Monday, November 26, 2007

More Thanksgiving

So Richard and I had a Sicilian-American Thanksgiving themed Sunday dinner for which we invited over the Professor and his wife. For the first course, I made pasta alla zucca. (Zucca is pumpkin, basically. Although the species grown here for eating looks a little different from the species we grow in the US for making jack-o-lanterns. See above photo.) For a second course, I made involtini di tacchino, again. This time I remembered the broth and toned down the rosemary a bit and they came out even better than the dry run on Thursday. (Involtini are some sort of meat or fish rolled up with some sort of filling, usually cheese and herbs, sometimes bread crumbs. They are very sicilian--I don't believe they're common outside of Sicily. Sword fish and veal are both very common types of involtini. The sword fish seems to always be covered and filled with breadcrumbs.) These particular ones I made were turkey, speck (sort of a smoky prosciutto), and a mixture of a couple of dry, grated cheeses with rosemary, salt, and pepper. Richard made some very tasty mashed potatoes, despite a lack of milk or cream in the house, improvising a mixture of salt, parsely, roasted garlic, rosemary, and probably one or two other things I didn't see him put in there. The professor and his wife were suitably impressed that a couple of young American man actually knew how to cook and could do it well.

The professor brought some red wine from Taormina that was one of the nicest wines I've had so far. I think it was probably a new wine. The professor, himself, is quite the dessert chef. He made us cuore calde (warm hearts)--a kind of small chocolate cake kind of thing with warm liquid chocolate inside. (Hence the name.) He also brought us quite an assortment of small cannoli of various flavors. The colpo di grazia were some that he made especially for Richard, showing off his flair for creativity and willingness to take risks, with chocolate on the ends and a surprise of cayenne pepper inside the ricotta filling. They turned out to be delicious with the pepper really complimenting the chocolate.

The professor was taking pictures of the whole thing, and when he sends me copies, I might even post them in this here blog. In the end, were all full, a little drunk, and happy. After a short walk and a short nap, Richard and I met the professor for a wine tasting at the fanciest hotel in town, which also happens to be about two blocks away from our house. We were very under dressed but no one seemed to mind. The professor had been invited in a professional capacity as someone involved in the tourism industry and we got to tag along as his guests. Some company had bought vineyards all over Italy and was producing a number of different wines from a number of different regions. The wine tasting was a publicity effort on their part, to get hotels and B&Bs, etc, to buy their wines. They were ok, but none of them were knocking my socks off. When I mentioned that to the professor, he explained to me that they were pasteurized--the heat had a tendency to kill whatever made a wine taste unique and special. I had never really thought about it before and wondered how many wines I drink are pasteurized. No idea.

Richard and I capped off the night at a smoky club downtown drinking beer and watching some local jazz musicians tear up their instruments until pretty late. The band was very good, for what it was, and it was all very warm and pleasant.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty good day once I write it all out!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cross Reference

Brian Risk has some posts on his blog that might be of interest to readers of this blog.
I especially like the picture of Etna from the second post.

The Valley of the Gods!

Bonjourno! Can you spot the American in this picture?

Chris and I spent the day in Agrigento, aka the Valley of the Gods! The scenery proved to be worth a long bus ride with bad music. We got some good views of the temple of Concord, the best preserved Greek ruin in Sicily. The Byzzantines repurposed it as a cathedral to St. Paul a few centuries after the big AD, filling in the columns with supporting walls that likely spared it the earthquake destruction that befell the temples of Juno and Hercules, also in the valley.

These doric temples get their red color from the indigenous sandstone, a very crumbly rock. Here's a clever little photo of the aforementioned temple of Juno; its ruins are at the top of the hill in the background.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Here is our traditional thanksgiving octopus. Actually, this will be our thanksgiving lunch tomorrow. We cooked them and stuffed them into a cut-open water bottle to cool overnight. tomorrow we will cut the mass of them into octopus slices, full of tentacles and delicious octopus body. These are much more managable than the five-pound octopus the vendor tried to sell Chris originally. In the wild, it would have frightened me.
Since we woke up a little too late to complete this, we baked some fish for lunch and invite over Chris's downstairs neighbor, an American from Chicago who has been teaching English here for the past 25 years. Thanksgiving started around 1:30, consisted of multiple courses and a bottle of wine, and concluded with a little nap and an Italian-overdubbed He-Man cartoon. Oh, Orko, will you ever cease your bumbling ways.

Tonight we are preparing turkey for real, and dinner is soon. Ciao.

Cosa mi dici di bello?

It looks like we're a little behind on our blogging. Let's see if I can catch us up. On Monday we went to Taormina. We saw the Greco-Roman theater.

Then we climbed Mt. Tauro.

That was a pretty good hike, but we just didn't feel like we were, well, high enough. And since the Saracene castle was closed (like it always is, it seems), we figured we'd get a better view if we hiked up to Castelmola. From there we could look down into the Saracene castle.

We also found a good spot to watch the sunset.

I think we might have died and gone to heaven.

Then we came back down to earth.

We finished off the day with some home made pasta alla norma.

The next day we went for a ride on the Circumetnea railroad. It's sort of like the Chatanooga Choo Choo only more lava.

And prickly pears.

When we were done with that we went back to Al Gabbiano where I had the best fish meal I'd had since the last time I went to Al Gabbiano. Brian and I ate spaghetti in black cuttlefish ink.

And then Richard and I ate barbecued squid.

In the end we were happy, sleepy and full. Very, very full.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Update on the trash strike. I just heard them empty the dumpster on our street. Yes!

Monday, November 19, 2007


This poor girl--not only has she embarrassed herself by bowling in the improper lane, but her lacy unmentionables have taken this as the moment to fall down. A perfect moment capture by a genius artist!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Lazy Sunday

Yes, we did indeed walk to the coast. And while there we took advantage of the scenery to shoot the dustjacket photos for our upcoming biographies, Brian Risk's A Life Lived on the Edge and Chris Rossi's A Man Undaunted. Sicily's coastline, like its cartoons, is filled with inexplicable bulges. Featured dishes were a whole roasted artichoke bought from a street vendor (and full of butter and parsley) and sicilian pizza, a savory doughnut-like disk filled with anchovies and cheese.

Walk to the coast

Stone Arch
Chris an Richard laugh at death.

I've finally started to remember to bring my camera, have it charged and am thinking of some photos here and there. Today was another walk to the coast. In the 1600's (I believe), Catania was burried in lava -- about this much lava. Smart cars are everywhere. So are Mooninites.

Catania bars

Duff Tavern

A lot of taverns around here have themes. We ended up stopping at a Communist-themed bar (don't tell McCarthey) , and rather than being filled with Hippies, it seemed to be the more family oriented spot we would visit. Richard and I are in a beer mood and, perhaps out of laziness, Chris suggests that rather than ordering three beers, we order one large beer.

Huge beer

What we got was an obelisk of shame. When they hauled this thing in, every other customer turned to see who the garish twats were that would actually pick such an eyesore from the menu. Chris is notably shamed. I tell him we should tell the waitress there was some sort of mistake in ordering, that we are Americans and that we were expecting something bigger.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Morning Shopping, How Much for a Kilo of Democracy?

Clearly I should have sucked it up before I left and bought a new digital camera. This morning, after kind of a late start, I hopped the bus downtown so I could buy some food for dinner at the pescheria. As I came up on Piazza Duomo I was surprised to find the square filled with garbage trucks and a bunch of workers standing in front of the municipal building. A sanitation worker's strike? Let's hope they resolve it soon! If Grady thinks the city is dirty now, just see what happens if they don't empty the dumpsters for a day or two.

I've done some peeking around on the web but haven't yet turned up a news story that tells me what's going on. Maybe the TV will tell me. Anyway, it's always interesting to see street level democracy in action. I keep meaning to dig up more info on what was being protested at that march we ran across in Palermo, but don't yet have a handle on what the issues are. It wasn't really anything to do with tuition, like Christa suggested, since there is no tuition here. I think it's more to do with new labor laws that remove some protections for students and other "precarious" workers, meaning low end, unsteady employment, workers. I think.

The Palermo protest didn't seem to be a real big deal. It did get about 4 seconds of coverage on the news that night, but for a huge city like Palermo, the number of people participating was minuscule. Despite posters everywhere calling for a general strike on that day, I didn't see a single business closed, giving the impression that this was an event for only the most left of the left that had failed to grab any real popular support. Add this to the fact that the posters and slogans covered such a broad spectrum of leftist issues that any coherent political message was lost. I've seen the same thing in the US. You can have a protest about the Iraq war and there will be groups there marching in support of saving the manatees. Just stay on topic, people. This also helped add to my confusion about what it as they were actually marching about. Yes, I know, we're all in favor of worker's rights, safer working conditions, better access to food, housing, medical care, etc... But what exactly do you want right now, in concrete terms, at this moment? Oh well.

Cosa Nostra on the way out?

So, I keep meaning to write a longer piece about what's going on with the fight against the mafia in Sicily, but just keep not getting around to it, so I thought I'd do just a quicky instead. This is a fairly interesting time for Sicily right now. Three years ago there was a convention in Palermo for merchants and civic leaders to come together and talk about how to fight against the mafia. No one came. The very day after Mary, Christa and I were in Palermo, they held the same convention in Teatro Biondo (we passed by there at some point) and the place was packed. Palermitans are finally finding the courage to openly defy the mob. This is big. It's probably no coincidence that it was also about three years ago that the organization Addiopizzo got off the ground. They now have a roll of 209 businesses that refuse to pay protection money (pizzo) and 9105 consumers who have enrolled to boycott businesses that do. If you can cut off the pizzo, the mafia starves.

Only a few days before we went to Palermo, police managed to capture the current boss of the entire Sicilian mafia, capo di tutti i capi, Salvatore Lo Piccolo--he had been wanted for arrest for 25 years. There doesn't seem to be anyone ready to step in and take his place. The mafia also finds itself headless for the time being. (This could also lead to wars and power struggles among rival factions--who knows?) They arrested Lo Piccolo at a meeting of several bosses to go over finances--police managed to capture their entire budget, including every pizzo, complete with names and addresses. A single supermarket was paying 5000 euro a month, alone. Including were also members of Addiopizzo who were being slated for punishment. A punishment that now, hopefully, won't take place. In the following days even more arrests have been made, based largely on the evidence seized at Lo Piccolo's arrest--a veritable gold mine of information.

Individuals have tried to defy mafia before. 16 years ago, a textiles manufacturer, Libero Grassi, stood up to the mafia. He was killed. But he stood alone. No one else had the courage to stand with him. Now, with Addiopizzo gaining ground, the success of the convention last week, and the arrest of several high ranking mafiosi, it looks Sicily might finally be seeing the right combination of commercial, civic, state, and law enforcement efforts to finally put an end to the crippling economic hegemony of the mob. One person alone can't take on the mob, but all of these people working together probably can. There's still a long way to go and no way to predict how it will all go, but for now, at least, things are looking pretty optimistic.

Got any raisins? How about a date?

So, some of you have seen those fruits dangling from some of the palm trees around here, asked me what they were, and seen me shrug my shoulders. For a while, though, the word "date palm" has been circulating around in my brain and so I've finally did a Wikipedia lookup and have confirmed that indeed, the mystery fruit growing everywhere in huge bunches on those palm trees--those are dates. Here's the Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I'm so hungry I could eat a horse

Even the most inattentive among us probably has some vague sense that food is related to culture. We talk about going out to a Mexican restaurant or a Chinese restaurant. We have some idea that people from different parts of the world cook things differently, although in the American culinary landscape it would seem almost to be a matter of a few different spices, maybe a different way of preparing something, but rarely something beyond a different flavor of an already familiar food. Maybe tonight you can have a chicken burrito, or maybe sweet and sour chicken, or curry chicken, or barbecued chicken, etc.... We all agree for the most part that chicken is part of the wider family of objects and materials that we like to think of as food.

What a lot of people don't realize or haven't had a chance to pick up on is culture determines far more than just how we prepare food--it also determines what we consider to be food in the first place. On a friend of mine's blog, she talks about eating live ants that taste like lemon in Ecuador. It only seems weird if you're not from Ecuador. Many Asians, I've heard, that don't use dairy in their native cuisines find cheese to be horribly disgusting. Whereas I think it's delicious.

Which is all just a long way of getting around to the fact that in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, I hear, people eat horse. I've never seen it on a restaurant menu but I've seen people grilling it up fresh out on the street and serving it on rolls. I've seen horse butchers and I've even seen horse sausages. In fact, horse, is one of the many things I see sold as food that I don't see served in restaurants. (Evidence that restaurants only represent a certain aspect of the cuisine of a culture. Think about what you eat in restaurants in your home town and then think about what you actually prepare to eat at home. Not the same things are they?) Although there's no biological reason not to, we Americans have a tendency not to eat horse. We simply don't think of horses as food. If you haven't been brought up to consider horses to be a food source, you might even balk, psychologically, at the thought of eating horse. Whereas no one around here would give it a second thought.

I myself spent six months in Sicily in 2001 and have made a few trips back since and have never actually tasted any horse. I've known it was available but it was never served to me and, well, I just hadn't really been brought up to consider horse as an option for dinner. I had never tried it. It occurred to me that that was kind of silly. Curiosity got the better of me so at the supermarket I bought the smallest package I could find of horse meat. I don't need a lot. There's only one of me. It was about 250 grams--two very thinly sliced steaks. It looks a lot like beef but the color is different. Redder. And yellower, kind of, at the same time. I figure if it looks like steak I'll cook it like steak so I planned to pan fry it like I would a similar cut of beef, with a little salt, pepper and olive oil. I also prepared a sauce based very loosely on Argentinian chimichurri. Chopped parsely, garlic, red pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, served raw. Sort of a South American pesto, if you will. It's supposed to have onion in it but I didn't have any lying around. I think I probably used too much garlic, or something. It has so much bite to it that almost hurts to eat it. We'll see how it does in the fridge for a day or two. Maybe it needs to soak in that oil for a bit to mellow it.

As far as the horse meat--tasted like beef. I mean, not exactly like beef, but not different enough that I probably couldn't slip it to you with you even realizing it. Probably leaner than beef. You're not likely to make any horse burgers any time soon. Not enough fat. But, yeah, no big deal. The biggest obstacle is psychological more than anything else. In the end, I'm glad that I've been able to give myself a new experience, and to try something else that is indicative of the region--even if I have no idea, honestly, how the locals would have prepared it. The Professor seemed to think pan frying it was a perfectly reasonable idea, although I bet he's never had chimichurri on his horse. The professor says horse is actually a good food to feed to sick people, especially those that are anemic--it's easy to digest and has lots of blood which is good for our blood. (Lots of iron.) For dessert, a couple of Mandarin oranges from the market that are out of this world delicious.

In conclusion, I'm happy that I could I give myself this experience--taking a beautiful, strong and noble animal and devouring it. I didn't find it to be any better or any worse than an average steak experience. Actually, I'd probably prefer the beef steak. But there certainly seems to be no reason not eat it. If for no other reason than variety. Which, the nutritionists say, is good for us.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Al Gabbiano

On my first trip to Catania I was lucky enough to be taken to a local fish restaurant called "Al Gabbiano." It was there that I tried for the first time, Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia. Of course, it was immediately obvious to me that the food here was good, but it took eating at several other places in Catania and Sicily to realize just how good and special this place really is. Although it has been my intention to bring everyone who visits here, due to sickness, weather, and circumstances in general, it wasn't until this past Saturday night that I finally got over there, with Christa and Mary in tow.

Interestingly, this place has yet to show up in anyone's guide books. Maybe it's because menuwise, their offerings are so typically local, so narrowly traditional, that folks have just missed it, not realizing the hidden treasure. Of course, it's just as well, really, because the locals know all about it and would probably prefer that I stop telling other people--it's packed every night, and its clientele is almost exclusively local. What makes Al Gabbiano special is not what they prepare, which is largely the same stuff you can get in any other local sicilian trattoria, but the fact they hands down make it better than any other place in town. Well, that I'm aware of at any rate. Maybe they get the freshest fish of anybody in town or maybe they have some secrets that don't leave their kitchen. I don't know why. The end result, though, is that it's just uniformly delicious. And if you want an authentic Sicilian experience, you need to eat the traditional cuisine at least once. You wouldn't let someone visit NC without eating the BBQ would you?

When you walk in, the first thing you'll see is a large table covered with fish and other marine animals. Wonder what they have tonight? Take a look. That's what they got. Before you've even sat down, they'll ask if you want the mixed appetizer of fish, which includes both marinated (some of you know it by the Spanish name, ceviche) and fried fishes. I've never seen anyone say no to this and I'm not sure why anybody would. You've barely sat down and already you have a bread basket and they start bringing out plates of marinated shrimp, alici (small fish, filleted, larger than anchovies, smaller than sardines), octopus and not long afterwards you'll have a plate of a number of different fried fishes of various sizes--with my favorite, hands down, being the tiny little baby squid that are fried whole--so tender and succulent.

Shortly afterwards they'll come and tell you which first courses (pasta) they have (they do not have a menu) and ask you what you want. Second courses aren't usually listed out explicitly, since you can see what fish they have and they can cook it any normal Sicilian way. The other night, though, they kindly suggested the mixed grill for us out of towners and we all jumped at the chance to not have to make a real decision. For the first courses, there was one I hadn't heard of before--spaghetti with something that sounded like either "neonata" or "neorata". I finally decided that it must be neorata because neonata (which means newborn) didn't make any sense to me. After some digging around on-line, though, I've realized they were saying neonata and meant it--spaghetti with newborn fishes. It was, not surprisingly, incredibly delicious. Even not entirely understanding at the time what I was eating. The mixed grill turned out to be a small piece of grilled swordfish, the best grilled squid I've ever had, and a couple of giant prawns that were alright, but didn't hold a candle to the squid.

As a special treat, a Sicilian folk group wandered in and played for us. I had heard recordings of music like this before on a CD of field recordings made by Alan Lomax in Sicily. But this was the first time I had heard it live. Check them out in Christa's video footage below. They were incredibly good at what they were doing, and were playing quite frenetically and with abandon. It was a real treat--I wish they could have stayed all night, but they moved on fairly quickly. Presumably to hit another restaurant somewhere. I do recommend that Alan Lomax CD, though, linked to above if you are interested in the traditional folk music of Sicily. It's a neat way to get to know another culture, and it's neat for me to think about my great grandparents and their parents and grandparents having grown up with this kind of music--not to mention puppet shows like the one we saw in Palermo.

The only disappointment came at the end of the night when they brought us all a complimentary dessert--we were all too stuffed to even think about eating another bite of food. We were quite intrigued by the sweet filled pastry with powdered sugar on top--we simply couldn't physically eat another bite. I tried to ask the waiter if we could take them away (home, with us) but he apparently understood only "take them away" which he did. And then gave them to another table. I felt sad that we had refused this kindness and hoped they didn't feel insulted. They will recognize me if I come back. I don't exactly blend into the crowd around here. If I could have possibly eaten another bite of food I would have found room for it in my tummy somewhere.

But, oh, in the end, what a night!

Awfully Quiet

I sent Christa and Mary off to the airport in a cab this morning. It sure is awfully quiet around here. Christa and Mary in a sense are the luckiest group to come out yet--they had the best weather by far. And a much less sick tour guide. And their upbeat, positive attitude was a joy to be around. I have a few days before Bryan and Richard arrive, during which I hope to make a few more comments here about Sicily related things. But for now, I'm savoring being mostly well again. (Still a little bit of a cough and throat weirdness, and occasional ear pressure issues.) The only thing is, well, it's awfully quiet around here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The final videos

We spent the day in Taormina. It was beautiful, but we didn't actually get to see the Teatro Greco. We didn't actually get to the castello, either. Nonetheless, it was a great day, which was once again best captured through photos.

And here are some videos that are quite nice, too... though unrelated to Taormina in any way:

Rossi sings about poop:

And at At Al Gabbiano, in Catania, we had a final farewell dinner of fish. It was a an *amazing* experience, which included a serenade from a Sicilian folklorico band:

A million thank-yous to Rossi, who was a perfect host, an infallible translator, and an all-around great guy to be around for a week.

And now he & Mary are laughing at me because I'm drinking some grappa and am not looking pained in doing so. In fact, I quite like it. A lot.

Hoo-eee.... less than 5 hours until the cab comes. We're a little blitzed and full of fish and tired... and there are still many more experimental liquors to sample.

I'm going to miss Sicily a lot.

here's some more video

a big street protest we walked through in palermo. rossi was explaining that these were largely students complaining that tuition just went up, but that there were a lot of other leftist issues being protested, too... which lessened the impact of the whole thing.

in siracusa, we were near the fonte aretusa at dusk, when a million little birds all descended on the area at once. they were all roosting in the trees nearby, and the sight (and noise) was unbelievable:

Friday, November 9, 2007


we just got back from an overnight trip to palermo. again: the photos tell a fuller story than my inadequate vocabulary.

a few things didn't make it into that flicker set, though. one of which is video from the puppet show we attended!

and we also weren't allowed to take photos of our trip to the catacombs. this site, though, has plenty. it was an amazing, solemn, beautiful, alarming experience.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Has anybody seen my sunglasses?

I think I might have left them in the apartment. They'd be in a red case. If they're not in Catania, I must have left them on the plane. Dangit! Those things are prescription.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


last night we saw "tosca" at the teatro massimo bellini. a great, classic production which we all thoroughly enjoyed (even though rossi was the only one who could read the subtitles).

today mary and i went to the bellini museum here in catania, and i regret that they didn't allow me to take photos... there was a lot to see. old letters, manuscripts, photos, and a couple of death masks. several of his fortepianos, too.

we made a quick side trip through the pescheria. fish fish fish. and more fish.

then we met rossi around 11am for a train adventure: the Circumetnea, a train which circles Mt. Etna via lots of tiny cute towns. we saw some *amazing* scenery. please do see our photos... they tell more of our story than i can write down here.

and now we're back the apartment, cooking eggplant parmesean for dinner. tomorrow: palermo. we'll be gone for a couple of days, and probably without means to upload photos until friday night.

Monday, November 5, 2007

photos say more than words

we're having an amazing time.

sunday was spent around catania.
monday we spent in siracusa.

here are some photos. mary is keeping a handwritten (!) journal, and i hope at some point she'll fill in the blanks. everything is too overwhelming to remember at the end of the day.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Back in the U.S. Ugh.

I hate this country.

While waiting for our luggage in Philly, a customs dog sniffed us for contraband. It was a cute little tail-wagging beagle. Shrewd manipulation on the part of our government, no doubt. They want me to think that dog is cute so I won't resent being smelled.

First sight upon entering US customs: a sign explaining the penalty for assaulting a customs officer.

And when I started unpacking my luggage this morning, I found a note from the Homeland Security folks explaining that they had searched my bags. For my own safety, of course.

I assume some homeland blog police will monitor my words and start a file on me. Perhaps none of you will get to read this before they delete it and close down the blog.

I miss Catania. Yes, filthy Catania, where by the time I woke up & showered & breakfasted & slurped my expresso, everything was closed until 4:30, when it was almost dark. I miss all the black leather jackets and boots. I miss the market and the purple cauliflower I never got to try. And brioches and baroque churches. And the beautiful fish! And that fizzy pink grapefruit drink at the organic grocery. Have I mentioned the black leather jackets?

In this country, I have to work for a living. In Italy, they just let me wander around spending money, climbing into volcanoes, and ogling tailored clothing. Now that's living!

I went to bed at 7:30 last night and slept 13 hours straight in my own wonderful bed. That bed is the only thing I like about the U.S. right now. Well, OK...hamburgers might pretty good, too. I'm craving one.

Etna + Nicolosi

One of our original really-wanna-do things for this trip was to visit Mt. Etna. So even though by Thursday M, C & myself were all in various stages of head-cold hell (either that or the worst allergy attack of all time, which I'm actually not ruling out . . . apologies to any Catanians out there reading this, but the air quality in your city is pretty lousy), when we saw weather reports suggesting that Friday would be clear-ish, we decided to go for it.

The only direct, feasible non-driving means of getting to Etna from Catania is the single daily 8:15 a.m. AST bus to Etna via Nicolosi (click on the CATANIA-NICOLOSI-ETNA link for the schedule, if you care). Being sick, and having generally developed/maintained the habit of sleeping until mid-morning anyway (jetlag? No! vacation time!), the 8:15 bus was voted out immediately.

As CR was still recovering from his doubly-evil sinus doom attack, he wasn't going to be able to accompany us in his official capacity as Sicily Tour Guide, so we decided that our Sicily-survival short-course graduation exercise would be an overnight trip without CR.

So we took a different bus to Nicolosi on Thursday afternoon. Thursday being All Saints Day, and thus a Big Holiday, the bus schedule was screwy, so much so that nobody seemed to know exactly when said bus would be leaving. We'd had the devil's own time trying to catch our Taormina bus at the stop near our apartment, so in early afternoon we packed the tiniest of overnight bags (seriously: I toted everything I needed in the little green shoulder bag I carry all the time) and trundled ourselves down to the Catania bus terminal.

Teh Internets led us to believe that the festivo schedule bus time was 2:00 p.m, but that time came & went with no bus. We sat there at the Catania bus terminal (smellier even than the rest of the city) for a while, wondering whether the surly bus-ticket lady would've sold us tickets for a bus that wasn't running, until finally M walked over to a bench and asked an old lady, who said that she thought it was coming at 2:30. Which, in fact, it did.

Wednesday night CR had called the hotel we'd found on the internet and had gotten no answer, but then Thursday AM early they'd *69'd him ("you called us?" "who are you?" "no, who are YOU?") and assured him that they had plenty of rooms, so armed with the sketchiest of information on where to go ("get off a the i Pini stop"), off we went.

The bus wound slowly through the tight backstreets of the (newer, but still comparatively ancient) northern suburbs of Catania, which almost imperceptibly gave way to a series of nearly-connected villages en route to Nicolosi, which is the last major town on the southern shoulders of Etna. Nicolosi looked pretty big on the map, so when I saw the sign for the town limits, I walked up to the front of the bus & stammered through the rough Italian for "can you tell me when to get off for I Pini?" (I had copied it out of the guide book, and gone over it in my head like 40 times, but still managed to butcher it) and then like 20 seconds later the bus lurched to a halt and the bus driver told us to get off.

Out we stumbled, into a cool, clear, very identifiably autumnal afternoon. The air was clean! It actually felt like November.

I'd hand-drawn a rough map (I know, I know, I should've bought an iPhone, unlocked it, and then bought an Italian SIM so I could've used Google Maps on-the-fly . . . and I might've actually considered it, if the Triangle-area GSM network weren't so crappy compared to the Sprint/Verizon CDMA network), but as it turned out it wasn't really even necessary, as we were almost immediately confronted with a giant "Holiday Palace" sign and an arrow pointing uphill.

After some amount of hiking, past shuttered vacation homes populated only by angry-looking barking dogs, we arrived at the Holiday Palace, which was not only less-impressive than its website photos, but in fact appeared to be totally abandoned. Everything was locked up tight, and we couldn't even figure out how to get down to the level where the empty lobby was, behind a series of high fences.

Holiday Palace

We did get a gorgeous view of Etna from the Holiday Palace, our first decent view of it since arriving in Sicily, in fact. That wasn't enough to override the overpowering "Overlook Hotel" vibe we were getting, however, so we retreated back downhill to the center of town to assess our options.

Which didn't require much assessment, actually, as the bus had originally dropped us off immediately across the street from a hotel, the Hotel Alle Pendici, which was everything the Holiday Palace was not, namely, populated-looking and unlocked. The manager spoke about as much English as M spoke Italian, which is to say more than enough to get the job done.

C crashed out almost instantly upon entering her room, but M & I, not being dosed up on Italian Actifed, went out for a walk around Nicolosi. When we entered the hotel it had been sunny and relatively clear-looking, but within 5 minutes of setting out on our walk, it started raining, and we, temporarily raincoatless, retreated to the hotel. Once it stopped raining a few moments later, we were graced with a double rainbow, which we took as affirmation of our actions & decisions up to that point:

Double Rainbow

By this time it was around 5:30 p.m., and we were getting hungry, having only halfway lunched at the apartment before catching the bus from Catania. This being Sicily, of course, the proper restaurants don't really open until around 8:00, so we had the choice of dining on tavola calda (the wan assortments of pizzete, calzone & arancini that sit in glass cases all day in all the bars, waiting to be microwaved for your enjoyment), or having a proper snack to tide us over until dinner.

We opted for the latter; in M & C's case, that being hot chocolate, or as C says, "aka Liquid Crack":

Hot Chocolate in Nicolosi

Yes, that's a giant blob of whipped cream sitting there on the plate next to the chocolate and the assortment of tiny cookies.

Suitably fortified, we wandered around town for a while, before being drawn inexorably back towards a pizzeria we'd passed earlier, one emitting an irresistible odor of wood-smoke and hot bread & cheese. Due to an inevitable ordering confusion (ordering pasta and pizza at the same time Does Not Compute, so one of the two is simply ignored), we didn't actually get pizza, but we did get some really delicious pasta with (the apparently local) porcini mushrooms (restaurants all over town had signs advertising their specialization in funghi). And M had a Zuppa de Funghi which was basically a bowl of mushrooms with a tiny smear of tomatoey broth on them:

Funghi Zuppa

On our way back to the hotel, we walked past the town's semi-enclosed ice rink (it's in a big quonset hut, but the ends are basically open to the air, or are openable doors/windows) and watched some of the local kids skating in circles. We didn't feel up to strapping on skates ourselves (nevermind figuring out the Italian for renting ice skates), so we went to bed early instead. (C got photos of the ice skaters, so I'll insert them here once she posts them to flickr, or she can write her own blog post about it)

Ice Skaters in Nicolosi

The next morning we awoke to clear skies, and stumbled down to the town square in time to catch the daily Catania-Etna bus as it passed through town at the far-more-civilized hour of 9:30.

Mt. Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, and its current height is just under 11,000 feet, although that could change with the next eruption, obviously. At the moment, at least from where we were standing, most of the activity (lots of venting gasses) seems to be up near the very top, so the guided excursions all go to the [inactive] crater areas from the 2002-2003 eruptions, at around 2900 meters (around 9500 feet).

If you've ever been to a volcano or a lava field, you know what the weird jumbles of black rock look like. The past few eruptions have apparently been a mix of lava flows and geyser-type activity, so there are rivers of black rock, plus a ton of the crumbly-looking stuff that results when the magma cools in midair as it's falling back to earth after being launched skyward. I'm no volcano expert, however. Bottom line: it's a giant shallow cone, and the upper reaches of it are basically all-rock, with patches of the scrubby plants that are the first recolonizers after an eruption.

The regular bus goes to Rifugio Sapienza, which is a tiny tourist-trap outpost at the bottom end of the cable-car run. You can walk up from there, if you have like 4 hours and a lot of stamina to spare. We, being sick (and also not thrilled by the prospect of a 4-hour hike uphill through a moonscape of loose sharp lava rock), opted for the 40-euro cable-car and Mercedes Unimog trek.

For your 40 euro, you get a ride in a tiny 6-person cable-car up to the Snack Bar at the Top of the World, and then an entertainingly jostly bus-ride in a Unimog, which is the crazy specialized high-clearance 4WD Mercedes tour-bus from hell. It drops you next to a guide hut in a flat spot near some of the more recent craters, and then a hunky Italian guide walks you around for a while, demonstrating that the ground underfoot is still warm (the air, on the other hand, is not: it was about 40 degrees and windy). Rather than attempt to describe it, I'm going to pick and choose the best dozen-or-so photos from the 100+ I took:

Etna Cable Car View
The View From the Cable Car (this was on the way back down, I think -- it was much clearer on the way up, but I didn't take any pictures, apparently)

Parking Lot at Etna
The Parking Lot Behind the Snack Bar at the Top of the World

Scary at the Top of the World

View from Etna
People on the Rim of a Crater (the tour consists of walking the rim of this crater from 2002-3 or so)

View from Etna
Total Moonscape (if the moon had water & an atmosphere, that is)

View from Etna
Looking West from Etna (the weather up there is weird . . . there were clouds all around & below us, but for most of the morning we were in the clear, with blue skies . . . we just couldn't see much of Sicily, and couldn't see the Mediterranean at all, unfortunately)

Ice Grows Sideways on Etna
Ice (you can tell the direction of the prevailing winds . . .)

View from Etna
Limited Color Palette

The Moon as a Snowy Volcano
Black and White

View from Etna
The Summit Cones (taken from where the Unimogs dropped us off)

View from Etna
East From Etna

We had a couple of hours to kill back down at the base of the cable-car, since the once-a-day bus to Catania doesn't leave until 4:30. We ate some lunch:

Spaghetti Bolognese at Mt. Etna

And shopped for souvenirs:

Lava Dildos

And then, cold and tired, we rode the bus home, and M figured out how to get the driver to drop us off just a block from the apartment. After a quick trip to the pharmacy to stock up on OTC cold medications (which aren't OTC in Italy, meaning you have to try to figure out the Italian words to ask the pharmacist for things like Pseudoephedrine and Dextromethorphan), we made it home, ate dinner lovingly prepared by CR, and crashed for a few hours before our 4:45 cab ride to the airport.

Mission Accomplished!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I am blanking in Italy

Ohmigod, I am blogging in Italy! That has been the theme of the day. I am on my way to Italy! I am drinking coffee in Italy! I am eating olives in Italy! I am drinking wine in Italy! Most recently, I am eating green beans in see where this is going? This theme may end soon--or Rossi and Christa may kill me first. That's OK. Because now I truly feel blank in Italy. Jet lag, sleep's almost time to sleep and that's gonna feel so good.

We got over the cold, cold plane, the difficulty of cramped seating for sooo long, the painful popping ears, my temporary bank card problem in, we're just so glad to be here and so delirious from lack of sleep. We are truly amazed at how easy the flight, customs, etc. have been. Surely we will have a horrible travel experience on the way home to make up for this.

It's almost 10pm and we just ate the best dinner from food we picked out at the fiera market today--a mystery fish that is a kind of like sword fish and a little like tuna, that Chris has temporarily named "tword (toward?) fish." Thanks to Chris for choosing our fish, our produce, purchasing it in the market as we stood behind him, unable to decipher most of what was transpiring--and then he cooked and served it to us. I never knew fresh tomatoes & green beans could taste so good. Plus, we have some very inexpensive wine from a wholesaler that is right next door. Not a bad neighbor to have, eh?

Christa and I are fading fast, but proud to still be awake at 10pm new time. We're half planning our week, halfway asleep, but feeling good. I have to say to my mom that I have already had that first glass of wine for you here. And to my dad--that we actually just listened to Dean Martin's "That's Amore!" I'd say we're off to a good start.

Next: sleeping in Italy!

We're in Philly . . .

It's true, everybody here is really nice. Even the customs agent who told me I had to go see one of the search guys was smiling when he said it, so much so that I had to ask if he was fucking with me. He wasn't. Apparently the Italians didn't jump through all the right Homeland Security hoops like getting my name spelled right, so I didn't get thoroughly background searched during our 9 hours in the air. So a bored Customs agent had to spend 45 seconds doing that. He was also very nice.

It's too hard to type on this phone, plus I don't have access to all the photos, so our amazing Etna tales will have to wait.

Mary, C totally feels you on the ear thing -- she was miserable on the way in to Philly. We'll try the cup trick on this last RDU leg.

we're here. sort of.

mary & i have arrived in catania. thankfully, our travel was wholly trauma-free, unlike C, R & M's flight in. no lost luggage, no mad-dashes for departure gates.

actually, mary did have some trouble with her ears... they didn't pop when we landed in rome, and she was in quite a bit of pain. i asked the flight attendant to get her some warm towels and put them in cups for her. my mom always did this when she couldn't get her ears to pop:

mary seemed to get some relief. lord knows, i got a good chuckle.

we didn't sleep much on board, so by the time we got to the apartment in catania i had only gotten 2 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. we landed at 10am, and had been told that the best way to beat jet lag was to force ourselves to stay awake until a normal local bedtime.

thus, we've spent most of the afternoon, exhausted, tromping around town and seeing some sights. here's the memorial to the great operatic composer, vincenzo bellini:

shortly after i took this photo, though, things started to look a little fuzzy and i got a light-headed, so we bought some food at the market and came home and pumped some calories into our weak bodies. which helped for a little while, then we started feeling ourselves nod off again... at only 3pm.

so we found more errands to run (how much time did that trip to the grocery take? half and hour, maybe?) but are now simply counting the minutes until we can justifiably go to bed. it's almost 7pm. i'm hoping to make it to at least 8pm. 9pm would be great, but by that point i'll have had 2 hours of sleep in a 32 hour period, and i might have officially lost my mind by then.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Post about Nothing

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to be much of a tour guide for R, M, and C. I just haven't really been able to leave the house. And they haven't really wanted to be in the house for fear of catching ill themselves. In fact, they went up to Nicolosi (the last little town on the road up Etna) last night to see if they could get in some good Etna time today starting in the morning. The may blog about it even.

I did allow myself one little trip outside, since the sun was out, and I felt like I should get out of the apartment for just a bit. So I Walked down to Piazza Duomo, sat on the base of the monument with the elephant and the obelisk, and basically just chilled out. It was getting to be latish in the afternoon so the sun was only hitting the tops of the buildings and had taken on that nice golden color it takes on a couple of hours before sunset, crowning the top of the cathedral and the cuppola of the Church of Saint Agatha. Yesterday was All Saints day, a major religious (and state) holiday, so stores were mostly closed, but the cafes were mostly open. There were plenty of people out and about downtown, but it wasn't nearly so noisy and hectic as a normal work day--people were just out to be out, with no particular agenda. I certainly wasn't the only one sitting in the square watching the world go by.

When I'd had enough of that I decided to go ahead and take the bus home, so as not to overdo it. On the bus, an older signora asked me the time, and I guess I must've been worn out because I blanked on the word for 'five' for a second there. After tripping up trying to tell her that it was 5:00, there was a question whether it was 5:05 or just 5:00. Just 5:00, I assured here. Another still spry, older gentlemen sitting nearby assumed that I must still have my cellphone on daylight savings time and was changing it in my head--thus the confusion. No, I told them, I had changed the clock on my cellphone already. They were both quite friendly and thought nothing about talking to a stranger on the bus.

After another half a minute or so, the signora turns to the gentleman, whom she doesn't appear to know personally, and declares, "This government has ruined everything." He makes a kind of full body gesture, involving arms at his sides, palms faced upwards, a certain facial expression, all basically, expressing, "Well, I'm not so sure about that." The signora goes on to express, again, "This government has ruined everthing." She mentions the high prices of everything now. The gentleman smiles, changes seats to sit nearer the signora, and they begin a discussion. There are even a few glances in my direction to see if I'm going to join in, but the language difficulties, added to the fact that they weren't addressing me directly, meant that I had already basically lost the thread of the conversation and didn't want to make myself a nuisance. While I didn't get the impression that the gentleman was a cheerleader for the government, I think maybe he thought the signora's analysis was, shall we say, a bit reductionist and seemed to be presenting, with patience and good humor, a more nuanced point of view.

At any rate, it wasn't so much the content (which was largely lost on me) of their discourse, but the style of it. A couple of people who don't know each other striking up a political discourse on a bus ride. As much to pass the time as anything else, one imagines. Is this the mythical "word on the street"? Is a culture comprised of people who actually talk to each other more likely to have a healthy democracy than a culture that stays in, watches TV, and doesn't talk to strangers? I don't know. Maybe.