Sunday, June 24, 2012

California, I'm coming home

It would have been all too easy for me to get really comfortable here, to continue relishing the customs and the food and the language and the people, and to resist the jolting change of moving back, so after renewing my contract last year I felt like I needed to find a way to curb this impending habit.  Thanks to Letizia I found my prescription:  Joni Mitchell.  I've listened and related to this beautiful song countless times and it has provided me with waves of different emotions, but the important fact of the matter is that it has played a significant role in the push to get me back to the states, and for that I am very thankful because ultimately home is where I want to be.  I think the song more or less describes how I feel about returning.  So to the folks I dig in California, I'm coming home (tomorrow!).  Will you take me as I am?

By Joni Mitchell

Sitting in a park in Paris, France
Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won't give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had
Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
It's too old and cold and settled in its ways here
Oh but California

California I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a Sunset pig
California I'm coming home

I met a redneck on a Grecian isle
Who did the goat dance very well
He gave me back my smile
But he kept my camera to sell
Oh the rogue the red red rogue
He cooked good omelettes and stews
And I might have stayed on with him there
But my heart cried out for you California

Oh California I'm coming home
Oh make me feel good rock 'n' roll band
I'm your biggest fan
California I'm coming home

Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
Just gives you the blues
So I bought me a ticket
I caught a plane to Spain
Went to a party down a red dirt road
There were lots of pretty people there
Reading Rolling Stone reading Vogue
They said "How long can you hang around?"
I said a week maybe two
Just until my skin turns brown
Then I'm going home to California

California I'm coming home
Oh will you take me as I am
Strung out on another man
California I'm coming home

Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am?
Will you?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Chi lo vuole cotto, Chi lo vuole crudo

After my jaunt in Sicily with Anna, I boarded another one of the South's famous long-haul buses headed to Castrovillari, Calabria to continue my No Calorie Left Behind Tour.  The highlight of the trip was taking the ferry that links Messina, Sicily to Reggio Calabria on the mainland.  There's always talk about building a bridge from one city to the other (this was one of Berlusconi's always promised but never realized initiatives), and the fact that it still has not been built really is absurd, as you can see just how close the two are to one another in the following photo.  Dear Italy: invest in infrastructure!  Still, despite my shock at this shortfall,  the ferry ride was beautiful and refreshing after a couple hours already cooped up in the bus.

There are some really ridiculous signs in this country (like arrows pointing toward "All Directions"), and after disembarking from the ferry, I saw what has to be one of my all-time favorites.  Please see below.  My subtitle for this sign would probably be something along the lines of "Beware of Edge" or "Don't Be An Idiot and Drive Off the Cliff," but it certainly would not simply be "Deep Water".

Finally after six hours I arrived in Calabria and my first day there was Mamma's 50th birthday party.  Her friend hosted the party at her house, and both Mamma and various friends and aunts spent days preparing food.  It seems that every time I go to Calabria I manage to hit some important holiday, whether it be Christmas, Silvia's First Communion, Easter, or Mamma's 50th!  The party was lovely, and Mamma received a showering of both love and special gifts from her friends and family.  I was happy to be able to see the extended family and meet friends who apparently had heard "so much" about me.  One friend, after hearing me laugh, described me as solare, which I guess would be best translated as sunny.  That's some kind of compliment.

Azzurra, Mamma and me

Nonna, Mamma, and Nonno

The "whole family", albeit blurred

Me with Giuseppe

Dancing with baby cousin Laura, one of the twins

I miei frattelini Italiani
My little Italian siblings

The aunt and uncle that live above Azzurra's family recently built a house in Le Vigne, the country near Castrovillari, and they have a pool!  We spent two full days eating and pooling and lounging there together.  I taught the kids Marco Polo, and we also attempted handstands, took turns leading water aerobics, and did the George Washington hair roll. 

The second day at Le Vigne we made nine pizzas from scratch, which was a blast.  I got really into it and by the end was spinning the dough almost (but really not nearly) as well as Mamma! 

Above is Zia "condimenting" the pizza, and below you can see the special oven she has, which can fit four pizzas at a time.

Azzurra and I decidedly preferred the pizza with potatoes and prosciutto.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it, and I ate them just yesterday.

We also spent one evening in Lungro, where Mamma is from, visiting the nonni and the family of the cousin that is getting married this weekend.  I always manage to fit right into the family arguments and make fun of everyone just as much as the others.  Between all the various confusion, I said playfully, "Non si capisce niente in questa famiglia!" or "Nothing makes sense in this family!"  Nonna had the perfect way of explaining it: "C'e' chi lo vuole cotto e chi lo vuole crudo," which means "There are those that want it cooked, and those that want it raw."  This proverb is so much more wonderful in Italian because it calls to mind the two types of prosciutto, cotto and crudo, and I can imagine a family at the deli fighting over which kind of ham to buy for lunch.

I won't bore you with the details of another sappy good-bye; suffice to say that it felt like a tragedia.  I felt like I was moving off to college for the first time and would never see my family again.  Everyone kept asking me when I was coming back, and I really had no answer except to say, "Soon."  Fortunately, after so many good-byes I'm starting to run out of tears and into emotional exhaustion, and I console myself with the fact that while I'm leaving behind one family, I'm moving towards another one.  And for that, I can't wait.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It ain't fair the way you move girl

I've been moving around a lot recently and it's been so wonderful that I must say I even feel a little guilty blogging about it all.  Please forgive me as I amp up the vicarious vacations in this final push before heading home.

Anna was able to get a day and a half off from work, so we rented a car (this is becoming common and marginally less frightening) and embarked on a jam-packed 48 hour trip through south-eastern Sicily, including Piazza Armerina, Caltagirone, Palazzolo Acreide, Noto, and the Vendicari nature reserve.  Driving in Sicily can be daunting, especially considering streets in towns are terribly narrow, drivers don't acknowledge lanes or speed limits, and roads are neither named nor numbered, but have a variety of arrows with town names pointing in chaotic directions to be checked at every intersection.  Plus, they upgraded us to a Mer(ch)edes, so we felt rather conspicuous but nonetheless classy in our hops from one UNESCO site to the next.

In Piazza Armerina we visited Villa Romana del Casale, which is famous for its having the most well-preserved Roman floor mosaics in the world, and are as such thanks to a flood that caked the villa in mud for centuries.  Unfortunately a huge chunk of the villa was under restoration, but what we were able to see was phenomenal.  Two favorite rooms included the scandalous boudoir scene and the cyclops scene.  Keep in mind that all the art and fantastic detail (check out those biceps!) is done in mosaics.


Next we headed to Caltagirone, the city of ceramics, where we stayed the night in a lovely B&B with a rooftop terrace garden in the center of town.  The town is decidedly Baroque, highlighted with colorful tiles wherever possible.  Perhaps the most striking landmark in the city is the 142-step, ceramic-encrusted Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, which is the spot for city festivities (they even light it up like a Lite-Brite for their saint's day) as well as where the youth meets to hang out at night.

Rosa, our hostess, prepared us a lovely home-baked breakfast to enjoy on the terrace before we went off to explore Caltagirone by day, which included ceramics shopping (in a huge outlet warehouse with designs by dozens of local artists), church-hopping, and a stroll through the local park.

On our way to Noto we stopped by Palazzolo Acreide, a rather abandoned town put on the map thanks to its local ancient Greek Theatre.  Anna saw a black snake on our way in so it wasn't easy to completely relax and enjoy the site, but no trip to Sicily is complete without Greek ruins so I was glad we made the stop.

We arrived in Noto in the early afternoon, and in between stops for sweets (cannoli and orange-pistachio cake), aperitivo, and dinner, we visited a handful of the Baroque churches and buildings for which the region is so well known.

Finally, on our last morning before returning to Catania, we went to Vendicari, which is a special nature reserve famous for bird-watching and fantastic beaches.  First we went to Calamosche, which is supposed to be the most gorgeous beach on the reserve, and it lived up to its reputation.  It was practically empty when we arrived around 9am, and the water was pristine.  I was in Sicily, and I was swimming with the fishes.  But in a good way.

We didn't have much time left with the rental car, but I had heard great things about the Tonnara, or tuna fish factory, so we popped over to see it.  What's left of its columns practically grows out of the crystal blue sea.

We sped back to Catania to join Anna's students at the Sagra di Pesce Spada, or Swordfish Festival, in Acitrezza.  We enjoyed an aperitivo at a local's house and walked around the festively populated town, stopping for a magical glass of wine on the seafront, overlooking Cyclops' rocks at dusk.  As we listened to Madonna's "La Isla Bonita", we contemplated what permanently moving to this beautiful island would be like, with its amplification of all Italy's greatest faults and triumphs.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Another Breed

Anna and I tend to use words like "authentic", "colorful", and "old-worldly" to describe Sicily, but someone with a less empathetic lens might just as easily choose "run down", "begrimed", and "third-worldly".  Many sidewalks are torn up, with loose cobblestones in uneven areas covered with dirt instead of cement.  Fashion ranges from classy beachwear and heels to atrociously trashy and heels (I saw a voluptuous mother-daughter pair wearing matching American flag tube tops with their bras showing as much as possible).  Retired police offers patrol churches while smoking pipes.  Ticket checkers on buses can't bring themselves to make you pay a fine for riding dirty, so they just kick you off, perpetuating the ethical and fiscal problem.  Another breed of men, in herds on the street, stare you up and down, turn their heads to follow you when riding past on a bike, and accost you in the cereal isle.

Still, to us, there's magic here.  This place is filled with life, from the people yelling and whistling on the streets to the gelato truck that blasts Eurotrash music on the corner.  Cities are filled with glowing baroque architecture and boisterous fish and produce markets.  You can talk your way into or out of anything.  The people would give you the shirts off their back (when I insisted in giving up my seat to a signora on the bus, she said it upset her to make me stand up) and engage you in conversation whenever possible.  The fish is fresher than a teenager's attitude and the sweets make even me swoon (another granita e brioche, please).  There are fireworks constantly, for some saint or another.  The water is like staring into liquid crystals, there's an active volcano smoking in the background, and one can't go many kilometers without stumbling upon ancient ruins or some supposed site of Greek mythology.


One morning here in Catania I toured the Benedictine Monastery, which before being destroyed in the catastrophic earthquake of 1693 had been very humble, but was then rebuilt in grand proportions (it is the second largest monastery in all of Europe) with lavish details.  It is no longer used as a monastery, but rather the department of humanities for the University of Catania.

The girl without a sweet tooth averages three sweets a day.  The canoli are so good you might even notice a tear welling up in your eye.

Buildings are dilapidated, but covered in blooming flowers.  It really speaks to the population's ability to deal with the degeneration of the city while still living vibrantly.

The view from Anna's balcony is to die for.  To the right the sea is visible, front and center are the domes of the cathedral, and looming off to the left (not visible in this photo) is Mount Etna.  We keep hoping for an eruption because the view would be gorgeous, but no such luck as of yet.

One night we splurged at a restaurant in the centuries old fish market and got to try a bit of everything with the varied seafood appetizer.  I tried raw shrimp for the first time, as well as sweet and sour octopus.  There was also raw swordfish and fennel with a cherry on top.  For dessert, they brought us lemon granita with strawberries of the forest (tiny and super sweet natural berries) and I dare say it was our favorite thing out of our entire seafood meal!

One morning I took a lively bus to Acitrezza, which is famous for its giant rocks in the sea having been those thrown by the giant cyclops at Ulysses.  The bus was a spettacolo with a cast of characters worthy of an award-winning short story.  All the strangers of the bus seemed to engage eachother in conversation of something or another throughout the 50 minute journey to the Acitrezza.  There were people complaining about how people don't wash themselves (la gente non si lava!), people observing the degenerating respect of today's youth (but since I gave up my seat, I, one woman kindly said, "come from a good family"), and people complaining about any myriad of other things from the weather to the driver's lack of finesse to the lady dripping fish juice from her grocery bag.  If understanding the communications of Sicilians on a crowded bus were to serve as an Italian test, then I would've passed.  I couldn't keep from smiling and giggling the whole 50 minutes, and have never been more entertained on public transportation.  These are the kind of experiences that make Sicily, Sicily.

Once at the water, I was able to appreciate just how gorgeous it and the cyclops rocks were, but the lava rock beach provided some logistical difficulties. 

I had a beautiful view of Acicastello, which is where Alan and his family lived before moving back up to Florence, from my lounge chair on a private hotel deck, which I acquired for free by sweet talking the lifeguard.