This bizarre story begins in the spring of 2007 when my wife Ellen booked our trip to Sicily. Her maternal grandparents came to the U.S. from Sicily, so this was to be a special “roots” trip. I asked her to reserve a small car with a stick shift. In Sicily, I wanted to do as the Sicilians did.
Then in an early April senior softball game in Austin, on a wacky play, I dislocated a bone in my right shoulder. When I got home from an orthopedist’s office with my arm nicely fitted into a sling that I had to wear for six weeks, I asked Ellen to change the reservation on our rental car from a stick shift to an automatic. My shoulder was going to be slow in recovering and driving a stick shift in daredevil traffic would just be too much for my shoulder.
We landed in Palermo, coming in over sparkling seas on a brilliant sunny and balmy Sicilian day. We verified with the car rental agent that we indeed had a car with an automatic transmission reserved, and we headed out to get the car.
Map of Sicily. (Map credit)
To our amazement and delight, our rental car was a bronze-colored Mercedes sport utility vehicle. It was not as large as many SUVs in the U.S., but it was considerably larger than nearly all the other rental cars in the lot. It looked and smelled brand new. The number of kilometers shown on the odometer was so small that we had to be the first or second renters of the car.
We had lucked out, big time! Many other rental cars in sight, by comparison, looked like they had come from a demolition derby, having scrapes and dents from one end to the other. Minutes later as we drove into Palermo following the traffic at hyper speeds, we could tell that we were entering a unique driving adventure. But the adventure took some twists that we didn’t anticipate, and I mean real twists.
Twist Number One–Erice
The first was in the ancient town of Erice, high on a hill overlooking the sea on Sicily’s west coast. As we entered Erice (pronounced e-ree-chay) at midday, we turned up a hill on a very narrow street. As we approached the top of the hill, we came to a T-intersection that to our left was filled with diners sitting among numerous tables and chairs. The only way out was to our right.
The difficulty was that our Mercedes was too big to make the turn with any kind of ease. Within seconds, our left front bumper was extremely close to a building at the same time that our right rearview mirror was almost touching a downspout on the corner of a building to our right. As I maneuvered the car a bit, a group of five young English-speaking tourists was walking toward us. By this time we had the windows down so we could look out the doors to judge our distances better as one of them said to the group,
“He’s not going to make it.”
This sobering comment gave us pause, but we had to keep trying to make the turn. A kind young woman from the group came and stood by my car door to help me get out of this jam. I felt better as she quietly urged me to move a bit backward or forward as Ellen reported how close we were to the building by her right elbow. We then heard a disheartening crunch coming from the left rear of our car. I got out to look and saw that the painted area of the fender below the bumper had deep, dark scratches and a fist-sized dent made from a protruding cornerstone in the building behind us. Two dollar signs flashed before my eyes.
After a few more zigs and zags, I got through the turn with no more mishaps. This incident was on my mind for the remaining nine days of our trip around the circumference of Sicily, with several forays into its interior.
Twist Number Two—Taormina
Many miles, countless memorable sights, and about five days later, on the opposite side of the Sicilian coast in Taormina—one of the most memorable and picturesque places we have ever been—Twist Number Two came to the fore upon our arrival. We had been driving north along the east coast of Sicily, often near sea level, and began to approach the perimeter of Mount Etna, one of the world’s great active volcanoes. As we passed the mesmerizing volcano with its smoky peak, we began to enter Taormina and climb rapidly upward on a winding mountain highway with numerous switchbacks.
It was late afternoon, during Taormina’s rush hour, as we drove into the heart of town and approached our hotel. The sun had already dropped behind towering Mount Etna and here we were in its massive shadow.
Taormina and Mt. Etna, on Sicily’s northeast coast. (Photo credit)
Behind a string of slowly creeping cars, our hotel came into view to our left. As we inched toward the hotel’s entrance, we came to a street construction zone where a few men were digging a deep hole in the street with a backhoe. I asked Ellen to look out her window to see how far the hole was from our front wheel, while a fully loaded tour bus coming in the opposite direction sat directly in front of our hotel entrance. We were about a foot from the deep hole. I could see an orange caution flag on the tip of a steel re-bar leaning away from our car by about eighteen inches.
As the tour bus moved forward, I began to make my turn into the hotel driveway as traffic behind the bus waited for us. At that moment we heard a grinding screech from the right rear of our shiny new, already slightly marred Mercedes, but we were in mid-turn and we proceeded into the hotel parking lot and stopped at the entrance to unload our luggage.
Our first move was to look at the right rear of our car as a bellman came out to help us. Our left turn had pivoted the rear of our car into the re-bar, with its rough surface being perfect for removing the shiny bronze-colored paint from our otherwise almost pristine new car. Three more dollar signs flashed clearly before my eyes.
Twist Number Three—Cefalu
Before our trip ended, we stopped for a pleasant two nights’ stay in the historic village of Cefalu on Sicily’s north coast. We drove through the heart of town along a busy street lined with shops and restaurants, past an impressive ancient cathedral in the sloping town square. We drove slowly down the hill to where the street ended and we had to make a right turn near the water’s edge onto a narrow street that was lined with apartment buildings on both sides. The street was only slightly wider than the one in Erice.
As we drove slowly down this street, two middle-aged women were walking the same direction we were going. As we passed them, they backed up against a wall of a building to give us room. There were no sidewalks.
Moments later we arrived at the end of this little street, again facing a building in front of us. Our only option was to turn right, but the space seemed too narrow for our fancy little Mercedes SUV. As I pulled up and backed up, trying to navigate the turn, the two women we had passed came up behind us, both waving their arms in a gesture for us to move ahead. We were unable to tell whether they were suggesting we had plenty of room to make the turn, or whether they were telling us to get the hell out of their way.
As they were waving, I heard a grinding sound on the left front of the car that sounded like the wheel was scraping on a curb. When we arrived at the hotel, I pulled into a parking place near the entrance. Ellen and I got out to look at the car yet again. The left front wheel looked fine, with no scratches. That was a relief. But the left front fender, ahead of the wheel, had yet another fresh, highly visible, ugly, sickening scrape about six inches high.
We were beginning to feel accustomed to such mishaps, resigning ourselves to the fact that we were going to be in big trouble when we turned in the car at the Palermo airport. It was only money, we said to ourselves. We would recover from the loss in due time.
When the time arrived for us to depart for the airport, we were in high spirits and enjoyed the final drive in this elegant new Mercedes SUV. Well, it wasn’t as elegant as it was when we first rented it, but we felt this car helped add to the special nature of our trip to Ellen’s grandparents’ homeland.
We arrived early and parked the car in a designated space in the rental lot at the airport. A tall, swarthy Sicilian man about forty years of age with long black hair and a laid-back attitude came out to greet us with his clipboard. I handed him the keys as we got out of the car, admitting nothing, and proceeded to get our luggage from the back while he inspected the car.
He began his inspection at the driver’s door, walked back toward us as we got our luggage, went around the other side of the car, then around the front, and back to where he had started. We held our breaths. Then he gave us a broad smile, checked off something on his clipboard, gave us a slip to turn in inside to get our receipt, and said in broken English,
“Looks good! Have a nice flight.”
We could not believe our ears! His inspection was apparently to check for missing doors, tail lights, broken windows, and shattered headlights. All of these things were intact on the car, and we unbelievably passed with flying colors.
We did indeed have a nice flight.