Passopomo – Ravine update

On Thursday morning, we managed to get to the council offices in Zafferana to try and deliver our letter about the pollution in the ravine. This is the first day in the new year that the offices are open after the festive season, and we feel a bit bad to come with such ugly news. Quite soon, we have found the right office, where a very receptive woman listens to our story, and others are gradually gathering around us too. Eventually, the vice mayor arrives, and it turns out that he is a real champion for the cause: he is the founder of the local group “PuliAmo Zafferana” a group of volunteers who meet once a month to clean an area of fly-tipping in the region. He promises to come and view the ravine this afternoon.

On our way out of the offices, we come across a great set of class photos from the times when the building was a school. Check them in our flikr album.

True to his word, Giovanni arrives in the afternoon, accompanied by Sergio, an advising lawyer, and  together with Giacomo, the helpful neighbour, we take them on a little walk to show  what we have already cleaned, and how much more work there is to be done.


This is by no means an easy situation. Although this Ravine is not in the area of Zafferana, Giovanni, the vice mayor, says he will try and do something about it. There is no government money to do a clean-up like this. And once it is clean, how can further fly-tipping be prevented? Giovanni feels that people have to be caught and held responsible for their actions. Personal dumping attracts a fine of 500 Euros; if a business dumps, it is a punishable crime. However, he has made good experience with a solution of an interesting and more personal nature. Once, after PuliAmo Zafferana had spent a whole day cleaning a part of a wood, he found a whole new lot of rubbish in the same spot. Against the advice of his wife, he donned rubber gloves and successfully searched the rubbish for personal evidence. He rang the person and told them that he would not press charges on two conditions: one, that he would go and clean the place better than it was before, and two, that he would join PuliAmo Zafferana for three consecutive sessions and work harder than anyone else in the group. The person agreed, joined the group, changed his habit and became friends with Giovanni!



We must stay long enough in the area to join PuliAmo Zafferana for one of their action days! Removing rubbish is an intensely satisfying action, especially when done with a whole lot of people. You become one with the piece of land, you feel it breathing out and coming to rest. The name of the group plays on words: Puliamo means we clean, but using the capital A in the middle of the word makes it sound like I love a clean Zafferana.

We are intrigued to see how the story with ‘our’ ravine goes on.

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The Crateri Silvestri, Taormina and Syracusa

We’ve been very, very lucky to have met Chantal in Bologna last month, and to have received her invitation to come and visit once we are in Sicily. We’ve spent some lovely days together with her, chatting, sharing stories and visiting beautiful places.We would never have found Passopomo without her. Or maybe we would have – when we went dancing in Catania, the first person to speak to us was Giulia, Rosi’s daughter… I think fate was making doubly sure we would definitely find our way up to here.

On some days, we leave Passopomo, usually with the competent help of a local guide, and explore some of the beautiful places nearby. One day, Chantal and her bouncy dog Zagara take us for a walk up the mountain to the Crateri Silvestri, where there’s been a lava flow as recently as 2001. The colours and shapes of the landscape are extraordinary!


On another ‘must see’ trip with Chantal, she takes us to Taormina to see the sunset from the Amphitheatre. We arrive late on the first day, so she takes us there again the next day.


One day, I’m ill in bed and Frank and Chantal go on an outing to Syracusa.


Thank you, Chantal, for sharing so generously of your time and knowledge of the area, for the laughters and stories we share, for your help with internet connection and washing clothes.

Here are the links for the flikr albums: for Syracusa, for Taormina and for the Crateri Silvestri. They are well worth viewing – try out the slide show function!

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Passopomo – Rosa

Passopomo has many friends. One of them is Rosa, who arrives one morning, equipped with several plastic bags and a knife, to go foraging for wild food. In her seventies, she is a fountain of knowledge about edible plants and how to use them. Frank, Giulia and I go on a walk with her and we return with a big bag full of various wild plants.


Her advice is to blanch them and them eat them with pasta and a bit of olive oil. They taste delicious – like spinach, but stronger and with that unique flavour of wild food. There is a plant that looks like fennel but isn’t (and it’s not edible), and then there is fennel too. I find it impossible to tell them apart by sight. Likewise with some of the dandelion-like looking leaves, of which there are some that she deems ok to eat and others not. We come past a patch of chickweed and I tell her that that is edible too, but she won’t even try a sprig, despite my protestations that it is full of vitamin C. She was taught to forage by her grandfather, and whatever he didn’t tell her she won’t touch.


We invite Rosa for lunch, but she declines, saying she needs to get back to her disabled daughter to cook for her.

While we sit and eat, Rosa is still foraging. At some point I see her up in an olive tree, hitting the higher branches with a stick, another time, she’s picking the mandarins off the neglected trees in the lower orchard. We are told that when she was younger she used to collect a lot more and if she had a surplus, she used to sell it too, making jams from the mandarins and the oranges, collecting chestnuts, wild plants and truffles.


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Passopomo – the Ravine


The pollution in the ravine troubles Frank and me. But we don’t really know what to do, it is beyond our ability to bring all this back up the slopes! It seems indicative of the Sicilian attitude to rubbish: we see the young ones on a regular basis dropping plastic wrappers once they’ve eaten the contents, and none of the adults remark on it. The amount of plastic used in general is shocking: each meal new plastic plates, forks and cups are used and thrown away. It’s also hard to find a place where one can correctly dispose of rubbish. We have several bags in our van and have repeatedly asked various people, but most don’t know where we can officially dispose of them. One person offers to take the stuff to the recycling place in his town but when he says he would have to pretend it’s his, I politely decline – this is part of the whole story and I want to find out what are the correct options. In the end, Chantal takes me and our rubbish to a place 5km from here, where we find large bins by the side of the road. They are marked – plastic, paper and general rubbish – but they are filled to the hilt with a total mix of everything, so there is no use separating our stuff out. Besides, they don’t have lids and are so full that one big wind will take away most of the top layer and generously spread it around the area. Chantal says that they used to have better facilities, but someone set fire to them. It is costly to dispose of rubbish correctly, I am told, and various people recount stories of illegal dumpings just outside their property gates. One day, a whole lorry-load of builder’s rubble was dumped on the top end of Passopomo, making it impossible to exit with the horses. Rosi had to pay for its removal if she wanted to be able to take people on rides along this route. Nobody ever tells a story of someone having been successfully fined for illegal dumping. The only success story we hear is that a friend of Chantal’s, after repeatedly clearing up an illegal dump just outside his property, hit on the brilliant idea of erecting a big statue of Christ in the very spot. That stopped the dumping from one day to the next, although they proceeded to dump 200mtrs further up the road instead.


People we tell about the ravine either shrug their shoulders saying there’s nothing that can be done about it or they change the topic. Most laugh when we suggest contacting the local government to come and clean up. Very few can be persuaded to come and have a look and possibly help with ideas or action. Frank and I have decided to start cleaning some 200mtrs below the bridge and just do a bit every day, slowly working our way upstream. We have a few people helping, each day a different team, most notably a neighbour who spots us on the first day and comes with hammer and pickaxe, as well as clearing a path below his property to help get the heavy stuff out of the ravine.

But something is moving. Just the fact that Frank and I descend into the ravine to do an hour or two of wrestling the rubbish from the brambles and the river-bed makes it impossible for others to ignore the situation. It’s uncomfortable for them, we notice. We’ve become something like a splinter to people, but at the same time, they start to think how they can help move this project along. I think there is a mixed feeling of annoyance, respect, guilt, frustration and wanting to ignore everything, and none of those feelings go away. We wrote an email to the mayor of Zafferana, but despite trying three different addresses, it bounced back every time, so we will need to deliver it by hand after the festive season is over. We hope that he will have an open ear and be willing to act – he has a good reputation for addressing waste issues in his constituency, so let’s hope…

This morning, we spoke to someone else who recommended other points of contact in addition to the local government, so we have a bit more research to do in the next few days. Meanwhile, the ravine slowly transforms from squalor to a spot of outstanding natural beauty. It’s hard work but actually very satisfying and good fun. We’ve cleared about 60 mtrs in 4 days. However, the race is on because as soon as there is heavy rainfall, more rubbish will definitely be swept down by the inevitable torrents.

Here are two photos, before and after one of our cleaning actions. For more photos go to the flikr album



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Passopomo – La Passeggiata di Giulia


Lunches often culminate in the sharing of a Pandoro and a good story. In this photo, Rosi, who is a great raconteur,  is in the middle of telling the story about the day when there had been a child’s 5th birthday with many kids from the pony club, as well as friends of the birthday child and other first time visiting children. The parents were happily chatting with each other, when they suddenly realised the absence of their children. They had just disappeared, off the face of the earth. Three hours of frantic shouting and searching ensued, and Rosi started having visions of police helicopter searches…

What had happened? Rosi’s daughter Giulia, 5 years old at the time, had taken all children on a walk to the dry riverbed. They proceeded to descend towards the sea, until they arrived in Giarra, 5km down the hill from Passopomo. Then they turned around and came back up the hill.

The parents were still running around shouting for their children, when one of them heard a child’s voice singing. Five minutes later, all of them arrived safe and sound, excited if a bit tired from their adventure, not at all disturbed by the big journey or the long absence from their parents. In fact they couldn’t quite understand why their parents seemed so upset.

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Passopomo – Sunrise on Etna & Party Times

The nights are beautifully starry and the days are bathed in brilliant sunshine, about as hot as an English summer’s day. We are often awake at the break of dawn, and after twice missing the magical moment when Etna turns pink, we catch it on the third day.


Turning the camera 180 degrees, we get this:


Lunches are often a communal affair – someone goes off to get a roast chicken and chips or some meat to grill on the big barbecue, and everyone takes a break from mucking out the horses or whatever they are doing to sit together and share food and merriment.

One day, I join Katerina and Davide for a trip into town to get the chicken. Katerina warns me: I’m not a good driver, I’ve only had my license for three days. Well, I think, it’s only a short trip into town and if I get stressed, I can always walk. It turns out she is the smoothest and most caring driver we have met so far in Italy, where everyone seems to go round like they are trying to win a race. The chicken takes ages to cook, and when it comes to paying for it, Katerina bypasses me by instructing the woman behind the till not to accept money from me. But I want to pay, I say to the cashier, who shrugs her shoulders in an archetypal Italian way, nods towards Katerina and says ‘she spoke first’.

The roast chickens here are in another league to what we can buy from an English rotisserie – full of herbs, succulent and with a crunchy skin!

We have arrived just in time for the holy days. No-one knows us and yet we are received with open arms and invited to the festive meals at people’s houses. They are quite an event to behold. For New Year’s Eve, there are discussions for days in advance, about the time and location and most of all about the food. Ideas change on an hourly basis, and they have no trouble discussing the event for two hours at a time without coming to a final decision. In the end, it’s an ad hoc party with bring-along food. All in all, we are about 25-30 people. Almost everyone who frequents Passopomo on a regular basis turns up. By now we have met most of them at least once, but when they are all in one room and everyone is talking at the same time and jokes are flying, it can be quite tiring just to watch them, let alone join in. It is wonderful to see them all so joyful and connected, but generally, after a couple hours’ of exposure, Frank and I are so worn out that we fall asleep on a chair or have to be driven back home after the food and before they start in earnest with their card games. Meanwhile the young kids are still running around. They seem to have a lot more party stamina than we do. Maybe we really are getting old. We are awake every morning in time to see the sun rise and we don’t have the energy anymore to burn the candle at both ends…

For photos of the general merriment, go to our flikr album

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Passopomo – the Beauty and the Beast

We arrive in Passopomo during a torrential downpour on the morning of December 20th. There is a whole group of people waiting for the weather to clear so we can go horse riding, but it doesn’t let up, so we share lunch in the rain and then people disperse. Towards the evening, the clouds lift and we begin to see what a beautiful place we have arrived in: to the north, we see Mount Etna, quietly smoking (apparently we just missed a fairly spectacular eruption) and to the South, the land gives away, with spectacular views all the way down to the sea. The stables lie in the centre of a large estate with vineyards, olive, orange and mandarin groves. We have taken residence in the car park, which is covered in black volcanic grit that dries out as soon as the rains stop.

What strikes us when we open the door on the first morning is the amount of rubbish that is lying around just outside out doors. So as per usual, we take some time to clear our temporary ‘garden’ (little do we know just how long we will be encamped here…). What is it that people in Sicily don’t seem to see how ugly all this plastic is, let alone dangerous for animals? Two large rubbish bags later, we sit down for a breakfast in the splendid sunshine.


I am writing this chapter two weeks after the fact, and the contrast between the Beautiful and the Ugly continues. We have never been in such a beautiful place, combined with the openheartedness of people, and the joy of being surrounded by a bunch of horses that are so calm that some of them can be let out to roam freely during the day. Our encounters are so manifold and rich that they warrant a whole load of chapters – but so is our discovery of a terrible fly-tip just on the border of the property, where people abuse the fact that a quiet road crosses the riverbed on an old bridge, to chuck their rubbish, letting it spill into one of the most beautiful ravines we have ever seen.


Most of the time, this ravine is dry, but there are clear signs that once the winter storms come, the rubbish is swept down and along with great force, distributed and embedded between rocks and volcanic sand, or wrapped around trees. Whole cars fold themselves along the line of this force.


We are stunned by the contrast, and shocked into action. In the following chapters we will share our discovery of the beauty of this this area, as well as its ugly pollution, and you will see how we progress (or not, as the case may be) with the cleaning of the ravine, and whether and how the people around us and in the local government respond.


For more pictures on this chapter, go to the flikr album

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Catania (December 19th)

It’s a fairly straight-forward drive along the motorway from Noto to Catania and the tolls are all open, maybe due to a strike or the workers having decided to take Christmas off. As soon as we join the main traffic into town though, the story takes on a different tone altogether. Traffic is heavy and fast, with cars absolutely using every inch of the road, in front, by the side and directly behind us. Linger for more than half a second at a traffic light and you have people hooting behind you. Do not think that a green traffic light means a free road, and make no assumptions about people respecting the rules at roundabouts! We have to brake sharply a couple of times to avoid suicidal Sicilians in Cinquecentos or Fiats cutting us at roundabouts. You’d think they would weigh their chances of survival, but they choose to dice with death instead. Or they just know that we foreigners will brake hard.

Luckily we’ve been given exact instructions by the organiser to find the place where we will be dancing tonight, otherwise we wouldn’t have stood a chance – it’s a big sports hall with a large meandering car park, but the entrance is hard to find. It’s an ideal place to stay for the night. The car park feels quite secure, and it’s relatively quiet for being in the city. We are early for the event and the car park is virtually empty, so Frank decides to have a shower, which in Emma means hanging an extended hose with a shower head out the window. Water is hot, and the night’s are often cold… Just as he’s finished, the first Tangueros and Tangueras arrive. This sports hall seems quite an unlikely place for a Tango event, but as we walk towards it, we hear the music spilling out of the venue, and upon entering, we are surprised to find over 200 dancers! Catania has a strong Tango community. This isn’t even a festival, just the usual Saturday evening Milonga. Over the Christmas period they have two or three events per week from mid December until January 6th.

The Tango community seems a very friendly one. We haven’t even got our shoes on when a young woman greets us and introduces herself as Giulia. As it turns out, she is the daughter of Rosi, who is a friend of Chantal’s, who we met in Bologna and who invited us to come horse riding. In fact, Rosi runs the stables! We ask if we can come and visit, if Emma will be able to make it up the hill and where we can park. The answer is yes to all of this, so we arrange to visit the following morning, and Chantal will be there too, so we can all go riding together.

We’ve been thinking about where we will be spending Christmas and that it would be nice to be in a safe place and with some nice people, and it just seems like our wishes might come true. As we snuggle up in bed after a lovely evening of dancing (where I am so excited to be testing my knee again for the first time in two months), we have a sense that possibly a new chapter in our journey might be starting tomorrow…

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The Learning Process

No matter how often one has done something – anything – there is always room for improvement, for making an action more efficient, less energy consuming, or simply more elegant or joyful.

For 16 months now, we have foraged for our own firewood, sawn and split it by hand, and I have really enjoyed it a lot, to the extent that I have on various occasions declined the offer of a chainsaw.

It was this morning in the brilliant sunshine, sawing through a particularly hefty piece of pinewood, when I suddenly had a childhood memory of my father teaching me the finer aspects of using a bow saw. You can saw on the pull as well as on the push, he says. Keep your hand relaxed when you pull back the saw and it will not jump. See if you can create the same amount of sawdust on each side of the wood. I remember being quite obsessed for a while with measuring the two piles of sawdust against each other.

While thinking of my dad, I practise his advice from many years ago. Gradually my hand relaxes and I can hear the even sound on the pushing and pulling. I’m through the wood much faster and with much less effort. The wind takes the sawdust, so I don’t know exactly how evenly balanced my movements were…

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