Hello from Sicily!
Where I have climbed a volcano, walked across ancient Greek ruins, and learned how to cook dishes like Focaccia Mesenese.
[Note: This is my monthly update for free and paid subscribers.]
I’ve been in Sicily for almost three weeks now. I had done very little research before I came here, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But on the plane I started reading Sicilian Odyssey by Francine Prose, a travelogue full of myth, history, and art. As we flew over the island od Sicily, I read that Daedalus had chosen it as his landing place, after burying his son, Icarus, who had flown too close to the sun. This fertile land would be the place where he would grieve and learn how to live again.
When I looked out of the window, I could see Mt. Etna, the 2nd most active volcano in the world (after Kilauea), towering over the island.
It was spewing two towers of steam, and I began to feel that I was arriving in a place unlike any I’d ever been before. Although I’d been to Venice, Verona, Florence, and Rome, Sicily would be very little like them, I began to suspect.
I turned back to Prose’s book and read, “even in pre-Homeric times it must have been apparent that this island was so magical that the gods and heroes would naturally have come here to act out their dramas of danger and survival, of grief, mourning, and reunion.”
Sicily is where Demeter and Persephone lived, Prose explains, and where Hades pulled Persephone down to the Underworld (through Mt. Etna) and returned her for half the year after he and Demeter struck their deal. In fact, the goddess of fertility (Demeter, Ceres, Cybele) has been worshiped particularly devotedly on this island, temples and sanctuaries built in her honor dotting the interior.
Bust of Demeter, 5th c. B.C., Museum of Castello Urbino, Catania, Sicily
It wasn’t only the Greeks who left their mark on this island, but also the Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Spanish, French, and British. Sicily was joined to Italy in 1860 but only in 1946 was it recognized as an autonomous region of Italy.
Likewise, it is astonishing to think of the ancient, multi-layered history of this island. In fact, the island was created by the collision of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates. It’s half European and half African practically, and the many Arabs who have lived here through the centuries have left behind their mosaics and spices on the western side of the island, which is, in part, geographically closer to northern Africa than to Italy.
I have spent my time in eastern Sicily with my home base in Catania, a bustling city full of such raw energy that it has at times overwhelmed me with its sights, smells, and sounds. The fish market--full of swordfish, octopi, squid, tuna, and silvery heaps of anchovies--is a cacophony of men’s voices shouting in Italian and echoing off the surrounding buildings. The main market is full of purple cauliflowers larger than my head, heaps of long-stalked, green and purple artichokes, and endless varieties of oranges, some of them cut open to reveal their ruby red fruit.
The buildings are gorgeous examples of Baroque excess, perfectly mirroring the drama of the city. For instance, the opera house, Teatro Massimo Bellini, named after Vincenzo Bellini, the composer, who was born here, and lived a measly 25 (!) years, from 1810-1835. His most famous opera is Norma, after which a favorite local dish is named, pasta alla Norma (pastsa in tomato sauce with sauteed eggplant, topped with ricotta salata cheese).
The streets, which have remarkably few traffic lights, teem with motorcycles, scooters, and cars that seem to be in a constant battle for position. Each intersection is a contest for vehicles and pedestrians to see who will force the other to yield.
My room has been a refuge from the overwhelm with its serene painting that blends with the rough-spackled walls, just as they were found when decades of wallpaper were removed.
I love this woman’s calm presence and the sweet chick she holds (which I prefer to think is a pygmy owl). I have a small balcony, and I like to open the windows to let in the cool, fresh air. Window open or not, though, I often hear, a continuous chorus of car horns particularly in the afternoon and evening.
Perhaps because I did no planning or research before I arrived (a new approach for me), Sicily has worked on me quite differently than the other places I’ve visited so far in France and England. My time here has been less about art museums, historical sites, or exhibits and more about people.
That’s also because of the remarkable place where I’m staying: Cummari, a coliving and coworking space for female creatives and digital nomads in Catania. It is the reason I came to Sicily, to be honest. When I saw it online I knew that this was a place I wanted to experience. I’ve never stayed any place like this, and, in fact, it appears there is no other place like it in Europe. The name itself is a radical statement for a “vacation” rental. As this essay explains, “The word [cummari] pops up in Sicilian folklore in music and literature, used to denote female solidarity and a bond between women. . . . It has become a byword for friendships that feel like family.”
The second day I was here, my Cummari host, Michelle, invited me to attend a meeting of “Zingarelle Sicilia,” or gypsy women of Sicily, which she helped organize. It’s composed of expats who live here and also Sicilian women who divide their time between Sicily and other homes. Since then, Michelle and I have had so many amazing talks about creating communities for women, safe spaces where women can find sisterhood and belonging alongside others who don’t think of themselves as having just one home. (I wrote about the Zingarelle women and Cummari in my last letter for paid subscribers.)
I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know one of the other Zingarelle women, Maggie, from Germany, who is starting her life over here on a hillside outside of Catania, in full view of the majestic Mount Etna. She was looking for a great place to make wine, and she couldn’t have picked a better spot. The volcanic soil from Etna has made virtually the entire island one of the most fertile places in the world. Maggie is currently renting a house with the most amazing view of the volcano, and she is in the process of buying land nearby to build her own house.
I spent a lovely day with Maggie climbing up and down the maze-like streets of the hilltop town Castiglione.
At a little local restaurant that we stumbled upon, we ate the most incredible antipasto platter and sausage and pumpkin ravioli. Why are the best meals those we discover without even looking for them? That evening, as she drove me to the train station, I could see the red glow of Etna’s lava near the top.
Another highlight has been the cooking class I took that has opened a new world to me and given me new avenues to explore on this journey. My teacher was Debroah, a fabulous Sicilian cook, who is an attorney by day. She taught me how to make pasta con cime di rapa (pasta with a vegetable resembling broccoli rabe), pidoni (fried pockets of dough with tomato, pancetta, and cheese inside), focaccia messenese (focaccia bread topped with greens and tomatoes), and a wonderful baked radicchio dish.
As she explained to me, there is infinite variety in Sicilian cuisine because of the abundant produce on the island. Buying locally and cooking seasonally is not difficult here. It’s a way of life she enjoys sharing with guests to Catania and that she wants to preserve.
This past weekend I went on an incredible hike up part of Etna. My companions were Veronika, my flatmate at Cummari, a lovely Slovakian woman undergoing her own life transition, and Saro, an amazing guide who spends much of his life on the volcano.
As we trudged along in the snow (which was quite a shock after temperatures in the 60s down in sea-level Catania), Veronkia and Sara cracked each other up singing old Italian pop songs from the 1970s. They danced around and made me forget that my hands were nearly frozen inside the wool socks I had brought in lieu of mittens, which I had lost back in England. We hiked four and a half miles, at least a third of that up fairly steep inclines, in -3 Celsius temperatures and a howling wind that threatened to knock us over once we ascended above the tree line, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
So many times on this trip, but especially these past two weeks, I’ve thought about how far I have come from where I was a year ago, sitting in my room in New Orleans, wondering how I would ever untangle myself from a life that wasn’t serving me anymore. It was a painful time, and although I still have many difficult moments or days, I pause to remind myself of how lucky I am to be here. “You are near the top of the second most active volcano in the world!” I tell myself. Or, “You are looking at the Ionian Sea, which Odysseus sailed!” Or, “You are watching a red full moon rise on the island where the Greeks built temples to Demeter!”
Speaking of the sea, I had a lovely day last week in Siracusa, Syracuse in English, admiring the many views of the Ionian Sea.
Syracuse was a major Greek colony founded in 734 B.C.E. I spent most of my time on the island Ortigia, accessible by a short bridge, which was the heart of the Greek city and is still today the historic area. You can spend a lovely day just rambling through the streets at random. I was fascinated by the Cathedral of Syracuase, which incorporates 5th century B.C.E. columns from the Greek temple over which it was built, as well as Norman, Byzantine, and Baroque elements. It's a wonderful example of how Sicily is made of so many layers just waiting to be uncovered.
What also constantly surprises me are the ways that the ordinary life of today coexists with all of this history. As I was taking the photograph above of the Cathedral of Syracuse, for instance, two boys were kicking a soccer back and forth, often against these very walls. When I came back through the area two hours later, they were still at it, to the chagrin of people trying to walk by without getting beaned.
Back in Catania, I also found life teeming inside the ruins of the ancient Greek theater. It’s not only tourists climbing the stairs and traversing the ruins. A few cats also prowled the area, to the delight of a little boy eager to chase one. And all around, modern-day apartments look down on the site. Next to one window has been inscribed the web address for the lodging, in case you’d like to have breakfast on your balcony overlooking the view: lacasanelteatro.it (the house in the theater).
Later that day, even in the depths of the Roman baths under the Cathedral of St. Agatha, the main church in Catania, a black kitten was curled up, blissfully ignorant that she had become part of the nativity scene that had been erected there. I worried that she would be locked in overnight, but surely she knows her way around this ancient-modern city better than I do.
Next month I’ll be writing you from Edinburgh. It’s going to be a tough transition from sunny Sicily to gray Scotland. But I have to leave the Schengen Zone, so I don’t run afoul of the border police. (If your curious about the Schengen Zone, in which Americans can only stay for 90 out of every 180 days, check out this webpage.)
Until then, I hope you are settling into the new year and developing some dreams of your own for the rest of the year. I’d love to hear about them, if you are. Drop me a line and let me know your dreams or plans!
All the best,
If you’d like to hear more about my time in Sicily—particularly my hike on Etna and the island’s female energy—and how it is working on me, I’m writing a new letter now for paid subscribers that will come out later this week. You can sign up now so you won’t miss it. (As a reminder, while the monthly free letters sent to everyone document my outer journey through Europe, the semi-weekly letters for paid subscribers document more of my inner journey.)
You've made me curious about Sicily. I have avoided going there because it didn't seem as interesting to me as the rest of Italy. Now I feel quite differently!
Still a great read, though!