Mr. Mrad's travel lift broke down on Thursday. By the grace of Allah, Aisling had splashed back into the water just hours before this happened. Being stuck on the hard with the temperature soaring above 30 degrees by mid-morning is not my idea of a good time. What a relief to be floating again! I'm sure that Mr. Mrad and the owners of the boats in the yard are equally relieved that the lift was up and running again within a day.
Aisling looks great, with a fresh coat of paint on the bottom, the waterline raised and the hull polished. As I write this, Aziz is on deck, polishing the topsides and all the stainless steel-a job that is usually mine, and often goes undone. In this heat, it is not a job for the faint of heart, so the pleasure we feel about getting all these tasks dealt with is marred by the guilt of knowing that Aziz was probably on the verge of heatstroke by the end of the day yesterday.
It's too bad we can't be at anchor, but if we have to be in a marina (and we do for at least a few more days) this is not a bad place to be. To start with, the toilets and showers are not half a kilometer away as they were in Marina di Ragusa. The dock is lined with small restaurants where you can get an excellent meal, including wine or beer, for around $10 Canadian a person. Wifi is available in the tea salon -although we don't need to go there and drink endless cups of almond tea anymore, because we have bought a data plan for Rick's phone. There's a decent grocery store in the marina, and a larger one in the town. A baguette costs the equivalent of about 20 Canadian cents. At this time of year, the daily market has an abundant selection of fresh produce, and the variety and quantity of fish available rivals anything we've seen in Italy. We're parked right next to Paul and Gabriella, the couple who watched over Aisling when she wintered in Marmaris and Marina di Ragusa. I ate fresh dates with my breakfast this morning. All in all, it's very pleasant.
I'm not saying that it's perfect. There's a distressing amount of debris floating in the water around the boats. The cockroaches on the dock are large enough to be featured in a science fiction movie. We've already had one feral cat jump onboard. (I've told a few of them that I'd like to take them home with me, but I didn't really mean it.) And although the customs officer who checked us in didn't ask for money as had happened when we arrived in 2008, he did ask for two bottles of the good Italian wine that he'd spotted in our fridge. "One for me and one for my friend." At the end of the day, we watched him stow both bottles of wine in his car, so clearly his friend was out of luck. We just hope he shared it with his wife.
It's not easy to get good wine here, either. At the Lostania restaurant, where to our surprise the head waiter remembers us from 2009, Rick asks the server for a wine list. "Blanc, rosé et rouge "is the reply. "OK, blanc" Rick replies. The waiter disappears, but returns empty-handed. "Eh, rosé ou rouge?" We agree to try the rosé, but moments later, he is back. "Voulez-vous du rouge?"
The truth is, the small restaurants probably can't afford to keep an inventory of wine on hand. In some cases, the waiters will duck out the back door and buy the wine after a patron has ordered it. This was never a wealthy country, and the events surrounding the Arab Spring have hit the tourism industry hard. In the hotel complex that surrounds the marina, we see a mere dozen or so lights illuminated at night, which is probably no more than 10% of the total. The replica pirate ships the Sultan and Barbarousse still leave and return with dance music blaring, but there are few Europeans among the passengers. Yesterday, when a merchant in the medina called us "dirty people" because we did not want to buy his plates, I began to wonder if I wanted to be here myself. But then I reminded myself of the beauty of the country, the richness of the culture, and the many kindnesses we have been shown since we arrived.
After years of being ruled by a dictator, it may take some time for the Tunisians to get their country on track. Eventually, I'm sure they will. In the meantime, we're doing our best to support the local businesses (but obviously not that guy in the medina!) Now, where shall we dine tonight?
Imagine yourself at Winners, or some other retail outlet of your choice. You see a handbag that you like. There's a price tag on the bag, but the amount seems high to you. You start to walk away. Then a salesman appears and asks you how much you want to pay for the bag. Since you weren't sure you wanted it in the first place, you hesitate. "Thanks, but I'm just looking." But the salesman is not giving up that easily. "No really, tell me how much you want to pay for this bag." Then he helpfully adds "It's OK to haggle with me, Madame." The only way to discover the real price of the bag is to invest some time in a lengthy negotiation. This is what you can be up against when you shop in the medinas and souks of the Arab world.
You know that, unless you're prepared to buy the bag, you'd better take a firm stand and leave in a hurry. So you say that you'll have to think about it, and maybe you'll come back later. But this guy seems downright desperate to sell you a bag...or anything. He's friendly though, and when he detects your accent he switches to English. He's so happy to hear that you are from Canada! People from Canada are so nice! Now he's upping the ante, and offers you a great deal on two bags. "It is very quiet today. Business is slow and I need to sell something."
Maybe you'll manage to escape, and get on with the grocery shopping you'd intended to do in the first place. (Thankfully, you will not have to bargain at the produce market.) But the price tumbles each time you say you want to think about it. "The price I am offering you is so good that I will have to tell my boss that I only sold you one bag! You see how honest I am being with you?" Clearly he not perceive the incongruity of those last two statements, but since you're pretty sure that he doesn't actually have a boss, you don't hold it against him.
Eventually, the price reaches a point where it seems ridiculous NOT to buy the two bags. OK, and why not that nice little wallet too? As you leave the shop, the salesman looks a bit pained. "You are very lucky Madame. But please don't tell anyone what a good price I gave you!" He slips a camel keychain into your bag, so you'll remember him when you get back to Canada. It has "Tunisia" written on it in glitter ink. Nice.....
You congratulate yourself. You got a smoking deal on those bags! It's only after you get home that you start to wonder...do the bags smell faintly of old cow?
We're obviously not expert hagglers, but here are Aisling's rules of the cruise for bargaining. (We learned most of these rules the hard way. A certain "Thinking Man" statue comes to mind..)
1. Before buying anything expensive, familiarize yourself with the going rates for similar items.
2. Before buying anything at all, be sure that you have room for it on your boat, and/or in your luggage.
3. Don't be too aggressive. The difference of a few dinars is probably a lot more important to the vendor than it is to you.
4. You may be offered tea, or bottled water. Go ahead and accept it if you feel like it. Talk to the salesperson, and enjoy the experience. Accepting a cup of tea doesn't necessarily oblige you to buy anything, even if you feel that it does.
5. In areas frequented by tourists, it's not unusual for the initial asking price of an item to be two to three times what the vendor is actually willing to sell it for. Saying "That's more than I can pay..." with a slightly disappointed look will often result in an immediate drop in the price. If this doesn't happen, it could be an indication that the vendor is not willing to bargain.
6. Your first offer should be considerably lower than the price you are willing to pay.
7. Before you make any offer, be sure that you are prepared to buy the item at that price. If your first offer is accepted, you've probably paid too much, but chalk it up to experience and cough up the money. You run the risk of offending the seller if he agrees to your price and you do not buy the item. You want him to still like Canadians, don't you?
8. Walking away may be the only way to learn the real price. If you're not sure, just say that you need to think about it for a while. If you change your mind, go back.
After all, you wouldn't want to find yourself back at home wondering why the heck you didn't grab the chance to buy that nice painting of camels in the desert, now would you?
It's happened again. We haven't kept up with our blog postings, so here I am, in Tunisia, writing about Nancy and Bob's visit to Sicily. And we said goodbye to them in Catania over two weeks ago!
Fortunately they've written their own online journal of their travels in Tuscany, Sicily and Rome. For the real story of their visit with us, click Here (or select the Quick Link called "Nancy and Bob's blog" to the right of our page).
A great thing about having friends come to visit (besides the obvious fact that we get to spend time with our friends) is that it motivates us to do some touring. Even though we've now spent a cumulative total of nearly six months in Sicily since our first visit in 2008, we haven't even come close to seeing everything that this amazing island has to offer. When Bob and Nancy rent a car and ask if there is anywhere we'd like to visit, the Villa Romana Del Casale quickly comes to mind. This circa 4th century AD villa near Piazza Amerina has over 3,500 square meters of well-preserved mosaics, including a most unusual mosaic of women in bikinis. As a bonus, we can make a detour to Caltagirone on the way.
Renting the car through Antonio at "Yacht Services" has the advantage of allowing additional drivers at no charge, so Rick takes the wheel to give Bob his initiation into the fine art of driving in Sicily. Nerves of steel are required by the driver and passengers alike. On the narrow highways, impatient Sicilians drive at breakneck speed, barely missing oncoming vehicles as they weave in and out to overtake. Wrecked vehicles are displayed at strategic points on the roadside, with stern warnings about the dangers of reckless driving. It's clear that these serve only to terrify tourists. Driving through the narrow streets of Sicilian towns is only slightly better. "You just have to get your fender slightly ahead of the other guy's" Rick tells Bob nonchalantly. Bob looks a bit doubtful.
Caltagirone is another of the UNESCO-recognized baroque towns, but is best known for the colourful ceramics made by the town's artisans. True to form, it is almost noon before we arrive in the town centre, but since many of the shops here stay open all day we'll have no trouble buying as much "ceramiche" as we can carry. In the first shop that we visit, Rick zeros in on a ceramic table top, which we definitely can't carry home. The shopkeeper assures him she can ship it to Canada for him, but when he hears the price he beats a hasty retreat. At another shop, we are welcomed by a French woman from Normandy, who teaches French in the town but (apparently) works part-time in the ceramic shop. She enthusiastically rattles on about what a wonderful place Sicily is, which she largely credits to the Norman influence. "And the food is so healthy! They don't use artificial fertilizers because Mount Etna nourishes the soil!" she gushes, then goes on to claim that "No one gets sick here!" This is obviously not true (just yesterday I saw an entire wall covered with death notices outside the public gardens in Ragusa) but I agree that the food is very good. Then she tells me that the ceramic pieces being sold in this shop are the best quality in the entire town. And for some reason, I believe her. Never mind; the things we bought from her were very nice. We move on to a less expensive shop and buy even more.
A prominent landmark in Caltagirone is a long set of steps paved in ceramic tiles. Bob starts to look a bit nervous...will Nancy want to climb it? Perhaps we should have, but instead we continue down a side street to La Piazetta, a restaurant where Rick and I had a delicious meal with Ni, Krissy and Katherine a year ago. "Please, not too much food" Bob pleads. But the food here is so good! We convince him that having the pasta course as well as the mixed antipasti will not be too much, but of course it is. If we keep this up, the four of us won't fit into the car.
The scenery along the road to Piazza Amerina is rural Sicily at its best. At some points we can even see Etna in the distance. Nancy is delighted by the fields of poppies, and finally we find a place where we can safely pull off the road to take some pictures.
By mid-afternoon, we're on-site at the Villa Romana del Casale, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa is believed to have been the retreat of Diocletian's colleague, the Roman Emperor Maximium (a theory supported by the fact that the capitals of the marble columns of the atrium are identical to those at Diocletian's villa at Split). Our Blue Guide claims that the villa is comparable "in richness and extent" not only to Diocletian's Palace, but also to Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli. The Villa Romana was covered by mud in a flood in the 12th century, and remained buried for over seven centuries. This likely helped to preserve the incredible mosaics, which, being Roman-African in style, bring to mind those we've seen in the Bardo museum in Tunis. Seeing these works of art in situ allows us to get a glimpse into the lives of the rich and powerful in the 4th century AD. In places, sections of the walls remain standing, and some frescos are also partially preserved.
Rick and Bob are well-matched as travelling companions, and they do the full tour of the site in record time. Nancy and I are equally well-matched, since we both like to savour every detail. There's so much to see that it's almost bewildering. The Room of the Ten Girls is truly amazing with its depiction of women doing exercises in bikinis, but my personal favourite is the Corridor of the Great Hunt, which shows game animals of India and Africa being captured and loaded into galleys on a fish-filled sea.
We're at least half an hour behind Rick and Bob, but they are waiting patiently. They wait patiently again while we make a detour to a cluster of shops outside the gates, where we each buy a really neat ceramic lemon juicer. It's evening by the time we get back to Marina di Ragusa, and our last stop is at the Demeglio's supermarket, where we buy a kilo of mussels for dinner ...and of course, a little more wine. We're back onboard Aisling just on time to wish Kathy a Happy Birthday through Facetime. If only she could be here to join us in our toast to her health...Salute!