Welcome Back to Sicily!

Catania           Sicily is a puzzle to me.  I keep coming back, because we always seem right on the verge of breaking through to be able to start ACORN organizing here, but can’t seem to get all the way through the door.  Usually the problem is money, and money is a huge problem in Sicily for everyone.  Or, even if we ignored the resources problem, there’s no one to really follow through to drag everyone to the next step.  I had set my mind though:  this time was going to be different.  We were going crash through the door somehow or another.

Arriving at midnight from Tunis, we were dragging our wagons to the presentation at the University of Catania which would feature a clip of “The Organizer” on the ACORN response to Katrina in New Orleans and discussion and debate around disaster preparation and response for lower income communities.  Later in the evening there was a full-on showing of the documentary with questions-and-answers in Paterno in the Simeto Valley region not far away where I had worked and visited several times over the last fifteen years.

coming together in auditorium at University of Catania

The questions in both places were excellent and to the point, showing a close watching of the documentary and listening to the presentations, but it struck me around the middle of the question period that night in Paterno that there were other reasons that I loved Sicily besides the amazing opportunity it represented and the demand for action that seemed to constantly cry out to me on a special aural wavelength.  How can I say this well?  They really, really like me in Sicily!  Of course, it’s not just me, it’s the whole idea of ACORN and the notion that you can take their continual commitment to civic action whether it means standing up to corruption and the Mafia, the literal real-life Mafia, or stopping a waste incinerator from being built, or electing reform slates to city government.  But, I get to be the vessel that a lot of this organizing love pours into.  Every question without fail was prefaced with thanks for ACORN’s work and even my role in it all.  One questioner after another would reference a workshop I had run on community organizing fifteen years ago and how much it meant to their work or a meeting in the middle of Sicily they had attended or some other session in Catania at a church or Paterno in an  election training.

Normally, as an organizer, I’ve got to duck and cover to avoid in-coming.  Or, make sure to spit out too much sugar being put in my coffee.  Flattery is an addictive drug that must be avoided at all costs, because it obscures an organizer’s judgement and the ability to listen clearly for what lies underneath and grab reality.  No matter how hard the question that follows the preface, darned if Sicilians don’t seem totally sincere.  I find myself wiping off the sweetness so it doesn’t stick to me, but finding at the same time that it works in another way when it gets into my bloodstream.  It makes me even more committed to seeing organizing happen here, because I guess I want to see ACORN earn their praise by doing the work on the ground that it is already getting for work far from this island that sometimes calls itself the Appalachia of Italy.

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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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