31 May 2010

Going on a Pilgrimage

Every year, during the last week of May, the small Sicilian town of Petrosino is a buzz with pilgrims. Yes, pilgrims. There is something about the word "pilgrimage" that conjures up ideas of walking for hours, enduring some kind of pain or discomfort and waiting in line with the sick and ailing. But this Pelligrinaggio di Santo Padre had none of it. In fact, everyone seemed to be pretty comfortable--what with the huge parking lot in-front of the entrance, the numerous food carts selling snack food and the abundance of plump, well-fed Sicilians crowding the shaded benches. 

Like most things in Italy, this has become more of a thing to do in company than an actual act of spiritual sacrifice. But there was a full mass in the adjoining church and lots of singing of hymns and plenty of spiritual pride. Pride, of course, is never lacking in Sicily. 

So the story goes that the miners of tufo (the porous stone that most of Sicily is built with, soft to cut out of the ground, but hardens to stone as it dries in the sun.) were working in a cave when one of them came across a piece of tufo naturally shaped like a man. They were so moved and impressed by this discovery that they brought the statue to the church to be displayed. The next day, however, they returned to the mine to discover the very same statue exactly where they found it. Again, they brought it to the church, but alas, the same thing repeated again the next day. It had to be a miracle! What other explanation could there possibly be? 

Although I did not find the story terribly interesting, I was curious to see this naturally man-shaped statue that was so revered. So off I went on my very first pilgrimage! "Goin' on a pilgramage...gonna catch a big one..." Oh wait--wrong song!

We arrived by car, a fairly new means of arriving, as the tradition is to go on foot. So the 35 minute car ride was spent telling me all about how the whole town used to walk together in a three hour procession down the road. This seems like a crazy idea to me considering how fast the cars go down this barely two-lane highway, but Italians are crazy when it comes to the road. "Unfortunately", it was explained to me, people are no longer allowed to do the pilgrimage by foot because too many people had been injured by cars. Wow, I didn't see that coming! But just as well, because I really wasn't up for a three hour hike in the blazing Sicilian heat.

The entrance was very nice, a lovely respite in the middle of a dry town. It was packed with people dressed in their Sunday best--thankfully no line of self-flagellating devotees. We headed through the wooded courtyard to the sanctuary, where the miraculous statue is kept.

I was so curious to see this naturally shaped stone that spawned such devotion. And curious as to how it would it be displayed. I have seen many different religious relics and altars and strange displays in my travels. I have been to a church in Austria that claims to have a vial of Jesus' blood, a church in Germany that claims to have a splinter from THE cross, a church in France that displays a jeweled robe of Mary (which is displayed on a pint-sized doll--I don't think she was that small) and all these places have enormous churches built around these small relics, all because they brought the oldest form of tourist--pilgrims. And the more tourism, the more cash flow. So what kind of naturally man-shaped stone could compete with these biblical relics?

We headed into the sanctuary...
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, but was that paint I saw on the 'natural' statue? There was a glare from the door that obscured his face. And...wait a minute...there is something glowing... I slowly shuffle along with the line of people, watching the women kiss their hand and place it on the plexiglass covering the statue. Yeah, there was something glowing alright--a neon blue halo. I am confused--I think maybe this is not the statue--that maybe it is a pre-statue, because this shiny, shellacked statue could not be the real deal. This thing is carved and painted and sitting with a freaking neon blue halo. In a state of suspended belief, I continued around the bend expecting to see the real statue. But there was nothing else. I asked my mother-in-law if this was it and she affirmed that I just walked by the statue. Really? REALLY?? I swung back around for another look, hoping to feel awed and amazed.

And well, I did. I felt awed and amazed that this whole story of a naturally man-shaped statue was found looking like this. Awed and amazed that all these people believed this BS story and awed and amazed that people used to risk their lives to walk three hours to see such a kitsch display. Am I just too cynical or realistic for this kind of thing? No, I have a lot of respect for traditions and history and I have studied and seen things that are much more of a stretch to believe. But I'm sorry, this is just ridiculous. They totally lost me with the neon halo.

But my true lesson was yet to come. Shortly after exiting the 'sanctuary', we ran into a bunch of relatives. After several minutes of hellos and cheek kissing, they were all anxious to hear what the American thought of their pilgrimage. Still in a completely appalled state of mind, I momentarily forgot that I was with Sicilians. And no matter what they say about something, even if they seemed to agree with me that the statue was silly, Sicilians are geloso--they have fierce pride for anything that is theirs. So when asked what I thought, I told them that I was really disappointed that it wasn't really a natural statue and found it over the top to have a neon halo.

Oops, I just insulted the family. The funny thing I have learned about Sicilians is that when they ask you if you like their town, or their food, or their stuff, or their idea...they don't want to hear whether you really like it or not--they just want to hear that you do. It doesn't matter if they complain 24/7 about the same thing, you need to like it. So the moral of my pilgrimage story is: if you ever find yourself asked whether you like something in Sicily, just say: "yes, it's great!" and all will be right with the world.

Until next time...

15 May 2010

A River Runs Through Me

This comes from a collection of writings I did while at University in Wisconsin.
These are "Tales From the Tundra, circa 2000:

During my last semester of college, I needed to fill two missing PE credits. So I registered for a weekend fly-fishing course that took place out in the woods of central Wisconsin, and in the Wisconsin River.

I was excited! Fly-fishing had appealed to me for several years. I have always known it to be one of those pastimes that requires a significant amount of devotion in both time and energy to be good.

Growing up, I went fishing with my father fairly often (by a city-girl’s standards), but always with the classic fishing pole.

Okay, so I have to admit, most of my knowledge and romance with fly-fishing came from watching Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It”. I still remember those scenes because they were so gorgeous--the scenery, I mean. Anyway, just the idea of being out in the middle of a river so stunningly beautiful, alone with only yourself and your thoughts is very romantic. But those majestic images of a serene river at the base of the gigantic Montana mountains were quite different than the experience I was about to have.

On the first evening, we had classroom time were we learned the mechanics of the rod and tying the different knots. I enjoyed the discussion about fly-fishing: the history of it, the tradition of it and how it can become a way of life for some people. I also learned how much scientific information fly-fishermen have in their head. These guys learn all the different larvae, invertebrates and other bugs and memorize them not only by size, shape and classification, but also by the hatching season. It blew me away. The fact that they know what time of year each insect is out, and which fish prefer which type is very impressive. I’m sure all that information makes catching fish more successful. Personally, I think it's a bit extreme, and so much technical information takes away from the visceral experience.

Yeah, well, actually standing in the middle of a frigid river with swamper overalls up to my chest wasn't really the visceral experience I was expecting.

Unfortunately, it was early March, the water had just thawed and it was raining. Did I mention I don't handle cold very well? It was utterly miserable. I really wish we had nice weather that weekend, as I might actually have enjoyed myself.

I did love being out in nature and learning the proper techniques like keeping my wrist straight and “watching my back cast”. But by Sunday, I was so cold and wet and my silly plastic pancho was not keeping me dry.  I had finally had enough of being a good sport. It is hard to stay positive when after several hours, the only thing I caught was a head cold. But that's just as well, because I'm not interested in tricking fish into biting a sharp, metal hook only to rip it out their mouth and throw them back in. I'm sorry--I don't care how much we were told it's the humane way to fish--I don't agree. Therefore, I was not really wanting to catch anything, anyway.

All suffering aside, I do have to admit, there was one brief moment when I experienced that thing--that moment of complete Zen. There was a point when the wind died down, I was watching the movement of the water and hearing it ripple around the rocks...as I cast my line, it made that little thwip sound and it flew out so smoothly and glided down, as if in slow motion, right to the spot I was aiming for. It was as if in that very moment everyone else disappeared and I felt so present and focused on what I was doing. It was fantastic--that serene moment I had romanticized for so long (minus Brad Pitt, of course). But, shortly after it started, my serene moment was rudely interrupted by the chattering of my teeth and pieces of my wet hair slapping me in the face. So much for my moment of zen.

Overall, I did have a great experience. Fly-fishing didn't sweep me off my feet, but I can understand the attraction. I know that I would love it for the peace and tranquility of being enveloped by nature, hearing nothing but the sound of the water rushing past me and the birds singing in the trees...

But for that matter, I could just randomly stand in the middle of a river without the fishing pole.

Do you have any fly-fishing stories?

14 May 2010

The Italian Police Turns 150!

Today was the official 150th anniversary of the Polizia di Stato (Italian state police). Which is also ringing in the 150th anniversary of Italy as a state in general. You may not know this, but Italy, as a unified country, is younger than the United States of America. Those of you have been to Italy have seen or heard of Piazza Garibaldi. Every city has one—Garibaldi was the unifier of Italy, conquering numerous principalities, reigning monarchs and an overly powerful church, bringing it all under one united state in 1861. So, in celebration of the anniversary of the state police, all across Italy each city had a ceremony with the pomp and circumstance you would expect from the descendants of Romans. Mazara del Vallo was of no exception and my husband and I were lucky enough to stumble upon it.

Such an important occasion brings out all sorts of people. There were those dressed to the hilt for the occasion, the presenters, the passers-by and the unknowing tourists curious of what spectacle they stumbled upon.

My favorite part of the whole thing was watching the interaction between the townspeople. Little things like this give a glimpse into a culture. I quickly moved passed the long line of blue and white police cars and motorcycles and focused on the much more interesting local color. I was able to get a great Sicilian street shot. Men standing around chatting it up, a short round priest, talking to a cop and a random gesture from some guy we can't see. It's got it all--even a trumpet!

These men leaning against the wall are totally classic Sicilian men, just hanging out, waiting for something gossip-worthy to happen. And no, their freshly ironed button shirts, crisp pants, polished shoes and perfect hair is not for this special occasion—it’s everyday attire. You won’t see t-shirts and crocs around here. And hello, the short little priest? Was I on the set of a movie? No…just life imitating art…imitating life. And I love that gesture that snuck its way in. Classic.

But, instead of seeing the ceremony through, we continued on with our main reason for being out that day. GELATO!! It was the first hot day of the year and gelato al melone (cantaloupe) was calling my name. So much for awards and patting each other on the back; it was time for some ice cream.

Vernazza Updates:

Vernazza is well on its way to normalcy and while I no longer write updates on their status, you can learn about the devastating floods of 2011 by clicking the label "Vernazza Updates". For the latest information from the organizations in Vernazza and Monterosso, visit SaveVernazza and Rebuild Monterosso.

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