Summer decadence

Summer decadence post title

Sicily is filled with many culinary delicacies throughout the year, but it seems to outdo itself for the summer holidays when everyone is out to have a good time and forget their diets. There are the usual pastries and the cliché gelati but two particular summer favourites which simply must not be missed by any visitor to the island.

The first is the simple granita, an iced drink offered in a variety of flavours including lemon, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, almond, berry, peach etc. (the choice is limitless, depending on the imagination of your local café bar owner.) To be clear this isn’t merely shaved ice flavoured with artificial syrups, they are made from fresh seasonal fruit and ingredients.

       

 

The most irresistible temptation for a summer breakfast is packed with tonnes of, ‘ruin your diet,’ calories but, ‘really who the hell cares about that’ taste. A coffee granita, for caffeine lovers, is the ultimate iced coffee. It must be consumed with a thick layer of fresh cream and a giant sweet bread briosche to dip into it as you mix the cream into this exquisite creation.
For those who aren’t a fan of coffee try strawberry with fresh cream, when you mix the two together, it is like eating strawberries and cream. Or if you have something against fresh cream and sweet bread try ordering lemon and strawberry swirled together for a refreshing summertime drink.

 

Secondly but by no means inferior to the granita is an ice cream filled sweet bread. Yes, my friends you heard it right, a mega serving of ice cream inside a bread roll for a hamburger with a difference.
Not for the faint-hearted, a brioche con gelato is a regular meal substitute. Don’t, for example, have it after a big continental breakfast or a typical several course Italian meal because you will end up feeling very ill.
It may seem like a strange thing to eat but believe me, you will be tempted by a filling of two or more of your favourite ice creams, which will be complemented by the texture of the extra soft pastry as you devour it.
Try it, and you’ll understand what I mean.

 

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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

Hidden Gems

Hidden Gems title

This month the #DolceVitaBloggers link up is sharing our personal guide to Italy’s hidden gems, special off the hidden track treasures which are often whisked by on thirsty bucket list group tours or pedantically planned summer trips.

Thanks again to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for creating this great way of connecting Italophiles, to pool our collective knowledge. So get your pens and papers out to start planning your trip to Italy.

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

The whole of Italy is filled with hidden treasures, tiny little towns away from the major cities where you can still eat the best meal of your life at a tiny Trattoria away from the crowds. Most visitors spend only a few days here and there without witnessing the authentic daily life of the peninsular.

Italy is made for slow travel so the best way to spend your trip here is to take your time, move out of the big touristy centres, try to eat where the locals eat, visit small food markets, so to the churches, religious and food festivals, as it is there where you will see Italians and Italy at their most relaxed.

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Take the time to taste local dishes and wines, flavour your trip with free time to wander and explore, learn a few words of italian, at least enough to ask simple questions. Go to free summer concerts organised by the locals, go to the theatre, go into that interesting artisan studio, explore cute little ceramic stores, artist workshops and tiny wine bars, what you find inside will become wonderful memories.

Don’t limit yourself to visiting only in the summer, there are so many wonderful tastes and experiences even in autumn and winter, while spring in Italy is beautiful and generally much less crowded.

Italy’s biggest hidden jewel has to be the island of Sicily, not because I live here but for the rich historical landmarks left behind by the thirteen different foreign rulers of its past. From the Phoenicians to Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, French (Normans), Germans (Hohenstaufen/Swabain), Nordic Vikings , English (Angevin), Spanish (Aragonese/Borbons) and Austrians (Habsburgs).

Not only have these cultures left behind physical architectural landmarks from churches to temples, but also the traditions which give birth to colourful Festa and Sagre celebrations.

The nine provincial capitals of Sicily (Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse and Trapani) each filled with many historical sites, museums and typical products to see and taste. Keep in mind every region and some times each town will have its own variations in wines, cheeses, breads, pasta dishes, sweets and abundant feasts.

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An Italian Festa celebrates a towns patron Saint and is filled with processions, parades and market days. A saint day celebration is more than simply religion it is a piece of living history. A city’s patron has been around as long as the town’s been established and the celebrations are the fruit of careful planning and dedication.

Even a small villages patron Saint’s statue is laden with elaborate decorations, taken through every street where it meets and greets the people like an old family friend. The town’s marching band will accompany it with a personalised soundtrack, those who physically carry the Saint will cry out praises of ‘Viva Saint so & so.’

There will be monetary donations given to the Saint’s confraternities and the days celebrations will be accompanied by market stalls, booming fire crackers and night-time pyrotechnics and the local school children will get a holiday. There are Saint day’s all through the year and each has its own unique tradition and flare.

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In Sicily the biggest celebrations are St Agata at Catania (February), St Rosalia at Palermo (July), St Lucia of Syracuse (November), St Giorgio at Ragusa (April) and the Madonna at Messina (August) which is also a national holiday throughout Italy.

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Apart from the religious based feste, Italy chooses to celebrate its cuisine in endless food festivals or Sagre during the year. Each town offers a taste of local specialities, over a few days visitors can dip their fingers into the rich culinary stew which gently boils over throughout Italy. For some small change you can taste everything from freshly harvested strawberries in the spring, to new wine at November, gelato in the summer and roasted pork in the winter.

There is always something to taste or experience in the rich tapestry which is Italy. To give you an idea of the sheer amount of Feste and Sagre here is a list of those which happen annually in Sicily every June. These events are advertised locally so be sure to keep an eye out for flyers and posters around the place.

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Here are some more useful posts you might like to read since SI&O is all about discovering Sicily’s hidden gems.

A tasteful introduction to Sicilian food

Easter Celebrations in Sicily

Yuletide Sicily

Novembrando

How to explore Sicilian towns

Dividing Sicily into bitesize pieces

A Sicilian wish list for the Summertime

What to do in Sicily

To read all the other posts about Italian hidden gems for June 2018 click here.

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

A place of elephants, lions and bears

Lions and bears post

 

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

 

Savage sicily

 

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 …

Eating the Springtime

Eating the springtime blog title

One of the life lessons Italy has given me is the special taste of eating according to the seasons. There is something wonderfully simple and logical about living with the natural worlds shifting seasons, as if you are following a natural internal rhythm.

Today we are all spoilt by supermarkets who have everything we want on the shelves throughout the year. But eating fruits and vegetables which have been freshly grown and have gathered the sunshine of the summer or the warmth of spring, the autumn or fall and winter showers, each with its own unique seasonal flavour.

Those who are passionate about gardening can understand all of the work and toil behind the preparation of the soil, planting, grooming, pruning and harvesting everything according to the particular month of the year. It is with a tremendous sense of achievement that they enjoy the fruits of their creation, like crafting a masterpiece, looking after a pet or raising a child.

Typical products

Every year I spend in Sicily I have an appointment to eat the spring time, like meeting old friends I look forward to a succession of different foods and tastes. Beginning at the end of March with artichokes which for me symbolise the end of winter, then with the first weeks of sunshine in the flux of changing weather the wild asparagus sprout out in amongst the bushes of the countryside.

Then comes a blossoming free for all as the heat ushers in a barrage of ripening fruits as the sleeping vegetation starts to wake. The final wintertime citrus makes way for the mulberries, cherries, strawberries, loquats, apricots, plums and figs.

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While the Spring is flowering the preparations for the summer begin with the planting of vegetable gardens which will yield ripened summer fare in a few months, like tomatoes, basil, eggplant (or aubergine), sweet and hot peppers, capsicums, beans and more.

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With the Spring comes the Sagra /sà·gra/ (festival)  season, the beginning of a series of endless food festivals that each town in all of Italy uses to show off their best local and traditional products, like a series of beauty pageants or country fairs. A preparation of endless stands which will give you a taste of everything over a couple days for only a few euros. The sagra season in Sicily begins with granita and gelato at Acireale in spring and ends with chocolate at Modica in December and literally takes you all around the island. In May alone there are a series of Sagras which are dedicated to ingredients like: asparagus, cheese, loquats, wild fennel, oranges, ricotta and strawberries.

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If you find yourself in Sicily in the spring here is a quick fresh food market vocabulary of what you might find on sale, in the garden or on the menu.

Primavera  /pri·ma·vè·ra/  (Spring)

aprile (April),  maggio (May), giugno (June)

Verdura (vegetable) : Asparagi (asparagus) , barba di frate (agretti, otherwise known as saltwort or friar’s beard), carciofi (artichokes), carote (carrots), cavolfiore (cauliflower, there are many types from a beautiful purple or violetta to a bright green or romano variety, as a self confessed cauliflower hater from childhood I suggest you try one of these Italian cauliflowers you will change your mind), cavolo verza (cabbage), puntarelle (chicory) , insalate primaverili (spring salads), luppolo (wild asparagus), cipollotti (spring onions), fave (broad beans), piselli (peas), zucchine (zucchini), melanzane (eggplant or aubergine), peperoni (capsicum), rucola (rucola salad), lattuga (lettuce), fagiolini (green beans) and cipolle (onions).

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Frutta (fruit): Fragole (strawberries) , nespole (loquats), arance (oranges), mandaranci (a cross of mandarines and oranges), clementine (clementine oranges), pompelmi (grapefruit), cedri (citron), kiwi (kiwi fruit) , limoni (lemons), pere (pears), mele (apples), ciliegie (cherries), pesche (peaches), albicocche (apricots), ciliegie (cherries), amarene (armarena bitter cherries), meloni (melons which include several different varieties) and anguria (watermelon).

Under the feet of Mongibello

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tell me where you’d like me to visit …

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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
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
Mongibello ©Rochelle Del Borrello

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
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
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
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
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 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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Seeking Sicily an interview with John Keahey

Seeking Sicily

Sicily’s rich history, culture and literature is filled with endless stories and so one writer or interpreter visiting here will never come up with a definitive interpretation, each experience will remain unique. Sicily has many faces and reflections, depending on where and when you visit and who you meet, it is impossible to ever finish exploring this multifaceted place. This is why every book written about Sicily is so valuable, each author who writes about Sicily from a unique experience and personal point of view creating a never ending narrative.

John Keahey’s contribution to the story, Seeking Sicily: a cultural journey through myth and reality in the heart of the Mediterranean (Thomas Dunne Books, St Matin’s Press. New York 2011) is a delicate, intimate, intellectual and extremely well researched portrait of Sicily.

Keahey is an American journalist who has written extensively about Italy and offers us many absorbing elements of Sicilian culture, history and literature.

Unfortunately Keahey is a foreigner working with an interpreter and so there are the usual minor misconceptions, idealism and tiny superficial errors which will identify him as such.

Sicily is not an easy place to explore, at times it is isolated by it’s own geography, mentality, language, culture and landscape. It is difficult for foreigners to be truly accepted into the heart of a community, even if a Sicilian seems welcoming, they can close outsiders out by switching into their dialect and the heart of their local community is made up of an intricate web of relationships, language and interconnections which is virtually impenetrable for an outsider.

But, Keahey’s journalistic eye and sense of story is impeccable, through extensive and detailed interviews with many proud Sicilians he digs bellow any superficial mask to get to the heart of this place with insightful, rich and evocative insight.

Seeking Sicily offers readers a charmingly well written introduction to the island, thanks to a strong journalistic process of inquiry and exploration. Keahey sheds new light into the history, culture, literature and cuisine of the island. In particular the research into Sicilian writers like Leonardo Sciascia and Pirandello, the Mafia, the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily, the island’s mythology and the many different conquerors of Sicily are engrossing and make Seeking Sicily a more than worthy edition to the library of work dedicated to and inspired by Sicily.

After reading Seeking Sicily I was enthralled at how John Keahey was able to write so freshly and vividly about Sicily. I was surprised at how Keahey was able to find so many new and fascinating facets to Sicily. I have read many books about Sicily and at times they can be quite repetitive when it comes to certain elements of Sicilian history. I was excited when I found a contact email and John Keahey granted me an interview which I’m happy to share with you along with the great news that he is working on a new book about Sicily.

Seeking Sicily quote

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

I have a hard time defining this connection: As far as I know, I have no direct Italian/Sicilian ancestors, so blood isn’t an issue. All I can sense is that I spent two weeks in Sicily, in the Catania area, at a U.S. Naval Air Station (Sigonella) in 1986. Friends and I would drive into Catania (truly a remarkable, wonderful city!) for dinner each evening, and on the weekend I rented a car and drove to Sciacca, on the southern coast. En route, cresting a small hill east of Agrigento, the Greek ruins strung along the Valley of the Temples suddenly appeared, and I knew I was in love with the place. The people, the food, and the culture cinched the deal. By 1990, I was making almost annual trips to Italy, for pleasure and my first two books, and Sicily kept creeping back into my mind. When I worked on my first Sicily book, I made four trips, and the connection was cemented.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

As I hinted above, it’s the people, first and foremost, then the culture that I learned about from reading Sicilian authors (plus several viewings of Visconti’s The Leopard!) and by studying the history. The culture and the people are shaped by that history and by the reality that Sicilians have never been in control of their own political destinies. The last conquerer of the island is, in fact, the Italians. Northern Italy, not counting ancient Rome, has been in control since 1871, and the island’s people continue to under its wing.

Randazzo, Catania

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

My publisher Tom Dunne (St. Martin’s Press) and I agreed that the book would be made up of varying amounts of history, culture, literature, with some Sicilian food and food history tossed in. Anything else ­­ a plan of action, a travel itinerary around the island, which places I would visit ­­ went by the wayside. It’s an organic process, and how it grows is up to chance. I’ve learned to be flexible and allow a change of plans to take over. One example: I am crossing a street in Palermo en route to see something I had read about. I was struck by a thought as I glanced at a street sigh, and turned right instead of left, ending up at the crumbling, ruined birthplace of the author of The Leopard. This chance maneuver led to the the beginning of what became chapter one. I never made it to the place where I was originally headed.

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily. Tell us about it.

What is an “authentic” Sicilian experience? The impoverished peasant class, beholden for centuries to large landowners, disappeared shortly after World War II; widows almost never wear black once the funeral is over; women, once forbidden from venturing out of the house on their own, are as free as men ever were; the only carts pulled by mules and horses are just seen during festival parades and in tourist rides; streets once used by the occasional cart or wagon are now hopelessly jammed with automobiles; the thrilling tuna harvest off the south­ central coast is nowhere near what it used to be. And, fortunately, the Sicilian Mafia is deep underground; bodies no longer pile up in the streets of Palermo (in a 15­year period during the 1980s­90s, there were a thousand Mafia death in those streets). The mob is still there; tourists just never see it. The streets are alive with activity, day and night.

So the experience today is one where history can be explored, art of all eras appreciated, wonderful food unlike any elsewhere in Italy consumed, vistas of rolling hills and expansive vineyards abound, and most importantly, friendly people are found nearly everywhere. For example, I made four visits to a small, non­ tourist village in the south, wandering the few streets and speaking with just a handful of residents. By my second visit, several months later, some locals remembered me. By visits three and four, some even remembered my name and would stop by my table at the local restaurant for a conversation. I stay away from the heavily touristed villages with all their T­shirt shops and copycat restaurants with “tourist menus” and seek out the small places where local shops don’t even sell postcards. That, to me, is authentic Sicily.

Obviously, first­ time visitors need to spend time in some of those larger places. That’s where the art, the big museums, the reconstructed Greek ruins are, and they must be seen. I’ve been to the Palatine Chapel in Palermo three times and spent Easter Week in world­ famous Enna, so I’ve done my share of “touristing”. Now I want to seek out the hidden, the less well-known, the secret places.

Why do you think Sicily has inspired and continues to inspire writers?

I can only address what inspires me and why I keep going back. Perhaps it is the fatalism of the people who seem to do quite well living in the moment. While many, of course, speak Italian, most grew up in households where Sicilian, a separate language, was spoken. Sicilian has no future tense, and I speculate this is because Sicilians over three thousand years had no future to look forward to; it was always in the hands of outsiders. Plus they live in a place historically wracked by earthquakes, bloody Mafia control, and occasional catastrophic volcanic eruptions. They view Etna as a giver and a taker: It’s lava­enriched soil gives an incredible bounty ­­ almonds, wine, lemons, oranges ­­ but Etna can kill you in an instant. The sour with the sweet. All this has helped shape a unique Sicilian mindset that has intrigued generations of writers, both from within and without.

Messina, Duomo

Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

There are many Sicilian writers with whom I did not get acquainted, at least not yet. But of the dozen or so I have read and written about, it has to be Leonardo Sciascia and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If you only read those two, you would be on your way to a basic understanding of who Sicilians are. Of course, go back a few years and explore Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga, and watch the Visconti films “The Leopard” and La terra trema.

How is Sicily so different to the rest of Italy?

Sicilians famously do not consider themselves Italian. The only time, perhaps ­­ and I say this flippantly, of course ­­ that they claim to be Italians is when Italy is a finalist in World Cup Soccer. They are different for all the reasons I’ve mentioned ­­ 3,000 years of being ruled by at least 15 or so outsiders, the dangers of everyday life, etc. ­­ but also because of their awareness that those in the north of Italy only want them for their military service or their labor in automobile factories or as maids in their homes. Just recently, a northern Italian Member of Parliament said he considered that sending his home soccer team to play in Palermo was the same as sending it to Africa. Sicilians do not feel they are part of the peninsula. Rome lets Sicily’s roads deteriorate while pouring money into the north. Funds might be sent down for a project, but when the money runs out, work is stopped, often for years. One of my earliest memories while driving around eastern Sicily in the mid­1980s was highway off­ramps heading to nowhere, abandoned ends of bridges over highways with no middle span, unfinished apartment houses and factories, all left to rust and crumble. Sicilian oranges are left to rot unpicked while Rome strikes deals with Morocco to import oranges in exchange for North Africans buying Fiats made in the north of Italy. It’s complicated, and what I have cited here barely scratches the surface.

I know you are a real Italophile and have written extensively about Italy, please tell us more about the subjects of your books.

My first book, “A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea”, is about southern Italy, particularly Naples, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia. Then came “Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged”. It deal with Venice’s struggle with high water in the face of global climate change. My Sicily book was third (“Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean”). Fourth is “Hidden Tuscany: Discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well ­Known Region’s Unknown Places”. The fourth deals with western Tuscany, which many travelers to Tuscany ignore while spending their time along the region’s east side.

Roman monument

You mentioned you will be back in Sicily in early 2016 tell us a little more about your trip and next book.

The Sicily book in particular seems to have struck a chord with the traveling public (as well as a lot of third­ and fourth ­generation Sicilian Americans!). That tells my publisher and me that interest in the island remains high. I have traveled through the same places many times ­­ for research and to take family and friends on visits there ­­ and I want now to find places visitors seldom, if ever, get to. So book five will be an exploration of the island seeking out those places. I’ll miss a lot, to be sure, but I’ll also discover a lot as well. There is no title as yet. Release is tentatively scheduled for Spring/Summer 2018.

Sicily images

Thanks so much to John Keahey for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily. I wish you all the best for your new book and invite you to spend as much time as you can in Sicily, because only through time will you be able to get under a Sicilian’s skin and into the passionate beating heart where true Sicily is. But then, I think you have already discovered this about Trincaria.

For more information about John Keahey’s books and impressive book trailer for Seeking Sicily see his author page here.

Seeking Sicily is available on Amazon here.

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Sicily: A Literary guide for travellers

Literary Guide

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards are both accomplished writers and translators with a deep admiration for Sicily, their guide to the island is a detailed love letter to the history and culture of this place. Together they have traced an outline of Sicily through its rich literary history creating an intriguing portrait of this ancient isle. Not only do they take you on an exploration of the major cities of Sicily but they share fascinating travelogues by foreign visitors and writers together with insights from the immensely significant literary life of La Sicilia.

The range of experts quoted in this literary guide is impressive and includes everyone from: Italo American writers like Theresa Maggio, native contemporary Palermitano writer Roberto Alajmo and British travelers completing Grand Tours of Europe in the nineteenth century.

You will be amazed by the diverse range of people drawn to the island through the centuries thanks to the Sicily’s unique history and charm.

There is an enthralling collection of native Sicilians and foreigners who tell us about Sicily through this unique literary travel guide, the plethora of names are distinct as: Alexandre Dumas, Harold Acton, Leonardo Sciascia, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, Carlo Levi, Lawrence Durrell, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, D.H Lawrence and Truman Capote.

If the true sense of a place is expressed through its writers or literature then Sicily is best seen through the words of visitors, travellers and native authors. Sicily: Literary guide for travellers takes you into Sicily’s true personality, with riveting insights into the character, history and culture of this enigmatic island. And one hell of a reading list too!

After hearing Andrew and Suzanne Edwards next book will explore the literary landscape of Spain, I contacted them for an email interview, I simply had to know more about this thoroughly intellectual couple’s work.

Largest island

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

After working in Greece and having a strong connection to Spain, we have always been interested in Mediterranean cultures. Over the years, we have travelled extensively throughout Italy and, in 2007, finally made it to Sicily – it was a revelation, something akin to a homecoming. Sicily is the crossroads that makes sense of the Mediterranean and it was our good fortune to find a property in the historic town of Caccamo that we could call home for part of the year. Each visit has widened our Sicilian horizons and we are slowly peeling back the layers of history that make the island so fascinating.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

From the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the glories of Norman Sicily, centuries of Spanish rule at the height of the Baroque, to the fading twilight of the Bourbons and conflicts over Italian unification, Sicily is unique. Every small town is a microcosm of this history.

The landscape, although affected by man, has a timeless quality and yields the three legendary elements of Mediterranean life – the olive, the grape and the fig, in addition to the glorious citrus fruits. This magnificent countryside and history has, however, left an inevitably complicated legacy that is still playing out in the issues faced by the island in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It is no wonder that such a rich and complex past has provided the backdrop to a prodigious literary output.

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

Having established ourselves in Sicily, we, naturally, read authors associated with the island, such as Lampedusa, Sciascia, Camilleri and Bufalino. Rather than explore with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, good as they are, we decided to go in search of the locations we had been reading about and discover the inspirations behind the books. It was a great experience that introduced us to many interesting people.

We combined this with reading the views of foreign writers such as Theresa Maggio, Tobias Jones and Alejandro Luque whose books on Sicily Andy has ended up translating. Back in the UK, we approached a publisher with the idea of a literary guide to the island that would enable others to experience Sicily in this manner.

Fortunately, our proposal was accepted and we were commissioned by Tauris Parke to write the book. Our research then took on greater depth as we travelled in the footsteps of over a hundred writers from five continents who had written on matters Sicilian.

The timespan encompassed more than two thousand years of textual output. Initially daunted, we soon found that one writer opened the door to another and, once we had decided to make the book a circular tour, the structure and authors led the way. The majority, but not all of the research was undertaken in Sicily – we spent many a fascinating hour in London’s British Library.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily?

Suzanne: To isolate just one place or experience is supremely difficulty; sometimes, a simple meal of fresh Sicilian seafood drizzled in a dressing of local olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon, washed down with a glass of Grillo whilst gazing out at the encompassing ocean is all that is needed to fill the senses and connect with the very essence of the island.

Or perhaps to visit a market and jostle with the locals and marvel at the vibrancy and freshness that the land and sea have to offer – Catania’s fish market is particularly notable.

However, there is nothing like visiting an author’s home to bring a particular era and personality to life. For this reason, I would recommend a visit to Lucio Piccolo’s former residence in Capo d’Orlando. Set back from the smart coastal town, the aristocratic poet and cousin of Lampedusa, shared this house with his brother, Casimiro, and sister, Giovanna.

Now a museum, the first floor captures the idiosyncrasies of the two brothers. The lounge, complete with piano, was divided in two with each of the brothers manifesting their quirks in the décor and arrangements. The library reflects their esoteric reading habits, whilst the family’s love of animals can be seen in the pet cemetery to one side of the landscaped garden.

Andy: I would have to say Piazza Marina in Palermo. The iconic square with the twisted Moreton Bay fig tree at its core contains so much hidden Sicilian history in all its light and shade. To one side of the piazza is the Palazzo Chiaramonte, also known as the Steri, which is now part of the University.

The building, itself, with its arches and crenellations represents the lordly power of the Chiaramonte who commissioned it. It then became the Spanish viceroys’ palace and a gaol. The lower floor contains the former inquisition prison that housed the supposedly heretical victims of the Holy Office, written about by Leonardo Sciascia. The walls, gradually rediscovered over the years, are daubed with some heart-breaking graffiti. In an adjoining room is the painting of the Vucciria market, painted by the twentieth century artist, Renato Guttuso. It captures all the vibrancy and tension of the market, now sadly in decline at the real location.

Next to the Steri is the former Hotel de France, which once housed those Victorian and Belle Époque tourists keen to see the wonders of the island, including the likes of Freud. A small lane between the two buildings leads into Via Butera and the former residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, where he partially penned The Leopard.

Detail of Messina town hall

Why do you think Sicily has inspired, and continues to inspire, writers?

Sicily has inspired, not only novelists and poets, but also essayists, ethnographers, cultural observers, classicists, cookery writers and theorists of varying stamps. It is precisely the elements that attract these diverse disciplines that continue to provide inspiration to those who have the desire to share their thoughts on paper.

Most aspects of human endeavour have found some corner of Sicily favourable to their expression – be that beneficial or detrimental to the island’s wider society. Sicily’s cultural heritage is not just a pretty backdrop, but an integral character in much literary output.

Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

Andy: Hmm, there are so many, Pirandello, Consolo, Martoglio…! If I had to narrow it down, I would have to pick one poet and one novelist/short story writer. The poet would be Lucio Piccolo – I love his Baroque cadences and imagery, his poem conjuring the Sirocco wind being my favourite. He was a man from another era stuck in the twentieth century, but even the modernists recognised his talent. The other writer would be Gesualdo Bufalino, a man of prodigious lyrical ability from Comiso, who characterised his hometown as a ‘città teatro’, a town of theatrical capacity for life which he was able to capture in some of his writings.

Suzanne: I have to agree with Andy’s choices but, from a female perspective, I must add the writer, Maria Messina. Born in the nineteenth century, and championed by Giovanni Verga, she managed to bring a unique female voice to a literary landscape dominated by men. She shared with her readership the plight of women who often suffered in silence.

From the journeys in your book, which do you think is the most quintessential literary inspired place to visit?

Suzanne has already mentioned Lucio Piccolo’s residence in Capo d’Orlando; it is perhaps not the most quintessential place though, as we have both alluded to the idiosyncratic nature of the location and the man. There are two locations that immediately spring to mind which vie for archetypical dominance.

The first, Taormina, was the playground for foreign writers to come and spend some weeks in warmer climes whilst waiting for the muse to descend. However, we would pick Agrigento and surroundings with its iconic Valley of the Temples, the Vigata- Porto Empedocle of Andrea Camilleri and the home of Luigi Pirandello in the aptly named suburb of Caos. Pirandello’s home maintains much of the man, including a faintly melancholic air enhanced by the fact that the cliffside walk leads to his tomb.

Duomo Messina Madonna

How is Sicily so different to the rest of Italy?

Sicily has so much in common with the ‘continent’, more perhaps than some Sicilians would care to admit; however, the narrow Straits of Messina do make a difference. There is a distinct island mentality – something, for better or worse, they share with the British. Waves of invaders have taken their toll and have given Sicilians a certain initial wariness when it comes to ‘the other’, be that ideas or people.

That’s not to say they don’t know how to enjoy themselves – witness feast days – but on first meeting, they don’t behave with the flamboyance of Neapolitans, for example; although times are changing and the world for Sicilians, as for us all, is becoming a much smaller place.

In terms of culture, Sicily is the original melting pot, more so than Rome. The common perception is that Romans made history, whereas Sicilians had history heaped upon them. We are not sure we believe this completely as some Roman legionnaires, Greek poets, Arabic viziers and Spanish grandees were islanders at heart and have all contributed to this melting pot of cultural distinction that is absent from many other corners of Italy. For example, the Arabs never really conquered the mainland and so their imprint is stronger on the island, notably in the food.

Port of Messina

Tell us about your next project.

We have been lucky enough to receive another commission for a literary guide and have just completed the first draft of Andalucía: A Literary Guide for Travellers which is due for publication in the autumn of 2016. It will follow the same structure as our Sicily book and will also feature over a hundred authors who lived in or wrote about the Spanish region.

Our thoughts are now turning to the next project and we have decided to take a look at the Byron/Shelley story from the perspective of John Polidori, Byron’s physician and uncle to Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Contrary to cinematic portrayals, notably by Ken Russell, Polidori was not a snivelling, unattractive, little man but a younger, mirror-image of Byron. Unfortunately for Polidori, he was in awe of Byron’s talent and suffered in his shadow. Despite producing one of the fist vampire novels (originally attributed to Byron) at the same time as Mary Shelley gave birth to Frankenstein, the doctor never had any true literary talent. He did, however, also leave a diary for posterity and it is this that we intend to follow by tracing the journey into exile he made with Lord Byron.

Next summer we will drive through Belgium, down the Rhine and into Switzerland stopping at the famous Villa Diodati. From there, we will track Polidori’s footsteps into Italy, all the way to his family villa which still exists.

We’ve also written the first few pages of a historical novel set in Messina during the time of Miguel de Cervantes – although it will probably never see the light of day!

Ceramics Santo Stefano

Thanks so much to Andrew and Suzanne Edwards for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf of all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily.

Sicily: A literary guide for travellers is available through Amazon, for details see Andrew and Suzanne Edwards author page here.

Feel free to follow these two amazing writers on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

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Syracuse: City of legends an interview with Jeremy Dummett

 

Syracuse Jeremy Dummett

 

Jeremy Dummett is a lover of history, a dedicated Italophile and a frequent visitor to Sicily. It was while on a trip to Syracuse in 2005 the seeds of an idea were planted. Dummett became interested in the history of ancient Siracusa, he discovered an immense amount of literature referring to this city and surprisingly found there had been no recent publications about this amazingly rich place in english, and so Syracuse: City of Legends (I.B Taurus, London 2010) was born.

Thank goodness Jeremy Dummett was inspired to write a book about Syracuse as it has given us a wonderfully complete insight into Greek Syracuse, with many fascinating links to historical figures such Socrates, Plato, Archimedes and Cicero.

The city of legends places Syracuse firmly in Sicily’s timeline of history with engrossing insights into Roman Sicily, the early catholic church, the Byzantine and Arab periods and an intriguing look at Caravaggio’s connection to the city.

The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the history of Syracuse written in a wonderfully conversational style and its second part is a general guide to the city where Dummett gives us the benefit of his extensive knowledge as a frequent visitor.

Syracuse: City of legends is both an excellent general history of Sicily, a great resource for anyone wanting to know more about this place from its origins to recent times and it is a good general tourist guide for first time visitors. It is marvellous to see such a dedicated academic focus on this part of Sicily as there really isn’t anything around in english for visitors to read.

I recall visiting the Baroque city of Noto last year which is near Syracuse and asking around at many bookstores for a good general history book about this city but I only managed to find one in Italian which was an architectural book about the project to rebuild the city after a major earthquake. Would I be brave enough to suggest Jeremy Dummett tackle Noto sometime in the future?

Dummett published another book in 2015 about Palermo and I look forward to any other future projects. I did a brief email interview with him last year as he was launching his new book in May and we talked more about this work.

 

Jeremy Dummett quote

 

Tell us about your first book Syracuse: City of Legends.

It tells the story of Syracuse, from its foundation by Greeks in the eighth century BC up to modern times, combined with a survey of the monuments. It is the first historical guide to the city.

Why Syracuse? What brought you to this place for the subject of a book?

The book developed out of several visits to Sicily, staying in Syracuse. I could find no book that told the story of the city, which is filled with monuments from different eras. The atmosphere of the place struck my imagination. Back in London, I started research out of curiosity which led to a draft for the book.

And you now have a new book about Palermo, tell us about this new work and how the two places are similar or do they have different personalities?

My book on Palermo follows the same format, so it is another historical guide. The two cities could hardly be more different, geographically or historically. Syracuse was famous in antiquity, as one of the great Greek cities, equal in size to Athens. Palermo was famous in the Middle Ages when it took over from Syracuse as the leading city of Sicily. The Arabs made it their capital of the island in the ninth century AD. The modern cities have very different personalities. Syracuse is primarily a tourist destination. Palermo is the hectic capital of Sicily, the centre of government for the island, a commercial centre and university town, as well as a tourist destination.

What is the most fascinating element of Syracuse and Palermo you want to share with us?

Syracuse: an ancient Greek harbour city, built in golden sandstone. Later it was a centre for early Christianity. There are clear links to the ancient Greek civilisation in the cathedral, which was built around a Greek temple, in the archaeological museum and the Euryalus castle. The early Christians are remembered by the extensive catacombs.

Palermo: a medieval city of the Arabs and Normans, capital of the powerful kingdom of Sicily, which has retained a strong North African feel. Later it became the baroque city ruled by Spanish viceroys. Links to the Arab-Norman civilisation can be seen in the cathedral, the Palatine chapel, Monreale, the Zisa and the Martorana. The baroque style dominates the city, to be seen in churches, palaces and public squares.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by Sicily?

It offers a unique combination of attractions. As an island it has stunning natural beauty, to which generations have added spectacular urban architecture. The history, monuments and literature are all of outstanding interest. It is very varied by region, with something for everyone. The combination of ancient ruins, sparkling beaches, unspoilt countryside and wonderful food is hard to beat. Not being over developed means that a holiday in Sicily is still something of an adventure.

Sicily has such a complex history, how did you manage to navigate through its immense history? Tell us a bit about the Sicilian history you discovered.

I concentrated upon one city at a time, which makes the task more manageable. Most books on Sicily follow the format set in the eighteenth century by writers such as Goethe, which involve a tour around the island. By concentrating upon one city, the history, though still complex, is continuous and easier to follow. Sicily has such great regional differences that you really need to look at each region, or city, in turn.

Symbol of Sicily

What’s your own personal link to Sicily, how have you found your way to this place?

Purely by visiting Sicily and becoming fascinated by it. Sicily and Italy in general is currently going through an economic and political decline, are you at all concerned about how this could affect historically important cities like Syracuse and Palermo, what is your opinion of the current situation.

The current economic crisis is very apparent and difficult to manage. On the plus side it is concentrating minds on how to develop in the future. There is huge potential in both cities for increased cultural tourism.

Syracuse seems already to be reaping the benefits of increased numbers of visitors. In Palermo, improvements continue to be made to make the city more attractive to visitors. Central areas such as Piazza San Domenico are now free of traffic while La Cala, the old port, has a walkway around it with new bar-restaurants from which to view the yachts and fishing boats. A clear way forward is emerging from a very difficult period.

What would you like people to get out of your books, what was the reason behind them?

I would like readers to understand what these cities are about, their backgrounds, their stories and how they relate to the monuments to be seen today. No such books currently exist which was the reason for writing them.

You have an academic background tell us a little about your professional life.

See bio on my website.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

Not yet! I am still working on the follow up to the launch of my Palermo book.

Thanks so much to Jeremy Dummett for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily.

Syracuse, City of Legends and his other book about Palermo is available on Amazon, see the links on Jeremy Dummett’s author web page here.

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Trinàcria: A tale of Bourbon Sicily an interview with Anthony Di Renzo

Reading Trinacria

The best way to know the true character of a place is through its literature and history.

One of the most surprising discoveries on my journey to know and understand Sicily better has been Anthony Di Renzo’s book Trinàcria (Guernica, Toronto 2013) which evokes the spirit of Sicily as eloquently as a Quasimodo poem or as apt as a scene from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Sicilian masterpiece The Leopard.

Di Renzo gathers the threads of the history of Bourbon Sicily and its most vibrant characters to bring their energy back to life for us. With the voice of the Marchesa of Scalea he creates an eccentric aristocrat character filled with sarcasm, arrogance and shrewd observation.

Trinàcria begins as a Hollywood director is set to film a big budget historical film in Sicily (akin to Visconti’s cinematic version of the Leopard) reawakening the spirit of the cantankerous Marchesa who is quite peeved she is being used as the inspiration for cinema and consequently tells us her life’s story, revealing herself to be the Trinàcria of the title.

This tale from nineteenth century Sicily is intriguingly dark, gothic and morbid the director directly addressing the mummified remains of the long dead Sicilian noble deep in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo while the Marchesa’s eternal soul irreverently comments on the ironies of life.

Following the memoir of Trinàcria we meet other key figures from this period including: Garibaldi, the Neapolitan poet Leopardi and opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Di Renzo’s novella is an amazing work dominated by the vivid energy of Sicilian history and is a must read for anyone who wants to viscerally experience the spirit of Marchesa Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, a haunting literary experience.

Not contented in simply reviewing this wonderful book I pestered Anthony Di Renzo for an email interview, which I am happy to share with you, where he answered my questions about the background to this beautiful book, publishing and a little bit about the fascinating Sicilian American academic author who created it.

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Tell us about your book Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily.

In one sense, Trinàcria is a ghost story. Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, the Marchesa of Scalea, posthumously narrates the events of her life from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. The book is literally a tale from the crypt, a bit of Sicilian Gothic fit for November, the Month of the Dead. In another sense, Trinàcria is a meditation on Sicilian history and politics. Most English and American readers think the book is only about the past. Most Sicilian readers, however, claim it is also about the present. The novel has much to say about globalization and neoliberal economic reform.

How on earth did you come across the Marchesa of Scalea?

The Marchesa is based on Alessandra Spadafora (1778-1851), the Duchess of Santa Rosalia, who was the mistress and eventually the wife of Benjamin Ingham, the Anglo Sicilian wine merchant. I first read about her in Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Treveylan’s history of Sicily’s Marsala dynasties. A daguerreotype, taken when Donna Alessandra was a shrunken old gargoyle in bombazine, captivated me.

As I stared at the portrait, the old woman’s lips seemed to move. A hollow voice in my head whispered the opening to Giacomo Leopardi’s Chorus of the Dead: “Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve/ Ogni creata cosa . . .” O Death, alone immortal on earth, unto whom every created thing must come, our disembodied natures now come. The rest of the novel followed from there.

But there is a more sinister back story to your relationship with the Marchesa. Fill us in on what happened when your ignored her?

The Marchesa originally was a supporting character and an alternate narrator in a multigenerational novel called After the Fair is Over. She played Juno to the Aeneas of that book’s protagonist: her immigrant great-grandson, Attilio Tumeo, A powerful literary agent advised me to cut her story to make the manuscript more marketable. My wife, a student of Jungian psychology, warned against this. The Marchesa, she reminded me, represented the chthonic female energy of pagan Sicily. Did I really want to mess with that? I told her not to be so superstitious. I was the Sicilian, not she. Unless I played ball, I would never get a book contract.

Shortly after cutting the Marchesa, I was stricken with viral meningitis. For three months, my brain was on fire. I dreamt a jellyfish swam in my skull and stung me. When I described this to my mother, she exclaimed, “‘A medusa!” Medusa is the Sicilian word for jellyfish. Clearly, I had pissed off the Furies and vowed to make amends. After a long convalescence, marked by chronic migraines, I restored, revised, and expanded the Marchesa’s story until it became Trinàcria. This process took seven years. I hope the results please her as much as they please me.

But you still had problems finding a publisher for Trinàcria. Tell us about that.

Dozens of American editors rejected Trinàcria. Nobody, they declared, wanted to read about a Sicilian marchesa, especially a dead one, unless she had written a cookbook.  Granted, Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza.  Unlike that other culinary marchesa, she had never started a cooking school at Regaleali or served as a consultant for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.’s Italian Classics line.

Do you think perhaps one of the problems for publishers was the subject of death and the afterlife? Was it too confronting? Why did publishers have such a problem with her?

Actually, novels with posthumous narrators, such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, are quite popular in America. Vampire and zombie fiction also sells well. But the Marchesa, a more frightening harpy, is a foreigner from an alien time. She represents the unappeasable and irredeemable past, everything secular commercial democracies had to demonize and destroy to justify their existence. Nobody wanted to stare that gorgon in the face for fear of turning into stone. 

Have you ever visited the Catacombs at Palermo? What are they really like? Did the dead really speak to you?

My mother claims to have taken me to Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, but mercifully, I have no memory of this early childhood trauma. Sicilian friends and relatives, however, have described the experience in gloating detail. All cultures enjoy haunted houses as a carnival attraction, but the Capuchin crypt surpasses anything in Disney World. The dioramas are more astonishing, not to mention more political. Individually, the mummies represent the vanity of a specific social class or profession; collectively, they symbolize jaded humanity’s awakening at the Last Judgment.

But one needn’t take a dark ride or a ghost train at an amusement park to contact the dead. One simply needs to be tuned to their frequency. When I was a boy, I was like Haley Joel in The Sixth Sense: I saw dead people all the time. My nickname was Antonio degli Spiriti. Now these visitations rarely happen, which is for the best. Anglo-American culture tends to classify this phenomenon as schizophrenia. I just think of it as an alternative cell-phone plan.

Do the dead frighten you?

Not at all. All Souls Day, il Giorno dei Morti, is one of my favorite Catholic feasts. It’s the living who scare the shit out of me. If you’ve ever washed C-Span or the Republican Presidential Primary Debates on Fox News, you know exactly what I mean.

Quote from Trinacria1

Speaking of ghosts, Sicily has so much fascinating history. How did you settle on the Bourbon period? Tell us a little about this phase in Sicily’s history.

The Bourbon period marked the transition from feudal to modern Sicily. Death throes and birth pangs simultaneously convulsed the region. It was a period of repressive reaction and violent revolution. Its paradoxes and contradictions have attracted such diverse Sicilian writers as Frederico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia. As a Sicilian American, however, I am more fascinated by the political oppression and economic corruption that eventually caused the Sicilian Diaspora.

How did you manage to balance the history and fictional elements in Trinàcria?

The novel’s theme provided the balance. Trinàcria confronts the problems of representation and the perils and seductions of memory. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in John Ford’s elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is why the novel’s frame deals with a movie director’s attempt to shoot an epic about the Risorgimento in Palermo during the centennial of Garibaldi’s invasion. That director, of course, is based on Luchino Visconti.

Apart from the larger-than-life character of the Marchesa you also used some very significant historical characters. Tell us about your interpretations of Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Bellini, Benjamin Ingham and Joseph Whitaker. How much poetic license did you use?

Except for stage-managing encounters with fictional characters, I used little poetic license with the novel’s historical figures. Most of their dialogue is based on their own letters and journals or on contemporary newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Even the book’s most fantastic sequences—the sudden disappearance of the volcanic island of Ferdinandea, the grandiose speeches and surreal displays at the Great Exhibition—are historically accurate.    

What’s your own personal link to Sicily?

My maternal ancestors were petty Spanish aristocrats who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. My great grandfather, Antonino Coffaro, moved to Villabate in the mid-19th century and studied horticulture at the University of Palermo. He supplied Garibaldi with food and ammo before the siege of Palermo and sold citrus to Ingham & Whitaker.

Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favorite Sicilian memory or experience?

I have not visited Sicily since I was a small boy. It would be too painful. All my relatives are dead or dispersed. Worse, Villabate, once the center of the Conca d’Oro’s citrus industry, is now an industrial zone. But I have two vivid memories from those early years. The first is sitting in a tangerine orchard at dawn and luxuriating in the healing fragrance. At the time, I was quite sickly, and my mother practiced this Sicilian form of aromatherapy to restore health. The second is eavesdropping on relatives and neighbors who had participated as extras in Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard. Some of their anecdotes appear in Trinàcria.

Tell us about any other books you are working on.

I am still working on After the Fair is Over, the story of Donna Zita’s great-grandson in America and am currently correcting the galleys for Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe and America, a collection of lyric essays and prose poems about postmodernity and globalization co-written with Andrei Guruinau. State University of New York Press will publish next spring.

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You are also an academic. Tell us a little about your professional life.

I primarily teach business and technical writing at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. This is fitting for two reasons. First, I worked for several years as a publicist, copywriter, and medical writing before attending graduate school. Despite earning a masters and a doctorate respectively in British and American Literature, I still experience English as the language of public and private institutions and the marketplace. Sicilian remains my mother tongue, and my literary models tend to be Southern Italian and Latin American writers.

How difficult is it to publish literary fiction these days? Tell us about your experiences and strategies.

Commercial publishing rarely values literary fiction, particularly literary fiction that challenges readers and deviates from the conventions of Anglo-American realism. As Nat Sobel once told me, it would be almost impossible for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude today. Ethnic writers are forced to network. Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Feste: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, and Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief of Guernica Editions, believed in Trinàcria, but the book never would have been published without help from Debra Santangelo, founder and president of Sicilian Connections, and Roberto Ragone, a consultant and fundraiser, or without the sponsorship of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere

You contribute to and help sustain such online publications as The Times of Sicily and L’Italo Americano. Tell us about these projects and how important they are to you.

As Ignazio Buttitta observes in Lingua e dialettu, Southern Italians and their descendants are playing for their lives on a disintegrating mandolin. Every day, another string breaks in the middle of a song. For all its rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism, global capitalism systematically destroys local cultures and languages to facilitate universal consumption. If we don’t fight to preserve our heritage, nobody else will.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

When I’m not writing or teaching, I sing English and Italian comic opera in regional music companies. This probably explains my work’s Rossinian brio and sarcasm. Trinàcria treats history and politics as an opera buffa. Unfortunately, the joke is on us.

Rustic Sicily

Thanks so much to Anthony Di Renzo for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers thank you for writing it as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily’s history and character.

Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily is available on Amazon .

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How history shapes Sicily’s character

 (Book excerpt)

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

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

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

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

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

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

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

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

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

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

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

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Sicilian Patron Saints

 

Good Friday Procession San Fratello

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.

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

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.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

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.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

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.

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Coming back to Sicily: contrasting reflections

Coming back to Sicily

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.

Raccuja, Messina

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.

Manago' Ceramics Taormina

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:

la vedo a ogni ora nel ricordo

e a lei invio

le lacrime che verso

mi struggo di nostalgia

per la casa, i vicini e la virtu’

attraente delle ragazze

che partendo ha lasciato il cuore

in quella terra

con il corpo desidera tornare.

***

I see her [Sicily] in every moment of my memory

and send to her

the tears I cry

I yearn with melancholy

for the home, the neighbors and the attractive

virtues of the girls

who I left my heart to

in that land

where my body wishes to return.

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Visit Secret Sicily with Oriana

Secret Sicily

One of my favorite new blogs about this complex isle I live on is Secret Sicily written by a fab virtual friend of mine named Oriana. I love meeting new people through their blogs and I think good blogging is about bringing out your own personality, passions and interests.

It was great to have a talk to the gal behind this wonderful resource for anyone planning a trip or currently traveling the island.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself and your blog… Introduce yourself.

I’m originally from Palermo, but I’ve been living outside of Italy (in the UK and the Netherlands) for about seven years now. I’m a Digital Campaigner during the day, and a blogger at night, and I started writing Secret Sicily in 2015 to share what I know about the ‘real’ Sicily with the world.

How would you describe Sicily to someone who has never visited? Are the people welcoming to foreigners?

When you go to Sicily for the first time it just blows your mind. It’s a place full of history, natural wonders and amazing food. But it’s also a ‘marmite’ place; you can either love it or hate it (sometimes both). The great thing about it is that some parts of Sicily are still totally unspoilt by tourists. The downside of this is that some itineraries are pretty much hidden and finding information can be tricky, even for locals.

On your blog you mentioned how you ‘escaped from Sicily’ and how you ‘don’t miss Sicily’ and how you ‘think Sicily sucks on many levels.’ Can explain what you mean? It sounds like you are a little disillusioned, that’s all.

Have you ever spent hours in your car, stuck in a permanent traffic jam with people yelling at each other and honking like crazy because about ten cars triple-parked in front of a bakery shop – including a police car? Well, that sums it up.

Name five things I should see and do in Sicily?

1) Hike and swim at Zingaro Natural Reserve 2) Visit the Temple Valley (Agrigento) 3) Climb Mount Etna 4) Watch a Greek tragedy in the Greek theatre of Syracuse 5) Go to at least one of the hundreds ‘sagre’ and festivals across the island.

What should I taste in Sicily?

Anything edible that comes your way, as long as it’s local and not part of a tourist menu. An absolute must is Palermo’s street food. Keep an open mind and be adventurous – it’s totally worth it.

Street scene Messina

Tell us about how to spend perfect day in Sicily?

Start with a sweet breakfast at a local ‘bar’: iris con ricotta or brioche col gelato will do. Go spend a day hiking and swimming in a local natural reserve like Zingaro and bring an arancina or two with you for the perfect lunch. If you’re not into hiking, visit one of the amazing and not very well known beaches in Sicily, like Capo D’Orlando (3 hours from Palermo). Enjoy an ice-cream or a granita in the afternoon and get ready for aperitivo time (around 7pm). Watch the sunset somewhere nice, possibly by the beach. At night, go for a concert, a theatre performance or just a relaxing walk by the beach.

Do you ever suffer from homesickness for Sicily?

Of course I do. Despite all the bad things I say about Sicily, I do miss a lot of things. Going for aperitivo with my old friends, making arancine with mamma Franca, laughing at silly jokes that only Sicilian people can get. This is why I try and go back as much as possible.

What led you to the world of blogging?

I’ve always worked in the digital sector, in one capacity or another, and blogging has always been part of my daily job, as well as my nocturnal hobby. A few years back, I co-founded a blog called Clicktivist, where myself and a dear friend of mine talk about digital campaigning, and last year I started writing for Osocio, a website about non-profit advertising and marketing for social causes. Now the problem is keeping up with all my blogging duties!

How would you describe your blog, tell us more about it …

Secret Sicily is a blog for real travellers who want to see Sicily through the eyes of a local. It’s also a place for people who are generally interested in the Sicilian culture and enjoy a bit of irony here and there.

What kind of blogger are you, is it all about getting a zillion visitors/subscribers, selling your books or is it therapy?

My blog is my playground. It’s a way to have fun and get to know people who, like me, enjoy traveling, learning new things and telling stories. I love every single aspect of it, from searching stories and writing posts, to optimizing my website and improving my social media reach. Obviously, getting a zillion visitors is also part of the plan 😉

Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.

‘A fortune teller told me’, by Tiziano Terzani is one of my favourite books. It’s the story of an Italian journalist who, warned by a fortune-teller not to risk flying for a year, decided to travel around Asia by rail, road and sea. He consults fortune-tellers wherever he goes and learns to understand and respect other forms of beliefs. It’s a great read and it describes exactly what travelling is all about for me.

What would be your ultimate dream trip?

A cycling trip across South East Asia. Though I’m not sure my slipped disk would appreciate it.

What are the five things you would never leave home without …

Oyster card, phone, wallet, and home keys. These four things are usually scattered in a large bag also featuring: an e-book, the latest issue of Wired magazine, a sketchbook and a pen, glasses, packed lunch, gym gear and lots of tissues.

So what’s coming up on Secret Sicily that we can look forward to …

I’m currently working on my Etsy shop, where you can find crafty gifts for travel lovers, like my collection of handpainted travel journals. More designs and a new range of products will be available soon, so watch this space!

Have you discovered any other wonderful travel/expat blogs that we should be reading?

Some of my favourite blogs include Sicilian Godmother, An Englishman in Italy, Savoring Italy and Driving Like A Maniac. As an Italian living abroad I find it very interesting (and sometimes hilarious) to read about what foreign people think about living in Italy.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

Thanks ever so much to Oriana for taking the time to answer my questions and I look forward to discovering more about Sicily from such a dedicated local.

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Oriana Secret Sicily

Oriana is a digital campaigner and a blogger. She is the brain behind secretsicily.org – a travel blog about all things Sicilian. She loves travelling, enjoying good food and doing her bit to change the world.

 

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