The ruling party in Poland – the shamelessly named Freedom and Justice Party – is in the process of curtailing both freedom and justice by politicising the country’s judiciary and taking other steps to ensure it gets re-elected, such as silencing dissenters and attempting to control the country’s electoral commission. Listening to this on the news at breakfast, I was already choking on my toast when a British Conservative politician popped up to defend the Polish government with platitudes such as “important trading partner”, “local democracy” and “taking back control”. He sidestepped the real issue – that yet another national government is taking those first steps along the road to totalitarianism – with such blatant disregard that he must think we are uncomprehending idiots; which, to be fair to him, many of us are. Nevertheless, the plain fact is that nobbling one’s judiciary is wrong. It is also against the rules of the EU, of which Poland is a member, yet its government presses ahead, outraged that the EU should presume to have a say in the matter.
We have spent this last week in Sicily where, because my Italian is so rudimentary, I can detect no discussion of EU politics except by tuning in to BBC Radio 4 via the internet. To be honest, however, I am not presently all-consumed by the issues, since we are here mainly to savour the food, drink and history of the island. In order to cover as much ground as possible, we hired a car, pre-dented so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and fitted with a sat-nav to de-stress the experience of driving through unfamiliar, sprawling towns. Unfortunately, the hire firm did not alert us to the fact that the sat-nav was programmed in Italian and knew only one destination – The Vatican. Maybe it’s a joke they inflict on tourists, but I had to execute a factory re-set to get the device to recognise the rest of Italy. As for getting it to speak English, we chose the voice of an Australian called Ken who has a ‘sense of humour’ and a vocabulary to match, in preference to Janet from the Home Counties, whose po-faced delivery is somehow at odds with the unruly traffic hereabouts.
Arriving in Catania and, later, Palermo, we were relieved to park the car and walk. Historic city-centres such as these were not built for cars, but the locals who live in them have little choice but to squeeze their minis through the streets and thread their teetering motorbikes around the pedestrians, which they do with consummate skill and consideration for each other. Road rage is reserved only for other drivers, in particular those who dare to proceed more slowly than the permitted norm, i.e. ‘full speed ahead’ at all times.
Ancient city centres may be frustrating for drivers, but they are otherwise the saviour of a way of life that does not work elsewhere. The historic centre of Palermo, for example, has four areas of street markets, operating all day, every day and sustained by the population that lives immediately above and around them. Everything they need for everyday life is there and, with competition intense, prices are keen. At least they are for the locals: they can see us coming, so we have learned to buy only from the stalls with clearly marked pricing. And, away from the markets, many of the streets are dedicated to individual trades, as they used to be in medieval London. One afternoon we walked past a line of jewellers, then coffin-makers, then – surprisingly – underpants wholesalers.
Walking the streets during rush hour is less of a pleasure: the fumes from all those ill-maintained, bashed-up vehicles are overpowering. Still, with the traffic jammed-up, there is an opportunity to count the number of drivers wearing seat belts: one in ten is average, despite the fact that, under EU rules, it is mandatory for everybody to belt up. The Poles, it seems, are not the only ones flouting the club rules.