Words from Sicily: attracted to the details

I’ve mentioned many times how I’m often drawn to the little details that escape most people.

Rather than being overwhelmed by a detailed artwork, building or historical site, I will take a step closer and try to break it down to see how it’s been made. I guess it’s the logical part of my mind taking over wanting to understand things and analyse.

Honestly, it seems to make more sense to focus on less than trying to take in the whole grand picture. It’s best to break it all down and notice something that you can take with you, like a nugget of gold sifted out of the endless grains of sand.

Looking for the details is one of the pleasures of living in Sicily. The island is so rich and drenched in history, layered one on top of the other. It’s easy to observe the quirks, things that spring out at you as they are exotic or totally out of place.

Often it will be a carving in a stone, a door handle or something as dull as the signage for a store. It’s that randomness that attracts my attention, and pulls me towards a curiosity, a question or perhaps leads me towards a story where someone else may not have noticed.

When I was studying journalism in my twenties, one of my professors gave me what I think is the best compliment ever, its something that echoes in my mind occasionally, which I recalled as I was writing this post. She said that I could find a story even where there doesn’t appear to be one at all. Mind you, she was talking about a news story, but I indeed have this nack.

I think there is always a story behind everything. People are filled with stories from their personal histories. Family histories and our lives are nothing but a succession of episodes, experiences and tales we constantly tell ourselves and others. And, of course, the objects we use, the homes we live in, and the environment we inhabit are imbibed with stories and connected to these experiences.

I love collecting vintage postcards, prints, photos and letters because they have a unique quality that fills them with a certain magic. It’s as if they contain the spirit of the people who initially used them, wrote them or made them. And with time, they have acquired their character or personality they tell their own spontaneous stories.

I’m reminded of a famous photographer who used to travel the world visiting famous landmarks, which he choose to document by taking photographs way up close to them. I remember reading he took a photo of one of the supporting pylons of the Eiffel Tower.

Honestly, I can’t recall his name, so please enlighten us if anyone knows of him. Either way, his approach, even though his approach was a bit extreme, the concept is always that the details are always more interesting than the bigger picture.

Walking around Taormina, which I think you’ve guessed is one of my favourite places to visit in Sicily, I came across an impressive lawyers office. It was a few hundred meters down the road from the Anfiteatro.

I imagined the lawyer closing his office late one summer night and strolling down the street to go to whatever performance was happening. Not a bad place for an office.

The palazzo that housed the office was impressive, with thick tall carved wooden doors, elaborate wrought-iron details on the medieval-looking windows. But above all, what struck me as being more impressive was the front door handle/ knocker.

Look how wonderful it was two mermaids entwined with an angel at their tails and hooked over the mouth of Pan-like nature spirit. I stopped and took this picture of it, and later when I showed it to my husband, he said he didn’t even notice it.

It is fun to explore the side streets at Taormina; they are always filled with exciting nooks, tiny little stores and snippets of everyday local life away from the crowds and always more authentic than the main streets.

The same can be said of most Italian cities, moving away from the main tourist sites and a little way off the main roads. There are always cute little courtyards, family-run trattorie, private gardens or any other endless surprises to discover.

I love this photo I took of a store on a Taorminian side street filled with typical food products easily consumed on your walk or taken home in individually wrapped packages and jars.

I was struck by the handwritten list of their curated products, which can serve as a list of things you need to taste and places you need to visit while in Sicily. It reads pistachio from Bronte, Capers from the island of Pantelleria, sun-dried tomatoes from Ispica, Chocolate from Modica, Almond wine, Lemoncello from Etna, honey and jam of Etna, Salt crystals from Trapani, Tuna bottarga (which is an intense tasting salty way of preserving tuna) and anchovies under salt. A pretty great list of the tastes of Sicily.

While accompanying my husband on one of his work trips to Catania, I noticed how many little water pools dotted the harsh lava landscape.

Since I spent most of my time standing out in the sun to help by holding up one of those measuring poles you see surveyors using while out on the roads, I didn’t get much time to explore. I did get a fabulous tan, and this photo of one of the small handmade dams, which I’m sure must be like an oasis in the harsh lava landscape outside of Catania.

The landscape surrounding Catania always strikes me as particularly harsh and unforgiving. While the fertility of agriculture is evident, there is this strange mix of fichi d’india cactus, olive trees, pistachio and market gardens with the odd palm tree.

The countryside in Catania province has a distinctly ashen grey colour palette; even the water in the pool has taken in the dark army green tone of the other foliage. It would be pretty intense to live here, I think, to have a tiny house in the middle of the lava must be filled with extremes from the heatwaves in the summer to the endless rain in the middle of winter.

Yet this countryside offers up such fertility to Sicily, the plain of Catania provides most of the agricultural wealth of the island, together with the Conca d’oro around Palermo, it has been one of the most sought after terrain for wealth. From ancient times Sicily’s fertility has been craved by each of the thirteen significant conquerors of the island.

I’m fascinated by the colours of Sicily; they are so intense. The island is 25,711 square kilometres and is packed with so many variations in landscape and architecture.

Each of the seven provinces has its own colours and qualities, all in contrast to one another. For example, where I live, the province of Messina is quite lush, filled with hazelnuts, olive trees, and endless springwater fountains (it’s where Fontalba water comes from).

While if you move towards Catania and Etna, everything becomes covered in black lava stone. At the centre of the island in Enna and Caltinessetta provinces, there is very little water; the landscape is harsh and dry with golden wheat fields in the summer.

If you go to the southeast towards Syracuse in the heart of the Val di Noto, the landscape is still fertile, and the towns each have their own distinct muted colours, from golden stones to faded whitewash and pale pink faded paint.

I love taking photos of walls and signage; they have the same quality as an old postcard, like a memory of an ancient time.

I took this photo of this fragment from a poem on a wall at Monreale. I liked the dirty paint, the lettering seemed to be like something from the Fascist period, and I thought I’d be able to track down the quote. It sounded like some form of Quasimodo, Ungaretti or Pascoli, but I’ve never been able to identify it.
It reads: L’Italia è un isola che missing text se per gli altri il mediterraneo
(Italy is an island ——- if for none other than the Mediterranean).

Thanks to one of my readers, I was able to track down the origins of these words. They were a part of a speech given by Mussolini in 1936. The full quote is:

L’Italia e’ un’isola che si immerge nel mediterraneo. Se per gli altri il mediterraneo e’ una strada, per noi Italiani e’ la vita.

(Italy is an island which is immerges itself in the Mediterranean. For others the Mediteranean is a road, for us Italians it is life.)

Sometimes I’ll see a situation or group of random people that will speak to me. It’s a different kind of detail that draws me towards a slice of life I want to take with me. Like this image, I took at Teatro Massima at Palermo. I remember it was a hot summer afternoon.

The theatre was teeming with people, so I didn’t feel like going inside even though the Teatro Massimo is my favourite place to visit Palermo. The first time I was it, I jumped out of my skin. It was like seeing an old friend out of the blue, I recognised it, and there was a part of me that felt connected to it too.

So I decided to take a walk around the exterior of the Teatro. I love this kind of stone that is so common in the palazzi around Palermo; it is so elegant, ancient and robust.

As I was walking around, I noticed this little outdoor garden cafe. This little group of middle-aged and elderly friends were being waited upon by the cutest waiter, complete with a white shirt, tight black pants, and man bun.

I suddenly wished I could sit there at that table with my friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon and sip iced coffee under the shade of the Teatro Massimo. It was a whistful wanderlust moment.

And this is the postcard I choose to keep at the forefront of my mind whenever I think about Palermo.