Reflections on Sicily, Aprilias and Padre Pio

Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
Trip End Jun 30, 2007

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

I didn't know what to call this and it's going to be a bit of a hodge-podge as it's all the odds and sods left over that I couldn't fit in anywhere else.
Part of it will be a homage to my Aprilia 150 (see photo gallery), which carried me uncomplainingly for nearly 3,000 kms around Sicily - that's pretty amazing when you consider Sicily is only slightly larger than Tasmania.
I got my motor bike licence in Melbourne in mid-December, barely 1 month before I left Australia. I had only had the one lesson you have to have when you get your Learners Permit 3 months before, then I hired a Honda 250cc for a weekend the week before my licence test to get some practice in.
Along with buying the Aprilia it was the best investment I ever made as it has allowed me virtually unlimited freedom to travel around Sicily, and is by far the best way to do it.
I really can't say strongly enough how practical and economical it is to have a scooter - to me it seems the perfect city vehicle. You just sit on the seat and go, it can go up narrow streets and between lines of cars, you're always at the front at the traffic lights :), it can be parked virtually anywhere, etc. The only real problem that's got to be fixed is that helmets can make a mess of your hair - maybe why so few people wear them in Sicily :).
There are a few things I need to tell you about riding them on long trips, however. Firstly, as you're riding along insects keep bouncing off the helmet (you keep hearing these pings) and visor (it took me a little while to learn not to duck as you see them coming for you, and nearly running off the road). I haven't got a very good helmet - it's only a half visor, which just covers the nose, so it leaves the lower part of your face exposed, and a few times I got whacked on the cheek and mouth by pretty bloody big insects.
As you can imagine, after a bit of riding the visor gets quite dirty so by the end of the day you sometimes virtually can't see out, especially at night. Also, there's no windscreen wipers so it's also tricky when it rains, and you can't wipe the windscreen (visor) clean. As I've mentioned before there's lots of tunnels in Sicily and you can get quite a shock roaring in to a tunnel at 100kmh and you have your sunglasses on and there's no lights on in some of the tunnels and you can barely see the road or the sides of the tunnel.
My helmet has a serious flaw (or maybe my nose is too big) - when I pull the visor right down, it squashes the tip of my nose - you know what it looks like when somebody presses their face to a windows, well that's exactly what it looks like. I did get a few funny looks for a couple of days until I looked in the rear vision mirror and saw what a dork I looked, plus it was uncomfortable. From them on I left the visor slightly up so as to leave the tip of my nose clear and the very next day a big white butterfly impaled itself on the end of my nose. On the dorky scale I think that looked even dorkier than having my nose flattened on the visor, and caused me to wobble around a bit on the road trying to brush it off (sorry, no pictures).
The other thing about riding is that you are really in touch with the elements. In a car you're cocooned - you can turn on the heater or air-conditioner and have no idea what temperature it is outside, you don't feel the wind much, the suspension largely muffles the imperfections in the road, etc.
On the scooter you feel every little change in the air - there are pockets of colder and warmer you ride in to, the wind and rain can be somewhat trying, and the scooter's small wheels and limited suspension movement means you feel bumps more, and that the wheels tramline a lot more - if there's a groove or ridge in the road it wobbles about a lot. To add to this, the tyres on my scooter were close to needing to be replaced and it slid very easily on any smooth piece of road or if I cornered too fast.
As I had never ridden a scooter before I rode it like a motorbike and it really doesn't have the handling or the brakes to be ridden like that, so after a few scares I had to learn what it was capable of. Don't worry, dear reader, I the image of being road-kill is always on my mind, so I was never in any real danger.
Nevertheless, all that said, it was fantastic, and I'm going to hang on to it and may even ship it to Australia if the cost of freight isn't outrageous.
Many a time I just plunged blindly into a warren of little lanes (sometimes only a metre wide) and rode around hill towns, with the exhaust bouncing and roaring off the buildings - I know it's childish but it was great fun, and helped me explore and find places that otherwise I wouldn't have had enough time for.
It was able to cruise well at around 90-100kmh on the autostrada (top speed is 115kmh on a long straight), but most of the time in the mountains I was only doing 30-50kmh. At night it's a bit tricky because the headlights are only designed for city streets, not for travelling at 100kmh in the dark, so sometimes it was pretty hairy riding at night.
There were moments that were pure bliss riding through wonderful landscape - I'm going to rephrase that famous tango saying to 'two legs, two arms, two wheels, one heart'.
Padre Pio
All the time I have been in Sicily I have seen countless statues, paintings, photos, etc of Padre Pio. I posted one of these statues on a blog entry (Selinunte, I think) and my friend, Pi Wei sent a comment "Padre Pio = Obe One Kenobi", which got me thinking about the devotion people have to him and wanting to make a collection of photos.
I would have loved to have done it sooner becaue I haven't had the time to take many pictures, and up until yesterday I only had 4, but the universe must be smiling on me because as I popped in last night to have a chat at my cousin Franco's horse meat butcher shop, I noticed a picture of Padre Pio on the outside of the florist next door, asked Anna the owner if I could take the picture, then she told me she had lots of pictures of Padre Pio inside (she's a Padre Pio fan), so I was able to take about 10 extra pictures - what fabulous luck. I showed them to her and a number of other people hanging around the shop and they were thrilled. It's really cute - the 2 shops (florist and butcher) have 4-5 chairs outside on the footpath and road, and people just pop in all the time for a chat, and sometimes they buy something. I stop in pretty well every day when I'm there and it really gives you the feeling of community.
Anyhow, Padre Pio was a Capuchin monk who received the stigmata in 1918. He was also a mystic and a practical priest whose main material achievement was the building of the House for Relief of Suffering, a large hospital in Southern Italy, but he is more remembered for preaching love and charity and for some miracles which happened when people prayed to him.
After the Padre Pio pictures I hopped on my scooter and decided to thumb my nose at authority again and go on one last ride around Floridia without my helmet on - if I was stopped by a policeman I was going to get quite cross with him and ask him sarcastically if he didn't have any better thing to do with his time than book scooter riders not wearing a helmet :).
I wasn't planning to go anywhere in particular, and saw a sushi shop (in Floridia!!!), Love Sushi, so I decided I would have to have dinner there.
So I sat down and a Japanese looking lady came out and gave me the menu and took my order for a Sapporo beer in very good Italian. I thought my world is getting weirder and weirder - what next? I was so fascinated in listening to her speaking Italian that I engaged her in a lengthy conversation and bombarded her with impertinent questions - what on earth induced you to live here? etc.
It was all very simple really - she was actually Korean and she met her husband, who's from Floridia, on a cruise ship on which he was the orchestra leader. So they spent 20 odd years cruisng the world entertaining the ship guests, then decided to come back and live in Floridia. I ordered the works - seafood sushi, tempura, beer, sake, and green tea - my first Japanese meal in 6 months and definitely unexpected (and not too bad - she was very surprised when I kept on asking for more wasabe).
I also took the teacher and students from the Aikido dojo out for a beer after Monday night's training and we went to this great beer garden & bar on the outskirts of town called Ramses, which is filled with ancient Egyptian decorative elements (this is getting curiouser and curiouser what I find out in my last few days).
There is nothing better than a cold beer after Aikido training on a hot night and I was recommended a Maltese double-malt beer called Cisk (Maltese beer?), which has an alcoholic strength of 9%, double that of normal beer. It was absolutely delicious and after a couple of half-litre jugs I was very mellow indeed.
Once again I am surprised by what I find - wonderful Maltese beer served in an ancient Egyptian beer garden and sushi, tempura and sake served up by a Korean lady who speaks perfect Italian, on a red plastic tablecloth.
So here I am on my second last day here. I'm having lunch with my zia Ciccina, then going off for a swim at a beach I've been recommended, and tomorrow morning I will go and have a luxurious shave and a haircut (my third in 4 weeks - normally I have one every 5-6 weeks), a final almond granita and ricotta pastry at Costanzo's, then Franco will drive me to Catania for my flight to Rome (hoping it arrives on time because I have only 3 hours between it's arrival and when my flight to London leaves, and these days 2 hours is the minimum booking in time).
My time in Sicily has been fantastic - it hasn't met or exceeded my expectations because I didn't have any. I'm sure I will need a bit more time to mull over my time here before I make any further comments.
How can I summarise Sicily for you - it is anarchic, frustrating, and seems to run by it's own rules, which very few tourists will ever know about. It has incredible history, geographical variety (harsh dry areas, deep gorges, rocky promontories, beautiful waters, volcanoes and rugged mountains), an amazing variety of food, etc. The people are noisy, friendly, volatile, generous, exasperating - in most cases unique individuals not terribly conditioned by marketing and consumerism (although of course that is infiltrating, but so far as I can see to a lesser extent so far than many other countries), and there is very little use of or interest in the internet and other technologies (that may be bad or good depending on your point of view). They are very aware of and joke about their vices and flaws, and are often proud of them - I don't think self-help and 'how to make yourself a better/richer/more successful person books would do well here.
If you like ordered, organised places where everything runs smoothly, don't come here (how's that for a tourist office blurb?). But if you can handle the unexpected and like wonderful food, scenery, wine, history, etc do come here (and don't just eat pasta or pizza at the restaurants or I will get very cross).
Ok off to London now - see ya.
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