Living in Sicily

Devi avere le palle per vivere in Sicilia … You've got to have balls to live in Sicily. Here’s why.

Sicily. What are you thinking? Sun-drenched beaches, rugged scenery and majestic Greek amphitheatres? Or coppola-clad old men who possess more political power than teeth and idyllic fishing villages with criminal undercurrents? Sicily is all of this, and more. The first time I came to Sicily was ten years ago. I was living in Tuscany and loved it, but wanted to experience something a little wilder than Tuscany’s domesticated rolling hills. I met an English friend at the train station in Palermo, we took a train south and our adventures began. This was before Ryan Air opened in Trapani airport so Sicily’s west coast was still off the beaten track. Every bus or train journey took a whole day. Dialect was thick and strong and hard to follow. We stuffed our faces with marzipan in mountain-top Erice and on the way back down we nearly fell off our bus seats when we drove through Corleone. But when we finally reached remote, rundown Selinunte, our B&B host was delighted to see two foreign girls at the end of the season. He brought us and the other guests to a different destination every evening, accompanied by his aging male friends who were back home for the summer. My friend and I were the entertainment. The best night was when we ate in one of the men’s houses, a Captain Findus type who chain-smoked black tobacco and thought his fisherman’s beard and paunch alluring. It was fun being cooked for by these timeworn philanderers with pot bellies and calloused hands, whose jokes and stories flowed freely in the jasmine-scented terrace where we dined under the knotty branches of a lemon tree. That night, a full moon guided us through a gap in the fence to the acropolis and the floodlit temples. Absolute magic. The craziest was the pizzeria experience where one of the waiters whipped out a guitar and with a voice that would have filled the Amphitheatre in Segesta - and nearly burst our eardrums - he serenaded us... His thighs thick as tree trunks planted wide apart on the ground, his tight black trousers emphasizing his virility, he pounded on the guitar, convinced he would win one of us over. His name was Zeus...

My friend and I survived unharmed. And came back for more of the volcanic energy. Little did I know that only five years later I would be living in Sicily in my husband’s home town. Not quite as remote as Selinunte but provincial nonetheless. If I’d established myself as an English teacher it would have been a different story. I’d have had the respect that accompanies the title of professore and retained my identity. But running a restaurant with my husband, I was simply known for two years as the wife of Salvatore, my nationality given variously as Brazilian, Spanish or just foreign according to the customer. (Confusion ensued because we had returned from living in the Amazon, and because we called the restaurant Pachamama, aiming to relaunch the flagging family trattoria with tapas, paella and tales from our travels). The beautiful word straniera (foreigner) almost became an insult. No one knew where I came from or who I was and no one asked. My own identity was wiped out. After all, they didn't know my family background, could only judge me on my Italian which faltered when met with such distrust, my smile that wavered under such blatant judgement. I imagined the situation in reverse: in Ireland everyone would have wanted to know my husband, that Irish curiosity for the visitor would have made him welcome. I’d lived in many different places and had places to stay from Canada to Brazil, Italy to Norway, Andalusia to America and never, ever did I have such difficulty in making friends.

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.

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