I had the chance to explore another little corner of the island last weekend when I visited a friend in Vittoria, Sicily, in the province of Ragusa.
A little background on the friend, who made the visit as lovely as it was: we met and worked together in Siena, where she was completing a PhD. She left Tuscany to return to her native Sicily in late 2010, as she had plans to marry her longtime boyfriend and settle down there. Long story short: she broke off her engagement and started a job where she met somebody new, then within 6 months she was once again engaged, this time to the new boyfriend! She is now (ridiculously) happily married and a barely-there tummy bump hardly gives away that she is 5-months pregnant. I find her story to be incredible…to think that sometimes in life all the pieces just fall together and you know exactly what your next step has to be, and within the space of a few months your existence comes to bear little resemblance to what it was before. It’s exciting. It reminds you that life can be long.
She welcomed me into her home and with her charming décor and home-cooked meals saved me from the tedium of my hotel room for a couple of days. After lunch and a siesta on Saturday, we headed to the beach. We were in the grips of a heat wave and the sun wasn’t really bearable before 5pm, but at that hour the beach was a bit calmer and really quite beautiful. Would it be too obvious to talk for a minute about how gorgeous the beaches in Sicily are? When envisioning a life for myself here I think the idea of living so close to the water is what enticed me the most. Having more or less abandoned the prospect of moving here, perhaps it’s also the thing that I’ll miss the most.
We spent the evening in Comiso, which has an attractive city center. Historical aside: in 1693 there was a terrible earthquake that devastated Sicily’s eastern coast, completely destroying every city and town from just north of Catania to just south of Siracusa. Subsequently, these locales were rebuilt in the late Baroque style of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the result is an utterly gorgeous chain of Sicilian Baroque towns in the “Val di Noto” that make this corner of Sicily one of the most characteristic. Comiso, though not quite as striking as nearby jewels like Noto, Scicli, Ragusa and Modica, was pleasant nonetheless. We attempted to see a local theatre production but were bested by some, ahem, Sicilian “oddities,” to put it politely…let me explain: at the site of the production, which had been organized by a local church group, at least half of the seats closest to the stage were roped off, presumably reserved – though ultimately never occupied – by Comiso’s glitterati. We plebeians settled into the back rows and waited for the show to begin, which it finally did, about 45 minutes late. Public showings of any kind in Sicily can be irksome because of the all too common tendency to chat throughout the performance (admittedly, this is a problem I’ve noticed in the North as well, though not to the extent that I see it here). The low talking and whispered cell phone conversations alternate with others loudly shushing the crowd (“SSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! SSSSSSSSSSSSSS!”) in a truly grating back and forth which makes it difficult to concentrate on much else. All the noise and our distance from the stage, coupled with the fact that apparently sound-checks had not been done on the performers before the start of the show made it impossible to hear anything. Needless to say, we gave up after about 10 minutes and went to get pizza.
I had only planned on staying in Vittoria for one night, but we were having such a nice time that when my hosts proposed that I prolong my stay, I happily accepted. On Sunday morning Giusy accompanied me to the stunning Donnafugata Castle. Actually, what they refer to as a castle was really just the sumptuous home of a very wealthy 19th century family. The structure was privately owned until 1982, at which time it was purchased and restored by the Province of Ragusa and then opened to the public as a museum.
Can we have a conversation about privately owned castles? These are the things about Italy that never cease to astound me. To think that up until 30 years ago this castle still belonged to the descendants of a historically powerful family. So often when you visit Italy’s historic sites it can be difficult to mentally recreate a time and a place when these structures had a practical function for somebody, but when you hear a date as recent as 1982 it renders the idea much more immediate. I had a similar sensation this past winter when I visited the Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi with Franco, which is about a 15 drive from his parents’ decidedly modern apartment complex on the outskirts of Turin. It is a stunning palace that was used as a lodge for the Savoy family members when they went hunting, back in the day. When following WWII Italy voted for a Republic, the royal family was dethroned and this palace, along with many other properties belonging to the Monarchy, were confiscated by the State. Keep in mind that this wasn’t all that long ago and indeed, descendants of the family are still alive and well today, and apparently still quite bitter about how things turned out for them. Some of the family members and their offspring have been living in exile since the post-war period; others are still kicking around on the Italian scene, such as Emanuele Filiberto, who as the grandson of Italy’s last king, Umberto II, still claims the (by now entirely symbolic) title of “Prince of Venice and Piedmont.” To pay the bills he works as a hedge-fund manager in Geneva, Switzerland, but he has also participated on Italy’s version of Dancing with the Stars. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Members of the family have long lamented the confiscation of their properties and fought to get them back, though they no longer have any constitutional claim to them (it’s only since 2002 that descendants of the family have even been allowed to return to Italy from exile). Anyway, none of this has anything to do with Sicily or the Castello di Donnafugata, except to say that these seemingly fairy-tale people and places have a decidedly modern presence in Italian society, and that always impresses me.
Following the castle, a pre-lunch aperitivo, lunch and another post-lunch nap, we headed back to the beach – because really, why wouldn’t you spend every summer afternoon on the beach if you could? We stayed for dinner at a friend’s house near the shore and on Monday morning my idyllic weekend sadly came to an end. Outside of the lovely confines of Giusy’s house, this little corner of the island surprised me for its provincialism. I continue to be taken aback by Sicily’s insularity, the lack of desire that it seems many Sicilians feel to let others in or to experience something beyond their immediate reality. Of course, I say this having grown up in rural America, which is really no different – I myself couldn’t have pointed out Sicily on a map before coming here for the first time 8 years ago – but it’s bizarre to step into these worlds as a silent third party observer (silent because they all speak in dialect, all of the time, and I catch maybe 10% of the conversation) and then step back out again shortly thereafter, fully aware of the fact that my brief appearance changed nothing in that little world.
This summer has been a humble reminder of what it feels like to be a foreigner. I have become used to blending in in Florence, but here the locals are able to peg me as an outsider in about two seconds, and they treat me differently as a result. This has been all the more unsettling because it was so unexpected – I’ve been living in Italy for years! This stuff shouldn’t be new to me, yet it is, it’s a different world down here. Of course, it’s the experiences that throw you off balance that make you more aware, so in a way I’m grateful to Sicily for making me feel like an alien this summer – or at least I probably will be grateful when I finally get back home to Florence.