Statistics released today byIstat, the Italian National Statistics Office, show that 24.5% of Italians were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2010, a figure not much different from that for 2009. As usual, the situation is worse in the South, where 12.9% of families are suffering some form of deprivation, a figure which is double that for Central Italy and three times that for the North. Family income is a stunning 25% lower in the South than in the rest of Italy whilst the percentage of Italian families in which the 18-59-year-olds work for less than one fifth of the year stands at 10.2, an increase of 1.4% as compared to 2009.
In 2010 16% of families were finding it impossible to manage on their monthly income and 8.9% had utility bill arrears. The number who had rent or mortgage arrears stands at 11.2%. A worrying 31.3% of families had found themselves without the means to purchase necessary clothing during 2010 and 6.3% had been unable to purchase the food they needed at some point in the year. Also worryingly, 18.1% of families had experienced difficulty in paying medical expenses: Italy of course has a free health service but hospital appointments and tests carry a nominal charge for all but the poorest and there are prescription and some other charges. The statistics also show that 11.5% of families had been unable to heat their homes adequately and you may be surprised to learn that most of these live in the South: winter nights can be harsh here but the figures may also reflect the fact that families in the South are more likely to have elderly relatives living with them.
Sadly, it is Italy's young people who are most at risk of poverty and deprivation and again the figure is higher for the South.
Another year and another set of statistics, yes; but behind each of these statistics there are human beings and stories of real suffering. It is my earnest hope that politicians do not forget this and that everyone has a more prosperous 2012.
It's a while since we had a post office story on Sicily Scene and this one comes via a friend who lives in Marina di Ragusa:
Not having received Christmas cards that friends in the UK had posted in early December, my friend went to her local post office to ask if there was any undelivered mail for her last week. The clerk said that there was not and then, when asked if he could check, that it was not his job to do so.
Yesterday, therefore, my friend went to the main postal distribution centre for Ragusa, where she was informed that if she telephoned them they would check and get the postman to deliver. My friend said she knew there was post and wanted to collect it herself. This caused much deliberation among the employess but finally they agreed to check and produced no less than 29 Christmas cards, a magazine, a letter and a bill which had to be paid that very day. The excuse for non-delivery? "Well, it's holiday time."
Hey, Ragusa - we're British and we want our Christmas cards!
Lest you should imagine that the local post is much more efficient, the employees at Ragusa confirmed my friend's suspicion that all post in the Province with a local address goes to Catania [which constitutes another Province] to be franked and is then sent back to the towns of origin for delivery.
I found the recipe for this dish in a little booklet that came free with a sachet of saffron and was pleasantly surprised at how well it literally turned out, moulded, as it was, in nothing more sophisticated than a loaf tin. The sauce is of carrots, shallot, Sicilian celery and zucchini, all cooked in a little oil and mixed with the saffron, grated grana or ragusano cheese and some Béchamel. Ziti pasta are used and you are supposed to cut them to the length of your loaf tin after cooking but luckily my loaf tin was just the right size!
My stella di Natale or poinsettia - which was a gift - is flecked with cream this year and I love it. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of writing about the poinsettia legends forItaly Magazine and, for those of you who do not know these tales, I repeat them here:
The poinsettia plant is as much a symbol of Christmas in Italy as the presepe [crib] that is found in almost every home. With their bright red colour and leaves in the form of star points, the plants are loved, carefully tended and are often kept from one year to the next. In Italy they are known as Stelle di Natale [Christmas stars] a name which the Italians adopted from Spanish missionaries in Mexico, where the plant originated. A group of Spanish Franciscan monks working in Mexico used the plants in a Christmas procession for the first time in the seventeenth century and after that the Mexicans started using them in Nativity scenes. It was one Joel Robert Poinsett, US Ambassador to Mexico from 1825 – 1829, who gave the plant its English name and took it to the United States. At Christmas 1899 poinsettia plants were placed in St Peter’s Basilica, drawing admiration from all who saw them.
There are two legends about the poinsettia that you may like to know about. Neither is Italian but – hey- it’s Christmas! The first and most famous concerns a little Mexican girl called Pepita or, in some versions, Lola, or maybe a boy called Pablo. Pepita, on her way to see the annual Nativity scene in her village, suddenly realised she had no offering to take with her that would show her love for the Baby Jesus and she started to cry. At that point, an angel spoke to her and advised her to gather some greens from the roadside, for Jesus would know that they were given with love. Pepita did so but the other children laughed at her gift. Then, all of a sudden, the greens turned into a beautiful, red poinsettia plant.
The other legend is more universal: When God created Nature, he asked all the flowers to give to the humans who chose and tended them the very best of themselves – beauty, love, harmony and wisdom. But there was one plant that nobody wanted, although it tried hard to be chosen, for it had tiny flowers and its leaves were too big. The plant became very sad and in December God saw this. He said, “I know you want to give men beauty, love, harmony and wisdom and, as men need these things, I am going to help you. I will give you my blood and put it on your leaves, which will turn deep red and make you the most beautiful flower on earth in this most important season for man.” And so the plant with the tiny flowers and big leaves became the lovely stella di Natale and ever since, it has brought men beauty, love, harmony and wisdom.
The ladies and several gentlemen of the "foreign legion" held their multilingual carol service at the Salesian Church of Maria Ausiliatrice in Ragusa on Saturday. Italian, French, German, Bosnian, English, Dutch, Danish and Spanish were the languages represented this year and there was also a carol in Sicilian dialect.
The German ladies sang by candlelight
while enthusiasm made up for numbers as the British and American contingent belted out Hark the Herald Angels Sing:
I, as the only non-singing Welshwoman in the world, explained, in Italian, what an Eisteddfod is and read about an early, Christmas one instead [see details below]:
Denmark bravely contributed an excellent solo
and the Spanish speakers, who always choose a jolly carol, ensured that this year was no exception:
There was also a traditional accordion solo from accompanist Gino:
The service ended, as usual, with the singing of verses of Silent Night in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English.
"1176. At Christmastide in that year, the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd held a court with great splendour in Cardigan Castle, and arranged two kinds of contests there, one for bards and poets, and the other for harpists and crowthers and pipers and other musicians. He had two chairs placed for the winners, and honoured them with lavish gifts. Among the harpists, a youth of Rhys's own court was successful, and of the poets, those of Gwynedd were supreme. All seekers of largesse obtained from Rhys all that they asked for, and no one met with refusal. That feast, before it was held, had been proclaimed a year in advance throughout Wales, and England, Ireland and the other islands."
And now I'll let you look at the food that the" international ladies" had brought along:
My friend the artist Marjorie Morton is also an artist in the kitchen and for the occasion she had made this sumptuous cheesecake:
I had baked Nigella's white chocolate and [dried] cranberry cookies. I know they are not shaped perfectly but neither, if you look carefully, are Nigella's. Anyway, they were all eaten!
Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "If you can't afford the tip, you can't afford the meal."
The excellent Vecchia Aidone restaurant
in Enna, Sicily
Back in Britain I had a friend who refused to tip. This used to irritate and embarrass me no end whenever we were out together but over the past few years I have softened a little towards her stance.
In the UK, unlike in the US, tipping is not obligatory. You may get some surly looks in certain restaurants if you don't tip but the only person likely to yell at you for your omission is a London cabbie.
Whilst I used to round up taxi fares to the nearest pound in Britain and tip in restaurants provided the service had been good, I rarely tipped my hairdresser because the tip, added to the already high cost of his attention, would have rendered my visit to him prohibitively expensive. It is also a British convention not to tip the owner of a salon.
Not so long ago in Britain the postman, newspaper delivery boy or girl, refuse collectors and the milkman all expected tips at Christmas and these were usually given ungrudgingly by householders. I am even old enough to remember when we had coalmen and the coalman, too, got his tip. But then there came an era when all these good folk started knocking on doors to ask for their "Christmas box" and I'm not sure that people gave it quite so willingly from then on. Having been away from Britain for nearly seven years I am uncertain about the extent to which this custom continues, but it is rarer these days because there is more rotation among workers and local populations change faster than they used to.
Here in Italy, too, tipping is a matter of choice: it is appreciated but not expected as a right in bars and restaurants and I even know of waiters and barmen who will hand back a proffered tip to a customer. Why? Because taking the trouble to present even the simplest order elegantly and providing good service with a smile are regarded as routine duties and not as frills for which the customer has to pay a hidden "extra". There are, however, a few public conveniences [restrooms] in tourist spots which the unfortunate traveller will find hard to exit without leaving the "optional" tip!
My friend in Britain felt that the tipping habit was resonant of the aristocrat distributing largesse and that its continuance actually stopped workers from fighting for better remuneration. I have some sympathy with this view and regard tipping as being on a par with the boss who always buys his secretary a frivolous Christmas present rather than paying her the proper rate for her work.
To sum up, in a tipping culture I want a choice in the matter of whether I tip or not but I would really like to see the custom abolished. It is a social minefield and a throwback to the class system. Pay everyone a decent wage instead!
Below is the full list of bloggers who are participating in this week's Blog Off:
Sobrietà, or austerity, has certainly hit the modern Sorda area of Modica where I live: there are few Christmas lights, many businesses are closing and there is no seasonal atmosphere at all. Down in the historic centre of Modica Bassa, though, it's a different story and I liked this depiction of the Three Wise Men on their journey: it is made totally of natural materials and has been set up in the main square, Piazza Matteotti:
I especially took to this fellow
and I like the way the palm trees have been decorated, too:
But where were the Modicani this evening? Were they all admiring the crib? They were not: they had rushed en masse to La Fortezza, the city's first big shopping mall. Judging by the hour-long traffic jam on the road approaching it and the number of people there, Modicansare about to follow the British in adopting shopping as their Sunday hobby.
La Fortezza has three floors of stores and eateries and a nifty moving floor that you can take your trolley on to get to the top. This evening there was even entertainment and I must say they serve a good portion of calories-don't-count-'cos-you're-out chips on the second floor.
I have just one plea for the Comune: how about putting a bus on so that those of us without cars can actually get there?