The Temple of Concord in Agrigento's Valley of Temples dates to 440BCE and is one of the world's best preserved Ancient Greek buildings. Its facade may seem familiar as it is the logo of Unesco.
Sicily – Long Read

Stepping stone between Europe and Africa

Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Sicily – Long Read Stepping stone between Europe and Africa

Hello Sicily, the Mediterranean island that hangs off the toe of Italy and that has been a stepping stone between Europe and Africa for centuries. With sunshine, beautiful beaches, historic towns and great food and wine, it welcomes millions of visitors every summer but retains its own unique character.

Karen Glaser
Karen Glaser Travel Writer

“You’re still wearing the same sunglasses! I can’t believe it – you must have them had for, what, 20 years now? Time for a new pair – fashion changes, you know!”

“Fashion is about all that does change round here,” would be the cheap riposte. But I swallow the churlish words and smile instead. A family wedding is not the place to be rude and, besides, I cannot help feeling a tad impressed by Salvatore’s powers of recall. I have not seen my children’s great uncle for five years, and he remembers the Armani shades I wore when I lived here on Sicily in the mid-1990s.

Marcello and Simona, the beaming couple walking down the aisle of the gargoyle-grinning 16th-century Baroque church in Catania, became an item six years after I bought my designer sunglasses. Spanning 12 years, their engagement has been long but by no means unusual in a society where eight or nine years of “fidanzamento” is the norm. And before his relationship with Simona, Marcello was engaged for five years to his first girlfriend, Claudia. The groom is 38 years old and he has been betrothed for 17 of them.

“Why buy the cow when you can milk it for free?” is the loose translation of the time-honored Sicilian proverb Salvatore quotes when I ask him why his nephew has taken so long to tie the knot. He is goading me again, but it is true – for many men here being engaged, while living rent-free in your parents’ home until you are well into your 30s, is a respectable way of putting the responsibility of adulthood on hold.

It is not necessarily such a carefree proposition for women such as Simona, though. Sicily’s extraordinarily long engagements mean women are often pushing 40 before they even try to bring their first child into the world. This could, arguably, be one explanation for Sicily’s declining population where a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman means that deaths now outstrips births.

Our yardstick is beauty

However, when I speak to him the next day, the new husband has another explanation for the long delay. “Neither Simona nor I come from well-off families so, unlike many of our friends, we’ve paid for most of our wedding ourselves. We’ve been saving money for years because we wanted to do it properly, get married with una bella figura.”

Una bella figura: we are back to my sunglasses. Although not limited to Sicily, maintaining a bella figura – making a good impression – runs very deep among the islanders. It explains why even quite ordinary Sicilian homes often have two bathrooms: one for everyday family use, and a pristine hotel-esque chamber for guests, featuring ironed towels, gleaming bottles of perfume and folded toilet paper. It explains why if, like Marcello and Simona, you cannot afford lavish nuptials, you save for years until you can. It explains why if you do not have the wherewithal to buy the happy couple an expensive gift, you decline the invitation to their wedding rather than suffer the ignominy of bringing a modest present. And it explains why if your Armani sunglasses are last season, let alone last century, you should think twice about wearing them to that wedding.

My fellow wedding guest and geologist Aurelio Garbato says la bella figura is about more than appearances. He says there is a moral dimension to this phenomenon and that it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who once conquered and governed the biggest island in the Mediterranean.

“They gave us the idea of kaloskagathos, of beauty and goodness being the same thing. If you say someone is beautiful in Sicily it isn’t only a physical judgment, it is often an ethical one too. We don’t really use the words good or bad to describe people and their actions, we say ‘bello’ or ‘brutto’ (beautiful or ugly). Our yardstick is beauty and the concept encompasses dignity, decorum and righteousness as well as looking lovely.”

I am not sure you can attribute the mindset of a modern populace to an ancient people who left these arid shores more than 2,000 years ago. Greek rule was followed by Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Spanish invasions, among others, and Sicilians often cite these successive conquests of their strategically placed island as explanations for various cultural phenomena such as: ostentation (reason: the excesses of 18th century Spanish rule; and patriarchy (reason: Arab conservatism).

Family before all

But although I think the collective race memory argument is sometimes overstated by Sicilians, there is no doubt that this bride and bridegroom believe they have done the right thing by waiting until they could afford to host what is certainly the most glittering and glamorous wedding I have ever attended. They have achieved kaloskagathos.

With her Dolce & Gabbana lace bridal gown trailing the marble floor of the 15th century frescoed palazzo the couple has hired for the reception, Simona says simply: “We have made our families very proud and very happy. What could be more important than that?”

Nothing, according to Vito Corleone, head of the New York mafia family in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and in Francis Ford Coppola’s films of the same name. The book and movies are, for many, their introduction to the Sicilian mindset. And although Corleone may be a fictional character, and most islanders deplore the mafia, there is certainly nothing imaginary about the centrality of family to Sicilian life: the don’s maxim “family before all” resonates deeply here.

It is not hard to understand why. With unemployment running at almost 20 per cent, youth unemployment at 41 per cent (four times the national rate) an almost non-existent social security system, decades of inefficient public services and centuries of foreign domination and isolation before that, la famiglia is the only institution on which Sicilians feel they have ever been able to rely. “I speak to my mother and father on the phone every day,” says 39-year-old neuropsychologist Daniela Smirni who was born in Catania but who now lives in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. “And when I leave Sicily for work, I miss my family the moment I step off the plane.”

Cristina Simonetta, 35, knows how she feels. Not prepared to be part of the 41 per cent of unemployed youths, she left her native Palermo for a job in real estate services in Milan when she was in her mid 20s. But she still phones Mum every day. “I discuss everything with her. And if I get married, as I hope to, I will always return to my family for advice, support and, I guess, approval. I would never make a significant decision about any aspect of my life without considering how it might affect my family.”

Traditional views hold less sway than they once did

Cristina’s decision to work in north of Italy is another reason I would have been wrong to tell Salvatore that fashion is the only thing that changes here. When I came to Sicily on my own, in 1994, I was asked one question over and over again: where is your family? At the time, it seemed impossible to explain that globetrotting was a respectable pastime for a young graduate curious to discover the world; that because I was alone in Sicily, did not mean I was alone in the world.

Fast forward 20 years, and attitudes have changed. “When you lived here a big part of the adult population had left school before the age of 14. That generation is now mostly in its 70s and their traditional views hold less sway than they once did,” explains Daniela.

“In addition, virtually every young person now goes to university – you just need to have completed high school to go, so it’s quite an attractive option for young people, particularly as it so hard to find a job. As the population gets more educated, people become less insular in their outlook and it is now considered acceptable for individual men and women, rather than whole families as was once the case, to leave Sicily for work and a better life.”

But how does it feel to be a Sicilian living on the Italian mainland? Although Italy has been a nation state since 1861, its 20 regions are culturally quite distinct, and those differences can create tension. It is no secret that many north Italians see themselves as the country’s economic engine and their southern cousins, and Sicilians in particular, as lazy laggards who, via various EU and Rome-administered grants and subsidies, sponge off them.

It’s the system that creates ill feeling

Meanwhile, Sicilians, particularly the 50-plus demographic, are often instinctively suspicious of the intentions of Rome – for them graphically illustrated every time they look at a map and see the island being kicked like a football. But Cristina is not one of them. She understands northern resentment and is grateful for the opportunities Milan has given her.

“A massive 46 per cent of my salary goes in tax, of which half goes to Lombardy – the region where I now live,” she says. “The remaining 23 per cent goes to the Mezzogiorno (the southern regions of Italy) where I do not live. It’s the system that creates ill feeling and I understand why north Italians succumb to it. And I say this as a very proud Sicilian!”

Northern disapproval does not always unite Sicilians, however. Italian regionalism is so marked that it even pits Catanians against Palermitans, and not just on the football pitch, although the beautiful game is certainly a flashpoint between the two cities. “We see each other as representing the opposite ends of the Sicilian character,” says Simona. “In Palermo, where I am from, we’re more cautious and traditional. In Catania, which has the busiest airport in the whole Mediterranean region, people are more business-minded and outward-looking.”

Catania’s alleged openness does not extend to Sicily’s ancient cuisine, however. When I lived in the city, I ate pasta in countless delicious ways: with squid ink; with sea urchins; with borlotti beans and alla norma, the city’s signature dish of penne or spaghetti with tomato sauce, fried aubergines and ricotta salata, a sort of waxy feta that I have never been able to find anywhere other than Sicily. But I had absolutely no idea that over in Trapani, a city and province in Western Sicily, the people’s carb of choice was cous cous. And although you can now find it in health food shops in Catania, the North African grain still has not reached the menus of the city’s many restaurants and trattorie.

We want to be lawyers and doctors

Catania University lecturer Patrick McKeown, who has lived in Catania for 25 years, thinks the real division here is between rural and urban Sicilians. “I teach in the faculty of agriculture and most of my students come from the fertile costal plains where the bulk of Sicily’s citruses, olives and wine grapes are grown,” he says. “Students of other subjects look down on them in a white-collar sort of way, saying, yes, agriculture is very important, but it is not something we want to be involved in. We want to be lawyers and doctors. Meanwhile, for their part, my students still refer to Catania as ‘coming up to town’ and they can’t wait to get home to their villages for the weekend.”

Given that agriculture and tourism account for almost all of Sicily’s international trade, you might think the former would incur a little more respect from the island’s urban types. What’s more, agricultural work here is grueling. The next morning I meet Ignazio. He is from Aci Trezza, a village that lies in the shadow of Mount Etna and he earns his daily bread farming the vast lava fields sloping towards one of Europe’s most active volcanoes. Given his work, he is wearing a rather inappropriate T-shirt.

Sicilia: il lavoro nuoce gravement alla salute. “Sicily: work can seriously damage your health,” says the garment in the style of cigarette packet health warnings. “But just look at your hands,” I want to say, “they are twice the normal size!”

Many people here will tell you that the Sicilian language is twice as rich as Italian. The locals refer to it as “il dialetto” – the dialect – but language is a better description because Sicilian is utterly incomprehensible to other Italians. And although this guttural language has no official status or even standardized spelling, five million Sicilians speak it to varying degrees. And for the significant number of septuagenarians who left school before the age of 11, such as my children’s paternal grandmother, it is the only language they speak fluently.

Sicilian identity is so strong

“It is the language of the home, and is full of flavor for it,” says my friend and construction project manager Francesco Pennisi. “It is visceral, emotional and sometimes one word in Sicilian can replace ten in Italian. Plus, educated Sicilians often spice up a sentence by sprinkling it with a few words of Sicilian – the British equivalent of speaking in a funny accent, maybe.”

Cristina agrees, but thinks this Romance language is also testimony that the “Sicilian identity is so strong. Even though it has never been regulated in any way, and certainly not taught in schools, it has survived for 2,000 years and is spoken by Sicilian communities around the world. It sets us apart from other people.”

That is something most Sicilians welcome. Even though a marked improvement in educational levels over the past two decades has opened minds and encouraged travel for both work and leisure, the conviction remains that Sicily does things best, and that it is often good to be a people apart.

On my last day, I visit Agrigento, an ancient town on the southern coast of Sicily wedged between the rugged mountains and the sea. In the fifth century BC the Greeks built temples out of ochre limestone, and today the crumbling sun-bleached structures are called the Valley of the Temples. I think it is probably the most beautiful place in Sicily.

Sin is taken seriously

After a couple of quiet hours there, I stop off at a bar for an ice cream. “I’ll have a coffee and strawberry cone, please,” I tell the barista. “No,” he replies, smiling but firm. “Have coffee with chocolate, or maybe almond. Or I can give you strawberry with lemon.” How could I have forgotten? Within these shores, you can no more mix a milk-based ice cream with a fruit-flavored one, than you can order a cappuccino after a meal. They are sins against the stomach and, in incontrovertibly Catholic Sicily, sin is taken seriously.

“There is an order to things here,” explains Salvatore when I call him later, even though I know he will think the joke is on me. “Having dinner at 8pm, and not before, is something we look forward to. Drinking a cappuccino in the morning when your stomach is empty makes sense. There are rules of what to eat and when, and life is more comfortable for it.”

There are also, he might have added, rules of what to wear and what not to. Such as 20-year-old sunglasses.

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