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This is Your Virtual Sicilian Feast

A couple of friends have requested more detail re. Sicilian dinners. Although I’ve had a few bad meals here— leathery pizza, vomitous ham-and-pea lasagne, cold risotto containing gherkin, egg and hotdog– they have been the exceptions. Sicily really is a fantastic place to eat. The ingredients are usually fresh and locally produced, the people are a bit crazy when it comes to food, and, thanks to the island’s history as a kind of political football, it offers a combination of flavors you won’t find anywhere else.

The essential ingredients are seafood (lots and lots of seafood)—scampi, tuna, sea urchin roe, sardines and cod; fresh vegetables and herbs (especially eggplant, cherry tomatoes, oregano and fennel); olive oil that tastes bright green; salty, creamy cheeses; fatty cured meats, and bread so fresh it tastes like it was still waving around on its stalk half an hour ago.

 

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Then there are the baroque flourishes and curlicues—spices that add a hint of mystery, suggesting Morocco, Tunisia and the Middle East; interesting wines; angelic sweets concocted by nuns recreating heaven as a gustatory experience; the tang of citrus; and the luxurious crunch of nuts, particularly pistachio, almond and (now that it’s autumn) chestnuts.

So, as a thank you for reading this far, I am offering you an imaginery (and therefore *totally fat-free*) feast containing some of the tastiest dishes so far experienced on this alternately enchanting and infuriating isle.

We shall observe the usual Italian order of dishes, which is very strict and must be adhered to: antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta or rice), secondi (protein), contorni (salads and side dishes), dolci (sweets) and frutti (you can guess). I’ll leave you to choose your own drinks, but you might want to select one of these local wines.   

 

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Antipasti

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Clockwise from lower right: arancino, parmigiana, caponata, bruschetta with sundried tomato and olives

 

Arancini

This literally means ‘oranges’. They are fried balls (or cones) of rice filled with meat sauce (like bolognese) and mozzarella, coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried. The one in the photo is served on some parsley cream sauce. 

Caponata

There are lots of different ways to make this, but a consistent ingredient is eggplant. The one in the picture (which we had at a place called Sale), is a kind of sweet-and-sour concoction containing onions, tomatoes, capers and raisins with a hint of Moroccan spice.

Parmigiana

This has nothing to do with Parma or Parmesan cheese. In fact, it is Sicilian all the way and comes from the word parmiciana, which describes the lattice work involved in making wooden shutters, an allusion to the layered ingredients in the dish. There are lots of different recipes but the ones I’ve tried here have the same basic ingredients: fried eggplant, ham sliced as thin as a cat’s ear, tomato-and-garlic sauce and caciocavallo or provolone cheese.

 

Primi

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Spaghetti with sea urchin roe

I’d seen this on TV programs and wanted to know what it was like. It was very simple–spaghetti, olive oil and urchin roe (ricci di mare) with a garnish of parsley. The taste and texture weren’t what I was expecting at all, though they were pleasant–sort of like diluted sweet clay. 

 

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Seppia risotto with pumpkin cream sauce

Seppia is squid ink, and the risotto also contained pieces of squid. Ordinarily I avoid chowing down on cephalopods but I decided to be a bit adventurous just this once. It was a spectacular dish, quite a sensory rollercoaster, but in the end the chewiness and the black ink bleeding into the sweet yellow cream put me off and I couldn’t finish it. 

 

Penette with pistaccio and strong cheese

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I can’t remember the name of the cheese, unfortunately, but it smelled like feet, in a good way. This was a delicious pasta dish. The practice of using pistachio crumbs as a garnish is very common here–it is also sprinkled on pizzas. 

 

Secondi

Scampi

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I recommended these to John and he wasn’t very happy about it. He kept telling me how much they looked like scorpions or the creatures from Alien. Then he picked one up and jiggled it up and down like a puppet. “Thanks for ordering the spider-fish!” he chirped in a muppet voice.  

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Pork chop with lemon

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No complaints here. Juicy. John’s only regret was that we were not at the sort of establishment where you can pick bones up and chew the gristle off. 

 

Chicken with potato

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Chicken leg with lettuce and roast potatoes. 

 

Contorni

Mixed salad

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 This was a simple mixed salad but deserves a mention because it was so fresh and un-bitter. There was butterhead lettuce, raddichio with beautiful red speckled leaves, grated carrot, a bit of basil and a few quartered cherry tomatoes.

 

Dolci

Ricotta and almond cake

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This was unbelievably good. The ricotta here is creamy, soft and sweet. Here it is combined with a sponge cake that has been dipped in some alcoholic elixir, then sprinkled with toasted almond flakes and chocolate. 

 

Cassatelle di Agira

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These are like big sweet ravioli biscuits filled with a paste containing chickpea flour, ground almonds, cacao, sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest. 

 

Well, there you have it! Don’t forget your espresso or, if you prefer, an after-dinner sip of Sicilian limoncello. 

 

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I haven’t actually had any pomegranates but I like the way they look.

Keeping Papyrus Green

One of the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs is the papyrus stem wadj , indicating ‘green’, ‘growth’ and ‘youth’. Papyrus groves symbolized fertility and life itself in all its vibrancy and chaos. Temple columns were often carved to look like their stems, as if their feathery fans held up the sky. The god Horus grew up protected by the screen and whisper of the reeds; his nurse, the goddess Hathor, is depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus clumps and she was worshippped with instruments that made a rattling sound, to imitate the rustle of the sedge in the wind. The plant’s associations with rejuvenation led people to wear amulets fashioned from green feldspar and to even place to them at the throats of dead relatives to make sure they remained healthy and uninjured in the afterlife. Their paradise was even called the Field of Reeds.

 

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A sistrum, or ceremonial rattle.

 

Sicilian Corrado Basile has devoted a long career to researching the plant–its history, habitat and uses, especially its function as a writing material. In his youth he travelled to Africa, particularly Kenya, Ethiopia and Chad, to research colonies and how local communities made use of it. In 1987 he founded the Institute of Papyrus, whose aim is to find the best ways to restore and conserve papyrus documents. He is the now director of the Papyrus Conservative Restoration Project in Egypt, working with various museums and institutions to preserve papyrus manuscripts and objects. He is also the founder of the Papyrus Museum in Ortygia.

 

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It may seem odd that there should be a papyrus museum in Sicily, but in fact the area around Siracusa boasts the biggest colony of Cyperus papyrus in Europe. The plant arrived here around 300 BCE, during the reign of the Greek pharaoh Ptolemy II. At that time there was considerable cultural, political and mercantile exchange between the two cities; Archimedes, for example, studied at Alexandria and corresponded with friends there throughout his life. In Ortygia there is a little papyrus clump in the spring of Arethusa, where grey carp and white geese circle the tall stalks whose plumes create a kind of soft green cloud above. But the place it grows most prolifically is Fontane Ciane. This is a spring named for the nymph Ciane (where we get ‘cyan’ meaning ‘greenish blue’). She was good friends with Persephone and tried to stop Hades from kidnapping her. In Ovid’s version of the story, Ciane describes how she and her own lover Anapos have a gentle and mutually respectful relationship and that Hades should follow their example. Hades responds by turning both of them into bodies of water—Ciane Spring and Anapos River.

 

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The spring of Arethusa

 

The museum occupies a building that used to be a monastery consecrated to Saint Augustine. Its stairs, courtyard, high ceilings and spare rooms seem steeped in centuries of serene contemplation (not counting the period it was used as a tobacco warehouse). The windows have slatted wooden Persian shutters that, thrown open, reveal pale light, cool breezes and the deep violet-blue of the Ionian Sea. (interesting side-note, the Egyptian term for the Mediterranean Sea was ‘Great Green’ and so included the wadj).

 

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A window of the museum looking out on the Great Green

 

Each room of the museum is devoted to one topic. The corridors are hung with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Basile’s research trips to Africa. One room is devoted to the plant ‘in the raw’–its growing habitat, how it is processed to make writing paper and how beautiful it is—the long bamboo-like stem and the soft beaded fronds that some compare to a feather duster and that led locals to name it parucca (wig). Another room contains an array of raw materials needed for creating a document: the minerals, powders and gums needed to make ink and paint, the sharpened reed pens, the oblong paint palettes. Finally, in the big hall, you can see objects made out of the material—rope, sandals, boats and documents.

 

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Objects on display are selected with care and consideration, so visitors who enter not knowing or caring much about papyrus find themselves educated and intrigued. And the objects themselves are beautiful—characteristically Egyptian in their simple lines and appreciation for color and animals.

 

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Metal knife used for cutting papyrus, with a goose head on the handle

 

Seeing everyday items such as baskets, sandals and ropes make it tangible how important the plant must have been in a world without plastic, glass and other materials we take for granted. Particularly interesting were the boats made of bundled papyrus stems, which some African communities were using in the late twentieth century, like the one below from Chad.

 

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Having said that, I was more interested in the writing, and it was thrilling to see this tiny fragment of a papyrus manuscript of Aristotle’s Cosmological treatise On the Heavens (De Caelo). It is from between 100-300 CE and is the only papyrus version known to exist.

 

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Even more thrilling was having a little window into the life of ordinary people. The following fragment is an appeal to authorities by an aggrieved man of the third century BCE, so familiar it might appear in the crime news of a modern newspaper. I can imagine poor Hatheres composing a blues song about Thaues being the meanest old woman he ever did see:

 

Hatheres, son of the priest of the god Sokonporchnubis of the village of Muchis, declares that, on the occasion of him being absent, his wife Thaues went away, taking everything in the house. Hatheres lists all the missing items, including a ‘table made of papyrus’.

 

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Sadly, this year the museum had to sell twenty papyrus fragments just to keep itself in business. Considering the importance of papyrus in our understanding of lost civilizations, I hope it finds some funding soon!

 

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The Seated Scribe, a statue from the Old Kingdom. The scribe is missing his reed pen–maybe Thaues took it.

Death Works at the Techno Park

The faded sign ‘Archimedes Technopark’ stuck up at a skewed angle but seemed to indicate the little road to the left of me, overgrown with weeds and feral cats. I couldn’t see anything but an abandoned shed and a few trees, but I’d already come a long way so kept plodding.

Siracusa calls itself ‘The City of Archimedes’ and there are a couple of monuments in his honor in town– an oversized statue of the Greek letter pi, and a bronze effigy (rather well groomed) of his eminence holding up a death-ray mirror. The mathematician who yelled ‘Eureka!’ and ran down the street in the nuddy is definitely Syracuse’s most famous son. And, why not? If you believe Polybius, he was pretty much singlehandedly responsible for terrorizing the Romans when they besieged the city in the Punic Wars (214-212 BCE):

 

“Archimedes had constructed artillery which could cover a whole variety of ranges, so that while the attacking ships were still at a distance he scored so many hits with his catapults and stone-throwers that he was able to cause them severe damage and harass their approach. Then, as the distance decreased and these weapons began to carry over the enemy’s heads, he resorted to smaller and smaller machines, and so demoralized the Romans that their advance was brought to a standstill.”

 

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So, seeing as I was here in Archimedes’ home town, I wanted to know more about him. I already knew a couple of anecdotes. I especially like this one from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, translated by John Dryden:

 

It ceases to be incredible that (as is commonly told of him) the charm of his familiar and domestic Siren made him forget his food and neglect his person, to that degree that when he was occasionally carried by absolute violence to bathe or have his body anointed, he used to trace geometrical figures in the ashes of the fire, and diagrams in the oil on his body, being in a state of entire preoccupation, and, in the truest sense, divine possession with his love and delight in science.

 

Luckily, the sign I’d seen was correct; at the end of the street I reached a gate next to which was a poster showing a distinguished old man in a toga and a list of ticket prices. I pushed open the little gate and saw what looked like a big walled garden full of wooden DIY projects. I walked down a few steps to where a guy sat at a plastic table, two cats at his feet.

“One ticket please,” I said.

He carefully wrote out a receipt with a ball-point pen and handed it to me.

He pointed to a TV viewing area covered with a tin roof. “Vanessa. Black T-shirt. Behind house.”

I followed his directions and found a young woman operating a bolt-throwing catapult. She was surrounded by five Germans, all standing carefully out of shooting range. Vanessa had the tight-spiral curls, Asiatic eyes and pale complexion of a girl on an Attic red-figure vase and this was such a distracting circumstance that I didn’t immediately hear what she was saying.

 

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Vanessa on a terracotta kylix attributed to Douris (500 BCE)

 

 

Siege Works

Gradually my ears adjusted and I realized she was talking about the history of the weapon.

“This is a ballista. Actually, Archimedes did not invent it, though it first appeared in Syracuse earlier and then Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great improved the design. By the way, a torsion catapult is more powerful than ordinary tension catapults. The reason is these,” she pointed to flexible ropes. “The Greeks used ox sinew, and using the winch, you can make them more tight. They are like springs; the greater the torsion, the more force the missile will have.” Vanessa invited one of the German men to wind the winch. When it had wound as far as it could go, he released a little switch and the stick went sailing into the air, disturbing one of the cats.

 

 

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Ballista

 

“Here are other siege engines. There were simple catapults even in the ninth century BC in Iraq. But a new kind, we know that Dionysius hired workmen to make them for the Siege of Motya about 398BC, which was part of the Sicilian Wars between Carthage and Greek cities.”

 

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She walked over to a little triangular house on wheels. A log hung down from the top of the triangle.

“This is a battering ram. You see the log is hung down so you can swing it and give it force. The sides are to protect the soldiers inside—sometimes they put wet animal skins on the roof so the enemies couldn’t set fire to it. Hannibal used this type of ram in the Siege of Selinus in 409 BC, also in the Sicilian Wars.”

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Image taken from here

 

“One of his famous machines is this. It is called the Iron Claw. Behind the wall were men who used a pulley to lift a Roman ship that came too close, or to drop it on the ship to break it.”

 

Water Works

 

“When was the first clock with tickings?” Vanessa asked. “It was Archimedes’ water clock.”  We moved over to two tubs of water—the one behind was higher than the one in front. “You see there are two basins. When the sun did rise, a slave would pour water into the big basin. Through the day, water dropped through the pipe into the little basin. In the little basin there is a cork floating on the water, so when the water raises, the cork moves up and it moves the clock here in front.”

Greeks were using primitive water clocks called ‘water thieves’ (clepsydra)  at least since 325 BC because we know that they helped measure the length of speeches. The clocks gradually became more sophisticated to divide the day into twelve ‘hours’ and to allow for the difference of day-length throughout the seasons.  In 1150, an anonymous Arab author compiled a treatise saying it was a faithful translation of Archimedes’ work On Water Clocks. We don’t know if this is true.

 

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Vanessa then invited us to try an Archimedes screw. This is a cylinder containing a spiral-shaped blade which, when turned, can lift water, grain or other amenable substances from a low place up to higher ground. The story goes that Hieron II, after constructing The Siracusia (his ancient version of The Titanic) needed a way to pump excess bilge water and Arcimedes came up with this.

“Although it’s called the Archimedes Screw, maybe it was not him to invent it,” Vanessa explained. “In Babylon, in the gardens, they had something like this machine. And in Egypt, because sometimes there was flooding, they used it there. But maybe in Archimedes’ time, when many Greeks were in Egypt, maybe they saw it there and brought it to Syracuse.” She shrugged.

 

Burning Mirrors

It started raining and we moved over to a couple of shiny hemispheres.

“Archimedes studied parabolas in his life. What is this? It is a parabola.” She touched the outer edge. “When the sun shines, this part is still cold.” She moved her hand to the center, “but here is hot. This is the focus point. They say that he made these mirrors out of bronze and then in the center they put quartz. Ancient scholars say when the sun came, they pointed the mirrors at the Roman ship, and it catches fire.

“Scientists now do studies and they are not sure this is true. Could the mirrors be built? Yes. So maybe he used them, but just to bother the Romans in their eyes.”

 

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Giulio Parigi imagines the scene

 

A little kitten jumped out of a bush and started prancing around the questionable weapon of mass destruction. At about the same time, it started raining quite hard. The tour was over. I was pretty interested in the whole Archimedes thing by this stage, and made my way to a bookshop in town where I could find out some more.

Much to my satisfaction, there was an accessible book called Archimedes of Syracuse by Stefano Amato. Here’s what he has to say about the burning-mirror controversy:

 

“It was the writer Luciano of Samosata, in the second century CE, who was the first to mention the burning of enemy ships as the work of Archimedes. Unfortunately Luciano was also the author of True History, a science-fantasy story in which characters are lifted up to the moon by a hurricane; here they meet some aliens, and when they fall back down to Earth, they end up in the belly of a whale, only to end up on an island made of cheese. So, you know, maybe his account of the siege of Syracuse is not completely reliable. Not to mention that in his Hippia, the source concerned, Luciano never mentions mirrors. All he says is: ‘[Archimedes] burned the enemy ships using his scientific knowledge.”

 

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Gustave Dore illustrates the tales of Luciano Samosta, a lying liar.

Odyssey to Avola

 “How far will I have to walk?” John asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Not far! We just take the train to Avola Station—twenty minutes max—then a nice stroll to the sea. Five minutes’ walk, that all! Look, here it is on the map…easy!” I pointed to the screen.

“Well…OK…” he said doubtfully, mentally reliving some other ‘easy’ trips we’ve made in the last two decades.

 

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Job and his wife on a day trip

 

The next morning, at eight-twenty-nine o’clock, we were standing at the bus stop outside Bar El Cubano and the bus was due. I checked my bag.

“Oh, hell. I only have one ticket and it’s too late to get another one.”

But then I didn’t give it another thought. I’ll admit it, I was complacent. In three weeks of taking the bus, only two people (apart from me) had validated a ticket: two Germans and one Briton. There were never any conductors and the driver actually got annoyed if you tried to buy a ticket from him, waving you away and saying ‘Andiamo!’ as if you were wasting his time. It wouldn’t matter, I concluded, if we were one ticket short just this once.

The faces on the morning bus were unfamiliar. Our usual afternoon bus contains a dozen immigrant workers, a few tourists and a couple of elderly people. This time the bus was almost full of native Sicilians, who were talking nonstop, lively as tree full of budgerigars. That is, they were talking until we got on board. It was like a saloon in an old Western—the newcomer hush. A man sitting by the validator machine seemed particularly interested in us. He was a large man in a blue polo shirt and a golden chain bracelet. He elbowed his friend slyly and waved his arms at us.

Monsieur, madame!” he shouted jovially and pointed to the ticket-validator machine.

Gulping, I went to the machine and made a show of punching the ticket, demonstrating that—unlike 95% of passengers on this island—I had taken the trouble of actually purchasing one in the first place. Then I set off to join John in my seat, where I planned to hide for the rest of the journey.

Not so fast.

“Uno…due…” said the man, who had been listening attentively and noticed that I had only punched one ticket when there were two of us. The bus was already rocketing along over the potholes. All eyes were on me. In situations like these, the only recourses that occur to me are loud argument or bluff. I pretended not to have heard him and walked to my seat.

What’s the worst he can do? I thought pugnaciously, Throw us out the window? I plunked myself down and for a minute nothing happened.

Then, in slow-motion, like some giant in a fever dream, I saw him get to his feet and walk slowly up the aisle towards us, steadying himself on the seatbacks. As he passed each passenger, he let a friendly word fall and they all nodded and smiled, approving.

He reached my seat, looking, and before he could speak I decided to make the first move, smiling and producing my change purse, “Purtroppo ho solo un. Quanto costa per un biglietto?”

Un euro e trenta,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.

Relieved that this volatile situation was now reduced to a mere financial transaction, rather than a bloodsport for the amusement of local larrikins, I dug in my purse and produced one euro fifty—twenty cents more than needed to end the whole thing.

He nodded and made his stately way up to the front. After chatting amiably with the bus driver, he slowly floated back to us, waving a receipt and the exact change so everyone could see. It seemed to take a very long time. Finally, he gave me, with a gesture of exaggerated courtesy, the receipt. Mortified, I thanked him and the whole thing was settled except that neither John nor I breathed until we got to Siracusa. Meanwhile, three other people got on board without validating their tickets. Our friend the ticket-enforcing Cyclops showed no interest at all.

 

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“Monsieur? Madame?”

 

In Siracusa, we hurried out of the bus and headed for the train station next door.

“Phew, glad that’s over,” I muttered to John. “From now on I’m going to buy tickets in bulk so we’re never shor– Wait, do you hear…that?”

Loud farting noises were exploding behind us. The person producing the noises was so close I could feel droplets of saliva on the back of my neck. The sloppy raspberries were interspersed now and then with low, snarled invective. Already emotionally bruised by the ticket incident, I decided to protest and turned around to glare at the human whoopee cushion.

To my surprise, I came face to face with an emaciated elderly man in a suitcoat. He didn’t have any teeth and was walking in a jerky manner suggestive of mental illness. His reaction to my glare was that of a cowardly dog when a gate opens; absolute denial. He looked away, stuck his chin in the air and put his hands in his pockets. We stood by to let him pass and watched him limp into the distance, past the pile of human poo and bus timetables covered with hand-written signs saying routes had been cancelled.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city that was once so great fall to such depths,” John murmured wistfully.

 

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One of the biggest pleasure crafts of antiquity, The Siracusia had heated baths, a garden and a temple to Aphrodite. It was so big it couldn’t fit into any harbor in Sicily, so Hieron II gave it to Ptolemy II of Egypt as a gift.

 

Syracuse…capital of Magna Graecia…center of cultural brilliance… one of the major powers in the Mediterranean…centuries of military success…largest altar in antiquity…host to Plato and Aeschylus…birthplace of Archimedes—of pi!!! And now this. 

Mourning past glories, we bought a train ticket to Avola at one of the automatic vending machines. The digital screen listing departures said that the platform was ‘B2W’. I didn’t know what that meant. As far as I knew, there were only two platforms, 1 and 2. John sat down to rest his sore knee, and I went in search of B2W.

The first stop was the ticket booth, but that was closed. Meanwhile,  about two dozen of our fellow tourists were milling around with expressions of bafflement that mirrored my own feeling.  

“Excuse me,” said a tall man with a Russian accent. “What platform is this?” He pointed to the one we stood on.

“This is one, that is two. Are you going to Avola?”

His wife, a smiling woman with blonde curls nodded enthusiastically.

“So are we,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I added, “I don’t know where to go.”

They laughed and they set off again on their hunt for the elusive platform.

Taking a moment to look around, I saw a clot of people at the end of the building . I set off to investigate and found, tucked around the corner, three terminal platforms: 1, 2, 3 ‘Ovest’. Eureka! B2W stood for ‘binario (platform) 2 West’. I jogged back to relay the intelligence to John.

When I got back, he was sitting next to a mournful German blonde. She listened to the triumphant news.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you know where I can go to get to Noto?”

“Ah yes. The platform is over there,” I pointed. “You can’t see it, but there are three platforms, and you want number two.”

“Thank you,” she nodded and sighed. “So now I know I will get to Noto.”

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The train, artwork by ‘Lube’

 

We all shifted over to the top-secret platform with ten minutes to go, waiting for a one-carriage train to open her doors. It occurred to me in an idle moment that the train was not big enough to contain the crowd. A dignified man with a clipboard walked solemnly to the train, said something to another uniformed man, then together they walked back towards the station. A woman with a backpack asked them something, then followed him. A crackly announcement rent the air. A few passengers walked away in the same direction as the tourist, then the rest of us followed en masse, wondering what was going on.

John saw the guy with the clipboard  and asked where to go.

“Bus,” said the man, nodding in the direction of the street.

There it was: a large bus already three-quarters full. As soon as we boarded, the very last seat was taken. John and I looked at each other, perplexed. Standing for long periods hurts his knee, and it was clear that the bus wasn’t leaving any time soon. As we were right at the back of the bus, he sat down on the raised section of the back row.

Outside, three men in official uniforms conferred with one another, nodding and gesturing as if they were discussing the route. The conversation went on for a long time and never seemed to get resolved. Another, empty bus, pulled up behind ours. The line of people standing in front of us started getting off, eager to get a seat on the new bus. We followed them but, just to be sure, I spoke to the new driver.  

“Does the new bus go to Avola?”

“No. Only that one,” he pointed to the one we’d just left. 

“But…there are no seats on that one!” John exclaimed. “This is ridiculous! What a mess!”

Deciding to forfeit our tickets, we stalked away from the debacle. Gloomy and frustrated, we trudged back to the main bus stop, sat on a bench with three missing planks and discussed what to do next.

 

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“We could go to the mall,” I suggested. I suddenly craved French fries.

“How do we get there?” John asked.

“The number 26 bus,” I said. “It stops right here.”

“There’s a bus coming now…it’s stopping… Is this it?”

The bus disgorged two passengers, slammed the door and zoomed off.

“I guess not.” I said.

“Look,” said John, pointing across the road, “There’s an Intercity bus going to Avola.”

We bought two return tickets and soon headed off for our original destination.

“So what’s at this Avola place, anyway?” John asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“What?”

“I just heard it was a good place to go. I do know it’s by the sea, though,” I added hastily. “There used to be a tuna factory there.”

“A tuna factory. I see,” said John pursing his lips.  

I decided to read my magazine. There was an article about top models being prone to depression, as if that was in any way surprising. I tried the little sachet of perfume, but it smelled like rubbing alcohol. 

When the bus dropped us off, we were at a little roundabout near an ancient looking church. A big crowd had gathered there. Judging by the fancy clothes and profusion of frills and color, it was a wedding. A real Sicilian wedding! John zoomed over as if responding to a Siren call.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“It’s taken us FOUR HOURS to go a distance of ten kilometres. We’ve been toyed with, farted at, misdirected and messed around. If we’re going to go through all that to get here, we are damned well going to crash this wedding!” he said.

 

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Unfortunately, it was almost over. The bride and groom had just been packed away in their car and the guests were beginning to disperse. We walked along a street with an unusual number of jewelry and discount clothing stores and ended up in a large piazza full of big beautiful old buildings. 

Glancing down a side-street, we saw a tantalizing turquoise line at the end of it–the sea.

“It looks far,” John said.

“Yes.”

“Well, ” he sighed, “Let’s go.”

Despite his painful knee, John’s long strides left me in the dust. We passed a little park lined with ancient olive trees where locals were sipping coffee in the shade. We passed several blocks of closed up buildings, closed shops, Vespas parked under windows covered with slatted wooden blinds. Everything was bathed in stark light and deep shadow. Closer to the sea were overgrown sections of grass behind high walls, streets leading nowhere. 

 

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When we finally got to the end of the road, the sea was a deep luminous turquoise hemmed with white frills. A few men were surf-casting. Along the promenade there stood a statue of Mary, Star of the Sea—the patron saint of this part of southern Sicily. Believers had draped votive rosary beads over her shoulders.

 

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We stood for a while looking out at the Ionian Sea, then my stomach started grumbling.

“Let’s have a proper lunch here,” I said. “The bus comes back at 4 o’clock, so we’ve got a few hours to kill.”

There was a seafood restaurant directly opposite the statue, so we headed in there. The name of the restaurant was Giufà Bistoro. Giufà is a character from Italian folklore who was sort of a village idiot—completely guileless, gullible and trusting—but somehow he always triumphs. Some scholars think that the character was absorbed into Sicilian tradition when the island came under Arab rule, as there is an Arab folk character named Juha, based on stories about the popular philosopher Nasreddin.

In the restaurant, we forgot the morning’s transport tribulations and settled in for a seaside feast.

Every Italian meal involves bread. John doesn’t eat bread, so I personally took care of two slices of fresh sourdough bread lightly toasted and sprinkled with sea salt and dried oregano. The oregano was grown here, on the sunny rocky hills and it tastes of sharp sunlight and sweet grass. The whole thing was drizzled liberally with fresh and fruity local olive oil. It might sound strange, but two pieces of toast prepared like this (after four hours of transportation headaches) is amazingly delicious.

Sicily is famous for its wines, so we got a white wine grown on a vineyard on the slopes of Mt. Etna. One of my foodie friends says a reason Sicily is so famous for its agricultural produce is the quality of its terroir—a useful term that seems means something like ‘the growing environment’. The higher slopes of Mt. Etna offer a cooler climate for the vines and the volcanic soil is rich in minerals and well drained. I’m not saying I noticed all this when I drank it—I was just trying to calm down —but people who know what they’re talking about recommend Sicilian wine, so you might like to try some.

 

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The antipasto was a bowl of fava beans in tasty gravy—an ancient dish called Maccu that may go back to Roman times. It reminded me a bit of a fava-bean dish popular in Iraqi Kurdistan, faoul medamas, which is often served for breakfast. This version of Maccu included fennel, tomatoes and onion. It was topped with thin slices of smoked tuna. Next to the bowl sat a couple of slabs of melt-in-the-mouth eggplant, ham and provolone cheese. These had been baked to the point that they were on the verge of floating up to Heaven.

Now for the primi piatti—the first courses. I got a plate of risotto cooked with mussels, shrimp and baby octopus. It had been cooked in a seafood broth and was garnished with green and yellow lemon zest. That was so interesting I dreamed about it. John had casarecce pasta in a ragu of boar sausage and little mushrooms.

For the secondo piatto—the meat dish—John had a big fresh tuna steak covered in a tomato sauce that included green olives and red onion.

Meanwhile, I had my eyes on the dolcecasatella  di Sant’Agata. This is a single-serve version of cassata whose shape recalls a boob, thanks to the cherry ‘nipple’ (when Saint Agatha was martyred, her breasts were lopped off and ever since she has been associated with that part of her anatomy). Anyway, this concoction involved spongecake soaked in rum, fresh ricotta mixed with tiny chocolate drops and candied citrus peel, a brulee-like cap of crunchy green marzipan, and finally a glace cherry on top. If you’d like to try it, there is a recipe on this blog.

 

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We were both full and fuzzy after this banquet. We reflected on the various elements of our morning adventure, I persuaded John to try the cassata. He tasted it carefully, thought a moment, then said, in a philosophical mood, “That’s the Sicilians all right; they want as much as they can get. They want ALL their garmanbozia.”

 

How We Got Tragedy and The Persians

Some of the greatest works of Greek literature are by-products of a big penis festival.  We tend to think of tragedy as something appalling and extremely serious, but the Greek name tragos-oide meant ‘goat song’ and it developed as part of a wild celebration devoted to the god of wine, frenzies and spiritual ecstasy.

 

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Greek theater at Siracusa.

 

In Syracuse, Sicily, 470BCE, Aeschylus presented The Persians, the oldest surviving Greek tragedy and the only one about recent historical events. But before I tell you about that, let’s look at the festival of Dionysos, the context in which ancient Greeks viewed tragedy.

The Dionysian Mysteries were…mysteries! We don’t know much about them except that they involved getting into a trance (usually induced by alcohol, drugs, bull-roarers, whips and music etc.). There was a seasonal death-rebirth theme (common to agriculture-based cults) related to the fact that Dionysus is the only Olympian god to have died and then been brought back to life. Symbols associated with the cult and the god were ivy (which grows with grapes), figs (a purgative), pine (a wine preservative), the bull (whose horns were used as cups) and the goat (whose skin was used as a wine container).

The female initiates, the Maenads, were usually portrayed working themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy by dancing and drinking wine, wrapping snakes and animal skins over themselves and holding the distinctive thyrsos (a long stick with a pinecone at the top). Peter Hoyle describes the classic Maenad ritual:

 

“Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood’ [or ‘staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait’]. ‘In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting ‘Euoi!’ [the god’s name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.” 

P. 76 of Delphi by Peter Hoyle London:  Cassell, 1967

 

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Maenad careless about the way she’s holding that leopard on a white-ground kylix from 490-480 BCE Vulci (Etruria)

 

The original festival of Dionysos, ‘Rural Dionysia’ as the Athenians knew it, originated in a city called Eleutherea. It was celebrated in the month of the winter solstice. Plutarch’s description of the early Athenian version probably approximates the original event:

 

“Our traditional festival of the Dionysia was in the past a simple and merry procession. First came a jug of wine and an olive branch, then one celebrant dragged a he-goat along, another followed with a basket of dry figs, and the phallos-bearer came last.”  (Plut. De Cupid. Divit. p527D)

 

After this procession, bulls would be sacrificed, the celebrants would feast, and there would be competitions of dancing, poetry and singing, particularly choirs performing ‘dithyrambs’—hymns to Dionysos.

Sometime around the mid-sixth century, heaps of Attic vases started popping up showing scenes from the festival, and these suggest that this was when the festival started to be celebrated in Athens too, where it was called the ‘City Dionysia’ or the ‘Great Dionysia’.

 

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Eleutherae is up in the top left corner of Attica, to the right of Mt. Kithairon

 

They say that when Eleutherea chose to give up its independence to become part of Attica (mainly to spite the Thebans to the north), it presented a wooden statue of Dionysus to Athens. Athens rejected it and was subsequently hit by a plague that affected male genitalia. Eager to propitiate the god, Athens hastily accepted the cult of Dionysius and the plague disappeared.  Every year afterwards, Athenians held a procession in which citizens carried phalluses. Maybe this story is true, maybe it’s just an attempt to explain all the oversized phalluses. In any case, Athens adopted the Dionysia but celebrated it at a different time: mid- to late-March. 

The Athenian procession seems to have been pretty similar to the one Plutarch described, but on a much bigger, more magnificent scale.

The basket-bearer, the kanephoros, was a girl between the ages of 11 and 15 chosen from one of the city’s aristocratic families to carry a basket full of sacrificial food—in this case figs. Her purity (virginity) and youth were considered essential to ensure as successful sacrifice. Along the same line of reasoning, she was richly and beautifully dressed.

 

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Attic Black-figured cup from around 550BCE, Florence 3897

 

People carried small replicas of phalluses made of wood or bronze, but there were also really giant ones that needed to be carried on platforms. The phallus-bearers were men. Notice that in this picture they are carrying, in addition to the huge phallus, the statue of a giant satyr and a little guy riding the satyr. Note, too, that the phallus has eyes. The bearers all appear to have erections, which probably means they were wearing artificial ones. Herodotus has an interesting snippet here:

 

“Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians invented the phallic procession as well as phalloi that can be made to waggle up and down (2.48-49). These soon became customary in Greece, according to Herodotus and others. The moving phalloi came to be known as ‘string puppets’ (2.48)’ From “The Dionysian Parade and the Poetics of Plenitude” by Professor Eric Csapo

 

There was another group of men called ithyphalloi who were sort of like penis clowns. They wore costumes that made it seem like they were growing heaps of phalluses every which-where. There also seem to have been groups of men dressed as satyrs (a satyr is a mythical man with big eyes, an ass’s ears and tail and a permanently erect penis).

 

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Attic black-figure amphora, Berlin Painter 1686, ca 540 BCE

 

Another recurring feature was a wheeled wagon, resembling a ship, containing the figure of Dionysus and satyrs – an ancient float.

 

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do de doo

 

The retinue would have otherwise included men leading the bulls to the altars for sacrifice, foreigners (metics) carrying oversized loaves of bread to be cooked over the sacrificial fire, water-carriers, wine-carriers other-offering-carriers (honey cakes, fruit, oil etc.) and others.

Participants in the parade wore masks, wreaths, fancy dress and body paint. The young men were practically expected to be drunk and aggressive, intoxicated both by wine, mob participation and ritual frenzy. There were supervising forces hired by the city to make sure the rough stuff didn’t get out of hand, but the point was to let oneself go and it was common to see paraders threaten onlookers with fake penises, or to whip them with strips of leather.  

Wealth was on display, part of the sense of excess and superfluity. The orator Demosthenes, who became choregos (an official in charge of the expenses of civic theatrical productions) in 348BCE, ordered gold-spun gowns and golden crowns for every one of his choir members—a spectacle calculated to impress the public and enhance his reputation. This, too, was when Allies publicly paid ‘tribute’ to Athens—money meant to benefit the common good, and this was deposited in the orchestra of the theater.

Music was a big part of the festival. During the procession, songs were addressed to the giant phalluses, harps and lyres were played. There were probably drums, whistles, kazoos and all sorts. After this procession came competitions for singing and dancing, then a special competition in which dithyrambs (choral hymns to Dionysus) were performed by choirs of fifty men or boys.

Professor Eric Csapo suggests the City Dionysia was a kind of celebration of the end of forced Lent, since it coincided with the opening up of sailing season–sea communications were strictly closed for about four months over the winter period.

“Classical Athenians connected the sailing season with the Dionysia because the festival and its associated markets were designed to alleviate the want and tedium of a long winter: food, money, unusual privileges and dazzling entertainments.”

 

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Kylix showing Dionysus on a ship between dolphins. 530BCE

 

The festival was not just an agricultural feast, but also a social and political congregation. People came from all over the Delian League came as a matter of religious duty, but also to socialize, to feel part of a community, to get news from abroad, to enjoy the impression of shared riches and (probably) to conduct trade and make business connections. Representatives from other cities coming to celebrate the festival were required to bring a cow and a phallus. The cows—hundreds of them– were to be sacrificed to Dionysus, and the food and wine would be distributed among celebrants.

After the procession, the theatre of Dionysus was purified by the sacrifice of a bull. Then there were five days devoted to performances in the theater. Three playwrights contributed a set of three tragedies and one short satyr play (The first day, the first playwright presented all his plays; the second day, the second playwright presented his, and the third day the third playwright showed his). The satyr play was a kind of burlesque full of jokes and prat-falls. It was often inserted between the second and third play just to provide some light relief in all the bone-harrowing gloom.  No one knows for sure what was performed on the other days, but it might have been more dithyrambs.

On the last day of Dionysia there was another procession and the winners of the competitions were announced. The victorious playwright would receive a wreath of ivy.

 

Aeschylus and The Persians

By 470, Aeschylus had been winning the ivy wreath pretty much every year for a decade. What’s more, he was a war hero. He’d participated in the Battle of Marathon, where his brother died heroically trying to prevent a Persian ship from retreating.  Then, at the Battle of Salamis, he lost one of his hands. In Athenian terms, it would be hard to be more of a celebrity.

 

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Hiero I was tyrant of Syracuse at the time, a very busy ruler and an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He wanted Aeschylus to write a play about a new city he’d just founded. Aeschylus complied, and in 470 he presented The Women of Etna and restaged The Persians, which had first appeared in Athens in 472.

The Persians was a depiction of a very recent event—the Battle of Salamis in 480, the naval conflict where Aeschylus had lost one of his hands. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks had won and Xerxes had gone home, leaving his generals to handle the conquest. The next spring, in 479, the Allies defeated the Persians again at the Battle of Plataea, effectively ending Persia’s interest in Greece for good.

Aeschylus’ play is a dramatization of total defeat—the moment when Athens crushes Persia. It is not set on the battlefield but back at home, in the royal city of Susa, at the exact moment when Xerxes’ mother Atossa, and the rest of the city, learns what happened. At the very end of the play, Xerxes, the ‘King of Kings’ who set such store by luxury, comes limping home in rags, to the accompaniment of shrieks of ritual mourning from a chorus of old men.

The play recalls the grief of Hektor’s parents when they learn of his death in The Iliad–it has the powerful pathos of war seen from the losing side. Then again, it’s not difficult to imagine Greeks gleaning some enjoyment from a blow-by-blow account of their enemy’s fall from glory to grief, and from the criticism of Xerxes’ foolish pride and mistakes. There must have been an element of gloating in the audience, to say the least. At the same time, it’s hard to blame such schadenfreude.    

The anxiety the Persian Threat caused the Athenians was unbelievable. In the first place, as the name suggests, the Second Persian Invasion was essentially a continuation of the First Persian Invasion, which began back in 492BCE as punishment to Athens and Eretria for aiding and abetting Ionian rebels in 499. By 480, there had already been two decades of tension. You only have to look at a map of the Achmaenid Empire to sympathize with mainland Greeks for worrying.

 

 

The stakes were high. As a punishment for assisting rebels, Persia demolished Eretria and took its people as slaves. Athens fought for all it was worth, had an amazing victory at Marathon in 490, and the Persians went home. Darius immediately started planning a re-match but he died in 486. In 480, Darius’ son Xerxes I was ready to try again, this time aiming to conquer the whole peninsula. He mustered a huge army and navy, manned by people from all over the Persian Empire—Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Jews, Macedonians, Thracians and Greeks. On the Greek side, 70 city-states joined the resistance, with Athens and Sparta in the lead. Even so, most Greek cities stayed neutral or submitted to Xerxes, believing the Persians were too big to fail.

No wonder it was such a popular subject with Greeks. Vase painters also went to town with the Persian-Aversion theme, stressing their strange garb, their archery, their smurf hats, pointy shoes and ludicrous pantaloons. 

 

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Aeschylus must have enjoyed his visit to Sicily because he returned here several times. The last was a trip to Gela, where he died in 456. According to the legend, an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.  Remarkably, his tombstone makes no explicit mention of his plays, preferring to praise his role in preventing Athens’ extinction:

 

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
     who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
     and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

Sweet-tooth Sunday

‘Golosa’ is an Italian word meaning ‘greedy for sweets’, and one that perfectly defined my mood on Sunday. We headed for the gelateria around the corner, El Bar Cubano, and I ordered a breakfast of conchiglia pan latte, a large pastry ‘shell’ filled with custard and dusted with icing sugar. A hot cappuccino was also necessary to mitigate the flaky sweetness.

 

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El Bar is a vast building, always half empty and mostly white but enlivened by bright orange and green plastic furniture and a mural of ducks flying over a swamp in a South Pacific sunset. The waitress looks and speaks like the actress Anna Faris. Her parents, a reserved couple in their sixties, remind me weirdly of a salt-of-the-earth couple from my hometown.

The bar was busy this morning. A father was ordering granitas for a dozen or so children, and weekend swimmers were streaming in to get espresso and caffe crema (soft icecream posing as coffee). John and I sat on chairs outside, near the front door, and a haughty brown tabby came to investigate us. It brushed my offered hand with the smallest possible part of its flank. John waggled his hat enticingly; The cat considered the gesture briefly, but then twitched with irritation and presented us with its testicles.

Strolling ‘home’, we passed sights now familiar after two weeks–the cactus nursery, the overgrown almond orchard, and the house on the corner with a neglected garden and two fawn Staffordshire terriers. This mother-daughter pair have warmed to us—well, to John, who makes a point of offering them treats–salami, ham, peanuts. The young one yips with a high puppyish voice whenever she sees him coming, runs alongside him on the other side of the fence, and sticks her snout in the narrow gap between the gate so she can sniff his offered hat. The next house along has two sturdy Dogo Argentinos, both of which gurgle-growl as we pass, snuffling under the gate like a post-surgery Cerberus. Next house along it is Ginger’s turn. She has the Anubis-like ears of a Phoenix Hound but is otherwise like auburn retriever (hence Ginger—I don’t know her real name). She barks enthusiastically whenever we walk past, but it isn’t frightening, especially when she puts her front paws on the fence and mushes her muzzle against the railing.

The air was bath-warm, with genuine zephyrs. The greenery glowed, walls and tree-trunks cast dense shadows. Catching a glimpse of the sea, we could see it was dazzling, sprinkled with molten-silver. Sicily keeps throwing up days like this—so perfect you hardly know what to do with them. They seem almost fake—the intensity of colour is unnerving—deep blue sky, emerald leaves, the shocking pink of bougainvillea, the gross, fleshy pink of hibiscus…

‘I’ll go for a walk,’ I announced, deciding as I spoke. ‘It’s such a lovely day.’

‘Where to?’ asked John, who was sick and couldn’t go anywhere.

‘The nature reserve, south.’

He told me to be careful on the road and I set off with a bottle of water and my camera, light of heart.

I walked impatiently down the hill to town, a trip I’ve made several times already. I only really started paying attention on stepping into unknown territory, past the last bus stop. Tall eucalyptus trees lined the road, offering some wonderful shade and a scent that made me nostalgic for the two-day summers of New Zealand. From the ‘beach club’ to my right I heard a voice calling out numbers, “Cinquanta nove, cinque nove!” and I realized they were playing Bingo. Ahead of me on the road a man was walking in jeans and no shirt. Judging by his deep tan, this was not an unusual state of dress for him, and fair enough too because it was an excellent back. That is one thing I’ve noticed about Sicilians—they’re supremely comfortable in their own skin, especially the men. I was in the shop yesterday and a man in his sixties was standing conversing in tiny teal speedos with the dignity of a Greek statue. He was no Zeus, just a normal looking Sicilian man for his age—stocky, deep tan, proud carriage. No one blinked—it’s a beach town, so beach wear is appropriate. I chuckled to think of the shock this would cause in certain other places.

Walking on along a highway fringed with tall swamp grasses, I saw rocky hills and a canyon. This is the site of Cavagrande del Cassibile, the nature reserve where I was headed. It looked a lot like Greece to me—the dry looking hillside interspersed with pale rock, all baked in sun.

 

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The canyon was carved by a little river called the Cassibile, which the Greeks knew as Cacyparis. The river is mentioned in Thucydides’ Pelopponesian War. In 413 BCE, crushed, desperate, abandoning their sick and unburied dead, the Athenians snuck away from Syracuse at night, marching south along the coast and, reaching Cacyparis river, turning inland. The Syracusans found them and attacked with full force in an olive grove, forcing Demosthenes to surrender and to attempt suicide.  Unwittingly, I had followed that ignoble retreat from Syracuse. I wonder if the river looked this beautiful that bloody day?

 

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Olive groves surrounded me, another echo of that defeat. Of course, that’s hardly a coincidence. When the Greeks settled in Sicily in the eighth century BCE, they brought plenty of home comforts and olives were top of the list. Mary Taylor Simetti, a native New Yorker who made Sicily her home in the 1960s, explains in her book Persephone’s Island:

 

It was the Greek colonizers who brought cuttings of cultivated olives with them to graft onto the wild oleasters of Sicily, and Sicily today preserves the greatest respect for this mainstay of his household and goes to great effort and expense to insure his family their year’s supply of good, unadulterated oil, preferably grown on trees he knows and processed on a trusty press.

 

This was true all over Magna Graecia– the foot of modern Italy where the ancient Greeks settled heavily. Two years ago we spent an autumn in Apulia, near Brindisi, and the area was essentially one enormous olive grove and vineyard. The ground was strewn with the pretty multi-colored fruit, and I often saw men laying out nets underneath the trunks then bashing the top of the tree with a stick to get the high-growing berries. The dusty roads would be busy with the Apis, little three-wheeler trucks, whose flat beds were laden with buckets full of olives.

In ancient Greece, oil was not only used for cooking. It was used as a cleanser—after bathing or spending time at the gym, you (or a slave) would smear it on your skin and then scrape it, along with the dirt, with a strigil (scraper). Women valued oil as a moisturizer and hair conditioner. Physicians like Hippocrates recommended it as a treatment for a variety of conditions. It was used to fuel oil lamps. It was an important part of religious ritual—dead bodies were anointed and at funerals and other ceremonies, worshippers would offer a libation (liquid offering) that might include oil. There was even a special vase for storing oil for funeral libations, the lekythos. It was quite a precious commodity and something the rich used more than the poor. Winners of athletic competitions might receive olive oil as a prize—handy, since athletes oiled themselves up before competing.

 

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The other abundant crop around here is green lemons. Until a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea there was such a thing as a green lemon. A green lemon, as I understood it, was a lime. Not so! Here they are all over the place. When I turned off the main road into Via Fundolupo, I found that the ‘via’ was really a little dirt lane between orchards and I was surrounded by a sea of rich, deep green. Although Sicily is now Italy’s biggest producer of citrus, the fruit wasn’t eaten by Greeks or Romans, lemon is a relatively modern addition to the agricultural harvest.

 

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Via Fundolupo

 

The rest of my walk was in this landscape of productive fruit trees, with the sound of buzzing and birdsong, and distant traffic creating a drowsy effect. It was very peaceful, almost disconcertingly so, and I found myself in a sun-dazed trance.

Realizing that the Cavagrande Reserve was going to be a little too far for me to walk, I chose a prominent landmark, something called Villa Mimma, a hotel that seems to be aimed mainly at German clientele, then turned around.

Back in Syracuse, I decided to stop in at La Casa di Gelato and have two Sicilian treats: a lemon granita, in honor of the lemon orchards, and a giant cannolo in honor of my stomaco goloso.

 

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Cannolo, with cinnamon-spiced fried wafer sprinkled with apricot and pistachio crumbs

Paolo Orsi’s Potsherd Mysterium

A major hazard of travelling, especially travelling where you barely understand the language, is feeling confused a lot of the time. Admittedly, mystery has its appeal; it’s a pleasure to mull over possible answers, stalking meaning as it shies away from you through the shady thicket of doubt. You live for that exhilarating moment of victory, the sense of pride when you finally figure out that a tissue is a ‘fazzoletto’, or that what the man said was ‘the second street on the left’. There is, conversely, some irritation, not to mention rage, when you fail to understand something that should (you feel) be simple.

Sicily seems more confusing than other places. I’m not sure if that’s because I expected it to act more like mainland Italy, or because I have a cold or because the place is just fatally incomprehensible. Navigating this environment takes me back to my bewilderment as a tone-deaf student of music theory; there are nuances that I am simply unable, even after extensive effort, to get.

Take the bus system, for example. Our first week here in Sicily, we spent several hours (this is not an exaggeration) waiting for the bus. When you stand by the side of a road in a strange town waiting for a bus that never comes, it does something to you. You shrivel up inside. You wilt. You start looking cock-eyed at the world.

In the first place, it’s physically hard. There’s nowhere to sit, hardly even any room to stand. Backyards are defended by high concrete walls bolstered by spiny plants, so you can’t lean. Between the wall and the edge of the road there is a mere half-metre gap. The sun blazes down. A dog across the street stares at you through a fancy gate, intermittently barking. Cars zoom by.

 

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You notice annoyingly insignificant details; a bougainvillea has managed to grow all the way up a lamppost and is now waving in the breeze; a ridiculous cat is padding stealthily towards a hedge as if it’s a panther; ants bustle about carrying off the dismembered parts of some winged insect. To escape these depressing trifles, your thoughts turn inwards. There are things you could have done differently—renewed your driver’s license, for example. Done a little more research about the location. Figured out how to use a phone. Things that take up so much time and mental effort.

It’s a relief when a couple joins you. They’re tall and have ironed clothes and a breezy holiday attitude. Maybe some of it will rub off on you. Twenty minutes pass, an expression of doubt flickers across their faces, the cheery breeze deflates.

“Excuse me, do you have a copy of the bus schedule?” the woman asks. You show it to her, and you can tell by her frown that it’s the same as hers, taken from the official website. And your collective schedule is not right because the bus was due twenty minutes ago.

Another ten minutes pass and shoulders droop. Anxiety builds. The couple starts to get testy with each other. You’ve seen it all before.

“Go and ask the shopkeeper,” she hisses to him.

“Why me? I did it last time!”

But the man goes into the shop, asks the shopkeeper. She will say, as I know from experience, that the bus arrives every hour at quarter past, a lie.

After an hour, the couple leaves, defeated, muttering sharp words. You’re still there, stoic, determined to stick it out all day, all week, until the end of time if necessary. You will stay until cockroaches go extinct and the sun shrivels to a red pinprick just for the satisfaction of telling the bus driver he’s a lousy bastard. Five minutes later, the bus arrives, screeches to a halt and barely stops long enough to let you on before speeding away again. And you’re so relieved that the bus really does exist and that you are now on it, that you are filled with elation and gratitude; the agonizing minutes of waiting vanish. The driver’s a good man, really, it’s not his fault if the company neglects its responsibilities. Besides, there was an article in the newspaper yesterday about how there are frequent assaults on bus drivers. In the latest case, in Catania, a bus driver honked at a guy parked at a bus stop. The guy ignored him, the bus called a towing company. The driver of the car got out of his car with a large stick and started whacking the bus and the driver too.

 

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Waiting for the bus in Sicily, Year 9878 (actually artist’s impression of Proxima b )

 

I have since learned that the bus company changed the schedule without updating any of its posted timetables except one: the sheet of A4 printer paper stuck to a pole on Via Onorevole Dottor Giuseppe Rubino.

A similar thing happened with the trains last week. I wanted to go to a mall in the northern part of town. The internet said a train went there. The ticket vending machine said it was a valid destination. I bought a ticket, got on the right train…and ended up in a town 30 kilometres away. The train never stopped at my station. Perhaps that station doesn’t even exist. Who knows?

Anyway, now that we are privy to the top-secret real bus schedule, we decided to go to Siracusa and visit the Archeological Museum. This building, containing a huge collection of artefacts, is named after the archeologist Paolo Orsi (1859-1935), who studied pre-Hellenic peoples of Sicily and discovered several important temples, necropolises, walls, tombs, coins and remains. Here he is, with his perfect moustaches:

 

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Struggling to remember which ones were the Sicels and which ones were the Sicani…

 

The archeological museum was a twenty-minute walk from the bus station past the Syracusan forum, along to Euripides Plaza and up a hill to the lovely gardens of Villa Landolina. The Landolinas were (are?) one of Sicily’s oldest aristocratic families, arriving with King Roger and the Normans. That’s one of the disorienting things about Sicily—in one twenty-minute walk you have allusions to and remnants of all the disparate peoples who have lived and breathed on this soil. Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Arab…Everyone has left their fragments, but you can’t quite tell how all the pieces fit together.

The garden was a park of trees of numerous varieties (all carefully identified on a sign near the entrance). Ancient artefacts such as massive millstones and huge amphorae were arranged along the path like garden statuary. The leafy setting reminded me of a beautiful lonely place John and I visited in Albania called Butrint—the ancient city of Bouthroton, where the ruins are overgrown with ivy and grass, nestled in a leafy wood of laurels and pine. Seeing a ruined city in a natural setting, up close, under the blue sky, is a wonderful experience, and echoes of that visit rang in my memory now.

We were both enthused and strode towards the museum entrance full of hope, barely glancing at the headless statues called, so the sign said, ‘togati’ or ‘the toga-wearing men’.

The ticket price was quite reasonable—six euros each. The lady at the cash register explained in English that there was a certain order to follow. First we must go downstairs to see the coins. Then we should come upstairs and see galleries A, B and C. OK, that all seemed clear.

We walked down the stairs, following a sign that said ‘medaglie’.

‘Is that coins or not? Are we in the right place? The door’s locked,’ I tried the handle.

‘Um, I think it’s closed,’ said John.

‘But she said it was down here!’ I insisted, and then saw a switch with a bell on it. RING BELL. I couldn’t help thinking of the instructions in Alice in Wonderland  to DRINK ME EAT ME.

‘What are you doing?’ John cried as I rang the bell.

‘It says there to ring the bell,’ I pointed out.

‘But…someone’s coming!’

A staff member with long blonde hair, the kind of woman who sells high-end cosmetics in a department store opened the door, ushered us in and explained that here was the coin collection showing coins, weapons and jewelry from ancient and medieval times. The door closed behind us and we noticed that behind the glass door an armored door about a foot thick stood ready to slide shut and lock into place.

John had not really come here to look at mere coins, so he found a comfy armchair in which to muse as I pored over the shiny things. Admittedly, I usually skip coin exhibits, but this was more than usually engaging. Maybe it was the locked door, giving it an exclusive feel? Or maybe the lighting helped me see the things better.

The coins were surprisingly fat and three-dimensional. Starting from when city of Siracusa minted its own coins up to the tyranny of Dionysius I (405 BCE), the biggest kind of coin kept the same distinctive design elements. On one side was the ‘quadrigia’ (four-horsed chariot), which referred to the city’s aristocracy; on the other was the head of the nymph Arethusa, the nymph associated with the city’s freshwater spring, surrounded by dolphin’s to indicate the city’s location on the sea.

 

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When the coins ceased to delight me, I moved to the jewelry, some of it ancient, some of it not. Here are some of the most striking pieces:

 

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Earring from the second half of the second century BCE

 

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Snakey ringsesss

 

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Signet ring found at Sant’Angelo Muxaro

 

Other eye-catching bits were Roman carnelian rings with intricate intaglio portraits that resembled holograms when backlit; a golden ring in the shape of a frog, a beautiful ivory bracelet featuring a stag where the material had been into a network of tree branches; thin golden leaves that had been part of a wreath; a cameo of Diana in some luminous milk-white stone. John, meanwhile, was drawn to a collection of very thick, very sharp iron ax heads and spear points.

Aware of how much more of the museum we still had left to see (galleries A,B and C), we decided to leave the coin room.  We didn’t know we had to wait for the polished blonde woman to let us out. She was busy chatting to another couple of museum viewers and as we started pounding on the door, not a little claustrophobic, she rushed to let us out.

We climbed upstairs and entered gallery ‘A’. This took us all the way back to the island’s geological formation, through the sad march to extinction of amazing island fauna, to the first hominid scratchings. We jogged past all of it  way, past the Neolithic, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, the late Bronze Age…One of the few things that made John stop and stare was this strange item from Thapsos 1500-1200 BCE

 

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And that was mainly to point and mutter something about that sneak-thief Picasso.

‘When do things get Hellenistic?’ he added, with a hint of desperation.

‘It must be here somewhere,’ I said. ‘Let’s keep going.’

We kept going, and going, and going led on by arrows along many more dark corridors. We passed so many glass cabinets containing inscrutable terracotta figurines, bronze tools and bone ornaments that everything started to look the same. Finally, we came to a dead end. Everything was roped off.

‘Where’s Section B?’ John said, looking around in confusion.

‘Oh my god,’ I said, ‘We have to go back the way we came! The sections don’t link up with each other!’

So, we hurriedly retraced our steps. Now and then we’d end up in a little cul-de-sac and had to rescue each other by finding the right way. By the time we realized we were near the door, we nearly cried from happiness.

Back in the main connecting corridor outside, I scanned the vast building and in the distance, to the left, saw Section B.

‘OK, there it is!’ I called to John, who’d gone to look in the other direction.

We went in and immediately realized we were into the Greek colonization period. But, just as I let my guard down, the same old Confusion started clouding around me again. I tried reading the English translations of the signs provided but, between the technical jargon and the unnatural phrasing, none of the information stuck. While brain fog is a normal condition for me, even John was puzzled.

‘It’s not chronological. They’ve organized everything by town,’ he said. ‘Naxos, Messina, Syracuse…as if they’re completely unconnected. And they don’t even seem to mention the war with the Athenians. I mean, it was probably the most important battle of the Peloponnesian War!’

‘Oh, here’s a passing reference to it,’ I pointed out contrarily.

‘Three words. Three words, for that battle!’ he threw up his hands in exasperation.

Let down, we decided just to saunter through the rest of gallery B with lowered expectations, stopping where we felt like it. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of potsherds, statue fragments  labelled with numbers that were often difficult to match the signs, because there were two sets of the same numbers next to each other. So many tantalizing ancient mysteries were staring out from behind the glass, like the urn containing the charred bones of a man and a woman, but they were crowded out by a modern mystery: why should a museum be so hard to visit? We’d actually felt enthusiastic when we went in, but by the time we left gallery B we were tired, defeated and confused.

 

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Snub-nosed Sicilian kore laughing at me

 

Sighing, we listlessly browsed the books on display near the ticket counter. One book on the Pelopponesian War, but it was only in Italian. There was a whole set of Montelbano mysteries—the beloved detective series by Andrea Camilleri that showcases the Sicilian way of life. There was also an English translation of Il Giorno Della Civetta, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia. I was struck by the coincidence because I’d just watched the film version starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero the previous night.  I promptly bought it and we set off homewards, with a short stop at the supermarket near the station.

The supermarket was closed.

‘Is it closed for lunch?’ John asked hopefully, and I understood. He wanted a reasonable explanation, something solid to hold onto.

‘No. The sign says here it’s open right through every day except Sunday,’ I said in a faint voice. There was no explanation. Not even a piece of paper scrawled with ‘closed for family reasons’ or ‘back in an hour’. Nothing.

Luckily, the bus was on time. I started reading my book; I wanted answers. Riffling through, I stopped on a conversation between Captain Bellodi and a woman talking about Sicily:

 

‘What’s it like?’

‘An old town with plaster-walled houses, steep streets and flights of steps, and at the top of every street and flight of steps, an ugly church.’

‘And the men; are they very jealous?’

‘After their own fashion.’

‘And the mafia, what’s this mafia the papers are always going on about?’

‘Yes, what is the mafia?’ urged Brescianelli.

‘It’s very complicated to explain,’ said Bellodi, ‘it’s just incredible.’

 

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Pretty good excuse to include a picture of Franco Nero