Oh Poppa, you were so right.
In the long ago, I listened to the stories of the old country told to me by my father. His eyes moistened when he spoke of his beginnings in the foothills of Mount Etna in the town of Bronte in the province of Catania. His recollection was kept alive vividly throughout his life, and through his eyes we saw what he loved.
He drew for us, his children, a picture of the country he left behind almost a century ago that still remains a part of my life. Through me, it may continue to live on through my children. Poppa has been gone for many years now, but my dream of going to Sicily became a reality several years ago.
My sister, Gloria, and I, and our daughters, Susan and Joan, planned our vacation with enthusiasm and strategy. Joan and I studied while we vacationed on the beach in Mazatlan, Mexico using only Sicilian in our conversation. We giggled and practiced the various books we had taken with us preparing for our trip to Sicily. My niece, Susan, who is a librarian, researched all the places we were to visit. We were prepared and determined to be totally immersed in the Sicilian life, language and all.
My sister and I tried to remember all the stories that Poppa and Momma told us of their youth in this beautiful part of the world. We anticipated being in the lush countryside. Fruits and vegetables that were described to us in great detail would be plentiful and familiar. Stories of flowers blooming along the country roads, and inhaling the fragrances that permeated everywhere in the area would soon become a reality for us. Again, Poppa proved he was a man of his word.
His promise of seeing the natural beauty of his country, its people and to learn more of the history of this land would now be possible. To our surprise, it was all he promised and much more as we learned throughout our stay.
It was in early September 2000, after a series of incidents during our trip that we arrived at the final destination, the airport in Catania, Sicily. While traveling, it is known that many trips are uneventful, but not ours. At the start in Newark airport, my niece was late arriving, and we had to leave her behind. She had a seat but her luggage did not get on board. Regulations said the luggage must accompany the passenger. She had to take the next flight out. She looked so forlorn as she waved goodbye to us. We all hoped she would soon follow.
As we boarded our plane in Newark, the ticket agent took the wrong portion of my ticket, so I was missing one leg of the trip from Rome to Catania, which proved to be an inconvenience later at the airport in Fumicino, Rome. Explaining the error was the first opportunity to try out our Italian to the representative in Rome. Thank God the Italians really do have a special feeling for Americans, especially those of us who try to speak their language. With flair and enthusiasm, the agent at the airport was helpful.
The seating arrangement was somehow mixed up, and we were not seated together. Through the kindness of an American in the U.S. Air Force who gave up his seat, we were able to sit together.
When we arrived at the airport in Catania, the airline lost one piece of our luggage. We were assured it would be found and returned to us within 24 hours even if they had to drive out to the country villa we had rented. This, of course, was the most important piece of luggage. This piece held the American coffee, the soft toilet tissue we were told to be sure to take, and all the household supplies we thought we could not live without. Those Italian were men of their words. The piece was found and delivered the next morning. Susan also arrived the following day.
It was almost and hour’s drive to the villa in the small town of Trappitello in the foothills of the enchanted city of Taormina. The three of us rode in the small fiat driven by Joan, hardly able to contain ourselves. It is strange and wonderful to feel a special kinship to a place we had only heard and read about. It was almost a feeling of going home, where our parents lived so many years before. We were traveling ancient roads they may have travelled, and seeing the incredible countryside we were now enjoying as we reached our destination.
As we drove through winding country roads uphill through the mountainside, the sounds of church bells tolling the noontime hour could be heard echoing from a nearby abbey. The winding dirt roads were lined with olive and fruit trees, ripe and ready to be picked, brought us directly to the villa nestled on top of a mountain. The barking of dogs could be heard. Their yelping grew louder as we rounded curve after curve. They seemed to be protecting this hidden treasure as we came closer to our villa.
The effusion of color from the varieties of flowers and blossoms greeted us with a sweet aroma and warm welcome. As we approached the villa the road curved around and came to a stop. At one end of this garden spot was a large house, the main house, owned by a “principessa” from a noted family who owned Corvo vineyards in the area. It was a small mansion with a lavish swimming pool, surrounded by the picturesque mountains. There stood in the short distance a vision of Mount Etna, always smoking and always active.
Our quarters were to the side of the main house in a long low building. We were in awe of the majestic scene. We felt it was a scene from a foreign movie. We were really here, my sister exclaimed with tears coming to her eyes. Waiting for us was Pina, a young woman who would be our housekeeper during our stay. We were so excited. Now we would be able to converse in Sicilian. Gloria was the most proficient in the dialect. Joan and I managed to make ourselves understood, except by the time the words came to us in Italian, our body language spoke loud and clear what we needed or wanted.
The dark green shutters that covered the windows were old but looked majestic since they hung from ceiling to floor. As we entered the house, it welcomed us as if we had come home from a long visit away. The long dining room table had in the center a magnificent handmade ceramic platter, typically Sicilian, filled with the largest lemons, oranges, grapes and apples I had ever seen.
Yes Poppa was right again. The lemons in Sicily were the size of oranges. The fragrance was perfume to our senses. He remembered in his time so well, as I will remember in my time.
Ciao for now, my friends. I will tell you more next time.
Linda Alessi contributes a column to The Democrat on life’s later decades.