Our Emma

Some of you have asked to see inside photos of our Emma, wondering how on earth we live in a campervan for 18 months. We love Emma, the compactness and yet the space that allows us to practise the violin, make marmalade, give massages, play cards, invite people for lunch etc etc.

So here is a flikr album of inside shots – we didn’t particularly tidy up before the photoshoot. We thought you should see it Live, so to speak.

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Agrigento and the Valley of Temples

As you come down the long sweep of hills into the eastern side of Agrigento, you see the first temple on your right. The valley of temples is actually not a valley but a mountain ridge and it has six temples in varying degrees of completeness. All in all, this site is the best preserved site of greek temples – even better than in Greece itself. For once, we do the proper tourist thing: we park in a carpark (5 Euros), we take a taxi to the top (6 Euros), we pay the entrance fee (20 Euros) and really take our time walking back down past all these amazing temples. Even I, who normally think of archeological sites as just Piles of Stones, am impressed!

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It’s a blustery day, on the edge of raining, so we are almost on our own. Apart from the temples, this place has some other impressive sites: there are large ancient burial sites and there is a sunken garden called Kolymbetra, which, unless you are a member of the National Trust (I didn’t know that the National Trust has European affiliations!), it will cost you another 4 Euros each to enter but it’s worth it. It’s like an oasis, hidden from view until you happen upon it. We spend some time there, sheltering from the wind and rain that has now set in, admiring the neat orange and lemon groves (sneaking an orange or two, and therefore admiring their flavour too!) and the ancient watering system.

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On our way out, we get involved in a lengthy conversation with Irene in the ticket office. We tell her of our experiences with rubbish in Sicily and she sheds some new lights and shares her sorrow over this culture that is so lacking in interest to resolve this issue.

For more photos of this chapter, go to our flikr album


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A Meeting on a Beach

Before parking up for the night on the beach of San Leone, we stop off in a dusty little town called Villagio Mosé to buy food and stamps. It’s one of these towns that we still haven’t quite sussed. It seems difficult to judge where there is a safe car park and where the centre of town is. Houses seem to cluster around big shopping centres and the streets are lined with little ‘shops’, operating from vans or temporary shacks. It feels like it used to be an industrial area but has acquired living accommodation after the fact. Or like a town that was never meant to be one. Nevertheless, we find some good vegetables in one of the shacks and, after some walking, a post office too. There is a large crowd in the post office so we draw a ticket from the machine to wait our turn. When our number comes up, we miss our chance by not reacting quickly enough (you have about 3 seconds to get to the till!), so we have to pull another ticket, but eventually we get our stamps and head for the sea.

San Leone has a beautiful, sandy beach where everyone seems in the mood for jogging. I take a leisurely walk along the sea while Frank finishes yet another batch of Marmalade. We have about 50 jars now! Later, we meet a young jogging couple and their dog. We get chatting, one thing leads to another and we invite them to return for a BBQ by the beach later that evening. It turns out they aren’t a couple but brother and sister, their dog is not a dog but a wolf, and what’s more, their parents dance Tango! We share a lovely dinner with fresh fish and salads, gradually joined by friends of Irene and Leonardo. Their parents drop by too, but only to invite us for coffee the next day. Conversation slowly moves into a type of language Frank and I don’t understand as the young ones start chatting and laughing with each other. We gently zone out and admire the star-studded sky instead. Eventually, we start packing up and the youth moves on to another location to start their evening in earnest.

The next day, Gina picks us up as promised at three o’clock for coffee at their house. We go up a rough track to reach their house, a beautiful bungalow in a meticulously kept garden. Mudra the wolf, greets us. What a beautiful animal it is, moving in such a quiet and sinuous way!

We have some coffee and chat for a bit, then we push the table and chairs aside and put some Tango music on. For the next hour or so, we give Tango instruction and do a bit of dancing. Pepe and Gina have learnt Tango the Sicilian way and dancing with them, I feel a great teaching itch. People here have a great passion for Tango, but it seems that due to the teaching style, they spend much time with figures and other external elements of Tango without ever touching on the core elements that would make the dance so much more comfortable, musical and spontaneous. I haven’t found a way into teaching here – not that I have tried very hard… I don’t want to step onto other people’s toes.

After Tango, Gina suggests they take us into the city centre. We are a bit reticent – the city looked very rough and not at all inviting from the outside. But we go along and are very surprised to find a beautiful, vibrant city centre; roads lined with trees, beautiful vistas all the way down to the sea, cobble stones, old buildings and many charming nooks and crannies. As we stroll through town, while Frank is hunting for post cards Gina tells me of her inner confusion and shares some mother’s stories. She and her husband are hardworking people who love their jobs, both working in the medical profession. They have raised two wonderful children who have everything going for them but who, in their late twenties, don’t seem to know what they want to do. Her children’s state of limbo is somehow holding up a mirror to herself and she is exploring what she wants to change in her life, reflecting how she has given 100% of herself to everyone around her, poured out her love for years, and it’s frightening her to see that maybe it’s not always wanted, let alone needed, by the people she loves.

I appreciate her honesty and her sharing and I connect with her as a mother in this important stage of transition from having children who you have taken care of for years and who now want to and need to find their own way. Gina says it’s all very well children wanting to find their own life, but should that really be on the purse strings of their parents, or should they be responsible for their own expenses? I see the conflict in her eyes – she adores her children, she wants the best for them and will give everything she has, and at the same time, doubt is creeping in as to what is the best for them, and has she maybe given too much and therefore inhibited them from growing their own wings?

We return to the family house for dinner and more good conversation. By the time we get home to our Emma, it is past 10pm. That was the longest invite for a cup of coffee we ever had! A big thank you to you all for this most friendly reception in Agrigento.

Unfortunately we forgot to take any pictures on this day. Well, we should return one day to do so, of Agrigento, of this lovely family and also of the beautiful wolf!


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Going West

We decide to have another holiday from Passopomo.

It takes us a whole day to get ready – by the time we’ve loaded up with wood and water, we’ve fed the goats, did this and that on the grounds and Frank’s made a batch of marmalade, it’s late afternoon. Still, we head off into the receding light towards Agrigento. We take the motorway for a couple of hours and pull up for the night in a car-park just before Enna in the centre of Sicily.

The next morning, it is beautiful sunshine, so I go and practise the violin outside. Within minutes, I have a chance to try out my new sensors for Sicilian men. A guy watches me from afar for a while and then slowly sidles up to me. For every step that he comes closer to me, I approach the side door of Emma. We practically meet there. I open the door and ask Frank to be ‘present’, then I continue to practise. Frank appears in the doorway with a no-nonsense smile and a large knife in his hand (he’s making marmalade, but the guy doesn’t know that!). The guy takes a few steps back and I continue to practise for a little longer.

When I put the violin away, he’s all sweet and friendly and we strike up a conversation about the rubbish that is drowning this little car park.

I suggest that the people who use this car park as a Park and Ride, meeting up with others to car-pool, could use their 10 minute wait to clear up a bit of rubbish, instead of sitting around doing nothing. He thinks that’s a great idea – until I suggest that he join me for a bit of cleaning. Oh no, he has no time, his friends are coming in 10 minutes! Ok, 10 minutes is good, you can help me until then I say, ignoring his horrified expression. I pick up two rubbish bags from Emma and when I come back to him he has his next excuse: he complains of a bad back and cannot bend down to pick anything up. Ok, hold the bag for me then I say. He has no escape, so he stays with me for a while, but when it comes near the time his friends are due to arrive, he drops the bag and goes to the opposite end of the car park, not wanting to be seen dead cleaning up!

One big bag is full. I leave it by the front of the van and start another one. Another two cars arrive, people tumble out with masses of stuff for a large family picnic and proceed to cram the picnic and everyone into one car. A well-heeled and well-educated looking man in his 50’s, picks up a bag of his rubbish and walks across to dispose of it in my rubbish bag. In my best Italian, I ask him not to fill up my bag, that it is a private rubbish bag and I have just cleaned the verge. He looks at me as if I am completely mad, but with a grumble he pulls out his rubbish and goes off. Then, I cannot believe it, he actually swings his arm to lob the whole bag across the railings exactly into the spot I’ve just cleaned! NO, PER FAVORE, I shout at him. I have just cleaned that part of the car park, can he please take his bag and dispose of it properly rather than chucking it into the grass by the stream??? He looks at me as if I have totally lost it, and he’s about to explode when, luckily, his family come to my aid. First he gets an earful from what I presume to be his brother, then he gets it in the neck from his mother too. Can’t you see, she has just cleaned there? By hand? Take your bag with you! The old lady is still tut-tutting 5 minutes later when they leave the car park. Meanwhile, I’m back to picking up stuff. Two large bags later, we leave the car park to continue our journey towards Agrigento.


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Hitchhiking alone

…was not a good idea.

We needed a chimney brush from the hardware store in Zafferana, so I decide to hitch-hike there. Frank and I have done it a few times together and it was always easy and the people very friendly. I decide to only accept a lift if I feel it’s safe and after only 3 minutes of sticking out a thumb, an old farmer stops and I get in. As soon as he’s back on the road, he starts touching me up, putting his hand on my leg. I tell him to take his hand away and he gets quite angry. It seems like it’s my fault, I’ve been misleading him, he says, do I mean to say I’m not going to have sex with him? He grabs my wrist and shakes my arm in frustration. I say ok that’s enough, stop, I’m getting out. He’s really pissed off but stops. Not even a kiss of friendship? He says. Friendship my arse! I slam the door and walk off. Not a good idea to hitch a lift alone as a woman in Sicily. I’m less shaken up than pissed off. As I walk up into the town, I wonder about going into the internet café, which often seems to be the focal point for the most shady characters of Zafferana, all male. Then I think what the heck, I’m not going to curb my plans for fear of stupid guys. I’m going to go and do what I planned to do and if anyone comes anywhere near me they will feel my wrath. I walk into the internet café like a cocked grenade. As per usual there is a posse of unsavoury guys there, but I must have an aura of danger about me, because they make space and leave me in peace.

Somehow this event has taught me something about how to be with Sicilian men. Previously, I was a bit fearful of uncertain situations but now I just feel if any Sicilian man crosses my path with the wrong intention, he stands to regret it.


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Spazzatura Update

It is Wednesday and since we haven’t heard anything from the local authorities with regards the progress of cleaning up the ravine, we decide to visit the town hall once again- as Wednesday mornings are an opportunity for ‘an audience’ with the Mayor. This time, we are received with less gentility – I feel we are rapidly falling out of favour and towards being a pain in the proverbial. Nothing significant has happened in the last two weeks, other than that the story has once again changed. It seems that the contract for cleaning ran out at the end of December and a new one hasn’t really been put into place, so the waste offices are in a bit disarray and cannot deal with any extra demands. On top of that, the news is that the cleaning of the ravine has been lumped together with two other clean-up projects and the three of them are out to tender, which will take a minimum of 15 days before a firm can be appointed, after which there are still more bureaucratic hurdles to jump before anything can happen. Giovanni the vice mayor gets a bit exasperated having to explain all this, after all he’s not responsible for the waste department but the tourism officer. In the end, he promises to send us an SMS with updates by Tuesday (which he hasn’t done!) and, if there is no progress, to take us to the regional office.

In the waste office, a man we haven’t met before looks at our photos and says, in his opinion, nothing will move until the summer at the earliest, and in any case it will be a very costly operation – in the region of 20,000 Euros, or more if the bridge proves not to be strong enough to hold ‘recovery’ vehicles.

I bump into Sergio (the consigliere) in the corridor and when I ask him how the story about the CCTV camera is unfolding, he just shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes – there’s no reply from the authorities on this front. He seems to imply that a lot of talking may have happened but not much action. While we are talking, the mayor passes us and studiously ignores me. I’m sure he remembers that 2 weeks ago he promised us that the ravine would be clean in the space of 10 days.

In short, nothing has moved and the stories change with every visit to the town hall.

Meanwhile fresh rubbish arrives in the ravine almost daily and stray dogs help themselves to the freshly dumped horses’ heads.

Maybe it’s time to go to the press?


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Carneval in Passopomo

Sundays are always special days in Passopomo, with everyone coming to spend time with their horses, riding if the weather is good, otherwise just walking the horses around and grooming them, and then everyone meets for a meal. One Sunday though it is Carneval in Passopomo. About 80 people come, some for the first time, some regulars and others who haven’t been for a while. Many are dressed up and there is a relaxed competition in the maneggio, showing off not only the horses’ and riders’ prowess but also that this can be done light-heartedly rather than it being a serious event.

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At the end every participant receives a gift and then it’s time for the ‘audience’ to have a go – all riders kindly offer a seat and walk their horse around the maneggio, with a novice in the saddle. In the afternoon, children do gymnastics on horses and some of us have fun throwing confetti. We even get the dance floor out and to our surprise quite a few of the guests can dance Tango!

The sun is shining on the event, the colours are beautiful and everyone is smiling.

What a beautiful day!

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To see the photos, go to our flikr album


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Frank, Ruth & Rosi

Back home in Passopomo after our week away, one morning Rosi gets a phone call from a friend, asking if she would like two goats. Of course she says, and after she has hung up, she turns around to me and says where on earth do we put them? We have half an hour to prepare a box before they arrive – two beautiful Tibetan goats. Rosi kneels in front of them and says what shall I call them – I know, Frank and Ruth. And so it is, Frank and Ruth will join the family of twenty-odd horses, a pack of dogs and a whole bunch of wonderfully strange and eccentric people.

Frank and Ruth like brambles and compost, so we go out in the mornings to cut some juicy young shoots for their delectation. In the photo below, they are actually munching on a branch of orange leaves…

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The following morning, Frank and I (you’ll have to work out yourselves when I’m talking about animals and when not) are taking a stroll up the hill to see if we can meet Pippo again and to go shopping. On our way back, Frank suddenly stops by a large wall and points to the side of the street. On the ground in the sunshine is a very young bird. There is no sign of a nest anywhere. We decide to take the bird with us. Obviously it will be called Rosi, in revenge. We don’t know what kind of a bird Rosi is, but a quick What’s App call to a knowledgeable cousin of Katerina’s tells us it’s a dove or a pigeon.

Feeding Rosi is not easy. Most of the food gets everywhere but in her beak and apart from my feeling of total incompetence as a bird mother, which highly frustrates me, it’s actually very funny. She is a hoot, the little punk.

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I wonder what it’s going to be like, having a bird hopping around in our van once she gets a bit older. I don’t like to encage birds, so we’ll just have to put up with her shitting everywhere. For now, she seems to know not to poop into her nest but to turn herself so it neatly plops outside onto a tissue. I imagine she’ll soon be sitting on our shoulder, nipping our ears while we have lunch or go about things, probably interfering a lot and generally creating mayhem.

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The story of little Rosi is short-lived though. When I get up in the middle of the second night, I discover she has died. My feeding frustration immediately turns into despair at not having been able to do the first thing for her, which is keeping her alive. Did we feed her the wrong food, was it too little, too much, too cold, too liquid or too solid? Why didn’t I hold her in my hand after the last feed, maybe if the food had been too cold, that would have warmed her. None of these thoughts get around the hard fact of her cold little body where there’d been a squiggly, little flapping ball of fluff yesterday. Even the thought that she would not have survived the day where we found her on the street doesn’t console me. We are such inept, inexperienced bird parents, and life is such a fragile thing where one little mistake, one wrong meal, can have fatal consequences.

 

There is a pile of cut branches that needs burning, at the top of the property. We’ll do that today and place her on top of it so she can fly up in spirit.


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Up into the Hills

It is with slight trepidation that we dare the ascent to Luca’s property. We wait for darkness as it makes it easier to spot oncoming traffic in the hairpin bends. It’s just about ok, we have to reverse once or twice in the middle of a bend, but compared to our experience of getting stuck in the middle of Noto, this is easy-going. Luca opens the gate to one of his fields, and for the next 24 hours, we share company with 60 beehives. What a beautiful sound to wake up to – the world around us is humming!

This is the first place in Sicily, where we don’t start our stay with a litter picking session.

The landscape here is utterly different to Passopomo, where the ground is all black from volcanic stone. Here, the main colour is a bleached, white stone and the vegetation talks of dry, hot-hot summers. Luca has recently acquired this big property and has great plans for it, part farming, part rearing horses and trekking. Over 30 hectares stretch across two sides of a valley, including olive and almond groves, Neolithic caves, a stream and lots of beautiful nooks and crannies, mostly overgrown. In this area, many properties have lain abandoned for years, and the shepherds have taken possession of the region, driving their herds across the land with no regard for boundaries, damaging walls and buildings in the process. Luca has a Shepherd on his land too, and he talks about the need for diplomacy in slowly requesting him to recede from the property. A shepherd may be on your land, and his goats may be destroying walls and caves, but if you upset him, he has many ways of making your life hell. In his eyes, the fact that he’s used the land for many years while it has lain abandoned gives him a right of usage.

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In the morning, we meet Laura, Luca’s partner, a young and dynamic German woman with a passion for the project they have in front of them. There is a huge amount of work to do to clear the land and make it habitable for the animals, to tend to the trees and harvest their fruits. Laura’s and Luca’s main focus centres on horses – breeding as well as providing quality trekking experiences. In time, they will have accommodation on their property too, once they have converted some of the stables. But like with all projects, all these dreams need a solid amount of money to make them come true, so Laura has two other local jobs while studying in Germany too!

Laura and I go for a horse ride, while Luca takes Frank for a walk to show him the caves.

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I am riding Gina, a lovely, sensitive and calm mare, just my type of horse. It is a wonderful ride through very beautiful countryside, up the meadows through olive groves, to some stunning viewpoints. Laura shows me another valley where she hopes to clear a path for the horses that will eventually allow them to go all the way down to the sea. It is wonderful to feel her enthusiasm for the project, her youthful energy.

Meanwhile Frank and Luca, after visiting the caves and finding them inhabited by goats, walk on to visit Salvatore, the 74 year-old neighbour, who still runs a dairy farm and makes the most delicious cheese. He has some back trouble, so Frank arranges for him to come for a massage later that day.

In the afternoon, we help clearing the lower branches of an olive tree and a heap of brambles to bring more light to the corral where they exercise the horses. This takes a couple of hours hard but fun work with four people and a chainsaw. We light several fires to burn what we cut down. It feels lovely to be working with natural materials (instead of rubbish). In the grand scheme of their project, this was but a tiny action, but I think they nevertheless appreciated our input.

At 6pm, we await Salvatore for his massage, but he doesn’t turn up, until Luca drives over and gives him a pep talk. It’s the first massage in his life! He brings along one of his wonderful cheeses in payment.

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We want to have one more night by the beach before going back to Passompomo, so after promising a return visit, we bid Luca and Laura a farewell and tootle back down the hill to our beach, arriving in moonlight, eagerly awaited by the trio of strays.

A few days later, Luca tells us on the phone that Salvatore walked a lot straighter the morning after his massage.

For more photos, go to the flikr album


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A Holiday from Passopomo

It is a beautiful sunny Monday morning and Frank and I make a spontaneous decision to practice leaving Passopomo. We’ve become so static that the grass below the van has turned a different colour! We load up with water, have a shower in the sun and then roll off down the hill – Sicily is our oyster for the next few days! Luca, Rosi’s ex-husband, who lives 70km from Passopomo, invites us to come and visit his land up in the hills of the Cava Grande di Cassibile, however, we want to spend a couple of days by the beach first, so he leads us to a nice beach nearby.

The weather is fantastic, comparable to a British summer, and we practically have the beach to ourselves, apart from a few locals taking their dogs for a walk and an older guy who runs up and down the beach 30 times every morning! Unfortunately, a holiday from Passopomo does not mean a holiday from picking up rubbish. We’d like to have a view free of discarded items when we open the door or when we sit out in the sun and have breakfast. It seems that in Sicily you can only have this if you are prepared to put a bit of activity into your holiday – two hours and 7 large rubbish bags later, we have a clean car park and entrance to the beach. During this action, I discover the good side of all this rubbish: There is nothing better than cleaning a place around you to make you feel connected to it. And of course, besides, litter picking is a fantastic workout. For the next two days, we really feel this is ‘our’ beach. Breakfast on the beach, strolls along the sandy water’s edge and along the rocky coastline, dips in the cold and clear water, looking for creatures in the rock pools, reading books, soaking up the sun, sleeping…

 

One morning, Susan and Franco pay us a visit from Noto and bring more of their delicious organic olive oil with them. We have a great morning together, sharing food and stories. After breakfast we take a walk along the cliffs and Frank and Franco go off foraging for wild food while Susan and I dive deeper into stories of motherhood and families.

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Fontane Bianchi, the nearby village, is all closed up for the winter, but we don’t mind. 3km inland is Cassibile, a drafty, sad little town, but it has everything we need, a fantastic hardware store, a very nice greengrocer and a guy who proudly sells local honey, bread, wine, olive oil etc. The honey is very nice, but we don’t particularly take to the bread – too stodgy for our liking.

Frank makes a long-standing dream come true and buys himself a fishing rod. Remembering my childhood experience of fishing with my father, I show him how to fix the lead, hook and worm, how to hold the line while casting and to switch back the hoop once the lead hits the water. A couple of times, Frank comes back home with a long face and a tangled line, ready to give up, but I won’t let him. We untangle the line and off he goes again. He doesn’t catch a fish, but he’s hooked – happy to sit in the sun and feel the fish nipping at the bait.

We make friends with Guido the maintenance man, an Eritrean who lives in a little concrete shack in the nearby holiday compound. We hear from him the sad story of immigration into Europe. His daughters went on to live in the north, one in Holland, one in Sweden, and they have a good life. He made the ‘mistake’ of registering in Italy upon arrival, and once his fingerprints were taken, he couldn’t move on into any other European country. He’s worked for the same person for the last 15 years. He says he’s lucky in that he has got work and a roof over his head while many of his fellow countrymen sleep rough with no prospects of finding work, but the deep sadness in his eyes speak volumes about the suffering in his heart.

 

The nights are starry and lit by a full moon. Stray dogs come and sit in the clearing in front of our van and serenade the moon, underpinned by the quiet lapping of the water against the shore. In the mornings, the first rays of light tickles our noses to wake us up to another beautiful dawn with mist hanging over the bay and the sun rising behind the rocks.

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When we leave, we fix a little sign to a rock in the hope that this beach may stay clean – at least for while.

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for more photos, go to flikr


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