People and Places

Report from Sicily

Posted on October 26, 2011

A crusty loaf of bread, cheese and sausage made by the woman who sold them to us in a nearby village, and ripe pears for dessert. These were the makings of our picnic lunch yesterday as we ate in the shade of pine trees, sitting on the stone blocks that once made up the ruined temple behind us. We are in Sicily and the place was Selinunte, a hauntingly ruined Greek city of the 6th Century BC.

Name an empire of the ancient Meditteranian world and it passed through Sicily at some point. The Greeks, the Carthagnians (who sacked Selinunte),the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, and more. It’s a place that looms large in the American psyche as well, whether from the huge number of Italian-Americans whose forebears immigrated from here (one of the very poorest regions of the country), the resulting imprint on our culinary map (most of the Italian food we grew up on is southern or Sicilian) or in our popular culture (the village of Corleone is not far from where are staying, Godfather fans).

 Every Italian kid I knew growing up in Waltham had a father or grandfather who was an extraordinary gardener. I can see why after three days of exploring this area of western Sicily. Every field, every backyard, every gravity defying hillside is planted. We pass acres of olive groves, fruit trees, grape vines, and more. The smallest shop has food products made by the proprietor. When we asked about the catch of the day at last night’s restaurant, the chef brought out the fish that had been caught only hours earlier so we could see it. When it arrived on our plate, freshly grilled with some olive oil and lemon, we were reminded again of Alice Water’s great lesson: get the freshest food possible and treat it with a light touch (a little olive oil and lemon in this case) and be amazed.

 The “Slow Food” movement started in Italy and helped inspire the new global generation of locavores, artisan cheese makers, and other craft producers of food offering a local, healthier alternative to factory food production. It is easy to see why the movement started here. Sicily is a food lover’s paradise. I had a simple risotto of green apple and taleggio cheese last night that was the single best risotta I have ever tasted. The lasagna we bought from a nondescript little shop was a revelation, second only to that of our friend Laura Maggio (no surprise: of Sicilian heritage). I’m not a fan of cannolis, but had the best one I’ve ever eaten. The local white wines — from native varietals we do not recognize — have been a welcome surprise.

 Sicily is no Garden of Eden. It is poorer and less polished than stately Tuscany or charming Umbria. Even the small cities are packed with people and unattractive high rise apartment buildings, built as Sicily sought to house its dense population after World War II. Rest areas are often littered with plastic bags, empty bottles, and even cast away tires and old furniture. Even its major cultural sites like Agrigento and the aforementioned Selinunte lack the modern interpretive and visitor amenities. Perhaps the more visited eastern side of the Island is different, but we have come to like the less gentrified qualities of Sicily.

The old farmhouse we are renting isn’t fancy, but it sits on a bluff directly above an impossibly blue sea. The people we have met have been gracious and eager to please. We are visiting a small winery today and both the owner and the wine maker will meet us there. After an amazing meal on Monday night, the proud owner Nino had us meet his daughter, who was working magic in the kitchen and looked far too young to be a chef with such mastery. When our progress down a small country road was stopped by a large oncoming herd of sheep, the shepherd (riding a moped), offered a friendly “Bongiorno” and shooed the sheep over to make room for us (with the help of three amazingly competent looking dogs).

Every time we come to Italy, we of course romantacize it, but also more realistically have to acknowledge that they get some things right. The central palazzo in even the small towns are public, communal spaces with old men (usually in jackets and even ties) sitting together sipping their esxpressos, young couples cuddling (and more) on benches, young parents watching their children play on the square. We have so little of that communal sensibility in American culture. The care around food and its quality, mentioned above, is taking hold in America, but is still more likely to be found in college towns, liberal enclaves like Vermont and Cambridge, and among the more well-to-do. And style? How do the Italians come to this remarkable sense of style and design that seems in the DNA? I saw a toddler with his little aviators and his sweater tied around his shoulders with more elan than I will ever muster (and at the time I was actually sporting one of those Euro-scarves so artlessly wrapped around the neck, a man-bag, and Ray-Bans, and this kid made me look like Gomer Pyle).

As always, the best part of vacation is the time spent with friends and family. We haven’t seen Emma in months and the hardships of living in Damascus seem to be largely assuage by copious amounts of homemade pasta and meat and maybe even some extra attention from her parents. It has been restorative to not read or watch news (aside from checking in on the World Series) or to check email or think about NEASC (Patty Lynott is fretting enough for all of us). We took only a week of vacation (in Port Clyde, Maine) a week at home, and a couple of personal days (in Montana) this summer, squirreling away this vacation time. Everyone has an emergency phone number for me, but aside from that fallback we remain untethered and that is a pretty rare state of affairs in modern life.

When we sit and picnic beside a temple that was already in ruins by the time the Romans moved into the area, we are reminded to keep the business and busy-ness of day to day life in perspective. Sicily, in its layers of cultures and civilizations and in its slow daily rhythms, embodies the sweep and drama of the big picture and the sweetly simple and small delights of the human scale all in one. Now it’s time for another cannoli (and hole in my belt).

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