Although I spent the majority of my time as a missionary on the majestic island of Sicily, I still find it difficult to describe Sicilia. It's no wonder that poets and philosophers have often used the term "enigmatic" to describe this place. It is both beautiful and ugly at the same time, it's rocky landscape peppered with blooming flowers, citrus groves, vineyards and, almost all the time, the bright, crystal blue water of the Mediterranean Sea sparkling in the distance. There is at once a wealth of activity as the food markets bustle and the traffic screams around yet the specter of poverty looms. Although I don't remember the exact quote, a Greek writer once said that heaven and hell coexist in Sicily.
Sicily is not a dangerous place and although the mafia does operate, it's mostly behind closes doors and is no more corrupt than many of the corporations from which we buy products here in the U.S. in terms of the way money is worshiped and governments manipulated.
“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never to get involved in a land war in Asia. And only slightly less well known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”
-From the Princess Bride
As a consequence of Sicily's strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea, the island was conquered numerous times by various civilizations, resulting in Sicilians being a distinct ethnic group from mainland Italians.
The method I have found most effective in describing the location of Sicily to people is to simply say, "Hey, it's the football the boot is kicking, you know?"
The Sicilian Flag (creepy and cool eh?)
Most of the time things went like this:
"Buon giorno! Come stai?" (Good morning, how are you?).
"No, no!" (Do I really need to translate that?)
Even when people did stop, they usually did so out of curiosity since my companions and I were usually American or because they wanted to have an antagonistic conversation. As you probably know, the vast majority of Italians are Catholic not only "by religion" but as a result of their culture and heritage and, therefore, religion is something they grew up hearing at school, etc. and not something that affects their lives in the sort of intimate way that other religions and belief systems do. In other words when the average man or woman stopped to talk, the response likely sounded something like the following: "Yes, yes, of course I believe in God! You know, I'm not an evil person. Yeah, it all sounds very interesting, but I'm not interested and I don't have a lot of time. You seem like a nice young man, good luck with everything, but no thanks!" With that, he or she would be on their way. The older folks were always bewildered and the Italian girls just giggled and mumbled, "Like the Backstreet Boys!"
Now that I've provided that background information, you can imagine my reluctance to say anything to the handsome young guy in a hip coat who was sporting some fancy sunglasses and facial hair and whose very gait screamed, "I'm not interested in talking about God or anything else with you" as he walked toward me. I decided then that the fifty plus rejections that morning had been enough and that I'd simply remain silent or, perhaps, give a nod to say hello when he passed. As he approached, however, I felt urged to say hello. I shrugged it off. I was tired and besides, if he were really interested, he could approach me. Once more I felt as if I were being prompted to address the young man and once more I suppressed the feeling. He was almost upon me! Then, that still voice almost seemed to shout within me and I stuck my hand out and blurted awkwardly, "Buon giorno! Come va?" The young man turned to me, returned my greeting and we began talking.
I'll spare all of the details, but suffice to say that Antonio was easily the most intriguing person I had met during my missionary service. He was young, about twenty-four. He told me he was an artist and had just completed his art degree. At the time he was dating a beautiful young blonde girl and was basically living a life of leisure like most young Italians: working during the day and going out at night on the weekends from about 1AM to 6AM.
As we shared our beliefs with Antonio and challenged him to pray and ponder our teachings, he took the lessons very seriously. Eventually he received the answer to his prayers and, despite the objections from his parents, he decided to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was soon transferred to the city of Milazzo which is on the other side of the island and although we stayed in touch, he was sent of to complete his mandatory military service like all Italian men. We saw each other twice before I returned to the United States.
I hope someday he'll be able to come visit here, but life in Italy isn't easy for the average citizen these days. When Italy joined the European Union, they switched from the lira to the Euro which has been very tough. The Euro is worth a lot, way more than the dollar, and this has negatively impacted the cost of living because effectively everything became more expensive but peoples' salaries didn't change accordingly in all cases (this is a simplified explanation of a very complex economic process but you get the idea) and people like Gabriella and Antonio report that it's made their lives difficult. And besides, a lot of countries like Italy, despite its classification as a first world country, still don't provide the same sort of blank slate that America does in terms of education, real estate and so forth. If one finds a decent job, one sticks with it because you can't just quit and go looking for something else because you might not find it. I think the idea of nepotism must have come from Italy because it's all about who you know not what you know.
Photos of Monreale.
More of the cathedral of Monreale here.