Roadtripping Sicily

It was tempting to stay at the villa and relax but Frank and I wanted to see more of Sicily. We dropped Andy and Shannon at the airport and exchanged our monster vehicle for a little Audi. What a treat! Hairpin curves were now fun, not nerve wrenching. Armed with a map and notes of places that looked interesting, we set off on our adventure. We had no specific agenda or hotel reservations. We’d figure out where to sleep when we felt like stopping . . .


This was not a trip for counting calories. For an island that’s relatively small (the size of Massachusetts according to Frank), we were surprised at the variation in food from place to place. Each town had their specialties and we were happy to indulge. Warning: Virtual food coma ahead . . .

Bon Giorno Senor Rossi

The only thing better than traveling is sharing that adventure with family. For the past three weeks, we have hosted a revolving door of relatives at a mountainside villa overlooking the seaside town of Capo D’Orlando, Sicily, home of Frank’s maternal great grandparents. The ten-minute drive, up the curvy mountain road, took us to L’Aquilone, our base from which we explored the area and searched for signs of his ancestors. We ate well, drank a lot of local wine and enjoyed endless laughs around the massive dining room table.

Frank and I had a few days to settle in before the first wave of family arrived. The sleepy (in October) resort town, where everyone knows everyone, discovered fairly quickly that some new Americanos were in town. Could it have been the nine-person van squeezing through the narrow streets while residents whizzed by in tiny Fiats and Smart cars? Or was it our feeble attempt at speaking the local language, along with hand gestures and Google translate? If that wasn’t it, perhaps it was our trip to the local grocery store on our second day in . . .

Frank and I had proudly navigated exactly what we needed for the evening’s supper and, as we were paying for our groceries, the cashier asked us if the van outside was ours. We answered, “Si,” wondering why she asked until we went outside and saw the back end of a rooster and scattered feathers between our front tire and wheel well. Everyone was staring at the perplexed Americans who unwittingly “killed” a rooster. Figuring there wasn’t much we could do — Frank certainly wasn’t going to clean it out of there(!) — we slunk back inside the van and started it up. Suddenly, a man ran out waving his arms, “No morti! No morti!” Confused, I climbed back out and the rooster had disappeared. All that was left was a of couple feathers!

We picked up my mom, Frank’s aunt Jo and three of his cousins the following Sunday. They couldn’t have been easier or more enjoyable guests. We visited Aunt Jo’s relatives in San Agata before leaving her with them for the day. We also took a trip to Portacello to meet Fay and Rose’s first cousins and to see their mother’s childhood home. The extended families warmly welcomed all of us and it was interesting to view their homes and see how Sicilians live. They fed us until we were “molti chinu” (full!), which was a running theme of the Spano stay!

The Spano visit went by much too quickly and before we knew it, they were gone and we were picking up Louie, Andy, Nick and Maddie. Like myself, Frank was really looking forward to spending time with them. All had left busy schedules back home and were anxious to savor some good food and wine, relax around the pool, sightsee a bit and enjoy late nights playing sheepshead. We dropped everyone at Taormina one day, telling them we had to meet a friend in Catania for coffee. Unbeknownst to them, we went to the airport to pick up Andy’s girlfriend. The unplanned surprise was the torrential rainfall we hit along the way, turning an easy 30-minute ride into a detoured 4-hour odyssey through flooded towns. It was, however, all worthwhile to see Andy’s face when the cute girl behind the camera turned out to be someone he knew. : )

Bucket List: Ephesus – Done.

When planning our trip to Sicily, I came across a great price on a one-stop flight. Unfortunately, that one stop (in Istanbul) was 13 hours long! But then I started thinking, “What if we took even more time in Turkey?” Ephesus has always been on my “bucket list.” Frank agreed and here we are. We were not disappointed!

The ancient city of Ephesus was located along the Aegean Sea. The convergence of three land routes and an access to the sea created a prime location for this major sea port. Unfortunately, silt from the rivers eventually filled the sea channel. It created a fertile plateau but rendered the port useless. Today the ruins are eight kilometers away from the sea.

Sights of Istanbul

Turkey is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Asia meets Europe in Istanbul, making the city a very strategic location throughout its rich history. It was also known as Constantinople and was the capital of three great empires: the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman. History, religion and assorted cultures create a rich mosaic of incredible sights . . .

Let’s Talk Turkey

What do you think of when you think of Turkey? Exotic markets? Aromatic spices? Turkish coffee? Flying carpet rides? Turkey is all that — although we’ve yet to see a rug fly — and much more!

Although I can only speak to Istanbul, Frank and I have found the city to be one of the most interesting we’ve visited. Istanbul is where east meets west, old meets new. It is the only major city in the world that straddles two continents. Remnants of the ancient city wall butt up against modern trams and highways. Ancient baths are frequented by well dressed business people. And although you see a mosque on every other block with the call to prayer blanketing the city five times a day, the Turkish government has long enshrined a history of secularism — making Turkey a modern, democratic state. It’s a fabulous city of contrasts and choices — and some really friendly people!

Misc Africa

I didn’t know that…

I always thought that Afrikaans was the African language. I never realized its one of eleven official languages in South Africa, descended mainly from the white Dutch settlers and mixed with some Bantu, Khoisan, Portugese and Malay. Much of the South African signage is written in English and Afrikaans.

It seems that everyone in South Africa speeds! I went the speed limit because I didn’t want to risk getting stopped. Many people we talked with said the traffic police weren’t very honest, stopped motorists unnecessarily and took bribes. We also heard that no one pays e-tolls!

Johannesburg has the third best drinking water in the world.

South Africa is the only country that imprisoned three major world leaders at some point in their history: Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and of course, Nelson Mandela.

We met many people and everyone had strong opinions about what has happened and what is happening (both socially and politically) in South Africa. In response, I like this quote from Nelson Mandela, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Finally, I didn’t know that we would come to enjoy South Africa as much as we did — the beauty of nature, the fascinating cities, the history, the conflicts, the friendliness of its people. They say Africa gets in your blood and I tend to agree. It touches you. It makes you think. There are so many new places I want to go but one place that I want to come back to is South Africa.

Feeling at home at Mass

“If you ever have any problems on the road, remember, you can always go to a church.” That advice was given to us by someone we met in Christchurch and it got me to thinking, no matter where we’ve gone in the world, regardless of the language of the local people, we always felt “connected.”

This trip was no different. We saw many beautiful churches, synagogues and mosques but going to Mass was special. That hour each week connected us to the locals, our fellow travelers and the world at large.

For the most part, the prayer responses were always up on a screen, making it easy to follow along. (We’ve seen that occasionally at home and it makes so much sense. Why waste paper printing it out each week?) Participation and size of the crowd varied. Some sermons were better than others.

In Australia, our usual parish was Sacred Heart Mission, just down the street. It was an older church and had a small congregation — everyone seemed to know everyone. Although we were the ‘strangers,’ no one asked us who we were or where we came from but that was OK. We were happy to anonymously watch the middle-aged lady run the liturgy like a general, positioning the small choir, complaining when the pianist arrived late and correcting the older priest if he missed something. There was a young blind woman, whom they all seemed very protective of, who read the readings by braille. The hymns were older and traditional.

We also attended large cathedrals in Melbourne and Adelaide. Again there were fewer people and voices echoed in the cavernous spaces. A suburban church in Melbourne had more kids but, overall, we didn’t find that the Australian parishioners or their pastors were overly enthusiastic.

New Zealand was better. There were many more people at masses – the typical older people with a lot of young families – and the participation was livelier. Although the Mass was in English, on the North Island, we were delighted to hear many hymns sung in the Maori language by whites and Maoris together. The schools teach both languages to help preserve the Maori culture. We went to many different churches on the South Island and will never forget the eeriness of experiencing an earthquake at Christmas Eve Mass. Again the music was more traditional and the Christmas hymns the same. New Zealanders were much more curious about the “new people” in church, often asking us for our story.

But South Africa? That’s where we found the most spiritual enthusiasm. We attended a couple different churches, with two being especially memorable. St. Patrick’s in Port Elizabeth was in an upscale, beachside suburb. When we arrived, many people surrounded us but the small church was dark. The “load shedding,” however, did not dampen the spirit of the congregation. Although the organ was silenced and the priest had to shout (in broken English) without a microphone, the congregation was one of the most engaged of any we had encountered. In Johannesburg, at Our Lady of the Wayside Maryvale, we were treated to the choir of “church ladies” who sang like angels! That and seeing the women and children dressed in their Sunday finest really made Sunday mass feel like a special occasion, which it was for us as it was the last of our adventure and a truly beautiful “send-off!”

Visit to a South African township: Soweto

Soweto is a township outside of Johannesburg. It is a must see for visitors to South Africa as it is ground zero for the anti-apartheid movement. I was adamant about having a “local” guide and was pleased to find that Big Ben (or BB as Frank called him!) had lived there all his life. Our day with BB was a day we won’t soon forget.

First, let me explain the concept of a township. In South Africa, it refers to the living areas, usually on the periphery of cities, where Blacks, Coloreds and Indians were relocated to from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid.

Soweto is an acronym for southwestern township. The area currently houses almost two million people. The new government has spearheaded plans to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to those that don’t have it. There was a mix of poor (mainly) and some very nice housing but we also saw settlements of corrugated steel shacks. Although many of the very poor live there, BB explained that it is also houses people who are in the area temporarily, as the homes are cheap and, when necessary, “moveable.” The government is trying to eliminate this type of housing but it has become a way of life for many.

Soweto continues to grow. We saw many restaurants, small businesses and plans for a big shopping center. Being Saturday, the community was bustling and there were lots of kids around. When BB would stop to tell us about an area, curious kids would often surround us. Many of the younger ones didn’t understand English but they sure lit up when we gave them candy! At one point we ran out of treats. While Frank stood in line at the outdoor candy vendor, a parade of kids soon gathered behind him. That day, he made lots of friends!

After some historically significant landmarks and lots of interesting conversation, BB asked us if we would like to go “off schedule” and visit his aunt’s nearby home. We spent an hour in their dining area, chatting with her, his cousin (BB’s best friend), his cousin’s wife and their three children. The home was one of the nicer dwellings, simply decorated and very tidy. We had a delightful visit ending in hugs and promises by us to email pictures. After hearing about their passion for soccer, Frank treated BB and his cousin to tickets for that evening’s nearby match!

The “social” part of the tour ended with lunch at a popular Sowetan eatery and then it was time to take in some local history.

Our first stop was just up the street to one of Nelson Mandela’s homes. At one point, he had lived there with his second wife Winnie and their two young children. There were bullet holes in the outside walls from when police (!) would do drive by shootings. The couple built a brick wall in their living room to protect their family from the bullets.

Nelson Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla. Like many blacks, his first teacher gave him a random white name. For a long time, it was routine in South Africa for blacks to have their names changed when they entered white run institutions (schools, churches) or went to work in homes, offices or factories because the English and South Afrikaans found it hard to pronounce their names. They also thought the names were un-Christian, un-Western. The practice seems to remain as our guide’s original name wasn’t really Ben but he said it was much easier for tourists to pronounce.

Interestingly enough, just down the same street, was the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, making it the only street to house two such prestigious residents!

When we arrived at our next stop, the Morris Isaacson School, we were asked to wait as a meeting was taking place. Meanwhile, BB gave us a little background on the school. In 1976, high school (!) students from numerous Sowetan schools protested in response to the white government proclaiming Afrikaans as the new medium of instruction. The students felt it was the language of the “oppressor” and were angry at having to learn all their subjects in a language other than English. They planned a peaceful demonstration, walking out of their respective schools to meet up and march to the local soccer stadium. Police fired on the students, killing several of them. Further protests ensued with an estimated 20,000 students participating. The number of people (mostly young students between ages 13 and 20) killed by police ranged from 176 to 700. The killings resulted in the anti-apartheid movement gaining international attention.

The Morris Isaacson School was one of the high schools that marched and its students were among the first who were fired upon. Coincidentally, the meeting at the school was for a group of alumni, some of whom were actually involved in the protests. Many stayed after the meeting to talk with us and we had a fascinating discussion about their experiences during the protests — they are in the process of writing a book. One of them was holding the hand of her friend who was shot!

The group also shared their concern for the decline of their once prestigious school. Having been involved in our schools, it was an eye opener, and I promised to connect them with a stateside school so they could perhaps do a cultural exchange via technology.

The final stop of the day was the Hector Pieterson museum. Just 13 years old, Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be killed during the uprising. He has since become a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. The museum opened in 2002 and houses photographic and audio-visual displays. It was very informative and seeing those young faces, made it all very moving.