can be made.
Given that there are up to 5,000 mules, most of whom are wandering off and chatting to friends, having coffee or talking on their mobile phones, how does he tell them when to start or stop? It just seemed to happen without any means of obvious communication!

The only communication seemed to be when a devotee would suddenly turn round and shout back to the shrine. I guess this was an inspirational vow of allegiance or prayer to Sant’ Agata. Whenever this happened, one or two people near him or her would hug or hold him or her while the prayer was shouted. These events occurred every few minutes and were either met with applause from the crowd, a chant from the other devotees or a song (hymn?).

DSC_0017 - Copy.JPG (800x482 pixels)

I visited this event in the company of Lars, a mischievous Swedish farmer (in the green jacket), whose first interaction on arrival was to offer this gentleman €50 for his hat! On being turned down, he tried for the next policeman. Again no luck but later I took the second photo which I think proves that Lars was being closely watched from that point onwards…

DSC_0010.JPG (531x800 pixels)DSC_0018 - Copy.JPG (800x531 pixels)
The final night celebrations are an all night affair in the grand manner.
The procession starts on its journey at about 6pm arriving at the top of the town around 5am where a massive firework display is given before they complete the other half of the journey. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t manage to last the course even till the firework display, much less the finish line.

DSC_0023.JPG (800x531 pixels)

The streets are decorated with lights and banners. The street surface is spread with saw dust in copious quantities to provide a sure footing and to keep as much or the wax off the cobbles as possible.
The procession is led by the candle bearers. We are talking about large, heavy candles here…

DSC_0046.JPG (800x531 pixels)DSC_0048.JPG (531x800 pixels)

carried through the milling crowds, mostly in teams. They do the journey in short spurts with one member of the team trying to get onlookers out of the way by shouting “Attenzione”. You quickly learn to watch out for them as being thumped by one of these would, at best, leave you with covered in enough wax on your clothes to make you into your own personal candle. Why there weren’t spontaneous combustions of the public is one of the many mysteries surrounding the event.
At various points on the route, there are churches and effigies of St Agata. These are honoured by the candle-bearers with prayer and chants.

DSC_0025.JPG (800x531 pixels)

This is a young man’s thing, though we did see a few women candle-bearers and children carrying smaller candles.
This bearer had clearly got too close to the flame, but spirits were definitely up for all except the few who had been overambitious in their choice of candle.

DSC_0050.JPG (531x800 pixels)DSC_0051.JPG (800x531 pixels)

Next came the candelore. These are made of wood, intricately carved and gilded, around 6 meters high and heavy.

DSC_0031.JPG (531x800 pixels)DSC_0039.JPG (800x531 pixels)

Each is moved about 20 meters in turn and represents a guild. Some guilds have dropped out over the years so these are the last 11 paraded.
The carrying team appears to have four weight bearers with sacking headgear designed to share the weight between the head and the shoulders. There are two who carry the shafts and guide the move as well as carrying weight. Then there are men either side whose job it is to keep the structure upright.

DSC_0037.JPG (531x800 pixels)DSC_0037 - Copy.JPG (800x718 pixels)

The convoy is impressive and the center of a lot of attention.

DSC_0034.JPG (531x800 pixels)

Finally St Agata’s shrine is pulled by the enormous team of around 5,000 devotees.

DSC_0059.JPG (800x540 pixels)

Many hours of the spectacular is shown live on television so even those who cannot attend can join in the celebration.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sicily