Sicilian Descent

Of Sicilian Descent is a diary about my experiences living on the island of Sicily.

A series of essays, sketches and poetic observations that document a gradual immersion into the lifestyle, history and culture of an ancient Mediterranean Island.

Life in Sicily is different from the rest of Italy; things are more intense, ancient and sad. The weight of a varied and violent history is palpable.

La Sicilia is described by many as a fallen earthly paradise. This place enchants visitors with its special magic, the flavours of its food, the beauty of its monuments and landscapes.

Despite the natural beauty of this place and the wonderfully well-preserved historical sites, there is also a particular trauma left behind from a long and turbulent history. Sicily shows us how great light coexists with a certain darkness.

My writing is inspired by and dedicated to my maternal Sicilian grandparents who migrated to Perth, Western Australia, in the 1950s and their granddaughter’s visceral connection with Sicily. I am obsessed with the island, mesmerised by its spell, infatuated and infuriated in the same breath.

Of Sicilian Descent is the name of my first book. I’ve been working on this travel memoir for the last ten years, and that I will self publish. It is where I share my journey through Sicily, not as a tourist but rather as someone who lives here full time. Visiting Sicily is very different to living here.

I always joke with my friends that living in a small Sicilian village is like being ‘the only gay in the village.’ I’m the only English speaker in town. Apart from a few Romanian’s who have married locals, a couple of Srilankan and Indian carers for the elderly, I am one of the very few foreigners. Sicily is filled with ex-pats, especially in and around the main cities, but it is pretty rare to find any living in these small towns. Things are a little lonely at times, it’s suitable for working as an English tutor, but it is part of the challenge of living in small-town Sicily.

Nothing beats total immersion if you want to learn Italian. The ultimate challenge comes when there is no one to help make yourself understood. When you need to do your groceries, go to the post office or make an appointment over the phone. 

In Sicily, you need to mimic the distinct accent or way of speaking of the locals; otherwise, people will frown, pretend not to understand your accent or ignore you completely. 

No one will help you converse in general conversation. If you don’t participate, occasionally interject or make yourself be heard, you will be ignored as Sicilian’s aren’t going to try and include you or ask anything about you. 

Still today, I am often left behind in the local Sicilian gossip mill when they resort to their particular kind of social shorthand of nicknames, family trees and connections. Living and growing up in the community gives each person a genetic understanding of everyone’s relationship to one another, which is readily navigated by those who live here. The nickname of a particular family will pinpoint every individual with precision identifying who they are, their social class, their work or physical appearance. 

When Sicilian slip into this comfortable, almost instinctual gossip mode, it is difficult to decipher who they are talking about unless you have been imprinted with this information. If I try to mention someone, I will not know the correct ‘sopraname’ or which family they come from, so I get blank looks and the conversation peters out. Or if I try to follow on, real surnames disappear as the sopranome give people the information they need. There is no hope when everyone knows everyone else in this tight-knit community.

Even though this kind of social dialect can be frustrating, I can see how this would have been a safety net for when any foreign invader came in. Apart from the added complexity of local dialects, which can be like distinct languages, it would have been extra difficult for anyone else to understand the relationships within the community. So this way of communicating and gossiping is part of a complex self-defence mechanism, a secret code designed to be understood by people from the local area. Any foreigner would be baffled.

This community shorthand is just one of the many complexities that make Sicily so fascinating and infuriating at the same time.