Chaotic, messy, beautiful Palermo

As most children I dreamed about living abroad, immersing myself in a different culture and exploring a different reality. As most of these children I never thought this dream would become a part of my life.

As most children I dreamed about living abroad, immersing myself in a different culture and exploring a different reality. As most of these children I never thought this dream would become a part of my life. Well, look where you are now young Anna!

This is the story of how I ended up living in Italy for a year, and SOME of all the thoughts and memories I have from this year. I have not been so good at expressing to friends and family how it has been these last 12 months, so maybe this article will give them better insight. It has been a personal journey with many reflections, so apologies in advance if I get a bit cliché in the end.

In May 2018 I finished my bachelor’s degree in “Social work” from the University of Agder, at the age of 22, and after those three years my plan was to find a job as a social worker somewhere in Norway. My problem was only that while searching for job advertisements, I somehow “mysteriously” ended up on travelling websites and So, I thought to myself that if I could choose, the best outcome would be to mix my desire for travelling and at the same time spend my time doing something useful for the community I visited. After a while I got into the thought of volunteering somewhere. Not only would I be able to experience a new place, but I would also be able to create a local impact, be useful and develop skills, all relevant for my future. My next problem was then the financial aspect, because for most volunteering projects that I considered you’d end up having to pay a lot of money during your period. I eventually stumbled upon the opportunity of becoming a volunteer through the European solidarity corps, funded by the Erasmus + program for 9 months in Palermo, Italy.

And here I am to this day!

What did that mean for me? The project was coordinated by Human Rights Youth Organization, in collaboration with Narviksenteret, that was the sending organization. That meant that I would be able to take part in a project, written by H.R.Y.O. (hosting organization), and move to Palermo for 9 months working on activities and local initiatives the organization was involved in. I was, and still am, hosted in the volunteer apartment of H.R.Y.O where I have shared the apartment with interns and volunteers from 8 different countries during my year here. Each project description is different and have individual conditions but by being hosted in the apartment and receiving an amount each month for food and as pocket money made it possible for me to participate without spending all my savings. And of course, it was a great opportunity for living abroad, challenging myself and working at the same time.

Before moving to Palermo, I didn’t know what to expect, I only knew the stereotypes about Italians, and when it came to Sicily the word mafia often showed up. I have to say that many of these stereotypes have been confirmed during the year, but a country is so much more than stereotypes and living abroad is the only way you can truly get to know immerse into different aspects of a culture. My impression from the beginning was also that Sicilians are quite different from the rest of Italy, especially the north. I talked to a guy from the north of Italy who said that when he came down to Palermo, his first thoughts was: “Where am I, did I come to Africa?”. Sicily is basically as close as you can come to Africa from Europe and after all the history this Island has with being occupied by different people, the influence of the architecture and the diversity of the population is quite fascinating. My thoughts about Palermo are that things move slowly; people are late, time management is not really a word for most, and things are not planned as much as a Norwegian is used to. At times this has been quite challenging and frustrating, but you can also choose to see it in a way that people are relaxed and easygoing. Before a meeting they want to have a coffee (espresso), smoke a cigarette and talk to the person they meet in a casual way, which is also something I admire and wish I did more. Another anti-Norwegian thing was that random people speak to each other, ALL THE TIME, especially if there was waiting involved. Even in the beginning, if I said I didn’t speak any Italian, they would talk to me even more and wave their hands, at the bus stop, waiting for the green light, and in the grocery store. Palermo is a chaotic city where every time I want to shop at LIDL there are at least 3 weird things to observe, and I love it! The unorganized and long queues is something I love less… but that can be saved for another day.

My days as volunteer: The days working as a volunteer were variated, all depending if there were any events at that time or other initiatives that we took part in. In general, we had some activities that we were involved in weekly. I personally worked each week in a secondhand shop called Emmaus which is a store run by people who doesn’t have a stable living situation. They work there 6 days a week and in return they live in the Emmaus house outside the center, receive all meals and get an amount of money each month from the income of Emmaus. I also went to a place called 5Attutotondo, which I found really exciting and educational. It is a day-center for young adults with autism that focuses on activities for practicing different skills, focusing on mental stimulation and physical movements such as sports, games and music. It also meant helping them with taking part in everyday household activities like preparing food, gardening and cleaning after eating. H.R.Y.O has also been given responsibility of a garden area from the municipality, called Terra Franca, that was previously confiscated from the mafia. The process is long, but we have started working in the garden to turn the area into an open space where we can hold activities in collaboration with other organizations and the local community. We hope to turn the space that used to relate to organized crime into a space where people can spend time together in nature and in a positive context.

Other than that, I have worked on the HRYO English language café, which is a free initiative started by, and led by the volunteers of the organization. It is a weekly event where everyone interested from the local community can come and practice English in an informal setting. We have also set up a Street library (to the right) in the center of Palermo following the concept of book exchange where you take one book and leave another. These are just some of the activities I have been a part of during the 9 months. Just to get that out there, volunteering for me has not been the same as taking a gap year, it has been a lot of work and activities, but in an informal way, with variated situations and work tasks. Like the activities mentioned above and things like studying Italian, public speaking, writing articles, planning informal activities, managing social media and other things.

Taking part in these activities have been the best way to meet locals and learning about the community, the culture and the different neighborhoods around Palermo. What kind of activities you will take part in will most likely depend on two things. The organization’s work and collaboration with partners, and your own initiative, motivation and creativity to see the opportunities in front of you. If you know me as a person, I have a lot of questions, and I am very curious! but I don’t always ask, so I believe that this year has brought me more of the mindset of asking too many questions, than too little.

My free time: Palermo is not the worst place to be a volunteer with its beautiful surroundings, warm climate (not in the winter tho!) and amazing food. It is also a city filled with lively people, culture, events, international travelers and many opportunities to seek an eventful free time. I have met so many interesting people here and made new contacts and friends, locally from Palermo and from all over the world. Palermo is also situated on the island of Sicily that contains many different natural beauties such as volcanos, mountains, the Mediterranean Sea and smaller islands. Being a volunteer gave me 2 free days per month I worked, so I had the time to travel with friends and family.

One year is a very long time and you make a lot of new friendships, connections and memories (good and bad). Most of the people I meet here have a positive influence on my life and Palermo has been a place where I could meet people from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and other countries that I would probably never have met in my everyday life in Norway. One thing that has been very hard for me at times are the “temporary” friendships. It is something to be aware and prepared for, because it is hard to say goodbye to someone you meet every day, when it is uncertain if you will ever meet again. Very soon it will be me who leaves, so it is the circle of (travel) life. Not sure if you got that Lion king reference, but the point is people come, and people go.

The cliché part: What my text is about is sharing my experience and what I personally think about doing a volunteering period abroad. For me it has been worth it in so many ways and I would never take back my decision of working as a volunteer. Maybe others do not share my point of view and have different opinions from their volunteering period, because I will be honest and say it has not always been easy. Moving to a different country, always being in an intercultural context and living with different kinds of people has brought me many challenges and frustrations, but these are all challenges that I have overcome and learned from. My tip is to be flexible and try to be creative in your solutions, especially when your normal solution to a problem might not work in the context of where you are staying.

On a final note I will mention that the most important part for me, has been to experience life from a different point of view and see yourself outside the context of everything familiar. I can feel that 1 year in lively, multicultural and chaotic Palermo has changed me in different ways and you somehow learn to not care so much about others or limitations, because you experience much more diversity in your surroundings that shows different realities. Nobody is the same, and life doesn’t have to be what it is expected to be. I encourage everyone who seeks experiences in living abroad to do it, my way was to become a volunteer, and it was absolutely worth it.

Written by Anna Hui Røsøvåg Eikrem