Monday, 7 October 2013

The ordeals on the bus

Something to get used to is having to use the (polite) ‘Lei’ form – the equivalent of the German ‘Sie’ or French ‘Vous’ – on a daily basis, even when it’s a pain to have to remember the different verb endings or when you don’t really want to use it. For instance, part of me didn’t want to show the bad-tempered train conductor who didn’t let me onto a train as it was leaving because my ticket had ripped slightly in the validation machine the respect that the use of ‘Lei’ demonstrates because I was livid with him. But I suppose using ‘Tu’ would be deliberately rude, and I would be losing the moral high ground that I felt I occupied at that moment. The use of ‘Lei’ ensures that you’re showing a ‘Let’s agree to disagree’ approach rather than a Harry Wormwood-esque ‘I’m right, you’re wrong…’, which you might be thinking inside, as I was.

The other day I got a student bus pass (this was my fourth attempt and, because the multiple bus stands by the main station wouldn’t sell them, I had to cross the city to buy it, but this is Palermo, so I’m used to that). I paid 31 Euros for 60 days of unlimited bus travel. Incredibly cheap! In London or Bristol you could easily spend that much on travel in a week. I’ve since found out just why it was so cheap.
It’s not just the lack of frequency that’s the problem but the way in which when – and even whether – a bus will turn up is so unpredictable. In virtually any city or village outside Southern Italy you’ll find a written timetable which, while not always 100% accurate, will at least give some kind of idea when buses should arrive. This simple concept doesn’t exist in Palermo. I really miss it. In London I can even use my phone to get live updates and see exactly how far away buses are from my bus stop and time leaving the house so I won’t have to wait at all. The contrast here, where you have no idea if your bus is going to come in 5 minutes or 50, is challenging. I wouldn’t mind it if buses were only every hour if I knew roughly when they’d actually turn up. At least then I’d know when to leave and how long to allow for a journey.

After a few hour-long waits for a bus that is seemingly never going to arrive, while cars hurtling by at 100km/h mean you can’t hear your music or open your copy of La Repubblica without it being blown apart, you do get sick of being seemingly the only one without a car or motorbike in a city designed for motorists. I feel left out; discriminated against in how public transport is so poor and zebra crossings faded and meaningless while the one part of infrastructure frequently updated is road surfaces. I tried to join another minority – cyclists – and that didn’t last. I’ve only spotted 1 cycle lane in the entire city, so it’s far from ideal cycling territory even before you factor in the likelihood of your bike getting stolen, like mine, and drivers’ disdain for cyclists, which almost makes London taxi drivers seem respectful towards cyclists in comparison.

The vicious cycle and the way that the council’s priorities are based around the fact that most families – and even most students – own cars does make sense, however bad for the environment and however frustrating for someone without a car. But some things here just beggar belief. In between the university and the swimming pool, which I’m finally a member of (after three hour-long queues for the reception and a trip to the Doctor to pay him 15 Euros for a note to show that I don’t have breathing or heart problems), is a spacious park. Something most city universities would envy. You could jog to the swimming pool and then cool off, right? No. Not in Palermo. The park and university sports complex have different owners and, despite actually bordering each other, there’s no gate between them or way of accessing one from the other. So, if you don’t have a car, you have to walk along the narrow and litter-filled pavement of one of Palermo’s biggest and busiest roads, where few cars keep to the generous speed limit, to get from university to the swimming pool. That’s absurd. 

The simplest operation – like building a gate between a park and sports complex – can be left incomplete for years in Palermo. A load of student flats were built a few years ago in an ideal location and set to be let out, but a disagreement somewhere along the line between the council and developers about a staircase meant they’ve sat unfinished for years. Now, somewhat understandably, they’re occupied by squatters.

Going to the post office is so time-consuming that ‘private postal services’ have been set up. This doesn’t mean that they post stuff independently, but purely that they deliver stuff to post offices to be posted by the postal service: exactly the same way as anything else is posted. The fact that enough people feel the need to spend money to go to a different post office to keep these 'private postal services' in business is astounding. But it's understandable given how hellish post office queues can be. Especially on the day of the month that pensions are given out. Having said all that, I do love it here. It seems like an ideal location for a student to spend 4-5 months. Growing up or living permanently would be more difficult, though, especially without a car.

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