Forget about “The Godfather”
Ihave found the Mary Poppins of the Bed & Breakfast business. She is Carmen and manages Il Labrintino B&B in Syracuse, Sicily where I was staying for a song. She runs up and down the three flights of marble (no hand rail) stairs as if un-ruled by gravity. The day before this, breakfast was in a palatial four star hotel in Taormina, Sicily about two hours north of here.
Today it is in a crammed semi-porch structure only steps from my room. Yes. I wore my PJ’s possibly to the horror of French tourists. “Mon dieu,” these Americans are a disgrace. I am usually a late riser, but since I am nine time zones from home, I have been getting up early. My interior clock has no balance and no idea what early or late is. Eventually, I will pay for this with a serious case of jet lag when I return to El Centro.
No cappuccino at the B&B but gallons of cafe au lait: half coffee and half hot milk. After a few of these, I feel like I could fly. Croissants, yogurt and blood red orange juice. And I don’t have to do the dishes. Sicily grows lots of citrus including blood red oranges along with lemons, plus zillions of olives. I was chastised one night by a Boris Karloff-like waiter for speaking tortured French in a restaurant. This is Italy after all, but here in the B&B all languages are OK. Communication, however, stumbles. I end up saying something in fractured French like, “yes, I prefer eating socks with French tomato paste.” Puzzled looks all around, but Carmen just smiles and offers more cafe au lait. See. She is the Mary Poppins of Sicilian B&B’s.
I have been reading about ancient Sicily, a Greek colony 700 years B.C., so I can blame this wanderlust on books. The most recent book, though, is about the mafia and is set in the 1980s and 90s. It has the colorful title, “Excellent Cadavers,” referring to the messages the mafia would send by killing government officials, often police and prosecutors. In the 1990s the mafia blew up the highway from the airport to kill Giovanni Falcone, a tireless prosecutor who was building an integrated case against the bad guys. In the main cathedral in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, there is a display about a parish priest who was sent to a particularly poor area to assist youth. He was slain by the mafia since he was perceived as a threat to their local influence. He has been beatified by the Catholic church, the step before sainthood. The mafia has not gone away; it has gone underground smuggling immigrants from Africa. Those who died fighting it are now revered as heroes in Sicily. In Corleone, the starting point for Mario Puzo’s, “The Godfather,” there is an anti-mafia museum. Yet, mafiosi still live in the town. Sicily’s relationship with the mafia has changed but not disappeared.
As an American, I had been too steeped in identifying Sicily as the home of the mafia and not much else. Instead what I found is an island with the friendliest and most open people I have met. In Rome and or Copenhagen, we are just another tourist. In Sicily, people invited me into their shops, posed for photos, helped me get bus tickets, shared their stories, and displayed a warmth that seems so rare in the age of selfies and income inequity. The Sicilian people have not lost the ability to spend time talking face to face. And you must learn to use your hands, otherwise, you are barely heard. As with all of Italy, food is important. And what food! Sicily is rich in vegetables and seafood. I’d guess the unofficial first dish is eggplant parmigiana followed by sardines in pasta. I was in heaven. On the way back from the restaurant, I’d stop in for a cannoli. The server would make it there in the café. But everybody walks, and the food is healthy. Even the cannoli is made with low fat ricotta cheese. Buono appetito.