The difference, I suspected, was that previously I had travelled alone and created my life from scratch. Here, I inherited a family, a restaurant, a set of friends and a role: being my husband’s wife, which, like it or not, had been mapped out for me by Sicilian codes I failed to understand. Friends and acquaintances (my husband’s) came by the restaurant to offer support (watch our struggles) while ex-girlfriends lined up to give me the once over. I put my foot in it loads, unable to tap into that unspoken code of conduct that rules Sicilian society. I grappled (futilely) with rampant chauvinism. No one accepted me as co-manager of the restaurant. I began to feel I was an embarrassment to my husband, who was getting tired of having to bail me out. Stereotypes were heaped on me: You foreigners do this. You North Europeans think that...
Several years later, I regained my identity - partly thanks to English teaching, partly thanks to giving birth to a son. There was a sea change in attitude to me once the bump was visible: cars actually stopped to let me cross at pedestrian crossings, I got served first in bars instead of being elbowed out of the way by coffee addicts, even grumpy old neighbours smiled at me instead of merely spying on me from behind half-closed shutters). Then, a student in my English class said, “I know you: you're Salvatore’s girlfriend aren't you?” (status of wife and title signora were only accorded to me when pushing pram. Like I said, generally I didn’t fulfil the criteria). She continued: “But you look different. I remember a girl who wasn't all that pretty.” Er, thanks... I think?
And still. I am here. The restaurant survives and now provides more Mediterranean fare to keep the locals happy. I know the Sicilians almost as well as they know themselves. I’ve worked hard to get here: I’ve forayed into Sicilian history and literature. I’ve found many similarities between the islands of Ireland and Sicily; but there are important differences too. I know where the distrust comes from. I know not to underestimate a Sicilian’s pride so I (try to) keep my ironic humour to myself. I love it and I hate it with a passion – there are no half measures in Sicily. I love the sense of time – time for a leisurely lunch, a gelato, a stroll along the marina – the Sicilians’ ability to live in the moment is propelled by their inherent fatalism. And I love the timelessness – if you can see past the rubbish piles and avoid the dog poo, the architecture is incredible and varied thanks to the many foreign dominations, which brings me to the indomitable spirit of the Sicilians, their anarchy in the face of authority, another vestige of centuries of foreign domination and maladministration. Sicily is as infuriating as it is inspiring.
I’ve come to this conclusion: it takes balls to live here. For Sicilians too, but especially for foreigners.