Thursday, 14 November 2013

Parents, posteggiatori and packed schedules

My family visited last week, and we had a really nice few days. We went to the beach, drove up a mountain with a view of the city and frequented my favourite Pizzeria, among other activities, before they headed back to London. They seemed to have a good time, and I was pleased that all four of them found the time to visit and enjoyed showing them around Palermo.

Last week I had my first Italian language class. They've been really useful, as well as enjoyable, so far. It makes such a difference to be in a class of 10 or 11 students as opposed to over 60, like my lectures. Our teacher’s nice, as are my classmates. My weeks are suddenly full up, though – I now have a total of 22 contact hours a week. In Bristol I sometimes complain that I have too few contact hours (and I still feel I do when you consider how high tuition fees are), but here it's almost the opposite: or, at least, I wasn't expecting this many lectures on what some people describe as a 'year off'.

It’s not just the number of hours I find tiring (after all, it's still barely half of a 9 to 5 working week), but the combination of 8am starts and 3-hour lectures with a short break or 2-hour lectures with no break. If they were all as interactive and with as small class sizes as the Italian Language class, it would be fine. But sitting for such long periods listening and feeling the need to take copious amounts of notes can be challenging (lecture podcasts haven’t reached Palermo, and for the units I’m taking, you can’t afford to miss much – it’s not like units at Bristol where you get to choose topics to write essays/exam answers on so you don’t need to take everything in every lecture down). And it’s twice as tiring, I find, being in another language. Good for my Italian though, and I'm beginning to notice it getting better.
I recently started volunteering once a week at a children’s library set up by a friend of my dad's in a disadvantaged area. I’ve also started attending meetings of SEL – the political party I’ve joined here.  I somewhat optimistically purchased 20 swimming sessions from the university pool (it was good value: about 1 Euro a time!) and have about half of them to get through before the start of December. I’ve also got the terrifying matter of Year Abroad essays to worry about. So don't get the idea that I'm just at the beach or admiring magnificent views every day, like the photos here or my One Second Everyday might appear to suggest. In short, exploring other parts of Sicily has to be confined to weekends. It’s made much easier by having the car though, as is pretty much everything. Among other things, it helped my family see more when they were here (which was on a bank holiday weekend, so imagine how infrequent the buses would have been), means it’s much easier to get back from things when it’s dark and makes the prospect of three 8am lectures slightly less unpalatable (it means I can leave later, and that early, I’m guaranteed a parking spot so close to my lecture that, in Larry David fashion, I'm almost tempted to take a photo of it).

The driving’s going relatively well too, and the car investment as a whole seems to be paying off. My mum made the point that in a strange way, Palermo is good for inexperienced drivers like myself in the sense that it’s more ok to make a mistake – other drivers are more used to it and ready to respond. That is to say, drivers are more used to having to stop because of rule-breaking fellow motorists. There’s also a lot less road rage. Beeping is probably more frequent, but people generally react a lot less angrily at even the most reckless piece of driving (you don’t, for instance, see people get out of the cars furious, like you do in the UK). I guess it’s because almost every driver will have seen worse here at some point, so they rarely lose their temper at other motorists.
This isn’t to say that I’m in danger of doing any reckless driving or rule-breaking (my parents do read these, so it’s especially important that I make that clear), but I am considerably more inexperienced than the average driver. And the fact that people on the road tend to expect and be prepared for the worst takes some of the pressure off. None of this is to say that acclimatising to the streets of Palermo has been easy, and I still have things to learn and always need to be on guard, particularly for the numerous motorbikes who can’t be bothered to switch their lights on (!). But I’m fast adapting and not regretting buying the car in the slightest, even when a victim of the punishing one-way system, which can mean you drive twice as far as you would if you hadn’t missed a turning. 

I also feel a bit less pressure when parking, which I can find difficult. Locals are used to cars being double (or even triple) parked, left on the pavement or worse, so if I don’t execute a parking manoeuvre perfectly, I don’t feel as guilty as I would in the UK or compelled to make it look perfect before I leave the car. Or if I'm struggling either to find a spot or manoeuvre into it, I can always get help from posteggiatori. These are people who lurk near spaces that people might be tempted to park in and demand money, with the implication that 'This is my patch - give me a Euro or so or something unfortunate just might happen to your car...'. They know that you know that you're about to walk away from your car while they're not going anywhere, and the more abusive posteggiatori have been known to slash tyres or worse. So on one hand, they have no right to demand this money, it's horrible of them to use what you might see as intimidation to get money from you, albeit small amounts, and it's shocking that the police, who are 100% of aware of posteggiatori, don't do anything.

To my surprise, however, I've found that they can be helpful and am sometimes even relieved to see one - which means I'll immediately be able to park. Often they draw my attention to parking spots that I otherwise wouldn't have noticed. When there isn't much space, having them directing me into the parking spot can be extremely useful - and potentially save me from bumping into another parked car and receiving a bill in the post for damage. And, if you're talking 50 cents to 1 Euro, which is what I normally give them, I find it can be worth that for one of those two things alone and also the peace of mind that your car isn't going to be stolen or anything. It's alleged that some of the money some of them make gets passed on to the mafia, so feel free to call me a sellout or whatever. But part of me thinks that this supposed mafia-posteggiatori collaboration is an urban myth. If they were involved in organised crime, wouldn't they just steal the cars regardless of whether you've given them a Euro or not? Though I do like the unwritten rule they follow that, whether or not they're criminals, they won't target your car - instead, they'll guard it - as long as you do what they want i.e. give them money (people never have their cars stolen if they've paid posteggiatori). Maybe the demand for money is the organised crime though...

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