Notes for My Father on Returning from Europe and North Africa

New Orleans       Continuing a tradition, when my father was alive, he would ask me what I learned that might interest him from my travels, so here are quick notes that would have intrigued him, and perhaps you.

  • In Tunis, we ate a something that tasted delicately like a peach, but was flat. One of our delegation called it a “flat peach,” and claimed they also ate this near Boston and upstate New York.  We also ate plums that were green and pale yellow.
  • In central and southern Netherlands, I was introduced to a working-class staple, a narrow, six-inch sausage made of mysterious meat parts, called frikandel. One of my colleagues was a huge fan and reported that near Heerlen there was a restaurant that specializes in various types of frikandel.  I tasted it, and it was alright.  Getting on a train from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf, I did a doubletake to see that Burger King was trying to start a frikandel craze with a special offering.
  • Staying near the center of Dusseldorf, Germany, I seemed to be living in an Asian neighborhood. As we ate lunch in a nearby Korean restaurant, I asked a colleague what was the story on this neighborhood.  It turned out that there was a special treaty between Japan and several other countries and Germany that brought workers in to the city as part of an exchange, and it ended up with many staying and creating the neighborhood and a significant population.
  • In Catania, Sicily, staying with a colleague on the third floor of a seven-story apartment complex, early one morning I was standing on the balcony looking down at the street and noticed a moving truck double-parked in front of the building next door where two workers were trying to wrangle a large bureau into the truck and off of a suspended platform. At first, I couldn’t figure out whether it was a curious truck lift or something else.  Turned out it was something else.  A closer look revealed that the platform was attached to a metal ladder that went all the way up to the unit and was an elevator of sorts that moved hydraulically up to the unit, similar to a hook-and-ladder firetruck.  A table came down next.  It was a two-truck, three man moving operation.  Perhaps this is common for complexes in Europe with small elevators and no freight elevators, but it was new to me in Sicily.
  • Tunisia still allows smoking in restaurants everywhere.
  • In Amsterdam to keep tourists from scamming on the trams, there is a worker behind a desk next to the entrance to both answer questions and check that all customers came on and off by swiping their tickets.
  • Parking in Catania, Sicily is privatized. Parking is highly prized on public streets. Residents pay to park between blue lines, and the private parking company works the streets to determine that only payers are parking. They can’t give tickets but send a notice and fine for nonpayment or overstaying in company controlled spaces.  Cars park everywhere in crosswalks and curbs where parking is illegal, because in the bankrupt city, police are not assigned to parking issues, even though the private companies meter maids and men are everywhere.

I could go on, but you get the message, it’s an amazing world out there, full of constant surprise and wonder, in things both large and small.

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Tenants Facing Big Issues in Sicily

Catania           We might have been having an espresso overlooking the working port of Catania with its tall grain towers and massive cruise ships crowding smaller fishing and pleasure boats, as many walked along the edge of the port to breathe in the sea air, but we were talking trouble when we started discussing the issues faced by tenants all over Sicily, especially in Catania.

Laura Saija and I were talking to the head of the Tenants’ Union of Sicily, Guisey Milaazzo, and one of the founding organizers of a community and tenant organization in the mammoth Librino housing project on the edge of the city.  The tenants’ union has been around for a while and still claims almost 8000 members paying thirty euros per year with almost 3000 of them in both Catania and Palermo.  Of the 300,000 or so population in the city of Catania about 100,000 are tenants with 9000 of that number in public housing and the rest in private.  Membership has been difficult in the public housing sector for the tenants’ union as the units have aged, and the public authorities have either disinvested in public housing or engaged in schemes that shunt off the responsibility for maintenance and upkeep.  A public-private split has exacerbated the issues with many high-rises mixed between public units and formerly public units that were allowed to be purchased by the tenants.  Unfortunately, in such a mixed development the responsibilities for paying for modernization of the units has devolved into a bad stalemate with public bankruptcies and the inability of lower income tenants to shoulder the debt necessary for unit rebabs.  As we know globally, that pretty much means a ticking timebomb until the public complexes are virtually uninhabitable.

Port of Catania

Whether in Librino or the union’s regular meeting with the regional administrator who has taken over public housing in Sicily for the last dozen years because of the financial catastrophe, our friends described frustration as demands and hopes had collapsed in Librino or only yielded “5% success” in the union’s case.  All of which mean an increasing crisis and less capacity to meet it effectively as the organizing programs were thwarted.

We talked about inclusionary zoning and the creation of other schemes for affordable housing, but the story was not much better.  Italy offers various incentives, but nothing is mandatory.  Inclusionary zoning is also soft.

Regardless, it was clear there might be many common causes and grounds for collaboration around work in Sicily, and the Tenants’ Union was welcoming.  They have a long history and carry the scars of many battles, so they will be a good guide for future work.

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