Chasing after ambulances

Chasing after ambulances

Jan 27, 2024

Hello friend,

Here in my little Sicilian village everyone holds their breathe, when they hear an ambulance race past.

Elderly people make the sign of the cross, wonder and ask where it stopped and out of curiosity, go to see.

They wait impatiently to hear the bad news.

It's a collective reaction to any misfortune. I've never been sure whether it's because of any genuine concern, morbid curiosity or simply for the sake of gossip.

Perhaps it's a little cynical of me to think the motive is because people only want to know other people's business. Everyone knows everyone in these small towns, so there is a good chance they will be related or acquainted with whoever is in the ambulance. 

I know it's all rather incestual, but the relationships in these towns go back through several generations, families, friends and acquaintances; the connections just seem to intertwine so intimately. 

I can never fully explain the intergenerational relationships formed in Sicily; I often say it's like a small town, but it's more than that, as some families have always seemed to have been here. 

Yes, some people come and go, the odd foreigner like myself, but the people are connected to Sicily in a much deeper, historical and cultural way compared to any other small-town culture I've seen.

This reminds me of a tattoo design I saw a few years ago of a map in the shape of Sicily made from a single line twisted and turned around to form a big indistinguishable knot or ball of string. 

Accompanied by the Sicilian phrase 'Sciogghi stu ruppu', which means 'untie this knot', which from the image is literally impossible. 

It's a unique kind of tattoo to have; if I ever were to get one, I'd consider getting something like this or some text, even though I don't particularly like tattoos. I appreciate them in others, but if I saw something in myself, I'd probably grow tired of it.

On a subconscious level, it reminds me of when I used to write on myself with a pen so I'd remember to do something, a habit I stopped when I realized that seeing ink on me gives me the impression of being dirty.

The connections between each Siclian to the next and then between the people and the island of Sicily itself are so tightly woven and interlinked it's literally impossible to untie them.

It is indeed impossible and infuriating to try and find a logical strand through the island's interwoven histories, stories and narratives. 

There are 13 different conquerors of the island, each with its own triumphs, wars, conflicts, creations and exiles. They all take something from the next and bleed into one another. 

Today, Sicilian culture is a mixture of these histories and much more. This makes for some fascinating material for historians and writers like myself, but it can be confusing, confounding and bizarre for those who visit to actually understand.

If I wasn't so cynical, I'd say it's endearing to see people's concerned reactions whenever an ambulance's siren peels out over the paese.

Whenever I hear an ambulance, I hope things aren't too serious and the people recover.

My mother always said: There, but for the grace of God go I.

Always so reassuring to have the constant reminder going around in my head that the ambulance can and might come for us one day (thanks for that, Mum!)

Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino wrote about Sicily's many different faces. He was fascinated by the multifaceted nature of the island, which was filled with many paradoxes and contrasting elements that often existed side by side. 

The complexity and instability of the island's cultural history have created an enigmatic place which is difficult to define.

Bufalino says there are so many Sicilies we can never finish counting them.

There is the green of the carob trees, the whites of the salt pans, the yellow of the sulphur mines, the golden colour of Sicilian honey, and the purplish colour of the lava flows of Etna. 

There is a certain Sicilia' babba', so laid back as to seem stupid, a Sicilia' sperta' or sly, capable of unspeakable acts of violence and fraud. 

There is a lazy Sicily, a frantic one, one that is fixated on the accumulation of property and wealth, one that acts out life like a Carnival character, one which lives in a whirlwind of delirium.

Why so many Sicilies? Because Sicily has had the destiny to find itself on the edge of great western and eastern cultures near the temptations of the desert and the sun, between reason and magic, the climate of sentiment and the heatwave of passion.

Sicily suffers from an excess of identity, unsure whether it is good or bad. Indeed, for those born here, the happiness of feeling like you are sitting on the belly button of the world doesn't last long. It is quickly replaced by the suffering of not knowing how to untangle yourself from the thousands of twists and knots of bloodlines that make up the thread of its destiny.

There are so many other Sicilies we will never finish counting them all.

There are many different colours, textures, contexts, stories, landscapes, and histories to witness. The island has a boundless personality, which is both exhausting and enthralling at the same time.

Sicily is a wonderful font of inspiration but can also be tiring and overwhelming. Sometimes, you must stop, close your eyes and break from being constantly stimulated. For example, when you need to step back from social media, it's a good idea to step back from the island and think of something else.

I'm in Sicily, trying to navigate its schizophrenic personality, sometimes clashing with some big culture shock moments as always and trying to give myself permission to rest, fail, learn and grow through life.

I'll be here in Sicily, struggling, overthinking, waking up each day with something new to see and share with you. And trying to learn something from this journey.

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to a holiday and a little breathing space later on in the year.

Hope you are well and enjoying these weekly letters from Sicily.

All the best from


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