Friday, August 14, 2009

Knowing My Family's Stories

Will my family’s stories be lost? That is what went through my mind as I sat amongst my Uncle’s sister, her children and grandchildren looking at photos — tones of black and grey and color, old and new. Yesterday was the first time I met her. I spent the day with my mother’s oldest sister, Nella. I accompanied her in saying her “goodbye’s” to her sister-in-law before returning to Australia.

My uncle and I have never met. They moved to Australia shortly after he married my aunt. Although they had the best intentions to move back to Sicily, fate had a different plan. My aunt and I met for the first time in 2007 in Milan. This is the second time we were in each other’s company.

So I was happy to meet my Uncle’s family. At least I could get some feeling of what he is like and how he grew up. I asked his sister if she had photos of him when he was little. Everyone gathered around the table to reminisce in the past with me.

As I sat there quietly listening to their gasps and laughs as they recalled their life, I wondered if anyone would ever ask me to share with them my family’s history. Will I have photos of my children, their children and their children’s children?

After viewing photos of weddings, baptisms, military trainings etc… my aunt and I visited my nonno’s sister. At my great aunt’s home my zia Nella told the story of how she met my uncle. She told us how she and my mother and other aunt, their littlest sister, pushed a cart of spices through the dirt road. That was one of the few times my nonna would permit her daughters to leave the house. It was at that time that my uncle first saw her.

We eagerly listened to my aunt tell the story. I asked for clarification and details trying to understand how different her life was then, how strict my grandmother was and what exactly did they do for money.

Her eyes and mouth fluttered while she poured out her love story. I thought about taking out my camera and capturing it all on digital, so someone else could know everything I know; so the past would not be lost. But stories like hers lose value when recorded. They are best told from memory, passed on from relative to relative in those few precious moments when distance is shortened.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Visiting the Doctor in Maniace

Chi ha la sigaretta piu leggero,” asked the Doctor as soon as he entered the room filled with patients waiting to see him at 9 a.m.

The door he walked through had a sign attached to it that read “Voui smettersi di fumare, parlene con il dottore (Want to quit smoking? Speak to the doctor).”

My cousin’s father offered his. Diane. The doctor, with his wavy silver overgrown hair, proudly walked toward him. He checked out the label before making a show of balancing the pack on his hand to judge if it was in fact the lightest.

I don’t remember whose he took because I was trying to figure out my place in the waiting line. The locals of Maniace do not make an appointment to see the doctor. They don’t even engage in the simple system of number taking. Instead they memorize who came in after them. Upon walking in the waiting room they ask “who is the last person,” whoever responds is the person they are after. Some people send children to hold their spot in line. Others beg the person in front of them to let them cut, pleading urgency and pain.

I did none of that. I felt it was no one’s business why I was in to see the doctor. Every familiar face that entered after me greeted me with a “oh you’re in to see the doctor,” expecting me to discuss my ailment. But I never bit.

Today was a follow-up visit. The Doctor was supposed to tell me why I have not been able to wear my contacts for months. He asked me to return after taking an antibiotic he prescribed.

I was one of the last people to arrive. After hours and discussions about my turn in line the person ahead of me finally walked out of the Doctor’s office. I entered his office. He sat behind a messy desk filled with papers and ashtrays. No white coat, I think he wore khakis and T-shirt. I looked over at the seemingly unused examination table, and knew my place was in the chair in front of his desk.

“My eye still feels dry,” I started to describe my symptoms to him.

He cut me off with “how do your eyes feel.” I repeated my symptoms to him again. He asked for me to describe my symptoms again. That back and forth continued for about five minutes.

“What’s wrong with my eyes,” I asked.

Without looking, touching or examining me he point blank responded “I don’t know.”

He suggested I visit his friend, an eye specialist. He rummaged around the office looking for the number. He made the appointment. I asked how much the visit would cost. The visit would cost 70 euros, but he got me a deal of 50 euros. I started to complain about how people say that the Italian health care system is free, when it really is not and at times can be more expensive than the U.S. healthcare system.

He stopped me. The appointment was with a private doctor. He explained that if I wanted to wait weeks I could go through the public system, but there was no guarantee when I would get to see a doctor and although the cost would be less through the public system I would still have to pay a fee.

My complaining about the supposed “free” and “quality” socialistic Italian healthcare system, lead to further questions by him about the United State’s healthcare system, Obama and how the insurance system works. I was getting annoyed.

“Doctor I don’t care about Obama, I just want to wear my contacts,” I insisted.

“No, please tell me, I am curious how it works,” he insisted.

Seeing that I was not going to participate in his wanted conversation of politics he called in my father. There we were — me, my father and the Doctor — sitting around his cluttered desk. Somehow my eye was no longer the topic of conversation. I don’t even think they remembered I was in the room. I patiently sat in his grimy office listening to him and my father discussing the United State’s healthcare system.

My father was kind enough to answer all of the Doctor’s curious questions. The Doctor really wanted to know why the doctors in the U.S. were “rich” while he was “poor.” He must have gotten his answer because he finally escorted us out of his office.

When my turn came to see the doctor the waiting room was empty. I was afraid to walk into it now. My session with Doctor took an unwarranted half hour or more. These people will kill me. Just my luck in order to exit I had to go through the waiting room. I discreetly scanned the room. Half of Maniace was now waiting in line behind me, and they did not look happy.

“Scusa, scusa,” I said with my head down briskly walking through the room and out of the building with my father behind me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Being Pregnant Out of Wedlock

The moon hovered over Etna’s outstretched Western arm lighting up the black night as I sat outside my friend’s modest home on her front outdoor patio intently listening to her struggle as a single pregnant woman living in the small Sicilian town of Maniace.

A cricket’s chirp filled in the silent gaps of our conversation. My friend got pregnant out of wedlock. Her boyfriend and she have been together for several years, with the intentions to marry, but the baby to be was an unplanned pleasant surprise.

“I know everyone is talking about me, but what they say about me is happening in their own family.”

In a town where reputation is everything, a family will do anything to save face in public when something in their private life happens that is considered a disgrace. My friend told me how those who threw the knives are now on the receiving end of the daggers.

The whispers, the looks and the underneath conversations eventually make it back to the person who broke one of the Sicilian codes. My friend did not do anything to cover up her pregnancy. Unlike those who criticized her, she did not rush to the altar nor did she insist on a ring from her boyfriend.

The family that scorned her not only insisted their pregnant daughter marry the father of the soon-to-be-born child, “they filled out all the marriage documents on the father’s behalf,” she told me. “Now they are having a wedding in September so that she will not look pregnant.”

I always ask the questions that I know many Sicilians would not directly ask the person whom they are inquiring about. Instead they ask other’s in the town. Everyone knows she is pregnant. It is something one cannot hide. But to actually discuss with her how she feels about being pregnant without being married maybe considered taboo.

Maybe she was thinking how dare I ask if she was on the pill; how did it happen; how did she tell her mom; does she want to get married? I think I would be standoffish if someone was prying in my business; however, I was just trying to understand how she was dealing with living in a town that kept up mentalities that are extinct in the modern world.

Maybe she is just appeasing me and will go behind my back and tell everyone in town that I was being nosey asking questions about things that are considered very private. In the end I think she was relieved to speak openly. I noticed that she never left her house. It was then that I realized that this summer she never accepted my offers to get breakfast together or to take I walk. She didn’t say that she was ashamed to be seen pregnant. She didn’t have to.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eating Fresh Organic Ricotta for Breakfast

Today for breakfast I had a hot bowl of fresh ricotta. My mother, nonna, zia Nella and zia Pina left our home at 8 a.m. to eat ricotta at a farm outside of Maniace. My nonna brought bowls and spoons so that we could eat it immediately after it was made.

When we arrived Antonio, the owner of the family run organic farm, was stirring a cauldron filled with milk squeezed from the cows that morning and yesterday evening. The room was hot and filled with cheese. Balls of provolone hung on the wall. Rounds of brilliant white cheese sat in strainers on top of stainless steel tables with a built in drain for the excess water.

I did not know that ricotta was made from what remained after the cheese was formed. I have heard that some do not consider it cheese and the way my relatives refer to make me believe that they consider it eat separate from cheese. We arrived after the cheese was removed from the hot milk. So I did not see the whole process nor inquire on what exactly ricotta is.

When the ricotta bubbled up we grabbed our spoons and bowls anxiously waiting in line for Antonio to ladle in spoonfuls of it into our ware. I ate mine outside sipping the hot tinged green water that surrounded the spongy ricotta in between mouthfuls. There were no additives, not even a pinch of salt — just pure milk — because it was made organically.

We left with baskets of ricotta and hand formed balls of cheese. I said “bye” to the brown spotted cows roaming around in the hay and promised to return one early morning for breakfast.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mass Exodus South

I had never seen a mass exodus before this night. What is amazing about this trip is that everyone is going to the same place and everyone is originally from the same place. My cousins, Nuccia and Mario, picked me up in Florence on their way to Sicily. This year they decided to drive from Milan to Sicily instead of flying. Our trip will take at least 14 hours.

We are not the only ones making our way back to the Motherland. There are hundreds of others with Southern roots making the same journey. When we stop at rest stop along the Autostrada for coffee or gasoline the parking lots are littered with people gathered around Alfa Romeo’s, BMW’s, Volkswagens and Fiats. Their accents are rougher compared to the refined Florentine dialect; harsh “ooo’s” and abrupt “oh’s” begin drawn out words and Bella now becomes Bedda.

Immediately after the Sicilians, Neopolitans and Calabrians exit the car they light up a cigarette — men and women alike. Nuccia offered me one, but I decided to decline. Once I start smoking in Sicily I can’t stop. Everyone smokes. If I accept a cigarette one time from someone in Sicily that person will always will expect me to indulge in a drag with them. Sicilians have a way of insisting that conjures guilt that I end up accepting just to make the other person feel better. So it’s better for me to start practicing my refusals now.

Once inside the restaurant of the service area Nuccia and I pushed our way through the mini market to reach the bar. After ordering coffee I took a step back to observe. Everyone had my features — thick dark brown hair, dark olive skin, not too tall, big almond hazelnut or brown eyes with a slight or considerable bulge. It is so strange to see mini-me’s congregated in one place.