Some of you may be thinking, well, actually, you went to Italy twice before you went to Italy the third time. People who think that Sicily is Italy are mistaken. It is a land and country of its own.
But just to back up, what even took me to Sicily the first time had nothing to do with my own adventurous spirit or that need to go where other people aren’t. Those things all came later, at least as they manifest in exploring and traveling.
The first time I went to Sicily I was in high school, but my older brother was in the Navy. He got stationed at the Sigonella Air Station which is just about a half hour to the Southwest of Catania, the main city on the east coast of the island.
But non one comes here to read about a family trip where two punks ran around gorging on arancini and massacering sea urchins. Fuck all.
Having come from a family that traveled, when he ended up on the other side of the world as it were, in a place that was as inviting and intriguing as Sicily, we had to visit. So yes, that first visit was a family trip and most of the memories fit that sort of adventure. Since my older brother still had to work and manage his life, for the most part the trip was me and my younger brother free diving in the clear, warm Mediteranean waters, cutting open sea urchins with our knives and watching the fish devour the freshly-exposed guts of the little crustacean.
Sicily is the kind of place where you don’t have to work super hard to see super old stuff, so you can soak in ruins without feeling knocked over the head and dragged to tourist sites when you would clearly rather be doing other things, like swimming. You can just go to lunch and then check out the ancient burial sites across the street while you impatiently wait for your lunch to come that you are clearly eating in an empty restaurant at the wrong hour.
After all, you can only eat so many arancini. Actually, there is no limit to how many arancini you can eat, but parents require variety and vegetables apparently.
That is about the extent of what I remember from that first Sicily trip – Catania, the base, swimming. Although, to be fair, there were some impressions made. I also remember seeing Mt. Edna smoking in the distance and, more importantly, I remember that Taormina was one of the most spectacular places I had ever seen, the kind of place that wedges itself into your subconscious in case you are in need of a destination for some later escape.
I remember how that town hugged the rugged hillside as it fell into the sea. I remember how it looked like the kind of place that James Bond may find himself with some sensuous woman with the erotic name.
Taormina left an impression. That was the first trip.
The second trip was about fifteen years later.
Now I was the one living overseas, working in finance in London and making short day trips to Geneva and Paris to meet with Russian oil traders and have long French lunches.
Ironically enough, one of my old roommates from college was now in the Navy and was also stationed at the naval air station in Sigonella. Despite the years gone by and the obvious difference in circumstances, I still had this ‘I can’t believe I’m going back to this place that I’ve actually already been’ feeling about the whole thing. I mean, I knew this clearly would be a different trip, and I had these positive memories that I wanted to reinforce. But seriously, why couldn’t he have been stationed in Istanbul or Tunisia.
I hadn’t been in London that long, but long enough to weather the rains of spring and appreciate the transition to summer. I was getting around a bit, and adjusting my Central Park skills to Hyde Park and making weekend trips to Dubrovnik and Biarritz, but a long weekend with an old friend in Sicily after mostly traveling solo was certainly something to look forward to. After constantly being your own tour guide, it’s relaxing to just let someone else take the reigns for once.
I flew in to Palermo to save a few bucks, assuming the island of Sicily wasn’t that big. It’s actually about two and a half hours away from Catania, so already I was being a pain in the ass to one of those few people you are fortunate enough to have in your life with whom you can get away with that sort of nonsense. The kind of friend who just shows up at the airport on time and doesn’t ask any questions.
I enjoyed the bit of a road trip back, stopping at gas stations for espressos and little sandwiches, watching the dry scenery roll by and having those kind of hours to kill you only get in a car.
We rolled into Catania in time to jot down a few notes and relax over a few cocktails before heading down to the nearest swimming hole. Already this was the sort of vacation I needed, the one where you weren’t concerned at all with seeing anything other than what appeared before your eyes. No agenda aside from beach and cocktails and taking whatever came, but knowing that you happened to be with the perfect host, the kind of host that had a comfortable agenda planned out.
There was nothing left to do but fall into the proper pace, and sometimes people have a hard time doing that. They need to force it, to not waste time, to see things. When you fly across the world to see a place, you may get wrapped up in that. When you fly a few hours and could come back the next weekend if you really wanted to, you don’t worry about that sort of thing.
At least I don’t.
The first day we set the pace and cocktail for the rest of the trip. Pace was best described as steady. Not pounding, just constant. The cocktail was the Negroni. Of course, the Negroni has come back into the fore of cocktail hipsterism fashion as of late, but fifteen years ago it was a bit more obscure. I got addicted to the Negroni on this trip and drank plenty of bad ones when I later returned to the states.
We wandered the local cafes and enjoyed the summer weather and lack of crowds that had decended on every other beach town in Europe.
The next day we hit a beach club. Again, not one to be a tourist, this idea of hanging out with local families, just relaxing with no agenda and seeing where the day took us was fine with me. We got there a bit early for the local crowd and staked out a couple of lounge chairs and an umbrella. Considering the warm Mediteranean water was just a few feet away and we had ample shade and a waiter, we were in good shape for the rest of the day.
In this we let a bit of our Americanness show through and buckets of Coronas with ice were the drink of the day. Light and refreshing, the kind of beer that can go for the long haul. There were no extracurriculars, just soaking in the scene, taking dips and swimming out pretty far and watching the innocence that is Sicilian kids summering at the beach.
Groups of kids were doing some sort of Macarana line dance. Actually it was mostly the girls, except this one teenage boy with the balls and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to go and join them. It was classic, he was fearless. I’m sure the jokester of his lot.
The clubby music blared, we hid in the shade and knocked back beers until the day was long and it was time to get out of there. A solid day at the beach was a welcome change from London, and just what I was hoping for. Goal accomplished, I didn’t really care what came next, but my host had a few classic hijinx up his sleeve, the kind only your old college roommate can pull. Somethings never change.
That night, the US was playing Italy in the World Cup. Now, I enjoy soccer, but don’t follow it, and I’m certainly not going to start playing up my USA pride here, in Sicily of all places, at this time, during this game. I’ve done enough solo travel to know how to blend into a crowd and make some good natured competition if the situaltion arises. But nothing could have prepared me for what JR had in mind when he told me we had been invited to some of his local friends to watch the game that night.
One thing that I really appreciated about this trip was that we never hung out with other Navy people. It was all local friends that had been made over the last year or so at local bars and restaurants, the time being put in to get to know the people in his neigborhood, really where he lived, not just the ones that had been transplanted from San Diego or Houston or Orlando and essentially lived life abroad just as it was at home, on base eating fast food, speaking english.
I never was worried that this would be the case. None of my friends are the kind of people to not embrace their time in a new place, the opportunity to meet new people and learn and engage in a foreign culture.
But I was psyched that this was the plan, and was ready to downplay any ‘in your face’ reactions to the USA team. Remeber, this is Sicily. Home of the disappearing loud-mouth. Also, it was easy to think this because there was essentially no chance that team USA was going to win this match.
So I went to shower up and refresh and wake back up from a long day-drinking beach session. But when I came out, that was when the diobolical plan began to unfold. Apparently my wordly host wasn’t on the same wavelength as I assumed when it came to sports. When I went to get dressed, I just here this ‘here you go man’. And he tosses me a USA soccer jersey, white with red and blue accents. He had on the blue with red and white.
Both of us. In USA soccer jerseys. In SICILY.
It was insane. I was shocked. I felt like Hunter Thompson about to get tead up in Puerto Rico. Somewhere, somehow, this was going to get ugly.
‘We’ve just got to run over to the base. The locals love American snack foods. European chips suck.’
So with that we drove to the base, US Naval Air Station Sigonella, past the armed guards and to the PX to buy Dorritos. I thought this was pretty hilarious, except by now I already knew for myself that European chips do, in fact, suck. No one makes processed food quite like the Americans. You’re welcome world.
So off we went to his friends house. What I didn’t realize, but I should have, is that this would be a full family affair in the true Italian sense. After years in New York away from family and now living overseas myself, I just hadn’t been in that kind of environment in a while – three generations of family all huddled around a small TV and squeezing five people onto a couch that Americans would have reserved for three.
It was amazing, the welcome was fantastic, the game was already on, so they said the hellos and then quickly turned the energy back to the match which was great, no need to jump right into conversation, the perfect chance to just sit back and watch and listen and soak up the culture. They were all watching the TV, but I felt a bit like I was watching them on TV.
While the crowd was glued to the TV, I was glued to the buffet. While our chips may have been a treat as a snack and fit in with the little triangles of tuna fish salad sandwiches on white bread, the real treat was the homemade schmorgasborg of Nonna’s specialties, the kind of home spun Italian food you could only dream of getting in a restaurant. Eventually, I stopped taking my plate back to the chair in front of the TV and just pulled up a spot at the table, gorging on eggplant parmisian and chatting away with Nonna herself as she laughed at my clear appreciation for the food.
Just to be clear, I don’t even like eggplant, or eggplant parm for that matter. It’s one of those things I always give at least one bite, but it never adds up. There was something about this Sicilian version, eggplant sliced super thin and layered into a pie shape, each individual layer breaded. It was so good. I keep searching with an open mind for its equivalent. I even tried to make it once half from memory half from a recipe that looked similar to what I remembered. But nothing has ever come close.
Maybe it was the lingering effects of the sun and buckets of Corona, but I was in heaven. The idea that we would be watching the game in this intimate environment instead of back at his place or even in a pub somewhere was just way beyond anything I could have hoped for. It absolutely made the trip. I could have left the next morning and been completely satisfied.
But that was when the crowd watching the game started working into a frenzy. Time was running out and the Italians were…
It was a tie game. The clock was ticking down. A tie to the USA in the World Cup practically a loss, devastating to a nation of fans who had already tallied the three points awarded to a winner as practically assured. One point. One measly point! The recalculations were giving a collective headache to the nation. Elsewhere, other countries, also in disbelieve, were re-factoring their good fortune.
And that is how it ended. Tied to the USA soccer team. Shameful. We tried to look sympathetic despite our matching jerseys. We went in expecting to be the gracious losing guests. I sensed some tension.
(Game: June 17, 2006)
In the end, Italy was able to advance from the group, the leader by only one point, but went on to win the 2006 World Cup over France.
That turned out to be fine and good for Italy, but we still had to get home. I felt like we stuck out in our jerseys and assumed everyone was on the same page when I said sure lets go back and change and then head out. But apparently, I was the only one who felt this way. Soccer jersey wearing being something that everyone here is used to, and wearing a USA jersey, despite this days inconvenience, never really being seen as a threat in true soccer circles.
I gave a warm goodbye to our hosts, especially, Nonna and have held a special place in my heart for this memory ever since.
We headed out into the warm summer Sicilian night with one of the guys at who’s house we watched the game. Turns out that he was the perfect guide for night out in Catania. This guy had just returned to Catainia to help run the family restaurant business after a few years managing Nobu in London. It’s funny how we all go through the need to get out and prove ourselves, but when there is a place like Sicily and its all-embracing family traditions to come home to, I’m sure the pull was strong.
The great thing, of course, about hanging out with people who live and work and play in the local restaurant scene is that they know absolutly everyone. Since they know everyone, they get that special treatment that only people in the industry get, and for that night we were along for the ride (yes, still in our USA jerseys). We ended up on the warm summer outdoor cafe version of a pub crawl as we recommitted to our negroni consumption.
The last thing I remember about the night was riding in the back of some tiny car as it whipped along a cliff-hugging ocean road. We stopped somewhere on the way to check out a particularly precarious cliff, and because the driver had to take a leak. Feeling like I could use some relief, and just to get out of the cramped back seat, I followed as he jump a railing to piss right over the ledge, into the dark crashing waves below.
I was thankful not to loose my balance or stumble on the hurdle considering I didn’t really realize that things had suddenly gone to the no-fall zone. I soaked it all in, the three of us pissing off into the darkness, as the warm wind blew and the ocean surged below. I wondered at the evening I had just had and how coincidental it was to have a chance to relive Sicily this way, in a way so different than the last time I was here, but with that chance to say, well that was the first time I went there, this was the other time, in my stories.
I wondered about how an old friend happened to be stationed here at the same time I happened to be living in Europe myself, concentric worlds not colliding, but coming close enough to reconnect.
Most of all, I wondered if I would be back.