I first visited Sicily back in 2004. I wrote this piece when I returned from that wonderful trip and promptly forgot about it. I recently found it when cleaning up my files and thought it would be a good post given our focus on Sicily. xoxo, Michele
I was smiling wide as I peered out the little window as my plane descended closer to the magical coastline below. Sicily – the land of my maternal grandparents – was waiting. The ink on my divorce papers had barely dried when I felt the need to escape. With an ex that hated travel and a long held desire to visit the island, I quickly had my hotel and rental car booked for my first visit to Sicily! I had driven in Italy a few times before so I brazenly thought driving solo in Sicily would not be difficult. How cute.
By the time I picked up my rental car, my excitement was beyond containment. All I could do was smile wider when the car rental clerk said enthusiastically in his thickly accented English ‘I have upgraded your car!” My smile quickly faded as I saw the BIG shiny station wagon awaiting me in the car park. Upgrading a rental car in Italy is a very bad idea. The word ‘upgrade’ usually means ‘bigger’ which is not a good thing when trying to navigate the tiny streets and villages of Italy. Not wanting to delay further, I tossed my luggage in the back of my new friend, blessed myself for added measure and set out towards Palermo. Hah, how bad could this possibly be? OH MY GOD – the Sicilians are crazy! I soon found myself lost in the outskirts of Palermo trying to simultaneously read a map, drive a stick shift and navigate a sea of cars, vespas and trucks. Alternating between moments of sheer panic and inexplicable feelings of exhilaration, I drove on towards Monreale, my destination. This hair-raising spin through Palermo left my feet shaking, tears staining the map on my lap and my driver side mirror with a new impressive dent (I’ll never tell). Somehow I arrived intact in Monreale – with a maniacal smile from ear to ear that would have made Jack Nicolson proud.
After copious amounts of wine to calm my jittery nerves, I promptly took a bus into Palermo to see the sights. My station wagon glared menacingly at me from the car park. But the next morning, with nerves calmed, I set out for Santo Stefano di Camastra, the village of my grandparents. The drive along the northern coast was thankfully almost a straight shot. And it was simply breathtaking beyond measure – the sparkly blue sea set amidst the rolling hills of the island left me with happy tears rolling down my cheeks. Unable to see through my tears, I pulled off the road for fear of
adding yet another dent to my car. As I sat along the coast, my thoughts turned to my grandparents who had left a life of hardship and poverty to come to America. I have photos of the ships on which they traveled framed and hanging on my wall at home. I often stare at those ships and wonder what life was like both in Sicily and during their journey. I have been able to piece together that my grandfather first came to America in 1907 but then returned to Sicily. Had he returned to marry or perhaps to find his bride? His marriage certificate from Sicily shows that he married my grandmother on 25 January 1913. Ship manifests show him returning to America in 1914 but his status had now changed to ‘married’. My grandmother followed 2 years later with their first born son – then age 2. She went on to have 9 more children which she raised almost by herself when my grandfather tragically died suddenly in 1941 at the age of 49. My grandmother worked tirelessly throughout her life and died peacefully on New Year’s Eve, 1968. And I was about to set foot in the very village where they were born!
Having scheduled my trip in mid-January, most hotels were closed and so I stayed in a hotel situated about 20 minutes beyond the village. Santo Stefano is a tiny village – only a few streets wide that lays along the northern coast. It is known for its beautiful distinctive ceramics – glorious hues of red and blue that mimics the colors of life in this peaceful, tranquil little village. I remained in Santo Stefano for 3 days and each morning, I would drive my little station wagon to the village to sip coffee in the main piazza. Tourists were few this time of year and a solo female tourist with limited Italian and a smile from ear to ear left those with which I spoke a bit suspicious. Some just sat and stared trying to figure out why I was really there; others more curious struck up a conversation. And by the first evening, although only a few recognized the surnames of my grandparents, I found myself crowding alongside a number of locals at the bar, smile intact, chatting in my best Italian. I wondered if my grandfather had stood in this very piazza so many years earlier perhaps faced with the unimaginable poverty of his day. I felt tingles staring out over the sea that they had once stared across, perhaps dreaming about beginning a new life in America. Once there, did they long for the sound and smell of the sea and the wind that stayed with me long after I had tucked in for the night? Had they walked arm in arm along these very streets? I felt somehow almost complete in their shadow.
Slowly by day three the locals had become accustomed to my presence and simply shouted ‘buon giorno’ as they passed me on the little streets. On my last afternoon, as I drove back to my hotel, I came across a road block with a few ‘polizia’ lining the road. They waved me to the side. Nervously, I handed my passport and drivers license across to the stern-faced polizia. He opened my passport and after a few seconds, a wide smile broke out on his face. He then leaned in the car and said ‘Oh, YOU are the Sicilian -American staying at Hotel Za Maria, no? I had heard you were here.’ He then proceeded to give me his card and number and tell me if I needed any help, no matter where I was on the island, to give him a call.
In that moment, as my smile spread to match his, I felt the arms of my grandparents around me, letting me know that they were watching over me from afar. A warm hug – sicilian style.