Sicily for My Father with Snow in Rome

Car Parked Sideways Overnight

Catania   When I returned from various countries where he had never been, my father used to ask me to tell him what he would like to know about what I might have seen or done.  I still keep an eye out for him and here’s some of what I would have reported if I were sitting in his den in New Orleans.

Of course I would have to mention having seen Mt. Etna erupt, since that doesn’t happen every day or just anywhere, and it was in fact a dangerous, but beautiful sight to see as the red flames jumped up in the dark night pouring lava against the snow capped mountain side, as we drove from Catania back to Paterno that night.  Smoke billowed everywhere.

But, he would have been much, much more interested in the stories about the blood oranges raised in the orange groves all around Etna that are virtually unique to this patch of Sicily compared to the rest of the world.  In Palermo I poured myself a glass of red liquid that turned out to be orange juice to my surprise.  It was delicious!  The oranges on the tree start to have a red tint and when you peel them open some of the sections are as red as they can be.  My friend, Paolo Guarnaccia, is an agronomist at the University of Catania, and explained to me that they were produced in a certain season based on the combination of cold air at night and warm air during the day, making them unique to hillsides of this 10,000 foot stratovolcano.

Blood Orange Grove -- Sicily has a California climate

Paterno is a city serving farms and these farms are all about oranges.  My dad and his family were raised in the orange groves around Tustin, Santa Anna, and Orange, California where my grandfather was the foreman on an orange ranch.  Seeing the gas fired smudge pots, as my dad would call them, in the middle of restaurants in Paterno, I asked Paolo what they did in the groves when it got this cold here, and I told him about the stories my dad would tell of all of the kids being pulled out to keep the smudge pots fired up when there was the threat of a freeze so they wouldn’t lose the trees.  He said that a bunch of outfits with EU money had sold a lot of the farmers big fans for that purpose, which were supposed to do the trick, but most had abandoned that technique at this point.  Paolo who also specializes in organic farming and makes small sales of marmalade from his farm (which I have taken back to my mother and my own family to rave reviews!) tears his hair out in frustration that despite the fact that the blood oranges here are even healthier in terms of anti-oxidants many of the farmers with misguided support from the regional government at different times have pushed them to grow oranges that are, well how else can I say it, more orange-like, which means more yellowish than red.  I would have thought given the health craze everywhere that blood oranges would have been an export craze from this area of Sicily putting big euros in the pockets of farmers, but there is no sign of it.

Staying in the central square one sees a lot of the farmers.  They congregate early in the morning for a fast espresso and conversation and again after dark for the same reasons, huddled in groups of twos, threes, and more to talk about the crop.  Many of the people living in Paterno have a half-hectare (about an acre?) in the countryside where they have a couple of oranges or something growing.   It was fascinating to watch the coffee bars operate and the baristas (all men!) work the machines that could sometimes make up to eight cups at one time, while folks crowded up to the bar and drank their espresso standing, paid their 80 cents, and went out to the street.  Of course all of the coffee bars are also liquor bars, which is also fascinating.

Other oddities…

  • The lack of pretense about parallel parking means that drivers simply point the nose of the car into the space, get out, walk away, and leave it for the night.  In the morning I could see a mishmash of cars parked randomly, nose at the curb, rear in the street.
  • The antipasto course which here can sometimes have up to 10 different plates and would be a full meal in the states, but is followed by the 1st course (pasta) and the 2nd if you’re able to do it (meat or fish), and on and on and on.  A lunch like this is more than the daily meal!  Bread is bought by the kilo not by the loaf.  Furthermore, the servings are ENORMOUS.  Not sure how people do it?
  • Lawyers in waiting – praticanti avvocati — is a special job category, and many of our friends and movement activists filled this role.  Seems after law school a young lawyer has to spend up to 3 years in an unpaid “practicing” role before they can get a job as a lawyer where they are supposed to learn how the law really works as raw, exploited labor, I assume.
  • In Paterno cigarette machines are built into the side of walls to accommodate the heavy smoking that still exists here.  Turned out that one of the recent “reforms” has been that the machines have to electronically read your ID first to make sure you are old enough to smoke.

    Built-in Cigarette Machine

  • Incidentally, everything that anyone wants you to eat or drink in Italy, you are told is “tipico,” just the typical diet here.  Everything!  I was given a piece of angel food cake, well know throughout the world, and possibly originating in Germany, but whatever, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, it’s tipico.

Let me add a final comment on snow in Rome and the craziness it brings.  Flying into Italy, Orbitz and Delta had routed me through Milan in the north, then to Rome, then to Catania, where I was originally going to drive to Palermo.  Luckily, Astrid Anselmo, who was a godsend the entire time in Sicily as translator and just plain hard worker, figured out it was smarter to pay 50 euros for another ticket from Milan to Palermo and get in earlier to Palermo for the first meeting.  Thank goodness.  A week ago when I hit Milan there were a couple of feet of snow on the ground, which is normal for there, but I quickly learned that it was snowing in Rome, which is highly unusual, and unclear what – if anything – was going to get through there.  My friend, Costanza La Mantia, later told that she flew in that night from Cairo as expected but was stuck on the runway for 2 hours because there were no ramp workers in the airport, and finally had arrived in Palermo at 4 AM in the morning.  I never would have made it to Palermo!

Flying in this weekend there was more snow.  The mayor closed the roads on Sunday unless drivers had chains or snow tires.  First snow in 27 years and before that the last snow was in 1956!  In New Orleans we have a dusting every 10 years or so and don’t know what to do.  In Rome there is no equipment and the city shuts down.

Snow in Rome?  Yes, I was there!

Snow in the Nature Reserve in Central Rome

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On the Farm in Paterno: Organic versus Fair Trade

Paterno   I had been to Paolo Guarnaccia’s family farm in 2009 when a group of us had dinner with his family while talking about the Simeto Valley.  Now I saw it differently as we joined his wife for a simple and delicious lunch there.  I had not fully realized that the farm was still in Paterno, simply on the other side of the hill from the Norman castle, old church and cemetery I had visited several times this trip.  With 23 hectares of land assembled over 30 years this was a large set of groves tended by Paolo, tenants, and volunteers that came throughout the year to help and to learn organic farming techniques.  Everything about this operation had a “social” purpose, as they say here, right down to the room that hosted school field trips and the vegetable plot tended by various people in rehab or other programs.

For the first time I toured the huge “warehouse,” as Paolo calls it, which is leased from the regional government, but is a combination packing shed, orange sorting and processing operation, olive oil manufacturing plant, and much more.  Consorzio Terre Di Sicilia is a model, organic, educational, and experimental farming location, but it is also largely empty, inoperative, and laden with debt.  At one point serving 1000 customers all over Sicily with certified organic products, it now was little used, waiting for an EU loan of 200,000 euros over the last number of years, which still hadn’t arrived, and only a place for a couple of small farmers to sort their oranges by size with one of the giant machines.  Paolo had tried to turn it all into a cooperative over 5 years, but it didn’t work out…just not enough interest.

Warehouse Waiting for Action

Similar to our friends with COMUCAP in Honduras and their coffee and aloe vera looking for markets, I started asking what it would take to get the marmalade made here over to North America where ACORN International could move it through Fair Grinds and other places to support the survival of farming in Sicily.  Get ready for a headache.

The blood oranges as fresh fruit are impractical to even consider because of cost and requirements to prevent Mediterranean fly from coming to our shores.  Scratch that.

How about fair trade, organic marmalade?  Well, organic is easy.  Rigorous Italian and European Union inspections are already in place which would meet any requirements.  Fair trade, though, probably not it seems.  This is not a co-op.  Looking at the FLO affiliate website FairTrade Italia it seems they only bring in products from the rest of the developing world.  When my friends have described Sicily as the Appalachia of Europe and of Italy, that doesn’t seem to count.

There has to be a way.  This stuff is too good not to save and survive.

Paolo and the Products They Once Made

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