Un’ ora con Ennio Morricone

Band: Ennio Morricone
Album: Un’ ora con Ennio Morricone
Best song: So great. The main theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is classic.
Worst song: All enjoyable.

So, I guess I haven’t actually written about my week in Sicily yet online. It’s been amost a month since my trip. Mostly, I haven’t been writing because I’ve been super busy at work and home. I’m transitioning to a carless existance — bought a bike, buying a scooter, etc. — and my truest non-Nino love (softball) is back. Which is to say I’ve left writing by the side of the proverbial road.

Nevertheless, I spoke to my dad last week about my trip and to say that he was interested is something of an understatement. I wrote about this a bit in the Uzeda piece, but that was in anticipation of my trip, but the Sicilian trip was something that I needed to do to find something within me that connected me more to my homeland, my people and such.

I joke about being a self-hating Jew a lot — well, “joke” may be mostly inaccurate — but I have similar reservations about my Italian/Sicilian heritage. As I found out — and had some impressions, going in — Sicily is a place that’s been shat upon for the past 2,000 years. Every ruling culture (and there have been many, from the Arabs to the Greeks to the Romans to the Italians to the Normans to the Spaniards) seemed to not understand the richness of the island and simply used it for whatever resources could be extracted — or as a vacation home for its rulers. As a result, the island has a rich tapestry of gorgeous cultures mixing together, from the African couscous to the seafaring Spanish-influenced Italian seafood dishes to the sweet citrus of the Middle East. The architecture looks as much like Spain as any place, until you hit the Norman-influenced domes and the Roman piazzas and promenades.

In short, Sicily is so different from a place like Rome, it might as well be a totally different country.

To say that Sicily doesn’t have a great reputation worldwide is something of an understatement. In the United States, La Cosa Nostra (our thing, aka the Mafia) is probably the main thing everyone knows about Sicily. Maybe Americans know that Sicily was a major bombing area for the Allies in World War II.

Within Italy, Sicily is thought to be a backwards, backwoods place. People make ufn of the Sicilian accent and the farming communities in the interior of the island. The island doesn’t have the pedigree of the fine wines of Tuscany or the beautiful Amalfi beaches or the exquisite art or metropolitan feel of Rome or Venice. Like the American South, it’s looked upon as backwards, silly and ignorant.

As such, it’s been totally ignored. To say that Palermo is “lived in” would be wildly understating it. In talking to some friends about the difference between Rome and Palermo, I used the D.C. v. N.Y. comparison. D.C. is clean and full of tourists. Many of the sights are clean and presented for tourists; they’re not used. The neighborhoods exist, but they don’t look, shall we say, like anyone lives there (for the most part. Not entirely).

New York, on the other hand, smells like piss. There’s trash in the summer that looks and smells like death. But, it’s bustling and exciting and everything exists there in a blur.

I tried to explain that Palermo is like New York and Rome is like Washington in simply that way. Palermo is a beautiful, vibrant city, but it’s a working city. The downtown area is full of shops, churches and markets where people actually shop, work and worship. It’s not sterilized. I got lost in some crazy residential neighborhoods. There are souvenir shops, but they center around the duomo and the palace. Otherwise, it’s just little coffee shops, grocery stores, scooter repair places, betting parlours and such.

That, of course, is avoiding the elephant in the room. Palermo is poor. Like, way poor. In showing some photos to a friend, she said “it looks more like Mexico than Europe.”

That’s not a bad way to look at it. Palermo’s unemployment rate is far higher than the rest of Italy and the country is neglected. A lot of it is from the national government’s ignoring of the island; I’d be lying if I said that the Mafia had nothing to do with it. Either way…

On the train from the airport to Palermo — it’s about a 20 km trip — two things surprised me. The first was how strikingly beautiful the island was. Mountains in the distance, the sea in the foreground. Coral, orange groves, farms, villas, etc. I thought the photos in my guidebooks — and on the Web — were the type of thing that every guidebook has in them (as in, the best-pictures of a moment in time). Nope. Sicily looks like that every minute.

The other surprise was the amount of old, burned and bombed-out buildings on the island. I probably saw 5-10 of them on the train ride. It appears that they were bombed during the second world war and no one ever thought to rebuild or care for them. It’s strikingly sad.

A lot of the stuff I’ve read talks about the huge amounts of people leaving the island in the 20th century. Everyone’s getting out of Sicily, it seems. Hell, my ancestors left Sicily in the early 20th century and those who didn’t go to the U.S. went to live in Rome, Turin and Milan.

It’s hard not to see why, on some level. There’s not a ton of opportunities in Sicily — again, unemployment is way higher there than in the rest of Italy — and it’s detached from the rest of the country, for the most part.

Which is not why I’ve got such conflicting feelings about the place. Italy — and Sicily, specifically — is wildly xenophobic, ultra homophobic and somewhat racist; hegemony is the standard there. Every available guidebook suggests that gay and lesbian tourists had best stay the hell away from the island. So, culturally, it’s not the hope that I strive for.

Similarly, Sicily’s — well, Parlermo’s — youth culture has a populist, trendy vibe that isn’t my favorite thing in the world. Lots of bad, moussed-up hair. Lots of crazy makeup on the women. Lots of, well, white-trashy stuff going on. In essence, it’s the European version of the Ed Hardy/Affliction junk. I can now undersand that maybe the Jersey Shore thing is ethno-genetic.

As you can imagine, I have little to no interest in this. I strive toward a lazy, midwestern aging hipster aestetic and fall very short. I cut my hair simply to make it as managable as possible; I wear a beard because I don’t like to shave. Don’t get me wrong, I’m oustandingly vain. But Italy is a country of people who really care how they look and often make choices I find to be absurd. It’s an aestetic I can’t get behind.

All of that said, it was an amazing trip and one that had me feeling connected to my history like no other trip. In Palermo, I visited the Capuchin Catacombs and saw a body with my grandmother’s unmarried name on it. As hokey as it seems, I felt an enormous emotional connection to the place after seeing this. In Caccamo — the town from which my family came — I found a sign for a local political guy named “Gianfortone.” I knocked on the door, but got no answer.

I’m, I believe, the only living member of my extended family to have traveled to Sicily. As such, a lot of my cousins contacted me this past month, asking questions and wondering about the trip to Sicily.

It’s a hard thing for me. I’m not a close family person and haven’t seen many of these cousins in a long time (two years, probably). Part of this is because of my parents’ divorce, part of this is my living on the East Coast. Part of it is because, you know, I’m a dick. But, part of it, also, is that I don’t have any connection to my extended family outside of our shared roots.

I think this trip, if only for a second, helps that connection.

Sicily is a beautiful island, full of wonderfully pleasant people — when I spoke in Italian — and I’ve barely scratched the surface here as to the trip. But, I’d go back in a minute.

Oh, yeah. Ennio Morricone is awesome.

Ennio Morricone: 1966-1987 (2CD Set)Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone

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