There are days I surprise myself. Good days. And then other days, equally surprised, nowhere good. Today is the latter.
Today I can’t help thinking I’m not as strong as I’d like to be. Today I feel incredibly weak.
I knew the journey home would be challenging. But when the EU decided it wasn’t going to allow in Americans, I figured it was probably time to return. Well, okay, truth be told, first I considered staying. Returning to Sicily or enrolling in an intensive language-learning school. But then someone pointed out that staying meant I could be here until there was a vaccine or a new president. Neither is a guarantee, and both are a long way off. Ok, I get it. Time to go.
Four flights over three days. Yes, it would be challenging. But I had a plan. I stayed by the airport last night. I slept well. I arrived 2.5 hours before my flight. I had my hotels booked for my two layovers. But damn. I should know better. My life rarely goes according to plan.
The traffic at Rome’s FCO was WAY more than I expected. Long lines. People of all ages. The elderly. Children. Families. I kept thinking: WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? And why are they traveling during a worldwide pandemic???
The cluster of young Catholic priests did not calm me.
An old woman cut in front of me. Without even looking. Just stepped up and moved in. She tried cutting in front of the guy in front of me but he wouldn’t let her. Ok, so here at least, I laughed. I’m not that heartless. Go ahead.
Yes, people were all wearing masks. Good. But obeying distance? No. Absolutely not. Distance doesn’t exist in an airport. Forget the painted lines. Forget the woman walking with a bullhorn advising people to stay one meter apart. It’s just never going to happen in an airport.
Then, general boarding. Not from the back to the front, which is how Alitalia did it from Palermo to Rome. Just everyone in one big long line squeezed together. And seats filled. All seats, all rows. I completely lucked out – my middle seat remained open. I leaned against the window and shut my eyes.
After retrieving my bag (get this: no storing in the overhead bin! Covid-related, not that I understand, but that was the rule on Luftansa, so my roller bag had to be checked), and waiting 30 minutes for the hotel shuttle, I called the hotel. I was told the shuttle wasn’t running due to Covid. But… wait, how can that be? They sent me a document of all their Covid changes and the shuttle was supposed to be running. I even exchanged emails with the property saying I would be taking the shuttle and the manager did not correct me.
So this is where I lost it. When they told me to take a taxi. I broke down. I cried. Not sniffles. Full-on crying. Right there. At the shuttle stop. Momentarily despondent. When the tears subsided and I regulated my breathing, I wondered if I had the strength to get my ass to the Hyatt. Premium price and then I had to pay for a taxi? And just like that, the tears started falling all over again. Damn. I hope my hands were clean cuz they were ALL over my face!
Across from me was a Sheraton. Fine. I’ll suck it up and just go there. So I walked. Remember, in an airport everything looks like it’s close by when in reality it’s a few blocks up and down and across. Guess what? The Sheraton was closed. Seriously.
Farther on was a Hilton. I walked. I got a room. Premium price. Higher than the Hyatt. But no taxi. Plus a bathtub. (Water meditation, as a friend reminded me.) Good towels. A tea kettle. God bless the Germans. A warm bath and chamomile tea – just what I needed.
Fifty minute chat with Expedia to get my refund from the Hyatt. Another 40 minutes cancelling my Toronto reservation in favor of the hotel that is AT the airport. Again, another premium price. Fine. Right now I’m paying for convenience. Let’s just try to ease the pain as much as possible.
I know I shouldn’t be complaining. This really is nothing in the scheme of things. I’m fortunate. In so many ways, I’m incredibly fortunate. Always, in ALL WAYS fortunate!! Which is why I’m embarrassed. Why I feel weak. I mean, come on, Peppler, get a grip. As my Italian friends would say, Relax!
A friend reached out to say she’d be at the Houston airport tomorrow (one day off from me, so unfortunately we won’t meet). She’s flying from Ecuador back home to Chicago for a month. Really? I said. Really?? But the reality is, if she doesn’t visit now, who knows when she’ll be able.
And that’s when I knew who these people were. All these people in the airport. Maybe not all, but enough. People just like me.
In the end, we’re just all trying to find our way home.
Why does one place feel like home and another place, while beautiful or lovely in many ways, does not?
To put it simply (very simply), places become imprinted on us when our experiences there are significant and good.
Typically, these imprints happen when we are young. When we are discovering our environment in the context of discovering ourselves.
The streets and special places we played as kids, away from our mother’s watchful eyes. Or the landscape of where we went to camp or to college – completely away from home, from family, all alone, for the first time. The places where we experience a new independence, a new way of being. These experiences are inherently significant. But for the landscape to burrow into our heart and psyche, the experience must also be good.
I grew up in Chicago but spent my summers on my godmother’s farm in Michigan. Michigan was everything to me. It’s where I played with other kids. Outside. In the fields. In the barn. Picking berries, picking corn, and even picking snakes (up by their tails). It’s where we chased chickens, watched cows, and petted Peanut, my cousins’ horse. Where we ate meals around a big kitchen table. With a loving, wrinkled, strong, steady, and firm matriarch. Watching over us, always interested, always ready to respond with a jolly jiggling full-body laugh.
Chicago didn’t have the same imprint on me. Until the age of 10, I lived on the south side. Bridgeport. What was then called “the little white ghetto.” A parking lot was our playground. To venture outside of a few blocks was dangerous. My siblings were older and had their own friends. My limited attempts to socialize were, well, not very successful.
At 10, my parents divorced and I moved to the northwest side of the city. Cleaner streets lined with bungalows and garages accessed from alleys. This area was safe. For my birthday, my parents gave me a red three-speed Schwinn customized with drop handlebars, (which were THE thing in the 80’s). I loved that bike. That bike meant freedom. For three years, I rode that bike everywhere. Now I had friends, from school and in the neighborhood. But those years were also tough and challenging, for various reasons. Returning to Michigan in the summers was an escape and a going home. I longed to be at Grama’s. To hear the crickets. To smell the hay. To sleep in a creaky bed with a lumpy mattress. To feel the morning dew in the air and inhale the sweetness of the grass. To hear Grama’s laugh and the crunch of gravel under the tires of an unexpected guest. To see my extended family and enjoy the endless fields of crops and barns and trees that covered the flat landscape. To go shopping in town and have people know you. To stop for a soft-serve ice cream at the locally owned, one of its kind, Snack Shack.
I left Chicago when I was 18, only two months after graduating from high school. I chose not to attend the university to which I had been accepted. Instead, I felt called to San Francisco. This was definitely not what my parents had in mind for me, so I felt compelled to do it on my own. To not accept their financial support. An occasional check for $100 was a wonderful surprise which I welcomed, but finding my way in the world was entirely up to me. I worked three jobs and took classes at the community college. I found a church where the associate pastor had gone to school with my dad. I fell in love. Twice. I met people who became friends, who are still friends today. Roger died. My first friend, of what would be many, to succumb to AIDS.
I lived all over the city with various roommates. The first one was proudly Jewish and a self-described wanna-be witch (she said the coven wouldn’t accept her), who received financial support from the government for being mentally unstable. (Seriously.) The second was a dominatrix, whose clients came mostly from City Hall where her ex-husband worked. (Again, Seriously.) After that, artists and students (a welcome relief and real comradery). Then anarchists – brilliant, creative, activists – from whom I learned much and with whom I got arrested. (One of which is still, blessedly, a very dear friend.)
In San Francisco, I owned my first car. A hand-me down Toyota Tercel manual shift. Yes, a 5-speed stick on those famous steep hills. Damn proud of that. When gas was only $0.87 a gallon. That car, like my red Schwinn, was freedom. I would drive up to Twin Peaks and look down on the city during the day. At night, I’d cruise along the coast, windows down and music up loud. I knew the winding streets of the city better than my own hands. And better than the realtors I met many years later.
In those first six years in California, I lived in San Francisco (in eight different apartments in eight different neighborhoods), in Petaluma (over the Golden Gate Bridge), and in San Diego. I camped along the coast, in the Yosemite mountains, in the forests, and at the Russian River. This varied landscape of mountains, water, and trees became imprinted on me. My time there was hugely significant and very, very, good. I was discovering who I was. I was creating a new way of being.
Years later, I moved to Hailey in Blaine County, Idaho. Hailey was great because it is a small town with a weekly newspaper (reminding me of my hometown in Michigan) but it took me a long time to love the landscape. Yes, there are trees: it sits inside the Sawtooth National Forest. But those trees are largely spruce, fir, and pine, with cottonwoods along the river. Essentially, it’s an elevated desert covered in sagebrush. Not exactly the lush green of the other places I had called home. Yet when my sister came to visit, she remarked, “It looks just like Michigan, but with mountains.”
Within three years, I bought a house in Picabo. A town of 65 residents and 6 streets, surrounded by fields of hay and barley, the beautiful winding Silver Creek, and twenty miles from “town.” This was home. This was my Lakeview West, as I called it. A landscape dotted with cows and sheep, barns, hay bales, and hills. And an endless mountain range in two directions. It combined all the elements (sans a large body of water) that had been imprinted on me from earlier times in Michigan and California. I loved this place. I still do. Yet after 14 years, I knew I needed to leave.
My journey since then has been in search of a new home. I travelled through the southern states for two months visiting towns, making new friends, always aware of all that I had learned in my years of doctoral research, trying to find the place that “fit.” I needed to feel the imprints so deeply embedded in me. Eventually I landed in Tulsa. Tulsa works for me. The landscape is green, lush, and humid. There are rivers. And as cities go, it is largely “Mayberry” – a small town feel. There is music and art and parks, diversity and good food. And I have friends.
Then in March 2020, I traveled to Italy. Planned as a 6-week holiday, I’ve been here for four months due to the Covid19 pandemic. A historical and unprecedented time. Quarantined for eleven weeks in Balestrate, Sicily. Alone. Looking out at the sea. I felt so fortunate for this lodging, the view, and the safety it afforded me. But the landscape, I kept saying, was not mine. Not my imprint. I needed green. I needed trees. So, when restrictions lifted and I could move about more freely, I drove into the heart of the country. Through the fields and the mountains, into the small towns sitting on hilltops. I felt at home in this landscape. My spirit was soothed and comforted. I made friends. I considered staying indefinitely.
It’s not surprising that Sicily feels like home to me. It has everything I love, everything I came to love, from earlier times. Imprints. Significant and good. Sicily offered me shelter in the midst of danger. It welcomed me. People were kind. And I made friends. Relationships significant all on their own, strengthened by the shared experience in a shared location during a worldwide pandemic. My time there was good. Really good. Even in the midst of so much uncertainty.
Since returning to the mainland, I’ve been uneasy. Too many people, too many cars, too much chaos. Florence is a city. And I’m not particularly fond of cities. While I can appreciate what it offers, its treasures and its history, the beauty largely escapes me. The famous Tuscan hills? Meh. Pretty, yes, but they don’t speak to me.
Before leaving the area entirely, I visited Fiesole. A small town just north of Florence. Etruscan roots. Historically home to so many famous people. And… I was disappointed. Nothing I saw compared to the rich complex beauty of Sicily. I called my Sicilian friends and told them I was truly linked to the south, to their land surrounded by water, to them. The imprint is deep. Someday, I promised, I would return.
In the afternoon, new friends (American, living in Florence) came to meet me. We were introduced during this pandemic and had spoken by phone, but now we shared an embrace. Five hours passed like minutes. We drank Aperol spritz, nibbled on cheese and meats, laughed, lamented, dreamed, and told stories. More hugs. Whatever happens next, we are connected.
When they left, the light in Fiesole had changed. It was evening. Suddenly, the town was pretty to me. It was softer, more pleasant. Even charming. I enjoyed a gelato while sitting on a bench, noticing the buildings as the light continued to change. I watched the locals socializing in the outdoor cafes.
I will always remember this. My research proves true once again.
Sicily is inside me. Imprints from earlier times are reflected in its landscape. In the crop fields, the rolling hills, and the cows. The small towns, and relaxed way of living. The sea. All amplified by my experience during this unprecedented time in history. In Sicily, at my ripe age in my 50’s, I once again discovered myself. A new way of being. Perhaps always known, but forgotten. In Sicily, I am home.
As for the rest of Italy, Fiesole may be the only truly special spot in my mainland journey. A place I will remember fondly. A testament to the power of belonging, the acceptance of friends. I couldn’t live there – there are no imprints of home there for me to be happy. But an indelible memory nonetheless.
I’ve come to love the Sicilian roads. Everywhere on the island they are the same. Far more than a network of pavement connecting places. More of a labyrinth. Every destination is a journey. Driving in Italy is still harrowing, but driving in Sicily has lessons for me. I see my life reflected in these roads.
There are, of course, some highways. But to get to where you want to go, you must leave the highway. You must drive on these smaller, narrow, winding paths that are never straight, with hairpin turns and switchbacks. Barely wide enough for two cars, one in each direction, and often not even that. Just enough for one (for the journey is largely solitary).
Always the scenery on one side as you hug a hill: barely glancing to take in the green, the flowers and fields and distant mountains. But you must stay focused – to look away from the road while moving can be deadly. So I stop many times and suddenly, wherever I find an unexpected place to pull over, away from another turn, and where the road is wide enough to accommodate. Yet when I do this, the scenery changes. It is still always beautiful but not quite what was attracting me from my peripheral vision. This, too, tells me something. I do not need to stop as often as I would like. The landscape is already a part of me.
These roads are not easy. But they are worth the effort. Seemingly the same yet ever changing. The peaks and the valleys. The required manual shifting. The speeding up and slowing down. A short stretch in 4th gear only to shift down again to 2nd at another turn. Then down to 1st to accommodate an incline. And the towns are all on high ground, so a climb is always required.
Again, the focus, the staying present. Watchful for the swerving of others coming towards me, rarely in their lane for the lanes are so narrow, and the moving to the side to allow the passing of those from behind.
Sometimes the roads are smooth, but not for long. Mostly they are rough, frequently with patches desperately in need of repair. The dips. The gravel. The decay. Then the concrete. Followed by more dips, more gravel, more turns.
The switchbacks that confuse my sense of direction – am I going the right way? Am I truly headed towards my intended destination?
The signs, always pointing to the same place. The four directions. Wherever you are going, it is always towards Palermo or Agrigento, Catania or Cefalu. For me, it seems, perpetually Palermo. Other towns are listed below like a totem pole of arrows, but the word Palermo reads larger and brighter than the rest, like a North Star guiding me home.
Some signs I cannot read, only because I do not understand, yet the signs are always there.
And then, when least expected, the highways, the direct paths. Allowing, requiring, even forcing, acceleration. But then the lanes change. In Sicily, there are many lane closures. So many closures that bring you over to the seemingly other direction, the other side of the highway, like a salmon swimming up stream.
And the tunnels. Always more tunnels. Momentary darkness. Descents under mountains. Some brief, some terrifying. I take off my glasses to see.
Our lives are a labyrinth. Always a journey in, and an exhale out. Sometimes a hesitant departure, a desire to remain. But we do not live in the center, we cannot. We rest there, certainly. But life is movement. Life is a journey. And a journey requires a forward direction, even when forward is hesitant, faulting, and slow, a question. Just keep going. Twists and turns, back and forth, accelerate and brake. Swerving. Dips. Attention. Moving to the side, allowing others to pass. Staying focused. Enjoying the scenery. Pulling off, where and when you can.
It is so good, so helpful, to see myself reflected in these roads. A reflection of my life. A reminder of my journey, lest I forget.
I must not forget. I must remember this. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes thrilling, sometimes cumbersome and slow, sometimes fast. Always the unexpected surprise.
Driving in Sicily.
Very grateful to Katie Keleher at KJRH Channel 2 News in Tulsa for doing this story. I really appreciate that she reached out to the U.S. Consulate in Italy as well, trying to find answers for me.** And the way she took my photos and strung them together is truly gorgeous: she captures a great representation of what makes Sicily so incredibly beautiful.
** Kinda crazy that the embassy and consulate can’t provide an answer about tourist visas. I mean, if not them, then who can?? Unprecedented times indeed. Fingers crossed 🤞!!
6 June 2020. Maybe it’s the full moon. Maybe it’s the wind. The wind is relentless today, followed by yesterday’s rain. Maybe I’ve been too happy and, like all things, this too will end. (Tomorrow I leave these friends and this cottage. And soon… eventually… I must leave Sicily…) Or maybe it’s Covid. I don’t know. But today is a hard day.
Today is Saturday. And the stores are all closed. Ok, not all. But most of them. I am so weary of seeing closed doors. The long metal shutters that close to the ground. Empty streets. Only one smile directed at me, from the old man pushing a young child in a stroller. His smile was full and sweet as his eyes met mine. That was a blessing. I sat in a park with swings and such for children but this space, too, was largely empty. Even the flowers in their pots seemed lonely today. A few people about, but they only looked at me. When I smiled, they nodded. A few mumbled greetings. Nothing warm. Nothing to sustain me. My spirit is sinking.
Existential angst. What am I doing? What’s the purpose of all this? What is the meaning of this journey? Of my life? Is it enough to simply exist? Many do. Many others are not even given this privilege.
All will be better after a shower and a nap. Tonight, dinner with my friends. Local wine. Homemade gnocchi. And of course, my cheese.
Still, today is not soft. Yes, there are birds singing. The sun has emerged. Yet, I feel compelled to share: such journeys are not all holiday and joy.
Perhaps it is the full moon. Or the wind. Or Covid. Today I am sad. Today is hard.
8 June 2020. I am struggling and it seems ridiculous to even share any of this. Yet somehow I think you want to know. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic and international protests to end police brutality and address systemic racism (the issues go far deeper than these words), all is not right with me. How can it be?
15 June 2020. It’s been at least ten days now. Ten days since I started writing, determined to be honest, even at the risk of no one wanting to hear. But the words wouldn’t come. My words seemed too pretty.
I’m still in Sicily. “Living the dream,” as some say. How lucky I am to be here and not back in the States, many tell me, living vicariously through my photos and stories. So I’ve tried to keep them coming. I haven’t posted everything I’m writing. Falling back instead on the good things: images of beauty, moments of joy. And I don’t want anyone to worry about me. In the great scheme of things, my life is pretty inconsequential. I am no more, and no less, than anyone else. Yet I exist. And with this great privilege, I feel compelled to be my best. Not for me (for “I” truly don’t exist, “I” is an illusion) but for others, for the whole, for all that we are together.
It was easy to write my last post about a wonderful dinner shared with new friends. Food is concrete, so to speak. And I knew it would make others happy. And yes, I, too, was happy in that moment. The memories are good. But even as I was writing, those feelings were fading. The shadow of other feelings pushing their way in. These deeper feelings are more difficult to express. I doubt even now that I can write adequately, but I will do my best, at least my best in this moment, before I return to bed.
Alas… I went back to bed …
My head has been hurting for days. Last night it was a full-on migraine. Today I still feel queasy. I’m not sick. I don’t have Covid19. (at least, so I believe. I have no symptoms, I’ve been cautious, and Sicily’s transmission rate is extremely low) But I am exhausted. I’m worried about not having enough energy to finish this trip.
I reached out to a few female friends. Maybe this is menopause. (Male friends, you will never understand.) One responded quickly. Reading her words, even thinking of them now, brings me to tears.
Collective grief. The pain of the world. The atrocities that keep happening. I am white and I AM privileged. I’ve known this since I was 18. People didn’t care if I was educated or skilled, only that I was pretty. So I cut my hair short. Even shaved my head twice. I went to interviews with hairy legs and without nylons (in those days, women always wore nylons). I marched for LGB rights before there was LGBTQ+. I read about Apartheid while Nelson Mandela was still in prison. I wore black to the law office where I worked for a week after the Tianenmen Square massacre. I protested corporate greed after the Exxon Valdez crashed. I was arrested, and the subsequent required community service effectively began my career in nonprofits. I’m not new to any of what is happening in the States. I worked in HIV/AIDS and volunteered for homeless shelters and soup kitchens and a Mexican orphanage. I was recycling before it was required, much to the chagrin of my family. I have tried for decades to do what I could. None of it has been enough. My efforts pale in comparison to other friends. The pain and the injustice and inequities continue. I am not exhausted from my efforts, not in the least. Respectively, I have done nothing. I have not done enough. I continue to benefit from being a pretty white woman. My gratitude is immense – I have always been grateful – but it is inadequate. My fatigue is collective. My grief is deep.
Staying in Italy during quarantine was relatively easy. Again, such a privilege that I could. And with DT’s horrible response to the pandemic, it seemed safer and smarter to not return home. But now… now there is marching in the streets. It is a time of reckoning. Now I need to be home. Even with Covid19 still raging, I need to be there in solidarity.
I’m sure I’ll be better in the morning. If for no other reason than I must be. The luxury of sleeping in a peaceful “Sicilian Mountain Oasis” will be over. I will rest again in Balestrate before leaving Sicily. A few days in Florence, a few nights in the Umbrian countryside, and then I fly home. My adventure in Italy during this unprecedented time in history will end. Meanwhile, in the States, I hope, and I pray, it is only beginning. And that is not my story to tell. It is the story of all of us.
“I am you and you are me and we are all together.” (I Am the Walrus)
These are hard days. We may not agree, we may not see things the same way, but I do believe we are all hurting. May we each find rest and the strength to persevere. Not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of all.
So much of who I am and what I love was shaped by my time on Grama Baird’s farm. Technically no longer hers, by then it was owned and operated by her grandson, Mick, who lived with his family across the field. And technically not my Grama. She was my godmother, 65 years old by the time I was born. But to everyone in Lakeview, MI, she was Grama. And lucky for me, she adopted me and my siblings into the family. All of the Bairds – and there are a lot of them – became my cousins, whom I saw and played with far more than those connected by blood. They are family and Lakeview still feels like home.
Home. The place where we sleep comfortably and where we belong. Home is family. Where we laugh and play. And where we eat.
Home is food. I will always remember the taste of Grama’s fresh raspberry jam, made from her own harvest. The delight of picking berries from the bushes. And buttered toast, particularly when eaten late at night during a commercial break while watching TV. The crunch of the white bread and the messiness of the butter dripping. Waking to the smell of warm cinnamon rolls and slyly stealing a bit more frosting when she wasn’t looking. And enjoying them again in the afternoon, cold, when someone stopped by unexpectedly – because people were always stopping by unannounced to Grama’s house. Kool Aid made in a large pitcher from one small packet and a full cup of sugar, deliberating with the other kids over which flavor to choose that day. Boiled potatoes left from yesterday’s dinner (which is always at noon in the country), butter fried in a cast iron skillet. Sunfish and blue gills fried the same way. Picking seeds out of watermelon and watching Grama salt each piece. A refrigerator stuffed with bowls of food and covered with plates, and plastic Kool Whip containers hiding leftovers. Laughing as we opened one after another trying to find the thing for which we were looking. And the freezer on the porch, long and deep, filled with venison and fish and berries, and Grama, so tiny, using a stool while digging to find a particular treat.
More than the food itself, it is all these memories of how we ate the food. The noontime meals around a large kitchen table: eight, ten, sometimes even twelve of us. Big platters and heavy bowls passed from hands to hands, arms eagerly extending to reach for another roll. All while Grama sat at the head of the table, supervising the chaos and never minding the noise. When she laughed, her whole body would jiggle, and she laughed quite a bit.
This is family. This is home for me. The sharing of food, cooked at home by many hands and enjoyed with abundance.
At eighteen, I moved to San Francisco and found friends with whom to eat. We’d make breakfast together after an all-night party or gather in the evening for dinner, everyone contributing to the feast. Not pot-luck – the food was never made in isolation – but a co-creation, each person bringing something to prepare with extra hands. Again, six, eight, or ten of us crammed into a tiny kitchen, chopping and stirring, talking and tasting and laughing.
I’ve spent my life trying to recapture those feelings. Sometimes more successfully than others. Last night was one of those nights. Last night was a surprise. Last night was a delight. Last night I felt home.
I fell in love with Sambuca di Sicilia from the first moment I saw it, gleaming in the distance on a hill, surrounded by fields of green. Giuseppe Cacioppo, deputy mayor and architect, welcomed me as the town’s first tourist since Covid19. We shared a Minni di Virgini, the town’s famous (and delicious) treat. I spent hours walking alone exploring. Yes, I fell in love. I can’t explain it. Can we ever? There are things I can point to, but overall it’s just a feeling. This town feels right to me. (So much to say about this… see my post titled A Daring Adventure from May 23, 2020 for my first impressions.)
I returned one week later and Giuseppe introduced me to his friends Ginevra and Deborah, both of whom work at Planeta, a Sicilian winery. We ate spaghetti with wild asparagus at Caffe Beccadelli and then walked through the town looking at homes, not for me to purchase but to see things which I could not see on my own. By the end of the day, I had three new friends who insisted I return again before leaving Sicily.
Ginevra arranged for me to stay at the home of a friend who is out of town. And this home, well… wow. Truly. Three levels with the kitchen on top, leading to three outdoor terraces. The view is simply fantastic, and the sunsets!!
In gratitude, while still abiding Covid19, I asked if I could cook a meal for my friends. I thought lunch. They choose dinner. Much better!
The menu was simple, nothing fancy. Just the way I always cook. The same things I have been making for myself throughout these months in quarantine. Pasta with zucchini and mushrooms, tomato basil soup, and a salad. Ok, the salad was a bit fancier than normal, with freshly chopped olives, artichokes, salami, and fresh buffalo mozzarella, a tiny bit of new onion and celery, tossed with lemon and olive oil.
I spent the day preparing. There is something so incredibly satisfying about cooking for friends. And as an extra treat, I purchased a large Minni di Virgini, custom-made in celebration of Ginevra’s birthday. Turns out none of these locals had ever seen one so large! I clapped my hands repeatedly in glee!! Score one for the tourist! (Many thanks to the kind couple at Caruso Bar Pasticceria and Gelateria!)
My food was a success. Admittedly, as the time approached, I was nervous. Who was I to cook for Sicilians? What was I thinking?? But they were kind and genuinely complimentary. And what better compliment is there than this? Sicilians enjoying second helpings!
Ah, but it was my friends who made the evening what I longed for, what my heart needed but could never expect.
Ginevra brought cannoli and gelato slices (so divine, something I have never seen, also from Caruso). Giuseppe brought pasta and limoni gelato and brioche. Deborah brought wine. And then there was the special Sicilian champagne that Ginevra had welcomed me with when I arrived. More than this and quite unexpectedly, Ginevra and her husband, Paulo, cooked the pasta! At first implying there was too much zucchini and funghi … hah! Not for this American – I like plenty of toppings! The two of them sautéed and cooked while the rest of us nibbled on cheese, took photos, and enjoyed the view. We drank, we stuffed ourselves, we laughed. And when the evening air became too cool, we retired to the kitchen for decaffeinated coffee and one last cigarette.
My heart is full. This is a night I will never forget. Sambuca di Sicilia. And new friends.
Sambuca has fortunately not had any cases of Covid19, however, everyone is still being extremely careful and always wearing masks everywhere. (Unlike other places I’ve visited, like Cefalu!) We did take off our masks for dinner but remained extremely cautious of precautions and safety.
Visiting the Valley of the Temples was always on my itinerary for my trip to Italy. Considered one of the most important (and impressive) archeological sites in the world, it covers over 2,300 acres. (Guess what? I did not trek the entire space, but I did cover a lot of it.) Founded in the 6th Century BCE as the city Akragas, it was an influential city in Ancient Greece, albeit in Sicily. With almost half a million citizens, it prospered until the early 5th Century CE, when it was conquered by the Carthaginians. Like the rest of Italy, it was later occupied by the Romans, Arabs, and Normans. Amazingly, it wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th Century and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Note: It’s not actually a valley. Rather, the city sits 230 meters above sea level and overlooks what is now the city of Agrigento, as well as the sea. Quite impressive.
The Temple of Juno (Temple of Hera in Greek) is the first ruins you see upon entering the park. Like all the standing ruins, it features Doric style columns.
Most well known is the Temple of Concordia (the goddess of harmony), as this is the most well preserved, having been converted into a church in the 6th Century CE by the bishop of Agrigento. This is particularly worth noting since all places of “pagan” worshiped were being destroyed around that time.
This fantastic “fallen angel” is actually a statue of Icarus created by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj for an exhibition on site in 2011. The exhibition included 17 statues and this is all that remains. Inset on the back of right wing (the unbroken wing), is the face of Medusa, which actually looks very much like an angel. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of this – the light wasn’t cooperating so I only admired it. (With no one else around, it was easy to get up close.)
The photos below show what is believed to have been part of the ancient city wall. During the late Roman and Byzantine eras, it was repurposed into a cemetery as burial holes. Having seen historical Native American dwellings in the Southwest, I actually thought they might be sleeping quarters of the military guarding the wall. Hah! Good thing I read the sign!
Of course there’s plenty of nature to see as well.
The Temple of Heracles
The Temple of the Dioscuri (Temple of Castor and Pollux). In Greek mythology, these twins were born of Leda. (Anyone remember the story of Zeus shape-shifting into a swan in order to seduce Leda?) Interestingly, however, these twins had different fathers. Pollux is the son of Zeus (making him a demigod) while Castor is the son of Spartan king Tyndareus. They had their share of escapades, the last of which involved stealing their cousin’s cattle, which led to Castor’s death. Pollux was inconsolable and pleaded with Zeus to grant his brother half of his immortality, which led to the twins becoming the constellation we know as Gemini. (Just had to throw a little myth in there for y’all.)
This temple, however, is a bit misleading. It was reconstructed in the early 19th Century using pieces from other temple ruins in “a vast sacred area” devoted to Demeter and Persephone. So strong was the cult of Demeter and Persephone that ancient authors referred to Sicily as Zeus’s wedding gift to Persephone. (Who the ancient authors are, I don’t know – but that’s what the sign said. And the idea of Persephone’s wedding… well, that’s another topic!)
Cacti are prevalent throughout the park. Such gorgeous, majestic, old growths, continuing to flower. Here, however, they have been scarred. Almost every leaf I saw had been marred by human carvings. Deeply upsetting, this grieves me. These poor plants bearing the pain of human narcissism.
But I will end with hope, with something beautiful and a testament to humanity. The Garden of the Righteous of the World (Giardino dei Giusti del Mondo) is new, inaugurated in 2015. This memorial to martyrs and activists for justice, more than anything else in the park, moved me. Honestly, I expected to feel more when visiting the temples. More awe, I suppose. As I did at the ruins in Rome. But here, in this one absolute place that I had to visit on this trip, I felt no awe. Just interest. It was a learning experience. It was pleasant to be there, virtually alone. (I saw only 10 other visitors.) But here, at the Garden of the Righteous, I was moved. I read the names and their stories. And maybe that’s the lesson for me. History is always recorded by the victors. But it is the lives of the people, and the courage of those who fight, that is the foundation of all civilization. There would be no art, no monuments to human ingenuity and creativity, without the people themselves. Art (architecture, music, sculpture, paintings, literature) is a testament to what is good in people. It captures but a glimmer of our potential. May we always remember the people. And when necessary, fight for them too. And, if we’re honest, as the demonstrations around the world right now (prompted by the death of George Floyd) show us, the fight never ends.
The Turkish Steps are white rocky cliffs on the coast of Realmonte, Sicily. This gorgeous natural site, blindingly white when the sun is shining, accentuates the colors of the sea. My photos do not do it justice. Normally a favorite tourist spot, and a great beach for sunbathing, it was (as most of Sicily curing Covid19) extremely empty of people when I visited on my way to Agrigento. Well worth the stop!
Free to visit and free to use the washroom, I felt obliged to purchase something at the top, where only one patron was sitting, having coffee. And of course, a dog.
The path down to the beach is pretty cool too. Of course, set up for tourists to rest and imbibe in a beverage, but alas, there were none.
It’s often said that we travel to see new places and meet new people. To expand our lives and our point of view. I think even more importantly, we travel to learn something about ourselves.
Over the 12 days of Christmas in 1997/98, I traveled to Spain and France. Naturally, I visited the Louvre. I saw the Mona Lisa. I felt nothing. Except, maybe, disappointment. I remember thinking, this is it? Here I was, in this infamous institution of art, staring at this iconic painting and all I could think was… well, ok, at least I’ve seen it. (Similarly, I felt the same when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome recently.) The dear friend with whom I was traveling seemed to understand. He asked me, “When was the last time you saw something that set your heart on fire? That gave you the experience you were hoping to have now?” Immediately I knew the answer. Venezuela.
In 1997, I spent several weeks backpacking through Venezuela with a guide. At one point, he announced we would trek to “the abbeys.” I expected some old cloister ruins. It was the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done. Up up up an extremely vertical hike and then across and over and across a seemingly endless plain. It was no less than an eight-hour trek, maybe longer. I grew increasingly weary of seeing his back in front of me. And then he said, “Drop your pack. We’re here.” Here?? Where?? I saw nothing, certainly no ruins. Yet relieved to release the burden from my back, I did. He beckoned me forward. Maybe only 12 or so steps. And there it was.
The abyss. I was standing over the Brazilian rainforest. I was at the center of the world. The earth was breathing up at me with a wind so strong, it pushed the hair off my face. I swear I could hear every living thing below that chirped and moved and slithered. It was amazing. More than amazing. I swear I felt the heartbeat of every living thing below me. The vibration of the earth. To this day, I have no words for it. But I can still feel it.
We were visiting the abyss, not the abbeys. I misunderstood his words, but the meaning, the metaphor… are the same. Here was a sacred place. The most sacred of places. The unknowable, the unfathomable, only reached through a long and strenuous journey.
I came to Italy for a 6-week holiday. I have studied the humanities my entire life. I was raised, even nursed, on classical art, literature, and music. Italy is the inspiration and birthplace of so much beauty created by man. It seemed obvious that I would go to Italy to see these things: to visit Florence, Sienna, maybe even Venice. But no. I wanted to spend time in the country, in the South, in Sicily. I couldn’t explain it rationally, but I knew, I just knew, this was were I needed to be.
Luckily, I made it to Sicily just as the mandatory quarantine began. Now, after 11 weeks, I am free to take my holiday, to travel the country. It occurs to me that this may be the time to visit Florence, to meet my new friends residing there. There will never be a time like this – to see the city without so many tourists. But as for the museums, the art… I am indifferent. What really draws me is the Tuscan countryside. The landscape of Umbria. Or the lemon groves around Sorrento.
For the moment, I remain in Sicily. I have a car. There are so many notable places of interests to visit. Towns I’ve been told I must see. I’ve seen some. I forced myself to visit Monreale, to see the cathedral, and I’m glad I did. A few days ago, I forced myself to visit Cefalu. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. Too many people, SO many people, almost no one wearing masks. Ok, this is going to sound crazy, but I actually burst into tears. It was too much. Yet, after all the effort of getting there and after all I had heard that this city must be seen… I sat by the sea and pondered, calming myself. I found a route above the city that would take me to the cathedral. I gathered myself up and went. Again, I’m glad I did. And after that, Castelbuono. Again, very much worth the visit. Especially since I was able to score locally-made caciocavello cheese with pistachios and various marzipan treats. And yes, a fresh cannolo.
Now I am back in the country, sitting in the sunshine and breeze at the centuries-old stone cottage where I am staying for a week. I am more than content.
I have seen many beautiful things in my life. And yes, it can be argued that these things have all enriched me, expanded my appreciation and understanding of humankind and history. But what really thrills me, what sustains me? The simple things.
Windows, portals, and doors. Old buildings with crumbling facades, some still functional, others waiting to be repurposed. Animals roaming freely. Wide open spaces filled with growing things: trees, flowers, grains, and vines. Green landscapes. Winding roads through valleys and mountains.
People. Simply being. Not crowds and certainly not tourists. People living, more so than doing. The opportunity for authentic exchange: smiles, nods, conversations. Even, slowly as the threat of coronavirus subsides, the traditional kiss on both cheeks and big hugs.
Finally, I have come to understand this about myself: the very thing I have long known but skirted around, refusing to completely embrace due to my upbringing and education. I can live without seeing anymore art – what the world calls classic and lives in museums or behind glass cases, roped off, at a distance. But I cannot live without beauty. The simple regenerative and everlasting beauty of life and living.
Will I visit more cities in Italy? Perhaps. But my life will not shrink if I don’t. Ah, but the country! Amidst the blooming colors and vibration of that which grows and lives, here is where I expand. Where I breathe comfortably and calmly. Whether traveling or residing, this is what I need. This is home.
Cefalù is considered one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy and is certainly the most visited city in Sicily. And for those reasons alone, and since I was told the city literally overflows with tourists in the summer (and I better get there before they arrive), I took the trek on Monday to see what I could see.
There’s probably a lot that could be said about this town of 13,000 full-time residents, a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes a medieval town and long beautiful beaches. Or about La Rocca, the huge rock mountain at the center of the city, said to resemble a snail that keeps guard over the town. Only, I’m not the one to say any of it. I honestly didn’t see that much.
I arrived on the main street, which was filled with people. And I do mean filled. An officer directing traffic while the sidewalks bustled with crowds. I simply cannot image what this town is like when tourists arrive. As it was, people were very close together and maybe only 10% were wearing masks – mostly around their necks or arms. The beach was definitely better, only in that it allowed for social distancing and the weather was good.
The truth is, I was tempted to leave. I was rattled by all the activity. But since I had made the effort to get there, I figured I should make a little more effort to actually see something. I wanted to hike La Rocca, but the trail was closed. I found the cemetery and I love cemeteries. I could have walked around this one for a long time, but no sooner had I taken this photo when I was informed it was 12:30 and the cemetery was closing.
Finally, I found a route that took me above the city and back along the sea.
The road then dropped me within walking distance of the Duomo, the two-towered Norman cathedral built in the 12th Century.
Here there were no people! A few milling about the streets, but none in the cathedral, except four workers whose job it was to direct throngs of sight-seers who had not yet arrived. It always feels like such a gift to visit an empty church devoid of people. To feel the space.
To the delight of the workers, I agreed to pay €7 to visit the towers, the roof, and get closer to the mosaics. (I’m pretty sure I was their first paying visitor of the day and it was already after noon.) What I saw was absolutely worth the €7. And to see it alone, I would have paid more. (Note: they took a temperature scan of me before I was allowed to pay and tour! And yes, all the guides were wearing masks. The church, like all churches I’ve visited, has hand sanitizer in multiple places. After paying for the tour, they actually made me use the hand sanitizer before proceeding.)
mural of details
Then I wandered the streets a bit
Eventually found the sea again
Now it was around 3pm (15:00) and I was hungry. My one big challenge when traveling is my frugality. The truth is, I am always pretty frugal (which is often met with some amusement from my friends). But add to that an additional three months that I hadn’t planned for while traveling and an unwillingness to go into credit card debt and, well… I’m watching my money very carefully. Even in the States, I’m disinclined to pay for meals that I can eat at home. (I’m a simple but very good cook.) Which means, when traveling, I hate to spend my money on restaurants unless I know the food will be good. Really good. As in, worth the expense. And this, as far as I can tell, is the one disadvantage of traveling alone. No one to push me or help me make a decision. I was hungry and I walked by many restaurants, considering each one and the possibility of a fantastic meal, unique to Sicily and the famous cuisine I had read so much about… and… ultimately I chose to eat the apple I had brought with me instead. (Ok, yes, this could be considered my one big travel fail of this trip. But I’m willing to live with that.)
I’m not one to buy souvenirs, but jewelry… I am easily persuaded to purchase something beautiful I will wear. I would have bought these earrings but the store was closed. Having passed many stores with locally-made ceramics, I succumbed to a small dish (in which to place my earrings, of course!)
Then I was off to Castelbuono, conveniently on my way back to where I’m staying, in the Madonie Mountains. This town is half the size of Cefalù and much more modern – by 200 years. 😉 As you might expect, the town gets its name from the castle built upon its highest peak.
Again, I was able to find a place to park and walk into the old medieval part of the city, which like every other Sicilian town I’ve encountered, is lovely. Mostly, I only wanted to see the castle. Unfortunately, it was closed. But as I turned the corner and walked under the arch, my heart heavy and my mind preoccupied with the demonstrations happening all across America, my spirit lifted when I saw this.
A temporary installation in the castle, Sacro Refugio
Then back through another archway…
And into another church
It was now aperitif time, when people gather in the town square (almost always in front of the local cathedral), and socialize while imbibing in the drink of their choice, along with some nibbles or something sweet. I find it hard to photograph people without their permission, so I strolled the perimeters of the square.
It was time to sit, to relax, to take it all in. Savoring a fresh cannolo, with a small tray of marzipan treats to go, I watched the locals. It was a thing of beauty. Old men in clusters talking, school-age children riding their bikes and swinging about enjoying their new freedom (and almost all wearing masks), and adults casually strolling and chatting. I was the rare, if only, outsider, met with smiles and curiosity. It was too special to photograph but I will always remember it fondly.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Thoreau was largely influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his essay “Nature,” which explains the idea of transcendentalism as the soul of the world, the soul of every man, where God resides. Living simply and in harmony with nature, we are better able to hear God, to trust the intuition of the soul.
It seems to me now that my time in Italy has become my own version of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Certainly not intentionally. I planned a 6-week holiday, that was all. Yet, as I’ve experienced over and over again, life rarely goes according to plans.
After nearly three months of Covid-19 quarantine in Balestrate, looking out at the sea, it was time. Not time to return to the States. Time to return to the trees. Time to hear nature reveal the whisperings of my soul.
Tonight as I write this, some breed of pigeons are conversing. (I clearly don’t know birds- their rather passionate exchange is a kind of hooting.) Other birds are chirping. And others still are singing. A cat (go figure) is meowing incessantly. Last night I fed her milk, tonight the remains of my make-shift asparagus risotto. Now she purrs and won’t leave me. The air is fresh and soft and clean. The cooling night air tickles my exposed feet.
I needed this.
I have lived. My life has been rich and in some ways extraordinary. But I haven’t lived this. None of us have.
This moment in time is like no other. Will it pass too quickly? Is a return (to normal, to our lives as we were living) really what we want? I still believe we are – each of us, individually and collectively – at a threshold. Living in a liminal space. May we take the time to ponder, to reflect, to choose carefully our next steps.
I came to the trees to rest and reflect. Which may seem odd after so many weeks of doing nothing but watching the sea. Only, as much as I love the water, it’s not my element. (Despite being a double Pisces.) I need land and trees and things growing around me. This is my childhood imprint. Here, I am home.
Bruno, the property canine, is watching with me. Looking up, sniffing around, napping. Dog is my totem. And this is my landscape. Here is where I recapture, remember, and recommit to what I know. May you, in your special place, be able to do the same.
“The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Over-Soul” (1841)
The town of Monreale (meaning “royal mountain”) sits 300 meters above sea level, overlooking Palermo. The Monreale Cathedral, built between 1170 and 1189 AD, is considered the most beautiful church in all of Sicily. A unique blend of Norman-Romanesque architecture and Byzantine craftsmanship, with additional Arab influences, it contains 6,000 square meters of mosaics made with 2200 kg of pure gold.
Somewhere I read (though I can’t find the source now) a Sicilian saying that if you go to Palermo a donkey and don’t visit Monreale, you return an ass. Not wanting that moniker hanging over my head, I obviously needed to take the drive and see what the fuss was about before leaving Balestrate. It did not disappoint. These photos fail to capture the glory of this place.
The first thing that struck me: in an empty cathedral, the almost eeriness of social distanced chairs.