What I Really Thought of Sicily

For me, leaving Sicily wasn’t particularly difficult. After landing in Catania, my immediate impression of the region wasn’t a very positive one – a fact I haven’t tried very hard to hide. Nineteen days later, after exploring many of Sicily’s most charming towns, my feelings for Sicily have not changed – much.

I first began to warm to Sicily while strolling alongside the crashing sea in Ortygia – the beautiful old centre of Siracusa. Later, my appreciation for Sicily grew with each step further into Modica’s twisted labyrinth of back alleys, the incredible gelato likely helping to speed up the process. After arriving in Palermo, our final stop in Sicily I initially retreated back into negative territory, only later to be pulled out by the city’s delicious street food and proximity to white sand beaches and ancient temples (even in January a white sand beach can melt my stone cold heart). However, despite these great travel moments, I never really fell in love with the region as a whole.

Ortigia is nearly untouched by tourists during the winter

Ortygia is nearly untouched by tourists during the winter

Although I am confident in saying that Sicily just wasn’t for me, and probably never will be, I am also comfortable in knowing that we explored the region fully, taking in its cities, big and small, and the array of sites on offer. And they were really impressive! From the stunning Greek ruins of Agrigento to the quiet winterized seaside town of Cefalu to the stunning rural topography spotted briefly from a bus or train window – Sicily is really quite beautiful. However no amount of beauty can force something that isn’t meant to be (teenage girls of the world, take note!) and although our nearly three weeks in Sicily allowed me to appreciate the area, even if only slightly, it also confirmed that it and I just don’t mesh.


Charming Caltagirone on laundry day

I want to leave.

Not words we mutter much while traveling, I must have said them a dozen times in Sicily. Each time being met with a look of frustration from Travis. I teased him that he didn’t understand my feelings since he was now ‘among his people’. He always affirmed that his mother’s side of the family is from the North, and as such are as different from those in the South as though they were from a completely different country. We joked…but in reality it’s very true. There is little in common between northern and southern Italy – it’s only a shame for Sicily that I enjoyed the north so much.

After sharing my initial reaction to Sicily a few people asked me why I wasn’t a fan – what’s so wrong with Sicily? The truth is of course that there is nothing wrong with Sicily, it just isn’t what I expected. However what did I expect?

Efficient public transit? After our time in Naples last year and complete inability to find a public transit option to Bari or Matera this time-around, I should have known better than to expect this from Southern Italy. Considering the country’s financial problems and issues in the south with corruption and the mob (many public servants haven’t received regular paychecks in quite some time), it’s really a testament to the commitment of some hard-working people that anything functions at all.

The perfect vehicle for Palermo's tiny side streets

The perfect vehicle for Palermo’s tiny side streets

Efficient hours of operation? Coming from Germany and the Czech Republic, perhaps my expectations were unrealistic – how could I possibly ever forget Southern Europe’s admiration of the coffee break and afternoon siesta? For someone so infatuated with efficiency and order, I actually understand the need for a mid-day break during the summer months in Sicily. My roots are in Canada, and the UK if you go back far enough – I’m not designed for 40+ degree temperatures, no one should have to work in that heat.  However every time we found a store or restaurant closed – many times even during the regular posted hours of operation or after patronizing the establishment only a day earlier at the exact same time – a little bit more of me hated Sicily. New rule: If it’s cold enough to pull out your best fur coat and parade around town it’s no longer siesta weather.

Peaceful calmness? Gazing longingly at pictures of Sicily’s charming stone towns and rolling olive-tree specked countryside one can’t help but feel calm and relaxed. Unfortunately the reality is more hair-pulling than zen-like. What the dreamy pictures fail to convey is the narrow streets straining to accommodate two way traffic, the lack of parking that causes people to park on the sidewalk (subsequently pushing pedestrians into the already narrow streets), and the ear-piercing echoes of hundreds of car horns all blaring at the same time. I understand that there is little that can be done to widen streets initially built for horse drawn carriages, however I have never heard such an obnoxious abuse of car horns in my life. We’re talking 40-60 second honks designed to accomplish what? Move traffic along or ensure that the local hearing clinic thrives?

Catania - simultaneously beautiful and hectic - the embodiment of Sicily

A classic Sicilian intersection in one of Catania’s most popular tourist areas

It was hard to get over the chaos and garbage at some of Sicily's enormous public markets

It was hard to get over the chaos and garbage at some of Sicily’s enormous public markets

In Sicily everyone is in a hurry, until they aren’t. It’s something I came to accept and expect. Whether getting on or off a bus, walking down the street, or waiting in line, everyone is in a hurry – and therefore important enough to push, shove, and jump the line – until they aren’t, at which time an impromptu stop in the middle of a sidewalk to emphasize an important point in the conversation is completely justified. And that’s just the way it is, which is fine.

One day, after pushing myself through a mob of people too involved in their conversation to realize I was trying to get by, Travis told me that his Nonna and Nonno would be proud. “You can’t let Italians be Italians”. However, I wasn’t proud, I was disappointed that I hadparticipated in what was making me so unhappy about Sicily. I’m not a pusher or a shover. I’m a move-out-of-the-way-er, a crowd-partee, and an accommodator. And I apologize after accommodating someone else – that’s just the Canadian in me.

And maybe that’s exactly what’s wrong with Sicily – there is nothing wrong. It has nothing to do with Sicily and everything to do with me. My expectations, my values, my understanding of society just don’t fit into the Sicilian mold, but rather the Canadian mold.

Disagreements aside, the gelato is good enough to make me return

Disagreements aside, the gelato is good enough to make me return

Fortunately, if my time on the road has reaffirmed anything it’s that there is no one way or right way to do something. Although the Sicilian way of life made me frustrated or angry or uncomfortable or all of the above at times, it isn’t wrong, just different. After all, with a population of at least 20 million people living in Southern Italy (based on a crude Google search) there are nearly as many people living with one set of social norms as those in Canada living with another – who am I to say one is more right than the other?

Although my time in Sicily didn’t work out exactly the way I would have liked, thinking about why I didn’t particularly like the area gave me some great insight into what makes societies different and why certain norms are acceptable in one area and not in others. In such a small country, Italy has two very distinct cultures, both of which are fascinating to observe – if you can take your eyes off the stunning scenery long enough to see it.

Have you ever traveled to a place you struggled to adjust to, or simply just didn’t like? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge