Going Home

Written by Elena Sinagra (Sarah Lawrence College) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Fall 2017

beach in Catania

One of the beaches in Catania. The black sand left over from Mount Etna.

I had been looking forward to going to Sicily for a large part of my life.  Part of the reason I chose CET Siena was because it had the traveling seminar to Palermo and Catania incorporated into its curriculum.  I was very happy with the idea of traveling to a vastly different region of Italy, both geographically and culturally and comparing it with Sienese culture.  To anyone, this is a great idea and a very lucky opportunity,but for me another layer of excitement was added on because of my sicilian ancestry.
I grew up in a town in Massachusetts which has a heavy Sicilian fishermen population. I myself, come from a long line of people who have worked on the water.  In the town center there are many Sicilian flags with their orange and red colors hanging out of the apartments and shop windows.  Italian is taught in the schools not just the more widely used Spanish or French.  Every June, there is a huge celebration of La Fiesta di San Pietro.  Saint Peter being the Patron Saint of fishermen.  A quintessential event of this festival is the three day greasy pole competition.  In the middle of the harbor there is a telephone pole jutting out horizontally from a platform above the harbor covered with about a foot of axle grease with a flag nailed to the end of it.   The job of the twenty or so men is to run across the pole and grab the flag before they slip off the pole and fall into the water. These festivities were all brought over from Sicily by immigrants over the ages.

A typical fishermen’s table in Catania.

Because I grew up with these sorts of traditions and culture, I was eager to experience Sicily, or as some people in my town call it, “go to the motherland”. However,  my plans of frolicking around the streets and hills of Sicily, eating cannoli with the company of warm jovial Sicilians were soon squashed by the presence of strep throat and a bad cough on the day we arrived.  It hurt to breath, talk, swallow eat and be alive.  Instead of participating in a tour of Palermo that outlined the anti-mafia movement, I got to experience a Sicilian pharmacies and realized that (thankfully) buying antibiotics in Sicily is much easier and cheaper than in the US.

Although my trip to Sicily was somewhat cast in of a bell jar of sickness, it still proved to be a very powerful experience and one that has seeped into me and forever has changed my character makeup.

I remember vividly getting off of the bus after arriving in Catania.  I was still drowsy from the three hour bus ride and the unshakable fatigue that comes from being sick. When the rest of the class started walking down a narrow street of Catania,  I slowly lagged behind looking at the ground because the hot, big Sicilian sun seemed to pound my brain.  Suddenly, a familiar smell pierced through my severely congested nose.  This of course was the smell of fish.  But not just any fish.  This was the smell of millions of different kinds of just harvested, fresh seafood of all sorts.

Big fish, small fish, squid, octopus, and every different type of shellfish.  Blood streamed down from the fishermen’s tables and pooled into the grooves of the cobblestone streets.  The unique aroma of grayish water mixed with blood in old plastic buckets that sat below the tables permeated the air.  Flies buzzed around hopping from one severed fish head to the next.  Skinny, skittish cats with alert eyes weaved through the crowds’ feet looking for discarded scraps.  Human voices screaming seemed to come from every direction.  The yells of fishmongers advertising what they were selling and how much it cost, all seemed to cancel eachother out and instead made one big vibration.  The atmosphere was palpable and heavy.  Large tarps and umbrellas stretched over head, trapping all the smells and sounds and sights of the fish markets into a stagnant state in this one street.

fish market

The end of the market. The fruits were also just as fresh as the fish.

Although I was still fairly sick and uncomfortable, something about that fish market made me feel relaxed and happy.  I remember seeing the fish unloaded from the docks in my hometown and how a similar ethos was emitted from both experiences, although happening on different continents.  The fishermen from my  family and town had such a unique look to them that so strongly resembled the fishermen in that market: Weathered faces, tanned skin, calloused hands.   Going to Sicily gave me a unique feeling of validation and connection to my roots and myself.  Walking through the fish market or down the streets of Catania, every person seemed to resemble a neighbor of mine from home,  or someone in my family.  People have always struggled with my name and many times I get inquiries about where it’s from.  However in Sicily, I was overjoyed when so many people greeted me by saying,  “You have such a Sicilian name! You are one of us”.  I view Sicily as a very important and necessary journey for me.  Going to college and studying abroad are opportunities to advance one’s academic horizons, but it is also a time to truly learn who you are what you want to do.  For me, Sicily was a piece in the puzzle of learning who I am.  I was able to experience the land, the culture and the industry of my family. One that had shaped them, and one that to this day continues to shape me.