Sean\’s Sicily

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What I’m reading right now – Gomorrah

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Good book. Well worth getting for a read. Much more immediate than Dickie’s work on the mafia, but less scholarly and polished. Dickie is the Irish Times, and Saviano is the Indo. If the Irish Times did investigative journalism, that is. Which it doesn’t.

Dreams from my father


Anyway – Saviano really spins out a good line, and I’ll have to read this in the Italian because apparently there’s a lot lost in the translation.


Written by seancasaidhe

April 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Posted in Italy, Reading

Hotels Hotels Hotels

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One of the big things still outstanding after all the planning, is the honeymoon.  In this, Sonia and I have some conflicting ideas.

I’ve done a lot of travelling, been to a lot of places, some nice, some not so nice.

One thing I’ve learned is that to get the best prices for the best stuff – you need to do it yourself.

This doesn’t fly for a honeymoon, especially if you want your guests to chip in and help pay for it.  In Sicily for sure, you can’t just ask everyone to hand you brown envelopes.  It’s just not educato.

So per forza we have to use an agency.  And then you start paying agency prices.  Which, for the first agency we tried, was an average markup of 300% on the published rates.

Yep, that’s NOT a type – 300%.  €165 a night for the Travelodge Wynyard, which, if I book it myself, will today cost me €55.

OK, so we’ve decided to not use that agency for the hotels.  Marangolo are happy to book the flights for us themselves, and the price is the same for everyone for flights.  Our friend Vicenzo of explained that on flights the margins are almost invisible, and that it’s on hotel bookings and tours that agents make money.

As such, we’ve asked Vincenzo to book our hotels – he won’t gouge as much as another agent.  Of course he needs to make a profit, and that’s fine, but I’m not paying anyone 300% if I can help it!

As a result of my preference to book everything myself, and if I can’t specify to the smallest detail what I want and how much I know it’ll cost, I’ve done a lot of research on hotels and I’ve definate favourites.  I was thinking of using the Shangri-La chain for all our stays, and I’ve sent an email to their booking office to see what discount they’ll offer if we do that.  The Shangri-La in Sydney has (reportedly) the best views in Sydney, of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  Otherwise I’m also considering the Observatory hotel, and lastly the humble (in my opinion) Four Points by Sheraton, which at best has views only of Darling Harbour – BORING!

For Katoomba I’m just not at all convinced by the option – there’s some very expensive boutique hotels, but the TripAdvisor reviews are very mixed – there’s the usual gushing happiness, and then some very detailed and very negative reviews.  The more detailed the review, the higher my opinion is of it, so I’ve come away with a fairly negative opinion.  As such, I reckon I’ll be booking the YHA – ‘what?’ I hear you all scream – but youse haven’t been to the YHA in Katoomba, it’s great.  Combined with a private double-room ensuite, what more do you want?  The room will just be used for bathing after hours-long bushwalks along the Escarpment – although I don’t know if Sonia has quite understood that yet 🙂

In Cairns I was thinking Shangri-La again, or Il Palazzo Apartment Hotel, which looks nice.  Lastly, the Tradewinds by Rydges is the economic option.  We might be all luxury-ed out by Sydney and Paradise Bay!

Hong Kong proves to be a difficult one – my friend Peter Wong strongly recommended that we stay on the Island – he dismissed Kowloon as being just for stupid tourists.  All the real people stay on the Island, and it’s much nicer 🙂  But the best reviews are on Kowloon side – hmm, maybe the type of people who stay on the Hong Kong side aren’t the type who write reviews in TripAdvisor?

Anyway, Peter’s from Hong Kong so he knows what he’s talking about, and better yet, he has friends on Hong Kong island which maybe we can meet up with and get an insider’s guide.  So I’ll follow his advice and stay on the Island.  I’m thinking Shangri-La again, or the Conrad or Marriott, and the economic option is the L’Hotel Causeway Bay Harbour View.

There’s a big difference in price obviously between the best and the cheapest. Mind you, the cheapest options here aren’t all that cheap, and they’re definately not low-grade hotels.  I think the lowest is the Four-Points by Sheraton, which is probably a bit posher than my favourite hotel, Jurys Inn on Parnell Street, in Dublin.   Going with the best rooms in the all the Shangri-La hotels, it works out to about €224 a night.  Going to the most economic options, it works out to about €65 a night.

Honestly I think we’re going to mix and match – start out with the Shangri-La in Sydney to get over the jetlag and for the great views, and then opt for the more economic hotels as we go along.  That knocks the price up to about €89 a night, which isn’t at all bad.

Of course, once I include Paradise Bay… aiya!  BUT Paradise Bay includes the transfers from the airport and all food & drink, so that’s something to consider.

Which reminds me, I must write them and tell them I don’t like fish very much…

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Trusting banks…

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What with all the news about banks failing and people losing money, Sonia asked her dad if he was sure his pension money was safe.  Ignazio made a rude gesture – his bank had called him up one day and asked if he was interested in a placing his money in a high-earning “AAA” rated investment vehicle.

He told them that he’d go into the branch the next morning.  Which he did.

And he took out all his money and lodged it in the Post Office.  Screw the bank.

As an accountant by trade, he knew where his money should be – safe.  And he knew that he couldn’t trust the bank.  Unlike a lot of other people.

Because when your bank tells you that your money is safe, you trust them, right?

That’s the point of the whole rating system – “AAA” is safe safe safe.  But the raters were asleep on the job, the “AAA” rated funds were made up of AAA mixed with junk.  Now, in the InfoSec security, we know that a system is only as trusted as the least trusted element in it.  Banks apparently forgot that axiom and peddled their “safe” products to all sorts of unsuspecting people, including a lot of pensioners who are now screwed.

That’s the real crime here, folks.

As for Ignazio’s pension money, that’s sitting in a low-interest account in the post-office, backed by the government.  Screw the bank.

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Written by seancasaidhe

March 11, 2009 at 10:31 am

Posted in Business, Italy

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Getting Married in Italy!

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So anyone who hasn’t realised, Sonia and I are getting married.  🙂

That’s the good news.  The bad news is now I have to deal with Italian bureaucracy.  After two years of successfully (largely) avoiding the organs of State, this is anything but a pleasant experience.  For the most part.  Yes, there are exceptions, generally speaking the actual clerks and officials are quite nice, but it’s the process that’s long, painful, tedious, and stressful.  Especially for Sonia, as she’s having to take care of most of it.  Oh the pleasures of being a non-citizen!

Firstly there’s the issue with the Nulla Osta.  Italy requires this for non-citizens.  Just to make sure I’m not already married in 18 different places.  I’m not sure why they care, but they do. 

Getting the Nulla Osta isn’t particularly hard, one just downloads the form, sends it off with €20, and the lovely people at the Department of Foreign Affairs take care of everything.  Thanks Peggy!

I’ve already written about how extremely lucky we were to find a notaio who actually knew what the law was and what he was doing, and didn’t even charge us for it.  It’s Sicilians like him who rescue the reputation of the island, when I’ve had a day full of people blocking paths and behaving badly.  So again, thanks to Notaio Vigneri.

So off went the Nulla Osta application, and off went Sonia to talk to her parish priest, Padre Longitano, who promptly informed her that we were already late and he needed the Nulla Osta immediately.  Bit of a communication lapse there, because the Irish embassy in Rome issue Nulla Osta one month in advance of the wedding, but usually the Italian guys need it 3 months in advance.  I guess most Irish people get married in the Irish collegiate in Rome and thus have an expedited process or something.

Anyway a call to the Embassy soon sorted it out – I sent off the required email, asking them to hurry the process along and send it directly to me (instead of the priest).  We even got a call-back confirming all the details before they printed it out and sent it.  Great stuff – Sonia remains very impressed with the speed and professionalism of Irish bureaucrats!  I said “I told you so!” and left it at that.

Anyway next stop, Padre Longitano again, who took all the forms (my long-form birth certificate, the Nulla Osta, the certificate from the Pre-Marriage course, an inspection of my passport and €10)  and gave us two notices to hand out, one for the local priest where I live, and the other for the Commune.

The local priest was a doddle (the church is in fact a donated villa and very plush too, thank you…) and the Commune wasn’t much harder, despite this bitch who asked Sonia questions and them promptly jumped the queue.  Anyway once I’d satisfied the clerks that I understood Italian, and that Co. Roscommon and Co. Galway were proper places of residence (here they use the city or commune) they where happy to proceed.  And they promptly found that Galway was already registered on their system as a place of residence, as apparently there’s another Irish bloke here in Catania that married a Sicilian girl.  Wow, I’m not all that unique so??

So now we have to go back to both the local church and the Commune on March 10th, get receipts to say that they’ve published the notices for the required two Sundays, and we can go to Padre Longitano and he’ll give us something to take to the Curia.  And then on April 26th we can attend the Commune with witnesses to do the civil ceremony, and that’s that.

Except for the big white wedding of course. 

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Written by seancasaidhe

February 25, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Bit of a pause…

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Wow, it’s been a bit of a pause – sorry to all my fans who must be very dissapointed that I haven’t written anything – all 2 of you 🙂  Hi Mom!

Writing today to complain a bit more about Italian bureaucracy, namely the process of getting a passport.   Sonia doesn’t have one, not being necessary until now.  An Italian can get about Europe quite easily with the national identity card.  So paying out €86 for a passport, and going through all the hassle, just isn’t worth it.

My big bug bear – having to buy a stamp for €40 in the tobacco shop, and then having to go to the post office to pay another €44.  So that’s two seperate payments for a passport.  And why isn’t in one single payment?  Who the hell knows.  That’s Italy, babe.

For anyone who want’s to know, to get a passport in Italy you need to get yourself down to the Commissioner for Public Security (or, if there isn’t one near you, the Carabinieri) and get the form, then you’ll need two 4x4cm photos (full face & shoulders as per usual), the stamp from the tobbaccio, a receipt from the post-office, and 10 days or so of waiting.  Easy enough, really.

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Written by seancasaidhe

February 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm

How much will an English-speaking Notaio charge for a signature?

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One of the perils of living in Italy is the endless beaurocracy.  The lines.  Taking a number and waiting your turn.  The paperwork.  The forms.  The lines.  The correct way of doing things, and the quick way (if you know the right people).

Getting married, of course, is no different.  One of the many forms I have to produce is the Nulla Osta, saying that I’m free to get married (not already being married to some other unlucky lass).  Which is easy enough, I just download the form from the Department of Foreign Affairs at home.  I even have the name of the extremely helpful lady in the department who looks after these things (here’s a shoutout to Peggy Dingley!).  There is a catch though.  Of course there is!

The form comes with a statutory declaration, which needs to be authenticated.  In Italy that means a Notaio.  But does it?  Sonia had her doubts.  So I called up the Embassy and got a call back from another helpful lady (what is it about Irish civil servants and helpfulness?  Are they insane?  They clearly went to a different orientation class than their Italian counterparts!) who explained that an Italian notary is perfectly acceptable.  Except…

“Most of them won’t do it because the form is in English”

And in fact we called up a local notary who refused point-blank to authenticate anything in English.  The secretary did however point us to a notary in Catania city centre who might help.

So Sonia and I went along one rainy evening to Via Carcaci and ended up in front of the very same crumbling palace where recently we’d been to a food exhibition.  Deja Vu!  In fact I’d noticed a sign for a notary public there and thought “jeez, that guy must be around for decades!” and had visions of an ancient guy behind a huge desk, with towers of dusty paperwork files all over the place, like a film noir.

Anyway the office of Notaio Vigneri were nothing like what I’d imagined.  After waiting an age for the secretary to finish on the phone, she informed us that the notaio would authenticate a foreign-language document, that we should complete it and return when we were done.  So Sonia (clever Sonia) asked “So if we complete it now, could Notaio Vigneri look at it today?”  Of course he could!  After another short wait we were introduced to Notaio Vigneri, a very distinguished looking gent about 60, who readily agreed and thus we were escorted to a beautiful library filled with at least 20 years of bound records. 

Meanwhile I started thinking “Hang on, how much is this gonna cost?” I was thinking €50, or maybe €60.  Sonia laughed.  She was thinking in the hundreds.  Hundreds of euro for a signature?? I coulda got a plane to Dublin!  I should have gotten a plane to Dublin!  Damn.

Notaio Vigneri took us into his office, a big room full of dark antique furniture and a massive desk.  Not a dusty pile of paper in sight.  He read the document and fill out his part and give it to another secretary to type up.  As he went out of the room, this second secretary asked me to look at what she had typed to make sure it was ok.  I gave it the once over and scratched out a line (“or has been identified to me by ___ who is personally known to me”), but Sonia admonished me “No, he left that in, so leave it alone!”  Oh, ok.

When Notaio Vigneri returned, he scrutinised the secretary’s handiwork – and scratched out the same line!  Then he corrected a few spelling mistakes – in English mind you – and grammer errors.  The secretary looked at me with daggers in her eyes!  Sonia died trying not to laugh – the poor secretary was probably hoping that I would save her from public embarrassment, and I’d failed completely.  Oh well.

So the corrected document arrived, got stamped, got signed, all done, thank you.  Notaio Vigneri talked to us briefly about why I was in Sicily, work or what?  I pointed at Sonia and said “For her” and Sonia melted.  🙂  I mentioned that the Embassy had said it might be difficult to get a notaio to authorise the document, and he explained an old law meant that Notai could only authorise documents in Italian, but that had been repealed several years ago and now a notaio is allowed to authorise documents in any language, but most notai are still reluctant to do so for various reasons.

After all that, we were again at the reception desk and asked the secretary for the bill.  The Notaio popped out of his office in a flash.

“Oh no, I said you could go.”  Sonia didn’t quite understand so he went on; “Nothing.  Congratulations for your wedding!”

Sonia insisted on paying but he refused.  I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I shook his hand, said “Grazie, Notaio”, and scarpered.

Afterwards we spoke to Sergio who confirmed that for something like this, a Notaio could ask for up to €500.

So here’s a big thanks to Notaio Vignere, Via Caraci, Catania.  If you need a helpful notaio in Catania who speaks excellent English, we’re recommending him.  Because sometimes, when I’m tired of being the stupid foreigner that everyone rips off at every turn, someone like Notaio Vigneri reminds me that the average Sicilian has a huge heart, just like my Sonia.

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The Magistrate’s Exam – an Italian Comedy

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A friend of ours, a graduate in Law, went to Milan last week for the magistrate selection board.  A full week of exams and bureaocracy, a long way from home.

For those unfamiliar with the Italian (and indeed, French and Spanish) system, the magistrates are a mix of prosecution, investigator, and judge.  A magistrate has a lot of power in Italy, to authorise search, survellience, wiretaps, arrests, confiscation of property, etc. The magistrate guides and controls investigations, interrogates witnesses and suspects, and prosecutes the case in court.

Magistrates also act as judge and jury (Italy by and large has non-jury trials), although there are procedures in place to prevent conflicts of interest.  All this power is kept in check by a governing council which tries to stop magistrates abusing their power, although if you listened to Burlesconi, all the magistrates are raging Commies out to get all honest people, and him in particular.

You can always tell a magistrate in Italy, because they are invariably accompanied by armed bodyguards, fast cars and loud sirens.  A standing joke in Palermo used to be that Judge Falcone caused most of the traffic jams with his 3-car convoy racing around.  That joke fell flat when he (along with his wife and several bodyguards) were killed by a massive IED installed in a drain under the 4-lane motorway at Capaci.  (Unanswered even after 15 years is ‘how did Brusca, “lo scannacristiani“, know Falcone was coming to Palermo, unannounced and in a private jet, on that particular day, at that particular time?)

It got even less funnier when Borsellino met the same fate a few months after, along with his entire escort.

Anyway, by now it should be clear that any young Sicilian wanting to be a magistrate is probably, counciously or not, trying to emulate these great Sicilian heroes and bring a little honesty to this corner of the world.  But first, they have to get selected.

And that’s not easy – 500 posts nationwide, and 5,600 applicants.  Obviously, you have to be very, very good, to get selected.  A lot of stress, and a lot of study.

Obviously it’s impossible to remember the entire Codice Civile, so students can bring a plain copy of the Civil Code into the exam, and maybe an Italian dictionary.  You have to be able to demonstrate understanding of the code, of precedent, all that good stuff that goes into turning dry legalase into everyday judicial decisions.


Before we get to “or”, let’s put some light on a few irregularities…

This year, the exam venue was changed from Rome, where it has always been held, to Milan.  Probably because Bossi, the leader of the right-wing Northern League (despite a corruption conviction) wants more business for the north.

The second irregularity, is that the guy responsible for the selection process, Antonio Gialanella, resigned from the post a week before the selection.  Why?  As one applicant quipped, maybe his phone was broke from all the phone calls.  One can imagine a situation similar to that of Messina – “If the son of ‘so-and-so’ doesn’t pass, we’ll chop your fucking legs off”.

Andiamo avanti, as they say here, to the start of selection week.  The students have to go and get their books checked for illegal markings etc.  Banned are expanded copies of the Code, which are sort of “dummies guides” to the law, and explain a lot of things.  Obviously book with lots of scribbles or inserts are banned.  Basically, only the basic, plain, unexplained and un-commented Civil Code is allowed.  Each book gets a stamp to show that it has been checked.  On average, 10 minutes per book, as the checker leafs through looking for anything dodgy.

And thus to the exams.  And the first day, 25 appllicants expelled.  It’s not quite clear if those expelled were cheating, or in fact where honest students complaining about cheating going on unchecked.

What’s that? I hear you ask…

Yep.  Students who complained about cheating were threathened with expulsion for interrupting a civil service exam.  The cheaters were left unmolested.  At most, the offending items were taken from the cheating student, who then continued the exam.

And what were the offending items?  Palm Treos with the Codice Civile?  Whisphered conversations into bluetooth headsets?  Scribbled answers on forearms?

Please, this is Italy.  Things are far more sophisticated here.

The offending items were fully annotated copies of the Civil Code, duly marked with the official “this book has been checked and is ok to use in the exam” stamps.  That’s right, someone had marked these annotated, scribbled on highly illegal books as perfectly ok to use in the exam.  How they got that stamp on these illegal books, remains to be answered.

Actually, it’s easily answered, but this is Italy and if I said what I thought, I’d be sued.

Check the video.  At min 2:30 and on, you’ll see people coming out of the exam, walking past with armfuls of books.  I’ve seen the Civil Code, it’s about the size of a family bible (depending on how small the print is, of course).  It’s not an armful of thick books.  How the hell did they get those books into the exam?  How the hell were they able to use them without the examiners raising hell?

Fecks sake, when I took an exam on wireless communcations with OU, I had to write down the model number of my scientific calculator on the exam paper, and the examiner CHECKED IT!  When I took out my copy of a manual, the examinar came by to see what it was, and flipped through it.  THAT’s what an examiner does.

Not in Milan though!  The cheating was so blatent, this applicant has admitted that he asked his neighbour for a loan of his annotated copy. As did the applicant on the other side…

Applicants protesting were warned that they were interrupting a civil service exam and would be reported to the police if they continued!

And what did the chief invigilator Maurizio Fumo (that’s the guy incharge of the exams) say to all the applicants complaining about the cheating – faced with applicants shouting out that he was a fool and a collaborator in the cheating, what did this high-ranking magistrate have to say?

If you’re not happy, you can leave and sue us!”
No, seriously, this was his response (at 2:27 minutes in the video).
What power did that guy think was protecting him and his commission, when he could respond like that to a roomful of law students?
Basically, ‘piss off and sue me!’.

Outraged by the blatent cheating, and seeing that they had no chance of one of the 500 places, many applicants  walked out and immediately laid charges with the police themselves.

Now there’s an investigation.  The minister of Justice is banging on about introducing new laws.  The chief invigilator and all the examiners seem to have been fired (though I’m not sure if that was just the Minister saying he WILL fire them, or he HAS fired them).

Strangely though, the TV news stations are steering clear.  On Annozero this morning, they were talking about a similar problem in Messina, but when one member of the audience wanted to mention Milan, the host cut him off saying “Oh we can’t talk about that, as there’s been no judgement…”  But there’s no judgement in Messina neither, and they’re talking about that?

I’m just glad that the applicants have managed to get their story out about this whole farce.  Hopefully the selection will be annulled and held again, and all honest applicats will have an equal chance at securing on of those coveted positions in the Magistrature.  And hopefully, those honest applicants will become honest magistrates and help clean up Italy, which badly needs it.

p.s. on Annozero, one of the guests loudly asked “Why don’t the students do SOMETHING about this?  Why aren’t they protesting in the STREET?”

A student from Messina answered, and then said “And now, wait and see, now I won’t graduate because of what I’ve said here”

And the host told him to shut up.  “You’re responsible for what you just said, not us!”

In other words, Annozero likes to ask questions, it just doess’t like to get honest answers.  Won’t be watching that wanker again.

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Written by seancasaidhe

November 30, 2008 at 2:10 am