“How would you summarize our first 6 months here?” – I asked to Anikó on a sunny April morning while sipping a cappuccino con latte di soia in Piazzetta Garibaldi.
“Well, it was definitely full of changes,” she said.
And indeed it was – diverse, colorful, sometimes adventurous and challenging, but definitely a period of self-realization and personal growth. We had the chance to organize international evenings: Hungarian night with specific dishes, a comprehensive presentation and dances, an Indian night with Indian food, henna, mandalas, lanterns and Bollywood. I started a project of my own – a Mandala course that challenges me to learn more and do more, because my students got as good as I am after only 3 lessons. And while Mistero Buffo is a place for us to carry out our ideas, it wouldn’t be the same without the people. People who share the afternoon hours with us, people who come up with ideas to travel – go hiking in the jungle-like forests, searching for mountain caves, go star-gazing or lava-gazing in the middle of the night, visit towns and cities etc., etc.
And at the end it all depends on you – how you see things, how you see people around you and what you bring out of it.
There are some experiences though that left a print in my mind more than others, so here are some thoughts:
San Sebastiano, Carnival and the magic of Siesta
Weather we wanted it or not the walls were trembling and the dissonance between pyrotechnics and “battle cries” – Viva San Sebastiano! was overwhelming. The statue of the saint was brought on a high pedestal through the city for 12 hours by a handful of devotees, who were making a sacrifice by not wearing shoes. And this is where it got strange – they were having a dozen of socks on instead. Each stopover at a church or a statue of another saint was accompanied by fireworks and celebrational details like songs played by an orchestra or confetti. And, trust me, for our taste there are un sacco di chiese in Acireale.
Nevertheless it was a celebration when friends and family had the chance to get together, go on the streets, eat nougat, toasted chickpeas and chestnuts, buy helium balloons and cotton candy for the little ones and spend some time surrounded by the idea of tradition. And we all have that in our countries, in our own nations – a festivity that would not make much sense to foreigners, but would mean a great deal to us, and I value that.
An exciting fact to mention is that after Christmas and San Sebastiano the decorations on streets changed again to welcome the colors of Carnival.
One thing is true for sure – I have learned to love siesta, and more vividly it showed during the carnival, when for one and a half weeks Acireale was the center of the party. A carnival is the Roman Catholic way of letting off steam before 40 days of lent – marking the time till Easter, so there were always people on the two main streets, music playing on the speakers throughout the town and confetti – confetti everywhere! But for my surprise, again, siesta is something that has rooted deep in the characteristics of an Italian – willingly or not around 13 the streets cleared out and a breeze of fresh air blew through the town. Almost everyone except for the tourists sought refuge in their homes when the siesta hit –to rest, to eat, to fix the costume… so that they could return to the feast in the evening. And now I am sure – siesta is definitely not just a heat thing. It’s a national value, at least here, in Sicily. And seeing our town like this – peaceful and calm – even during one of the busiest weeks of the year gave the sensation of hope and relief.
While walking through the streets of rain-glued confetti, covered masquerade stands and brightly illuminated candy stands and listening to a musician doing a sound-check in the empty Dome Square, I decided that I will miss this.
Not always the appearances are deceptive
One of the most vivid cultural disparities I have experienced so far took place during an evening visit to Catania. We got the chance to attend a concert of a Sicilian folk band called iBeddi – “the beautiful ones”, and I was absolutely dazzled by the fact that the musicians were changing instruments like socks – sometimes even multiple times per song. Instruments that I have or have not seen before. And while it was a folk concert the setting was quite amusing and, well, shocking for that matter.
First of all, it was held in a nightclub/ concert venue/ bar/ disco; and the moment when iBeddi stopped playing, a DJ took over instantly. The public changed drastically and even though I said at the beginning of the concert that “I have never seen so many heels at a folk concert”, I had never seen the scenery of an Italian night club as well.
The high point and the second part of this spectacle took place in the ladies room. While I was waiting for Anikó, a girl came in and stood next to me (we had a huge mirror in front of us) – the contrast was unbelievable, and I could see on her face that she found the reflection as amusing as I did. My color explosion outfit, hippy-like hairdo, sneakers that had seen several countries and the facial expression of “what am I doing here” in contrast of her 12 cm heels, almost no clothing, hair that had experienced more product and ironing in that one day than mine had ever seen, and a thick layer of makeup accompanied by undoubtable facial expression of “what is she doing here”. At least that one thought we shared, so we (me and Anikó) left with a certain wish to leave.
To prolong the sensation of unbelievable contrasts after we had left the venue, our friends brought us to a “place next door” – an ex-Arci place, a café, a cultural center, a free library, a place to meet people who are like-wise minded, free spirited, art and culture driven, and, most important of all (in that particular evening, anyway) – offered mulled wine at the bar. We were brought to Gammazita – a place that clearly resembled Mistero Buffo in interior design and the overall vibe, but was filled with various people. As I turned to Anikó, to express the excitement and a wish to come back one day, she said “I think it’s too hippy for me”. And there it was – the main difference between me and her, between Gammazita and Mistero Buffo – and, well, I am somewhere in the middle, I guess.
Nola – the home of a colorful snail and a Ukrainian food shop
As one of the latest experiences we had the on-arrival training for volunteers who had just started their service. We received an invitation to go to Nola, and, yes, you read it correctly – On-Arrival training – a formation you get to participate in a couple of weeks, maximum some months after arriving in the project location. I know, I know – Italians love to be late and I have gotten used to it, but this was a bit funny. Anyway the experience was amazing and we got to know people from all over the world who are doing European Voluntary Service all over Italy.
We arrived at a very nice hotel at the middle of nowhere also known as Nola – a town 40 minutes from Naples, but the hotel had lanterns with crystals on the ceiling, and an outdoor swimming pool. And this was the moment where I saw that Anikó’s low of attraction theory sometimes works – she was convincing me to bring my swimming suit, because “We will go swimming!” she said. She did not know anything about the hotel, about the location, about the week plan, but she was sure about this one thing. And so we did. The schedule was intensive – 4 hours of EVS related lessons and 4 hours of Italian lessons every day accompanied by various activities in the evenings (nighttime) but on Sunday we got the chance to visit Naples.
“We reached a narrow street that seemed to belong to the pastry shops, pizzerias, fish markets and other customer-driven enterprises, but was still decorated by drying laundry on every single balcony of the tall buildings. Water flew down the street and you could see that it is leaking from the buckets filled with octopus and mixing with the laundry water that an old lady carelessly poured out on the street. On this background there were pedestrians – scholars, workers, tourists and locals, making their way up or down the street, and cars, of course, driven by people who have given up a long time ago. That was not the rule in Naples, not at all, but this street was special. The rest of the city was shaking from the sound of car honks.
Pastry shops were putting cornetto’s and other breakfast foods directly on the streets in glass cases to draw the attention of potential customers, so the smell of freshly made pastries filled the air and came down from the mountain-like street, making Naples smell like sweetness and freshly baked bread.”
Naples was beautiful, but it reminded us of Sicily, and it seems that this island has rooted in us so much that even while searching for a real Neapolitan pizza in a not-so-touristic place, we ended up reaching the end of Via San Sebastiano and finding a nice and cozy restaurant called “Bellini”. Coincidence? I think not.
Six months have passed in a moment. I looked at the calendar on 2nd of April and told Anikó: “Today is officially the first day of our last 6 months in the Sicily project.”
Shocked and discontent she looked at me and waved the thought away with a single phrase: “Let’s not think about depressing things right now.” And indeed, let’s not do that. In the meantime – come and visit us in Mistero Buffo! Ciao!
It has been almost four months since we arrived in Acireale, Sicily – the small, cozy, Etna-shaded, azure colored spot in the South of Italy and the headquarters of our EVS project.
And while I am trying to post a blog entry on WordPress every couple of weeks, it is about time to share some thoughts and feelings also with Mistero Buffo followers and members about the joys, challenges, perks and peculiarities of being a Northern Europe citizen, living in Sicily.
First of all, it is true that even here, in Acireale EVS is alive and well. Joining this year-long project has provided an opportunity for us to contribute to the work of Mistero Buffo – a cultural place and platform that many of the locals don’t even know exists.
And by “us” I mean myself – Dārta(Latvian) and my co-volunteer Anikó(Hungarian).
Nice to meet you all.
This project has given me another year for exploring the dimensions of art, music and writing and an opportunity to find ways how I could incorporate it into the everyday life of Mistero Buffo. And it has given Anikó a platform for her ideas and a chance to become fluent in Italian, and eventually – become Italian – which she is eagerly going for.
To keep the record straight, since our arrival we have experienced and taken part in multiple international/ multilingual/ cultural evenings, movie nights, karaoke night, an international short-film festival, concerts and even the Acireale Christmas market. There was a trip to Rome and several weekend trips to different cities of Sicily. So huge thanks goes to the people from Mistero Buffo who got an idea, an inspiration, an inducement to drag us out of Acireale and show the beauty and diversity of this island.
I myslef have had an opportunity to play and sing in two low-key gigs, and in the future we might organise more pop-up concerts like that.
Benvenuti al Sud!
We arrived in the beginning of October – and what an October that was! The tree leaves in Latvia had just started to change color from green to yellow-orange-red and the temperature outside was +11° C, but after a 4 hour flight that felt more like time travel to me (due to some extreme temperature changes), I arrived in Catania Fontanarossa, + 30° C . I was greeted by two wonderful Italian girls, who seemed quite confused and not completely prepared to meet a person who doesn’t speak Italian at all. Despite that they were more than kind.
We celebrated Anikó’s birthday at the beginning of November by going sunbathing and swimming in the Ionian Sea.
We greeted the end of November with a granita.
And we finally awaited the change of seasons somewhere around Christmas.
To answer the question that has been on everybody’s minds and tongs for a long time: Why did we come here exactly– to Sicily, to Acireale? I have to say just this – for a foreigner like Me Italy is Italy with no specific separation between South and North. And it was a dream. Going south would only mean that the people would be more warm-blooded, the sun would shine brighter and the colors would be more vivid. Now, of course, I am starting to notice the differences.
Anikó asked me once if I could imagine myself living in a place like this for the rest of my life, and I thought: I could and I might be extremely happy to do so, but I would miss Latvia too much. After three months even the most enthusiastic ones can get a little bit homesick.
One of the first and most unignorable things in Sicily was the native way of communication. And I knew this before coming here. It is the liveliness that accompanies every conversation, gestures that are almost like a second language – happening simultaneously with the spoken word. And, no doubt, the way of dealing with problems.
If making a joined decision in a group seemed hard enough in Latvia, compromising here, in Sicily, seemed almost impossible – it would be accompanied by loud decision exchange, speeches happening on top of each other and many different arguments – connected or non-connected to the topic of discussion. But at the end everybody would say Va bene and move on to the next topic like nothing happened, while I would be sitting there speechless – like the lightening had just struck a tree that I was sitting on.
Another phenomenon that now just seems ridiculous, but felt quite confusing at the beginning is this manner of behavior – how people just strip you with their eyes. A huge cultural difference, you see – because it is considered rude, an invasion of privacy, a creepy thing to do or at least an invitation to say something where I come from, but not here. Here the eyes linger on whatever or whoever is in front of you.
Italian drivers have developed an extra sense of knowing when to hit the brakes or honk without actually seeing the walker, how to park in places smaller than their cars and to drive in two-way streets that would be considered too small even for one-way traffic. This will be something our families and friends will have to face and accept in an accelerated manner, when they will come to visit. It took me a couple of weeks, but they will not have that much.
The trip to Rome
November was flying past us and before going to Rome in December, there was Magma – an event that some of the locals are looking forward to for the whole year.
And truly the taste of Magma was intriguing – extraordinary people, interesting stories dressed as short films and animations in a three day long journey that started with a broken key and ended, in my opinion, one week later… in Rome, when we met one of the Magma directors there.
We got invited to Rome for a celebration, a feast, a day together with other EVS volunteers all over Italy to commemorate 20 years of European Voluntary Service. At first the deal was that only one of us can go and it took us a split of a second to agree that we’re both going, even if it meant that one of us would have to spend a day on our own in Rome. But everything always falls into right places somehow and we both went as representatives of Arci Babilonia a.k.a. “Mistero Buffo”.
We were supposed to leave just for a day, but it ended up becoming a four day trip due to some expected and unexpected changes – a delayed flight that prolonged our trip by a day, and a wish to discover Rome once more.
I have to say – traveling with another person can have two scenarios: Nr. 1 – you close the whole world out; Nr.2 – you let everybody in. So traveling with Anikó meant being invited to a press conference/ film premiere; getting to know an Italian workaway enthusiast on his way to Mexico; walking miles and miles… or taking the metro every day like it’s no big deal (though it is for a Latvian like myself), inviting ourselves into a Sicilian restaurant that was closed and getting to know the owners because of that (a guy from Germany and another guy who happened to be from Acireale), and much more…
Meanwhile our little Acireale experienced a makeover…
Christmas in Sicily
We, northern people, tend to envy southerners, but the truth is – we are the ones who can walk around bare feet, wearing just a T-shirt at home for 3-4 months, while it’s snowing outside. I told this to Licia, expressing my incomprehension, but she shared an opinion of her own, that I do not understand – It should be winter inside and out, not the other way around, that is the natural way. This could be mentioned as a cultural difference as well.
One of the most crucial Christmas “ingredients” at my home has always been the tree. And it’s not just about the tree itself, but the combination of wooden smell, some broken conifer needles, candles, tangerines and grandma’s patties. It is the shadow of the branches – illuminated by a soft light, coming from the Christmas lights.
But here, in Acireale, I did not find a single place where people would sell nicely packed… or unpacked Christmas trees. Not that I really, really tried…but I guess for me being used to having these spontaneous Christmas tree markets on every street corner and square, made it hard to understand – why is it so?
On the other hand the Italians do have il presepe (the nativity scene/ Bethlehem) everywhere, and, well, the tree might not be the most religious of Christmas symbols, so it might even make some sense. But since the Baltic States are considered to be the birthplace of Christmas trees, my love for them was justified.
A white, white New Year
The Sicilian landscape during winter time usually does not change that much. Whenever there’s sun – a new season is introduced. Having the Sun changes everything, you see, and whenever snow was mentioned, Sicilians tend to answer with: “There is snow on Etna as well.” (It made me smirk every time.)
Not that it changes anything for a person who isn’t used to living next to a hill, not to mention a mountain or even a volcano – in my imagination there would always be snow at the top.
But this year was different, even the locals admitted that these few days at the beginning of January that we had here, when temperature almost dropped below zero, were an anomaly. And all of us volunteers from Eastern/ Northern countries – both here and in Catania – enjoyed it a lot. I was told that it might get chilly here in Sicily, but no snow had been seen for years, so the year 2017 will go down in history.
I have to say that we are lucky to be based in Acireale. Even though sometimes I miss the urban fuss, Acireale is not a small town – not in a sense I would describe a small town, it is full of life, but has the potential and ability to calm down, when it’s needed. That is why I would not change it for any other location.
Thank you for reading and come and visit us in Mistero Buffo!