Another day cycling through Sicily. I have likened these trips to eating an excellent bag of potato chips when you are very hungry, not just hungry, but a maddening craving for something crisp and salty. You look at the bag only to realize that it isn’t that big, certainly not large enough to fill the need. With every savory bite, you realize that you are getting closer to the inevitable end. An unsatisfying completion that terminates long before your desire is sated.
This is how I felt this morning as we mounted our bikes to take the road to Sciacca; the end of the ride was looming on the horizon, yet I was far from ready for it all to end. I savored those first few moments of our ride, the air still cool, the city waking to the new day. All were eager to get on our way, to rush to the adventure that awaited us. I am not embarrassed to admit that I am not the fastest cyclist. I would frequently stop just to drink it all in. There I was, thousands of miles from my home, from the roads and pathways that we so familiar to ride over foreign hills, through unknown valleys. This journey of discovery was nearing its completion, yet there was still so much more to see.
Today we were riding through farmland. One of the many pleasant surprises for me on this trip was the Sicilian countryside. Based on what I had read of Sicily I had expected most of the island to arid and dry, the vegetation sparse, quite like the more undeveloped areas of Southern California. This was hardly the case, especially today. The ride between Agrigento and Cattolica Eraclea was over pathways bordered by vineyards, almond orchards, and olive groves. The lushness of the island that was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire was on full display.
Although the town of Cattolica Eraclea was founded in medieval times, it is not one you would find on the itinerary of most tourists. Then again, as I had noted in a previous post, what I love about cycling Italy is that you visit towns that are not inundated by tourists. In 1874 the town was given the name Eraclea to associate it with the nearby ancient site of Heraclea Minoa. Again, we see the influence of the Greeks on Sicily. It is an agricultural community whose economy is based on the production of wine, olives, fruit, almonds, cereals, and wheat.
We arrived in the town mid-morning making it the perfect location for a short break and quick snack. We stopped at a pasticceria that reminded me of a pastry shop, The Florentine Bakery, back in my home town of Utica, New York. It was a Sunday morning, so the shop was filled with all sorts of people, some on their way home from church, others just out for a mid-morning snack, and a group of men who had been out hunting earlier that morning. They had most of their gear with them, including shotguns – remember this is an agrarian community in Sicily, there was nothing unusual in this. When I asked them what they were hunting they said butterflies. Quite a sense of humor these guys had.
A Pasticceria and a bookstore are places of great frustration for me. I browse conflicted about what would be the best thing to buy, not just something good, but the best. The moment I do make a purchase I immediately regret it. I should have bought the other. Beneath the glass at this one particular pasticceria were all manner of temptations from biscotti to zeppole. There is such a thing as having too many choices. When I reached the counter, I felt pressured to order quickly, the line of people behind me was getting longer, so I blurted out “un sfolgliatta e un pasticciotto, per favore”. The woman looked behind me as if she were expecting someone to be with me. I just smiled in response to her puzzled look.
The pastry was wonderful. Someone once told me that they thought of Italian pastry as a separate type of food. I hadn’t really thought of it this way since I raised on it. After they said it, however, I could see what they mean. There really isn’t anything like Italian pastry, quite unique from other foods. While certainly light, they are very filling. Those two pastries were enough for the rest of my ride that day. Even when we reached our destination of Sciacca that evening, I did not feel at all hungry.
When we got to Sciacca, I was struck by what a nice little seaside community it was. The town was founded in the fifth century BCE by the Greeks whose populace settled there because of the sulfurous springs of Mount San Calogero. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of litter. The typical garbage along the road was nowhere to be seen. The next morning when I took an early walk before the bike ride, I witnessed a fleet of street sweepers going through the city.
In the evening, prior to dinner, we practiced the age-old Italian custom of the passggiata which is translated as a walk or stroll. It is actually a tradition in Italy, prior to the evening meal, to stroll slowly through the main streets of the town greeting neighbors, socializing, and having a drink or two with a friend. Nothing captures the essence of visiting Italy more than the passggiata. It is the quiet at the end of a busy day, the rest after hard work, the reflection on the living of life.
My son and I wandered down to the shore where we had an Aperol Spritz or two before dinner. One of the very many things I love about Italy is that when you order a drink, unasked, they serve you several snacks. With each subsequent round of drinks, the snacks become more and more elaborate. So, my son and I sat there drinking our spritz, watching the sunset. I thought to myself that there could be no place as lovely as this east of the sun and west of the moon, to quote Joyce. There was not much that one could reasonably desire beyond what I had at that moment.
As we munched on our snack and drank, we talked, probing the deep philosophical questions of our time. Is there a God? If so, is there one true religion? Will all others be damned to eternal torment? It was such a pleasure for me to be there with him, to watch how his mind worked, to see how this person who I could easily hold in the crook of my arm at one time had grown to be a man with his own thoughts and opinions. Although these views were often in conflict with my own, it was deeply satisfying to see the independent man he had become. He and I have had many discussions over the years, discussions that grew heated at times, but it is this night as I watched the Sicilian sun settle beneath the horizon that I saw the boy I had raised has become the man I hoped he would be.
So, that night we wandered back to our room, stuffed with too much food and a little drunk from too much drink. As I closed my eyes, I realized that on this journey of discovery I found my son had become a man.
For more on Italy read my book Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American.