Sean\’s Sicily

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What I’m Reading

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Immagine di Un mese con Montalbano

Currently working on Un Mese con Montalbano”, ‘A month with Montalbano’, in the Italian. A selection of 31 Montalbano short-stories, not literally one-month-in-the-life-of-Montalbano, which is rather what I was expecting.

I was supposed to limit myself to one chapter a night, reading to Sonia, but in the mornings after Sonia’s gone to work, I sneak ahead and read the next chapter. Sorry Sonia.

With her help however, I am learning a few new phrases and words… mostly curses and Sicilian dialect, but all well and good ๐Ÿ™‚

Written by seancasaidhe

August 8, 2008 at 9:56 am

Posted in Ireland, Reading, Sicily

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A new purchase – again!

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Seeing as how Sonia has been reluctant to use the dSLR (on the basis that I’m a selfish bastard and won’t let her, which is entirely true), and now knows too much to be satisfied with a compact, Erika and I have decided collectively to buy a new dSLR just for Sonia.ย  As the D80 is more for a film SLR user who is moving to digital, I reckoned that the D40 is more suitable for Sonia, who is learning how to use an SLR.ย  The D40 differs from the D80 in that it’s considerably smaller and lighter, has fewer function buttons (although everything can be accesed via the menu system) and is a lot cheaper.

Well, that was until Erika decided on the D40x, which is another Eur200, but has the same CCD has the D80.ย  I tried to say that having 10 megapixels as opposed to 6 isn’t a huge deal when one’s talking about an entry-level dSLR, but Erika wasn’t buying it, so off we went to Randazzo again to check out prices.

As happens, once at Randazzo we spotted a D40x kit with two lenses, the standard 18-55mm, and the new 55-200mm VR, for Eur180 more.ย  As that VR lens costs over Eur300 on it’s own, we decided to get that instead.ย  The comessa was the same woman who sold me the D80 so she remembered me (who wouldn’t, after having had to wait 10 minutes while I was queuing to talk to Ulster Bank to get the transaction authorised!) and she threw in a Eur30 discount off the camera, which with the Eur90 discount that Nikon have included, means that the new lens is basically free!ย  We did have to wait a good half hour while she chatted with a friend, and checked every piece of the camera (not wanting us to return with a busted camera and claim that it was broken when we opened it), all of which was eating into my lunch hour!

But the best moment was when we surprised Sonia with her new camera – I distracted her whilst Erika snuck the camera into the apartment.ย  Distraction was easy as she was checking out flickr, and by complete co-incidence found a fantastic shot by some block of some dolphins, which he’d done with a D40x.ย  After Sonia failed to pick up on some blatent hints (“Hey, maybe we should buy another lens…” “Hey, here’s my SECOND camera bag that…” etc.) I eventually said “Well if you had that camera you’d be able to take that shot…” and Sonia finally took the bait, which allowed us to make her close her eyes (and open her mouth, must be some Sicilian thing…) and I whipped out the box…

…and Sonia started crying.ย  WTF?ย  Emotional, these Sicilians, very very emotional!

Suffice to say she loves her new camera (possibly more than she loves me), saying things like “che carina!” and how light it is for her and how easy to use.ย  So next, a trip somewhere for Sonia to try out her new dSLR.

Written by seancasaidhe

August 31, 2007 at 10:41 pm

Posted in Sicily

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La Villa del Casale

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On the way back from Catania, Sonia and I decided to take a side-trip to Piazza Amerina, a small mountain village in the middle of nowhere, and a long way from any autostrada. I wasn’t entirely clear on the reasons for doing so except that I’d been complaining that all I’ve seen between Palermo and Catania was, in fact, autostrada ๐Ÿ™‚ Sometimes when my mental translations have fallen behind and I subconciously skip a few sentances in order to catch up, which normally works fine when someone is banging on about the weather, football, etc. but sometimes (especially with Sonia) I miss crucial parts of the conversation or decisions and then have to ask “uh, why are we going to Piazza Amerina again?

So for all the misunderstood conversations I’ve had with you, Sorry, Sonia! ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, in Piazza Amerina there is a Roman villa ‘La Villa del Casale’, a Unesco world heritage site with very famous mosaics. Actually not a villa in the proper sense (or at least not as I understand it) but more of an administration building with attached apartments for the local Tribune (or whatever the local boss was called in Roman times).

The entire experience is an excellent example of much that is wrong in Sicily, and how the little people either get screwed or get a great big chunk of pie, depending entirely on who they know and if the people they know are in political power or not.

In the case of la villa del Casale, the ones who are getting screwed are the tourists and the local vendors that one finds at tourist attractions all over the world. We found the stalls all closed up with signs saying “Closed by Court Injunction” and the vendors outside the entrance to the Villa, sheltering in the shade, peacefully protesting. The story, as Sonia found out, was that their stalls had been shut on public safety grounds, to open the road for heavy equipment that was going to be used to carry out some work on the villa. Some 3 months later, not a single piece of heavy equipment (we’re talking about big earthmovers, cranes etc) had come down the road, and the works that were being carried out were accessed from a different road across the valley. But still the local mayor (linked to Forza Italia) refused to allow the stalls to reopen.

The alleged actual reason (alluded to in typical Sicilian fashion) was that the local government had given permission for a new restuarant/shop to be built right on the doorstep of the villa complex, and once this was completed, the competiting vendors were shut down to force the tourists to dine at this one place, and to buy their touristy junk from this one place.

No-one wants to suggest that the owners of the new place has paid kickbacks or is linked to the local administration, of course. Oh no, I quite emphatically want to say that there are NO SUSPICIONS AT ALL that the mayor or those close to him have been paid off to nobble the competition. Right, got that? All clear? The vendors have been shut down for 3 months for public safety. Good…

Of course, that begs the question that if the vendors have been shut down for public safety – I remind you, to make way for great big dangerous earth-moving equipment which would probably crush Joe Public under their huge tires without noticing – why are the same endangered public forced to park their cars on that very same road and walk down it to the villa (but only after paying 1 euro to the Parcheggiatore for the privilege of parking their cars on a public road)?

Did I mention yet the Eur90million that the local administration got for improving the site? Basic things like running water, public toilets, a bit of paint for the rusting greenhouse-type thing that’s covering the villa? Which instead is being spent on a series of concerts and events? Again, I wish to make clear that there’s no suggestion at all that the money’s been used for these activities in order to facilitate kickbacks to the local administration, or that the people organising the events are linked to the local mayor in any way. It could be argued that a large series of small payments offers more scope for skimming than a small series of large payments, as well as directinng more work/jobs/contracts/money towards friends and family, but that’s just unjust paranoia, and I’m ashamed for even thinking it.

And so, despite the money, despite the steep Eur6 entrance fee, despite the bus-loads of tourists, the site still lacks running water, toilet facilities, or any kind of interpretive centre to explain the significance of the place. Sure, they’re a couple of sunburned posters, and the odd room has a leaflet, but really (and I’m an archaeology enthusiast) I came away with the impression “Some nice mosiacs…”

In case anyone thinks I’m being anti-Sicilian, Sonia’s take on the whole thing is here

Written by seancasaidhe

August 29, 2007 at 10:27 pm

Demons of DSLR

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Well it’s pretty clear that using a dLSR has it’s good points and it’s bad. The good of course is instant review of the shot I’ve just taken, and not having to pay to develop the film.

The bad is taking 500 shots and not one of them is publishable. I read somewhere that anyone can take photos, the skill of a good photographer is choosing the one photo that should be published. Not having to worry about the correct exposure (as I can check it straightaway on the LCD) means that I’m snapping all sorts of crap, some of which I immediately delete, others which I delete when I download to the computer. Not having bothered to read the manual (‘cos it’s in Italian!) I didn’t initially know what the other settings on the dial were for ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

But now I know. I have to say I still find the Program setting too pernickity, so I’m usually shooting in Aperture or Shutter modes. Messed up quite a few pictures at the festival in Modica (more in another post) but also got a few that I really like and will probably post to Flickr when I get half a chance.

The other thing I’m learning is that it’s really really hard for me to explain SLR technique in Italian! Sonia is keen to learn, and is quite a good shot with the Nikon compact that she has, but going from a compact to a dSLR is a big leap (unless you want to use Auto all the time) and I can’t get across important info about shutter & aperture, which is very frustrating for me, ‘cos I’d love to help her, and frustrating for her, ‘cos she sees me getting annoyed (at myself). The other thing is that I’m suffering from a serious case of new-toy-syndrome, and get all fidgety when the camera is out of my hands, worried that someone will drop it or something! ๐Ÿ™‚

Well we’ll just have to see how we get on.

Written by seancasaidhe

August 15, 2007 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Sicily

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Palio di Modica

Just back from Modica, where they were having the Palio della Contea, a festival. It’s a good distance from Marzememi to Modica, and the roads aren’t great, so it was a long trip, especially for Sonia who was driving.

Modica itself is another city which was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, and thus is hugely important for it’s Baroque architecture, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But we weren’t there for the architecture (I’ve had enough Baroque in Noto, thanks!), but rather the Palio, which has it’s origins in the battles between Roger II and the Arabs in the 13th century, and basically is a bunch of horsemen with lances racing up and down a course, collecting rings which are attached to points along the way. The horseman with the most rings and the fastest time wins.

Modica has the honour of having served me the worst food I’ve ever eaten in Sicily – some sort of foglia with mushrooms which looked and tasted like a sheaf of Kleenex that’s been dipped in mushroom soup. I threw mine away but Sonia was hungry and ate all of her’s, which she regretted later when she started feeling ill! However on the good side, Modica boasts a unique type of chocolate, all crumbly and full of cocoa crystals. Not the sort of chocolate you’d eat like a Mars Bar, but the sort that you’d nibble on one piece after dinner as a desert. Fanstastic.

The failing light caused problems for me (dusk is fast in Sicily) and I’m still struggling with the new camera, so I don’t have a lot of good shots of the initial parade (a bunch of young people dressed up as medieval nobility and others carrying flags or playing music), and then a parade of the horsemen (about 20 in all) with attendent groomsmen, also all dressed up medieval style. I do have a few good shots of that, we’ll see what I load up to Flickr.

And after that, the tournament began – one by one, the horsemen entered the course, picked up their lance, and were off, racing full tilt down the course. Luckily I was quite near one of the rings, and near enough to a second, so I was able to snap some images with lots of movement. I didn’t notice at first that the rings got smaller as the competitor went along, with the first ring being the biggest and the last (15 in all) being the smallest. All good fun but after 15 riders, I got a bit bored and Sonia and I took off for the end of the course where there was a turning circle, in the hope of snapping some action shots there, but the crowd was 10 deep so we gave up and went off to get some chocolate and get back to Marzamemi before it got too late.

Written by seancasaidhe

August 14, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Into the Heartland

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Making Pasta

Strong Hands Required

Katia invited us to her grandmothers place for dinner, in a tiny sunbaked hamlet next to the railway line a good 20 minutes from the Syracuse-Pachino road, in a big old farmhouse with a surprising modern electric gate. We found everyone in the middle of making pasta – Katia’s aunt had bought a little table-top machine for pressing the dough, and she wanted to try it. While I tried to keep out of the way, and Sonia talked with the nonna, Andrea, Katia and Katia’s aunt got down to the business of mixing the flour and eggs, kneading the dough and making the pasta.

After the first few goes at the machine, the Nonna laughed “Let me know when you kids are done playing so I can make some pasta!” (said in Sicilian of course, so Sonia had to translate for me). But at the end it was a success – the dough had to be just right for the machine to press it correctly, not too thick nor too thin. After this we said our goodbyes and went on to Marzamemi, stopping off in Pachino for a huge 5-litre bottle of wine, poured straight from the vat.

After returning, I got sucked into a game of draughts with Katia’s uncle (but only after he’d bested Andrea twice in a row), and managed to hold my own against him for a good 20 minutes – probably largely because he couldn’t figure out my strategy (me not knowing what I was going myself, I didn’t have one!). I only lost after Sonia interrupted me with a question about the dSLR and I made a stupid mistake. Thanks Sonia! ๐Ÿ™‚ And then the call to dinner came…

…and what followed was simply heaven – quite easily the best bloody lasagna I’ve ever tasted. I normally don’t like lasagna too much – too much cheesiness for me – but this was divine. I was too busy stuffing 3 portions into me to take any photos, more’s the pity. Thoroughly stuffed to the gills, we returned to Marzememi with the car creaking under our own weight!

Written by seancasaidhe

August 13, 2007 at 8:23 am

A new purchase – purchased!

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Allora, Sonia and I took a trip down to the Randazzo in Palermo city centre to have a look at cameras. Due to the usual terrible service (the display camera didn’t have a battery and the sales girl didn’t feel like getting one) we took ourselves to another Randazzo where a very helpful guy let me play with the D80. Unfortunately it was another Eur100 more expensive there than in the city centre, so to the city centre we returned and made our purchase.

The new sales girl tried to fob off an 18-70mm lens for a Eur70 discount, but thanks to Ken Rockwell’s excellent site I had already compared that lens with the 18-135mm and firmly turned her down. If she’d been offering a deal with an 18-55mm lens, then I’d be happy to save a few hundred euros, or if they offered the 18-200m VR lens, I would snapped it up for a few hundred more.

And so Sonia and I have spent a few pleasant days snapping shots of Palermo and each other. I think that having a dSLR will make me a lot sloppier and trigger happy. I’ll probably start taking less and less care about light, composition, etc. and just let the camera worry about exposure and f-stop – that’s the diff between paying Eur14 to have 24 shots developed, and being able to knock off 250 shots in an afternoon and pick the ones you like the best!

That said I’ve quickly figured out how to work the Manual, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Program Auto modes. It’s been fun (sometimes) showing Sonia how to judge f-stops and shutter speeds, and being able to immediately contrast shot-A with shot-B on the LCD. Let’s hope we get a lot more fun out of it before the joy pales.

Written by seancasaidhe

August 9, 2007 at 9:09 pm

Posted in Sicily

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