A Rough Start for the Rough Guide to Sicily

 

Rough guideSo, what’s it like to earn your living by going on holiday?

Jules Brown, author of The Rough Guide to Sicily, describes his very first hilarious trip to Sicily especially for my blog. He has written stacks of travel guides, but Sicily was his first and, he says, still his favourite  – despite how Sicilian it is (my words not his).

If you wonder what it’s really like being a travel writer (or what I mean by “how Sicilian it is”) then read on…

JulesMany years ago, I went to Sicily and rented an out-of-season holiday apartment in Giardini-Naxos, near Taormina, so that I could research and write the first edition of the Rough Guide to Sicily.

There were no other guidebooks to Sicily at the time to help me out. I had never been to Sicily before, and spoke only the Italian that appeared on a pizza restaurant menu (basically, fine on conversations involving the words “formaggio” and “prosciutto”, less so on “carciofi” – carrots? cauliflower? carcinogen?).

What could possibly go wrong?

As it happened, renting an apartment turned out to be the easy part. I pointed at a picture in an estate agent’s window, signed an impenetrable contract that – disappointingly, because I’d have liked to show off my language skills – made no mention of “formaggio” or “proscuitto””, and moved in the same day.

Over the next six months, I travelled the length and breadth of this amazing, alluring island. I hiked on goat tracks, swam in azure seas, picked lemons, marvelled at Roman mosaics, and visited extraordinary Greek ruins on hillsides covered in wild oregano.

I even found out what “carciofi” were, thanks to the Carciofi Man who trundled his cart up and down outside my apartment most days, shouting his head off about his beautiful artichokes. (And by ‘shouting his head off’, I mean ‘expressing himself at an entirely normal volume for a Sicilian’).

Artichokes

 

What was harder, however, was coming to terms with the Byzantine machinations of the local civil servants. (And by ‘Byzantine machinations’, I mean ‘entirely reasonable local working methods’).

*****

Obviously, I only had myself to blame. I shipped my computer overland by train to Sicily. I know, what can I say? I was young and foolish.

“It’ll be there in three days”, they said in London. Amazingly, it was there in three days, waiting for collection at Taormina train station.

That was the easy part.

Take it as read that the following conversations played out over many months, and involved about a hundred visits to the station. The conversations were also conducted in rudimentary Italian and exasperated shouting (me) and exaggerated shoulder-shrugging, sighing and eyebrow-raising (everyone in officialdom, plus random passing Sicilian strangers who never like to pass up a good argument).

Station

 

“I’m collecting my computer”, I said, standing at the goods window at Taormina train station.

“What computer? There’s no computer here”.

I could see the computer, in a box on the shelf behind him.

“That computer”.

“That’s not your computer” – examining my passport – “That computer belongs to a Signore Brown Jules”.

“That’s me, look” – pointing at my passport.

“This says ‘Jules Brown’ not ‘Brown Jules’, that’s different” – triumphantly.

“Oh good God. It’s me. It’s obviously me. That’s mine”.

Boats

 

“OK, calm down. So it’s yours. We have to check properly. That will be 50,000 lire”.

“What! I’ve already paid!”

“You’ve already paid in England. This is Sicily”.

“And when I pay – again – can I have my computer?”

“Yes, of course signore”.

“Right, fine, here”.

“Thank you signore. And now you’ll need to go to the post office in Giardini-Naxos to have this paper stamped”.

“What?” – dangerously aerated Englishman by now. “Right. FINE. Here’s the stamped paper. Can I have my computer now? Please”.

“Of course signore. If you’ll just let me have your codice fiscale, you can take it right away”.

“MY WHAT?”

“Your tax code signore. No one can take any goods away without a tax code”.

gun

 

“I’m English! I don’t have an Italian tax code. Why would I have an Italian tax code?”

“You don’t need an Italian tax code signore”.

“WHAAAT?” Close to cardiac arrest by now.

“You need a Sicilian tax code signore, not an Italian one. This is Sicily”.

Very deep breath.

It being Sicily, the woman in the local tourist office – who I barely knew at all – gave me her tax code. This seemed like an entirely normal solution to her.

“Here’s my codice fiscale. Can I now please, for the love of all that is sacred, have my computer?”

“Are you sure this is your tax code signore?” Peering at it suspiciously. “It looks like it belongs to a woman”.

“It’s mine”.  Fixing official with Very Hard Stare That Went On Forever.

Eccellente signore! Thank you. Here you are”.

Taormina

 

In the end, I stayed in Sicily for six months that first time – and I had the use of the computer for about three weeks, before I had to return back to the UK.

But I did learn an important lesson. As a foreigner in Sicily, you are Always Wrong and Always Entertaining.

By the way, I hope it’s clear, even from this tale of clashing cultures that I love Sicily with all my heart. I went on to write many more guidebooks, but the Rough Guide to Sicily is still my favourite and I’ve been back to the island many, many times.

Fancy getting to know Jules better?

You can find plenty more travel stories like this on Jules’ brand new blog JULES TOLD ME.  He’s looking forward to meeting you there!

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22 thoughts on “A Rough Start for the Rough Guide to Sicily

  1. Reblogged this on Jules Told Me and commented:
    I’ve been much taken with Veronica’s great Sicily blog, The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife, and was delighted when she asked me to write a guest post for her.

    Here’s the tale of my first ever trip to Sicily – a story of artichokes, computers and incalcitrant public employees

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fix the link here. It doesn’t work. Grazia.

    You can find plenty more travel stories like this on Jules’ brand new blog JULES TOLD ME. He’s looking forward to meeting you there!

    Like

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I checked the code and the link is there.
      I am finding it does not work in Google Chrome today and neither do the photos download, but in Internet Exploder it is all fine.
      I am not sure if this is just my computer (which is currently poorly) or an online thing – I’ll leave it for now and see how it behaves later.

      meanwhile, the URL of Jules’ blog is

      JULESTOLDME.COM

      Like

      1. Veronica: Don’t bother to publish this. In the first instance, the embedded URL needs the full prefix http://

        The photo requests are being rejected by Yahoo and generating an error 403. You are trying to link to them directly, which is forbidden. Security.

        Download them to your WordPress media folder and republish…that should work.

        They aren’t working in my IExplorer either.

        Like

  3. I am one big fan of the Rough Guide, relied heavily on it when I first went to Sicily more years ago than I can recall. BUT I also remember being astonished to read something like Western Sicily wasn’t really worth bothering about, other than the odd temple and beauty spot. Being totally in love with Western Sicily, I can recall thinking “how very ignorant”. Are my memories all wrong???

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, not me! Promise! It’s maybe true that we found more to add in western Sicily as time went by, but I’ve always loved the west and hope the guide reflected that. Can’t speak for other travel guides of course, those you might feel Lonely with, for example…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent and su true! Reminds me of a story my father told me about the Post Office in Athens…Greece and Sicily are so much alike. He lost a button on his blazer, and my mother sent it to him by post from Switzerland where we were living. She unfortunately sent it by registered mail. Getting a registered package involved going to the main Post Office, where people waited in a huge hall, sitting on wooden benches (like in a church), while the priest…sorry, the post office employee…called their name from the pew.
    Being en entertainer at heart, he examined the packages and made humorous comments on the contents (which had usually spilled out or were written on the package), to the delight of the public…You can image how much entertainment he got out of my father’s package, which said “contents: 1 button”…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha haaa! I can just imagine how that freaked them out! It reminds me of the trauma of retrieving a recorded delivery package in Turkey – which may have been even worse since you had to go through three different queues and then present 3 scraps of paper to a bored clerk who didn’t even read them before throwing your parcel at you!

      Like

  5. Hilarious blog post. I brought double of everything and took my car (just a 3500 km drive) to avoid problems like this for my 3 months stay in Sicily
    http:// in front of www in the html should fix the link to Jules’ blog, methinks.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Veronica and Jules – love the article – so typical of the Southern Mediterranean. I could visualise the computer, in its box, languishing on the shelf at the post office. Perfect. I wonder if it was also about 35 degrees at the time and you could feel sweat trickling down your back as you negotiated with officialdom. Looking forward to the next piece. Janet Simmonds – educated-traveller.com
    By the way I couldn’t see any of the photos either.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks!
        Another kind reader has just sent me instructions that should fix it so I am doing that now.
        I am very lucky to have these clever followers who help me out!
        thanks to all of you tecchy friends! 🙂

        Like

  7. Loved this post (which I can identify with having had similar frustrations albeit in attempting to return a hire car some years ago – made it all part of the fun).

    We are now preparing for our two month stay on Syracusa later in the year. So looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

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