I'm touring Sicily for a week before returning to the States, so my blogging will be limited -- OK, Bob? -- but I'm going to begin blogging my trip.
The most striking thing so far, besides the physical beauty of the island, is how wrong I was in my naive impression of what life here would be like. I had heard of "la problema del sud," referring to the economic disparity between the north of Italy and the south. I had expected to find the island mired in poverty, a sort of time warp where elderly women in black dresses were sweeping the sidewalk in front of their ancient, stone homes, and men in traditional Italian garb sat in trattorias sipping wine and talking with great passion.
Traveling across the north coast of the island, I found the towns to be more modern and less impoverished than I had expected. There were Internet cafes, plenty of cell phones, modern fashions, and an awful lot of Mercedes and BMWs for an "impoverished area." In the small town of Sant'Agata, where we spent three nights, we walked past a building that contained a physical therapist's office, a masseuse, and "Agopuntura tradizionale cinese." (In the same town, we met an Italian woman who had been Michael Jordan's linguistics professor at UNC.)
But it was when we headed south, heading down the east coast for Syracuse, that my preconceptions were totally shattered. We turned south at the bustling city of Messina, at the northeast tip of the island. (I looked on the map for the closely associated town of Loggins, but could not locate it.) We then passed through a massive rush-hour traffic jam in Catania. Drivers would accelerate madly to pass us, in order to sit in line one car ahead of us for five minutes. The point of the passing seemed to be in the passing itself, not in any substantive reduction in travel time. Motor scooters, often bearing two people, shot between lanes of traffic. When the cars were too close to permit that maneuver, the scooters would climb the sidewalk and skirt around several cars instead.
Finally free of the jam, we continued south to Syracuse, passing through countryside much less mountainous than in the north. Coming into the city, we spotted a large shopping mall. I had run down the battery on my digital camera, and we decided to pull in to search for another.
Well, the mall was as grand and as modern as anything I've seen in the US. The clothing stores were as fashionable as those I saw in Florence last year. There were no less than four shops selling digital cameras, and in the fourth I found the battery I needed. (Despite the surface similarity to an American mall, there were significant differences: many shoppers were smoking as they strolled the shops, and when I stopped for a cappucino at a stand in the middle of one of the corridors, I saw men ordering shots of liquor from the same vendor, doubtlessly finding that an agreeable way to pass the time as their wives shopped.)
An allee in Syracuse's archaeological park.
There certainly are pockets of poverty here. We've passed through a couple of hill towns where most of the shops were shuttered. The outskirts of Palermo reminded me of poorer sections of Florida. And it is harder here to find people who speak English than in Florence, so I've had to get by on my rudimentary Italian much more frequently. Still, this is nothing like the Sicily of which I had heard rumors.
The landscape in the interior has also been a surprise. The coastal terrain is much as I had expected it to be -- dotted with orange and lemon groves, olive orchards, and studded with tall palms -- albeit more rugged than I had imagined. (I have never been in a place where the moutains rise so quickly from the sea.) But once we began to climb into the mountains, we passed through a number of different vegetative zones. From the greenery of the coast we climbed into fall and, eventually, winter. At perhaps 3000 or 4000 feet, we hiked through an oak forest under a canopy of copper-colored leaves, encountering herds of goats, cow bells (goat bells?) around their necks, clanging through the woods. Higher up, we entered an evergreen zone and were surrounded by tall fir trees. Finally, on the slopes of Mount Aetna, we reached the edge of the tree line. We climbed out of the car and stood amidst snow and vast piles of smoldering lava.
The food here resembles the Italian food of my childhood -- spent in Norwalk, Connecticut -- more closely than the cuisine of Florence. That is hardly surprising, considering that the bulk of the Italian immigrants to the US came from the south. The Sicilian restaurants are also less elegant and less pretentious than those in Florence. Sitting in one the other night, I was idly eating an apple while I watched our waitress walk by. I had to shake myself out of the fancy that I was back in my hometown -- the waitress, the hostess, the blinking Christmas lights, the portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall, and the TV placed near the ceiling, blaring some sports event into the room, all could have been lifted straight out of one of the small Italian restaurants in which I ate while growing up. Only the fact that the sport was soccer, and the people around me were speaking Italian, woke me from my reverie.