Peter: 1 Febraio, 2004
familiar sight to us as we look to the west from our mountain top village,
is a narrow flat-topped spire of rock that rises high up to a crest topped
by what we thought was a castle. So one day we decided to check it out.
The road there wound up over small mountains, then switch-backed down
steeply into valleys, only to snake its way up another mountain. As we
drew close, we suddenly had a glimpse of a tight cluster of tiny block
buildings far above us, hugging the steep upper slopes on three sides
of this narrowing peak. From here, we could see the western side was a
sheer cliff 300-400 feet high. Above thebuildings, a small forest of pines
continued up higher and then, at the top, were the walls of a castle.
From below, it looks impossible! The houses should surely tumble down.
2 Febraio 2004
On the eve of my mother's birthday, I will celebrate her life by updating this site with more of our understanding of the people and the mysteries that are Montedoro and Sicilia. We have been going places almost every other day( on the off day we rest) - branching out from Montedoro in every direction - becoming familiar with the roads, and the uniqueness of each paese (town). So far we have explored, Mussomelli, Serridifalco, Sciaccia, Agrigento, Caltanisetta, Catania, Aci Castello, Nicolosi, Piano degli Albanase, Palermo, Raculmuto, Bompensiare and Sutera. Each of these places hold a special charm and always an unexpected find. For example in Racumulto there is a tiny old elegant theater where they hold a yearly opera season with guest performers from throughout Italy. We made reservations to see two operas this month. In Mussomelli there is a castle perched on a mountain and in Sciaccia there is the sea and ceramiche (pottery stores) everywhere. In Caltanisetta, Rochester's sister city, there is a main street called Via Rochester,and winding back streets with cafes and clubs. In Catania, the magnificent architecture, the bustling fish market and the grand old walking street of shops. In Agrigento, besides the Greek ruins we discovered a convent that sells traditional dolci and a small anthropological museum where you get a personal tour by a typical overly controlling, very nurturing woman named Salvatrice. And in Sutera we found many unexpected delights. Our first visit to Sutera was a couple of weeks ago and Peter has written about that experience. Our second visit was on Saturday evening when we participated in one of the most interesting and unexpected experiences we have had yet. On Thursday evening, we got a call from one of our relatives, Maria, asking us if we wanted to go to Sutera in the pomeriggio on Sabato (Saturday). After straining to understand what she was saying (it is always more difficult to communicate over the phone in another language, and in this case we were walking the streets of Sciacca at the time so we were really having trouble). I told her we had plans in the mattina (morning) to visit a forest near San di Stefano, and I wasn't sure since we like the freedom of winding our way back late in the evening after exploring. She said something about how we would have plenty of time to go with her to Sutera and then went on to say something about bambini (children). So I deducted that she was inviting us to a field trip in Sutera, since we had talked about us visiting her school again some time. Maria is a school teacher in Bompensiare and we visited one day (see photo page). Anyway, we said we would talk with her the next day, Friday, to work it out. We didn't make contact on Friday, so before heading off to the forest, we stopped at her school on Saturday morning to ask her about what she was inviting us to. (Yes, they do go to school here on Saturday - the teachers get one other day of the week off - Maria's day is Wednesday.) Well it was still not clear to us, but not wanting to pass up an opportunity we said yes we would go with her. There was some reluctance on our part since we didn't know what we were going there for (she did make it clear it wasn't a field trip and that the students wouldn't be going with us), but other than that the rest was a mystery. We kept asking if we were going to walk up to the church - a very steep climb that we had already done on our first visit. She responded as if we had said that the sky is green - which is how people respond to each other when someone says something stupid. "NO, NO, CHIESA (church)." Well, we hadn't seen much of Sutera, but the church there seemed to be the real highlight so we couldn't figure out what it was. Well, blind faith and a willingness to be led around sometimes unfolds into the most interesting experiences.
We promptly arrived at our meeting place in Bompensiare at 4:30 - Maria was waiting there for us. She instructed us to leave our car and follow her. We went to a home around the corner where her colleague, Salvina's, mother lives. Salvina is a fellow teacher whom we met when we visited Maria's school. Her real name is Salvatrice and she is like my mother on speed. She didn't know what to show us first - she is engaging and personable with an energy that could be exhausting. She talks very fast and flits from one topic to another. The part that reminds me of my mother is that she talks to everyone - and can hold people spell bound as we discovered as the evening progressed into our adventure where she had many opportunities to entertain.
After a half hour of shoving cookies wrapped in napkins on our coat pockets and taking pictures on her mother's balcony, we were off to Sutera. Towns here are not that far apart, but because of the winding roads they take longer to get to. Sutera is on the top of a mountain, so there are a lot of hairpin turns. What timing - when we arrived in the piazza overlooking the valley, the sun was just going down. And what a sunset it was - the best we have seen since getting here. We thought that was what we went there for, and I was content - the trip was already worth it (see photo page). Maria made us stop taking pictures and rushed us along up the hill. She does this often in a kind of sweet demanding and questioning way. It sound like this "Caterina, vene ca!?" and then gives me a disapproving look. So we follow and start to wonder what is going on since there are a good number of cars and we hear some music in the distance. It is starting to seem like an event - I ask if there is a wedding. They don't respond. So we follow some more and this is where the bambini come in. We approach a group of school children standing in front of the mountain that is the town, getting ready to sing. They were all dressed in matching orange shirts and were about middle school age. A crowd gathers and they begin with the Italian national anthem with members of the gathered crowd singing along with them. Salvina's voice seemed to be the loudest and had the most enthusiasm. It ends with a big, loud "SI!" For me watching these angelic, faces was a journey of memory to my days in 7th and 8th grade when we would go to Sibley's department store during the Christmas holiday to sing. As I looked at this group of Sicilian children I realized that was who we were in our school. We looked like these children - something that we don't see anymore in the U.S. or at least in Rochester- a school filled with Sicilian children. I was flooded with feelings, memories as I searched their faces for who they were to maybe get some insight into who I was. They looked cared for and loved. They each had their little quirks and differences - some very short others tall, some gangly and others already stunningly beautiful. They looked innocent. They sang more songs, with as much enthusiasm as the first. We called out bravo and clapped with a muffle through our gloves. It ended after about a half an hour and then the crowd started to meander up the street which ascended the hill. A group of musicians appeared - an accordion, a guitar, a clarinet and a man singing. It was so very traditional sounding and they were dressed in the traditional clothing. It felt like we were walking into the past - with only a video being projected on the rock wall above reminding us what century we were in. Along the way there were cave openings in the rock, and inside the caves were panoramas - one with a history of Sutera, replicas of cave home etc. I had read that in the early days, many people lived in the hills, where alcoves were carved out of the mountain. We began to see that there were a series of these ahead on the street, each with a door or archway open and inviting. Now what were attending became clear. Over the month of January, when we went to a town there was some kind of display either in a small form like in the museums- replicas of the early days with small houses each with some craft being done by the small Sicilian clothed figures inside. Every panorama always had the Manger Scene (crieche) prominently in the foreground, in the center, or on the top of a hill. We discovered a life-size version of this in a park in Serradifalco one day. It was meticulous with its attention to detail. Well, here we were in the real thing - a real life panorama of the way people lived a long time ago here - complete with people in traditional clothing and doing the work in the way that people did it in the time of my grandparents.
Each stop along the way to visit one of these alcoves started with a sign written in the old Sicilian dialect - very difficult to understand - so Maria said what it was and we entered to learn how they made tiles, cloth, clothing, iron works, baskets, bread, pasta, olive oil, cheese, pizza, wine.... general stores and shoe repairs, tailors and shepherds.....it went on and on. People took time to explain life in these cave dwellings complete with making the fires, washing the clothes, repairing plates and cutting hair (see photo page for some examples). At one point we met a man and his son along the way who was from Caltanisetta and very interested in knowing us because the son had gone to Rochester, the sister city, during one of the sister city celebrations. His father is a professor of geology and has done extensive study of the sulfur mines. We plan to meet again in Caltanisetta to learn more. So as we were talking when some people came to push us along to one of the highlights - a small performance by the man playing bagpipes at the manger with Mary and Joseph. I had read about the bagpipers of Sicily. They are shepherds who have over the years developed a bag pipe out of a sheep skin and come down from the mountains only at Christmas time to perform in the towns and villages. We never thought we would really be able to see one. What beautiful music accompanied by an oboe/recorder combination instrument. We were blown away by the sound. After Peter asked about the construction of the bagpipe we were given a demonstration and then the two men burst into acapella rendition of an old Sicilian song. Wow! By now we were becoming known by the group walking the route - being the only Americans. So we were often being guided to see things - pushed to the front of the group etc. Stopping at each alcove with Salvina was very interesting as she initiated a conversation that usually started with who she was where she was from and were they related some how. Then it went into her saying something funny and telling stories that went on and on and had people of all ages laughing. She was fun to watch, but we wound up sometimes at the end of the group because of it. Eventually we lost track of each other and we were at the end of the route in the village piazza - looking madly around for Maria and Salvina as people were bringing trays filled with homemade sausage, cheese, bread with olive oil. Finally we decided to relax eat and ask more questions about what this was. We talked with a women from the town and then eventually met the mayor - as it turned out this is something that is done in this town each year during the Christmas week, but because there was some meeting of mayors going on someplace they decided to do one extra night - and we got to be there! So as we were talking some women from the town comes and grabs us and leads us up these stairs to a room filled with people and food. On the tables were froccias of all kinds, pizza, chick peas, caldones, cheese, some vegetable balls in red sauce, sausage, cannolis, wine, water, cookies.... and all homemade. People were grabbing at food and putting us always ahead making sure we got enough to eat. We were stuffed. Finally we met up with Maria and Salvina and headed for home, tired, cold, very full and mostly very happy. This is life in Sicily - the unexpected happens - and it is wonderful.
Con amore, Caterina
Kathy: 11 Febraio, 2004
on some of the feedback I have had from family members, I suggested in
an e-mail to those who have written that they share what it means to be
Italian (specifically Sicilian). I have received some responses and have
put them up on the homepage. I will keep adding to these as they come
in. I would love to get as many responses as possible so that through
our collective perspectives and memories we can have a fuller sense of
our identity. At a recent outing with some new friends here we shared
this initiative with them and they were very interested in contributing.
We may have quite a mixture of thought with those of us who are descendents
of emigrants and those who are the descendents of people who remained.
It should be interesting.
the most culturally stimulating days of our week were spent at two major
events of the year on the island - The Feast of St. Agatha in Catania
on February 3-5 and the Almond Blossom Festival in Agrigento on January
30 - February 9th. These are two very different festivals in that one
is religious and one isn't. One is very old and one is relatively new.
As I share the experiences at both more differences will emerge. I have
needed a few days to think about how I was affected by each before writing
Feast of St. Agatha is a 3 day event starting on February 3rd with a parade
of eleven candelore, 15 foot tall wooden towers, carried on the
backs of men, a marathon race and the biggest firework display I had ever
seen. We arrived early in Catania on the 3rd mainly so Peter could meet
with some botany professors at the Botanical Garden. He is working on
a botany project for the town of Montedoro (Peter will write more about
this). During his meeting I went out on Via Etnea where all the action
was happening as the parade to start the festival began. I had read the
history of this festival in some of my books so I knew to some extent
what to expect. However, seeing this event unfold in person was a whole
different thing. This festival as it grew over the 3 days represented
the true meaning of the word "intensity" when used to describe
Sicilians. Nothing about this celebration is done part way - it has been
thousands of years in the making and has built to a fervor that is like
nothing I have ever witnessed. The Catholic version of the story has it
that Sant' Agata (Saint Agatha) died in 252 at the age of fifteen - mutilated,
lacerated and burned - because she would not marry the pagan proconsul,
Quintian, who ruled the then Roman colony. This was in the days of the
Roman Empire when Christianity was still very young and the Romans were
persecuting Christians. It was also a time when a cultural transformation
was taking place and pagan rituals and practices were being renamed and
relabeled so that Christianity could get a foothold deep within the community.
Agatha, the story goes, who lived near Catania had pledged her life to
the church - taking a vow of chastity. Her steadfast pledge in the face
of torture made her a martyr and honored by the people of Catania. As
the years progressed all kinds of miracles and interceptions were attributed
to Agatha. Catania sits at the base of Mt. Etna, one of the most active
volcanoes in the world. Many of these miracles center around her power
to protect people in the city from the dangers of Etna. After the parade
Peter met me for pranza (lunch) and then we took in the marathon
race, which was won by the winner of the New York City marathon. We think
he was from Kenya. The runners came from either Europe or Africa. The
top winners were all from Africa. It was fun to watch it in such a small
city, with the runners close enough to touch. There was also a women's
marathon run at the same time (running the same course with less laps).
There were no African women participating - all the women were either
from Italy or parts of Europe. We think the winner was an Italian woman.
As we walked down via Etnea on the way to the fireworks display we could see them preparing for the big event that was going to take place on this route starting first thing in the morning. Trucks were spraying the street with water, followed by teams of men spreading fine sawdust on the street's square volcanic stones. Having read a description of the event in Theresa Maggio's The Stone Boudoir (see book review section) I knew that this was an attempt to create some safety in what is designed to be a very dangerous ceremony. I knew that for the next two days hundreds of men would be carrying gigantic lit candles the size of tree branches through the streets with wax spilling out over the street creating a very slippery path for the then five thousand men (and a few women) who were to follow pulling two long ropes attached to the fercolo carrying the bejeweled effigy of St. Agata and her relics. For thousands of years these men dressed identically in white Byzantine penitence tunics (the saio), black velvet Renaissance hats (the scuzetta) and white gloves have tested their strength, endurance and daring in honor of this saint, and whoever was her predecessor. Since many of the rituals that we see today are vestiges of earlier pre-Christian practices, I couldn't help but wonder what was the foundation for this adoration? What ancient idol, gods pre-dated Agata for the citizens of Catania always living under the threat of a volcano? How did this kind of male centered, patterned ritual get it's start - was it just the story of Agata, or is she a reincarnate Isis? In the center of the PiazzaDuomo is a sculpture that includes an obelisk depicting the life of Isis, the pagan goddess of the sun? The Cathedral that is Agata's home is in this same Piazza. It could be that our reading the DaVinci Code while traveling has created a keener eye by which we bear witness to these Sicilian rituals. In any case I sensed that this event was so ingrained, unquestioning and intended to make a statement that it could have a story behind a story. Why the men? What are they trying to prove? Why the clothes of penitence - are they trying to make up for the actions of Quintian or all men? To say that it is dangerous is an understatement. I had read that men often died during the procession - mainly from falling while pulling the fercolo up a big hill on the route. To get momentum the men have to race up the candle wax-covered hill, and cannot stop when one of their members falls and will most likely be trampled. This year 20 men were injured in this way and one died. He was a 22 year old with a wife and 2 children. Despite its danger, this event will go on year after year, without a thought of banning it.
Febrauary 11, 2004
put ourselves out and reserved tickets for a play in a town nearby with
a newly restored theatre. It is roughly circular with a gorgeous fresco
on the big dome ceiling. Behind the central seating area at the back of
the theater were two tiers of booths. The seats in the booths were cheaper
that those on the floor. But the whole theater was small so that even
in our booth, we were no more than 50 feet from the stage. I felt like
I was revisiting the Count of Monte Christo, sitting in a little booth
with our two friends looking around at the other people. We were basically
way over our heads. Plus the theater is unheated and it was an especially
cold night. We were a bit underdressed, even though we had put long underwear
bottoms on. In fact, everyone else in the audience had big winter coats
on. So...we nearly froze and our cold brains slowed with each act until
by the end, I was just trying to imagine what warm feet would feel like
and hardly hearing any of the lines. Oh well. We pretty much barely understood
anything. We got a general gist of the plot but mostly had impressions
of the rhythm of the language and the effusive gestures, which you see
on the street and in interactions. It was an interesting experience, anyway.
Kathy: February 19, 2004
Sicily continues to be buona. If you could see me you would know that as I say that I am also making a gesture with my hand that people often do here when they day the word buona. It is one of my favorite gestures and it is done by taking your index finger and pointing it at your cheek while turning your hand back and forth about 30 degrees. Angelo, the grocer often uses this gesture when he convinces us to buy a new ingredient. I sent Peter to the store the other day to buy fresh basil. After a few minutes he came back in the door and said, "well, they were out of fresh basil but I have two other (buona gestures) to try." I have been paying attention to gestures here and realize that it isn't just about talking with your hands for emphasis, it is really a form of communication. So much is expressed in a gesture, that often words are unnecessary. I project that this intriguing effusiveness has actually been a form of survival for a people whose language has been constantly changing. According to the history, the earliest people first spoke an unlettered language and there is little documentation of this earliest language, then the foreign domination began with the Greeks in 734 B.C. Greek then became the dominant language and remained so for over a 1000 years even throughout the rule of the Roman Empire. With the invasion of the Arabs in 900 A.D. Arabic became the dominant language and continued until a series of invasions and take overs, by the French, Spanish and other conquerors, created a kind of Creole language that can be called Sicilian. This blend of languages was the way in which a continually conquered people learned to communicate with one another - an of course the use of gestures. With the evolution of language and its variation depending on region and even town makes for the creation of nonverbal ways to communication an idea, thought, frustration or command. Walking down the street you can see these gestures - they ask: "what are you talking about? what do you want? you are full of xxxx, I don't care, watch out for him, it is good, let's go.... I love watching the "dance of hands" as people carry on business and the tasks of their daily lives. I can eaves drop on a conversation that is spoken in old Sicilian, and not understand a word, but the gestures give me the essence of what is said. It is like watching an interpreter for the deaf doing American Sign language. It has a beauty born out of a need to communicate a concept to another person and using more of the body to do it. It is one of life's small joys here. Listening to the old Sicilian language (some people refer to it as a dialect, but linguists think of it as a language) you can hear a mixture of French, Arabic, Italian and Spanish. It is very hard to understand and is mostly spoken today by the older people. So yet again the people of Sicily, are forsaking their language. Everyone also knows Italian and are preferring to speak in this more modern language. I hope the Sicilian doesn't die. I like hearing it even if I don't understand a thing - I think it is because it was the language that I heard in my home. We called it Italian, but in essence it was Sicilian. I also remember the language of gestures in our home particularly the one my mother used when she wanted us to know that she meant business - she didn't need to say a word she just put her flat hand up to her mouth, sometimes even putting it between her teeth with her eyes bulging out, and we knew we were in trouble. It was very effective.
Well, on the weekend, we had two different dinner events that we attended, and no matter what the language that was spoken, both were lively, loud and effusive. People talked the way our family does at family gatherings - all talking at once and never being sure where to direct your listening attention. On Saturday night we wound up going out with Guiseppe, Daniella and all their friends again. We dropped in at their house in Serradifalco in the afternoon, and after hours of laughter and talking around the kitchen table the action started - many incoming phone calls from friends wondering what was happening, the door bell wringing with people dropping in, it was a lively scene. The crowd grew and then we departed for a place called Mamma Mia's. As usual Peter and I had no idea where we were going - was it a dance club, a restaurant, a coffee house??? We followed with complete trust that where ever we were headed it would be fun. At one point early in the evening after parking our car in Caltanisetta, we looked over and almost everyone of our group was standing around talking on a cell phone (making arrangements for others friends to joins us we supposed) and we laughed at the site and wound up taking a photo for our webpage (see photo page). We were led to a door, an ordinary door, no flashing signs, no glass windows, nothing to indicate that this was any kind of public place. Guiseppe showed a card, that some others also had, and they let us in. It is a private club that you have to join. The same card guarantees your entry into a lot of different progressive left wing establishments. This was nicely decorated, and immediately a peace (pace) sign hanging over the bar caught our eye- we knew were in the right place.
On Sunday we were invited to Lina and Pasquale's house were we were joined by another couple we met here- Lina and Carmelo. Lina has a thick Brooklyn accent - she lived there until she was 14 years old and then her family moved backed to Montedoro where she met her husband and the rest is history. All her family moved back and she is still here. We have met quite a few women that this has happened to. It seems that there is something about the men here. Be careful all my single friends and relatives who come here to visit. Lina's daughter, Melina (that made three Lina's at the dinner), her husband Guiseppe and their children Sharon and Iladio. The food was incredible - pasta (of course) - tiny home made things in red sauce, lamb with potatoes, salad, fruit, an assortment of sweets, cannolli, cookies, cakes....WOW! We laughed we talked in both languages, Lina interpreted and I asked what it meant to be Sicilian. This illicited many responses (see the home page). We feel so luck to have made so many good friends so quickly - each has helped us and given us support in so many ways. What a gift!
Finally, we moved to a new apartment today. It is much bigger and has a view over all of Montedoro, it also has an oven, four beds, a washing machine, a big bathroom with a bathtub, and a television, and it is less money than the one room we were in before. This is a long story which I will have to write about at a later time since the one thing this apartment doesn't have yet is internet access, so I will send this out from our old apartment and then hope that we will be able to write again in about a week. We moved right in time for our first visitors arrival tomorrow. Carol Sue and Wally Muth are coming from Maine. They are old friends and intrigued by Sicily. On Sunday we all depart for Sciacca where we will participate in Carnevale for three days before returning to Montedoro. Maybe we will have internet by then and I can tell all about how Carnevale is done here. On Sunday there is going to be a big exhibition by artists portraying peace through various art forms.
I am signing off with a big gesture and two kisses - one for each cheek.
Peter: February 19, 2004
a different look at Sicily, from a naturalists eye, a series of