The start of an Italian adventure

I arrived in Catania for my Italian language full-immersive learning experience  mid-May, before the weather had got too warm, having ridden my motorbike from Shropshire in the UK, via a ferry to Dieppe, and then Besancon crossing the Italian border to Genoa to catch the ferry to Palermo: this took me 5 days in all. I avoid motorways wherever possible when riding: it’s slower and much harder work but far more interesting too since you get to see so much more and meet interesting people too. On arrival in Palermo, I rode across Sicily to Ragusa to stay with some friends at their farm for a couple of days.

Welcomed in Catania

So, I arrived in Catania at Margherita and Mimmo’s (my hosts) bang on 5pm, the appointed time and Margherita was already waiting to meet me. They showed me where to park my bike in the garage, and to my spacious room just above the garage. I then spent an hour and a half with them that evening while Margherita told me all about her agri-business and what they grew there. It was my first extended exposure to Italian conversation and I went to bed that night utterly exhausted by the concentration required. It was nevertheless excellent preparation for 3 weeks of Italian lessons, and I have enjoyed talking to them every morning at breakfast: Margherita always has a lot to say and I can highly recommend the immersion!

A rocky start

Unfortunately, I had picked up a virus, probably on the ferry a few days before, and so that night I got quite ill and this lasted for a couple of days. Margherita kindly provided me with some basic supplies to make me comfortable and get me back on my feet and I was ready, albeit a little feeble, for Italian lessons at the Giga International House on Monday.

Ready for Italian lessons at Giga IH Catania school
Ready for Italian lessons at Giga IH Catania school

Navigating Catania

I had been to Catania a couple of times the previous year so I already knew my way around the city. However, I discovered that walking uphill to get to the school on time could get me quite overheated so I decided to use the bike if possible to get to school from then onwards. Catania traffic is not for the faint-hearted, but my experience as a former bike courier in London stood me in good stead. In spite of what many people say, the traffic is not as bad as in many other cities I’ve lived in or visited but you do have to take care because it can be both pretty lawless and competitive. My advice for survival – don’t even think of competing!

Immersed in the Italian language learning

I shared my classes in the first two weeks with a student from Greece, who was learning Italian for his work as a flight attendant and in the last week I have been in class with an American academic, staying here with her father’s Sicilian family and a semi-retired Dutchman. Besides I have met Brazilians, Germans and a Kenyan priest all studying here at different levels of ability and we’ve chatted together in Italian outside of class: we’ve generally all tried to keep speaking Italian outside class as much as possible, which really helps. We’ve all been studying Italian for some time using various resources (including online apps) and have all come here to help boost our confidence particularly with speaking and listening. Our teachers, who change over every week, have been very patient, teaching always in the medium of Italian. It can be hard work but, speaking for myself at least, the results are self-evident after three weeks and I even had someone, a fellow motorcyclist in Randazzo, say to me last weekend that I spoke good Italian, which I really hadn’t been expecting!

Weekend Explorations

The following weekend, I took the bike out to explore around Etna. It started raining and by the time I got to Nicolosi it was very wet. More to the point, the roads became very greasy and quite hazardous for a bike, particularly on the old stone pavers in the towns, so I decided to turn around, return to the flat and try another time. Instead I enjoyed the Saturday market in town and explored Catania a bit more.

The following Monday I rode my bike along the coast to Taormina which, while pretty and interesting, is overrun by tourists: even a coffee costs twice as much there as in Catania and the streets had fancy stores such as Louis Vuitton. Not for me at all, I’m afraid, but at least I’ve been there now.

The following weekend I went out again to explore Etna and the north-east of the island, which is quite beautiful, verdant and very different from the blazing white dry limestone landscape of Ragusa and Modica that I am already familiar with. However, my attempts to return directly to Catania were frustrated by a closed road. Rather than turn back the way I’d come, I tried to find a route in an area with very few roads across the mountains so I used the Maps app on my phone to find a way over towards Taormina. I did, in fact, find a way but it took me about 15 kilometers off-road on a rough mountain track before I found proper paved roads again: there’s a lesson there about using phone apps for road navigation in Sicily! It’s your choice whether you do or not: it all worked out well in the end for me  and I had loads of fun while wondering if I’d ever find civilisation again, but you really have to be confident in tricky driving conditions.

Conclusion

During my three weeks here there have been a number of social events either arranged by or recommended by Alessandro. We had a caponata cooking lesson from my host, Mimmo, which I can heartily recommend for foodies.

Cooking lesson
Cooking lesson

For my part, I’ve particularly enjoyed the classical concerts here: the first, a symphonic concert in the Teatro Massimo (definitely to be recommended, if only for the spectacle of the building), a quite intimate tribute to Bellini by a small chamber group in a church and also a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro by a mix of music students and professionals: all very competent and highly enjoyable. Catania is definitely a city of culture behind that noise, dust and bustle. I have become very fond of the place and confess that I too now think of that smoking mountain in the background of all activity here as ‘Mamma Etna’. I think maybe I’ve gone a bit native.

So, the end of my time here draws near and I now have three weeks to ride back up through Italy, Switzerland and France back home to the UK. I’ll be stopping overnight in Naples: now that’ll be traffic on a totally different level!

Andy, UK

Andy restarts on his bike after the experience at Giga IH Catania
Andy takes his road to UK after the experience at Giga IH Catania

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