“Welcome Back, Sicilian Style” by G. Crivello

An original travel essay written in CW 352:  Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010

“Welcome Back, Sicilian Style”

My dad heaved a great sigh as he reread the flyer for the summer study abroad program hosted by my college.  “She has to go.”  And with those words, I began my reconnection with Sicily, the land of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, back through thousand of pages of my family’s history.  Though my parents have been in the States for over thirty years now, their hearts remain on that island that floats just off the tip of the mainland’s boot.  Unfortunately, all that most people seem to know about that place is its affiliation with organized crime.  But it has far much more to offer than just that and thus why my father was adamant that I go.  For some reason, he seems to believe that since I refuse to sit and watch the Italian broadcast channel RAI with them constantly, that I do not appreciate my heritage and so any opportunity where I am immersed in it, he will jump at.  And since I had not returned to Sicily since the second grade, he knew, and deep down so did I, that this trip was long overdue.

My Front Yard Is A Castle!

Ortigia is the type of place to which not even a famed film director could do justice.  It must be experienced with every sense, every fiber of your being, until the spell is cast and you are transfixed.  Though it is attached to the bustling port city of Siracusa by a series of bridges, it is somehow able to remain separate from the madness of the city, as though crossing the bridges meant a crossing into a separate world.  Each morning, I awoke to the deep, raspy crooning of a fisherman that daily delivered his wares to the restaurant below us, his voice caressing each word of dialect that emerged from his throat.  His songs were old-timey ballads that paid homage to the simplicity of Sicilian life, songs that I faintly recognized from memories long forgotten.  I would quietly jump from my bed, so as to not wake up my cousin Sarina, who decided to study abroad with me, and throw open my balcony doors that looked out onto Piazza Federico di Svevia, allowing his voice to waft into my room.  Then there was the ocean: not rude enough to interrupt the fisherman’s song but it made its presence known through the constant sound of the flow and ebb of its waves, as they kissed the stones of the lungomare.  We were there early enough in the summer where the Scirocco, the pattern of intense heat and unpredictable weather that blows north from Africa, was not yet an issue.  Just a soft, humid breeze, like the breath of an infant as it sleeps against your chest. The air was permeated with the sweet, tangy scent of the citrus trees that dotted the island, which complemented the lingering but not unpleasant smell of the morning’s catch like a gourmet dish. The buildings’ stone façades were cracked in asymmetrical patterns that appeared almost intentional and the cobble-stoned streets rose and fell with the broken tiles, feeling strange beneath your flip flops.

Ortigia was pure, untouched, unaffected by the trials that plague city life. Everywhere you looked, there was something there to marvel at, some ancient structure that caught your eye each time you passed by.  For me, it was Castello Maniace, a thousand year old Arab palace now military headquarter that was situated in my front yard.  Its majestic presence was visible from anywhere on the island and served as a reminder to me of all the cultural influences of my heritage. Ortigia forces you to stop, to breathe, and to take notice.  I certainly was not used to its speed but I soon came to appreciate it more than I expected to.

One of Them

I had never felt so compelled to walk off on my own as I did in Ortigia.  After my Advanced Italian class each morning, the need to explore and meet people overwhelmed me and bidding my roommates farewell, I’d set out, following one winding street to another, eager to discover what awaited me at the other end.  Not once did I feel unsafe or intimidated by being in a place with which I was unfamiliar–if anything, the more I walked, the more I felt I integrated into the landscape, feeling my status as an American student studying abroad slowly melting away and revealing the native Sicilian underneath.  This was particularly true of my trips to the outdoor mercatino.  Just past Ortigia’s version of the Roman Forum, a tiny, sunk-in patch of Greek ruins left by some settlement or other, sat the daily market, where one could find anything from cheap cosmetics, to giant slabs of crimson swordfish, to unbelievably fresh grapes, fighi d’india, and oranges.  Weatherworn butchers wearing bloodstained aprons hacked away at blocks of meat, cigarettes precariously dangling from their chapped lips, while their sons stood idly by, ogling every young woman that passed in a flowy summer dress.  I approached the various stalls and chatted with the vendors, who all seemed astonished that this blond-haired, blue-eyed Northerner, as they believed me to be, could speak Italian so well.

I miei genitori sono nati a Palermo.” My parents were born in Palermo.

“Ah, sei Siciliana! Brava!”

I haggled and established the prices I was willing to pay and found that a sweet smile and a nice per favore was all it took for things to go my way.  I lugged my bags of groceries home proudly, as though their presence in my hands was the true mark of a resident.

Ortigia fit me like a great pair of shoes—I felt comfortable in this beautiful place and was constantly awed by some building or view of the ocean or hidden piazza.  I was certain I belonged there and thrilled when I was approached by wary tourists who wondered where the best hotels or restaurants on the island were located and could answer confidently.  I started noticing that the more time that passed, the more I blended in, a goal that I hadn’t even known I had set for myself.

Rituinà a Porticeddù

It had been over twelve years since I had returned to the tiny fishing town of Porticello where my father was born and where my nonna, aunts, uncles, and cousins still reside.  The trip would take three and a half hours by bus across the island so I arranged with my professor to meet up with the rest of our group in Palermo, which is a crazy, vibrant city that lies just twenty minutes away from our quiet little town.  Deciding to surprise our grandmother, Sarina decided to come with me and so we told our grandmother that I was to be bringing a “friend” with me.  Just a friend. What Sarina and I hadn’t realized at the time is that this would be our first time visiting Porticello together, a fact that came to mean very much to us by the end of our stay in Sicily.

The ride was pleasant although the departure time wasn’t: we needed to be on the bus by six AM.  But the images that met my eyes as we drove across one side of the island to the other made up for my lack of sleep.  Sicily truly has every landscape: driving out of Ortigia, we followed the main highway along the ocean, our eyes squinting as the rising sun glistened on its surface.  The ocean soon transformed seamlessly into lush green countryside, romantic stone cottages and fields of livestock flying past the bus’ windows as I pressed my forehead against the cool glass.  As we neared Palermo, my heart began picking up its pace and I sighed in silent joy when I saw the one road sign that points to Porticello.

“Sarina, are you as nervous as I am about going back?” I asked my cousin as I leaned over her seat with my arms crossed.

“Yeah, I am.  I don’t know why though.”

“Me either. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long.”

My Zio Stefano and Zia Rosa were to be picking “my friend” and I up at the train station in Palermo and we’d complete the final twenty minutes of our trip by car.  Greeting my relatives, who were ecstatic that both their nieces were at last together in Palermo, we drove on and as we did, my mind raced through stocks of memories of my last visit to this place, trying to recall that mountain, and this beach, and that corner café.  As though reading my mind, my uncle drove the long way, passing by u’ chianu, or the main square in dialect, where I used to buy candy at the outdoor vendors, or get an arancina that was fresh out of the fryer, and visit the jewelry maker’s stand, who was able to twist thin pieces of silver into tiny works of art in seconds.  The fishing boats were bobbing merrily at their docks and the sun was peeking just over the hills that encircled the town.  As we turned on my grandmother’s street, everything began to come back to me and I was surprised at how emotional I was as I ascended the marble stairs to my grandmother’s home.  My footsteps echoed and I paused briefly to say a small word of thanks at the small nook in the wall that held the portrait of La Madonna del Lume, Porticello’s patron saint.  Reaching my nonna’s door, I pushed it open and immediately felt eight years old again. The smell of her house was unmistakable: the faint, lingering smell of that morning’s espresso mixed with the pleasant scent wafting from the potpourri bowl she kept in her foyer.  Her hall was an art gallery of family photos, my own face smiling back at me every few frames.  She was in her usual spot in the kitchen, seated in front of the open balcony door for air, as she refused to ever turn on the air conditioner, despite the heat.  My aunt encouraged us to the kitchen and I called,

Nonna, siamo qui. Dov’e sei?

As soon as my cousin and I walked in to surprise her, we stifled a chuckle and held back tears as my grandmother’s mind worked furiously to distinguish whether the vision before her was true.  Leaping from her chair, she grabbed us both in quite a strong embrace for a little old lady and it was then that I knew I was home.  Her wrinkled hands held our faces softly, as though verifying our presence in her home and I told myself to never leave this place.  I understood immediately why my father was so passionate about the place where he grew up: no one is ever made to feel unwanted and family is the only truly important thing in one’s life.  That night, Sarina and I sat down to our first meal together in our grandmother’s kitchen, eating traditional Sicilian dishes like panelli, arancini, pesce spado, pollo impanato, caponata and for dessert, cassatini, that put all other Italian food to shame.  Perhaps I am a bit biased, but Sicily really does have the best food in all of Italy.  Throughout the night, cousins, friends of our fathers’, and second uncles twice removed all streamed into the tiny kitchen to see us, having heard of our arrival within seconds of our getting there. How this is able to happen remains a mystery to me.

Senti, quando aveva la tua eta, i tuoi padri erano pazzi. Non restavano mai a casa! Una volta…

I reveled in the stories these people told of our fathers as children, particularly enjoying the one of my father accidentally catching his fishing hook on the elbow of one unsuspecting teenager while on his first day working the boats, and of their last memories of us when we were babies, learning to crawl on my grandmother’s marble floor and playing obsessively with the toy router phone she kept on the shelf in the living room.  It still sits there, along with priceless antiques, yellowing photographs, and crystal bowls. It pained me deeply when the weekend ended and we were forced to leave so as to get back to Siracusa in time for class on Monday.  Hugging my grandmother, I promised her that I would return soon, a promise I hope to fulfill within the next few weeks.

As we drove away from Porticello toward the bustling streets of Palermo, my cousin and I held hands and smiled at each other, knowing how fortunate we are to have a family that cares so deeply for us and to have a place to call home thousands of miles away from where I thought I was from.

The month in Sicily drew to a saddening but inevitable close, and we decided to live up the final days with great food, traditional music, and of course, great wine.  In between packing our luggage, we wandered to the tiny beach in Ortigia, eating cartocci and reminiscing already about everything that we’d miss.  As we gazed out at the ocean, the setting sun tinting it the color of orange and raspberry sorbetto, I thought gratefully of my father’s words as he reread the flyer: She has to go.

—written by Gabriella Crivello


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