The telephone rang. I picked it up. “Hello?”
On the other end of the line came a flurry of Italian. I knew instantly that it was Mike’s uncle calling from Italy. I didn’t understand any of his words, other than, “Ciao, Patrizia!”
I quickly answered, “Ciao, Zio,” and then in English said, “hold on. I’ll get Michael.”
I wasn’t sure if he understood me, but he answered, “Si, si.”
My husband, Mike, was in the bathroom, which was usually a long ordeal because the bathroom was also his reading room. I rapped on the door and shouted, “Mike! Your uncle from Italy is on the phone!”
He opened the door and I passed him the phone. They talked for several minutes, and then it became quiet. When Mike came out, he closed the door and I heard the ceiling fan running. I was thankful we had two bathrooms in the condo.
He told me his uncle had called to wish us a happy Easter. I noticed tears in Mike’s eyes. “What’s the matter?” I asked him.
He answered, “My uncle was crying. He wants us to go to Italy and visit him. He said he’s getting old and wants to meet me before he passes.”
I felt bad. Mike had spoken of going to meet his mother’s family for years, but life got in the way. And although we’d traveled, Sicily had never been on the list.
We discussed it for a while, and decided that we were going to Sicily. Our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was coming up, and a trip to Italy would be the perfect gift for both of us. It would be our dream trip.
Mike called his Uncle Calogero back, as well as his cousin Pasquale, to let the family know we would be spending Christmas and New Years with them. We would stay for a total of thirty-two days. His family was elated, and the joy in Mike’s face was worth more than anything money could buy.
Mike is Sicilian, and I’m half-Italian (Neapolitan) and half-German. Mike’s mother and father were born in Naro, Sicily, but did not meet there. His father came to America at age two. His mother came to America when she was twenty-three. Her Uncle Palo, who lived in the U.S., suggested she come to meet and marry Mike’s father, Salvatore, who was working for Palo at the time.
Mike and I were born in the U.S., and so were my parents. But we were raised similarly. I now find it amusing what a big part the Italian culture plays in a marriage. I didn’t think that way forty years ago.
My mother was my Italian half, so we had more of the Italian influence in the home. I have no relatives left in Italy that I know of, but just the thought of being able to go there was exciting. I thought, other than the scenery, how different could it be? Mike and I were both raised in a predominately Italian culture. We both grew up in families that had insisted, “It’s the Italian thing!” Whether they meant the homemade wine and eggplant parmigiana, or why no one was allowed to sit on the plastic covered sofa, eating in the basement, the vegetables we grew in the garden, or inviting forty relatives over every Sunday for spaghetti and meatballs—it was what they called “the Italian thing.” And my husband and I were ready to see where the whole “Italian thing” began.
For months, we planned the trip, purchasing our plane tickets and even renting a minivan (yikes!) in advance. I was quoted a great price on the van, but to our surprise, the insurance cost more than the rental itself. I inquired if the insurance with our current carrier would cover us in Italy, but was informed that it would not. When I asked the
agent why the insurance was so expensive, her reply was, “Because of the way they drive in Italy.”
I had thought that was funny…at the time.
We purchased gifts for Mike’s family, mainly jewelry. We also purchased small items, such as hand cream, face cream, travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, hair clips, silk scarfs, T-shirts for the teenagers, small toys, and candy for the children. We purchased whatever we thought his family would like. In our enjoyment, we went overboard buying gifts, but loved every minute of shopping!
Our departure day had finally arrived on December 11, 2002. It was a Wednesday. We had our passports in order, our international driver’s licenses, health insurance coverage, and everything else we could’ve imagined needing. We packed the smallest piece of luggage with most of the gifts. There was not enough room for everything, so I put the rest in my carry-on.
We’d each packed enough clothing for about ten days, planning to wash and re-wear during our stay. Mike had spoken to his cousin, Pasquale, a few days before our departure, and Pasquale had informed us that they did have laundry facilities. I assumed (a cardinal sin) that meant a washer and dryer. We had also purchased a brand new digital camera, and I was bringing my laptop so we could download pictures right onto a CD. Mike had acquired a few electrical adapters. We were proud of ourselves for being so organized. I’d even spoken with our doctor about the trip, and he gave me a prescription for an antibiotic to have filled before we left. I mean, we were golden!
Our daughter, Melissa, drove us to Miami International Airport. Our flight was set to take off at five P.M. We arrived in plenty of time, said our goodbyes, and in we went. We checked the three suitcases, while the two carry-ons, laptop, camera bag and my purse would fly in the cabin with us.
It was going to be a wonderful, relaxing time. We couldn’t wait for it to start. We had plenty of time before we would have to board the plane, so we went into the café near the gate and ordered drinks. We talked about how interesting it was going to be to meet Mikes mother’s family for the first time. Over the years, we had spoken to them on the phone and corresponded in the mail, but this time, we were meeting face to face. Mike understood Italian and could speak it fairly well. I, on the other hand, spoke and understood the language little. The local high school offered an Italian class for travelers, so I had signed up in preparation for the trip. I’d also purchased a language book and tapes. By the end of the course, I was sure I knew enough to get by. I was bringing my English-Italian dictionary with me too. I was all set. I was confident!
Mike and I returned to the gate in time to board, but there came no announcement. Don’t stress, I told myself. We all waited. Several minutes later, we were told the flight would be delayed by one hour. The problem was that we had a connecting flight in Milan that would take us to Catania, our final destination. Mike’s cousins, Pasquale and Lillo, were going to meet us in Catania.
We walked over to the attendant to tell her about our concerns. She advised us not to worry—“Everything will be fine!”—and that the airline would get us to Milan in time to catch our connection. I asked her, how would that be possible? She told me the pilot would make the time up in flight.
I’m not going to let this little snag bother me, I thought. I put my trust in what the flight attendant told us, and we went back to our seats. The wait was almost an hour. Finally, we were able to board, found our seats, put our luggage away, and fastened our seatbelts. We were on our way!
The flight attendants served us dinner. I expected an Italian meal. After all, we were
traveling on an Italian airline. I felt sure there would be some sort of pasta covered in a delicious meat sauce, a nice crispy salad, and maybe even garlic bread. My mouth was watering at the thought. The attendant finally reached our seats to take our orders. I was shocked at the choices: fish with steamed carrots and potato, beef with steamed carrots and potato, or a sandwich. Pasta wasn’t even a choice! We both ordered the sandwich. I realized then that I had a vivid imagination when it came to my expectations about the journey.
I soon learned there was a duty-free shop on the plane. I bought a few more gifts. It helped me to forget about my disappointment in the food.
We settled back in our seats. Mike and I wanted to get some sleep so that we wouldn’t have jetlag, due to the time difference. I had purchased a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills, and we each took two. They worked. About a half hour later, we drifted off to sleep. When we woke up, we felt refreshed, and the pilot announced we would arrive in Milan in less than an hour. We would then catch our flight to Catania.
Originally, there was supposed to be a short layover in Milan, but our flight was more than slightly late, which left us with only minutes to catch our connecting flight. Mike is six-foot-three and a big person, and I am not a tiny woman. Neither one of us was in shape. My husband also has a few health issues, and we are not spring chickens. And yet, we had only minutes to catch our flight!
I thought the airline would accommodate us if we needed help. Perhaps a golf cart, or some other motorized vehicle. An attendant met us as we exited the plane. She seemed to know who we were (the pilot had probably radioed ahead and said to look for the two biggest people on the plane), and told us to follow her. She was young, pretty, and looked fit. She spoke perfect English, and was going to take us to the gate for the last leg of our trip. She advised us that they were holding the flight for us. (No pressure there!)
She started out at a fast walk. I told Mike while still on the plane that I was sure there would be a vehicle to take us to the gate. We each had a carry-on, and I also carried the computer, camera, and of course my large purse. It was a lot to haul, so I asked about a vehicle. The answer was no.
I told Mike I would tell her he needed a wheelchair. “I’ll push you myself,” I told him. He said, “Don’t you dare!” I asked about our other luggage, and was told not to worry, they would take care of it. The attendant simply said to follow her to the gate. She forgot to tell us the gate was what seemed like two miles away.
She was trim and could walk fast with no problem. We, on the other hand, with our luggage, were having a difficult time keeping up with her. She kept looking back at us and urging us on. I imagined her thinking, What the hell is the matter with these two that they can’t even walk fast enough? In the meantime, we were huffing and puffing as if trying to climb Mt. Everest, sweat pouring off of our faces and in other places. I could almost feel passersby laughing at us trying to keep up.
We finally made it to the gate. Much to my shock, the plane was a tiny passenger jet, not a big jetliner. I never felt safe in small planes. The stress was building, no matter what I told myself. It was there, ready and waiting, and by the look on Mike’s face, he felt the same as me.
The attendant rushed us onto the plane. There was no time to ask about the size of the jet. The flight was full. We were so embarrassed to have kept everyone waiting! Mike, with help from the attendant, secured our bags in the overhead storage. Finally, we were seated and ready for takeoff. I was drawing in deep breaths, not by choice, but because I felt like I had just run a twenty-six-mile marathon. I felt like I’d lost a lung!
The flight was supposed to be an hour and twenty minutes, but I wasn’t counting on
it. After we were able to replace enough oxygen in our lungs, we began to calm down. The attendants were accommodating and we were able to get a cold drink.
We flew over the Alps. They were majestic. Snowcapped mountaintops popped through the clouds like giant ice cream cones. I snapped some photos, and peace returned to my abused body. The exhilaration was again building in us, and we put the hiccup of Milan out of our minds.
Every bit of their adventure as recounted in this book, helps me to understand even more about the traditions and behavior of my own beautiful extended family, especially the endless meals and delicious, lovingly made food.
This is is a simple travel account written by a joyful storyteller, but the author’s sense of humor and love for the people they met and the experiences they had, elevates it to a culinary adventure that made me smile from my heart. I am inspired now to create my own trip and hope it is just as love-filled and delicious.