Friday, April 29, 2011

The market

Every Thursday is market day in our neighbouring town Ribera. We’ve been there a couple of times and have realized that if there is one place in Sicily where you can find almost anything, it’s at the market. At seven o’clock in the morning, the Sicilian women (because yes, the clients are almost entirely women) get there in order to get the freshest produce and the best deals. Apart from all types of vegetables, fruits, dried fruits, nuts, olives, fish, meat and cheeses there is also a huge selection of clothes, shoes, underwear, kitchen wear, lamps and all sorts of knick-knacks that are offered for ridiculously low prices.

Aside from a few items of clothing we haven’t really found many things to our taste, but it is still a great spectacle to witness… and maybe we’ll find that elusive bargin if we just get up early enough next time.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Italian TV

It’s raining today, which is good for the farmers, but less so for us. During this kind of weather our first instinct is to curl up on a sofa with a good book or to watch something on TV. Unfortunately, both of these activities are difficult here in Italy: we don’t have a sofa and Italian TV is one of the weirdest, and in our opinion worst, parts of the Italian culture.

Most nights when we’re at home we flip through the channels, hoping to find something worth watching. From previous experience we know that TV can be a wonderful gateway for understanding a new culture, and for improving language skills. Especially if (like here in Italy) they dub all foreign programs into their own language.

Unfortunately, on the eight or nine channels we have access to, movies and series are rare, so we are mostly stuck with the choice of Italian talk or entertainment shows. Both of which dominate the Italian TV landscape.

To our foreign eyes they are not so much entertaining as they are shocking. No matter if it is an entertainment show with music and artists, a quiz show or even a science show – they all have one element in common; “sexy” Women. They are preferably dressed in tight, short and bright coloured dresses, revealing their long legs that always end in 10 cm high heels. They all seem to have long, wavy hair, lots of make up and most of them put on the same high-pitched and giggly voice when they talk.

The well dressed male hosts (most of which are at least one head shorter then the female co-participants) always seem to have an air of “lilla gumman” (or poor darling) when addressing the long legged amazons. On one particular show these “sexy” women are put on the spot with questions that are supposed to reveal how ignorant they are. Various fun scientific phenomena are explained and demonstrated, then three or four women, sometimes in only a bra and a see through top, are asked to guess answers to related questions. From their responses it’s impossible to believe that they were selected for their scientific knowledge.

Then there’s the quiz show, where in between the questions the camera turns to a group of 7-8 bikini dressed women doing some aerobic/dancing number. There’s another quiz show where the seemingly mandatory dance-break involves a woman gyrating alongside the computer generated avatar of the male host.

The commercials don’t give any respite from the onslaught. It’s not just that the gender roles are seemingly cemented in the 1950s, but they have made objectifying women into some kind of an unholy art form. They are multiple adverts where nearly-naked women frolic next to fully dressed men, in such an extreme way that you imagine it must be a parody - unfortunately no punch-line gets delivered.

Perhaps the most popular TV host in Italy is a bald, portly, middle-aged man called Gerry Scotti. Currently he hosts the Italian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the “Guinness World Record Show”. The ad-breaks during his shows are dominated by adverts where he is the celebrity spokesperson. It was very confusing for us at first, as it seemed like we were just watching a strange segment of the show. In one advert he’s talking about holiday plans with his friend, and the friend mentions that he can’t go on a beach holiday because of his wife’s cellulite, the host counters that they could, if she applied this new cream on her thighs. Then the image turns to the TV behind them showing a young bikini-clad woman sensually applying cream to her thighs and bottom. The advertising regulators in Italy clearly have a different set of standards than you see in other parts of the world!

We don’t think of ourselves as prudes, it’s just that the portrayal of women in TV shows here is so far from the equality standards we’re used to, that we actually find it disturbing. So our plan is to limit our viewing to dubbed movies and the news.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sicilian style

Easter is a very important celebration here in Sicily, perhaps even more so than Christmas. The tradition implies that everyone dresses up in their best clothes, possibly attends a church service and then heads to the nearest town or village to watch the Easter parade. After the parade they head home for a feast meal among friends and family including lamb, pasta and tortes or cakes. For our friends at the pasticceria this means that it’s one of the busiest days of the year, so we asked if we could lend them a helping hand.

As we got to the pasticceria the place was buzzing with customers, cakes, tortes and the now familiar smell of fresh pastry and vanilla. We thought that we’d woken up early (to the sounds of an 8 canon salute at 8 o’clock), but they had been up since 3am creating the wonderful cakes and pastries.

We tried to help out as much as we could without being in the way, keeping the place tidy, arranging new sweets on the display and packing the ones that were ready for the customers. The highlight for A was to be a barista, using their industrial size espresso machine to make coffees for thirsty customers, whilst “mini” was charming everybody smiling in her daddy's arms.

After a few hours at the pasticceria, we were told that the parade was approaching and that we shouldn’t miss the spectacle. It didn’t take long before the roads started filling with people, almost all dressed in black, awaiting the different banners from local churches and schools and the stars of the show; the statues of St. Miguel, Mary and Jesus.

As the parade approached the crowds applauded and even the smallest children were caught up in the festive atmosphere, clapping and chanting on their parents shoulders.

People followed the parade on its route through the town until a huge mass of people were gathered in the center. Then everyone waited expectantly for the statues of Mary, Jesus and St. Miguel to arrive from three different directions for the “l’incontro” – or the meeting.

It was a strange and interesting sight to see the Easter story acted out by statues carried at shoulder height, in the middle of a crowded town. Yet again we managed to be completely underdressed for the occasion, and stood out like sore-thumbs in the crowd of immaculately dressed Sicilians! No-one seemed to mind though; they were all too busy cheering at the statue of Jesus and we were happy to have experienced our first Pasqua Sicilian style. Happy Easter!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Palermo, second time around

The road between Sciacca and Palermo is relatively new, making it a pleasure to drive on compared to most of Sicily. It smoothly winds its way between beautiful hills and across picturesque plains, before finally descending into the large valley that barely manages to contain a spralling Palermo.

The calmness of the journey ends appruptly when you enter the outskirts of Palermo. The road markings disappear, and you find yourself four cars wide on a road wide enough for three. After fighting your way into the center of the city, the next challenge is to find somewhere to park. The Italians seem to take pride in being the worst car parkers in the world. If there are parking lines you can guarantee that cars will be everywhere but in between them. We have seen double and even triple parked cars on main streets. Driving and parking in Palermo is not for the faint of heart!

We began our exploration of Palermo on the main shopping street, Via Roma, but not before sitting down for an Italian breakfast of cappucino and filled croissants at a small café just off the main street.

The selection of shops in Palermo is considerably larger than any of the other towns in Sicily, making it a great place to blow some spending money, especially if you're looking for trendy teenage fashion, shoes or interior decoration.

After a couple of hours shopping we sat down to lunch at the cute little café we visited for coffee last time we were here. The pasta was excellent and the Tiramisu sublime.

After lunch we headed off to the habour and for a walk along the sea-front and ended our visit in Palermo after a stroll around the historic center, including a stop at the famous Piazza Pretoria.

We got back home just in time to watch a firey red sun sink below the horizon, a perfect ending to yet another wonderful day

Monday, April 18, 2011

Family and friends

We’ve loved our first month here, where it was mostly about the three of us discovering new people, places and experiences. Now it feels like that first phase is coming to an end, and a new phase of sharing what we’ve discovered is beginning. Family and friends will come to stay with us at regular intervals until the end of our time here in Sicily. Our first guests arrived last Thursday and they have allowed us to experience the beauty of this place with fresh eyes all over again.

We’ve been eating the wonderful spread of antipasti at the local restaurant and saw the same expressions of pleasure on their faces as they tried all the local delicacies for the first time. We’ve been to the sea-side and saw the same reactions upon seeing the endless stretch of azure blue. We’ve been to the nearby towns and recognized the same looks of disbelief about the narrow streets without pavements and the crazy driving. We also introduced them to our friends at the Pasticceria, who immediately treated them as their own family with jokes, lots of dolci, coffees and home made ice cream.

Since it would be a shame for them not to see any of the historic sites we recommended that they take a trip to the Valley of the Temples. Today they decided to explore a little further a field on their own and have taken a daytrip to Mount Etna. Tomorrow we’re all going to visit Palermo to do some shopping and enjoy coffees and Cassata whilst watching the world go by.

Mini has been slightly confused by the sudden addition of new people to the house and when she’s tired our arms are now the only safe place to be. Apart from that she seems to have enjoyed all the attention and the new playmates so much so that according to her play-time should start at 7am and not 10am like usual. But who minds that when there is wonderful Italian coffee to grab once the missed sleep makes itself noticed?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cena a la Svedese et Inglese

We’ve been invited for lunches, dinners and parties so many times by our friends at the pasticceria, so we decided it was time to return the hospitality. Since none of the family had been to Sweden and they hadn’t tried Swedish food, we thought it would be a good, although risky, idea to serve a Swedish inspired menu for the evening.

After hunting for smoked salmon, brown toast bread and caviar in some Italian supermarkets we were surprised to find that a German chain had a “Scandinavian week”, which meant we found Swedish meatballs and marinated herring among their normal products. The only thing on our list that we couldn’t find was lingonberry jam.

Since Sicilians are not used to have big dinners with several courses at night (who can blame them after their 4-5 course lunch?) we had to explain that Swedish evening consists of an entrée, a hot dish and then a dessert.

They were surprised since they thought that the salmon toast they had in front of them would be enough, with a salad and some fruit. They enjoyed the entrée so much that the mum insisted on writing down all the ingredients for the sauce and the presentation. Before we served the second course, we dared them all to try some marinated herring with onion or mustard, and the reaction after eating the sweet-sour fish was quite amusing. Lots of grimaces and funny faces - they said it was too sweet and that the combination of sweet and fish was very odd. We gave them credit for being brave and trying something so foreign to them.

The main dish of meatballs, mashed potatoes and sauce was appreciated much more than the herring; with the mashed potato being a particular hit. We apologised for not having the necessary lingonberry jam to go with it, but they just seemed relieved to avoid having more sweet in their savoury.

After happily finishing off the main, they put our fruit basket and two huge trays of dolci (which they had brought) on the table. We smiled at their carefree gesture but assured them that we had prepared some dessert specially, this time with an English background. Before we introduced the desert, we made sure that they understood that we didn’t make any attempts to even compare our skills with the ones of a great pastry chef and explained that the mousse au caramel (Angel Delight) is something of an English institution. They all seemed to like it, but they couldn’t resist trying a few dolcis afterwards, and who can blame them?

Feeling stuffed but happy, we continued the evening talking and laughing until close to midnight. Good food, good friends, good times.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Back to basics

Since we’ve been here for almost a month, we were thinking that it might be a good idea to share a little bit of how our every day life is. Many of our nearest and dearest know that before we moved here, were looking for a place in a village, not in a town or city, where we could try living the simple life in Sicily. That’s exactly what we were fortunate enough to get!

The house itself is a simple two story building on the side of a hill, overlooking olive and lemon trees in the garden and the rolling hills behind. The house is still under development by the owner, so only the first floor is in a livable condition, but we can see that it has great potential, especially because of its beautiful placement. It lies outside the village of Calamonaci and has only a few neighbours a bit further up the road.

One of the more amusing facts is that it doesn’t have an address, which always puzzled us, since we are dependent on the “commune” to supply us water to our water-tank, and therefore order it, but without an address! Luckily, the tabbachi owner in town knows the procedure, so every so often a little water truck pulls up outside and fills up our water tank in the garden. I don’t think we’ve ever been so aware of our water consumption as we are now that we can see how much two adults and a little baby actually use for every-day living.

Since it gets quite cold indoors at night, even in the mild Sicilian winter, the house has a wood burning stove and some electrical heaters, which we used frequently when we first arrived. This meant we had to learn how to make and maintain a fire in the stove; choosing the right placements for the wood, the kindling and the fire lighters. Tips about this from the grandparents were extremely useful. We also had to find the right person to order and buy wood from and do it all in Italian. Now that the weather is warmer, our new fire-making skills are no longer required, but we’ve been told that the weather here can change rapidly, so we don’t yet dare to put all the wood outside.

Most of the Sicilian homes we’ve seen (from actually being there or just peaking in from the street) have the kitchen as the entrance and heart of the house, but lack a living room. This is also the case for our house; meaning all our spare time in the evening is spent around the huge kitchen table, trying to watch Italian TV (that demands its own blog post) or reading.

The kitchen is basic but for food lovers like us, the huge gas stove is a real treat - until the gas runs out that is! When this happened another neighbour supplied us with a gas canister that we asked him to install, since that felt a little bit too dangerous to be handled by rookies from the big city.

So it seems that for most things to work here, you’re dependent on knowing the right people. We’ve seen this with our friends at the pasticerria, who pointed out the best fruit and veg stand, the best fish market, the best shops, hairdresser and seamstress. Though even on our own we’ve found that people’s kindness and generosity, plus their curiosity about us and especially our little one makes it easy to start conversations and find things out.

One of our neighbours owns sheep, and he had to hold back his sheep-dogs every time we walked by to stop them from attacking us. Little by little he inquired who we were and was happy to hear that a young couple from abroad found his little corner of the earth interesting enough to move to for three months. Now, not only he has become more and more friendly, but he also turned out to be the best supplier for wonderful fresh made ricotta cheese and pecorino, which he brings us about once a week for almost nothing.

People here generally don’t seem to be too strict with payments. By this we mean that if you don’t have the exact change for the baker, you are most welcome to come back another day and pay. And if you’re considered friends, like we are with the family at the pasticceria, it’s almost impossible for you to pay for anything. We’ve tried everything, from reasoning to sneaking euros under the pastry-tray, all with no success.

Another thing that we still haven’t really figured out is the shop and restaurant opening hours. The fact that they are all closed for the siesta between one and four is something we learned very early on, but then there are so many exceptions for when they are completely closed that we still keep turning up to the shops when the shutters are down, yet again. Until now we’ve figured out that everything except for restaurants and coffee shops are closed on Sundays, but in their turn they get to choose another day a week when they are “chiuso”. Wednesdays all food shops seem to be closed, at least in the afternoon, and for pharmacies and clothes shop there is a completely different schedule. Frustrating!

The Sicilians also have some unusual dress codes. For events that in Sweden or England would normally require casual or smart, Sicilians seem to opt for track suits or very comfortable clothing, even pyjamas. On other occasions, when we would keep it more low key, such as going out for pizza, they like to dress up and have a common understanding that it should be “black and tight” for women, and suits for men. We still get confused by this, so we’ve managed to feel both terribly under and overdressed. But hey, we’re still learning!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Road Trip – part II (Siracusa)

We arrived in Siracusa just before lunch-time, so our thoughts immediately turned to finding food. We decided it might be nice idea to find a supermarket and have a picnic lunch outside in the sunshine. However, the center of Siracusa is protected by a seemingly impenetrable ring-road followed by a labyrinth of one-way streets and unsigned roundabouts, making finding a supermarket, or even somewhere to park, much harder than we expected. We were not even sure where the center was since no signs pointed to it as it had done in other cities, and the best indications we had were based on some more trafficked streets, which we hoped were the main ones. After several tours in the car we finally manage to find a parking space and even a supermarket, where we grabbed some local delicacies to enjoy in the sunshine. After also feeding mini we realised that our guesses for finding the sites in this town were not sufficient so as we grabbed a quick coffee in a near-by bar and asked for directions to the historic center.

The historic center in Siracusa is situated on a small island called Ortigia, which separates the city’s two harbours. The old-town was built by the Greeks, who started with the construction of a huge temple to honour Apollo in the 6th-century BC. The temple is the oldest example of the Doric style in Europe, and is an impressive sight as you first enter the island.

The rest of Ortigia is almost as impressive, with its twisty cobbled streets and huge piazzas. The city’s Cathedral dominates Piazza Domo with an imposing Baroque façade and the original columns from a 6th-century monument to Athena still visible as part of the north wall.

The next destination on our list was the Archaeological Zone, which lies just north of the main city-center. A twenty minute walk in the afternoon sunshine and we were there. The main attraction of the Archaeological Zone is the Greek Theatre, built in the 5th-century BC. Perhaps unbelievably, the theatre is still used for performances of classical Greek pieces, but unfortunately for us they only put on shows in even-numbered years.

A stone’s throw from the Greek Theatre is a Roman Amphitheatre, which whilst smaller and less well maintained than its Greek neighbour, is still impressive in its own right.

The Archaeological Zone also includes a huge quarry where most of the stone used to build Siracusa was excavated from. Around the edges of the quarry lie large grottos carved out of the stone, the most famous of which is ‘The Ear of Dionysius’. Luckily it wasn't the 'Eye of Dionysius' since we had to change "mini" on a bench just outside this cave.

We could have wandered around the site for at least another hour, but evening was fast approaching and we had to find our way to our next B&B, which we thought was on the outskirts of Siracusa. We weren’t looking forward to tackling the horrific one-way system again, but our experience on the way in had given us some idea of the layout and we were able to escape the center without too much hassle. Twenty minutes later and we arrived at the appropriately named Dolce Casa and “mini” was glad to finally escape the car. We were welcomed by the friendly owner with cool home made blood orange juice waiting for us in the room with its own patio towards the lush garden.

After playing around in the room with “mini” for a little we inquired about a good local restaurant and were directed to the Pharao, where we all enjoyed a lovely meal in a beautiful setting, overlooking the sea. After a good night’s sleep and another delicious breakfast, unfortunately our trip was coming to an end. We headed back out on the road for the long journey home.

Even if it takes more planning and less spontaneity to travel with a baby, we were sure that we would do this again if we ever come back to Sicily. But for right now, we were just looking forward to getting back to our Sicilian home and to enjoy the sea and the sun for a while.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Road trip – part I (Licata, Gela and Ragusa)

Three weeks into our stay here, we had already managed to explore most of the towns and villages in the area, so we started casting our glances further a field. The weather is beautiful at the moment and we still have some time before our first guests arrive, so we decided to take a road trip to the south-eastern part of the island. After making a basic travel plan and booking at two B&Bs (Bed & Breakfast) along our route, we headed off on Monday morning towards the city of Ragusa, which according to the guidebook was worth stopping at.

After a short break for a picnic lunch in Licata, which thanks to our friends at the pasticerria contained some delicious left-overs from Sunday’s feast, we decided to head on immediately since there wasn’t much to see apart from a nice town hall. Unfortunately “mini”, who had just felt a little bit of freedom outside the car, let us know that she wasn’t prepared for another drive, so after half-an-hour of elevated decibel levels in the car we decided to take another break in Gela. This town was slightly bigger, but just as dull, especially since we couldn’t find any places for Gela-to that were open. After an hour spent playing in the local park, we got back in the car, but not before phoning our B&B host to let him know that we were in Gela and about an hour away from Ragusa. ”Ok, so you’ll be here in two hours” he said, which we put down to him misunderstanding where we were, as it couldn’t possibly take that long to travel such a short distance. We smiled and drove off.

One hour later we were still smiling as we reached the outskirts of Ragusa, thinking that we would arrive to our destination way before his prediction. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on Ragusa being a) divided into two smaller towns, Ragusa & Ragusa Ibla (where we were staying) and b) the sign-posts being some of the worst we had ever come across. So after winding our way into the main city, being thrown off our map for road works and ending up on tiny serpentine hill roads, we finally made our way down into a valley and then back up the other side to the Ibla, situated on a hill top.

There, with a screaming “mini” in the back seat, it took about three tours on the same road, two circles around the little town and some guidance from a local, before we dared to go up on a ridiculously tiny road (or ramp) into the core of the old city. 500 meters later and with about 5 cars waiting patient behind, we were stuck, since there was no way we could take the ninety degree left turn necessary to get into the “road” where the B&B was. So we parked the car as much out of the way as we could manage and walked to the charming little B&B, definitely arriving two hours after we left Gela.

Thanks to guidance from the very friendly host we were able to block traffic and manoeuvre the car around the ninety degree corner, with at least five centimetres to spare on each side of the car. After unloading all our belongings (it’s difficult to travel light with a ten month old baby) we headed off into the old town to look around and find somewhere for a meal.

After a good night’s sleep and a nice Italian breakfast with cappuccino, brioches and yoghurt looking over the patio and a lush lemon tree we continued our journey towards Siracusa, the city famous for its ancient history, archeological remains and being the birthplace of Archimedes.