Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Cracks in the Facade

Tile Saint

Hand-inked tile from a church in Rome that will soon decorate a wall of my Sicilian studio. Thin cracks on the surface give it a warm texture.


Oh the challenges of financing a Location Independent life:

When I began to split my time between Bangkok and Sydney two years ago, I set up systems to make my dreams possible: spartan bank accounts in two countries and five currencies (AU, HK & US$, Thai Baht, and Euro), making spare use of prepaid SIM cards and Wifi on the go. No car, no mortgage, and no large monthly payments have kept me flexible and focused enough to make art and work on my projects. Because I’ve kept life as simple as possible ? living on half or a third of what it would cost to live at a similar level in my home country ? it’s not been too difficult to cope with occasional hiccups with ATM machines and international transfers.

At least, not until now. Over the past month I’ve dramatically scaled up my expenditures while renovating a small warehouse into an art studio in Sicily, and at the same time my carefully-laid plans and backups have fallen apart through a combination of delayed payments for artwork, my penchant for being a moving target, and lost/misdirected bank mail.

Naturally, this has been the worst timing possible.

Fail #1: Sicilian cash machines

The maximum daily withdrawal from ATMs all over Sicily is 250 Euros, or under US$400. If they are working, that is.
Q: Do you know how many building supplies 250 Euros will get you on a Mediterranean island where VAT (sales tax) is through the roof?
A: Not much. But the ATM fees are impressively high.

Fail #2: HSBC Hong Kong

A. They freeze my bank account because they suspect some Sicilian thug has stolen my cash card in London and has flown to Palermo where s/he’s gone on an ATM spree. After a panicked week of emails and international calls, they unfreeze the account when they realize that I am not a Mafioso bandit but merely an artist buying a property here who has to buy lots of tools ASAP.

B. My electronic device for e-banking is no longer working because the one they sent to my former Hong Kong address (now rented by friends) never arrived. They offer to send another to where I am now once I officially change my address to Sicily, but with the notorious southern Italian postal system, it’ll never get here. Thus my emergency savings is locked into several currencies which I can’t access until I pick up the device from my Bangkok address next month, or from a HK bank branch later this year (I can only use ATMs from my HK$ account).

Fail #3: ANZ Visa in Europe

When the Man came to visit me in Bangkok late last year, he brought along my latest ANZ Visa card. Where’s the PIN number? I asked. It never arrived. When I returned to Oz for a short final visit and asked them for another PIN, it never showed up in the mailbox. No worries, as they say down under ? I can still use it, there’s always the option to sign instead of using the PIN. At least in Australia.

But here in Europe? Nope. PIN only, almost everywhere. And guess what? I still have no PIN for awhile. I can buy a first-class ticket from here to Timbuktu online, but can’t buy a screwdriver set from Bricolet, the nearest big DIY store that takes Visa cards (nobody around this small town does ? the credit card machines are, they claim, all ‘out of order’).

Fail #4: Sicilian Banking

Everyone told me, ?Go to Banco da Sicilia ? they’re the biggest and best and even have online banking!? But because I’m not a resident of Italy, fees for the most basic account will be close to 200 Euros a year. I’ve opened an account and will use it during my next month here, and may close it before I go, which will incur another fee of around 40 Euros. [insert favorite Italian gesture here]

So, in between bouts of sanding and scraping and peeling away years of botched paint jobs and plaster and catching up with friends who’ve come to lend some elbow grease for my studio, I make a daily trip to the single ATM in town that accepts my worn-out Australian savings card, and hope it’s working. I take out the maximum 250 Euros and fold them into my wallet ? most are gone in an hour or two ? and say, ?Piano, piano?: slowly, slowly. Everything in its time, everything at its own pace.

And I’ve just gotten my first electricity bill: a connection charge of 207 Euros. Hah! To be paid tomorrow…

PS: To find out about Studio Sicilia and how you can help sponsor a Creative Resident ? or even become one ? you can read more here.

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