Sunday, May 25, 2008

Another step forward

Life over the past two months - at least in terms of its convenience quotient - has indeed taken leaps and bounds forward. First, we got a fixed phone. Then, we got the internet. Both have saved hours of to-ing and fro-ing in the car to internet points and phone centers, eliminated a not insignificant number of euros in cost, and a schedule that no longer requires planning around phone calls and emails. As one might imagine, this has simplified our lives and reduced the stress index accordingly.

But that's not all. Our most recent addition to our growing new millenium acquisitions in this old world domain has no less of a daily impact than these other two giant steps for mankind.

Solar panels.

As a previous blog might have alluded to, our infrastructure plans somehow forgot to include an alternative to our fireplace (camino) for our hot water needs. Most people in this neck of the woods use gas. How this happened is another story; suffice it to say that it belongs in the same category as the Bermuda triangle and the wreck of the Mary Deare.

Anyway, our fire-for-hot-shower system meant that every time we wanted to indulge in a spot of personal hygiene, we'd have to light a fire. Not a problem when it's chillsome outside, but a real pain in the ass when it's shorts and T-shirt weather. Given the current law of diminishing vestiture that goes with the advent of spring, lighting a fire was becoming something of a bind, if not downright humiliating to my common sense. Hence the solar panels.

It would be something of an understatement to simply say blandly that life has changed since they've gone in. These days, every time I want a shower, I can just go and take one. It's hard to explain to anyone that's never been in such a position, but it's positively a revelation - no going to collect kindling and wood (more than a simple task if it's been raining), getting the fire going, and then waiting at least half-an-hour for the fire to heat the water enough to take the plunge. Since we invested in the best solar panel system (Paradigma from Germany), we can simply step in, and within minutes be smiling under a cloud of steam. Even when it rained for 3 days and we never saw the sun in that time, the system's insulated boiler held sufficient water at a hot enough temperature to have a bone-warming doccia.

Another benefit is that it's going to help in the winter when we're using the fire for hot water and heating - the partially-warmed water from the solar panel boiler is routed to the camino reservoir, giving a head-start in the heating-up process.

Plus, of course, if leaves us virtually free of any gas obligations. our stove currently uses about 6 euros a month in gas, while others who heat their homes and hot water can spend 400 euros a month in winter, and maybe a third of that in summer.

It's a learning process, this living in Italy thing, often a challenge, and always an exercise in patience, but we'll get there in the end. I mean, how can I feel anything but good when we're not only saving money with solar panels (in the long run, obviously), but we're also doing our tiny little bit for the environment.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Phone update

In the excitement of several other landmark developments (at least from our humble, provincial perspective) in the last month, it somehow escaped the blog’s attention that a fixed phone line was installed at our house. After a long, frustrating, and fruitless relationship with Telecomm Italia – much of it chronicled here – they finally turned up and spent all of 10 minutes to (re-)connect our long-standing, plain-for-all-to-see, existing phone line. Apparently we’re going to have to fork over some €400 for their questionable effort.

Since the complex flip-switch just over a month ago, service has, I’m happy to say, been uninterrupted. We were able to sign up – stunningly without a hitch – for a long-distance plan that allows unlimited calling to Europe and North America for a mere €10 a month.

For my South African calls, I’ve signed up for a third-party, call-another-number-first service. They advertised calls to SA for €0.02 per minute, a charge which I’ve yet to see – so far, costs have been in the €0.03-5 per minute range.

Attempted comparisons with Telecom Italia tariffs to South Africa have been fraught with puzzlement and self-doubt – their website gives a creative, neatly-compartmented, and entirely incomprehensible formula which my dull brain calculates to a monumental €0.30 for every 5.5 seconds (or €3.27 per minute). Notwithstanding TI’s likely higher charges given their sparsely-populated competitive realm, it surely has to be cheaper than this. So I’m sure I’m not reading something right, an outcome I’d wager is not beyond the essence of their intent. Whatever the actual tariff – and it wouldn’t surprise me if it changed from minute to minute – I’m pretty sure it’s more than €0.05 per minute.

Consequently, I’m not about to complain. To anyone. After all, I have a working phone, one that rings, and one that gets dial tone consistently. Better to let sleeping dogs lie I reckon, lest waking them rouses a spirit of curiosity in some telecomm bureaucrat or technician that would in all likelihood weave an “unravellable” bundle of telephonic events that would render us paying for something that we don’t have, and sharing a line with our neighbours just like our friends in Paterno do.

It’s already a little peculiar to many of the locals here that our number has a San Severino Marche prefix, a town some 50km distant.

Needless to say, our telephonic adventures have other dimensions – the telephone itself, for example. Our attempts to buy one (a) without a cord and with a built-in charger, and (b) with an answering machine have so far proved as fruitless as my attempts to understand TI’s tariff structure. Italians have not embraced the answering machine culture, and they rarely (if ever) leave or listen to messages on either fixed or cell phones. Consequently there’s not much of a market for built-in answering machines, and so I suppose we shouldn’t blame the sales clerk in the store (that only sells telephone stuff) for telling us there was an answering machine when there isn’t. Or, for that matter, for selling us a cordless phone which requires its "special" rechargeable batteries to be replaced when they finally expire.

In truth, we only have ourselves to blame for not doing all the double-and-triple checks before leaving the store, or asking the questions that we didn’t know or think to ask. (In truth, I’ve managed to stay out of this particular mire myself, leaving it to Maria in the interests of keeping my blood pressure at acceptable levels.)

All of this, however, matters naught, given - as I said before - that I have a working phone, one that rings, and one that gets dial tone consistently ... even if I trip over the cord when I walk into my office.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Another Italian hospital experience

If you’ve never seen a dislocated wrist, I’d suggest not volunteering to go look at one if you’re ever given the option. I had the misfortune of seeing one on my own son last weekend at his football match. It doesn’t take much to dislocate a 12-year-old’s wrist, it seems. Upon his fourth or fifth tumble of the game, one that seemed more innocuous than the others, he leapt to his feet yelping in pain, and clutching his arm. Parents, coaches and players clustered around him immediately, each gasping as they arrived – his wrist was bent at an improbable angle, and his hand was standing grotesquely atop a hill of skin and flesh that rose steeply from his forearm. I was horrified, a reaction that manifested itself in stark silence and a firm grip on his shoulders.

Misfortune, however, often has more favourable bedfellows, it seems, and so far we’ve encountered two.

First was the hospital experience that followed. Lucky for us, one of Julius’ teammates has a nursing couple as parents – his mother was at the game, and she took immediate charge, rushing us off to the hospital where her husband works. Although he was off duty at the time, he called ahead and so the emergency receptionists were primed for our arrival, and after checking in – a matter of 30 seconds – Julius was whisked off for X-rays and thence to the orthopedic surgeons, who said he’d need an operation to put the wrist back in place and insert a few pins to stabilize it. Unfortunately for him though, he had to wait some 4 hours because of the minimum time required after his last meal before a general anesthetic can be administered – his 8am breakfast meant he couldn’t be anesthetized until 2pm, and we arrived at 10am. Even more unfortunate was the total lack of effect the painkillers had, and so he had to wait in constant pain. I felt helpless, as did the hospital staff.

All was well after the op, however, and Julius was all smiles when he came round and found himself pain-free. I spent the night in hospital with him, a rather sleepless affair as a result of the noisy (vocal and other) ablution attempts of the septuagenarian in another of the ward’s beds.

As a hospital experience, it was class A+. The only “forms” I had to deal with involved (a) supplying Julius’ name when we came in (they pulled up all his details immediately from a previous visit) and (b) signing acknowledgement that I was going to sleep the night. In the morning, we were out of there by 9am. Given my prior experiences in the US with forms and bureaucracy and insurance and ass-covering and such, it was a real breeze. And on top of it, all the doctors and nurses, being the child-loving Italians that they are, hovered around Julius as if he was the crown prince, pinching his cheeks and constantly making sure he was OK. Notwithstanding our frequent buzzing for the nursing staff, they always came promptly and with a smile.

The second positive outcome came from the outpouring of support and sympathy from Julius’ teammates, their parents, and his coaches. He received numerous visitors in the short time he was in the hospital, among them the director of the football club. He was also asked to a special presentation after the team’s last game, where he was given a football signed by all of the boys. No other awards, just one for Julius. I’ve told him the football should never be kicked around, and that it should take pride of place amongst his keepsakes, one that will trigger a warm glow every time he has cause to look at or touch it.

Needless to say, the cast on his arm is something of a status symbol amongst his schoolmates, and it has the added benefit of freeing him of the burden of homework and tests, given that it’s his writing hand (“Damn!” he said with a wry smile). Thankfully there’s only a few weeks left before the end of term, so we’re hoping there’s no loss on the learning side. It’s also given him a “handy” excuse when it comes to housework, although the other side of that coin is that he can no longer go footballing in the local village square. At least not until the pins come out and the cast comes off on June 17th, when he will hopefully recount yet another smooth visit to the hospital in Macerata.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Internet!!!

I’m getting all choked up as I write this, such is the magnitude of the declaration – I have the internet … at home. Those who have read previous posts on the subject (here’s one), and those who can empathize with a profession that lives and dies through its electronic relationships, will appreciate the emotional depth of the subject. It’s been a long time coming – 18 months (give or take) to put a number on it.

I can’t believe what a change it’s wrought in my life – no longer do I have to wait until 9:30 for the internet store to open, no longer do I have to schedule my day around trips to the internet store, no longer do I have to drive 10km each way to the internet store, all I have to do is walk down to my office … at any time of the day. It’s a true revelation, I feel liberated.

Rather ironically, given my rantings and ravings about the inefficiencies of life in rural Italy, it turns out that I could have had the internet all along - well over a year ago - if only I'd tried the solution I doubted for so long. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm ignoring it for now.

After having reached a dead end on what I thought was the most promising avenue for the internet (Telecomm Italia, a curious choice given its gross incompetence and indolence, but indicative of the dearth of alternatives), I turned once again to the internet store that became my office for over a year. The techie there said if I could run a network cable less than 80 or 90 meters from a receiver mounted on a pole up the driveway that is in sight of their tower in San Ginesio some 6km away, I might be able to get a signal.

So, in desperation and in cautious hope, I gave it a shot, and after a couple of false starts, lo and behold, it worked! I still get goosebumps when I think of that “Local Area Connection 100 Mbps” message that popped up on my screen, followed by the strangled whoop that I simply couldn’t contain. Not only am I getting a signal from my receiver that j-u-s-t manages to peep over the hill up to San Ginesio, it’s a pretty solid one as well, matching any one of my friends who have a clear view of the tower.

Of course, it hasn’t all gone without incident or issue. First of all, I’ve mounted the receiver on one of the electrical company’s poles. I’ve no doubt that they wouldn’t take too kindly to it if they knew. I could of course ask them for permission, but I’m pretty sure what the answer would be, and even if they were marginally open to the idea, I don’t think I have the stomach for the bureaucracy and paperwork that would ensue. So I do what most Italians would do – I simply go ahead, and if they discover it (improbable given our hidden-away location out in the rustic reaches), I’ll simply plead ignorance, take it down, and erect my own pole.

But it’s not the only hurdle. The second one is a little more concerning. Turns out that the electrical pole is on one of our neighbours’ land – I thought it was on ours, but given the minuscule sketch of a plan that we got with our deed, I’m not in a position of strength to counter his claim. In any event, the difference is marginal.

However, said neighbour, who has been friendliness personified up until now, has said that he doesn’t want the network cable running over his land. Understandable, naturally. One option would be to bury it, but it’s 80 long meters from the house, entailing a lot of digging if I did it myself, or a lot of euros if I get someone else to. So I thought of running it in the air from one electrical pole to another, and thence to the house. He’s not entirely happy with this arrangement either, but it’s better than the cable interfering with his lawnmower (and consequently my work), and so this is the makeshift arrangement as it stands now.

It’s temporary not only for the above reasons, but also because I haven’t managed to find the right bracket or attachment mechanism to mount it on the electrical pole. And so it’s literally held on with wire and string, a rural Italian solution if ever I saw one.

In the meantime, I’m gallivanting all over the web with a carefree abandon, a smile on my face, and a new daily schedule in my life. In quintessential masculine denial, I’ll ignore the looming issues until they knock on my front door. Until then, I’m hoping my neighbour just cuts his grass under my looping network cable, and doesn’t think of suggesting to the electrical company come and check up on their poles in rural Regnano …