“We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elseware.”
– Adam Leith Gollner, Saveur, April 2016
I’ve been awake since 5:30 this morning. Not because I had to – or particularly wanted to – but because the butterflies in my stomach kept fluttering around, making it impossible to sleep in, the way I had intended. So I’m here, with you. Eyes half-mast and looking a little rough.
I hope you don’t mind.
The butterflies are equal parts nerves and excitement – in a few hours I’ll be on a plane crossing the Atlantic to spend three weeks in Italy. It’s a solo trip, one that, the more I think about it, was probably long overdue. The first few days will be in Rome, then one week in the fishing town of Sferracavallo in Sicily and then another week further inland, in Sclafani Bagni, where I’ll be taking a food writing workshop with two of my favourite writers – Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss. The workshop takes place at Case Vecchie, which houses the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school, nestled among the rugged fields and vineyards of the Sicilian countryside. If the online photos do it any justice, then yes – it might actually be paradise on earth.
Given that the workshop itself has been something I’ve had my eye on for awhile – it still seems a bit surreal that I’m actually going, even in the few short hours leading up to departure. I’ve never felt this wired – in both the good and adverse sense of the word – for any trip I’ve ever taken. It’s quite impressive as a feeling, part of it stemming from the anticipation, but also from things as banal as transit logistics (charting out an itinerary in Sicily has been tricky, with entire trainlines suddenly going out of order. It seems that David Lebovitz has even experienced the peculiarities of Sicilian transit), unexpected technical issues (my computer), as well as my (perhaps archaic and ill-advised) decision to use paper maps instead of GPS or Google maps. (This should be interesting.)
Most of all though, I think that the churning in my stomach comes from something a little more abstract than the kind of excitement I’ve had in the past when planning a vacation. And in that sense, it’s more charged, too. I recently read an article on Sicily in the April issue of Saveur, where Adam Leith Gollner talks about the feeling of mal d’Africa, the “heartsickness” for Africa that Sicilians have when they’ve been travelling away from home (North Africa having had such a remarkable impact on their food, culture, and architecture, that’s it’s inextricable from Sicilian life and sensibility). My mind went back to those words when I thought about the reasons I wanted to visit Italy again. Not because I consider it home necessarily, but because – being the product of a Canadian father and an Abruzzese mother – there’s part of me that will always be Italy. It sounds clichéed to lay it out like that, so plain and saccharine, but it’s true. There’s a sort of mal d’Italia that lives inside me.
In that way, Italy has often felt like a phantom limb. Its presence is there – in the minute details of gesture, of speech and of sensibility – when I share a joke with my grandmother in broken dialect, or lift a peach to my nose at the market, or place my hand on a stranger’s shoulder (and wonder if touching them was the acceptable thing to do, in the cool anonymity of urban North America). Italy is in there, all the time, in some way shape or form. And I suppose that travelling back to terra madre is my way of restoring the bits that I feel I’m beginning to lose or forget, as my grandmother slowly enters into her mid-nineties and I come to the realisation that she, in fact, has been the one thread that’s kept me connected to that sense of Italian-ness, that sense of patria, as she calls it. When she’s gone, I’ll have to find ways to reconnect to it when I can; I suppose this trip is part of laying that groundwork.
There’s lots more that I’d like to tell you about – not the least of which is this workshop with Rachel and Luisa (a total dream). But aside from not having the wherewithal to get into that now, I should probably tie up a few more things before I go, like weighing my bags to make sure they meet the airline requirements.
As a parting gift, I’m leaving you with this photo of the seafood risotto that my boyfriend made me this past weekend, with celery, fennel, white wine, homemade fish stock and a handful of mussels, shrimp, and cod. He wanted to make something in the spirit of Sicily, and I think he succeeded. (even if we committed the ultimate act of Italian food sacrilege and added parmesan to it.)
See you here again soon – hopefully more well rested, a little less wired, and with a lot of good stories to tell.