Category Archives: Lifestyle

Cartwheeling in Bronte

Bronte is synonymous with pistachio nuts which were brought to Sicily by the Arabs. It is also home to Nelson’s castle, although it isn’t really a castle (more like an English coutry house); Nelson never set foot in Bronte (not sure why); and it is located in Maniace which is now an independent municipality (but people will tell you it is in Bronte). Bronte is also home to a Sicilian Cart Museum and last Sunday the town held a celebration of the Sicilian Cart due to its inclusion as a candidate for recognition by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage.  I found about this event at the last minute and by chance, which is normal for events in Sicily. At least I didn’t find out about it after the event, which is again, the norm.

I have seen Sicilian carts before, with horses attached and everything. I have been to Bronte before too, but it rained and I didn’t stay long. When we first arrived, I saw a cart all on its own. A little further along, another cart, and so on. My first thoughts were ‘is this it?’ and, ‘where are the horses?’. There were a few people milling around, a lot of old men mainly, it felt a bit surreal. Soon, however, more people arrived (still lots of old men and few women) and then more carts. There was even a horse, although it was made of plastic. We also passed a very interesting photographic exhibition on a wall. Then, we arrived in the main square and saw more carts than I could ever have imagined. So many carts that it was hard to take it all in. There were even a few women milling around but these were still outnumbered by old men who I have noticed are very good at sitting or standing around doing nothing.

A lone cart

You could spend hours looking at a Sicilian cart. Richly decorated, full of intricate details, they are each an example of amazing craftmanship and are themselves a sort of storybook. They depict religious scenes (less keen on those ones) and historical scenes. Think, knights in shining amour! They are a wooden, cart version of a pop-up picture book. They have been cleverly thought out too, there is a place for a wine jug, an umbrella, a bag and an oil lamp underneath. They are a feast for the eyes but your eyes won’t be able to take everything in, they are moving works of art and are definitely part of Sicily’s cultural heritage. They scream ‘Look at me! Aren’t I beautiful!’ Actually, they were the Ferraris of their day, which means you had to have had money to have them. Yes, there would have been more simple carts around but those highly decorated ones must have cost something. Who knows how much those on show today are worth. As I later sat in traffic, I wished they could be the main means of transport today, I wouldn’t care if it meant being exposed to the elements and going slow, it would be far more extravagant and romantic. However, I soon came to my senses and realised that it is far better to speed past the vast amount of rubbish which is strewn along the roads all around Bronte, I even saw a back brace at the side of the road.  If only people took as much pride in their surroundings as they do in their carts! Time will tell if they make the UNESCO list. They sure impressed me!

Foraging for lunch

One thing I love about walking on Mt Etna is that even during the height of summer you can find  a walking trail all to yourself. Yet, last Sunday, it seemed that everyone had forgone the beach and headed up Etna. At this time of the year, if it rains on Etna, porcini mushrooms can be found amongst the fallen leaves, in the damp and humid earth, in the woods on the slopes of Etna. I, however, had thought it was too early in the season for there to be many mushrooms but then I can be a bit clueless about these things. As a result, after an early start with no-one in sight, we soon found ourselves surrounded by people looking for mushrooms. The sight of mushroom hunters resembled something of a search party. They were spread out equally in a line with their baskets and sticks, searching through the undergrowth, moving slowly. I had earlier found a mushroom but as I had only found one by chance and as it was small, I had left it where I found it. I am also not too hot on my mushroom knowledge so I often leave mushrooms where I find them unless I have someone who knows their mushrooms with me. Anyway, there were way too many people for me so we headed off to find a less busy woods to walk our dog.

One of the best things about Etna is the amount and range of ‘free’ food to be found at different times of the year. I would say that this is true for many parts of Sicily. On Etna you can find chestnuts, hazelnuts, cherries, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, mushrooms, apples (but be sure these aren’t on private land), pears (again take note that they are not on private land) and herbs. In the rest of Sicily, look out for all of the above and wild rocket, capers, wild fennel, asparagus, strawberries, prickly pear, carruba, almonds, figs, thyme, wild mint and borage. Know what borage is? I didn’t either until my partner’s late uncle stopped to collect some he had seen growing next to the roadside when we were out getting water one day. It is a herb of which the flowers can be used to garnish desserts and whose leaves are often boiled and eaten with garlic and oil or used in soups. These are some of the foods that you will find in the wild but there are a whole load more that are ‘free’ if you are lucky enough. For example, branches that overhang onto the road or come through the farmer’s fence are deemed ‘free for all’ and you will often see people stop their cars to claim this fruit. Natural reserves which were once agricultural terraces and have been left to nature are often good places to forage but be warned,for some wild fruit trees, such as orange trees, produce inedible fruit!

Just don’t eat cheese for a month

I was in hospital the other day waiting patiently with everyone else for the slow receptionist to call my partner’s number.  I am not exaggerating when I say slow either, this lady took an hour to check that two people had appointments. On her third outpatient she suddenly upped and left,  not saying a word to the guy who was being booked in and accompanied a tearful woman to a room next to where I was sitting. She gave the lady a ticket for the car park and proceeded to give her the following advice: “Don’t eat cheese for a month and you’ll be fine”. Now, this lady had obviously just come from the cardiac ward. The receptionist trivialised her problem and sent her on her way. The lady was upset. The receptionist dismissive. The lady stood there for a moment, repeated what the receptionist had said and shed another tear. The receptionist went back to making sure that no-one would be on time for their appointments.

I wonder how the lady is getting on with no cheese. She might be thinking “But how can this be so? I live in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right? and cheese is part of that diet”. She has probably decided that the ricotta she puts on her Pasta alla Norma doesn’t count, nor the parmesan for that matter. One thing is for certain, she will have got advice from everyone she knows, solicited or not.

I have piled on the pounds since coming here. I too have thought “but how can this be so? I am living in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right?” I, too, have been advised to stay off the cheese and somehow I have managed it but I am not convinced that this is the problem. The truth is, Italians consume vast amounts of pasta and white bread. Most of them have a sweet tooth. The sweets that they have here are amazing. If you have a drink, you get given all sort of mini pizzas, salted peanuts and small arancini to go with it. The ice-cream here is the best ever. Lots of tavola calda is consumed. Tavola calda translates as ‘hot tables’, they are essentially savoury snacks, usually made of bread or pastry or deep fried. There is temptation at every corner. Cheese is only part of the problem.

As I am trying to lose the weight that I have gained, I am avoiding temptation. This means not entering bars and averting my eyes when I walk past them. It means, not eating out. I am walking more to work but as everyone drives here I am breathing in fumes the whole way. I stare at skinny people stuffing their faces. I drool if someone puts a cake in front of me as I explain that I just can’t have any, not even a tiny mouthful. I’ve sat and watched my partner and our dog eat a pizza together.

And you know what? It’s working!

I’m still a little, robust, shall we say, but last week I had to buy a new belt.Pulling your jeans up every two seconds is not a good look. I ventured into a little shop and a kind lady helped me choose one before putting it around my waist to work out where her husband should punch the holes. She squeezed it a little tighter than I had and asked if that would be better. I replied that it would as I hope to lose more weight. At that moment, her husband chortled and said “hope is the last  to die”. He obviously had no faith in me but when I go back in another few weeks to get more holes punched because I am already on the last one, it’ll be me who is chortling.

An encounter with Scarface

I encountered scarface after a nice day out. Being intimidated is never nice, but unfortunately, it sometimes happens and it is mostly related to finding somewhere to park. In recent years, more and more blue lines have appeared on city streets which means you have to pay to park there. However, parking after 8pm and on Sundays or holidays is usually free. That is unless you encounter an unofficial parking attendant or a ‘parcheggiatore abusivo’. This can happen anywhere, regardless as to whether there are blue lines or not. A man, usually scruffy looking, appears and pretends to show you to a space even though you found it yourself. He then demands some protection money for looking after your car. Usually 50 cents or a Euro is what is expected.

Some people pay. I don’t and here is why I don’t think you should either: it is a form of pizzo (protection money) and if you go along and pay you are encouraging this ‘mafia like’ behaviour. Never mind the fact that there is never anyone around when you return to your car. Yes, you take a risk if you don’t pay. Lately, I have read about people having their cars keyed and having been spat at for not paying. My partner and I have been threatened, the ‘I’m going to kill you sign of the thumb being drawn diagonally from the cheekbone to the chin’ gesture, or they have kicked or punched the car as we drive to park elsewhere. Usually, I speak in English and act as if I have no idea what they are talking about. It works to an extent. However, in Noto, it didn’t. They get plenty of tourists there so these criminals have obviously picked up an English word or two. It is not good for tourism.

This particular guy, ‘Scarface’, came right up to me and asked for some money. He had a big scar on his forehead that looked like it was a burn of some sort. He was standing closer than they normally do and touching the car as he spoke. His menacing expression was clear. I pretended to ignore him at first and spoke to my friends in English. As soon as he understood I was British, he started to say ‘You pay me for protect car’ in a threatening manner. I then chose to speak in Italian. Taking out my phone and saying the word ‘polizia’ whilst simultaneously trying to take a picture of him was enough for him to start walking away. Not before he had called me a prostitute and had made some other threat. In the end, I hadn’t managed to take a photo. I was slightly nervous about leaving the car but reluctant to give in to intimidation. Then I spotted the police driving around the town so I felt a little bit safer and went around Noto, enjoying the sunset before returning to the car which was in one piece without its tyres slashed or the bodywork keyed, phew!. It’s a pity that this happens. We don’t have a new car so a little scratch wouldn’t bother me but the feeling you get when one of these people comes up to you isn’t nice. I just hope it doesn’t happen to any tourists as tourism in Sicily is picking up and it would be a shame for anything to spoil that.

Concrete & rubbish – tales from my balcony

Haven’t blogged in a while but then that is because half way through August I decided, as most Sicilians do, that it was too hot to do anything. So hot, in fact, that I also decided to go on holiday to cooler climes.

Since I have been back, I have been too busy re-adapting and overcoming post-holiday blues to post anything here. There has been plenty going on to occupy my day. For one, I have had to clean more than usual due to the fact that they have been digging up the car park where we live and it is way too hot to keep the doors closed.

We live in a condominium. When I was younger I used to think living in a ‘condo’ was exotic as I had only ever heard the word condo mentioned when an American on a tv show referred to their ‘condo’ in the Bahamas. Little did I realise that it was just a group of apartments behind a fence – a gated community. Well, it is here anyway. We have a car park with some garages underneath (about 6). Water has started leaking into the garages so everyone has had to cough up to have the car park resurfaced and made watertight. Unbelievable when you consider that the apartment  building we are living in isn’t exactly watertight and bits of it are falling apart. But in this crazy world we live in the garages have been deemed more important. So for the past few weeks I have been amusing myself by watching two men, using one little concrete mixer, resurface the car park with a little trowel. One or two residents have gone up and told the men that they aren’t doing the job correctly and that it isn’t going to work, to which they replied ‘It’s too hot’. More men came and pointed a lot, I guess giving them instructions, to which the builder replied ‘I am not going to do that’. So the reality is that we will be left with an uneven car park that still leaks water into the garages below (when it does rain that is!) and the two builders will walk away with a massive sum of money which they obviously are not going to invest in new equipment so that they can do the job better next time they are called to do it.

Apparently, we live in a ‘really nice area’. This is what I am told when I tell people where I live, followed by ‘you lucky thing’.  Hmmm, well…. people in nice areas don’t always tend to be nice. We have a ‘portiere’ or caretaker who ‘takes care’ of people’s business ; he knows and sees everything. Dangerous! He also takes care of our post which is why we get most things sent to the in-laws. I try and avoid the other residents because I usually just get scowled at and I hate that. Most of them have cleaners even though they don’t work and I have heard a few racist comments that I don’t care for.

Our apartment has a great  view of the sea which means that we overlook the fact that the every time the wind catches and slams the door shut, a bit of the wall comes away. Not really sure anymore what is holding the door-frame in place. We also discovered that the gas boiler and the oven hood are connected which is obviously very dangerous. The plumber was so concerned about this that he forgot to come back and fix the problem. He just scared the hell out of us instead. I no longer use the oven extractor fan.

The other thing about where we live is that it can be incredibly noisy when it shouldn’t be. Every morning a rubbish truck parks in the car park outside the complex and makes the most horrific screeching noise. You see, they don’t collect rubbish here, they wait for you to bring it to them. We once suggested that they added a bit of oil to which they replied ‘We don’t have the money’. When they are not there they have a standard wheelie bin, that in the UK one household would have, to collect the rubbish for 100 households. Actually, there are four of them, but one is for paper, one for plastic etc etc. The recycling thing is for show but we try and fool ourselves that it actually happens. The one thing I am surprised and somewhat concerned about, since the car park it is in is for a nursery school, is that they have a really little bin that always stays in the car park where people can dispose of unused medicines, needles etc. We found it open once or twice. I wouldn’t park in that car park either. Smaller lorries go around other car parks and bring the rubbish back to the one near us. Therefore, it is more like a rubbish tip than a car park. They then tip the rubbish from the smaller truck into the larger one. In the meantime, we are told to throw our rubbish in as they are doing this. You wouldn’t dare question if this is safe or not. Once one of the bin men went off to do his shopping for a couple of hours instead of manning the truck, cue big argument with his colleague on his return. The guilty one didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong. He justified it by saying ‘I have a family, my wife keeps breaking my balls, what should I do?’ Umm, your job?

So you see, there is always some free entertainment on offer where we live. It involves concrete and rubbish which must be what makes the area a ‘really nice area to live in, you lucky thing’.

Aci Trezza & Aci Castello – The Normans meets Greek Mythology

Aci Trezza and Aci Castello are seaside towns north of Catania that merge into each other but each have their own feel and stories. Towns where people drive to from Catania and around to go for a ‘passeggiata'(a stroll which in most places is more to be ‘seen’ than for exercise, undertaken quite often on a Sunday evening when people get dolled up in their Sunday best; people walk so slowly that they barely seem to be moving and stop often). They are also great places to have a granita or an aperitivo as the views over the sea are stunning.

Aci Castello is dominated by a Norman castle which sits on a large rock that seems to have come from no-where. At the base of the rock, people sunbathe or fish. Along the coastline of both towns you find people perched on the lava rocks, soaking up the sun; they rather remind me of seals basking. In the town square you will find Sicilian men passing away the hours, chatting and sitting in the shade beneath the trees whilst the women clean the house and prepare lunch or dinner. When we were there a couple arrived to film their pre-wedding video. It is customary to film a short video telling the story behind a couple’s romance. It is also a popular spot for wedding photographs with the castle and the sea as the backdrop. The castle is interesting to visit and contains a small museum.

You can sea Aci Trezza from Aci Castello but alas in the summer you can’t walk along the seafront from one town to the other due to a rather large, private lido commanding all of the available space and blocking any walkway. It is a shame as I think it would prove to be an added attraction and benefit for both towns. Aci Castello viewed from Aci trezza Aci Trezza seen from Aci CastelloAci Trezza is the busier of the two and in fact a borough belonging to Aci Castello. Instead of a castle it is dominated by – I Faraglioni dei Ciclopi – the rock of the Cyclops, as local legend would have it that these are the rocks that were thrown by Polythemus at Odysseus when the latter was making his escape. It is not difficult to understand the reasoning for this legend. You can see Mt Etna from the town and the lava basalt rocks do look like they landed there but in fact they rose up from beneath the sea due to volcanic activity. The rocks are an interesting feature on the seascape and provide a perfect place to dive into the sea from for fearless local boys. There are many other interesting volcanic features to see in Aci Trezza but my favourite activity here has to be people watching. In the harbour you will see fishermen tending their boats, bringing in their haul, selling their fish or just relaxing in the shade out of the glaring midday sun. Large yachts, big fishing boats and small wooden boats are moored next to each other. Giovanni Verga set his novel ‘The House by the Medlar Tree’ or ‘I Malavoglia’ here which Luchino Visconti based his film ‘La Terra Trema’ on. I haven’t read the book or watched the film – yet! It is a MUST do on my list as I completely understand how this tranquil but busy seaside town could inspire a writer.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, apart from the granita this is a great place to eat fish! Obviously!

The Dog Gangs of Sicily

I don’t always understand the human race, so full of contradictions. Like everywhere in the world, Sicily has a problem with abandoned pets, mainly cats and dogs. In times of economic crisis the first thing to go seems to be the family pet, left at the side of the road. This has always been a problem in Sicily and elsewhere but the extent and the lack of animal charities here makes the problem far worse.

Abandoned dogs will do anything to survive and these intelligent animals form packs that roam the streets looking for food. Believe you me they can be rather menacing and the bigger the pack the bigger the risk. When I lived in Trapani there was a gang of dogs who slept on the beach, we would cross the road to get past that section and once my friend almost ran in front of a car when they started to bark and growl at us. In 2009, a pack of dogs killed a young boy and mauled a German tourist. The media reported that the pack had escaped from a man whose job it was to look after stray dogs that had been rounded up by the local council. I have seen plenty of packs or gangs of dogs whilst in Sicily. In Catania a whole street almost came to a standstill  as a pack of dogs passed through.  Most people including myself sought refuge in the nearest bar/shop. I have seen them get on trains, sleep on beaches and roundabouts. They break in to chicken coops and wreak havoc.

Councils in my view do little to contain the problem, ignorance is the easy option and they will probably claim lack of funds if you ever questioned them.  Dogs get dumped for all sorts of reasons and people will sometimes come from mainland Italy to dump their ‘beloved pet’ far from home. They go on holiday with a dog, they go home again without one.

Cats don’t get it easy either. Scores of them are to be found living wild. They are often not neutered so go on breeding, although only a couple of their kittens normally survive their harsh living conditions. There is a large group of feral cats living in and around the rubbish bins in the car park at the bottom of out street. I have seen numerous people stops in their cars with tins of cat food for them but surely it would be better to give them a home instead? These cats are even more vulnerable to dog attacks. My brother-in-law rescued two young kittens after their mother was ripped apart by savage dogs whilst protecting them. They were lucky, many other kittens and cats are not.

It is the kindhearted that save some cats & dogs from a hellish existence on the streets. Luce was found on the roadside after being hit by a car, again by my brother-in-law. She was taken to four vets before one agreed to try and save her. That was at least 8 years ago. She is still alive and well and is one of the sweetest, most docile cats I have ever come across. Another two homeless cats have congregated in the garden of the in-laws begging for food outside the kitchen door. They were both pregnant, so now there are 5 kittens hiding in the bushes, fighting for survival. They have already lost some brothers and sisters. They venture out from time to time to play but are always extremely cautious. One of the mothers is helping with the pigeon problem, killing at least one on a seemingly daily basis.

And now, we have a puppy named Whisky (formerly known as Toffee). Discovered abandoned along with two other puppies on the roadside, he was taken in temporarily by a nearby stables. Our friend took him home but was unable for many reasons to keep him so we offered to provide him with a home instead. At least in that way she would still be able to see him. We don’t know his exact breed, the vet put it down as a fantasy. He is about 2 months old and sniffs everything. He also loves chewing shoes, sticking his head right in to get a good sniff at the same time. How anyone could abandon him I don’t know. We have only had him a few weeks but already he is part of the family. Everyone comments on him and says what a lovely dog he is and he is already so well-behaved. The cats at the in-laws are a bit unsure though, the kittens are curious but freak out when he tries to start playing with them. He just keeps trying to play. The other cats hissed at first but more often than not now look at him with displeasure but  tolerate him nonetheless. Dogs give so much love, yes they need your time, attention and food etc but what you get back from them is so much more.

The Sirocco is a Fire Starter

Today it is oppressively HOT. The first time this year that I have really struggled with the heat. Yes, it has been in the 30s before today but not ‘I can barely breathe hot’. It is probably the Sirocco/Scirocco that is causing this extreme heat, a wind that comes from Northern Africa and brings heat and a bit of the desert with it. Every time it is hot and there is a wind I get told it is the Sirocco. Not good to have a pile of sand dumped on your house when you have just cleaned the windows, balcony etc

In August we expect it to feel this hot. This is why you will find nearly all businesses are closed in August and everyone is in the sea cooling off. Tarmac melts, people are half comatose and wear very little but manage to muster up enough energy to utter ‘Che caldo’ (It’s hot) every now and again. Apparently today it is only  36 degrees centigrade. Believe you me it feels much hotter. In August temperatures hit the 40s and you leave buildings feeling as if you are walking into an oven. Hence why people try and fry eggs on the ground or on top of their cars. I cope with this kind of heat by doing very little and walking around in a constant doze or by running into the sea, especially at Fiumefreddo where the sea is ice-cold and so refreshing.

Today, I am not by the sea or a swimming pool. Today, I am hot and sweating buckets and feeling exhausted without doing anything. I will have to toughen up and get used to this again. I prefer to be warm than cold anyway, or so I keep telling myself. We only have air-con in one room so I expect that room will become my refuge over the next couple of  months.  Problem is the electricity tends to go off when too many people use their air-con. Blackouts by the energy suppliers in summer are also not uncommon. Different areas of the city have their electricity cut off at different times as there isn’t always enough to go around. Best not to buy too much food for the fridge during July and August. I remember once returning home in a blackout using the light of my mobile to see up the stairs to my apartment, no electricity meant not fan and therefore, very little sleep that night. In fact, the electricity is going on and off right now, house alarms everywhere are blaring.

The midday heat brought by the Sirocco today might just have started a fire near our home, or at least it helped spread a fire which was probably started by some idiot throwing away a cigarette end onto extremely dry, straw like grass. It has been burning for a while and worryingly it got quite close to a petrol station at one point. The smell of smoke has permeated through the apartment and the sound of sirens would tell me that they are still trying to contain it.  I suspect that this is the first fire of many as the the abundance of wildflowers that carpeted the ground in spring have now become tinder-dry. The fire moved up hill very quickly due to the wind, throwing flames high into the sky. It is now burning something which is producing intense black smoke and they are sending planes with water to try and put it out. It is still close to the petrol station which is why they have probably sent in the planes. There is a sewage works in that area so I really hope it isn’t the sewage that has now caught alight. I cannot imagine how hot it must be  where the fire is burning or how the people in the houses right next to the fire must be feeling.

Back to the hot weather…

If you do find yourself in Sicily struggling with the heat like me may I recommend the following:

  • Keep hydrated by buying a lemon seltz from the nearest kiosk. The most refreshing drink ever!
  • Obviously try and be by the sea dipping in and out of the water as often as needed or if not near to a pool.Bird cooling down
  • At night if you don’t have air-con or if it goes off sleep naked on your balcony or if you are worried about what the neighbours might think lie naked on the floor (marble is best) preferably in front of a fan.
  • Eat a granita for breakfast and an ice-cream for lunch. You won’t need anything else.
  • In the evening get to higher ground and therefore fresher air.
  • Walk around with a plant mister. There are water taps everywhere so you can fill up with fresh, cold stuff frequently.Pigeon & the water fountain
  • Don’t wear grey – I truly do not understand why people choose to wear grey t-shirts, shorts etc. They show up the sweat more than any other coloured clothing I know.
  • Become a night-owl. There is a reason they have siestas. Night-time and the early hours of the day are the best temperature-wise in the summer.
  • Put a bottle of water in the freezer the night before you go to the beach. It will stay colder and therefore, more refreshing for longer.
  • Always have something with you to provide shade. In the heat shade, a breeze and water are your best friends and should be sought out at every opportunity.

Getting undressed at the hairdressers

Italian women are more often than not impeccably turned out or at the very least stylish. They take care of themselves and most of them before they slip into their 40s and 50s are enviably slim. So slim in fact that I sometimes wonder if they have any internal body organs. I could lose all of my body fat and I still wouldn’t fit into the skinny jeans they wear with such ease. A more robust person like myself finds it extremely difficult to buy clothes that fit, in fact I have come back from recent clothes shopping expeditions empty-handed and rather deflated.

Most Italian women spend a few hours getting ready, wear make-up, accessorise well and delight in discussing the latest fashions. I am definitely NOT like most Italian women and I get a fair amount of bad looks in the street from them to confirm this. My ‘mother-in-law’ often describes me as simple. I cringe everytime I hear it but she dishes it out constantly as a veiled compliment. My partner instead often refers to me as a ‘wild woman’, like the unruly Celtic warriors that the Romans encountered when they first invaded Wales. I guess it is just that I can’t do the vain thing. I often go whole days without looking in the mirror, when I do it is not unusual for me to screw my face up at my appearance or stick my tongue out at my reflection. My beauty routine consists of showering, applying a bit of UV moisturiser, a quick brush of the hair and that’s it, I’m done. My partner more often than not takes longer to get ready.

Frequently, I am given unwanted, and it goes without saying, unheeded advice on how to dress, what to do with my hair etc. I used to teach a class of 8 year-olds who seemed very concerned that I was single. Every lesson they would ask me if I had found someone, pass looks of disappointment and frustration between themselves when I consistently reported back that no I hadn’t and then they would proceed to lecture me on my appearance. I would be told that in order to get a guy I would need to constantly flick my hair back, wear make-up, high heels and even worse a low cut top and mini-skirt. Hmmmm, so they wanted me to hang out in the street and look like a prostitute. I had to refrain from giving them a lesson about feminism and women’s rights instead of English although I did try to explain that getting married was not the be all and end all of everything. They didn’t quite get it and went back to looking at me in despair holding their little heads in they hands and letting out huge sighs.

It is not just the young who I have had worried. An Italian flatmate (although really the word mate is not suitable here) once scolded me as I left the apartment for not drying my hair first. I’m surprised she didn’t step in front of the door and bar my exit. For her, I was going to ‘prendere fresco’, literally translated as ‘catch the cool’ and then obviously get pneumonia or something. In fact, it was more than 30 degrees outside and it dried within minutes. Even worse, much to the horror of the esthetician, I had my first facial in my 30s in Sicily. My partner had been going there for years, although I rather think this had something to do with her wearing low tops and almost planting his head in her ample bosom as she worked. I haven’t had a facial since, I just couldn’t work out why she would clean, massage, moisturise my face, thereby opening up all the pores then fill up said pores again with a hideous amount of make-up. When I looked in the mirror in the car I was horrified to see that I looked 10 if not 20 years older. She had said she would apply natural looking make-up yet it was caked on and appalling. I washed it all off as soon as I got home and vowed then not to let anyone ever apply make-up on me again.

Yet, despite all this I do acknowledge that I do need to spend at least a little bit of time on how I look. So every six months or so, I bravely venture to the hairdressers. I don’t really like going either and going to one in Italy is even more daunting. Before, I used to wait until I returned to the UK. Once I had my hair cut in Sicily because my boss kept going on about my hair and how she would like to take me to her hairdressers. I gave in but was less than pleased with leaving the hairdressers with a fringe, something I hadn’t described I had wanted to them. I remember them asking if I liked my hair and all I could say was ‘I like the colour’ over and over again. So when I went to get my hair cut yesterday I was a little nervous, even more so when the hairdresser handed me a gown and asked me if I wanted to get undressed.

It is the little differences between how things are done in another country that make otherwise everyday experiences stand out and here I was standing in the hairdressers being asked if I wanted to take my clothes off. It would seem that this was all a good intention and it was to ensure that my clothes did not get dyed along with my hair. It was also entirely optional so I took the risk and kept my clothes on which is just as well as the gown was rather skimpy and as I have already mentioned I am rather robust compared to their normally slim clientele. The rest of my time at the hairdressers was rather pleasant. As my Italian is painfully bad I didn’t have to have those tedious ‘Where are you going on holiday?’ conversations. I was left in peace. Most hairdressers here are men who seem to actually cut your hair exactly as you ask them to. I was not scalded by the hairdryer although I was sweating profusely as it was already hot. The only thing they don’t do unless you ask them to of course is brush off the cut hair so I had to pluck it out from my cleavage instead.It was also cheaper and I might just be cured of my need to constantly change hairdressers and I might even get it cut before six months passes next time. Although, I will refrain from flicking it back in a ‘just stepped out of the salon’ way as men pass me in the street and seeing as I have not looked in the mirror today I can’t tell you if it still looks good!

The art of driving in Sicily

  • Always carry a mobile phone with you so that you can make all your important phone calls on route to your destination – you have two hands after all and only need one for the wheel!
  • Better still commence driving by sending that all important text message – you can use your knees to steer and you don’t need to see the other cars because you will hear them coming right?
  • If you don’t need to make any calls let the spare arm get a tan by sticking it out of the window and waving it around now and then to get some air.
  • At junctions be creative and see how many lanes of traffic can be made in a two lane street.
  • The slight bump on the car behind and in front of you will aid you and tell you when to stop if you need to get out of a tight space- I wouldn’t bother using your mirrors when you have the handy bumper.
  • Don’t worry about double parking, blocking someone in or parking on zebra crossings, in the middle of the road; park whether you fancy and preferably as close to your destination as possible. People will let you know when they want to leave, drive around you etc and you can barely see the lines of the zebra crossings anymore anyway.
  • Parking on pavements so that prams cannot pass is mandatory – your four wheels are the only four wheels that matter after all!
  • When conversing with your passengers make sure you maintain eye-contact with them and gesticulate widely, other cars will move out of the way if you drift from your lane whilst doing this.
  • Use your horn as often as possible especially if someone has had the audacity to stop at a red light or even if someone looks like they are coming to a stop.
  • Zebra crossings – what are they for again?
  • When driving down a one-way street the wrong way shout loudly and act annoyed at the other car going the right way for slowing you down and blocking your path.
  • Remember the more dents, scratches you have on your car the better. They are the new status symbol. In fact, the more damaged your car is, the more you will get admiring nods and glances from your fellow drivers, and new drivers and tourists will know to stay out of your way.
  • Push your way onto roundabouts and remember if you nearly crash into someone to scowl at them or avoid eye contact – it is NEVER your fault after all.
  • It is ok to tailgate and overtake on or before corners as the person in front should not have been following the speed limit as that’s just a guide, isn’t it?
  • If you see someone driving who appears not to be following the above rules shout ‘Where did you get your driving licence?’ loudly while gesticulating wildly with both hands.
Disclaimer: Obviously I don't advocate driving like this and Italy does have sensible road rules which I follow and everyone else should follow. Not all Sicilians drive badly either. However, I encounter all of the above from other drivers on a daily basis. I even get road rage when walking due to some of the actions I see from behind the wheel. I get harassed when stopping at stop signs, red lights, to let pedestrians cross at zebra crossing and nearly every other driver will be on their mobile throughout their journey.I have learnt to wait until you have eye contact with a person driving when crossing the road. My coping mechanism is just to be aware and always prepared for something outrageous to happen. Outside of the cities roads aren't that busy and I find driving much more pleasurable.