(slide show of Grotte at the end..)
I grew up listening to my mom and dad tell stories about their hometown, Grotte, Sicily. When I was 10 years old, I went to Grotte for the first time ever. Their stories came to life. I saw firsthand what my dad had described: sun browned farmers on donkey-driven colorfully painted carts along the narrow cobbled streets, shouting out, “Cu voli cacociuli? (Who wants to buy artichokes?) Their plaintive voices echoed in the alleys and off the stone walls. I woke up to women putting their laundry out on lines. On the way to one of the family farms, I saw elderly women balancing water jugs (quartare) on their heads. Women used to put their chairs outside their door and sew, knit, embroider. The unmarried women had to sit facing the house (so that passing young men could not study their faces) while the married women could sit facing the street.
The above are images one never sees anymore. Who would till soil by the sweat of one’s brow when there are machines to do the work for you? Who would ride a donkey and shout when there are cars and loudspeakers to make work much easier? You do not see a single donkey any more. They have been replaced by little trucks that look like motorized rickshaw-trucks. Like me, my cousin, who grew up in England, looked for hints of the old days. She told me that on one recent visit to Grotte, she was thrilled to see a farmer on a donkey. She thought to herself with satisfaction, “See, some things never change!” Then suddenly, the farmer pulls out a cell phone and phones his wife. My cousin could only hear the conversation from the farmer’s end. “Darling, start cooking the pasta. I’m on my way home.” So things do change! And why shouldn’t they? We romanticize it all. Why should we (living outside of the village) be the only ones who use technology to make our lives easier?
“Oh, look at all the widows in black with framed photos of their husbands pinned to their chest.” Why do we find that so quaint? My friend from Egypt once hosted a well known American female photographer. My friend was so shocked to hear the American photographer exclaim about how beautiful the veiled women looked! She shot photo after photo of the veiled women. My Egyptian friend saw the veiled women of her country as symbols of oppression. We seem to be attracted to what is different or antiquated, though we may not want to embrace such a lifestyle.
I noticed that some things changed in Grotte from just 4 years ago:
- Someone told me that Grotte is like the 50’s all over again. The young have left and are leaving in droves. They have gone north in search of jobs. There are not many young people to be seen in Grotte. They are in northern Italy, in Germany, in England, in France, Belgium. They are educated men and women taking any job they can get. The young will tell their parents they got a good job in the Hotel Industry when, in fact, they are cleaning out rooms in hotels (this is according to my uncle….I do happen to know for sure that many of my cousins have landed good jobs in the north and abroad). One elderly man, Vincenzuzzu, asked me if I like Grotte. I said yes and I told him some reasons why I love Grotte. One of my last reasons I gave him was the sun, the warmth, the food produced in this climate that tastes like it has been kissed by the sun. And he replied, “Beh, lu suli ‘un si po mangiare.” “Well, you can’t eat the sun!” Good answer, Vincenzuzzu. I fell right into your trap. So tragic to have to leave paradise in search of jobs, just like my parents did back in the ’50’s.
- Another difference: traffic jams! Those who stay in Grotte have cars. Not as much walking these days. Too hot, some say. Too many fast cars, not safe to walk, others say. Regardless of the reasons, I have never seen so many cars in Grotte. What happened to all the Vespas? Perhaps those disappeared when the youth left to go work in the north.
- Romanians and Africans now live in Grotte. They get jobs working in restaurants, in fields, as housekeepers, and, most importantly, they work in private homes taking care of the elderly (i.e., most of the population). They feed the elderly, bathe them, change their Depends, clothe them, and later put them to bed. In short, they are doing the work that no one else wants to do.
- More litter than ever! The ubiquitous crushed plastic bottle has really become a problem. There are now recycle bins everywhere, but still a plethora of plastic bottles and litter everywhere. My uncle explained to me that not long ago the garbage collectors were on strike for a long long time. The village looked a wreck, garbage piling up everywhere. According to him, what I was seeing was a remnant from those months of garbage piling up for months. Well, my friends, time for a major clean up. But who will do the cleaning up? Only the elderly and a few youngsters and their parents remain in Grotte. I have a feeling it will be the Romanians and Africans who will eventually be hired for the clean up work.
- Used to be women labored over making impignolati (Grottese onion and olive specialty bread) and cavatti (Grottese pasta rolled by hand). But now, cavatti are made by the kilo with machines! And impignolati are rolled out by machines and sold in bakeries throughout Grotte! The mass production takes away the preciousness of these foods. However, I was surprised to see that they taste just as good as the food we used to eat in our relatives home. Progress wins again.
So what doesn’t change?
- Widows/widowers still wear black. Not for a lifetime like long ago, but for a long time.
- Sicilian children will always be perfectly coddled fleshy cherubs and families will always adore all family members, especially babies and young children.
- People still peep from behind shuttered windows (shuttered to keep the house cool) They stare good and hard and they don’t care of you see them staring. They are not ashamed if you stare back at them. They just keep staring. If they don’t know you, they won’t smile. They just watch you. We passersby from different countries are better than TV!
- The food is the best in the world, the tomatoes taste like the sun, the olive oil is green and fragrant, the olives, eggs, grapes, wine, figs, coffee, choose, walnuts, almonds, and bread and pasta made of yellow durum wheat are intoxicatingly delicious and fresh. Everything you eat is a sheer delight to all the senses!
- What never changes is the intensely sad feeling I experience, each time I leave, of having to say goodbye to our aunts, uncles, to a part of ourselves, to our heritage, to a place where we are and always will be spiritually and emotionally rooted. There is nothing like the sense of family in Sicily! There is nothing like the sense of belonging to a place like Sicily, to an ancient land and culture, to a family as beautiful as the one I just left behind.
|A free picture slideshow by Smilebox|