I just got back from San Fernando, a small city of 90,000 where I spent 5 days with a Spanish host family. Leaving was incredibly sad, but it turned out to be a good thing that I left when I did – I woke up the morning after my midnight-arrival in Zaragoza to find that I had picked up a stomach bug somewhere, and I was definitely glad to be at my relative home to deal with it. Although looking at anything made me nauseous this morning, the doctor’s shot and my recent ability to ingest liquids has given me the strength to write a little about Sicily – three weeks late.
Sabato: I woke up at 5:30 after getting in from a night of tapas at 1:30 am, in time to catch a taxi to the bus station for our 7 am ride to the Barcelona airport. Heather and I were off to Sicily, and although the autobus was a slow and torturous start, we were too excited to mind. My first introduction to Italy (and Italian) was on the AlItalia flight, where we all received blood orange juice (zucco de arancia rossa, blood orange juice, my first Italian phrase besides the few I’d memorized off some BBC “Learn Italian” printouts). Blood oranges only grow in Sicily, where their bright red color and intense flavor is caused by mineral deposits from Mount Etna, Sicily’s outstanding and still-active volcano.
After a layover in Milan we arrived in Catania at 9 o’clock pm, and waited for what seemed like forever for our baggage. My nerves were turned to high: I was about to meet the family we’d be staying with for the next 6 days, family friends of Heather’s from when she lived in Sicily as a child. Her Italian was choppy but warming up to the flowing level; I, however, was completely lost. Armed with the phrases “this pumpkin is for you” and “toothbrush”, we grabbed our baggage and headed out to meet them.
Heather recognized her old friends right away, and there were a couple of seconds of backlag for me. She introduced me to the 13-year-old boy, his 16-year-old sister, and their mother. At their house in a town called Acireale (A-chi-rey-all-ey) I’d meet their father, their dog Mimi (aka Scunia, “naughty”), and older brother, home visiting from the university. The youngest and the mother spoke really good English, and so did our contemporary once she got over her shyness, but Heather was determined to recuperate her Italian and I was excited to learn, so we spoke in both languages.
After the 45-minute car ride we arrived at their American-style home. It used to be part of a complex of military housing, where American families stationed in Sicily lived before new measures made them move closer to the base. Due to its origins, the house had an extensive yard and a large kitchen – the first I’d seen of both for 7 months! We sat down to dinner and from the first bite I knew that regardless of the language barrier, I would understand this family: like all Italians, they appreciated good food. Zucchini-parmesan risotto was followed by a tomato and mozzarella salad with strawberries in sweet blood orange juice for dessert. (My Italian augmented: pomodoro, tomato, insalate, salad, and fraggiolo, strawberry.) I was able to tell them that I liked everything – “Tutti mi piaccionno molto”, more or less – before Heather and I collapsed, exhausted from the long day of travel, into bed.
Domenica: We woke up and after a breakfast of Greek yogurt with blood-orange-flower honey, and Italian coffee of course, we drove into downtown Acireale. While the parents went to a Palm Sunday church service in the main duomo, we four adolescents sat across the square and ate Italian ice with brioche. Italian ice is, might I say, a thousand times better when consumed in Italy. Our graniza flavor was mandorla, almond, made from the island’s famously delicious almond milk.
After exploring the main square a bit more, seeing the town park (with fantastic views overlooking the Mediterranean), and buying arranccini for lunch (fried rice balls filled with spinach and cheese or meat and tomato), we headed home, where our midday meal was augmented by pasta with stir-fried broccoli, and cannoli and tartufa for dessert. Cannoli exist in the US – a fried pastry shell filled with sweetened smooth ricotta cheese – but it is Sicily’s specialty and complemented by a chocolate coating and crushed pistachios at the ends.
That afternoon we went to Siracusa, a bigger city just a half-hour away, where we saw a rock formation called the “ear of Diana”, churches, plazas, and the sea. Sicily is involved in a lot of Roman mythology, which explained the abundance of mythical references in the environment. We dined in the center of Siracusa and I experienced my first Italian pizza. I thought of my mother’s affection for eggplant as I ordered a pizza alla norma, the typical Sicilian combination of tomato, ricotta, eggplant, and mozzarella. The delicious ends to the wonderful days soon became another typical Sicilian thing.