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

Strong Civic Movements around Catania

Being Introduced by Father Salvatore Resca at Santi Pietro e Paolo Church

Catania    After a great farewell on Friday night from my new friends (I better warn my family that I’ve invited them all to New Orleans – and they’re coming!) and colleagues with La Citta in Paterno (sausage pizza and a dessert that was chocolate cake from heaven!), only hours later it was full steam ahead to make a presentation in Catania, the 2nd largest city in Sicily, about how community organizing strategies could build active citizenship.   Who knows if the topic had been carefully considered or pulled out of the air, but after a week of immersion in civic movements from all around Sicily in Palermo and with La Citta and others in Paterno, the comparisons between these “civic movements” and “community organizations,” was much on my mind.  A question about lessons one could learn that Laura la Manna with another emerging civic movement had asked me in Paterno was also much on my mind.

This all seemed appropriate since if Sicily is at the heart of the civic movement phenomena in Italy, in some ways Catania has been at the heart of civic movements in Sicily.  In fact we were meeting at Santi Pietro e Paolo, a uniquely progressive Catholic church which had been at the center of the civic movement Cittainsieme in Catania, which means “city together.”  It was an honor to be in this crowd of 50 on a Saturday morning.  Walking around introducing myself, it seemed that virtually everyone there had earned their stripes in one major movement or campaign after another whether saving the Port itself or making sure the water was both clean and not privatized or pushing for bike lanes or more seriously facing down corruption and organized crime.  I was humbled to be introduced by the fiery, progressive priest who had been a sparkplug behind many efforts and supporter of all of them, Salvatore Resca.   I absolutely invited him to move to New Orleans where we needed a priest in the city again to really shake up the church and put it once again on a progressive path.  He agreed, but I’m afraid he didn’t really mean it!

Crowd at the End of a Very Long Question

I offered the simple lessons and rules I could share about mistakes NOT to make from 40 years of organizing (things like, “when it comes to money, the most important thing is to ask!”), but as always what was most interesting were the amazing questions.  The first had to do with a powerful movement that had risen – and won! – in Syracuse not far away and was now struggling with how to maintain its autonomy after having so quickly won a change of government in that city.  I wish I had had time to visit there and see this first hand.  There were other questions about how to integrate values with issues in building organization, which couldn’t have been timelier if asked in any community meeting in the United States.  A long question followed up later afterwards revealed an interest in organizing a living wage movement in Italy and Europe as a whole!  A bright, young community organizer asked questions that ranged from how I ended up in this work to how to fund organizing (see above!).

Perhaps most moving was a side discussion provoked by a question about ACORN’s experience in voter registration over the years and the firestorm that activity provoked in 2008 and the consequences of the rightwing attack that shattered the organization in the USA by the end of 2010.  The perspectives of these movement veterans were mature and wise.  They knew battles and had scars from both victories and defeats.  Several rose to argue to me that this was just part of the process, and we needed to simply build even stronger in the future.  They know how victory and defeat tastes here in Sicily, and have learned something about resilience in their commitments and organizing.

What a wonderful session for me!  I wish I could have made more of a contribution to all of them!

Maybe in a small way I did.  At the end of my remarks, Paolo Guarnaccia suddenly wanted to say one last thing after I had thanked everyone.  He wanted to “pass the hat” and ask for anyone who wanted to make a contribution to continue the effort to build civic movements and community organizations.   Later in surprise he shared with me that he had never done so before in his life, and in shock reported to me that almost 100 euros had been gladly pitched in to support the work.

That one small lesson leaned might move mountains and create many movements and organizations in the future!  Perhaps I had done my work here after all?

Ps.  Yikes, I invited all of the group in Catania to visit New Orleans as well, so here comes Sicilia!