A Tourist Guide: Strategies For Driving in Sicily

Those are not Christmas lights!

Forget everything you’ve ever learned about driving. Your parents, Drivers Ed coach, and the books you’ve read are no help for you here. In Sicily, your “rules” do not apply.

The “modern vehicle” is not the convenient and potentially lethal method of human transport that the rest of the world considers it to be. In Sicily, operating a vehicle is simply a means for you to transport your ego from one place to another. If you happen to simultaneously avoid some of the more “annoying cultural advances” like common human decency, well … complements to you!

Growing up in the United States, I learned very early that sensible, safe driving is a virtue. After living in Sicily for more than one year, I have learned that driving is a national sport, and that the sport of driving is a virtue. I have not yet learned all the “methods of engagement” but so far as I can tell, the only prize seems to be getting from point A to point B. Any other personal drama that you wish to bring to the table, feel free to improvise.

During one of my recent (near death) outings with a friend, I asked him about the chaos on the roads. He has lived in Milan and in Sicily all of his life. He said, “We [Italians] drive logically.”

Of course, this isn’t all he said. He spoke at length about the benefits of “Video Game driving” … His point (though built like a maze) was easily summed up in a few short words: Why do anything (at least in the moment, and in your own omniscient opinion) you don’t want to do? Stopping at an intersection, for instance. It’s stressful. You have to press the clutch and the brake pedal and down shift. That’s just going to slow you down. Who needs that shit? Our egos needed to be somewhere an hour and a half ago …

The number one thing to remember when driving in Sicily is that Sicilians hate rules like vampires hate sunlight. After two thousand years (plus) of foreign occupation, religious and political wars, and socio-political interference into their daily lives and habits, the cultural imperative is to have a thick skin, to disobey, to resist, to remain … forever … Sicilian. If that means disobeying a few signs and/or banging into a few obstacles along the way, so be it. Who the hell cares? Are you still Sicilian? You bet! Well, every thing’s fine then … more or less.
AAA advice for driving in Sicily: “Close your eyes and go.”

I don’t want to continue loitering on the subject of the lawlessness of Sicily’s driving public. It’s legendary for a reason. I do want to offer the following guidelines for the adventure traveler interested in driving like a local.

1) Get (extra) insurance – For a nominal fee you can drive like there’s no one else on the road (think Nitrous-oxide-induced bumper cars). The rental company will handle any ‘incidente’ when you return the car.

2) Safety is a scheme contrived by the English – Whether you are a family of four traveling home from the supermarket with groceries and mico-cellulare in hand on a Vespa, or a team of farmers bringing their crop to market in a single seater Ape – helmets, seatbelts, even windshields are sempre considered “optional.”

3) Turn indicators – Forget you have these. You don’t need them … unless you are on the autostrada and you want to assert your natural born right to stay in the left/fast lane. (You will want to followup the use of the left turn indicator by furiously flashing your high beams – see item No. 4 for instructions.) On city streets, it is generally preferred that you use the turn indicator as an indication that you intend to do something, some time, even if you don’t know what you might do at the time you start your indicator. If you need to take time to think about what you might eventually do, just pretend the traffic behind you is a queue of politicians.

4) High beams – Use your high beams whenever you wish to assert your dominance of the road ahead of you. PLEASE NOTE: You should be confident in your horsepower and driving skills. After flashing your high beams at another vehicle, you must pass them quickly, slowing only to slander them as you overtake them. Always use both hands when commenting on the diminished capacity of a slower driver. [See item No. 6 for additional ‘Communications Strategies’.]

Practice these hand gestures so you are prepared to use them as needed.

5) Lanes – There is no Italian translation for ‘the-practice-of-maintaining-a-vehicle-inside-the-lines-just-because-some-tight-ass-bureaucrat-thinks-it’s-safer.’ You want to use the entire road. In some instances, the sidewalks qualify as a regional variation on the definition of what a ‘road’ is.

6) Communications – The modern automobile is an extension of your potential to communicate often complex human emotions. a) The first step in communicating is knowing that everyone else on the road is an asshole. Don’t just think this, know this, own it. It will help your communications skills as you b) prepare for any and all altercations – much like a minor-league boxer would prepare for a shot at the title. If anyone upsets you as you attempt to go from points A to B, it is crucial that you stare them down and mutter into a closed hand as you shake it, like you’re teasing your mouth with a bit of food; if you can invoke a saint’s name while doing this, it will accentuate your infallibility. c) If anyone offers you a courtesy, know that they should not be trusted. Tell them you don’t trust them using the aforementioned communications strategies. (It is almost certain that you will be speaking to yourself most of the time. Therefore, it is imperative to understand that the emphatic use of ones hands when communicating is respected more that the € in Sicily.)

7) The Autostrada – Merge into speeding traffic without looking. Drive without abandon, using steps 1-6 as guidelines. Everyone else on the roadway is operating under a “Bumper-Car Mentality.” When passing a slower moving vehicle, strobe your high beams as you ride their ass like you’re doing the Lambada, then insult them as you pass using any number of the Sicilian hand signals alluded to in items No. 5 & 6. Again, the concept of “lanes” does not exist in Sicily. Feel free to use the shoulder, the staggered line ‘lane’, and/or an actual ‘lane’ to transport your ego safely to point B.

8) Parking – Do whatever you want: double or triple park, block someone in, park in a driveway, ‘park’ in the middle of a busy street; or as the Sicilians do, with at least one tire on the curb, at an angle, so your bumper is hanging out in the street just enough to slow but not stop traffic (also called a spina di pesce, for the way anchovies are skewered for the BBQ, at an angle). There are parking spaces that you can pay for and those designated for the handicap. If you get busted for parking in a handicap space and you’re not a gimp or something, pretend to be. Talk at them for hours about your bum leg, the government crooks, your nonna’s bad breath … whatever you want to talk about, as long as you keep talking and you get out of the ticket … how is your Sicilian?

9) Stop signs – These unimportant nuisances are extremely rare. I only include this item in this list because it is possible that you might see one, and it might slow you down. If you do see one, sound your horn and accelerate through the sign/intersection.

Your average rotunda in Sicily, Italy

10) Accidents – These random occurrences rarely (if ever) happen in Sicily. Despite what you might presume about the dents on the cars, the side-view mirrors hanging from a cable, the crushed fenders, dented doors, plastic sheeting instead of window glass, missing hubcaps, scarred metal, busted indicators and headlights, and twist-tie suspended bumpers … accidents are a phantasm of the media. If you are ever in one of these media-induced manifestations, remember that you purchased extra insurance in item No. 1. There is no need to worry. Blame should ALWAYS be placed on the cretin whose car contacted yours.

11) Rotundas – These semi-circular intersections are like stopNshops, you get in and you get out with what you need. There are usually four options for exiting a rotunda – right, straight, left, and the way you came. Consider it a four-way stop with a tree or a fountain in the middle. Please note, rotundas can also be great places to park, or have a conversation with someone you haven’t seen in a few hours. They are (for obvious reasons) a wonder of modern European civil engineering.

I know it might seem like a lot to remember, but if you find yourself feeling a little overloaded with information, please consider that 1) you are always alone on the road, 2) you are never to blame, and 3) your destination is all that matters … Well, that and making sure your ego arrives intact, like a smartly wrapped gift for everyone to adore.

But remember, always remember, before everyone arrived at your party, they were also on the road. While they don’t matter on the road, they matter now. And you might as well be friends.


2 thoughts on “A Tourist Guide: Strategies For Driving in Sicily

  1. I wish we read this last week. Especially how to park “a spina di pesce”. That would have saved countless minutes looking for somewhere “legitimate” to stop. Like any good tourist, we are driving a car slightly to big for the road so sorry, gotta go now and read the fine-print of my Amex cardholder agreement to see if I owe the deductible when we bring back our rental with no mirrors…

    • … Thanks for the comment … Also consider the curb as a general suggestion where to stop the vehicle. The curbs are often low enough to make it easy for us all to find a place. I often find the easiest guidance is just to do what others are doing, and leave the worrying to, well, who cares … Happy driving!

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