Finding my Family Heritage in Sicily
Growing up as an Italian-American in the United States, I was always curious about my family heritage. I wanted to know what shaped my traditions and made me who I am. I had the opportunity to teach English at a summer camp in Italy, where I stayed in a beautiful beach town, located in Porto Sant’Elipidio, right on the Adriatic Sea. During my stay, I received a Facebook message from my third cousins in Sicily. They had seen that I was in Italy and wanted to meet me. Immediately, I booked a 14 hour bus ride down the Italian coast to Catania, Sicily, to meet them.
The bus was an experience in itself. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, they played old Italian movies on the TV, and people spoke very loudly on their phones. It was overwhelming at first, but I enjoyed it. Once the bus arrived at Messina, we rolled onto a ferry to cross from mainland Italy to Sicily. I couldn’t believe I had made it to the motherland! I was so excited.
The streets of Sicily are busy with groups of friends, young and old, walking together and immersed in conversation. The contrast between ancient ruins and modern buildings is beautiful.
One thing Sicilians are known for is their great hospitality. My family, who I had just met, gave me their master bedroom for the entire week, chauffeured me around, cooked me extravagant meals using ingredients from their garden and made sure I saw every great site nearby. They really made me feel at home.
We first visited the place where my great-grandparents were raised and married. Santa Tecla is a very small town on the Ionian Sea. My great-grandmother’s small cement house still belongs to the family, and stands across the street from the seashore.
On Sunday, we gathered for a family lunch. They made homemade macaroni, bruschetta, tomato salad, fresh veggies, homemade wine, limoncello and, of course, there is always espresso, or café as they call it. I felt very emotional as I ate lunch in the house where my great grandmother was born.
When we got out of the car the ground beneath us was shaking, the loud roar of the volcano was stronger than any thunder I have ever heard and we could see lava spilling out of the mountain and covering the land.
After lunch, we walked down the street to the church where my great-grandparents said their vows, then we stood on the platform where they had faced the sea and dreamed about traveling to the United States. I felt that customs and traditions had trickled down the family line and were passed on to me. I understood my heritage on a deeper level.
Next, we visited Mount Etna, an active volcano. My family comes from a town only 35 minutes from the base of the mountain. On the day we visited, it was erupting. My cousin was excited to stand on top of an active volcano so he drove us an hour and a half up the mountain, to reach the highest point that could be driven to. When we got out of the car the ground beneath us was shaking, the loud roar of the volcano was stronger than any thunder I have ever heard and we could see lava spilling out of the mountain and covering the land. The force of nature was both intense and stunning.
Next we visited one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, a mountain-top city called Taormina. Situated 200 meters above sea level, it is one of Sicily’s most popular destinations, and I could see why. It took 35 minutes to drive to the top, past the ancient stone walls that surrounded the city.]
Sicilians are warm-hearted and full of love for their culture.
Taormina’s narrow cobblestone streets are lined with ancient buildings that have been converted into shops and restaurants, and adorned with colorful flowers. Church bells often rang in the background, and down below, the blue sea sparkled with white yachts. The boutique shops are full of painted ceramics, and decadent pastries caught my eye, along with wine, nuts and other Sicilian delicacies.
To leave Taormina, you must walk under the ancient stone arch that leads either to steps or a lift down the mountain. The beach below is made up of small stones and shells, and the water is perfectly clear. A small island, Isola Bella, is easily accessible by walking through a narrow path of shallow water connecting it to the shore. Isola Bella has been converted into a private home full of exotic plants and winding paths, but it is now open to the public.
Sicilians are warm-hearted and full of love for their culture. Their food is fresh and flavorful yet prepared simply, using homegrown ingredients. I highly recommend trying arancini (rice balls stuffed with mozzarella and sauce, then fried) and granita (a creamy mix of gelato and ice, and served with a sweet bun for dipping). If you ever want to experience a vibrant culture, plan a trip to Sicily and experience the long-kept traditions. Sicilians will be more than happy to welcome you.
Family Heritage Trip: Finding my Family Heritage in Sicily
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Family Heritage Trip: Finding my Family Heritage in Sicily photo credits: Angelina L.