Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Superstitions of a Sicilian Mother

My Sicilian mother has passed onto me many superstitions and myths that she learned from her native country. One superstition that I truly believe in is il malocchio, the evil eye, but during this time that I am spending in Milan with my relatives, I realize that I have forgotten some of the traditions surrounding il malocchio.

My mother taught me from a young age that people sometimes curse others, purposely asking evil spirits to harm them or sometimes putting a hex on strangers without even knowing it.

I am more susceptible in getting the curse compared to others my mother told me. When I was little I would be nervous, pensive and sometimes depressed for no reason, which lead her to believe that I had the curse.

She believed that in my case I was primarily affected by evil spirits from people, mostly strangers, unintentionally passing on jealous thoughts through a striking glance. Other times, I would notice envious relatives chewing the inside of their check intently gazing at me while I tried to eat in peace during a holiday dinner.

Whenever my mother noticed that I was not acting like myself she would perform a little ceremony to expel il malocchio. On a Saturday, she would turn off the T.V., hush my bother and sister, and command silence. The tick-tock of a quartz clock that hung on our kitchen wall was all that I could hear. I tried to stay as still as possible while she balanced bowls and glasses holding water and olive oil over the crown of my head. She would say a secret prayer simultaneously dropping oil into water, trying to determine if I was cursed and if so, how bad was it.

When I was older I would ask her questions about the ceremony. She could only tell me the sacred rites during midnight mass on Christmas Eve. One Christmas Eve, just she and I attended midnight mass, and I was initiated into a group that nowadays barely exists.

In recent years people that I have never seen before in my life, stop by my parents house asking my mother to remove il malocchio. Some of them are suffering from poor health; some of them are experiencing hardships in their life. One thing the ceremony cannot do is make good fortune, my mother taught me.

Being in Milan with my cousin Nuccia, we somehow got on the subject of il malocchio. I confessed to her that I no longer remember the prayer, and am sad because I do not know when my mother and I will be together again on Christmas Eve.

The woman who taught my mother passed away many years ago. So when I ask my mother deeper questions about the act, she regrets she cannot answer them, because she just does not know, and those who did are no longer living.

Nuccia, who grew up in the next town over from my mother, knew enough to answer my questions.

“Only when a woman tells a woman it must be during midnight mass. A man can tell a woman or a woman can tell a man anytime;” she said.

The day the tradition was passed onto me I wrote down the words to the prayer and hid them in a secret place. I asked Nuccia if I could only read them on Christmas Eve.

“You can read them to yourself anytime you want,” she said

Some people may read this with doubt that evil spirits lurk or that people can throw a curse on others. And that is fine; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. When I was little I sometimes questioned the belief, but my father told me about the ceremony to remove il malocchio in his village. It changed my opinion.

“My aunt used a belt and wisps of my hair. If I had the malocchio the belt would grow. If it is not true, how did she make the belt grow,” he said

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Homemade Surprise

I have been spending the holidays with my cousins in Milan. Each day I wake up around 10 or 11 a.m. I sit by the fire to drink my morning cappuccino that my cousin Nuccia has prepared for me, think about taking a shower and after an hour I eventually follow through on my thought. Today things were different. She and her daughter Veronica were gathered in the kitchen when I woke up. As I approached the kitchen door, Veronica shut it and politely told me to stay out.

I figured something was up. So I went to take a shower. They were still toiling in the kitchen when I returned. I sat again by the warm fireplace. The glowing flames of the fire shrank and rose in a tempo that almost always puts me in a trance. I stared at it while I waited to be summoned. After about an hour they called me into the kitchen.

I walked in and found a homemade birthday cake iced with Nutella and decorated with my name and a birthday greeting written in English. Nuccia had made the cake from scratch while I was eating dinner at a relative’s home the night before. Veronica frosted and piped the chocolate greeting on the vanilla cake this morning.

I thought back, and the last time someone baked me a cake was too long ago for me to remember. I was touched that my cousin’s took the time to make me a cake and remembered my birthday.

Growing up, my birthday was lost among the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Usually most of my friends were out of town or busy with visitors. This year was different. I was shocked to receive so many phone calls from my Italian relatives. Not only because my birthday is usually forgotten but because I have only met some of them two or three times in my life.

Nuccia reminded me that in Milan there were a number of people who cared for me. She told me the ingredients she used to make the cake. The most important ingredient she placed in the batter was amore.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Natale e Tutti i Giorni

After dinner, while my cousins and I waited for midnight and Christmas my cousin Gino recounted the traditions of la vigilia di Natale when he and my mother were children living Sicily.

Not even considered a town yet, Maniace, a feud in the Dukedom of Duke Nelson had several fractions including il Boschetto, that was made of several small stone dwellings grouped along a common path, along with a community forno a legna (wooden oven), a horse stable and chicken coop. That is where my mother’s and Gino’s families first lived.

At the time, the inhabitants worked much and earned little. Gino and his brothers and sisters waited in anticipation for Christmas day, not because they were eager to unwrap gifts, but because they looked forward to eat a good meal.

They did not ask for toys like I did when I was a child. Rather they expressed their affection for their mother and father. They would write a letter to their parents promising to be a better person and telling them how much they cared for them.

“We wrote a letter to our father that said I am sorry for what I did . . . I promise to be a better boy . . . Ti voglio bene pappa,” said Gino.

They would place the letter under their father’s plate. When they finished dinner and his mother took their father’s plate away he would find the note. After he finished reading his children’s letters, their mother would bring out the Christmas gifts.

“Dry figs, almonds, walnuts and biscotti were placed on the table for us to eat. That was our Christmas gift,” he said. “Your mother and the other women, would make biscotti days before, using the wooden oven that was shared by everyone. They would give biscotti as a Christmas gifts to their relatives. Then we would kill the pig all together so it was ready to eat on Christmas day.”

As a little boy he was excited to have the fruits, nuts and biscotti that were eaten only during that certain time of year.

“Now Christmas is everyday,” said my cousin Nuccia.

“Back then we had nothing. Biscotti were just for Easter and Christmas. Now people have pork, biscotti and roasted nuts anytime they want,” said Gino.

Everyone cooked together, prepared the meals together, and after dinner was finished they celebrated the birth of Christ together. The children would go around and visit all the elders and kiss their hands as a sign of respect, he told me.

He described a Christmas like the ones people long for, the ones that make up the scenes in Macy’s windows, the ones that Andy Williams sings about, the ones that make the romanticized scenes on a Thomas Kinkade Christmas card.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Man is A Man is A Man

This week I have met two men who have straight up admitted to being unfaithful.

Maybe “admit” is the wrong word. In order for one to admit an act, they must first feel shame, guilt or embarrassment. There is some type of acknowledgement that what they have done is wrong and may reflect badly on them and as such they try to cover the truth or go to some length to defend their behavior.

In each separate encounter with both of these men, neither of them showed any signs of remorse about their act, and although it was each one’s first time meeting me, neither of them hesitated when answering my curious questions about their infidelity.

Both men are Sicilian — one from Palermo, the other from Messina; one young, the other old; one single, the other a widower.

It takes a lot to leave me speechless. This guy accomplished that in one second with one word.

“Do you have a girlfriend,” I asked him.


I did not even know what to say. Just like that, “yes” no doubt, no problem, with out blinking, normale. How do you respond when someone tells the truth, even if the truth is a bit ugly?

Apprezzarmi,” he said.

The rest of the conversation consisted of him trying to convince me that I should appreciate him for telling the truth. As if he just performed an act of nobility that deserves respect and admiration.

The other man, even though wrinkles gathered around his light blue eyes, which at times reflected his deep sorrow over the loss of his wife, had a commanding presence and a sex appeal that left no doubt in my mind he had his share of women during his 70+ years of life, yet those adventures did not change his deep affection for his wife.

He advised me not to get married because in the end, once the person dies, you are alone and in awful pain missing them. He met his wife when he was 18.

“She lived across the street from me. We would see each other from the window. But you know, I had other girls,” he said.

He recounted his younger years with pride and content.

“But then, after you got married . . .” I interjected hoping he would finish the sentence.

“Also, when I was married. This is how I was made,” he said.

I have no doubt that he truly loved his wife and enjoyed his life with her. At the same time, I am trying to understand how this is possible, that a man can be capable of loving only one woman while sharing himself with other women.

The only answer I am left with is the one that both men indirectly told me: “I am a man and this is how God made me.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Stopping to See the Lights

Today was one of those days, where I had time to do nothing, and in the end had no time at all, which presented the opportunity to stop and see the Christmas lights in Piazza della Signoria.

I only had three appointments, pick up money from a client, stop at the Feste della Legalità, Festival for Legality, at 6:30 p.m. and eat dinner with a friend.

I was convinced that I had enough time during the late morning and early afternoon to do nothing but pamper myself. So I moved the appointment with the client to pomerrigio; however when 6 p.m. rolled around, I was not ready to leave my apartment.

I mentally canceled the appointment with the client. I figured that she would have gone home by now. I decided to be late to the Feste della Legalità since I had just wanted to check it out and assumed my friend could meet me in the center or the place where we would be eating dinner.

I climbed on the bus that goes into the city around 6:30 p.m. Once on the bus, I realized it passed by my client’s office. In a last minute decision, I hopped off the bus and rang my client.

Ci sei ancora,” I asked her if she was still in the office.

She was. I told her I would be there in one minute. Once inside the office my friend rang and told me he was making me dinner; an unexpected and nice surprise.

In my head it was only 7 p.m. I told him I would arrive at his apartment in about an hour and a half, around 8:30 p.m. after I stopped at the Feste. He sounded a bit confused. He told me he lived near Ponte alla Vittoria and said it was not far from the city center.

When I hung up I saw the time on my phone’s display. It was 7:30 p.m. No wonder he was confused. I had overbooked myself.

I asked my client if she knew where Ponte alla Vittoria was. She did not. I took out my portable map. We both stood next to her desk, hovered over the map, intently studying it for the bridge. We finally found it. It was one of the last bridges west of Ponte Vecchio.

“You will have to find a bus that goes there. Did you bring your bike,” she asked

I explained to her that for many reasons my bike annoys me, so often I choose to walk or ride the bus instead. In this case we both agreed that by time I found and waited for the bus that goes in the direction of Ponte alla Vittoria, it would be 8 p.m., so it would be better if I walked. Either way, the Feste della Legalità did not fit into my schedule.

I briskly walked through the center choosing the streets that connect with Lungarno. December evenings in Florence are tranquil and the streets were unusually void this night compared to the bustling crowds of people that occupy the roads during the summer nights. For that reason I had a clear view of Piazza della Signoria when I looked to my right at the Via dei Neri crossing.

The piazza was lit up. I squinted to get a better look. I stood there for a minute debating if I should continue on or if I should turn right and walk through the piazza.

That is when it hit me. I had spent all of these weeks walking about the city, without taking a moment to see the festive lights that shine over some of Florence’s most famous monuments.

I decided to stop and admire the lights. Once closer I saw that a great silver blue light illuminated the arches and platform of the Loggia della Signoria, where the dramatic marble statues stand, such as the Rape of the Sabine Women.

What fascinated me was the exaggerated shadow cast by the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa on the back wall of the Loggia. The best part was that I did not have to fight through crowds to reach the piazza nor did I have to politely wait for a tour group to pass in order to get a pleasant view. Tonight the piazza had a few visitors scattered about, allowing me to imagine for one minute that it was all mine.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rushing River

It has been raining in Florence for what seems like weeks. The sky is gray. The city has a tinge of brown. The air smells muddy. My bike, attached to the same pole I locked it to days ago, remains untouched. My polka-dot umbrella accompanies me to the center instead. When possible I ride in a packed bus, with fogged windows.

This day I was sick of waiting for the overcrowded, unusually delayed pullman, so I braved it. I walked along the Arno into the city.

The river, normally unassuming, usually a prod for romantic rendezvous and social gatherings, was attracting local residents, such as myself, to stop and stare at its increasing rapids and speeding current.

A stroll past Ponte San Niccolò, I joined other observers on a landing that is used as a spot for an outdoor bar during the summer. What attracted me was not the scene of the river flowing, but the constant loud crash made when the river collided into itself. I peered into the river just at the point where the level drops; the river flows over, landing in the riverbed below with fervor.

It was strange to see the river so alive and vocal, practically swallowing the trees on its banks. It called to mind the flood of 1966. In town, in places that I cannot remember specifically, I have passed black and white photos showing Florentines navigating the streets by boat and lines on buildings marking the highest point the water reached.

A couple of weeks ago, I came upon several lines on a wall with years scribbled next to them. I don’t remember where this was exactly. Someone stood beside me as I tried to figure out what the lines represented. They explained to me that these lines recorded all the times the Arno overflowed. They assured me that the floods have a rhythm and the river would one-day flood again.