This is probably the first in a series of Driving in Palermo posts. It is a subject about which there is much to discuss.
Everything that people tell you about driving in Palermo is true. It is chaotic. Drivers don’t exactly follow the rules. Parking is atrocious. There is occasionally some pretty heavy traffic, and almost everyone is angry behind the wheel.
All that being said, I do love driving in this city.
Almost all the cars here are beaten up. I once was told that scratches and bumps on cars where called “Neapolitan kisses”, but I think that “Palermitan hugs” would be better. My car was in my care for barely a week before someone scratched it when trying to park next to it. Prissy car owners need not even bother here.
You don’t really need a car for a trip to Palermo, as you can get around fairly easily by foot. But many visitors have a rental car as they then go on to explore the rest of the island.
If you do choose to drive in Palermo, my advice is as follows:
- stay calm
- forget the highway code as you know it – driving here is more intuitive
- keep your eyes open at all times, and if possibile grow another pair of eyes before signing the rental agreement
- watch out for scooters
- ignore the honks, shouting and swearing from other drivers
I tell you from experience that once you have completed your first journey in the car in Palermo you will feel on top of the world. So park the car as soon as you can and go and enjoy an aperitivo – you deserve it!
Today is the feast day of Santa Lucia.
She’s the patron saint of Siracusa. There, they celebrate with a beautiful procession, the statue of the martyred saint being paraded through the streets of Ortigia.
Here in Palermo, however, things are slightly different. As ever.
Santa Lucia is maybe one of the favourite saint days in Palermo. But not for any religious reason.
According to the story, the people of Siracusa were saved from a famine by the saint sending ships of grain. The people were so happy that they ate the grain whole. So, according to tradition on the 13th December, no processed grain should be eaten. That means no pasta or bread.
What’s a hungry Palermitano to do?
The city erupts in a celebration of arancine. These fried rice balls are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner (by some). Offices get them delivered for their staff. The smell of frying oil surrounds us. Post-lunch siestas should be mandatory (I speak from experience).
Palermitani love Santa Lucia as it means they can indulge in one of the tastiest snacks around, with no shame; in honour of a saint, no less!
In my three years in Palermo, I have never spent Christmas here. The lure of my grandmother’s Christmas feast, log fires, and pints of beer in the pub is too much for me. I always fly home.
So truthfully, I can’t really say anything about Christmas proper here in Palermo.
However, I can tell you about the build up.
It starts on the evening on 7th December. Everyone is at home, playing cards and eating sfincione.
And so the season begins.
The 8th December is a national holiday in Italy- the Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione. Offices are closed (although shops are open for the all important purchasing of presents) and local spend time with family and friends.
There’s a procession (when isn’t there a procession in Palermo!), with a statue of the Madonna leaving San Francesco church and making her way to San Domenico. Here, firemen place flowers on top of the statue. I cried the first time I saw it. Although I must admit that it was probably more atmospheric when a ladder was used, rather than a fire engine!
From now until Christmas Eve, Palermitani are in holiday mode. Cards are played in continuation. Eating is mandatory. Aperitivos are rife.
One day maybe I will experience Christmas itself. But not this year. Not yet.
I’ve got potatoes to scrub back home and a grandmother who needs her annual panettone. Maybe this year I will get her one with a nativity scene made of white chocolate
Buona Festa a tutti!
The air is accented with the scent of cooking onions, ripe fruit and the impenetrable local dialect. I am in Ballarò. Scooters brush past my legs, hot and smelling of petrol. I could buy whatever I wanted here: electric fans, coffee machines, knock off watches, shower heads. As well as fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and dried goods. Dirty hands wrap onions in paper, throw fish guts into boxes on the floor and take cash happily.
But I have discovered another side to this market. One that isn’t obvious. Nor is it mentioned in the guidebooks. Or at least not the ones I have seen. A hidden world. Yes. You have guessed it. The world of eyebrow management.
With the sun beating down sunglasses were – don’t forget we are in Italy – obligatory. Having jumped wholeheartedly into this aspect of Italian culture my sunglasses were large and dark. I am essentially just a chin and a big head of hair these days.
The young guy – perhaps the grandson of the two old fellers who run the vegetable stall – approached, asking what I wanted. For a while I was engrossed in what sort of tomatoes I should buy and then I looked up. And it dawned on me. He tended to his eyebrows more carefully that I. Wow. Thank heavens for the ridiculous sunglasses. The blood drained from my face as I realised I am letting myself go. Past 30 and not giving a damn. My cheeks burned. My bushy brows tingled. I paid and left, heart a flutter. My eyebrows would have fluttered too, and for once I was grateful for Palermo’s heavy, breezeless air.
While walking home I took stock. I saw that in fact all of the young men in the area had immaculate brows. Shamed, I threw myself into the nearest cosmetics shop and bought some tweezers. A new regime, I promised myself. A new beginning. Let the youth of Ballarò be my style guide from now on!
Needless to say, the new tweezers are still unwrapped, sitting by my sink. I am 30 and don’t give a damn. And I have soup to make.
Since the start, Palermo welcomed me into its hungry, chaotic and utterly charming arms in a way that has taken me completely by surprise.
Accompanied by potent glasses of gin and tonic, which have gradually transformed into the far more Sicilian Negroni Sbagliato, bad Italian grammar and an English dress sense that now has some serious Sicilian accents, I have met the kindest people, made some cracking friends, been exasperated by the Palermitani’s love of walking slowly and have fallen in love with this irresistible city. Oh, and obviously I have eaten rather a lot of outrageous Sicilian food.
So. Palermo and me. We’re definitely past flirting. This is a long-term relationship.