We have no running water to our house any more.
The reason is that some of the other people in our street haven’t paid their water bills for over eight years. So the water board cut off the water to the whole street.
One thing I’d first like to say is, thank the Lord this didn’t happen in summer because the street-wide level of B.O. could potentially have reached life-threatening ponginess.
As it is, we are eating off plastic plates most of the time. Laundry is strictly rationed. Bathing is “By popular request” only, basically decided on a scratch’n’sniff basis. We are having to apply the “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” rule. My husband likes his S-bends dazzling white and has developed a nervous tic over this, my son is terrified he’ll get carrots and cabbages growing behind his ears (we brainwashed him) and, personally, I am losing sleep as I keep waking up from wracking nightmares about what happens to people who dare walk round Italy in public with greasy hair. I mean, I know the Fashion Police arrest them, but then what?
I popped into a neighbour’s house the other day and noticed that her kitchen floor, usually so clean I wouldn’t mind having open abdominal surgery on it, actually had grimy smears. Personally I’m the kind of housewife who will happily step over a squashed slice of cake on my way to the kettle. If I want a cup of tea, I never lose focus.
Women like Mrs. Sterile, however, probably need psychiatric therapy to live like this. I did notice her eyes had a wild, staring quality to them and she was repetitively wringing a bone-dry duster in her hands as if it were the neck of Mrs. Manicure across the road, one of the most persistent and shameless non-payers.
Like most Sicilian women, Mrs. Sterile regards the sudden appearance of a domestic floor blemish as an emergency. She will cancel all social engagements for the next week, put on a pinny with hideous frills round the armholes, and then get out a series of mops and scrubbing brushes in graded sizes plus several bottles of ammonia, bleach and pure hydrochloric acid (I bet you think I’m making this up, don’t you?) all of which she uses repeatedly and cyclically on the offending contaminated area until she has eroded the glaze off the floor tiles and dissolved the grouting into froth.
Not any more. Now, she just tries to wipe it off with a dry tissue, and then sanitise her hands with antibacterial gel (“No Water Required!”).
Now I’ve got all that off my chest, let me reflect for a moment. A utility company has decided to lose about 35 paying customers, because about 12 other customers who happen to live near them chose to have their nails varnished professionally every month, and to dress their fat toddlers in Versace trousers, instead of paying their water bills.
The logic of the non-paying neighbours like Mrs. Manicure is easy to understand: They decided to have free water, because they could.
The logic of the water company is something that I reckon you have to be a Sicilian, born and bred, to stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of fathoming. The main problem is, we cannot defect to another water company, because there isn’t another one. We can’t get our water reconnected by paying the bill, because we’ve already paid it.
How are we coping? Well, we already happen to have a row of water tanks in our garage with a combined capacity of 4000 litres. We also have an electric pump that pushes the water up the pipes to the rest of the house. So we get a man with a lorry called an Autobot to fill the tanks from time to time. He swears the water is clean, but it looks like pee. My son is happy when the Autobot comes because, as anyone with a little boy will know, Autobots are the friendly kind of Transformers, which are not really lorries, they’re robots in disguise. If that made no sense to you, you obviously don’t have a little boy. Don’t worry about it.
Are you wondering why we just happened to have massive water tanks connected to a motor in our garage? In Italy, they don’t have water towers, they haven’t heard of water pressure, and they don’t care. “Mains water pressure” is a phrase you can’t actually translate into Italian. What you can easily translate, though, is “burst water pipe”, “flood” and “damn.” (Yes I meant damn not dam).
Here’s how water works in Sicily. (Except for periods when it doesn’t, of course):
1. Water comes from the water purifying plant, where a small amount of the bacteria, piddle and female hormones has been filtered out, and the remainder has been disguised with enough chlorine to sting your eyes when you lean over a filled bath tub.
2. A Humungous Motor pushes it down the pipe to your street.
3. Then a Biggish Motor pushes it from the end of your street to your house, and all the way into a big tank inside your house.
4. It sits there stagnating for half the week. When you turn the taps on, a Diddy Motor sucks some water out of the tanks, then pushes it up the pipes and feebly into your tap, bath or domestic appliance. It comes out smelling a bit like the water from a fish tank. Oh, did I mention you can’t drink the tap water in Italy?
All this means that, if you have a little boy who always wants to do a poo when there’s a power cut (I think he finds the candle light relaxing), you cannot flush the damn thing away till the electric power comes back on, because, without electricity, the water doesn’t come out of the taps.
When I reflect on anything to do with water in Italy, I want to cry out
“Oh! How the mighty have fallen!”
Italians are the descendants of the folks who invented aqueducts. The Romans built aqueducts and underground water pipes that supplied constant running water – fresh mineral water, no less – to 200 cities in Europe, two millennia ago. Their hydraulic constructions still supply some European towns with water.
Those Ancient Romans had running water, indoor plumbing and city-wide sewage systems. The aqueducts they built all over Europe carried fresh water across hundreds of miles, using nothing but gravity as a source of power. They bored underground tunnels as water mains through mountains and out the other side.
When the water reached Rome it was stored in huge cisterns on the highest ground, so it would reach private houses at high pressure though the force of its own weight. Each citizen of Rome had 1,000 litres of drinkable water a day. That’s more than most people in the world get even now. If I’d lived here in Sicily 2,000 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have had greasy hair, ever.
The thing that makes my current drought-like situation doubly painful for me is that the Italian word for water works, meaning the water supply company, is acquedotto. This is the very same word they use for those magnificent aqueducts the Ancient Romans built. It’s sacriledge.
Oh! How the mighty have fallen!
The Romans knew their water system prevented the spread of disease, stopped epidemics developing, and saved thousands of lives. Maintenance of the entire water system was entrusted to a public official called the Curator Aquarum and, if he messed up, he was subject to the death penalty.
I really would like to reinstate this original system. Sicily needs it.