Monday, April 14, 2008

All things come to those who wait …

Well, perhaps not all things, but some things, at least.

Totally within character, two of our “home renovation outfits”, should we call them, delivered on their long-outstanding promises. In one case, it wasn’t even a full delivery, but hey, who are we to quibble – we’ll take whatever scraps we’re given, wouldn’t you?

First, the crane that has towered over our property in bored idleness since September when it was last triggered into action, was finally moved. It has taken probably half-a-dozen requests for its removal, all of which elicited the same response – next week. So we play the game – next week comes and goes, crane still there. Wait another week or so, just to make sure that “next week” didn’t mean “the week after next, or the one after that” (which it frequently does), and we call again. When’s the crane going to be moved? We need the space that it’s taking up to store stuff. Next week.

I must confess it was quite interesting watching it being dismantled and pulled away, a feat of close calculation and small margins for such a beast of a thing – 835 kg blocks sinking a 10-ton truck on its wheels, squeezing through two of the narrowest of gaps to finally get it out.

Not only have we reclaimed the land area, we’ve also got back our air space. It’s actually instilled a sense of freedom about the place, as if the crane was a towering sentinel watching over everything that happened on our little plot. In a way I feel liberated.

Not quite so cathartic with the random visit of the carpenter who showed up unannounced in the middle of the crane removal operation. It’s been some 9 months since the windows were installed, and after an initial resistance to our protestations, he caved and agreed to switch the bathroom and kitchen windows whose designs he had confused. The windows have been ready for some 4 months now. Finally he came to switch them. It took less than an hour. He also brought the window and door frames to complete the job on several of those he had installed but not framed. For some reason, this was not completed.

There’s also the question of the two doors that open into the middle of the room instead of against the wall. He agreed to switch these as well. The man he sent to do the window-swapping seemed to know nothing of these. So we’re still waiting for him to finish the job that we – in our na├»ve, willing, but totally un-Italian way – paid for in full some time ago.

Boy, do we have some lessons tucked away in our little home renovation satchel. I’d almost like to do this again to be able to do it better next time, both to vindicate ourselves for our sins this time around, and to do it with an overall lower average blood pressure. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon.

Oh well …

Some more Italian-South African reflections

Whenever I return to rural Italy from a distant land, I’m prompted to reflect on the peculiarities of my adopted homeland, along with those of the place I’ve just returned from. Having just spent 3 weeks in South Africa helping my parents adjust after my mother’s hip replacement surgery, I’m once again in that mode. And while I was just there some 6 months ago, bringing back a clutch of reflections from that trip, there are always nuances and new discoveries. This time was no different.

The most obvious of these is the advent in South Africa of “load shedding”, or it’s more specific form, “predictive load shedding.” If I didn’t know what the term meant (from first-hand experience), I must confess I’d be left scratching my head. Seems that the country has applied for membership in the club of those supposedly “advanced” countries who hide their problems under confusing, spin-doctored terms which bear no resemblance to their actual nature. I’ve often wondered what they try to achieve with this approach – do they really believe the public is so gullible as to be diverted by their contorted terminology?

But I digress. Turns out that “load shedding” involves shutting down of the electrical grid, rendering homes, businesses, and streets – playing havoc with the traffic systems – blacked out. “Predictive” translates as “scheduled”, an arguably preferable version to the random shutdowns that interrupt washing cycles, cooking, and livelihoods.

It seems that the warnings several years ago that the country would not be able to support its power needs in the future went unheeded, and they’re now paying the price. As is their wont, South Africans, so long used to disruption and challenge, have accepted its inevitability and inconvenience in their stride.

I wonder how Italians would deal with it. Probably similarly, actually, much as they accept the inefficiency of the postal service and Telecomm. However, unlike South Africa, where the sole provider of power, Escom, is partly owned by the government, Italy’s power supply is totally in the hands of private providers, and as such, it operates with a modicum of efficiency.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of its national airline, Alitalia, which recently entered bankruptcy protection proceedings, following the failure to find a suitable buyer for the beleaguered company. A sorry state of affairs, it must be said, for the country’s standard-bearing airline. There are other (mainly regional) airlines in Italy, but given the size of the country, its proximity to others nearby with their own national airlines, and its membership in the EU, these smaller companies tend to fly below the radar (sorry).

The landscape – or perhaps “airscape” – of carriers in South Africa, however, abounds with low- and full-cost carriers, sporting colourful planes and staff that typify the “rainbow” of the country’s character. One example is kulula (yes, with a lower-case “k”) – meaning “it is light” or “it is simple” – which encourages their staff to inject personality and humour into their work. “I hope you find your car where you left it” was one such kulula steward’s quip, eliciting a wry chuckle from the theft-weary passengers on board. Another is the low-cost alternative of the country’s giant, South African Airways – it’s called Mango, and its planes are bright orange, adding a welcome dash of colour to the concrete expanses that typify airports these days. So too does one of its competitors, 1Time, whose aircraft are bright red.

Inside the country’s airports, you’ll find a plentiful supply of bars to whet the whistles of its beer-loving citizens. Like Australians, Englishmen, indeed even Americans, South Africans frequently go out “for a few beers” (not only to airports). “A few” has something of a different meaning here as well, and while it’s perhaps unusual, it’s by no means without precedent to hear an unshaven, bleary-eyed, raspy-voiced fellow sitting in the sports club bar with a beer in his hand, recounting the previous night’s 25-30 beer beano.

Italians, in contrast, drink only when they eat. When invited to a home to enjoy some local cooking, you won’t be offered a drink until the antipasti are laid out on the table and you’re starting to dig in. And while bottles and bottles of after-dinner drinks typically clutter the table in the aftermath of each monumental feast, their consumption is tempered by the fact that the stomach is full. In addition, the grappas and the like are digestivos, to help the digestion process. Unlike these other beer-thirsty countries, I’ve only ever seen one inebriated Italian in public (or in private, for that matter). They may be the world’s leading quaffers of wine, but clearly they do so responsibly.

Now if only that could be carried over to their driving ...