This year on Blogging around the World we have been to Barcelona with Rob Dobson on Homage to Barcelona, to the Maldives with Irene from Maldives Dreamer, Saudi Arabia and around the globe with Tahira on Tahira’s Shenanigans, enjoyed some fun tid bits from France with Joanna of Multifarious Meanderings, Florence with Misty at Surviving in Italy and Tiana Kai from Living in Florence, Rome with Trisha of Mozzarella Mamma and from China to India and back to the UK with Karolyn of Distant Drumlin.
I thought it would be a great idea to wind down this years series of interviews to land back in Sicily with Driving Like a Maniac. The face behind DLAM is the effervescent Kate Bailward whose blog has been an inspiration for me as like me it’s based here in Sicily (Catania). DLAM mixes similar elements to Unwilling Expat in relation to life in Sicily and offers short travel vignettes, fab photo’s and great ideas for travel around Sicily, it was great to hear from Kate.
Tell me how you became an expat and how you ended up living in Catania?
It was all pretty accidental, really. I’d been an actor for nigh-on ten years, but it was time for a change. I drifted for a bit after making the decision to quit acting, not quite knowing what to do next, until one day a chance conversation with a friend about EFL sparked an ‘aha!’ moment. I applied to an EFL teacher training course, got my teaching certificate, and moved to the Salento (after another chance conversation with my boss at summer school) at the bottom of the heel of Puglia. I hated Italy at first, but I’m stubborn, so I stuck out my contract – and by the end of the year I was hooked. From Puglia I moved to Calabria for a year, and thence to Catania. None of it was particularly planned – I just did what seemed like the right thing to do at any one time. Three years after moving to Catania, and very happy, it looks like I must have done something right!
How would you describe your blog?
It’s a blog about noticing the little details of every day life. Now that I look back I realise that when I started it, it was largely about dealing with culture shock. These days, however, the things that I thought strange then are completely normal. In truth, I have more problems understanding the UK these days, when I go back to visit, than I do Sicily.
What’s the best thing you’ve gotten out of blogging?
Meeting new people, both on and off-line. In the first year it was a lifeline for me in terms of making contact with other English speakers in Italy. Now, it’s more about just writing for the joy of it.
How’s life in Catania? Any problems with crime, Etna, earthquakes or pollution?
A lot of outsiders have a negative view of Catania. (Actually, a lot of Catanese do as well, but that’s a different story.) From my point of view, although I have been a victim of crime, I don’t consider that to be a consequence of living in Catania, specifically, but of living in a city. It happens. Same with pollution. Etna, obviously, is a rather more particular case, but she doesn’t give us any problems down here in Catania as a general rule. Messina seems to get much more of the brunt of her eruptions than we do here, as a result of the prevailing winds.
What’s the expat community like in Catania?
I like them, as a general rule! We don’t tend to hang out together much, but that’s largely because most of the permanent expats are a bit older than me and we have different lifestyles and friend groups. It’s lovely to see them on the occasions that we do cross paths, however. 🙂
You teach ESL: what has that experience been like in Italy? Any stories to share?
I’m part-time on the ESL front these days. The thing that I have always loved about the job has been the students – interacting with them; hearing their stories; getting to know them. The downside of getting that wonderful feedback from them as human beings, however, has always been the way that teaching can take over your life if you’re not careful. I therefore made a conscious decision two years ago to cut down on my hours, and am much happier for it. I still get to meet all my wonderful, madcap, insanely interesting students – but I also get to have a life outside of school. As for stories – well, for those you’ll have to head on over to my blog, which is chock-full of them!
If I’m ever in Catania, what are five things I should see and do?
1. Come to Catania from 5-8 February for the Festival of Sant’Agata. She’s our patron saint, and her festival is one of the largest religious festivals in Europe, I believe. Her relic is pulled through the streets of Catania on a gilded bier, by hundreds of ‘devoti’ all dressed in white, for three days and nights. There are also giant flaming candles carried the length of Via Etnea, fireworks, and 15-foot high wooden candlesticks carried through the city. It’s unbelievably moving, and worth following the whole thing from start to finish.
2. U Liotru is the lavic stone elephant in the Duomo square. He’s the symbol of Catania and elephant images pop up all through the city. It can be lots of fun noting how many times you see him, and where …
3. The Duomo is beautiful, both outside and in. It’s fascinating to see how it’s developed over the years after Catania’s various destructions by either lava or earthquakes – in parts of the cathedral you can still see remains of much older floors, a few feet down from the current one.
4. Teatro Bellini is another fabulous Baroque building. It towers over Piazza Bellini and is impressive outside, but it’s the inside that really wows. The gilded dome in the central atrium is a sight to behold. There are guided tours available, but if you’re in town when there’s a performance on, go and watch, because the experience is well worth it.
5. La Pescheria (the fish market next to Piazza Duomo) is brilliant. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, take a walk around in the morning and drink in all the sights, sounds and smells of a vivid, active fish market. Next to the central area of fish sellers there is another equally active market selling fruit, veg and day-to-day groceries.
What should I definitely eat/drink in Catania?
Arancini di ragù at Savia – they’re the best in town. If you’ve never had them, they’re cones of rice moulded around a core of meat ragù, rolled in breadcrumbs then fried. Diet food they’re most definitely not, but delicious? Oh, yes indeed. Next door at Spinella try their gelati – my favourite flavours are Misto Etna and Don Carmelo, which are hazelnut and pistacchio-based, respectively. For breakfast granita and brioche, head to Comis Ice Cafe in Piazza Bellini. My favourite is mandorla (almond) flavour, but they’re all superb there. Finally, drinks-wise, take a seltz e limone at one of the fabulously-ornate street corner kiosks. Lemon juice, salt and soda water mixed together in front of you, seltz e limone is a great way to rehydrate on a hot day. Add fruit syrup instead of salt if you prefer something sweeter – I like mandarin.
Name five things I can do in Catania for free.
See the list above for five things not to miss – the only thing you have to pay for there is the theatre. If you’re here in summer you can also head down to San Giovanni Li Cuti beach, which is a small, beach of lavic rocks interspersed with black sand. Black not because it’s dirty, but because it’s been formed from the aforementioned lavic stones. La Playa has white sand, but it’s not walkable from town (it’s a short bus ride from outside the train station), and the free beaches there aren’t as friendly as Li Cuti. There is also a solarium at Piazza Europa, which is good for those who want easy access to the sea, as it has a large boarded area for sun worshipping, and steps down into the water for when you want to swim.
What’s been the most rewarding/high point and the most frustrating/low part of your time in Catania (and Italy in general)?
There’ve been plenty of both. The low points usually come in winter, when it’s cold and dark and rainy, and I feel a long way from home. The highs, conversely, come at unexpected intervals: moments of random conversation with strangers when I’m so caught in the moment that I forget to worry about the fact that I’m not speaking in my native language; students who pass exams with flying colours and who tell me they’ll miss me over the summer; being recognised as a regular shopper at the market stalls and getting the produce reserved for the locals as a result; being asked for directions by strangers (and being able to give them!) – the little things that brighten up a day and accumulate over time to create the big thing that is my life here.
Would you recommend expat life in Italy, and do you have any advice for someone contemplating the move?
I love my life here. However, it’s a very personal thing – not everyone copes well with the differences between their birth culture and Italy’s. I think the main thing to remember for anyone contemplating the move is that it’s not that one place is either better or worse than the other; they’re just different. Once I stopped railing against the system in Italy and bitching about the fact that it wasn’t England, I became much happier. No, not everything is perfect – but it’s about realising what your priorities are and learning not to sweat the small stuff.
Do you have any culture shock stories to share?
(Laughs) – loads! I’ve embarrassed myself linguistically (pretty much every expat here has a story about using a word that’s similar to another in sound, but very different in meaning) on hundreds of occasions, and will no doubt do so again on hundreds more before I’m through. Sign language, a friendly smile and the willingness to laugh at yourself can smooth most things over, though.
Did you have much of a problem with learning the language?
Five years after getting here, I still learn something new on most days. I find it frustrating how far I still am from fluency – but when I look back at where I was even six months ago – let alone five years – I realise that I’ve come an awfully long way, and I’m happy with that.
Do you ever suffer from homesickness and how do you cope with it?
When I first came to Italy I was crippled by it. I went away to boarding school just before my ninth birthday and absolutely loved it; to be so affected by homesickness as an adult knocked me for six, therefore, as it was totally unexpected. Nowadays it happens rarely – hatching, matching and dispatching are the hardest moments to cope with. A Skype conversation is all very well, but it isn’t the same thing as being able to give a newborn baby a cuddle …
Tell us about your blog …
The title, Driving Like a Maniac, could be taken in a literal manner. It’s certainly the way I intended it when I first came up with the name – even though I’d driven in London for ten years before coming here, southern Italy was a whole new level of madness. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, put it that way!
However the title is just as – if not more – relevant in a metaphorical sense. Culture shock features highly in the early years, as does throwing myself into things without a clue of what I’m doing. Even now, when I’ve been in Italy five years, there are still things that surprise and confuse and delight me about living here. And those are the things that I want to share: the stories of these people and this island and how fabulous or frustrating or just plain mad (in the best possible way) they are. In short: this is my Sicily, and I’d love it if you’d join me.
Thanks so much to Kate for finding the time to do this interview and for taking us back to Sicily with her insights.
An extra special thanks to everyone who took a moment to contribute to Blogging around the World and making my blog a richer place to visit.
If you know of any other great expat or travel blogs be sure to let Unwilling Expat know so the Blogging Around the World fun can continue in the new year …
Kate Bailward is an Englishwoman who has been living in southern Italy since 2009, and Sicily since 2011. She loves cats, hates trifle, and despite missing Marmite and gooseberries something rotten has no intention of going back to England on a permanent basis any time soon. She writes stories about the wonderful people and places that she encounters at her blog, Driving Like a Maniac and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ .