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Catania, Sicilia - 28 October 2011


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Back to Catania

In Enna, while waiting for our bus to Catania in a fine drizzle, we were amused by the traffic jam in the little square outside our B&B. Randomly parked cars, a constant stream of traffic from three directions, no controls and only a vague sense of lanes, and yet it somehow all works out. Just down the hill we could hear the constant shrill of the policeman's whistle as he tried to facilitate a four way intersection. The cacophany was enhanced periodically by the impatient honking of the cars in our square being impeded by the mess in the next.


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By the time the bus came and we found good seats, the traffic had thinned inexplicably, and we sailed downhill to be inundated by university students hoping to get home for the weekend. Some ended up standing for the hour and a half ride to Catania. Once down the hill, the weather, although cloudy, started to clear, and there was more blue sky than cloud when we got off the bus and walked to our hotel just a couple of blocks away. The Villa Romeo has been a very good base for us.

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Just at dusk we were fetched by Pete and Jenny Raisanen. Pete  is the son of Rochelle's teaching sister Dede and was a Kinderhaus student of mine 35+ years ago; he is now a thoroughly decorated career Navy physical therapist attached to the NATO base just outside Catania -- the base from which the Libya flights originated. Off we went through the gathering darkness to Borgo Antico, an agritourismo several kilometers outside the city where we were promised, and enjoyed, an amazing farm-to-table dinner that left us groaning with pleasurable excess.

The antipasti would have been enough. Caponata, olives, grilled cheese, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, crackers with preserves, potato fritters light as a cloud ...and more ...and more. How could we resist? But we should have, because this was followed by two primi piatti, tagliatelle and robust spaghetti ragu, and then two meat secondi, and dessert (a first: Pete didn't touch his dessert) and limoncello. Every bit of the dinner was produced on the farmstead.

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Dinner aside, the time with Pete and Jenny was a precious insight into Sicily through American eyes. They have been here several months, and Pete is on his second tour in Italy. They clearly love Italy and are glad to have some time to explore it from their privileged place as American military. They live on base, where they even have 110 volt electricity (albeit 50 cycle, so the clocks run 16% slow), a commissary with USDA approved milk airfreighted from New Jersey, and subsidized gas (about $4/gallon). Jenny is Coast Guard, also decorated but now on Inacctive Ready Reserve because she is OCONUS -- Outside the Continental US -- and can't make it to her unit in 12 hours. She's trying to work something out so she can preserve her rating and also do part of her reserve work here, where she has a challenging offer from Navy officer who wants her skills and Top Secret clearance ... but Navy is Defense and Coast Guard is Homeland Security, and so the working out of this seems unnecessarily complicated to us. But they're both career military and used to the bureaucracy.

The base here is notorious for having the second highest birthrate of any military post, Jenny says -- no pressure! Everyone, she says, gets one of the three Ds while here: a divorce, a dog, or a dependent. Jenny is bright-eyed, small, and vivid, and Pete is still the gentle solid guy he's been as long as we've known him. Their marriage of two years seems like a magical one, and they already have a bird -- an endangered species the shipping back and forth of which is amazingly complex. And Jenny "doesn't want to deprive Pete of the pleasure," she says, of her first pregnancy while he does his upcoming 12 month tour in Afghanistan. Pete quickly agrees with her: he doesn't want to miss that either, although that's the typical pattern in the military: wife incubates while husband is on protracted combat tour.

Pete's a comfortable Sicilian driver, zipping back and forth across non-existent lanes and passing slowpokes. From time to time someone zips by us. "The only thing the Italians do fast is drive," Pete observes. Jenny gives us bunches of useful tips -- her present job is working for the on-base tour agency. In Italy a bar, for example, has a public toilet. She and Pete have been exploring Sicily and have a number of great tips for us -- a pizza place in Noto, a good review of Ragusa Ibla, a couple of important sights in Palermo. As we are dropped off back in Catania after a wonderful evening, Pete says, "If you need anything at all in Sicily, it's a small island and we're only a couple of hours away." We feel very cared for and completely delighted with these two sweethearts. 

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Saturday morning we began our marathon "see Catania" day with an attempted visit to the Duomo. We were turned away although others were going in. A wedding? Maybe God just didn't want to see Californians today? His loss, thought I, in a bit of a huff. We watched people surge through Piazza Duomo, past the iconic elephant that represents the city for awhile, then toured the Greek Theater, still impressive despite having been built on top of by cramped Catanians for two millennia.


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We can't exactly blame the 19th and 20th Century Catanians who built houses into the unused corners beside the ancient greek walls, and hovels inside on top of the seats. This was unused space near city center, and should be put to use. In the absence of tourism and civic pride, why would anyone preserve something so old and broken down? The best piece, in a "bourgeoise house" belonging to the Liberti family, was a tiled masonry stove built into the kitchen in an odd corner room overlooking the favela built inside the old theater.

The Liberti family's tenure went through several generations, a couple of renovations, and numerous subdivisions of the "little castle" to accompany the configurations of the extended family. Befoe passing to the city, it was the surgery and home of Dr. Liberti and hi family, and his childless sister and her husband. 

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In another example of Italian curatorial bankruptcy, no photography was allowed in the little museum attached to the Greek Theater (renovated with EU funding; I wonder if that's the issue?) despite the complete absence of postcards or a well printed catalog of the exhibit. I guess the message here is "you've got to pay to see, and you can't show what you saw to your friends for fear they might want to come too." So I snuck this photo of this lovely marble whale. Not sure it justifies a trip to Catania ...or even the 4€ admission price...


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Then we went to the Catania market. After crowded blocks of amazingly shoddy consumer crap, here came a wealth of gorgeous edibles:

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We sat on some steps, ate pears, persimmons, and grapes, drank seltz di limone (Catania's street drink, seltzer with lemon and salt), and watched the craziness of the market wind down toward the Saturday afternoon reposo. Full or fruit, we pushed our way through the shoppers to the main street, Via Etnea, and downhill to the Duomo -- now closed; God, too, takes a long nap in the hot Catanian afternoon -- and through the fish market to the civic museum, housed in a fine square castello. In the main square, there was a public celebration going on that included the making of street art by carefully spreading salt onto blown-up images -- this one of Sicily's symbol, the trinacria.

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<p>Three Tarot cards: the Chariot, the World, the 10 of Cups</p>

Three Tarot cards: the Chariot, the World, the 10 of Cups

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The Civic Museum is operated on the same principle as the Greek Theater, i.e. you may look, but you can't show: no photos. There were a number of amazing coats, chausubles, cloaks, and other clothing from the 16th-18th Century, an unusual holding, and nicely displayed, and a pinacoteca with a remarkably undistinguished collection of Virgins, saints, and soldiers ... and one case that thrilled me: six ancient Tarot cards, thought to be XIIIth Century, and just possibly so. Sicily and the southern Mediterranean, was where the Tarot evolved, starting, as legend has it, in Alexandria, divised as a means for learned men who didn't share a language to debate philosophical issues; only later did their markers come to be used as a divinatory tool.

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After the museum, a much-needed stop for gelato, and a ripose, we went to the Circo Martin, a small circus set up in a big parking lot not far from our Catania home. Disappointing audience, but the performers gave it their best anyway. Here we have Madame Maximova and her tiger (she also had a bear) and the tight-wire walker. Nothing spectacular, but certainly an experience we don't often see in Caspar.

Afterwards, dinner at il Mosquettiere, and home to pack and get ready for the European time change -- we're now back on standard time, a week in advance of the US. Tomorrow we're away Siracusa and the south and west side of Sicily.


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