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Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Dodging bullets

Today is a special day in my history of living Sicily. It was today that I received my first death threat from a local mafioso, and I intend to wear this as a "badge of honour". This is like a coming of age for a Sicilian I think, you can never stand up and proudly call yourself a man until some local, illiterate, goat appreciating, low level member of the mafia has threatened to blow your head off with his rabbit hunting rifle.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is to drive around the amazing Sicilian countryside. For a lover of nature and rural driving Sicily, is savagely beautiful, with its mountain ranges meeting the crystal clear Mediterranean water. Conversley, one of the greatest dangers in life is to actually drive anywhere in Sicily. Driving is truly a contact sport for the Sicilians. In a land where acquiring a driving license in as easy as waking up in the morning, travelling 100 km without seeing at least one or two accidents is the exception, not the norm.

This weekend, we decided to take a "working" tour of the wineries and agriturismi surrounding the Mount Etna area. We are organising a tour for 25 wine and food lovers coming from Malta over Easter ready to indulge themselves in the finest, authentic Sicilian produce and wine. So in the name of research and preparation we spent a weekend of tastings and samplings. Life can be hard sometimes.

While driving to inspect a beautiful agriturismo property amidst the spectacular Alcantara Gorges, located down one side of the smouldering Etna, it was necessary for us to take a narrow, winding country road. Behind me was an amazingly fat man in an amazingly small Ape (the gravity defying three wheeled mini pick up tucks found all over Sicily), blaring his horn in an incredible display of impatience. You need to be aware that these Ape's have an engine not much larger than the average lawn mower, so to one trying to overtake you akin to you driving as fast as granny on a church day.

Admittedly, we were driving slow, not only because of the dangerous, narrow and winding road, but also because of the incredible view that the gorges offered us in the distance. One never ceases to be amazed at the incredible natural beauty of Sicily.

As we turned a blind corner we were faced bumper to bumper with an old Sicilian man in his little white VW bug. Fortunately we stopped within millimetres of the VW, but unfortunately for the man in the Ape behind us, who we shall refer to endearingly as "uomo grasso", he didn't appear to have the luxury of brakes, preferring, I believe, the Fred Flintstone method of stopping his vehicle. As a result he ploughed into a stone wall next to us to our right. Remember the top speed of these Ape's is about as fast as a sloth on valium, so you would expect the damage to be minimal. Not so, the windscreen shattered like a match stick. Although this was probably because the vehicle was indeed constructed with match sticks.

Out emerged our "uomo grasso", and with his large, but malleable figure quickly retaking the form of a vaguely human shape after having a shape similar to the outline of the small drivers compartment of the Ape he was in, he loudly and aggressively remonstrated with us, blaming us for his stupidity and sheer madness in trying to overtake on a blind narrow corner - and in an Ape for god's sake!

Within minutes, as always happens anywhere in Sicily, 10 curious onlookers popped up. It seems no matter where you are in Sicily, you could be in the remotest corner of the island, and if an accident occurs, 10 people will always pop up to offer their "help" and opinions. This appears to be one their national sports and pastimes. Where these people came, I have no idea. We were in the countryside, miles from any village.

One of the onlookers, took us aside and said something along the lines of the fact that our "uomo grasso" was only a poor, simple peasant, and we should feel sorry for him. In fact, we should offer him a small amount of money to help him as he will not be able to afford to repair his working truck, the Ape. At this stage, we were thinking that maybe 20 or 30 euro would be a good an kind hearted gesture. As long as he didn't spent it on hamburgers, I would have been happy. The "small amount" that the onlooker was referring to was not 20 or 30 euro but 700 euro!. And he said this with a totally straight face. We couldn't help but burst out laughing at this proposal. I was laughing until I realised that I was in a foreign country, in a foreign place, with little language skills, in a remote country road, with about 10 hardcore, native, dialect speaking Sicilian men staring at me as if I was Marilyn Monroe with a two day growth, next to one of their "brothers" in a smashed-up working truck. It then dawned upon me that laughing in their faces was not necessarily a smart, or life-extending, thing to do.

These were situations that Alice had warned be about living in Sicily. No one can hear you scream and no one will know you are gone.

Although we dropped the laughing routine we still kept up our bravado, this is Sicily after all, and said that we were happy to pay the 700 euro if that is what the insurance company says and we will call the police now to adjudge the situation.

At that stage, "uomo grasso" told us to forget about it and leave - Now! No doubt because he lacked any insurance or registration at all for his Ape. Taking our cue we jumped straight back in the car and drove off within a microsecond, but not before "uomo grasso" had threatened to execute us Sicilian style (whatever that means, and I do not intend not speculate) in the heaviest Sicilian dialect I have ever heard.

We did get out of this situation alive, and there was probably never any real danger, but in Sicily you just never know. This is a harsh land. Maybe that is why I feel such an affinity and connection with it. The harshness of the Australian countryside, while very different, evokes similar emotions. It is the feeling that Sicily is not for beginners - it is a wild place with danger yet incredible beauty and immense satisfaction. To conquer Sicily is to conquer life.

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