Are you dead?
Where have you been for the last six months?
Kids will be in school before we know it, and I am currently set up to telework. It's a blessing, sometimes one I curse, but certainly a circumstance to parlay into something even better. We were originally thinking of a subtropical English-speaking environment, but Belize and other such places had too many variables. Malta and Gibraltar seemed too small. Sicily was in Europe -- if barely. We had a reliable family car in Europe, there were more questions about the older vehicle still in Virginia.
Why the secrecy?
No real secrecy. Simply not knowing exactly how things would turn out, not wanting to commit to any kind of identity shift. And because it simply isn't everyone's business where I am at any moment. Though I must say I was reluctant to be seen as adding to the growing trend of people leaving Estonia for greener pastures, the potential for people to assume it was a permanent move.
Where were you based?
Just inside Palermo province boundary, on the Golfo di Castellammare. In the opinion of quite a few, including me, the nicest part of the Sicilian coastline. We had a villetta in Balestrate, pop 6,000, it was like a suvilarajoon or summer cottage area 1km from city limits and 30 m above the town. The town is itself about 40 m above the beaches. All quite walkable. The beach was average quality, but it was long, interrupted by only two small rivers -- 10 km.
How much did you know when you found your place? You found your place ahead of time?
Yes, over the Internet, from a German-Sicilian family. I didn't know much about it when I found our landlord, or even before we arrived. I figured we would be going to Palermo (50 km) much more often than we did. I think I probably only went to Palermo four or five times, usually by train, and a few times to Mondello, the city's beach, I would say one of the island's top beaches, depending on what you're looking for. But most of our outings were in W. Sicily, to the province of Trapani. Balestrate is much more connected with Alcamo, with Castellammare del Golfo. It doesn't show up in most travel guides. It gets lots of internal tourism, some Germans. Normal, Sicily.
Where else did you go in Sicily?
We saw a great deal of the island, which is half the area of Estonia, enough to make me feel a bit guilty about not yet making it to places like Mõisaküla and Vasknarva. SIcily takes at least as long to cross as Estonia, between flocks of sheep, frane (damage from old landslides) and getting lost, and there were a few major omissions. Catania -- though we did our share of slabbing along Etna's slopes, we never visited the great second city and its markets. Skipped Enna and Corleone, two pleasant enough interior towns, though I did make it to Ficuzza. We also missed a bit of the south coast from Gela to Agrigento. Didn't get to Modica, either, a city of excellent chocolate. We/I saw some sub-islands as well: Stromboli, Salina, Vulcano, Levanzo and Mozia but missed the other dozen or so.
Cost of living when not on the road or hydrofoil?
Cheaper for much of the produce we ate. Similar to Estonia for most non-veg. Pharmaceuticals were markedly more expensive. Pharmacists would not offer you generic by default, which is the law in Estonia -- my wife paid 19 euros for a couple tabs of ibuprofen once. Rent was cheaper, electricity was included (which is good as it is Europe's 2nd most expensive) and we saved on heating because the days were mainly 14-15 C with some sun in the coldest period.
Did you learn Italian or Sicilian?
Not enough. Work kept me busy. I would not yet be so presumptuous to list either language on a resume (unlike my rusty French, which continues to insist on being listed).
What were the hardest things to get used to? Cultural differences?
Apart from the island turning springlike green at a time when Estonia was getting its first snow, and yellow flowers starting to bloom in late December...
Initially, little things like napkins in the bars and cafes struck me as funny -- on the spectrum from cellophane to absorbent tissue, they're pretty much cellophane, and useless for sticky pastries, which are what pastries here usually are. Over six months, I probably left a truckload of flaky crumbs and ricotta cream dribbles behind in cafes -- not even counting what the kids got up to. I think there was something similar in early 1990s Estonia, too -- the triangular, single-ply "half-napkin".
Sicily seemed really dirty when we got there after various countries to the north. It was also in the middle of one of the many garbage mini-strikes, which still happen from time to time. But sometimes it seems quite clean now. In the beginning, there were stray dogs everywhere and they pegged us for tourists right away and would follow us. We were quite stern with them -- Lorna was still scared of dogs at this point. Around Christmas, they all disappeared.
So it's hard to say. In some ways it seemed like we arrived at the tail-end of a long hot summer and there was all this refuse and sleepy dogs left behind that no one had bothered to clean up or deal with. But is it really different? I guess I will be able to say when I get back to Estonia and walk around an Estonian town.
But the real tough one is the riposo, the version of the siesta -- stores close on average from 1:30pm to 4:30pm. No matter what your schedule, it always seems to be at the wrong time. I've had to to plan around that for months on end, and it's still annoying. And for our entire stay here, it certainly has not been hot or anything, maybe 25 C at most in October, so taking a break in the middle of the day seemed strange.
Driving was intimidating in the beginning, but something clicked around month 2, and I'd have to say there are actually things I find better about Sicilian driving. (By the way, none of this goes for Palermo, which simply puts out a force field of criminal insanity for a long radius around the the city).
First of all, people on the autostrada drive very well, very consistently. You learn not to be averse to driving with your right wheels on the shoulder some of the time because that's how the 150 km/h crowd will pass you -- with their right wheels in your lane.
In the towns, you have to get used to less space on all sides, margins are tighter, but again, not necessarily more dangerous..the locals are better judges of their car's dimensions and oddly, just as paranoid about getting scratched as say the Germans. My wife was the first to realize this and you can use it to work in your favor.
Conventions are different. In Sicily, if someone flashes their high beams behind you (other than in the left lane of the autostrada) that means "coming through, don't move left or right" in a situation where in the US it would mean "you go ahead", so -- although it sounds pejorative - it's "third world rules" that way.
Things you missed in Sicily, compared to Estonia?
In the beginning, everything, though to a mild degree - we've traveled a lot. Family. Friends we'd spent the summer with. We were continuing our summer, they weren't.
Certainly we've felt a lack, in Sicily, of Online Public Services that Estonia has been famed for. For example, Sicily has an excellent interface for its hundreds of municipalities, but very few have bothered to fill in the important dates, festivals, contact information. People here are unfamiliar with the concept of digital signatures. That was a bit shocking.
So Internet coverage was presumably bad?
Actually, it wasn't and isn't. I had a WIND Internet key -- it's a smaller company compared to Vodafone or Telecom Italia and is much maligned. But I found the company to be reliable and the coverage was decent, about what any company provides in Estonia, with better slower protocol coverage than in Estonia. They key cost 50 EUR and the monthly fee for unlimited data was 10 EUR. It was anything but clear how to set it up initially. I gave them a fictitious address in Balestrate, they photocopied my ID, I bought a ricarica and after some repeat visits I was in business. No codice fiscale needed.
Wireless spots were everywhere, even unsecured is not all that uncommon. It was common for cafe owners to approach me as I was working. Seeing the orange chiavetta in my USB, they would express concern whether I was paying by the kB and ask if I wanted their house ASDL password. So that was nice.
Are Sicilians super-friendly?
No. Sicilians are not some accessible, sunny island people. They're complex, often surly. You could write a character/national identity piece and you would end up saying many of things that you would say about Estonians. Some people are very traditional, doubtless viewed us as oddballs, as migrants, who knows. Never encountered open hostility or anything. But for the most part, it's a good thing they are not friendly in an in-your-face kind of way.
But the climate/weather is warm? Subtropical? 25 by day?
Yeah right. In October, maybe. The autumn is warm, but it's also rainier than the spring. There are sunny days that are quite comfortable all winter long but the sea temperature and wind patterns make it very unlikely that there will be any 20 C days in February. On three occasions the temperature did not make it above 4 C. I stayed in denial about winter all through January and then had six miserable weeks. My wife and I now suspect we had very low level CO poisoning most evenings from our pellet heater and gas heater running simultaneously up to late March.
But yes, lemons and oranges do grow on the trees, loquats ripen in April and, as I found out yesterday -- from a book -- they have a sedative effect if eaten in quantity, it never drops below freezing on the north coast. You can swim until late November. These things are all true.
Hardest things to give up, now that you're leaving? Things you'll miss?
General kid-friendliness, as elsewhere in Italy. Although they are fawned over a bit and overprotected, they are almost always welcome, so that easily compensates.
Boys get a great amount of the right kind of support from older males, father figures. It's very healthy and hopefully it's always above-board. Morgan was enrolled in calcio (football) and both my wife and I liked how they interacted with the kids. This is just an average town, maybe slightly above average due to tourism, so I have no doubt things are similar elsewhere as well. Exporting this back to Estonia, if there were a way to do so, would be much more important than any kind of food item.
Apart from a ID check on a train -- during the height of the Lampedusa crisis -- I had no problems with authority figures. I welcome being able to sometimes have a glass of wine, maybe even two, and then drive. This country, Italy, has a reported drinking problem rate of 0.5% among men and Breathalyzer checks are not done in the south, I don't think. I would never say that alcohol improves anyone's driving, but the rules are simply ridiculous in some other countries.
Foodwise, the ricotta fresca (from sheep's milk) is truly good. always in stock in every alimentari (small grocery), always excellent. There is no substitute. The hard wheat, the bread, lives up to the hype. It's fragrant - yes, fragrant - in a way "white" bread is not in other countries. Decent local wine for a euro or two a litre. Fresh fish, to a degree. The big ones are swordfish and tuna and mackerel - probably ones not to eat all that regularly anyway -- and many other Mediterranean ones have small bones and don't make good comfort food that way.
Palermo is a world-class destination, in many respects, including food. What did you think?
It's a great place. The world's most conquered city, unless Tallinn holds that title. I still haven't been to Naples, but I don't think Palermo is anything like it. There's an article in the NYT that captures Palermo very well, it's slightly subdued, even depressive. People leave you alone. No one hustles you. There's still a lot of war damage that was never fixed. There's also an extensive northern section that is more like a ritzy mainland Italian city. The driving is bad. I meant that, though. But the one time we drove in to the centre, on a Sunday in January, there were no problems. I'm not a fan of any big city, and Palermo at just under a million for the metro area and hemmed in by mountains is too big for me to get a handle on. I regret not going to the opera for Bellini or other high culture.
But the food?
I have to say, I didn't find the street food in Palermo all that amazing. Pane ca meusa, sandwich with spleen and lung -- relatively uninteresting, boiled meat always is, even if it's odd-textured organ meats fried up in lard and made into a ubiquitous fast food. It was good at one place, Antica Focacceria, with a smear of ricotta on the bun and some caciocavallo cow's milk cheese.
Panelle, chickpea fritters, are hard to mess up, and they're one of my favorites. But the lack of variety! In Balestrate, I started ordering panelle sandwiches with crema di peperoncino on both sides of the bread -- they usually serve panelle just with black papper, salt and lemon and it's dry.
Sometimes there were surprises, some opportunistic guy would be set up for a day selling deep-fried broccoli or simply very fresh octopus in salt water.
In general, the best comfort food you found?
I went through some arancina and other rich bar-food phases, but my standby was the ravazzata con carne. It is a yeast bun with a meat filling, and tastes just like an American Sloppy Joe, if the Sloppy Joe also had peas in it.
You were between Palermo and Castellammare, two of the most historically Mafia-infested towns in the country? Any run-ins?
Eh. Well, I knew they left tourists alone. I kept waiting for something to manifest itself, like not being able to get the best cut of meat at the supermarket because I wasn't connected, but it never did, not to my knowledge. I stopped thinking about it completely by month 2. Though sometimes, when in the Catania area or SE, places traditionally not connected with the Mafia, I would sort of compare mentally and see if anything was different, if there were fewer ugly concrete buildings.