Sicily, Italy  

  In May, we needed to leave and then re-enter Tunisia to have another four months of legal residence. So we decided to take the ferry to Sicily and stay with friends. Due to the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew in Tunis (left over from the Revolution), our ferry was delayed. It was supposed to depart at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, but ended up rescheduling for 10 a.m. on Sunday morning instead. Or to be precise, we got up at 5 a.m. so that we could arrive two hours earlier than the ferry's scheduled departure time. After having our passports scrutinized at no fewer than six checkpoints between entering the ferry terminal and boarding the ferry, we finally stepped onto the polished marble and granite deck (of course. This is Italy). I don't know if this was an instance of Tunisian Standard Time or Italian Standard Time. Either way, the fact remains that at 1:30 p.m., I was sitting on my top bunk in our little family cabin as Dominique napped on the bottom bunk. There was still no sign of an imminent departure, unless you count the multiple announcements in Italian, English, French and Arabic (so helpful when your child is trying to take his nap in an unfamiliar bed) telling people that the cafeteria was about to close. So it was anyone's guess what time we would actually arrive in Palermo.

Conclusion #1 from our voyage is that I do not like the overnight ferry. At least the overnight ferry as it was accomplished by Grandi Navi Veloci (our ferry company, literally "big fast boats"). It was a boat. And it was certainly big. It might even have been fast once it got out of the harbor. But we took so long to leave Tunis that we ended up arriving in Palermo somewhere in the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately, we were in our own cabin, so we just went to bed at our normal hour. In the middle of the night we were awakened by banging on our cabin door, presumably to let us know that the ferry would be docking soon in Palermo. We dragged ourselves and our children out of bed and stumbled into the corridor to wait with hundreds of other equally disheveled passengers. We finally disembarked over an hour later. We're not sure why they woke us up so early. Italian customs was so quick they didn't even stamp our passports! Luckily, we're here for reasons that have to do with our Tunisian visa, not an Italian one. But still. Isn't the entire rest of the European Union hopping mad over Italy's current border security woes?

However, lest you think that Italy is totally dropping the ball, there was a convoy of nearly a dozen military vehicles lined up inside the gate to the port and bristling with troops. I can only assume that they were there to meet our ship, since there was nothing else going on in the port at that hour of the night. The fatigued army personnel were mostly sitting inside their vehicles in various states of alertness. But they did succeed in passively blocking up the gate so that we were unable to exit through it, and had to drag our bags several blocks to another gate, and then backtrack those same several blocks to arrive at the Cafe where our hotel had helpfully sent our taxi. Have I mentioned yet that it was three in the morning?

Actually, we're not quite sure what time it was. The next morning we went down to breakfast at what we thought was 7 a.m. Tony had cleverly remembered that Europe observes Daylight Savings Time, while Tunisia does not, and accordingly set his watch back while we were still on the ferry. What he had not remembered was the old adage, "spring ahead, fall back." It was actually 9 a.m. Which meant we had even less time for our impromptu whirlwind tour of Palermo than we had thought.

Perhaps it was a blessing that, it being a Monday, all the museums were closed. Except one: the puppet museum! It wasn't exactly an art gallery, but it turned out to be quite fascinating. Puppets are a thriving cultural tradition not only in Sicily, but in Korea, Bali, Indonesia, Japan, Mali, and probably other places too. The most interesting puppets might have been some from Vietnam, which were aquatic. The "stage" the puppeteers use is the surface of the water. They have a regular proscenium like other puppet theaters; it just sits on the surface of a pond (or a flooded rice field). Very weird, but impressive. Especially when it involves multi-jointed dragon puppets undulating in the waves and spouting water at each other. The museum is gearing up to produce a grand chivalric marionette show about Orlando (Italian for Roland). The last room of the museum has hundreds of two-foot-high marionettes dressed in miniature but very real-looking Medieval armor. Tony is already formulating plans to build our own gigantic marionette stage. I think we should build a house first . . .

We have spent half of our time in Italy during the past three years. Nowadays when we have "homesick expat" conversations, usually they revolve around things we miss from Italy. Even though we've never been to Sicily, coming back to Italy is almost like coming home. There are so many little (and big) things we've missed. Like the lovely porticoes. And the ubiquitous marble monuments. And of course, the gelato. We had amazing pasta for lunch yesterday, and delicious Sicilian pizza for dinner. Today we went on one of our familiar Italian picnics, with fresh bread, three kinds of cheese, spek, and an eggplant tapenade. The landscape in Sicily looks different from Piemonte, of course, and even different from Tuscany. But I didn't expect it to seem so unmistakably Italian. It must be that eternal Italian knack for fitting human architecture seamlessly into the landscape. No matter the state of disrepair, Italian buildings look picturesque, whether they were built twenty years ago or two thousand.

As far as I know, all Italians love good food. However, what seems to set Sicilians apart is the sheer quantity of food they love. We went to a restaurant in Agrigento, ordered what we thought was a normal meal, and received four plates, each one containing enough pasta to feed our entire family. Tony had lobster tagliatelle. It was tasty, although I just couldn't shake the feeling that there was a gigantic insect sitting next to his tagliatelle. We also ate gelato four times in the six days we spent there, as well as sundry other sweets.

Agrigento has a lovely cobblestone interior, which we visited with Stathis and Elettra. Tony was very pleased when they offered to introduce us to the Italian practice of aperitivo, since he's only been Italian for two years, and is still working on being authentic. We sat down at an outside cafe with tables in the middle of a cobblestone street. One of the chairs at our table was a wicker pendulum swing. The children took turns in it first, but when our drinks came, I installed them in solider seats and took possession of the swing. Our friends had wine, the children had juice, and we had a non-alcoholic aperitivo that tasted like a mixture of coca cola and grapefruit. Interesting, and not bad, especially with the food, which comes included in the price of a drink. An aperitivo is sort of like a mini-buffet. Ours had salami, artistically filled deviled eggs, strong olives, sun-dried tomatoes (a Sicilian specialty), boconcini (little balls of fresh mozarella), chocolate and parmesan sandwiches (weird, but good), etc. Being a teetotaler, I've never done Happy Hour in the United States, and can't really comment authoritatively on the differences. In Italy, aperitivo doesn't include reduced prices on drinks. In fact, the drinks cost more than normal (although they include the buffet), and people only drink one. The emphasis (as usual, in Italy) is on talking, socializing, and enjoying really good food.

We have now also visited ancient Greece, although we have never left the Italian island of Sicily. I can happily report that "one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe" lives up to its reputation. Magnificently. Even glimpsed from a distance, as we have seen it every day on our walks through the eucalyptus grove near Stathis and Elettra's house, the "Valley of Temples" looked like something so lovely and classical as to seem almost unreal. And actually standing in the shadow of those temples was even more awesome than I had imagined it would be. Ancient Roman ruins impress me, but ancient Greek ruins move me.

I'm not sure whence it derived its name, but strictly (or even loosely) speaking, the Valley of Temples is not really a valley, but more like a ridge. The Greeks, like many other people, including Mormons, typically built their holy places on hills. Hills are, well, holier. Closer to heaven. More awe-inspiring. And easier to defend too, when it comes to that. As apparently it did for Agrigento on multiple occasions. The Temple of Hera, for example (below), still bears fiery traces of the Carthaginian invasion of 406 B.C. Later invasions by the Romans and Saracens also took their toll on the temples. While what still stands is overwhelming, one can only imagine its original glory based on the quantity of huge fallen stones strewn all over the several square kilometers of the "valley." It looks as if giants had been building there.

Axa was most impressed by the colossal temple of Zeus, which was never finished, and has now mostly fallen down, but retains a majestic, ruined grandeur. It once bore a large and detailed wall relief of the battle of Troy (always a winner for Axa), and was held up by a massive statue of Atlas. From outside, the temple now resembles a mountain of massive stones. But a pathway winds in through to its heart, where crumbling steps and rooms suggest half-guessed purposes, and poppies gently toss their heads in an eternal stillness of memory and antiquity.

For Dominique, the main attraction was climbing stairs, hills, and stones, and finding sticks to serve as swords. Miraculously, he only fell down and drew blood twice.

We were fortunate to have with us the best possible person with whom to visit a ruin such as this: a Greek architect (our friend Stathis). He explained the features of the Doric temples, and how the ancient Greeks built every temple with slightly different proportions, in their eternal quest for the most perfect and beautiful shape. In the Temple of Concordia (above), which is the dramatic centerpiece of the site, the space between each of the supporting pillars is slightly different, decreasing as they move toward the corners, to fool perspective and entice the eye into perceiving them as equal in size. The Temple is preserved so well because in the sixth century A.D., in response to a papal edict, it was converted into a Byzantine basilica. The Christians pulled down all the pagan statues, closed up the entrances other than the Western one, and built an inner wall on each side, with twelve arches for the twelve apostles. It looks like the ancient Greeks have the last laugh here, since nobody comes to see it now except to celebrate its rich and glorious pagan-ness.

Last and highest stands the Temple of Hera (above), or what is left of it after the Carthaginians had their way with it, and the Romans remodeled it. Since Hera is the goddess of marriage, it was originally the place where nuptials were celebrated. When I consider the importance placed on marriage and family in my own faith, I can't help but wonder if the elevated placement of the shrine honoring the goddess of marriage had special significance. As we approached the Temple of Hera, we saw a modern bride and groom having photos taken in front of it. It was one of those many moments in Italy when time seems to have stopped aeons ago, and past, present, and future merge into one beautiful, fully-lived now.

Our day was not devoted only to the monumental. We also took some time to enjoy a Mediterranean culinary masterpiece originating in Spain, but perfectly suited to the marine bounty of Sicily. Stathis and Elettra, besides their architectural and artistic talents, are also excellent cooks. They treated us to a lovely and delicious paella, created by themselves (in what they told me was their first attempt, which I had no choice but to believe. I was impressed not only with their culinary prowess, but also with their brilliant audacity in making an untried recipe for guests). Elettra also graciously provided many of the photos below after Tony's photos were eaten by our camera.


Grandi Navi Veloci

inside our cabin

an AMAZING Italian meal... made extra amazing by having eaten only Tunisian food for four months


our Greek friend, Stathis


building the fort

sleeping in the fort

Valley of the Temples

Elletra and her dog, Selly

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