Sicilian dolce far niente or how to pretend not to work in Southern Italy

Sicilian Decay


Sicilian’s have a bad reputation when it comes to employment, so if you are the competitive type a move to Sicily is not going to better your career. One popular joke describes the typical islander work environment as one Sicilian doing all the work and five others looking on at him. It’s probably truer to say one Sicilian being paid and the others pretending not to do anything but secretly working and getting paid ‘under the table’ as no one can afford the taxes.

There is something about the South, all over the world which inspires a laid back attitude to life coupled with decadence, idleness and corruption. It could be the heat, the poverty or history?

Sicily has always been the most downtrodden, taxed, molested, dominated and trampled part of Italy. If you read anything about the islands history you will be surprised by an endless diatribe of conquests, violent wars, pestilence and persistent subterfuge to most major world powers from the middle ages to modern times. No wonder Sicilian’s are so hedonistic as in their past everything has literally been taken away from them.

Unemployment is a concern throughout the peninsular, many Italians are forced to invent their own jobs. Over the past decade for example there has been a succession of young Italian creatives who have set up online businesses to export their own creativity and creations overseas. Unfortunately thanks to the current economic crisis Italy is experiencing a massive ‘brain drain’ as many brilliant Italian entrepreneurs and students are leaving to work overseas, as many industries are closing down in Italy and moving offshore, tax levels are on the hike and the economy is going in the wrong direction.

My own experience in the Sicilian work environment is almost as long and convoluted as the Sicilian penal code. As a foreigner you will be starting off with a distinct disadvantage and I discovered as an ‘extracomunitaria’, or as someone born out of Europe my academic qualifications and even drivers license are not recognized in Italy.

I cannot tell you how many dead ends I came across while trying to have my degree recognized so I could teach in Sicilian schools or at least continue my studies. Someone told me I’d have to redo my entire degree. One politician said he’d validate everything with his big magic authoritative stamp and even promised me a job as a ‘mother tongue english specialist,’ I’m still waiting on the phone call!

I have long since given up on the academic side of work and as for my drivers license is concerned I will continue renew my ‘International’ one until I find the time to swallow my pride to sit the written and practical tests together with skintight-jeans-wearing, eye-shadow-smeared high school children.

Since coming to Sicily I’ve become a master of odd jobs and doing-all-kinds-of-shite-to make-ends-meet (this title is so on my resume) from: secretary in my husband’s architectural office, translator, interpreter to tutor of unmotivated ‘liceo linguistico’ (language based high schools) who are a special breed of young adults forced to study the likes of Shakespeare, D.H Lawrence and James Joyce in implausible Literature programs when they are unable to string a simple sentence together in English. It is difficult enough to explain the significance Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ monologue to a bored American/English/Canadian or Australian student, but you can imagine the hours of fun doing it all in Italian to a student who is studying English only to make his parents happy, it’s really a barrel of monkeys with much screeching and gesticulating, mostly on my part.

Nowadays my English students have almost disappeared, my work boils down to tricking people into occasionally publishing my articles. I did a little work in the tourist industry over the summer but I prefer to define myself as a writer, blogger and mother. Not the most glamorous situation and pitifully pathetic when it comes to being paid but terribly satisfying on an emotional level.

There is always plenty of work in Sicily but Sicilians have a problem with the payment side of things, so unless I want to get all aggressive like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, yelling ‘show me the money’ down the phone, I tend to avoid confrontations or occasions which will potentially leave me empty pocketed.

Most of my work in Sicily has been either underpaid or not paid at all. That’s not to say there aren’t work opportunities in Italy, there is a huge tourist industry and in the major cities foreigners will find work opportunities in I.T, fashion, language teaching and childcare areas. You’re not going to become a millionaire but you will find a way of making a living to stay in one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, even if this may involve lowering your standards or getting a second job as a waitress or shop assistant to make ends meet.

In small town Sicily, where things are usually much more slow-paced and the time in between work is getting longer, there is nothing to do other than adopt a Sicilian ‘dolce far niente’ approach, an attitude of pleasant idleness, which has become almost a torture for this workaholic expat who keeps slamming her head forcefully into a wall of culture shock, which I always forget to lookout for.

Living in the moment is normal for Sicilians but I worry about my savings, career and future and so these are difficult times for this Unwilling Expat. Sicily is perfect for reflection, writing, history, food and wine and finding stories. Work is not important as life tends to disrupt employment in Sicily.


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!


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.




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 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) flavor 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:
‘Your 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 truck loads 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? Hummm, 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!







So you’re married to a foreigner … an Italian perspective


What’s it like for a Sicilian to be married to a foreigner?

Living in the south of Italy is very much like living in a Middle Eastern country, Sicily isn’t the south of the Italian peninsula but rather a northern state of Africa. Sicilian’s are very traditional and proud of their culture. An islander is foremost a ‘Sicilian’ before they are an Italian. Until a few years ago someone catching the ferry across the strait at Messina to Calabria was greeted with ‘Welcome to Italy’ signage. That is why I have personalized the title of this collective post as marrying a Sicilian was so much more complicated than simply marrying an Italian, it was about being considered a foreigner by the wider community for many years.

There is a Sicilian saying which goes:

Moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi

Literally ‘wives and cattle from your hometown.’ Now you might be going WTF does that mean? Which was exactly my reaction was when my husband uttered this pearl of Sicilian wisdom into my ear. (If you are involved with a Sicilian be prepared for endless bits of folk sayings to come your way, I suggest you do as I do, ignore them or use them as quaint decorations on ceramic tiles.)

So if the saying said to avoid foreigners in marriage unions, why in the hell did my husband marry me? His response is a laconic Sicilian ‘BOH!’ a guttural sound uttered by islanders which means they have no idea.

Something happened deep in the soul of this quiet sensitive typically Sicilian man to make him fall for this opinionated, free spirited and at times short tempered Australian girl. This ‘cow from the other side of the world.’

Choosing to marry me wasn’t the easiest thing for my man G. to do, his close knit family was convinced he’d move away to Australia and they would never see him again. But once they understood I wasn’t the wicked witch of the West and wanted to experience life in Sicily they gradually accepted me.

When we first moved back to Italy after being married in Australia we were the source of local gossip, many thought I wouldn’t last long in small town Sicily, but I’m still here! There’s no secret to it only perseverance and sacrifice.




There are still many compromises and a tug of war still going on. G. puts up with my questioning, challenging and insisting. He has been dragged to the most isolated capital city in the world (Perth, Western Australia which is also my home town), five times over the past decade.

G’s tried and failed with English thanks to a frustrating hearing problem, which has turned me into a screecher over the years.

My Sicilian male is bemused by my need for constant dialogue and can’t understand the idea behind blogging (but I’m thinking this may be a general ‘male’ problem here – apologies to all the male bloggers out there!)

I harbor ambitions which my G. cannot understand, he sulks and says to himself, why aren’t I enough for my wife? You see I’m not your typical Sicilian spouse, who is usually your stay home type. I need to travel, buy books, take photos, connect to the internet, write, be creative and accomplish things. I’m a really ‘shitty’ housewife. I have turned whites into all the colours of the rainbow by forgetting socks in the wash, I can’t iron to save my life and my house is always dusty. Take me or leave me. It seems my husband can’t live without me, go figure!

Despite our differences G. is a steadfast Siculo male who is still in love with his wife, he is proud of how I have inserted myself into his home and holds me as tightly and passionately as ever in his life. G. frustratingly may not say much but subtly supports me and still tells me I’m ‘bellissima’ even if I’ve gained a few kilos over the years.

My Sicilian man reflects his island, he is deep, intense and spell bounding, lets hope the spell lasts forever.






Map of Sicily taken from: The fashion blog Rum and Lace.







E viva San Leone … E musica

San Leone inspired ceramic designs at Longi. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
San Leone inspired ceramic designs at Longi.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello

This year I was fortunate enough to get to San Leone’s ‘festa’ at Longi (20th Feb) which I find is generally more traditional and particular then the one celebrated at Sinagra (even if I love them both!)

I liked the solemn religiosity and playfulness of Longi’s interpretation of this Saint’s celebration. Not only does the procession take the Saint’s statue around the town, it has him dancing to the time of the local brass band. Leone doesn’t move without musical accompaniment, here the catchphrase is ‘Viva Santu Leo … E musica!’

Traditional procession of San Leone, 2014. Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello
Traditional procession of San Leone, 2014.
Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello

The face of San Leone is always the same yet the elaborate decoration gives Longi’s festa a more traditional feel, here he is decorated in flowers, monetary offerings, bells chiming, threaded wheat shafts, golden vestments and the local children adore him too. The procession lasts nearly the whole day from after the late morning church service until four o’clock in the afternoon when he is placed down in the square before the parish church to receive final offerings and salutes from the devout.

Religious procession. Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello
Religious procession.
Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello

During the procession the warmth the locals have to their patron is palpable and it quite frankly gave me goosebumps. A saint’s day in a small town is a particularly special occasion everyone puts on their best face and there is a real sense of pride and religiosity through out the day, it is an exceptional Sicilian tradition.

San Leone of Longi in all of his baroque glory. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
San Leone of Longi in all of his baroque glory.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Children and people casually milling around San Leone. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Children and people casually milling around San Leone.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
A proudly displayed religious relic of San Leone. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello.
A proudly displayed religious relic of San Leone.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello.






For more details on San Leone and other Sicilian saints see my article on Times of Sicily.