A right-wing and left-wing plan for dealing with boat refugees

Due the increasing amount of boat refugees coming to the European Union as of late, the the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) proposed on 22 March this year that we completely close the outer borders of the EU for asylum seekers. According to them asylum seekers are costly for us, they facilitate human trafficking and it’s hard to separate legit refugees from economic migrants and terrorists. The massive influx of refugees would cause societal breakdown in the EU. Refugees should be housed in their own region and be able to build a new life there, possibly with aid from the EU.

While I am sympathetic to some of the reasoning of the proposal, it lacks solidarity and is short-sighted. In some cases regional capacity for hosting refugees is already stressed to the limit. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hosted respectively 1,59 million, 1,15 million and 654.100 refugees according to the UNHCR Global Trends report on forced displacement in 2014. Lebanon is even the country with the largest amount of refugees compared to its own population in the world, with 232 refugees per 1.000 inhabitants. That’s insane and makes it obvious to me that our sense of solidarity obliges us to help out with hosting Syrian refugees. During the debate in the House of Representatives about the plan, it was claimed that even 95% of refugees are already hosted in their own region. Also, legal experts were quick to point out that the VVD’s plan would violate international treaties, making it difficult to implement. It was clear that except for the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), there was no support for the plan.

My own party GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Party, responded with an alternative proposal. It boils down to five points: preventing that more refugees drown, allowing refugees to apply for asylum while outside the EU, improve facilities to house refugees in their own region, better distribution of refugees within the EU and structural solutions for the refugee problem.

The alternative plan of my own political party sounds good, but it refuses to acknowledge the existence of economic migration. And while they might not form a significant part of the refugees, economic migrants do exist. On several news reports I’ve seen refugees from Pakistan. Yes, there’s a war in North-West Pakistan, but millions of Pakistanis are apparently able to lead relatively peaceful lives in other regions of their country. I think Pakistan should be able to help it’s own internal refugees, possibly with international aid.

Also consider that the public housing sector in the Netherlands can’t cope with the demand exerted by all the refugees which are entitled to housing. They practically receive housing for free because they are likely to live on welfare. They are given precedence over the Dutch citizens who are on the waiting list for public housing. The obvious reason refugees seek asylum in Western Europe is that they are entitled to much more aid than in neighboring states in their region. While I agree that we should spend more on foreign aid for refugees, I think we should make our public services for asylum seekers more sober simultaneously. I don’t feel the plan of GroenLinks addresses these issues sufficiently.

I totally agree that we should be generous to refugees from Syria. But they can be given temporary asylum in order to force their return when the Syrian Civil War is over. They can be housed in more sober asylum centers or intermodal container housing instead of public housing.

First New Year’s dive ever

On 1 January this year I participated in a New Year’s dive for the first time ever. I had already been inspired in 2012 to do this. Ideally I wanted to go to the beach of Scheveningen near The Hague, where the largest event was organized for 10.000 people. Because I live in Rotterdam, I decided to go to a local event organized at the Kralingse Plas, a large lake north of Rotterdam’s center.

In total there were probably thirty people who got in the water and an equal amount of people who preferred to stay warm. It was well organized by the local ice skating club, they even had a diver in the water for safety. It should be noted that according to the science, the activity is not a problem for the average healthy person. However, people with heart or respiratory diseases might not take well to it. Apart from risks, science says it can actually make you feel better if you swim in such cold water regularly.

My experience was positive. When the signal was given after a countdown, the whole group ran into the water. Surprisingly, the water did not feel much colder than when I swam in a different lake during a much warmer day in the autumn. While others just waded through the water and quickly got out, I took the opportunity to swim for a minute or so. When I got out, I felt a very comforting rush of warmth through my body to compensate for the shock of the cold water. I’m not sure what the water temperature in the Kralingse Plas was, but the seawater at Schevening was 7 ℃. Because it’s a lake I expected the temperature was slightly lower.

I liked doing this and will do it again next year. If we have found a home in The Hague then, I can actually join the fun at the beach of Scheveningen. Ideally I’d like to do it more regularly than just New Year’s Day, which would be an option if I’d live closer to a beach or lake.

The call for a ban on consumer fireworks

Let’s take a look at some statistics for eye injuries sustained during the New Year celebrations on 31 December 2014 and 1 January 2015 in the Netherlands.

  • Eight people had one eye blinded by fireworks, one person had both eyes blinded.
  • A total of 206 people got injured in the eye and for 93 of these the damage was permanent.
  • For 111 people, the injuries were caused by fireworks set off by someone else.

This time, the allowed time for setting off fireworks was halved, but the amount of people with eye injuries decreased by merely 17%. Innocent bystanders constitute the majority of the injured with 54%. For how long does this mutilation need to continue before we realize that consumer fireworks are too dangerous?

One of the apologists of the fireworks sellers says that bystanders should remain inside when the fireworks are set off or use safety goggles when they venture outside. After being confronted with these statistics I will definitely stay inside. But isn’t it strange that bystanders need to take security measures like buying safety goggles? Should it not be the responsibility of those who set off fireworks to ensure safety?

Year after year it turns out that not everyone wants to buy safety goggles and that consumers can’t handle fireworks safely. It’s evident why Dutch ophthalmologists plead for a ban on consumer fireworks. Just like my political party, GroenLinks. It seems like the movement to ban consumer fireworks is gaining strength: 56% of the Dutch people favor such a ban. I hope a ban becomes reality sooner rather later, before hundreds more have their eyes mangled by fireworks in the years ahead.

Stop operating artificial ice skating rinks

Last year in October it was revealed that artificial ice skating rinks in the Netherlands depend on government subsidies for their survival. Most of the sixteen ice rinks with a 400 meter track in our country would go bankrupt without subsidies. The small amount of ice rinks which do not receive subsidies do receive millions of public funding for new construction or renovations. Electricity used to create and cool the ice floor is responsible for the majority of their operating costs.

For centuries we were restricted to outdoor ice skating when a cold winter allowed it. The first artificial ice rink in the Netherlands (and the third in the world) which was longer than 400 meters was built only 54 years ago in 1961, the Jaap Edenbaan in Amsterdam. That operating these venues would consume large amounts of electricity and thus fossil fuels was second to our desire for luxury and convenience. In these times of climate change, can we still afford to use artificial ice rinks?

My girlfriend who frequents the Uithof ice rink in the Hague during the ice skating season will be cross with me for writing this, but I think they are an unnecessary luxury which we cannot afford. Especially now that our winters have become so mild due to global warming they consume far too much energy. To provide some figures, according to the municipality of Delft the indoor artificial ice rink in Delft consumes 110.000 kWh in one ice skating season. The average household in the Netherlands consumes 3.500 kWh in a year. So, the electricity used by the ice rink equals that of 31,4 households.

Interestingly, the municipality of Delft argues that the ice rink is CO2 neutral because the ice rink finances three wind turbines which generate 500 MWh a year. This argument seems compelling, but does not convince me: that green energy could have been used for more essential things like lighting in buildings. Of course, the average oil refinery in Rotterdam’s port would use more electricity than an ice rink (I couldn’t find sources for this), but that is no excuse. It is essential that we start saving energy to fight climate change, so everything which consumes large amounts of electricity should be scrutinized, especially those things which are luxuries.

At the very least local governments should stop subsidizing ice rinks. They are practically financing climate change. If the public does not want to pay for the real operating costs of ice rinks and some would go bankrupt, so be it. There are plenty of other sports which are not so energy intensive. If you still want to go ice skating in the winter, take a train to go to the Weißensee in Austria or something.

Visited Rome in September 2014

After my last visit in June 2008, I wished to visit Rome a second time to see more of this city and its surroundings. My first visit lasted merely two days, yet allowed me to see the majority of the most popular attractions.  On this second visit, I wanted to use nine days to visit the other highlights in and around the city. Unfortunately Stephanie could not join me because she had already spent her free days. This meant I had to go alone, but I found good company with two hosts from CouchSurfing. I visited these places:

  • Mon 15th: arrival at Rome Ciampino Airport
  • Tue 16th: Cerveteri (National Museum, Banditaccia Necropolis)
  • Wed 17th: Tarquinia (National Archaeological Museum, Monterozzi Necropolis)
  • Thu 18th: Tivoli (Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana)
  • Fri 19th: National Etruscan Museum, Pincian Hill, Piazza del Popolo, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Baths of Caracalla
  • Sat 20th: Via Appia Antica (Catacombs of Callixtus, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Circus of Maxentius, Tomb of Caecilia Metella)
  • Sun 21st: Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, Baths of Trajan, Ostia Antica, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
  • Mon 22nd: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Basilica of Saint Mary in Trastevere, Palazzo Corsini, Botanical Garden, Janiculum
  • Tue 23rd: departure from Rome Ciampino Airport

Cerveteri and Tarquinia had a high priority for me. These small towns northwest of Rome are known for their Etruscan necropolises, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both towns are close to a railway, so you can go there by train and travel the last kilometers by bus from the railway station. From Rome, Cerveteri can also be reached by bus alone, with a transfer to another bus at Ladispoli. The Lonely Planet travel guide for Rome focuses on Cerveteri and mentions Tarquinia only in passing; I concur.

The Banditaccia Necropolis of Cerveteri is one of a kind. The Greek word necropolis means ‘city of the dead’ and is generally used for elaborate ancient cemeteries. The literal meaning of the word applies so aptly to the Banditaccia necropolis. When you walk through it, it bears a great resemblance to a settlement for the living, with all its streets and tombs which look like houses. It is also quite large. I have to commend how the authorities present the site to visitors, with free guided tours through the necropolis and audiovisual presentations inside select tombs. The same goes for the museum of Cerveteri, the audiovisual presentation there engages visitors with the exhibition so well. If you are short on time, prioritize Cerveteri over Tarquinia.

Street in Banditaccia Necropolis

What distinguishes Cerveteri from Tarquinia is that in the former the structures above the ground are intact but the frescoes inside the tombs were lost, while this is the other way around for the latter. At Tarquinia’s Monterozzi Necropolis the structures of the tombs above the ground were lost and the real attractions are the frescoes in the subterranean parts of the tombs. In many cases these have not been very well preserved, but there are some exceptions. In reality you can’t see much of the tomb’s frescoes however: you cannot enter the tombs for reasons of conservation, you can look at the interior through the glass of a thermal door. This also applies to some of the frescoes which have been transferred to Tarquinia’s museum.

While restricting the access to the tombs is understandable, this reduces the appeal of a visit to the site. Fortunately, for an extra fee you can take a guided tour at the site. The tour takes you to some more remote tombs which are only accessible under the supervision of a guide (but still protected by a thermal door). Without the guided tour, you just get access to a smaller part of the necropolis were the majority of the tombs are located. The guided tour compensated my slight disappointment and made it worthwhile for me. I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if they hired some fresco painters to make replicas of the tombs so you could get a better look at the frescoes? Wouldn’t such a thing attract much more tourists to Tarquinia?

Tivoli is another town close to Rome which deserves a day trip for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. The town lies northeast of Rome and can be reached by bus from the Ponte Mammolo subway station. Villa d’Este is a magnificent villa with an even more impressive garden. However, when you take the bus back to Rome and make another stop further south in Tivoli for the Villa Adriana, you will be even more impressed. The name is deceptive, because it’s not a villa, but a full-blown palace complex occupying more than one square kilometer.

Villa d'Este in Tivoli

Great Baths in Hadrian’s Villa

After my visit to the necropolises of Banditaccia and Monterozzi, I visited the National Etruscan Museum in Rome to provide context for what I saw there. Highly recommended museum with a large collection. After spending a lot of time at the museum I walked in a southern direction and ended the day with the Baths of Caracalla. Even though it’s ruined now, most of its huge walls are still standing, suggesting its former grandiosity. It’s hard to picture that such a fortune was spent on the construction of a bathhouse open to every free male citizen. The emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla must have considered this form of propaganda to be very important.

Baths of Caracalla

Together with Cerveteri, Ostia Antica was the high point of my trip. I didn’t know the ruins of this ancient Roman city were in fact on par with Pompeii, which I had seen a year earlier. The level of preservation and the size of both ruins are quite similar. It is as if you take a step into classical antiquity itself. My imagination became overwhelmed as I wondered what this city was like in all its former glory. With a guided tour a visit to this site would be even more enjoyable. On the way back to Rome’s center, make sure to visit the beautiful Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Insulae (housing blocks) in Ostia Antica

Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, Rome

On the last day I spent most of my time in art museums. The Galleria Doria-Pamphilij is absolutely recommended with its many famous pieces. So is the Palazzo Corsini, one of the two locations of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. I didn’t have time to visit the other location, the Palazzo Barberini.

Like the Palazzo Barberini, there are still plenty of places and attractions I want to see in a future visit to Rome. I couldn’t make a reservation for the Galleria Borghese in time. The Domus Aurea was closed for restorations. I didn’t have time to see the Villa of the Quintilii, the Museum of Roman Civilization, several locations of the National Roman Museum (except for the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which is close to Termini) and the National Museum of Oriental Art.

Concerning food, I was slightly disappointed with Rome. I specifically selected good restaurants from TripAdvisor, but it wasn’t as memorable as the food from southern Italy. Roman cuisine also seems to have a greater focus on meat dishes and is apparently not so creative with vegetables. Or maybe I just had bad luck in my choice of restaurants.

I had a good CouchSurfing experience on this trip. It took some perseverance to find hosts, I had to send CouchRequests to almost 150 people before I succeeded. One hosted me for the first five days of my stay, the other for the last five days. Even though they couldn’t keep me company during the day because they had to work, I greatly enjoyed their company and am very grateful for their hospitality.

Are electric cars less polluting than cars using fossil fuels?

Since they were introduced to the mass market a few years ago, I was convinced that EVs (electric vehicles) are much more friendly for the environment than vehicles with conventional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). When I had a discussion at work last year about the merits of EVs with a colleague, I desired to show him evidence for my claim. I found this 2013 study which compared the lifecycle environmental impact of EVs with ICEVs. The summary of this study reads as follows:

We find that EVs powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10% to 24% decrease in global warming potential (GWP) relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles assuming lifetimes of 150,000 km. However, EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain. Results are sensitive to assumptions regarding electricity source, use phase energy consumption, vehicle lifetime, and battery replacement schedules. Because production impacts are more significant for EVs than conventional vehicles, assuming a vehicle lifetime of 200,000 km exaggerates the GWP benefits of EVs to 27% to 29% relative to gasoline vehicles or 17% to 20% relative to diesel. An assumption of 100,000 km decreases the benefit of EVs to 9% to 14% with respect to gasoline vehicles and results in impacts indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle. Improving the environmental profile of EVs requires engagement around reducing vehicle production supply chain impacts and promoting clean electricity sources in decision making regarding electricity infrastructure.

The following passage is more specific on the impact of the fuel sources used to generate electricity for EVs:

For all scenarios analyzed, the use phase is responsible for the majority of the GWP impact, either directly through fuel combustion or indirectly during electricity production. When powered by average European electricity, EVs are found to reduce GWP by 20% to 24% compared to gasoline ICEVs and by 10% to 14% relative to diesel ICEVs under the base case assumption of a 150,000 km vehicle lifetime. When powered by electricity from natural gas, we estimate LiNCM EVs offer a reduction in GHG emissions of 12% compared to gasoline ICEVs, and break even with diesel ICEVs. EVs powered by coal electricity are expected to cause an increase in GWP of 17% to 27% compared with diesel and gasoline ICEVs.

A conference paper from 2010 reaches a similar conclusion and supplies some illustrative graphs for those of us who are more visually inclined. The 2013 study was given a spin by some news media to write clickbait articles which portray EVs as more destructive to the environment than ICEVs. That obviously does not follow from the conclusions of the study: EVs are better for the environment if powered by the average European electricity mix, but worse if they are powered by electricity generated with coal. This is also the emphasis of Greenpeace. According to other research from the USA, EVs are better for the environment than average ICEVs, even if the dirtiest electricity mix in the USA is used.  There has been some criticism from the the pro-EV camp as well: due to flaws in the 2013 study it overstated the environmental impact of EV production.

I started wondering, what is the average European electricity mix? In the data supplied with the 2013 study the electricity mix data is referenced to be in the final tab of the spreadsheet, but that tab doesn’t exist. Even so, we can use the data from Eurostat for 2012 (figures converted from GWh to TWh):

Oil Coal and lignite Gas Nuclear Renewables Other fuels Total
72 892 615 882 798 35 3.295
2% 27% 19% 27% 24% 1% 100%

Compare this with the data on the electricity mix for the Netherlands in 2012 from Statistics Netherlands. I converted the data from MWh to TWh. Eurostat should have this data for the Netherlands in the same table they use in their data visualization I referenced in the previous paragraph. However, I can’t figure out how I can distill the same figures from that data as they give in the visualization. The data from Statistics Netherlands and Eurostat doesn’t match exactly so I had to modify the categories, that’s why the total in the Dutch data is 96%.

Oil Coal and lignite Gas Nuclear Renewables Other fuels Total
0,03 24 54 4 13 3 103
0% 24% 53% 4% 12% 3% 96%

The data shows that nuclear and renewable energy constitute a much smaller share of the energy sources used in the Netherlands. Gas is a much more important source. On the other hand coal is used slightly less. Gas is cleaner than coal, though not as clean as nuclear power (considering only emissions) or renewables. Not desiring to make further intricate calculations myself, I’d assume that the electricity mix in the Netherlands is clean enough to make use of EVs preferable over ICEVs. Of course it’s imperative that we invest much more in renewable energy, because our current percentage of 12% is an embarrassment.

Even so, producing all those EVs would demand a lot of resources. Also consider that EVs with seats for five persons, like ICEVs currently, will often be used by just a single person to commute to work. We keep the problem of traffic congestion as well. This is inefficient when compared to public transport, which should still be a preferred investment.

Comparing CO2 emissions of households and flights

I’m still catching up on blog posts which are overdue. I’m an unsatisfied customer of Eneco, a large Dutch energy company. Their customer support is incompetent and their welcome gift arrived many weeks later than promised. Their gift, a Philips vacuum cleaner, turned out to have the suction power of a chain smoker with terminal lung cancer.

So when they ran an ad last year on 29 July in the free Dutch newspaper Metro, I naturally was suspicious of them. In this advert, it was claimed that a one-way flight to Southern Europe would cause CO2 emissions equal to the CO2 emitted to produce electricity for an average household for one year.

The advert didn’t quote any figures, but according to data compiled in 2015 by he Dutch environmental organization Milieu Centraal 1,6 (metric) tonnes of CO2 was emitted to produce electricity for an average household of 2,2 persons. It should be noted the total CO2 emissions for this household, including indirect emissions, are calculated to be much higher at 23 tonnes.

Milieu Centraal also calculated CO2 emissions for several example flights, including one from Amsterdam to Malaga in southern Spain. They give a figure of 655 kilos CO2, not much more than the 500 kilos for using a car with two persons. The bus and the train have much lower emissions for this journey, respectively 100 and 200 kilos of CO2. While Milieu Centraal notes that high-altitude emissions are extra damaging, 655 kilos doesn’t approach 1.600 kilos by a long shot. A return flight is closer at 1.310 kilos.

While Eneco is wrong on the math, they have a point that aircraft are extremely polluting and that we need to avoid them as much as much as possible. More on that later in another post.

Growing Kashmiri chili peppers

When I encounter Indian recipes, they occasionally call for Kashmiri chilies. These are said to have a relatively mild taste and give a red color to dishes. For a long time I searched for these chilies in vain. What complicates the issue is that the authentic Kashmiri chili is actually medium hot and that the mild Kashmiri chili powder is apparently made from the Byadagi chili. That chili is grown in Karnataka, in South West India, rather than the Kashmir region of North India. Kashmiri chilies are in high demand but relatively scarce, so the confusion possibly arose from fraudulent vendors who started selling Kashmiri chilies as Byadagi chilies.

However, in some cases the names are not used interchangeably. In Rotterdam I found a shop, Remon Afro Asian Market at West-Kruiskade 87, which has the most extensive assortment of Indian food ingredients here that I know of. They sell two packages produced by MDH: one called Deggi Mirch powder and one called Kashmiri Mirch powder. The former is described as follows on their website:

Deggi Mirch is a unique, age old blend, processed from special varieties of colourful Indian red chilies. It is mild-hot and imparts glowing natural red colour to curried dishes making them attractive and more palatable.

The description of the latter is:

Exotic Kashmiri Mirch is a special blend of medium hot quality Red Pepper that is used for Tandoori (Clay oven) preparations. When used in curry it imparts bright red colour making food more appealing and palatable.

So both apparently are used for their capacity to color dishes red, but Deggi Mirch is mild hot and Kashmiri Mirch is medium hot. This still leaves a lot of questions. What kind of chili peppers are exactly used as ingredients and what are their Scoville ratings? My guess is Byadagi chilies are used for their Deggi Mirch, but considering the scarcity of authentic Kashmiri chili peppers I suspect a similar chili peper is used as a substitute for their Kashmiri Mirch.

Even though I can now simply buy the powders (if you don’t live close to a physical store which supplies it, you can easily find it at online shops), I still thought it was fun to grow them myself. In May 2014 I inquired about the seeds at various websites which sell chili seeds. I finally managed to find them at Chillies on the Web, a British shop. After discussing the uncertainty of the origins of the Kashmiri chili with them through e-mail, they told me they were not sure either. Chili cultivars are crossed so often that it is difficult to keep track of their origins, so there is no guarantee that their product is the real thing from Kashmir, or a similar chili from elsewhere in India. Even so, I was grateful for their help and got their dried Kashmiri chilies so I could harvest the seeds. After tasting, I concluded that these chilies are indeed medium hot, so they at least have some resemblance to the original.

I was warned that most seeds would be dead because the chilies were dried, so I was surprised to a see a lot of seeds germinate, at least twenty plants. However, I did not manage to harvest chilies at the end of last year’s summer. First of all, I started growing the plants relatively late, at the end of May or June. Another problem was that my garden doesn’t receive much sunlight, its does face southwest, but there’s a large apartment block which blocks out the sun during the late afternoon, especially early or late in the year. The wooden garden fences restrict sunlight as well. Vermin in my garden bumped off a few plants too after I transplanted them from their pots to full soil.

Kashmiri chilli plants

Thanks to some plant fertilizer I did manage to get chili plants which reached a height of 70 centimers, but they did not develop fruits. Fortunately I did take one plants to my parents, who have a small glass greenhouse which catches sunlight practically the whole day. During the autumn this plant had produced one green fruit. Right now the seeds of that fruit are hopefully germinating in small pots which I placed on a radiator. One small plant has shown up so far, but I don’t know if it’s a weed or a chili plant. Last year I was negligent in following the instructions for growing chili plants, so this year I should pay more attention.

Recently my interest in chili peppers drove me to completly rewrite the problematic articles on two Italian varieties, the peperoncino and the friggitello. I’d like to improve the article on the Byadagi chili and write a new article for the Kashmiri chili, but the almost complete lack of good and reliable sources is preventing me from doing this.

Visited Sicily in April 2014

In April 2014 I visited Sicily again, this time with my girlfriend Stephanie and by car instead of public transport. I showed Stephanie some of the best attractions I had already seen on my previous trip in 2012, but I also managed to see some new things. Our schedule was as follows:

  • Sat 19th: arrive at Trapani Airport late at night.
  • Sun 20th: retrieve rental car, Cave di Cusa, Selinunte.
  • Mon 21st: Heraclea Minoa, Scala dei Turchi, Agrigento (Valle dei Templi).
  • Tue 22nd: Gela (Archeological Museum), Modica.
  • Wed 23rd: Villa Romana del Tellaro, Helorus, Noto, Siracusa (Archeological Park).
  • Thu 24th: Palazzolo Acreide (Akrai), Necropolis of Pantalica, Siracusa (Archeological Museum).
  • Fri 25th: Siracusa (Euryalus Castle), Aidone (Morgantina, Archeological Museum), Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana del Casale).
  • Sat 26th: Cefalú, Palermo.
  • Sun 27th: Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo (Botanical Garden).
  • Mon 28th: Segesta, Erice, Trapani.
  • Tue 29th: Trapani, Nubia (Salt Museum), Marsala (Archeological Museum), Trapani Airport for flight home.

We arrived at the airport of Trapani late at night, so on the morning after we went back to the airport to pick up our car at Avis. We were surprised to hear that we had to pay € 20 per day extra because Stephanie was classified as a young driver under 25 years of age. It was not possible for me to drive, because only Stephanie had a credit card. We grudgingly paid the extra fee. We got screwed by rentalcars.com, through which we found the offer for the car. Their website asked for the age of the driver, but it never incorporated the extra fee for young drivers in the total price presented to us. After our holiday we contacted them, but they were unapologetic, referring to the terms of the rental which mentioned the extra fee and arguing that we should have read it. I wish I had taken the time to fight these frauds through legal means, but in the end I was too occupied with other things after my holiday.

Using a car allowed us to see much more in the time we had available. In hindsight we thought the schedule was a little bit too tight on certain days, if we had to do it again we would have made it more relaxed. Another thing I considered is that we could have restricted ourselves to traveling through either the North, East, South or West of Sicily. What we did was drive around the whole island in a counterclockwise direction from Trapani. Except for the northeast, which we skipped when we went from Siracusa to Central Sicily. This meant we had to drive long distances on some days, something we prefer to avoid. On the other hand, this plan was good for seeing the majority of the highlights in one holiday.

If I would make the same trip again, I probably would make some changes to the plan if I wanted to make the most efficient use of my time. I would scrap the minor archeological sites like Cave di Cusa, Heraclea Minoa, Helorus and Palazzolo Acreide. And possibly the modern cities Gela and Trapani. We were never bored, but there’s a lot more to see on the more famous archeological sites. If you are short on time it’s better to skip these, unless you’re quite interested in archeology and history like me. In the case of Helorus though, we didn’t learn anything at all about the ruins we saw there because there were no information boards on the site. On the other hand, I was curious about the minor archeological sites of Motya, Kamarina, Megara Hyblaea and Thapsos, but these didn’t fit into the schedule. I wish we would have had the time to see Ragusa on the way to Modica. Had we decided to see the northeastern part of Sicily as well, we would have definitely visited Taormina.

Scala dei Turchi is nice with it’s peculiar white marl cliff, but there are better beaches to visit in Sicily. Unfortunately, there was no time for visiting San Vito Lo Capo after Palermo, which is supposed to have a nice beach. More importantly, in April the seawater is still a bit cool. We swam at the beach near Scala dei Turchi for a short time, but we were almost the only ones who did. In fact, a lot of Sicilians were walking around in winter coats. Don’t get me wrong, except for one or two rainy days we never needed a jacket to stay warm. But it would have been more fun if the seawater would have been a bit warmer and if there had been more sunshine. When I visited in October 2012 it was sunny almost all the time and I didn’t see a single raindrop. And at the end of the summer or autumn you get all the great food like ripe peaches, grapes, prickly pears and eggplants.

I want to emphasize that anyone who visits Sicily (and Italy in general) should take the strange opening hours of important attractions and museums into account. The Archeological Museum of Agrigento is closed on Monday in the afternoon, so we were not able to visit it. The greatest disappointment was that the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo was closed on Sunday afternoon, like many other attractions. I had already seen it in 2012, but I was disappointed I couldn’t show it to Stephanie. It’s ridiculous the Archeological Museum of Palermo is still closed for renovation, which it already was when I visited in 2012.

Of the new places I visited, Selinunte, Noto, the Necropolis of Pantalica, Euryalus Castle, Morgantina and Cefalú were definite high points of this holiday. The archeological site of Selinunte is huge with both impressive ruins of the city and well preserved temples. I liked this site more than Agrigento: there you only see the temples and part of a necropolis, but there are almost no visible remains of the city itself there. It’s strange that unlike Agrigento, Selinunte hasn’t been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site yet. Apparently it was submitted as a candidate in 1987, but it has not been accepted yet.

Noto has many beautifully decorated churches, surprising for a relatively small town. The Necropolis of Pantalica lies rather remote, but the rock-cut tombs and the scenic views are worth it. Expect to walk a few kilometers on small paths which are not easy to travel on though. Castle Euryalus speaks to the imagination, what would this impregnable fortress have looked like in its prime? To our surprise the castle had a few tunnels and its complex layout was still preserved somewhat.

Rock cut tomb in the Pantalica Necropolis

Euryalus Castle

Morgantina is another impressive archeological site, it doesn’t feature large temples like Selinunte, but the remains of the ancient city there are quite well preserved as well. Cefalú is an eyecather, a coastal town with a huge rock towering over the settlement. Definitely climb to the top for the great view. Even though we had seen plenty of ancient Greek temples in Selinunte and Agrigento, the lonely temple of Segesta was an interesting sight.

Overview of Morgantina

Temple of Segesta

Finally, some restaurant recommendations, for you and for myself when I might visit Sicily again. Of course Southern Italian and Sicilian food alone is sufficient reason to visit those regions.

  • Marinella di Selinunte: Africa da Bruno.
  • Agrigento: Opera, which was memorable for serving us a delicious plate full of bruschetta al pomodoro for just a few euro’s.
  • Modica: Osteria dei Sapori Perdutti.
  • Siracusa: none, Ortigia is a tourist trap. There may be good restaurants elsewhere in Siracusa, but they’re harder to find.
  • Piazza Armerina: Fluid, where I ate an interesting combination of shrimp in a sauce of oranges.
  • Palermo: Vino e Pomodoro and Il Baro.

The Odyssey

A year ago I finished reading the Odyssey. I read the English prose translation by Walter Shewring, published as Oxford’s World Classics. I liked this translation, it evoked emotions of disgust with me as I read about the various gruesome ways in which Odysseus’ crew meet their end. Also, I like that the Odyssey has a more diverse environment than the Iliad, which is restricted to Troy and its surroundings.

What struck me was the emphasis on the importance of hospitality in the story. We did not see this in the Iliad, which was about the Trojan War, but the setting of the Odyssey is different. Odysseus and Telemachus are treated very generously as guests when they visit those people who bear them no ill will. This was the concept of xenia for the ancient Greeks, who considered it a religious obligation. The plot of the Odyssey moralizes about this issue. Penelope’s suitors abuse the hospitality of Odysseus’ household while he is away. When Odysseus visits the suitors in his palace disguised as a beggar to ask for food, the suitors insult and mistreat him. Together with their other misdeeds, this is a huge transgression which condemns the suitors to their fate. Ultimately, Odysseus sheds his disguise and kills them with the approval of the Gods.

We can still see how other non-Western cultures attach a similar degree of importance to hospitality. A friend who traveled through Iran told me he was amazed by the hospitality he was offered there as a stranger. It’s a pity we don’t have value hospitality in our Western culture anymore. Fortunately CouchSurfing is a notable exception, which I contribute to myself as a host of foreign travelers in Rotterdam.

The concept of xenia brings me to a part of the plot of the Odyssey which I did not understand. When Odysseus and his crew visit the island of the Cyclopes, the Cyclops Polyphemus makes it clear he does care for the Gods of Olympus. He even goes as far as saying that the Cyclopes are stronger than the Gods. He violates the custom of xenia by eating six of Odysseus’ men. When Odyssey and his crew blind him and escape, Polyphemus reveals he is the son of Poseidon and prays to his father to curse Odysseus’ journey. Even though Odysseus sacrifices to Zeus, in hindsight Odysseus thinks the supreme God did not accept his sacrifice and wanted to see his ships and crew destroyed. Zeus seems to consent to the vengeance of Poseidon, who wishes to prevent Odysseus from swiftly sailing home to Ithaca.

Brown (1996) explains that the concept of xenia does not apply to the Cyclopes because they live a society very different from that of the Greeks. Because Odysseus cannot make a claim to xenia, Zeus does not support him and allows to Poseidon proceed with his vengeance. Segal (1992) argues that Homer’s contemporaries would approve of the right of a family member to take vengeance if someone in their family were injured, which justifies Poseidon’s anger. Also, Odysseus does not interpret the will of the Zeus correctly. Poseidon’s wrath is the reason Odysseus is prevented from a swift homecoming, but Zeus did not plan it. Furthermore, the destruction of Odysseus’ ships and crew are not caused by Poseidon’s anger: it is the consequence of the impious acts of his men and the according divine punishment.

I think the most extensive and convincing analysis is given by Friedrich (1991) however. Poseidon’s anger is pure vengeance, but in the prologue Zeus asserts the Gods do not cause human suffering on an arbitrary basis. Zeus condones Poseidon’s persecution of Odysseus because he needed to be punished for his hybris. Odysseus visits the island of the Cyclopes because he wants to see if they are civilized or savage, but subjecting mortals to this test is the prerogative of the Gods. While Polyphemus is absent from his cave, Odysseus helps himself to the food stored in the cave, making him the first to violate the code of hospitality. When Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, he presumptuously asserts that he punished him in the name of the Gods for failing the ‘hospitality test’. He forgets that the Gods did not sanction his ‘mission’. In his final remark, he insults Poseidon by claiming that the God cannot heal the eye of Polyphemus. As a consequence, Poseidon punishes him out of vengeance and Zeus punishes him for his hybris.

There is one more thing which seems inconsistent in the plot: the age of Odysseus. Before he left for Troy he was already king of Ithaca and married with Penelope, who was pregnant with Telemachus at the time of his departure. To enjoy some measure of authority with the other Greek leaders I think it is unlikely he was 20 years old, probably more like 25 or 30. The Siege of Troy lasts ten years. He wanders for ten years before he returns to Ithaca. In the tenth year he ends up on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, before sailing to Ithaca. During an athletic competition on Scheria the Phaeacian Laodamas remarks that Odysseus is not old at all. This seems strange, even if we assume that Odysseus was 20 years old when he left for Troy, he must have been at least 40 years old at this point. I can’t find any comments on this issue by scholars however.

One more thing which I though was remarkable is that the suitors invade the palace of Odysseus with ease. There is no one to stop them and protect Penelope and Telemachus. If Odysseus gathered such a large contingent of Ithacans to follow him to Troy, surely he could have appointed a servant to rule in his absence and some guards to protect his palace? You could argue that we should forgive Homer for this, because without the suitors and their demise the Odyssey wouldn’t have been such an exciting story. If I were Homer however, I would have constructed the story in such a way that Odysseus did make proper arrangements for the interim rule of his kingdom before his departure. Then it could be told how the servants tasked with taking care of the kingdom eventually betray Odysseus and collaborate with the suitors, so the finale of the Odyssey is kept intact.

I think the Odyssey is a great story to read, but I’m divided on whether I actually like the character of Odysseus. On the one hand you sympathize with him, you appreciate his cunning and consider him a hero. Especially memorable for me is how he tricks Polyphemus with his name. On the other hand, he is a lowly pirate. When he tells the story of his travels to king Alcinous of the Phaeacians he describes how he raided and killed the Cicones as the first thing he did on the way home from Troy. The Trojan War, if we are to believe Homer, was at least justified because Paris had taken Helen. But the Cicones were simply unfortunate to live along the route of Odysseus’ journey home. Odysseus tells of the raid so casually at the court of Alcinous, where nobody seems to be startled by the fact that he is a pirate. This seems to indicate that piracy was an accepted practice in Mycenaean Greece. Assuming that the Cicones were probably non-Greek ‘barbarians’, raiding them was probably even less objectionable.