Home and away / by Mario Mirabile

I confess my heart leaped slightly when I first spotted the Sicilian coastline through the plane windows. Even though I am thoroughly Australian, this is where my family's roots are, where they worked the land for hundreds of years before war and the subsequent hard times caused my parents to leave in search  of a better life. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by my first taste of driving in Italy, or for that matter, anywhere outside Australia. Peak hour in Palermo is not for the faint hearted - the traffic goes in every direction simultaneously It's probably OK if you grew up driving in this mayhem, in which case you know the rules. Contrary to popular belief, there ARE rules, it's just that they're not the ones codified in the law books.

Nevertheless, we got to our hotel safely, and I promptly hit the streets. I was initially disappointed with what I found. In Palermo, the apartments buildings crowd together much like any other Italian metropolis, but the colours are more muted and earthy, and everything feels a bit more tired. The great public buildings (except the concert hall) all look like they could do with some renovation. As I walked down the street leading from our hotel, I barely encountered a soul, but things changed when I got closer to the waterfornt.

There was a convention of Bersaglieri in town. Bersaglieri (marksmen) are elite troops distinguished by their distinctive plumed hats and their tendency to do everything in a hurry (ever seen a running brass band???). The mostly retired troops provided great entertainment and following a refreshing gelato (much better and cheaper than up north of course), I made my way back to the hotel via a different route. It was a real eye-opener. Everyone was out having a good time. There was street food on every corner, market stalls and crowds. We'd had crowds elsewhere, especially Venice, but I got the feeling that these people were locals just enjoying their city. I suddenly felt much better about Palermo. Now, if only they could do something about the traffic.