Siciliano e Calabrese
My father was born in Trapani during WWI. His father Marco, for whom I was named, was a fisherman and later became a ship’s captain. My father emigrated with his younger sister when he was 6 years old.
Trapani was heavily bombed in WWII due to its strategic position as a port city. The suburbs are not attractive but the old town was left untouched by the bombing. There are old palazzos and churches that are quite beautiful and appealing. It was during May that I visited the old town for the second time. I was impressed by all the restoration the Sicilians had done since my first visit to preserve this jewel. There are ferries to the Egadi Islands and to Tunisia. It is still a very active fishing port as well.
Thanks for reading Trolling With The Fisher King! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Drépanon is the Greek word for sickle due to the curved shape of the harbor. The Elymians founded the port to serve Erice. Then came the Carthaginians from north Africa followed by the Romans. Erice is a magical place almost medieval with narrow stone walkways void of cars. On a clear day one can see Cap Bon in Tunisia from its impressive height. Fog enveloped the entire town at night adding to its mysterious aura. We had some difficulty navigating the walk ways at night but managed to find the restaurant that we were looking for. In Erice Pasticceria Maria Grammatico is legendary. Vincent Cronin’s “The Golden Honeycomb” is a fine book about the search for the origins and myths concerning the golden honeycomb of Daedalus and the long lost temple to Eryx-Aphrodite, patron saint of fishermen, once located in Erice. In mythology Daedalus is connected with King Minos, the labyrinth and Minotaur, Aphrodite, Ariadne’s thread and Icarus. What became of the Golden Honeycomb remains a mystery.
Someone once said that “Sicily makes the rest of Italy look like a rest home.” I have to agree though I have never been north of Rome. There is a certain energy that one feels amongst the people and driving on the roads. I will be paraphrasing and quoting a bit from Luigi Barzini’s book “The Italians”. In addition I highly recommend Raleigh Trevelyan’s “The Companion Guide To Sicily”, probably the best one available. When one encounters the Baroque in Sicily it is more elaborate and embellished more so than in any other part of Italy. “Sicily is the schoolroom model of Italy for beginners, with every Italian quality and defect magnified, exasperated and brightly colored. Sicilians have a genius for giving order to chaos. The intelligence of the Sicilians is so exorbitant that some of it had to be exported. Their capacity to grasp situations with lightening speed, invent a way out of intricate tangles, gauge exactly the relative power of contending parties, wave wonderfully complex intrigues, coldly control their smallest acts, emotions and words, but, when it is safe, abandon themselves to generous enthusiasms, their capacity to do all of these things is such that they often bewilder continental Italians as easily as continental Italians surprise foreigners from the north of Europe.” Sicilians are not fond of written laws and appear to avoid them all completely. “They are the supreme masters of this skill, recognized by all Italians as the unbeatable champions.”
My guidance counsellor at the Catholic high school I attended told me that I had a problem with authority. At the same school a Christian Brother once slapped me across the face for going on a year book meeting with the publisher in CT. I had defied his demand to meet with him that same day. My hair length was the issue. When it came time to enroll in honors English, which this brother (in name only) taught, I requested a transfer to enroll in generic English. When he came into our class to teach the course I exited and went next door. I am pretty sure this is why I was not asked to deliver the valedictory speech even though I graduated first in a class of 426. I was never good at speaking in front of large audiences anyway.
The Mezzogiorno makes up much of my DNA. My mother’s father and mother were born in Calabria. Both were from the interior, my grandmother from Acri and grandfather from the Bassento District of Corigliano Calabro. When a child my parents would leave me with my grandmother while they were at work. This was in the summers when school was out. Although my father’s family were only 20 miles away in New London CT, I spent most of my youth with my aunts and uncles and cousins from my mothers side of the family. The only times we went to New London were at Christmas and the 4th of July. I was thus steeped in Calabrian customs, ways and superstitions. We have only spent a short time in Calabria. I regret very much not devoting an entire trip to seeing the interior and the Ionian coast. I hesitated and …
Fortunately and gratefully, we have made several trips to Sicily. So my Sicilian DNA was fertilized and enhanced, if you will, by these very enjoyable trips. On our first trip, we flew into what was called Punta Raisi at the time now renamed in honor of the slain anti Mafia prosecutors Falcone & Borsellino. I later read that this airport is very tricky due to the air currents but it was all good. Yes, we went to Taormina on our first trip. We took the adventurous way against advice of a local old man who warned us of the roads. He was right. The road disappeared in some places where it had been washed out. The hairpin turns left my arms aching. We exited the autostrada and drove through Nova di Sicilia and Francavilla di Sicilia. At one point we parked the car and looked at a distant Mount Etna from a vantage point in the forest. There was complete silence. It was worth it.
At the time the exchange rate was ridiculously high in the dollar’s favor. The hotel Monte Tauro we stayed at was $44 a night for a suite. The hotel’s concierge blamed the exchange rate on “Reagan, your president.” I replied back to him that he was not my president. He was gracious in directing us to places that we were looking for in the town and answering any questions that the young Americans had. We went to Siracusa and walked around Ortygia, Aci Trezza and Mount Etna on day trips. It pains me no small bit to write of the wonderful buffet rustica, the swordfish, pasta with vongole, the pastries and cannoli, espresso and cappuccino, cassata Siciliana and the seemingly infinite flavors of gelato. I would have been more than satisfied to have the buffet rustica, some bread and wine almost every night. The crusty bread. I now know why my grandmother used tell us to kiss a piece of bread when it fell to the floor. One difference that I noticed is that the Calabrese are more likely to use hot chili peppers than the Sicilians. Those tiny dried red chilies called diavolo. Hot soppressata is another Calabrian delicacy that my grandmother, uncles and cousins used to make. In 1985 we knew very little about wine, especially Sicilian wine. Corvo was about the only one I remember seeing this country. While there we drank wines from Etna in long thin bottles similar to German Rhine wine bottles. We had rosés, whites. All very inexpensive and quite quaffable. I think the bottled water was more costly. This was well before the wines became very well known in wine circles and outside them. There was a considerable expansion of vineyards in that jewel laden volcanic soil. You never forget your first time in Sicily. I began to read anything to do about Sicily including a few books on the Mafia. One can not mention Sicily without mentioning the Mafia. We were having lunch al fresco at a trattoria one afternoon in Taormina. A tacky American tourist yelled out to the owner, “So where is the Mafia?” The owner quipped back “We are all Mafia!” What can one say about it? It is a part of life there and they have done horrendous things to innocent people. It has been ingrained in the culture there for many years. There is an ambiguity in its origins and subsequent functions. The word mafioso itself means anybody bearing himself with visible pride. A particularly striking stallion horse is mafioso. The Calabrian and Neapolitan Mafia are no angels either. The Calabrian Mafia kidnap offspring of wealthy Northern industrialists and deposit them in the Aspromonte Mountains after the ransom is paid. Some of the younger generation are refusing to pay the pizzo for protection. The Mafia like things to stay the way they are. They do not look kindly on publicity and people who talk too much. Luigi Barzini mentions Lucky Luciano visiting Sicily post WWII. Luciano came on like he was a man worthy of respect in Sicily. He got taken for a lot of money by investing in a non existent candy factory.
On one trip we drove up to Etna and the road had been blocked by lava from a recent eruption. Driving along we met an American couple who were cooking outdoors with their Sicilian relatives. The man said to me at one point: “The Sicilians are bandits.” I told him that we had not knowingly been victims. The only instance of banditry was on my last trip when it came to picking up my rental car at Catania. When I booked my flight and car rental, insurance was included. When I picked up the car in Catania, the woman at the car rental insisted on my paying for insurance. I grumbled but had no choice. Upon return I was partially refunded the amount.
From a base in Acireale, one day I drove the circonvallazione de Etna counter clockwise. On the way up near Linguaglossa I got out of the car for a drink and snack. I hear a sound that sounded like a rushing stream. I looked up and realized that it was the wind (Aeolus?) playing the chimes of the great pine trees that towered above me. I stopped for coffee at a small ski lodge. I was the only one there. A black bearded man greeted me from the back room behind the counter. He reminded me of a gentle giant. He told me that a brother of his had left for the USA and he had never heard from him again. I told him that I had relatives 180 miles away that I probably will never hear from again. Etna is enormous at 360 square miles It took me all day to make the circuit.
My personality reflects both my introverted Sicilian and extraverted Calabrese traits. We are all both partly introverts and extraverts. No one is a pure introvert or extravert. I can feel the opposing poles operating within. I have always had a dislike of regimentation and routine. It interrupts life. I respect authenticity and character. The underdog and downtrodden are the ones I root for. I believe that the cavalcade of conquerers that ruled Sicily for many centuries might have something to do with these traits. Spending most of one’s early life with Italian Americans of Calabrian descent makes it difficult to sort out influences from nature and nurture. Then again visiting Sicily more often than Calabria greatly affected me and my DNA tendencies and preferences. Through good fortune and opportunity I was able to see and be amongst Sicilians in their homeland. On my last trip I stayed at a B&B on the gulf of Siracusa. The place was an old olive oil factory that had been restored by a mother and her daughter. The daughter had majored in Italian literature. It was located in a beautiful situation on the water where one could see the lights of Ortygia speaking to me in an ancient tongue before the Greeks were there. On one holiday there was a cookout and the daughter invited all of her friends over. I went into Ortygia to buy pastries. The food and wine flowed. Although my Italian was rudimentary I got by. They were in their element. It was a special experience. I made day trips to Noto, Ragusa and Vendicari, Portopalo and Marzamemi from there. It is times like this that made me fall in love with Sicily and its people. I never had that kind of experience in Calabria and probably never will. My Sicilian DNA rejoiced and my heart and soul were deeply affected. To use a phrase from the great writer Lawrence Durrell, I had experienced Sicily’s “spirit of place”.
Thanks for reading Trolling With The Fisher King! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.