On the topic of Italian language

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As a writer I’m eternally in love with words, I’m continually hoarding them trying to put them together in elegant poetical phrases, only to cut them out when editing, because simplicity works better.

The Italian language is in a constant state of change, every year new words are added to the vocabulary, as is usual in any living, used language. In 2016 the Zingarelli Italian dictionary listed and defined 500 new words, which brought the total to more than 144,000.

Some of these have been introduced from English, either translated into Italian or adopted in their original form into the dictionary, only to be pronounced in an Italianised way. Others express developments in technology others new ways of describing the current economic climate.

Of those words introduced to the Zingarelli, the new ones include acquaponica (hydroponics), adultità (the state of being an adult or adulting), banking, coding, cheating, bartender, criptomoneta (cryptocurrency), dipsofobia (the fixation of hoarding objects), fotodepilazione (UV hair removal), open toe, cooking show, svapare (vaping).

The words added from other languages included: expat, macaron, netsuke (small Japanese statues in wood or ivory), pastrami and to run flat.

Purists complain about every batch of new words added to the Italian language the lexicon is being watered down, desecrated or cancelled. But this is a normal function of a vibrant, growing and thriving language.

As a language is spoken, it changes and adapts to the contemporary situation. How many old words have been lost to English since Shakespeare’s time and yet his works maintain their relevance today because the core of the language is universal and timeless.

Five Random Italian Words

I’ve been compiling a list of my fave Italian words on my phone for a while with a half-baked idea for a post, and I am grateful to this months Dolce Vita Bloggers theme of ‘five Italian words’, which has jogged my memory and allowed me to finally sit down and write about the Italian language. So hats off to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com  for starting a fascinating conversation.

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

This is my sixteenth year living in Italy and at last I am feeling at ease with the language.
Italian has always been a challenge for me, I loved studying it as a hobby but when you jump into full immersion living in a foreign country without an expat safety net, your understanding really takes off, while the challenges with learning a second language can be frustrating.
I’m still confused by Italian grammar, I always joke with my students that I am stuck in the basic present, past and future tenses, with an inability to express my opinions in the conditional or study the past in the complex historical past tense academics tend to use.
Italian newspapers are a wonderful exercise in Italian language learning. Italian journalists have little in common with Anglo-Saxon ones, there is no emphasis on quick, clear and easy to understand language, reading a newspaper here in Italy is a journey into the Italian Baroque, filled with flowery intellectual prose, all quite beautiful but guaranteed to give you a headache.

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Click here if you want to read the other #dolcevitabloggers posts.

I’m constantly being reminded by condescending Italians of my quaint, adorable Australian accent. While there is no class system in Italy, I think there is most certainly an intellectual snobbery which defines itself as being superior because of the ability to speak, act and sometimes even dress ‘properly’.
I really haven’t studied Italian since moving here full-time. The basic grammar I have has been gained through my university studies and a few short courses during my long-lost twenties. So I have gathered this accumulation of mostly conversational Italian through years of living, working, socializing and interacting with Italians. I often challenge myself by reading a newspaper or a book and this year I am attempting to translate my blog posts into Italian but it still is a long and laboured process, which I am enjoying.

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I love words so when I hear something I write it down. I have loads of random lists on tiny pieces of paper, lists both in English and Italian.

The Italian words are heavier, more exotic like the pebbles on rocky Italian beaches, I always pick them up, feel their strange texture, hold them up to the light, listen to their musicality and admire them.

I’m going to share the first five words on my very long list of strange yet beautiful Italian words which have been created to describe quirky or ugly elements of Italian culture, words which only exist in Italian. Wonderfully onomatopoeic sounding words, who roll off the tongue, make me belly laugh out loud and leave me speechless with their aptness. The Italian language is filled with expressive words which reflect the flamboyant and poetical nature of Italy.

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FUNNULLONE (fan | nul | ló | ne) : the English translation of this word simply doesn’t do it justice. A slacker, bum or lay about is so much weaker than a fa (from fare or do) nulla (niente or nothing) literally someone who does nothing. Commonly used to describe and complain about government office workers in Italy.

FIGURACCIA (fi-gu-ràc-cia): Italians always talk about making a good impression or a ‘bella figura,’ either by presenting themselves well in front of new acquaintances, professionally or before the general community. A figuraccia is when you make the worst possible impression, totally bombing at a job interview or burning all bridges for a promotion, you have totally ruined your reputation forever which is probably the worst thing ever for an Italian.

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MAMMONE (mam | mó | ne) : literally a mammone refers to a large mothers breast, a wonderful image which describes the typical Italian mummy’s boy. A word of advice, if you ever meet a mammone, don’t ever get involved with him, it always gets too Oedipal.

IMBROGLIONE (im-bro-glió-ne): the English translation into ‘trickster’ waters down the meaning of this term. An imbroglione can be a nasty corrupt politician, a sly con man or an oversexed Don Juan, someone who lies and deceives for their own personal benefit, but its more than that, they are absorbed by their own deceit and are one hundred percent consumed by their own lies.

GATTOPARDISMO (gat-to-par-dì-smo): a simple gattopardo is an ocelet or wild cat but after the publication of the Sicilian historical novel of the same title by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in the 1960’s, Italian journalists invented the word gattopardismo to describe a nasty trait of the historical Italian political, aristocratic and business class. It refers to the period of Italy’s unification where basically the royalists and the upcoming middle class took advantage of political change to grab onto the power and wealth left behind after the formation of the new Italian republic. Today it refers to a certain social, political and economic class who will do anything to hold onto their power or wealth and is a synonym for the corruption and nepotism which mars Italy today.

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The Italian language is beautiful, even when describing the lesser attractive elements of human nature and above all it always has an honest and down to earth approach to interpreting the world. Honestly, it is this what makes me fall more in love with Italian every day.

To read all the other posts about Italian words for May 2018 click here.

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

The Dangerously Truthful Diary of A Sicilian Housewife

Diary of a sicilian housewife

I have been following Veronica Di Grigoli’s blog for a few years now, laughing along at the Sicilian Housewife’s  struggles and humorous confusion associated with day-to-day life in Sicily as an expat.

Now the blog has become a wonderfully polished and hilarious laugh-out-loud-belly-laughing-thigh-slapping book and I cannot resist expressing my absolute delight! The Dangerously truthful diary of a Sicilian Housewife  is set under the biting heat of the Sicilian sun and sirocco, deep in small town Sicily, far away from anything you can ever imagine.

I happily talked to my fellow Sicilian based blogger friend recently about her life in Sicily and openly encourage everyone to read a copy of her hilarious book, which should be required reading for anyone considering a Sicilian life.

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 So how on earth did you end up living in Sicily?

I visited Palermo ten years ago for a wedding and it was literally love at first sight. Within a year I was living in a fishing village called Aspra, married and expecting our little boy.

Do you have much contact or interactions with other expats?

Very excitingly, a Malaysian friend has recently moved to my village. Apart from this, the only foreigners to be found where I live are African refugees asking me for food or a Euro to buy themselves a pair of flip-flops.

What should I absolutely see in Sicily?

I hardly know where to begin because there is so much to see here, but perhaps you should try to see Etna, Europe’s biggest and most active volcano; Monreale Cathedral with over 2,000 kilogrammes of gold and illustrations of the entire bible on its walls; and the Baroque town of Noto which is a UNESCO World heritage site.

 What should I be eating or drinking in Sicily?

First, a spleen sandwich of course! On day two, try an arancina, which is a shell of rice with a delicious bomb of meaty ragù or cheese or salmon inside. From day three onwards, live on ice-cream. Make sure you don’t omit pistachio, mulberry or mandarin orange and I advise double helpings of hazelnut.

What is the worst and best part of living in Sicily?

I once spent a year with no running water because so many neighbours had not paid their bills. The water company just decided to cut off the entire street.

What’s your perfect or typical day in your part of Sicily?

One fairly perfect day happened last summer when several neighbours I hated got arrested for being in the Mafia and locked up for years.

Another way to spend a lovely day is on the village beach in summer, where you always bump into friends who are fatter than you. (cf. item about ice cream).

If I was coming to you to do this interview where would we meet?

I would take you to Solunto, a city founded 3,000 years ago by Carthaginians from Tunisia, on a mountain with spectacular panoramic views across the sea. It’s ten minutes from my house.

Sicily is a focus of so much Italian history, what’s your favourite part of the tapestry?

The invasion from North Africa in the 11th century.

The Moors explain why there is so much cultural difference between northern and southern Italy. The ancient Romans had a very different mentality, all about discipline, self-sacrifice and hard work. I cannot find a trace of that in modern Sicily or southern Italy!

Besides this, the Moors invented ice-cream, and pasta as we know it, and majolica ceramics and many construction techniques found in almost all of Europe’s cathedrals. They created so much of what we consider Italian. 

Tell us about your professional life; how do you make ends meet in Sicily?

That’s proving difficult lately. In Sicily you have to look for work wherever you can find it so I do some consultation projects, some translation work, I have authored and translated several books and I am constantly seeking other opportunities.

My best source of income these days is my book “Sicilian Card Games: An Easy-to-follow Guide”.

 

Sicilian beach

You have a young son, how has motherhood been in Sicily?

When my son was a toddler, he would get smothered in kisses wherever we went. The postman, the chemist and all the fishermen in the village would kiss him, cuddle him and offer him sweets. Absolutely any Sicilian restaurant would rearrange half their tables to make space for our push chair, and offer to warm up bottles of baby formula too.

Sicilians treat everyone’s bambini as their own and I love it… though it can make it difficult to avoid your child becoming spoiled!

I know you teach ESL, how is it teaching in Sicily? Is it easy to find work and are your students as lethargic as in other parts of Italy?

Teaching classes of Sicilian primary school children makes you lose your voice and can induce insanity, so I have always tried to focus on adult private students instead. Most of them were lively, motivated and very interesting to teach; I have taught lots of doctors, medical researchers and scientists, which I loved.

Over the last three years the level of demand for private lessons has steadily declined and I now only have one!

Do you think Italy is a ‘monocultural’ society?

Yes. In Sicily, the Spanish brought the Inquisition in the 15th century and being anything other than a conformist Roman Catholic meant death. The culture of fear drove people to start speaking the same dialect, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and doing whatever it took to avoid standing out.

The suspicion of what is foreign and fear of what is different flourishes in Sicilian culture to this day.

How is your Italian? Any advice for others trying to pick up Italian? Do you speak with a Sicilian accent?

I speak with an English accent!

The best way to master a foreign language is to hang around children. They will not let a SINGLE mistake go. My little boy provides this service for me full time these days. Anyone without a fluent Italian-speaking kid of their own should do whatever it takes to borrow someone else’s!

How did you first come to the blogging world?

My friends all wanted to know what this place is really like. The Sicily of the movies and the media has nothing to do with the real Sicily. When a friend started a blog I realised it would be the perfect way to tell everyone at once!

Tell us about your wonderful blog, The dangerously truthful diary of a Sicilian housewife?

I write three kinds of posts: photo posts of beautiful places in Sicily, “diary” posts which make people laugh, and opinion posts about current events and issues which affect us all.

As well as being a hilarious blogger you are also a pretty skillful writer, tell us about that …

Thank you for the compliments: keep them coming!

I was one of those kids who read thousands of books under the bed covers using a torch after my mother had told me to go to sleep. I think the best way to improve your writing skills is to read as many examples of good writing as possible.

 So what’s coming up on Sicilian housewife? Any new projects you’d like to talk about.

I am about to have another spate of guest blogging, writing and interviewing for other websites and inviting guest bloggers to write for mine.

I’m also planning to start interviewing some Sicilians from various walks of life for my blog… though that may not come online until summer!

Sicilian fisherman

Be sure to read Veronica’s blog: The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife and like her Facebook page.

All images have been lovingly lifted from The Sicilian Housewife.

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Veronica Di Grigoli was born in London and has worked in Istanbul, London, Milan, New York, Zurich, Frankfurt and Palermo.

She studied Classics at Cambridge University, and fell in love with Italy and all things Italian… including one man in particular!

She now lives in Palermo with her husband and son, cooking dangerously large portions of pasta, driving her car among maniacs, and trying to avoid sunburn when it is forty degrees centigrade.

She loves the weird and wacky side of living abroad and learning the hidden secrets of foreign cultures.

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Visit Secret Sicily with Oriana

Secret Sicily

One of my favorite new blogs about this complex isle I live on is Secret Sicily written by a fab virtual friend of mine named Oriana. I love meeting new people through their blogs and I think good blogging is about bringing out your own personality, passions and interests.

It was great to have a talk to the gal behind this wonderful resource for anyone planning a trip or currently traveling the island.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself and your blog… Introduce yourself.

I’m originally from Palermo, but I’ve been living outside of Italy (in the UK and the Netherlands) for about seven years now. I’m a Digital Campaigner during the day, and a blogger at night, and I started writing Secret Sicily in 2015 to share what I know about the ‘real’ Sicily with the world.

How would you describe Sicily to someone who has never visited? Are the people welcoming to foreigners?

When you go to Sicily for the first time it just blows your mind. It’s a place full of history, natural wonders and amazing food. But it’s also a ‘marmite’ place; you can either love it or hate it (sometimes both). The great thing about it is that some parts of Sicily are still totally unspoilt by tourists. The downside of this is that some itineraries are pretty much hidden and finding information can be tricky, even for locals.

On your blog you mentioned how you ‘escaped from Sicily’ and how you ‘don’t miss Sicily’ and how you ‘think Sicily sucks on many levels.’ Can explain what you mean? It sounds like you are a little disillusioned, that’s all.

Have you ever spent hours in your car, stuck in a permanent traffic jam with people yelling at each other and honking like crazy because about ten cars triple-parked in front of a bakery shop – including a police car? Well, that sums it up.

Name five things I should see and do in Sicily?

1) Hike and swim at Zingaro Natural Reserve 2) Visit the Temple Valley (Agrigento) 3) Climb Mount Etna 4) Watch a Greek tragedy in the Greek theatre of Syracuse 5) Go to at least one of the hundreds ‘sagre’ and festivals across the island.

What should I taste in Sicily?

Anything edible that comes your way, as long as it’s local and not part of a tourist menu. An absolute must is Palermo’s street food. Keep an open mind and be adventurous – it’s totally worth it.

Street scene Messina

Tell us about how to spend perfect day in Sicily?

Start with a sweet breakfast at a local ‘bar’: iris con ricotta or brioche col gelato will do. Go spend a day hiking and swimming in a local natural reserve like Zingaro and bring an arancina or two with you for the perfect lunch. If you’re not into hiking, visit one of the amazing and not very well known beaches in Sicily, like Capo D’Orlando (3 hours from Palermo). Enjoy an ice-cream or a granita in the afternoon and get ready for aperitivo time (around 7pm). Watch the sunset somewhere nice, possibly by the beach. At night, go for a concert, a theatre performance or just a relaxing walk by the beach.

Do you ever suffer from homesickness for Sicily?

Of course I do. Despite all the bad things I say about Sicily, I do miss a lot of things. Going for aperitivo with my old friends, making arancine with mamma Franca, laughing at silly jokes that only Sicilian people can get. This is why I try and go back as much as possible.

What led you to the world of blogging?

I’ve always worked in the digital sector, in one capacity or another, and blogging has always been part of my daily job, as well as my nocturnal hobby. A few years back, I co-founded a blog called Clicktivist, where myself and a dear friend of mine talk about digital campaigning, and last year I started writing for Osocio, a website about non-profit advertising and marketing for social causes. Now the problem is keeping up with all my blogging duties!

How would you describe your blog, tell us more about it …

Secret Sicily is a blog for real travellers who want to see Sicily through the eyes of a local. It’s also a place for people who are generally interested in the Sicilian culture and enjoy a bit of irony here and there.

What kind of blogger are you, is it all about getting a zillion visitors/subscribers, selling your books or is it therapy?

My blog is my playground. It’s a way to have fun and get to know people who, like me, enjoy traveling, learning new things and telling stories. I love every single aspect of it, from searching stories and writing posts, to optimizing my website and improving my social media reach. Obviously, getting a zillion visitors is also part of the plan 😉

Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

‘A fortune teller told me’, by Tiziano Terzani is one of my favourite books. It’s the story of an Italian journalist who, warned by a fortune-teller not to risk flying for a year, decided to travel around Asia by rail, road and sea. He consults fortune-tellers wherever he goes and learns to understand and respect other forms of beliefs. It’s a great read and it describes exactly what travelling is all about for me.

What would be your ultimate dream trip?

A cycling trip across South East Asia. Though I’m not sure my slipped disk would appreciate it.

What are the five things you would never leave home without …

Oyster card, phone, wallet, and home keys. These four things are usually scattered in a large bag also featuring: an e-book, the latest issue of Wired magazine, a sketchbook and a pen, glasses, packed lunch, gym gear and lots of tissues.

So what’s coming up on Secret Sicily that we can look forward to …

I’m currently working on my Etsy shop, where you can find crafty gifts for travel lovers, like my collection of handpainted travel journals. More designs and a new range of products will be available soon, so watch this space!

Have you discovered any other wonderful travel/expat blogs that we should be reading?

Some of my favourite blogs include Sicilian Godmother, An Englishman in Italy, Savoring Italy and Driving Like A Maniac. As an Italian living abroad I find it very interesting (and sometimes hilarious) to read about what foreign people think about living in Italy.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

Thanks ever so much to Oriana for taking the time to answer my questions and I look forward to discovering more about Sicily from such a dedicated local.

Be sure to follow Secret Sicily via: FacebookTwitterInstagram.

Oriana Secret Sicily

Oriana is a digital campaigner and a blogger. She is the brain behind secretsicily.org – a travel blog about all things Sicilian. She loves travelling, enjoying good food and doing her bit to change the world.

 

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Blogging around the world with Kate from Driving Like a Maniac

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.

Manago Ceramics Taormina
Image from Manago Ceramics Taormina

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.

Linguaglossa, Catania

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.

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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 …

Donkey ride Etna regional park

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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 July 2013

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+ .

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Blogging around the world with Karolyn from Distant Drumlin

I have been dipping into Distant Drumlin a blog by Karolyn Cooper for quite a while now as there is a fascinating journey behind it and Karolyn has led me into the world of many other excellent international expat experiences and bloggers.

The creator of Distant Drumlin returned to the UK after living in India and China for an extensive time a return journey which has open her eyes to many finer details of life back in her home. Today she splits her time between her city home in Marylebone, central London and her country home in County Down, Northern Ireland.

It was great to shoot a few question over about her experiences as an expat and blogger.

Karolyn's blog Camden Town

You have returned to the UK after living in India and China. How long where you living overseas? And how have you found this ‘reverse expat’ experience, was it difficult to get back into the swing of life in the UK?

My husband had a role in a large company managing software developers in China and India. I quit my job in London and joined him. We spent most of the last ten years overseas, first in Dalian (Liaoning Province, in the cold north­east of China), then Shanghai (warmer), then Bangalore (finally, blue skies and tropical sunshine in south India) . At the end of 2013 we came back to the UK. We’re happy to be back home.

Name five things we should see and do in India and China based on your experiences there?

See the fireworks at Diwali in India, and then see how they compare to the New Year fireworks in China. Do some yoga in India, compare with tai chi in China, see which makes your leg muscles ache more. Learn how to use chopsticks properly: it’s easy!

What should I defiantly taste/eat in India and China?

In India, you must taste the mangoes, bananas and cardamom. I thought I knew those flavours, but they were so much more intense in India.

In China, try everything unless it’s still alive (drunken prawns) or cruel (shark fin soup). You never know, you might love the jellyfish and Shanghai dumplings (I did) or the sea urchins and sea cucumbers (I really did not).

Now getting back to your present situation, if I was coming to you to do this interview where would we meet and what would we be drinking?

Well that depends on whether you catch me in the city or the country. There’s nowhere finer in Northern Ireland than my own garden with a view of the County Down countryside and the Mourne Mountains, so I will make us a pot of tea. If we’re in London, let’s drink espressos at one of the trendy Marylebone cafes.

Do you ever miss your expat experience?

Only in mango season.

Did you have much of a problem with learning the language, what advice do you have for English speaking expats?

In India I didn’t learn anything, except to distinguish which of the local languages I was failing to understand. I am equally clueless in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi.

We were much better in China. My husband and I both took lessons in Chinese. Our first teacher gave us a good grounding in Pinyin. That allowed us to learn some basic vocabulary. Then we learned how to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary, using the radical and the number of strokes. Those skills demystify Chinese…slightly. It’s still a hard language for English­speakers to learn. I learned Chinese vocabulary best when it came as part of a whole phrase that I could repeat, parroting the correct tones….so I am a fan of DVDs and podcasts. And the words that stuck best came with some emotion. Play a sport, and you soon learn to count the score, ask for the right golf club, and call shots in or out, just because you really don’t want to lose the game.

What do you appreciate the most about the UK now that you’ve been away from it? And what do you dislike about the UK and would change in an instant?

After eight months back home, I still appreciate clean water and reliable electricity. What would I change in an instant? Dark, grey, damp days.

Karolyn's blog street sign

What kind of blogger are you is it all about having a zillion followers or is it therapy?

I only had a zillion followers on one day, when a London college publicised the blog to the zillions of students who attend the college. The excitement wore off when none of them came back for the next post, so now I’m back to blogging as therapy.

How would you describe your blog, tell us about it …

It started as an expat blog, as a way to keep in touch with family and friends when I moved to India. I was enjoying it too much to stop when the expat posting ended. Most of my posts are photo–heavy, light on text.

You always have the best shots on your blog, so tell us what camera do you use and perhaps a little advice on how to get a decent photo.

I love taking photos for the blog, because there’s no pressure. You’ve never seen my photos of the pheasants who live on our farm, because the birds flee from me every time. I only post photos on the blog when I’m proud of them….I don’t announce them in advance.

Sometimes the iPhone is good enough, but I also have a Panasonic Lumix G3 and a Nikon D90. The Lumix is the best for blogging because it’s so small, and easy to carry around. I often wish I had taken more time over my photos. If someone­ my driver in India, my family or friends – is waiting for me, I rush to take a few photos and move on. When I’m in London, I fear that people will think I’m odd if I stop in the street for too long with a camera. But I’ve learned the hard way that it’s always worth taking another minute to get a better shot. Unless you’re looking for pheasants, in which case it’s too late.

Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

I’m in the middle of reading “The Old Ways” by Robert MacFarlane – a wonderful book about walking.

For China, Peter Hessler’s “River Town” was my favourite.
For India, Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is impressive, but will make you cry in its depiction of life in the slums of Mumbai.
And the best recent book about London, with the longest title, is Craig Taylor’s “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now ­ as Told by Those Who Love it, Hate it, Live it, Left it and Long for it” .

Have you discovered any other wonderful travel/expat blogs that we should be reading?

Kim is an American woman living in Fiji with her family, blogging about the animals, plants, people and culture of Fiji. The blog is called Flora and Fauna Weekly Report. The content is so much more interesting than the title! Weekly posts keep the whole thing fresh, and Kim’s photographs bring it all to life.

Karolyn on yoga mat in India

Cheers to Karolyn for taking a moment to answer some questions and the lovely images.

Be sure to pop over and see her at Distant Drumlin for some fine images and reflections on life in the UK.

If you want to see more of Karolyn check her out on Twitter and Flickr .

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Blogging around the world with Tiana Kai in Florence

There is no doubt that expat blogs from Florence are probably the most popular around, there are literally hundreds of them, but there are few which are able to make themselves stand out and original like Tiana Kai in Florence. Tiana combines her love of travel with her curiosity and knack with photography to explore Tuscany, Italy and Europe at large.

I was surprised when she managed to find a moment in her busy schedule to answer my questions and I am happy to share our conversation with you all.

Ponte Vecchio and Valentina
Tiana’s faithful bike Valentina enjoying the a Florentine icon, the Ponte Vecchio.

 

Do you consider yourself an expat and if so did you make a conscious decision to live the expat life and how did you end up living in Florence Perhaps you can describe exactly where are you living in the city?

Well, I’m definitely not a local, so expat, immigrant, visitor all work! I have been living in Florence for two years now. I rekindled with my ex (a Florentine) whom I dated back in the US from 2001-2003. We got back in touch and next thing I knew he bought me a ticket to visit him for two weeks. The rest is history! 

How would you describe Italy to someone who has never visited? Are the people welcoming to foreigners?

Oh wow, what’s not to say? The coast, the mountains, the land, passion, food, wine, vineyards…I can go on and on. Every corner is picturesque and every passerby is a moving piece of art. I think Italians are very welcoming. I travel a lot around Italy and the people I meet are so incredible, open, fun and curious. Sure, Americans are easier to get to know, but so are Italians if you are willing to open yourself up. 

Name five things I should see and do in Florence?

Climb the Giotto tower to see the incredible view of the city and an up close shot of the Duomo.

Walk up to my favorite viewpoints: San Miniato al Monte Church and Piazzale Michelangelo. The best time is right before sunset—linger around for a few hours while the pink hues seep in. 

Tour the many gardens! My favorite is the small rose garden inside Boboli Gardens and the Rose Garden to the west of Piazzale Michelangelo. There are so many that I still have a few on my list to see.

Visit a fashion museum besides the Uffizi, I prefer Ferragamo’s museum to Gucci’s. 

Eat like crazy! Grab a panino at All’Antico Vinaio, snack on a lampredotto sandwich on the streets, rip your teeth into a bistecca fiorentina and have wine at Il Santino. 

What should I taste or eat in Florence?

As mentioned above you definitely need to eat a bistecca fiorentina. Juicy, raw and flavorful. Finish dinner with a light dessert like Vin Santo (dessert wine) and cantucci (tiny biscotti) dunking the cookies into the wine for an excellent finish to the evening. 

Gelato, yay! There are a handful of artisan gelaterias who always have a changing menu depending on the season, so you’ll sure find unique and unforgettable flavors. 

If I was coming to you to do this interview where would we meet and what would we be drinking?

I would meet you at Il Santino. I have tried many bars around town, but this place feels like home to me. It’s small, the owners are cool and the quality of the food is unsurpassable.

You are originally from the States and are now living full time in Italy, is there a terrible culture shock or do you find your culture has something in common with your current adopted home?

I find a lot of things similar to life in Miami since Miami is not really “America”. That being said, Italians are still different from Latin Americans, so there was a bit getting used to. Getting things done, paying pills, stores closing for lunch where the main issues I noticed. I used to kiss everyone once when I said hi and bye, now I kiss twice when I say hi…not always goodbye. There are many tiny details that I have shifted in my life now that I live in Italy.

Do you ever suffer from homesickness and how do you cope with it?

As close as I am to my family I always enjoyed being away and doing my own thing. The main things I miss are close friends from the States (thank God for Skype and Facebook) and my two little brothers. I have two older brothers too, but my heart just melt for the youngsters—they’re practically my babies. 

Being married to someone I’ve known since I was 20 helps since I feel like I can talk to him about whatever’s on my mind and no one knows me better than he does. Having close girlfriends never hurts either when you need someone to listen to you and who knows what you’re going through (expat-wise or not). 

What’s been the most rewarding/high point and then the most frustrating/low part of your time in Florence?

High points have been settling in and feeling like myself here—routines can help! I’ve been busy getting to know people and traveling, so that’s kept me happy and busy. 

Low points were more in the beginning when I didn’t know which new “friend” to trust and spend my time with, and the let’s not forget the legal paperwork which is always a dream!

What do you think about the expat life? Why do you think so many people choose to be expats?

Some people may think that life is better somewhere else, that they need a change. Others see it as an adventure to share with their partner or on their own, living a life dream and good for them! I think everyone should live abroad at least once in their lives to see how other people live and gain other life experiences. 

Growing up in Miami I always met people from other countries and thought it was so amazing that they packed up and took a chance in a different country. 

Did you have much of a problem with learning the language, what advice do you have for English speaking expats? 

Ha, I’m bad at practicing! My husband and I speak English since he’s amazing at English and we met speaking English. I speak Italian to locals, but I find it incredibly odd to speak Italian to an American. 

What led you to the world of blogging?

I had a blog in Miami a year or so before I moved here focusing on my business and Miami happenings. Once I moved here I noticed an intense social media presence from other expats and travelers, so I wanted to share my story with them and most importantly with my family and friends back home. 

How would you describe your blog, tell us about it …

My blog is a place where you can find tips about Italy and my personal experiences with many many photos! When someone is coming to Florence I want to provide them with the best of what they can do and EAT, so that they have an incredible time here. Since I’m more than just someone living in Florence I like to focus on other travels and expat life in general, so you’ll find a few things that may connect to you on a personal level. 

Have you ever had negative experiences with blogging? Tell us about it, how did you handle it?

Maybe a few pompous comments, but I always think that they must not be very nice to anyone not just me. 

What kind of blogger are you, is it about getting a zillion visitors/subscribers, selling your books or is it all therapy?

I let blogging take me where it takes me. I don’t want a blog filled with advertising and I don’t want to over sell myself, so it’s more about my stories and photography. Many use it as a business and for now I use it as a great tool for work, travel, keeping in touch and sharing my tips and experience with whomever is reading. Who knows what future plans I may have for my blog down the road.

You have quite a good following on your blog, any advice for the rest of us?

Connect with others and be yourself! 

You always have the best shots on your blog, so tell us what camera do you use and perhaps a little advice on how to get a decent photo.

I have a Canon Rebel that doesn’t always see the light of day because of the size, so you’ll find me with my Canon Powershot and iPad mini. The mini takes pretty great shots, less pixelated (and lighter!) than the iPad 2. 

Complete this phrase: I travel because …

life without it is bleeh.

What are the five things you would never leave home without …

Camera, iPad mini, Tod aviators, comfy loafers/walking shoes, my grandpa’s gold bracelet.

Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

Born to Run made me want to explore more of the southwest of the States/Mexico. That book was incredible and if I didn’t give it to a friend I would read it several times over. The landscape in the book really spoke to me, I wouldn’t mind spending a few nights there in the middle of nothing with my husband, dog and camera. I grew up traveling a lot and no matter how fancy shmancy the hotel, my family always was extremely active, so I really love doing something sporty and getting dirty! 

So what’s coming up on Living in Florence that we can look forward to …. Have you discovered any other wonderful travel/expat or writing blogs that we should be reading?

I’m focusing on some side projects that let me be creative and challenge me a bit. As for blogs that I read, I actually read more about marketing and technology, but I find that I’m always cracking up when I read Married To Italy!

Tiana Kai in Florence
Tiana Kai in Florence

Tiana was born in Hawaii, raised in Miami and now lives and works as digital marketing consultant in Florence. TianaKai.com shares travel tips all over Italy and abroad plus expat experiences that are sure to make you laugh. Her main passions besides travel are photography (check out instagram.com/tianapix), her yellow labrador Macintosh and her husband who cooks some mean ribs. 

If you want to see more of Tiana check out her social media links: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest and her really fun photographic project NOT MY NONNI which offers some candid images of elegant elderly people in Italy also on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

It was fabulous to have Tiana Kai from Living in Florence to visit on Unwilling Expat and I look forward to her insights on life from one of my favorite parts of Italy.

In bocco al lupo (good luck and happy blogging to you!)

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The toilet situation in Italy

***Warning this post contains images of Italian toilets, bad double entendre and Australian slang***

Cosi toilets in Italy post

I have never understood the reason behind the lack of public toilets in major Italian cities as you would think it is a common courtesy to keep lovely, clean toilets for tourists and visitors.

So what should anyone visiting do to find service rooms in an emergency? Well you can find toilets in shopping malls, at train stations, at ‘Autogrill’ stops on the Autostrada highways, occasionally you can sneak into a bar/café but you are generally obliged to buy something, if you are game you can pop into the town hall or into an office building where no one will say anything to you if you are quick and look as if you work there.

In more touristy areas you can find a clean toilet provided by the local tourist board, which you will have to pay for as there is someone there during office hours to clean it, but these are usually locked up after hours, weekends and public holidays so you are literally screwed if you need to use a toilet in these times!

Apparently it has not always been like this, my husband tells me in the bountiful 1980’s even every small town had clean public toilet service, but vandals and budget cuts put an end to this utopia.

Those few toilets you do find require a gas mask at the entrance, boy toilet paper and disinfectant hand wash it a must. I’m guessing most places have had the same frustrating problem with vandals as the toilets you do find around the place are filled with graffiti, usually proclamations of love and lust, everything from ‘Ti amo Angelina,’ to ‘per divertire chiama Tommy 333333999.’

Well I suppose if you have weak pelvic floor muscles, or you can’t simply tie a knot do as the Italians do and slip in between two parked cars, near trash dumpsters or some bushes and do as nature commands. You are not going to get arrested or fined as we are in Italy baby!

P.S: On researching this post (yes I did put some thought into this one), I came across a couple of useful posts about the toilet situation in Italy which will help you understand what you will come across. Here are some Italian Toilet Basics from Andi Brown at Once in a Lifetime travel and a how to flush tutorial by Alex Roe at Italy Chronicles.

 

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Conversations with Elio Vittorini and his critics

Elio Vittorini

Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily has been on my reading list for a while and I was delighted to find the original english translation in the Amazon Kindle store compete with an introduction from Ernest Hemingway so I immediately snapped it up.

However for some unknown reason it was never delivered and after several emails I never got any help or explanation why. Since my credit card was never debited for the purchase I simply dug out my Italian paperback version and I am eternally grateful I did.

Conversazione in Sicilia is such an enigmatic work, at times I loved it and lived the pleasure of this natural conversation between elderly mother and grown up child, between Sicily and Sicilian, yet other times I got lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long windedness of the dialogue confused me. These conversations, like many real ones are fleeting, flippant, mundane and they slip beyond our grip and understanding.

Silvestro is a lost and disillusioned Sicilian living in Milan who gets a letter from his father saying he has left his mother and so he clumsily journeys back down to the island guided by a mixture of nostalgia and indignation for life.

The journey of a long lost Sicilian son who has moved away from his beloved island for many years, retraces his steps back down to his Mediterranean home recalling the harsh desert landscape of the summers in his childhood near Syracuse. Silvestro finds his mother deep in winter hibernation entrenched in timeless Sicula habits, eating food gathered from the countryside, telling mundane personal and family stories, using the ancient dialect, she is a stoic aging Sicilian woman filled with pride, yet with the defeats of life accumulating before her.

Listening into the discussion is like hearing real Sicilians talking, few words are used, they are repeated often, at times there is latent anger or the energy of a forceful interrogation, yet the intonation and energy of the human spirit behind them gives them compelling meaning.

Reading Vittorini’s work in Italian turned out to be a blessing as I think this would be terribly difficult to translate, the cadences of the conversation could be easily lost and the historical context is also tantamount to the correct reading of Conversazione in Sicilia.

We are talking about Fascist Italy and Sicily, a period of great upheaval, Vittorini reflects the disillusionment of his generation, the intellectual wasteland created by the Fascist regime. Silvestro is a victim of ‘estranged furies,’ a sense of loss and slavery, life has lost its meaning, hence the return to his past in the hope of finding some piece of mind.

Elio Vittorini himself (1908-1966) was an influential voice in the Italian modernist school, Conversations is his best known work and he was jailed when it was published in 1941 for its subversive nature. Vittorini was born in Syracuse and moved often around Sicily with his father who worked on the railway. He often ran away from home, leaving Sicily permanently in 1924, eventually settling in Florence. Vittorini’s work began to be published in journals from 1927 and many of his novels and short stories were not published until after the second world war due to Fascist censorship. He learnt English and in 1939 moved to Milan, translating many english language writers works into Italian, including D.H Lawrence, E.A Poe, Faulkner, Galsworthy, Steinbeck and Defoe (some of which also had a profound influence on his own work.)

Peeling away the layers of Silvestro’s train journey down to Sicily in Conversations there are motifs of poetry which takes the reader into the memories of his personal past to witness the discrepancies between memory and real life. The protagonist’s Sicily lives very much in his own memory, a personal myth filled with romanticized memories from the Shakespearian quoting father, to the music of the crickets in the summer and the Zampogne Sicilian bagpipes played during the festive season.

The ambiguous nature of Vittorini’s Conversazione has created scores of interpretations of this book, which adds a wonderful element of depth to this work. Some critics see Silvestro as a mythological hero going through a journey of self discovery akin to Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey, while others see it as a political work with anti fascist undertones and references to the Spanish civil war, there is also a wave of critics who say the work is echoes the works Vittorini was translating in the same period including Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence and Eliot.

What I experiences was a wonderfully concise piece of literature which captures the voice and spirit of a mystifying Sicily while commenting on the contradictions in the Italian society of the fascist period in Italy, like the Italy of today it can be confusing, mind boggling yet ultimately intriguing.

Vittorini has now become one of my Italian literature favorites together with Quasimodo, Pirandello, Verga and Tomasi di Lampedusa. I look forward to discovering evermore in this amazingly rich oeuvre…

 

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For more reading see Michael Dubdin’s review for The Guardian and Conversations in Sicily is Sicily is available through Amazon.

There is also this fine essay about Vittorini by Eric Darton on Frigatezine.

Insights into Ferragosto

Ferragosto COSI

Italy has an abundant amount of public holidays, ranging from the usual stuff like New Year’s day and padded out with things like Liberation Day (25th April), International workers day (1st May) and Republic Day (2nd June).

Not to mention a fine cavalcade of religious celebrations including the Epiphany (6th January), All Saint’s Day (1st November) and the Immaculate conception (8th December).

In addition each city and town gets their own holiday to celebrate their local patron Saint (Rome for example celebrates St’s Peter and Paul on the 29th of June and Milan gets Saint Ambrose on the 7th of December.)

By far the most sacred of all holidays is the major Ferragosto summer vacation which Italians look forward to every year with a heightened level of fervent desire.

Surprisingly there is actually some serious history and culture behind this time of the year, according to Wikipedia :

The term Ferragosto is derived from the Latin expression Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), which is a celebration introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BC. This was an addition to already extant ancient Roman festivals which fell in the same month, which celebrated the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor.

During these celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen,donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Such ancient traditions are still alive today, reflected by the many Palio celebrations all around Italy, the most famous on the 16th August in Siena. Indeed the name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the usual prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.

Tourist shop

My first summer alone in Italy I found myself stuck in Bologna in between projects, right in the midst of August holidays. I didn’t know anyone in this major Northern Italian city which becomes like a ghost town, every second store is closed and there is hardly anyone around. Bologna isn’t a touristy town so it wasn’t like being in Florence or Rome which are always filled with people all year round. It was a lonely place to be.

August in Italy means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsular as all Italians go to the beach.

In Sicily families who have migrated to the north of Italy traditionally come home to visit estranged parents and relatives and lie roasting on some Sicilian beach. With the Economic Crisis most are no longer making the trip, holidaying closer to home or not at all.

The 15th of August itself is a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when the Catholic church believes the Madonna’s sinless soul and incorruptible body was taken up to heaven. In my small part of Sicily there are many ancient festivities in the cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector, the day offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo to Messina, Capo d’orlando, Motta d’Affermo, Novara di Sicilia and Montagnareale. Sorry but all my links are in Italian but the images really give you a sense of the elaborate nature of the celebrations, Sicilian’s know how to put on a show! 

Sicilian Cart

All Italian towns have their own saint which they call upon for help, nowadays it’s a quaint tradition and great excuse for a celebration but Patron Saints were an effective form of propaganda for the early church and brought in many new Catholics into the fold.

Sicilians like most Italians celebrate mezzo-agosto holiday with copious amounts of food, strange isn’t it ;-), either picnics in the mountains or bomb fire barbecues on the beach not to mention an endless array of food festivals or sagras which offer you taste of all things Sicilian. There is plenty of drunken action and I’ve witnessed many a heated argument over nothing, silly car manoeuvres and accidents. Don’t get me started on the mess that is left behind the next day! The whole nation strips down into vacation mode from suits to speedos and loud shirts, it seems ‘in ferie’ or on holidays gives people an excuse for bad behavior and worse fashion.

So what do I have planned?

Well I’ll probably will be guzzling beer, scoffing downing BBQ lamb while wearing a bikini which shows off my prosciutto thighs and flabby mummy tummy, trying to keep cool.

Buon ferragosto a tutti!

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Quirky questions about life in Italy

Today I want to tackle your questions about living in Italy full-time. To be honest I haven’t been asked many questions so I got my virtual and real Facebook friends to send me some random ones, which I’ll answer below.

 

Life in Italy

Maryann asks: How is the plumbing and the water?

Well, the average Italian bathroom is made up of a strange contraption called a bidet, which is parked beside the toilet, not it’s not an alternative place to do your business but rather a spot to sit and wash your intimate bits. You can also close the bidet’s plug to wash your smelly feet after a day of sightseeing or do a rinse of dirty socks or underwear, quite versatile really!

In private homes the hot water system is usually manually turned off and on as required. This is a money-saving device as electricity is so expensive in Italy (which is also partly the reason for the lack of air conditioning along with the fact Italians think cold air can make them sick, but this is a whole other topic to explore!) So you need to think at least twenty minutes to half an hour ahead before you want a shower, unless you don’t mind cold water.

You will find the water pressure totally piss weak compared to the U.S or Australian standards, so try to do one thing at a time, either wash your hair or give yourself a shower as you won’t be able to rinse well.

The drinking water here is awesome and there is plenty of it! Water restrictions and filters don’t need to exist here and in most major cities there are public water fountains overflowing with mountain spring water which are regularly controlled by the local authorities. Yes, you can even drink from a tap at the Trevi fountain, obviously it doesn’t come from where all the coins are thrown but it is from the clean source which comes from the original roman aqueduct.

It is an excellent sign when you see locals waiting in line with their water bottles in hand, it’s like drinking Evian, but it’s free!

Sharon asks me: Do you think in English or Italian?

Well, I obstinately think in English, simply because I read it and write it so much.

I quickly translate into Italian in my own head, I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s pretty much instantaneous.

I sometimes dream 50/50 Italian and English.

When my brain isn’t working I’ll accidentally slip in an English word or do something silly like pronounce an Italian word with a particularly heavy Australian accent which gets me some puzzled looks.

Why not check out our expat blogging group C.O.S.I’s last post about what it’s really like to learn Italian in Italy. See Tongue tied in Italy for more insights.

Michelle asks: Do you have pasta for lunch and dinner?

It’s true Italians love pasta and I think Sicilians would love to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they could. I have overdosed on pasta and try to avoid it but the locals usually do have pasta at least once a day.

They are also big on bread. As if the pasta doesn’t make you gain weight, the bread will! After a plate of pasta there is usually a second course of either meat or salad in the summer and don’t get me started on their roasted vegetables usually conserved in extra virgin olive oil, their predilection for all things fried and cold cut meats!

Yes, my waistline has been gradually let out through the years.

Jason asks: Do all Italian men exude romantic charm?

Well, what a surprising question, coming from a guy too!?!?

I’m sure the majority of Italian men believe they are romantic and charming. But girls keep in mind Italian men are extremely sleazy, their ‘romantic charm’ is all an act to try and charm your pants off. Now there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s all you want, just don’t think you’ve found the love of your life or expect to be taken home to meet the family. If you want an Italian husband be prepared and expect a long hard road to be excepted into the family!

My Sicilian husband is quite shy and reserved and he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (we have a rule, if he wants to buy me a gift I have to be there to choose it or else he will get something I don’t like!) I guess I got ripped off with the whole ‘romantic charm’ quota, but at least I can trust him and he stands out from all those other Italian peacocks!

Aron asks: What are the biggest differences between here (Australia) and Italy?

Wow! Now that’s a huge question and I’m constantly making comparisons between my native Australia and Italy. It’s kind of tricky as over the past decade the Australia I fondly remember has changed a lot, it isn’t as relaxed as I recall it, Oz too is going through the same economic crisis as Europe and it has become a terribly expensive place to live amongst other things (which is yet another topic to explore!)

The biggest difference comes from the very distinct cultures, a general topic which trickles down to form the many bumps and pot holes in the road of expat adventures in Italy. The constant culture shock between Italy and Anglo-Saxon expats makes everyone around you think differently, behave bizarrely and confuse the hell out of you constantly.

One real shock for expats and visitors from outside of Europe is the discovery that Italy is a living breathing museum. Like the rest of Europe, Italy is a place where people have lived since prehistoric times and where history and people have left behind their junk. If you dig a deep hole in Sicily you will probably find pieces of Greek ceramics, Roman coins and Etruscan tombs. There are many stories of construction workers or farmers digging around who have discovered complete Roman villas and valuable archeological sites by mistake. The Roman villa filled with the best preserved mosaics from the late roman empire in the whole world at Piazza Armerina near Enna, Sicily was buried under twenty meters of earth, local farmers had been cultivating crops on top of it for generations without knowing anything about its existence.

Cultural differences

Those are the end of the questions I received but here are ten more funny and infuriating cultural differences off the top of my head which I’d like to dedicate to anyone thinking about moving to Italy:

1) Italian’s don’t walk around without shoes, they take it as a sign of poverty/barbarism and if gals take off their shoes in the front of a guy it will be taken as a sign you want to have sex!

2) Italian’s are superficial, appearance is vital to them. They never do their shopping in a track suit and sneakers with morning hair. I’ve seen women do their grocery shopping in high heels, sequins and freshly dressed hair!

3) Food is a religion in Italy. Don’t you dare overcook the pasta or else you will be ostracized. It’s ‘al dente’ or die of shame. Stick to the cooking time on the pack!

4) Italy can be as dirty as a teenagers bedroom floor, recycling is a new concept and many Italian’s are used to other people cleaning up after them, which is never the case in the real world.

5) Italian hospitals are scary places, avoid them if you can.

6) Customer service is a foreign concept in Italy, as is politeness along with the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You will be pushed aside on trains, others will jump the queue in front of you, doors will be slammed in your face and bank tellers will pretend you don’t exist and close as you reach the teller.

7) It is still fashionable and socially normal to smoke in Italy so you will have to put up with smokers puffing in pubs, restaurants, bars and people polluting your house and car.

8) Italian’s aren’t into sport as a pass time (of course there are always exceptions to this, especially when it comes to soccer or cycling.) So you won’t see many sports activities or clubs happening on the weekends.

9) Italian bureaucracy features heavily in Dante’s Inferno.

10) As of 2020 the act of breathing will be taxed in Italy.

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Tongue tied in Italy

It is always a challenge for non native speakers of any language to learn and assimilate into a new country but Italy has its own particular surprises reserved for struggling expats.

  COSI language collage

Before moving to Italy permanently I thought I was quite savvy with my Italian. After all I had almost majored in Italian, lived in Bologna and did the usual Florentine study thing. Heck it would be a breeze. I’m Italo Australian for god’s sake, how hard could it be to become fluent? A few more months of should do it, right?

Man, I was never so wrong about anything in my life. I soon discovered, Sicily isn’t like the rest of Italy, it is another planet.

Sicilian’s don’t know how to handle foreigners trying to learn their language, they will pretend not to understand you, furrow their brows, pick your accent, painfully point out your terribly foreign sounding voice and try to charge you the triple price.

A world away from my beloved ‘Firenze.’ I remember one time in Florence while ordering an iced tea drink, I accidentally said I wanted a ‘pesce’ (fish) flavour instead of pesca (peach)! I got a strange look from the barista but the charming Florentine smiled and corrected my mistake in the nicest way. He said I shouldn’t lose heart and told me if it wasn’t for the mistake with the words he wouldn’t have picked me for a foreigner at all *gush*.
Meanwhile in Sicily when I open my mouth it’s:
‘You’re not from here are you?’ After the first syllable.

There are Sicilians who are dipped in a thick syrupy dialect. Most people have grown up speaking their local tongue at home and look at you strangely as you speak Italian to them. If you think learning Italian is going to be difficult, going all feral and trying to learn a dialect is nearly impossible, it takes years of practice to speak a dialect well and it helps if you’ve been born speaking it too 😉

So how did I handle my first moments of living in Italy full-time? Very awkwardly and shyly. At first, I didn’t speak too much, thank goodness hand gestures are big in Italy. Then one day I just told myself to stop being a big baby and stop caring about making mistakes. Even native Italians aren’t perfect while speaking ‘proper’ Italian and if the only thing they can say is I’m a foreigner well, then that really is the truth and why should it bother me so much. So that’s been my attitude until this day and it seems to work fine.

The one thing bothers me still is the lack of actual Italian lessons I’ve taken while living in Italy, which is none. So in a vain attempt at perfecting my Italian I searched out courses for foreigners, the closest school was at Taormina and now there is another place at Cefalù but both are terribly far away from me and expensive.

Taormina art studios

I thought about going back to University and enquired at the language faculty at the University of Messina. I wanted to study Italian as a second language and perhaps pick up French or another European language. It was an ambitious idea, but surprisingly enough even if the course was taught in Italian they didn’t offer Italian as a second language. So I’d be doing everything in Italian and studying English, French and German. It wasn’t going to work for me!

This left me with the long hard old school of language learning known as ‘total emersion.’ I had a basic grammatical foundation so I spoke only Italian, watched t.v and as a workout made my way through the convoluted journo-speak of Italian newspapers.

Now after twelve years of living, working and interacting with Italy I can say I am a fluent speaker but I still feel insecure as I lack a certain level of academic or intellectual polish. I’d love to write in Italian but I am lost when it comes to the conditional tense which is used to express opinions, wishes and hypothetical ideas. Those pesky reflexive verbs give me the creeps as do feminine and masculine word endings and other tricky stuff which doesn’t exist in English.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

I’m trapped in the present tense and simple past participles as my grammar is very basic. It’s enough to get by and understand the world around me but I hope to study more to wrestle this monster that is Italian language.

Not to mention what it’s doing to my English! I often reverse my syntax and it seems I’m inventing my own personal dialect. When I can’t think of the word in English I will throw in an Italian one into the mix. I think I may be accidentally teaching my young son pigeon.

My son has begun to attend school here so I can always learn Italian with him as Italian school children study truckloads of grammar. Most high schools who are geared to preparing students for university do Latin, which is like the ultimate grammatical workout for Romance languages. Could I go back to High School? Hmmm, perhaps I should simply invest in an online language course!

One thing is for certain, you never truly finish learning a language and there are no secrets to it, you simply need to dive in or else you will lose your independence.

And above all ‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ (Don’t let the bastards get you down) as everyone has their own special way of acquiring language it’s an individual journey, enjoy it!

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Sicilian’s flare for uttering profanities

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When I was a child I had an Uncle who was terribly capricious, a real joker (he still is until this day) and he took great pleasure in teaching my brother and I all the colourful Italian swear words possible. 

My Uncle thought it was all terribly funny and hoped we’d use them in front of our mother who as a former primary school teacher would be appropriately shocked.

I recently read an article which suggested people who use swear words have down to earth, truthful and logical personalities and using bad language has nothing to do with being bad mannered as traditionally thought.

Cussing is really about being to the point and realistic and simply being rude. This is an interesting take on the subject and I have found people I know who use ‘colorful language’ are genuinely no nonsense types who cut through political correctness with a knife and get to the rough truth below ornamental politeness.

 COSI language collage

I’m not looking for an excuse to launch into a litany of four letter words but when it’s needed and apt ‘cuss’ can be more powerful than all the words in a thesaurus.

I have discovered Sicilians have a particular flare for inventing swear words, curses and such phrases, mixing everything with a pinch of blaspheme for good measure.

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My education in vivid ‘Siculu’ cursing has come about thanks to the Sicilian men surrounding me, who could probably write many volumes dedicated to this particular lexicon!

I have heard swear words that are so offensive they would make a sailor blush, I have even heard women use particular words regularly which refer to male and female genitalia.

Sicilian and Italian swearing combines the holy and profane which kicks and spits out venom onto Saints, the Virgin Mary and God himself. I am not going to write any swears here but I will filter them to give you an idea of what I mean (people easily offended can skip the following paragraph.)

When things go wrong Sicilians curse the Saints and certain body parts (usually genitalia), the Madonna and certain animals (mostly pigs) and if they want to be particularly offensive it gets more personal with references to ‘your sisters privates.’

There I said it, I have never heard such colorful cuss words as here in Sicily, it’s ‘profanely’ confusing!

Thanks to the Sicilian’s curses I’ve learn the filthiest words possible about certain body parts, the names of animals, apparently animals with horns are particularly offensive as they refer to ‘cuckold’ men (an archaic term in English referring to a husband with an adulterous wife). Ridiculing Saints seems to be a popular way of insulting others and letting off steam when things are not going your way.

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Images c/o: http://youngadventuress.com/ and http://italianowithjodina.com/

 

Picking up a Sicilian vocabulary

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Lately I’ve noticed a new development with my language skills. I think I’m going native. Many missionaries from past centuries wrote of how after years of living with a foreign culture and language they have felt like a constant outsider until the day when they realise their tongue has somehow assimilate elements of the local dialect, to make them connect and communicate in a way that they almost feel like part of the local community.

This is a new stage of language acquisition for me, like dreaming in another language. I find I dream in both Italian and English, mostly in English and never in Sicilian.

Well I’ve inadvertently begun to insert certain Sicilian phrases and words while talking to locals and I haven’t been met with hysterical laughter or suggestions to stick to standard Italian.

 Manago' Ceramics Taormina

I can hear my mother crying out in tears, ‘But she used to have such a beautiful Florentine accent!’

Do not worry Mum, I am learning more Italian every day, but I have discovered it’s fine to pick up new accents and understanding different dialects is helping me to discover new elements of Italian culture.

The Sicilian dialect has a long and proud history which dates back even before the Florentine school. Sicilian’s were writing poetry and sonnets long before Dante or Shakespeare and their language incorporates many elements of European and Middle Eastern cultures.

Sicilian is part Arabic, French,Germanic, Spanish and North African, incorporating different elements of many civilizations and wisdoms.

I grew up listening to an archaic form of Sicilian which my maternal grandparents spoke and combined with English. Today Sicilian has melded more with the standard or ‘Tuscan’ Italian but the sounds are still similar to me.

Sicilian puppets always an evergreen!

As a child I used to spit out ‘nozzuli’ from grapes and would get ‘spine’ stuck in my fingers from the rose bushes.

Nowadays if I speak to the people in my Sicilian neighborhood I sprinkle my phrases with a local accent and convert the verbs into Sicilian.

Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello

I say things like:

Amunini – instead of andiamo (lets go)

Shalare – instead of divertire (to have fun)

Capiste – instead of capisce (do you understand)

Cosa facchiste? – instead of che cosa hai fatto? (what did you do?)

Cosa succediu? – instead of che cose’ successo? (what happened?)

Scantare – instead of spaventare (to be afraid)

I’m far from fluent but I understand every word and find it fascinating to listen to even if I am still not Sicilian.

Strangely enough Sicilians have a real problem with my name, Rochelle is simply too foreign for them and Del Borrello despite seeming to be Italian sounds too Spanish for them, I am often mistaken for a ‘Borello’ which is a local family who run a local restaurant. So despite my learning their language I’m still very much an outsider.

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N.B: Sicilian unfortunately is considered a dying language because it is no longer read or written extensively. Apparently when a language is only spoken without a certain level of grammatical knowledge or development it is in danger of disappearing, which would be a terrible tragedy. I thank goodness for organizations like: Arbasicula a journal of Sicilian Folklore and Literature edited by Gaetano Cipolla based at St John’s University Languages and Literatures Department in New York, it is a non-profit International Organization promoting the language and culture of Sicily. Arba Sicula is published both in English and Sicilian and is such a worthwhile project, offering a way of recording this ancient language.

Literary Islands: Giuseppe di Lampedusa

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Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo) is my favorite Sicilian novel of all time. The sumptuous world of the Prince of Salina is a precious link to Sicily’s baroque aristocracy. It also inspired one of the best international cinematic productions with the classic 1963 film adaptation directed by Luchino Visconti starring Burt Lancaster as the prince.

The Leopard’s author was a bit of an anomaly in himself, a painfully shy, reclusive, Sicilian nobel, whose novel was finally published after his death at the same time as Jack Kerouac’s modern free spontaneous prose masterpiece On the Road exploded onto the scene in the states. You could not find a work so contrary to its times as this elaborate historical novel, yet it is still the most poignant and truthful portrait of the Sicilian mentality, I’ve ever read.

The Leopard is an essential guide to understanding the nature of the Sicilian character.

I’m even going to bore you by sharing some quotes and points which I had to edit out of my travel book because I found myself ranting on too much about The Leopard. I implore you, most adamantly to read this book if you love and want to understand Sicily.

In chapter four of The Leopard titled Love at Donnafugata, Lampedusa illustrates why Sicily and Sicilians are the way they are. In this chapter the main character Don Fabrizio is visited by Cavaliere Chevalley, an official delegate of the royal house of Turin who invites the Prince to become a minister in the first government of the new Italian Republic. The Prince refuses and in a complex speech to Chevalley he explains why the changes in Italy will have little effect in Sicily and vividly describes the true nature of the islanders.

According to the Prince, Sicilians are products of their own history and the elements which have shaped their culture are the very ones which have shaped Sicily politically and physically. ‘Sicilians are accustomed to a long succession of rulers who were not of their religion nor spoke their language. If they had not learned to support the foreign influences Sicilians would never have coped with the invaders.

The stoic adherence to a doctrine of simply out living invader’s has created a severe lethargy in the Sicilians’ character which makes them timeless. ‘In Sicily it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly, the sin Sicilians never forgive is simply that of doing at all. The island is very old, for many centuries Sicilians have been bearing the weight of superb, powerful civilizations, all from outside, for centuries Sicily has been a colony. This is not a complaint, it has created a fault in the Sicilian’s character.’

‘Sicily has become worn out and exhausted by this weight. It is because of this that Sicilians crave sleep and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful gifts.’ According to Lampedusa Sicily suffers from an exotic type of sleep illness, which is routed in a sense of self denial and escapism. It is Sicily’s sleep that keeps the society revolving around itself, in a cycle that never wants to be broken.

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Sicilians’ sleep creates a strange sort of limbo, an alternative perspective which is neither part of this life nor the next, but which has more in common with the absence of life rather than its living. ‘All Sicilian self expression even the most violent is really wish fulfilment; their sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, their shooting and knifing a hankering for death, a desire for voluptuous immobility that is for death again, their meditative air is that of a void wanting to scrutinise the enigmas of Nirvana. From this comes the power of certain people, those half awake to cause the dragging of time in Sicily’s artistic and intellectual life; novelties attracting attention when they are dead, incapable of arousing vital currents; from that comes the phenomenon of the constant formation of myths which would be venerable if they were only really ancient, but which are really nothing but sinister attempts to plunge them back into a past that attracts them only because it’s dead.’

Then there are the shaping elements of the natural environment which leave their mark on the Sicilians. Lampedusa comments on how: ‘the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything and even the monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because they were not built by Sicilians and yet surround them like lovely mute ghosts. All those rulers who landed at Sicily, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression, enigmatic works of art and taxes which were spent elsewhere. All these have formed Sicily’s character which has been so conditioned by events outside the population’s control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.’

Sicily’s contrasting elements are reflected by a deep paradox in the Sicilian’s character which comes from the tremendous pride they have for their island. ‘Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery. Every invasion by outsiders whether so by origin or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.’

Sicily has been the perceived jewel of many conquerors who have seen the island’s treasures and have tried to overpower and develop Sicily to fit their own agendas, with no success. ‘How many Moslem imâms, how many of King Roger’s knights how many Swabian scribes, how many Angevin barons, how many jurists of the most catholic King have conceived the same folly and how many Spanish viceroys too. … Sicily wanted to sleep in spite of their invocations; for why should she listen to them if she herself is rich, if she’s wise, if she’s civilised, if she’s honest, if she’s admired and envied by all, if in a word she’s perfect?’

The most authoritative translation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard is translated by Archibald Colquhoun and is available on amazon and now also as an ebook published through Random House.

Be sure to read this great essay about the literary influence of The Leopard titled The Leopard turns 50 written by Rachel Dandy and published in the New York Times on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication in America.

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(Images from Google)

 

Footnotes:

1 Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun. (London: The Folio Society,1988),120.

2 Ibid., 123.

 

Next on Literary Islands, something more contemporary. An interview with travel writer Brian Johnston and his wonderful Summer in Sicily.