19.01.2013 - 19.01.2013 14 °C
We woke up at 4:45 am so we could drop off our lease car, then take a shuttle to the airport to catch a 8:45 am flight to Palermo, Sicily. The reason for the time was directly related to the cost of the flight. Our flights were one third to one half the cost of other flights, so by putting in the effort in we get more money to spend on groceries and, as all you who have been keeping up with our blog know, we love our groceries. Who said travel is all play and no work?
Everything went smoothly and we caught our flight on Blu Express without any problems. We feel like such accomplished travellers. I think there is an expression that “pride cometh before the fall,” but I wasn’t having any of it at that point. Blu Express is one of many budget airlines operating in Europe. It was interesting getting on a 737 where seating was a free for all. There were four stewardesses for a flight that took less than an hour. They took their trolley down the aisle to serve beverages for a price. They went the entire length of the plane and sold only two beverages; hopefully food and beverage sales are not central to their overall financial success.
Our first glimpse of Sicily revealed an incredibly mountainous and rocky island thinly covered in greenery. There was a slightly tropical look to the place, but the clouds and wind revealed that we had not quite escaped winter’s grip even if the temperature was 7 to 8 degrees warmer than Rome. Our car rental is a six speed diesel Ford Mondo station wagon. We needed the size so we could fit our luggage. It is quite a contrast to our Kangoo, which was a bit tubby, short, and weak on acceleration, whereas the Mondo is sleek, long, low to the ground, and powerful in comparison. We gave it a pretty good look over for scrapes and dings and asked the rental company to change a bit of documentation before we headed off. Before getting to our final destination we wanted to take a side trip to Monreale, a noted location for a church and monastery. It was not far away and we would be able to avoid the headache of driving anywhere in Palermo.
I noted to Muriel that despite the fact the car was a station wagon (I really can’t be too image conscious since I am a minivan owner), I preferred it to our underpowered Kangoo. I passed a car in front of me with ease showing the effortless acceleration. Unfortunately, this near poetic demonstration of power was slightly marred by the fact that the burst in acceleration caused our rear door to open up and spill our luggage onto the roadway, instantaneously raising a chorus of honking from the cars behind us. I was surprised how quickly and gracefully I was once again able to access that part of my brain that has language for such occasions. I had assumed someone else had secured the backdoor - more on that later - as we left the rental agency, as I had not packed the car. Nevertheless, I know the driver is ultimately responsible for such details. The sight of Abby’s daypack rolling down the roadway at 60 km/h did not give me much confidence that the laptop within would survive. After she got it back in the car, Abby pulled it out to reveal that she had wrapped the laptop in her blanket before packing it. A cheery Windows start up chime rewarded her foresight. What a close call. Besides a few scrapes on the fabric of our other gear, nothing seemed the worse for wear.
The incident rattled us a bit, but we did see the humour in it. A few minutes later, our GPS was guiding us up some steep hills in a densely inhabited town near Palermo. You may recall that my flattering description of our new car included the word “long.” Yes, it is definitely a four letter word when it comes to urban driving in Europe. At the crest of the next hill there was a 135 degree turn at an intersection that led a few meters further to another intersection, and no real room to make it in. I drove the nose of the car as close to opposite road wall as I could, and then stopped the car in order to put it in reverse so that I could then complete the turn. You will recall that the car has six forward gears. This means that reverse is in the top left position - not that unusual, but a different gear box because of the six forward gears. In our Kangoo the gears were pretty close together, so getting it into reverse took some practice. However, try as I might, it would not go. Rather than stay completely blocking the road on a blind corner at the crest of a hill in the middle of an intersection, which was just a few metres away from a busier one, I asked Muriel and the kids to get out and push the car back so I could then complete the turn in a forward gear. To appreciate the situation fully it is important to recall all the details I have shared so far. I was reaching the crest of a very steep hill when I started my turn, which means that halfway through my turn I was now inclined steeply downhill with the nose of the car just inches from road barrier. There was no way the girls could get the car to budge, let alone propel it backwards up the hill.
As what naturally happens in such circumstances, the cosmos conspired so that everyone in Sicily decided they need to drive this particular stretch of road at this moment. Traffic piled up quickly. However, the sight of three women trying to push the car caused not a cacophony of honking or crescendo of yells, but an explosion of opening car doors. Soon there was a small army of Sicilians pushing our car back up the hill. They were asking in Italian what was wrong with the car. My response brought a surprised look to the men looking in my car window not because of what I said, but as a result of my language - “You’re English?!” It was overwhelmingly evident that this part of Sicily never sees tourists. A couple of fellows did speak English, and understood that the car was new to me and I couldn’t get it into reverse. A fellow who had been driving a scooter was more than happy to investigate and literally lunged through the window, nearly crawling over my lap to investigate. A few experiments and a little Italian discussion revealed that there was a sliding collar on the stick shift that you pull up with your index and middle fingers while putting it into reverse. At that moment, I had a recollection of driving an ancient car sometime in my life that had this same mechanism. But do you think I could access that knowledge in such a situation? Sadly, my memory for colourful language is far superior.
All was good in the world, everyone in the intersection was smiling and happy; not a foul look, word or honk was exchanged in the whole incident. We all inched our cars here and there until everyone could get moving in the appropriate directions. Sicilians are friendly and helpful people. By the look of the street corner, I am sure I was not the first or last person needing to make a three point turn. Others had left their own marks and stories on the retaining wall. However, I am certain I have been the only Canadian who did not know how to get his car in reverse on that corner.
We drove a few minutes further, only to see the maze of roads on our GPS rapidly increase in complexity. It then began to sputter the ominous word “recalculating”. It was clear that we were not where we wanted to be or should be. I hope I am not taxing you too much with my details. As I said earlier, the details are crucial to the full understanding of this tale. Recall the surprise of our helpers when they found out I was “English". It was very clear that we were not in the Monreale we intended to see. This was not an area where tourists ever visit or should chose to tread. We were in a hill community just outside of Palermo that really shouldn’t have had cars in it to begin with, yet was overflowing with them, with many parked along its already narrow streets. The GPS was completely unfamiliar with the terrain, as it suggested we go up streets that were one way or, worse yet, dead ends. We were on our own. Fortunately, I had a couple of months worth of European driving under my belt, so was more familiar with squeezing. So when I encountered a car on the same street going in the opposite direction, I knew that backing up was not necessarily the solution. You slowly drive towards each other so you can truly measure up the situation, and wait until you are nearly abreast of each other to pull in your side mirrors. Then you guide each other in creeping past. As long as you don’t touch enough to scrape off paint, you are not considered too close. I am talking mirrors literally touching and the wall of the building on the other side an inch or two away.
I did this once, and then we took a promising looking street uphill. I did another close squeeze with the mirror pulled in on the driver’s side and the wheels on the passenger side driving over the low step by someone’s front door. Getting past was a short-lived relief. A little further along the road dead-ended, and there was certainly no place to turn around. Squeezing through a street in the forward direction is one thing, but backwards is quite another. Not that Muriel did not have the utmost confidence in my driving abilities, but she was out of the car in a millisecond ringing the buzzer on a building right next to us that had a gate to a tiny parking area for its residents. I spied through my rear view mirror that Abby may have been in the middle of a prayer for deliverance, as her eyes were firmly squeezed shut. Eventually a woman in her seventies (imagine your stereotypical Sicilian widow) was poking her head out of the third story window. Through our gestures she quickly understood what we wanted and was more than happy to oblige, opening the gate with a remote control. I was able to turn around and squeeze through the same obstacle course that I gone through before. I had a few more turns which required me to practice my newly learned reverse skills in order to make it around, and had local pedestrians waving me through with a smile. Our spirits were really buoyed when we saw a sign for Palermo and we were positively ecstatic when we saw a sign that said "autostrada".
All thoughts of Monreale had been erased from our minds at this point, and we just wanted to get to Gioiosa-Marea and our home for the next two nights. It was a two hour drive through at least 20 tunnels, with at least half measuring more than a kilometer in length. Prior to the building of the highway, getting anywhere in Sicily by car must have either taken days or just been plain impossible. It was a nice drive and you could see glimpses of what the place looks like in the sunshine. It was also evident that Sicily is a poor cousin to the mainland in terms of infrastructure and wealth.
We took the off ramp close to our destination and found the tolls to be one-quarter of those on the mainland, which was a pleasant surprise. On our 20 kilometer drive off the highway, we got a good taste of what getting around the coast used to be like. You drive a very curvy stretch of road that clings precariously to the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Even the locals can’t manage faster than 30km/h on these roads. When we arrived in town, we found that the address to our apartment would not show up on our GPS. We were too early for checking in so we couldn’t telephone for directions, thus we looked for a supermarket instead. However, this being Sicily, even the supermarket was closed from 1:30 to 4:00 pm for lunch. We drove around again trying to find San Francisco Street, on which our apartment is located. Eventually, Muriel and Abby got out to scout a few streets and see what they could find. Muriel, one of our two linguistic experts, soon sought out a couple who had no English and was able to get across where we wanted to go. They tried explaining, but it was too complicated so they urged Muriel and Abby to get in their car. They drove to where I was and volunteered to escort us to where we needed to go.
When they came alongside me, I got into my car, started it, and began to follow. They zipped off quite quickly. During my haste to start the car I heard a small pop. The back hatch had opened again. I had discovered the answer to our escaping luggage mystery earlier in the day. The car key is a folding key, something like a jackknife. On the handle part are three buttons taking up the entire surface area of the key. So in opening the key, or using the handle of the key to turn it when starting the car, you run more than a 50 percent chance of pressing one of these buttons. Talk about a design flaw. I will not accept the other explanation of operator error (at least not yet).
After Hannah dashed out and re-secured the back door, we followed our new tour guides to our destination. Scenarios of this really being a kidnapping or abduction by Sicilian Mafia types did briefly cross my mind, but Muriel later told me that she had assessed the situation before stepping into a stranger’s car. Good to their word, our good Samaritans lead us a couple of kilometers out of town to our accommodations perched on the side of a small valley. We were happy to give them a Canadian keychain and pin to remember us by, and said a cheerful goodbye. Once they left, Abby exclaimed that Mom speaks Italian. In that brief car trip Muriel had been able to find out where and how long they had lived in Sicily, and had explained who I was and where I had originally parked. I told you she was one our linguistic experts. All that Italian in just five days in Italy!
We found our new place to be in a scenic locale and our host as friendly as all the other Sicilians we have met so far. We were surprised to have the host’s nine year old nephew on hand to be our translator. The nephew has an American mother, so spoke excellent English. As I said, esthetically our home is great. However, it suffers from the problem of all southern European buildings in the winter, in that they are always cooler than the outside. Even though it was around 15 degrees outside, the inside temperature was closer to ten degrees. It takes a whole lot of heat to make it comfortable. Unfortunately, the air conditioner/heaters in our building are not up to the task. Our host immediately knew there would be a problem and brought us three 1200 watt space heaters. In a two-storey one-bedroom apartment these heaters can’t accomplish the task, as all the tile and stone needs to be warmed. It was to be a chilly evening.
Muriel was very tired from the day, and was sleeping on the sofa bed downstairs by 7:30 pm. Her slumber was so deep that when Hannah had a tumble down the stairs, dropping and breaking a mug on in the process, she only briefly open her eyes. When she saw me dealing with it, she was asleep in an instant. It was a nasty slip on the staircase for Hannah, causing her to bruise her arms and back, and to get a bump on the head. She recovered after a little bit, but that seemed to be the exclamation mark at the end of our first day in Sicily. It was time to go to bed.
We gather that days like today are what cause others to stick with guided bus tours and package vacations. For us, in hindsight of course, we see today as an experience we wouldn’t trade for the world. You take the good with bad, and we wouldn’t have gotten to know the locals half as well if we had eliminated all risk of missteps. We wouldn’t have the stories of close calls and deliverance.