Returning to Roots in Sicily

Chris’s grandfather came to the U.S. from Sicily when he was 17 years old. He left behind seven sisters but never returned to his homeland. He wound up a fat, happy Italian man working in the garment district of New York City.

Chris’s mother had always retained her strong ties to Italy. She had visited Italy before but had never ventured to the island to re-establish her roots. She had in fact kept in touch with two of her aunts over the 60+ years, exchanging cards at Christmas.

And so, in October of 2004, we headed to Sicily in search of what we expected to be old, decaying roots. We decided to spend a couple of days in Palermo before venturing off to our beautiful hotel on the highly recommended beach of Mondello. But exploring the city proved to be a different…shall we say…animal. Within ten minutes, we were lost in what appeared to be a rough neighborhood filled with gypsies, dead end streets and trash piled along the doorways. Tensions were high as we found ourselves lost in this city where years earlier a young American boy was shot and killed as his family was also lost in the city. I’m sure we didn’t look like tourists though in our rented red minivan with luggage piled high in the rear.

We navigated back to the centro and parked in the first spot we could find. As I stepped out of the car, I had to do a quick 2-step dance to avoid stepping on a dead cat lying on the sidewalk.  Because the kids were still mourning the two cats we left behind in the states, I quickly yelled “morto corpo di gatto” hoping the kids had not learned these words in Italian class yet and instructed Chris to get them out on the other side. That was my first, and last, impression of Palermo.

We ventured into the nearby village for dinner. As we strolled a narrow alleyway, a rotund gentleman standing on his front porch beckoned and encouraged us to eat in his restaurant for a truly authentic meal.  We glanced up at the neon sign which read “Sapori di Mare”.  None of us had yet learned the word sapori but we figured, “we’re at the beach, how bad can a seafood place be?”  We ordered calamari as a primi and bravely trusted the waiter to bring us his specialty.  The calamari arrived but didn’t look like the deep fried rings we were expecting.  Instead, we dug through the pile of critters on the plate that appeared to be random body parts of small fish resembling sardines. Ocassionally, we’d stumble across a whole fish but usually, the plate looked like a Ziploc bag of saltine crackers after a week in my daughter’s backpack. We then decided that sapori means scraping, as we dined at Scrapings of the Sea.

The next day, we drove to Rafadale, the town where Giovanni had departed 70 years ago. Chris’s mother had the address of her aunts who by our best guess, were 90 and 92.  We arrived at a rather picturesque piazza and quickly found their doorway. It was covered with hanging beads you might find in a head shop in the states. For a split second, I considered knocking but how do you knock on beads blowing in the breeze? There was no door. We bravely parted the beads to see Maria Angela, the 92-year-old aunt sitting at a small dining table. We stepped into her apartment and into another world. She and her 90-year-old sister, Guissepa, had shared this tiny space for the past 70 years.  It was quite primitive, just a single narrow room divided up as a sitting room with two small twin beds in the back. There were no windows (alas the door beads to allow fresh air to enter). The bathroom, much like an outhouse, was down three steps, where even my 10-year-old had to bend down to enter.  The kitchen was on the opposite wall, separated by a hanging curtain. There was no running water.  I’m not sure if this was more culture shock or generation shock – two ladies who lived together in a single room with no running water for 70 years but were the kindest, gentlest, most hospitable beings. But for my mother-in-law, it was the trip of a lifetime. Sicily

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