‘It takes balls to live in Sicily’
Running a restaurant here, I was just my husband’s wife, a role mapped out by codes I failed to understand
Sicily. What are you thinking? Sun-drenched beaches and rugged scenery? Or criminal undercurrents and coppola -wearing old men with more political power than teeth? Sicily is all of this, and more, but it has taken me years to find my place here.
I first came to Sicily 10 years ago, from Tuscany, with an English friend. The island’s west coast was still off the beaten track, and every bus or train journey took a day. In remote, rundown Selinunte, where an ancient Greek city stood, on the southern coast, the owner of our B&B was delighted to see two foreign girls at the end of the season.
He brought his guests to a different destination every evening, accompanied by ageing male friends who were home for the summer. My friend and I were the entertainment. It was fun being cooked for by these timeworn philanderers with pot bellies, whose jokes and stories flowed freely.
Five years later I was living in Sicily, in my husband’s home town – a place not quite as remote as Selinunte but provincial nonetheless. We had returned from living in the Amazon with plans to relaunch the flagging family trattoria, Pachamama, with tapas and tales of our travels.
For the first two years of running the restaurant I was known simply as the wife of Salvatore, my nationality given as Spanish, Brazilian or just foreign, depending on the customer.
No one knew where I came from or who I was, and no one asked. They didn’t know my family background, and could judge me only on my Italian, which faltered when met with such distrust.
I imagined the situation in reverse: in Ireland everyone would want to know my husband. Curiosity about the visitor would have made him welcome. I had travelled from Canada to Brazil, Italy to Norway, Andalusia to the US, but never did I have such difficulty making friends.
The difference, I suspected, was that previously I had travelled alone and created my life from scratch. Here I inherited a family, a restaurant, a set of friends and a role: my husband’s wife, a role mapped out by Sicilian codes I failed to understand.
I grappled with chauvinism. No one accepted me as a manager of the restaurant. Stereotypes were heaped on me: You foreigners do this . . . You north Europeans think that . . .
Several years later things are different. In becoming an English teacher I gained the respect that accompanies the title professore .
A sea change in attitudes came, too, once the bump was visible when I was pregnant with my son: cars stopped at pedestrian crossings; I got served first in bars instead of being elbowed out of the way; grumpy neighbours smiled at me instead of spying from behind shutters.
The restaurant survives – and now serves more Mediterranean food to satisfy the locals. I’ve learned about Sicilian history and literature. I’ve found similarities and important differences between our islands. I know where the distrust comes from now and have learned not to underestimate a Sicilian’s pride – and to keep my ironic humour to myself.
I love it and I hate it with a passion.
I love the sense of time – for a leisurely lunch, a gelato, a stroll along the marina – and Sicilians’ ability to live in the moment, propelled by their fatalism. I love the timelessness: if you can see past the rubbish piles and avoid the dog poo, the architecture is incredible and varied.
And I love the indomitable spirit of the Sicilians, their anarchy in the face of authority a vestige of centuries of foreign domination and maladministration.
Sicily is as infuriating as it is inspiring. It takes balls to live here – for Sicilians, too, but especially for foreigners.
Bronagh’s first novel, Water Will Find its Way is self-published on Amazon. Her second novel is set in Sicily. See Bronaghslevin.com or siciliandiary.blogspot.it, or drop in for oms Sicilan fare at Pachamama, near the castle in Milazzo.