Poetry: Sicilian DNA

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I live in Sicily because I fell in love with a Sicilian,

but in reality, the love affair existed long before …

I’ve been enamoured since birth, 

Italy is imprinted on my DNA,

my family and heritage has always been here

connected to this place of endless human history

my love of stories keeps me happily lost inside its tale

there is always a story, a connection, a heartbeat.

 

How to eat like an Italian

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I recently saw this image on Facebook from a supposedly Italian restaurant in Australia and was reminded of how different food consumption is in Italy.

Yes, the photo does look delicious, but this is in no way an authentic way of serving Italian food. Italians would never put pasta together with meat on the same plate. This is never done as food preparation has determined rules and procedures which are never broken because each food’s taste must be savoured to the full.

An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped together on a plate like this. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high and demand food to be served in specific ways to respect each unique dishes flavours.

The structure of a meal follows very well-defined stages, which can quickly be picked and chosen from yet each course has its own way of being served.

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Aperitivo [a-pe-ri-tì-vo]: the apéritif usually happens before a meal, where you sip Aperol spritz, non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails and drinks that help stimulate the appetite for a big dinner.

Antipasto [an-ti-pà-sto]: an antipasto is made up of many small samples of food which are meant to show the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. If you have seafood, everything will feature the elements in the main seafood menu, while at a Trattoria it can highlight the best ingredients of local cuisine in small dishes of everything from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami’s, bread, fried batters, pickled vegetables and many more.

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Primo [prì-mo]: this is strictly a pasta, rice or minestra [mi-nè-stra] pasta based vegetable soup dish.

Secondo [se-cón-do]: the main course which can be meat, fish or chicken.

Contorno [con-tór-no]: these are your side dishes which are served on separate plates and include any salads or vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.

Bis [bìs]: if you love a particular dish or antipasto you can ask for second helping or ‘fare il Bis’ (BIZ). If you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or another major party event those waiting on you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.

Dolce [dól-ce]: dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons, if it’s summer there are selections of gelato or fruits, in winter usually pastries.

Digestivo [di-ge-stì-vo] / Caffè [caf-fè]: to help the meal go down well there comes the digestivo which is either a sip of liquor (from grappa, to limoncello or Amaro) or coffee anything that helps with digestion.

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By no means are you expected to consume a huge meal like this each day.

You may go out and have an apéritif with friends after work which is usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives, peanuts or small canapès.

You can decide on getting an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.

A Bis is not obligatory, neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat these courses unless it’s for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over a full evening.

If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then pizza and if you have room a dolce or digestivo.

There are also many dishes, particularly in the United States, which are marketed as Italian but in reality aren’t at all. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans which have taken their Italian traditions and adapted them into the culture of their new homes, in a unique crossover cuisine which actually does not exist in Italy.

Distinctly Italo American inventions which would surprise and perhaps even be shocking to Italians include:
Deep-Dish Pizza
Pepperoni pizza
Lobster Fra Diavolo
Chicken and Veal Parmigiana
Cioppino (fish stew)
Muffuletta (a bread roll with the lot)
Spaghetti and meatballs
Mozzarella sticks
Shrimp Scampi
Italian dressing

Shifting family trees, Australia and being a foreigner in Sicily

Perth City, Western Australia

Suburban Perth Western Australia has always been a dull place, the most isolated capital of the world it exists in a bubble of reclusiveness, its inhabitants toiling away from the rest of the world trying to lead a beautiful and idealistic life filled with sunshine and wealth.

My Grandparents migrating from Sicily in the 1950’s found Perth to be little more than a country town dotted with colonial style wooden houses lifted up onto stilts leaving some fifty centimetres from the ground, to encourage natural air circulation to help cool down the houses when the desert air becomes subdued by the aptly named Fremantle Doctor, restoring health to the wilting population after a day of incandescent heat.

Over the years the cottages have been replaced by an urban sprawl made up of curious single storey double brick houses with coloured roofs like hundreds of tepees extending out along the coastline between the sea and the desert, with their essential air conditioners attached to them like cumbersome chunky headphones. The single level houses with their quarter acre blocks have gradually given way to townhouses and new generation apartments filled with glass windows and cold dull painted concrete. My childhood in Perth was idealistic, uneventful, almost dull if not for the fact I felt so different from the Anglo-Saxon majority.

Ironically my family tree could have easily found itself uprooted to Australia a generation earlier. Both of my great grandfathers found themselves in Australia in the early twentieth century. My great-grandfather Cosimo Gugliotta was working near Adelaide with a few compatriots when he was told the Great Depression was on its way, so he returned to Sicily with stories of not being able to make himself understood pointing at things he wanted like bread, drinking from the same places as the horses and terrifying native Aboriginals (certainly terrifying for someone who had never seen anyone different to himself). While at the same time Nonno Cosimo’s future Compare Filippo Bongiovanni was out clearing the bush for new housing deep in the South West corner of Western Australia. Fate made my family taste life in Australia but brought them back to Sicily.

A horse in the Sicilian landscape

My Grandfather visited Sicily before he passed away in 2009 and was surprised how abandoned Sicily has become. He always told the story how apart from the poverty the final thing which pushed him to leave was the fact he couldn’t find a piece of land to plant some potatoes for his own little family, all the land was cultivated by others as there were more people than space to maintain them. He remained shocked to see most of the fertile land in Sicily today abandoned in overgrowth when he recalled everything being occupied by agriculture. The Sicilian world left behind by post world war two immigrants to a large extent no longer exists.

I find Italo Australians, Italo Americans and Canadians to be strange creatures who feel deeply attached to Italy, but theirs is an idealistic time capsuled passion. I know I used to be like them but now after living here for more than a decade I can see their naivety, they idealise a country which no longer exists, often pilgrimages back to Italy are filled with awe and disappointment. Those born here are saddened by the decay, the loss of traditions and the changing language makes them feel excluded from a once inclusive island home. While their children and grandchildren brought up with those stories of Sicily will find history is all that remains of their Siculu roots.

Countryside

No one speaks the old dialects anymore and it is a slow and painful realisation that being a ‘wog’ is an artificial creation shaped by a life of plenty in a new place on the other side of the world from Italy. In Australia, a ‘wog’ used to be an Anglo-Saxon racial slur used to describe Italian migrants, but today it has been claimed by new generations of Italo Australians to describe their connection to Italy. Italy isn’t about eating pasta and pizza or speaking an outdated dialect, it is a complex country and culture which is in constant evolution as are all other societies around the world.

Coming back to Sicily, you will not be welcomed openly, you are considered a foreigner. I have been living in Sicily for nearly fifteen years and there isn’t a moment that has passed when I am not reminded of my status as an outsider, as soon as I open my mouth.

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Don’t quite move to Sicily, yet …

Ah Sicily so picturesque and appealing
Ah Sicily so picturesque and appealing!

I recently got an email from a woman who was contemplating moving to Sicily from the US as she desired a change in her life and felt connected to her Sicilian heritage. She was looking for some advice and here is what I said to her:

Thanks so much for your email, I feel privileged you choose to contact me about such an important choice in your life, I will do my best to be honest and hope I can give you what you are looking for.

As an Italo Australian I can honestly say Italy and Sicily will always be quite alluring to you as it is a part of your upbringing, your family and heritage so you will always feel emotionally connected to Sicily in one way or another.

Living in Italy is never going to be the same as simply visiting it, even if you have gone back and forth for years to visit relatives being here full-time will be a deeply challenging and at times isolating.

I moved to Sicily ten years ago with my Sicilian husband and I can tell you it has not been an easy journey. Yes, Sicily is a beautiful place, great food, wine and the people are amazing. At the same time it is a land of crippling bureaucracy, it’s an old country and so with it’s ancientness comes the problems of an archaic place, it’s not all museums and Greek ruins, it is corrupt, inefficient at an infuriating level, people will try to rip you off and at times the culture shock will be mind numbing. The bigger cities in Sicily have the usual problems of big metropolis, they are densely populated, with high crime rates, they are dirty and confusing. I guarantee you will always feel like an excluded outsider, despite acquiring a fluent level of Italian, there is nothing you can do about it you will always stick out, whether it’s the way you dress, your accent or diverse point of view, a Sicilian will always pick you out as a foreigner and you will be constantly reminded of this.

I suggest if you are feeling strongly about moving overseas why not simply test the waters a little, if you have long service leave coming up why not try to spend a few months here and see how you go? Rent a house for a few months, perhaps instead of coming in the summer try 3 months in the fall when things are more relaxed and real. I think the secret to life in Sicily to create your own community, projects and work towards your goals and above all do not let anyone get you down, Sicily can be a negative place.

The language is going to be important for you too, Sicily more so than anything else will mean one hundred percent Italian as it is a thoroughly monolingual country and it would help if you understood a little dialect too!

Be sure you have a project to keep you busy and connected while you are here, be it doing a language course, teaching english, volunteering, learning about Sicilian cuisine, wine, art, writing a book or whatever else you might enjoy as it will help you feel more connected to the place. The connections to make to the place are what will sustain you if you are not actively experiencing Sicily and not simply complaining about it constantly you will never get anything out of your experience here.

The best advice I can give to you is to be honest and tell you the truth, moving to Sicily isn’t going to be a bed of roses, but if you want to be challenged the an expat life can be rewarding.

So try it and see.

Life’s a journey feel free to try new experiences.

Good luck to you and let me know if you make it to Sicily.

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