The one time I went to Etnaland

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Every year a group from my small Sicilian town of Sinagra organises a pilgrimage to the Etnaland amusement park at Belpasso outside of Catania. In the summer months, the waterpark is open until the early evening, and the connected theme park rides are put into motion as the locals spend their evenings spinning, dipping and riding around until the early morning.

This year I was swept up by the enthusiasm of my eight-year-old son, who had never been on a waterslide and was somehow tricked into wanting to relive my childhood. I remembered the wind blowing through my hair on toboggan rides with my best friend at the tritely named Adventure World, a magnet for children on school holidays in Western Australia, together with summer barbecues and walks through Kings Park, a hundred acre patch of natural bush right near the centre of the Perth CBD.

I was determined to create some memories for my son, after this year’s most disappointing persistently rainy summer. I happily got up at six am, took the long bus ride, paid the exorbitant entrance fee, and made a packed lunch.

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The day began by dipping our feet and bottoms into the extra large doughnut-shaped floating devices which took us along the ‘slow river’ ride, gently being pushed along by the leisurely paced artificial current while intermittent water features and fountains sprayed us around the circuit.

Lulled into a clear yet false sense of security we decided to test out something more adventurous. My son had seen a waterslide on the parks web page called ‘the black hole’ and was determined to have his official water park baptism on it.

Now I should have guessed the true nature of this ride, by the name alone, the phrase Black Hole doesn’t precisely evoke unicorns and rainbows. But from the outside, it didn’t seem too fierce, and it resembled similar fun waterslides in Australia.

While we sat down on our little double seater water raft at the mouth of the steep pitch black tube, I wondered how I would be able to reassure my son in case he becomes frightened, and I resolved to make happy, encouraging yahooing sounds on the way down. As the water rushed past us and pushed us down into the absolute darkness I suddenly remembered, I’m no longer a child and I actually hate water slides.
What followed was a brief moment of absolute terror. The sensory deprivation of the pitch black meant we could not see one another even if we were one in front of each other, nor prepare ourselves for the twists, turns and bumps along the tube of terror.
Needless to say, my reassuring yahoo noises were actually more like hyperactive teenage girl squeals and screams. My niece who was waiting for us near the chute’s pool heard us coming down and said my son’s frightened eyes looked as if they were ready to pop out of their orbits.
The worst thing about water slides is the sense of losing control over your own movements, once you start there’s no going back, you just need to sit back and try to enjoy the ride, or in my case scream your lungs out.
Then there is the sudden realisation of all the naked foreign bodies who have also sat on the same mats, seats and lifesavers as you, yes the water is chlorinated, but there is a distinct sensation of uncleanliness.
Childhood is such a wonderful time when you seek out adventure, live in the moment and never see the danger. Sadly I’m no longer in that phase of my life and have become quite a snob.

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To my surprise, the Etnaland crowd is far from snobbish as it seems most of Catania comes here to cool off during the sweltering Catanese summer. The lava rock landscape around the city is scorching and apart from the odd swimming pool, air-conditioned shopping malls, fountain, crowded rocky beaches, and after dark piazza, there aren’t many options for cooling off, so the water park is a substantial part of the summer entertainment.
Ranked among the twenty best water parks in the world Etnaland is an endless hive of activity with busloads of people coming from throughout Sicily and many families from Europe. It’s a beautiful spot for people watching, as different waves come in, strip down into bathers and head off to the rides for the whole day.
I’ve never seen so much overexposed flesh in one place, it’s actually beautiful to see how so many people can be comfortable with their own bodies and its great to see this immense power for body positivity. But sun worshipers roasting their skin is actually quite unhealthy, and I felt quite overdressed with my shorts and sun proof shirt designed to protect my pale flesh from sunburn. Some habits from my Australian childhood will never grow old.

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On the whole, the day trip is a good family day out, the place is well organised, clean, safe and very popular. The only downside was having to wait in line for the rides, but if you are shrewd and head out to the more popular ones while everyone else is having lunch, you can avoid some of the confusion.
Basically, you arrive, throw everything you have into a locker you hire for the day and strip down to your bathing suit and then crisscross the dozens of water rides and pools around the park. There is literally something for everyone from kiddy pools to rides with names like Kamikaze, Twister, Giant Toboggan, Red Cannon, Jungle Splash, Colossum and Titania. There are complimentary maps available at the entrance, so it’s easy to plan out your day.
The many park employees are positioned around the place with cameras taking everyone’s photos on the rides. At the entrance to the park you are given the option to get a bracelet which is scanned after every picture, and when you are finished, you can go and see your photos at the photo booth and purchase prints for about 10 euros a pop.
For those who are looking to relax on a deck chair by the pool all day you can hire a spot, buy a cocktail at one of the many overpriced open bars and restaurants. If you don’t have an energetic child dragging you around the park, you can dip into the artificial wave pool which is put into motion every hour together with an active dance party complete with twerking and gesticulating dancing girls, if that’s what you like.

If everything gets too much at the end of the day there is a relaxing spa bath to massage your aching muscles, just in case you need it, there’s something for everyone really.

Italians going to the beach

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Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach I soak up the eccentric backdrop. This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea. You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of serious concussion or spinal injuries, there are endless craggy boulders skulking under the water.

Walking down the beach my shoes begin to fill with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. How I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under fine grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, there isn’t the convenience of a single shop or public toilet. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.

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Watching beach umbrellas, pop up along the seaside, I begin to smear myself with sunscreen, as this is the standard procedure for people with milky coloured thighs left unexposed to the sun during winter. In Australia the sun is one danger of many to protect yourself from, an Australian doesn’t go to the beach without sunscreen nor do they go walking in long grass without boots or ever forget to check their shoes before they put them on to look out for poisonous spiders. Around me I see at least half a dozen women roasting themselves in the sun, I can smell barbecue meat.

Italian women take an enormous risk during the summer, turning themselves the colour of roast chicken. The tanned look is very fashionable and according to popular logic; the darker you look, the healthier you are. Obviously, they are in denial about the existence of skin cancer.

We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and their children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. Here the sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.

All my female companions are in bikinis and I am in a full piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach. It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. I’ve always been self-conscience about exposing my body at the beach, I’ve never been part of that tall tanned beach going Ozzie set. I’ve never spent an entire summer at the beach, neither am I the athletic type.

These conservative Sicilian women, usually cover their bodies so carefully and fashionably during the year, yet in the summer they easily strip down without a second thought into the bare minimum of beach attire. They abandon themselves to the ideal bohemian fantasy of summer, without looking at themselves in the mirror.

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Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in the large industrial cities like Milan and Turin, return every summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily, who really don’t work very hard during the year, at least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who are fully deserving of a restful holiday.

Beach-going is extremely fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our own little-isolated strip of Sicilian coast, there are people who have convinced themselves the world is watching them in their seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest shaped fashion sunglasses and the occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.

Trying to be social and fit into the beach going routine, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas, as everyone strips down, I just want to dive into the water and have a swim but obviously, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings on at the beach and the local gossip.

Not having any desire to participate I soak up the sun until a collective decision is made to play volleyball in the water to gradually dip ourselves into the sea. It becomes obvious no one is taking the game seriously, either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.

The gossip continues, the ball is bowled back up onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues to talk. I really don’t know about any of the people featured in the current conversation. I am excluded from the intricate web of social connections and nicknames so I cannot contribute anything to the gossip session and struggle to understand the shorthand speak being exchanged.

After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up they wave and whistle out to me, I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way back with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I just wanted to swim.

The others are surprised at how well I move in the water and everyone said they thought I’d drowned. A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.

I smile to myself as I remember my childhood in Australia, every summer at the local pool had made me a good swimmer by Sicilian standards, yet in Australia, I always came dead last in any school swimming race.

Italians at the beach are dispersed in small chatty posed groups, roasting and gossiping in the sun, only the children are playing or swimming. Why would someone go to the beach and not swim?

Italian coffee shop culture

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Last year I was back home in Perth, Western Australia for a visit when I suddenly became a victim to reverse culture shock. It’s a bizarre affliction for an expat living in Italy as every day you are battling tiny little moments of friction between yourself and your new home, but slowly you begin to adjust and don’t think about the smaller things.

And apparently, you begin to assimilate the new behaviour into your personality.

Then when you go back to your hometown thinking, you will be able to settle in comfortably without thinking, when you realise how much you’ve forgotten.

Speaking mostly Italian, I find myself losing words and helpful phrases, sometimes my accent becomes a little Italianized without me realising.
I begin to miss the spontaneity of Italians, for organising things at the moment, I find it strange not just to turn up at friends homes only with a bottle of wine and whip up a bowl of pasta with a few simple ingredients; instead I have to make appointments to go out to eat with them in advanced.
I never order pasta at a restaurant in Australia as I’ve gradually become a pasta snob (yes there is such a thing). I will not eat over cooked pasta, it must be al dente.

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And of my last visit home, I feel awkward at Australian coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong I still love, all-day breakfast and brunch is a dirty little pleasure I always indulge in whenever I’m in Australia, but it’s just I have a problem with the coffee.

I’ve become an avid espresso drinker in Italy. Every morning I have at least two cups of the thick black delicious liquid, I can’t get enough of it, I even will drink it without sugar to get the most of the bitter, full flavour.

I don’t crave thick creamy milk lattes, I can no longer stomach full cream milk cappuccinos or frappuccinos. Out with a friend for coffee, I accidentally ordered a latte instead of a flat white as I didn’t remember the difference and then felt terribly sick afterwards.

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There are a lot of little Italian peccadillos, which I seem to have picked up without realising. I want my coffee in a cup, not a glass (it gets cold too quickly in a glass, and it tastes better in a cup), I want my cappuccino warm not boiling hot and I think people are strange to order a cappuccino in the afternoon (as it usually is a breakfast drink). I am yet to find a good espresso in Australia that does not taste bitter or burnt.

I like going to an Italian Caffe’, known as a Bar and having a quick, strong espresso while standing up, or grab a quick grappa if I’m feeling cold in the winter, or the ultimate ice coffee granita with whipped cream and brioche sweet bread in the summer.

I often wonder where on earth I will eventually feel more at home, in Australia or Italy. I’m currently debating whether I might need to create my own nation apart to accommodate my strange culture shock affliction.

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For the record in Italy the coffee selection is usually as follows:

Cappuccino [cap-puc-cì-no] : equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk

Caffè latte [caf-fè] [làt-te]: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam

Latte macchiato [làt-te] [mac-chià-to]: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso

(These milky coffees are only consumed until about 11am)

Caffè macchiato [caf-fè] [mac-chià-to]: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as normal caffè.

Caffè corretto [caf-fè] [cor-rèt-to]: Literally translated as corrected coffee, this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.

Caffè americano [caf-fè] [a-me-ri-cà-no]: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.

Caffè lungo [caf-fè] [lùn-go]: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.

Marocchino [ma-roc-chì-no]: A marriage of cocoa and espresso. A shot of espresso, a layer of foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder in a glass mug that has been dusted with cocoa powder.

Shakerato: The shakerato is Italy’s answer to an iced coffee.  A chilled espresso poured over ice and shaken to a froth.

Caffè freddo [caf-fè] [fréd-do]: Literally cold coffee, an espresso which has been cooled down in the fridge or freezer.

Crema di Caffè [crè-ma] di [caf-fè]: A mixture of whipped cream and espresso coffee, a light coffee flavoured dessert.

Caffè affogato [caf-fè] [af-fo-gà-to]: Another variation of dessert, have your coffee literally drowned in a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream.

Granita di Caffè [gra-nì-ta] di [caf-fè]:  Shaved iced coffee usually topped with whipped cream and consumed with sweet bread for breakfast in Sicily.

Bicerin [bitʃeˈriŋ]: A Piedmontese drink similar to a hot chocolate. Served in a big glass mixing coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.

Caffè al Ginseng [caf-fè] [gin-sèng] : An espresso prepared with ginseng extract and needs no other sweetener.

Caffè d’Orzo [caf-fè] [òr-zo]: A 100% naturally caffeine-free coffee made with barley.

Caffè Decaffeinato [caf-fè] [de-caf-fei-nà-to]: Decaffeinated coffee

 

Shocking Italian Culture shock

Italian Culture shock

It’s already a new month which means it’s Dolce Vita Bloggers time!

Once again Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com have seemed to read my mind when it comes to posting topics.

It’s been a while since my last rant about the irksome parts of culture shock in Italy. To be honest, I’ve simply learned to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome, after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your own convenience.

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.

To be honest, after 16 years of living in Italy, I often go through a strange kind of ‘reverse’ culture shock every time I’m back home in Australia (but that’s another story).

So here are ten points of culture shock which I still need to navigate and which sometimes bother me, make me laugh and others which aren’t too bad. The hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of merely visiting.

 

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1. A lack of personal space

In Australia like in America, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are a lot of people with respect to the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, not enough parking and a population which has no problem invading other people’s personal space.

You will be spoken to way too close to your face, people do stare, your new in-laws will be commenting on your appearance and interfering simply because we have to live our lives ‘vicini, vicini’, up close and personal, it’s just the way it is. Yes, it’s suffocating, oppressing and soul destroying but you’ll get used to it.

The in-laws will be doing it out of love, the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers simply have always done this. Don’t feel like a victim no one is out to get you, it’s the reality.

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 2. An insane formality

Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs, they are very proud of their language, hard-earned titled, jobs, and education. So be prepared to be extremely formal when first meeting people, be sure to use the special ‘lei’ ultra formal grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people who are older or more experienced than you.

I was surprised to discover Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular level of education or accent and those who can’t.

As a foreigner, you will always be corrected when you make grammatical errors or reminded of your quaint accent. Over the past few years, I’ve been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I’ve transformed from a foreigner to a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the title of ‘maestra’ or ‘collega’ and using ‘lei’ instead of the informal ‘tu’.

I think it’s hilarious the silly game many Italians are forced to play. We are all the same people, get over your airs and graces.

3. Male and Female dynamics

I’ve always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy something which has never been acknowledged, for goodness sake, there isn’t even a word for sexism and harassment in Italian (eventhough the English terms are slowly being adopted.)

It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered merely friends, Italian’s have terms like fidanzato/a, amico/a which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé, there is no term to express a platonic friendship, it’s sad, why can’t you just be friends without any sexual connotations or expectations?

While Italian men who are friends with other men seem to be a lot more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in any anglo saxon country, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.

Female friends are not so amicable, women are competing with other women, instead of lifting up one another, they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game amongst themselves.

Even on a grammatical level, the Italian language drives me crazy as all objects are either male or female, it’s an epic task to recall which are which and how to make the definite and indefinite articles match up with the nouns. First, you need to identify the gender (masculine/feminine) then pay attention to the number (singular/plural) of the terms they refer to. It’s a daily struggle for me.

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4. Dirt

One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is, in the big cities it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, laundry hung out to dry from balconies will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some kind of labor strike occurring).

This is a massive social and environmental problem in Italy, which I hope Italians address soon. The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. But there are large parts of Italy which have been permanently damaged by illegal dumping of toxic waste including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean up and parts of Sicily’s interior near Gela and Caltanissetta have become terra bruciata– burnt out wasteland thanks to decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All terribly heartbreaking.

5. Dolce Vita

Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita is what allows them to savour life to the full. Italy is all about slow living, taking the time to talk, socialise, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, then taking the correct amount of time to taste and digest it all.

There is always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.

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6. Gossip mill 100%

When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. The Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine, it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally. So why not use it to your advantage!

Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, babysit. It’s the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer.

Make friends with the local gossip, just be careful not to make too many waves, just blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them but don’t add to the venom.

7. Coffee culture

Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual. In Italy coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), cappuccino is strictly a morning drink served with full cream milk and not piping hot.

A latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso, a macchiato will provide you with a short black with a splash of milk. Coffee is served quickly standing up at a ‘bar’ or cafe together with other drinks like juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs.

If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don’t expect much else.

An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes at a time when you are at work or if you have nothing to do during the day.

Starbucks has only just opened its doors in Milan this year (2018), so there is no takeaway coffee, no small, medium or large frappe, no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe’. Sniff!

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8. Arrogant Doctors

Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have an excellent bedside manner, it seems that’s been left out of the pre-requisites. So be sure to revise how to use the formal ‘lei’ form while addressing them and write a list of questions to ask and insist on them being clear because they ain’t wasting time on explanations, unfortunately.

The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, they are doing their best despite any rough edges.

9. The danger of ice

Since we are at the beginning of a long hot tourist inducing Italian summer I thought I’d mention the fear Italians have of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning. Many visitors are always complaining of the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air con. I totally understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia where people used to put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer extra chilled.

I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold things in summer to others, as they believe it is bad for your health. It seems Italians are slight hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or in some extreme cases kill.

My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend of his who drank an icy cold drink one summer and consequently dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock. If this story were true, then I surely would have died of brain freeze many years ago.

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10. Names

Now this may come as a surprise, but Italian bureaucracy has a gigantic problem with middle names. It is critical to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, to bills, signatures and tax file numbers. You will be denied payments, get other people’s bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers.

A signature is always written surname first then the first name followed by all middle names.
If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.
If you don’t have any middle names, lucky you!!
I’ve always had problems as my mother named me like a member of the British royal family with two middle names. In Australia, I always have to spell out my complex Italian surname as no one understood it or can pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that’d be the end of that. But it turns out my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying Gian Borello, numerous times my name has been transformed and one of my consonants robbed.

It seems Sicilians only like local surnames and not ones from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza! So it looks like I will always have a struggle with my name.

New name

 

If you want to read some more about my experience with culture shock take a look at:

Culture Shock in Italy: Friendship

Culture Shock in Sicily

This is part of the #DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #9 August 2018 – Culture Shock.

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #8 July 2018 – La Dolce Vita
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #7 June 2018 – Hidden Gems in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #6 May 2018 – Five Italian Words
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

A walk to the fig tree

The fig tree

In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.

The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.

According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.

 

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After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.

 

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When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.

 

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While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.

 

 

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The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.

 

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We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.

The exciting possibilities are endless.

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Making your own Dolce Vita

The #dolcevitabloggers have chosen to explore the concept of the Dolce Vita in Italy. There is a fine line between loving and visiting the bel paese as a tourist and the reality of living here, in the search for your own personal sweet life. So cheers to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for choosing such a fascinating topic this month. I can’t wait to read everyone’s posts.

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

 

 

I have a problem with people who idealise Italy, there are countless bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers who fall into the trap of depicting life in Italy and in general as an unrealistic bowl of cherries. Let’s be honest the world is far from perfect, and when you come to Italy, it isn’t going to be like Eat, Pray and Love or Under the Tuscan sun. But Italy does give you the freedom to make your own path. There is always a way to find or create your own Dolce Vita.

 

Making your own Dolce Vita

 

 

I live in Sicily which has a bad reputation when it comes to employment, so if you are the competitive type, a move to Sicily is not going to give you a better career. One popular joke describes the typical islander work environment as one Sicilian doing all the work and five others looking on at him. It’s probably more exact to say one Sicilian being paid and the others pretending not to do anything but secretly working and getting paid ‘under the table’ as no one can afford to pay all the taxes.

There is something about the South, all over the world which inspires a laid-back attitude to life coupled with decadence, idleness and corruption. It could be the heat, the poverty or history …

Sicily has always been the most downtrodden, taxed, molested, dominated and trampled part of Italy. If you read anything about the history of the island, you will be surprised by an endless diatribe of conquests, violent wars, pestilence and persistent subterfuge to most major world powers from the middle ages to modern times. No wonder Sicilian’s are so hedonistic as in their past everything has literally been taken away from them.

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Unemployment is a concern throughout the peninsula, many Italians are forced to invent their own jobs. Over the past decade, for example, there has been a succession of young Italian creatives who have set up online businesses to export their own creativity overseas. Unfortunately thanks to the current economic crisis Italy is experiencing a massive ‘brain drain’ as many brilliant Italian entrepreneurs and students are leaving to work abroad, as many industries are closing down in Italy and moving offshore, tax levels are on the hike, and the economy is going in the wrong direction.
My own experience in the Sicilian work environment is almost as long and convoluted as the Sicilian penal code. As a foreigner, you will be starting off with a distinct disadvantage, and I discovered as an ‘extracomunitaria’, or as someone born out of Europe, my academic qualifications and even drivers license are not recognised in Italy.
I cannot tell you how many dead ends I came across while trying to have my degree recognised so I could teach in Sicilian schools or at least continue my studies. Someone told me I’d have to redo my entire degree. One politician said he’d validate everything with his big magic official stamp and even promised me a job as a ‘mother tongue English specialist,’ I’m still waiting on the phone call!
I have long since given up on the academic side of my life. And as for my driver’s license is concerned I will continue to renew my ‘International’ one until I find the time to swallow my pride to sit the written and practical tests together with skintight-jeans-wearing, eye-shadow-smeared high school children.

 

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Since coming to Sicily, I’ve become a master of odd jobs and doing-all-kinds-of-shite-to make-ends-meet (this title is so on my resume) from the secretary in my husband’s architectural office, translator, interpreter, to English tutor of unmotivated ‘Liceo linguistico’. These language-based high schools are a particular breed of young adults forced to study the likes of Shakespeare, D.H Lawrence and James Joyce in implausible Literature programs when they are unable to string a simple sentence together in English.

It is difficult enough to explain the significance of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ monologue to a bored Anglo Saxon student, but you can imagine the hours of fun doing it all in Italian, to a student who is studying English only to make his parents happy. It’s a real barrel of monkeys with much screeching and gesticulating, mostly on my part.

 

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Nowadays my English students have almost disappeared, my work boils down to tricking people into occasionally publishing my articles, working with the primary schools in individual after-school English courses, some online work and my own personal passion projects.

Most of my work in Sicily has been either underpaid or not paid at all. That’s not to say there aren’t work opportunities in Italy, there is a huge tourist industry, and in the major cities, foreigners will find work opportunities in I.T, fashion, language teaching and childcare areas. You’re not going to become a millionaire, but you will find a way of making a living to stay in one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, even if this may involve lowering your standards or getting a second job as a waitress or shop assistant to make ends meet.

 

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In small-town Sicily, where things are usually much more slow-paced and the time in between work is getting longer, there is nothing to do other than adopt a Sicilian ‘dolce far niente’ approach. This attitude of pleasant idleness has become almost a torture for this workaholic expat who keeps slamming her head forcefully into a wall of culture shock, which I always forget to look out for.
Living in the moment is normal for Sicilians but I worry about my savings, career and future and so these are challenging times for this unwilling expat who is always having to adjust. Sicily is perfect for reflection, writing, history, food and wine and finding stories. Work is not essential as life tends to disrupt employment in Sicily.
My Dolce Vita is about finding a balance between my work and life in general. I love how Italians will always choose to savour the moment, yet for me, work is something I cannot do without. I try to do as Italians do with their love of life while always working on my passions.

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Want to read past Dolce Vita Blogger Link-Ups? Check out the links below!

#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #7 June 2018 – Italian Hidden Gems

​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #6 May 2018 – Five Italian Words

​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy

​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day

#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy

#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City

​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

The extravagant Tabacchere

 

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One of the most sumptuous fruits of the Sicilian summer has to be the Tabacchere, a strange little squashed furry peach packed with enormous flavour.

I first saw these seemingly insignificant mini fruit at the fruit and vegetable stalls at the open air markets and took them as an inferior version of regular peaches.

I was seriously mistaken as the Tabacchere are baroque masterpieces of the Sicilian estival fruits. They taste unlike any other peach a concentration of delicate sweetness with a pungent aroma that is intoxicating.

Tabacchere peaches

A case of Tabacchere is a generous gift a real luxury and can cost up to three times the price of regular peaches. A house drenched in the perfume of these peaches is a sensual pleasure filled with the sweetness of summer sunshine, which lingers in the air and in the mouth.

Tabacchere

Also known as saturn, snuffbox and tango doughnut peaches Tabacchere have been grown on the slopes of Mount Etna since the early 1800’s. The rich volcanic soil and the sunshine makes these peaches thrive. Since they do not keep for long and due to their odd size they are generally consumed locally during the short growing season.

These delicate little pieces of flavoursome decadence are characterised by a thin outer skin which easily slips off to reveal a light flesh with a strong scent of peach like a bouquet of roses, Its tiny Tabacchere pip makes it nearly entirely edible.

Tabacchere Peaches
Peach cobbler is always on the menu when they are in season, any recipe that will make the most of this surprising abundance, to share them with extended Sicilian family and friends.

Everyone should experience the heavenly Tabacchere.

 

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Smoky roasted Artichokes

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The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.

White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.

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Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold. 

The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.

Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, that  he decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.

Un fiore Siciliano

Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.

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It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.

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The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect. 

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Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour. 

I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.

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Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti

Five Random Italian Words

I’ve been compiling a list of my fave Italian words on my phone for a while with a half-baked idea for a post, and I am grateful to this months Dolce Vita Bloggers theme of ‘five Italian words’, which has jogged my memory and allowed me to finally sit down and write about the Italian language. So hats off to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com  for starting a fascinating conversation.

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

This is my sixteenth year living in Italy and at last I am feeling at ease with the language.
Italian has always been a challenge for me, I loved studying it as a hobby but when you jump into full immersion living in a foreign country without an expat safety net, your understanding really takes off, while the challenges with learning a second language can be frustrating.
I’m still confused by Italian grammar, I always joke with my students that I am stuck in the basic present, past and future tenses, with an inability to express my opinions in the conditional or study the past in the complex historical past tense academics tend to use.
Italian newspapers are a wonderful exercise in Italian language learning. Italian journalists have little in common with Anglo-Saxon ones, there is no emphasis on quick, clear and easy to understand language, reading a newspaper here in Italy is a journey into the Italian Baroque, filled with flowery intellectual prose, all quite beautiful but guaranteed to give you a headache.

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Click here if you want to read the other #dolcevitabloggers posts.

I’m constantly being reminded by condescending Italians of my quaint, adorable Australian accent. While there is no class system in Italy, I think there is most certainly an intellectual snobbery which defines itself as being superior because of the ability to speak, act and sometimes even dress ‘properly’.
I really haven’t studied Italian since moving here full-time. The basic grammar I have has been gained through my university studies and a few short courses during my long-lost twenties. So I have gathered this accumulation of mostly conversational Italian through years of living, working, socializing and interacting with Italians. I often challenge myself by reading a newspaper or a book and this year I am attempting to translate my blog posts into Italian but it still is a long and laboured process, which I am enjoying.

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I love words so when I hear something I write it down. I have loads of random lists on tiny pieces of paper, lists both in English and Italian.

The Italian words are heavier, more exotic like the pebbles on rocky Italian beaches, I always pick them up, feel their strange texture, hold them up to the light, listen to their musicality and admire them.

I’m going to share the first five words on my very long list of strange yet beautiful Italian words which have been created to describe quirky or ugly elements of Italian culture, words which only exist in Italian. Wonderfully onomatopoeic sounding words, who roll off the tongue, make me belly laugh out loud and leave me speechless with their aptness. The Italian language is filled with expressive words which reflect the flamboyant and poetical nature of Italy.

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FUNNULLONE (fan | nul | ló | ne) : the English translation of this word simply doesn’t do it justice. A slacker, bum or lay about is so much weaker than a fa (from fare or do) nulla (niente or nothing) literally someone who does nothing. Commonly used to describe and complain about government office workers in Italy.

FIGURACCIA (fi-gu-ràc-cia): Italians always talk about making a good impression or a ‘bella figura,’ either by presenting themselves well in front of new acquaintances, professionally or before the general community. A figuraccia is when you make the worst possible impression, totally bombing at a job interview or burning all bridges for a promotion, you have totally ruined your reputation forever which is probably the worst thing ever for an Italian.

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MAMMONE (mam | mó | ne) : literally a mammone refers to a large mothers breast, a wonderful image which describes the typical Italian mummy’s boy. A word of advice, if you ever meet a mammone, don’t ever get involved with him, it always gets too Oedipal.

IMBROGLIONE (im-bro-glió-ne): the English translation into ‘trickster’ waters down the meaning of this term. An imbroglione can be a nasty corrupt politician, a sly con man or an oversexed Don Juan, someone who lies and deceives for their own personal benefit, but its more than that, they are absorbed by their own deceit and are one hundred percent consumed by their own lies.

GATTOPARDISMO (gat-to-par-dì-smo): a simple gattopardo is an ocelet or wild cat but after the publication of the Sicilian historical novel of the same title by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in the 1960’s, Italian journalists invented the word gattopardismo to describe a nasty trait of the historical Italian political, aristocratic and business class. It refers to the period of Italy’s unification where basically the royalists and the upcoming middle class took advantage of political change to grab onto the power and wealth left behind after the formation of the new Italian republic. Today it refers to a certain social, political and economic class who will do anything to hold onto their power or wealth and is a synonym for the corruption and nepotism which mars Italy today.

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The Italian language is beautiful, even when describing the lesser attractive elements of human nature and above all it always has an honest and down to earth approach to interpreting the world. Honestly, it is this what makes me fall more in love with Italian every day.

To read all the other posts about Italian words for May 2018 click here.

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

Springtime Asparagus

Wild Asparagus

As the weather begins to warm the first fruits of spring literally ‘spring’ up from the new foliage. A favourite has to be wild asparagus which grows randomly and abundant throughout Italy.

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family and is sought after for its tender, succulent, edible shoots. This plant has been cultivated for more than two thousand years in the eastern Mediterranean. Roman emperors loved it so much they kept special boats for the purpose of fetching it and named them the Asparagus fleet.

Asparagus

Wild asparagus shoots up between thorny blackberry plants, in cool damp gullies or secluded places where they are hidden and keep themselves tender and ripe for those who search for them every year. The spontaneous uncultivated variety has a sweeter taste than the domesticated type and is a sort after ingredient during the early days of spring.

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There are two types of wild asparagus, a slim, tall, sweet variety dispersed in every area and then a short, dark, slightly spindly and bitter asparagus which grows later on in the season. The sweeter variety is the most popular while the bitter type is an acquired taste and often needs to be blanched in hot water to take away a little of the bitterness.

The asparagus hunt can be as popular as mushroom or truffle hunting in the Italian autumn months. The hunt for asparagus can turn into a war. Often it’s a race to get to the best spots first and it can be quite vicious. Like mushrooms, asparagus are a delicacy that bring out the competitive nature of people. 

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The asparagus hunter has an intense satisfaction and can relish the preparation of this sweet vegetable which can be cleaned and fried with olive oil to make an omelette, or wrapped in thinly sliced cheese and prosciutto cotto ham and baked in the oven.

Personally when I see a batch of freshly picked asparagus I feel like a quiche is coming on. The culinary possibilities really are endless. Dishes like these are an elixir to the wintertime, like the warmth of spring they assure me the cold is coming to an end. 

 

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Per la versione in Italiano clicca qui: Asparagi di primavera

Culture Shock in Italy: Friendship

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According to UN statistics, there are 232 million expatriates in the world a steadily rising number of people who have chosen to move overseas from 154 million in 1990 and 175 million in 2000. The motives for becoming an expat are quite varied whether it be economic or personal many people choose to move out of their comfort zones and freely live in another country.

It’s a brave choice to become an expat, leaving behind friends, family, culture and even a mother tongue can be the biggest adventure imaginable yet it most certainly not all smooth sailing. The most significant boundary to settling into life in a new country has to be the culture shock, which is when your own personal habits and values are diametrically opposed to those of your new home. It can be emotionally isolating and depressing to hit head-on with conflicting opinions and ways of life. There is no way around culture shock you just have to be aware of it and either accept it or negotiate yourself around it.

You’d think to move to your dream home in Tuscany or Villa in the South of France or any other place on your bucket list would result in instant happiness, but the reality is one filled with endless daily adjustments. I’ve written extensively about my own personal struggle in a light-hearted and comical way like in this recent post for COSI’ .

I have adapted well to life in Sicily, Italy but I still find myself stressing about the smaller things which I’d still like to share with anyone who is contemplating shifting their life to Italy which is probably one of the most idealised places in the world for potential expats. So I’ll occasionally be sharing my acquired insight into daily life in Italy with everyone. This time let’s talk about Friendships in Italy.

Socially Sicilians are very closed in and insular people. Not to say they are dull, on the contrary, they are warm-hearted and vivacious, but basically, they have a reserved nature. Their distinct dialect can keep foreigners firmly locked outside of a conversation.

Even as you open the code of their language there is precious little small talk in their lives other than the common gossip that keeps society’s wheels oiled, no sharing of real emotions or opinions with others unless it involves politics or sport, then you can posture and yell as you please.

I’ve always struggled with making friends here in Sicily, only because those around me have already formed their friendships and seldom look out of their family or established a community to make new connections.

It is usual for Sicilians and Italians to grow up with the same people around them, schoolmates and classes are formed by the same group of people from kindergarten to primary school and often through to high school. At University or work, there are new bonds formed, but they are formal superficial professional connections.

People are quite formal when you first meet someone you need to use the polite ‘lei’ form which is like calling someone Madame or Sir. Quite often the formality is maintained permanently of someone is older, more qualified or holds a more important position than the other. Usually, a mutual agreement is reached between the two parties so the casual ‘tu’ or ‘you’ can be used to address one another after a few weeks of working together, but if it is your superior, it will usually mean a lifetime of using this complicated formal tense.

 

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One disturbing aspect I find in the social life here is the fact Italians believe friendship between a man and a woman can never indeed exist. There is no word to describe a male friend or female friend that doesn’t have connotations of a sexual nature. There is no way I can justify having male friends, my husband once said to me, ‘all men want is to have sex, not friendship.’ There are work colleagues, acquaintances, relatives and school friends, yet male friends outside of these contexts are considered boyfriends or lovers.

Perhaps I am generalising here, but particularly in Sicily, I find women tend to socialise with women and men with men unless it is a school or work situation. For example, if there is a party women will often stick to their friends, unless they have a boyfriend or are engaged and them even after people get married, they go back to their old habits, husbands with their male friends and women with their female friends.

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The lack of platonic male-female friendships in Italian culture is a real problem, particularly when it comes to issues such as equal rights between the sexes and feminism. How can a woman be considered a similar to man when she is still seen as a sexual object and not merely a friend or equal? Italy has many problems with violence against women, women’s rights in the workplace and professional world all because of the predominance of this latent machismo in society.

At times the culture shock for foreigners in Italy can be crippling, but it is something to negotiate every day. The most frustrating thing is wanting to change things yet realising it is impossible. I began to feel happy living in Italy when I let go of trying to change the culture and accepting things the way they were.

You can never make Italy the way you want it, but you can live and take what is best for you. As a foreigner, you are lucky to be able to pick what is best for you while being aware of the problems. Any culture is in constant evolution so who knows, things may gradually change, but it is all beyond one person.

Personally, I try to be polite, but I am above all upfront and explain to people I am a foreigner and may make mistakes with the formal tense, so to an extent I am tolerated or forgiven for breaking protocol. As for the way I socialise, I don’t get intimidated and often will get up from the women’s table and go sit by my husband to talk with the guys, which really isn’t worth the trouble as they mainly talk about sports and politics anyway ;-(

The best way to socialise in Italy is through the food, everyone loves to eat so throw yourself into the cuisine, a bottle of wine helps, and the friendship issue usually sorts itself out after everything is digested.

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Sicilian Mountain Lessons

I’ve always been challenged by the mountainous landscape in Sicily.

The boundless slopes disorient me, I have problems finding my bearings and the horizon is blocked out by them.

When I go hiking down steep hillsides I am constantly holding on for dear life, grappling white-knuckled onto the flimsiest blade of grass. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sprained my ankles or fallen ‘head over arse’ for a lack of balance.

My part of Australia (Perth) is very flat with a small range in the distance affectionately and condescendingly called the ‘Darling’ range (actually it’s named after someone rather important). So I am used to seeing more sky than land on the horizon, at times I feel a little stifled by all of these Sicilian peaks surrounding me.

The Darling little Darling Ranges outside of Perth Western Australia. ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I’ve been here for more than a decade but I don’t think I will able to accept them. Locals barely notice their mountains, never see the danger of a steep drop, happily detour around landslides in winter, curiously enough Mt Etna is hardly mentioned in even the greatest Sicilian literature even if a novel is set in the foothills of the Volcano near Catania, it’s simply ‘Mongibello’, a minor character in a sea of personalities.

 

Mongibello ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I agree with D.H Lawrence when he described Sicily’s landscape in his 1920’s travelogue Sea and Sardinia as a ‘peaky confinement,’ preferring the open landscape of the island of Sardinia. The mountains here are repressive and Lawrence is right to complain about the sense of suffocation. I too need ‘room for my spirit: and you can have all the toppling crags of romance.’ Take the mountains and give me some space!

Nebrodi Mountains ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I’m convinced the landscape is evolving before my very eyes, every time I look up I see something different. Entire houses leap out at me, old country mansions suddenly show themselves and I’m constantly asking my husband: ‘Hey has that always been there?’

There is no way of appropriately describing or photographing the summits they are so immense and vary from day-to-day. The sunlight of every different season gives them endless idiosyncrasies.

Looking out at the Aeolian Islands in Messina Province ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I really should be used to the ranges but I am still afraid of them and the one car width wide mountain roads, carved out of ribcage on their sides, with only a flimsy guard rail (sometimes not even that) separating you from a certain death plummeting down the rest of the precipice if you were you to swerve or be hit by an upcoming car.

My Sicilian man still asks me:

‘Why are you still so afraid and uncertain?’

‘What happens if you meet another car?’ I ask.

He nonchalantly answers: ‘Someone backs up and lets the other pass.’

Oh great that means reversing down a mountain road and plummeting to my death backwards, at least I won’t see death arriving.

Mountains outside of Milazzo (Messina) ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

An old friend of my husband did exactly that, well not backwards or to his death. But he swerved to avoid a truck along a curvy highland road near to where he lives, his car leapt over the railing and the driver door flung open (of course he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as thick-headed Sicilians don’t do safety devices.)

He was thrown out of his four-wheel drive car falling through the branches of some chestnut trees and finally landing in the arms of some small hazelnut boughs while his car continued to roll down to the base of an abandoned gully way, way, way below the road.

Thank goodness he was stoic and tenacious enough to simply dust himself off and climb back up to the road as his cell phone was left resting with what was left of his car. With blood pouring down his face from a 30 stitches wide gash on his scalp he walked home and called an ambulance. The bits and pieces of his car were recovered and sold for spare parts ten days later.

And my fear of mountains was reinforced.

 

Gin Gin, Western Australia, so flat with no danger of falling, here speed is the killer.©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

As if this wasn’t enough, my phobia of mountains was doubled this year thanks to another accident which hit closer to home. My sister-in-law took a tumble with her car this January while moving to the side to letting another vehicle go by, she was thrown out of the driver’s door while her car cartwheeled further down the mountain. She was conscious and managed to call for help, when I got to the scene I saw all of my worse nightmares.

After being airlifted to Messina and a month in the hospital and another month convalescing at home she has made a good recovery. Now I refuse to drive on these mountain roads and am constantly gasping when my husband gets a little too close to the edge.

Thanks, Sicily for the lesson.

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Culture shock in Sicily

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There is no need to be offended about an article about the ridiculousness of life in Italy and how to survive it. All expats dive into life’s absurdity with a relish that is slightly abnormal, because we are all a little mentally unstable. Our posts are written with a wink of an eye, extravagantly wild hand gestures, a smile on our face, a bottle of red wine on the table and the ability of an Italian to laugh at himself.

 

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As usual, Sicily is the key to everything in Italy. Many of the peninsula’s cultural qualities have spread up from the South or become intensified here on this island isolated from the rest of the mainland.

Here’s my random list of ten culture shocks which made my skin crawl but through some kinda crazy miracle I have survived and continue to live within Sicily.

1. Confusing Dialects

It’s normal to believe Italians all speak Italian, but the reality is in a country filled with individualists there are many regional variations and dialects, which are like different languages. In the South, the day-to-day use of Italian goes out of the window as the locals slip into their comfortable dialect which is a confusing array of influences from Sicily’s thirteen different foreign occupations.

So what to do when you are affronted by a barrage of Sicilian you don’t understand? Well, don’t panic, stick to Italian, everyone learns it at school, so they do appreciate you and if you think you are being ripped off you are under no legal obligation to buy, just act like a Sicilian, yell a lot, leave the object in the store and try to get a better price. In general, if you stick to family run Trattoria instead of Ristorante, you shouldn’t be overcharged for meals.

2. Slow Living

When I first moved to Sicily I struggled with the slower paced lifestyle, I hated how most stores closed for lunch, but now there are many bigger supermarkets which are open all day just in case you have a craving for chocolate at midday!

The relaxed timetable is much less stressful, and it helps you to savour the smaller things like a good lunch, an unexpected conversation or a surprise discovery while meandering the streets or markets.

3. Ugly corruption and politics

As with any other densely populated and ancient country, fraud is often used to oil the wheels of progress and slash through red tape, something which never should be tolerated. It’s terrible to see but I always try to go above it myself, in my own dealings I’m still above-board, and I think most people like to be honest. All the politicking and underhanded deals are about being furbi or shrewder than the next guy when there is money to be made, but you can still make a living by being honest and hardworking. (Corny and idealistic I know, but true)

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4. Unemployment

The majority of people in the South are either unemployed for all or part of the year, only because of the lack of development and the terrible administration of the local economy. But this doesn’t seem to worry anyone too much, work is seen as a necessary evil, and many manage to get by with cash paying seasonal work, while an online job and savings in a foreign bank account are an expat’s lifeline.

5. Inter sex relations and friendships

I’ve always struggled to make friends in Sicily, which used to be mind-boggling to me as I’m a very charming person who makes a great dinner party guest. Most Sicilians and Italians cement their social connections at school and through family and rarely look beyond them, so for me it’s like being left out of the click.

I have some darling platonic male friends back in Oz, while I’ve been told here that men and women can’t be friends as men just want sex! WTF!?! So social life for me in Sicily is about celebrating Birthdays with the in-laws and somehow being gradually adopted into existing circles.

6. Bringing up baby

Having children in Italy is a challenge to say the least, from gynecologists who will ask you to drop your pants anywhere (operating rooms, storage rooms, in the hall on the way to the delivery room), to invasive family always offering unwelcome advice, a lack of private places and postnatal visitors who will buy your newborn a designer wardrobe they will never wear.

Taking a step back, being pregnant in Italy is great, everyone loves children and family is always prominent. As a preggie woman, you will get random gifts from shop attendants, good karma and well wishes from random strangers on the street. There will be casual opportunities to taste everything you see, as people believe you can give your unborn child a birthmark in the shape of whatever you are craving, so milk this superstition for your weight in Sicilian pastries.

7. Crumbling schools

I’m still at the beginning of my journey through the school system and in general public schools are suffering through substantial budget cutbacks (usually if there is a need to cut funding in Sicily, the tightening of the belt is done around the neck of schools and hospitals, which is sad but true). So the school’s paintwork is fading, cement has cracks in it, and there is no toilet paper but the teachers are usually local, and so they know who your child is.

Often the local teacher has been to school with the parents of the children, or are related or know the family tree of each student, which makes it hard for kids to act up. If the teacher knows where you live and everything else about you she can blackmail you into being good, so this is winning.

Sicily

8. Pasta and pastina

Sicilian’s eat pasta every single day and children are fed tiny pieces of pastina as soon as they are on solids. I cannot understand the fixation. I’ve had countless arguments about the dietary benefits of pasta, too many carbs have ruined my waistline. I love pasta, but enough is enough already, it’s not that healthy when something becomes an obsession.

9. Catholic up front

Italy is a Catholic country, but I think that’s a bit of a farce, the Roman Catholic church is like this proud tradition which people act out through the year and deep down Italian’s are pagans, confused non-believers or atheists like the rest of us. They just like to get dressed up, have holidays and be seen as morally upright while showing off their beautiful history through their church.

10. Women’s obsessions with cleaning and hairdressers.

This last point on my list is a personal peeve, and I may be generalising about this but hey I’m being self-indulgent and controversial today, so I’m going to roll with it.

Sicilian women have an unnatural obsession with cleaning their houses, they will get up at dawn to scrub and disinfect or work through the night like shoemaker’s elves to leave their homes sparkling and above all so that no one sees their efforts. It’s incredible and dumbfounding. I really have better things to do with my time, for me, it’s quick dust and mop, then I need to get on with my life.

I love getting my hair done every once in a while, it’s unique and makes me feel pretty, but many Sicilian women go continuously and obsessively. Many afternoons here in small-town Sicily the menfolk are sitting in the squares while the women are getting their hair done, talk about superficiality. Not that there is anything wrong with looking after yourself but like I said before obsession isn’t healthy.

COSI April post1 (1)

 

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A Panettone Story

COSI Panettone

To panettone or not to panettone…

Every year my Sicilian grandmother would proudly pull out and slice some panettone sweet bread after a bountiful Christmas lunch. For Nonna the fluffy mushroom-shaped loaf was a fine treat filled with candied orange, citron, lemon zest and raisins.

I hated it, I was too full to enjoy anything and it was like eating sand all dry and crumbly in my mouth.

Christmas in the antipodean summer is never suited to winter delicacies, but this never stopped my Nonna and other mad keen and slightly askew English families in Australia who insisted on dedicating their festivities to the motherland with glazed ham and stuffed turkey in the withering 40°C -100 °F heat of a festive season Down Under.

Through the years my grandmother insisted and I resisted.

In reality I didn’t know what panettone was. Every year I was impressed by the colorful packaging which promised a divine dessert, stupidly and simply believing the image on the box. I would forget about the Christmas bread during the year until it was pulled out again, professed to be the best thing ever and would end up spitting it out into a napkin.

Christmas in Italy and Australia

Coffee and panettone

Many years later my Sicilian husband, brother and sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews come to Western Australia for Christmas, packing their panettone in their suitcase, insisting it’s not Christmas without it.

After our barbecue at the beach, in our shorts, wife beaters and flip-flops the Italians insisted on their coffee and panettone.

With the panettone they had brought a coffee percolator and Italian bottled water after we told them the short blacks in Oz are never the same. Determined to experiment and prove me wrong, they fired up a gas flame, just like in Sicily, the coffee was on and panettone sliced. Sitting under the eucalyptus shade we sipped our dirty water and munched on stringy sourdough. Nothing was said in that precise moment but months later my sister-in-law admitted, it must be the air that makes good coffee and the cold which gives you an appetite.

The mystery of the coffee debate in Australia is being solved by high-tech alien technology based coffee machines who recreate the atmospheric qualities of the Italian peninsular and trick the coffee beans into behaving like they do in Italy and tasting mildly like the real stuff.

It’s an Italian thing…

When it comes to the big P. I think it is a strictly northern hemispheric winter thing, so much so that Christmas in Italy has turned my twenty plus year hate into celestial worship. I still fussily pick out the sultanas and candid fruit, but when the December chill comes and I begin to see Panettone and its poorer cousin the Pandora (without the dry fruits) on supermarket shelves and in pastry shops, I cannot resist stocking up.

My gradual acceptance of this Christmas sweet has coincided and become a metaphor for my acceptance of the eccentricities of life here in Sicily. I used to dread the winter and resent having to pass the Yuletide with a constant chill in my bones, after a lifetime of summer time festivities, I would become sulky and book plane tickets to avoid it.

Over the past few years I’ve begun to relish the traditions. The cold means wrapping myself up in snuggly winter coats and I treat myself to a new stylish Italian outfit each year complete with cute boots and fluffy scarves as only Europeans do.

I catch up on my reading, get sloshed on Prosecco, Grappa and dive into the comforting and cascading bounty which is winter food in Italy, all with a hedonistic revelry which would make any Sicilian proud.

I’ve learned to love Panettone.

The only Panettone I tend to smirk at these days is Cinepanettone, an Italian cinematic genre which inflicts corny comic flicks on the Italian public every December. Movies like Christmas in the Caribbean, New York or other innocuously exotic location which are then painfully heaped with slapstick, half-naked women and cliché after cliché, all terribly popular but the cause of a collective intellectual fermentation and eventual indigestion.

To Panettone or not to Panettone ...

A short history

Pandoro and Panettone in Italy is fresher, lighter and evermore fragrant, no one can resist.

I must take off my hat to the long-lost inventor of this timely treat, a certain Toni, a baker in the service of Ludovico il Moro in medieval Lombardy, surrounding the modern city of Milan. Apparently Toni stumbled on this special recipe after accidentally burning the Christmas cake. In a blind panic, to avoid losing his job and this employers wrath he used his personal stash of mother yeast, kneading it several times with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins and candid fruit to create a substitute dessert. Lucky the result was a success, Ludovico il Moro naming it the Pan de Toni (literally Toni’s bread) – or so the story goes …

More likely the panettone has origins in the ancient tradition of eating wheat bread, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Wheat was a symbol of fertility and the sharing of Christmas bread reflects an ancient rite which celebrates family unity and continuity as the yeast is saved and reused year after year.

This is why my Grandmother insisted on stuffing it in my mouth every year. Don’t worry Nonna the panettone is on the table.

 

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How history shapes Sicily’s character

 (Book excerpt)

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The weight of Sicily’s history makes it an inherently sad place, like all places with long human histories she laments her past glories which in turn give her a unique melancholy. Yes, Sicilia is defiantly as feminine as her beating heart, Etna. Sicily’s infinite stories shape her own sorrowful character which are absorbed into the collective memory. It is a common characteristic of places like Turkey, Palestine and Sicily to carry the trauma, tears and testimony of the great tragedies and triumphs in their past which seem to inhabit the place’s soul.

This is an apprehensive land, savage and full of decay, rich in pagan fears and superstition which keep themselves enclosed like a firmly locked chest. Fear can capture the soul slowly suffocating it with its exotic spell. Here God and hope are forgotten as Sicily absorbs you into its ancientness. There is little movement only the stagnant ramblings of the everyday. Here people live in small towns, think of small things and talk and gossip about other people with small things.

For many centuries Sicily has been dominated by other people and the population has absorbed a certain slave mentality. Any proud Sicilian would be offended if called a slave, but it is something more subtle than this. It is a type of survival instinct which allows them to accept a certain amount of suffering without questioning.

Danilo Dolci a social activist from the nineteen sixties, known as the Italian Ghandi wrote many books about the nature of Sicily’s social problems, which then were akin to the problems of the third world countries, his observations illustrated the Sicilian’s self inflicted sadomasochistic nature.

Dolci wrote about the silent acceptance of the people of Corleone near Palermo, how they: ‘wear the habit of mourning perpetually and in the soul of this habit repose the essence and the apotheosis of Omerta. The Mafia draws strength from Omerta. This word from the local dialect means manliness or self-control and the idea of keeping oneself strictly to oneself in every circumstance; it implies the refusal to help established authority and is native to the Sicilian’s character by the time he is ten years old.’

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Sicilians tolerate unemployment, high taxes, a complicated welfare system which tricks them, a medical system full of doctors with more political ambition than concern for patients, a public service full of incompetence, laziness and nepotism, a legal system which is slow, complex and often unethical and a political situation which is at times volatile and usually seeks to exploit the population. In short Sicilians endure all of this and much more, but they would rather suffer than abandon Sicily and even those who somehow found the strength to go never forgot their cherished Isle.

The island has been in decay for centuries and its people have lived in its ruins, forever. Through the centuries various conquerors have tried to overwhelm Sicily usually after a period of war caused by a struggle for domination. When the diverse invaders eventually came to occupy the land they struggled to live and develop according to their cultural make up. Any progress petered out as the next aggressor gradually pushed out its predecessor, leaving decay to take over what they had constructed. The layering and intermingling of the dominations of Sicily has created a complex concoction of culture. Sicily has a history influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, Phoenician, German, Austrian and British occupations, Sicily has outlived them all.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

The strength of Sicilians to live through many centuries of invasions comes from doing very little other than surviving. The secret to overcome invaders is to have the fortitude to endure them. Sicilians have never been completely taken over or assimilated into other cultures, they have always simply outlasted them. Sicilian people have survived by being stoic and resistant focusing on day-to-day living holding their ground with a stubborn focus on their own internal world.

This passive resistance has served them well in the past but leaves behind unattractive attributes in the Sicilian culture and point of view. Many centuries of living alongside foreign invaders has left a deep sensation of mistrust in those who come from outside of Sicily. Admittedly racism is a strong word, but fear and mistrust of all things foreign is clear in the way Sicilians relate to foreigners.

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