Thursday, April 02, 2020

NOTES FROM THE SILENCE

I begin writing this post on a Sunday lunchtime, a moment when, all over Sicily, a great feat of transportation takes place. It is the movement of happy families off to see other relatives for lunch and it is the movement of food. People carry the antipasti, or the pasta sauce, or the main to their relatives' house, but most of all they carry pastries and desserts - some lovingly made at home, some just as lovingly chosen from the mouthwatering displays of myriad pastry shops. 

But today there is no movement and today there is silence. The earlier sounds, of bells for Mass, of cars full of chattering families going to or from church and thence to the pasticceria or home to pick up the food they have made, of greetings shouted from cars or as they arrive at their destinations, have also been absent.

I go out with my dog for no more than five minutes and only in the street where we live, where she sees none of the people who normally stop and pat her and none of her four-legged friends. I carry a self-certification document, stating for which of the permitted reasons I am out and I hurry, for there are neighbours watching, watching.... I am doing nothing that is not allowed but still I hurry. Besides, every moment outside constitutes a risk and I feel unsafe. Near the post office there is a police car, whose occupants are also watching. They are protecting us, of course and I am grateful. I hurry, not for fear of them but for fear of the thing that terrifies us all - the thing we can't see, the virus.

I am not myself. I look different, too. My hair is tied back - the only way I can tame it now - and I wear no lipstick because of the mask. I am not wearing single use gloves because I can't manage the dog lead well if I do but if I have to go out for another permitted reason - say, to go to the pharmacy for repeat prescriptions - I wear them. 

This is our third Sunday in total lockdown but let us go back a little in order to understand how it came to this, because there is a factor affecting the South that I do not think is generally known outside Italy: You will have read that the most tragic consequences of the virus have been seen in Northern Italy, in particular the region of Lombardy (which includes the great financial and academic centre that is Milan) and in the town of Bergamo. This area, along with 14 other provinces, was declared a "red zone" on 8th March, meaning that there should have been virtually no movement in or out of the area. But one right remained, the right to return home (obviously meaning that essential workers could travel to and from work if they happened to live in another town). The 8th March was also a Sunday but on the Saturday night a newspaper leaked the news that Lombardy was to be totally locked down. This caused 20,000  - yes, you read that right - Sicilians working or studying in Lombardy to rush for the trains South in order to reach home before the decree became law on 10th March. They were all instructed to declare themselves and self-isolate and to be fair, it is estimated that most did. Some, however, did not and most new coronavirus cases I've read of in my area seem to have been caused by contact with arrivals from the North. It was after this event that another decree was quickly issued by Prime Minister Conte on 11th March, putting the whole of Italy on lockdown.

The arrivals, however, did not stop and there has been one very controversial case in my town of Modica. I see that it is now being reported in the British press and I do not want to say more about it here as it may become sub judice. There are now estimated to be around 44,000 people who have travelled to their family homes in Sicily since the night of 7th March. The Mayor of Messina has been on the quayside there this week trying to stop people disembarking. Opinion is divided on this but I am sure we can all understand that the Mayors take their responsibilities very seriously and feel that their primary duty is to protect their citizens. The Mayor of Modica, with whom I do not always agree politically, has had, I am sure, not a wink of sleep since the beginning of the emergency and I salute him here.

I mentioned Bergamo. It was the first Italian city I ever saw and I have very happy memories of it. It is said that a generation of grandparents has been lost in Bergamo Province and the TV pictures of army trucks taking the bodies of  people who had died alone to cemeteries outside their beloved town were heartbreaking. I can only assume that those, in my own country, who have been somewhat cavalier about loss of life to this virus have not seen them.

The British media seem to think we are all still singing on balconies here. I assure them we are not. Do they think we can sing catchy pop songs after we have seen Bergamo? Instead, at midday this Tuesday, there was a minute's silence, with flags at half mast, all over Italy for the victims. I do not see that being reported in Britain. The Mayor of Rome said simply, "We will do it. We will do it for them." We are not singing; we are crying.

How am I? Frightened, like all of you. Finding it hard to concentrate, like many of you. Missing human contact, for we cannot even see friends, or, save for a few exceptional circumstances, family unless we live with them. I miss the tap-tap-whoosh sound of the coffee machine in the bar and the Sicilian  elongated "Ciaoooo" in the street.  I have my books, I have my precious dog and I have both the comfort and the terror of the internet. There are many who have less than me and there are many who are lonelier than me. And I have never felt closer to the wonderful people of my beautiful, adopted country.


"Thy people shall be my people."
"Il tuo popolo sarà il mio populo."
- Ruth / Rut: 1:16

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A LETTER TO BRITAIN


Modica, Italy
13th December 2019

Dearest Britain,


A park in Norwich, Norfolk

I don't live in you now and, though I left you 15 years ago for another country that had captured my heart, that doesn't mean I no longer love you, for it was you that bore me, nurtured me, educated and made me and there will always be a British girl inside the continental me. I write now because what happened to you yesterday was shocking, devastating, frightening and deeply upsetting; its consequences cannot be foreseen at this juncture, but 24 hours on they seem bleak. I may still love you – I always will – but I no longer recognise you.

The country I left was far from perfect and our imperialist past was not something that most of us boasted about. Of course there was racism, as there is everywhere and I witnessed it myself, but it also seemed to me that it was generally understood that democracy means that you cannot impinge upon the freedom of others. When exactly did that change? When did people begin to believe that they could make whatever anti-foreigner, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-elderly, anti-you-name-it comment they liked with impunity – in one of the most diverse and tolerant countries in the world? I am too far away to know and I doubt you know yourself but it has happened. Tolerance, it seems, has gone and soon it could be followed off our little group of islands by accountability in the “Mother of Parliaments”, the independence of the judiciary and perhaps even the constitutional monarchy.

When you see your own country from afar, you are unable to balance your pessimism regarding events there with a healthy dose of observation of your countrymen and women just getting on with their normal lives, but I would guess that what happened is simply that democracy is fragile and, having enjoyed it for so long, we took our eye off the ball. Then the 2008 recession gave the charlatans the opportunity they had been waiting for to exploit discontent. And you fell for it, my country. Not having known an occupation within living memory, you failed to see the danger when it came and you are failing to understand it now. This tide will turn, of course, whether peacefully or not I cannot say, and I certainly would not hazard a guess as to how long it will take.

So let us think back for a moment to a generation, that of my parents, who did recognise a serious threat to their freedom, for what I really want to talk about tonight are memories. Whenever I fly back to you, Britain, as the plane comes in over the Channel and Kent, I think first of Folkestone, a town of which I have no memory but to which I was sent at the age of eight weeks – to an orphanage there, because my natural mother couldn't afford to keep me. (Do you really want to go back to that, Britain? A narrow, judgemental state in which single mothers are forced to give up their children? It seems that you do, judging from remarks made by the now re-elected Prime Minister.) Seven months later, in the cold November of 1950, two kind, loving people who longed for a baby – a Bristol newsagent and his wife, both of Welsh origin – visited that orphanage in Folkestone and they drove back to Bristol with an extra passenger - me. My bond with the man who had just become my father was instant and I miss him to this day. I was told that I also went willingly into my mother's arms but took longer about it!

As the plane nears London, I look down and try to get my geographical bearings of that enormous city and its outskirts and I remember that somewhere down there I went to school, accompanied my big-hearted, generous but flawed dad to both casinos and Gamblers Anonymous meetings (somewhere near Buckingham Palace), became part-Londoner and grew up. Also down there his ashes mingled with my mum's, in the Ruislip Garden of Remembrance named after the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear. I only went back there once after their respective funerals (twenty years apart), on the 25th anniversary of my dad's death and I learnt that they were not there, for they are where I am. If I hadn't known that, I would have been unable to leave.


Westminster Abbey

They sat in their North London Garden, the girl and her dad, and he spoke to her sometimes in Latin, sometimes in French and he bequeathed to her his love and knowledge of books. Without him, she would not have become a linguist. He also bequeathed to her his humour, his quintessentially British irony and his gift for repartee. They served her well as a teacher and they serve her well now, when humour is all there is, she thinks, to help her deal with the situation.

Chronic illness had prevented dad from fighting (much to his frustration), so back in Bridgend, Wales, he had worked in the Arsenal, then in Bristol hosted American soldiers and joined the Home Guard. He and mum had been horrified by fascism and, like many of his era, he had, before what was always referred to as “The War”, been a member of the Communist Party because it was thought to be the only way to stop Hitler. Later, disillusioned, he left it and received threats for doing so. During the war and during our Bristol years he worshipped Churchill. That was a different kind of Conservatism, though – a party of the rich for the rich, yes, but there was a sense of decency and of responsibility for the fate of their fellow-Britons. In London during the Heath premiership, dad switched his allegiance to the Labour Party because, he said, they cared for the ordinary worker.


Dad (second from left) in the Bridgend Arsenal

My journey from the airport usually continues by coach and down we go, towards the South-West. I still have a sense of childish excitement when I see the motorway signs to “The South-West and Wales”. It's best before evening, when you can still see the green on either side, and as we near Bristol I muse that in some of these fields, cut through by the very road I am travelling on, the little girl and her dad used to go mushroom-hunting. Then she became a teenager and suddenly she was hurtling along the nearby country lanes in her boyfriend's car. She wept and wept when they left for London in the spring of 1965.

And now we come to the Bridge - the span across the River Severn which takes you into Wales. And Wales it is which gives me my real British identity. I grew up among its gentle accents, heard and sang its music every day, assimilated its culture and regarded it always as “home”. As you cross the Bridge you can still see the loading point for the old Aust ferry, which (if you were lucky) took you across before the miracle of the First Severn Bridge. (If you are unfamiliar with that part of Britain, you may be interested to know that the Severn has the third highest tidal range in the world. Hence the two bridges across it that now exist are true feats of engineering.) Sometimes you queued for hours, only to be told that they could take no more cars across that evening, either because of the current or because of the time, and then you had to get into Wales by driving “all around bloody Gloucestershire” as dad would bad-temperedly put it. Once in Wales, we were home and we stayed with my uncle and aunt or in the Cardiff Central Hotel owned by dad's cousin Frank. Years later, as a university student, I spent many drunken nights in its bar – Frank, the hotel guests and its staff had long gone – and later still it was all destroyed by fire. Wales was, and is, the sound of kindly, sing-songy voices, the land of the cwtch (cuddle - and believe me, there's nothing like a Welsh one), the aroma of Welshcakes cooking on a bakestone, a carpet of daffodils in March and April and the land of childhood warmth.


In Wales you'll find daffodils even when there aren't any!
Here, daffodil ornaments are on sale
 at Cardiff Christmas Market

But now I make another journey on these rare trips home: from Cardiff to Norwich, or sometimes straight from London to Norwich, another town of which I have no childhood memory, and yet it is where it all began. For that is where I was born and spent such a short time with my natural mother, who already had a three-year-old daughter called Jill, my sister. How we met after 64 years is a story I have told elsewhere but it is in Norwich that my British life comes full circle and yes, I do have a strange sense there, too, of coming home, of having been there before. Sadly I can only visit my natural mother at her graveside and I take her Welsh daffodils or, at this time of year, a little Christmas tree, and I hope she knows that Jill and I are there together. I have come to love Norwich in its own right, too – its lanes, the glory of its Cathedral, which I have found to be welcoming, and the peace of the nearby Broads.


A peaceful morning in Norwich


A Christmas tree for my natural mother
And on the way there I cross London again and remember other times, fashions and events, both in its life as a city and in my own.

To borrow from Rupert Brooke, all these things I have loved in you, Britain and, even though I do not recognise you now in your national life, they endure, for no politician can take my memories, though age may do so. Therefore I set them down now, for I want you to know that I have loved you, and I hope that you will come through this dark period as you have come through others – stronger, more determined to preserve what is good and, hopefully, kinder – and that if I do not live to see it, others will.

Monday, November 04, 2019

DONA NOBIS PACEM - BLOG FOR PEACE 2019


It is never hard to wish for peace - peace in your personal life and peace in the world - but it is certainly hard to write about it when both your life and your country are in turmoil. The turmoil in my country of origin, Britain, is nothing like that in war-torn countries around the world but there are worrying and upsetting events there - things I never imagined happening in Britain, of all places - and I am among an estimated 1.2 million British people in EU countries who feel, to say the least, unsettled and insecure.

I am not displaced; I am not a refugee; I have faced no danger but I do know that it is hard to begin a life in a new country, even when you are there, as I am, from choice, let alone when you have endured a perilous sea crossing and have been tortured, threatened and physically assaulted along the way, only to find that you are less than welcome when you reach your longed-for destination. My heart goes out, as it always has, to all who experience such trauma.

As I have said, I have experienced none of those things but events in my own country have led me to reflect on how quickly things can change, how events which you can influence little, if at all, can destroy your sense of security and take away your sense of control over what happens to you, simply because of where you find yourself geographically at the time. There is, in my case, also a feeling of guilt. I have no way of knowing if this is shared by others in my position but sometimes I wonder whether, I were in Britain, I would be able to help change things by adding my voice physically instead of, or as well as, through posts like this or through social media. But even if the answer to that were "Yes", it would not be possible so I have to ask myself what else I can do:

When Mimi wrote that her climate change theme this year could include our inner climate, I thought about that a lot and I began to ask myself what inner peace actually is. Millions of dollars have been made by gurus who believe that they can tell you, and perhaps some of them can. I can only say what it is for me and I think I find it in appreciating and remembering moments of love because these are the moments that enable us, sometimes fleetingly, to feel safe. So I would like to share with you some of my moments of love, and therefore of safety and peace, of this year: I found inner peace in February, sitting on a park bench in Norfolk, England, with the sister I never thought I'd meet; I found it in lighting a candle for my wonderful (adoptive) parents and another for the birth mother I never knew in Norwich Cathedral's Peace Globe; making Welshcakes for people is always a pleasure and for me, their aroma is that of home and, therefore, of safety and it was a joy to be able to make them in my sister's kitchen for St David's Day this March; and I have many precious moments of love every day with my dog Bertie, who loves me when I'm happy, grumpy, distracted, focused, tearful, energetic or tired and in the latter case she nuzzles me. She's a rescue dog but I always say it was she who saved me.



I am also lucky in being able to love where I am and my spirits were lifted recently on an autumn evening walk in Noto when I witnessed again the beauty of the sunlight on the stone of the Cathedral. I always go to the Noto Infiorata (carpet of flowers) in May and this year, as part of the "Italians in North America" theme, this flower portrait of Gaetana Midolo, who emigrated from her home town of Noto, Sicily to America, only to lose her life at the age of 15 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, made a lasting impression on me. Gaetana had had a dream of another country too, and I know what it is like to arrive somewhere full of hope and to have your dream shattered. I recovered but poor Gaetana had no chance, in old age, to cherish her moments of love.



To Gaetana, to all who dream of a better life, to all who are struggling to change their inner climate and to all who dream of peace, I dedicate this post. To the big dreamers who are out there protesting to change our world, I send my thanks and I would like to say to them that sometimes, when you are deeply in turmoil or despair, you can only do small things, such as remembering love. But sometimes that is enough.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Thursday, October 03, 2019

INTERVIEW WITH A YOUNG WATCHMAKER

I am so proud of my young friend Gabriele Aprile, a watchmaker from Modica who has created his own watch, the EKWATCH, launching online today. I thought you would like to meet him, so I interviewed him earlier this week:



Gabriele, this week you're launching your own watch. Can you tell us how this project began?

It has been three years in the making. I'd always wanted to design my own watch. I made two samples with different designs and chose the better of the two, the one that was the best expression of my passion. It seemed a natural stage in my life and Kickstarter, which has financed over 11,000 projects and encourages people to create their dreams, made the idea possible.


You were inspired by the concept of an eclipse, weren't you? Have you ever seen one live and can you tell us more about your inspiration?

I've been fascinated by astronomy since I was a child and it became my ambition to put an eclipse on a watch. I saw a lunar eclipse last July in Marina di Modica. It lasted three hours and I felt that fascination and emotion all over again. 



What's different about this watch?

The Swiss Superluminova disc on the watch dial encompasses the idea of an eclipse. The luminous pigment represents the solar crown formed during the event. This is the only element of brightness in an eclipse, as darkness fills the sky inside and outside the edge of the sun. The EKWATCH takes up the eclipse at the moment of its climax, with a single luminous ring illuminating the dial.



Wow! We all want one! Did you always want to be a watchmaker?

Yes, I'm from a family of jewellers. My great-grandfather was a watchmaker, my grandfather was a watchmaker and jeweller, my father is a jeweller and my brother Salvatore is a gemologist.

You now have your own shop in Modica where you sell and repair watches but at first you worked in your family's jewellery store. Why did you open a separate shop?

I think of it more as an artisan workshop than a commercial activity and it gives me the space I need to work on my projects. It's also in a very handy position for people to pop in and have their watch batteries changed!


Yes, I do that often! Modica has a lot of jewellery shops for a small city - more than you would find in a town of similar size in Britain. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think it's because jewellery is handed down the generations in families here, so we have a tradition of giving gifts of jewellery on special occasions.

What do you think the future holds for watchmaking and what are your own hopes for the future?

There will certainly be more smartwatches but traditional, Swiss-made watches will still be in demand. People will always want to wear something beautiful on their wrists. My hopes are to take the project forward and to make more models.

How would you sum up the experience of designing and finally being able to market your own watch?

I've created a watch that I would want to wear myself.

Thank you, Gabriele and I'm sure readers will join me in wishing you all the very best for EKWATCH and all your future projects.




If you are ever in Modica, you will find Gabriele in his shop at:

Via Resistenza Partigiana 42 
97015               
Modica (RG)


Tel:  +39 328 7109 579



He'll be very happy to see you!


Thursday, August 15, 2019

BUON FERRAGOSTO 2019

Clockwise, left to right:
Bertie-Pierrine enjoying some special doggy gelato; interior of Duomo di San Pietro, Modica; appetisers in local bar; Sicilian puppets depicted in flowers at the Infiorata in Noto, 2019.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

ADDIO, MAESTRO

"When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation", said Borges and it is true that we still have the works to console us. However, when a writer as great and as dear to the people of his birthplace as Andrea Camilleri dies, the feeling that something irretrievable is lost prevails and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sicily is in mourning.

I didn't know until this morning that Andrea Camilleri had named his most famous character, il commissario Montalbano or Inspector Montalbano in English, after the Spanish writer Manuel Varques Montalbán, which I think is a nice touch. I also learned this morning - and I mention it because it makes Andrea Camilleri seem more like someone I'd have enjoyed having a coffee with - that, like me, he had been unable to get through any book by Dan Brown.

Most of us, of course, were introduced to Camilleri through the Montalbano books and TV series and I remember being in Sicily (eleven years before I settled here) when the first book featuring the gastronome detective came out. "This is by a new author", said a friend. "You might find the dialect parts difficult but try it." Now, I am not a fan of detective fiction but I think we can all admit that Montalbano is different and when the series was first shown I have to say it helped that he was played by Luca Zingaretti! 

The stories have certainly played their part in putting Sicily on the tourist map and nearly every town in this area offers versions of "Gli arancini di Montalbano" or "Montalbano's rice balls". Distrustful of food not prepared by a home cook or at least by the  restaurant owner Calogero - who shares the author's second name - Montalbano is witty and also knowledgeable about food, as are most Sicilians I know.

"Mangiarono parlando di mangiare, come sempre accade" - "They ate while talking of eating, as often happens", wrote Camilleri in La forma dell'acqua and in Sicily indeed it does.

Camilleri's sense of humour was sometimes dark, always down to earth and often ironic and, along with his defence of migrants and fearless criticisms of certain politicians, sometimes it made him enemies as well as friends, a fact that sadly became apparent when he was hospitalised in June and again today. Let us use British understatement for a moment to say that there was no love lost between Matteo Salvini and Camilleri but Salvini did have the decency to tweet a brief tribute this morning. Some of the latter's fans, unfortunately, demonstrated little of that virtue. But, as the author said,

"Un autentico cretino è difficile a trovarsi in questi tempi in cui i cretini si camuffano da intelligenti" - "A real idiot is hard to find in these times in which idiots disguise themselves as intellectuals."

The Montalbano books, set in imaginary Vigàta and filmed mostly in and around Ragusa, Punta Secca, Scicli and Modica, combine tales of the commissario's investigations with asides on Sicilian food and life, feature current events and have a cast of characters that all those who read them feel they know personally. 

I would like to add to the tributes by thanking Andrea Camilleri for bringing the place I came to love so much that I have made it my home to world attention in a positive way.

In 2017 Camilleri said of the blindness that had afflicted him in old age,

"Sono cieco, ma perdendo la vista tutti gli altri sensi si riacutizzano, vanno in soccorso. La memoria è diventata più forte, ricordo più cose di prima con molta lucidità e scrivo sempre."
"I am blind, but losing my sight made all my other senses more acute. They have come to the rescue. My memory has improved, I remember more things than before with great lucidity, and I still write."

When asked what he missed, he said,
"Mi manca la bellezza delle donne" - "I miss seeing the beauty of women."

The last Montalbano book awaits publication in a safe, where Camilleri had intended having it kept until the time was right, a decision which is now presumably in the hands of his publishers.

Camilleri recently said that he felt something approaching but didn't know what it was, adding that he liked to call it Eternity. Sì, maestro, let's call it that.

Andrea Camilleri:  6.9.1925, Porto Empedocle, Sicily - 17.7.2019, Rome


Actors' caravans for filming of Montalbano in Modica,
May 2019. The caravans are for Mimi Augello and Fazio.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

MORNING GOLD

It is supposed to have been a Sicilian who said,

"Al mattino le arance sono d'oro, a pranzo d'argento e alla sera di piombo."  ("Oranges are gold in the morning, silver at lunchtime and lead in the evening.")


Whilst there seems to be some evidence that they can slow down the digestion the later in the day they are eaten, I have to admit that for me, they are always "gold"! In particular, my spremuta of fresh Sicilian orange juice in the morning, from November to February when the oranges are at their best, sets me up for the day. No self-respecting Sicilian bar owner would allow less than the finest spremuta to be served in his establishment, so  I bid a fond farewell to the juice at the end of February or, at the latest, mid-March. (This is why, when you visit Sicilian tourist sites in summer and see stalls offering spremuta, you won't see any Sicilian drinking it, because he or she will know that the oranges have either been imported or frozen.)

Imagine my surprise then, when this morning the local bar owner greeted me with,"This morning we have spremuta! They brought me oranges from Noto and they're good, so we are serving spremuta this week! But of course, when they offer me oranges from Spain, I don't take them."  There we have it: Oranges from Noto are OK but if they come with more food miles than that, they are rejected. And that is why this morning's spremuta tasted so good!



Whilst on the subject of fruit juice, if any of you have been to Sicily recently you may have noticed pomegranate juice on sale at tourist sites. The properties of the pomegranate have been rediscovered recently and there are companies producing excellent organic juice. But the fruit is out of season in summer so the juice, despite a few pomegrantes being on display, is unlikely to be freshly squeezed on the premises. Think about it - how much juice do you get out of a pomegranate if you try to squeeze one at home? There is nothing wrong with the commercial versions and they are very refreshing. They also make a passable, though non-traditional, granita.

But I'll stick to my "morning gold" while it lasts, thanks!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

INFIORATA 2019



It's always nice to visit the Infiorata in Noto and this year's theme was Sicilians in North America.  First, it was interesting to see how it's done:


Then on to via Nicolaci and we're off!





 This tragic girl was Gaetana Midolo from Noto who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.   She was 16. Your city remembers you, Gaetana:




"A new life in a new land":


Hanna Barbera Cartoons:


Joe Di Maggio:



Johnny Dundee (Giuseppe Corrara):


I thought Lady Gaga looked in fine form, myself!


The Charging Bull of Wall Street:


Hello, Liza with a zee! The lady of course has Sicilian ancestry:


The next two are a homage to the designer Anna Maria La Bianca:




Frank Zappa also had Sicilian ancestry:


A tribute to Operation Husky:



The opera singer Santa Biondo:



And the one and only!



The last image - "Exiles":



Later, despite strangely inclement weather, there was a fine parade of nobles:





Lastly, of the many crafts and Sicilian food specialities on display, my favourite was this loaf of bread:


Thank you for a lovely day, Noto and, as always, well done!  I think I should finish with....


Monday, April 22, 2019

BUONA PASQUETTA!

Happy Easter Monday from Sicily Scene, everyone!  Below is my version of Mary Berry's Chocolate CappuccinoTart, which I made to take along to a friend's house today:


I was a bit nervous, as I hadn't made this before and hadn't had time to do a trial run but then I thought, "Of course it will work - it's Mary Berry!" I used mascarpone instead of crème fraiche and panna da montare instead of double cream. For the decorations, apart from the sugar rose, which I bought, I used nocciolini di Chivasso - tiny hazelnut meringues - which a former student now working in Turin had brought me when she last came home. I must say it went down very well and I needn't have worried!

Thursday, January 03, 2019

THE WEDDING PARTY GIRL


The Wedding Party Girl

A story for New Year

I would see her four or five times a year, usually in summer, as I sat writing in the bar on the corner of my street in Centochiese. Once, I saw her in the hairdresser's, on a Saturday like all the other times, and once in the run-up to Christmas – always with the same group of friends and even in winter, when it gets cold and windy in Sicily, seated outside the bar where those who wished to could smoke. She had the kind of easy elegance that every woman secretly covets and I noticed her first not for the beauty she undoubtedly had, but for this. When she moved she glided, her long dark hair seemed effortlessly in place and her clothes, simpler in style than those of her friends, seemed smarter because of the way she wore them; few, but perfect, accessories, make-up applied by a painstaking beautician to look as if it wasn't there and, most importantly, she wore them with confidence.

Beauticians do rather well in Centochiese – there are six within a five-minute walk from my house – and they do especially well on summer Saturdays, for when there is a wedding, not only the bride, but every female guest will have what we would call in English “the works” and will be made up as if for a television appearance. An Italian beautician can make anyone look stunning, including, on occasion, I like to think, me. 

So it was that I knew they were a wedding party from their attire – the women in evening dress or at least what used to be called “cocktail dresses” in the early afternoon, and the men in their expensive suits teamed with trainers – yes, trainers – that had probably cost as much as the rest of the outfit. It made a stylish combination. The other clues were the group's general celebratory mood and the time of day: I would see them at around 2pm or between 6pm and 8. You see, in Sicily, people don't just have their wedding photos taken in and outside the church or at the reception, but the bride and groom leave their guests, sometimes for several hours, to go off to a specially chosen location – often the beach - with the photographer. What do the guests do in the meantime? Well, those who live near enough sometimes go home whilst others, such as this group, repair to a favourite bar to smoke, gossip, have an aperitvo and share a plate of struzzichini while they wait for the real celebration to begin, at perhaps 8.30 or 9.30 pm. This will go on until the early hours, comprise many courses, the viewing of the wedding video or perhaps a clip or montage of the couple's story, dancing and high jinks and possibly – something which frightens me to death – the lighting of paper lanterns which fly dangerously low over the guests' heads. Yes, these friends would have a good time later.



The wedding party girl, as I called her in my mind, never seemed to be with any of the young men in particular, though some of the others were obvious couples. She seemed of them, yet a little aloof, never smoking, never talking or laughing loudly but smiling, graceful and usually acknowledging me with a little nod. “Signora”, she'd say quietly if I passed her.

Several summers went by like this and after the first one, I'd notice a couple missing from the group so I'd guess it was their wedding day. Then the next summer they'd be back, the young woman perhaps with a definite bump, and another two of the group would be missing. Yet it never seemed to be the wedding party girl's turn to absent herself from the group.

Then one summer I didn't see her at all. On the first Saturday I thought that she might have been the (non-blushing) bride but when she didn't appear for the second or third time the group were there, I wondered if she had moved away, as so many young Sicilians do, for university or for work. I didn't know the group well enough to ask and if I had, my British reserve would have got the better of me. I didn't see her the summer after that either, and then I suppose I stopped thinking about it as after all, what business was it of mine?



That New Year's Eve, for the first time in eight or so years, it snowed in Centochiese, an event which was greeted with joy rather than dismay, for there were children who had never seen such a thing. And I had to admit it was pretty, although I shivered indoors more than I ever had in England, where houses are built to shelter you from the cold rather than the summer heat. On New Year's Day I awoke to that silence that seems to fall everywhere along with snow when it first comes. “The silence of a convent”, I thought as I ventured out, as apartment-dwelling dog owners must, that morning.

Picture by kind permission of  Oreb - Libri & Sacro, Modica


We walked slowly, my dog and I – she because, like the children, she had never seen snow before and I for fear of falling. Thus it was that when we came to the Catholic book store, we paused for a moment to look at its beautifully decorated window, which won prizes every year in the Centochiese Christmas Window competition. Suddenly I became aware of a woman treading lightly in the snow towards me, dressed in an ankle-length grey skirt of thick material, a mid-length, heavy raincoat that could have been British and what in my far-away country we would call “sensible shoes” - probably much more suitable for the snow than mine - and yes, a wisp of wavy black hair escaping from under her wimple. I don't know why she was outside or why her hands were bare on this freezing day but they were, and as she stopped to admire the crib in the window she gave me a fleeting smile and that familiar nod. “Sorella”, said I, nodding back. There was just a hint of a wave as she left, enough for me to register the glint of her nun's ring in the Sicilian sun which was beginning to peep through the unusual grey of the sky. Then she melted away as the snow soon would and to this day, I have not seen her again. The wedding party girl had had her wedding day.

Cross-posted at Tales from Centochiese



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