“U tuoi beddu ùocchiu verdu cùomu u mari.”
I looked at my roommate Ivana for an explanation. She translated from Sicilian into Italian, “Your beautiful green eyes the color of the sea.” I smiled at the crusty fisherman before me, thinking, “But my eyes aren’t green, and the sea here is definitely blue.” He rewarded me with a crooked grin; lighting up his torn overalls with mismatched buttons tucked into fish gut-splattered rubber boots to his sun-splattered skin the color of crinkled coffee.
I know what you are probably asking, “Wasn’t I a bit freaked out that a stranger covered in fish blood twice my age was complimenting me as if he were a slightly creepy relative?” Well, welcome to another day in the streets of Catania, Sicily. Crusty old fisherman flirt as they try to sell their daily catch, wrinkled old men with toothy yellow grins engage you in a political discussion weaving standard Italian with the more colorful Sicilian dialect, and if the smell of smoke and fresh baked brioche hasn’t completely overwhelmed your senses then there must be something wrong with your nose.
The ancient charm of this Sicilian city is so seductive that by the end of my first month there I fancied myself a Catanese woman for life. I had found my crew of Sicilian friends, my favorite cafe (il Chioschetto), the best arancineria in town, and the quickest route to my classes at the university. I was living life, as I had never imagined. Every week was a different festival, protest, or concert.
Sicilian life is played out in the streets. Everyone is a friend, family member, or future lover, and life is an endless summer that doesn’t tire. That’s why Sicilians like to say that it is always sunny, even if it rains close to four months of the year. This is not to say that Sicilians have nothing to complain about. Poverty is a startling contrast to the rich landscape, and unemployment continues to rise despite the efforts of the European Union’s development fund.
Sicily’s image as the “poor man of Europe”, a mafia ridden, poverty stricken, primitive island, is the image that prevails in the minds of most Americans; however this is not the Sicily I fell in love with. Boasting the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins, an active volcano, and beach towns that rival the Amalfi coast, I think it’s remarkable that Sicily remains largely undiscovered by the American tourists that flock daily to Venice or Florence. In my opinion this is of course part of its appeal. I was spoken to in Italian before English, and I was rarely disturbed by the stereotypical American tourist, replaced instead by a more adventurous type.
My decision to study abroad on this infamous island was basically luck of the draw. Where could I study on the coast away from the cold I had endured in two winters at Bowdoin College in Maine? My foodie soul was drawn immediately to the promise of fresh calamari, local markets, and calm azure water of the Mediterranean.
After four months I was left with more than just a tan, new recipes, and fluent Italian. Returning “home” turned out to be the hardest part of my year. Reverse culture shock hit me in full force. I was left with emptiness and a deep sense of loss and confusion. I didn’t feel like I fit in the United States anymore. Had I, with my blond hair and distinctly not-Italian features, become Sicilian? I certainly felt so, and I needed to relive my Sicilian experience in pieces every day. My espresso machine and frequent Facebook conversations with my Sicilian friends were not enough to fill the void.
I was overjoyed when I got hired as a TA for the Italian department at my school, getting to run the conversation hours for Italian 101 was a great way to keep up my Italian and pass my knowledge and love of Italian culture and language to other students. I put everything from playing an Italian version of the game mafia to learning how to make espresso on our weekly schedule with the hope that other students will learn to love the language and culture as much as I do.
In order to combat the “dining hall blues”, another TA who studied abroad in Padova and I satisfied our spoiled taste buds with Italian dinner parties, where we invited others from the Italian department to help us cook whatever regional delicacy had caught our eye this week. Speaking Italian is of course optional, but highly encouraged. Over plates overflowing with some basil infused dish we had cooked up, we felt comfortable reliving our adventures from difficult university professors to getting stuck in some tiny Italian town due to a sciopero (strike).
Now, as a college graduate, I am overjoyed that I get to return to Italy. This time, I will not stroll down Via Etnea as a Catanese student, but rather race down the streets of Bergamo as a high school English teacher. I look forward to September when I will begin another adventure in Italy, this time getting a taste of life in the north. I fear however, that my heart will never leave that rocky Sicilian coast I miss so much.