So what made you come to Italy? Surely it wasn't all about escaping the UK weather?
I'd intended to go to Argentina, actually! Having finished my EFL teacher training I did a summer school in the UK. The Director of Studies (DoS) had just left a school in Maglie, Salento (you can see where this is going), because he wanted to move to Spain. His ex-boss needed new staff, and after my DoS had seen me teach he said he was happy to put me forward for the job. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not knowing much Italian, how did you find living in a small town? Did the locals welcome you with open arms?
It wasn't so much the small-town living that made it hard – in fact, I think it was probably easier than living in a big, anonymous city – but more that my language ability limited me so much. Down at the bottom of the heel isn't a big tourist area, so many people just don't speak English at all. Not that I wanted to speak English – one of my main reasons for wanting to move to a foreign country was to learn a new language – but at the beginning I knew less than nothing.
One of my saving graces, funnily enough, was teaching a class of five year olds. I'd show flashcards to teach them the English words and they'd immediately shout out the word in Italian. I learnt a lot from them.
Did you have any moments when you felt like packing it all in and going home?
Yes. Plenty. I wrote about my lowest point at the time; the post can be seen here.
That was when it was worst – when it rained constantly for three months and when I had absolutely no friends. But, as the title of the post says, things were darkest before the dawn and by the time summer rolled around I knew that I wanted to do another year in Italy. For personal reasons I needed to move away from the Salento, so I moved to Calabria to teach.
That was a hard year for different reasons – by the end of the year I was burnt out, professionally. However, I also played harder. I joined a choir and started actually speaking Italian, rather than being the constant listener that I was in the Salento. If the Salento gave me a taste of Italy, Calabria got me addicted. By the end of that year I knew I was here to stay.
So how did you end up in Catania?
Calabria is just a short ferry ride across the Straits of Messina from Sicily. I therefore came over to Catania for a weekend jolly with one of the other teachers from my school in Calabria. We had a great time and I came away thinking that I wanted to know more about the city underneath the volcano.
So, after a summer in Taormina studying Italian, I applied for a teaching job in Catania on a whim. The job was offered to me, I took it, and here I am.
So you write now as well as teach. Is it a challenge to find freelance work from Sicily or do you find that being there actually helps?
My writing niche is southern Italy from an English-speaker's point of view, so this is absolutely the right place to be. I could do the work that I do from England, I suppose, but it would be a lot harder.
Your blog is called Driving Like a Maniac. So do you drive a Vespa?
No, I don't! I've actually only once even been on a Vespa, as a passenger for a five minute journey down the road to my friend's house.
The title of the blog came out of car driving in the Salento. Oh, and Calabria's even crazier. I don't have any form of transport now, given that I live in the middle of a city, but I'm getting more and more of a hankering to get myself a little moped. I just need to find someone to give me a few lessons so that I don't kill myself first ride out.
Sicily is still pretty much off the beaten track for expats. What sets it apart, in terms of living, from other parts of Italy?
I've only ever lived in the south, so it's hard to compare. However, the things that I love about it are the weather, the food and the beauty of it all. The fact that it's not touristy is one of its charms. Yes, it's frustrating that the transport infrastructure is so chaotic and it's hard to get to the places that you want to see without having your own transport, but that just makes them all the more wonderful when you do get there.
The wonderful thing about Sicily is how local it is. Every town or region has its own speciality. The food that you get in Catania is different from the food that you get in Messina, which in turn is different from Palermo. The sense of identity here is very strong. This can be intimidating for outsiders, but it's also wonderful to learn about and slowly become integrated into the culture.
You live with locals. Have they imparted any culinary tricks?
Of course! One of the girls I live with comes from an orange farming family near Taormina, and the other is a born and bred Catanese with a Palermitano father, so there's a rich vein of cooking culture to be mined from both of them. Along with Driving Like a Maniac, I also write a food blog called Quasi Siciliana (almost Sicilian), the title of which came out of one of the best compliments I've ever received.
I was cooking caponata one day and as the smell of frying vegetables and agrodolce sauce wafted through the house the girls came out of their rooms, following their noses. They pronounced the smell exactly that which comes out of every Italian nonna's (grandmother’s) house every Sunday morning, and named me 'Siciliana nel cuore' (Sicilian at heart).
Any plans to go back to the UK? Is there anything you miss about it?
No and no! This is my home now. It may not be forever, but for now it works for me. Why fix what ain't broke?
What would you advise others who have an inkling to up sticks and move to Italy?
Learn at least enough Italian to get by before you get here. It will make integration much easier. As I've proved, it's possible to get by without it, but I did also have the support network provided by the schools in which I worked – finding a flat off my own bat at the end of last year would have been nigh-on impossible had I not spoken Italian, for instance. Don't expect it to be all sunshine and all wine, all of the time.
The place that you fell in love with on holiday will show its downsides when you live there full time. Life in your current city isn't wonderful every day – some days your job is hard, some days you have a fight with your boyfriend, some days the weather is rubbish and you have a hangover and you don't want to get out of bed, but you have to because if you don't go to work then you don't get paid – and it's no different here. Everyday living is the same the world over. It's just finding the place that you're happiest to be in every day that's the trick.