Driving Sicily: Why Aren't I Dead Yet?
Standing in a masculine pose at the peak of Mt. Etna, flexing one sagging, pasty bicep contemptuously at those who tremble beneath, I couldn't help but feel relieved that if only for a brief moment, I had escaped the exhausting madness of that most peculiar, irritating, yet extremely entertaining of islands, Sicily.
But, in that most blissful scene of peace and tranquility, as even the maniacal city of Catania beneath managed to emanate a lush, silent radiance of massaging warmth, I could not fully relax. Something was still bugging me.
As I lowered to my knees and dusted the blackened moonscape childlike with my sprawled hands, a nagging shudder came over me once more. This day may have started with a gentle hike up Mother Etna for a romantic picnic in the deafening silence of 3,500 metres with my new wife Demelza, and as enjoyable as that really does sound, the reality of the dire situation ensured that romantic or not, this picnic would have to play second fiddle to a heavy, heavy burden.
It haunted me.
Trying manfully not to screw up my face as another volcanic sulphur Earth-fart (from Etna, not me) seductively tantalised my nasal passage, much in the same way a 70 year old, overweight novelty stripper who doesn't shower might do at a buck's party gone way out of hand, yet another relentless shudder shook me to my very core. The time was drawing near. This was it.
D-Day was growing upon me. The day of judgement. Reckoning. Ground zero. It made me feel sick.
Soon, I would have to drive amid the lunatic Sicilians once more. Soon, perhaps, I would kill us all.
Look, I'm a good driver. A great driver. The best. To take a golden leaf from the Donald Trump compendium of compensation for a shrivelled old man cock, t'ain't nobody on the planet that knows more about driving than me. Nobody. But here's the thing; I'm bad enough simply having to mingle with Italians in normal everyday life. They make me nervous; so short, so temperamental, so dramatic and pinchy. But driving with Italians? Well, stick a fork in me mio amore, this garlic meatball is d-u-n, dun.
What's that you say? What's the big deal? Look buddy, have you ever driven in Italy? Those motherfuckers are nuts! Over the years, I've driven in many countries and in all sorts of conditions, and occasionally I even enjoyed myself. Hell, I even survived driving around El Salvador for 6 weeks with bald tyres and no brakes or headlights in a country full of life-is-cheap-third-world-lunatics in a thirty-year-old 4WD that turned out to be stolen! Dealing with the Salvadorian police on that one was fun. Turns out they don't really take too kindly to receiving bribes after all. But that was mere pollo milaneza shit compared to Italy.
Compared to Italy, driving in El Salvador is like drinking lemonade made by your Maltese grandmother; okay I guess, difficult to consume, functional, but a slightly sour experience nonetheless. I mean Nana, really, are all those lemons absolutely necessary?!
Where was I?
Oh, that's right... Italian drivers are lunatics. But we weren't actually in Italy. We were in Sicily. And there's only one thing on this spinning rock we call Earth that's more flighty, more quick to temper, more aggressive, death-defying and lacking in common sense and decency than an Italian driver, and that's a Sicilian one. As it turns out, many Sicilians, as movie stereotype perpetuates, really are psychotic! At least behind the wheel anyway.
But even inexplicable madness has a history, and one can't help but wonder, if the ghosts of Sicily's driving past might have something to do with my current predicament.
From the early 1900s through to the late 1970s, there existed a motor race called the Targa Florio. It's funny, because in our sugar-cushioned world of barriers and padding and safety elephants, it's quite inconceivable that a car race could be held around an entire island whose charter explicitly states that "safety and common sense are not welcome here." It's true. Look it up... somewhere in the back I think. Anyway, that's exactly what happened on Sicily for the best part of 70 years.
The grand race would start and finish in a small coastal village in the Northern Sicilian province of Palermo called Campofelice, and was only three laps long. But what a three laps! Drivers would whizz around at top speed with little to no regard for self-preservation, while having to contend with wandering wild animals, narrow, unwalled mountain passes, and even bandits on horseback, all while navigating roads and tracks that were constructed prior to the invention of the automobile. Donkeys. The tracks were designed for donkeys. But these men were the men of men. True heroes. I mean look at race drivers today; the odd chicane, a gentle roll from apex to apex in cars that are best served for getting old Dotty to the bingo hall and back in one arthritic, liver-spotted piece. And camber? Get stuffed Lewis Hamilton. Old Sicilian drivers wipe their arses with your precious camber! The worst thing a race driver today must deal with is the odd drunk inbred son of his mother's sister's daughter's father in a Ted Nugent t-shirt and Coors cap lepering onto the track.
That reminds me of a joke: Why did the leper leave the party in a fit of abrupt anger? Because the guests kept mistaking his back for the dip.
Oh, and each lap of the Targa Florio was 92.7 miles.
Wait... this is supposed to be a travel article isn't it? I apologise profusely. Now...
...winding down through Etna's mountain villages, through the Swiss influenced Zafferana Etnea, with its quaint village and abundance of gift shops offering hot, chocolatey treats that just tantalise the naughtiness out of... oh fuck off!
Nicolosi, a tacky little town laying at the foot of Mother Etna, is one fucked up place. It's perplexing in its excruciatingnessability. See that photo at the top of this article? That's Nicolosi. A stop sign and a green light at every intersection. What the hell are you supposed to do there! The first time I encountered this, I sat, bemused and nauseous, for five minutes, scratching my head and arguing with the wife as to what the hell we're supposed to do. The constant tooting emanating from the snake of backed up traffic coming off the mountain gave me my answer; I guess you just close your eyes and go. So, upon the second encounter of this low IQ, amebic lobotomy of a traffic management phenomenon, I very confidently just drove straight through the intersection. The reaction from the locals was, well... I'll put it like this; if I had have waltzed into town, naked but for a codpiece adorned with the Greek flag, and proceeded to gyrate and rub myself on every single young woman in the village with their fathers watching on while I replayed the Roberto Baggio World Cup incident over and over again on a television strapped to my head, I would have received a much more hospitable reaction. So I don't know, stop at the green light? Drive through the stop sign? Who the hell knows?
We hit the A18 and commenced to drive very slowly, like introverted ghosts, around Catania and down to Ortigia. It was then that it hit me. These drivers must be controlled by bodysnatching spirits that once belonged to the killed and maimed competitors of the Targa Florio and are now back wreaking their vengeance on the land that once claimed their original vessels. Pretty obvious when you think about it.
Then I hit a truck. That's right. A truck. Driving in a straight line on the autopista (freeway), at approximately 130km/h, I sideswiped an old red lorry filled to the brim with apples. I saw him, he didn't see me, and in perhaps the tamest, most built for comfort of driving conditions in all of Sicily, I smashed my mirror into the side of a truck. Never in my life have I had a car accident, well once, but hey, I was drunk. That doesn't count. So how did this happen? How could I be driving so carefully, so grandma cautious on a straight bit of road at a pretty manageable speed, and hit a fucking truck? Isn't it obvious? I too had been invaded by the spirits of Targa Florio past, and had lost complete conscious control of all faculties for that brief vortex of a period. That's the thing... who can blame Sicilian motorists for losing all rationale once they get behind the wheel with these evil bastards flying around and entering bodies willy-nilly? Very quickly, I gained a warm, glowing compassion for these poor, brave men and women who take to the autopista every day, and very soon I learnt to just shrug my shoulders and say "Hey, it's Sicily."
Of course the truck driver didn't stop. Why would he? Sicilians always seem to be in the most frenzied of rushes to get to wherever they're going so they can participate in that oh so traditional activity of doing sweet fuck all. God bless that brave man's heroic soul.
Hmm, what else... ah yes! We were ripped off at a tollbooth by a homeless Spanish bag lady. Again, we are experienced travellers and have driven in all sorts of countries under all sorts of ridiculous conditions that could be construed as being far worse than anything Sicily has to dish out, so how the hell did we manage to get ripped off by an old, homeless Spanish woman. Well, I don't want to talk about it. Hey, it's Sicily.
We arrived in Ortigia, nervous, aching for hard liquor, a Negroni perhaps, and we got lost. So lost in fact that we ended up halfway down a laneway somewhere near the water in Ortigia before realising that the car is actually wider than the laneway! Again, what the fuck is wrong with us! Oh yeah, the bodysnatchers. In that instant I forgot how to reverse, and the scrapes and dents that our poor old Hyundai endured are not to be recounted to those with sensitive stomachs. Needless to say, I'm bloody glad that we took out the insurance.
After finding a rather spacious parking lot, and parking nowhere near anything that resembled another vehicle, or anything composed of any form of solid matter, and getting in an argument with another old bag lady who claimed that she was the ticket machine monitor and requires ten Euros from every foreigner, we then ditched the car and walked to the nearest alimentaria to scoff beer and cannoli. Have you ever been yelled at by an old, homeless Sicilian woman before? I've been less scared as a pre-pubescent moisturised boy at a creepy clown, pedophile and Catholic priest convention.
The next day, we returned to our car to find that there were now three new scrapes of two different colours on the front, passenger side quarter panel. What a clever car; managing to get itself into all sorts of bingles overnight while still stationary. Sicily.
This was only day four by the way. Twenty-four to go.
Driving up into the old Greek village, now slut to the oblivious tourist dollar, Taormina, can be quite the comedy show too. The narrow, steep and winding street up the mountain towards the town is the perfect stage for a domestic argument in a white Hyundai, so, ingeniously perhaps, through clenched teeth, we turned the entire escapade into an ironic comedy skit. With Demelza driving, and me navigating (it's one road straight into town, but hey, it's a distraction) we tore up the mountain at three km/h.
"Wall!" "Cow!" "Corner!" "You're drifting!" "Dog!" "Child!" "Old lady!" "Escaped fruit rolling down the hill!"
That's me. Navigating.
Really, life doesn't need to be this difficult.
Now, as Taormina and its outskirts are made up solely of curves, blind corners, and steep hills with limited parking, where do you think we might have parked? Go on, it's easy. On a fucking curve around a blind corner! Are you even listening?! Double and triple checking through a series of reenactments and experiments, we were eventually satisfied that there was no way that anyone was going to run into the car. So we descended to our rather quaint little hostel on the edge of town. The view of Etna was nice. The parking inspectors are not.
The reason for our eighty-nine Euro parking ticket was this: per il parcheggio su una curva. For parking on a curve. I remember the first noise that came out of my mouth upon discovering the saturated ticket sticky-taped to our cracked windscreen. I had never made that sound before, nor have I ever made it since. It was pure, it was natural, it was unforced and completely organic... harrumph. I fucking said harrumph! What the hell was I becoming? Still haven't paid the ticket either.
Those who are ardent fans of the Godfather trilogy obviously develop an active imagination overload when travelling through Sicily. Most of my days were spent trying to work out who was going to whack who and would I need be whacked too, lest I be deemed a wise guy or someone who knows too much. I didn't see nuttin'! I didn't see nuttin'!
So naturally, being Godfather tragics, me and wifey decided to make the pilgrimage to the small town of Corleone, where as it turns out, not too much of the film was actually filmed there at all. This I found disturbing, and I do seem to remember ruminating over the same thought, now I don't believe in nothin' no more!
But fate and destiny has a strange, often cruel, often ridiculous way of dealing its twisted and repeated blows, and this day was no different. You see, we never actually made it to Corleone. Why, you ask? I'm not sure, I mean, what does one do when the road you are driving on simply disappears? I guess it's our own fault really; we probably should have taken the hint about 500 metres back when the car got stuck in a pothole. Or when a farmer actually chased our car down on foot (any more than ten km/h on this road would have been detrimental to everyone concerned) and told us repeatedly not to go any further and to turn back. Or, and this is the big one, when I got out of the car to measure the depth of a water-filled pothole with a large stick only to actually lose said stick in the newly formed puddle/lake. But we forged ahead, we're idiots y'see, until, that is, the road disappeared. I probably should have believed Google maps when it told me that the thirty-five kilometre drive would take five hours.
After twenty-five minutes, a twenty-three point turn (I don't want to talk about it) and four arguments, we eventually managed to turn the car around on the narrow mountain trail, and decided to head back to the southern Sicilian city of Marsala. It took four-hours, three run-ins with packs of feral dogs who most enjoyed trying to puncture our tyres and rip off our plastic bumper, and several hideous thunderstorms to return to the autopista, and when we did, I breathed once more. Momentarily.
One thing I definitely do recommend is the drive from Sciacca to Marsala. Holy crap! The twenty-two kilometre dead-straight piece of road through a perpetually built up area is as hilarious as it is sphincter-clenchingly tense. For twenty-two kilometres, there are consistently spaced crossroads with no traffic lights, no signs and no rules (oh, where for art thou my green light stop sign spiritual guide when thou art most required?) and for twenty-two kilometres, you are riding that brake pedal in much the same way that Donald Trump rides his daughter. Hard, brutal and... I really don't know where I'm going with this.
And to top it all off?! Once we finally arrived in Marsala, in absolute hysterics and beaming with a relieved happiness that precariously masked the fact that after just one week of marriage, all we really wanted to do was kill each other in some sort of bizarre murder/suicide pact, up popped an old fat man in a motorised wheelchair driving down the main road, holding up the traffic behind him and shaking his fist to the skies while cursing. The guy in the truck behind him merely looked on like this was no big deal, but honked his horn repeatedly nonetheless. The wheelchair guy just kept swerving so that no one could pass. Good times.
Finally this; freedom. Freedom has recently redefined itself to mean this:
The state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint from the Targa Florio bodysnatchers on an autopista on the nonsensical Italian island of Sicily:
He won his freedom after driving around Sicily for one month and eventually escaping to the island of Favignana where all there is to contend with on the roads are two donkeys and a rather angry goat.
And it was there my friends, on the incredibly rustic western Sicilian island of Favignana, that my testicles loosened themselves from the grasp of their withered, coin-pursed state, and resumed to swing slow and low, as testicles should, in order to pursue redemption by ways of fulfilling their honeymoon duties... to be locked up in a handbag until required.
Ah beautiful Sicily, I love you, but go fuck yourself.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.