My grandparent’s gardens are gone
like so many poetic laments about lost paradises
nothing of their cultivated land
where father, son, mother and daughter lived
the flowering trees are a memory
recalled by a dying generation
no more sustenance or song
only the shadows of a once fertile island
Ancient olive groves gradually enveloped by slithering vines
slowly strangled hazelnut trees blossoming in the spring
the shadows of disappearing golden gardens
soon everything will be erased by the choking weeds
abandoned in the flow of time
to become forests once again
They left behind youth, families and home
to follow dreams, leaving a past filled with memories
compelled by the constraints of poverty, desperation and ambition
the land left untended by their hands
overwhelmed by loss the oasis is being erased by wilderness.
with no one left to stop the decay
Our ancestors gardens will be like so many other lost empires
we are destined to forget the seeds they planted
like so many graveyards left to themselves Trincaria will become savage again
a land of hunters and hunted
Once more an ancient home for the beasts
a place of elephants, lions and bears
we will discover the cyclops skulls left behind
and wonder if the myths are true.
– for my Sicilian grandparents Giuseppe and Carmela Bongiovanni
Today I thought I’d try something different and share a little of my creative writing.
Poetry is my first love, it is where my ideas come from, yet I have never found a place for it, apart from submissions to obscure literary magazines throughout the years.
I’m currently working on the content for a new creative writing blog which will be the home not only for my interest in poetry but also music, books and conversations. I’ll be sure to let you know the details as soon as it’s all finished and launched.
This is one poem I thought I’d include in my first book, but I’ve had to cut out. As for those who have been following my blog for a while would know, I’m still working on my book, a travel memoir which I’m redrafting and will be self publishing as soon as I raise the funds.
I’ve been thinking and remembering my dearly loved Sicilian grandparents this week, as they both passed away in this period, one nine years ago, the other last year. I thought I’d share a poem which was inspired by them and other Italian immigrants. Sadly their’s is a generation which is slowly fading away, yet I feel their spirit and energy is still very much a part of me.
This poem is inspired by the historical fact that Sicily was once physically a part of North Africa and up until ancient Roman times the island was filled with natural forests inhabited by mini elephants, lions, bears and many other fascinating wild animals which have since disappeared.
The Sicily of my Grandparents was the opposite to this, filled with fertile gardens, abundant fruits and a vibrant agricultural tradition which today has been mostly abandoned. Sadly much of Sicily is destined to return to its ancient abandoned state.
There are many references to mythology, the Sicilian poetic school of the middle ages and other elements which reflect the innate sadness and ancient history of Sicily. The cyclop’s skull image refers to the archeological discovery of mini elephant skulls, which were mistaken as the remains of these mythological creatures.
Let me know if you enjoy this kind of creativity here on Sicily Inside & Out …
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.
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, thathe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Randazzo squats under Mount Etna, sprawling out along the massive volcano’s base in the fertile valley of Alcantara. Etna has a tyrannical hold over the landscape and is constantly hovering over this place born out of the volcano’s colossal menace. The broad lava streets of the city are filled with a rustic opulence, as if they have been carved out of the volcano, fashioned by the meaty hands of the god Vulcan in his subterranean furnace, deep in the volcano above, lovingly nicknamed Mongibello (literally the beautiful mountain.)
In the burning days of August the historic centre of Randazzo is like a stone garden, the heat re-awaking the memory of the hardened magma’s fire. A heavy layer of darkness poured over every part of the architecture from the jagged streets, to the polished sidewalks and the Romanesque archways of the cloister like courtyard of the town hall. The same hand has touched each feature of the town, like a Midas touch in lava instead of gold.
Randazzo itself is sprawled out along the base of Etna on a ridge between the base of Etna and the Alcantara River which is nothing but a deep gully of hard rock for most of the year. The area surrounding the city runs along the valley and is part of one of Italy’s most productive agricultural areas. The areas around Etna has given birth to the most remarkable wines and there are a succession of considerable wineries in the countryside. Grape vines thrive in the lava soil as do olive trees, pistachios, prickly pears and a wide selection of stone fruit and vegetables. This rugged seemingly inhospitable area is surprisingly fertile.
Randazzo is at the crossroads of three important Sicilian provinces connecting Catania, Messina and Enna. If you imagine the island of Sicily as an isosceles triangle lying on its side, its main point facing towards the left, Messina is on its top right hand corner, Catania a little way down on the right side and Enna is in the centre of the triangle, forming a second internal triangle. You can place Etna and Randazzo in the centre of these major cities at the core of the Val Demone in the primordial heart of Sicily.
Like most major Sicilian cities, Randazzo has a long and complex history which has been shaped by all the many invaders of the island. The city’s founding came about with the amalgamation of the pre existing towns of Triracia, Triocala, Tissa, Demena and Altesa, who were destroyed during a civil war by Roman emperor Ottaviano. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantines kept the city united under a central administration. Randazzo’s name is believed to derive from the name of a Byzantine governor known as Rendakes or Randas who governed from the nearby coastal town of Taormina in the tenth century. The name also has its roots in the local dialect, from the word Rannazzu meaning ‘big city’, which aptly describes Randazzo’s expansive urban development.
The strategic position of Randazzo has made it the focal point of trade and commerce throughout its existence. A symbol of this tradition are the Randazzo markets which bring together the best of the three provinces products nearly every Sunday (with the exception of public holidays and election days.) On Sunday the town is transformed into a giant sea of stalls, crowds and confusion like a Moroccan bizarre.
The open air market tradition goes back to the times of the Arab domination in Sicily, from the seventh century when the concept of trade markets was imported from the Middle East, creating an expansion of trade and products throughout Sicily and Italy. The market tradition is still a vibrant part of local commerce, once a week each Sicilian town has a day dedicated to the market and most major cities have daily fresh produce markets.
On market day Randazzo is invaded by endless stalls selling literally everything from: art work, pirated C.D’s, children’s wear, fruit, vegetables, toys, cheeses, furniture, ornaments, fur coats, wrought iron work, fabric, statues, casual ware, sausages, hand bags, shoes, soccer jumpers, socks, suits, dried baccala fish, lawn mowers, scythes, fairy floss, books, cleaning products, dried fruit, lingerie, roast chickens, army surplus products and endless haberdashery.
As people arrive the confusion grows to an impressive level and by mid morning there is a non stop chorus of stall owners who yell, scream and chant about the quality of their products trying to out spruik one another. While experienced market shoppers rummage through the large piles of stock trying to find a bargain. Like any market there are both worthy products and junk, the challenge is to recognise quality objects in amongst the confusion.
Shopping at a market is an invigorating challenge and offers a completely original experience to the standard sterile shopping at convenience stores or expansive shopping centres. The most important thing about market shopping is recognising a bargain and firmly naming your price, the never-ending stalls mean you can always threaten to go to another to get your price, so being firm and fair means you can often get a decent discount. Walking away from a stall can be just the right strategy to get a vendor to take a few Euros’ off the cost. There is a real skill to shopping at a market. It becomes a game if you are willing to throw yourself into the experience whole heartedly. Just walking through the transformed streets is a journey into the past of the medieval bazaar, full of exotic sensations and products.
There is an eternal stream of colour and confusion in the late morning the crowds reach their peak as people literally dive into the narrow side streets already congested by the teeming stalls creating a terrible crush and confusion, making people crawl along at a snails pace lined up shoulder to shoulder. The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowd, when the best offers can be found and you have the energy to submerge yourself into the world generated by the Randazzo markets.
Here is a quick video I shot recently while browsing around the markets, to give you a sense of the colours and character of these markets.
Please let me know in the comments if you like this video and if you’d be interested in seeing others.
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.’
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.
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.
Sicilian people have a unique rapport with religion and superstition which binds the two seemingly conflicting doctrines together. The connection between the two can be traced back to the struggle the early Catholic Church in Sicily had against pagan religions. The Roman Catholic Church always had a tremendous amount of power over Sicilian’s spiritual, cultural and political lives. Yet despite this the catholic faith has had to coexist with the traditions and superstitions left behind by centuries of domination by foreign cultures, in Sicily, which has resulted in the particular phenomenon of the Santo Padrono.
The early Church battling the strong belief in superstition used the cult of the patron Saint to tap into the people’s desire for protection from illness, bad luck and disaster, it was a shrewd strategy which brought worshippers into the church. From the final part of the fourth century onwards the strength of Christianity lied in the way it created a bond between this life and the one beyond the grave. Help came from the Saints who were fellow human beings whom people could count on to be beloved and powerful figures in their own society.
Today each town in Sicily has its own saintly protector. Sicilian people have a connection to their town and Saint which is almost fanatical. The cult of the patron Saint is a mixture of religious fervour, superstition and faith. The patrons are protectors who are deeply connected to each place through a long history and the Saint often represents the very character of a town. Sicilians who have migrated overseas, have brought with them the celebrations associated with their Saint to their new homes, in the post world war two period celebrations were re-enacted throughout the world from Australia, to the Americas.
St Leo’s springtime procession around Sinagra begins in his main home, the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel. The elegant mildly baroque church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century after the devastating flood of eighteen hundred and twenty-five destroyed most of the town. The Saint’s effigy spends most of the year here, apart from short vacations to the country church of St Leo, which is no more than a humble chapel.
The wooden statue of Saint Leo is a true a work of art and is seen as a true personification of the Saint. San Leone is dressed in full ceremonial bishop vestments, he indicates up to the heavens with a gentle right hand, his intimate connection to God is also directed as a blessing towards Sinagra. In the nineteen eighties there was a controversy surrounding the restoration of this sculpture. After being sent away to Palermo, to be cleaned and revived, the original colour of the Saint’s vestments was discovered and after removing many layers of paint, St Leo returned to Sinagra with different coloured robes, this led to rumors the Saint had been switched.
Today St Leo tranquilly abides in the church of Saint Michael the Archangel which itself is a puzzle pieced together with the remnants of crumbled fragments from the past. The main Chiesa Madre’s interior is white washed with lots of natural golden light that bathes over the hodgepodge of what is decoupaged together inside. A series of saintly statues rest on either side of the church’s body in two rows of arched grottoes. Saint Rocco, The Virgin Mary, Saint Sebastian, Jesus of the Sacred heart, Saint Anthony, Saint Francesco di Paolo and Saint Lucia lead the way up to the church’s head.
Above the altar stands the parish priests pride and joy, a trio of statues, that form an intricate trittico panel, which he often mentions to be an original of the Gangini school of sculptor, a well-known Messinese producer of high quality works from the sixteenth century. At the centre of the precious white marble highlighted in golden details is the Virgin Mary and child flanked by Saint Michael the Archangel, the guard of heaven and Saint John the Baptist. At their feet the apostles in miniature at the last supper and above them all God is holding the earth in his hand.
Looking up at the dome above the altar, seems a little disappointing with a simple, sparse almost minimalist decorations, little angels in the corners, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, a metaphor for hope and faith and elaborate curtains which seem three-dimensional even though they are painted flat on the side walls of the apex. A puzzling circular pattern at the center completes the design with a series of chubby levitating cherub heads. It is difficult to squint to make out more details and understand the motif better, but obviously there is a limit to how long you can stare at the ceiling during a religious ceremony.
Before the procession begins St Leo is mounted on a wooden frame which is supported by four thick logs and is carried on the shoulders of a group of ten to twenty men. Maneuvering the statue towards the main door with short sharp shuffling feet the men lift the Saint up and down quickly three times saluting the church and crying out ‘Eh Viva Santo Leo’ in praise of their patron.
Winding painfully slowly down the steep steps outside the church Saint Leo walks over the grey lava cobble stone streets glancing over at the ruins of Sinagra’s Castello. The bell tower clock and partial ruins are all that remain of the medieval castle fort which has been a stable part of the Sinagrese landscape for generations.
Saint Leo marches down Via Roma the main commercial hub of the old town which is now nothing by hollowed out hovels, dilapidated palaces slowly filling up with pigeon faeces and the odd newly restored building in a flurry of colours like a chameleon set in reverse. This first leg of his procession is the same taken by dearly departed Sinagrese on their final passegiata to the cemetery during their funeral.
Down Via Veneto heading towards the main square the urban-scape becomes less steep until reaching a plateau in the Piazza San Teodoro. Continuing straight ahead St Leo reaches the beginning of Via Umberto primo the old civic centre of Sinagra before the successive floods of nineteen twenty-six, nineteen nineteen, nineteen thirty-one and nineteen thirty-two.
At the beginning of the street there is the antique Church of the Crucifix with its bell tower dating back to the medieval period. This church is intriguing, much smaller than St Michael the Archangel, and ultimately more suggestive. The locals call it ‘the church of the convent,’ which indicates the existence of a former religious community, near the local cemetery there are the ruins of an old convent covered in prickly bushes and ivy.
People love Italy, they fantasies about it, they want to live here but never realise how broken a place it is. It is slow in mentality, stubborn to change and frustrating for someone who is used to living in a younger faster moving, more efficient country. One day when the rest of the world is older perhaps they will understand the superficial awe surrounding Italy is all about magical lightening and idealistic dreams.
Above the Indian Ocean, I suddenly had flashbacks of how much I’d disappointed my family, how much my heart is filled with longing with regret, it makes me feel so lost, yet determined to not keep it in my heart. I resist the sensation of being sucked out through a vortex, under my seat.
Negotiating Rome airport is a nightmare. It’s a terrible scramble off the plane as if everyone simply has to claim their baggage and head to the exit. But often you need to catch that elusive final flight within Italy’s boarders, so you need to prepare yourself for the obstacle course, which changes every couple of months, thanks to the constant evolution of Fiumicino Airport, helped along by the occasional spontaneous fire from a lack of maintenance.
First, to negotiate a conglomerate of sweaty, frustrated and simmering people, there are no orderly lines to follow, you have to push your way through onto the monorail and onto security check lines. Liquids in clear bags, tablets, cameras, portable computers, watches, belts, wallets and hand bags in security trays. Dress yourselves and repack and head to passport control, if you are lucky you will be shoved into a bus heading towards the domestic terminal, dodging taxiing planes, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, be sure to check your gate number frequently, as it will be changed at the last moment.
There will be delays on boarding, persistent confusion and you will be twiddling your thumbs on the plane as luggage is loaded and unloaded. Do not be alarmed if vapor comes out of the plane in the summer as it is the way the airline keeps passengers cool while they wait, all a part of Alitalia making traveling easier, (I wouldn’t be surprised if it has sedatives in it), so take a deep breath and grab an overpriced drink or gelato in the terminal.
Sicily is such a sad old place.
Italy is stylish and trendy but appearances are superficial, underneath the glitter there are over indulged children who refuse to help themselves and their mothers in crowded airports.
Australia is so fresh and new in comparison to Italy, full of hope and too much traffic where everyone is busy, working and living lives filled with activities for their children and ambition in their hearts. This time I take with me the memory of the peppery smell after brief showers in Perth and the colours of a new crisp antipodean winter morn. Australia has changed so much I barely recognize it, forgetting now to navigate the new suburbs while Sicily barely holds back its decay. Sicilia is a contrast with the heavy smell of dust and tobacco smoke, along with the rich aroma of the coffee and the glorious July sunshine which bathes the island of the sun with a magical light.
I am a bridge between these two places, stretching myself out so thinly I nearly break.
I ask my dearly departed grandfather with a prayer, why did he choose to migrate to Australia from Sicily, why not Germany or France like so many of his cousins? Or America or Canada like my father’s Abruzzese family.
I suddenly realise my Nonna didn’t have a choice, where he went, he had cousins who were doing well and other friends and family who helped him as destiny pulled us to Australia. My mother and grandmother camping in the bush outside of Merredin near Kalgoorlie, W.A, sharing their tent with snakes and lizards, while Nonno cut wood for the hungry ovens of industry in 1950’s Australia. So were my family’s first steps in their adopted home and my idealized Eldorado.
Every migrant misses their birth place, it is the irony that our origins become an elusive dream which can no longer exist. Like the fascinating poetry of Ibn Hamdis an Arab Sicilian poet from the eleventh century who was born at Syracuse and lived his first twenty five years in Sicily, until being exiled from the island by the Normans, to never return. Hamdis lived into his eighties and wrote the most delicate, emotive poetry dedicated to what he considered his spiritual home, which can be universally addressed to anyone who has moved away from their birthplace:
I often exchange stories with other expats about the Italians who have lied and cheated us with an ease and nonchalance which is both infuriating and puzzling. Not to say other countries don’t have problems with corruption as the world is rife, but in most Anglo-Saxon countries a politician or public servant or any other important figure caught out doing dodgy deals is publicly shamed and practically disappears from circulation.
In Italy fraud is a sin easily pardoned, I’d go to the extent to say Italians expect their politicians to be sly. In the country where Machiavelli’s Renaissance masterwork of politicking The Prince has become a classic the idea of furbizia (which translates to a mixture of: cunning, shrewdness, astuteness and slyness) which has become a solid part of the Italian character, it’s not very attractive and as usual this trait becomes more pronounced in the South. At the risk of offending many Italian’s these crazy foreigners are carefully trying to understand why we are persistently being cheated by the country we love.
Really bad Karma
Organized crime rooted in Mafia-style practices such as bribery, extortion, murder, public contracts, vote-buying represents only a fraction of Sicily’s corruption which includes particular areas, such as building construction, restoration and money laundering. Certain practices, though deplorable, are not necessarily illegal in Italy, where conflict of interest laws are lax and things like nepotism and cronyism are a normal part of professional life. It is still possible, for example, to obtain a high grade at the University through an offer of money or even, in the case of a pretty studentessa, sex.
Corruption in Italy takes many forms from providing public contracts to politicians’ friends, bribery and illegal kickbacks. Funds for a construction project such as building or expanding a hotel, an education program, a skills development program, or agricultural subsidy are mismanaged and terribly corrupt. It took thirty-five years to complete the Palermo-Messina autostrada and some fifteen million Euros mysteriously disappeared during the restoration of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo opera house.
Widespread corruption is endemic especially where public funding is involved. The situations created by the project managers are real tragedies in a land of poverty and high unemployment, where there are vast differences between rich and poor and where even a simple job is considered a privilege. Rich project designers are paid millions to produce little or nothing, while others work humble jobs just to make ends meet. Most disturbing about these opportunists is their complete lack of any sense of responsibility or guilt.
Despite these incredible hypocrisies Sicilian’s often ignore project scandals and other forms of corruption because these things are part of their daily lives. Pay offs and even sexual harassment are considered perfectly normal in Italy. It is part of the usual system of self decay that has been going on for many centuries in Sicily. If it wasn’t a distinct reality it would be the perfect fodder for a biting satire.
Sicilian’s admire the quality of ‘furbizia’ or shrewdness, the ability of out smarting someone or maneuvering themselves around an unfair law or authority. This probably is another survival quality left behind from their history of being a so called colonized or conquered people. This ugly personality trait results in a lot of white collar crime which is detrimental to the country as a whole. A Sicilian who is being too ‘furbo’ is ultimately shooting himself in the foot. Not to mention exposing himself to a whole lot of bad Karma!
Trying to explain the intricacies of Italy to someone who doesn’t live here is like painting a caricature, you can barely scratch the surface and it can never do justice to the complex character of Italy, it’s not that Italy is filled with darkness, violence and injustices it’s more that this country is made up of many different faces which coexist with the darker elements. There is wonderful generosity and kindness in Italy too, I know it is a contradiction but Italy is schizophrenic and amusingly diverse.
Duplicity of character
I was recently reading an anthology titled Cento Sicilie (One hundred Sicily’s) dedicated to the many writers who have attempted to depict the island, in the introduction Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino attempts to explain the reason behind the islands complexities:
‘Atlases say Sicily is an island and this must be true as atlases are trustworthy books. However one must have a shadow of doubt, when you reflect on the definition of an island, usually comprehends a compact concentration of race and customs, while here everything is dispersed, mixed, changing like in the most complex of continents. It is true there are many Sicily’s, we will never finish counting them. There is the green Sicily of the Carob trees, the white of the salt harvests, the yellow of sulphur, the blonde colour of the honey and the purple lava. There is the foolish Sicily, so relaxed as to seem stupid; a shrewd or sly Sicily dedicated to the most useful practice of fraud and violence. There is a lazy Sicily, a frenetic one who is consumed by the worries of materialistic inheritance, one who performs life-like a carnivalesque screenplay, and one who ultimately looks out onto a ‘windswept ridge’ into the beginning of a blinding madness…
Why are there so many different Sicily’s? Because Sicily’s destiny is to be a link through different centuries between the grand culture of the West and the temptations of the desert and the sun, caught between reason and mysticism, in the contrasts of logic and the heat waves of passion. Sicily suffers from an excess of identity, who knows if this is good or bad. Of course for whoever is born here the happiness of feeling like you are sitting on the center of the world doesn’t last long, it is quickly taken over by the suffering of not knowing how to disentangle the thousand complexities and interweaving blood lines to find a one true destiny.’
The frustration of fraud
So now you are as confused as I am we can begin to admit how totally utterly overwhelming Italy is. Welcome to the life of a foreigner in Italy who daily confronts the labyrinth of double-dealing. All Italians are victims of their culture of duplicity, they complain about the impossibility of getting a job on merit alone, the necessity of seeking out a political recommendation, the convoluted public service, a banking system which is persistently trying to rip them off, rampant tax evasion, an abyss of constant political upheaval and corruption which affects everything from health care, law enforcement to education.
Lining up at the local post office everyone complains about the inefficiency and liberally share their stories of scams or rip offs they have suffered. Local GP waiting rooms are a source of collective therapy and gossip for people who are frustrated by delays and hand balling of medical treatment from one specialist to the next. It is one big mess which seems to overwhelm all who live in this country. Despite all this everyone gets along with the business of living life. After all what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, less naïve, more ‘furbi’ (shrewd) and not so likely to fall victim to the next fraud.
One particularly grating thing about being a foreigner living in Sicily is how a Sicilian hears an English/American or Australian accent and automatically rubs his hands, thinking about ways to rip you off. You can be living here for decades and still be treated like a cretin, charged double at the shops, ignored at the post office and spoken to as if you are simpleton. Sometimes when I am feeling overwhelmed by this resistance to foreigners I delegate phone calls and some errands to my husband or do as a Sicilian does, complain loudly with copious amounts of Sicilian swear words and tell them where to go.
Italy’s Dark Heart
In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy in which he described the diabolic character of Italy’s complexities focusing on the post world war two history right up to the Berlusconi dominated years. After the books publication Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about. I recently read the book and apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones experiences and observations about Italy are insightful even if they are at times a little superficial. It is generally a good, truthful book and expresses the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living life in Italy. It’s the kind of book one would write to vent a little.
I totally agree when he says things like: ‘What really, really pisses me off is the fact that talented people in Italy very rarely raise to the top.’ And knowingly nod my head at seemingly shocking statements like: ‘Every week I’m assailed by a new example of nepotism. My favorite is the fact that, at the RAI (Italian T.V stations), employment can literally inherited.’
Tobias Jones comes to the same conclusion most long-term expats and locals do, which is despite the ugliness you fall in love with the beauty and simplicity of day-to-day life in Italy which helps you to live through all the sordidness. Ending his book with the same note of acceptance most lovers of Italy come to: ‘And for all the complications, Italian life can sometimes seem incredibly simple. Sometimes I don’t even hear the noise of my gnashing molars.’
I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.
Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.
The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!
These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.
The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.
You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.
I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.
I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.
I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.
The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.
I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.
Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.
For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.
I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.
Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.
Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.
A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).
You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.
If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.
You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.
I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.
The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.
Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.
If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.
The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.
Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.
So it really doesn’t matter if you can’t track down your favorite candy bar or if they do things differently here. Italy is an old country so things are kinda slow, it will be dusty and a little dirty but that’s to be expected.
Nothing is going to be like home so go with it, embrace the difference, stop swiping your smartphone and savor life the Italian way. You will be stepping into another magical world embrace the change. Try to eat, live and drink like the locals, even if you don’t usually drink wine or eat pasta, forget all your diets, leave the beer behind for a bit and be like an Italian. Try each regional and local speciality from fresh pastas, cheeses, cold cuts, breads, drinks and desserts. Just live in the moment and stop being uptight, don’t program every moment just allow yourself to explore and discover Italy, walk around, observe and be open, this country is filled with surprises which will astound you.
2) Dress appropriately
If you don’t want to feel out of place or get stared at. Italians are impeccable dressers and so hot pants, wife beaters and skin tight jeans aren’t going to cut it. Dress neatly, do your hair and try to look smart. I know it will be hot in the summer too don’t strip off your clothes, it is not suitable. If you intend to visit important attractions and churches, bring a scarf to cover bare arms or legs, it is only respectful. Your dress will also identify you as a tourist and could make you a target for pick pockets, shifty souvenir vendors and horny Italian men who can be a little aggressive. What can I say? Italians are superficial, they can read a lot about a person by their dress, so make an effort and you will fit in better and feel a little more fashionable, it is worth the effort.
3) If you are coming to Sicily, don’t make jokes about the Mafia
No country wants to be identified or recall the worst part of their recent history. Look beyond the stereotypes do not try to reinforce them. Sicily isn’t about organized crime it is about ancient history and art. La Sicilia is made up of nine diverse provinces each with its own distinct traditions and cuisine to explore: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa and Trapani. Explore all of Sicily, it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean and you won’t do it in a couple of days 😉
4) To avoid being ripped off by money exchange rates
Or without the pain of having to track down an American Express office for travelers cheques, try taking money out from an ATM, you will be charged only for using another banks ATM but it is handy. Talk to your bank about it. It is always a good idea to take some cash as some places don’t accept credit cards.
5) Don’t say ‘Ciao’ to everyone
You say ‘Buongiorno’ (in the morning) / ‘Buonasera’ (in the afternoon) and ‘Grazie’ all the time. Be polite rather then friendly, Italians will appreciate the effort. It would be nice if you try to learn a little Italian, just the basics even if you study a phrase book or download a couple of podcasts to listen to on the way to work a few weeks before you leave. It is amazing how friendly Italians can be when they see you are trying to experience their culture and country by attempting to speak in their language. I think Italians get a bad wrap for being arrogant to tourists but often they have seen so many tourists come through who simply don’t say ‘grazie’, try it and you will notice. Having a basic vocabulary will help you navigate Italy better and understand more of what is going on around you too.
The Sicilian Carnival is beginning to taper off at the end of February, the costumes, dancing and revelry officially comes to an end on the first Wednesday of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday the beginning of a period of sombre preparation for Easter.
In these ever secular times some celebrations are extended to make the most of expensive floats in larger Carnevale celebrations around Italy.
What I take almost every year from this hedonistic celebration are the faces of the children, who adore the music, jokes and costumes of this time of year.
Until next year’s Carnevale time I want to share my favourite costumes from my local celebration, as every small town has their own parades filled with home-made costumes, fun and joyous spirit to live life to the full ….
As for me I think I am in serious danger of falling flat on my face here, you see I’ve never been the romantic type. I’m the one who encouraged my brother and his former girlfriend many years ago on Valentine’s day to fake a wedding proposal to get a free meal at a fancy restaurant (which they did by the way and a bottle of expensive champagne!) So I’m probably not the best person to praise the nuances of this day.
My husband doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (I’ve written before about the rule I have about vetoing inappropriate gifts, so he generally avoids giving me anything). I’ve never received flowers of any description other than the potted variety which usually die a long a cruel death when I forget to water them.
With the risk of sounding like a Valentine ‘Scrooge’ I need to find something to redeem myself on the theme of romantic love which infuses this day for so many people.
On my search for inspiration I found myself ready every possible romantic phrase possible and I got distracted by reading about the Valentines Day mob massacre in 1920’s Chicago (fascinating reading if anyone is interested) but didn’t find anything worthwhile, apart for an inexplicable desire to watch the Untouchables starring Sean Connery and Kevin Costner.
Googling San Valentino
Inadvertently I have become somewhat of an expert on the enigmatic character of St Valentine, thanks to our friends at Google and Wikipedia. Here is what everyone should know about this early Christian Saint:
Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, is an official feast day in the Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. While Saint Valentine the Presbyter of Rome is celebrated on July 6 and Hieromartyr Valentine (Bishop of Interamna, Terni in Umbria central Italy) is celebrated on July 30.
The Catholic Encyclopedia and other sources speak of three Saint Valentines. One was a Roman priest, another the bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) both buried along the Via Flaminia outside of Rome. The third was said to be a saint who suffered on the same day with a number of companions in the Roman province of Africa, for whom nothing else is known.
While under house arrest of Judge Asterius, Valentinus (the Roman pronunciation of his name) evangelized about the life and miracles of Jesus. The judge asked Valentinus to cure his blind adopted daughter and laying his hands on her eyes and the child’s vision was restored. The judge was baptized into the Catholic church together with his family and household servants and freed all Christians he had imprisoned.
Valentinus was arrested again for converting Romans to Christianity and was sent to the prefect of Rome, the emperor Claudius himself. The emperor took a liking to him until the Saint asked Claudius to embrace Christianity. Claudius demanded Valentinus renounce his faith or else he would be beaten with clubs and beheaded the saint refused and was executed outside the Flaminian Gate February 14, 269.
The flower-crowned skull of St. Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. In 1836, some relics that were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina, then near (rather than inside) Rome, were identified with St Valentine; placed in a casket, and transported in a procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and all those in love.
In 1836, Fr. John Spratt, an Irish priest and famous preacher, was given many tokens of esteem following a sermon in Rome. One gift from Pope Gregory XVI were the remains of St. Valentine and “a small vessel tinged with his blood.” The Reliquary was placed in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, and has remained there until this day.
One legend says, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. Another legend says, on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to the jailer’s daughter, signing it, “From your Valentine.”
The historical character of St. Valentine was most probably a martyred Priest, he is the Patron Saint of couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers travelers and young people. The Saint is depicted in art often surrounded with birds and roses.
The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in a The Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated book printed in 1493. Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, text states that he was martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II].
Under the rule of Claudius, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.
To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.
The love of my life …
Putting aside cheesy sentimentalism, religious Saints relics and my own cynicism I must confess I have been in love for a long time.
Growing up as the grand-daughter to Italians who migrated to Australia gave me that sentimental-romanticized-bitter-sweet kind of love which is in every migrants heart for their long-lost homeland.
It was more than that, Italy become an obsession.
I remember being distinguished as an Italian at school by teachers and schoolmates. At first I didn’t know what it meant to be ‘Italian’ but I saw the superficial differences. I knew for example, other children didn’t call their grandparents Nonno and Nonna, they didn’t know the tastes of olives, artichokes, olive oil, prosciutto, mortadella, or eat crusty Italian bread for breakfast.
Being a strong individualist from an early age I enjoyed being different, being a part of something special not everyone could experience. I understood quickly the knowledge of another culture was a unique advantage which made life more interesting. Above all I loved my family and if being Italian meant being part of my family, then I loved being Italian too.
I was fifteen when I first spent six weeks in Italy with my family. We stayed with my mother’s aunts and cousins, we did a tour around the boot, found my father’s relatives in the Abruzzo region across from Rome on the Adriatic coast and spent the remaining weeks in Sicily.
After that trip I had a small taste of what the words ‘Italy’ and ‘Italian’ meant. Italy was loud, confusing, tiring, chaotic and puzzling, but I loved its history, language, style, inventiveness and cuisine. I still didn’t completely understand what it meant to be Italian but I had a stronger desire to comprehend and explore Italy. I resolved to learn the language and travel through Italy’s culture and history.
The rest is the long and sordid love story I tell on my blog every day.
Made up of the tastes, sights, smells, sounds and touch of Italy.
Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s yes the big meals are Christmas Eve and New Years Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for another year.
The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony. Attending my first vigilia celebration I was reminded of an ancient Roman or Renaissance court banquet, where the food is excessive and the wine overflowing.
A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetizers like bruscetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats, then a selection of pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fussili prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavored with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menue varies depending in which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigiliamust be celebrated only with seafood, wherein the menu is revised but in these trying times of economic crisis this tends be over looked.
A normal menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccala or cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.
Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelized fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like liquor drenched dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!
Finally there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.
For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.
Italians consume all of this and more. It is a well-known fact during this time of crisis Italian’s may have cut back on buying gifts yet not so on their food spending for these special occasions. The Cenone is sacred and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!
The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.
Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.
This summer I photographed this Sicilian Oregano drying in the sun. Oregano grows wild in amongst the Mediterranean scrub of Sicily and is gathered and saved to add flavor to meats and other dishes. As I was taking this photo I was struck by the rustic almost dirty look of the rocks and the herbs, it is harsh but like the real Sicily, that’s the way it is.