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Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany: We chat to author Shamus Sillar about his new book


Our colleague Shamus Sillar’s first book, Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany, has recently been published by Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. Based on his and long-suffering teacher wife Gill’s experiences during their honeymoon year in the gritty Sicilian city of Catania, it’s a page-turning mix of travelogue, history and culinary adventure, with lots of self-deprecating Aussie humour. We love it!

Why Italy and – the bigger question – why Sicily?

Italy was a no-brainer. We’d been hankering to live there for ages. As for Sicily, I admit it seems like an odd choice over, say, Rome or Florence. But deciding to move there didn’t feel strange at the time because Gill and I had been living in the far northeast of China, close to the Siberian border. That was strange.

Fair enough, but why Catania, a city that sits in the shadow of a very active volcano?

Gill’s fault! She accepted a job offer there. To be honest, we knew of the potential danger of Mount Etna but we figured, “What’s the likelihood that it will erupt during our short stint?”

But you were wrong.

Utterly. A few weeks after we arrived, the volcano erupted with more force than it had for 150 years. It spewed boiling magma 200 metres into the air, caused multiple earthquakes and landslides, destroyed buildings and generally wreaked havoc. And it just wouldn’t stop. In the end, the eruption lasted three months, cost a billion euros, and ejected enough debris to fill 90,000 Olympic swimming pools.

On days when the wind was blowing straight over Catania, the ash would rain down on the city. We had to carry umbrellas around even when the weather was fine. Volcanic ash is horrible stuff, too – it blocks drains, it covers the road and makes driving dangerous, and it gets in your food, your eyes and your undies. None of which makes for a great honeymoon.

I’m amazed at the resilience of the Sicilians who live near Mount Etna. In fact, Sicilians in general are incredibly tenacious. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been invaded for 3,000 years by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards and others, and then had the Mafia to make life painful.

What possessed your long-suffering wife to support you for a year while you kept house, scribbled and travelled around Sicily?

Got away with murder, didn’t I? Gill has a British passport thanks to her mum, so she’s allowed to work in the EU. I’m just an Aussie, so I wasn’t afforded the same “privilege”. So really, my only option was to be a lazy, unemployed house husband. I’ve been making up for it ever since.

What’s your favourite Italian or Sicilian word?

Boh!” This is a one-word response given by a person when they don’t know the answer to a question. It’s halfway between “Beats me!” and “Whatever”, and is always accompanied by a dismissive shrug. It’s a great conversation ender.

For the record, we learnt pretty decent Italian while we there (most of which we’ve now forgotten) but Sicilian is an entirely different kettle of fish – about as close to Italian as English is to Old English.

What’s your favourite Italian or Sicilian dish?

Catania’s famous dish is spaghetti alla Norma, named after the opera by Bellini who was born there. The main ingredients are fried eggplant and blackened ricotta. It’s awesome. My real soft spot, though, is for spaghetti ai ricci, made with the orange roe of sea urchins. And for something sweet, you can’t go past the quintessential Sicilian dessert, cannoli. As Clemenza says in The Godfather, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli.”

Of all the weird things you ate in Sicily, which was the weirdest?

Our next-door neighbour in Catania was a fisherman, and he would routinely knock on our door with food offerings – usually barbecued seafood. The Sicilians eat every squiggly piece of marine life they can find. One day he gave me a plate of white heart-shaped objects, each the size of a thumb. They were apparently the gonads or some other internal organs of a cuttlefish. Whenever I ate weird things like this, Gill would stand in the corner of the room, watching with her head turned slightly away like someone waiting for a firecracker to go off.

You had some bad moments during your year in Sicily – being robbed, crashing a Vespa, a mystery illness – but what were the best moments?

Travelling. Sicily is an astonishing island, with stunning but sleepy medieval towns in the interior and some dazzling resort towns on the coast. It’s not all beautiful, mind you. And the poverty can be a real eye-opener.

We also loved our neighbours – the aforementioned fisherman and his family; funny, salt-of-the-earth people. They helped us get through the bumpy periods.   

Anything new in the pipeline?

I’m hoping to write a book about our experiences in China. But work is super-busy in Singapore, and I also have daughters aged five and three who are relentlessly brutal in their demands for “Daddy Time”, so it could be a while. 

Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany is published by Allen & Unwin. Signed copies are available through Expat Living: call 6259 0058.