My biggest problem in Palermo thus far has been getting around. I’m really pleased with the flat I’m living in, but getting back after dark is a real issue, and living in Palermo without a car is extremely difficult. As a student here, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the problem of living a bit of a way from either the university or the centre, where evenings out will almost always be, and I'd estimate that while 5-10% of students at Bristol have cars or motorbikes with them at university, it's more like 85% here. If you do magically find somewhere halfway between the two, it’s certain to be in Ballarò, which is a great area to visit every now and again for the market or a 1 Euro beer out but not ideal to live in, especially for someone from the other side of Europe (crime is a serious problem, and everyone tells me that you’re far more likely to be mugged if it’s obvious you aren’t from here).
So my main worry has been how to get back when it’s dark, which will only become more and more frequent after the clocks go back and as some of my lectures don’t finish until 6 or 7, as part of the way back to mine is quite murky. The buses, which I’ve written about and anyway don’t run until very late, can’t be relied upon – waiting at the side of the road in the dark for a bus that you don’t know will ever arrive is far from ideal safety-wise. And my main expenditure has been taxis, which are extortionate here. That’s not to say that taxi drivers in the UK never rip you off (or that none of them are racist, like the one here who exclaimed ‘That black guy’s driving as if he’s in the jungle’, to which I protested that ‘locals’ are hardly respectful of the Highway Code…), but in England I can never recall paying more for the cab home than an entire evening out including dinner like I have done here on multiple occasions. I discussed the idea of buying a car, which at first I proposed as a joke, with my parents at length and a few friends, getting the green light even from some of the most environmentally-minded. The cost isn’t that bad and we figured it’s worth it when you factor in:
- How much I’d be spending on taxis, which I calculated as 40 Euros a week based on two taxis per week, which is realistic – one on a Thursday night after I play 5-a-side football which doesn’t finish until after the buses have stopped and one when I go out at the weekend
- That it makes the move for my second semester easy and less expensive. Without a car, I’d have had to leave behind everything I’ve bought here for the house – like plates, pans, bedding and photo frames, plus the spare TV my flatmate’s given me – and buy the same kind of things again next term
- That at the end of the year I can leave it at my grandma’s in the North of Italy so that each summer that my family and I visit her we won’t need to hire a car
- That it makes it possible to visit parts of Sicily that are impossible to reach without a car. To be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world but only able to see a fraction is a waste, and I’d have hired a car at least once, so I’ll also save money that I would have spent on that
- How much I’m saving on food and rent by living in one of the cheapest parts of Western Europe yet receiving the same Erasmus grant as friends in more expensive Italian cities.
Using my dad, who has dual citizenship and thirty years of incident-free driving, as the buyer and making myself a named driver, insurance is a fraction of what it is for a twenty-year-old in the UK, where I can’t afford or justify one financially in either of the two cities that I split my time between. In London there's no need for one, and in Bristol you can walk or cycle pretty much everywhere.
So I’ve spent the last few days investigating insurance deals and looking at second-hand or third-hand cars. Viewing and trying them out has been good fun, if a challenge. On one occasion, a seller whose car I’d expressed an interest via the Gumtree-style site I used phoned to set up an appointment, but I’d lost track of which car he was talking about, was too embarrassed to ask (especially the later I left it), and didn’t actually know what car I was going to see. Assuming that it was the clean, stylish Fiat Seicento that he picked me up in, I eventually realised he was just taking me to the garage where the old Punto that he was selling had sat for ages. Thinking he was talking about the Seicento, I was stunned when – after I asked how many people could fit in the back – he said ‘Three or four’. Anyone who knows how small a Seicento is will know that even three is a push, so four would be ridiculous.
None of the sellers spoke English, and all had strong accents, so I somehow had to understand them and all the vocab they used about car parts or features that I’d never been taught at school or university while at the same time try to ensure that they weren’t ripping me off or being too selective in what they were and weren't telling me about the car. But Giuliana’s dad helped me, accompanying me to the first viewing and, crucially, getting a mechanic to try out each vehicle that I went to see and give his opinion before I bought. One that had seemed promising but the mechanic advised me against buying was a Punto which belonged to the sister of the ex-Mayor of Palermo, a Berlusconi ally since convicted of mafia abetting. The car turned out to be just as dodgy as the Mayor had been. The mechanic said there’d clearly been some kind of accident as when he let go of the wheel the car veered off to the side. Anyway, I found a good deal in the end and am now driving around in a Citroën Saxo (pictured) with air conditioning, centralised locking, electric windows (all quite rare in used cars here) and only 50000 miles on the clock.
A good test of how my confidence when speaking Italian has grown since I started my year abroad was how I would fare negotiating the price with the seller, a somewhat intimidating military man. Something I would find challenging enough in English. But I managed to knock 150 Euros off the asking price, using an Apprentice-style ‘Make it 1100 and we’ll shake hands on it now’ to close the deal. I had hoped to get a Fiat, which is used in Italy almost as much as the Trabant was in East Germany, but the Citroën turned out to be better value. The roads will take some getting used to. But if I can cope here, my confidence driving will increase immeasurably. I was so relieved and excited when I finally got it all sorted, convinced right up until the last moment that something would go wrong or that I was too young (or foreign) to get insurance here or something. I'm still overjoyed, in fact. I’m already noticing the benefits, and even small ones make a big difference. Instead of having to choose between bringing my laptop with me to take notes in my lecture today or my swimming stuff to stop off at the pool on my way home – as only one of the two could fit in my rucksack – I could bring both and leave my swimming things in the car during the lecture.
It hasn’t changed my views about which modes of transport should be prioritised, though. Not just environmentally, but in terms of safety and efficiency, my view remains that the more car-free the city, the better. In fairness to the buses, they wouldn’t be nearly as unreliable or constantly held up if there weren’t so many cars on the road. But because the buses are so unreliable, everyone wants a car. It’s a vicious cycle. In the long-term, I hope (though I can’t see it happening in my lifetime) Palermo does manage to escape from this vicious cycle of car dominance. But it’s certainly not going to during my time here, and until then, I’m a motorist too, I'm afraid. Finally, a quick apology to all the constantly speeding drivers in Palermo (the majority) for all the times over the next few months that they’re stuck behind me as I keep to the speed limit and actually stop at ‘Stop’ signs…