Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farewell Sicily

I was up pretty early again on the day of the flight home, although this time my early rising had more to do with the day's schedule, which required us to leave the hotel by 7AM.  I did, however, forget that breakfast wasn't served until 7, so my aim to wake up with time to get some breakfast proved ill-planned.  The time was well spent though, as I unpacked and repacked my whole bag more neatly, with more attention towards the fragile souvenirs I was carrying home.

After a little more than a week in Sicily during the rainy part of the year, we managed to avoid the wet weather altogether.  I remember during the first six weeks I spent in Florence, it seemed to rain at least once during five out of seven days in a week.  Jackie, our tour guide, told us on the way to the airport that it was finally supposed to rain that day.  We really lucked out.

One interesting thing was, on the way out to the airport, Jackie continued to point out landmarks and sites that we'd passed several times before.  However, instead of saying, "I'll tell you more about that later," she followed up her comments with the addendum, "Which you know all about."  It was a small rephrasing, which I doubt Jackie even realized, but it brought a conclusion to our tours of the island.  I had half been expecting all week that when we got to the final day she would simply say, "And I'll tell you more about that when you come back to Sicily for part two of the tour."

Isola Delle Femmine

Old buildings near the airport

There was some confusion as to which flight we'd be on when we got to the airport.  We were originally scheduled to be on an 11:10AM flight to Rome, but apparently that changed before we even departed to Italy, and we were moved up to a 9:30AM flight through Milan.  Upon arriving, we were told that we were bumped back onto the later flight to Rome and had time to rummage around the tiny airport.  Some fifteen minutes later though, we were all called back to the check in to prepare to board the earlier plane to Milan.

When we finally boarded the plane, it seemed odd that there was any doubt as to whether we'd fit, as the plane was maybe a third to a half full.  Everyone switched to their optimal choice of seat, which for me was a window on the right-hand side of the plane, where I would be able to view the Italian coast.

Most of the flight the views were obstructed by a thick layer of clouds, but as we reached the middle of Tuscany, the land became visible.  I started to pick out cities along the way, notably Livorno, Pisa, and La Spezia.  We hit clouds again soon after La Spezia, and I got one more brief glimpse of snow-covered farms in Lombardia.  We were all shocked by the landing in Milan, as the fog extended all the way down to the ground.  Everyone was waiting for the plane to break through the clouds, and we never did, getting a sudden jolt as our plane touched down.

One of the old 14th century watchtowers sits on an empty spit of land beyond the airport

The Falcone E Borselino airport sits at the center.  Palermo's modern center sits on the next cove beyond the one visible here, on the far side of that last ridge.

Sicily disappears into the clouds

Between the clouds over the Tyrrhenian Sea

Livorno, the big Tuscan port, sits in the foreground along the coast.

Pisa sits on the winding Arno, just before the ridge at the center of the picture.

La Spezia is built up around this cove on the left of the frame, at the southern end of Liguria.

The foothills in Liguria/Emilia-Romagna before we reentered the clouds

Snow covers Lombardia as we approach the airport in Milan.

The stopover in Milan should have been about forty-five minutes, but it was pushed back a bit, which we were happy about as we figure that allowed for a greater chance of our bags making it aboard our connection to New York.  Unlike my quick turnover in Munich two years ago where my bags were lost for three days, I was part of a larger group, including my class and others, making the flights from Palermo to New York.  They may have made a point of getting all the luggage transferred to accommodate this mass of patrons.

The second flight was quite nice.  The airplane was much newer than our first trans-Atlantic voyage, replete with personal television monitors and far more leg room.  The plane was again probably only a third filled, and many of my classmates switched seats so we were closer together.  We had about four consecutive rows with four adjacent aisle seats filled.  Probably to the consternation of other passengers, we got to be the slightly obnoxious talkative Americans.  It's not as if we talked for the whole ride though.  After about an hour or so, we calmed down a bit, and everybody settled into their own movie.

There was a little napping as well, and after about three hours or so, we were all chatting again.  We played two group rounds of the trivia game on our in-flight consoles, shared snacks, and had a generally good time.  As we neared New York, we joked that we should just turn the plane back around to Europe.  Nobody minded the flight, and if anything, I think we all enjoyed the extra time with one another.  It was only Europe that was gone, and I was missing that already.

Back in New York, clearing customs and collecting baggage proved not to be any hassle.  We were all a bit sad to be leaving each others' company, but one benefit between this experience and mine in Florence was we would all be back in school together within a week.

I found the next several days alone in my apartment to be a bit depressing, not only because of it's location in New York (I know, many would die to be in my position, but I can't get back to Europe soon enough) but also for the lack of company.  I'd more or less been surrounded by interesting people for twenty-four hours a day for eight days.  My roommate was not back yet and neither were the day-to-day distractions of school.  Watching movies, something I normally love, I found to be a chore.  I felt like I was really living life abroad, seeing amazing things, learning, and hanging out with new friends. 

Back home I looked forward most to my hours working at Moore Brothers where I could relate to people who have a similar appreciation for Europe and its cuisine.  Sunday night I got a chance to meet up with my friend Kevin, an avid Jets fan, to watch the AFC title game at a bar in Brooklyn.  He seemed to have similar feelings to my own, but I have faith we'll get back into the swing of things here and see each other much more.  We'd been discussing a reunion of sorts for the class since long before we left Sicily.  If such an event occurs, I've promised to make my tiramsu, which apparently the class got an underwhelming taste of at the dinner in Agrigento where I went to bed early.

Well, I guess that about wraps things up (for now.)  I thought the blog was to end when I last returned from Italy, but clearly the opportunity struck to bring it back.  With any luck, this will only be a hiatus, and I'll have reason to discuss my travels again in the future.  Thanks again everyone for reading.  I have thoughts about turning my recent travels and other trips I've taken around America into another book, so stay tuned for more on that.


From left to right: Kevin, Pizeme, and me having a blast outside Il Tempio Della Concordia in Agrigento. (Picture taken by Kelsey Whitelaw)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sicily Day Six: Palermo Finale

The southwest corner, representing one of the four seasons, at I Quattro Canti or Piazza Vigilena.  There is a similar intersection in Rome.

There was no agenda for the morning of our final day in Sicily.  I hung around till a nice group of my friends were up—Marissa, Kevin, Kara, and Caroline—and we took off for a great walk around the city, hitting up some souvenir shops, a giant street market, and countless pasticcerias along the way.  Again, I found that walking around in the fresh air felt great, and we got to see some parts of the city that we hadn't had the opportunity to walk around in during our free evenings.  At one of these pasticcerias I got a really fantastic stromboli-calzone-like thing.  Sicily produces a lot of wheat, and the flour coating the top of the dough had a real wholesome flavor to it and tasted so fresh.  It was topped with tomato and mozzarella and stuffed with prosciutto—a nice surprise I hadn't been expecting when I bought it.

La Chiesa Di Santa Maria di Gesu

Eel and shark in the market

Uncooked escargot

We returned to the hotel a little before 1, and I got a short nap before our class reconvened at 2.  This time we were staying in Palermo, and we went to visit a mission helping immigrants, particularly from West Africa, make the transition to life in Italy.  Most of these immigrants were not in Europe to stay, but they were trying to improve themselves before returning home to help their home countries.

We got a tour of the facilities, a few of which were newly (in the last decade) renovated, thanks to help from different charities and the military, and they were so happy to have these new structures.  There was still so much farther for them to go though.  It looked a bit like a third-world country, with dirt roads and cement shards strewn everywhere.  There were many other buildings that clearly had not undergone renovation and some which didn't even have working lights.

After the tour, we got to hear from the man who more or less started the mission.  He'd been a successful young professional back in the 1970s before he had an epiphany and felt a need to give back to the less fortunate.  He made a radical change in his life, started dressing in meager robes, and stopped shaving.  He would go to the train station and try to help those in need with food and water.  His friends didn't understand what he was doing and neither did his parents.  His mother has apparently come to an understanding with it, but his relationship with his father is still a bit strained.  He has hope that will change in time as well.

As he explained, he had everything, and he felt it wrong that so many had nothing.  He gave up all modern human accoutrements.   For him, it was the Catholic god that helped him find meaning in life, but he was accepting of all religions and backgrounds.  He was also explicitly not against modern technology—though he may not use any—but hoped that it would be used for the betterment of society.

Still on site, as we left the mission, I was a bit disturbed to hear my friends and peers discussing plans for the evening, participating in what I thought to be relatively trivial conversation.  We'd just heard this powerful speech from a man who hoped to above all else, have our thoughts and prayers sent out in his direction, and we could muster no longer than the time we were listening to him, if that, to give him and the mission that respect.  It bothered me how quickly they were able to turn on his message of hard work and peace for all the world.  I know my classmates are caring and were moved by his words, but I found it incredible that they could not refrain from the material concerns of our modern lives for only a few minutes.  The mood changed as quickly as the turning of a switch.

The men of the mission offered us fresh bread they'd made and olive oil.  It was a figurative extending of the olive branch and yet many refrained from partaking in the food, saying they were not hungry or in the mood.  I know some even thought that it was odd that they were giving us food at all, but I'm sure it was much more important to them to sacrifice a loaf of bread to gain our respect and prayers.  We ended up leaving plenty of the food behind on the table, and I speculated as to whether that looked disrespectful by not fully receiving their offering.

Later on the bus, I even heard one girl say, "I was disappointed we didn't get to go shopping." This came after we were given the entire morning to do as we pleased.  From what I could tell, I was the only one to be pondering this, and it made me wonder whether I was taking it too much to heart.  Was it too much to ask for people to think a little about what we just heard from these struggling people? Maybe the greater message sunk in with everyone and would stay with them later, regardless of their discussions immediately following the visit.

For me, it was like watching a powerful documentary, except I was actually there, experiencing it.  The "music" was still echoing in my head from the credits sequence, the interviews were replaying over and over, and the message was bouncing around in my heart.   I felt compelled to give back and help these beautiful people and their message.  I could think only of them.  The day to day goings on of the world were lost in my mind.  I hadn't considered it a possibility to engage in such trivial conversation until I heard it all around me.

Of course, it was a little interesting to then attend a "conference" with a few of the other representatives of the mission at a nearby four star hotel.  There, I again heard this refrain that had been present across Sicily, with the people of the mission telling us they were so happy we were there.  One man, named Souleyman (not the Egyptian VP,) was from Burkina Faso, and spoke about how us coming to Sicily and seeing the mission was "big."  It seems that simply with our presence, we've shown the people of Sicily an interest that they've felt lacking and given them hope for a better future.  If we American students are interested in them, than surely others are as well: people who can help and preserve their beautiful culture.  There are many problems here, but we represent a future with solutions.  This more than anything has been the biggest difference I've seen in northern and southern Italy.  The northerners are confident in where they stand and don't yearn for our support in the same way because they have been highly patronized by tourists for so long.

Souleyman spoke about returning to Africa, saying, "In our country they need us if we learn something here."  He also spoke of the importance of world peace, saying, "What we need is not 'where are you from, where am I from?' We need peace."

Later that night, I went out with Marissa, Kevin, Pizeme, Kara, and Caroline back to that pizzeria where we'd eaten twice before.  Of course, they were booked this time. However, this was partially because we'd recommended it to our professor and chaperones, who were taking up a table of six.  Caroline knew some people who'd spent time in Sicily and had some recommendations for other places to eat, at least one of which we'd been unable to track down a few nights earlier, but we gave it another shot and found ourselves at a nice little restaurant.  I ended up getting a creamy cauliflower pasta that was quite delectable.

After dinner, we all retired back to Kara and Caroline's room where we did some end of trip bonding before lack of sleep finally caught up with us all, and we retired for a final night in Sicily.

Teatro Massimo, site of the final sequence in The Godfather: Part III.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sicily Day Five: La Valle Dei Templi

I had one of the worst nights of sleeping in Agrigento.  It was cold, and the minimal blankets on the bed didn't seem to help.  I had cold sweats and nausea throughout the evening.  I got up to try vomiting a few times, which didn't work, as there was so little in my stomach to start with.  On top of that, I had tried to set the alarm on my watch and had instead reset the time.  I awoke after some two hours of not really sleeping, around 3:30 AM, hoping to catch the last bit of breakfast before the day's travels.  My roommate just came back to the room when I woke up, and I figured he was coming to get changed for the morning.

I showered and felt a bit rejuvenated, went downstairs to the lobby, and finally realized my error in time when I read the clocks behind reception desk.  I was feeling less nauseous and more hungry than anything, so I tried to go for a brief walk to see if anything was open, which of course, in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Italy, where we were, was not the case.  I returned to the hotel, grabbed my laptop from the room, and began to work out some of my journal entries while the night guard slept on the couch.

I finished three or four entries and edited the video I'd shot in Erice before the sun started to come up (below.)  At that point, I went for a twenty-minute walk down the ugly shopping strip.  It was cold, but I didn't where a jacket, letting the slightly fresh air wash over me.  By the end of this walk I felt as good as I had for nearly two days.  Again, I thought I just needed a little bit of food to put in my stomach.

As I mentioned before, I would love to set a horror movie in this tiny town.  The fog, the city gates (people could be locked in), the population of a few hundred (everybody knows everybody else), and distance from anything else (2600 feet up), would make an ideal setting.  Here is all the video I shot in Erice, cut up in a way that I hoped would make it creepier, and backed by Pink Floyd's "Echoes" from Meddle (1971).  I didn't speed up any of the tape.  The clouds were really moving that fast. 

I returned to the hotel just in time for the beginning of breakfast, but I found that food was not exactly what my stomach wanted.  The fresh juice was good, but I only began to feel worse again after eating food.  I finally went back to my room and grabbed about a half-hour's more sleep until returning to the dining room to inform one of the chaperones about my condition.  I had no idea if my illness was at all serious, but I'd gotten tired of coping.  They gave me some imodium, which was supposed to help my stomach, but even an hour later, I didn't feel a whole lot better.

What did help was getting back outside and walking around in the fresh air.  After a terrible bus ride, we arrived at the valley of Ancient Greek temples in Agrigento.  I felt nauseous at first and nearly fainted as we stood around listening to our tour guide talk about the history of the Greeks in Agrigento.  One of the chaperones asked me if I wanted to go back to the bus, but I refused, knowing I would in all likelihood never get a chance to see those monuments again. Once we were given permission to roam around, I began to feel much better.  By the time we got to the second temple, I was feeling pretty good again.

Temple No. 1: Il Tempio Di Hera Lacinia (The Temple Of Juno)

I thought this was interesting that people carved their names and initials into the cacti

Temple No. 2: Il Tempio Della Concordia (The Temple Of Concordia)

Looking out to the Mediterranean on the southern coast of the island from the plateau known as "The Valley Of Temples."

Il Tempio Della Concordia

From left to right: Pizeme, Kevin, and me in front of Il Tempio Della Concordia. (Picture taken by Kelsey Whitelaw)

Temple No. 3: Il Tempio Di Eracole (The Temple Of Heracles)

I thought this was pretty cool.  Clearly they quarried this rock to use in the temples, but they also carved it sculpted it as tracks to cart the rock.

A statue in the modern square next to the temples where all of the souvenirs were sold.

The statue eclipsing the sun.  Il Tempio Di Eracole is in the background.

Temple No. 4: Il Tempio Di Zeus Olimpio (The Temple Of Zeus Olympic)

Il Tempio Di Eracole

A reconstructed "Atlas," which would have at one point held up Il Tempio Di Zeus Olimpio.

After viewing the remains of the temples, we went to the nearby museum, where they stored Ancient Greek artifacts and reassembled pieces of the fallen temple such as a statue of Atlas that stood 7.5 meters high.  This was one of numerous Atlas statues that once lined the perimeter of the gigantic Temple of Zeus, which was larger than the Parthenon in Athens.  They were depicted as if together they held up the temple, and they were constructed in such a way that their legs were small in proportion to their upper body, in order to seem imposing from the perspective of a viewer on the ground.

What I also learned that I found interesting was, all of these Greek temples look quite similar because it took around twenty years or so to build one.  If the life expectancy was somewhere in the forties, master architects cold only expect to build one temple in their lifetime.  That was their life's work, so they didn't have time to play with varied forms.  They used previous Greek temples as a template for building their own and made minor variations and improvements, but nothing drastic.
A conjectural representation of Il Tempio Di Zeus Olimpio, with the Atlas statues surrounding the perimeter. (Wikipedia)

Clouds above the corner of the museum

After the museum, we boarded the bus and headed back towards Palermo, stopping for a quick bite at a rest stop along the way.  I got a really fantastic Sicilian pizza, with bread that was closer to focaccia in texture than our typical pizza.  It was topped with potatoes, basil, and a little Parmesan cheese.  I've never seen potatoes used like that on pizza, and it really worked brilliantly.  I'll have to try that myself at some point when I'm making pizza.

When we arrived back at the hotel in Palermo, I went to my room, where I get a well-deserved two-hour nap.  That night, I went out with friends back to the pizzeria where we'd gone a few days before and had a very good meal.  This time, we split our group of eleven into two tables so we could have a more manageable bill and conversation.  Not willing to push my stomach yet, I just got an order of bruschette and drank water.  This turned out to be just right.  I can't say I was feeling 100%, nor would I until the day we left, but my stomach was again acting more tolerably.

That night I even got five hours of sleep, which is more than I could say for most other nights on the trip.  However, I was, against my own wishes, still one of the first up the next day, finishing my light breakfast before anybody else from our group made it to the dining facilities.
A statue in the courtyard of the Agrigento museum

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sicily Day Four: Sant'Angelo Muxaro

We left the hotel at the usual time Monday morning, but we had the extra obligation of checking out, as we would be spending the night in Agrigento, on the southern coast of the island.  Everybody loaded up onto the bus, and we headed south through the beautiful rolling hills of Sicily to another very small town atop a plateau: Sant'Angelo Muxaro.  It was essentially a farm commune of some 1200 people, which was, similar to Erice, only accessible by one winding road of switchbacks.  Driving into the town, our bus nearly was halted as it barely fit the width of the road.

Windmills lined many of the ridgetops on the way to Sant'Angelo Muxaro

We saw smoke billowing from the roofs of so many houses across Sicily.  I loved how this one in particular streamed out to the south.

A castle in the distance

As every other day, we hardly knew what to expect going in, but we were treated to some real small-town wonders.  It began with a tour of a small cheese maker's  store.  There was barely enough room for all of us to fit in the facility, and after describing the process, we were all treated to more than enough fresh ricotta and pecorino, the two cheeses typically made in the region.

Preparing to serve ricotta (picture taken by Carrie Salmon)

The pecorino fridge (picture taken by Carrie Salmon)

Walking through the town (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara)

Next, it was off to the town's baker, run by a kind old woman who was raised in Britain and spoke to us in English.  There, we were again treated to a short tour of the facilities, getting a good look at the old coal-fueled oven.  Neither of these shops had a storefront, and the town seemed to run largely on the bartering of goods.  We were given an abundance of samples again including fresh semolina, garlic bread, and almond biscotti, each of which were extremely fresh and tasty.

The baker serves us fresh semolina (picture taken by Elanna Seid)

Semolina and honey (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Almond biscotti (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

 The sign outside the baker's shop (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

We then walked a block to a house where a man had built an extremely elaborate nativity scene to stay up year-round.  It was almost disney-esque—save for the music—with it's use of little animatronics.  The elderly couple overseeing it was so happy to show off their work, which wrapped around the walls of three rooms (below.)

Finally, we wound up on a small dead-end street, where several locals treated us to a fantastic home-cooked meal, which we ate outside on lawn chairs.  It began with some sort of fried dough that was filled with an artichoke-like vegetable—I'm pretty sure we were told it was not artichoke.  Next, we had some wonderful frittata bites with bell pepper.  Like the day before in the farmhouse, the meal was well paced as it took time for each dish to make its way around to all 30-some people in our group.  In contrast though, this was not a restaurant atmosphere, and we got to really interact with the lovely people of the town, who were so happy to have visitors.

There was an elderly 84 year-old lady who it seemed lived next door to the home where the food for our feast was coming, and she came out and talked to us for a little while.  I did my best to translate for those of us at that end of the street, and we figured out that she had two sons living in Geneva, Switzerland.  It seems she had been lonely and was happy to have some company.  (I believe she also wanted to marry off one of her grandsons to my friend Maria, but Maria was probably the most enamored with this woman of all of us.)

The day's pasta was made with a rustic tomato sauce almost like a gumbo broth and then topped with some fresh ricotta.  Unlike every other meal though, we had a refreshing dessert of fresh sweet and tart nectarines and oranges.  Rather than feeling compelled to eat the final rich dish, this made a great light conclusion to the meal, cleansing our palates rather than overwhelming them.

After some parting shots of espresso, we had an extended session of goodbyes with the family(s) that had treated us to such a wonderful meal.  We felt like we had entered their lives and they ours.  Nobody was quite ready to leave, and the town's folk waved to us for as long as we were in view.

The artichoke-like dish (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Pepper frittate (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

One of our chaperone's, Tanya, tries to follow as I talk to the elderly lady. (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara) 

The day's pasta (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

Eventually we made our way to a wicker basket workshop, where we were given a brief demonstration of how different vines were woven to make items such as bottle holders and miniature birds.
The basket workshop (picture taken by Carrie Salmon) 

We next worked back to the town's center to board the bus, where we ran into some of the same people we'd seen over the course of the day, who again bade us goodbye, while others we hadn't run into greeted us with, "buongiorno."  

As you probably noticed, most of the pictures from the town came from my peers, as I snapped so few photos during the day.  I don't think I would be alone in saying, our experiences in the tiny town couldn't be captured in photographs, so I largely refrained from taking any.  Fortunately, some of my classmates made the extra effort, and I've drawn on their images to capture some of surface visuals of our day.

It was probably all of four hours, maybe five, that we spent in Sant'Angelo Muxaro, but, along with many of my friends, I felt like we'd spent a whole day there, and the evening in Agrigento was another day entirely.  There was such a dichotomy between the two halves to our day.

Looking out across the valley and to another city atop a hill from the southwest edge of the plateau in Sant'Angelo Muxaro

I love how the old men in each of these towns congregate in the main square to talk for most of the day

We traveled about 45 minutes to the outskirts of Agrigento, the largest city on the southwest coast of Sicily.  Unfortunately, wherever the tour group had picked out our hotel was so far removed from the city itself, it seemed more like a shopping strip in Dayton, Ohio than anywhere in Italy.  One of my friends had a really fantastic room though, and several of us made a pilgrimage to a grocery store to by drinks and snacks to enjoy in the room that evening.

Dinner was served at the hotel, but by this point, I'd had a stomachache for about a day and a half, which wasn't getting any better.  If anything, I started to feel worse.  I had all of a few bites of the pasticio they served us, which looked and tasted much more like lasagna than any Greek pastitsio I've known, and then I headed up to bed.  The next course was a not particularly appetizing-looking hunk of veal and oily french fries.

I passed on the food in favor of a nap, something I'd desperately been needing.  I had been burning the candle a bit on both ends, but on top of that I hadn't been sleeping well.  Since getting to Italy, I had one night of about six hours of sleep and many more of three or less.  I had been going to bed late but still waking up before anybody else.

I got about two fair hours of sleep before I decided to go hang out with my friends for another nice evening, drinking water and eating crostini.  I was hoping I'd get a full nights' sleep after that, but unfortunately my luck wasn't so good.

Looking back up at the town atop the hill: Sant'Angelo Muxaro. (picture taken by Pizeme Tchara)