My town has 56,339 inhabitants. This morning, when I opened the window, it smelt as if every single one of them had just farted.
The noxious gases billowed in and tinged the kitchen air a mustardy pea green. The whiff was coming from the local sewage works, whose manager feels that complying with health and safetly regulations is a terrible waste of his money. I estimated I could last 30 seconds before running out of oxygen completely and, clutching my throat in panic, I turned on the air conditioning.
It was the first time I had used it this summer, and nobody had washed the filters yet. Out flew a couple of kilogrammes of dust and approximately 7 million dustmites.
I ran up to the bedroom zone and stayed there for ten minutes, breathing deeply of the invigorating smell of “teenage boy”. (My son is only seven but they grow up fast these days. Also, he has a congenital foot cheese problem. He can’t help it, it’s glandular.)
“What a terrible pong of broken glass,” my Welsh grandfather used to say when someone let out a bum quack. Or he would wrinkle his brow. “Now there’s a nasty whiff of wire bending.”
Apparently all the Welsh coal miners used euphemisms like that. A fart in a coal mine is most unwelcome, of course. It won’t exactly get carried away on the breeze. Apparently, a really bad one could linger down there FOR DAYS AT A TIME.
Sicilians are fart conoisseurs, and they’re not as coy as Grandpa was. The Sicilian language has different words for different types. A sgureggiu is the ninja type, silent but deadly; A pirittu is the show-off variety, rattlingly loud; after doing a luffione you have to rush off and change into fresh underwear. You get the idea.
After a while I decided to re-test the outside air, so I opened the window a crack. This time my nostrils were assailed by an acrid cloud of smoke from burning car tyres and possibly a chemical fire. This smell came from a local entrepreneur, who has opened up a business accepting old tyres and other industrial waste from far and near, for a fee which undercuts the local council. It crossed my mind that he was lucky not to explode in a giant fireball, considering the dense clouds of methane that were billowing all around town. By this time I had gone into industrial phenol-induced bronchospasm and only just got the window catch down before slipping to the floor. I may have suffered a small amount of brain damage.
I decided to just leave everything closed at that point, and get my son ready for school as fast as humanly possible.
“No you don’t really need breakfast today. Hurry up!”
“It’s OK, you don’t have to brush your teeth today. Chop chop!”
“Alright, you can eat the toothpaste if you’re hungry. Just get your shoes on!”
Eventually, he innocently asked me:
“Mummy, have you done a wooftie? It’s very whiffy in here.”
“No darling, it wasn’t me. Ok, you can go to school without your shoes on. Let’s GO!”
All I wanted was to get away from this Little House of Smells and make my way to somewhere I could actually inhale oxygen.
I drove all the way with the window tightly shut and then, when we reached the school, I realised I simply was NOT going to breathe today. At all.
For this is what I found parked opposite my son’s educational establishment:
You can imagine what that smells like in the Sicilian heat. It was buzzing with a milion mosquitoes and flies. I’ve no doubt there were cockroaches and rats in its deeper strata.
Driving home after abandoning my poor little boy to his fate, I saw that this wasn’t just one horrible spot. There were mountains like this at intervals along every street in town. I am sorry to say that modern technology does not, as yet, allow me to convey the smell of e. coli- and shigella-induced decomposition to you through cyberspace… though it’s so potent that, if you open your window wide, you may just catch a whiff of it wherever you live, borne on the wind.
After a stomach-turning wait at the traffic lights, I was pulling out round a heap of rubbish and suddenly it started to seethe and shift: about 100 plastic bags of stink had buried a parked car overnight, whose owner had somehow excavated his way through it to the driver’s seat and decided to take off out of it, like a zombie emerging out through the mud of his grave.
In some roads there were refuse-related traffic jams, where a two-way street was reduced to a single lane and the vehicles travelling in each direction had to take turns to get through the bottle neck.
If you could see under the particularly large mound at the far side of that photo above, you would know that there are three recycling bins under there. When they first appeared, some idealistic and delusional people, myself for example, happpily separated their rubbish. Then we noticed that the bin men tip everything into the same lorry, mixing it all back up again. After that, we started putting our old squashed bits of cannoli into the glass recycling bin and uneaten tangles of spaghetti in the plastic one. What the heck!
Yeah, this is what happens when your town mayor outsources refuse collection to a company that is actually Mafia Incorporated. We pay among the highest rate of taxes for refuse collection in Europe, and the refuse stays where we leave it. Where does our money go? It pays colossal salaries to Mafiosi who have got out of prison, and are employed as refuse collectors. There are so many of them that we almost have enough for one bin man to every 30 citizens, and their salary is Euros 50,000 a year – that is over US $60,000. And they don’t actually collect the refuse.
My husband got hold of a copy of the refuse collection contract. It says the council must pay the refuse collection company’s employees’ salaries, whether or not the refuse is actually collected and taken away. It also says that the refuse collection company will decide unilaterally how many employees it needs to hire, in order to not collect the rubbish.
Last year, the new town mayor tried to cancel the contract signed by the previous mayor and was quite seriously beaten up, so he backed down and continued paying.
You may think “fair enough”, but I don’t. If you stand for election in Sicily, at any level, you KNOW this danger is part of the job. You KNOW you may have to get a 24 hour armed escort for yourself and your family, if you do the right thing and govern honestly. And you get paid a truly colossal salary for your pains.
The mayor of a tiny town like mine is paid a small fortune. By the time you go up to the members of the national parliament in Italy, most of whom are responsible for a region with less than 200,000 inhabitants, the salary is more than Barack Obama earns. Check that on Google if you don’t believe me.
Some members of the public resort to setting fire to the heaps of rubbish. This is of course dangerous, not only because the fires could spread, but because the burning rubbish releases highly toxic gases into the atmosphere. Yet what else are you supposed to do when you cannot get through your own driveway because there are about 14 tonnes of plastic bags in front of it, full of used nappies, food packaging and rotting fish heads? And are the rats and cockroaches that swarm in and out of the rubbish heaps any less of a public health hazard than the noxious gases produced by burning them?
The town tayor, on the town council’s website, denouced people who set fire to the rubbish as “vandals.” Am I the only one who thinks the concept of “vandalising rubbish” is funny?
Well, is there a silver lining to this cloud?
Besides the rubbish crisis, we have an economic crisis too. I have started seeing people picking through the rubbish on the streets lately. Every time I drop my son at school, there is someone there, having a look for anything that could be useful; you never see more than one person (unless they are gypsies), as any Sicilian would find it too humiliating to be found in this activity, so they vanish when they see someone they know.
So, the people with money throw stuff away, then the really poor people take it home and use it all over again. That’s recycling, Sicilian style. How ecological!
33 Comments Add yours
Cripes. Your photos and vivid descriptions of the smells make a big change from the picture postcard routine…..
I’ll try to balance things out with some lovely photos next time!!!
No, keep it up- it makes it real, that way we’re not too jealous of you in your little corner of paradise. What with the overflowing bins and the Mafia, Sicily is starting to show it’s other face… 🙂
How does the Mafia feel about the undead? Reanimate Margaret Thatcher and she’ll sort them out. (Oh, I feel a screenplay coming on here.)
Ha ha haaaa!
I think you’re right, she’d know how to deal with the Mafia.
To be honest, so would Mussolini. He got rid of the lot of them in 2 weeks, bypassing the trial process and simply shooting them.
We could add him to the movie, and have a zombie love connection in the final scene… what do you think?
I’ve read articles and seen documentaries on this problem before…. your explanation is far more enlightening and succinct than any of those. Great post! Sorry to see you’re surrounded by it…
Even though there are so many wonderful things and so much beauty in Sicily, and I am sure people outside Sicily would be more interested in hearing about those, I wanted to expose what the Mafia really do to this place. Most people outside Sicily seem completely unaware of it – as you hinted, I’ve never seen anything on TV that clearly exposes this or explains it as it really is.
There are so many TV shows and films that glorify the Mafia into something glamorous. In reality, most of what they do just steals money from the poorest and most ordinary citizens, money that should provide basic services essential for the public. There’s nothing exciting or glamorous about that.
This is very true, my favourite film was the Godfather, Mrs Sensible wouldn’t watch it. As you said, the Mafia are still very big and causing a lot of the problems that Italy is facing. I read a report that said their income is the same as Fiat!!!
On a lighter note, we used to live in a little village surrounded by rice fields, When the farmers flooded the fields, the ground water lever rose and all the village septic tanks would overflow.
I would throw gallons of bleach down the loo to try and stop the smell. Mrs Sensible eventually managed to stop me doing this. She gave me a science lesson on the bacterial balance of the septic tank, It took much shouting and waving of the arms before I understood.
Hubby is the same. He’s never seen The Godfather and rolls his eyes at the mention of it.
“That’s about Americans,” he’ll say dismissively, “not about us.”
They have some really good Italians Mafia films, usually Sicilian made, which show it like it is. Have you seen any of the really good dramatisations of the life of Falcone or Borsellino on TV? They showed one the other day. Or those semi-documentaries with reconstructions based on the real intercepted phone conversations? Hubby sometimes watches those.
Ah yes, bleaching a septic tank! Makes more pong in the long run. The people from the sewage works here claim the local fish canning factories do something similar to their tanks, by pouring gallons of olive oil down the drain. Olive oil is antibacterial and kills off their sewage-eating bacteria, they claim. Though this still doesn’t explain why they refuse to buy their tanks LIDS, which the law says they should have. At least that way, the pong would just be their problem, not eveybody’s problem!
On my first visit to Sicily, I was tooted at by the driver of a Big Black Merc, He wanted me to hurry up and move over. So I gave him the finger 🙂
Mrs Sensible went apoplectic 🙂 🙂
She made me quickly disappear down various ally ways until she was sure that the car was no where in sight.
She then gave we a blistering lecture about Mafia, big guns that shout stupid Englishmen and big black Mercedes
I now only give the finger to tatty Fiats
I had literally the identical experience in my early days here in Sicily. Except it wasn’t only the finger, but I hooted at him as well.
That was the day my husband’s hair loss began. He made me circle around town like the Dukes of Hazzard, and even go off-road for a while.
I’d be careful of the tatty Fiats too, if I were you, as they sometimes travel incognito. Hubby insists I treat absolutely everyone with equal caution.
Mrs Sensible told me the story of the Sicilian White Fiat Gang. It seems there was a gang of bank robbers that used stolen white fiats as get away cars, not because they were fast, but because there was so many on the streets of Sicily the police didn’t know which to stop.
Yes I behave with the finger and tooting as well. Although driving home from Sicily at Christmas I did flash and toot at a car on the autostrader. I thought wifey was fast asleep.
She went mad again, it seems we were on the outskirts of Naples and everyone is either Mafia or related to Mafia. She kept expecting a car to pull us over.
It is very bad when everyone is afraid of the Mafia.
Yes, it explains why the Mafia is still going strong. If everyone is scared to toot at them when they drive dangerously, no wonder everyone turns the other way when they commit serious crimes.
And the police do not provide effective protection to anyone who stands up to them. Look at how Falcome and Borsellino died, while under police and military escort 24×7.
When hubby did his military service, he formed part of a “scorta” for one of the Mafia judges, standing outside his house day and night, wearing a bullet proof vest so heavy that one poke and he would have fallen flat and never been able to get up again (he claims), holding a machine gun he had never been trained to use, with hand grenades dangling around his waist (to make sure he exploded leaving no trace, should anyone actually shoot at him.)
“What protection was I offering?” he says. “I was just a terrified 18 year old, with no idea what I was doing.”
Italy could be great, but not while it has the mafia problem and the current set of politician
We definitely need a completely new set of politicians to sort this place out. That’s why the ‘Movimento 5 Stelle’ has gained such massive support in Sicily. Although some people are too sceptical to believe anything will ever change, the more optimistic ones are throwing all their support behind it, as it seems like our only hope.
Oh! So intriguing!
Oh, my. I remember what the Camorra did in Naples, I hadn’t realized the situation with the Mafia in Sicily with garbage collection had gotten so bad
I don’t really know much about the Camorra… did they do something similar? i suppos they operate in the same way as the Mafia and do the same type of damage…
Wow! Informing and entertaining as usual! I didnt know either that it had gotten this bad. Hope tomorrow air will smell better!
Thank you! I’m crossing my fingers (…and holding my nose!)
I’m workin’ on that book!
I really needed to write this to vent a bit of frustration.
I really enjoyed that! Probably because I couldn’t smell it! I’ve never seen so many ways of describing farts in such a short space of time! I can’t believe that they would bury somebody’s car in rubbish – out of control!
I was SOOOOO glad it wasn’t my car that got buried! Imagine having to tunnel through rubbish bags like that!
I’m sure they didn’t do it maliciously, though, it’s just that the rubbish heap grows and grows and there’s nothing you can do about it – a hazard of parking too close to the bins!
Crazy. Doesn’t really gel with my image of Sicily! You’ve saved me some cash and a trip 😉
Oh, be put off visiting. Just don’t visit the dump where I live – go to the nice part!!!!
Noto, Cefalù, Mondello…. there are lots of heavenly places worth seeing. Honest!
And Sicilians themselves are honestly quite genteel you know – no ‘Latvian Snot Rockets’ round here 😉
This is my first encounter with the word pong used all by itself. On this side of the pond, pong is immediately followed by ping: ping pong or table tennis. Hey it’s always great to learn a new language. 🙂 Anyway, another chronicler of Sicilian life says that farts also are given names by how they “break wind”. A “pirito” that is loud and peremptory is a “Roberto”. A “Silvio” is subtle and sneaky. While a “Filippo” is thickly quiet. Then there is the grand stink “feto” that can neither be hidden nor ignored. Finally the voluptuous “giallo” whose source is immediately recognized only by familial association with its maker, be it yourself, your brother, husband or suocera. Your observations have given new meaning to “malaria” as well as warrant another thank you from me.
Ah, it’s great to get the chanch to teach a bit of the Queen’s English around the world! 🙂
Your comment has had me in stitches! I felt that exposing the Sicilian “naming baby” approach to farts might be going a bit too far, but perhaps I should have included that after all? Have you seen the classic comedy clip called “Lesson in farting”? It introduces “The Alfooooooonso.”
It’s on You tube… the lesson starts about half way through and you don’t even have to speak Italian to understand the gist of it:
(warning, this is highly infantile and vulgar, don’t click on it if you’re refined or anything like that).
Alfoooonso…..???? hehe – in my part of the world is a beautiful, sweetsmelling MANGO and now in season!!
Better a mango than a blast of flatulence, I think!!!!
I shall make sure I think of mangoes when I hear the name Alfonso from now on!
Another great post! I am glad to have found your blog and am having great fun reading back through old posts. The situation with the mafia, garbage, etc. breaks my heart because Sicily is such a beautiful place and the people are wonderful. I can hardly wait to get back…hoping that will be this summer!!
I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying my blog!
This refuse situation is so frustrating – just when it seems to be improving, there’s yet another smelly relapse.
But don’t let that put y ou off returning because, as youi say, it really is a beautiful island and there are so many rubbish-free places to enjoy! 🙂
I just wish we had read your article before we left for our ’10 day’ holiday in Sicily. We have returned (at great expense) after only spending 4 days on the island. The place is just one huge rubbish dump! I thought the litter problem is bad here in England, but it is nothing compared with the disgusting situation in Sicily. I drove up the main road on Mount Etna and stopped in a parking area half way up to study some of the flora and fauna. The first thing I came across was a discarded fridge surrounded by a pile of fly tipped rubbish. Foreign tourists can’t be held to blame for dumping a fridge! It has to be a local.
Your explanation of Mafia activity explains a lot. I think it is so very sad.
We will never ever return to Sicily. A beautiful island ruined by thoughtless human activity. I really do sympathise with you having to live with it. You must love your husband very much.
Yes, yes and yes to all this.
The thing that makes it so depressing is that, when I tell Sicilians how much the rubbish puts the tourists off and how much wealthier the island could become if they made it attractive to tourists, they respond that they don’t want tourists here. They would rather live in this cess pit as they are.