I must be seriously out of shape, mentally. This trip started with me breaking a trio of travel rules right off the bat: (1) I picked up a rental car at the airport (which always incurs an extra fee), (2) merely to drive it into downtown Palermo (never drive in a city–especially not an Italian city; and especially not a Southern Italian city–if you can avoid it), and then (3) paid for it to sit, parked, for two days whilst I traipsed about town on foot and by bus (always pick up the rental on the day you leave the first big city on the trip, that way you avoid paying for those few days of a needless rental, for the parking, and for that airport pick-up fee).

Another disturbing indication of my mental flabbiness occurred during the drive from Palermo’s Punta Raisi Airport–now renamed (though not all road signs have got the memo) Aeroporto Falcone-Borsellino after the two crusading anti-mafia magistrates assassinated in the early 1990s. During the ride, I started getting really aggravated about all the slow, timid, and downright stupid drivers all around me. It was while I was accelerating to weave through the traffic, throwing Italian invectives and complicated hand gestures at other drivers, that I realized what was wrong with this scenario. One does not find European drivers to be slow and timid–especially not Italian drivers, and especially not Southern Italian ones.

That was all a week ago, when I first arrived in Sicily. Yet my mind has still, apparently, not gotten itself back into whack. I managed to infringe upon yet another travel rule before I even woke up this morning. Yesterday, when I checked into the Villa Gaia in Taormina, I asked the hotel clerk if there was anything exciting going on in town–concerts, spectacles, or simply anything new to see or do that hadn’t been available seven years ago on my last trip here.

Turns out that, as with all the other ancient Greek theaters in Sicily that have been rehabilitated (and spoiled, visually, with ranks of aluminum risers where the stone seats have crumbled away) to serve as summertime stages for all sorts of entertainments, I managed to pick the one week out of the whole summer during which every single one of them is “between series.”

Segesta had just finished a run of classical Greek plays and was gearing up to start classical concerts next week; Siracusa was taking a breather between experimental modern theater and a schedule of ancient dramas; and Taormina had just ended one set of theater and art shows and now had a team of workmen scurrying around trying to turn the 2,500-year-old Sicilian stage into a sheet of ice (on the day when local temps hit 100 degrees) for a revue of skating prowess that was to take place two days hence, which was to be followed the next day by a concert by Diana Ross (whether or not the Supreme would also be required to wear ice skates was not clear).

At any rate, I was out of luck in terms of actually getting some use out of the visual eye sores represented by the intrusion into these glorious ancient spaces of modern seats and scaffolding-pipe erector sets serving as grandstands and to hold lighting arrays. However, the hotel clerk told me, Isola Bella was now open to the public. I had only ever been able to admire from afar this tiny, gardened islet cupped in one of the pocket-sized swimming bays on the coast below Taormina’s promontory. Yes, the clerk said, this summer they were ferrying the public to the island on tours at 10am and 3:30pm every day. I knew I had to take off next morning (in order to go swimming with my passport, then drive to Cefalù), but this sounded like a worthy diversion, so when she asked if I’d like for her to call and book me a spot for the next morning, I said sure.

Travel rule: Never rely on a hotel clerk to provide some service you can do perfectly well on your own. At worst, the clerk’s going to turn out to be all rotted out underneath the smiles and language of deference and will end up scamming you into something shoddy and at an immense profit to themselves. At best, you’re relying on someone else’s ability to recall a passing promise made to some stranger from New Orleans they’re trying to get to sign the check-in register so they can go back outside and finish that cigarette your arrival interrupted.

What I got was the “at best.”

I duly slept in a bit later than I had planned to do when I had planned on an early start. I took breakfast in the garden, where I taught an older American woman sitting near me to ask for “Hag” if she wanted a decaffeinated espresso. Then I watched in horror as a newly-arrived middle-aged Australian man abused first his girlfriend, who showed up a few minutes after he did, then was nasty to the hotel clerk and ordered her to take away the “nasty pastries” and go inside and bring him some sliced bread instead–“Can you do that, d’ya think?” he sneered–which he proceeded to slather with avocado and slices of raw tomato he produced from a plastic shopping bag. He then ordering the clerk back inside to bring him a phone, whereupon he called his boss (who was apparently staying down in the beachside resort community of Giardini-Naxos) and suddenly turned all oily sycophancy, bitching crudely about this “god-awful little town” and eagerly arranging to go down to Giardini-Naxos to see the boss’s hotel and make arrangements to stay there instead.

In the face of his maltreatment, I put off bothering the put-upon clerk about my Isola Bella arrangements until about 9:15, at which point I inquired politely. She blanched, said “Scusi!” and dashed back inside. A minute later, she returned, apologizing that it was no longer possible to take the 10am tour, as I would have already had to have left to take the gondola down to the beach. “Do you want to do the one at 15:30?” I sighed inwardly, smiled outwardly, and said “No. Unfortunately, I have to get on down the road.”

Still I tarried in town (more on that in a moment), and spent 45 enjoyable minutes wandering the back streets where Taormina’s annoying, polished resort air falls away. Laundry flaps on balconies, street corner shrines support tiny vases of dried flowers, and an itinerant fruttivendolo (fruit and veggie seller) operates out of the bed of a teensy three-wheeled ApeCar pickup, selling his produce to a small clump of local ladies of a certain age and with each sale gallantly offering to carry her purchases back to her house.