Tag Archives: Italy

Cinque Terre

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour

Vernazza

By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train

Capuchin Crypt

One of the most shocking things on our trip thus far was a visit to the crypt under the church  Santa Maria della Concerzione dei Cappunccini in Rome.  I’ve seen human bones before, but nothing like this.  Sue and Martin had strongly suggested that we go see this atypical attraction, so we made a point of tracking it down, but didn’t know what to expect.  We were amazed.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Capuchin) is an order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church, an offshoot of the Franciscan monks.  The Order arose in the early 16th Century when a Franciscan friar was inspired to return to the lifestyle of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.  Originally persecuted by their superiors, they were granted refuge by another order of monks and adopted their hooded habit (capuccio) from which their name Capuchin derives.

Present-day Capuchin Friars (source: blog Stumbling After Francis)

Due to their visual similarity, both the Capuchin monkey (hooded appearance) and cappuccino coffee (the shade of brown of the friar’s habits) were named after this order of friars.

Capuchin monkey with the brow of his ‘hood’ showing

The Capuchin friar’s life is one of extreme austerity, simplicity, and poverty, following the ideals of St. Francis.  Their chief work is to preach among the poor, impressing them with their devotion, and the poverty and austerity of their lifestyles. Neither the friars nor their monasteries should possess anything, not should any provisions be laid down for future.  Everything should be obtained by begging, and the friars were not even allowed to touch money. Today there are still over 10,000 Capuchin friars and a female branch of the Order called the Capuchin Poor Clares, whose life is so austere that they are also known as The Suffering Sisters.

On our last day in Rome we visited the Capuchin Crypt.  When Capuchin friars arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of their deceased brethren with them.  Their bones were arranged in 5 small crypts under the church, not as complete skeletons or as simple groupings of similar bones, but in decorative patterns!  The friars also brought sufficient soil all the way from Jerusalem for the floors of the crypts to bury their newly dead.  When someone died, they exhumed the bones of the one who had been buried the longest (typically 30 years) to make room for the new body.  The exhumed bones were added to the decoration, which includes amazing artistic creations (including light fixtures) made from the human bones of approximately 4000 people!

Crypt of The Skulls

The Catholic church explains that the display is not meant to be macabre, but to remind people of how short life is, a powerful message regardless of one’s religious leanings.  On the ceiling of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons there is a skeleton holding a scythe, a reminder that death will cut us all down, and a set of scales, implying that we will all be judged.

Crypt of the Three Skeletons

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now, you will be.   – plaque in the Capuchin Crypt

Note – Photos are prohibited in the crypt so the images above were scrounged from Google image search.

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum

Our 2nd day in Roma (Rome) didn’t go as planned.  It was sunny and hot, very warm to be touring the monuments.  From our campground outside the city we caught the bus, then train, then metro to the famous Colesseum, a 2000 year old amphitheatre, the largest in the Roman Empire, originally capable of seating 50,000 people.  We did the audio tour, listening to tales of senators and citizens, gladiators and slaves, of Christians and lions, and of the glory days and the decline of Rome.

In front of the Colesseum

The Colesseum looks identical today to the way it did in the movie Roman Holiday (starring Gregory Peck and introducing Audrey Hepburn) which was released 59 years ago.  I’m showing my ‘new world’ short-sightedness here though, because it has looked pretty much like that for the last 1000 years.

Afterwards we crossed the street to wander up and around Palantine Hill, the centermost of the 7 Hills of Rome, and the supposed location of the Lupercal cave where the orphans Romulus (from whom Rome gets its name) and Remus where kept alive by a she-wolf. Palantine Hill was the earliest inhabited location in Rome and became the place where Rome’s wealthiest citizens lived, including the infamous emperor Caligula.  It was getting very warm and was approaching lunch time.  We had planned to grab some food and then visit the Roman Forum located on the other side of the hill.

I was having some weird heart palpitations and periodic shortness of breath, something that started a couple of days earlier and which I ignored until they became frequent enough that they couldn’t be overlooked.  I mentioned this to Diane, who insisted that I do something about it.  I suggested that we finish visiting Palantine Hill, but it soon became apparent that Diane wasn’t enjoying herself because of her worry for me.  We went to the nearby tourist office and inquired about a hospital.  They asked what my issue was, so I pointed to my chest and breathed heavily.  They suggested the Ospedale San Giovanni (Hospital Saint John) and told us what bus to catch to get there.  After wandering about to buy tickets and find the correct stop, we finally boarded a mini-bus and in a few minutes disembarked in front of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, and the highest ranking church in Catholicism, above even St. Peter’s Basilica in nearby Vatican City.

Notice the heavenly light?

We found the hospital around the corner and walked through the security gate and into the reception area.  I spoke to the woman behind the glass who directed us through some sliding doors.  We entered a large waiting room where other people were waiting for their turn to see a doctor.  There was a tough woman controlling the room, calling patients in to see the triage nurse one by one.  She spoke only in Italian and waved her arms at us until a man sitting nearby stepped in to translate.  He said that Diane had to wait outside because she wasn’t a patient.

After about 15 minutes I got called (well, pointed at) and was led into another room where a much nicer woman sat behind a desk with a computer.  She spoke decent English and asked me questions like, “When did it start?”, “Do you have any pain?”, and “Any nausea?” (3 days ago, no, and no).  She checked my blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and pulse.  Afterwards I was assigned a priority, in my case ‘green’, which means that I wasn’t urgent.  I figured that was a good thing, although it probably meant that I was now facing a long wait.

I returned to the waiting room and struck up a conversation with the nice guy who’d translated for me.  He reassured me that this was a good hospital (perhaps they aren’t all good in Italy?)  He was an academic doing research in robotics.  When I told him about my degree, he thought he’d found a fertile audience, and launched into a lengthy explanation of the complex mathematics of robotic vision and sensing.  It was mostly beyond me, but at least it kept my attention focused on something other than my chest.  When I changed the conversation, he recommended a small restaurant slightly off the tourist map.  He wrote its name down in pencil, which mathematicians are fond of, in the margins of my map.  After the first 2 hours of waiting, he got called away, leaving me in the room with others who appeared to be much sicker than me.

When I got my turn, I was led down a hallway to a small examination room with a white-coated young woman (presumably the doctor) and another woman wearing scrubs (apparently a nurse).   The doctor asked me some questions, and spent most of her time typing on a computer.  She directed me to the bed where they checked my pulse, blood oxygen, and did an EKG.  Everything looked normal, so she listened to my breathing, ordered a chest x-ray, took some arterial blood (which is more painful, like having an IV inserted) and sent me back to the waiting room.

Eventually an orderly arrived to walk me down to the x-ray department where I sat for just a few minutes.  It more closely resembled a bomb shelter than a hospital, with metal walls housing compartments with heavy, sliding, metal doors.  Like a darkroom, each had a red light above to indicate when entry was restricted.  I was led into one of these meat lockers by a technician who spoke no English.  He activated something that sounded like a turbine, with a loud noise that grew in pitch and volume like a death ray from a science fiction movie, adding an intimidating sonic element to the experience.  I had 2 good old-fashioned film x-rays (nothing digital here) while standing in front of a giant bulls-eye target.  It felt more like facing a firing squad than a medical procedure.  Just before each image was taken, all the lights in the room went dark, as if the building’s power was being redirected to the beam focused on my chest.  Another orderly arrived to return me to the waiting room.  He didn’t speak English either but pointed to my last name but said something about his ‘bambinos’ and the ‘lee-on king’ (presumably praise for the Disney franchise).

Being a patient in an Italian emergency ward is lonely and boring, more so than at home.  I went out a couple of times to update Diane who was waiting and worrying outside the entire afternoon (except when she went get lunch), but the staff made it clear in broken English and sign language that I couldn’t keep coming and going.  Diane was a bit freaked when I came out looking like this, but I reassured her it was only from the blood tests.

Bent but not broken!

I did talk to a doctor in the hall from Uganda who spoke good English.  We talked about Africa and the young doctors I’d met there.  She asked why I was waiting and I gave her the short version.  She said, “Italian doctors like to do lots of tests”.  I wondered what all this was going to cost me.  Surely I had already passed the threshold where I’d need to make a claim on my medical insurance.

A bit more waiting before I was called in to the doctor again.  Apparently the nurse messed up the arterial blood draw getting venous blood instead, not the bright red of oxygenated blood.  So the doctor re-did the test, repeatedly probing my forearm searching for an artery.  I don’t like it when doctors do procedures usually done by others as they don’t have much practice.  After another wait, I was called in for the verdict from the doctor.  Everything tested fine.  She suggested that it might be stress.  I thought, “Perhaps I need a vacation from my vacation?”

The doctor gave me my results all nicely done up on computer, something she had done herself in between talking to and testing me (very different from Canadian emergency rooms).  I asked where I should pay and she said that they have a system to charge foreigners for treatment, but not at this hospital.  Pardon?  She said, “They might send you a bill”.  I thought, “I wonder how many of those they ever collect?”

After 5 hours in emergency

So I left with my wallet intact and a clean bill of health, relieved but a bit worried that they didn’t find a definitive cause for my symptoms, which have abated since.  Don’t I look relieved?

The doctor prescribed fluids!

Crazy Driving in Southern Italy

Driving in Southern Italy is challenging and exciting.  It requires me to be on my toes, constantly ready to react. It stresses Diane out.  I’ve written previously about driving in Europe, but driving near Naples takes this to another level and is not for the faint of heart.  Here are some of the challenges we face…

Most people here drive small, maneuverable cars much faster than the posted speed limit.  They rarely stay in their own lane, often spanning two lanes or crossing into an oncoming one. They pass whenever possible, even on hills or blind corners when it seems unsafe to do so, expecting that the oncoming cars will make way.

Some of this erratic driving is necessitated by parked vehicles blocking the roadway.  Despite the fact that the cars are generally small, the parking spaces are even smaller, and people frequently exceed the boundaries.  They will park wherever possible, including on sidewalks, at corners, and in crosswalks.  They will park nose-in to a parallel parking place, with their tail hanging out in the street.  The drivers of parked cars often open their doors without looking, requiring one to be constantly on the lookout for motion in parked cars.  They will often double park (parking in the street beside cars that are parallel parked) as if putting their 4-way emergency flashing lights on magically turns wherever they happen to be into a legitimate parking spot.  Sometimes I’ve seen them triple park, blocking not only one lane, but part of the oncoming lane too!

A narrow street flanked by colourful buidlings that is filled with people and shops with good spilling out onto the street

Try getting a motorhome down this street!

Most shocking is a peculiar practice in Naples where drivers will shop from their cars.  They stop in front of a small store, usually double-parked, and honk their horns.  The shopkeeper will emerge, get their order and their money, then disappear into the store to return a minute later with their purchase and their change.  This is happening while other cars stack up behind or attempt to pass, without any apparent concern for them, as if this is completely normal (well, I guess it is in Naples).

Diane standing beside a tiny yellow car an night witha brick wall behind

Yes, this is someone’s real car!

If the cars are bad, the motorcycles and scooters are worse.  The majority of them are scooters (a lot of Vespas but now many Asian manufacturers too), so I’ll refer to them all as ‘scooters’.  Lane splitting by this plague on wheels is normal.  They drive between the other cars, passing on the left and right while traffic is moving, on blind corners, and in busy intersections.  At stop lights they worm their way to the head of the line, often performing major acrobatics to get to the front, or as close to it as possible, wedged in between the other cars and/or the curb.  When the light turns green, they race off ahead (they’re quick off the line), but they sometimes get passed again if the roadway has a higher speed limit, in which case they repeat the procedure at the next light.

Crazy scooter driving was commonplace in Asia, but I wasn’t behind the wheel there.  It’s much more exciting when one is in the thick of it.  A particularly shocking example we’ve seen was a man driving his scooter with a very young child, perhaps 3 years old, standing between his legs while he drove.  The child wasn’t wearing a helmet, wasn’t secured, and appeared to barely be old enough to hang on to.  The child wasn’t tall enough to reach the handlebars, even while standing, so was holding on to something lower, behind the front console.

Many scooters parked together

Scooters Everywhere!

On the other hand, we did receive a very nice favour from a scooter driver.  A scooter behind us started honking and drive up beside me so I slowed down and eventually stopped.  The driver reached over and gave me my swim goggles, which I’d forgotten to bring in off the rear rack of our camper where they’d been clipped with a clothes pin to dry.  Although she didn’t speak English, she must have seen them fall off while we were driving, retrieved them in the middle of this crazy traffic (at no small risk to herself), and then chased us down to return them.  Perhaps scooters are good for something after all?

Ghost Ship – Our Semi-Private Cruise

We didn’t book a private cruise, but we had the entire ship virtually to ourselves.  It was a pleasant surprise, but strange nonetheless.  In each room the staff stood around attentively, watching our every move in the hopes that we might need something.  They outnumbered us 10 to 1.  Each time we walked past the empty cafeteria, with a full assortment of hot and cold food prepared and on display, I felt the eyes of the staff willing me to stop and purchase something.

We left Greece from the Peloponnesian port of Patras, heading to Italy by ferry.  We arrived in Patras in late afternoon, and like so often seems to happen to us, virtually everything was closed.  Another Greek holiday, in this case Whit Monday, the holiday celebrated the day after Pentecost.   Down by the harbour we did find an open ticket office for Superfast Ferries, so we went in and learned that there was a ship leaving in short order.  To make it, we needed to be at the dock in under 30 minutes.  We decided to go for it, and booked passage for ‘camping on deck’.  This is a unique option provided by some ferry companies that allows you to sleep in your motorhome on the deck.  The use of gas is not allowed, but they do provide an electrical connection to operate the refrigerator, lights, and electric cook top (if your camper has one).  Thankfully we do have one electric burner, allowing us to cook onboard, but we didn’t have any food having just spent several days free camping on Greek beaches.  We were told that there was an open grocery store near the port if we hurried.

After a blitz through Carrefour, we arrived at the dock in a scramble, and were turned back when the ‘tickets’ we’d been given were actually vouchers that had to be converted at the Superfast office.  Diane did this while I kept the engine idling, and we raced back through the security check and up the ramp onto a ghost ship.

Empty grey deck on a ship with white railing and tower, with ocean and sunset in the background

Ghost ship

We were directed to park near the rail, and a crew member pulled an electrical cable down from the ceiling to connect us.  We were under cover for some protection from the sun and or rain, but still had a view onto the ocean.

Camping car alone on a metal deck near the starboard wall with windows in the background

Our cabin on the S&M Cruise Line

The weird thing was, there were almost no other vehicles on board.  At the very far end of the deck there was a single semi-trailer. Parked behind us were a few cars which appeared to be owned by the crew.  And that was it, on a ship so big that a crew member used a motor scooter to get around our deck rather than walk.  It was basically empty.  I assumed that more vehicles would arrive, but at the appointed time we set sail empty.

An empty metal deck on a deserted ferry.  Covered with windows in the background.

Our private deck

We went upstairs to peruse the ship.  There was a beautiful main deck with several lounges, a bar, a cafeteria, and a casino, all empty.  Above this were 2 deserted decks of staterooms.  There were two external terraces surrounded by waiters to provide table service to the non-existent patrons.  Collectively, spread over the entire ship, I think that there were less than 10 people, excluding the staff who were far more numerous.  There was a deck crew, a full kitchen with restaurant staff, a bartender with servers, an information desk with 2 staff, and a variety of officers and other attendants.

Empty hallway and lounge area with seating and lights

Our Private Lounge

The cafeteria was the most shocking.  They had a full selection of hot entrees (fish, meat, etc.), side dishes, and cold dishes.  I spied at least 10 beautiful salmon salads waiting in the cooler, but I did not see a single person eat.

Empty cafeteria counter with food and display but no patrons

Our Private Cafeteria

We did our best to support the Greek economy, drinking a pricey beer on the upper deck as Greece faded into the distance.

Diane sitting at a white table with two beer glasses on the table

Doing our part to help support the Greek economy!

Despite the guilt-inducing looks from the staff, Diane cooked us dinner in the camper.  We used the terrific shower facilities on board.  Who puts marble floors and sinks on a ferry?  When we went to bed, I was still in a state of shock about how vacant the ship was.  How could they possibly afford to run such a big ferry empty, especially on an international route?

We got our answer at 1 AM.  We were awakened by the loud noise of large trucks and other vehicles.  It seems our ferry wouldn’t be completely empty for the whole voyage after all.

In the morning, we peered outside and found that we were completed hemmed in by large trucks.

Cabs of many truck side-by-side

No longer alone

Our empty deck was now full.  The trucks were so tightly crammed together that we couldn’t walk between them.

Narrow gap between two white trucks

No wiggle room

Even though our private cruise was over, we still enjoyed the rest of our voyage, arriving in Bari,  Italy in the late morning.  We still had a nice view, and Diane even hung out the laundry in the Mediterranean breeze!

 

Towels hanging from our camper van window

Towels with that fresh ocean smell!

 

The Greek Debt Crisis – What really happened?

We’ve been hearing so much on the news recently about the Greek and European debt crises, the decline of the Euro, and of protests across Europe, especially on the streets of Athens.  The European Union and its common currency appeared for a while to be a great success, a major economic powerhouse built from an amalgam of tiny neighbours.  So what happened, and why should we care?

Europeans have been talking about an economic union for over 100 years.  They believed that by cooperating they would all benefit economically, and more importantly, it would help to prevent the wars that had ravaged Europe throughout history.  After the devastation of World War II, Europeans began to consider this seriously.  It took over 30 years to agree on and implement, while politicians, economists, and central bankers tried to balance the many complicated factors and competing interests.  Together they believed that Europe could be another superpower in our multi-polar world (along with America, Russia, and China).

Prior to the Euro, doing business in Europe was inefficient.  The overhead of so many small countries each with their own currency resulted in increased costs.  A trip of only a few hours might require the crossing of several borders, each with their own immigration, customs, and currency conversion requirements.

The reality is that Germany, France, England, and Italy dominate Europe’s economy.  Germany in particular has been the primary economic engine of Europe, even while absorbing the massive costs of German reunification.  Germany was optimistic that moving to an economic union would expand its markets to more European consumers, but insisted that the other countries adopt conservative economic policies similar to its own and meet strict economic criteria for membership.  Most of all, Germany wanted to ensure that Euro would be a stable currency so they would never again experience the hyper-inflation they did prior to World War II.

Greece and the many smaller countries of Europe wanted the benefits of Eurozone membership so they could share a single strong currency with Germany.  At the time, several countries didn’t meet the fiscal criteria for membership but they were so anxious to participate that they did whatever was required to become members, like cut spending and raise taxes.  Greece in particular, had an almost miraculous turnaround, bringing their economy into line in short order.  But, as we’ve seen, it was too good to be true.

The European Union became the largest economy in the world.  Its GDP was over $17 Trillion US dollars in 2011 (compared to the United States at $15 Trillion and Canada at not quite $2 Trillion).  Of this, Germany, France, United Kingdom, and Italy together make up $11 Trillion (approx. 65%) of the total GDP of the EU.  On January 1, 2002, most of Europe began using a new currency, the Euro.  The Eurozone (which is basically the subset of European Union countries that use the Euro), became the 2nd largest economy in the world after the US.

Greece was one of the EU countries that began using the Euro in 2002.  The people of Greece were very happy to be in.  Greece had (and still has) a small economy (GDP of 300 Billion in 2011, or one-sixth the size of Canada).  When it joined, it was one of the least developed members.  As a result, Greece was a net recipient of EU money for government and infrastructure projects, resulting in a lot of enhancements to public services.  Later, with the admission of even smaller, poorer countries like Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, these funds reduced considerably.

A greater benefit came from the fact that lenders gave the many small countries of Europe (e.g. Greece, Ireland, and Portugal), the benefit of being part of the larger club.  They, incorrectly it turns out, viewed the risk of lending to these small countries as being much less now that they were part of the European Union.  But that wasn’t really the case.

There were some real issues in Greece then and now that make it very different from countries like Germany and France.  Greece has a small economy with limited exports.  It has relatively low productivity, and a low (currently negative) growth rate.  It has a huge annual deficit and debt compared to the size of its economy.  Greece’s largest industries, tourism and shipping, were particularly hard hit by the global financial crisis (down 15% in 2009). The Greek government isn’t good at controlling its spending, even once its budget has been set, resulting in overruns, especially in election years.  There is widespread tax evasion and corruption in the Greek tax system, and government revenues are much lower that they should be.

Despite these issues, cheap money began flowing into Greece.  Prior to joining the Euro Zone, interest rates in Greece had always been relatively high (10 to 20%), a reflection of their higher risk relative to other European nations.  After joining the Eurozone, interest rates in Greece declined to under 5%.  For Greeks, it was like an economic miracle.  They borrowed money euphorically to buy consumer items like houses and cars, and to grow their businesses.  The Greek government could now also borrow money cheaply, and began to spend wildly.  They hired many new government employees, raised salaries rapidly, and spent a ton of money infrastructure and other projects.  These were things that they couldn’t afford to do before joining the Eurozone and, it turns out, couldn’t really afford to do after joining either.

Greece elected a new government in October 2009.  Like most new governments, soon after they gained power and got access to the books, they claimed that things were much worse than the previous government had let on.  But in Greece, it was much worse.  The Greek statistics agency had played fast and loose with the numbers, greatly under representing how bad the situation was.  The annual deficit relative to the GDP ratio was not 6% as previously reported, but somewhere between 12 and 16%.  In 2010 it was learned that for 10 years successive Greek governments had deliberately arranged transactions so as to hide the actual level of borrowing.  This set off a dramatic chain reaction.  The foreign investors, European banks, and Greek banks who loaned money to the governments of Greece and to other small European nations (like Iceland and Ireland) got spooked, leading to a confidence crisis in Europe, the European Debt Crisis.

International lenders stopped lending money to Greece and some other nations, and interest rates in these countries increased dramatically.  The smaller countries of Europe (and their citizens) found it almost impossible to borrow money.  It became apparent to lenders that these countries would have great difficulty or wouldn’t be able to pay back what they owed.  Due to its large debt, low creditworthiness, and the much higher interest rates it was therefore required to pay, Greece was effectively bankrupt.

There are only 4 ways for a nation to deal with its debt when it can’t pay it back — (1) have the lenders forgive the debt (2) increase the money supply leading to surplus inflation (and therefore making it easier to pay the money back), (3) achieve dramatic economic growth (leading to increased tax revenues), or (4) default on the debt.

Because Greece shares a currency (the Euro) with the rest of Europe it does not have an independent monetary policy, and other European countries, especially Germany, do not want that currency debased (leading to inflation).  Although Greece plans to grow its economy, the world is a competitive place, and new austerity measures will likely slow their growth.  Not only has their economy not been growing, but it’s been shrinking for the last 2 years.  Greece and the rest of Europe are trying desperately to avoid Greece from defaulting on all their debt, because they’re worried it will trigger a European economic collapse.  They are worried about a chain reaction of bank and government failures starting in Greece and spreading until it collapses one of the larger economies of Europe (e.g. Italy).

This European debt crisis has had significant impacts through Europe.  The Euro has fallen relative to other world currencies and to the US dollar (down 25% from its peak in 2008), despite the fact that America has had its own share of economic problems recently.  It has prompted government changes in Italy, Spain, and Greece.  The European Union also began to more closely monitor its members and to enforce its rules to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. In December 2011, the governments of Europe agreed to austerity measures that would result in them spending less money, much to the chagrin of their citizens.  The European Central Bank propped up the European banks with a huge infusion of money in March 2012, but Europe is still in a recession.

The other countries of Europe and the European Central Bank agreed to bail out Greece with some major conditions – that Greece’s creditors agree to forgive some of their debt, and that the Greek government implement severe austerity measures.  This angered the people, who were facing job losses for civil servants, reduced government services, significant impacts to their pay, pensions, taxes, etc., all of which resulted in protests on the streets of Athens.  After much negotiation, Greece’s creditors did forgive about half of its debt in February 2012, and Europe provided the latest of the multiple bailouts that have kept Greece going on life support.

A Greek election in May failed to form a government so another election was held on June 17 (3 days ago).  The biggest issue in the election was whether to honour the commitments made by Greece just a few months ago upon which their partial debt forgiveness and latest bailout had been conditional.  Many of the parties running were anti-bailout, and intended to try to renegotiate the terms of the deal.  Prior to the election in May, the EU made it clear that rejection of the bailout conditions would result in Greece being forced out of the Eurozone, something that would have devastating effects on Greece, other small European nations, and potentially all of Europe.  This time, from the many factions running, pro-bailout parties received just enough seats to form a coalition government, something that is expected to be announced today (June 20).  Greece voted by the slimmest of margins to try to stay in the Euro club.  It is disconcerting though that the second place party in Sunday’s election was Syriza (27% of the vote), an anti-bailout party who has tapped into the anger of many Greeks over their declining living standards, and who pledged to magically return Greece to their unsustainable lifestyle.  This is wishful thinking on the grandest scale and probably not even possible, but many Greeks voted for it.

Even with the debt forgiveness and multiple bailouts, it may not be feasible for Greece to remain in the Eurozone.  It is impossible to row against the tide of global sentiment forever.  Fearful that a potential departure (a ‘Grexit’) would result in a devaluation of their money, Greeks have begun moving their savings to the banks of other European nations.  Eventually, this could collapse the Greek banking system and force Greece’s withdrawal from the Eurozone.  Of course the transitioning Greek government encourages people to be calm and reminds them that their deposits are ensured by the Greek government, but when that government is effectively bankrupt and relying on the handouts of other nations, that warranty is not reassuring.  Many economists think that it is an inevitability, that what we are witnessing are just the stages of grieve prior to the final death throes.

The European Union treaties are silent on the matter of states leaving the Eurozone, neither prohibiting nor permitting it. Likewise there is no provision for a state to be expelled from the Euro, although the other states could make it so difficult for Greece that they choose to leave voluntarily.  There is virtually no precedent for a country leaving a monetary union, and in modern world of electronic fund transfers and financial speculators, this would be extremely difficult and potentially devastating.

There is a lot of ill will toward Greece in Europe right now.  The other countries blame them lying about their economic situation to gain membership to the EU, for not working hard enough, for retiring too early, for spending too much money, and for not collecting enough taxes.

Greece is a tiny country on the other side of the world.  Until recently it was more famous for its antiquities, beaches and food than for anything else.  The reason we should care is that a debt default in Greece could lead to a chain reaction of collpases that would eventually impact the larger economies of Italy or Spain, destroy the European Union, and plunge the world into another major financial crisis when we haven’t yet recovered from the last one.  In today’s globally integrated world the actions of one small nation can impact ordinary citizens on the other side of the globe.

Impressions of Italy

We spent the last 3 weeks in northern and central Italy, arriving in the south of France a couple of days ago.  Here are some of our impressions of Italy.

  • Much of the landscape appears dry and rocky, but it’s still green.  Not the rich, dark, rainforest green of British Columbia, but the olive green of the Mediterranean.
  • The driving gets crazier the further south you go.  In the North it was not much different than the other countries we’ve visited, but in central Italy it’s noticeably different, especially in the cities.  I’m glad I got to practice in Germany first.
  • There are lots of scooters driving erratically.  They dart in and out of traffic, drive between the lanes, and force their way between cars to get to the front of the line at red lights.
  • Italians love gelato, pizza, and coffee and shops selling these items are everywhere.  They are much more common than American-style ‘fast-food’ restaurants which there don’t seem to be too many of.
  • Italians drink espresso in tiny cups with added sugar.  This can be drunk quickly standing at the bar or savoured over a long conversation.  Although you can get a cappuccino, there are no big North American-sized coffees to be had.  Coffee is never drunk with a meal.
  • Some restaurants have a cover charge just to sit down.  If you stand at the bar, it can be cheaper than at a table.  Outside seats are usually the most expensive.  Taking your food “to go” is usually the cheapest.
  • The woman and men dress more fashionably.  The majority seem to be in stylish outfits, even when dressed casually.  We’ve seen nothing sleazy (if you don’t count what I’m pretty sure were two prostitutes staying in our campground in Bologna) but instead outfits that are more tasteful and elegant.  In case you ladies are wondering, short skirts or dresses with tights and long boots are what the women seem to be wearing when not dressed in more formal attire.
  • The grocery stores are smaller (no warehouse supermarkets here).  There are a lot of small green grocers and bakeries selling only fresh items.  Even the packaged products (e.g. olive oil, pasta sauce, sun-dried tomatoes) seem to taste better than in Canada.  In most cases, food is similar in price to Canada, but some items are much cheaper (e.g. fresh pasta, cheese, fresh herbs)
  • There seem to be many different types of Italian police, perhaps municipal, state, etc.  One particular variety looks especially macho and intimidating, more like storm troopers than friendly, neighbourhood cops.
  • Italian, when spoken softly and slowly, is a really beautiful language.  When a group of Italians get together and talk, it’s sometimes hard to tell if they’re having an argument or just excited.  And yes, they do speak with their hands.

No good deed goes unpunished

We arrived in La Spezia on the north-west coast of Italy in a rain storm at 5:30 PM.  A British couple that we’d met the night before had recommended a camping site in an industrial area near the port.  As best they could figure, it was on land used by the local ambulance service (there are ambulances and attendants on call there), and which is also rented out to locals to store their RVs.  They also allow overnight camping by donation.  We needed a base to explore Cinque Terre, and this seemed like a good one.

On arrival I stopped at the small office (more of a shack really, about 2 meters by 2 meters with a small counter and 1 computer) to register my passport with the young man in the office.  After finding a spot to park and enjoying happy hour with Diane (1 beer and a snack), I returned to the office to see if I could charge my laptop because no electricity is provided in the parking area.  By this point it was dark, the wind was really howling and the rain was pelting down.  Lightening had begun to flash and Diane was worried about the weather.  When I left the RV she asked, “How long will you be?”, and I said, “Just a few minutes.”  On my way to the office I waved to the ambulance attendants who were outside battening down the hatches, securing some of their temporary structures against the howling winds.  They waved back.

The office was unattended when I arrived.  It was difficult to open the door because of the strong winds.  The rain was blasting down in sheets, ricocheting off the roof of a covered area nearby containing an old ambulance.  I waited for a long time.  The wind was whipping and the door began to shake in its frame.  I wondered if the shack would stand up to the elements.  I speculated whether the young man I’d met at check-in had gone home for the evening, or was just hanging out with the ambulance attendants somewhere.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, I questioned whether the office and gate were unmanned after a certain hour.

Outside the storm was getting worse.  I was starting to worry about how the S&M Motel would stand up to a night of this.  An RV appeared at the front gate.  He honked for the gate to be opened.  Through the torrent, I could see that he was staring at me, wondering why I wasn’t doing so.  I think he thought that I worked there.  He wasn’t prepared to leave the warmth of his RV to brave the storm, nor was I willing to go out and speak to him (although I did briefly consider it).  After a minute or so he backed up and disappeared from view.

A short while later another RV arrived.  Same story.  He started honking, starting at me through the window.  I wondered why no one was coming to assist, and thought perhaps they had gone home or were out on an emergency call.  After a couple more minutes, another RV (or perhaps the first one returning) joined him waiting at the gate.  In an effort to be helpful, I reached behind the desk and pressed the button to open the gate.  Both RVs entered and I closed the gate behind them.

I continued waiting.  I realized that there was a plug-in behind the counter and I thought perhaps I could start charging my laptop while I passed the time.  I stepped around the counter to plug in my laptop.  At that moment I saw two men running through the torrential rain toward the office.

Can you see what’s coming?  I certainly didn’t.  I thought that perhaps they were the owners of the RVs that had just arrived.  Or maybe the staff that should have been manning the office.

They burst through the door yelling at me in Italian.  The first guy was squat, thick, and balding and was wearing a black hoodie (let’s call him ‘Sluggo’).  The other was a young guy wearing the reflective orange uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo raced around the counter, grabbed me, and pushed me up against the wall.  He was very agitated, shouting at me in Italian.  He grabbed my half-empty backpack containing my laptop, minus the cord which I’d just plugged in to the wall.  It occurred to me at that point that they thought I was a thief, and so I tried to calm them down.  I raised my hands and, because I speak no Italian, I repeated the simplest English words I could think of that they might understand, “It’s OK.  No problem.”  Sluggo was having none of it.  He threatened to punch me.  At this point, I realized that things had the potential to go very wrong.  I offered no resistance because I’d done nothing wrong.  He reached into my jacket pockets to see whether I had taken anything.  Nothing there but my iPhone and reading glasses.  He checked my backpack but found only my laptop.

Keeping with my theme of simple and honest, I said “My name is Patrick King.  I am from Canada.”  They asked me for my passport.  I said, “It’s in my camper, with my wife” (I hoped the ‘wife’ part would make me seem more respectable).  I said that my passport information was, “in your computer”, because I had previously registered.

Sluggo pulled a cell phone from his pocket and dialed it.  I thought he was dialing the police.  Initially I figured this might be a good thing, having some cooler heads join the party, but then two things crossed my mind – that Italian police don’t have a reputation for being particularly honest or trustworthy, and that police everywhere tend to look out for their own (and presumably this would include other emergency response personnel like ambulance attendants).  Thankfully, it seemed that he was calling one of his buddies waiting outside to call the police (in case things took a turn for the worst), so at that point I realized that they figured the situation was under control.

While Sluggo was on the phone, I appealed to the younger guy, “Do you speak English?  Can we talk?”  They agreed.  I slowly lowered my hands and tried to explain, “I was waiting here for 15 minutes and no one came.  I wanted to charge my laptop.”  They spoke to me in Italian, and I could just make out that they were asking whether I had let the two campers in.  I said, “Yes.  They were waiting and honking the horn”, which I demonstrated in mime with the addition of a honking sound.   Again I said, “No one came.  And so I opened the gate.”  More chastising in Italian, presumably saying that I shouldn’t have done that.   I said, “I was trying to help.”  They asked in Italian whether the drivers had come to the office to register.  Surely that was going above and beyond the call of duty, and they didn’t expect that I should have registered them too!  I replied, “No, they didn’t”.  I then made out that they wanted me to go and get the newcomers and bring them back to the office.  I agreed, glad to get out of the confined and hostile space.

I walked back through the storm to our RV first.  I knocked on the door and told Diane, who was in the middle of making dinner, that, “Things didn’t go so well at the office.”  I said that, “I’d let two campers in through the gate without permission, and that they wanted me to bring the drivers.”  I didn’t want to worry her but I wanted her to know that something was up, in case things escalated.

I could see that a new camper had arrived beside ours, and so I knocked.  A German man answered the door, and I asked, “Do you speak English”.  Like many Germans he spoke a little, and so I asked him to come to the office to register.  He seemed to be delaying and so I asked, “5 minutes?” and he replied, “3 seconds.”  He joined me for the walk back through the rain and I explained that I didn’t work here, that I was from Canada, and that the men were angry with me that I’d let him through the gate.  They thought that I was a criminal.  I wanted him to know the situation and to have him on my side if things turned ugly.  He pointed out to me the other RV that arrived at the same time, and I knocked on this vehicle from France.  An older couple opened the door tentatively and they did not speak English so I used some terrible broken French to ask “Nouveau.  Arrivé.  Dix Minutes?”  I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that given that my mother was a French teacher, but it was all that my addled, adrenaline-charged brain could come up with.  They understood, and responded in the affirmative.  I said, “Registration”, to which they replied with a lot of rapid fire French, from which I deduced that they had already registered (and perhaps paid) and had just returned from a day trip to Pisa.  I said, “Merci”, and walked with the wet German to the office.

When we arrived, there was a third guy in the room, also wearing the uniform of an ambulance attendant.  Sluggo and the first guy began to speak with the German.  I spoke to the other guy, asking “Do you speak English?” and he replied, “Quite well”.  Excellent.  I started to explain what had happened, and he interrupted, “I know.”  I kept on anyhow, wanting to make sure that he heard my version of the events.  When the German was registered, I apologized and repeated that, “I was trying to help”.  The new guy said that, “They had had some problems here”, and presumably they had thought I was a thief.

I wondered what kind of thief would have taken the time to let RVs into the campground.  Like the Seinfeld episode when Kramer was telling his story about driving a bus while fending off a mugger and kicking him off “at the next stop”.  Incredulous, Jerry asked “You kept making all the stops?”, and Kramer replied, “Well, people kept ringing the bell!”  They kept honking, and so I opened the gate!  In hindsight it occurred to me that the ambulance attendants couldn’t hear the honks over the storm; I could barely hear them from 3 meters away.

I collected my stuff and the new guy said, “Did you want to charge your laptop?”  By this point, I was a bit hesitant to leave it with them, but I said, “Yes”, hoping it would mend some fences.  We plugged it in and I left it sitting on the counter.  I apologized for any problems and made a point of shaking each of their hands before I left the office.

I returned to our RV, trying to remain cool and collected in front of Diane.  Eventually, in response to her questions, I told her what had happened.  She didn’t say much, but had the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t make out whether the cause was nervousness or humour, or perhaps the Italian wine she’d been drinking while making dinner.  I wasn’t very hungry, but I enjoyed Diane’s excellent meal of pan seared pork, steamed rice, and sautéed white beans, which was prepared during the two tempests.  I retrieved my laptop an hour later and wrote this blog, with the events still fresh in my mind — a kind of private therapy while my wife is sleeping.