Monday, October 20, 2014


I once taught in a school that was forced, for political reasons, to close and I have never forgotten what a painful experience it was for staff and pupils alike. Although that was a large, British comprehensive school, a far cry from a tiny school on a very small Italian island, it gave me some idea how the one teacher and, at that time, three pupils at Italy's smallest school must have felt when it was threatened with closure in June.

Therefore I was happy to read that the school, on Alicudi in the Aeolian Islands, has been saved, despite the fact that this year it has only two pupils, in their first and third years of primary school respectively. As you might imagine, there is still only one teacher but perhaps what the pupils lack in the presence of peers is made up for by the idyllic setting in which lessons take place in good weather conditions - on a terrace with a spectacular view.

The school owes its survival largely to the efforts and determination of Mirella Fanti, the headteacher of the Istituto Scolastico Lipari 1, which coordinates schools in the area. Signora Fanti said the school had been saved because other institutions on the islands had supported it and the families involved had decided not to move from Alicudi, which now has only about 100 inhabitants. Without the school, says signora Fanti, Alicudi would be even more isolated than it already is, as the school involves itself in community activities when there are no lessons.

The story of the school has inspired the documentary film L'Ultimo Giorno / The Last Day [Zalab /Museo del Cinema di Stromboli]. Director Alberto Bougleux says that the film is dedicated not only to Alicudi but to all teachers who fight for the right of their pupils to have a modern, creative and democratic school.

Three cheers for Alicudi!

Saturday, October 18, 2014


This philosophical track from Luciano Ligabue has been the most played song on Italian radio this week and it suits my mood.  ["We are who we are."] I like the reference to Dante at the beginning of the second verse and the conclusion, which is that we are who we are but if only time would go by a little more slowly!

Luciano Ligabue - Siamo chi siamo

Friday, October 17, 2014


My sister had found me after 64 years, she and her husband had flown to Sicily to be with me and now it was up to Sicily [and me] to pull the culinary stops out!

Last Friday morning we had coffee and extras with international friends. There were some very British sandwiches and some very Sicilian almonds

and lots of other treats as well:

Later we succumbed to gelato at the Marina

and later still I decided it was time for Sicilian fast food in the form of focacce, arancini and a pasticcio [pie]:

On Monday we enjoyed a special feast with friends

and had a very jolly time:

On Tuesday I arranged a festa so that all my friends and students could meet Jill and Paul and if I'm having a festa there have to be Welshcakes

and a tipsy cake , along with my chocolate thingies. And why not some chocolate and lime truffles too?

 I left the rest of the catering in the capable hands of Bar Cicara and they did us proud:

The Pasticceria Delizie D'Autore  made the wonderful cake, to my design. It bears the flags of the four countries the occasion united - England, Wales, Italy and the USA [I'll explain the US connections in another post] - plus a windmill to represent Jill's home county of Norfolk, UK and Modica's famous clock tower.

And we finally got to cut it!

There's no better place than Sicily for a welcome and some fine feasting!

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I'm going to tell you the story of my reunion with my birth sister, Jill, little by little in several posts but first I want to share with you some of the things we did together over the past seven days.

We spent time at the Marina di Modica

and, as you see, I've got me a lovely brother-in-law as well!

We went for an evening walk in Ragusa Ibla with friends,

sat in the park

and ate ice cream in a crepe!

I must say, as we walked through the narrow, softly-lit streets, I felt completely surrounded by love and I hadn't felt like that for a long time.

On Sunday we took a guided tour around Catania. There is always something new to learn from a good guide and the city looked particularly elegant in the October sunshine:

Later, it was on to Militello in Val di Catania for the Sagra della Mostarda e del Fico d'India or Mostarda [made with prickly pears] and Prickly Pear Festival, where the highlight of the afternoon was the parade of Sicilian carts:

This last horse danced to the traditional music and was definitely the star of the show!

When I visited Militello for the same festival four years ago, I never imagined I'd be back there with my sister!

Then suddenly it was Wednesday, Jill and Paul's last full day in Sicily. We decided to spend most of it in Siracusa, for how could I let them go without taking them first to the magnificent Greek amphitheatre there?

The Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa:


The Greek Amphitheatre, Siracusa:

The Ear of Dionysus, Siracusa:

We had fun calling to each other in the echoing cave where the tyrant Dionysus reportedly imprisoned dissidents and eavesdropped on them. 

Jill and Paul are safely home now and they have promised to come back to Sicily soon. I hope so because I'm already missing my wonderful, newfound sister!

Saturday, October 11, 2014


This was one of the first Italian songs I ever learnt and nothing could better describe my feelings this week.  Tonight I dedicate this song to my sister, Jill:

Gino Paoli - Prima di vederti

Long before I saw you
I'd already known you
in another world,
an ageless world,
so far away 
and so long ago,
Who knows where?
Who knows when
you lived with me?

Long before I met you
I was waiting for you.
My old life, that I had then
is ageless now.
So far away
and so long ago
Who knows where?
Who knows when
I knew you before?

So far away
and so long ago
Who knows where?
Who knows when
I knew you before?

[My translation]


Speaking as a linguist, I can tell you that no one ever knows every word in their own language and speaking as an only child I can tell you that there are two words in mine that I knew but never thought I'd be able to say. They are, quite simply, "my sister"

But all that changed for me at 3pm Italian time yesterday when, after 64 years, I was reunited, here in Sicily, with my birth sister, Jill.  Here we are at that very emotional meeting:

Some of you will know that I was adopted at the age of nine months, and that story is here. Now my sister and I are living through another story and I hope I'll be able to tell you about it during the coming weeks.

Regular readers may have noticed that my posting has been a bit irregular lately and, if you have a blog that I normally visit, that I haven't made my visiting rounds as usual. Now you know why! The blogging will be back to normal soon but meanwhile I'm enjoying getting to know my sister and showing her Sicily. Please be happy for my sister and me!

Friday, October 10, 2014


I often criticise Sicily when things go wrong so it is only fair to congratulate the island's administrators publicly when they come up with an excellent project.

By the end of the year, 310 defibrillators are to be installed in public places in Sicily and careful thought has been given to the eventual locations: Schools, universities, rural pharmacies, small prisons, public transport vehicles, archaeological sites, theatres and railway stations are among the locations selected and training courses in the use of the defibrillators have already begun. It seems that all the Sicilian provinces are included in the programme and the smaller Sicilian islands have not been forgotten.

The Ragusa Health Authority is responsible for developping a software programme to support the project.

Well done, Sicily!

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


La figlia del papaLa figlia del papa by Dario Fo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not sure what I think about the current fashion for writing historical fiction in the present tense and using conversation to carry the action forward. In English Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel do it superbly, if, in the latter case, rather academically.

However, Italian is a language in which the "vivid present " [the use of the present tense to recount past events] is more common and, as we are in the hands of the dramatist Dario Fo, we must surely expect mostly dialogue.

On the whole I feel he succeeds, though I got lost in some of the early dialogue concerning political intrigues, as I have in other books about the scheming Borgias.

Why did Fo choose to write about Lucrezia? Because, I would guess, there can be no doubt that she is one of the most maligned women in history and because her story of course lends itself to high drama. Fo portrays her as the political pawn that any woman in her position and time would have been but also as intelligent, politically astute, kind and even gentle. In an interview about the book, the Nobel laureate dramatist said that Lucrezia reminded him in some ways of his late wife, Franca Rame, because Franca, too, had taken up unpopular causes, helped the unfortunate and felt the need to intervene for the sake of social justice.

We cannot know to what extent Lucrezia was complicit in the outrageous plotting of her devious father, Pope Alexander VI and notorious brother, Cesare, but that she tried to save at least one of her three husbands from death at their hands is documented. As Duchess of Ferrara she was popular with locals and, at the end of her life, espoused charitable causes and set up a convent. We know that she had an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo and this is touchingly recounted in the book. It is commonly held that she also had an affair with Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantova, but Fo - uniquely, according to him - refutes this, citing the fact that Lucrezia would have known that Francesco had syphilis and would not have risked it.

The book is beautifully illustrated but I find it strange that none of the images - some of which are famous and some of which are, I presume, by Fo himself - are accredited.

As far as I am aware, the book is currently being translated into several other languages so, if you are interested in Lucrezia and get a chance to read it, I suggest that you do so. You may conclude, as I did, that she was a product of her time and class, neither wholly bad nor as good as Fo would have her but, like most of us, somewhere in between.

View all my reviews

This review is also posted on Goodreads.

Saturday, October 04, 2014


It's those two Italian Americans with the musical chemistry again!

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - I Can't Give You Anything But Love

Friday, October 03, 2014


As the world now knows, one year ago today 368 migrants perished off the island of Lampedusa when their overcrowded boat capsized, Today has been a day of remembrance on the island and I thought the best way I could again draw attention to the tragedy would be to re-post what I wrote on that horrific night:

7.14 p.m.

Just as I was thinking that I would be able to bring you a little light relief this evening, I happened to glance at the "Corriere della Sera" site and saw the news of a further tragedy at sea which is unfolding as I write.

The BBC and all main foreign media sites are carrying this one and you will be able to follow events as they happen and see the images on many of these and, of course, on television. I am not a journalist so cannot add to the MSM coverage but I will summarise for you what I know.  If further news of the tragedy breaks later and is not carried by MSM outside Italy, I will try to bring it to you. You will understand that this is an ongoing situation and there are some conflicting reports as to the exact sequence of events and as to numbers involved in the tragedy:

Early this morning fishing boat crews raised the alarm when they saw a migrant boat in difficulty off Lampedusa. The 20-metre boat is reported to have been carrying at least 500 Eritrean, Somali and Ghanaian migrants, among them around 100 women and an unknown number of children. A survivor has told reporters that conditions were so cramped on board that the passengers were unable to move.

The boat was near the southern tip of Lampedusa, off the Isola dei Conigli - which has a beach voted the second best in Italy in a web poll this summer - when the engine failed and the vessel began to take on water. Having no cellphones to call for help, some of the passengers lit a small fire to draw attention to their plight. However, fuel was leaking into the water on board and the fire became an inferno. Panicking, a large number of passengers scrambled to one end of the boat, causing it to capsize and then they began to jump into the sea.

Many could not swim and so far 93 bodies have been recovered. Only three of the women passengers are said to have survived and a three-year-old child is confirmed dead. As I write there is no news of the other children. The last Italian report I consulted said that 159 migrants have been rescued but Italian Coast Guard and police fear that there could be 40 more bodies under the boat and up to 100 inside the wreck. 

Survivors say that the boat left a Libyan port two days ago and that, prior to the lighting of the fire, three fishing boats had spotted the vessel in difficulty but had done nothing to help. This is unconfirmed.

One people-trafficker has been arrested.

Mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini has described a scene of "continuous horror" as bodies are being laid out on the quayside there.

Prime Minister Letta has spoken of a "terrible tragedy" and Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has already arrived in Sicily.  He has said that he hopes that the EU recognises that this is an event which involves every EU country. A few minutes ago, Mr Alfano said that he had seen the 93 bodies, a horrifying sight which he had never imagined he would see. He reiterated that Europe must act to prevent this kind of tragedy. "These women and children did not die to come on holiday", the shocked Minister said. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has praised the Italian Coast Guard for their swift action in rescuing so many. President Napolitano has said that Europe and the countries of departure of migrant boats must work together to stop the people traffickers and prevent disasters such as this one. Pope Francis has expressed his "shame" at what has happened and has called upon all nations to unite their strengths in order to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again.
Latest Italian media reports say that the death toll could rise to over 300.

I cannot close without mentioning my disgust at the Italian political party which has used the situation in order to try to score political points this afternoon and I know that the majority of Italians will join me in this. 

Update at 20.40:  Tomorrow will be a national day of mourning in Italy.
Update at 22.09:  127 bodies have now been recovered, among them those of children. Sky TG24 Italia has interviewed one of the fishermen who first raised the alarm. Visibly moved, he spoke of the horrific scene and how he and his colleague managed to take 47 of the migrants onto their own boat.

It was heartening to read this morning that around 40 survivors of the tragedy returned to the island, after being received by Pope Francis, to thank their rescuers and to remember their fellow-passengers who did not survive.  They came to Italy from several European countries where they have since found refuge. 
The day has not been without its tensions on Lampedusa and this is understandable. However, tonight, on this blog, I just want to remember. Although, in the past year, there has been slightly more international coverage of the migration situation in the Mediterranean, I feel that there has been scant mention of the amazing rescue work that has been carried out by the Italian Navy, Coast Guard and other Mare Nostrum operatives, so let us remember these brave men and women too.
According to figures released by UNHCR today, over 3,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the past year and Italy has received 140,000 migrant arrivals since the beginning of 2014, at the rate of 516 per day.
In November Mare Nostrum will be replaced by an EU operation known as Frontex Plus and no one really knows if this will make a difference. Everyone here hopes so. 
The Comitato 3 ottobre, formed to make the 3rd October a day of remembrance for all migrants, says,

"Proteggere le persone, non i confini - Protect people, not borders."

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


In George Mikes's Italy for Beginners, a book I read when I was about 16, the author says, in a chapter on manners,

"Half tones will not even take you half way; understatements are taken at even less than their face value. If you are deeply worried about something, it is no good remarking softly, 'I'm a little peturbed.'  If, on the contrary, you run about the room berserk, beat the walls with your fists, froth at the mouth, turn purple and scream for half an hour then people may gather that you are slightly irritated, though not annoyed. Unless, of course, you are simply tired."

I was reminded of this whilst watching last Friday's Bake Off Italia, during which this lady got a little upset when her ├ęclairs didn't turn out the way she wanted. I think I can guess what the estimable Mary Berry would have made of it, but haven't we all felt like this when our cooking has gone wrong?  [You only need to watch the first minute or so of the clip - the rest is a repeat of it.]

By the way, I'm rooting for the modest baking builder in tonight's Great British Bake Off, though all the contestants are so good that it's a shame that any of them have to lose!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


I enjoyed the joyful BBC series Sweets Made Simple and wish they would bring it back. Perhaps the recipe which most impressed me with its genius and simplicity was the one for gin and lime truffles. I wanted to try it, but unfortunately I can't drink alcohol any more as it's incompatible with my medication. I don't let this stop me sloshing wine into my casseroles or Maraschino into my "tipsy cake" but I was scared I'd find a bottle of gin in the house too much temptation!

This, then, is my take on the truffles and I really want to thank Miss Kitty Hope and Mr Greenwood for the inspiration and especially for pointing out that you can roll truffles in any coating you want. I don't think I'd have thought of the pistacchi otherwise! As I've mentioned before, Bronte near Catania is the pistacchio town and you may be interested to read of its connections with a certain British admiral and of his possible link with three very famous British sisters.

Modican chocolate and lime truffles

100 gr chocolate, broken up - I used half cioccolato fondente [dark chocolate] and half cinnamon-flavoured Modican chocolate
2 tablesp panna da montare if you are in Italy, or double or whipping cream [but don't whip it!]
zest of 1 lime and juice of 2
50 gr unsalted butter in pieces
farina di pistacchi - very finely chopped pistacchi - to coat the truffles

First I must confess that I've lost my double boiler so I decided to melt the chocolate in the microwave:  if you are going to do this, put it in a small Pyrex-style basin with the cream and microwave for 2 minutes on medium low [but keep an eye on it - your microwave may be more powerful than mine.] Give it a good stir.

Add the pieces of butter and stir well to melt.

Add the lime zest and juice and stir till mixed. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, scoop out coffee-spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into balls. Put on a tray lined with baking paper and refrigerate again for about an hour.

Now roll the truffles in the chopped pistacchi, known as farina di pistacchio [pistacchio flour] here.

Even without the gin, I think these taste quite exciting!

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Two other great Italian artists have celebrated their 80th birthdays this week and they are Ornella Vanoni and Gino Paoli. Tanti auguri and thanks to both of them for all the pleasure they have given to so many of us.

Ornella Vanoni - L'appuntamento

Gino Paoli - Una lunga storia d'amore

Friday, September 26, 2014


The end of summer means the disappearance of these

but heralds the appearance of these

and calls for a special salad, don't you think? Here's the one I came up with last week:

September salad

You need one skinless, boneless chicken breast if you are in Italy and two if you are in the UK, because here the breasts are sold as a pair and in the UK singly. Ask the butcher to cut it or them into escalopes and pound them.  Marinate the escalopes in 2 tablesp balsamic vinegar with 1 teasp sumac for at least two hours [No, I've never found sumac here - friends send it from the UK.] 

Now you need to deal with 4 prickly pears: to peel one, lay it on its side on a board, plunge a fork into it to hold it steady, then make a slit on one side and start peeling the skin off with the knife. Don't touch the skin as, even if the thorns have been removed prior to sale, you can still get some nasty scratches. Then cut the fruit crossways into slices. Grill the slices in 1 tablesp oil on a griddle pan. They won't go very brown or show griddle marks but the grilling will make the flavour quite interesting. Drain the slices on kitchen paper.

Next, cut 1 large red pepper and 1 large yellow pepper into strips, not very thinly, and grill these in the griddle pan in 2 tablesp. oil.  Drain.

Peel and deseed half a large cucumber or a whole small one and chop it. Put the pieces on a plate, sprinkle with fine seasalt and leave for half an hour or so. Then rinse and drain.

Drain the chicken escalopes and discard the marinade. Pat the escalopes as dry as you can with kitchen paper. Now grill them in 2 tablesp oil in all in a griddle pan. Drain on kitchen paper and leave to cool.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut the escalopes into bite-sized pieces with a kitchen scissors. Put the pieces in a large salad bowl and leave in the fridge.

Make a dressing with 6 tablesp olive oil, 1 tablesp honey, 1 teasp sumac, fine seasalt and black pepper to taste. Mix it all well with a fork and refrigerate this, too.

When you are nearly ready to serve the salad, add  some washed salad leaves to the bowl: I used a whole small radicchio and half an iceberg lettuce, but you can use what leaves you like.  Then add the peppers, prickly pears and cucumber.  Add a few basil leaves and then toss it all in the dressing and serve. 

Serves 4.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Over the years, I've received some nice "gifts" through my supermarket's loyalty card scheme, including a battery-operated cheese grater, a coffee machine, china, bed linen, numerous saucepans, an onion chopper and a cake slicer that plays "Jingle Bells". Therefore I am sorry to see the "gifts" scheme go, and even sorrier to see what has replaced it.

Sometimes I think the Italian national motto should be, "Don't make things simple if you can make them complicated" and there can be no finer example than the new discount coupon scheme that replaces points and gifts. Here's what you have to do to get your €5 discount coupon:

Present your card at the checkout every time you spend so that you can get one "bonus" [instead of a point] per euro. OK. Then, when you've accumulated 200 "bonuses" you have to BOOK your discount coupon. Yes, book it! You get a receipt for the "booking" which you are supposed to keep and after a week you can collect your coupon - if you remember to ask for it before the expiry date on the receipt and can find the latter in the first place . Finally, if you spend €25 in one go, you  can use the coupon!

For goodness sake! Why can't the coupon just be automatically sent to customers' home addresses? Because it would be too simple, that's why! I give up, Italy.

Bring back the points and gifts, please! I could do with another fun cake slicer.....


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