As a kid on the playground at PS 114 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, I regularly heard “Sicilian!” hurled as an insult. “Take a look at a map,” some kid once told me; “Italy is the boot, Sicily the shit it’s kicking.”
I didn’t stop to ask: who would kick shit? Wouldn’t that backfire? Nor did I question where this prejudice came from, though I might have been surprised to find that the grandparents of those Italian-American kids, if not Sicilian themselves, were probably Calabrian or Pugliese or Neapolitan – all Southern born in a country where there was, and still is, a real economic and educational gap between North and South, with the usual prejudice that accompanies such gaps.
Fast-forward three decades or so, and, like so many other tourists, I wanted to explore Sicily. Though we had originally planned to remain in Rome until June, pulling the girls from our local school freed us up to travel a bit more. After a week in Tuscany with Jordan’s parents, we all piled into two rental cars and caravanned down Italy’s Adriatic coast, across Basilicata, down Calabria, and onward to Sicily.
Here’s a map of our trip. I am SO proud of this map.
I have two things to say about this road trip.
First: It was fantastic.
Each city, each stop, each car ride –there was so much beauty and winding streets and delicious eats and friendly hosts.
We got lost in seaside cities that reminded me of the Middle East more than Europe- the legacy, I learned, of centuries of Greek and then Turkish domination.
We witnessed an incredible Easter Pageant accompanied by fireworks, Italian-Catholic disco tunes, and the revelation, for me, that Jesus is supposed to be sexy. I mean: the guy playing Jesus, who also happened to be the son of the owner of the agriturismo we were staying at, was kind of rock-star goodlooking, and was clearly chosen for the role based on how he carried a loincloth. (When queried the next morning about the liturgical text that accompanied his performance, Marco professed near-complete ignorance: “I wasn’t really listening” he told Jordan, “I’m not religious,” laying aside any benefit of the doubt that his casting had been related to much more than the cut of his chest.)
We drove through an ancient forest, where at one point we had to wait for cows with actual cow-bells to cross the road, to visit the mountain-top pilgrim site of Monte San Angelo. We poked around the ancient cave dwellings of Matera, a city that epitomized Southern Italian poverty in the 1950s until a forced relocation moved its residents into government-housing (a scheme that worked about as well as those schemes tend to), but that has recently seen an artist-led return to the ancient gorge homes (now blessed with running water and electricity).
Finally, we ferried across the Strait of Messina without falling victim to either Scylla or Charybdis.
Since I planned the road trip, basing it around one in our Lonely Planet guide, I felt like a genius the whole time.
But second (do you remember I began with a “first” here?): I am pretty sure that planning an amazing road trip in Italy is like shooting fish in a barrel. As I’ve said before, this country is just unrelenting in its beauty.
And then – after all that wonder and beauty and deliciousness- then we arrived in Sicily!
And Sicily is amazing.
We spent our first two weeks outside Cefalu, which we knew was a bit of a tourist-town but decided to base ourselves around anyway. Sometimes tourist-towns are tourist-towns for good reason, after all, and Cefalu didn’t disappoint. Picture a beautiful medieval town alongside a sandy beach. Or– here, just look at this:
While in Cefalu we had a guest-swap: Jordan’s parents decamped for a few days to the Aeolian Island of Selina while my oldest friend in the world (we met when I was 3 months old – really) visited with her family. What’s more fun than dragging one pre-schooler to a long, mushroom-themed lunch in a remote mountain town? Dragging two! But really, the kids kept themselves entertained (more or less, with a lot of goodwill from Eva & Tillie) and we had a wonderful extended reunion.
Leaving Cefalu, we headed south to a villa just outside the baroque city of Modica. My mom has joined us here, and we’ve spent the days exploring the local towns, lounging by the pool, cooking, eating, and, of course, homeschooling. Jordan’s parents are both retired academics (professori emeriti?) and they have been rocking the home-school curriculum. Actually, Jordan’s mom in particular has become the most extraordinary math tutor for Eva while Jordan’s dad has gone into bad-guy-catching and very-small-vehicle repair with Avi.
(It’s never to late to follow your dreams.)
To sum up then: those kids in the schoolyard were wrong. Sicily is amazing. Or maybe they were right- as I would have said circa 1986, Sicily is the shit. The wildflowers. The stone walls. The blue-green sea. The golden sun. And the grandparents together under one roof, which the kids think is just the best, and which strikes me, after all, as very Sicilian of us.