palermo christmas lights

By the time I boarded the flight home I was exhausted. The final two weeks had been some of the hardest weeks of this year, and at times this year has been tough.

First though, before I can explain why they were so tough, I have to explain some things about me. I’m incredible lucky. I’ve grown up witnessing a beautiful loving relationship in my parents. There is tolerance and patience in my home. Nobody has ever shouted at me. If anyone is going to slam doors, it’s only going to be me. My family will tease me for it later on, as they should.

I moved into a house with an Italian couple. They’d married later in life. Each had two grown children who lived in the city. This is Sicily, and whilst there are beautiful oranges and cachi, there is no money growing on the trees.


I arrived on the Tuesday evening. The first argument appeared to be about which way to drive. This wasn’t a case of back seat driving, because the van had no back seats. It was a case of arm waving in the driver’s face, followed by short silent huffs. I think the second argument was about how much to spend on petrol, and whether this station was of an acceptable price. The petrol light was on.

The couple spoke little English. Leonardo knew more, but only really started speaking it towards the end of my stay. Maria had learnt the names of the vegetables.

We collected the designs for some wooden stars that would be dressed with Christmas lights and displayed in the centre of Palermo. You can see them in the picture above. We were supposed to also collect the designs for a bunch of letters that would be hung in the streets, but the printer was having a technical glitch so this didn’t happen.

This was Tuesday. The deadline for the work was Friday.

On Wednesday I didn’t do much.  Maria was staying with her sister so she wasn’t there and wasn’t working. Leonardo started with the stars. I sorted the woodpile and went for a walk. However I quickly discovered that there wasn’t anywhere to walk. The valley was big and beautiful, but either side of the road was walled with tall fences. I walked along the road until it came to a dead end and then back to where it joined with the main road. There were no footpaths and the nearest village was an hour away. We had no food so we ate at the neighbour’s house.

When she came home, Maria brought the templates for the letters.


I got up just after seven on Thursday, made myself some breakfast and got ready to work. Maria wasn’t ready to start on the letters until ten. Before we could start, her and Leonardo had to argue about the process. I sat down at the table and started tracing the letter templates onto tracing paper. Maria sat opposite. I tried to have a conversation, but she spent almost the entire time on her phone arguing with people in loud Italian. I wished there was some music or something. There wasn’t.

Leonardo and I carried the wood into the living room to start tracing on the letters. He came back twenty minutes later and yelled at Maria about how we were doing it wrong. There was a lot of arm waving. Maria yelled louder. I continued to draw letters.

There were 120 letters to draw and on Thursday we’d done about half. I was by this point a little uneasy. After all the deadline I’d been told was most definitely Friday.

Sanding and Painting

We began sanding on Friday afternoon, but there was no hope of finishing. Arguing took up too much time.

After a loud phone call the deadline was extended to Sunday evening. By this point most of the letters still hadn’t been cut out, and only the first of the three stars had been begun. I was given a bucket of paint and a box of letters. Maria decided she was going to do wash some clothes. That weekend she washed four loads, stuffing her 12kg machine full every time. She wanted to do some cleaning too. Leonardo took the van and went out somewhere.

I plugged my earphones in and began painting. Three hours later Maria finally sat down to join me. She decides we’ve used the wrong paint. What we need is paint with more glue in it. She adds glue and says we’ll just have to repaint all the letters I’ve already done.

Leonardo comes in and they have an argument about the paint. I go and wait outside in the sunshine for things to quieten down. It’s concluded that the second paint was no good either. I’m given a hairdryer but no explanation about what I’m supposed to be doing. We have to leave the paint for the moment.

Saturday afternoon I sand more letters. Sunday comes and I sand the stars wondering where they’re going to get more paint. Leonardo continues cutting more letters out.

Monday morning. Leonardo shouts and he sounds angry. Maria doesn’t listen, she’s cleaning. She raises her voice sharply. The volume comes in waves. There is a stop. The saw begins again. It whirs for a while and then stops because you can’t saw, shout and gesture. A door swings shut in spectacular style.

I plugged in my earphones and messaged a close friend. Having him to talk to is a life saver. By evening my phone is dying.


In the afternoon, a young Italian couple arrived to help. In the evening, Leonardo refuses to sit at the table with us all to eat his meal.

Tuesday morning and an eerie silence reigns. Leonardo invited the neighbour over for coffee in the workshop. Maria tells them both that there is no coffee. They’re petty and angry and the angrier they get the less interested they are in speaking English. Maria sits on the floor and cries.

A girl from Finland turns up. She’s sharing my bedroom with me. Unsurprisingly, I crave space. I want to curl up and hide, but I talk non-stop, trying to make the fact that nobody is being nice to each other more bearable. I’m fully aware that I’m acting like a ray of sunshine and I can’t keep it up. I proceed to get more and more animated.


On Wednesday afternoon Maria puts her make-up and she and Leonardo drive into Palermo to deliver the three stars. It’s quiet in the house. I talk to the Finnish girl who doesn’t know what to do with herself. A phone call comes – we must make polenta for dinner. I’ve never made polenta before. I add more wood to the stove and put the water on to boil while I take a shower. Polenta takes 45 minutes of stirring. I’m sweating, exhausted and my cheerful bubble is showing signs of cracking.

They arrive. Loudly. Leonardo sits down in the armchair and tells Maria that he doesn’t eat polenta. Dinner is ready, but it takes some time before we finally have dinner. I glare at the wall. Silently furious. I’ve finally cracked.