Embrace the Stillness

As a young girl I wanted to be a flight attendant so I could travel on the cheap. But I got as far as working briefly for a travel agency that, alas, offered no travel perks and paid badly.

Perhaps the failure to fulfill my dream is the reason I’ve always loved writing about places I’ve visited and posting reviews on travel websites. I love discovering new places and sharing my experience, but it’s also a means to hold on to the memories made along the way.

Last September’s trip abroad, however, wasn’t one worth sharing.

I knew from the start it wasn’t going to be a vacation for me, or for my brother and sister-in-law (@Chris and @Mario), who were accompanying me. There wasn’t going to be much time for touring or sightseeing, or even just chilling after a year and a half of being homebound due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a much-needed opportunity to reconnect with my ninety-year-old mother whom we hadn’t seen in two and a half years and take care of some business. It’s a scary time when you realize your aging parent is declining in health and mental sharpness, especially when living far apart. In the brief time we spent with her, we were committed to seeing to her welfare and straightening out her personal affairs. We ran from public office to public office, cleaned out some old stuff from the house and fixed things that were broken. All this dashing around was hindered by Covid restrictions, poor internet and cell reception, unseasonable thunderstorms, and a capricious volcano (more about this later). It was a mentally and physically draining eighteen days.

What could I possibly write about this trip that could be of interest to anyone?

And then I came across this quote:

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” —Author Saul Bellow

These words stopped me in my tracks. They resonated with me, making me realize how much I had overlooked by not paying attention. It hadn’t been a pleasure trip but it hadn’t been a total washout either. There had been so much more to it, to assimilate and enjoy, but my brain was too frazzled to fully appreciate everything else around me. I was distracted and didn’t look for the ‘stillness in the midst of chaos’.

I hadn’t taken many pictures, something I enjoy doing when I’m traveling. Fortunately @Chris had taken some pretty awesome snapshots of her own, and as I looked over our combined efforts back at home, I realized how much I had seen and done without actually taking it in.

So I take pleasure in sharing these pictures with you, hoping you enjoy what has turned out to be a mostly non-bookish post.

The not-too-happy campers

It was certainly a different kind of journey, one tarnished by quarantine-induced anxiety and paranoia. Proof of vaccination on hand and a mountain of Covid-related paperwork filled, we boarded the plane at John F. Kennedy Airport for destination Catania, Sicily, with connecting flight in Amsterdam. We thought the worst part of the flight would be having to wear a mask for 24 hours straight while we transited through three airports, but the recommended disposable 3-ply surgical masks made it somewhat bearable.

It was my first time in the Netherlands, but I guess it doesn’t count when you’re just passing through without leaving the airport. The best I could do to make it feel more legit was to take a photo of the lovely tulips displayed in a duty-free store and buy a souvenir magnet for my refrigerator. 

A prebooked taxi was waiting for us at the airport, and after a quick detour to pick up my mother at the assisted living facility where she’s lodged we set off for home . . .

. . . home being the small town of Presa, nestled inside a densely wooded area on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna, Italy’s most active volcano. A charming eighteenth century village with narrow cobblestone streets lined with historical buildings that seem to have been frozen in time; a gem hidden among glimmering green vineyards and olive groves. At its epicenter stands the Church of Our Holy Lady of Grace, built in 1873. While the exterior of the church appears nondescript, the interior is a gorgeous display of colored marble altars and impressive works of art.

Local retail businesses include the essentials: a deli/convenience store, a pharmacy, a pizzeria and – of course – a wine bar. Why ‘of course’? Well, because the area boasts a centuries-old tradition of food and wine, and a Mount Etna town without wine is like a fountain without water. Okay, I made that last part up, but you get the idea.

For all other necessities, the locals have to drive 3 kilometers (approx. 2 miles) for even the closest supermarket.

When a few years ago my mother decided to make Presa her permanent place of residence, we all expressed concern. Why would anyone, especially an octogenarian not exactly bursting with health want to live in such a small, out of the way place?

But as we came to know the town better we realized that it’s the ideal place to live. It’s quiet, the air is clean, the food is mostly home grown, and most importantly, the inhabitants are a community of kind and generous people always ready to lend a helping hand.

During the winter months the town population boasts a mere 149 souls, but in the summer it’s vibrant with life as urbanites move into their vacation homes to escape the stifling heat of the coastal towns. The traditional summer festivities begin and the sleepy town square is decked out with strings of lights, food stands and rows of chairs for the musical performances. On the weekends, tourists and residents stream in from the neighboring towns to sample the local food and join in the cheer.

Mom’s house, which is located in the historical center of town, is adjacent to a charming panoramic lookout, a popular hangout not only for the stunning view of the coast and lush countryside from an altitude of 1,916 feet above sea level, but because it’s the only location in town where the residents can hope to snag a stronger cell reception.

Things got off to a rough start. My dear departed dad’s rickety 2004 Suzuki wouldn’t start after having sat idle in a friend’s garage for two and a half years, leaving us wondering if we shouldn’t have rented a car at the airport. Fortunately for us, @Mario is quite the handyman. He found a ride to the nearest town to buy a new battery, which he promptly installed. We found a water leak in the bathroom and had to call in a plumber, not once but twice. While @Mario and @Chris took care of the technical issues, I settled my mother in and sifted through dozens of medicine bottles and insulin pens I’d picked up at the facility, trying to make heads or tails of her complicated medication schedule.

That night, our majestic volcano rumbled and puffed in an exuberant display of enthusiasm, honoring our arrival with yet another eruption. Since the beginning of the year the volcano has been particularly active, relentlessly spewing lava and lava particles into the air and leaving a thick layer of coarse, black ashes in its trajectory.

Within minutes, a cloud of ashes floated above our heads. Fortunately, the wind pushed them farther downhill, toward the coast. For this time around, we were spared having to sweep the yard clean.

The area offers many hiking trails and a wealth of interesting treasures to be discovered along the way. This ancient 1 km. cart track proved too steep for my pandemic-atrophied muscles, so much so that the more proactive @Mario and @Chris ended up giving up on me and leaving me dragging my feet in their dust.

We passed olive groves, the gnarled, twisted branches of the trees like wicked witches’ arms heavy with olives, and vineyards almost ready for harvesting. Along the way we paused to admire antique villas and farmhouses semi-hidden among the trees.

Some of these have been restored by their owners and turned into vacation resorts and wedding venues. Agritourism is a fast-growing industry in Italy as more and more people turn to sustainable vacationing in more natural environments.

There were noticeable signs of the approaching autumn in the drying chestnut burrs fallen to the ground, and in the smell of dampness hanging in the air. We picked late season figs and wild raspberries and made an obligatory stop at the spring water fountain to freshen up.

We spent a day at a family friend’s summer home where, after having consumed a sumptuous meal and sampled their homemade wine, we walked off the calories with a tour of their fruit orchard.

A capers bush…who knew?
Fresh and juicy prickly pears picked and washed for us, but boy, did we need to watch those nasty invisible thorns!

As delightful as all this wholesome country living was, we occasionally needed to be where getting a decent internet signal didn’t require stealing out of the house like a thief in the night to video-chat with our loved ones back home. Besides, there’s only so much ‘quiet’ you can take when you suffer from chronic wanderlust, a trait that seems to run in the family. So we’d occasionally load onto the Suzuki and take a drive down to the shore for a more urban experience and a quick dip in the crystal-clear water of our beautiful Ionian Sea. A mere nine miles’ drive, but in terms of cell or broadband service and shopping venues it may as well be a world away.

The beaches along Sicily’s eastern coast are mostly pebbles – fragments of lava rock smoothened by centuries of ebb and flow of the tides. It’s a much cleaner experience than a sand beach but you better have those water shoes on!

(Shhh….I picked up the beach bag at the local outdoor market for 5 euros. A real bargain!)

At the same time, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stroll along the shore of Riposto, my birth town, and visit the local fish and produce market.

Live artwork at the fish and produce market

From the towns along the waterfront, on a clear day, we’re treated to a stunning view of Mount Etna, now 100 feet taller than it was 6 months ago. In my younger days I was brave enough to venture all the way to the very top and walk along the ridges of the dormant mouths. After this year’s intense activity, I doubt even the most daring are feeling this adventurous.

These outings usually included a stop at the shopping mall to stock up on groceries and pick up some local handicrafts – like the cute earrings below . . .

. . . . and sample our world-famous gelato.

@Chris gets first dibs, while @Mario is still undecided.

It wasn’t always blue skies and sunshine, however, and getting around on those tricky winding roads can be a lot trickier in a deluge. But God’s hand and @Mario’s remarkable driving skills delivered us home safely every time.

But let’s get back to the good stuff and talk about food . . . .

You can’t visit Sicily and not sample some of the local specialties and traditional dishes.

One of the highlights of summer in Sicily is the traditional Sicilian summer breakfast, Granita and Brioche. Usually consumed at an outdoor cafe, granita is made in every imaginable flavor: coffee, chocolate, fruits and nuts, often topped with whipped cream. While some may frown skeptically over the idea of a semi-frozen dessert as an early morning meal, in Sicily it’s perfectly normal. It’s part of the culture.

Pistacchio Granita
Coffee Granita

Granita dates back to the Middle Ages, when men collected snow from the lofty peak of Mount Etna in the winter and sold it as an icy treat during the hot Sicilian summers. The snow was stored in caves on the mountainside to prevent it from melting, then packed in jute bags, covered in ferns and straw and carried down the mountain on carts or mules. Through the centuries, people started to add different flavors to the snow as new ingredients like lemons, sugarcane and herbs were introduced to Sicily. 

Sicilians are unrivaled for their desserts.
(Photo courtesy of Pexels)

I’m a seafood lover, and there’s nothing like Mediterranean caught fish. No frozen stuff here.

Grilled Swordfish and Sauteed Zucchini
Sea Urchins
Seafood Risotto and . . .
. . . Octopus Salad at a seafood restaurant.
Mom’s specials: Grilled Meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves . . .
. . . and Pasta alla Norma (baked pasta with eggplant)

And how not to mention Arancini, one of the most recognized Sicilian foods throughout the world? Rice balls that are stuffed, coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. These crisp, golden nuggets are typically served as a snack or street food throughout Sicily, winter or summer . . . .

. . . . which when you bite into them look like this . . . .

And on this drooling note we end this journey and say goodbye to Mom and Her Majesty, Mount Etna, promising to return soon in a Covid-free world.

I’m not familiar with Saul Bellow or his books, but his words were an inspiration and a reminder that there’s so much beauty and good around us, if only we take the time to pay attention and enjoy it. So, I’m so grateful for these captured moments, which would have otherwise been lost with the passage of time. I hope you enjoyed this foray into my private life.

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