Sunday, June 28, 2009



Marcy in Venice

I took my first Sunflower Journey to Italy and Sicily in 2000 with my oldest granddaughter, Marcy. We named the trip, Sunflower Days and Gelato Nights.

Calm before the storm-moments later Gondolier rage began

Marcy in gondola

In Venice, we got a look at road rage, Italian style (or perhaps, just Venetian style). As our gondolier poled our water taxi past a hospital along one of the many canals, a young man and woman in a speedboat overtook us. The boat wasn’t going very fast, but the couple had a boombox with them that was blaring across the water so that anyone in the adjacent buildings would think it was in the room with them. Our gondolier put his pole down, pointed to the sign marking the hospital zone, and shouted at the boy to turn down the radio. The boy began shouting back as his boat came alongside ours. Before we knew it, our gondolier and the boy were face-to-face, screaming at the top of their lungs. The boombox itself wasn’t as loud as the shouting it had caused. The passengers in our gondola were all cowering: in the United States, we would have been waiting for gunshots. But in Venice, the only violence occurred when our Gondolier suddenly grabbed his pole, raised it over his head, and slammed it down on the boy’s boat with a resounding WHACK! The boy’s girlfriend, horrified and in tears by this time, pulled him back by his life jacket before he could start slugging it out with our gondolier. Finally responding to his girlfriend’s pleas, the boy indignantly turned down his boombox and sailed his boat out onto the open sea. (Even in a charming city like Venice, not everyone is committed to the “conservation of kindness”).

Nina, Pietro and Marcy

In another of our adventures, Marcy and I thought it would be a great idea to sample some real native cuisine instead of enduring another meal of “tour food.” One Friday evening in Palermo, we recruited Dotty and Michelle, a mother and daughter on our tour, to join our little dietary revolt. The four of us hired a taxi and asked the elderly driver to take us “off the beaten path” to an authentic Italian restaurant that was frequented by the locals. Our driver, Pietro, took us on a chaotic, high-speed, white-knuckle drive through the streets of Palermo that ended at a little family trattoria by the water.

Our patient Sicilian waiter

Typically, these little Italian trattorias offer few or no options on their menus. Each night, they serve a single meal, much as if you were dining at the owner’s home. What they serve is what you get. After we were seated, we found that the evening’s meal was seafood. Uh-oh. Neither Marcy nor Dotty nor Micelle would eat seafood. We asked Pietro if the restaurant would provide a substitute and he said yes – but he was wrong. It was seafood or nothing. And in little Italian restaurants like this one, it was unthinkable to stand up and walk out once you were seated. It would have caused Pietro “perdere la faccia” (to lose face) among his neighbors and certainly would have soured what had started out as a fun evening. So, we decided that we needed to try to make the best of the situation.

Beside our table was a long table with a group of people who were obviously locals. They all had the radiant, golden-tan skin that is characteristic of Palmero’s natives, and all were dressed up. Obviously, they were there for some kind of special occasion. Since they had arrived before us, their dinners were served first. As one of the courses arrived, I glimpsed what appeared to be a quivering, purple lump of something unidentifiable on one of the plates. Shortly afterward, a plate containing one of these delicacies was plunked down in front of me. I gasped and let out a little scream when I realized it was octopus! It was fresh from the sea, and from the bright purple and pink color, I guessed that it hadn’t been cooked for very long. The whole mass was quivering so enthusiastically from the tip of its tentacle to the top of its head, all I could think of was “dancing purple octopus.” Marcy was apalled and couldn’t even look at it. And with the appearance of these marvels, my appetite for seafood left without me – perdere la faccia or no perdere la faccia.

Poor Pietro became increasingly embarrassed as the meal progressed and his four fares dined on bread and wine and passed on the rest of our food. By the time the meal was over, the owners of the restaurant (who were his cousins) had started complaining to him about us. He finally put his head down on the table in complete humiliation. We paid for our meal and left a nice tip, but the damage was done. We all left the restaurant extremely hungry. Pietro was so furious he wouldn’t even talk to us.

Four embarassing guests

At some point during our return to Palermo, Pietro seemed to start feeling sorry for us. He began talking to us again and because I am an aficionado of Italian gelato, he took us to the “best galatoria in Palermo.” (In case you’ve never had real Italian gelato – well, I’d describe it as “the best ice cream you’ve ever had on steroids.”) We all had gelato served in brioche, and all was well – at least for us. I’ve always wondered, however, how long it took for Pietro to redeem himself with his cousins.

Gelato wins out in the end

On the last night of the journey, I was upset to hear Marcy sobbing as she sat on her bed. I was sure she was homesick for her family and the States. I tried to comfort her, saying, "Marcy, I'm so sorry to have taken you away from everyone for so long, but we’ll be home tomorrow." Marcy replied, "Nina I'm not crying because I want to go home. I'm crying because I want to stay here!." Oh my – this was exactly what I was feeling. Marcy was a girl after my own heart. We couldn’t stay, of course, but we took home some wonderful memories and probably a couple of extra pounds each from the dozens of wonderful gelatos we ate.

Marcy-Valley of the Temples, Sicily


Nina and Marcy at Mondello Beach-Sicily-dog mountain in background

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