Going from the scene in Malta to the scene in Sicily was like going from breast milk straight to pop rocks. Malta was so kind, so quiet, so gentle, and just familiar and comfortable enough that I could get around without too much planning. Everyone spoke English, the buses made sense (even if the ride was a little wild), people were happy to calmly explain to me which way I needed to go to get to which place. Malta gave me a false sense of security as a solo traveler. And then I got to Sicily.
Everything in Sicily was shocking. The people are over the top enthusiastic about everything (I’ve decided that Sicilian is a ‘fight or fuck’ language, because no matter how boring the conversation topic is it always sounds like people are about to fight each other or have sex with each other, or possibly both I guess?). The produce is like a concentrated, more intense version of anything I’ve ever tasted back home. You will never feel the same way about tomatoes in the United States again after you eat one in Sicily. Someone should’ve warned me. The history is grandiose, full of Greek mythology about Odysseus and Cyclops and Medusa. The traffic is outrageous, don’t ever rent a car without paying extra for FULL COVERAGE insurance here. That’s important. I would estimate that about one in every four cars has a scuffed up bumper. The people are so warm and inviting that it’ll make you grab your purse a little tighter at first because you’re wondering what the catch is. There’s no catch, they’re just super friendly and proud of what their culture has to offer.
But once you get over the initial shock and start aligning yourself with that Sicilian mentality, you’re going to have the most uninhibited, amazing time.
So I’ll start with my first day in Sicily, since the night before when I actually arrived I had gotten quite drunk with the bartender at the airport in Malta and really needed to go to bed by the time I arrived in Catania. My first night was a wash, it barely counts because it was very foggy and the only brain cells that were still functioning were focused on getting me to Agora Hostel. I made it, somehow, and was just drunk enough to sleep through the massive block party that goes on every weekend downstairs from the hostel.
I woke up the next morning and knew immediately that I wanted to find the market. And it didn’t disappoint. I don’t know why, I think because I have this idea in my head that all Italians are painfully chic and always look good, but I got kind of dressed up to go site-seeing that day. Not like a clubbin’ outfit, but I was wearing a little sundress and I put some makeup on my face (I had been a dirty hiker the previous five days and wanted to feel a little bit pretty again).
Woah, if you ever want to feel like the belle of the fricken’ ball, go to the Catania market in a dress. I’ve never been so flattered before in my life. I’m talkin’ free samples being hand-fed to me by handsome Sicilian men, cheese vendors singing operatic style songs to me, and ‘Ciao Bella’ called to me at least every ten steps. I actually feel like kind of an idiot for wearing a dress to the market. Who the hell was I dressing up for? This is not some cute market set up to please tourists, this is a place to buy (very fantastic) groceries plain and simple. These guys are the actual farmers and fishermen that grow, catch and produce this product. But, I’ll be honest, I was giggling and hair flipping my way past every single compliment. I don’t care, I’m not sorry, and I know that they probably shower every solo girl that walks through with the same attention. I felt amazing and I loved every second of it goddammit, I’m just gonna let myself recollect fondly on that compliment shower regardless of how meaningless it was.
So the first lesson Sicily taught me was to take the damn compliment. When someone says ‘Ciao Bella’ or whatever they say, accepting it and loving it doesn’t mean you owe anyone a damn thing. Soak up the compliment, and know that it’s just that instead of scaring yourself or feeling uncomfortable (I’m of course referring to situations that are safe, like a daytime market. Fuck letting anyone scare you, scream and run like hell if your gut tells you to). From my experience at the Catania market and through the touristy sections traveling by myself, nobody follows you or expects anything in return. Just say ‘Ciao’ back, and let yourself feel beautiful and amazing and in the moment 🙂
I then went site-seeing by myself, which usually just entails me wandering around in the area of town that is the most saturated with beautiful buildings and viewpoints, and stumbling upon things that blow my mind as I go. This is fun for me, and I love getting lost, but behind every amazing building in Catania that afternoon, there was an even cooler story that I didn’t know. I’m terrible at this, I just go wandering around and don’t do any research so I have no idea what I’m looking at. Luckily for me, I met a couple locals that night who, in true Sicilian fashion, were very proud of their history and were happy to walk me around and tell me all of the interesting facts about their city.
This is my next lesson, and one that has taken me a long time to learn how to do well. Talk to strangers. I know it goes against everything your parents told you growing up, and I’ll admit that that weird doubt and skepticism of people I don’t know sometimes makes me apprehensive. But I think if you close yourself off and don’t talk to people you miss out on such a huge part of the place that you’re visiting. Just be sure to trust your gut, and if someone is making you uncomfortable don’t be afraid to tell them that and excuse yourself from their company 🙂 When I’m at home you can’t shut me up, I’ll talk to anyone and everyone that wants to. But when I’m traveling by myself I tend to be a lot more guarded and skeptical. I feel like I’m finally starting to figure out how to balance being smart with being friendly and it’s made traveling solo a lot more fun for me.
Another thing these local boys taught me was an important lesson at dinner. I was told that I absolutely HAD to order pasta. Both of these guys agreed that if there’s a day in your life that you don’t eat pasta, you’ve had a bad day. Like these guys were genuinely concerned that I hadn’t had pasta yet that day. And these guys were both doctors! They didn’t seem concerned at all about the calories, and who am I to question the health advice of two doctors (that were also feeding me loads of alcohol). I ordered pasta col pesce (pasta with fish) and I don’t regret a single one of the perfectly cooked pieces of homemade, hand rolled pasta that I ate that night. So, especially when you’re in Sicily, eat the pasta.
I learned so much from these two goofy Sicilian guys, who were probably just trying to have a guys’ night out until they saw me and my little tourist map at the table next to them. A few glasses of wine and a few shots later, and we were all walking around in the streets talking about this statue and that building and the stories behind them. After dinner and of course more wine and more shots they went downtown to try to find some weed, and I went back to my room above the noisy block party to not get some sleep.
The one thing I knew I wanted to see in Catania was Mt. Etna. The highest and most active volcano in Europe, this temperamental mountain had just erupted two days prior to my visit. For this reason, you absolutely have to have a guide if you want to go up to the summit. It’s crazy enough to want to climb up to something like an extremely active volcano, but then I thought about the people who live in the towns on the way up to the hiking area. My guide told me that this volcano erupts twenty-something times a year, so why in the world are there still people living up there?!
He told me that first of all, all of that volcanic soil makes the land extremely rich in minerals. Everything that Sicilians love grows up there (pistachios, grapes, olives, lemons, oranges, etc etc etc). So for them, the benefits of all of that amazing food and wine far outweigh the occasional eruption.
But then he told me something else that made me kind of rethink the idea of living next to a highly active volcano. “We don’t worry about next year. We worry about today, and maybe tomorrow and this is how we are able to live happily so close to this volcano,” he said with a smile. Live for today people, and find a way to enjoy it! Odds are you have less to worry about on a daily basis than the guy living on the most active volcano in Europe, and he seemed like a pretty happy guy (might’ve been the wine though).
After Catania, I headed to Palermo. That city was even more chaotic and busy, so it’s good I had my Sicilian introduction in Catania first. The markets there were amazing too and I of course had to have some pasta on my first day after the lesson my new friends had taught me.
The next day I headed to Agrigento to see the amazing Valley of Temples. I had been really excited for this place ever since I decided I was going to Sicily, and it didn’t disappoint. Shockingly intact Greek temples dating back to almost 450 BC and perfect blue skies, the whole day was incredible. Although it was slightly over run with school groups of teenagers that obviously didn’t care about what they were looking at, I still thought it was absolutely amazing.
But this was my first real experience with the public transportation in Sicily, and let me tell you it really is not great. First of all, you can’t buy your bus tickets on the bus, you have to buy them ahead of time at a nearby kiosk or tobacco shop or convenience store. You then take that ticket to the bus stop and validate it on the bus. So confusing. Anyways, I managed to figure out how to get myself from the train station in Agrigento to the Greek temples, but when I was done seeing everything I stood at the bus stop for a long time trying to get back. To the point that I thought I was going to have to walk my ass back up the hill for at least an hour to get back.
I stood there and stood there and the bus never came. Finally, as I was about to give up and start my walk, a cab driver pulled up and told me to get in.
“Hey, where are you trying to go?”
“Errmm…the train station.”
“Ok, just hop in.”
“I can’t afford you sir, and I already bought my return ticket at that kiosk this morning.”
“You can ride for free, I’m going that way anyways.”
*confused, blank stare*
“I’m just trying to help you, get in.”
And I did and everything was fine. I mean I think the other three people that had actually called for and paid for the cab were a little confused as to why I was in the front seat. Carmelo (the driver) just yelled back at them that I was his friend and I would be riding with them today, but none of them spoke English or Italian so they just stared at me and smiled.
So my last lesson is to take the freebie. I still have no idea why that man decided to help me out, but if he hadn’t I either would have stood at that bus stop for God knows how long or I would have tried to walk along the highway and hopefully eventually would have found the train station (also not safe). As long as you confirm that they really are just trying to do a nice thing, and as long as it feels safe, go for it. People are not always kind and generous and helpful, so when they are accept it and say thank you because it can be an extremely rare thing to find.
Sicily was a bit of a shock at first, but when I’m traveling I’m not necessarily looking for comfort. I’m looking for new experiences, I want my mind to be blown, I want to be shocked and awed, I want to take something away from the place that I’ve visited or in this case leave something behind. All these little apprehensions I usually carry around inside were shaken right out of me by Sicily. And I was happy to shed them and leave them where they fell, at the street market and at the dinner table with new friends and on top of Mt. Etna and in that taxi in Agrigento. Traveling lighter has taken on a new meaning for me after Sicily and now that I’m on the move again I’m lovin’ it.