A sizeable chunk of my heart remains on the island of Sicily, metaphorically speaking of course. When I was nineteen, by some strange twist of fate, I ended up working as an English Language Assistant in a secondary school in Piazza Armerina, a town located in the middle of the island. I lived in Sicily for eight months and I can safely say that they were among the most difficult, eye-opening and awe-inspiring of my life thus far.
There is an Italian saying that states, “quando uno viene al Sud piange due volte: quando arriva e quando parte”. Translated it reads, “when a person comes to the South [of Italy] they cry twice: when they arrive and when they leave”.
This was exactly the situation I found myself in. When I first landed in Sicily, accompanied by my brilliant and life-saving mother, I had heard so many horror stories concerning gangsters, corruption, godfathers and poverty that I was fairly sure a nervous breakdown of some kind was imminent. In addition to my fervent aversions, as we drove through the browning late-September landscape of the island’s interior, I saw fields burning. “I am in hell”, I thought. I later discovered that setting the land on fire increased its fertility.
Though the first months I spent in Piazza Armerina were intense, unpredictable and sometimes lonely, I began to fall irredeemably in love with Sicily and its inhabitants. The scenery in every part of island is stunning and diverse. Fruit and varieties of wild vegetable grow abundantly on land that isn’t even harvested. The people are generous, loud and affectionate. Indeed, on many occasions I would be invited to lunch with people I barely knew.
Though it is true that there is corruption in certain sectors, oddly enough it seems that organised crime is partly responsible for the fact that the island’s striking beaches have not been mutilated into tourist traps.
Culturally speaking, Sicily is remarkable.The island lies ruggedly beautiful, unfurling before the shadow of Mount Etna and was invaded by many peoples over the course of its history, as well as being the location of mythical events. The lake near which the daughter of Zeus, Persephone, supposedly lived, for example, is located in the town of Pergusa.
Piazza Armerina is sometimes referred to as the town of the hundred churches. Ambling through the streets of crumbling yellow buildings in the old town centre, there is a church at every corner, and one more stunning than the next. A favourite (partly because it opened at the oddest hours) was the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista which contains artwork by Borremans. In August, Piazza Armerina also hosts the Palio dei Normanni, a reenactment of the taking of the town by the Normans.
Each region of Sicily is unique in that it has its own dialect and culinary culture. Some of the places and experiences that most impressed me were the Easter procession in Tràpani, the ceramic steps of Caltagirone, the Sant’Agata festivities in Catania, the coastal town of San Vito Lo Capo, Ortigia in Siracusa, the Cathedral in Mazara del Vallo, the town of Agrigento, and, of course, all the delicous deserts (but cannoli and paste di mandorla especially).
I returned to Sicily last weekend for the first time in a couple of years. It was strange and wonderful and immensely enjoyable to see old friends, to eat and drink with them, and to finally have a couple of good nights of sleep. I appreciated, again, all that I had discovered when I first travelled there. I was loathe to part with that world of warmth and chaos. Despite the distance, though, there is always a part of me that is wandering those old streets at the closing of the day, as the scent of wood fires drifts upwards into the dusk.