My Italian Diary: Calatafimi-Segesta
It's been a long-time dream of mine to travel to Sicily. I had always heard people talking about how beautiful it was — how the mountains, sea, air, people, and food are all in harmony. When we decided to move to Italy, we immediately started planning a motorcycle trip to Sicily from our soon-to-be new home in the north. I spent months planning it. Once I got approved for my citizenship last June, all I could think about was visiting the town where I hold citizenship and walking the streets where my ancestors are from. Living in Italy is something I’ve wanted to do for my entire life. At the time where I started to realize it was really happening, I started to have many doubts. I would look out of the window of our apartment at the Manhattan skyline, Davide’s arms wrapped tightly around me, as tears streamed down my cheeks. I could have never mentally prepared myself enough for how hard it was to say goodbye to my family, even though they are so encouraging of me to follow my dreams. Through all the fears and doubt, all the lights turned green.
The first month of living in Italy left us in high anticipation to find an apartment and get our shipment from America so that we could hit the road. Time was the test of all patience, but fell into place. Our shipment arrived the same day that we moved in on the 16 of August. The next day, we set our sights for Sicily.
It's been a goal of mine not only to see Sicily, but around Napoli as well. I've been tracing the dots of where my family comes from on both the maternal and paternal side. I thought by walking the streets, eating the food, and talking with the locals, I would help find the piece of me I always felt was missing. By the time we arrived to Rome, we were completely tapped for cash. The move, gas, food, life...really set us back more than we expected. After only four days, we reluctantly turned course and went home.
Davide knows how much it means to me to have experiences in life, but more-so how irreplaceable they are when they're related to family. We didn't say a word about not making it to Napoli. We already knew how sad I was. It's ok, "next year." I said.
Since then, whenever someone asks where I'm from (which is inevitable every time I speak), I end up recovering the long and interesting stories of how my family immigrated to New York (and Jersey). Their immediate reaction is always, "Sei mai stata in Sicilia?? I tuoi origini sono siciliani?? Devi andare!! È stupenda!" "You've never been to Sicilia?? Your origins are Sicilian?? You have to go!! It's stupendous!" It's stupendous, marvelous, beeeeeauitiful, unreal, an incredible experience, all the things I couldn't ever know for myself. On Valentine's Day, I was purchasing a card for Davide, and the store employee asked me how long I've been living in Italy. "7 months!" I responded...and saying it out loud I realized that it was about to be 8 months...8 months being a one hour flight away from the place I've always dreamed of going. I booked the flight the that night. My coworkers were all away on work travel so I was already going to working from home…why not work from home…in Sicily?
Davide was so happy for me. He drove me to the airport at 3 am to catch my flight. I wasn’t expecting anything out of this trip other than to see the land. I kept my great aunt’s necklace tucked into my sweater, close to my heart to bring me protection and guidance, and to take her with me to visit where she came from. Once I arrived in Palermo, I was completely speechless of how the mountains, vast and precipitous, outlined the shore. The bus ride to Trapani revealed the land covered in rolling hills of olive groves, citrus trees, and grape vines. I was greeted in Trapani by my welcoming Air Bnb host, who after learning that I had not only impromptu booked the flight, but also a scooter (which I have never driven before) immediately tried to find me a car. “You absolutely cannot drive a scooter to Calatafimi,” he said. He knew the streets better than me. Waiting to hear back from the agency if I could get reimbursed for my silly mistake, I walked the streets of Trapani. I couldn’t believe how the city was completely disregarded by its people. The streets were decorated in trash, feces, and broken glass. The charm were the people, though. The children laughing and playing soccer in the streets, old men singing outside of the bar, the fishermen off-loading the day’s catch on the shore…it was so baffling how somewhere so beautiful could be so taken advantage of. I wandered into one of the restaurants my host recommended: Cantina Siciliana. “C’è spazio per una?” “Is there space for one?” I asked. The gentleman said, “Domenica, nessuno mangia da sola. Viene mangiare con noi.” … “Sunday, no one eats alone. Come eat with us.” He invited me to his table with his friends, poured me a glass of wine, and brought me three courses of delicious, traditional Trapanese food, then revealed he was the owner. He gave me a full tour of the restaurant, and talked to me all about fresh pasta, and the traditions of Trapani. It was an indescribable feeling…to be a stranger in a place where I felt so welcome.
The next day, I set out for Calatafimi. I rented a scooter to drive romantically through the hills from Trapani, without considering my sheer ignorance. Once I arrived at the agency, I could feel my ancestors hands holding that scooter in place. No way were they going to let me risk my life…I had to take the loss and rent a car. Absolutely for the better.
The short drive between Trapani and Calatafimi practically left me in tears. “How could anyone want to leave this place?” I thought to myself. The land was so untouched. Colors of bright green grass, and rich produce cascaded the hillsides. Sheep and cows roaming freely amongst the almond trees. The sweet smell of lemons in the air. Once I pulled up to Calatafimi, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. It felt too unreal. I had zero expectations. I walked to a local bar to grab a coffee and chatted with the bartender about my family’s origins there. He suggested I talk to some of the elderly locals to see if they knew anyone in my family that might still be there. I was directed to the Comune, the Town Hall. I timidly entered the comune, and asked if they knew of any Garitta’s still living in the area. The woman’s eyes widened, and smiled so big…”I’M A GARITTA!” she said with excitement. She grabbed my hand and guided me to the vital records office. She barged into the room and announced that I was a girl from New York, who’s looking for my family…a GARITTA. The entire office greeted me with coffee, sesame cookies, and hugs. The only information I had was my great-grandfather’s name and birthday. They worked through their lunch break to find my relatives. These women, through over 40 record books, traced back 3 generations past my great-grandfather. I was in complete shock. They asked if I could come back the next day to keep going.
I immediately called my mom, and shared all of our discoveries. I got a classic Panelle sandwich (chickpea flour), and walked the streets my ancestors walked. Calatafimi is an indescribable beauty. The town is situated at the top of a hill, surrounded by infinite rolling hills. The streets are steep, and decorated with colorful ceramics, still from the time of Arab control, with divides of Spanish influence from when it was then under Spanish control.
I returned the next day by bus. After four more hours of searching, the women started tracing the line back down the generations to a point where everyone in the office started shouting, “oh, yes I know her! Her sister’s husband’s cousin is a mechanic, he’s a Garitta!” “Do you have his number?” “No but my sister does, hold on let me call her.” This went on for over twenty minutes, like a symphony. I’ve never never seen such genuine passion and interest in helping other people other than in my own family. We finally got in touch with one of my cousins. “You have to come down to the comune,” they told her. “Do I owe money? Is everything ok?” “Nooonono it’s a good surprise, just come here.”
Moments later, I was face to face with my cousin…my blood. We were both speechless…observing each other up and down, smiling and hugging…just in complete shock of the beauty of meeting family we never knew existed. She immediately brought me to meet her great aunts, parents, and family. Her aunts were so incredibly happy to meet me, as I was to meet them. It was an experience that left me without words. I couldn’t even let out the tears that wanted to come out because it all felt so unreal. We picked up her daughter from school, and ate lunch together at her home before I had to catch my flight back north. A warm pasta with tomato sauce and tuna, fresh bread, pan-seared potatoes, and salad. A meal so simple that left my heart so full it felt like it could burst. She sent me on my way with traditional fresh bread, and lemons fresh from the tree. It really does feel like I found another piece of me that I never knew was missing.
Almost immediately after returning north, I sent Parmigiano Reggiano and traditional Aceto Balsamico to the women at the Comune, and to my cousin as an effort to show gratitude for the love they showed me—even if it was truly out of the goodness of their hearts.
It was an experience I will carry with me forever.