S. Rabbani: literary fiction, instructional articles, essays & translations
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From Sicilia, Italia (Palermo, Agrigento, Cefalù, Catania, Taormina, Enna) and Slovenia (Ljubljana, Bled)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Sicilia, Italia (Palermo, Agrigento, Cefalù, Catania, Taormina, Enna) and Slovenia (Ljubljana, Bled): "Che cazzo vuoi?!"

Dear Friends,

I write to you now at the end of my trip from London Heathrow International Airport. Since Naples, I spent nine nights in Sicily, two nights in Slovenia, and one night at the airport in Frankfurt. I begin my account late, and, as such, my memory of the details and the chronology of events has faded a bit. More notably, however, my strong disgust for Italy has been mitigated by the more recent and pleasant events after I left. Whatever diatribe below indicts this country, it is too generous in its praise.

I arrived in Palermo's central train station around nine in the morning after an overnight ride from Naples. The train ride itself was an experience worthy of mention. Sicily is an island visible across the Strait of Messina from the toe of Italy's boot. There is no bridge or tunnel that links Sicily to the mainland, but the train gets across somehow.

I awoke at around four in the morning and glanced outside of the window. To both sides of the car that I was in, I saw other train cars. Though the car was stationary relative to the others, I did sense some movement. Khalid, a young Arab-Sicilian that I had met on the train, showed me out and up a flight of stairs. We emerged onto the deck of the ferry. On one side was the departure port of the Italian mainland and on the other was the town of Messina, a dangerous port city. Ulysses, Homer recounts, had once passed through this strait between two beasts whose names and functions now escape me. The train had been cut apart and loaded onto the boat and the cars that I witnessed were all part of the same train.

I checked into a hostel in Palermo that morning. Much to my surprise, the Palazzo Savona it turned out to be one of the best that I had seen, with spacious rooms, an espresso machine, and a friendly staff that listened kindly as I rambled on about my obsession with Sicily. They answered genuinely my prying questions about the modern presence of La Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.

Palermo is a quintessentially Sicilian city. Its mixture of Arab, Roman, and Greek architecture is testimony to the island's rough history. It has many unique sights to offer, but it is ugly and dirty at the same time. Fish guts and tails, the residues of the fish markets, welcome pigeons and a fowl odor that exposes the true nature of Sicily. Under the thin veil of its buildings and renown lies an overpriced and underfunctional misorganization that is unmistakably Italian. That is, Sicily, like Italy, is not worth its price. Myths of Sicilian hospitality are extinguished by rude vendors and self-important nationalists who think, like the Romanians, that their culture and their decrepit country are the best.

These words may shock some of you who have witnessed my excitement about this country. It may disappoint some of you who hold the country in higher regard (Ann). I respect your estimation of the country, and I have no incendiary intentions when I assert my accusations.

Indeed, it was largely the opportunity to practice the language and to drink lots of coffee that justified my enthusiasm, but after spending two weeks in Italy, these superficial thrills turned to frustration, which now fuels the scathing comments to follow.

On my first day in Palermo (June 2, forty-third day), I met a thirty-one-year-old Kiwi who was also traveling alone. We decided to take up each other's company for a few days, but it soon became apparent that she did not have the tolerance for other people and she dismissed me as a travel partner.

During our short companionship, we visited the town of Agrigento on the southern coast with its popular Greek ruins. Meanwhile, I met a pair of French girls who were setting up camp along the beach in this town. We bought some picnic supplies at a market and had dinner on a park bench that night. The Kiwi, true to her form, did not join us, but waited at the train station for the train that I was to catch later as well. She waited alone while we enjoyed our prosciutto sandwiches and gagged over a two-euro bottle of wine.

That night, back in Palermo, I met two new people at the hostel who would turn out to be two of the most interesting people I would meet this trip. They were Daniel, a half-Sicilian Britton on a mission to discover his heritage, and Anna, a Swiss-German on extended travel. The two had met at a WWOOF site (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a program wherein one dedicates one's labor in exchange for food and accommodation) and had decided to travel together afterward.

They adopted me into their group. The next day, we went to the resort town of Cefalù. The Kiwi, also, decided to go to Cefalù, but alone. It is a small town, so it was not surprising when we ran into each other awkwardly a few times.

I had known Cefalù from the books that I had read as a child. I had developed a world in my mind, an alternate Sicily rather unlike the one that I found. I had in mind a more natural place, a rustic landscape unscathed by the blinding white sneakers and pale bald legs of British and German tourists. My expectations were severely disappointed. Things were about to get worse.

On our fourth night in Palermo, Daniel, Anna, and I struggled to find availability for an additional night, for it was a weekend during the high season, and the British uni students had booked the island. We pulled together accommodations in Catania, the next major city, so we took a bus there the next day (June 6, forty-seventh day).

Catania is not worth a picogram of horseshit. There is only one hostel in this city; it has two branches. The three of us had negotiated a private triple room at the same price as the dorm. The first night, we were devoured by some sort of flee or mosquito. The second night, we were moved down the hall to a six-person room where the pests were even more vicious. Even as I write this account, my torso is covered with red bumps as I am still healing from the attacks.

The Agora Hostel, like Catania, is terrible. Few things function consistently. If we did not have each other's company, we would have suffered from acute depression brought about by this miserable place. During my final night in Catania, the hostel was closed for fumigation, and I was left to fend for myself in a hosteless town with nothing more than an apologetic complimentary beer from the manager.

Furthermore, decent food was hard to come by. The first night, we had dinner in what looked from the outside like a good restaurant. After the food came, however, we were convinced otherwise. What's more, half of the items listed on the menu were not even available. The experience was so unpleasant, in fact, that when a group of eight English-speaking prospective customers were being seated, I warned them, "You guys might want to reconsider," as I pointed at our food. From the Sicilian waiter's perspective, I had simply said something mysterious and pointed, and as if it were magic, the eight people, some of them nearly seated, turned around and filed out. The waiter was dumbfounded. The remainder of the dinner passed awkwardly. We did not order anything else for fear that someone would piss in our food, as if they hadn't already.

I soon discovered a five-euro pizza margherita at an English pub close to our hostel. I survived on that during my final three nights in Catania. I'd order the pizza and take it to the square by the theater, eating it as I watched the annoying bands of gothic school children giggling and making shrill noises.

In the evenings, Daniel and I would go on long walks throughout the city, well off the map. We would find a cafe and sit for hours over a coffee or beer. He told me about his purpose in Sicily as I told him mine. Initially, he had planned to follow Anna to another WWOOF site in the mainland, but my accounts of childhood obsessions rekindled his enthusiasm to understand his roots. Daniel then received, shortly afterward, an offer from a farm in Sicily not far from Catania. Anna departed for Lecce on the mainland first, and Daniel left the next day. I spent my day alone in Enna, the hometown of the main character in the novel that I wrote during 2000-2002. Enna, too, proved to be a tourist attraction, but not as severe a one as the others. That day, Sicily delivered its final blow to my mental fairy tale.

I was bound to Catania until June 11, the fifty-second day, since I had booked a cheap flight out of there to Milan. Daniel and I had grown tired of the monotony of the city. We had exhausted its churches and streets. Toward the end, we spent our time drinking thirty-cent espressos by the bus station, looking for something to do. Once, the final bus to Taormina had broken down, and the Italian bus company left a bus-full of tourists stranded in the shithole that is Catania, denying them refunds or alternative transportation. They simply told the customers that they must take the bus the next day. Daniel and I, with our broken Italian, managed to protest the rude and lazy ticket vendors before we escorted a group of the victims to the train station where we gave them the option of the final express train leaving that night or a ten-euro-per-head taxi that we negotiated. We had spent so much goddamn time in that town that we learned its ways: the cheap food, the distant supermarket, the bus schedules, the train schedules, the taxi fares, the good coffee joint by the station where the waitress was Polish, rather than Italian. An old German couple, afraid of missing its ferry to Malta the next morning, gave me a hug after its ride to Taormina was established. Daniel and I felt good that our forsaken sentence in Catania had amounted to at least some good.

By the final night, I was so depressed and frustrated that I got into a verbal argument with a phone card vendor. He said that a certain card got good rates to the US, but the card was not sold with documentation to back his claim. I was convinced that almost all Sicilian vendors were either lazy or they were cheaters and liars. I did not buy the card after he barked at me in his Indian-accented Italian, " buono!" (It's good!). Bullshit, it's good. I was frank with him about my fear that I would dial the number and hear that I had fifty minutes to the US instead of two hundreds and fifty.

Italian venders have little patience for inquiries about prices, probably because they are disappointed that you didn't just blindly order a drink to learn later that it costs 7.5 euros. In Taormina, I had asked a vendor the prices of three different drinks. Then when Daniel asked him the price of one, he yelled at him, accusing him of having asked the same question three times when he had only then opened his mouth. I wanted to reply by saying that if he posted his prices like a decent and honest person, we wouldn't ask for fear of getting ripped-off, but I figured that my best response was to ignore him and walk away to deprive him of my business.

An occasional vendor treated us with respect, inquiring into our endearing accents when we tried to speak their language. But for the most part, Sicily was ruined by its people and their attitude. It is shameful that a place with so much history and culture has been turned into this. I avoided any store that didn't post prices, figuring that they had something to hide.

The next day, I had to pay twenty euros to check my bag because the Sicilian ticket agent claimed that my bag would not comfortably fit in the cage established by easyJet regulations. He was giving all of the passengers a hard time, being Sicilianly unreasonable about the definition of "comfortable." Relatedly, be aware of budget airlines. My ticket to Milan was seventy euros after taxes, but of course the airline does not tell you about the cazzo (dick) behind the counter who will suck out another 28%. I had learned the Sicilian way to deal with these problems: swear at the sonofabitch. I had seen it done several times in the market and even at the check-in counter that day. When in Sicily, be an asshole, because you appear more Sicilian and therefore more likely to get away with something. Though I was not proficient in Italian profanity, I am pretty good in two other languages. I switched off yelling at the laamazhab until he apologized and told me to discuss it with customer service in Milan. The apology, of course, did not mean that I would be able to take my bag as a carryon.

In Milan, the bus from the airport to the train station ran forty minutes late. I yelled at the woman who had lied to me that the bus was leaving "adesso" (right now) to sell me the ticket that carried a fifty-cent premium. It is Italy, I told a New York couple: you pay dearly for the right to bend over. She said that she was calling the bus to see what the problem was. I asked her why nothing works right.

I took a train from Milan to Venice and another from Venice to Ljubljana, Slovenia. I felt a sense of relief when my phone beeped to alert me that I had left the Italian network and entered the Slovenian one. I was happy, once again, to be at the hands of the kind and helpful Yugoslavian people, away from the impatient Italian dogs who have ascended to such undeserved renown. I do not mean to generalize, for the Italians that I meet on the street are very kind when they are not selling something. It is unfortunate that the venders give the others a bad name.

On this train, I met two Norwegian girls, and my trip started to improve. They were planning a journey through the west Balkans, including Albania. I told them all about it. We became instant friends. Before we knew it, it was three in the morning and we had arrived in Ljubljana. They were meeting a local there, a friend, who called us a taxi. With one euro, I was at the hostel with a four-person room all to myself at a price that made Sicily look like Palo Alto. The next day, I day-tripped to picturesque Lake Bled. I met the Norwegian girls and some locals for drinks that night in the capital, a pretty town itself. By half past one, I was back at the hostel again.

The next morning, June 13, the fifty-fourth day, I awoke early to check out. I took a 10:12 train from Ljubljana to Munich. There, I looked into trains for Frankfurt. The standard fare was 85 euros, typical of the pricey but reliable German trains. But I read somewhere on the internet about a trick to get to Frankfurt on a budget: save fifty euros at the expense of three hours. I bought a Bavarian day pass to get to the edge of this province. From there, I bought a regional (slow) ticket the rest of the way to the Frankfurt airport. Cost: 35.6€.

I arrived at the airport at around half past eleven that evening after more than thirteen hours of transit on what amounted to five different trains. By the time I arrived, I was exhausted, so I joined many in the waiting area, where I spent the night. At five thirty the next morning, on June 14, the fifty-fifth and final day, I checked in at the Lufthansa counter when it opened and went straight for the business class lounge. There, I had a luxurious shower where I washed away the fatigue and filth of the trains. The showering facilities were the most luxurious that I had seen in two months. When I emerged, I was refreshed and ready for the return journey.

To briefly summarize my trip, I would consider Albania the most interesting place that I visited. The Albanians, Yugoslavians, and Bulgarians, furthermore, have been the kindest people. As far as scenery, the Slovenian countryside and the Montenegrin fjords win out. Naples, Italy and Budapest, Hungary have been the most beautiful cities, while Catania, Italy and Constanta, Romania have been the ugliest. Athens, Greece was hot and ugly too, but it doesn't set records. The worst places I slept were in the Romanian hotel, the train to Athens, the hostel in Athens, and the hostel in Catania. The Romanian and Italian people are the most unwelcoming and unhelpful. The best food I had was in Tiranë, Albania; Priština, Kosovo; and Belgrade, Serbia. The best hostels in which I stayed were in Bucharest, Romania; Zagreb, Croatia; Tiranë, Albania; and Naples and Palermo, Italy. They were good sometimes because of the accommodations, but mostly because of the staff.

I have met many travelers on this trip. Most I met in Italy have stuck to Western Europe. Their idea of Eastern Europe is Prague. Those whom I've met in the east have been more interesting, more daring. I appreciated their company and am lucky to know many of them.

Whenever somebody asked me on my trip where I have been, I usually tell them that I visited all of the Balkan countries. Their reaction is almost always, "Even Albania?"

Especially Albania, I say. Especially Albania.


Copyright © 2017 Sahand Rabbani
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