Sunday, December 4, 2011

Riceballs: Ending where it all began

When I say where it ALL began, it really all did begin with Sicily.  Riceballs originated in Sicily, and while the riceball tradition passed down through the Mucey side of my family, riceballs have adorned the table of many important Ritter family gatherings.  I wrote my Davidson admission essay on the importance and impact of Ritter riceballs, thus I got in, decided to study abroad, started dating James.... the rest is history.  So, decades after the Bondis emigrated from Sicily, twenty-one years of eating riceballs, 2 and a half years at Davidson, and exactly 6 months with James, we headed to Palermo for a quick discovery of a portion of our roots.  But not before a night in Bologna and a 6 AM flight.

James absolutely could explain the origins of the Kappa Sigma fraternity better than I can, since he is now the President-elect, but the best boys at Davidson claim to have ties to a little industrial city in Italy: Bologna. Yes, the originators of Bologna (like Oscar Mayer) AND bolognese sauce (my personal favorite way to eat pasta).  In one meal, James got a taste of both in the fatherland of his brotherhood.  I also saw something these sheltered small-town eyes have never witnessed: street prostitutes.  Yep, standing on the corner as our taxi drove us to the hotel from the airport.  Its one of those things you chose to not believe that it exists until your own eyes force you to.

With a 4:15 wake up call, we headed to a little island just South of Italy.  3 days of 75 degrees and sunshine greeted us to Sicily.  I had "figured out" how to get to the hotel from the airport via a shuttle, BUT didn't quite manage to catch the name of the stop that we were supposed to take.  Fortunately, James had google-mapped it and the shuttle dropped us off around 9 am right in front of our hotel.  Unfortunately, hotel check-ins don't start until noon, but they agreed to let us check in as soon as they had a room clean.  James twisted my arm into a breakfast of riceballs and diet coke to fill the time.  We mozied around the Politeama piazza before crashing for a several hour nap.  Palermo is a big city with big city problems, namingly traffic, trash, and crime, but the tourist area is condensed into a manageable area.  We walked a lot, but we did everything by foot, a way in which you really get a feel for the city and the people.  We found ourselves always surrounded by Sicilians, something I can never say about Florence.  Only the expected folks spoke English (ie-- the hotel staff, other guests, ticket vendors, etc).  Thursday night, we walked to Teatro Massimo and the Palermo Duomo before dinner in a restaurant established in 1890 and a walk through the port.  James said best when describing our different conceptions of a port:  I think Portofino, Cinque Terre, Barcelona... he thinks Balitmore port.

James won that discussion in regards to Palermo.  So, we took a little daycation to Trapani, a coastal town on the west side of the island where I witnessed yet another first: Our bus hit, yes hit, a parked car.  I've been in a lot of buses this semester and while Italian drivers drive terrifyingly close, I've never seen, let alone been involved in an accident.  James and I decided to exit on THAT bus stop as the two drivers stood screaming at each other.  Unfortunately, we had no city map or any true idea of where we wanted to go, so we took a look in each direction and chose the way closest to the water.  We chose the wrong direction for the historical tour, but we had a beautifully scenic stroll down the beach by ourselves with clear blue waters.  Mind you, this is early December, with clear skies and warm temperatures.  After a while of stumbling and being lost, we managed to find the historical city center and the scenic little port where we also met our little dog friend.  Like most women of the female gender, I'm a sucker for animals, especially ones that can't help themselves.  James and I were walking down to take a picture from the port of some ruins before sunset and a stray dog came up close, obviously wanting food.  Not having anything to offer, we were sure that she'd follow us for a few steps, get disinterested, and leave us.  Wrong.  She followed us within two steps the entire way back into the city, passing up homeless men, trashcans, and plenty of car tires to pee on.  Dodging cars and construction workers, she followed us all the way to the Cathedral, and afriad she'd follow us inside, we quickly walked inside.  I told James that if we walked out and she was still there, I was taking her home.  If the US (and my mother) would've allowed, we'd have another addition to the family, because after spending 15 mins or so exploring inside, we were wrong again.  Waiting outside the steps.  Loyalty, that one, and breaking my heart the whole time.  We then succumbed to playing hide-and-go-seek through the narrow streets of Trapani before finally turning around and not seeing our pup.  This is probably 45 mins after our initial meeting.  After a beer and a sucker later, we had to run to catch the bus home, but we made it back to Palermo in time for a nice meal and a bottle of vino.

Saturday, we planned to do all the touristy things that we didn't get to do our first day in Palermo.  Palermo's markets are described more like African or Middle Eastern souks with smells and vendors like you couldn't imagine.  We took an adventurous route through one of the outdoor markets, only to think we were lost and magically land on the main road. We hid behind columns in the cathedral, admired the royal palace, and walked to the catacombs, where we ran into an unfamiliar-but-familiar Davidson face.  Most Davidson students at least know first names, but we definitely know faces.  As we approached, we heard a voice ask "Do you go to Davidson?" Why yes, we do. Who knew that 1700 students could spread so far into the world, even to the catacombs in Palermo, Sicily?  The Cappuccini Catacombs house 9000 bodies arranged by gender or social class from 1599 to the late 19th century.  Definitely one of the weirdest things I've done in Europe, but interesting to this medical nerd.  The city was setting up for an outdoor festival as we walked back, only promoting the hasseling from the "Occupy Massimo" protestors.

Our hotel offered us a deal too enticing to pass up.  James said we have been "playing adults" this entire and a classical Russian a cappella concert in a Byzantine Cathedral in a hilltown near Palermo seems like the only appropriate way to finish out on that mature note.  Checking out the 68,000 square feet of glittering gold mosaic in the Monreale Cathedral is recommended in every Sicilian guidebook, but there is no easy way to get there.  Our hotel supplied the concert ticket and a shuttle to and from for only 4 euro.  So, we put on our church clothes and headed to the concert, lowering the average age to about 70.  James and I had front seats and a great view of the gigantic mosiac Jesus in the apse of the church while the Russian singers sang beautiful songs in lyrics we couldn't understand.  Probably one of the more rewarding and unexpected experiences of the semester.  I do love opportunities that just land in your lap.

Our Sunday morning flight back to Bologna came too early, but a breakfast of riceballs and sour spaghetti eased my pain.  Sicily is a hodgepodge of cultures because of the variety of inhabitors that dominated the island for centuries.  Its like a Greek, African, Arabic, Italian, and Norman vacation island -- unlike anywhere I've ever been.  And being the last trip of my semester abroad, I was sad to see it come to an end.  Luckily, James escorted me back to Florence for the afternoon since his flight to Valencia wasn't until late.  I made him and the boys his final Italian pasta supper before saying goodbye for the semester.

Its bittersweet to think that I'll be home in 13 days.  James reminded me today that if you think of Sunday as the first day of the week, I'll be home next week. Crazy!  Gen asked me today what else do I want to do while I'm here.  I've done Italy, completely, and I love it here.  But, I don't need to see another church or another museum (except maybe the new Gucci one), so I'm going to spend my last days indulging in eatingeatingeatingeating and shoppingshoppingshoppingshopping (and maybe studying a bit for finals).  Most every else is over the traveling and over Europe.  While I am one patriotic, capitalist-loving girl, I have been bitten by the travel bug.  I look forward to Christmas in Lincolnton and an amazingly fun but academically challenging semester back at Davidson.  15 page papers and organic chemistry exams don't me all that eager to hop on a plane though, but the thought of Carolina Cup, frolics, formals, the Superbowl, my Mommas kitchen, my bed, and my brother make me realize how long I've been here.

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