Cherry Cecilia Chan
Cherry C. Chan was born in Hong Kong and she still lives there (with an umbrella!!). She studied in France and worked in Italy dipping herself in wine. She likes telling stories and sharing the crazy ideas in her head.
Cecilia in Sicilia
Bingo! You’ve found it!
The marvelous Wonderland where Alice had her adventures was Sicily; the city with emerald oddities where Dorothy went was Sicily; the hidden kingdom where Lucy accidentally discovered was definitely Sicily.
Why people go there:
Many said they spent a wonderful summer holiday there, with comments like, “great oranges!” or “lovely beaches!” or “delicious seafood!” but you can get these everywhere in the Mediterranean countries. Same sea, same touristic points, same food. Blah blah blah…
Why people don’t go there:
Sicily is too south, too dirty and too notorious. There is Mafia everywhere; from the moment you land, you will be dodging bullets and you will be called “Minchione” (Idiot in Palermo dialect, meaning Big cock) even you don’t have one. For Italians on the peninsula, Sicily has a very very bad reputation. It is the South of the South — Sicilians are castaways, unwanted poor cousins who don’t want to work AT ALL.
Excuses for not going there:
When I invited my friends (Italians and others) to come over, everyone seemed reluctant. I have heard all kinds of excuses, to name but a few: “You see, there is no direct flight from here to Sicily, I have to go through Milan or Rome…”, “You sure that I won’t be kidnapped? I mean the island is famous for Mafia.” And the most classic, “Sicily? That’s Africa, I thought you were in Europe!”
Brace yourself for a long journey:
The longest trip in my life was Hong Kong -- Barcelona Pozzo-di-Gotto, a city of 5,000 in the Messina region; famous for a bomb explosion in the 80s. (Yes, it was the Mafia).
20 hours indirect flight from Hong Kong to Milan, then one hour to Rome (another leg), then two hours to Catania (another leg). It was bad enough that I had to wait in Milan for a few hours for the connecting flight; it got worse when I was stuck in Rome because my flight was cancelled. (FYI: Italian pilots don’t feel like working on Sundays. In fact, nobody in Italy feels like working on Sundays)
I was 6 hours late when I set foot in Catania. Then, an expected/unexpected event happened—airport workers went on strike at 10 pm; they closed all luggage belts. I had to wait for another two hours for my bags.
22 hours + 6 hours delay +2 hours strike + 2 hours drive (from Catania to BPG)
When there is a strike at the airport:
There are two kinds of people in the crowd:
1. Tourists: They grumble unhappily about the situation and they always find the wrong guy-- the airport security and complain to them in broken Italian or in plain English. Sadly a true Sicilian won’t be able to understand a word in Italian or in English.
2. Sicilians: They talk so loud showing their dissatisfaction with unique gestures, like an aerobic tutorial on TV.
It is interesting to notice that local islanders are always angrier than tourists whenever strike appears. When we, the outsiders, consider these shitty events bad luck; for them, it is bad luck alright but they need to scream just to let the steam out.
It’s ok/ not ok in Sicily:
a. Spend two hours in the car circling the heart of Palermo looking for a parking space during lunchtime: It’s ok
b. Bus driver suddenly got off the vehicle and rushed to a supermarket in the middle of the journey with four passengers on the bus waiting: It’s ok (FYI, he bought cheese)
c. Disobey traffic rules: It’s ok
d. Forget to wear seatbelts in the vehicles: It’s NOT ok
e. An Italian goes into a Chinese-owned grocery shop: It’s ok.
f. A Japanese goes into a Chinese-owned grocery shop: It’s ok
g. A Chinese goes into a Chinese-owned grocery shop: It’s NOT ok
You need a running coach:
When my Tuscan friend, Francesca came to visit, I was so happy! We were lucky to have a guide in Palermo, without her, we didn’t know how to set the tempo right. The gentle Florentine was warned the moment she called her friend Tiziana, a local quick-tempered cool chic, “Forget Florence, Palermo is a jungle. Run for your life!” The last sentence wasn’t a joke. In Palermo if you want to live longer, you gotta run as fast as you can.
Since there is no rule to drive, there is no rule to walk. If you can’t beat the speed of cars, you will be hit. Tiziana was with us the first day in Sicily and she kept urging us to run faster. She also helped us to determine which route was safe. “Ok, you guys should cross this small road first, then the other one to go to the train station. Don’t attempt that big one, there are three lanes in the middle, you won’t make it, you are not quick enough. Move now! Quick!”
In order to survive in Palermo, you’d better hire a local running coach.
If you got hurt:
Running in Sicily can be dangerous. I once cut my knee because I couldn’t stop and the floor was slippery. We went back to the hotel immediately for help and I found out that:
1. Normally hotels with less than three stars won’t have a first-aid kit;
2. The only medical assistance from the hotel – they will tell you where the nearest 24-hour pharmacy is;
3. 24-hour is a reference. The pharmacist might be drowsy that night and decides to close the shop for the day.
Ditch seafood, try ice:
Seriously I could give you a ton of recommendations about Sicilian seafood but it isn’t very original. You can find seafood everywhere when you go along the Mediterranean shore. Other than seafood, the islanders play with ice.
Since the day I tried granita (slushy) with soft bread roll, a common breakfast/ lunch/ brunch item in Messina/Catania, I was totally in love with the soft cold sauce mixed with bread. Weird, yes, but it was also delicious, a definite joy in summer to start your day.
In Palermo, they put gelato in a big bun. A curious mélange of sweetness, depending on your choice of ice cream, you can control the sweet and sour percentage with the bread. I absolutely adore it! I have never seen it again anywhere else, only in Palermo.
Meet the (retired) Superman:
Neither Francesca nor I was familiar with the city, so looking for a bus to Mondello --the famous beach area wasn’t easy.
Fra asked a random old person for guidance. The old man pointed towards the bus stop. Coincidentally, a bus to Mondello was about to leave. He garbled in dialect, danced skillfully across the main street with five lanes with no traffic light and stopped the bus by simply standing in front of it, waving his arms.
We hurried our way to the blue vehicle and hopped on, muttering “Grazie”, gasping. The old man flashed us a smile and patted on the door signaling goodbye. After stamping the tickets, we both sat down and I said, “Can you believe it? The old man stopped the bus just like that!”
Francesca smiled, “I guessed we have met a local celebrity – the retired Superman of Palermo.”
Meet the (half) naked man:
Later that day we saw another old man on a main street, he dropped his pants right in front of us. He wasn’t a flasher, he only wanted to release himself and enjoy the epic traffic/ mountain view at the same time; we actually disturbed his private moment with the (call of) nature.
What was funny was that Fra was trying to take a picture of the faraway mountains with shades of pink and the setting sun. The man seemed pretty proud that the ladies were taking pictures of him, half naked from the waistline and below.
Fra was so scared that she almost dropped her camera.
Criminal activity no. 1 –Staying in an illegal hotel:
The trip got weirder when we went to Trapani. First, we met a hotel owner who thought that every guest was a shrink, he couldn’t stop talking about the hotel (“We couldn’t get a license but then they never check with online booking system. We will have the license next year, or the year after next”) and his girlfriend (“I don’t think our relationship is going to last, she is so annoying”) Poor Fra, she was listening to all his crap, I just pretended that I didn’t understand Italian.
He was a good guy who was very keen to help the lodgers. He came with a moped, took us to the bus stop, told us which bus to take and left us there. “So you will know how to come with the bus, it’s not that far, takes you around 15 minutes.” Problem was he didn’t really tell us which stop we should get off. We missed our chance and it took us an hour to the hotel with no license.
Criminal activity no.2 – Going to a not-so-legal car rental:
That day we went to the port and we saw a car rental service beside the harbor. We went in, got some information from a friendly lady with jet black hair and tattoos along her arm. She greeted us like an old friend. We asked for a Fiat 500 for the next day, I gave her the credit card information for the deposit and I thought everything was ok.
The moment we came out, Fra whispered, “Oh my gosh! This shop is so dark! It doesn’t look serious.” (I secretly wanted to punch her because I had given my credit card details to the owner already, what if they used it for illegal dealings?) “And… seriously, she called me Goia mia! (My joy) Even my mom doesn’t call me that!”
Goia was a common sobriquet for girls in Sicily, though in the North, where she came from, it wasn’t that common which makes it ridiculous.
Criminal activity no.3 -- Collaborating with the police:
The next day, a Sunday, after breakfast, we returned to the car rental. We had been waiting for the bus to the port for about half an hour before we realized there was no bus on Sundays (which is normal in Sicily). I guess the owner was too busy talking about his hotel and his girlfriend that he forgot to tell us.
Luckily, a police car stopped by. At first, I thought Fra would ask the police if there were any buses. No, even better, she asked them how to go to the car rental. She showed them the business card of the shop. The police called the number on the card with their phone. We were both bewildered, as dark as the shop seemed, the owner and the policeman were actually amichi--friends!
What happened next was even more surprising, “Get in, ladies! We will take you there!” the two helpful gentlemen opened the door. There, it was my first and only time in a police car! I can tick that one on my bucket list!
“Well, don’t tell the taxi drivers we are diving tourists now or else they will be complaining!” One of the cops adjusted his cap good-humoredly as we said goodbye and thank you.
Later that day Fra told me the cops asked about our dwelling in Trapani. She was reluctant to tell them we were staying in an illegal hotel so she gave them vague answers. “I don’t want to bring troubles to the hotel owner, his life seems miserable enough.”
I shrugged, “Who knows? Maybe the police know the owner of our hotel too!”
Be their guest:
Sicilians are friendly. Some might be judgy but they mean absolutely no harm. If you let them into your life, they will enter and warm your heart. A friend of a friend is a friend –strangers are happy to drive you around, you can chat with anyone randomly on the streets, they even welcome strangers to use their houses!
I remembered my first day at work when I was waiting for the bus home; I was standing at the front door of Carmelo’s, a 76-year-old retired farmer. The bus stop was exactly at his door. The man did nothing but watched cars and bikes speeding on the highway every day. I introduced myself as the new stagista in the winery behind his house. He smiled and gave me his throne – the old wooden chair he was glued to. I politely declined. Then he went into his house and came out with chocolate in his hands.
This was the start of our friendship: I gave him peaches he gave me figs; I gave him homemade muffins and he gave me candies. We talked when the bus was late; he would stall the bus for me if it arrived early. He even let me walk through his house to go to my office so that I could avoid the sheep poop and cars on the road.
Carmelo was my first friend in Sicily.
Are you ready?
Traveling in Sicily is about going out of your comfort zone and dive into the unknown. Like Alice, Dorothy and Lucy; you need to be adventurous, fearless and reckless to enjoy the stay. Every day is an escapade on that little island of wonders and bizarreness (Oh and occasional earthquakes but you will get used to that).
So what are you waiting for? Open the wardrobe, put on the green glasses and jump into the rabbit hole NOW!