Thousands of swifts are screaming in the skies and it’s been shirt-sleeve weather for about a month now – this time of year is just about right for us. It’s still hot for us in the classrooms and, as in Turkey, Libya and Vietnam, we teachers from the UK and USA play the ‘Air-Con Shuffle’: we turn on the AirCon and hide the remote. The students come in, start shivering and insist on turning the thing off. After a while, we sneak it back on again. This toing and froing goes on for the whole 90 minutes. I know this experience resonates with many of our TEFLing friends around the globe – it’s so much fun!
Some more observations here in Palermo. As I’m approaching that age where pensions become important, I’ve recently had to communicate with financial institutions in the UK not yet geared to 21st century technology. One such company, Dickens and Dinosaur Insurance, insist on written communication. This requires a visit to the post office here in Palermo, something that Helen has always enjoyed, being a prolific letter-writer, but fills me with dread. Our local post office is always heaving; some people must spend their lives in there. Some people start queueing for their pensions well before they reach pensionable age! You first have to enter through a double-door screening capsule, reminiscent of MI5 buildings (did you see Spooks on UK TV?) and join the overbooked, Alzheimer’s Convention inside. Then you collect your ticket and calculate the approximate wait you’ll have. It’s customary at this point to leave and do your weekly shopping, visit a show, etc. I did this last week, returned to the post office only to find the number had not yet progressed half way so I took my shopping home. I returned to the post office to find that my number plus one was being served so I muttered an expletive and gave up. One of the pleasures of living in a foreign country is being able to shout ‘Oh For F***’s Sake’ at the top of your voice and people around you assume you’re sneezing.
We’ll be lucky to escape with our lives in tact in July: the driving seems to be getting worse. My students tell me that if you can drive in Palermo, you can drive anywhere. Actually, I remind them that these drivers would not be allowed to drive in the UK as I have yet to see anyone remotely capable of passing a UK driving test. The hot weather has also sparked a ‘who’s-got-the-loudest-car-stereo’ contest which can almost blow in the windows of our classrooms rendering pronunciation practice somewhat futile. Our friend Damian told me recently that he saw the ultimate: a guy on a pushbike with the biggest pair of speakers and battery he’d ever seen, strapped to the sides. What a clod!
Helen’s quite chuffed with herself. As usual, her application to learning the local lingo leaves me shamefully lagging behind and relying on the standard British approach to Johnny Foreigner: shouting louder and giving up if the stupid shop assistant, etc., is too dumb to understand simple English. She managed to direct someone from the city to the motorway, something she would have difficulty doing in Leeds! Anyway, she was rightly proud of herself.
We both have teaching assignments outside our school: Helen has just finished a session teaching kiddies once a week at a convent; getting up on Friday mornings for this hour-long, ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ screaming session used to really cheer her up!
I have a 2.5-hour session with a group of teachers in a town called Partinico, about an hour’s drive out of Palermo. According to my boss, these country yokels should first be learning Italian, rather than English! The Italian government has recently passed a law, requiring all state school teachers to achieve at least CEF Level B1 in the next 2 years. For the uninitiated in language-learning jargon, this equates to a pretty good level of competence, rather more than ‘2 beers please’ – the level I usually aim for. In Poland, before I could say the word for ‘three’, I had to say: ‘Two beers please, and one more beer please.’ Yes, it’s cumbersome, but it works!
We’ve almost covered the whole island now and here are a few of the highlights:
Segesta and Selinunte
These are two of the most well-known archaeological sites in Sicily – full of the relics of the halcyon days of Greek hegemony. We visited Selinunte with Alan, Emily and the grandkids – see the picture of James and the severe regulations imposed upon entering. It was strictly forbidden to make any noise at all. We found this injunction impossible to follow and were eventually evicted from the site after Helen sneezed.
We were fortunate to visit Segesta on our way back to Palermo and found the place in full bloom of spring wild flowers. It was extraordinarily spectacular and ranks as Helen’s number one place.
This is my favourite place, so far. We took off for a long weekend to the tourist trap of Taormina on the east coast and spent a day in the nearby town of Savoca. Godfather aficionados will recognise this place: the Sicily scenes from the first film were shot here. The rustic, simple life is enjoyed by Al Pacino as he falls in love and marries the lovely Apollonia. Although the viewer is lead to believe this is in the village of Corleone, it was actually filmed in Savoca. Some of that rustic simplicity has now disappeared but the town is a delight nonetheless. High up in the hills through winding hairpins it has the winning blend of narrow cobbled streets, breath-taking views and quaint bars. It even rewarded us with a pair of ravens and a blue rock thrush. Who could ask for more?!
Last weekend we visited here in the company of two of our colleagues, Charles and Damian. Here was where much of Sicilian history started and is famous for its Greek ruins and as the birthplace of Archimedes. We visited our local café when we arrived for the traditional slug of whisky. We repeated this before we left and were pleasantly surprised at the ‘we-don’t-rip-off-the-tourists-here’ attitude: 3 enormous malts (each about the measure of a large wine!) and a large bottle of water, less than €5. If we ever come back to Sicily, we’ll be living in the sticks; all the towns and cities we’ve visited have knocked Palermo into a cocked hat.
Anyway, we spent a day in Cava Grande, an Italian Grand Canyon. It was a long way down so we let the youngsters go down quickly, we didn’t want to upset them with our speed and dexterity. We almost made it to the bottom, we had timed it to get back in two hours (the guidebook – 1 hour, for some super-fit git). We passed some splendid conversations, one Helen overheard: “I’ll never walk up here again in a thousand years!”. It might give you some idea of the stupidity of the mission. Anyway, we had a bird-spotting dream, getting Zitt Cis, Black Redstart, Raven, Grey Wag., Icky and Sardi Warbler, Stonechat, Green and Goldfinches, Jays and Housemartins. We ended up with a 30+ bird list – splendid.
Today, in Palermo near the touristy market area, we stopped off for a beer and an ice cream. The bill? €13! (Yes, that’s one beer for me and an ice cream for Helen). It’s outrageous! So we left and proceeded to a back street Sri Lankan shop, bought a litre of vodka, large carton of orange juice, two bags of Bombay Mix and a can of super strength beer for €12. Job done!
Mind you, this is what the TEFL business is usually about; in Charles’s words, you have to teach in the butthole and get away to the sights at the weekends. Delicately and so accurately put.