10 things to keep in mind while planning a trip to Italy

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1) Don’t come in August

I’ve said this many times, you can visit throughout the year so don’t come in the most overcrowded, hot and humid part of the year when most Italians are on summer holidays it will be uncomfortable and you will never have an authentic experience.

September will be just as beautiful, autumn/fall will give you an excuse to taste the new wine, eat truffles and mushrooms and visit museums. Christmas and New Years are filled with traditions and delicacies. Easter and spring are perfect for the mild weather and religious festivities.

Just do your research, discover whatever your heart desires to experience on the peninsula, visiting archaeological sites in May will be so much better than in the heat of August. Museums are less crowded in the winter, food, music and religious festivals happen through the whole year. The best time to experience Italian culture in the theatres is actually in the middle of winter (Feb/March).

But then if you have your vacations in August and can’t get here any other time, then coming to Italy in August isn’t impossible it’s just hot and in holiday mode. Only try to stay cool by heading to the mountains or the beach and try to stay put during the week of Ferragosto (15th August) which is when the country has its main summer holiday, where you will find most places closed.

2) Avoid the trains in the South, unless …

Italy is perfect for slow travel, Italians are never in a hurry so you can take the time to savour a good meal, take a bus tour or the train. From Rome, upwards train journeys are fast, easy and affordable. But in the south things are not so easy, so unless you want to descend slowly into Dante’s Inferno with endless delays and cancelled trains so don’t do a long train journey. It’s easy to get a cheap flight down from Rome to Catania or Palermo and avoid the hassle.

Unless of course, you have time for a long-winded adventure. Once you are in Sicily, for example, feel free to take a shorter journey, day trips on the trains are fun, great for families, just be sure to take a packed lunch, water and give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination. Go around the Mount Etna volcano on the Circumetenea old railway, plan a trip from Palermo to Messina along the scenic coastline or check out the new  Treni Storici ( historic train journeys) a recent development by Treni Italia which have been designed to offer their passengers to stop at Sicilian wineries and other towns where excellent food is produced and to see the main sites. (link is in Italian)

3) Get out of the major cities

There is nothing wrong for first-time visitors to visit the major Italian capitals, but try to make it into smaller towns too. Italy is such a vibrant place to explore, hire a car and go track down a food festival or a well-known church, museum or villa you once read about in a magazine.

Yes, Tuscany is Florence, but it is also Lucca, Siena, Vinci, San Gimignano and another two hundred and seventy-six Tuscan towns to explore, each with their own food, traditions, history and festivals.

Why not pick another region to visit like Emilia Romagna in the north with cities like Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara, Forlì and Rimini.

In the region of Piemonte, there is Turin, Cuneo, Asti, Alessandria, Vercelli, Novara, Biella or Verbano.

In the south dive into Puglia with towns like Bari, Foggia, Lecce, Taranto, Brindisi and Barletta.

Calabria is filled with possibilities and much fewer tourists in the seaside towns like Tropea, Isca Marina or Reggio which is connected to Messina by ferry and is a perfect gateway into Sicily.

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4) Be brave, hire a car

People are a little hesitant to drive in Italy, but if you get a chance to hire a car, it is worth the challenge and expense.

Driving around Italy will give you an opportunity to be autonomous, travel and stop where you like, and it allows you to get a sense of the landscape and geography of the place.

Yes, you will see some reckless drivers speeding past you, be frustrated by a lack of parking and autostrada fees but if you go off the beaten track, you can avoid many of these problems.

5) Learn a little Italian or at least get a guidebook

There is no need to be a fluent Italian speaker, but your visit will be so much better if you put in the effort to understand Italian culture, history and language. There are many great guidebooks which will give you an excellent general introduction and help you to do necessary things like ask directions or say please and thank you.

6) See something authentic

Please stay away from tourist traps, in Italy there is so much more than pizza and pasta. Go to eat at a Trattoria (family-run restaurant) where you will be treated to a good home cooked meal. Go to a Sagra (a local food festival), which happen all the time and give you a chance to taste local delicacies for a handful of Euros.
Experience local markets, there are always open-air markets, some are dedicated to food, others to flowers and many sell arts and crafts or antiques, even if you don’t buy anything it is a unique experience.
See a patron Saint celebration, every town has a Saintly protector celebrated during the year with their own local holiday, filled with markets, religious processions, fireworks, sagras, brass bands, free concerts, art exhibitions and also usually specially prepared dishes or sweets dedicated to each particular saint.
Every town will have its own local speciality, a particular type of pasta, wine, dessert, seafood dish, cheese, bread or domestic seasonal product. Taste it all!

7) Don’t be in a hurry

Italian’s are never in a rush, they are always fashionably late, they take their time to talk, taste and savour life. When you are visiting their country, try to leave space for the unexpected.

Slow food and travel make their home in Italy which gathers experiences rather than ticking off names on a bucket list.

8) Dive into the history and culture there’s plenty of it

Not even Italians are fully aware of all the history surrounding them, but if you want to appreciate this country, you should know a little.

In Sicily alone, there have been thirteen different invaders who have ruled over the island which has been inhabited since prehistory. Each invading culture has left behind distinct monuments and cultural footprints all over the island. From the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals/Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normas, Swedish, French, Spanish, Albanian, Austrians and English.

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9) Taste as many local delicacies as possible

I know I keep mentioning food, but the Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthy and variegated cuisines around. Food is like a religion in Italy, if it isn’t fresh, delish and straightforward Italians won’t eat it.

From something simple like street food to a delicate gelato, fresh off the boat seafood, pizza sold by the metre or the best short black coffee you will ever drink, your taste buds will never forget the flavours of Italy.

10 ) Take home as much made in Italy as will fit in your luggage

There are many Italian artisans, small businesses and ancient crafts that exist only in Italy, help keep them alive by buying a good quality gift from Italy.

There is everything from ceramics, jewellery, wine, olive oil, pasta, biscuits, paintings, sculptures, stationery, leather goods, gold work, textiles, coral, silverwork, and fashion. You will come across endless things to treasure and bring home.

Stay away from cheap and nasty Chinese stuff at markets, buy directly from small established boutiques for guaranteed quality, you might pay more, but it will be worth it.
Be sure to check if you can bring in certain foodstuffs through the customs laws in your own country.

For example, in Australia, you can bring in anything that is cooked (i.e., cakes and biscuits) or sealed adequately like olive oil for individual consumption. But you will need to declare anything made out of wood or fresh foodstuffs to be inspected and possibly thrown out (things like cheeses, salami and Nutella will not be allowed to enter the country, unfortunately). If in doubt simply declare it when you arrive and in the worst case scenario it will be taken away from you but if you get to keep it, bonus points for you!

Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II


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Messina’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was built in 1852 by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies.

The building is in the Neoclassical style and was designed by Neapolitan architect Pietro Valente. Previously known as the Teatro Sant’ Elisabetta its name was changed after the Expedition of the Thousand (Italian Spedizione dei Mille) which was a part of the Italian Risorgimento that took place in 1860.

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Spanish Bourbon King Ferdinand II

A corps of volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed from Quarto, near Genoa (now Quarto dei Mille) and landed in Marsala, Sicily to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the Spanish Bourbons in a bid to help unify the Italian peninsula into modern Italy we know today.

The three archways at its portico entrance are elegant in the early morning sunshine and are embellished by marble architecture created by Messina’s sculpture Saro Zagari.

Walking by the theatre in the early morning the building is covered in a beautiful golden glow, each elegant embellishment seems to catch your eye and it is always a focus of contemporary art and performance. It’s outer halls often are host to exhibitions from antique opera costumes to contemporary pop art there is always something to see.

 

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Intrigued by these two busts engraved into the front of the theatre I googled them immediately on my phone. Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749 – 1803) was an Italian dramatist and poet and considered the creator of the Italian tragedy.

While Giovanni Battista Niccolini (1782 – 1861) was a believer in the independence of Italy and his neoclassical drama showed his idealistic belief in liberal politics with a distinct romantic flare. So it is no surprise why these two playwrights are featured on the facade of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II at Messina. Both were symbols of the new Italian theatre when the building was first constructed.

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Inside the theatre, the ceiling was decorated by Sicily’s most well known contemporary artist Renato Guttuso and represents the legend of the half man half fish Colapesce who dived below the island to discover its mysteries.

The expansive painting is stark, modern and typically evocative as is usual in Guttuso’s style. The anorexic mermaids pose around observing the skeletal Cola Pesce who is diving naked down under the island of Sicily to discover the lava river flowing at its foundations. Noticing one of the four pillars holding up Sicily is about to give way he stays below, helping to hold up the island from the abyss below.

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In between Christmas and New Years of 1908 Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was enjoying its winter Opera season as a thriving Sicilia Opera house.

On the 28th of December as the crowd of spectators had finished enjoying an excellent performance of Verdi’s Aida and the orchestra was packing up to go home in the early morning, the worst tragedy possible happened, wiping out the grand city in a dozen or so terrifying seconds of the earthquake and tidal wave.
The aftermath is the subject of hundreds of books, biographies and testimonies which tell the sad tale of too little help arriving too late, hundreds of orphans, looting and thievery of ruined houses, broken families, fortunes and hopes.  Millionaires became paupers, a thriving city reduced to rubble in seconds, the population became ghosts and the city a desolate wreck.

And many more stories still of heroic acts, of many locals who returned home to help their city to rebuild, the Italian Parliament who decided to fund the reconstruction of a town which no longer existed, the many generations of people who lived in temporary homes while the city was rebuilt and the many acts of kindness towards Messina from the Italian royal family to the entire world.

The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II reopened its doors for performances once again in 1980.

 

Unexpected travels in Italy

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

 

Dolce Vita Bloggers have asked us to share our fun tales about travels in Italy. Really every day living here is filled with journeys and experiences, too many to share in one post.

Italy has taught me the art of being a traveller rather than a simple tourist. Because of the immense amount of monuments, museums, churches and art galleries to see it is literally impossible to see everything, so you are forced to choose what speaks most loudly to you.

You need to give yourself space to notice the little things, a detail in design, a quirky cherub in a church, the colours of different mosaic tiles, an exotic door knocker, clothes hanging on a clothesline from a balcony or a beautiful little old lady walking around the markets doing her shopping.

The beauty of Italia is always in the little details, allow yourself the time to observe the bliss of the moment, the sounds of the streets, a vibrant conversation in Italian, a motorino zipping past, the colours of the fruit and vegetables, the feel of the stone on an ancient palazzo, a detail in the architecture. Italy is a feast for the senses, so see, taste, feel, smell and listen to every single moment.

Italia is the home of the unexpected, often you are forced to improvise and be flexible. You will find places closed for lunch, or will be made late by traffic, or find yourself waiting in never-ending lines. But if you embrace the mishaps you will be taken into place you would never have imagined.

For travelling in Italy, you need to pack a good sense of humour, a certain amount of patience and a whole lot of time because anything can and will happen. Trains and planes will be late, locals infuriatingly will not be in a hurry, tourists will be, and you can expect the unexpected.

Sitting down to write this post my mind is ticking over the many strange and funny occurrences on my travels around Italy. Everything from getting off the wrong train station in Tuscany and discovering a totally new town.

To inadvertently catching the last bus to my father’s families original hometown in the Abruzzo region and getting a lift into town with a kind bus driver who turned out to be a distant cousin.

Disastrously following a GPS off the beaten track and into a dry riverbank in the middle of nowhere, thanks to Sicily’s criminal lack of road signs.

Getting hopelessly lost in Venice, finding many cute little stores and accidentally stumbling back on my hotel after an entire afternoon of aimlessly wondering.

Being caught up in a police blitz in Florence and seeing the African street vendors hot tail out from in front of the Uffizi before the Carabinieri arrived.

Or the time I was on a romantic dinner in Lucca and a water pipe burst in the apartment above the restaurant. While being accompanied outside I witnessed an absent-minded elderly man swearing at the janitor of the building because his house had been flooded. The man had just run out of his house accidentally forgetting to put on his pants.

The most amazing moment was when I went to see an exhibition at Florence in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi which was dedicated to the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. After seeing all of the fruits of da Vinci’s imagination and extra detailed models of Filippo Brunelleschi’s project for the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore, at Florence.

After I finished I decided to take a look around the grand Renaissance palace which seemed to be open to the public.

I was about to leave when I noticed a small door to I room I had inadvertently missed, so I went through it.

On the other side, I discovered a small chapel whose walls were covered in the most vibrant and spectacular fresco’s I have ever seen.

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The famous cycle of frescoes was painted by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 for the Medici family and they left me with a tremendous sense of awe.

The Journey of the Magi is a painting dedicated to a sacred subject but rich in traces of pomp and secular elegance. One wall is dedicated to hosts of angels who sing while the magnificent procession of the Three Kings approaches Bethlehem on a separate wall. The kings are accompanied by their respective entourages as they enjoy the scene of a noble hunting party with falcons and felines along the way.

The sumptuous dress of the regal party makes this series of frescos one of the most fascinating testimonies of art and costume of all time. The procession of characters features prominent Florentine nobles from Renaissance, merchants and artists which are painted with such vibrancy that they seem alive. The colours and style of Gozzoli are amazing the fresco looks so contemporary as to seem to be painted yesterday.

Reading up about the work Gozzoli, really had wonderful fun depicting local characters of Medici Florence, even inserting himself and featuring a particularly acrobatic horse who is miraculously able to balance on two legs.

This was a work of art, I discovered entirely by accident, just by following my own nose.

 

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Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

 

A trip to Italy is indeed an adventure, so I’d advise you to keep these three things in mind:

1) You will be late for one reason or another, so give yourself plenty of extra time.

2) Let yourself get lost, that’s when you discover the most unexpected things.

3) Allow yourself to wonder and interact with the locals, go to local events and do plenty of people watching.

 

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Photo by La So on Unsplash

 

Italy is so colourful you really need to give yourself the time to absorb its unique energy, colours, flavours, art and history.

Think of a vacation to Italy as an adventure, go down the side streets, through tiny little doors on the side of churches, try a trattoria or bar where you see the locals spilling out onto the streets. Move out of your comfort zone, try something you usually don’t do.

I guarantee it will be the best experience ever.

And the most memorable vacation of your life.

Sicily Inside and Out is about sharing my own travel experiences in Sicily here are some of my favourites:

The one time I went to Etnaland 

The stone garden of Noto

On the road to Syracuse

 

Thanks so much to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for suggesting such a wonderful subject.

If you are a blogger or creator of an Italian themed channel please feel free to join us every 7th of the month for our Dolce Vita Bloggers topics, we’d love to hear from you.

This is part of the #DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #11 October 2018 – Hilarious Travel Mishaps

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #10 September 2018 – Favourite Italian Recipe
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #9 August 2018 – Culture Shock
#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

 

 

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

Ottobre in Sicilia

'Falling' in love with Sicily

October in Sicily is a beautiful time of the year, there is a distinct cold snap which reminds you of the comforting warmth of a sweater and the new season brings with it new sensations and tastes which are as inebriating as newly fermenting wines.

While I am always sad to see the end of the summer, I’m reminded of the wisdom of many Italian proverbs which tell me of the magic of autumn in Italy.

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This year’s change in temperature has come quickly and decisively which means I’m now wearing a jacket and have put a blanket onto my bead clothes. And this will also mean the quick demise of the insects which have been torturing us all summer.

Thanks to the humidity there are always plenty of mosquitoes, over this past year they have also made many people sick over the summer with numerous cases of the West Nile virus being reported. But as the Italian proverb above reminds us, this won’t be a problem anymore!

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My favourite fruit of the autumn has to be the mushroom. There is nothing like walking through the woods and finding little colonies of mushroom clusters. I’m probably the worst mushroom hunter in the world, but thank goodness that I am surrounded by experts.

I always look forward to preparing flavoursome risotto with porcini mushrooms, or preserving small yellow field mushrooms and discovering different varieties like these meaty ‘deer antler’ variety we discovered this year, which are filled with wonderful properties.

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In Italian, it is known as the Grifola frondosa and grows in clusters at the base of trees, particularly oaks. The mushroom is commonly known among English speakers as hen of the woods, hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head and sheep’s head.

It is typically found in late summer to early autumn. In the United States, it is known by its Japanese name maitake (舞茸, or the dancing mushroom). This mushroom stimulates the immune system, has anti-cancer qualities, lowers blood sugar levels and is often sold as a supplement in health food stores.

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October also means we are preparing our garden by planting our winter vegetables. With the rains and cold our cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, pumpkins, spinach and kale will ripen for us. I can’t wait for the more opulent dishes of autumn and winter.

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Over the past week of pleasant coolness, my appetite has already been stimulated. Pork becomes the taster as pigs are naturally fattened up and with the October sagra season is beginning this time of year even busier than the summer for food festivals in Sicily.

From big festivals lasting every weekend in October like at Ottobrata at Zefferana Etenea and Ottobrando at Floresta there are endless things to taste and eat.

From grapes, new wine, cheeses cooked grape juice (or mostarda), honey, apples and other local, seasonal fruits being harvested including fichi d’india (prickly pear), pomegranates, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios, olive oil and many preserves under olive oil (conserve sott’olio).

October has an even more abundant amount of flavours still.

Here are just a fraction of some of the beautiful food festivals in Sicily to put on your bucket list, there are literally too many to put down on one visual.

 

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Guest post: Raising a bilingual child in Italy

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

 

I have recently written a guest post for bilingual mamma blogger Kristie over on Mammaprada.

I enjoyed sharing my discoveries, frustrations and eventual success on the ongoing journey that is raising my son to speak English in Italy.

Be sure to pop over to Mammaprada to read my article and get some wonderful advice if you too would like your little ones to learn another language as there are plenty of resources to be found.

Giving your child a new language is such a wonderful gift.

Click on the image above for a link to the article.

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

 

A walk to the fig tree

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Madonna of Tindari

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Sicilian poet and Nobel Prize winner Salvatore Quasimodo immortalised the ancient town of Tindari in his poem titled: The wind at Tindari, which sketches out the timeless nature of the religious sanctuary high in the mountains of the Tyrrhenian coast in the north-eastern province of Messina.

Quasimodo’s poem is as relevant today as it was in the nineteen twenties when it was first published. Today the Basilica of Tindari still tantalizingly rests between the mountain tops above the sea drawing people’s eyes to it from kilometers, its distinctive golden dome like an exotic mirage on the horizon.

At Tindari Quasimodo finds peace from many restless spirits, secrets and lost memories of the Sicily which he left behind, his reflections bringing him back to a place immersed in the tranquillity of the classical epoch. The treacherous precipices below the town are easier to negotiate today thanks to the modern road yet same eternal wind still blows through the gracious pine trees and characteristic weeping elms which line the streets by the ancient ruins.

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Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in approximately fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looking out onto the Bay of Patti stretching up to Cape Milazzo made it a perfect to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina. It was an important centre during ancient Greek times, a fertile zone high along the mountains near the coastline. The town’s early industries included the production of fine wines, precious olive oil and ceramics which made it a focus of rich trade and commerce.

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Many traces of the complex past are preserved in the town for example while climbing along the road up to the settlement, the original ancient pilgrims trail accompanies you alongside the modern road which winds its way to the top of Capo Tindari passing along-side the city’s ancient walls, built during the reign of Dionysius from three hundred and sixteen to three hundred and fifty-four A.D. The road ascends gently up to the sanctuary and the main church which is an attraction for both pilgrims and tourists alike.

Hiking up from the main car park below the church the road rises, up to the peak of Tindari. During the summer the road is closed and electric busses zip up and down every fifteen minutes. The souvenir shops begin directly after the parking area and are filled with the usual kitsch mixture of postcards, commemorative plates, ceramics, religious icons, rosary beads, beach balls, plastic toys, volcanic rock from Etna, Sicilian horse and cart models, tambourines and endless other knick-knacks.

Roadside stalls continue to present themselves up into the aptly named Piazza Salvatore Quasimodo which is directly in front of the basilica, only to resume on the other side of the square along the road at the centre of Tindari which winds its way down to the ancient amphitheatre, archaeological site and museum.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern construction, work beginning on it began in the late nineteen fifties after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

Source: I stock by Getty Images
Source: I stock by Getty Images

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo ship which was returning from the middle east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons which were seen as a form of idol worship by the Byzantines of the late Roman empire. As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay under modern Tindari.

After the storm passed by the crew found they couldn’t move out of the inlet. So they lightened their load discarding cargo on the beach, including the casket with the statue of the Madonna. It is said the dark skinned Madonna chose her own sanctuary as immediately after she was offloaded the ship was able to continue its journey.

The origin of the ship and its final destination are unknown but the casket was soon discovered by local fishermen, who were obviously surprised by the discovery of such a precious artwork and took it as a miracle. The sculpture was placed in the highest and most beautiful part of Tindari, where a small Christian community was already beginning to flourish. The original church is inside the modern basilica which has been built around it leaving the original site intact inside the new construction. Many locals choose to be married in the original sandstone church with its medieval mosaics and intimate ambience, it has become quite an exclusive church.

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Inside the external church of the Madonna everything is opulent, shiny and gaudy. In the usual Baroque nature of Sicilian churches, the parade of masterpieces begins with a spectacularly intricate stain glass windows which take up most of the side walls, the most detailed found in the entrance framed with elaborate marble floors and gold details which create an exorbitant sense of extravagance.

The spectacle continues inside the church with detailed mosaics which illustrate the stations of the cross. Each mosaic is an explosion of technicolour, everyone is a life-sized panel and allows you to virtually walk right into biblical times and into Jesus’s life. The amazing detail includes the clothes, everyday objects and the natural landscape which have been carefully designed and arranged by a skilled set designer.

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Reaching the front altar of the church, bronze angels hold up a golden pedestal at their apex, framed by a protective glass case, is the statue of the Madonna.  Everything surrounding the relic has been created to glorify the Virgin Mary yet the humbleness of Madonna’s image is quite subversive when compared to the rest of the Basilica’s intricacies.

The icon is small about fifty centimetres it is quite far away yet the exotic elements of its design are obvious. This Madonna and child are in the style of an African wood carving, yet the elegant detail of the Madonna’s face and the complex design of her clothing and fine crown suggests the hand of a more refined artist. Her clothes are a tangerine colour with golden trimmings and lashings of woven gold inlays to her headdress and cloak.

 The whole church draws you towards the sculpture which is the main focus for pilgrims and its ancient quality creates an undeniable mystique. She looks out from her glass case as if she has been there for an eternity, a timeless icon of faith, motherhood and goodness. She is a mixture of pagan Goddess, nature deity and early Byzantine religious icon. 

Details of the statues origins are a little sketchy at best but most experts agree there is a mixture of oriental, African and Byzantine influences in the original design. In nineteen ninety-five the statue was presented for restoration at Palermo and after an intensive seven month period of work, many new elements of her design were discovered.

Before the restoration the statue was covered in a white silk embroidered in gold and crowned in gold, adorned in coloured stones while holding a small world globe and a crucifix. In reality under the silk covering she held the child Jesus dressed in a tunic. This additional decoration is typical of the manipulation of religious icons throughout the ages according to popular customs.

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In the eighteenth century, for example, the Madonna is described as being dressed in red with a star-shaped halo, blue mantle and golden shoes. During the restoration, the right hand was found to be covered in various materials which were wrapped around the fingers, including pieces of wire, chalk and colours. These were part of an earlier intervention in the eighteenth century which altered the statue in order for it to hold an elaborate flower arrangement.

After the cleaning of the statue, the Madonna’s eyes were found to be opened and not closed, an effect caused by layers of many centuries of dust and smoke. The form of her eyes aren’t Byzantine or Latin American, they are middle eastern, Syrian or Palestinian. The facial design is Arabic and the signs on her face replicate the energy and lines used by Egyptian or Assyrian women.

There are many contrasting elements in the statue’s dress which suggest a variety of influences during its creation. The Madonna’s headdress is a testament to the pre-existing Hellenistic traditions of the Middle East area. On the upper part of her veil, there are traces of orange-red laces which were part of an original ornamental design largely erased by repainting in gold. The mantle around the Madonna isn’t Byzantine but rather is Latin in a deep pink colour, with decorations of golden patterns in the medieval style. The clothing of the child Jesus instead is moulded by the pure Byzantine style in a typical Greek tunic with red and pink hues.

 Apart from the mixture of European and Eastern designs, there is the wooden used for the statue itself, a dark Cypress, typically found in the South of France. The origins of the statue and the artist who created it fuse elements from both Eastern and Western traditions, influenced by the Constantinople school and the traditions of the Middle East.

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The Madonna of Tindari also represents the phenomenon of the cult of the dark-skinned Madonna which has been dispersed throughout the world in the Roman Catholic Church. This unique following of this type of Virgin Mary figure is in intriguing area of anthropological and theological research. 

Olive skinned Marian statues or paintings are of mainly Medieval origin from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. There are literally hundreds of examples of these dark-skinned Madonnas venerated throughout the world because of the miraculous nature of the image.

Examples include Our Lady of Altötting (Germany), Our lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Jasna Gora (Poland), Our Lady of Montserrat (Spain) and of course Our Lady of Tindari (Sicily).

A notable study into the cult of the Black Madonna was made by Leonard Moss in nineteen fifty-two, in which one hundred samples of dark-skinned Madonna statues from around the world were classified into three broad categories.

The first included Madonna icons with physiognomy and skin pigmentation which match the indigenous population, as in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico).

Secondly there are artworks which have turned black through specific circumstances such as general deterioration over the ages, which is the case with Our Lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), while Our Lady of Altötting (Germany) was rescued from a burning church, leaving it smoke damaged.

Thirdly there is a residual category of Madonna statues which have no real explanation regarding their darkness, The Madonna of the Tindari falls into this final category.

One interesting theory suggests some Madonnas were blackened to illustrate a quote from the Song of Songs in the Bible, which became popular during the time of the religious Crusades. The same quote which is inscribed at the base of the Madonna at Tindari: Negra sum sed Formosa which translates to “I am black but beautiful.”  

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Comparative religionist Stephen Benko believes the ‘dark brown Madonna’ is the ancient earth goddess converted into a Christian context. Many goddesses from pagan religions were painted black to reflect a connection to the fertility of the soil, including Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres and others. The Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility and the Greek equivalent, Demeter derives from Ge-meter or earth mother was worshipped throughout Sicily and Tindari was the site of a former temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele.

Some earlier portraits and statues of the Madonna are said to have been created by Saint Luke the Evangelist, who lived as a contemporary to Jesus and his Mother. So these early depictions of Mary which accentuate her ethnic appearance are considered authentic portraits of the Madonna, influencing the creation of many medieval religious icons.

Regardless of religious belief or faith, this statue is a universal symbol of unity between cultures, serenity and timelessness. Its true beauty lies in its ability to survive throughout the ages, its simplicity and its interpretive ability.

The Madonna of Tindari looks directly at you with her dark eyes and tanned skin and together with the wise adult Jesus child in her arms provokes you and invites you to look deeply into their fascinating mystery beyond the extravagant circus which plays out around her.

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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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