People write about their different kinds of trips, but “slow travel” was truly what my last trip to Catania was about.
This isn’t a trip just anyone can do. There are a few requirements:
1. You need to know the language where you are going. You are going somewhere that English is not a given.
2. You need to know somebody willing to take you in for a week, in my case, a relative, a very distant relative who was
more than happy to receive me at her home and share her hospitality.
3. You need to be prepared to go where they go, do what they do. You are entirely at their mercy. Again, this IS
So accepting the above tenets, I booked myself a trip to Catania for the last week of March, 2004.
Catania is one of the two biggest cities in Sicily.
It is not featured with glowing reviews by any travel guides, it is often mentioned, for this duomo or that, but in fact, their famous sons are people most of us have never heard of. The city was demolished by a series of earthquakes, and once, by
Etna itself, so there is not a lot of really old stuff there. Or so I thought.
Catania is filled with historic sites, old villas, fancy old buildings, and churches. But without exception, every single one was “in restauro”
being restored, hidden, (in some cases only partially) by scaffolding and tarps.
Fortunately, the famous elephant was there in the open for everyone to see.
After spending time in Calabria with other cousins (not as distantly related) there was a tremendous language barrier, not because I couldn’t speak italian, but because my cousins didn’t speak italian. They spoke in their own very special dialect, about as harsh as they come. I relied on people in their teens and twenties to translate for me. They knew Italian, having recently been in school. But after a few telephone conversations with my cousin in Catania, I was confident that she spoke Italian, without an accent. This was not actually true, but close enough.
I wrote to them about my dietary preferences, (I don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or pop), and the kinds of food I liked (everything, yes, meat, yes, fish, yes, pasta, yes, vegetables, yes) and so they prepared for me. My cousin Antonietta, and 3 of her children, who lived in other homes, planned out how they would swap me around and entertain me.
I arrived in Catania at around noon. I had promised to wear “un fazzoletto rosso” and so had Antonietta. I’d already seen lots of photos of her and her family, so I kind of knew what she looked like, but the request was so cute, that I did it. The Catania airport has two doors. A big one that hundreds of passengers come out from after they pick up their bags, and a little one with the sign “Dogana” where international travellers exit after going through the customs search. (In my case, they xrayed my suitcase). I exited that door, and looked over to my right, where a small crowd of very short people were clustered around the main passenger exit. Right center front was Antonietta, who is about 75 years old, resplendent with her red silk scarf. I walked up behind the little group (about a dozen people) and called her. They were all so amazed that I was behind them, instead of in front of them.
I am a towering 5′ 3″ and a fraction, just to make sure you all understand. But except for the two male son-in-laws, I was taller than all the rest of the men and women and children in this family. We got into the house and it became apparent that I needed house slippers, they all had them. I looked at all the feet in attendance, and had to turn them down. No one had feet as big as mine either!
A year ago, I spent a week in Cefalu’. (read about my adventures in Cefalu’ here: )
I took a language class at Solemar-Sicilia and chose the “homestay” with an “Italian family” Boy, that sounded so wonderful, I imagined a family, delicious smells in the kitchen, kids, chatter; but what I got was a sad woman about my age (Sandra) who sat around smoking and watching TV all day. She did not have a warm blanket for my bed, and did not heat my room. I was very very miserable there at night.
She also hated to cook (so I didn’t pay for any meals) and the way she was able to ruin tea has forever endeared her to me.
So after my experiences with Sandra, I was very afraid of being too cold. From phone conversations with Antonietta, I was not afraid of starvation, but of cold. I didn’t know how to ask if i would be too cold without insulting someone. So I had packed Silk, wool, and capilene underwear.
So upon my arrival, the entire family assembled at Antonietta’s house for a wonderful dinner. The flavors were totally different from Calabria,
the tomato sauce, the salad, the polpetti (meatballs). Then I was sent to bed (having missed an entire nights’s sleep). I unpacked my warm undergarments, but to my surprise, the bed was WARM!!
One of my cousins had thoughtfully plugged in the electric blanket for me. And she did this EVERY night I was there!
I never wore any of that warm underwear. There was absolutely no need. This is not to say that I had nice weather while I was there, in fact, the weather was so bad, that I never ever saw Mount Etna. And I sat and listened to my cousins describe how they could watch the fireworks display (the 2002 eruption) from their kitchen windows, while I couldn’t even see the mountain. Pretty frustrating.
When I first got there, they asked me what the weather was like in Seattle. Was it true that it rained all the time?
of course not, I explained that Seattle wasn’t really wet, it was just grey.
As the grey days continued, I could see that in Catania, a drop of rain or a cloudy day is a major interference with the normal state of affairs. Many of our expeditions were cancelled because of the “rain” (light drizzle) and in fact, people did not come to see us because of this “weather” people that lived 3 blocks away.
However, Antonietta, the family hero, was not deterred by weather. Every morning we were up at 730 and I had to work hard to get there before she had a lovely spread set for me every morning. The tea, the bread, the cookies, the fruit. She actually found good green tea for me somewhere, and to my horror, CORNFLAKES!
but, she said, this is American food! I bought this just for you. I never ate any cornflakes. I never could as a child I certainly wasn’t going to start in Italy, when I could eat their fantastic bread and fresh picked citrus fruits every single morning.
After breakfast, we dressed for Mount Everest, armed with giant umbrellas and went to the Mercato. This was about 4 blocks from their house. I had brought my wonderful Seattle raincoat, just in case, but this was discarded, it wasn’t warm enough. I was given a ridiculous jacket (in the style of the 70’s super stuffed down jackets) and I had to wear it every day. They didn’t want me to freeze. Mercato was just as wonderful as it could be, and it abutted a famous pescheria. We went there every day, whether we had to or not. 🙂
My Catanese cousins were very different from my Calabrian ones. They were city people, college educated, and professionals. The down side of this was no one could tell me what this flower was or that tree was; my Calabrian cousins are country folk and know all about the flora and fauna.
I was introduced to the Great Bellini, a composer at least as important as Mozart or Bach. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I had never heard of the guy, and with great relief I determined that I HAD at least heard of one of his Operas, La Sonnambula.
Another famous name, who I fortunately knew, was Giovanni Verga. However, my cousins were not impressed that I had read one of his novels and several of his short stories. (Hasn’t everyone?) We visited the museums situated in the homes of both of these gentlemen.
It became apparent that my cousins, even though, yes, they were true Sicilians, Island people, were not really from the coast. As mountain people, their knowledge of Sicilian fish dishes wasn’t much better than mine. Antonietta told me that it took so long for fish to arrive in Agira, where she was born and raised, that people just didn’t eat much of it.
I discovered that they didn’t normally eat fish, but prepared it twice for me. When we had the sword fish the first day, it was obviously
the special dish for a guest, but the second time, when we had two different types of fish that we bought fresh from the Pescheria, one of the cousins asked “WHAT THE HECK IS THIS??” and Antonietta said, smooth as glass “Oh Mimi picked this out.” Yeah, right. I had merely asked what it was, and then she bought it. but it was delicious. One was called blue fish, and I’m sorry, I don’t remember the name of the other.
They promised me that they would take me to Etna, Agira, and other places. Other places were Siracusa and Taormina.
Right next to Siracusa was an island town, a tiny little island called Ortigia, a really nice little place to visit. I never got to Etna because of the weather, nor Agira because of family hassles.
Taormina was also a beautiful place, filled with touristy shops. Apparently, during the tourist season, the shops and restaurants are open all night. After gazing at a lot of the same offerings that i saw in Catania, I did not buy a single gift in Taormina. The prices were almost
In the evenings I sat with my cousins in front of the television. The shows all seemed to blend into one them. Gorgeous tall babes with offensive hairstyles and ridiculous (i.e. lots of skin showing) outfits everywhere, and a couple of men leading the show. Whether it was about what to do for PMS or an actual fashion show, it was pretty much the same.
Often, my cousins would say, “Look, she’s american! this is what americans are like” Once we watched an old Gina Lolobrigida movie. That was pretty neat.
I learned some family history, and some family mysteries. I always thought my grandmother’s small stature was due to malnutrition as a child, but here I looked at the grandchildren of her sister, well fed healthy modern and SHORT.
I brought gifts of course, and received gifts in return. Since I live in the state of Washington, I brought aplets and cotlets which they loved because they were soft. Teeth problems? I didn’t ask! For my cousin Antonietta, partially because it was also her birthday, I had an 18k Cameo brooch that I bought in Firenze a few years before. She loved it, but was concerned because I gave her something pointy “like a knife”
So after consulting with her oldest daughter, She gave me 20 centesimi “in exchange” for the brooch so the ill effects of this gift would be nullified for changing it from an outright gift to a trade.
Antonietta lives in an old house built in the 1850’s. She lives there with 3 adult retarded children (Surprise, surprise) I had no idea that this was the case. Particularly endearing was Riccardo, my appointed body guard and heavy parcel carrier. Every time we went out, he went with us.
The day before we left (just to see if I could) I decided to go around the block to take photos of the Odeon, greek ruins that actually abut Antonietta’s house. Wait! says Antonietta, Riccardo, get your coat on! I convinced her that I would not get lost going around the block. They let me.
Riccardo never said much to me, and he really wasn’t very affectionate. The smaller cousins all loved him, he was always getting hugged and tweaked, and he stoically endured it. He did like playing with the little kids. He was fairly street smart, as if that might be necessary. It was not. Everywhere we went, Riccardo was grabbed, hugged, and loved by neighbors, store clerks, and teenagers. (Riccardo is almost 50 and about 4’11” he’s perfectly proportuned, just little) I have never seen anything like it. In our country, the developmentally disabled are loved and cared for by their families, certainly, but teenagers in the market? In public? It was pretty cool.
On the second morning, I brought out my easter egg dye kit. It was 2 weeks before Easter, and hard boiled eggs keep, right? No one had ever done this, so everyone was invited, but most did not come because it was… raining, you guessed it. Those of us that were there had a great time. I had not thought of the logistics, and had asked EVERYONE if they had measuring cups or spoons NO!! they did not. (why would anyone need such a thing?) I managed with the measuring cup because I had an 8 ounce water bottle from my flight, and I just guessed with the spoon and lucked out.
We all sat there for hours, happily coloring brown eggs. When we were done, Antonietta made a lovely display on a silver vassoio (tray) and when the others came, she brought it out and showed it to them all. We made 1 egg for everyone, and each person, child and adult, had to see their own personal egg.
On the 4th morning, we needed to get up “early” because we needed to get the mercato done in time because Filippo and his wife were going to take me out. I checked my watch and planned to get up in another 30 minutes when someone banged on the door. My watch had stopped. We were now late. Nonplussed, directly after breakfast, Antonietta took us to a strange little shop (I have no idea what they do) to buy a battery for my Timex. The guy took my watch apart, looked at the battery, and said “Sorry, it’s not the kind we have” and he directed
us to another shop, 3 blocks away. This little shop full of clutter, and a desk with an adding machine, had a nice woman sitting there. (I later found out that she was the wife of the first guy) She was able, with difficulty, to open the watch, found the correct battery, but could not close the case again. She taped it shut, and gave it to Riccardo! who then ran back to the other shop, and in minutes, returned beaming with my watch, set to the right time, and happily ticking. I paid the woman my 2 euro and left the shop.
Riccardo continually performed feats of heroism, like running back to the store for something 10 minutes before closing, and reading my mind a time or two. He almost never said a word to me, until he saw me eat some raw finocchio. He said “mi fa schifo!” I guess he didn’t like raw vegetables.
The last morning arrived. After starving on my Delta flight, Antonietta decided that she would furnish me with enough food to feed the entire airplane. Since I was already overloaded with heavy goods (a case of Latte di Mandorla, 3 kilos of cheese) I really didn’t want 3 kilos of mandorini and a pound of soft cheese. She bought several loaves of bread for me, and 4 bulbs of finocchio (oh, it was SO Cheap!!) and we then had to fight over how much I can REALLY eat and how much I can REALLY carry. (I wish I did carry more home, as my carry-on items were not searched.)
While the other passengers were munching on their pathetic mixed cracker mix, I had the best casoreccio bread and fresh Tirocchi (Blood oranges).
LIfe can be good.