A paradise for people who don’t like people

Legend has it that when God was finished creating the world he was left with a piece of land he didn´t know what to do with, so he created Sicily. The rest of the world envied this island paradise, so to offset the splendor of his most recent creation, God created the Sicilians… and I’ve now realized that this is a true story.

The Sicilians are a bit peculiar, and that´s me being unduly sympathetic. Italians, in general, are in some measures and in my opinion, the Australians of Europe, whom with the exemption of their intermittent very vehement temper, generally couldn´t care less for tiny matters. Sometimes utterly refreshing and sometimes merely blood boiling for a slightly neurotic Swede on tour. The Sicilians however, seem to have taken this relaxed approach to life to a level verging on indifference, which I became associated to on my first night while checking in to my overpriced rented Airbnb apartment in Catania. My landlady who didn`t speak a word of English, let alone wouldn`t let that stop her, took me for a tour around the modest premises while gesticulating wildly about all the need-to-knows and whereabouts. Upon showcasing the bathroom she somehow managed to explain that the toilet didn’t flush, and was not to be used at all. The solution? “Make sure to take care of your needs whenever you’re out and about” she snapped curtly. (And implicitly also not to overhydrate.) I didn`t remember this being highlighted in the online advertisement, but what’s a mere 100 USD a night for a Harry Potter scrub anyway? Sigh.

But apart from its not so snuggly people, Sicily is a true island haven. A place where time seems to pace slower, and where the outside world in a way seems as distant as payday a week after payday. The main city on the east coast, Catania, has a low-key tone free of intensity, and an air of old age with charmingly swarthy facades, balcony gardens and patchworked sidewalks. The seemingly aged city-dwellers are unbothered and unimpressed, in an actually refreshing sense. The vibe is slow, and if you know how to mind yourself, it´s not a bad place to rewind with a pizza in a piazza, and a generously sized beer or three. The tiny city of Taormina however, is in many ways the exact opposite; a bit pretentious, Instagram-friendly picturesque and impossible to drive in. All roads are one way, but that doesn’t stop people from driving in both. The price levels are, much like the city itself, well above sea level. Lots of tourists happy to be away from home, and lots of Sicilians wishing that they would have gone away somewhere else.

My bulky suitcase, which I in a momentarily weak moment bought for the equivalent of two months rent for an apartment in uptown Copenhagen, might very possibly be both bulletproof and fireproof judging from the price I paid for it, but it was definitely not designed to be forced up and down the steep streets of a city built on mountain slopes. And neither was I. I panted as a reached the frugal hotel I’d chosen as a strive to return to moral high grounds after very expensive suitcase purchase. The showerhead was mounted over the toilet, the paint chipping off the walls and the teeny tiny balcony inhabited by a ravening and ferocious-looking lizard family. And there was no hot water either. But the immense rooftop of the hotel somehow managed to make up for it all, giving a splendid outlook over the Mediterranean Sea, which at 6 am laid almost completely still as the first rays of sun glittered on its surface. Sounds and noises charged the atmosphere as the tiny city slowly awakened. Over near deafening birdsong, the hammering of a roof being fixed hundreds of yards away and the waves lapping the shore miles down the slopes intermingled peacefully. People interacting on the street 5 floors down, and cars thrusting up and down the meandering roads along the mountain. A social event worthy of activities, yet at that moment it felt like there wasn’t a more serene place to be. Pause for exhalation.

The Sicilian hinterland offers another form of quietude, with ample fields of chunky lemon trees stretching over a hilly and scorched landscape, dotted by dilapidated country houses and grazing cows. A scenery distant from the weathered cities, under clear skies and framed by rampant and cloud-swathed mountains as far as the eye reaches. Stillness in a way freed from pervasive sounds, all the way from the tourist-infested east coast to the haughty city of Palermo. A city which turns out to have the capital vibe, with aging city-dwellers but a breath and a tone that tries its hardest to keep a young heart. Artisinal and hipster eateries stand out amongst the touristy greasy traps, and old stone buildings seemingly on the brink of collapsing house all the high-end stores of the world. A charming contrast, a bit off-key, yet a world away from polished commercial malls and well-swept shopping arcades in similarly sized cities. No one speaks a word of English, and as inclined as one might be to think how that subsides the risk of anyone bothering you, that’s just not the case. One night I sat down in a bar with my book and my beer, untroubled by the soaring atmosphere around me, minding no one’s but my own business. The chatty and extroverted waiter, like my first landlady, wouldn’t let his limited linguistic skills stop him from sharing his life stories to everyone who cared to listen, and when it was my inevitable turn to be harangued he started by asking where I was from. “Sweden,” I said as if my reluctance to interaction with strangers hadn’t already stated my obvious nationality. “OH,” said the waiter completely ecstatic, and turned around 180 degrees to the next overcrowded table. “They are Swedish too!” making sure to say it so loud they all could hear and turned their heads toward me simultaneously, whilst obviously proud of having grabbed this opportunity to demonstrate his matchmaking skills. I threw a betrayed gaze at the waiter, and a second at my fellow countrymen on the table. “Let’s shut this down before it starts,” said both our looks, and we continued with what our lives had been like 45 seconds earlier. Perhaps I’m sometimes too hard on my countrymen because at times we seem to understand one another just fine. And perhaps there is a tiny Sicilian living inside of me after all, utterly happy to just mind himself.