Sicily captivated me immediately. I first traveled to the region in the Fall of 2004 as a study abroad student, when our college organized a trip to Catania and the Baroque jewels of the south-eastern crook of the island to promote the program they were opening here. I have vivid memories of the trip. I remember our tour of the Ex-Monastero dei Benedettini, a majestic centuries-old complex that currently houses the humanities department of the University of Catania. “This is where you would take your classes” they told us, as we arched our necks to look at the frescoed ceilings of the ‘aula magna’, which had taken the place of the monastery’s refectory. I peered into the professors’ offices housed in compact rooms with low door frames – the former sleeping quarters of the monks – and observed the Italian students. How surreal and impossible it seemed that I could walk those halls as a student, take oral exams in Italian with those professors. I remember my first time on Etna, close to the summit, bouncing around on the black soil for our excitement and trying not to lose our balance against the wind. I remember slate colored townscapes cut into the sides of jagged hills, like nothing I had ever seen before. I remember sitting squished in the backseat of a hot bus between Elizabeth and Cosimo, laughing about the sweat that formed where our thighs touched. I remember the town of Scicli, nearly at the farthest corner of the south-eastern tip. At dinner we petulantly refused to eat anymore of the octopus that they kept plopping down in front of us at group meals and dined instead on wine and breadsticks (memories like that serve as a good reminder of my own obnoxious American student moments when I’m rolling my eyes at something one of my little ducklings has done). Happily intoxicated, we then climbed a hill to an abandoned church overlooking the attractive sprawl of the town. It was Halloween, and when we got back to the hotel at 3am we watched ‘Hocus Pocus’ in Italian on TV.
Fast forward to Easter 2007: Scicli was the first place I visited when I went to Sicily for a second stay, this time with my classmates from the MA program. We took the night train from Florence and rolled into our destination sometime around midmorning on Easter Sunday, just in time to see the first stage of the Festa dell’ “Uomo Vivu” Easter celebrations, in which a massive statue of Christ is paraded around the town on the shoulders of more than a dozen burly, sweating men who buckle under its weight. What a marvelous few days we had in a lovely little house that 10 of us rented somewhere outside of Donnalucata. It was early April and by any reasonable American standard the weather could be considered gorgeous for that time of year. Yet when we went to the beach – which was of course completely deserted – the few Italians taking strolls along the shore dressed in windbreakers and scarves marveled at us in our bathing suits.
Subsequent trips and memories followed; Catania, Leonforte, Ragusa, Siracusa, Trapani, Agrigento, Palermo – I honestly can’t think of one place that I’ve been to on this island that I don’t associate with a pleasant or significant or curious experience of some kind. When the opportunity presented itself, the decision to live and work here for two and a half months was an easy one – Sicily in the summertime? The Sicilian sea, its people, the cuisine for ten entire weeks? Sign me up, please. In fact, I had for some time been seriously contemplating a move to the island, and this was my chance to give it a try. Like most of Italy, Sicily is an astoundingly easy place to fall in love with and it makes quite the first impression, however if you scratch much below the surface an entirely different and unfortunately much uglier reality lurks. In my years here I’ve attempted to improve my grasp of Italy and Sicily’s underworld, and I was aware coming into this experience that living here would likely be much different than a weeklong jaunt around the island in good company. I felt prepared, which is perhaps what made it so hard to acknowledge that, actually, I don’t think I could easily live here long term.
To be continued…