Driving Life’s Back Roads

“We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisty hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

On Friday, having finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I decided to pick up another old paperback friend and reread him as well. I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1980 for a creative writing class at UBC. The University of British Columbia is in Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city and the place where I grew up. I didn’t really ‘get’ the whole Zen thing. And Motorcycle Maintenance was so far beyond my interest that it wasn’t even on my horizon. I was commuting to and from school and work 2 hours a day, working 7 days a week to pay for my tuition and books and car which meant driving through some of the worst traffic in Canada. I grew up in Vancouver and had lived in the rush and bustle my whole life. The heady days of the 60’s and early 70s were gone and the Yuppies were claiming their thrones. My professor was a left-over hippie – and I mean this now in the very best possible way. He was trying to make us think, to evaluate, to see that life was much more than what was on the surface. I was too busy for that. I wanted a creative writing professor to give me the ‘rules’ and I would follow those rules and thus become a good, if not great, writer. Eventually, I dropped his class and waited another semester to join another creative writing class with a professor who was more conventional and didn’t push me to think as much. At the time I thought he was much better. Now I realize what a gift the first professor was, I just wasn’t ready for the kind of introspection that he was trying to engender in his students. It would be easy to fall into regrets over this loss of opportunity, however, as my very dear friend Neil frequently says: “Everything is exactly as it’s meant to be.”


At the time, my goal was to graduate as quickly as I could manage, get a teaching job, bump up the ladder and retire as the principal of some large Vancouver high school with loads of money and a nice house near Spanish Banks (a long sandy beach with gorgeous views of the mountains) alongside my equally successful doctor husband and two beautiful children who were finishing their degrees at my alma mater – one in something artistic like sculpture or creative writing, and the other in some brainiac major like neuro-physics (is that actually a thing?) or pharmacology or microbiology. They would become world famous in their fields and would eventually bring their equally beautiful and brilliant children to visit Grandmama and Grandpapa.


Well, as anyone over the age of 35 knows, these dreams of our youth – especially the highly specific ones like mine – rarely turn out the way we expect. I graduated in 1983 when the newly elected government of British Columbia decimated education. In my cohort of 60 students graduating with a B.Ed. in English Education, I believe only three of us actually made it into teaching with one returning to teaching 20 years later for a brief stint. Four out of sixty. I applied to jobs everywhere. I sent out over 150 resumes and had three interviews. I even applied to a job 250 miles north of Edmonton and didn’t even get a response. Finally, out of desperation, I applied to a teaching job in Japan and got hired. The 1980s was the time to be in the land of the rising sun. The sun kept on rising and rising and business got better and better and the money just flowed. The funny thing was, once I got there, the race for the dollar – or the yen in that case – ceased to be the important thing. I was part of a subculture of foreign English teachers. There was no race for the top because, as foreign teachers we were, for the most part, as high as we could go in our language schools, high schools or junior colleges. There was no more pressure to succeed – we were there. We started looking for other things to fill our time – and we had lots of spare time. We lived in little apartments with tatami mats made of rice straw on the floor. We took our shoes off religiously when we entered our houses. We visited temples and shrines and prayed to whatever gods happened to be there even though few of us were Buddhist and none of us were Shinto. We drank and partied. We went to outdoor hot springs and sat naked under the stars in the steaming water sipping hot sake or cold beer. Some of us climbed Mt Fuji, others surfed the waves in Chiba, others studiously memorized the crazy symbols known as kanji or learned tea ceremony, and still others sat under cherry trees out in full blossom and wrote mostly bad haiku. Without thinking about it, we were learning to embrace the idea of good time to which Pirsig referred.


So, at this point you are probably thinking, what the hell does all of this have to do with Sicily? Everything. At least, everything for me. Earlier this year, I decided that it was almost time to pack in my career (by the way, I never became principal, worked in Vancouver or married a doctor and my daughter is far superior to any imaginary offspring that came out of my overactive twenty-something imagination). No more commuting, after-school staff meetings or parent-teacher interviews for me. When I hit 55 I will be retiring. I’ve turned in my notice, told all my colleagues – there is no turning back now, even if I wanted to. This means that I will be able to spend more time in our beloved Cianciana. This is the place that Pirsig was talking about, even if he had never heard anything about Sicilian village life. The back roads of Sicily are winding, making their way around mountains and hills, bays and coves. On the road from Cianciana to Ribera, olive trees, orange trees, figs, pears, plums, and grapevines reach out as if to say “Pick me, pick me!” and we almost could by simply reaching our hands out of the passenger windows. The mountains roll down to the edge of the road, coming to a screeching halt to let drivers pass by and cliffs drop off precariously on the other side. Nick and I drive these roads with joy. And if by chance we get lost, the easiest thing in the world is to stop in a little village – we know we will find one if we drive long enough – go into the bar in the heart of the town, order il caffè and ask for directions. They will give us directions to somewhere. It might be the place we are looking for or it could be somewhere else entirely. Actually it will most likely be somewhere else entirely, but wherever it is, it will be interesting. Occasionally it will be frustrating (look for my post- Open Letter to Tomtom) but even then, it makes good fodder for stories later on. Sicily is made up of good time if you let it happen. The mechanic that promised our car back this morning? Well, now he is saying tomorrow afternoon. This is a chance to sit and sip coffee with our new friend from Arizona or to practice my Italian with our neighbour Antonio or to catch up on all the village gossip with my other Ciancianesi friends. Telecom didn’t show to hook up our internet on the day they promised? Well, we spent the day reading or writing or learning new Italian words from the language books we brought so that we can use them later on in the piazza. In many ways, it seems that the ancient gods and politicians of Sicily conspire to slow everyone down, whether they like it or not. Roads are dotted with “Caution! 20 km/hr!” signs that are placed before tiny bumps in the road and enormous suspension breaking, car swallowing pot-holes. Your choice is to fly over them all at break neck speed and hope that they are all little bumps or to relax and assume they will all be the giant pot holes. Again, the good time versus the good time. In April, a bridge on the Palermo Catania autostrada – the main highway that passes through the heart of Sicily – collapsed. The newspapers scream that the politicians are not keeping up the roadways. They are corrupt! What are they doing! All these things are likely true and now we have a major autostrada that is closed for months or, more likely, years. Deus ex machina in the form of politicians. So, for the foreseeable future, Sicilians will be forced to take the slower, windier routes. As frustrating as this may be, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the very best aspects of Sicily, the pace is slower. I tell my friend from Arizona I will be at her house in 20 minutes so we can go shopping together but the heat is oppressive and it takes me 40. I joke with her that it was a Sicilian 20 minutes and we both laugh, not at anyone in particular but in appreciation of how different our lives are here than when we are in North America. The best of living in Sicily is truly driving life’s back roads.

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2 thoughts on “Driving Life’s Back Roads

  1. Thank You for this excellent post,I dream of visiting Sicily and will take my time on the back roads and searching the villages of my Grandparents! So well put and filled with hope for all of us to return to appreciate a slower more humane pace of life!

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