The Year That Was: 2022

Another one bites the dust.

Is it just me or was this a reeeally long year? It feels like spring was a decade ago. Perhaps it’s because the summer was the hottest on record, the unrelenting heat making every day just drag on. Even more than 2020’s pandemic-elongated year, 2022 has felt markedly divided into periods. Three distinct ones.

First, of course, there was the winter/spring period. I’m sure some interesting stuff happened in the first months of 2022, but since that was 17 years ago, it’s hard to remember. I think there was a party or two. Whatever happened, it all culminated in a two week vacation to Greece (Athens and Hydra) and Sicily, Italy, my first trip to either country.

Upon returning from that trip, the summer immediately kick into high gear. From June to September, Madrid was smothered in a bracing heat, only occasionally breaking enough to breathe. Helen and I stayed in the city most of that time, only getting away to the slightly cooler Cercedilla for a weekend with her parents. Otherwise, our only escape was frequent trips to Madrid’s various pools, which, thankfully, are cheap but very nice.

Helen and I also saw The Smile in concert during one night of Madrid’s Noches del Botanico. If you’re unfamiliar, The Smile is the side project of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (both of Radiohead) with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Their album, A Light for Attracting Attention, splits the difference between Radiohead’s In Rainbow era and Thom’s solo material on Anima. With a slightly more improvisational spirit. A highly enjoyable concert experience (even if some random girl dumped her red drink on my white shirt two minutes before the concert began).

Then came October; the heat broke and we had a couple months of pleasant weather. That meteorological shift was marked by a trip to the south of Spain where I visited Cadiz for the first time and spent a week on the beach at El Palmar de Vejer. If you haven’t been, add it to the list.

This was perhaps the most prolonged autumn I recall having experienced since moving to Madrid, with a sustained string of warm days and cool nights, the leaves gradually changing colors. Of course, that all led into December, which has easily been the wettest I’ve experienced here. It might not be record-breaking (yet), but it’s notable that the sun has been in hiding the majority of the month (though it’s peeking through today), and more rain is expected up through Christmas.

But, we won’t be here for that. Helen and I are hopping on a plane soon and will be back in the UK for Christmas, followed by New Year’s Eve in Ireland—which will make it three new countries for me in 2022. Huzzah.

Highlights of 2022

At times, with the various posts about my trips, this managed to be the “10 Cities/10 Years Travel Blog.” But, of course, most of the year didn’t involve travel. There were long stretches of time that I was just here in Madrid, working, listening to music, writing, listening to music, seeing friends, and listening to music. There was a lot of music this year. ( can confirm.)

I don’t have a Top 10 Albums of the Year, per se (I love end-of-year lists, but some albums need more time to be appreciated), but these are the 2022 releasees that have gotten the most play in my ears this year, in no particular order (and with the possibility some will fall off in the future):

  • The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention (Favorite track: The Smoke)
  • SZA – SOS (Favorite track: Nobody Gets Me)
  • Spoon – Lucifer on the Sofa (Favorite track: The Devil & Mister Jones)
  • Hurray for the Riff Raff – Life on Earth (Favorite track: SAGA)
  • Death Cab for Cutie – Asphalt Meadows (Favorite track: Foxglove Through the Clearcut)
  • Florence + the Machine – Dance Fever (Favorite track: My Love)
  • Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (Favorite track: Mirror)
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – The Loneliest Time (Favorite track: Western Wind)
  • Orville Peck – Bronco (Favorite track: Daytona Sand)
  • Beyoncé – RENAISSANCE (Favorite track: VIRGO’S GROOVE)
  • The Mountain Goats – Bleed Out (Favorite track: Mark on You)

I wish I could do the same for 2022 movies and books, but I rarely catch up with those until the next year (at the earliest). I did see a couple new releases; while I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped, Everything Everywhere All at Once was probably the most fun at had in theaters this year. Off the top of my head, the best movie I watched this year was Florian Zeller’s The Father (from 2020). There’s a slew of new releases coming out in the States right now that I hope reach Spain in the next few months.

As far as favorite books, again, I rarely read anything that came out in a given year. The only one I managed was Devil House by John Darnielle (lead singer of The Mountain Goats); definitely a fun read, especially if you’re interested in the Satanic Panic era of modern American history. Darnielle’s gift, both as a songwriter and a novelist, is his unflinching empathy for people of all types, particularly the “losers.”

Other books I read and loved this year (but written before 2022) were Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain (easily the best book I’ve ever read about Spain). I also want to give a special shout out to Sapphire’s Push, which I had always dismissed out of hand (undoubtedly for ingrained racist bias), but which I found to be a reliably effective dramatic work.

To the Future

As far as personal creative output, it’s felt a bit underwhelming, despite finally finishing a novel that began as a short story idea over a decade ago, getting published in Newsweek, doing my first public talk about the 10 Cities Project, and bringing this very blog out of hibernation. I’m hoping 2023 will allow me to build on that momentum into something more productive and sustained. We’ll see.

But, whatever the year brings, I’ll try to be right back here recapping the year that was next December.

I hope your year was more ups than downs and more Scotch than soda.

See you in 2023.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

Catania, Sicily

Here concludes a three-part series with a third destination in two weeks: Catania, Sicily in Italy. After just over a week in Greece, with stops in Athens and Hydra, Helen and I tearfully parted ways with the souvlaki. But, that was okay, because our last stop overflowed with pizza, pasta, and pistachios.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Sicily is an island just off the tip of the “toe” of Italy’s boot (not even 10 kilometers separates them in places). Formerly a province under the Roman Empire, it, like Athens, is littered with ancient ruins. Among them is a former Roman amphitheater that sits in one of the city’s busier intersections, along with other sites sprinkled through the neighborhoods.

For much of its history, Sicily was a separate kingdom, only unifying with Italy in the 19th century. The island’s deep historical roots touch the present, from the ever-present backdrop of Mt. Etna, a volcano enshrined in ancient mythology that continues to smoke daily, to its abundance of churches and religious iconography, to its still functioning Sicilian Mafia (or Cosa Nostra).

There’s also a personal history for me. When they were first married, my parents lived in Sicily for 6 months, well before I was born. My oldest brother was a baby at the time, and I’ve long heard stories of old Sicilian women simply picking him up with my non-Italian-speaking mother unable to stop them. Sicily has long existed in family lore, so I was excited to finally see it for myself.

The Sights of Catania, Sicily

While in Catania, one of Sicily’s most popular port cities, Helen and I stayed at Diletta Oasi, a charming B&B run by a talkative Sicilian woman. She kept the kitchen stocked with breakfast foods all day round and even left us a handwritten note at one point as a means of checking in on us.

Diletta Oasi is on the edge of the city center, just a few blocks away from the Catania fish market that bustles in the morning. Steps past the fish market is Piazza del Duomo, a central square filled with some of Catania’s most popular photo spots. Among them is the Fontana dell’Elefante at the center of the square, featuring Catania’s most iconic imagery, the elephant. (Elephant statues appear all around the city.)

The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants where you can stop for a drink and enjoy the gorgeous backdrop, including the Fontana dell’Amenano.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

Also on the square is Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, one of the many Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout the city. Adorned with statues and sculptures, the church is a picturesque example of Baroque architecture. The towering dome of the Catania Cathedral can be seen from miles away.

The Churches of Catania, Sicily

Though the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata may be the most photographed cathedral in Catania, Sicily (due to its proximity to tourist hotspots), its just one of numerous impressively designed churches throughout the city. There’s a slew of them that line Via Crociferi, including Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia and Chiesa di San Giuliano. You can’t turn around without spotting a cross or statue of a saint.

For my money, the most impressive church I found was the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena. I had just been walking aimlessly one afternoon through a residential neighborhood when I came upon this massive structure dating back to 1687.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

Inside, the church is filled with art, statues, and other stunning works of religious imagery. Paintings that depicted various saints and angels were displayed in ornate, marble altarpieces.

The most affecting room was a mausoleum dedicated to local soldiers who died in World War 1. In two alcoves, marble plaques told of the dead, while at the end of the room stood an imposing statue of an angel carrying a wounded soldier.

Adjacent to the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena is the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena. This enormous monastery, which took over 300 years to construct, is now used by the University of Catania. Its various rooms are used as lecture halls and along the marble-decorated hallways students read while staring out on two beautiful courtyards.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

Sure beats the study halls at Kansas University.

The Beaches of Catania, Sicily

While the architecture and sculptures of Catania made for impressive views, it’s hard to compare with the wonders nature creates.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

We, of course, had to spend some time at the coast. Our first stop was Catania’s southern beaches. A series of private beaches occupy a few miles of coastline, with free access to the water limited to random spots (we had to essentially sneak through a parking lot to get there). The major selling point of these particular beaches is the view of smoking Mt. Etna in the distance.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

As nice as those were, though, we enjoyed the coastline up north more. Admittedly less beach than rocky coastline, Catania’s northern seaside is nonetheless awash in beautiful views and natural wonders. One cool feature of the coast are the Islands of the Cyclops, 500,000-year-old rock structures made of ancient volcanic lava. Like much of the land in the Mediterranean Sea, these jagged rocks played a significant role in Greek mythology.

The real feast for our eyes was the Castello Normanno (Svevo di Aci Castello), a former Norman seaside castle that was built upon a magnificent mountain of hardened lava. An imposing mix of human architecture and natural formation, Castello Normanno is nearly 1,000 years old.

As you approach it, it simply looks like a grandly designed, but somewhat modest castle. It’s only once you descend to the rocks below (in reality, a lava beach) that you grasp the imposing form of this millennium-spanning fortress. These images of Helen standing at the base of the lava mount will give you an idea of its size (you might have to squint to see her).

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

If there was any drawback to our accomodations, it was merely that there was no easy way to get to the coast. Going south took about a half hour bus ride (we didn’t realize we needed to buy a ticket ahead of time and ended up riding for free), and going north was roughly an hour on the bus. The views were worth it.

Swimming was difficult at these northern spots, though, because the lava rocks were sharp and the water was shallow for quite a ways (we kept forgetting our swimming shoes that we originally bought for Croatia). The sandy southern beaches were much easier to swim at, but they were, again, very shallow (I walked out maybe a quarter of a kilometer before I was no longer touching with my feet).

Thankfully, we found the “Danielino surf school” that let us sit on their deck for free so Helen could slip in for a brief swim.

Overall, the coastline of Catania did not disappoint.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

The Best Food in Catania, Sicily

While the architecture and the beaches of Sicily are worth the price of admission, everyone knows the real reason to travel to Italy: the food.


The first thing we wanted was, obviously, pizza. Unfortunately, we arrived in Catania at an odd time, just after 5 in the afternoon. By the time we had checked in to Diletta Oasi and headed back out for food, it was around 6 and nobody was serving pizza. Most restaurants don’t turn on their pizza ovens until 7 or 8, which makes some sense. Spain is similarly strict about when certain meals can be eaten (don’t even try to get lunch at noon at most Spanish restaurants).

We did eventually find a restaurant just up the road from Piazza del Duomo that would serve us pizza. While it was good, my first mind-blowing pizza experience came a couple nights later when we finally got to try Pizcaria in Piazza Santa Maria dell’ Indirizzo: Diavola for me, and Norma for Helen. Under a canopy of colorful umbrellas, we enjoyed Italian perfection.

On our last night in the city, I had a third pizza, a pesto-based one. It was excellent, but Pizcaria won the trip. Naturally, we had pasta a couple places, including at Al Tubo near the Castello Normanno, all of which was delicious.

One evening, we walked over to Via Gemmellaro, a rapidly developed avenue of the city that is now a promenade of hip bars and Italian and non-Italian eateries. Based on the signs hanging from balconies above the road, not all the neighbors were happy with the transformation of their street.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily
Translation: Imagine if this chaos happened under your house

Like revitalized neighborhoods in cities across Europe and the States, it’s clear from the surrounding, downtrodden areas that new development has transformed this portion of Catania into one that’s now making money (for whom, I don’t know). The gentrification vs. revitalization debate is certainly a worthy one, just not one I’m prepared to jump into here.

We went down to the area to try out a place called Vermut for, appropriately enough, a vermouth aperitivo. It was only 6:45 and we were told we had to be out by 9 because there was a reservation. We scoffed at the idea we’d be there that long; we were only having drinks, after all. But then, we smelled the food.

An intoxicating aroma was wafting out of the kitchen, so eventually we had to order something. We didn’t have a full meal there, just a couple rounds of drinks and what were essentially fancy Italian tapas. But that ended up being our dinner.

Rounding out our culinary tour were various pistachio-flavored pastries and desserts. There was the pistachio-filled croissant near the beach, and the salted pistachio gelato near Piazza del Duomo, and, finally, right before we left for the airport, a pistachio granita with brioche bread (a special shout out to the espresso granita we had one afternoon while we took shelter from the sun; think a Wendy’s Frosty, but about 2 times creamier and 10 times tastier).

Helen also partook of fresh oysters straight from the fish market a couple mornings, which she thoroughly enjoyed (not my thing). Sadly, a couple days later, her stomach got dodgy, so we won’t discuss the oysters any further.

Like Athens, Greece, by the time we left Catania, we had eaten enough food to last us a month.

Saying Goodbye to Catania, Sicily

As I mentioned, Helen had a bad stomach near the end of our trip, so on the second-to-last day, while she rested, I walked about the city solo, taking detours down random streets. That’s how I came across Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena.

One thing I often think when walking through the non-tourist, residential areas of many European cities is how much they remind me of parts of Brooklyn. It’s not so much that they resemble Brooklyn, it’s just a vibe. The non-trendy or picture-ready areas tend to have a similar, homey, lived-in feel. It always makes me miss NYC a bit.

They’re just normal neighborhoods where people go about their city lives, shopping at mini markets and local eateries.

But then I turn the corner at the mini market and come across a castle that’s older than America and I remember that I’m definitely not in Brooklyn.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily

After two weeks, the trip ends and I return to my home in Madrid. And I immediately start thinking of all the other places I want to visit. Eventually.

Thanks for reading along on my voyage through Greece and Sicily. Next time, I’ll post some bonus photos from my Mediterranean adventures. Cheers.

Things to do in Catania, Sicily