Saturday, March 24, 2007

Torniamo a Casa (Home from Sicily) 3.20.07

We were awakened this morning by the sound of thunder, deep, rolling thunder and the sound of rain hitting against the outside shutters of our apartment here in Vietri sul Mare. It was pouring rain as we got on the bus yesterday in Ragusa, hugging our friends Elio and Giovanna, our dear friends. Giovanna said the sky was crying at our leaving and so were we. We have come to love these people who befriended us from the very first, when we arrived like the bumpkins we were, in Ragusa, with our limited language skills and our wide-eyed enthusiasm for everything we saw and did. Elio literally took us under his wing and helped us through every little crisis we had from our technology problems to the car accident to renewing our permesso with such a generosity of spirit, time and energy, it will ever remain a benchmark for how to treat the people who come into our lives. They introduced us to their circle of friends, their families, invited us into their homes, shared their knowledge of Sicily and their love for the southeastern part in particular and took us places and showed us things we would never have found on our own. There are no words to describe the gratitude we owe them and we only hope they will let us repay even a tiny bit by coming to visit us in the states in the future when their very busy lives allow.

Jessica went home on the 14th and we took the bus home to Vietri and napped and rested that day, getting our things together for our quick trip to Sicily. This was not something we had expected to do before leaving Italy, but if you have read this blog recently you know that when we were in Ostuni we received an invitation to return to Ragusa, to stay in one of the properties of our friends Elio and Giovanna for the chance to see them and Sicily one more time before we returned to the states. We jumped at the chance, although we knew we had just a few short weeks to get our things together for the move back home and a bit stressed out to tell you the truth with everything we have to do to prepare for our trip back home to the states.

Nevertheless, it was something we wanted to do very much and they just made it easy for us, letting us stay in their beautiful country house "in campagna" (in the country) just outside Ragusa, as their guests.

Our flight left Naples at around 4:45 and in about an hour we were touching down in Catania, just in time to catch the 6pm bus to Ragusa. By 8 we were embracing Elio and Giovanna at the bus station and picking up a few things to make a light dinner at their lovely apartment. They had framed the little watercolor I had presented them with, of their country house, before we left in May, now part of the art collection on the walls of their home. I was flattered. They liked the little gift we brought them from Vietri, a set of limoncello glasses with decanter and a tray to match, not nearly enough to truly thank them, but they appreciated the thought and even scolded us for bringing anything at all!

Staying at the Villa Gelso

The Villa Gelso is a lovely old two-story Sicilian farmhouse that Elio and Giovanna have lovingly restored and filled with antiques and traditional Sicilian ceramics, furniture and treasures. It is part of a small borgo, with another house owned by their friends Lucia and Rino and a third by a gentleman who is retired but maintains a small farm and a herd of sheep who can be seen every day clamoring out of his fenced yard and down the country lane, to munch on grasses in a nearby field. There is a family of cats who also inhabit this property, cavort and play with each other, living quite a peaceful existence, keeping away the mice and amusing themselves as only cats can.

A bright blue front door welcomed us into the soggiorno, a combination living room and dining area, with cozy furniture and freestanding stove (fireplace). A pile of wood was stored in a corner of the room and all the necessary accoutrements for starting a fire. So cozy! The floors are made of a traditional Sicilian tile called "pece" in shades of dark browns and carmel colors that reminded us a bit of the stained concrete floors we had in Phoenix, but more browns than rusts in color. There is a large country kitchen with doors that open to the terraces on both sides and lots of trees and potted plants and enough cozy corners to relax in and enjoy the rolling green hills, wildflowers and low stone walls that characterize this part of Sicily, that we enjoyed so much when we lived here last year. Its location is close enough to Ragusa and the other sights in the area as to be a very convenient base for touring as well.

Upstairs are the two double bedrooms (with a fold out bed downstairs too) and second bath (there is another downstairs). Casement windows open to views of the countryside and a large terrace with an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside, all the way to the sea on a clear day. On Friday morning we enjoyed the sunshine and our breakfast there.

Visiting Marina di Ragusa and Angelo

Not only did they let us stay in the country house, but they also gave us the use of Giovanna's car during our stay so that we could visit some of our favorite places. On Friday, of course, our first stop was to Marina di Ragusa, to say hello to Salvatore at the coffee bar we frequented, only to learn that he doesn't work there any more (only in the summer is what we understood) and to walk along the Lungomare. We stopped at the home of Angelo, a favorite of ours among the older guys who hung out in the piazza. He had not been well when we left and we worried about him. I had sent him a post card and a note and had not heard back so we were concerned something dire had happened. But when we rang his doorbell and he came to the door and recognized us, he got tears in his eyes and welcomed us warmly into his home, offering coffee, a drink, some biscotti? We learned that after we left he had had a serious car accident that landed him in the hospital in a coma for ten days and that he was only now recovering. To tell you the truth, he still didn't look very good to us so we will continue to worry about him. We didn't stay very long, as we were meeting Elio and Giovanna later that evening and didn't want to tire him out either. He gave us the email address of his son and asked us to keep in touch with him. We promised we would. Angelo had given us his address when we left last year, telling us that whenever we went back to Marina we should come and see him and his buddy Giovanni had teased him about it at the time (probably thinking we never would do it.) so I think it gave him great pleasure to see us standing at his doorstep a year later! It did our hearts good too.

Pizza in Donnalucata

Friday night we met Giovanna and Elio in Marina and drove together to Donnalucata, a nearby town (where we used to buy fresh fish at the market) for a gathering of their friends. Almost every town in the area was celebrating the feast of St. Joseph (March 19th is his feast day) with some sort of festival, parade, or other celebration. There was a street fair/market going on and we wandered around admiring all the wares, after a pizza dinner in a local restaurant. The men insisted on sitting at one end of the table with the women at the other and the women (all modern women with professions and every bit their partners' equals) gave them a hard time about it and a lot of teasing back and forth ensued. It was all in good fun and both Bob and I were thrilled that we were able to follow a good deal of the conversation and even share in the teasing and story telling. They all noticed that our language skills had improved since we saw them last and gave us lots of positive pats on the back for it.

Ragusa Ibla and the Duomo

On Saturday we spent some time in Ragusa Ibla and saw that the restoration of the Duomo is finished, no more scaffolding. The Ragusani are apparently unhappy though because they hadn't anticipated that the restoration would mean bringing back the dark stone details on the façade that had faded over time. The overall appearance of the Duomo, although in dire need of a good cleaning before, was that of light colored tufa stone. Now it is accented on the columns and around the massive doors with very dark, almost black stone that really stands out in a very contrasting way. We thought if you had never seen it the other way, that you might find it very beautiful anyway, but Giovanna felt that with the dark iron gates around it, the lower part of the church is now too heavy and dark. For us, we were just happy to see this lovely piazza, with its palm trees and shops surrounding it, free of scaffolding and open to the light.

Unfortunately while we were in Sicily, the father of a dear friend of Elio and Giovanna's died and they needed to tend to the needs of their friend. We shared a simple late lunch of roasted chicken and veggies (yummm) picked up at the local rosticceria. We were on our own on Saturday evening and spent some quiet time in front of the fire, with a simple dinner. Not that we minded, it was very relaxing for us after our busy couple of weeks.

Sunday, "in giro" and the Cena di San Giuseppe

Sunday was a day "in giro" (traveling around) with them. They picked us up around noon and we went to a nearby town - Santa Croce Camerina - for a celebration of the feast of San Giuseppe. Last year I was lucky enough to tag along with Elio's brother Salvatore and his wife Marinella and witness for the first time the "cena" - a private home where the people who live there and their friends and families prepare an incredible feast, spread out on a huge table and invite the Holy Family to partake. This is acted out by local people representing Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus, who come to knock on their door, asking to be let in. This is in memory of the days before Mary gave birth, when she and Joseph went to Bethlehem and "there was no room for them at the inn". Joseph (Giuseppe) knocks three times at the door. First when the matriarch of the family asks "Chi è?" (Who is it?) he says "Joseph" and there is no response. Then he knocks again and at the same questions responds "Joseph and Mary." The third time is the charm and when he responds "Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus" the door is opened and they enter, wash their hands and take their seats at the table and are served from the "cena" (dinner) spread before them. (Last year they were served spaghetti, but this time it was a little of everything on the table.)

Giovanna, charming as she is, with her beautiful sparkling green eyes, asked the woman of the house if we could stay and watch since we were not members of the family or close friends. She explained that we were visiting and it would be a great thing for us to be able to see firsthand what they did. This is a very religious event. This particular family had some health issues that were resolved in a positive way and they wanted to express their thanks to God for delivering them from their burdens (This is the way it was explained to me and I hope I have recounted it properly and respectfully.) First we all walked to the church, they said their prayers and were accompanied back to the home by a marching band and only the immediate family went inside as the Holy Family approached and began the knocking ritual.

Afterwards we were invited to share a bowl of pasta that was prepared in a giant pot and mixed with a simple tomato sauce. Bob felt a bit uncomfortable, as if he were intruding on a very private event but Giovanna assured him that the people were very happy to have us join them and witness this unique festival.

The day ended with a drive to the sea, to Punta Braccetto, one of the most southerly points on the coast of Sicily, a little snack of the focaccia sandwiches typical of this area, accompanied by some juicy oranges. Elio really wanted to take us for some granita too, but we were all too tired and convinced him it was OK to go home without it. (Elio tries his best to accommodate us and if he thought we wanted to do something, he would try his darndest to make it happen!)

Modica and a Last Supper

Monday we spent in Modica. We wanted to just stand at the overlook with the panoramic view of the city and to walk through its lovely streets one more time. We bought a few pieces of Sicilian ceramica, imitations of pieces from the 18th century, a Sicilian cookbook (I was sorry hadn't bought one of these when we lived here and took the chance to do it now.), some Modica chocolate and of course, cannoli from Buonaiuto's shop. We sat on the steps of the church, munching happily, delighted to have had the chance to eat just one more!

Monday night we joined Elio, Giovanna, Elio's brothers Salvatore and Pippo, their wives Rosalba and Marinella, friends Rino & Lucia and Assunta & Gianfranco for another "Last Supper" at the Masseria "Tumino" - a large working farm that offers typical Ragusana fare, cheeses and olives, with the centerpiece of the meal (as far as we were concerned) a steaming bowl of fresh, just made, hot ricotta! If you ever get the chance (and have not yet) to try this, it is, in our opinion, out of this world. Afterwards they served a variety of grilled meats: veal, pork and beef that were sliced thin and dripping with the most delicious sauce, that was probably the simple, tried and true Italian concoction of "aglio, olio, pepperoncino and sale (lots of sale!) It was completely finger-licking buono, buono, buono.

All of this was followed by a fresh-made, from their fresh ricotta, more cannoli! Everyone else had the good sense to share one, while Bob and I hadn't understood the pinky gesture that meant they would each have half. We talked and laughed so much that night. We learned about other gestures and what they mean. Giovanna explained a term we had heard that meant something like "Who is this guy??" or "What do you want??" that sounds something like "Chi (hard "c") stu ca?" that I remembered hearing my uncle say, so I know it is Sicilian but she laughed and wanted to know where I had heard that and said it's not really a nice thing (not obscene or anything) but not a friendly thing. I got that it was accompanied by the typical Italian gesture of touching all your fingertips together with the thumb and shaking it back and forth.

We had the waiter take a photo of the whole group and then one of all the men and all the women. These people have been friends since childhood and it is one of the things I envy and enjoy about being around them. They have a familiarity and a devotedness to each other that can only be achieved from a lifetime of experience. In this gypsy lifestyle of ours we have met many people and many whom we consider lifelong friends, but know we sacrifice something by not staying in one place, the trade-off to having many experiences I suppose and one we have to be content with, so rich have these experiences been.

Pranzo (lunch) with Lucia and goodbyes

On Tuesday, we got our things together to leave, took a walk around the countryside and were invited to have lunch prepared by Lucia, next door. She is a surgical nurse and is studying English, with the desire to visit America and her relatives in Australia. It was lovely to spend some quiet time with her and hear all about her plans and dreams and get to know her a little better. We learned that she and her husband Rino are building another house and trying to sell this one. It's a wonderful two bedroom and a den upstairs and very spacious downstairs with big kitchen and open living space below. They are asking 300,000 euros and we wish we could afford to buy it! If you are at all interested, let us know and we'll put you in touch with Lucia. It would definitely be a turn-key situation as they have lovingly restored it and it looks gorgeous.

We promised to keep in touch, sharing email and street addresses and a warm hug as we hurried off to meet Elio and Giovanna, drop off their car and take the bus back to Catania. There was not a lot of time for a lengthy goodbye but we hugged and kissed each other warmly and with the rain pouring down on us, hurried onto the bus, crying our eyes out as it pulled away and I saw Giovanna blow us a kiss from their car. Hoping our paths will cross again, knowing it will take an effort on both our parts, as long distance relationships are hard and it takes a real effort to maintain a friendship when there are many miles in between. We will do our best though and we know they will too. We will see each other again. Promise.

Per Elio e Giovanna, vogliamo dire: Grazie tantissimi, i nostri amici! Non vi dimenticheremmo, mai. State bene, sempre. Starete nel nostri cuori per sempre. Benvenuti in America a casa nostra quando potete venire. Baci, baci, baci.

Now the thunder is still pounding around us. We've seen some hail hitting the terrace and rain has been constant all day. The electricity has gone in and out and we wonder about the strength of the connections out there. The forecast for tomorrow is for more of the same and then we hope the sun will come out. We promised ourselves we would swim in this sea before we leave here on the 31st and we hope we can keep that promise!

Buona giornata, wherever you are,
Rosemary & Bob

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