Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas in Caltagirone
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Monday, December 27, 2004

Finding Christmas in Sicily

There are some interesting differences in the way Christmas is celebrated in Sicily than in the rest of Europe or the USA. I found it very difficult to purchase a Christmas tree, for instance. There were no tree lots to be seen and no large displays of artificial ones in stores. The few offered on base were quickly gone and I was definitely out of the loop. Eventually I asked the one person who knew--Leslie, my source of all things to know and see and do in Sicily. Leslie has taken an active interest in all things Sicilian since moving here 2.5 years ago as a military wife. Want to know where to buy blood oranges, the best authentic dinner, or a Christmas tree? She's the one to ask. For a mere 25 Euros (@ $30), I purchased a fine, fresh tree at an Italian nursery that I would never have found on my own. They wrapped it up and carefully put it in my Mini, where is just fit from windshield to rear window. Once home, I cut off the root ball and it was perfect for decorating.

The Sicilians all put up their trees on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and a holiday. I was much later than that, of course.

They love Christmas lights! Each day, more and more appeared, on houses, palm trees, stores, walls, etc. The main street of Nicolosi has every window of every shop going up main street outlined with lights. It's very dazzling . . . makes one think you are going down the runway of an airport for takeoff.

On midnight of Christmas Eve, the bells ring and fireworks are shot off to herald the birth of Jesus.

One of the traditional foods eaten at Christmas here is eels! Strange, but true. We saw vats of live ones in the fish market and people were buying them like crazy.

They also eat these tall, round cakes called panettone that are sold by the thousands in the stores. They are mostly a sweet, bread-like cake with different toppings and fillings--raisins, nuts, chocolate, pistachios, cream, or fruit fillings. It seems that each region of Italy has its own version, but they are all the same size and come in a fancy box with a handle.

Like the rest of the Western world, marketers are at work and people rush to buy the biggest and best items for their friends and family. And like every else, children make out the best.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Franscesca and me with carpets
Posted by Hello

She can weave, but can she add?

I spent the recent Thanksgiving holiday weekend completely on the other side of Sicily, at an ancient, tiny cliff top village called Erice. There was no turkey dinner, but there was probably the best chicken breast with lemon sauce I’ve ever had.

The town is perched 750 meters high (over 2200 feet) with spectacular views of the sea to the north, the sea to the west, the city of Trapani, and the rolling interior of Sicily. There really isn’t a bad view anywhere (except out of my hotel window, which was okay because it was at least quiet). One guidebook said that when it is a “particularly clear day,” you could see Mt. Etna on the other side of Sicily! That would be 200 miles away, and, needless to say, it didn’t get THAT clear during our stay. Supposedly one can also see Africa to the south on very clear days.

Old, old, old. How old is it? Erice is SO old that its origins get mixed up in mythology. It’s hard to tell where mythology stops and history begins. Let’s say, though, that it has been inhabited for centuries and centuries B.C. by Neolithic types and then a race of people called the Elimi. The history is all tied up with Venus and even earlier goddess of love, so, needless to say, it was a popular pilgrimage destination. It remained prosperous throughout the ages and through various inhabitant groups.

And, it is charming in and of itself . . . the patterned stone streets and walkways are hypnotizing and beautiful. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a human-size maze as you wander the narrow, curved streets, alleyways, stairs, and paths. Paradoxically, you cannot get lost, but you cannot know exactly where you are, either. Because of the potentially high winds up that high, the streets were laid out so as not to let the wind roar through. Especially at night or in the fog, or both, one wanders around rather aimlessly from light to light and eventually says, “Aha, THIS is where we are!”

Another guidebook stated that there were over sixty churches and monasteries/convents in Erice. Since there are only about 250 inhabitants in the winter months, that’s about . . . one religious building for every four persons?? We did see quite a few, nowhere near sixty, but only one was actually open to the public, the beautiful duomo (cathedral) with its white-on-white interior. Some of the churches, and many other buildings, have distinct Arabic architectural elements about them. That plus the weather-beaten, mossy, faded facades make it all the more enchanting.

Speaking of churches and convents, apparently one enterprising Maria “escaped” with the convent’s “secret” recipes for unique cookies, candies, and pastries. You can now indulge in these at her shop called Maria Grammatico. They are not only beautiful, they are delicious and sweet! Primary ingredients are almonds, dates, marzipan, walnuts, and raisins. Well worth the calories. Almonds, by the way, were in everything, including the bread and pasta and meat sauces. Wonderful and unusual!

Carpet weaving seems to be the #1 artisan work of Erice. We saw beautiful colorful carpets in many shops, often with the weaver herself working in the shop. The designs are very different, as Erice itself is, not quite African, not quite European. Eventually, we came to the shop and workshop of Francesca Vario. She was outside trimming her plants and surrounded by many cats and kittens. We all went inside, including the cats and kittens, to check out the carpets. Franscesca spoke no English, so conversation was definitely limited but of a friendly nature. She proudly showed us a scrapbook of her recent visit to New York City, where she was either attending a workshop for weavers or displaying her weaving . . . we are not quite sure. She also showed us the magazine Bella Italia, which had a photo essay about her.
I settled on two carpets of two meters each that I really liked and began the process of bargaining, which always seems to be permissible in Sicily. The marked prices were 82 and 150 Euros for the two. My friend asked me what I wanted to pay. I told her I would pay 200 for both, and she suggested that we start by offering 180. With our limited Italian and Francesca’s non-existent English, we somehow ended up paying only 160 for both! I don’t know how, but it was in cash with no receipt. I’m happy; she’s happy, the rugs look great. So be it.

Beware if you go in the off season (like Thanksgiving, November?) that this town is about 75% shut down. Prices are cheaper, but the only hotel guests seem to be other American teachers on vacation.