Sam Burcher dot com

Sam Burcher, news views and bits inbetween......

I visited Sicily many times between 2009 and 2015. Each time I felt compelled to write, not about the resplendent locations and history, but about my observations, feelings and hopes for the future.


Waiting for the bus to leave Catania Central station, I shed my clothing down to a t shirt and roll up my jeans to just below my knees. I am suddenly struck by the fact that I started solo travelling at the age of 14. Nowhere as interesting as Sicily certainly, but a journey taken with the single-minded purpose of reaching an unknown destination.

The driver indicates that he is ready to depart by saying, “Ok lady.” I readjust my clothes and climb on board choosing a seat immediately behind the driver, because although curious and excited, I’m relying on the goodwill of strangers to help me find where I am staying. Because, I have now discovered, my phone is not working on Italian network. So, I can neither phone or text Gloria, my Airbnb host.  Amid my mental chaos a Franciscan nun sits down next to me. Her habit is made of stiff, grey buckram, impervious to any stain or weather. It spills out from her onto my seat. We are going all the way to Acireale together.

I consult my printed off Airbnb map. Only a couple of streets are named next to a vast expanse of blue sea. So, I ask the nun if she knows the Via Pacino. She shakes her head and  shows the bus driver my map. He calls merrily out of his window to people in the street,  "Via Pacino, Casa Gloria?” His enquiry is met with shrugs and smiles. He calls the mobile number printed on the sheet on his phone and Gloria answers. She is shopping in Catania about fifty minutes away, and where we have just come from. 

Getting off the bus in the centre of Acireale, I call Gloria from a coffee bar on the owner’s wife’s phone. She gives me a set of indistinct directions that I decide to ignore. I gather what I believe to be a more coherent set from an intelligent looking young man, who concludes his step-by-step guide with an, “enjoy your journey.”  And so I do, for the first part, wandering passed white domed churches and through neat parks and squares that lead on to a fish market that is just finished for the day. The streets are being brushed and washed down, a fishy smell is lingering.

Following the long road that I hope leads to Via Pacino, I see a good black and white stencil of Sid Vicious spray-painted on the wall. I stop to photograph it and text it to my lover back in London.  My phone still works on UK networks. The sequence of streets in my young man’s directions have not materialised. I  see a garage sprawling down a side street and speak to one of the mechanics there. We communicate perfectly, despite me not speaking any Sicilian or him any English. He phones Gloria and after a good long chat he eventually assures me that she will come and pick me up in ten minutes.

I wait at the corner of the street and shortly a car pulls up. I hope it’s Gloria. But when I approach, the woman waves me away, and minutes later enthusiastically greets a friend and hands her something. I feel rejected and alone. I move my position to the opposite side of the street and in the pelting afternoon heat an ice cream van arrives and parks on the corner. A shrill whistle blows over and over announcing its presence, a few people come down from the apartments above the garage and queue for a gelato. 

From my new vantage point on the kerb opposite, I decide that I don’t want sugar or crave it, because I rationalise, it’s my first day and I need to pace my eating. The ice-cream eaters stare at me piteously as I sit sweltering on my rucksack.  A negative voice goes off in my head, a the voice of ancient fear and trauma. Will I make it through the next few minutes of palpitations and paranoia, a stubborn residue of separation, self-denial and resistance? The negative voice gets louder and protests dispassionately that, “It’s her time.” Then another voice debates whether it’s her time in terms of me having had my allotted time here on earth or time for me to do whatever I want, even if it is losing my mind on a street in Sicily. As the universe keeps on spiralling in, I flip a homeopathic bee remedy under my tongue and take a shaky swig from my bottle of medicinal herbs. I have to physically move about or expire right there: my choice. 

Back on the main road leading nowhere I stop and turn to face myself. It really would be madness to miss the connection with my host. With a nagging sense of impending doom, I retrace my steps to the garage. The mechanic is waving at me and as I wave back Gloria comes thundering up the road in her navy blue Subaru. “You are alone?” she says in greeting. I like her immediately, and when she suggests going for something to eat and drink, I immediately acquiesce. It couldn’t feel more different than the previous anxious hours - I'm laughing and enjoying my first almond granite. Gloria takes hers with a brioche. I’m still mindful of calories.  


Covered in soft moss the prominent rocks are seemingly benign, but legend is that this rocky amphitheatre is the place of Ulysses shipwreck. The swell of the tides have harmful or helpful effects on your life: pushing you gently towards shore or dashing you against murderous spikes. A scarlet starfish signals danger on a covert crop in deeper water. Crawling over the smaller emergent rocks I return to shore. Each movement must be carefully made. Little wonder that crabs behave the way they do. I catch fleeting glimpses of sidestepping crustaceans: a small black hard-back and a large tortoiseshell crab.

On these rocks the seagull is king. A German girl cries out in alarm as she finally gets into the freezing water. She calls to her Hans as one of her sandals floats away, “My shoe! My shoe! My shoe!” Her wail of distress mimics a sea bird. The seagulls look on, laughing cruelly.

Gloria’s surname is Caretta, which means turtle in Sicilian. I am waiting for her again, this time at the wrong cafe on the main street in Acitrezza. I am close to breaking down and sit and cry on a bench. Another call to Gloria on a kind stranger's mobile and we meet up at the right cafe, this time she has her daughter with her. We sit and talk over ice creams. She tells me that her best friend at Catania University became a journalist and was shot by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It all fell into place, the trauma was revealed, and I understood the need for kindness, the need for tears.


Palermo is wild and rocking on Thursday night and imbued with the sound of the 1960’s; the Beatles, the Doors, Bob Dylan’s harmonica blaring out interspersed with hypnotic Arabic music. I feel alive and surprised that I am still alive. I walk though medieval alleyways, their wide cobbles shine with wear. The young Sicilians part ways only slightly until I ramp up my aura, and only then do they make a bit more room. But it’s relaxed, all out in the open, on the streets. It’s a dreamlike landscape populated by motorcycle boys and girls who drink and smoke to get by.

The streets are stinking, rubbish is piling up in the labyrinthine passages. Andy’s feet stink too when he takes his shoes off. We sit outside and order a giant pizza and talk. Perhaps we could have a B&B in London like the one we are staying in. It’s rudimentary, tiny blue tiles are dotted about the kitchen with two gas rings and a coffee pot, our host’s paintings adorn the walls. The windows look out onto more windows,  the ubiquitous balconies are underpinned with splints.

We talk about privacy in the age of the internet. I have flaunted my public persona all over the web in the form of photographs, videos and articles on health, agriculture and poetry.  All I need now is to expound my take on spirituality and I will be the complete Buddhist writer. But there is little of my other real self: the artist, the shaman, the teacher, who has suffered illness and pain, recovered and become ill again and recovered again.

Palermo operates on a base, low vibration. It would be a good place to drop some acid and be subsumed by it all. In the pizza parlour, feeling slightly tipsy and addicted to sugar, I demand a gelato. I am politely ignored. Finally, the cafe owner responds to me by making hand gestures, holding up a thumb and fourth finger, whatever that may signify. She smokes too much, but her health is protected, for now. She’s making good money on a side street full of restaurants.

In bed, the noise continues and the wooden shutters make complex patterns on the ceiling. Palermo is a place of shadows. There is a glorious decrepitude here. It’s not unlike Rome, where municipal development has not spoiled the intrinsic beauty of the city.  Cultures and identities are preserved mostly because government can’t afford to develop, and widespread corruption means the money has gone elsewhere. 

The sounds of the night eventually settle down. At dawn, the incessant car horns are blaring again: long streams of parping and short bursts of beeping, all at slightly different frequencies. The unnatural horn chorus prevents any return to sleep. In between the beeps is the rumble of a city that has lost it's mind: simultaneously exciting, maddening and disturbing.  A language of parps supplants normal communication by people who are slaves to their cars.

Despite the cacophony, I feel womblike and protected in my shuttered room and arise to try to record the horns. I consider the ease of my journey through airport security, my levels of anxiety have dropped considerably, and people were nice to me. It was recognised in English law this week that children under the age of 17 that experience violence are officially “victims”. I refuse to be a victim again. And like a storm, the horns are lulling, getting further away.

Read more: Notes on Sicily

SamBurcherYTCTaking a leak, a jimmy riddle, a wee or a quick pee is something we take for granted. However, a rare condition called a urethral stricture means that this call of nature will at some point require medical intervention. While this can make coping with the problem easier, it can also present new challenges in learning how to self-manage the condition, in choosing the right ongoing treatment, and not least in dealing with the NHS long-term.

I first experienced the extreme physical discomfort of complete urinary retention as a young woman. This happens when one is full to bursting and the mounting pressure intensifies the desire to pass water, but does nothing to relieve it. In addition, the emotional and psychological distress from the fear and denial that my body could not function in such a basic way was profound.

It turned out I had a large bladder stone - quite rare nowadays, about the size of a golf ball. The white calcified mass lodging in my bladder had been undiagnosed for nine years and in combination with the stricture eventually caused me to stop 'going' at all: a potentially life threatening situation, only relieved with the aid of an indwelling catheter which filled a bag strapped to my thigh. I could now choose when to visit the loo, but this private convenience turned into a nine year holiday for my urethra, which may have contributed to it having gone into a dormant and possibly irreversible state.

Read more: My Urethra, Frankly

blitz girl cutA feature article in Plectrum - The Cultural Pick issue 10 Nov/Dec 2011






Read more: Blitz Girl

09 December 2010

Sam Burcher dusts off some vintage memories of being a ‘Blitz Kid’

steve strangeEveryone claims that they were a regular at the Blitz club. But my claim is real and I can prove it. I remember queuing outside on the very first night in February 1979 eager to get in. However, to gain admission to the Blitz, I had to pass the strict door test. This meant being fashionably sanctioned by Steve Strange, who was sitting imposingly behind a polished wooden counter as soon as I got my foot through the door.

A pair of strikingly made up eyes scrutinized me. “Hi, it's two pounds to get in and a pound for membership,” Steve Strange said.  I pushed three crumpled green  notes over the counter in exchange for a Blitz membership card. Steve graciously motioned towards several stubby pencils, one of which I used to sign the card, while simultaneously thanking my lucky stars.

Inside, the Blitz was scattered with tables adorned with red and white checked cloths and simple fresh flowers. The low lights were coming from candles wedged into empty wine bottles, swollen with cascades of wax that had dried into hard rivulets. Bright lights over the bar were reflecting in the tantalising selection of glass bottles glowing with coloured liquids, primed and ready to be mixed into all manner of mind-blowing cocktails.

Read more: Notes on the Blitz Club and the New Romantics 1979-1981