Many 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’).
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. (I say computer. I actually mean Amstrad word processor, which, for younger readers, was like a very heavy and bulky PC the size of a small desk that didn’t do any personal computing at all, or in fact do anything useful except write text. Which I could have done on a typewriter. Or in a notebook. See young and foolish, above.)
“It’ll be there in three days”, they said in London. I was sceptical. It takes three days just to buy a stamp in Sicily. But amazingly, it was there in three days, waiting for collection at Taormina train station.
That turned out to be 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 on a good argument).
“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’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”.
“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”.
“Your tax code signore. No one can take any goods away without a tax code”.
“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 the 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”.
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 to the UK. The entire guide was contained in the notebooks that I should have brought with me in the first place.
But I did learn an important lesson. Which is that:
As a foreigner in Sicily, you are Always Wrong and Always Entertaining.
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Still Life with Artichokes by Boyd Dwyer, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Taormina-Giardini station by Mathieu Dessus, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Dennis Alias Fabrizio by Dennis Jarvis, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Giardini Naxos by Francesco Sgroi, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0