Benvenuto! Sicily's Warm, Friendly Welcome
By Jennifer Kim
Foreigners near and far travel to Sicily as tourists, but leave the island as humbled guests. Sicilians welcome strangers not by a measly crack but with the doors to their homes swung wide open.
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At first, I was apprehensive about my encounters with
Sicilians while overseas.
“Sicilian men may whistle, make comments, and generally be more aggressive than you may be accustomed to,” a member in my group warned. “Travel in groups.”
My favorite warning comes from my Insight Guide to Sicily: “Try to avoid sitting alone in parks or on benches. This last may be impossible, so be ready to ward off the over-friendly.” Right. In other words, never be by myself in Sicily or talk to any Sicilian.
Just in Case
I tucked these warnings into my head alongside my elementary Italian phrases. One phrase in particular that I diligently memorized was “Non Tocchi!” (“Don’t Touch!”), for those just-in-case situations with the “over-friendly.”
After hearing these admonitions about Sicilian men, I left the States with a cautious and wary attitude like an agoraphobic, afraid of leaving her safe home and traveling into society. Armed with my just-in-case Italian phrase, I stepped onto the island timidly hiding behind my sunglasses, not only from the scintillating, bright sun, but also from the Sicilian ‘predators’.
The narrow, cobblestone streets were spotted with charming tantalizing pasticcerie (pastry shops), gelaterie (gelato shops), and cafes. One will usually discover Sicilian homes and buildings accented with an acorn (over time it has turned into a pineapple) hanging from their doorway or near the entrance of their homes. The acorn symbolizes hospitality and is literally a sign of welcoming.
Old World Tradition
The antique and novel appearance of the stores and owners themselves gave off an aura of character and old world tradition. Now, take a moment and imagine forty-five anxious Americans shuffling about in these small towns like paparazzi and reporters, intrigued with every miniscule thing.
Despite dire warnings from the guidebooks, our group experienced one magnificent gesture of hospitality after another during our eight-day stay.
Restaurants by the ocean will automatically mean dishes by the sea and our meal at La Pineta in Castellamare del Golfo was no exception. The entrance was decorated with an elegant display of various fresh sea creatures. The restaurant was contemporary and elegant with bay windows overlooking the sea green waters of the Mediterranean.
The meal began with a seafood salad consisting of baby octopus as the star. Salami, prosciutto and cheese also made an appearance. The entrée itself was ravioli composed of bluefish and a side of risotto. Some of us were open to trying new cuisine, savoring every bite. The original dish, pasta normale, was requested upon Rosa, our tour guide, but the restaurant would not hear of it and resorted to the elaborate meal formerly reserved for another party.
Determined and Passionate
Chefs in Sicily are determined and passionate about serving their best no matter what occasion or meal—it is a matter not taken lightly. Jetlagged and discombobulated with the differing time zones, our meal times were also haphazardly affected. With contagious yawns being passed from one to another, and our groggy, yet skeptical eyes examining each plate, we were intimidated by the peculiar cuisine.
Keeping in mind that it was 7:00 a.m. in the States, appetites were not ready for breakfast to be replaced with such an extravagant lunch. Observing that the deluxe entrée was not as enthusiastically accepted from the American guests, the head chef prepared yet another superior dish accommodating the American palate—a refined version of the common “pasta spaghetti” dish. It was later noted that the set lunch course was originally meant for a banquet reception later that night.
Noticing satisfied smiles upon our American faces from both meals, and induced with food coma, all was restored to normal once again in La Pineta with the head chef pleased that his guests were content.
At last, the group arrived at Hotel Capo San Vito, situated on the white sands of San Vito lo Capo, supposedly the most beautiful beach of Sicily. The polished and old class charm of the hotel matched the personality of the people in San Vito lo Capo as well. Celebrities and foreigners flock to San Vito lo Capo in the summer as New Englanders head to the Cape. Tourists are the majority of the town’s population in the summer months of the high peak season. However, when we arrived in this stunning beach town, we came during the off-season.
The town was flustered to see tourists during this usually ignored time of year. In fact, at a local supermercato (or a mini-mart), they did not have enough change to give us as we purchased our 2 liters and six packs of water. I was the last customer in the store when they had completely run out of change. In exchange for the lack of change, she offered me Italian chocolates instead. I agreed and later realized that the chocolates had cost more than the actual change they owed me. I had been introduced to an obsession with Italian chocolates.
As it turns out, we were apparently the only tourists in the entire town. The Hotel Capo San Vito willingly opened to house us in their usual off-season. At an opening reception, they gave us bubbly champagne with a trace of grapefruit spritzer in sophisticated glass flutes. This gesture from the hotel was the crème de la crème of greetings thus far.
In the city of Marsala, the new archaeological museum’s caretaker—a rosy cheeked old Sicilian man aged with white hair, wrinkles, and wisdom greeted us. He was extremely enthused with the idea of young Americans interested in his museum filled with ancient, historical artifacts. Who knew that young people were so eager to learn about old Sicilian history? Certainly not the old caretaker, but he welcomed this energetic, upbeat crowd with a personal guided tour.
He immediately spoke Italian to our group like rapid gunfire, which targeted our tour guide, Rosa, to translate promptly in English. “He loves Americans and after the 9/11 attacks, he loves them even more.” The old man quietly peered at our American faces as he anxiously searched for our reactions. A wave of “Aww’s” and warm applause swept the crowd—the old man beamed for this was the exact reaction he was hoping. Despite our prior knowledge that the caretaker had said this many times before, the rehearsed line won over our hearts.
Sicily is so keen on hospitality that they have dedicated an entire showcase to a supposedly infamous, yet unknown Spaniard—even to the caretaker. The old man introduced us to the showcase featuring the mysterious foreigner. This exhibit was a tomb for a man who was unknown, but was properly and hospitably buried, and memorialized by the ancient Sicilians.
As we left the museum for our next scheduled destination, I spotted the old man walking to his car (half parked on the street, half on the sidewalk—the Italian parking signature), only to discover his wife waiting in the passenger seat. What initially started as a daily perfunctory visit to his museum, turned out to be an hour-long ordeal of testing his historical knowledge of his museum and its contents. While his wife waited, he whole-heartedly welcomed the Americans to his museum, his town, his island.
The city of “the Mountain of the Rabbit”, or otherwise known as Montelepre, had greeted our tour group—literally. An hour around the town of Montelepre (or any town in Sicily for that matter) for lunch was like a scavenger hunt in itself.
Searching for Lunch
Siesta is a lunch break feasted with friends and family that lasts on average of approximately three to four hours, or whenever the savory amounts of couscous, risotto and pungent cheeses with overflowing glasses of wine judges to cease its end.
Thus, siesta is when all the shops and stores padlock their doors, only to be reopened in a few hours. As the options for a legitimate lunch (this means that pastries or gelatos weren’t considered as a substitution for a meal) were scarce, the American tourists roamed up and down the streets of Sicily in hopes to catch lunch. The Sicilians, observing and perhaps finding humor out of our hopeless chase for a meal, spread like wildfire, only surging more curiosity in Montelepre’s community.
Fortunately, a petite supermercato graciously satisfied our hunger with panini (sandwiches) abounding with provolone, prosciutto, salami and tomatoes. The women working at the mini-mart must have thought we were starving for days by the amount of food we consumed. Instead, we were embraced like long lost children into the arms of their mothers by giving us generous amounts of food, even allowing four American girls use their bathroom as if it were our own home.
We eventually delighted in our lunch in the piazza of the city of the “Mountain of the Rabbit”, soaking in the boastful sun, and looked upon by Sicilian men addressing us with “Ciao, Bella!”
As our group was about to leave the friendly community of Montelepre, a representative from the town council took it upon herself to climb aboard our flamboyantly colorful motor coach with an ecstatic and warm greeting for all of us tourists. The woman’s ostentatious outfit made our bus actually seem a bit dull. It was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside, yet eighty percent of her body was covered in mink fur topped off with a lavishly large hat that could be seen on actresses in old Hollywood movies.
She garnished the rest of the outfit with fashion jewelry—a long gold necklace and enormous silver earrings. It was inconceivable to think that one would walk around town in this type of outfit everyday. Her effort and time invested into impressing the Americans with her elaborate ensemble should be received as an act of gratitude.
Prior to our spirited and peppy salutation, our representative town cheerleader detected foreigners via word of mouth from the community. We were given an official greeting from the entire community of Montelepre to enjoy our remaining stay in Sicily. The spokeswoman looked rather upset that she herself was not able to give us a personal tour of her town and their museum within our allotted time slot of one hour to explore. Due to time constraints, she left us with only the town’s website address.
We were handsomely rewarded with our last day off from group tours and a free day to do as we pleased in Sicily, legally of course. Three students and I decided to explore the gems of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aeolian Islands. Our time limited, we settled on Vulcano Island and Lipari Island.
Strolling along the black sand and hearing the ripples in the waves crash against pumice and rocks from deteriorated volcanoes while the sun shown gloriously above me—this was not a dream but reality.
Even the stench of rotten eggs caused by the sulfuric acid from the volcanoes couldn’t hinder my gratification for this island in which I sought refuge. Vulcano Island was known for its natural mud pools and thermal ocean water that developed due to the four volcanoes that formed on the island.
Meandering along the calm local roads, we came across a hotel, which appeared to be the only one on the island. Briefly ignoring trespassing laws by slipping through the entrance gates, we sneakily climbed up on the roof of the hotel.
The rooftop view had a magnificent sight that forced us to look at a mountainous volcano that dipped its feet into the Tyrrhenian Sea. As we gawked at this splendor, we were interrupted by voices from below. Jerking our heads from the panoramic view, we tiptoed across the roof peering below to uncover a man in a crisp Italian suit, bidding farewell to a woman. Weighing out our options, we took deep breaths and courageously climbed down to reality.
I found myself speechless when the man in the brilliant suit waved to us and charmingly acknowledged us with a smile. No yelling, no accusations, no questions on the absurdity of our situation, not even a hint of alarm that there were Americans, who were clearly not guests on his hotel roof. In lieu of an awkward situation, the conversation shaped into an amiable one loaded with curiosity of how he was beholding young Americans during the low tourist season. With a lesson learned in trespassing, we headed to our next destination relieved.
The ferry puttered to a stop and we docked off at Lipari Island. As soon as we dropped anchor, we were immersed into a lively cosmopolitan-like city. Although we arrived during siesta, the streets were busy with vendors, shops and kiosks. Every other store was a gelateria and others--bars, or what is considered as coffee shops in the States. There were also the occasional souvenir shops servicing tourists. Lipari Island had the same appeal and aspects of a large metropolitan city, but with a twist of old world beauty and hospitality.
It was March 19, which marked the day of St. Joseph in Sicily. In the States, this day is parallel to what we would celebrate as Father’s Day. The last ferry from Lipari Island back to the mainland--Sicily was at 6:45p.m. This gave us about two hours to explore the island. We all longed to stay to see a glimpse of the festival.
Even though we contemplated the idea of missing this last ferry, and in addition would also miss our flight back to the States the next morning, we knew we wanted to stay as long as we possibly could on this island to get a taste of their tradition of Father’s Day.
Two loud bangs erupted into the air. We frantically searched the sky to see any possible sources of the noise. We judged they must have been warnings to the start of the festivities. We bolted into a run and dodged oncoming pedestrians, Fiats and mopeds. From a local’s perspective, we must have looked ridiculously amusing.
Picture four Americans stampeding through the narrow alleyways straight into oncoming traffic, ignoring warning signs and going through blockades, and randomly taking left and right turns. With the help of a few locals, we were guided toward the piazza, where there was to be a procession dedicated to St. Joseph.
The church bells chimed. It was 6:00 p.m. but there was no procession in sight. Confused, we gave it a few more Sicilian minutes—delayed time by about ten minutes. Huddled in the heart of the piazza, we nervously read our watches, afraid that we missed the whole affair altogether. Churchgoers continuously passed us and returned our quizzical looks with their own, both parties wondering what we were doing.
Searching for the Procession
I glanced up momentarily from my watch, when I detected a local, an elderly man about the age of sixty, but carrying a confidence in his manner coming our way. Pulling myself together and boosting up my courage, I reviewed the very few Italian phrases I knew. In Italian, I asked him where the festival was and what time it began. He replied back that we were in the right place and the festival started at 6:00 p.m. This could not be. There was no visible parade or procession in sight and by now it was 6:15 p.m.
We exchanged puzzled looks with one another. One of my traveling companions, Alice, tore open her backpack and dug out her trusty Italian dictionary. We pored over the book, madly seeking through the pages to aid us in any possible mean to communicate in Italian.
Meanwhile, the Italian man had called over another local to help him communicate with the Americans. The language barrier went on for a while as we helplessly went back and forth with questions being answered by different questions and answers being questioned by different answers.
We never figured out exactly when the festival began. We presumed the festival began with Mass, which was at 6:00 p.m. What we did learn on the other hand, was that these locals deeply wanted to provide us with facts about their home—Sicily. These bits and pieces of information were given to us as they placed one hand on our shoulders and the other flinging wildly in the air. Whatever information they plied us with, they said with passion and earnest.
The old men honestly wanted us to fall in love with their country—as I did. They adoringly bid each of us a farewell with kisses on the cheeks, and a “Salute!” (Bless You!).
When our group reached Logan International Airport, I half-expected to hear a “Ciao, Bella” or even a simple “Ciao”. Instead, I was welcomed back to the States with a “Hi, How ya doin’?” For a brief moment, I was lost in translation. The familiar phrase I had heard throughout my life lost its pizzazz. I yearned for the Italian salutation I adopted during my eight-day stay in Sicily.
Now every time I hear a “Ciao, Bella”, I automatically associate that phrase with memories of the island’s kindness, hospitality and friendliness.
My just-in-case Italian phrase, “Non Tocchi!” was never used nor were those dire warnings of sitting alone in parks or on benches. If I could substitute my own warning with those extreme ones, I would say: “You may find yourself embraced into Sicilian culture, tradition, and lifestyle with open arms and doors, aching to go back to the ‘over-friendly’.”
Jennifer Kim is a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is an intern this summer for GoNOMAD.com