blog Blog 2019 Sicily 2019

Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.

April 27, 2019
In 1956 the Sicilian Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote a novel called Il Gattopardo, The Leopard.  It was published in 1958, after his death.  The book won the 1959 Strega Prize, Italy’s highest award for fiction.  In 2012 the Observor named the book one of the best 10 historical novels.   It’s the story of  Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the author’s great-grandfather and his response to the Risorgamiento, the effort that unified Italy.  Garibaldi and his 1000 soldiers in landed in Sicily in 1860 to bring the island into the fold.  Corbera, the last in a line of minor princes, finds that he has to choose between upper class values and the changing times.  To go along with the latter ironically meant more influence for the family.   His nephew Tancredi, who joined Garibaldi, put it thus: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”  In the end Sicily’s ruling class joined the new Italy, setting aside centuries of Spanish rule.
In 2000 we met Gigi, Tomasi’s great-nephew.  He was then in the process of writing a novel.  He needed someone to help him write it in English.  This was more than normal editing, as although he spoke English quite well, writing is another matter and often not easy to do even for native speakers.   Peg took on the task.  This led to stay in Sicily for 3 weeks.
We lodged in his family’s turn of the century residence outside Modica, a charming town whose houses line a steep gorge.  His house was out in the flatter area however.  His wife Marina was there with us as well.  Marina was friendly and a very good cook as well.  We had dinner with them most nights.  I learned to make onions in bread crumbs with garlic, oregano and basil.  She made pasta Palermitana, which here in Palermo they are calling pasta sarde, pasta with sardines, and which are very popular.  She sauteed fresh sardines, then she added bread crumbs before mixing in the cooked pasta.  Marina had a German Shepherd she’d rescued off the street.  He had a wild-eyed look to him, like he was deciding if he would let you pass or attack, though he never even growled.  She called him simply ‘Cane, ‘  ‘Dog.’  We had a whole apartment to ourselves, on the  second floor, with its own kitchen, to give you an idea of the size of the place.  
It was in the month of July.  When Peg was not working we drove around in Gigi’s Renault 8. They have a dashboard mounted 4 speed manual transmission.  It was old and the shifter clunky, but always ran.   It was fun to drive such a French car.  With it we went to a burial site dating to something like 4000 BCE, a Roman theater, stopped when we saw fig trees by the side of the road ripe with fruit, appearing to belong to no one.  We ate fresh tuna in out-of-the-way places and well-known ones such as Noto.  Tuna is plentiful that time of year when they run the straits between Sicily and Malta on their way to the cooler waters of the Atlantic.    Siracusa is an ancient Greek city in an island with many, with churches built using Roman era marble columns.  There is both a theater and an oracle,  the oracle now just a cave, not far from town.  I took the ferry to Malta, imaging the voyages of Ulysses and the Carthaginians along the way, just an hour and a half on the sea. 
In one double take moment I saw a boy and a girl walking ahead of us.  They looked just like my brother and the older of my sisters at that age.  Unlike me, they are 100% Sicilian, not that all Sicilians look alike.  Even in my own family there are vast differences.  Zio Matteo, my mother’s half-brother, was blond and blue-eyed, although his hair was gray by the time of my earliest memories.  He taught me to use a knife and fork, European style, right hand for the knife, left for the fork.  In those days I think they did not allow for lefties.  In fact the teachers, nuns I believe, forced her to write with her right hand.  Lefties were somehow devils.
Gigi and Marina took us often to a bar in the mornings, one known for their coffee granitas topped with thick whipped cream.  We went to a friend’s house one evening.  They grilled veggies for the bruscheta (‘ch’ in Italian is a hard ‘k’ sound, so it is pronounced ‘brusKeta’) on great Italian bread.  There was pasta and wine, and a secondi, either meat or fish.  The food was endless, the conversation in Italian mostly, some of which we could follow with our combination of Spanish, French and a book called “Italian Made Simple.”
As far as we know, Gigi never published his book.  Peg said he was rewriting her edits, which she then had to edit.  She concluded he could finish it in English.  Maybe he wrote it Italian.   I read a short story he wrote.  It was quite good.  A yacht owner took his large boat into the Med with a group of friends.  He let his regular captain take the day off.  They all dove off the boat to enjoy the lovely waters.  However they forgot to lower the ladder beforehand and found they could not get back on the boat.  Everyone drowned.
We flew back to Rome from Catania, flying over the isle of Stromboli.  It’s a volcano, cone is long gone, with  signs of life rising from its depths. 




blog Blog 2019 Sicily 2019

The Greek Temples of Selinunte

March 31, 2019


On the coast just 20km from my ancestral town of Partanna and 50km from the port of  Marsala you find the archaeological area called Selinunte. It dates from 450 BCE.  It has some of the finest Greek ruins anywhere. 


Temple E
Temple F, sitting right on the coast



Selinunte was a moderately-sized town, surprising given the scale of construction they undertook.  The Greeks founded it in the seventh century BCE,  locating it on the coast.  In 409 BCE Carthaginians sacked Selinunte, then earthquakes in the middle ages damaged or toppled the remaining structures.  English archaeologists began excavations in the late 1800’s.  Excavation continues.  Sculpture panels from a temple frieze are in the archaeological museum in Palermo.


Temple E as it likely was. Much of the building had no roof, an interior temple housed the worshiped gods
The angora, market area
Temple d



Plan of Selinunte


There is an excellent museum which contains well translated exhibits as well as various remnants including a pediment atop tall columns.  Upon this structure they project a slide show.  It is superbly done and the highlight of our visit.  We videoed part of the show.  The handheld camera  can not duplicate the experience for you but at least gives you some idea of what it’s like.




There is an extensive wiki on the town


If you want to thoroughly explore the site you need 3-4 hours if you walk.  There is a motorized vehicle if you prefer, with a taped tour.

blog Blog 2019 Sicily 2019

The Ancestral Towns

March 31, 2018

My grandparents were born in the small towns of Partanna and Santa Ninfa, emigrating to the US in 1914-15.  I am the first time on the US side anyone has visited these places.   The two are in the province of Trapanni between the cities of Trapanni and Marsala but inland, and in an agricultural zone that today produces mostly grapes and olives.  The area was inhabited by the Greeks, and not far from these towns there are some fine examples of Greek temples, which I will show in a subsequent post. 


Partanna is by far the more interesting, having a palace, some ruins and a great view to share. It is on a hill some 400 meters above sea level and 50 kilometers from the coast.   Here it is on the approach with our excellent Canon zoom.  



Vinyard on the outskirts of Partanna


Today there are about 10,000 inhabitants.  Its most notable architectural feature is the Castell Grifeo, now the Museo Regionale di Preistoria del Belice.  The castle dates back at least to 1453 and perhaps to 1400.  It contains mostly items excavated locally at a site called Contrada Stretto.  Per their website the  “Skull Drilled,” discovered in the Contrada Stretto, dates to the early bronze age, 3500-2000 BCE.  The skull has a large hole, drilled while the person was alive.  It is evident that the subject survived.  This “magical-surgical” procedure was probably used to cure mental illnesses.  There is also an 18th century fresco showing King Roger II, a Norman nobleman, defeating the Arabs near Mazara.  Later Roger and his soldiers liberated Sicily from the Arabs.  Mazara is not far from Partanna.  We passed nearby today.


Via Palermo, Partanna


The family name is Palermo, of course I can not be totally certain if this street is named for the family or the city, but nearly every town in Sicily has a via Palermo.



This church, The Church of Purgatory, is a mere facade.  The Grifeo family built it in 1722.



The damage ocurred during an earthquake in 1968.  Also damaged was the Church of San Francisco, although the clock tower survived and it still in use.  San Francisco dates from around 1500, while the tower was added in 1650. 


We are in Partanna on a Sunday and not a creature is stirring.  We could not even find a restaurant for lunch, so we drove the 6km to Santa Ninfa only to find the same situation, although luckily we ran across an open bar.  He had some tasty if floppy small round pizzas and arancini, rice balls, that in this joint are stuffed with beef in one and ham in another.  They roll them in corn flour and drop them into a hot oil.  The white wine was quite good.  It was a men’s only place today, watching soccer on tv while a few had something to drink. 


Santa Ninfa was founded in 1605.  Largely rebuilt after the devastating 1968 earthquake, its appearance is largely modern.  Today there are 5000 inhabitants and like Partanna is surrounded by farms, also mostly producing olives and grapes judging by what we saw on the way from that town.  There is a huge olive oil silo on the edge of town, a towering witness to the efforts of farmers and their employees. 


There are several regional DOP’s (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) for wine in this areaAlcamo, Delia Nivolelli , Delia Nivolelli, Erice, Marsala, Menfi, Moscato di Pantelleria or Passito di Pantelleria or Pantelleria, Salaparuta There are more DOP’s in this region than anywhere else in Sicily, if not all of Italy.  Judging by the size of the fields we drove through I am not at all surprised.  And no wonder I like the stuff!  It’s in the genes.


Judging by what we saw in the area, their fast food is pizza, like most everywhere in Italy, arancini (rice balls), fries, and something called panelle or paneddi, which are flat panels just 1/8″ thick.   They are made water and chickpea flour cooked into a porridge (like polenta), and then cooled until firm, cut into pieces, and fried in olive oil.   They are sometimes served in bread or roll.


Finally, this story.  In Valencia I happened to meet another American about a year ago.  His name is Jim.  One of us said, “My grandparents were born in Sicily.”


“No kidding, mine too.”


“Really!  What a coincidence!  My grandfather was born in Partanna.” 


“You don’t say.  Mine too!.”   


In addition to this coincidence, we live just five minutes from one another.  


blog blog 2017 Rome 2017

Rome Struggles, Rome Beckons

Rome Struggles, Rome Beckons

We landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport.  We are barely on the ground and already Rome’s disarray hit us.  

The last time we landed here there was only one bus to Termini, Rome’s central transit point.  We presumed that was still the case when we bought our tickets from the vendor in Valencia’s airport, thinking what a good idea it was to sell tickets ahead of time.  But then we walked out the front door, saw the bus platforms and four bus lines” names, but the name printed on our ticket was not there.  I asked several staff and passengers to find which line was ours. We stood in that line for 15 minutes (at least we were shielded from the hot sun).   The confusion was not over, however. as we were told to get in another line, whose placard was for another company. Indeed our bus appeared but as we waited we wondered if we had been mislead.  Then there was getting on the bus.  Italians do not stand in line, they crowd around the door, outflanking you. Eesh-  I was already exhausted.  And the struggle goes on and on.  Why?  Because Rome is chaotic like a turbulent fluid.    

Traffic moves like a raging river one moment and a logjam in the next, herking and jerking until the wee hours.  Yet like the fluid that finds its level, people get to where they are going, eventually, competing with each other and the buses and trams.  The latter are what the drivers avoid using, but once in their cars they spend lots of  time trying not to hit them and the other cars and the jillion darting scooters.   Everything would work better if most everyone used mass transit, or the recently added bike lanes which they might do if there were enough buses, subways and bike lanes,  but there aren’t since people spend money on cars instead.  

The enormous trash bins are another sign of chaos.  They are emptied daily yet each day overflow in an unsightly mess.  Rome city government is getting advice on how to solve their trash mess from Palermo, of all places- that’s how bad it is.  Even the upscale neighborhoods of the city have these problems, such as on Viale Giulio Cesare, which runs past the windows of our summer abode.  Down a bit from our place tourists by the millions line up for St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum.  The back streets are lined with upscale stores, wine bars, restaurants and made to measure shops.  But trash mars the area.  The platforms upon which the containers nicely sit hold four dumpsters, one for household trash and three for recycling.  They need perhaps two more but there’s no room on the platform and cars take up the room otherwise available.  

Rome’s other issues contribute to the strain.  Refugees, street people, tax avoidance, pollution, street trash.  The list is seemingly without end-  this is not an easy place to run, so no wonder there’s so much dysfunction.   And yet people come, because Rome eternally beckons.  Where else would you find an Eternal City,  a city of such high art?  There are countless richly decorated and appointed churches, public buildings and monuments, private palaces such as the Pamphili Palace, still occupied by the family but mostly a museum.  There are Egyptian columns and Roman era ones such as Trajan’s which tells the story of the conquest of Dacia, modern day Romania.  And there is ancient Rome. Every shovel full brings up a history lesson, it seems.  This is why Metro Line C is not yet done after so many years, delaying one of the remedies for the chaos.  There is plenty of cultural modernity to bring you in and keep you here.  Wanted in Rome publishes huge lists of things to do-  concerts, expositions, talks, walks, plays and of course opera.  The Italians invented this high soap.  Good grief, are they melodramatic or what?  


Summer brings the Music Fest, starting June 21.  Nighttime is filled with outdoor concerts and plays and acrobats and who knows what else, all free, and all the ones I have seen have been very good.  My favorite venue is atop Castel San Angelo.  Order a glass of wine and enjoy the music and the view of St Peter’s!!  And of course any time of day or night have a cappuccino.  Maybe you’ll find a delightful something to draw.

Then there’s the odd public service we ran across.  At Ottaviano metro, where you exit the subway for the Vatican, there is a free water spot.  Rome has had public drinking fountains, these little green creatures called ‘nasoni, for eons.’  They run constantly.  But this fountain is different, like the old milk dispensing machines, standing some 2 meters/7′ tall.  You put your bottle under the spout, press the button showing the size bottle you have and presto!  You can get fizzy water as well, yet it is totally free!   What?  

Only in Rome would you get free carbonated water.  How do they manage this and yet not be able to adequately handle the trash and sweep the streets?  Or perhaps more importantly, why bother with this at all? Perhaps it has something to do with the trash.  Millions of plastic bottles filled with water fill landfills and float in the Tevere that winds through the city.  Can we help if we give away the sparkling water?  I’d say so.  

The government is trying.  You can see that with this strange giveaway, with the trash platforms, another metro line.  But you see the challenges everywhere you go, the trash strewn streets, the refugees, the homeless, the African street vendors.

June 2016