Urgent! I need some Ancient Romans to build me an Aqueduct

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?

The Pont du Gard, Nimes, France: This was built by Italians 2,000 years ago and brought water to an entire city and surrounding farms. On its lower level it carries cars and other motorised vehicles, which the Ancient Romans who designed it could not even have imagined.
The Pont du Gard, Nimes, France: This was built by Italians 2,000 years ago and brought water to an entire city and surrounding farms. On its lower level it carries cars and other motorised vehicles, which the Ancient Romans who designed it could not even have imagined.

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!”).

The Ancient Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain, still functioning. I've bathed in water that came along this aqueduct. Yeah, I didn't have greasy hair when I was on holiday in Spain.
The Ancient Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain, still functioning after 2,000 years. I’ve bathed in water that came along this aqueduct. Yeah, I didn’t have greasy hair when I was on holiday in Spain.

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.

The Trevi Fountain, Rome. The water in this fountain comes entirely via an ancient Roman aqueduct, no electrical motors required. I wonder if it's allowed to shampoo or wash behind one's ears in it...
The Trevi Fountain, Rome. The water in this fountain comes entirely via an ancient Roman aqueduct, no electrical motors required. I wonder if it’s allowed to shampoo or wash behind one’s ears in it…

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.

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44 thoughts on “Urgent! I need some Ancient Romans to build me an Aqueduct

  1. Fantastic… 🙂 🙂

    Prior to moving to Italy, I wouldn’t have believed you. However 5 years here changes ones opinion of what living in a civilised European country is really like. 🙂

    Mrs Sensibles house in Sicily has a well and a pump. the water is very good. Get digging

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    1. I think you’re right, a well is our only hope.
      There is so much in Sicily that anyone who hasn’t lived here just cannot quite believe. Our latest one is that a bank employee has been embezzling money out of my husband’s bank account for 2 years – loan payments that were, apparently, NOT paying off the loan as we thought. All very ordinary stuff here in Sicily, but not quite believable in actual Europe. Anyway, that’s the stuff of a future blog post…

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      1. I laugh at the the stuff that happens in Italy / Sicily, Mrs Sensible becomes quiet distraught and angry because it is her country.

        When it gets really bad she starts hinting at life in the UK. Nooo please nooo

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      2. I talk about life in the UK very often these days. My husband’s reaction is like yours. It seems he can put up with anything so long as the sun keeps shining.
        I’m not so easily fobbed off. I’d rather eliminate this stress and never mind the rain!

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  2. So, did Mrs Sterile’s home have the lovely scent of mustard gas wafting out the door? I mean really…hydrochloric acid and bleach???? Mrs. Sterile must have been sick that day in chemistry class.

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  3. I absolutely adore reading these hilarious tales of life in Sicily! I forwarded the link for your blog to my mother, who dreams of moving to Italy one day, and she now follows. We often have a laugh over your latest post when we meet for a catch up glass of wine. I have to ask out of curiosity: is mainland Italy as dysfunctional as Sicily??

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    1. I’m so glad you and your mother enjoy my blog!
      Sicily is definitely in a league all of its own. However they do have quite a lot of ridiculous stuff going on in mainland Italy, if I’m honest. But nowhere near as ridiculous as this.
      To get a good handle on what to expect in mainland Italy, your best source is most definitely this blog:
      http://englishmaninitaly.wordpress.com/
      It’s hilarious and I’m utterly addicted to it!

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      1. Yes, I actually just started following his blog yesterday, and absolutely loved the first thing I saw: ‘No Comment’, the video showing some of Napoli’s best bad parking drama 🙂 Couldn’t stop laughing and forwarded to my mother immediately.

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      2. Mainland Italy is almost as bad as Sicily, But and it is a big but, you have better food, weather, people…… Plus Mrs Sensible’s family still live their.

        And many many thanks for the link 🙂

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  4. You could try and blame Alaric for it. I mean he sacked Rom and trashed the, by then verging on the brink of dysfunctional, Roman society into pulp thereby plunging Europe, Italy and all into a darkness from which Sicily seems not to have emerged yet. But hey, I lived in India and the water conditions there are less than functional too. So you have my sympathies.

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    1. Oh that darned Alaric!
      I was actually going to include a bit of German-bashing, by telling how they invaded and ruined everything, but actually several of my closest friends are German and I have mocked them rather a lot lately, so I decided to let them off this time!!!!

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  5. Good gravy. The inability to shut off the water for just the non-payers and allowing the paying neighbors to keep their water service is what’s boggling the mind here. There might be a great deal wrong with the good ol’ US of A, but the water companies mostly get it right (however, if your sewer pipe is destroyed by your neighbor who’s going on a faulty town map for excavation, good luck trying to get someone to admit fault on that one and expect to spend a few months using business bathrooms and showering at the town pool).

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  6. Ciao! I studied abroad in Sicily for a few months. We encountered some quirks in our little apartmento. Your blog is so entertaining! I’ll be making posts about my experiences in Italy soon. 🙂

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  7. Educational, yet hardly the place I would call home. There is no rational to this deliberate water shortage. Put the violators in prison rather than subjecting paying customers to this inhumane treatment. This dilemma would give me the incentive to return to a kinder, gentler country where responsible folks are not held hostage by insane government!

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  8. Having an insane gov. is essential for any normal Italian, surely everyone knows that. Look at the opinion poll stats in favour of Berlusconi. I love your blog, always makes me laugh. You should write a book. I’ve never been able to understand how the Romans could possibly have been Italian.

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  9. First: tell your neighbor to NEVER let bleach and ammonia mix – they combine to release toxic fumes of straight-up chlorine gas that can kill anyone in a closed room. Needless to say, hydrochloric acid alone or in combo is not a good idea, either.
    Second: When we lose water service (very infrequently a main breaks somewhere nearby), we flush the toilets by using gallons of water to refill the water tank behind/above the toilet. So if you can get cleanish water (not salt/sea water) into a collection of bottles/pails/jugs, etc you can flush when really necessary. No electricity needed.
    Otherwise, your post is frighteningly hilarious!

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  10. As per usual, a totally insane situation turned into something funny – I loved this post! It sounds like your water board has decided to put the pressure (ur humm) on those who pay in the hope that they will do their dirty work for them and force the non-payers to cough up the cash…. Will we soon be reading an article about mafia tactics between neighbours? Mrs Sterile already sounds like a closet bomb maker….. Not that I’m trying to give yoi ideas, or anything…. Good luck!

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  11. I think you guys are right. You’ve gradually led me to realise that Mrs. Sterile is our only hope. We need her to make Molotov cocktails out of her cleaning products, and then storm the non-payers.
    However, those of you who clearly know far more about chemistry than I do, can you predict the result? Would we blow their houses up, stink them out of house and home, or simply make their residences extraordinarily clean?

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  12. Hi! regarding tap water: I can assure it is actually drinkable and tastes very good in Rome. I guess it’s an homage to ancien civilization:-)
    I am glad you are writing all of this on Sicily because even as an Italian I didn’t know it could get this bad:-)

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      1. They actually use the old aqueduct! I guess there is a constant flow from the mains or sthg like that. You made me discover this thing about tanks in Sicily, i only saw that during summer in the country. And my boys are totally in awe of the autobotte guy and his vehicle 🙂

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  13. Nooo! That’s terrible about the water! In Malaysia, we used to have frequent blackouts and water supply outages, so everyone kept large jars of water in the backyard and each house also had its own water tank on the roof. I once went to visit an uncle who lived in a condo where they’d had some sort of water outage for a week. The communal swimming pool was almost empty, because everyone had been scooping the water out to flush their toilets with! Do you have stealthy access to any sort of pool?

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    1. Ha haaa! That’s hilarious!
      My little boy goes swimming for swimming lessons twice a week (far more often lately!) but, despite the *Wild West* nature of Sicily, I don’t think we could get away with stealing a bit of water!
      Then again, we could actually fill up some buckets in the shower…… ooh, you’re giving me naughty ideas!
      My favourite plumbing stoy of all time comes from Malaysia actually. I went there at least 15 years ago, and entered a hotel that looked very nicely plumbed and modern. When I started washing my hands I gradually felt an odd sensation on my feet and legs: It took me a while to realise they were getting splashed and wet. Then I investigated, and saw that the sink had no outlet pipe, so the running water just poured through the plug hole and straight onto the bathroom floor!!!

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  14. I’ve read this post at least 3 times – I can’t stop thinking about this insane situation!

    I really have no words – just wanted you to know I’m sitting halfway around the world and clutching my pearls in horror.

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  15. That’s unbelievably and yet strangely believable. I used to spent quite a lot of time in Egypt and at first you’d hear stories that must have been made up but after a few days or weeks were entirely believable and you just knew that newcomers wouldn’t believe your own tales.

    How costly can it be to seal off those non-payers and let the rest keep the water. I hope you know who the non-payers are so you can have words or at least do a few petty revenge tactics 🙂

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    1. Well, after a whole year of having no water, taking three different types of legal action and also using some physical menacing tactics, we eventually decided bribery was the way to go, and found an official in the water company who agreed to give us our own personal water meter, enabling us to ignore the central one for the street as a whole.

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      1. I was wondering what the situation was now. Incredible that you have to do the bribing and not the non-payers.

        From the sound of it though, its probably the best solution. I hope in the summer you find a way to rub your non-paying neighbours noses in it that you have water. I guess strictly speaking, it wasn’t their fault that the water company acted that way.

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