Thursday, July 9, 2009

Italy Part Three: Sicily

As I sit in the airport, waiting for my flight that will bring me back to Sicily, I notice the people around me, waiting…impatiently…and I realize I’m among Sicilians. First, there are the group of incredibly obnoxious boys and men who complain loudly to each other and to anyone that would hear them, that the delay is entirely too long. They’re wearing the trademark Mafia sunglasses - but I highly doubt the Mafia would have anything to do with these loud and incredibly annoying bunch of boys. They go on and on for more than the one hour delay to Catania. Then, I notice the young boy who is accompanying his grandmother home. He makes sure she has a comfortable seat while he stands in the long line, occasionally going back to her to see if she is OK, if she needs anything. And the others, too. Even the strangers seem to be taking care of this elderly woman who is too old to stand and wait. Someone goes to get her espresso from the machine (yes, there are espresso machines instead of Soda machines in the airport). Another woman, a stranger, volunteers to walk her to the bathroom before we board the plane. Yup, I begin to realize that I’m about to visit a place that isn’t so strange after all, but feels oddly familiar.

I spend 11 days in Sicily, total. Almost all of it with my family: my cousin Giuliana and her partner (il fidanzato) Alfonso, my Zia Maria and Zio Angelo, and my little cousins Giuseppe (Peppe) and Roberta, and some days my cousin Gabriella and her husband Nunzio.

Most of my days here are spent eating, relaxing, tagging along with my cousin to work, exploring the nearby towns and cities, and eating some more. I should say something about the eating habits of the Italians in general, and the Sicilians specifically. The most obvious difference is the time difference of when people eat. In the North, lunch is around noon, dinner about 8:00pm. That was about the same in Tuscany; dinner around 8 or 9:00pm.

In Sicily, lunch (pranzo) begins at 1:00 and continues through 3 or 4:00pm. During this time, all stores close, workers go home, and meals are prepared. Prepared. That means that meals are cooked on hand. And I don’t mean sandwiches or a light lunch of salad. Pranzo consists of a Prima Piatta (first course) which is something simple…sliced cheese and olives, then the main meal which can be pasta in one form or another. Or a vegetable dish. You finish your lunch with a cup of espresso, rest, run errands, then return to work. They work until 9:00pm, and then come home for dinner. Dinner (cena) is typically eaten at 10:00 or 11:00pm. The course is similar to lunch in that there are 2 or more courses, and pasta is one of the courses. Meat is eaten more at night than during the day, accompanied by wine or beer. We chat, play cards, then go to bed…around 1:00am.

Food - the love of food, the appreciation of food, the careful preparation of food, and the cultivation of food – is obvious in Sicily. You see evidence of this in every town. From the large daily markets spotlighting the regional specialties, to the small fishermen bringing in their catch to feed the local community, to the numerous corner stands and vegetable trucks selling cantaloupe and watermelons from the area, and to the hundreds and hundreds of square miles of olive trees dotting the landscape. As I walk down most streets I notice a sweet, slightly familiar smell – the smell of Fig trees. They grow like weeds here. And they’re incredibly huge. You see them growing out of old brick walls, in abandoned yards, in the corner of a busy intersection – they’re everywhere, and they give off this sweet perfume that is uniquely Mediterranean.

I spent some time at the 3 major cities – Catania, Siracusa, and Palermo - the 3 points that make Sicily the island shaped like a triangle. Of these cities, I spent the most time in Catania, 3 days, and fell in love with the architecture of the place, the old buildings housing immigrants from Africa, Asia, India, the countless museums and churches, and the markets. Catania is situated under the shadow Mt. Etna nearby and you can see evidence of the mountain by its black rock beaches nearby. The beaches are beautiful and the water is clear. During the day, I’d eat granita with briosche (a type of french sweet bread), Orancini (deep fried or baked rice balls stuffed with ragu, spinach, cheese), drink coffee and wander the streets.

Siracusa is an amazing old city, with streets so narrow you could almost touch the walls with your outstretched hands. The history of this place is incredible and the water is spectacular.

I spent the least time in Palermo, but it was the one place I wanted to visit the most. I was there only a few short hours, but I characterized the city as nothing short of chaotic and incredibly loud, to say the least. Palermo is a city of immigrants; situated on the port closest to Africa, there are many immigrants from that region, as well as a healthy population of Muslim and Indian immigrants. Although there are hundreds of churches and other historical sights, it seems like Palermo hasn’t had the time or the money to preserve these spaces. They’re scattered among the traffic, the busy streets, and modern buildings popping up everywhere. I’m told this is the best city of all of Sicily, I wish I could have seen it that way.

The heart of Sicily is where I spent most of my time - the center of the island where there are rolling hills, olive trees dotting the landscape, towns atop mountains surrounded by walls or old palaces. My parents are from Nissoria, in the province of Enna, population 2,000. Enna, the highest town atop a mountain in all of Italy, stands close by. Leonforte (the Strong Lion) is the town where my cousins currently live, only 10 km from Nissoria. It is beautiful and quaint and quiet.

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