Living in Sicily: First Impressions


Enjoying a cappuccino on Corso Italia in Catania

What is it like to live in Sicily? Having recently moved to this beautiful island situated at the big toe of Italy’s boot, my friends and family have been asking me this question. I've traveled to Italy a number of times previously, so I have experience with the culture and I can speak ‘un poco Italiano’. But there are things you learn when you live in a place that are different than what you experience as a traveler. So I thought I would share my first impressions, and a few lessons I’ve learned so far.


The most important thing I’ve learned is that life is slow here, and to me that is a beautiful thing. When you come here, it’s like you’ve pressed the pause button on the craziness of life. Sometimes when life is moving so fast, you don’t notice all the amazing things around you. But here, they know what is most important, and they take pride in it. Fresh food made with local products from open air markets. Drinking a cappuccino at a street side cafe, enjoying meals with friends, and taking a daily riposo. Food, wine, and friendship…the necessities of life. La dolce vita.


Fresh produce heaven at this street market in Catania

Driving

Now, when I said everything moves more slowly here, that does not include driving. Driving here is as wild as you imagine it might be, with the crazy turned up juuuuuust a little bit more. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about driving in Sicily.


1. Speed

When driving in Sicily, there are two speeds. Fast. and Slow. The people here don’t really seem to care which category you fall into, just decide which one you are and commit to it. If you drive slow, stay as far to the right as you possibly can without hitting anything. This is so the fast people can pass you. Yes, people will pass you even when there is only one lane going in each direction! The middle of the road is used by people going in both directions for passing.

On two lane roads the middle "lane" is used for passing!
This car had to swerve back into the right lane to avoid getting smashed by the construction truck!

On highways and other roads with more than two lanes, ALWAYS drive in the right lane unless you are passing. This is a law! Think of the left lane like the Fast Pass line at Disney. You should only drive in it for the purpose of passing. If you’re brave enough to be one of the fast people, always pass on the left, but with caution. Especially if you are driving on a two lane road. You are taking your life in your hands; passing can sometimes be like a real life game of chicken.

2. Signs


Road signs in Italy will tell you everything you need to know. The problem is that there are SO many of them! They can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to read them. Different colors and shapes mean different things. Circles usually tell you about a regulation or limit, while triangles warn you of dangers or hazards.


Speed Limits and No Passing Zones are always shown in red circles
The top sign warns of a bumpy road ahead. An exclamation mark means to watch out for something, in this case trees along the quayside (riverbank)
Watch out for heavy traffic ahead!
Cows in the road?

Spoiler alert! Just because a sign is posted does NOT mean people are going to do what it says. For example, speed limits, no passing, stop and yield all seem to be optional. I always drive assuming people are not going to follow the rules, that way I'm pleasantly surprised when they do.

Another general rule is that red signs usually tell you what you CAN'T do, and blue signs tell you what you CAN do.


The red circle with the white line means Do Not Enter, while the blue circle with the arrow shows you where you ARE allowed to enter. I love it when the two signs are in the same place...

Huh?

The last thing I’ve learned about road signs is that when you are navigating, looking for an exit, or deciding which way to turn at a crossroads, there will not always be a street name, highway name, or even a highway number. Most often, there will be signs pointing in the direction of different towns or cities. So you have to know which towns to drive through in order to get to where you are going.


Where am I going again?

I’m sure I’ll get used to this once I learn the area, but when you’re taking a road trip it can be a little confusing, especially if you have to drive through 5 different small towns to get where you are headed!


3. Parking


Speaking of using different colors to indicate what you can and can’t do, this goes for parking as well. When looking for a place to park, I’ve learned to look at the colors of the lines painted on the side of the street. White lines mean you can park there and it’s free. Yellow lines mean no parking, or restricted parking such as for people with disabilities. The picture below on the left has white lines where cars are parked, but notice there is no one parked where the yellow line is. Circular shaped street signs with blue and red lines will also tell you if there are limitations for stopping on either side of the street.


The diagonal line means you can't stop on the right side of the street
The crossed lines mean no stopping on either side of the street

Blue lines painted on the street mean it is a paid parking area. Usually with blue lines, there will also be a sign posting the cost, as well as which times are paid and which are free. They will also list whether you can pay for parking with a mobile app. When I use a mobile app, I take a piece of paper and write the name of the app I used and place it on the dash where it can be seen through the windshield.


Parking sign in Catania, Sicily

This sign shows it is a paid parking zone that will cost .87 Euro per hour on work days (indicated by the little crossed hammers), between the hours of 8:30 am and 1:30 pm, and from 3:00 pm to 8:00 p.m. Parking is free outside of those hours on work days, as well as on Sundays.


This sign also indicates that the mobile parking app DropTicket is available to use for this particular zone. If there isn’t a parking app indicated on the sign, look for a machine. You’ll have to pay at the machine in order to get a ticket to place on your dashboard so you don’t get a ticket. You do NOT want an Italian parking ticket. They will take your house, your retirement, and your first born child!

4. Honking


Honking in Sicily doesn’t necessarily mean people are angry. Italians in general are very passionate and expressive people, and this comes through in their driving. Thus, the honking. It’s simply a form of communication, and can have a variety of different meanings.


Some instances where I’ve seen it used are for questions like “May I come through?”, “Why aren’t you going?”, or “Why are you stopping?”. Not angry, just to the point.


Honking can also be used for warnings such as “Watch out, here I come!” or “You can’t go that way.” We've experienced the second one multiple times. Refer back to us learning to look for signs that tell you where you can and can't drive.


And finally, the length and number of a honk has different meanings as well. A short honk can mean “Thank you” or “Excuse me”, while a long honk usually means you’ve done something wrong. In this case, you can interpret the long honk as whatever string of bad words you deem appropriate.


Finally, we have the repeated honks. This typically means “Come outside and move your car.” This one hasn’t been directed at us, but it’s important to know in case someone else blocks a road or parks you in while they run into a store or cafe. Just honk your horn repeatedly until they come out. They'll smile, wave at you, and be on their way.

5. Roundabouts


Roundabouts are a completely new animal for those of us from the United States. They can be confusing, intimidating, and immediately bring to mind images of Chevy Chase driving in endless circles around Big Ben and Parliament.


Roundabouts are not for the faint of heart!

This is what I’ve learned about roundabouts so far. Don't be scared, just jump on in there and give it a go. Give the right of way to people who are already in the roundabout. Don’t change lanes. Stay on the right to exit. And for the love of all things holy do not stop in a roundabout! If you miss your exit you can always go around again. And again. Roundabouts are not for the faint of heart. You need to have nerves of steel and confidence in yourself. If not, the other drivers will smell your fear and prey on it.


6. Mopeds and Motorcycles


There isn't much to learn here. Only to always be on the lookout. Apparently mopeds and motorcycles don’t have to follow any rules.


Mopeds and Motorcycles drive by their own rules in Sicily

As in the rest of Italy, mopeds and motorcycles can pretty much do whatever they want, including driving between cars, on shoulders, and down the middle of the road.


They will also come around and pull in front of you while you are waiting at a red light. There aren't many traffic lights here, but when there are you will see mopeds and motorcycles lined up between the lines of cars, on the center line, AND in a pack in front of all the cars that have already been waiting. There's no use getting angry, just go with it.



Food and Drinks


1. Counter service


A lot of the meals I've had here so far have been at places that have counter service. When I say counter service, I’m referring to places that you can either sit outside and order, or go up to the counter to order. If you want to sit at a table to eat, you need to sit down at the table first and place your order with the server. When doing this, usually catch the eye of a server and ask if you can sit. The answer will always be "of course", but it's still nice to ask. If you want to take the food away, then you order at the counter. Sometimes you can eat your pastry or drink your coffee right there at the counter.


Cappuccino and a ricotta filled pastry at a coffee bar in Caltagirone, Sicily

Small town Sicilian "Bar" in Forza d'Agro

In the U.S, we are used to calling these cafes, but they are usually called bars here. Not to be confused with the bars you go to at night for drinking, which are usually called pubs or clubs.


At cafes, or what I like to call “daytime bars”, you can get coffees and sweet pastries in the morning, then sandwiches and either small plate lunches or savory pastries in the afternoon. At some places you can also get gelato, granita, and/or afternoon cocktails. Refer to rule number three and four regarding coffee and cocktails.

At some counter service bars, you place your order and pay at a cashier, then take a ticket over to the counter to collect your food and drinks. This has been confusing for me because I don’t know how to tell what to do first, and I don’t speak enough Italian to ask. What I have figured out is that places where you have to pay first are usually in big cities, at popular or very busy places, or at highway service stations and airports. It seems like anywhere that gets very crowded uses this system to bring order and make sure no one leaves without paying. If I’m not sure, I usually just step to the side and watch what everyone else is doing before making a move.


Auto Grille Cafes have full service coffee bars and yummy pastries, but you usually have to pay a cashier first, then take your ticket to the coffee bar to get your drink


2. Pasta


The number one rule I’ve learned about pasta is that it should be eaten at least once a day, either for lunch or as a first course at dinner. One of my new Italian friends told me, "a day without pasta is a day lost”. I have no problem with this rule, but my waistline may regret it later.


Twisted pasta with fresh caught Bream at Playa Sole Luna in Mazzeo

3. Rules for Drinking Coffee


Yes, there are rules about drinking coffee. I’ve done extensive research and asked a lot of questions in order to get clarification. On a previous vacation, I once tried to order a cappuccino after lunch and was told that was not possible. Not that they didn't serve cappuccino, just that I wasn't allowed to order it after lunch. Now that I’m living here, I need to know the rules so I can follow them. Here they are:

Cappuccino at a bar on Corso Italia in Catania

Let's start with the cappuccino. This tasty cup of liquid heaven can be enjoyed with breakfast, before noon, OR for social occasions when it is not associated with a meal. For example, I can meet a friend for a cappuccino at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as long as we are not eating lunch or dinner. I think it has something to do with the size of the drink, because of the next rule.


An American coffee is ok at any time of the day. It is also the largest coffee drink allowed after a meal. Refer back to the cappuccino rule. Let me clarify by saying this is for an Italian sized version of an American coffee. We’re not talking about a venti mocha latte here.


Typical Italian espresso served after a meal

Espresso is in a category all by itself. It is always allowed, as there is never a bad time for an espresso! My new favorite Italian saying is “Chi dice no ad un’ espresso?” Who can say no to an espresso??

4. Rules for Drinking Wine and Cocktails


In general, you can always drink wine, and the more the better! I mean, we are in Italy, right? I’ve even found that breakfast and brunch cocktails on weekends are a thing here. I think brunch cocktails are one of the greatest inventions of our time. That being said, there are still some basic rules I’ve discovered about drinking here.


Acceptable wine drinking hours seem to coincide with the end of cappuccino time. When you can no longer have a cappuccino with a meal, not to worry, you can have wine, prosecco, or a cocktail! Luckily, the same rules apply to dinking wine and cocktails on social occasions not associated a meal. Those are always allowed! Concerning drinks at meals, the only limitation I've found is what KIND of drink is appropriate for various times of a meal.

A Prosecco or Aperol Spritz are a perfect apperitivo

Before a meal, you should order prosecco, wine, a spritz, or another type of aperitivo. Aperitivo is a fancy name for a drink served before a meal, which is intended to stimulate the appetite. Like we need anything to convince us to eat here?


During meals, wine is always encouraged. Most people don’t get snooty about whether you order red or white, but there are rules for which type of wine to drink with different dishes. I’m not an expert in this area, but a very basic rule I try to follow is that red wine goes best with red meat and red sauce, and white wine is best with white meats, fish, and white sauces. One final note. If you want water with your meal, you usually have to ask for it, either naturale or frizzante.

What do you drink after dinner? More wine, obviously! Another option is a digestivo, or an after dinner cocktail typically drank to aid in digestion. Just don’t try to order a spritz after your meal, those are only allowed before meals. Don’t limit yourself to what you’re used to having. Try something new and embrace the variety. It’s the spice of life!

Communication

Many younger people in Sicily speak English, especially those who work in bigger cities, tourist areas, or cafes and restaurants. However, a lot of older people do not. That being said, I have not had a negative experience because of this yet. Sicilians are some of the most friendly, welcoming, and genuinely nice people I have ever met. We either figure out a way to speak a combination of broken English and Italian, or we pull out the google translate app on our phone. They appreciate you making an attempt to speak their language, even it you butcher it. Which in that case, we all get a good laugh out of it. A smile and a laugh go a long way! It’s amazing how much you can communicate with hand gestures.


Speaking of hand gestures, one of my favorite parts about living in Italy is watching people when they speak Italian. First of all, the Italian language is beautiful to listen to, and I could listen all day long without having a clue about what is being said. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, people here are very passionate and expressive about everything they do. Hand gestures, facial expressions, even shoulder positions are a natural part of conversation! Sometimes, a hand gesture or head nod is all that is needed to answer a question. I’ve even seen people on the phone STILL using hand gestures…like the person on the other end can see them. I love it!


Life in Sicily is different. But that’s the beauty of the experience! If I wanted everything to stay the same, I wouldn’t have moved here. As in everything else, I’ve learned to be open to new experiences, new tastes, and new people. The world is a big place, and I’m loving this new little corner I’m calling home.

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