Sicilia! An island where the oranges are sweet and the ricotta is sweeter; where the dialect is incomprehensible and elderly men rule the street corners and voluntarily pose for my photos. It’s my kind of island to get lost in.
Before heading to the next farm, I decided to spend a few days somewhere else nearby. Without much research or reason aside from its proximity to Palermo, I chose Sciacca. I’d come across the Mazzotta brothers as hosts on the WWOOF, Couchsurfing and HelpExchange sites. One of the brothers is the arborist and the other the chemist. They produce a modest amount of olive oil for consumption and olive-based skin and beauty products. Fabio, the arborist, had recently relocated to a 300 person-populated island off the coast of Sicily, and invited me through HelpExchange to help with gardening there. I was already set to WWOOF at a farm near Palermo, but intrigued by these omnipresent brothers. Fabio’s island was too far and expensive for a weekend jaunt, so I set up a Couchsurfing/WWOOFing weekend in Sciacca with Alessandro.
Sciacca is a cute, seaside town without a ton to offer in terms of sightseeing. Aside from barhopping with Alessandro’s friends, hanging by the fireplace and walking through town (including Italy’s narrowest street), most of my time with Alessandro was spent at his grandmother’s apartment in the center of town. His mother lives in a separate apartment in the same building, but comes down to join nonna for lunch and dinner. Judging by the pattern of our weekend and his empty fridge, I think it’s safe to say that Alessandro also takes his meals there.
Lucky for me, Alessandro’s mom was entertaining her friends at the grandmother’s place that night. The apartment had this old-style regality, with a big dining room table where we set up the food and a parlour room with floor-to-ceiling windows where everyone would eventually settle among a set of small tables to smoke and play cards.
We dropped by midday (for lunch and) to help make a ricotta-artichoke pastry appetizer. This was one of a myriad of delights Alessandro and I would enjoy that night and the rest of the weekend. Among the mom’s tour de force was a crispy rice and porcini casserole, local sardines, a simple salad of potatoes, gamberetti (baby shrimp) and marinated polpetti (little octopi) and, the undisputed champion, the caponata. A mix of eggplant, capers, nuts and, her nontraditional touch, sausage, in an ever-so-slightly sweet tomato-vinegar based sauce. Surprisingly, the sausage wasn’t at all overpowering. It was delectable.
In addition to the dried dates and never-ending bowl of kiwis, oranges and mandarins, was my first love affair with gelatin. I always opt for the canned cranberry sauce over the homemade Jello-cranberry mold at Thanksgiving; I’ve never been much of a Jello girl. This was a different story. There were two gelatin desserts: a Sicilian lemon one with sliced kiwi and banana, and a watermelon-hibiscus one with a dark chocolate shell. Washed down with a bit of homemade limoncello and herb-I-forget infusion, it was, in Alessandro’s words “Il ottimo!” ( “The optimum! The best!”)
Alessandro often spoke in superlatives. He was a ball of energy, manifest in random outbursts of joy. As we neared his home ten minutes into the countryside from the center of town, he slowed near a neighbor’s olive grove. We stared at the centuries-old tree trunks. They were thick, gnarly and sage-like.
“You see that?” I saw it. “This is it. Those trees understand life. That is life!”
That evening, we drove to the beach and caught a brilliant sunset. “You can see Tunisia on the horizon. Not a bad place to be. Sicilia! The center of the universe!”
Laughter on both ends. “Vero, the center of the universe?”
“Yes…Sicilia…Sciacca…the center of the universe!”
Guess I chose the right place to Couchsurf.
Soon enough, I was in another grandmother’s apartment.
Alessandro had a meeting of chemists to attend in Palermo, so we took a bus there together on Monday. There, I met Luigi, my next WWOOF host. Luigi had meetings of an undisclosed purpose in the city all afternoon, so I had the day to explore.
We went to his mother’s place to drop off my bags. She lived in an apartment right by the station with a plant-filled terrace and incredible views of the city. There was something I instantly loved about this woman (I can’t remember her name cause she was always referred to as Nonna). She was friendly and welcoming without being overbearing, and she spoke slowly and loudly enough for me to converse with her. Once a piano teacher at the nearby consortium, she now taught from home.
“Palermo’s beautiful but it’s just too noisy,” Luigi said as he pointed out points of interest on a city map, “Just try to imagine it without sound when you’re walking.”
It was indeed noisy, though not unbearably so, and beautiful. Like all Sicilian cities, Palermo has a wholly different flavor than northern Italian cities. For starters, it felt more diverse. You could feel the Arabian influence in the archways of Norman-Arab architecture, the markets filled with colorful food and fabrics and districts of little Arabian restaurants to be found between windows of almond sweets and fried rice balls (more on those to come).
Palermo’s many stucco apartment buildings and ancient white and brown stone palaces and churches are nestled between green mountains to the east and west, the sea to the north, and an oddly stunning landscape of rocky hills to the south.
That evening, we headed about 25 km east along the coastline, to my new home in Altavilla.