TOKYOPOP Fam: Buongiorno!
As an American, 4th of July brings out celebrations of our nation's independence over two centuries ago - a good time to think about what it means to be American. In my view, it means to be an immigrant - since almost everyone in America comes from an immigrant family (except for the Native-American tribes).
In my case, I'm a mixed-breed (like many other Americans) - half-Italian. In particular, I'm Sicilian. As a third-generation Sicilian, I did not grow up speaking Italian unfortunately, and being born in Los Angeles to a Jewish father (with roots in Eastern Europe) and Sicilian mother, I was pretty culturally diverse from the beginning (and spent most of my time at my best friend's home eating kimchi and learning Korean culture).
But my only Italian memories were vague recollections of visiting great-aunts and uncles back in Pennsylvania, eating tremendously large bowls of home-made spaghetti with tomatoes that had been stewed for days. As an adult, I had visited Italy a number of times, but never made it south of Rome.
So, a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, Italy - now that was an offer I couldn't refuse!!
My first time in Sicily was truly the most amazing trip I've ever had - and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in my life. What made Sicily special was the incredible feeling of ENCOUNTERING ONE'S MOTHERLAND. I know that sounds strange - but I felt something special truly from the moment the airplane touched down in Catania, through my time in the amazing seaside resort town of Taormina, then an incredible visit to volcanic Mount Etna, followed by renting a car for a 4-day road trip to Messina (where my grandfather was born), Cefalu (magical ancient Mediterranean village), Palermo (capital city of Sicily), Agrigento (featuring Greek ruins), and the mystical visits to my great-grandmother's farming village Sciara and my great-grandfather's medieval town Palma di Montechiaro.
Many places I travel involve welcoming locals, intriguing scenery, delicious food, and fascinating culture, but for some reason in Sicily I felt home - much in the same way I feel home in Los Angeles. It's not about an actual house but the feeling deep in one's bones that the mountains, the land, the sea are all part of you. Even though I had never before stepped foot on this land, Sicily made me feel that way.
So, after five incredible days of being treated like a VIP at the film festival, I set forth on my quest to find traces of my ancestors. I hadn't been as prepared as I would have liked - mainly because my mother could only gather a limited amount of information. It seems that the extended family in America had not done their part in tracing the original Sicilian roots, and I was really the first one to embark on this mission.
Armed with the name of my great-grandmother and her birthdate and village, and similar information for my great-grandfather, I combined a road trip of sightseeing (after all, who wouldn't want to check out a gorgeous island in the Mediterranean that has attracted invaders for centuries?!) with a casual stop in these two villages. In other words, I had no expectations other than seeing the birthplaces of my great-grandparents.
I wake up early in Palermo for a drive to the tiny farming village of Sciara, especially after locals had warned me that the municipio (city hall) often closed by noon. One surprising part of the Sicilian daily life is their adherence to the custom of riposo (Italian for siesta) - literally, everything is closed from 2:00 PM and even earlier, until past 4:00 PM. So, arriving in Sciara early was crucial.
Once I arrived, I walked around taking a few photos - an obvious tourist in a small village of 2500 people, where everyone knows everyone. I wasted little time to stop by the municipio and tried to ask a question or two following the memo I had with a few Italian phrases (like "Sono italiano-americano, alla ricerca di miei antenati" - Google translate's version of "I am Italian-American, searching for my ancestors").
A woman passing by explained to me (in Italian of course, which I don't speak) to talk to the woman in a small office in front. So, I waited for her to finish her call then hesitantly entered her office. I tried my broken Italian again and was met with frustration since I couldn't understand much of what she said (my high-school Spanish helped only a bit). She tried to ask me to return the following day or day after, but I explained I had to visit Agrigento. I guess my desperate look worked since she ended up finding a dusty old book with the birth year 1892 and began searching for my great-grandmother Santa Siragusa. To my amazement, her fingers traced over the handwritten letters until she discovered the name Santa Siragusa - she found her!
Next, I asked where I could the cemetery and, armed with photos of the birth record, continued my quest. After wandering around and asking a few people which way to go, I found the quaintest cemetery I've ever visited. I wandered around looking at the tombstones (which were more like nameplates on the walls) when an older man stopped me and asked who I was looking for. Again trying my broken Italian, we somehow ended up communicating (helped tremendously by the photos on my phone and a bit of Google Translate).
After awhile, he grabbed my arm and pulled me over to a far section of the cemetery, partially indoors and pointed at a tombstone on the wall. To my amazement, it said Siragusa Pietro, the name of my great-great-grandfather! And interestingly enough, the names in this cemetery - and I suppose throughout Sicily - were all last-name first, just like in Japan.
Next up, this kind man motioned to follow him and led me to his car. Soon enough, we were driving through the village, and he asked about my car, which I pointed out to him. He nodded then took me to a tiny home, where he knocked and was greeted by an elderly lady. After speaking to her (in Italian of course), he motioned for me to enter. I was soon standing in a stranger's living room, listening to this man explain to the family (elderly woman, elderly man, and even older woman) that we were related, at least from the distant past. It turns out the man's last name was Siragusa!
Skeptical as he was, his wife and the man who brought me there spent quite an effort to convince him that we most likely were related. I drew a little family chart and the conversation continued in colorful Italian (of which of course I understood none). Ultimately, we exchanged phone numbers and I gleefully took a photo with them. I thanked the man, proceeded to take a number of photos of the town, stopped by the municipio one more time to thank the woman (who actually had even more documents for me!) then journeyed back to Palermo.
All in all it was a shocking and moving experience - to find traces of one's roots from that far back, in a remote village on the other side of the world (which ironically looked quite similar to the canyons of Malibu).
The next day, it was a 3-hour drive from Palermo to Agrigento and a bit of sightseeing was in order. After staying at a charming hotel on the beach, and a brief swim in the sea, I made the one-hour stint down the coast and up the hills to the medieval town of Palma di Montechiaro. Unfortunately it was riposo time and everything was closed. It felt like a ghost town from the Middle Ages.
Wandering around and taking photos, an older woman spotted me curiously. I said Buongiorno and soon enough we were chatting (well, it was more like me saying bisnonno which means great-grandfather and her responding with Italian I didn't understand). Her husband came out, in his boxers and unbuttoned shirt, and he tried to help as well. Thinking back about Sciara, I asked for the municipio and the husband ended up walking me there.
Following him through the empty streets, we made it to the municipio, but there was only a sole security guard, who, incredibly, spoke a bit of English! I explained my mission, and he told me the office was closed. At that point, a few people happened to walk through the hallway and the security guard stopped them, explaining my situation. Turns out one of them was the town's mayor!
The mayor spoke some English as well, and soon enough we had a post-riposo meeting set up. With a bit of time to kill (and starving by then but no place to eat), I shot more pics, then returned to the building. At that point, it seemed the mayor wasn't back and another man tried to help out. We ended up waiting for awhile, but eventually the mayor returned and we met up in his office. After chatting for quite awhile, he gave me a book and video about the town, and we went out and drank espresso together. One of the city councilwomen's daughter was attending school in Florence and spoke English so we discussed everything on the phone.
Ultimately, I discovered that my great-grandfather's last name (Catania) is relatively common in Palma, with over 10 families sporting the name. Palma's population is about 10 times that of Sciara so it was a much bigger place.
The experience in Palma di Montechiaro and Sciara were very different but both equally rewarding. Ultimately, I met distant relatives in Sciara and found my great-great-grandfather's tomb. In Palma di Montechiaro I connected with the leaders of my great-grandfather's town and am now Facebook friends with the mayor. Hopefully I can learn more about my family's past.
Sicily is an amazing island, and worth visiting whether or not one has local roots. The ocean is beautiful; the food is locally grown and incredibly delicious; and the culture is fascinating with a rich history and kind people.
My original plan was to attend the Shanghai Film Festival for business, and I skipped it on a flyer to visit Sicily instead. I went in not knowing what I would find, but left having discovered deep roots in a faraway land that felt like my own backyard.
Happy 4th to all of us immigrants!
Check out all my Sicily pics on my Flickr page here.