This is the first account of an American young woman with Sicilian roots who finds herself walking the cobblestone streets and drinking the water of the land from which her blood descends. My name is Siena, and I am in Calascibetta, Sicilia, as we speak.
My experience of Sicily is not that of a typical foreign tourist, but rather a family member. I am currently writing from my room in my godparents’ house, a simultaneously simple yet grand Sicilian flat, situated on one of seemingly hundreds of thin lane-less roads, winding and declining and ascending with little warning. Sicily is not exactly what I expected, and I’m not quite sure where to begin.
I will begin with my first moments here. My parents and I flew from the U.S. to Rome, and had barely any time to catch our flight into Catania, one of two airports in Sicily (I think, anyway). My family’s attempt to rent a car was proving difficult (not due to the language barrier, because they both speak Sicilian), and so I sat my jet-lagged self on a bench in the rental car building, and found myself speaking to an adorable elderly Sicilian woman who spoke a mixture of Italian and English. She showed me pictures of her family, gave me marriage advice, and eventually kissed me goodbye. I felt welcome.
The car rental was a success, and we headed to my godparents’ house… but I was asleep during the car ride, and had no energy to spare for even the most scenic route. I woke up as we were climbing the hill to Calascibetta, a town of utter simplicity and natural beauty that radiates with no sort of artificial assistance. Within minutes of my awaking we arrived, and we were greeted by my godfather, who I had never met before that moment, and my godmother a few moments after, who I had met only when she visited the U.S. years ago.
After settling in a bit, my sister (who had been in Sicily for almost a month before my family and I arrived) and I went to the Piazza, the town square… a.k.a. the place with the only Wi-Fi to which I have whenever-I-want access. My godparents don’t have a computer, and therefore have no need for Wi-Fi, which is a silly yet very comprehensible struggle for a person like me who is so acclimated to feeling “connected,” especially when some of the most important people in my life are an ocean away.
On the way to the Piazza, two men spoke to my sister and me, which is completely normal in a town like Calascibetta. Most people here know each other because there are only about four-thousand people in the town. Plenty of people are related, and never put it past Italian families to have crazy connections – cousins, cousins of friends, god-siblings, aunt of cousin of goddaughter of friend, who is actually your nephew’s mother, and so on and so forth. Anyway, two men greeted us, and I explained that I do not speak much Italian. Somehow I ended up having a brief conversation with one of the men in broken Sicilian, then Spanish, then French, and then we left. The other man ended up in the Piazza ten minutes later, and approached my sister to ask if he could buy her some sort of beverage – a cappuccino, a latte, a tequila. She denied all of the options, and so then he asked me, to which I explained with my bit of Italian knowledge that I have a love in America, and I would not accept a beverage. In Sicilian, he replied that he is not a jealous man, and eventually walked away.
I cried myself to sleep that first night as part of coping with a combination of my exhaustion-induced emotional struggle (#jetlag), and a feeling of pure frustration at my inability to communicate with my family and what-could-be friends. I have lived in an Italian-American household my entire life because my Italian-speaking grandmother has lived with our family until recently. However, the dialogue was mainly between my mother and grandmother and so learning their Sicilian dialect was never a necessity, although I regret not learning it sooner. Since I arrived, the frustration has only grown stronger. It is a budding linguist’s worst nightmare to be in a place where everyone can speak the language but yourself. It pains me to have thoughts and ideas and desires, and an even stronger desire to share those desires, to only find myself unable to do so (at least adequately) in an independent manner. What makes it even more frustrating is that I have a somewhat-decent ability to understand Sicilian, and I comprehend most phrases contextually… but then I usually can’t respond. Darn. Well, the future shall determine the rest of this scenario. This personal struggle of mine will either grow stronger and then I’ll be plucked from Sicily at the end of the week as my family and I continue to tour other regions of Italy, or I’ll learn more of this Sicilian dialect and move on.
After sleeping for over twelve hours, I was greeted in the morning by coffee and croissants filled with Nutella, which I consumed again this morning (yum). Yesterday, we visited Agrigento, another town in Sicily that lies outside of Calascibetta and contains beautiful Roman ruins (now that is a tourist attraction, but still not unreasonably flooded with people). There isn’t much to say about Agrigento because it really is a place everyone should experience for themselves. The ruins are breathtaking, and the aesthetics of the place feel unreal. Plus, there was an added bonus: I was surprised because I able to practice my French there, which always warms my heart.
Other than visiting Agrigento, we have yet to explore places in a touristy manner, but we hope to have a beach day tomorrow. I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half full days living the life of a Calascibetta native – consuming the fresh preservative-free meals, spending time in the Piazza, and gazing into the Sicilian skyline as I’m sure all who live here must do each day.
Sicily is an interesting place. Stray cats and dogs are a common sight, as are lizards on the sidewalk and walls outdoors. Coffee cups are significantly tinier. It has become normal to kiss those with whom I speak on the left and right cheek as a greeting and a goodbye. Technology is certainly not such an integral part of the culture, at least from my eyes. The entire culture feels different. Life is simpler; emotional satisfaction seems to have less conditions, and people are happy with their town and their families and their friendships and their nights walking back and forth in the Piazza until they run into a friendly face. I have never been in such a paradoxical place, one where I feel so much at home yet so incredibly foreign. Calascibetta is certainly no tourist spot, and so this really does not feel like a typical vacation. I have never felt so included in the immersion of the culture while also feeling so excluded by my inability to communicate properly, exacerbated by the effort exerted to reach my loved ones back in the states where I am not only literally but also mentally at home. It’s okay, though. While it may feel atypical, I am here in an unfathomably beautiful place, and that’s all there is to it.
I experience a feeling of absolute awe accompanied by a small twinge of anxiety knowing that I am currently typing away somewhere on a mountaintop of a small town of Sicily, surrounded by nothing except the brisk blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea beyond me. You are likely thousands of miles away from me… and I had to bring my laptop to the Piazza just to tell you all of this (that’s not a thing Sicilians do, by the way). Thank you for making my effort even more worthwhile. Thanks for being here with me in spirit.
On another note, I just ate some of the best cake I’ve ever had in my life. The Sicilians definitely know how to cook.
your friend, Siena