Chapter 3 – When Life Throws Tomatoes, Make Sauce
My family, like many Sicilian Americans, had lived in Brooklyn. When I told one woman in Sicily that I had Sicilian ancestors in Brooklyn, Papa Pete and Papa Nick, the first thing she asked was, “Oh, were they barbers?” And they were, like her own American relatives. But if everyone in the Sicilian community went into the hair cutting business, who was left needing a haircut?
Papa Nick’s brother, Andrea (Andrew for us Anglophones), also moved to the states. The two brothers loved to hunt rabbits together. This was odd since their last name was Rabitto. Perhaps it’s some perverse Oedipal instinct to kill your namesake. They spent weekends in Connecticut blasting away at the little creatures and not doing a very good job of it. My mother remembers picking out the buckshot while trying to eat them.
They loved Connecticut so much that Papa Nick decided to move there. They left their row house in Brooklyn for a real single family home in the country. It turned out disastrously for my grandmother. The youngest and most sensitive of the girls, she now had to contend with being an ethnic minority. In Brooklyn everyone was Italian or at least an immigrant. Now she was different. She had an accent. She was a Wop, a Guinea, a Dago. She was dirty, and her food was stinky. She immediately became ashamed of being Italian, and the shame never wore off. She never taught her native Sicilian tongue to her children, my mother and Aunt Kay. She never even cooked Italian food. Instead she prided herself on her inoffensive oatmeal. She also became anorexic which must have helped her shun the family’s Italian food. She rejected everything about her heritage. Now I was back in the old homeland trying to regain a part of what was once ours.
September finally arrived. All the town’s festivities were over, no more Norman costumes, concerts, or karaoke contests. It was harvest time. Rob and I woke up early and climbed up the valley to Marlies and Felippe’s where they were already busy making sauce. I enjoyed the tranquility of cutting tomatoes and hearing the buzzing of the machine smashing them into sauce. It reminded me of all-day jelly making in Mexico, and how I’d always dreamed of making tomato sauce in Sicily.
I listened to Sting’s songs, talked with Rob, and watched Marlies and Felippe run outside to stir the boiling sauce then pour it into bottles. I became tranchila, relaxed. The monotonous work of making food from the bountiful tomato harvest was soothing. I could feel the agricultural power of the island, which had been the “breadbasket of Rome” in the days of the Empire. There was something life-affirming about living off the land, in contrast to the modern nine-to-five suburban existence I’d known.
September also brought harvest parties and another celebration of new growth, Jewish New Year’s festivities. A few years earlier I had started reconnecting with the traditions of my father’s side of the family. He never celebrated them since his parents and grandparents were strict atheists and socialists. But it seemed a way I could connect with that side of my family history without joining the communist party. So now, in Sicily, I invited all the hippies I knew over for a Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year dinner party.
Preparations were hell. The supplies for so many guests were expensive and difficult to transport out to Girasol, in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t help that Veronika, Annabella, and the kids had returned to add more chaos. But at least Veronika had a semi-functional car.
I made Challah bread, and of course found out too late that I had again used the wrong Italian flour. Then I killed the live yeast by using hot water as I always had with dry yeast. I tried to fix the problem by adding more yeast and letting it rise by the fire in the oven. But it was no use. I had put Veronika and Fier in charge of baking the loaves. Fier claimed he knew what he was doing, since he was Jewish too. I’m not sure if it’s because they got distracted passing a spinelli around, but they burned all the loaves completely black. I just wanted to collapse and burst into tears. With great effort, I managed to rein in my emotions and even laughed a little when they tried to cheer me up. They pointed out possible uses for the charred bread such as American footballs.
I was afraid everything would go wrong and everyone would think I couldn’t cook. I felt like I had a big image to live up to. In my travels, people had often seemed meaner to Americans. We have such a big image in the world that they want to cut us down. I didn’t need to worry though; the rest of the food turned out fine. I spent the whole day cooking, and Rob even helped, at least when Veronika had to leave for some errand.
Everything was ready when Felippe and his son arrived. Artilio was already drunk when he stumbled in with an old friend of his from Gela. We all waited expectantly for Marlies and Veronika. Mick had called Giovanni, days earlier, to leave a message for Veronika. She was to be at Marlies and Felippe’s, at the appointed time, to receive a call from him in person. We were all dying to hear how the conversation had gone. But we were also dying of hunger.
Once they arrived we got down to business. Fier had all the men put on hats. I explained the holiday, and Fier said a Hebrew prayer blessing. That was a blessing to me since I knew zero Hebrew. We lit candles and ate some apple slices with honey. I passed a cup of sweet wine and tried to break off a piece of the rock solid Challah. I encouraged everyone else to do the same, and all around the room, guests started wrestling with the twisted bread, hacking at it with knives or banging it on the table. It worked as a symbolic gesture at least.
I felt fantastic celebrating Rosh Hashanah with all my Sicilian friends. They raved over the food especially the Matzo ball soup. Marlies said it was the best soup she had ever had. Wow. The miracle of cross-cultural cooking.
Artilio got even more wasted and started singing a melancholy song very loudly. We could barely hear the car pull up on the other side of the small valley. I saw the lights, though, and knew it was Giovanni. As livid as I had been when I’d caught him with his other lover, I was amazed at how much I wanted him to come and be impressed by the food. It turned out that he was sick to his stomach and couldn’t really eat. But I was happy he was there. He did try a bite of the honey apples and a sip of wine, while wearing a hat on his sacrilegious head to cover it before G-d.
For the rest of the evening, everyone talked outside around the fire pit. Felippe played guitar, and Artilio passed out. Fier took up the conversation with Artilio’s old friend from Gela. Fier liked to think he had the inside scoop on all the conspiracy theories of the world, and talking to old timers was, apparently, good research. He was so into it that Giovanni sarcastically whispered, “Fier has a new boyfriend.”
I half-seriously shoved Giovanni for being mean. And homophobic. Cleaning the dishes, I laughed to myself as Giovanni tried to coach Rob on some new Italian phrases. Italian lessons lead to trouble.
In our puritan American world, sex has consequences. Cheating means divorce. Teenage sex means pregnancy and poverty for life. And sex means STDs. Now it was puritan payback time.
The next day I traveled all the way to Catania to see the English-speaking doctor for my ongoing pain. He was actually very nice and not as condescending as I thought a doctor would be when discussing problems down there. His diagnosis was Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Fuck. For the first time I was finally having fun, and I got some horrid disease. The doctor said it was chronic, and I’d have to live with it the rest of my life. Double fuck.
Later I came to believe that it was misdiagnosed and was a simple urinary tract infection, which I would get occasionally in the years to come. Either way the punishment wasn’t as harsh as a true puritanical comeuppance would be.
The doc prescribed antibiotics that would take care of either PID or a UTI. But when I got back to Girasol, Veronika and Anabella told me all their conspiracy theories about antibiotics, so I didn’t buy the medicine. It seemed logical enough – why bother treating it if I was going to have it for the rest of my life anyway?
The kind, if misguided, doctor had even driven me to the train station in Catania. He asked why I chose to spend a year in Piazza Armerina since it was “boring and has one of the worst accents in Italy.” I told him I had just ended up there.
At the train station I decided not to catch a bus home right away but to have a little fun and call some guys I’d met at the Volcano Islands when the Lion’s Club host family had brought me there on their family vacation. I’d appreciated the family taking me in, but we were such a mismatch that I was bored even on our supposedly fun trip. Fortune had it that their cousin knew someone at a café there, and as they chatted I talked with her friend, someone who actually made me feel interesting. Unlike the host family, Guiseppe wanted to know all about America and me. Taking his phone number was the only wise decision I made all summer.
When I called him he was so thrilled that he told me not to move, they’d be right over. They weren’t right over. But I had time for a delicious almond pasta di mandorle cookie, a granita drink, and a conversation with Massimo, the cute bartender at the station café. He was tall and tan and reminded me of my Nicaraguan boyfriend from high school. I gave him my number at Giovanni’s house.
Giuseppe arrived, looking tanner and cuter. He said my Italian was now better than some Italians. How sweet. We talked about how our summers had been going and drove to an insurance office where his girlfriend Deborah worked. They had been together fourteen years and planned to marry someday.
We all went to a bar, and they bought me a type of sandwich, unknown to me, an extotic panini. Then, at the best gelato place in town, they gave me a kiss – Bacio – a chocolate and hazelnut ice cream. Visitors are told to find the shop by looking for the elephant statue with huge testicles. Italians love their manhood. They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of words for the male parts. They can be used as compliments: “Che palle!” (that guy has balls!) or as curses, minchia! (Sicilian penis) or Catzo! (Italian for penis).
At the dawn of the 20th century, Catania commissioned a sculptor to create a larger-than-life statue of a bull elephant, the city’s symbol. After much anticipation, it was unveiled at a grand ceremony. At first there was great pride amongst the populace. Then a murmur arose, and it grew into an outraged cry. The elephant had enormous tusks, but no balls! What was the sculptor trying to say about Catanians? To save his reputation and possibly his life, he quickly returned to the studio and fabricated two palle. He welded on the two huge cannonballs that would have made walking impossible for any real elephant. The city cheered, and the legend was born. Across the street, you’ll find the best ice cream in the world.
After the history lesson we headed back to Deborah’s office, and Giuseppe called the two other guys I knew from Volcano: Sergio and Flaminio. Sergio was busy, and I actually never saw him again. Flamino gushed, “Mamma Mia, Carol!” when he spotted me as we walked into the bank where he worked. We looked at his pictures from the Volcano trip and howled at one which featured their three backsides in Speedo suits. That style never seemed to die out in Italy, it must be the best for showing off their manhood. After collecting Flaminio’s girlfriend, they drove me to the station since it was nearly time for the last bus. As it pulled away I watched out the window as they all started chanting, “Carol! Carol!” They sure knew how to make a stranieri (foreigner) feel welcome.
I hoped to return to see them again in a few days. Now that Rob was on the island and Veronika was back, Rob and I were going to tour Sicily like we had planned. I wanted to really explore Agrigento, where my family originated, not just smell the oleander with Lucio. Rob was looking forward to new experiences, or at least that’s what he said. I just wanted a vacation from all the drama and gossip of Piazza Armerina, and to get back to the original reason I came to the island, to find my family and its history.
The day before we left was almost perfect. I walked into town alone since Rob had been drafted by Fier to help haul manure. Ah, country life. So pretty, but so full of shit.
When I reached town, I stepped into the bank. The puzzled teller commented that I sure seemed to be on vacation for a long time. I explained my plan for staying a year and that he should get used to cashing American traveler’s checks.
Next I visited the farmacia on a mission for the stray dog that had started hanging around Girasol. Veronika had diagnosed the itchy skin that the mutt was biting off and sent me to buy some medicine. I didn’t mind helping a stray. A fellow traveler like me, relying on the kindness of strangers. A few months later, however, I would not think so kindly of stray dogs.
When I went to the post office, to send my usual round of letters, I bumped into a not-so-kind stranger. I was spotted by the lady who “worked” there, if that’s what you call it in the bureaucratic socialist post office where they avoid work as much as possible. She clasped her hands together as if beseeching God himself and said,
“Tu sempre scrive!” (“you always write!”) She really didn’t appreciate the extra work I made for her. I had to buy stamps, and this took time since, on every visit, the rules and prices seemed to change. There was no internet, so snail mail was the only tenuous connection I had with the friends and family back home who could help keep me sane. Well, except my mom and dad, who kindly let me call collect, but I couldn’t spill all my problems to them. The post office was a huge pain, and by the end of the year I vowed never to visit that Italian institution again without an Italian friend to do the dirty work for me. The horror of the post office is the main reason I sadly realized I might never be able to live in my beloved southern Italy.
The next chore of the day was to pick up my mail from the Lion’s Club youth leader’s house. His was the address I had given to my friends all summer, and there were still letters going there even though I had usurped Giovanni’s address. I tried to pick up my mail around lunch time since his mother was the best cook in the world. I ‘fessed up about my handmade pasta going horribly wrong. She tried to show me once again.
I mixed and rolled it and started to get a better feel for the process. But I was still much too intimidated to try it on my own again, especially if I had guests coming. I did master her amazing sauce though. I stayed for lunch, which was as miraculous as always.
Walking over to Giovanni’s, I mused about what a perfect day this had been. Eating a wonderful Sicilian lunch and, for dessert, the passionate embrace of my Sicilian lover. The island’s volcanic forces must have been in my favor.
I rode back to Girasol with Giovanni after a pleasant afternoon of laughing and joking. No drama, no frustration – things seemed to be getting better with him. He never seemed to want to dump me, just to keep me on the attendance rolls like his other lovers. He put his hand on my knee as we rode on the dirt road. He saw Veronika and yelled that he’d come fix her roof the next day. We said goodbye. I knew I’d miss him as we would be apart during my travels. He said he’d be here and nothing ever changes in Piazza Armerina. So I decided not to worry.
That night as Rob and I packed for the trip, we bickered the whole time. I worried about spending all this time alone with him. Were we going to be miserable? Why was it so nice with Giovanni and not with Rob?