Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Montegonzi and beyond

Just back from the breathtaking Tuscan beauty of Montegonzi and beyond. We slept in our friend's family house, a wooden-beamed nook next to the town's little church with the most punctual chiming bells that only disturbed our slumbers on the first night. In addition to gazing at the lines of olive trees that dominate these hills and makes the region famous for its olive oil production, we enjoyed plenty of relaxed evenings sitting by the fire, letting the kids be kids, and sampling some of the region's culinary specialities (I passed on the meat and was very happy with the cheese and wine). The days were filled with long drives on windy roads that took us on what always seemed like a circuitous path to a number of lovely destinations.

Rapolano Terme was good for the body and soul, not to mention the lingering winter chest colds. A stop in the heart of Chianti wine country at Radda, was just a place to get a coffee, enjoy the views, peek in the church, and wander the narrow streets en route to a lunch date in the area of another friend's house in Badia a Passignano. Here we discovered he lives in a virtual Tuscan dream, that would be the beautifully restored former stone barn with a tower. I still don't know if it was more enjoyable being awed by this gorgeous home, or the 10 minute drive on a dirt road to the unlikely ending of a sit down lunch in a rustically beautiful converted farmhouse restaurant.

We also made it to Florence. In fact, spent an entire day doing nothing but strolling around with an almost 3 year old while hubby attended to his work duties. I am convinced the rain stopped just for us. The little boy discovered the excitment of climbing up a bell tower (that would be the Duomo), got over the disappointment of the Natural History museum being closed, got wet chasing pigeons in a neighborhood playground (I actually had the foresight to stuff a change of shoes and socks into my backpack), behaved nicely at a sit down lunch, rested (at least I did) at the friend's tiny apartment overlooking the Arno, glimpsed Galileo's telescopes at the Science Museum, and for the rest of the time was more than content to be pushed around this lovely city following his Mama's whims.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Festival of Sant'Agata: the aftermath

This morning, walking into Catania's historic center, we caught a whiff of burning wax and then came across a barricaded street where a group of city workers were busy cleaning up the wax that had accumulated on the streets--the final remnants of the three days of Saint Agata festivities. I had never really thought about the mess that must be created by all that dripping wax, let alone the necessity of removing it. A crowd had gathered to watch this team of workers and their systematic method of first breaking up large clumps of wax, then melting it down with hand held torches (more like catching it on fire), covering up the melted areas with what looked like piles of sand that absorbed the liquified wax and could be swept up off the streets. These men worked efficiently despite the constant chatter between them and with acquaintances walking by.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I have been meaning to start composting since we moved to our Sicilian house with a garden. Living in NYC in cramped quarters and no outdoor space, this is one of those things I craved in my dreamy scenarios of a luscious backyard filled with sweet smelling flowers, juicy tomatos and potloads of fragrant herbs.

So what took me so long to finally get my act together (about a year and a half to be precise)??? To give myself a little credit, at least twice over the last year I did spend hours at a time doing on-line searches about making your own compost bin. I was even inspired to make a special trip to Bricocenter looking for the right things to build one with, yet still came home empty handed. I had this fantasy of an attractive container that would add something aesthetically pleasing to the yard, but really had no skills or vision to turn that fantasy into reality. And asking around my local circle I couldn't seem to find anyone who knew anything about composters, nor did I come up with any Italian on-line shops.

Then, two days ago, I recalled a distant memory of a friend of mine who had composted on the terrace of her apartment using nothing more than a plastic garbage can. I watched a video on-line about converting trash cans to composters. Nothing to it, really. I finally came to the realization that it wasn't the container that mattered, but the act of composting itself. And all that was stopping me was a simple garbage can. So the very next day I embraced this project with renewed enthusiasm, bypassed the usual Bricocenter, and used this errand as an opportunity to make a first visit to the new to me fai da te (do it yourself), Alfea, that I had heard about from a friend (LOVE this place!). Within a few minutes of stepping foot in the store, I had located the perfect trash can with tight fitting lid and all. And then as I dragged the garbage can through the aisles towards the check-out line, I stumbled through the gardening section and right into the happiest suprise yet--a not-too-pricey Italian-made compostiera, aka composter bin (I know, now that I know the terminology, I see how easy it would have been to purchase this on-line in Italy, maybe a year and half ago?!?!?). Without a second thought, I switched the trash can for this ready-made composter that fate finally seemed to have brought my way.

Now nestled in a corner by the vegetable patch, the new compster, containing its first mixture of leaves and fruit peels, feels like a long lost buddy who has found his way home. A symbol of an unnecessarily long personal struggle to turn good intentions into reality, when nothing was holding me back other than that extra little bit of oomph sometimes necessary when living in a foreign country.

Any composting tips to share to help keep me on track?
And look at our recently planted fava beans that are sprouting up so nicely!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sant'Agata continues

Catania transformed!

In front of Palazzo Biscari, procession of the candelora by day...

...and by night

Photos taking during the festa di Sant'Agata in 2002

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The fervor begins - Sant'Agata

First glimpse of the Saint, in the cathedral

Waiting for the Saint to emerge

A devotee resting (notice the gloves, the melting wax burns)


The final descent towards the cathedral

The festa di Sant'Agata, Catania's patron saint, is about to begin. I probably won't be able to experience the excitement this year, but looking through our photos taken in 2002 I am swept back to a Catania transformed. It was an exciting time. We were newly married. I had only been living in Rome for a few months. My husband wanted to share this experience with me and also experience it in a way he himself had never done growing up here. So we followed Sant'Agata through the city, all three days of the event. Not continuously, like true devotees. But back and forth we traveled on Feb 4, 5 and 6 to witness this incredibly moving event. We documented the experience with photos, slides, and sound recordings, fully succumbing to the excitement. We saw the saint emerge from the cathedral, where she is hidden away for the entire year only to come out for this holy event. The devotees, dressed in white robes, black velvet caps, waving white handkerchiefs (which do have symbolic meaning which you can read about in the link if you read Italian), wait impatiently inside, outside, wherever they can squeeze their bodies, to have the long-awaited first glimpse of their beloved saint. The noise!!!! It is deafening. They scream and cry with emotion 'Siamo tutti devoti tutti' (we are all devotees, all of us!!!) and it goes on and on. The saint is carried through the streets of Catania. Everyone crowds her waiting to touch her to give an offering, to light a candle, to have their child blessed. She is followed and lead and dragged through the narrow streets at a snail's pace. There are lights, vendors, balloons, crowds. The sun rises and sets and it continues. The 11 canderole (huge candles encased in elaborate wooden sculptures that originally functioned to light the way for the procession) proceed the saint, the weight of each carried on the shoulders of groups of men representing specific professions (fishermen, florists, etc.), who grunt along, pausing, moving forward, accepting offerings, as they make their way along the procession. And then there are the individual devotees, who express their devotion and thanks to the saint by carrying candles in the procession, small and large. The larger the candle, the bigger the miracle performed by the saint, the greater the gratitude to be expressed by the devotee. And finally, after hours and hours of this unending fervor, the saint is returned to the cathedral, where the devotees mourn her re-entry. They weep and cry for they do not want to see their beloved go away.