Sunday, July 03, 2016

What I love (and hate) about Sicily

We live in a world where every word can be a polarizing one. In the past week, I have felt the sting of words, and some of my readers have as well. While some see it as a line drawn in the sand, with a duel to the end, I see it as the beginning of a longer conversation. So, I will begin with a volley.

Reflection - La Vucciria market, Palermo, Sicily, 1971

As an adult, I have been coming to Italy for the past 45 years. I have seen parts of Sicily many Sicilians (and most Italians) have not. I have been to many of her satellite islands, multiple times. I know Pantelleria and Salina, well. I know Palermo, and will love it, and Sicily, till death do us part.

That might have been sooner, had I been less fortunate than I was almost a month ago. I don’t wish to go into too much detail, but suffice to say as we were making our way back to the Catania airport, after a glorious week of visiting eastern Sicily, our car was hit, T-boned, we call it in the States, at a fairly rapid speed. Neither I nor the driver remembers much of it, as we were rendered unconscious. I get flashes of it when I am going to sleep and imagine a rather horrendous memory is lurking deep within my unconscious, most likely protecting me from the film loop that I might be tempted to play over and over. As if playing it over and over in my head would somehow undo the incident. But it won’t. There were broken things, ribs and skulls. And torn things, muscles and ligaments. And blunt injuries to heads and lungs and legs and hips. But we didn’t die. So we move forward, albeit in the present with a temporary limp and forever cautious. Enough of that. 

On the issue of trash. Italy isn’t alone. Greece and many countries suffer from unconscious members of the human race throwing any number of refuse onto their land and into their seas. Yesterday, driving in Dallas, a saw a young woman kick a piece of trash out of her way as she walked along a sidewalk. Earlier in the day, at the Dallas Farmer’s Market, inside the air conditioned shed, as a patron was throwing away her trash, a napkin was lifted by the wind from an opening door and flew across the room. Right in front of an employee of the farmer’s market, who disregarded it and kept moving without picking it up. Yes, even America the Great has these problems. I don’t want my European friends thinking I’m hoisting a “Red, White & Blue” sentiment that says “we are so much better than our neighbors across the sea.” We too, have our problems, in spades. But that doesn’t diminish the severity of the issues, on Etna, in Palermo or anyplace where there are sentient beings that love Mother Earth and want to see her in all her majestic beauty. So, apologies to anyone who felt singled out. We’re all guilty. And we’re all responsible for making our planet a better place.

So, what do I love about Sicily? I love that it is still a place where one can go to get an active sense for the ancient. Where one can feel, live, the Odyssey, and relate that voyage to one’s own life if they so wish. We now have the possibility to extract exactly who we are, in DNA terms. I know I am made up of all those places in the voyages of the Odyssey, in Marco Polo’s travels, in many of the pathways that humankind has made in their ascent in the last 30,000 or so years. I am, as we all are, citizens of Earth, not just France or Great Britain, or Italy or the United States. The world. And Sicily is a microcosm of our world. It’s all there. Past, present and future.

Pasta alla Norma - Linguaglossa, Sicily 2014
I love the food. And while all of Italy sets a high bar, there is something about Sicily that rings my bell. I love the seafood and the preparation. I’m not a pasta man, but in Sicily, you bet I am. I adore vegetables, and Sicily loves to grow them. And I love unusual and offbeat grape varieties. Sicily is both a repository and an incubator for many grapes which have survived their long journey through time and which are now being sought after. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” was a rally cry in California during the 1849 gold rush. But it could easily apply to the many forgotten vines lying in wait in the hills around Etna and beyond. History, waiting to be revealed. The future, rushing to unfold. Sicily is one of those centers on earth where the fecundity, and the promise of more, is not just possible, but is unveiled daily.

I love the old towns and villages, sitting on top of the craggy hills. Places where electricity and running water, while welcome, is almost secondary to the life of the place that has long established a routine, a rhythm. These aren’t places that show up in the guide books, but they abound. And the people in them are treasures. They hold onto oral traditions while their language, their cadence, their dialects are being erased by the age of the internet. And yet they have a reserve of patience with the modern world, and kindness, that the Instagram-driven members of the tribe could learn from. If only.

I love the water. That is why, when the beach of a seaside town like Scoglitti looks like a landfill, I am perplexed and saddened. This happened to me recently, while staying there. Winemaker friends asked us, “Scoglitti? Why are you staying there?” They knew. They knew. Our only response “We didn’t know. it has the beach, it was close to our winery appointments. And there’s Il Sakalleo.” When they hear the words “Sakalleo” they give a nod, as if to say “Say no more.” Respect for a great dining experience. But the rest of the place, it merited no more than a “meh.”

Sunset over (pristine) Porto Palo di Menfi, Sicily, 2014
Not to belabor this, but to offer my perspective. A month before, when my mom died, we trekked out to Southern California for her funeral. One morning we went to breakfast somewhere between Newport and Laguna Beach, on the coast. My son remarked that it looked a lot like Italy. It did. If only the folks in places like Scoglitti could see that they have a Paradise in front of them, not a landfill. I know this sounds judgmental. But it’s also a great lost opportunity to preserve something that for millions of years was pristine. Until the humans moved in. I didn’t say Sicilians. I didn't say Italians. Nor Europeans. I said humans. And it’s a damn shame.

What saddens me is that the social climate in Italy, and maybe in Europe in these times, is resigned. Oh yes, everyone is going to take their two or three or four weeks in August, and for a brief moment they can escape all that is swirling around them (and all of us). But September will come and there can always be another airport targeted by terrorists, another referendum to deliberate, another election to endure. The world doesn’t want resignation from us. It wants resilience. The stuff that keeps the old folks in the hilltop towns going for 80-90-100+ years. We need to re-light that fire inside of us and get that flame back up so we will not just simmer, but cook the great meal which is our life.

I’ll keep coming back to Sicily. I’ll keep observing, with camera and with a beating heart. And I won’t stop from saying when I think something is great. Nor will I shirk away from observing when I think something needs to be looked at squarely and objectively. I’m not a revolutionary, I’m no Salvatore Giuliano. But I am still alive (thank God) and I love this island we call Sicily. I am of Sicily. For the last 600 or 30,000 years. There’s a bit of Sicily in every one of us. How much greater can we help it become?

Reflection - Via Roma, Palermo, Sicily 2103

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