Monday, June 16, 2008

Two Three-Legged Sicilian Cats

I am referring, of course, to my cats--Pete and Repeat, above left and right. Yes, they are still around after almost four years and pretty much thriving. A Sicilian friend here has called them "the luckiest cats in Sicily." I don't know about that, because I do make them live outside most of the time; however, they seem to like it that way. They only want to come in to eat and visit a little each day. They have a double-fenced and gated yard which is safe for them and a great hunting ground for lizards, tiny rodents, grasshoppers, and an occasional bird. I am a little worried because they seem to be getting more and more "crooked" due to their three-legged status. Unfortunately, do not have an extra $10,000 to have prostheses made for them at that fancy clinic in the States. :-(

Anyway, this entry got started because Kendra's daughter Sarah is visiting her mom here in Sicily for a few weeks. She is now about to enter her junior year in college in Michigan. She was the one who held the kittens the day we found them and brought them to my house. We decided to try and recreate the original photo from that day. Pete and Repeat were having NO part of being held quietly in Sarah's lap, though!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Caltagirone, #1 for Sicilian Ceramics

Sicily is famous for its beautiful, hand-made ceramics, and Caltagirone (KAHL-tuh-gee-RO-nee) is the most famous "city of ceramics" in Sicily. And, lucky for me, it is only about thirty miles from Sigonella, making it an easy shopping destination.

CERAMICS R US! Everywhere you look, you see them. It's a hill town, and even driving up the hill to the town, there are ceramics decorating the walls. They are on buildings, on walls, in the Museum of Ceramics, and, of course, in hundreds of little studios and shops. Every piece is hand-painted, and many of them are also created in clay by hand. Everyone, I mean everyone, in Caltagirone seems to be an artist. It makes me wonder--is the art of ceramics-making genetic?

LA SCALA! That is the name of my favorite restaurant in Caltagirone, but it is right on THE stairs (la scala). It's at the bottom on the right, as you head up. The stairs are extraordinary--worth a trip to the city even if you never buy a single thing! The official name of the 142-step monument is Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, and it was built in 1608. The coolest thing is that the riser of each step is decorated with hand-decorated ceramics in different styles, old and new, by artists of the town. I have never been to this town when I didn't climb the steps. It's an activity that is physically demanding, shopping-productive (many shops on each side), and aesthetically pleasing. Coming back down with heavy packages is a challenge, but there is the restaurant La Scala waiting below. I always eat there and highly recommend it. It's decorated with ceramics, of course, but also has some archaeological interest (look through the glass-covered sections of the floor).

The way to enjoy Caltigirone is just to wander, marvel, and take your time. There are so many workshops, shops, stores, and even a "supermarket" of ceramics, that you can never see them all. And each season, the designs and products change slightly. They make literally everything you can imagine in ceramics: tiles, figurines, pots, plates, tables, lamps, mirrors, kitchens, key holders, jewelry, and on and on and on. The dominant colors are blues and yellows. You can watch artists at work, often in the back room of a tiny shop. (Hint: If you see something you like in Taormina, look for the artist's name on the bottom of the piece and look him/her up in Caltagirone. Usually you can find them with Google. You'll save a lot of money this way.) I own a significant collection of Sicilian ceramics after just four years here.

In addition, there are zillions of photo ops, Baroque architecture galore, churches, Italy's largest nativity scene (so they say), and glorious views of the surrounding countryside and Etna on clear days. This hill town is 600 meters high! Like so many good Sicilian towns, it was founded and named by the Arabs, inhabited by Greeks, Ligurians (northern Italians), Byzantines, Normans, and a few others. There is a definite influence by each of these in the designs of the ceramics. See more PHOTOS here.

The Museum of Ceramics may be interesting to artisans and perhaps historians. I found it to be not very interesting. Lots of dusty pots. However, the building itself and the surrounding park, which is decorated with ceramics, is very nice.

Credit cards are pretty much accepted everywhre, but there are ATMs all over town. Good thing.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Cheap Seats at the Greek Theater

For some crazy reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take my AVID students on a fieldtrip to see an ancient Greek play in the ancient Greek theater in Siracusa. You want culture? You want a unique experience? This is IT. I had been there twice (first, second) and enjoyed the experience immensely. Of course, I had been there with adults who were friends, we had great (reserved, padded) seats, and it was a civilized event.

We raised enough money to buy tickets for all the high school AVID students, tutors, and teachers, over $1000. I then got lucky and teamed up with our Italian Italian teacher, Sal Iozzia (below), for this event. He liked the idea so much, he asked if his students could join us. That's how we ended up with a group of fifty-two. He purchased the tickets for us (with a great deal of hassle), the bus was approved, and all was set. In class, our very own AVID tutor Kathy Vary spent several class periods prepping the kids by reading the entire play, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, with them. Every single kid brought in a permission slip and they actually were excited about going.

Sal had told me it was "open seating," but I didn't fully understand what that was until the day before the event. It meant that NO seats were reserved--it was first come, first serve. The 2,400 year old theater seats over 10,000 people, so I didn't expect it to be full. It certainly wasn't the other times I went.

We were running late in spite of starting early. Traffic and slow service at McDonald's put us on the wire to even make it in on time. We finally pulled up to the park, jumped off the bus, ran down the path and entered the theater . . . only to find it absolutely mobbed with kids--teenagers and colleges students! We felt the excitement and knew we were at a rock concert, a real event, the place to be! No seats were to be had, but we found places way up on the grass and rocks above the seating and everyone spread out and settled down for the performance.

Agamemnon is one of the few remaining plays by Aeschylus. It is as old as this theater. In fact, Aeschylus himself had traveled to Sicily, which was filled with Greek colonies at the time (4th century BC), and even perished there, at Gela. The play is indeed tragic: Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, has been waiting for ten years for the Trojan War to end and for her husband to return. However, it is for all the wrong reasons. Her anger at him for sacrificing their beloved daughter to the gods so he could get wind to sail to Troy has been seething for all these years. No one knows this. He finally shows up, and, to make matters worse, he has a woman "slave" with him, a war trophy, whose name is Cassandra. She just so happens to be a prophetess, and she predicts Agamemnon's and her deaths at the hand of Clytemnestra, the wife. Sure enough, they are murdered (offstage, where all violence occurs in Greek places) and then Clytemnestra and her new boyfriend, Aegisthus, leave the stage triumphantly in the end with plans to rule the Greeks together. Aegisthus, by the way, was also getting even with Agamemnon because his father was served his own children to eat by Agamenon's father (except for Aegisthus, who was an infant and spared). All in all, a very dramatic, bloody, and tragic play. It was staged brilliantly, as it always is in Siracusa, and well-acted. In addition, there was music and chanting, which I had not seen/heard before. See more photos HERE.

The kids really liked it, too, even though they were only able to understand and follow it minimally, since it is done in Italian.

The biggest "adventure" came afterwards, because we stupidly had NO plan for finding the bus or even each other! Imagine all those people exiting the theater at once. Somehow, though, a miracle occurred and all fifty-two of us somehow found each other AND the bus and we all came home safely! In that mob of ten thousand, I am still amazed and grateful.

Ok, so I've been there and done that . . . next year I'm going to go again, but with adults. AND, I will have reserved seats and seafood and wine afterwards!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Signs of the Times in Sciacca

I recently went with my friend Michael to visit our friend Steve Jonas (of Sicilian Mama fame) in the Sicilian city of Sciacca (SHAH-kuh), which is located about 150 miles away, on the south coast of the island west of Agrigento. Sciacca is a pretty little town that is known for a famous carnivale parade in February, for its ceramics, and for its beaches and vacation homes. It gets very crowded in the summer, but now, in early June, it's just very charming and pleasant. Even the light of the sun is different there. I think I took some pretty nice photos of the beautiful city of Sciacca.

We couldn't eat the fabulous seafood as I have in the past, because the fishermen are on strike, protesting the high cost of fuel (who isn't?), but we had marvelous pizza and great wine inside the ancient walled part of the city. Other than that, we shopped for ceramics, saw all the major sights, sat on the piazza and struck up a conversation with a man who had been a barber in New York City for 25 years and then moved back to Sciacca when he retired.

Sciacca had some interesting signs, which you'll see here. Above is one of the historical markers found throughout the city for buildings of interest. Notice that it is made of ceramics and wrought iron, two artisan specialties of Sicily.

This one amused me . . . you can figure out the Italian specialty of this doctor. And look at his name! Perhaps a relative of Sonny's?

This one is much more somber . . . a marker of the assassination by the Mafia of Accursio Miraglia, a communist trade union man in January 1947. There is a novel and a movie about this event called The Day of the Owl.

Let's end on a lighter note . . . sorry, dogs of Sciacca, you can't go in the ice cream shop!