The Sicilian Art of Arranging Yourself

Have you ever wondered how you’d cope if you were stranded in the wilderness with nothing useful at all? Tom Hanks in “Castaway” lived on a desert island for several years, using an ice-skate as a multi-purpose cutting tool, part of a heinously tasteless party dress as a fishing net, and a football with a face painted on as a friend.

Tom Hanks, looking rather hirsute as a castaway: apparently ice skates don’t make ideal hairdresssing implements

Sometimes I randomly select three absurd items and fantasise about how I could adapt them for survival. This is just daydreaming to pass the time during insufferably boring situations, such as having my hair dyed the colour that it already is. (OK, I have a few white strands and don’t feel ready to grow old gracefully just yet.)

Sicilians must spend their every waking hour engaged in this kind of fantasy. I know this not only because they are such bad drivers that their minds must, clearly, be somewhere else completely, but also because I keep seeing them improvise stuff that the rest of us could never dream of.

Sicilians call this l’arte dell’arrangiarsi. This literally means “the art of arranging yourself,” but if you want to know what it really means, I’ll have to give you examples.

Once, my father-in-law was in a shop when a woman came in asking for a gazebo. Sicilians planning to spend their summer holiday on the beach put these up so they can eat their lunch in the shade and prevent their babies from getting skin cancer.

A gazebo: click on the photo to buy it online
An Italian gazebo, available to order: click on the photo to buy it online

“They’ve all sold out, I’m afraid,” this lady was told.

“Well in that case, give me seven packets of black bin liners, all those garden canes in that bin over there, and three rolls of sticky tape,” she answered without hesitation. “I’ll arrange myself.”

bin liners
A Sicilian gazebo, ready to be erected: Buy it in any supermarket

Later that day, Daddy-in-law spotted a grandiose, black, plasticky erection on the beach. It was made out of an uncountable number of black bin liners, sticky tape and… yes indeed, the whole thing was supported by a framework of interlinked garden canes. It was… drumroll….. a gazebo!

“Was it fairly well made?” I asked him, incredulous.

“All the shop-bought ones were blowing away, and I saw the canvas tearing off a few of them because the Scirocco was blowing strongly,” he answered, “but her one looked rock solid. She was under it with about twelve children and fourteen other adults. They were having pasta al forno.”

That lady definitely knew how to “arrange herself.”

I think she was rather a novice compared to my brother-in-law, though. One day, we went with about twenty members of Hubby’s family into a beautiful forest up in the mountains, to have a barbecue. There is a clearing with wooden picnic tables and stone-built barbecues for this very purpose, but sadly everyone else in Palermo seemed to have had the same idea as us, for it was packed.

“Oh dear. We’ll never find three tables close together,” commented The Godmother, my mother-in-law, as she staggered up a dusty path with about seven cool-bags full of raw sausages, steaks, dead chickens, a turkey, a fleet of octopi and a couple of buffaloes.

“You’re right,” I agreed, following her with a bag containing half a field of artichokes and about three trees worth of lemons on my back.

Whilst we walked along, my brother-in-law spotted a length of blue rope lying on the ground, and like a good, nature-repecting citizen he picked it up, no doubt to put it in the bin when we found one. He picked up a few fallen branches as well. Then he gathered more rope. All this whilst also carrying his little boy, and folding chair, and a vast bag of fish, prawns and a few million sea urchins.

When we reached an empty space with one picnic table in it, he erected this sideboard buffet table in about two minutes:

My brother-in-law, the master cabinetmaker

We used it to set out all the cooked food, and he even lay down on it afterwards as a hammock.

Even he was unambitious compared to the people who built themselves a holiday home on my local beach, though. It was there all summer, and everyone in the village took to calling it “Buckingham Palace” after a while.

They had a gazebo-and-tent complex, all interlinked. It included a dining room with their wooden dining table from home, and their dresser, complete with ketchup and a range of other condiments in it as well as all the family china. There were no less than three barbecues for cooking, two for meat and veg and one upon which they propped the coffee pot and saucepans of milk for the children.

Next to this was the children’s bedroom area, with curtains for privacy, and beside this they had a chemical toilet with an “occupied” sign for when they did not want to be disturbed.

Of course, people who holiday in five-star accomodation don’t always want to bathe in the sea, sometimes they want their own private pool. The (paddling) pool was near the edge of the sea to maximise on the glamorous view. They had dug up some of the succulentplants that naturally grow out of the sand on some Sicilian beaches and re-planted them around the pool, to give it that touch of class and exclusivity.

The thing I found most impressive of all was the way they created their own pizza oven in a hole that happened to have occured naturally in one of the cliffs to one side of the beach. They gathered driftwood, dried it in the sun, then lit a fire in the back of their “pizza oven” and slotted their pizzas in. I think they were even beaking fresh bread each morning in there. They were certainly catching fish each day and cooking that up nicely.

Of course, an arrangement as grandiose as this could not possibly have just one storey. Oh no, they had an upstairs, accesible via the staircase from the carpark to the beach. This was usually their delivery lorry. It opened amply on one side for them to get the bread out, but it was, for the duration of their summer vacation, the master bedroom area, stocked with mattresses, sheets and even a nightlight and music centre connected to the car battery.

One day I arrived on the beach very early and I spotted the mistress of The Buckingham Palace Summer Residence – Her Majesty, so to speak – having a shampoo in a little angle of sea sheltered by a rocky outcrop.

“Can you give me the washing up liquid?” she shouted out to her husband, “I’ve run out of shampoo!”

Even with toiletries, she knew how to arrange herself.

The Royal Family stayed on our village beach for most of the summer. I think the only reason the police didn’t clear them away sooner was because, frankly, their set-up was so darned impressive that the cops were actually hoping to book a room in it for a weekend break themslves.

A beach residence improvised by Sicilians

16 Comments Add yours

  1. seagypzy says:

    I always look forward to and learn from your posts. I admire the resiliency of Italians 🙂
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device from WIND


    1. Thank you! I think this resiliency is specifically Sicilian rather than Italian…. though I’m willing to be corrected!


  2. Expat Eye says:

    Amazing! Wondering if I can build myself a nice country house… 🙂


    1. I’ll get some Sicilians to knock up a design for you, list of raw materials, that kind of thing. I’m sure it will be a piece of cake! 🙂


      1. Expat Eye says:

        They could probably make one out of cake! 🙂


      2. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
        Have you got some Sicilian ancestry, by any chance?


      3. Expat Eye says:

        Not that I know of but I am quite dark… maybe I need to have a word with my mum?? 🙂


  3. I was chuffed to see you had publsihed a post – Im never disappointed. Keep ’em coming! I do like that Tom Hanks film. I have a feeling that your brother in law would have nocked the stuffing out of him for beach-hut building techniques, though…. I’m amazed that the beach Buck’s Palace leasted so long- the French police would have pulled the place down within a couple of weeks.


    1. Agg, that was ful ov spelink misteks. Sori.


      1. Aw, yor komments alwais maik me howl with larfta!!!!!
        Which reminds me I haven’t read your blog for waaaay to long, I am off there now to spend the evening!!!

        I reckon my Brother-in-law would have created a five-star holiday resort on Tom Hanks island, complete with a golf course.
        Heaven knows what the Sicilian Royal Family would have come up with! An airport?


  4. beba says:

    Never have I been so proud of my genes being half-Sicilian! And your post explains a lot too – I make all kinds of useful things “impromptu”, out of whatever. I honestly can always think of an alternative use for just about any solid bit of metal, plastic, wood, etc that most folks would toss out. Everything has a possibility! Ha-ha. But I do recycle a lot, too. Can’t keep EVERYTHING.


    1. I am proud of you too! I love re-using and improvising. To me there is something so satisfying about not letting anything go to waste. I suppose it’s the hunter-gatherer instinct!!!


  5. yangszechoo says:

    I’m still wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes! Oh dear, the camping trip and your brother-in-law’s impromptu buffet… I love your blog posts so much.


    1. Glad you enjoyed it!!! I’ve just started reading your book at long last, BTW – I want to read it SLOWLY as I already love it and am trying to make it last! 🙂


  6. Rochelle Del Borrello says:

    You’ve got to love the Sicilian never die attitude. You notice how ingenious they are particularly when it comes to beachtime, summer holiday picnics and anything with holidays and food, two very sacred things indeed! And what’s with the addiction with Lemons, they always bring truckloads with them, it’s because they use them for everything from salads to washing their hands, yet another survival tool!


    1. So true!
      I suppose with all the lemons growing around, they might as well figure out as many ways as possible to use them! Did you know they make great sunscreen without causing pimples, if you cut them in half and rub the juice on your face? Perfect freckle prevention.
      You see, I am learning to arrange myself, too! 🙂


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