by Carol Severino
As an Italian American (half Sicilian, one-quarter Neapolitan) who takes Italian courses and practices in a community conversation group, the experience of navigating Sicily’s culture and food was familiar and rewarding. Yet using Italian and my wits to navigate its highways and narrow city streets was a formidable challenge, not only to my language and problem-solving skills, but to my identity as a Sicilian Italian American. As the first of our group — my husband Rod and our friends Mary and Les, non-Italians without much knowledge of Sicily or Italian — to try autostrada driving, I would look in the rear-view mirror and see no one behind me; seconds later, I was being tailgated by a lunatic in an Audi even though I was driving in the left lane 25 kilometers over the speed limit. I knew I was aggravating Rod, riding shot gun,
“Carol, get over to the right hand lane and quick. He’s right up on our bumper. Use your mirrors. Put on your directional,” he ordered, jerking his neck back to see if another crazy speedster was coming up on the right.
“Coast is clear. NOW, go, GO! OK, now downshift or you’re gonna crash into that truck. Wrong gear. What’s wrong with you?”
Even worse than lead-footed motorists and my front-seat driver, was trying to get to where we were going. While taking side trips along the stunning Tyrhennian coast, we tried using the rental car’s GPS, but Italian Siri, as we called her, did not understand our comandi, and I could not understand hers. And though we accurately entered our destinazioni, she often had no idea where we were going, commanding us to do inversioni and proceed in the opposite direction even when we knew from the map and road signs that we were headed the right way. But Rod put more faith in her and her map on the screen than he did in the three of us embodied humans reading the signs. Putting up with two sets of comandi, one from Rod and another from Italian Siri, my fourth passenger, was more than I could handle.
“Svoltare a destra, poi a sinistra, e dopo andare a dritto,” she ordered as we were returning to our pensione from our evening feast of pesce con cous cous on the beach at Capo San Vito.
“What’s she saying, Carol?” Rod demanded, but it seemed pointless to translate her erroneous directions. Plus, I needed to focus on the switchbacks and road signs.
Not only did I drive us safely to Scopello for the second time, but the next day I got us to the touristy hill-town of Erice for a series of church and monastery ruins punctuated by cannoli and torrone. Back in the parking area though, we could not figure out how to get out of the city. Rod, Les, and Mary recommended that we turn into the edge of town by the castle, and finally, against my better judgment I did, only to find ourselves in narrow alley-like streets. When we were about to get trapped, I told Rod to roll down his window and ask an Ericean getting into her car, “Come esco?” With a horrified look, she exclaimed something like, “You shouldn’t be driving here!” and generously told us to follow her out of town, gesturing that we’d have to turn the car around first.
That was the end for me as the designated (by the car rental agency) driver. I knew my limits: I couldn’t turn around in that tight, tight space without bumping into an ancient wall. I also knew from decades of driving with him and hearing his stories of serving as an army chauffeur, that maneuvering vehicles under ridiculous conditions was Rod’s forte. With Les’s guidance, he turned us around, and following our rescuer, we escaped Erice, heading for Trapani on the west coast. Consulting his guidebook, Les said we could pick up the road going east for Segesta to visit ruins of the Greek temple and theatre. That plan seemed counter-intuitive (going west to go east?) and became even more illogical as we plunged deeper into the bowels of Trapani.
We realized we were lost again, so when we noticed two carabinieri in a police car, we waved them down. After scolding that we shouldn’t ever stop in the middle of traffic, our second traffic reprimand in an hour, they also told us to turn around. I got out of the car with my Automobile Club of Italy road map of Sicily the size of a bed sheet and showed them where we wanted to go. Instead of the state road we were looking for (which we had already been on, but heading in the opposite direction), they recommended the familiar but dreaded autostrada, which fortuitously went directly to Segesta. Like our Ericean rescuer, they told us to follow them to the super-highway; we wound around through a long series of streets and alleys (Were they going to shake us down? Was I too influenced by the Mafioso narratives we’d read in Italian class?) until the autostrada finally appeared.
“Ah, the kindness of strangers,” we sighed in relief, summing up the day’s driving mishaps. That night, in a Scopello courtyard with a wedding party taking pictures and cheering the beautiful young newlyweds, we celebrated our twin escapes and our good driving luck with pasta alla Norma, giri (Sicilian spinach), fresh fish, and an extra half-liter of red wine.
Finding our way back to the pensione, B & B, or agriturismo was always a tension-filled adventure, especially in the dark. Rod was now our official driver, but we had to tell him exactly where to go. He could not tolerate for a moment our being disoriented and wondering where we were. Contrary to the male stereotype, he was not averse to asking directions, or rather he wasn’t averse to my asking directions.
“Just ask, Carol. Why don’t you ask? You know the language.” As if all he had to do was push my Italian button and a grammatical request would automatically pop out of my mouth, whereupon I’d completely understand the directions I received. Realizing more of my limits, as both an Italian speaker and a navigator, we started relying more on Mary’s cell phone GPS, more accurate and immediately understandable than Italian Siri even though it was painful to hear American Siri’s botched pronunciation of Italian street names: “Turn left at Vya Vittorrryo Manyuellee and then right at Franssesco Krispyy.”
But Les and Rod were dead set against becoming too dependent on American Siri. “Those who depend on crutches become cripples without them,” said Rod, his less-than-politically correct words foreboding some unknown disaster. We just didn’t know that it would happen so soon.
“I hate to tell you, but it seems I left my cell phone chord in Noto,” Mary announced after we had driven 102 kilometers to the next agriturismo outside of Enna, the one with the ricotta-producing sheep.
“Are you sure?” I asked with alarm, envisioning us wandering around the countryside in the dark arguing with one another, or getting trapped in medieval streets, waiting to be rescued again by locals. Were Rod and Les right about our GPS addiction? With only 7% of her phone’s power left, we learned that my I-phone cell cord didn’t fit her Android. We had to find a place to buy another cord ASAP. On Sunday, on the way back from seeing the mosaics at Villa Romana di Casale, we found an open tabaccheria outside of Piazza Armerina, but no cord. On Monday, we Googled “Enna electronics,” finding only a couple of stores open on Monday morning, as many businesses are still closed to prolong the weekend. When I called the first store to find a charger for a Motorola Android, the response was a string of “No, no, no, no, no” until I thanked them and hung up. But at the second place, called Negozio TIM after the Italian internet service provider, the friendly woman who answered the phone invited us to come try out cords until we found one that worked. We wrote down the step-by-step directions to the store—the pre-GPS, old-fashioned way.
We then set out on a mission to find Negozio Tim and the right phone charger in the medieval hill town of Enna; we hoped it would be in Enna Bassa with its wider, drivable streets rather than Enna Alta, the Centro Storico, with its impossibly narrow ones. But as we read off the directions, we had difficulty finding even the main road up to Enna. I tried my cell’s GPS, but it located us near Chicago’s O’Hare. Finally finding our way to Enna Bassa, we looked for Via Roma, the main street we had walked along our first day in Enna.
“Just ask a pedestrian,” Rod urged. A shopper I hailed standing at the corner pointed along a nearby street, but heading down it, we seemed to be leaving town.
“I’ll ask those guys standing by the store,” I quickly replied before he could tell me to “Just ask” again.
We stopped in front of a hardware store and asked three men where Via Roma was. One of them animatedly told us we were going in the wrong direction and instructed us to turn around at the bottom of the hill, then head up the street and make two right turns.
We set out to do just that. At the bottom of the hill, as Rod turned on his left directional signal, but hadn’t made a move to turn, we suddenly heard a motorcycle roar up and then crash to the ground about 20 feet behind us, throwing the driver into the street. The huge bike slid on its side, clattering down the hill about 10 feet past our car.
Our driving luck had finally run out. In shock, the four of us got out of the car to see the driver limping to a bus stop bench with his helmet in his hands—the very same man who had given us directions—a trim, graying 50-something gentleman in dark jeans.
“Oh, Signore!” was all I could say to express that I both recognized and sympathized with him. I stood there paralyzed while Rod, Mary, and Les gathered up his papers and notebooks that had spilled out of the bike’s storage compartment, and Rod picked up the bike and wheeled it off the road. We were torn between wanting to help him because his leg was hurt and his bike damaged and wondering WHY he had overreacted to our turn signal, knowing full well that we were going to turn around, precisely because he had told us to. Hadn’t he recognized our car? Had he intended to hit us, but miscalculated, crashing to the ground instead?
Injured as he seemed to be, instead of rolling up his pants leg to see whether he was bleeding, he started making calls on his phone, holding his injured leg out straight. I understood him telling his interlocutors on the other end of the line as well as bystanders (the same guys he was standing with at the hardware store?) that he needed an ambulance. I also heard him referring to us as stranieri (strangers).
I thought it better for me not to even try to figure out what he was saying into his phone; besides I was so distraught I couldn’t concentrate on his side of the conversation anyway. At the same time I was afraid I wouldn’t understand him (Was he using Sicilian, spoken by my grandparents, mom, and aunt so we children wouldn’t understand their adult conversations? The dialect that was so comforting to me when we visited my grandfather’s hometown of Montevago now sounded threatening), I feared I would understand him to be blaming us for his accident. Rod was sure he had crashed on purpose, but the three of us, at least at first, found his theory implausible; the man seemed to be genuinely hurt. Why risk your body to take advantage of the stranieri’s insurance, we reasoned? It seemed like too much of a gamble.
Les suggested that we offer the man money as a gesture of kindness; that move didn’t seem right although I couldn’t think straight enough to articulate why until later—that giving him money would signal an admission of guilt. Then Mary suggested instead that I just ask him how we could help.
“Signore, in what way can we help you?” I asked him between his phone calls.
“What do you mean, in what way can you help me? How could you stranieri possibly be of any help?” He waved at us in disgust. Now I was sure I wouldn’t mention money since he hadn’t either, and now he was even angrier at us.
All four of us stood silently and helplessly by the car at the side of the street, wondering what would become of us (ticket? arrest? jail?) as an ambulance and the Enna police approached. The EMTs with their day-glow chartreuse jackets assessed the scene; the man got in the ambulance and it headed for the hospital. As the bystanders walked away, we were left with two police officers, an older gray-haired gentleman in his fifties and a younger one about forty.
Rod was still chuckling about the man’s “performance,” inappropriately responding to our precarious situation.
“Stop laughing,” Les urged him. “What will the police think?”
“Oh, they’ll understand if they were in the military like me,” alluding to his fellow soldiers of the Vietnam era who inadvertently giggled in times of tragedy or tension.
“Shut up, Rod. When was the last time you were in the army?” Les was losing his patience.
Fortunately, the policemen ignored Rod. They seemed friendly and willing to put up with my improvised Italian.
“Siamo stranieri,” I declared, repeating the man’s slur, hoping that emphasizing that obvious identity (we were dressed in shorts and sun hats) would get us out of this jam. When I told them the motorcycle driver had over-reacted, I translated literally, coming up with “ha soprareazionato,” which I later found out I had invented. I should have said, “Ha reagito in maniera eccessiva,” which seems longwinded and a bit, well, excessive. In a bold (desperate?) move, I point-blank asked the younger cop if he thought that the fact that the man who gave us directions to turn around was the very same man who crashed his motorcycle behind us meant that he had tried to cause an accident; the three of us were starting to believe Rod’s “performance” theory. “Chi lo sa?” he shrugged, and I shrugged, too.
I was slowly realizing that it would be my job to use my limited Italian to help them complete some sort of police report. Our fate, I sensed, depended on my success. In order to fill in all the blanks on the form, they needed data — the names, addresses, birthdates, and birthplaces — of all four of us! They assumed that we were born in the same state in which we now lived, since that was often the case for Italians (I had learned in class about campanilismo), but that was true for only Mary, so I needed to help them make the necessary corrections. Then the two officers tried to describe the setting of the incidente, which we didn’t even know was actually an intersection, but indeed, on the left side of the street was a tiny alley going in the opposite direction. We conceivably could have turned into it to reverse our direction instead of planning a U-turn. Were the officers giving us the benefit of the doubt? Maybe not, because then the younger officer led me to a traffic sign with an arrow pointing upward. It meant keep going straight — no turns, he explained.
When they turned to me for a narrative of the crash, I asked my companions for their accounts, synthesized them with my own, and translated the details and sequences I had the words for in Italian, with plenty of gestures to describe the sliding bike, using scivolare and its various conjugations over and over, as in the back of my mind, I was thinking how much fun it was to pronounce. Then the two officers reformulated what I told them into police Italian.
But it took them almost an hour to eke out one paragraph. Spelling and sentence construction seemed to be an obstacle for the older officer, so the younger one was helping him. I thought of the scene in Sciascia’s Una storia semplice, which we had read in Italian class and just seen original editions of in the Sciascia Museum in Racalmuto, in which our hero, the brigadiere, dreads writing up the police report of a Mafia assassination because of the Standard Italian literacy challenges it presents.
When the report was finally finished, the younger officer went over it with me before Rod signed it, even though I was not entirely sure what he was signing and what the consequences would be, which later gave Rod signer’s regret and anxiety attacks in the middle of the night. Besides its brevity (fewer than 100 words), it was more in the form of notes rather than complete sentences. More significantly, the report was in our voice (Ci siamo fermati…We were stopped at…) — a witness report rather than an accident report. They had recorded what they could see, which is also what we had emphasized — that there had been no contact (contatto) or bumping (urto) between the motorcycle and the car. Thinking that I might have to fill out the accident form in the glove box for the rental car company, even though we were not a party in the accident, I asked for the motorcycle driver’s name, but to my surprise, the officers didn’t have it. The older one surprised me by suggesting that when he obtained the name, we could talk on What’sApp, which I never use, so I gave him my email address. He said he’d send me a form from the hospital with the man’s name, but we never received one.
Throughout the collaborative report-writing process, I became more comfortable with the officers and with Italian. I told the officers that we were professors at our state university, and that the next day we’d be going to Palermo to fly back to the States the day after. I related our phone cord saga and asked them how to get to Negozio TIM.
With their clear, accurate, and detailed directions (una piazza con alberi, by a school and a bank), we found both a parking place AND the store and located a cord. Hooray! In the caffè with a belvedere overlooking what seemed like all of Central Sicily down below, we talked over coffee and gelato about whether we were still in trouble and if so, how much.
“We would have never found a phone cord without the incident,” Mary observed.
“It’s so ironic,” Les marveled. “The very reason we were searching for the phone cord was that we needed directions, including directions to Negozio Tim.”
“This is what happens to the linguistically, digitally, and directionally challenged,” I replied.
“That guy deserves an Academy award,” said Rod.
We spent the rest of the day wandering through the Centro Storico, including a trip to a huge castle and planning the meal we’d make with the bread, wine, cheese, tomatoes, and a huge cauliflower Les had bought while we were in Negozio TIM.
But like a coda after the climax, on the way back down from Enna Alta to our agriturismo, we missed a major turn, and the newly charged American Siri rerouted us — but up, up, up to Enna’s rival hill town of Calascibetta, where Les had been wanting to go anyway. Instead of telling us to turn around in the parcheggio before entering Calascibetta’s constricted alleyways, American Siri had us head right up into them, as if she knew Les wanted to tour the hill town, AND as if she thought we needed yet another driving challenge, having gotten off too easy with the last one. Descending from Calascibetta (also fun to say), she demanded we make the craziest, hairpin turn ever — a waist-high stone wall stood between where we were and where we wanted to be. With our step-by-step guidance (“6 inches, 4 inches, 2 inches”), cautiously, miraculously, Rod made his way around the wall without touching it — a daring feat of steering coordination.
Now I worried whether to mention l’incidente when we returned the car, as the car rental was in my name. We reasoned that because the report was a witness report rather than an accident report since there had been no contact, no ticket, and no damage to the car (the rental company’s chief concern); because we had no name for the motorcycle driver, and because our host at a rented house would be accompanying us to the airport and would have to wait for us to return the car, we wouldn’t mention the incident unless the car company had already been sent a copy of the report and inquired about it.
As Les predicted, even though it had taken over an hour to rent the car, it took only five minutes to return it. Thanks to Rod’s driving skills, we brought the car back without a scratch — not common for tourists who spend two weeks in Sicily, covering hundreds of kilometers of autostrade, state, regional, and provincial roads, medieval streets, and goat paths. Yet I still fretted about whether we’d be hearing more about l’incidente. Would it follow us to the US? Even when we arrived at the Palermo airport, I half-expected to be approached and detained by undercover agents in sunglasses, but we were able to freely board the plane to Rome.
The guidebooks say that the best way to see Sicily is to rent a car, but they also warn motorists to prepare for dents, scratches, and harrowing scares. Indeed, we saw the Northwest, the Southwest, the Southeast, and the Center of Sicily and swam in two of three exotic oceans, but once in Avola as we headed up yet another narrow street, a car suddenly made a sharp turn onto our narrow street nearly smacking us head on, making us scream in unison.
Four months later, back safely in Iowa where speed limits are more often observed, it arrived — a prioritario missive from the Ufficio Verbali della Polizia Municipale della Città di Enna. The letter cited Rod for signaling a left turn in an area where turns were not permitted, an infraction they said was revealed after un incidente stradale — referring to the motorcycle crash. We were fined 41 euro and a processing fee of 11.50. I took the notice to my Italian teacher, for some translation, cultural context, and her advice. “Just pay it,” she said. “You got off easy. Italians are used to being fined much worse than that.” Sending the fine through a bank doubled the cost, but we all agreed it was a small price to pay compared to my having to talk our way out of a Sicilian jail.
Because of l’incidente, I don’t remember ever having felt so un-Sicilian and un-Italian — an identity I had embraced all my life. After all, as a kid I was the one who for school lunches ate caponata sandwiches my mom gave me, exactly like the ones we ate in Sicily. I was pleased that I had warmed to the task of generating the narrative to complete the police report. But I also remember standing stupefied in the street in Enna Bassa as the ambulance and the police approached, hearing, but not understanding, and not even wanting to understand the motorcycle man on his cell phone. Never had I felt so helpless, so vulnerable, and so straniera.
About the author:
Carol Severino directs the Writing Center at the University of Iowa where she also teaches writing. She enjoys traveling, learning languages, and writing about both. Her creative work has appeared in places such as Best Travel Essays 2012, Voices in Italian Americana, Hinchas de Poesia, Aji, Helen, Coldnoon, and Writing on the Edge.