Can the Euro survive? Why does it even exist? Does further illumination await on the island Sicily?
South to Catania to see if the comparative economic health of Rome is matched out in the badlands.
A tense misunderstanding at the Catania airport regarding the necessity of an international driver’s licence to rent an Italian vehicle is resolved without the threat of violence or the payment of a bribe, a minor miracle. The vehicle is a manual Fiat, to be driven on the right/wrong side of the road. It is collected at dusk, the GPS is frequently confused by its surrounds. The short drive to the lodgings contains several near misses and the ire of many fellow motorists.
The inn-keeper is a genial man who inherited the spacious apartment from his parents-in-law and now derives his income letting it to tourists. The tap water is not fit for consumption, a foul stench emerges from the plumbing via the kitchen sink, but a large bowl of fruit and other basic food supplies are generously supplied. A late night expedition for dinner and bottled water is a lively adventure. Packs of youths loiter ominously on street corners, drunken men fill the sidewalks, stray dogs roam, and a light jog is employed to clear the danger zone. A touristy restaurant welcomes me with open arms. Sicily is exciting. I feel alive, but not adventurous enough to eat horse meat steak or female donkey salami. The pizza is better than anything consumed in Rome.
An early start is made to explore the coast, in particular, Taormina – the Italian equivalent of Monaco apparently. It’s immediately apparent that Sicilian drivers are either the best or worst in the world at their craft. They operate completely devoid of rules on narrow winding roads riddled with potholes. Many thoroughfares appear to be one way, until a truck looms before you. There’s little space to safely past so the natural instinct is to slow down. This is a rookie mistake. The car behind you speeds up, swerves onto the wrong side of the road in a kamikaze overtake, and swerves back with inches to spare. The car behind advise of your shortcomings. Lesson learnt.
One way streets are two way for buses and motorbikes, which can go wherever they like. There are very few signs in Sicily, and they are ignored anyway. Dilapidated looking apartments perch right on the very edge of the road. Driving is like an endless game of chicken. A car wishes to enter the road on which you are travelling. He accelerates into your path, so you brake sharply to avoid a collision. You are the chicken, and he now enters your road, as do the two cars behind him. The motorists behind you now again highlight your failures, and the game goes on. The trick is to accelerate and block his path, in which case he relents and you are now the winner.
Driving is done without the use of indicators except for hazard lights, which are activated to pre-empt numerous manoeuvres including parking in non-parking spots, stopping to chat with a passing pedestrian, performing a U turn, or slowing down to allow a cyclist to enter the stream. Sicilian roundabouts are especially challenging, with an unspecified number of lanes that can be switched at any point during the rotation. One is well served driving as close to the curb as possible at all times. Motorbikes utilise the middle section of the road as an overtaking lane whether the median line is dotted or not, whether the road is straight and safe, or making a blind, hairpin turn. If you are too close to the centre you may ram your tiny Fiat into an oncoming motor scooter and have their rider come through the windscreen to join you.
The coastline is spectacular. There is invariably one huge yacht moored ominously offshore every few miles. If a profitable Sicilian criminal empire existed, the bosses might be aboard enjoying their ill-gotten gains. Or perhaps the vessel belongs to a troubled Australian erstwhile casino kingpin who is hiding away from the world while his empire is revealed to be one giant money laundering-operation.
Sicilian retailers accept cash only. There is an EFTPOS machine visible, but it is always out of order. Breakfast is not an option. You might get lucky and receive a ham sandwich if the proprietor is feeling hospitable, otherwise enjoy your coffee on an empty stomach and wait for lunch service which begins around 1:00 pm.
Beaches are rocky and crowded, with the best areas fenced off for paying customers. The seawater is extra salty and surprisingly clean. Plastic beach shoes may look stupid, but are essential. Purchase them at the first opportunity.
Away from the tourist hotspots, the Sicilian state feels impoverished and neglected. Huge volumes of government funding must have been long diverted from basic functions and spent fighting organised crime. Recent anti-mafia law enforcement efforts have apparently paid dividends, and La Cosa Nostra has been weakened and surpassed by the Ndrangheta, the ruthless Calabrian equivalent.
Sicily is mountainous and forbidding. English is not widely spoken. It is pleasingly not crawling with corpulent Americans. Prices are reasonable. A huge wealth disparity is evident. Cars are either rusty and unroadworthy, or shiny and luxurious. Men with huge gold necklaces smoke cigars, drink espresso, and receive excellent service.
Another minor miracle materialises when the hire car is returned unscathed to its loading dock. It came within inches of catastrophe on countless occasions. Few police officers were sighted. None demanded to see my non-existent international driver’s licence. I survived the Sicilian road carnage. Put that on a T-shirt. Only foreign drivers will understand.
Next stop – Naples – the birthplace of pizza
P.S. Keep reminding the boss that you are moved by my razor-like prose. This is my actual dream. I humbly place it in your hands.
G. G. Novack – Roving International Correspondent