Monday, 8 February 2016

Italian adjustment.

Monday 8th February 2016

Italy is great but never quite as straightforward as you might hope. Today should have been simple. Move on from Scarabeo, stop by the Despar supermarket at nearby Santa Croce Camerina, then head off to Piazza Amerina to visit the famous mosaics at Villa Casale tomorrow. The only complicating factor - we needed to find a bank so we could transfer a deposit for the rental of a house in Brittany where we are planning a family summer holiday in June. This should have been sorted out before we left the UK, but the owners forgot to include the name of their bank when they emailed their account details.

We left the motorhome in the supermarket car park and set off to find the impressively named Banca Agricola Populare di Ragusa. It was not at the spot identified by GPS. Eventually a friendly native realised our plight and pointed us in the right direction. Things began well enough. The ATM on the wall outside coughed-up the requisite 200 euros, all we had to do now was go inside and transfer it to the French Bank. The first challenge was to gain access. Luckily the uniformed security guard at the door was on hand to explain the intricacies of the system. A single person sized revolving glass cubicle guarded the entrance to prevent mass assault. The door itself had multiple sensing devices to detect firearms, explosives, pepper sprays, the Ebola virus and similar hazards. Oddly enough it seems also to have been programmed to reject Cath Kidson handbags, for there was no way it was going to let Gill through clutching hers. The security guard pointed Gill in the direction of the lockers in the foyer where the offending floral design could be temporarily stored in safety, along with, one presumes, the Kalashnikov belong to the jolly grey-haired septuagenarian behind us and her nephew's pet tarantula.

Once inside, all you had to do was collect a ticket from a dispenser on the wall, like you do when queueing at the Asda butchery counter. We won number D11, which seemed promising until we noticed that the number on the wall display was C92, revealing that there were 17 customers in front of us. No wonder the place seemed packed. There were five desks, but only three manned, though there were plenty of back room staff fiddling with paper clips and staring into their smart phones; clearly they were much to busy and important to help with the backlog. I decided to time how long transactions were taking.

It seems that Italian bank staff are very painstaking and thorough and Italian banking systems, unreformed since their invention by the Medici, byzantine in complexity. Particularly impressive was the performance just in front of us. The diminutive elderly lady seemed to have completed at least three multiple paged forms, each proof-read, then stamped twice and countersigned by the unsmiling, but attentive bank teller. Finally he arose and entered a key pad controlled room at the rear. Returning after some minutes he ran a wadge of large denomination notes through a counting machine, divided them into three brick-sized piles, secured them with an inch thick elastic band, and handed them to his venerable customer who deftly stashed them in a battered black leather handbag, and shuffled out. By now I was expecting the bank clerk to call out, "Have a nice day Mrs. Corleone, see you next week, don't forget your assault rifle in the locker..." Instead he pressed a button and the number on the wall clicked forward to C93.

"At this rate we are going to be hours," I whispered darkly to Gill. "Let's give-up," she suggested. So, depositing our unused number along with the others on top of the ticket machine, we exited the bank in single file through the same intricate security door we had entered, twenty minutes earlier. "Ciao" the security guard said brightly as we passed him. We felt mysteriously liberated.

The thing is, you simply have accept that Italy is different; not just different to home, but like nowhere else on the planet. Once you learn to go along with its idiosyncrasies then it's fine, but no matter how many times you visit initial culture shock seems inescapable. I think this happens partly because once you return home you tend to remember the many wonderful things about Italy - the food, the stunning old towns, the wild mountainous landscapes, the art, the everyday theatre of the street: but the negative aspects get sublimated. And there are negatives and these strike you most strongly in the first few days before you have made the necessary cultural adjustment.

So before I succumb to Italy's fatal allure here's a quick run down on some of the negatives. The first is shared with England. Like dear old Blighty, Italy is highly populated, industrialised and in parts over developed. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the coast. There are some lovely coastlines, Amalfi, Gargagno, The Cinque Terre, much of Sardinia, but whole swathes of its long coast line are litter strewn and tawdry. Industrial ports sprawl along the shoreline with acres of half abandoned factories and half-built warehouses. 

Our journey today was typical. Plasticulture covers much of the south east corner of Sicily, and though it may be an economic godsend, it looks dreadful. As you approach Gela, agro-industry gives way to petrochemicals; it is a blighted landscape.

First there's the plasticulture..

then the oil refineries....
I was beginning to feel somewhat glum. Then we turned north, driving up a winding road through pale fells.with sheep and cattle grazing on the hillsides, the verges bright yellow with early spring flowers, and litter free. A boxy castle guarded a small valley. We drove through the outskirts of Piazza Amarina, looking for the turn-off to Villa Casale. Crossing a bridge over a steep ravine, the old mountain town came into view, cream coloured houses tumbling down a hillside, topped by a noble Baroque domed church. Italy can be lovely we agreed. It was working its allure; we were adjusting.

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