It’s been a really nice couple of weeks. I’ve got used to university here – and my stamina/ability to sit through 3-hour lectures is fast improving, as is my ability to follow them. I’ve adapted to the roads and style of driving, while not quite becoming one of the locals – I still get told by friends that I seem ‘Very English’ on the road, which I take as a compliment as it basically means I don’t go too fast and I actually use my indicators. I’ve finally had some ideas for the dreaded year abroad essay. I’ve got to know some really nice people, such as the group from my Italian language class in the photo below. And I’ve got plenty to look forward to. Tomorrow, my friend Owen, who I visited in Bologna last month, arrives for the weekend. Next week, Callum, a close friend since we met at the age of 4 when we discovered that we lived on the same road, is flying over from London to spend 5 days here. And in under a month’s time I’ll be home for Christmas (time's flown by!) and reunited with even more of my friends and family.
This week, as well as plenty in lectures about electoral systems, Italy under fascism and why austerity doesn't work (we studied 1930s Europe), I've learnt some important things to avoid future embarrassment or frustration:
1. What to do when someone's double parked in front of your car
Yesterday, when I got back to the car after my weekly volunteering in a children’s library, someone had double parked. Luckily, I wasn’t in a hurry or anything, so I waited for a bit in the car, reading, and hoping that the driver would soon emerge and move. After 20 minutes, still no sign of anyone, so I went into the bar across the road and asked if they knew whose car it was. ‘Yeah, it’s mine’, the barman said casually. ‘Why didn’t you beep?’
I asked what he meant, puzzled. It turns out - and this makes perfect sense now, explaining in part why you hear quite so many car horns blaring in Palermo - that if someone’s hemmed you in like that, you’re meant to just get into the car and beep continually. It almost always works, he added, like a pager.
2. The different meanings of 'Si accomodi'
I’ve got clarification about the two principal but completely contrasting meanings of the frequently used phrase ‘Si accomodi’. When I was thinking about getting the car, I went to an insurance company to ask about how to insure it. I explained what I was there to ask to the broker about and he said ‘Si accomodi’, which I’d hitherto always understood as something along the lines of ‘Make yourself at home’ or ‘Take a seat’, if in an office or somewhere that would involve waiting (virtually any building in Palermo, hardly renowned for speedy queues). I then proceeded to take a seat in the waiting room and read my copy of La Repubblica. After a minute or so, he walked over to me, somewhat mystified: ‘I am ready, you know?’
It turns out that he’d used it to mean: ‘Sit down opposite me right away and tell me what your query is'
My Italian language teacher, when I asked her about it on Monday, confirmed that it can mean two opposite things: 'Take a seat now' or 'Take a seat and I'll see you in a bit'. It depends on the tone and whether whoever says it makes a gesture. I didn’t notice the insurance broker gesture towards the seat by his desk, but maybe I should have guessed from the fact that there were no other customers in sight and that he didn't exactly seem busy that he was ready to see me.
3. What not to wear (in November) if you want to fit in
On Tuesday the sun shone and the temperature was over 20 degrees, so I wore shorts into the university canteen. But my (Italian) flatmate was surprised: ‘It’s mid-November’.
‘True, but it’s 22 degrees and, for a Brit, that’s a lot’, I replied. Yet I was the only one out of the 300 or so people in the canteen wearing shorts. I asked my flatmate: ‘Hypothetically, even if it were 35 degrees today, do you think you or the other Italians would wear shorts?’
‘I doubt it. It’s the principle. By November you’ve packed your summer clothes deep into your wardrobe and you just wouldn’t, however hot a particular day, as others around you wouldn't’.
This, for me, really highlights the absurdity about the uniformity – the way in which the vast majority dress so similarly, however uncomfortable - you find here in terms of clothes and many things.
4. Sorry seems to be the hardest word to say (here)
It’s often said that Brits ‘Apologise too much’. Or, at least, a lot more than most of their European counterparts. And I’ve discovered, since I got here, that ‘Sorry’ is used a lot less here in Sicily (and in Italy generally, I'm told). In short, I'm slowly learning not to feel the need to apologise for things that I'd apologise for in the UK and not to expect anyone who walks into me in the street to say 'Sorry' (nor to expect students to adhere to the principle of letting you out of a lecture theatre before they enter, known on trains, not that any of you in the UK need to be reminded, as 'Please let passengers off the train first').
I am probably towards the extreme end of the sorry scale in the sense that I probably apologise even more than the average Brit, so it's difficult to get used to people not apologising for things that I definitely would have. I’ve been reassured, by my dad, that it’s a cultural thing and now know that when someone doesn’t say ‘sorry’ for something that I'd in the UK have expected them to, it doesn’t say anything about them as a person (other than confirming that they’re probably Italian and haven’t been brought up in the ‘Better to say sorry too much than too little’ culture of the UK). In this regard, I prefer British manners though - I still think it’s far better to say ‘sorry’ too much rather than not enough. It’s just so much more sensitive to acknowledge that there’s a chance, however slim, that someone might have been slightly annoyed or offended by something you did or said. But I suppose most Italians aren't oversensitive in this way like I might say I am slightly and don't mind themselves if someone doesn't say sorry to them for something minor like the above, so it's only logical that it wouldn't occur to them to say sorry.
Sorry it took me so long to explain that.