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In search of Sicily’s shrimps


Driving here is a bit of a sensory overload.  With vehicles racing through the streets and parking on sidewalks, street vendors jutting out into traffic, and people milling about in the middle of the road as though it is before the dawn of the automobile industry, it’s all a little crazy.  But that’s just the visual.  Audible distractions are the ever-present sound of car horns and the loud drivers yelling out their window to make others get out of the way.  Yet the largest distraction while driving in the streets of this compact Sicilian town is the fear of death. A typical scenario is an oncoming Alpha Romeo passing a Fiat Panda at about 60 mph but making it back into his respective lane merely feet before hitting the oncoming traffic, which just so happens to be me.  Splendid, where do I sign up?

Luckily, I am a relatively calm driver, but little did I know what was in store for me after I had been driving for only two days and I had to go to the fish market.  I was jointly putting on a shrimp boil that weekend for about 45 people and was in charge of picking up the shrimp and ice.  The first stumbling block on this little excursion was the fact that we are in Europe and they don’t really “do” ice.  This generalization was affirmed when I asked an English-speaking shopkeeper where I could buy bags of ice to keep 22 kilograms (almost 45 pounds) of shrimp and to chill enough beer to support a frat party at the University of Colorado. 

Beatrice told me with a confused look on her face that she had never even heard of the act of purchasing ice.  “If I need ice, I make it with my ice trays,” she said.  However, she was quite interested in the American “tradition” to be able to walk up to a convenience store and pull out pre-bagged, safe-to-eat ice for a very cheap price.  It was a true novelty. 

I couldn’t give up yet, though, even if the stars were against me.  After all, they can’t cure all their meat with salt.  But my first goal was to find the shrimp.  So at 6:30 on a rainy Friday morning, I headed down to the fish market, as instructed, to beat the crowds.  Well I beat them all right.  At 6:30 a.m., I was successful in beating the crowds, the traffic, the vendors, and most definitely the fish.  Thus, I was told to come back in two hours by some local wondering around the area.  At 8:30 I was back and looking for as much gamberetti, or shrimp, that I could find.

No one had near the amount of shrimp I was looking for, so I bought all that I could and then I asked around where I could find ice.  About 10 of the fishermen gathered around to hear me pronounce “ghiaccio,” the Italian word for ice, and laughed heartily when they heard how much of it I needed.  One man in particular, who had a scruffy beard and wore rubber boots that one could scallop in, brought me around to tell some of the other fishermen on the other side of the market what I was asking for.  They all laughed and probably made crass jokes about the white girl.  He kept tying to speak Italian to me and even though I kept saying “tranquillo” (slowly) and “parlo poco Italiano (I speak little Italian), he didn’t slow down for a second and instead emphasized his already dramatic hand gestures, which Italians are famous for.  So I just mimicked him and after a moment of being quite baffled, he began to laugh and thought my impression of him was even cuter than my trying to buy a boatload of ice.

But after the rounds of chuckling, I was able to make it out of there with a map to the ice-selling fish house.  In the misting rain, I loaded up the hatchback of the 1994 Opel Calibra with my shrimp and a bouquet of fresh flowers I purchased at the flower stand just outside the market.  As I began to drive down to the port where Mare Verde, the fish house, is located, I noticed my seat was having trouble staying put.  Since the Calibra is a standard transmission, I needed the seat close enough to reach the clutch.  So I began using the steering wheel to pull myself forward as I engaged the clutch in hopes of preventing the seat from slinging back.  This method didn’t work and my driving was showing it; so the onslaught of honking began.

Whenever an Italian driver is even slightly annoyed by another driver, he feels it is his duty to notify that person by a series of loud and constant beeps of the horn.  It’s charming, really.  Guided to the fish house by a full entourage of honkers, I eventually made it and bought an entire trash bag of ice.  That was when I noticed my wallet missing; it must have fallen out at the fish market back in town.  With credit cards, identification, and about $170 in cash, this was not good.

So I hopped in Trusty Dusty for another fun ride and raced back down to the market.  The seat was getting worse and as I was coming in to park on a one-way street, my speed was so low that when my foot slipped off the clutch as a result of the sliding seat, the car would stall out.  This happened several times as I was trying to parallel park and multiple vehicles began to collect behind me, including a large cargo truck.  As you may have guessed, they were all beginning to honk. 

The trick of holding onto the steering wheel was to no avail whatsoever any longer, and the bucking stalls caused me to knock into the car in front and back of the parking space I was trying to pull into.  The calmness I had somehow been able to maintain throughout this experience was long gone, and I almost left the car half in and half out of the space preventing build up of cars from getting by.

Big shrimp..

But thankfully, after several minutes of this momentary hell, I was able to get out of the space and double park up the road.  As I was getting out of the car and cursing life, a kind little shop owner came out shouting, “Signora! Signora! Portafoglio!”  It turned out he found my wallet and unbelievably turned it into the police.  He must have recognized me from earlier—not too difficult to recognize a freckled, light-haired person among the sea of swarthy complexions—and he led me to the police officer who was had my wallet. 

So that was a fun experience.  But I have my wallet back, the seat is fixed, the party was a hit, and we have enough shrimp to last us until Wal-Mart comes to Italy. 

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