Monday, 23 September 2013

Benvenuti a Palermo

Over the next 10 months, I’ll be keeping a blog about my year abroad in Italy. The Italian Department asked for it to be weekly, so I’ll do my best. I’ll be in Palermo, where I’ve been since Friday morning, for the first half of the year and Naples from February.
Where is Palermo? In Sicily, a toe which is so far south that it has somehow has become separated from Italy's boot. One of the reasons for choosing the two cities that I did was that I’d never been to the South of Italy and fancied going somewhere completely different to the parts of Italy that I knew (and different to Europe; lots say that Sicily is more African-influenced than European). When I went to the GP in London about a back problem last week, he said ‘If it hurts when you’re in Italy, you’ve got a European Health Card, and they’ll treat it. It’s not Africa’.

‘True’, I thought, but it nearly is – go another 200 miles South West and you reach Tunisia. I’m further here from Milan or Turin than Milan and Turin are from London. It's something of a world away from the North of Italy. The language is the same (although dialect is spoken more here than up North), as are the colours of road signs, the police officers who just blow a whistle in the middle of the road for no apparent reason other than to show that they're there and the unwritten law that you don’t order a Cappuccino after 11am. So many things, however, seem so, so different:
- Mealtimes are more reminiscent of the South of Spain than the North of Italy: lunch is had from 2 or 2.30 onwards; dinner from 9.
- The climate is something else. The North in winter can be very cold. Here the average temperature in November is 21 degrees. Amazingly, it's barely any colder during the night than it is in the daytime. In the UK, few bars that have an outside area that’s anything more than a smoking area have a late licence. Even if they do, it’s rarely desirable or warm enough to stay outside for long. Here, lots of bars do and it’s normal to stay outside until 3 or 4am all year round.
- Things cost so little in relation to the North of Italy or the UK. You’ll find a good coffee for 80 cents, 100 grams of fresh olives for 30 cents (less than a tenth of what you’d pay for the same olives in Broadway Market) and a good beer in a bar (e.g. Moretti) for 1 Euro. Even in the city centre. Rent-wise, you’ll pay as much per month here as you would per week in London. Saturday lunchtime I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I could get for under 5 Euros that I ordered twice as much as I could eat, in the end. It makes a huge difference not feeling the need to be as frugal as when in Bristol.
- The coastline is wonderful. My experience of beaches in Italy (being dragged to the same rather unsightly place in Liguria day after day on family holidays and the ugly Lido near Venice) wasn’t overwhelmingly positive, but the one we went to on Saturday was extraordinary. It didn't cost a penny (in much of Italy, private companies will have nabbed all the nice parts and make you pay to sit there, while the spiaggia libera [public beach] will be uninviting). Here there was no need to pay – the spiaggia libera itself was idyllic – and it wasn’t so hot that we needed an umbrella or anything. The water was clean and wonderfully clear – you could see perfectly underwater. It wasn’t busy, as most of the tourists who do come to Palermo (which aren’t that many, even in summer) have already gone home. We didn’t have to walk out far to find water deep enough to swim in (anyone who’s been to the Adriatic coast will know that there you literally have to walk out miles). Given that the last few places I’ve swum were Ireland, Devon and Hampstead Heath, the water felt very warm, although Giuliana (my friend who I’ve been staying with) and her friend Stefania said it was colder than usual. They also said it was windier than usual, but compared to any English beach, it didn't seem windy at all (I had to show them a picture of what a windbreaker looked like as they hadn't experienced beaches windy enough to ever need one).
- The roads are chaos. I spent a week this summer driving in a rural part of Piemonte, in the North, and that was one of the most challenging things I’ve done. Even when I’d drive exactly at the speed limit, car after car would queue up to overtake, even on sharp bends. Don’t get me started on roundabouts… Bearing in mind, though, that cities in the North are already tougher to drive in than the countryside that I experienced and Palermo much more difficult still, I shudder to imagine myself driving here. It's scary enough being a passenger in a car with Giuliana as, skilfully, she somehow survives what she aptly describes as a ‘slalom’ each time she drives anywhere. Drivers are about as likely to indicate or stop at ‘Stop’ signs as they are to keep to the law banning mobile phones while driving (even bus drivers on steep hairpin bends use them). So-called ‘pedestrianized zones’, just like zebra crossings, are basically faded lines optimistically drawn in the road in the hope that the odd driver might actually stick to them.
On the car ride back from the beach, Stefania gave me a bottle of water and pointed at the windscreen, asking me to empty it (to clean it). I didn’t understand and actually thought she meant chuck it out of the window into the middle of the road. The roads are that anarchic that it actually wouldn’t have surprised me if chucking bottles about in the middle of a traffic jam were normal. I almost threw it.

Anyway, I’ve survived the first four days, and they’ve been lovely. The people in Palermo seem really friendly, and I'm feeling positive about the year ahead.

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