Sunday, 8 December 2013

On the road again

Had a couple of friends - Owen and Callum - visiting in the last fortnight, which was fun. The car meant I was able to do airport pick-ups and drop-offs (which saved time, and it was exciting to be waiting by the sliding doors in ‘Arrivals’ next to the people who hold signs with names on) and fit plenty in while they were here. Owen and I travelled up and down the coast, spent time in both of Palermo's main markets (Ballar├▓ - my favourite - and Vucciria) and cooked for 5 Italians who we had over for dinner one night (no Come Dine With Me-style ratings at the end, but I think we did ok).
Callum and I went on several trips, including to a Palermo football match, to Trapani and up the breath-taking Mount Erice, a peak 2500ft high and with temperatures a good 10 degrees cooler than Palermo (nearly as cold as the UK!). That was quite an adventure – all we could see around us was cloud – and I was proud of my car or making it all the way up and down. The day after, though, it ran out of steam and broke down as we were on our way back from Corleone (which, being Godfather fans, we felt we had to visit, even if it’s not that picturesque by Sicilian standards).
Unfortunately, the breakdown happened 40km outside Palermo, so the mechanic who’d helped choose the car in the first place couldn’t help. But a passer-by kindly offered to fetch the mechanic from the nearby village of Marineo, and while I had to part company with a couple of hundred Euros to fix everything, things could have been much worse. It could have happened on a Sunday (when no-one works and there would have been no mechanic to pick us up). Or in the evening. Or halfway up Mount Erice. And I was going to take it to the mechanic anyway before the MOT due in January, so it just meant getting some things done to the car a month early.

The mechanic towed it into Marineo and then insisted on giving us a lift all the way home from there, all for free (he also offered me a lift when I returned to pick it up). Before leaving, he spotted a friend wandering about and called out of the window something which amounted to ‘What are you up to now? Nothing? Fancy coming to Palermo with me and meeting some English students?'
And the guy did. He wasn’t busy and, even though it was dark so there weren’t any scenic views or anything, and he’d been to Palermo countless times, he decided to hop in and join us to chat to us and keep the mechanic company on the way back. Our landing in Marineo was a big event (a dozen or so more locals in the main piazza also looked on with interest) – it’s not every day that Marineo has English visitors.

I went back there to pick the car up on Friday. I had the mechanic’s card, but the place wouldn’t show up on Google Maps, so I struggled to find it. The garage was called ‘Autoofficina Tuzzolino’, so when I found Via Tuzzolino I thought it would surely lead me there. But no. The road took me to a different mechanic. Embarrassed (it felt a bit like asking at a restaurant where another restaurant you were looking for is), I asked him if he knew where the place I needed was. He said he did but that it was a long walk so offered me a lift. So I took a lift from this other mechanic to the first one (Sicilians seem so generous in offering lifts, even to people they've only just met!). The one I’d left the car with had done an excellent job (my dad phoned to check what he was doing, as even if the guy had explained it all to me slowly and in English, I wouldn’t have known what it all meant and how much I should expect to pay, and he was impressed). The guy even changed the oil for free and gave me some books about Marineo.

The 4 days without a car reaffirmed just how grateful I am to have the Citro├źn here. Being reliant on the public transport again, especially during winter timetables in which buses are even less frequent, was immensely stressful. One particularly stressful episode was when we worried Callum would miss his flight because of train delays. We waited at the unstaffed station for over an hour as train after train got cancelled. (How can you leave stations like this unstaffed? It’s one thing to have no staff in a station in the countryside that only has trains stop there every couple of hours, but how can you employ no-one at a busy station in the biggest city in the region where people are reliant on trains to get to the airport? It’s unforgivable not to even have any members of staff there to inform passengers whether the delays are severe enough to threaten missed flights. Although that’s the kind of London Boris Johnson has in mind as he closes down every Tube ticket office, so I guess I should start getting used to it.) In the end we had to shell out for a cab to make sure he made the plane.

My opinion of taxi drivers in Palermo worsened further this week. On Monday night, a group from my Italian Language class helped an Algerian friend – whose visa sadly only lasted a month – load his luggage onto his ferry back, which didn’t leave until 1am. It was pouring with rain, we all had lectures at 8am the followig morning and it would have been over an hour’s walk home, so we decided to split a cab. One cab driver who I’d used twice said he wouldn’t charge more than €15 – which by Palermo cab standards is pretty reasonable – if I used him again, so I called him. But, just because we dropped off a couple of friends on the way (and when I say on the way, I mean on the way – he barely had to drive an extra 500 metres), he tried to charge double. ’€30?! No way!’ I exclaimed, refusing to pay more than €20, which is anyway all we had on us.

I’m reliably informed that cabbies here can get away with ripping passengers off largely because of restrictive licensing and the shortage of cabs. Because the licensing authorities struggle to increase the number of licences due to opposition from these taxi drivers, cabbies like him have a monopoly and can practically charge what they want. In London, by contrast, licensing is virtually unrestricted, and there's also the competing market of ‘minicabs’, which are often just ordinary cars driven by people with few special qualifications (but cheaper). That’s why, even though food, drink and accommodation are two to four times as cheap in Palermo as London, cabs tend to be more expensive.

Which brings me onto the year abroad essay. I’ve decided to go with the car theme (I sent off my proposal last week). In case you haven’t noticed from the volume of paragraphs devoted to transport issues, I find them very interesting, and I'll be writing about things – both the lousy public transport and the conversion to car ownership – I’ve experienced firsthand here.

For now, my working title is ‘Why is car ownership in Palermo so high and what consequences does this have?’. I’ll look into why the overwhelming majority of adults here own cars. I expect this to be partly down to inadequate public transport but also things like the mentality and what, to simplify for now as I've gone on long enough, you could call peer pressure. Cars are seen as an indicator of wealth in Italy and used to judge one’s peers. While it's common for families (like my own) in cities with significant public transport investment like London or Berlin not to own a car at all, families in far poorer cities in Italy very often own two. It would be virtually unthinkable for an Italian man between the ages of 30 and 60 not to own a car (he would feel as much as the odd one out as me when I wore shorts in November). I anticipate the consequences of these sky-high figures to include congestion/inefficiency (a city moves a lot more slowly if everyone travelling to work is in a vehicle of their own), dangerously high air pollution levels and a higher death rate due to road accidents (although this is also down to the style of driving and lack of law enforcement, not just the volume of cars).

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