By Dianne Gallagher
My husband, and love of my life, is Sicilian. Or to be more accurate, he is Sicilian-Canadian, but as he is only one generation away from the old country, he feels the pull of the ancients perhaps more strongly than those of us whose families have been in Canada for multiple generations. As Nick and I are now creeping closer and closer to being ancients ourselves, we try to spend more and more time in the land of his ancestors. What did we do to accomplish this? Why, the logical thing. Along the lines of Francis Mayer, we bought a one-hundred-year-old stone house in a little village in the mountains of Sicily. Every summer, we pack up our lives and climb on Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways or whichever carrier is the cheapest that year and fly our way, eventually, to Palermo’s Punta Raisa Airport.
There is no feeling quite like that of circling Punta Raisa. On one side are the sparkling diamonds that float on the surface of the brilliantly azure Mediterranean, reflecting back the golden sun that sits proudly on his throne in the equally brilliant Sicilian sky. On the other side stands Mount Pellegrino glowing her warm terracotta colours over the tarmac waiting for us to touch down. Every summer, Nick and I wriggle impatiently like roly-poly puppies, unable to contain our excitement at being back again on this island that captures our hearts over and over again.
Whenever we return to our village, Cianciana, we feel in many ways, as if we had never left. The house is invariably in tip-top shape. Somehow, the windows and doors manage to keep out the dust and sand that blows across the sea from the Sahara, although the pigeons invariably leave their mark on both terrazze. Last year, in fact, the wind had blown open the door to the shed holding the water tanks at the top of the house and three pigeons had made their way inside. Nick managed to shoo one of them out fairly quickly but the other two hunkered down in a corner and it took days for them to get out. Not super high on the evolutionary intelligence chain, those birds. Yet, somehow incredibly successful as a species. Maybe intelligence is over-rated?
Part of the charm of coming back to a small, friendly town like Cianciana is that everyone remembers you. People that we had interacted with in our first Sicilian summer, people I never expected to remember us, came up and said hello and welcome back and how long are you here for… It is a very warm feeling to know that we have made our own small mark in this town. This year, when we got off the bus from Palermo, the first person we saw was Angelo, from the Bar San Antonio. He smiled, waved and welcomed us back to Cianciana. We sat down and ordered two arancini – delicious and savory rice balls. As we sat on the street, bags tucked beside our table, Franca and Pat came down the road and met us, proclaiming that now we had arrived, summer had officially started. We are part of a community of Sicilians and Italians, Canadians, Brits, Poles and Americans, people from Belgium, France, Ireland, Denmark and oh so many other places. It is one of the gifts of such a place that we are welcomed into the global community.
Part of the first week is always about getting caught up with friends and finding out how everyone has spent the past 10 months. Who got married, had a baby, died, moved? Who is on the outs with whom and who has taken over the family business? Who are the new foreigners in town? Which houses have sold? Which businesses have moved premises? And, most importantly, how are all our friends faring. On the first Sunday last year, Nick and I bumped our car down Doug’s driveway. Doug is an expat from Vancouver – another Canadian in Cianciana. He and his brother bought seven acres of trees – olives, lemons, oranges, pomegranates – and a dilapidated little house. Well, the house is no longer dilapidated, the driveway that was once almost impassable is now paved and they have even built a small swimming pool. We made our trek to his house to invite him to join us on a drive to Sciacca.
Sciacca is a port city, the largest city in the region of Agrigento, with a marina filled with fishing boats. It is famous for two things really: ceramics and incredibly fresh fish. And Jon Bon Jovi’s dad. He was born and raised in Sciacca. Not really a huge tourist draw, I’m thinking. What took us to Sciacca on that Sunday, however, was the fish. A fresh fish dinner in Sciacca had been on my to do list ever since our first visit, two years ago, and on that particular day, we decided to make it happen.
We followed the road down to the dock. Restaurants abound everywhere in Sicily and Sciacca is no different. In the block from where we parked our little rented Fiat 500 to the fishing boats, we passed three restaurants ranging from a little mom and pop (mamma e papá) place to what was obviously a high end and quite expensive establishment complete with waiters in white shirts, black vests and bow ties serving wine on the terrazza to Armani suited patrons. Not exactly our style. The best way to find a good restaurant, of course, is to ask someone local, and the best way to find a good fish restaurant is to ask a local fisherman.
Two fishermen tossing huge bags of ice from a truck up onto the deck of their fishing vessel pointed us to Ristorante Porto San Paolo. Our gaze followed theirs up to a restaurant at the top of a rock immediately beside us. As I said, who better to trust about a fish restaurant than a fisherman?
It was everything I hoped for. The view was stunning, the fish was very good and the company was pleasant. Our waiter even spoke English, of a sort. And the English menu was filled with various odd translations of either the names or descriptions of Sicilian fish dishes. For the most part, we were able to figure out what each one meant until we got to Crazy Salad. That was it. No other description, just Crazy Salad. Nick called the waiter over and asked (in something close to Sicilian) what is Crazy Salad? The waiter responded in something close to English: Radicchio, tomatoes, mushrooms, mozzarella, pecorino, and… mice. Mice? Surely he didn’t mean… mice? I asked the waiter, Mice??? Certo? Sí, sí. Mice, mice. Okay. I’m up for a challenge. Un Crazy Salad per favore.
Now, you have to understand, I am fine with spiders. Snakes don’t bother me at all. Lizards running up and down the wall, I find rather cute. But rodents? No, I am not fond of mice, rats or anything of that ilk. I’m the ‘jump on the table screaming’ type when it comes to mice. So why did I order the Crazy Salad with Mice? Only the ancient Sicilian gods know. Perhaps I like to live on the edge. No, that’s definitely not it. Momentary fit of madness? More likely.
As I sat and watched Nick and Doug sip their wine and talk about house renos and Sicilian bureaucracy, I fixated on my Mice Salad. Would the mice come laid out across the top of the radicchio? Would there be little morsels hidden within the salad? Would there be little deep fried mice drumsticks? My anxiety level was growing. What if I couldn’t face it? Could I pick through the salad and just leave the mouse McNuggets on the side? Would that be rude? What is the etiquette for a mouse salad? Nick, knowing my aversion to rodents, had simply raised his eyebrows at me when I’d ordered but wisely said nothing when I defiantly met his gaze. However, he knew me well enough to know what I was thinking.
When the waiter came out of the kitchen carrying our plates of food, Nick quietly began singing the Jaws theme song… dum dum…dum dum…dum dum… and then just before the waiter arrived a quick crescendo of dum dum daaaaa! The waiter placed our fish dishes on the table and my salad in front of me. I smiled wanly at him, picked up my fork and started fishing through the salad for bits of rodent. Well, there was definitely radicchio. Mushrooms. Mozzarella. Corn. Wait. Corn? The waiter hadn’t said corn. And what is corn in Sicilian? Mais. OMG. The ball dropped. It wasn’t MICE that the waiter had said but MAIS. I had been having a panic attack over a CORN salad. Nick sat smirking beside me. He knew exactly what the salad was and exactly what I had been thinking. “Don’t…say…a word.” I muttered to him under my breath and took a mouthful of what was a very uneventful CORN salad.
Diane Gallagher divides her time between Sicily and Vancouver Island. She is a freelance writer, novelist and poet, a social justice activist and retired teacher-librarian. She publishes under both Diane Gallagher and Diane Cacciato. Her first book Greenwich List is available on Amazon. She recently finished her second The Bastard of Saint Genevra and is currently working another novel, as well as a collection of flash fiction.