Sicilian Christmas

Frank has many fond memories of growing up in his old Sicilian neighborhood in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Everyone was family and they looked out for each other. The older folks spoke Sicilian. Church was the center of that community — serving as altar boys, having nuns as teachers, and particularly the traditional processions and lively festivals that accompanied Holy Day and Saint Feast Day celebrations.

Frank experiences a special connection to that past when we’re in Sicily. He has been anxious to return to the island since our 2015 trip. The revolving door of family –- sons, girlfriends, mom, aunts, cousins — made that trip one of our most memorable and definitely our most laugh-filled! He really wanted to spend a Christmas here. We inquired about the same villa and it was available. The owner had just installed a new fireplace and even agreed to provide a Christmas tree for us!

There was one thing missing. What’s Christmas without some family around, right? No worries. Andy, Nick and Maddie jumped right in. They were excited to just relax, eat some delicious Sicilian food and drink some of that tasty, no-hangover Sicilian wine. The kids arrived a couple days before Christmas and, for the next ten days, we pretty much did just that.

Following in the steps of Frank’s forefathers, we celebrated Midnight Mass at the local church. After Communion, the priest paraded through the aisles with a very old, life-size baby Jesus. The gathered faithful reverently touched it, some kissed it. Afterwards, we processed with the congregation to the town piazza, where the priest gently laid the baby in the manger of the life-size Nativity creche. It’s tradition. It’s what most Sicilians do every Christmas Eve.

The five of us appeared as outsiders in this tiny church where everyone knew each other. Little did they know, we are connected; we are connected in time. We are connected in the present by our joint participation in this age-old tradition. We are connected in the future through our memory of this event. But most importantly, we are connected through our past. We are connected through relatives that were neighbors, friends or even relatives of their relatives. That makes us connected and that makes us family. Buon Natale from Sicilia!

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Is Sicily an easy trip?

Sicily as a travel destination requires — how should I say it? — some adjustment.

MANGIA
How do you like to start your morning? Are you a person who enjoys a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs? Or maybe you favor a fancy brunch with quiche and champagne? How about a simple bowl of porridge with fruit? Sorry. Breakfast restaurants aren’t really a “thing” in Sicily.  Unless you have your own airbnb kitchen to cook something up yourself, it’s pastries and donuts (albeit, really good pastries and donuts) with your espresso at the local cafe-patisserie. (Many hotels, however, do provide a selection of meats, hard-boiled eggs and cheeses — with their pastries.) Lunch starts around 12:30 and dinner is served later, like many other European countries, with restaurants opening around 7:30. Many do not get busy until 8:30 or so. It’s always funny for me to see kids out for dinner at 9:00!

The food, as expected, is fabulous and needs little “adjustment.” Seafood is fresh and cooked to perfection. Fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful. And the pasta — oh the pasta! Nick and Maddie choose to eat gluten-free whenever possible. They always found plenty of choices when we ate out and we were all pleased to find that Sicily is ahead of the game with gluten-free pasta that actually tastes good. Needless to say, their gluten-free diet was often set aside on this island where sweet treats are everywhere and are as delicious as they are beautiful.

SHOPPING
Most stores, including grocery stores and pharmacies, close from 1 to 4, so you just need to plan your shopping accordingly.

DRIVING
Driving is an experience in itself. Although the highways in the south seem to be in better shape than those in the north (which are inundated with “reduced speeds” and crossovers due to construction), the speed limit is pretty much unenforced. We were amazed at the excessive speed of the small cars which appear out of nowhere and then fly by — even around hairpin curves and through countless long, dark tunnels. The towns have extremely narrow roads and drivers zip through, cutting in front of cars and barely dodging pedestrians. Cars are parked every which way — backwards, ends sticking out, double, even triple parked. In bigger cities, driving is, in a word, INSANE. There are very few cars without scrapes and large dents.

And don’t place all your confidence in your GPS. More than once, Siri told us to turn the wrong way down a one-way or up a street that was a stairway! Like I say, adjustment. And flexibility.

NO GUARANTEES
Sicily in the off-season requires some patience as well. Searching for opening hours on a website or Google does not guarantee that a restaurant or tourist sight is open. Call ahead and make a reservation whenever possible.

IS IT WORTH IT?
Unequivocally! Sicily is a beautiful and historically fascinating country. Every town and region is unique and there is so much to discover, to taste and to relish. Yes, it might take a little effort but that’s what makes the treasure all the more appreciated.

Enjoy a peek at our second road trip around the island. It was a such an amazing opportunity to discover new places, revisit others and see the country through the eyes of Maddie and our boys . . .