24 Apr ITALY/SICILY OCTOBER 1999 – PART 4 (Ribera, Sicily)
So we took a bus ride from Palermo to Ribera. It felt like the longest ride ever, and it was HOT!! I don’t remember the bus having any air conditioning… We got to Ribera during the middle of the day, and my dad and my brother found a little shop where they bought some waters and Gelatos. Ribera is little one horse town, pretty archaic … the roads are still pretty much dirt. People still live in stone buildings, with wooden folding doors. This is where my father’s parents are from. We went back to visit because my grandmother’s sister Nicolina, still lives there, and we were there to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary where her and her husband would renew their vows.
We got to Zia Nicolina’s house in Ribera. This was the whole reason why we were here. Zia Nicolina lives in one of these stone buildings, it had about 2 or 3 floors. There have always been rumors of Zia Nicolina being a pretty rugged woman. She would make bread or Ricotta, and people would find a buttons and things in them. So when she offered us some homemade ricotta upon our arrival, I felt more than compelled to pass on that, lol. We stayed upstairs where there were 2 guest rooms and a water closet. And it was exactly just that… it was a closet to dump your human waste, and then GET OUT OF THERE. IT STUNK SOOOOO BAD!!! I don’t even really remember there being a shower in there. PEE-EEWW!! There was a rooftop which my brother and I would hang out on during our stay there. I remember sitting up there one night, thinking about how homesick I was starting to get. We were already on our second week in a foreign country. I have never been this far from home, and for this long. In the morning you would wake up to the sound of the fresh fruit cart rolling down the street, I’m pretty sure it was a horse or a donkey pulling the cart.
I remember our first night in Sicily, we went shopping in the “downtown” area. I remember back then I was into a lot of BRIGHT things, and European style, especially Swedish decor from places like IKEA. We went in this one shop, where I bought this bright green octopus coat hanger, and also a little yellow egg garbage can with a swinging door (I still have the garbage can, I keep loose change in it).. but I’m not sure what happened to the Octopus, LOL. Either way, I remember shopping in Ribera, I think a lot of stuff closed early, like 8 pm or so. After we went shopping, we were invited to eat dinner over my dad’s cousin’s house in town. They lived in a high rise apartment and it was a bit of a step up from Zia Nicolina’s house. We were greeted by my dad’s cousin (I forget her name). But I do remember that she spoke with a singing type of voice. The inflections at the end of her words always went up, so it always sounding like she was singing questions. It was a bit strange, and I have never heard anything quite like that before, but it made my brother, cousin, and I giggle. It was a bit of an inside joke the whole time we were there. There was also some talk about my dad’s uncle or cousin there, being involved with the mafia in Ribera. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but I remember them talking about something. Anyway… we were so excited to finally eat a good meal after our long bus travels from Palermo.
Now I love seafood, and I’ll eat squid now, as an adult…. but as a teen, I was not as adventurous when trying new things. At my grandmother’s house in the states, she would make squid dishes, but often compensated those with other meat or normal fish dishes for those who didn’t like the squid (it really is an acquired taste)… so it was quite upsetting to see EVERY.SINGLE.DISH that they served at this house, involved SQUID!!!! The salad, the pasta, the main course… just … EVERYTHING. Now my grandparents and my father were all for it, heck, they grew up eating crazier stuff than this… But my brother, mom, Zizi Fina (surprisingly), and Nick just could not do it. It was almost like that scene from Indiana Jones Temple of Doom where they are sitting at the feast and keep getting served Monkey Brains, Snake, and eventually the safe soup which actually turned out to be eyeball soup, LOL! I am not sure if these people were offended by our hesitance to their food, but as a teen you don’t really care about offending people, you’d just like to stick to what you’re used to. So while everyone else was chowing down on their calamari dishes (not even with breading to mask the chewy texture), they supplied us Americani idiots with some Dove chocolate shelled ice cream pops. And that is what we ate for dinner that night. If I could go back in time, I would totally eat some if not all of those dishes… I love MOST seafood, there are still some things I have not tried, but I think I would if presented with the chance. I have tried squid ink pasta before, and it is absolutely delicious! When you get older your palette naturally changes, and becomes more open to trying new things. I’d really love to go back to Italy/Sicily as an adult and experience all that the Mediterranean Sea has to offer. You really can’t get seafood any fresher than that!
Some other things I remember about Ribera were the street markets. We would go to these markets during the day, and you could haggle prices on things. I also remember going to a fair at night. It was like a carnival type of thing, and there were street fairs there every night. Along the main strip of Ribera, there were Tunisians (we called them “The Tunisini”). They would come from Northern Africa and try to sell their wares on the island of Sicily. They have all their merchandise spread out on blankets, for you to choose from, and haggle on. They were quite tricky and talked a persuasive game… you had to watch out for them. I think during the night of the fair one night, we bought some souvenirs there as we walked back to our Zia Tina’s house to visit her.
Zia Tina was a feisty old woman, she also lived in a small downstairs apartment of one of these old stone buildings in the residential Ribera area… Maybe a few blocks from Zia Nicolina’s. Zia Tina was my grandfather’s younger sister. I think this was our first or second time meeting her. She took to me right away, and kept saying how much I looked like her mother (My dad’s grandmother, Nonna Serafina). I get that from everyone in my family… I must be Serafina Reincarnated. When you look at old pictures of her when she was young, I really do look like her, even more so when I was younger. So we visited with Zia Tina for a few hours, and she was seriously the cutest little old sicilian woman ever. She had us come sit down for some sodas, and she served us a plate of cookies, which she must have had sitting in her cupboard for awhile cuz there were ants crawling all over them. We didn’t eat them, LOL… but we didn’t mention it either… her eyesight must not have been that good, or maybe she was just embarrassed when she saw what she had served, cuz she didn’t seem to realize the bugs she was serving us. Either way, it was a nice gesture, and we left there feeling gracious. I remember hugging her goodbye wondering if I would ever see her again. Before I left, she gave me a little necklace with some charms on it. One was a little pewter charm with St. Michael on it, another was a blue stone lapis lazuli or marble heart. I accepted her gift graciously a gave her a big hug goodbye. My brother and I looked out of the back window of the car waving goodbye as she stood outside her stone house with wooden folding doors, doing the same, until the both of us could no longer see each other. We would only see her one more time on this trip, at Zia Nicolina’s engagement reception, which I will continue in a future post.
It was really interesting going there to see where we came from, and how my grandparents lived before coming to America. While we were in Ribera, we also had to stop by a popular family landmark: Nonna Serafina’s old house, also the house where my Nonna Giuseppina gave birth to both my aunts, Zizi Fina and Zizi Mari, and where my father was also conceived. It was a corner stone house, and the top floor was overflowing with beautiful jasmine flowers and vines. It was amazing to be able to see that.
We stayed with Zia Nicolina for a few days before going into Rural Ribera, closer to Agrigento, to visit with my dad’s cousin Martina and her husband O’Nofrio. As far as I remember, it was about a 20 to 30 minute drive to the outskirts of the city. I guess you can call it east bumblefuck… aka… in the middle of nowhere. I remember Martina’s house being a bit flashy compared to the rest of Ribera we had initially been introduced to. It was a little bungalow style stone house that sat on its own property, surrounded by lush ferns, palms, and olive trees. It had a nice sized terrace paved with tiny little white stones sectioned off in red stoned squares so the ground looked like that of a grid. There were steps up to the front door from the terrace, and the porch was a nice size as well. The inside of Martina’s house was equally beautiful, with dark blackish green marble floors, plush couches, shiny pillows, potted ferns and palms, and wooden side tables & grand armoires. The living room table tops were decorated with collections of little trinkets and family portraits. The walls were decorated with gold framed European art, hung up against plain white walls. The whole room was so elaborate, I could understand the decision to keep the walls plain. I remember her kitchen being much more simple. It was quaint, mostly white cabinetry and walls, with little splashes of yellows and blues.
I remember sitting in the kitchen one morning when we first arrived. Martina and O’Nofrio have 2 children, Andonella & Salvino, who are older than me and brother. We did meet them when they visited the states in the early to mid 90s. My brother and I were still 8 or 9, and they were pre teens at that point. Now during this visit, my brother and I were in our teen years, and they were entering early adulthood, so I guess they were going through certain “phases”. While my brother and I were sitting in the kitchen with my parents, aunt, and cousin Nick, while they were catching up with Martina, we heard very loud music coming from Salvino’s room. When he finally came out, he opened his door and the sound that spilled out was a very angry Marilyn Manson. He came out dressed in gothic black attire from head to toe. His nails might have even been painted black. This was a very different Salvino than the one we had met back in the mid 90s. My brother and I had made some joke along the lines of “Good Morning Satan”, and we had my Zizi Fina in stitches with the comment. He didn’t spend much time with us during our stay here, as I’m sure he was ridden with the late teen angst that my brother and I had not crossed the bridge of yet at that point. Andonella had matured a lot at this point, but I remember that she was also a bit stand offish. The both of them did not spend much time showing us around or getting to know us, but you know how late teenagers are. They always have plans of their own, and why would they feel obligated to show around their little cousins from the states, to which the language barrier would inconvenience them even more so? So they went about their routine, and Martina and O’Nofrio continued to be our tour guides throughout our stay here.
One of the nights we were here, I remember we were to give Zia Nicolina and Zio Andrea the surprise of their lives. They were prepping for their vow renewal and anniversary party so all of the family gathered at Martina’s to give them something a little extra special. We all waited in the kitchen as we heard the sound of music in the distance. I can’t remember exactly if Zia Nicolina & Zio Andrea were already at the house, or if they came to the house and we surprised them, but they were surprised by all of their family and extended families who waited for them to arrive on the veranda of Martina’s front yard. The surprise was complete with a small parade of local musicians: a classical guitarist, a clarinet player, a tambourine player, a singer, and a keyboard player, who walked up the stone path to the gates of the bungalow, serenading the happy couple. They were so surprised that Zia Nicolina shed some tears of happiness! It was a beautiful moment, something I have only seen in movies! They kicked off the terrace party with a slow waltz like dance to a song of the live band. Soon after the music picked up, Tarantella style, which is notorious in the Italian/Sicilian culture, where everyone joins hands and dances in a circle around the main couple. Everyone partied the night away to the beautiful Italian music supplied by the local live music.
During our time here, we also visited Agrigento (View Post Here) and La Campagna, Zio Andrea’s Orange Orchard Farm. This farm was about as rustic as you could get! My brother and I ran around outside and played with the farm’s puppy Zorro. It was a tiny little husky puppy with the bluest eyes I have ever seen. He was so CUTE! I wish I could have taken him home with me! Zio Andrea showed my dad and Nick around the farm a bit, and also let them pick some oranges. There were rows and rows of orange trees extending over the large land that Zio had owned and tended to, with the beautiful view of the Sicilian mountainside as its backdrop. My Nonna Giuseppina helped Zia Nicolina & Martina make some pasta in the kitchen which was located in a small one room stone house on a slab right on the farm. Vin and Nick played Uno to pass the time, while we waited for dinner to be ready. There was also a long table in there where the whole family dined on delicious pasta with homemade sauce and bread. No meal was complete without 10 bottles of Coca Cola or Sprite. I remember there being A LOT of flies around, we WERE on a farm after all. After dinner, we visited a small archeological site, not too far from the farm. My dad told me this place was called Eraclea Minoa.
“Heraclea Minoa was an ancient Greek city, situated on the southern coast of Sicily at the mouth of the river Halycus, 25 km west of Agrigentum. Its ruins are now found near a modern town of the same name in the comune Montallegro in Italy.”
We spent an hour or 2 here, exploring the excavation sites and enjoying the views. We also took some silly pictures of us all standing on stairs, awkwardly, and sitting on stone couches. My brother and I used to like to pretend me were archaeologists on secret excursions and posed for my mom’s camera as if we were uncovering some magical ancient bones of Jurassic dinosaurs or Egyptian Pharaohs.
We had loads more fun in rural Ribera, the land was our playground. Back at Martina’s house, we would watch as my dad helped O’Nofrio place the large net beneath the olive trees which canopied over half of the front and back yard. As he helped him press the olives into fresh oil, I played with the puppy they had at the house. He was a little beagle named Churridru. We would also have picnics on the table on the terrace in the front yard. Lunch always consisted of fresh pasta and homemade sauce, salad, bread, and bottles of coke or sprite. I’m getting hungry now just thinking about it. We spent a few days at Martina & O’Nofrio’s house, but we went back to the more city like part of Ribera where Zia Nicolina lived because we had to get ready for her big day, renewing her wedding vows.
I don’t remember the church in which they renewed their vows, but I remember it being very small and quaint. The whole service was in Sicilian, and my brother was the ring bearer. Soon after the vow renewal ceremony, we were whisked away to a nice little party hall with marble floors and columns circling around the dance floor. We danced a lot, we ate a lot, and we took lots of pictures. Zia Tina also made one last appearance here, and we took lots of pictures with her which I am happy we did, because a few years after our trip, she sadly passed away. She was the coolest old little sicilian woman, may she rest in peace.
No day in the small city of Ribera was complete without some espressos on La Chiatza, and we even found a shoe store named CARUBIA SHOES. I’m not sure if there was any relation to us, but you never know, because Ribera is such a small town.
I am grateful for the memories of this trip, and I wished I remembered more details about it since it was about half my life ago. I hope to visit my roots country again in the future, and hopefully expose my future husband to my culture one day. I am proud to call myself a Sicilian, and to know where I come from.