Rome & Sicily, 2009

by Susan Parrino Hester and Mary Parrino Breakfield


After learning that our 2nd cousin Nicola Vaiana was getting married on June 6th in Sicily, my sister Mary and I discussed whether or not we could go to the wedding! We were in a quandry because airfare and other expenses were going to cost a lot of money. During this debate back and forth, it occurred to me to check whether I could get "free" airline tickets to Rome using airline points. To both our amazement and excitement, it made our decision, and resulted in this being a favorite trip. Mary was a great traveling companion! We spent a total of 5 nights in Rome, 2 on the front end, and 3 on the back end (with 4 nights in Sicily wedged between). Since we had both seen most of the major Roman sites, this allowed us time to re-visit those places of most significance, and also to go to a couple we hadn’t visited before. The following account is written mainly in first-person (by me, Susan Parrino Hester), but sister Mary Parrino Breakfield had a lot of input and ideas as we wrote some notes during our trip, and she is also quoted in a couple of parts as noted.

Part 1, First Nights in Rome

When we landed around 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, June 2, we took the train into Rome (11 euros each for the Leonardo Express -- about $16 dollars), then because we were traveling light, we walked to the small Hotel Cortina (where we'd stayed in 2005), and mercifully, our room was available.  We decided to drop our stuff & go out to get a quick bite of lunch, but instead grabbed some things for a picnic in our room, including some crackers, cheese, dark chocolate, fruit and wine.  We dined, and then took a good nap in order to adjust to our new timezone. Luckily, I had some euros to tide us over for our first small purchases. We found that the day we arrived was an Italian holiday and about 4 ATMs we tried were out of cash. Ultimately, we each cashed $100 at a “Change” place on the main drag and they charged a 19% fee for the transaction—ouch!! Later, we found an ATM off the beaten track and got some “soldi,” or cash. We had dinner at “Zeus” just across from our hotel on Via Nationale, which our Cousin Steve had recommended.

When we got back to the hotel, we looked at brochures for the next day (as we had a full day to sightsee in Rome). After looking at the offerings, we decided to take a tour to the papal audience the next morning—these are held each Wednesday and it just happened to be Tuesday when we arrived.  What fun!  We were close to the front, in about row #7.  Of course, we were a speck among the tens of thousands of people there.  Tickets are free, but you have to make arrangements in advance (which we didn't, so this is why we took the tour). We bought a number of rosaries as gifts for the family and others so that we could get blessings by the Pope.  There were delegations from all over the world and Pope Benedict spoke in Italian, English, Spanish, French and German, possibly Portuguese or Polish too.  When a delegation was mentioned, people would get up and cheer, play music, sing, chant, etc.  There was a group from Northglenn, Colorado and even Springfield, Missouri, Mom’s hometown. It was a long morning, but worth it.

Photo of the front of St. Peter's Basilica, in the Vatican.
Before the Papal Audience

Then we went to lunch at a touristy place, not my favorite, but it was close to the Vatican.  We were seated next to a Dutch man and his Philipino wife who'd also attended the audience, so we struck up a conversation.  Then they left, and an older German man named Manfred came and we chatted for a long time.  He had attended too, but he was non-Catholic and in fact was a converted Mormon.  He had visited his own holy site (Salt Lake City) and toured around the western U.S. some years ago.  We spoke about politics which was interesting and enlightening for Mary.

Thus began our journey in conversing with many people in English as well as in Italian about a whole variety of subjects. Because we were only two people traveling together (maybe also because we were two women), everyone we approached was happy to talk with us and we made many new friends. Of course, the family visit was the best!! In addition, Mary and I had many discussions on a variety of topics such as sanctity of life, our respective religions, politics, families, work and many others. It was a good bonding trip for Mary and me.

After lunch, we visited St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the former of which had been closed to the public for the morning’s papal audience. Both were breathtaking as usual. Because of Mary’s expertise in Italian and knowledge of the Bible, she was able to interpret some of the Latin which was in mosaic on the ceiling — quite impressive. Then, being tuckered from the long walks, we decided to go get a taxi, but first to have a gelato. We got our gelati and stood in the shade outside. Soon, we struck up a conversation with an American couple who were on a cruise and had spent the day seeing the sights on a tourbus an “on/off” type which stops at the major locations (they hadn’t even gone inside St. Peter’s which was just amazing to both Mary and me!). They were waiting for their cruise bus to pick them up, so they generously gave us their tourbus tickets! So, we saved taxi fare, and since the bus stopped at the Trevi Fountain, we got off there and threw our coins in the fountain for insurance to make sure that we will definitely come back to Rome, then walked to our hotel!

Photo of Mary at the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
Mary at the Trevi

Next day, we flew to Palermo … and the story continues after a few words about the family.

Part 2, Nina

Photo of Nina before the wedding.
Nina before the Wedding

Nina, a first cousin to my Dad and Uncle, hosted Mary and I, making room in her lovely apartment. We slept on a trundle bed in her second bedroom, and there was one bathroom to share. The apartment has beautiful and ornate furniture in the living and dining rooms. There are two bedrooms and a small kitchen. This is all on what we would consider the “second” floor. She actually owns all floors in the building, the first to the fourth floors. On the first floor, she has a small store in which she sells paper products, some cans and other non-perishables. Nina's business has suffered because there is now a “supermarket” in Palazzo Adriano, a short distance from her store. Her most successful commodity has been in selling propane gas for stoves. Nina’s grocery store was first owned by her father Nicolo. After our trip, I learned that even when Uncle Julian visited in 1959 or so, the propane gas was the best of the business. While Nina still sells the “bombs” as we call them, the sales activity has greatly reduced because some gas lines have been installed in town. Now, her biggest customer is the local old folks home.

Nina has a small kitchen and dining room on the first floor behind the store. This was built by her deceased husband Pino. He died suddenly at age 49 and she was left to raise their two children, then 9 year old Maria Francesca and 12 year old Nicola. Pino constructed the kitchen and a small dining room so that Nina wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs to her main apartment a million times a day to cook and watch the children, while waiting on customers in the store. Now, often, the store’s front door is closed (locked) and customers know to “buzz” so that she can leave the kitchen/dining area (where she and the family spend a lot of time), to wait on them.

Even when I first met Nina seven years ago when we first visited, she was one of my favorites. She has short gray hair, a very Italian face (dark eyes and beautiful skin). Regarding the gray, hair, Mary, my sister, who doesn’t color her hair decided that she was the only woman in Italy who has gray hair besides Nina (of course, this is an exaggeration), but as a general rule, Italian women color their hair.

Generous to a fault, as her guests for four nights, Nina made sure that our every need was met. She fed us until we groaned. The morning of the last day of our visit (the day after the wedding when she was no doubt exhausted), she prepared home-made biscotti and home-made tagliatelli for Mary and me, and insisted that we eat and eat, and take “home” a huge amount of biscotti for the family. Mary and I devoured quite a few later in the Rome hotel since we weren’t sure we would be able to take them through security—but we were successfully able to get them through. Agent: "what do you have in that bag?" Mary: “Cookies that my cousin made in Italy.” Agent: “Proceed.” So, once back home, we were able to share them with our parents, our other sister Julia, our niece, Mary's daughter and my husband Bill—what a treat!!

Nina (and the other cousins) greet you with a hug and kisses on each cheek. There were more kisses than I could have imagined. People you just meet kiss you on both cheeks. Luckily, most of these kisses are "dry." It seemed as though we met or at least greeted everyone in town. Mary and I had observed some Asians in Rome with masks on their faces presumably because of fear of “swine flu.” They might have had some problem with all these kisses. The kissers look you right in your eyes to say a few words of greeting as though you are the only person in the world.  And, the other cousins made us feel this way too.

Nina’s home was the center of activity and we found that there were visitors (or we walked and visited others) at all times. The wonderful photo album of the “Parrinos in America” which Bill compiled and edited became the centerpiece of many of our talks. “Bravo, Bill!” they said, as well as “grazie” over and over.

Part 3, The Mediterranean Diet

Haven’t we all been bombarded with articles in magazines, newspapers and on the internet suggesting that we conform to the Mediterranean diet – fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans/lentils, a little wine, and lots of walking!

First, in Rome, we found that breakfast was: white bread products, lunchmeat, cheese, yogurt, an apple, coffee. Lunches or dinners, depending on which is your heaviest meal usually include panini with salami and cheese. For the larger meal, a very small salad might be included, but again, there is lots of pasta, bread and meat. Since I have adapted to a high fiber diet here at home (whole grains and fruits and vegetables, little red meat), I found this diet difficult. In addition, after having spent the night on the airplane to Rome, I found that my ankles were swollen, not uncommon for a long trip—dehydration and inactivity being the culprits.

Early on in Rome, I decided that fruit was the answer. We found a nice little outdoor fruit stand near our hotel. After perusing the options, I jokingly asked the attendant—an older man—for “cento grammi di uva per favore,” meaning “one hundred grams of grapes please.” Of course, I knew that was too small an amount. He responded by pointing to the grapes one by one, and saying (in Italian), “that’s one, two, three, four grapes.” He then picked up a nice bunch, weighed them and we bought them—about 300-400 grams and we bought some other fruit too. The next day, I went back and again ordered one hundred grams, and he got the joke and laughed. After Sicily, several days later, we went back to the fruit stand. I ordered two peaches and 100 grams of grapes. The look on his face was priceless—disgust, wonder, and disbelief. Then, he looked at me and recognized me. He then thought my request was hilarious. It’s wonderful to find friendship and a small relationship among the locals using a bit of humor. It’s one of the reasons I study their language when I am visiting a foreign country. This little interaction wouldn’t have been nearly as funny had I been speaking English. He knew I was not a native speaker; he knew I was a tourist. But, the fact that we could have a little fun brightened my days and his too.

Once in Sicily, I thought it would be more of my idea of a traditional Mediterranean diet, but since the family is “inland,” fish, whole grains or vegetables are seemingly not common. At Nina's home, we had a true authentic experience-- breakfast is usually a crescent roll and a bit of coffee. Lunch, about 2:00 p.m., is the large meal of the day. Often, the anti-pasto would be cheese, salami and olives, then large quantities of rice or pasta, then meat and maybe a vegetable or a very, very small salad, then dessert, then cheese and a fruitbowl. For supper, cena, which is late, around 9:00 p.m., you eat lightly, usually bread, cheese, salami, olives, pizza.

Nina, is a non-drinker, so we had only a little wine (one bottle lasted for two or three meals and Mary and I were not the only drinkers). This was no doubt good, since wine tends to be drying, but then so is the fizzy mineral water which we consumed.

The amount of salt, white flour, olives, salami and cheese I was ingesting did not sit well with my body. My ankles continued to swell until they looked like I had a mild case of elephantitis. In addition, my intestinal system was clogged. To put it bluntly, things just didn’t “move.” I told Mary I was full of you know what…

Nina has an older toilet in her apartment. Older, meaning it had a water closet tank, up high on the wall, with a pull chain. The toilet definitely had a strong “goooshhh,” when flushed. I had noted a small trash can with a step to open the lid near the toilet when we first arrived. I asked Nina’s daughter, Maria Francesca, if it was OK to put paper in the toilet or if we should use the can…answer “the can.” Mary was amazed that I knew this, but all one has to do is travel to Mexico a few times and you learn this. Glad I asked or I wouldn't have been the only thing plugged up.

Mary didn’t suffer my problem and was very kind and understanding, giving me extra time in the bathroom. At any rate, when #2 happened, (sorry) there were only two "marbles" and they wouldn’t go down, no matter how many times I flushed. So, I had to admit in my wonderfully descriptive Italian what the problem was. “Oh,” Nina said, “you must fill with water the pitcher located under the sink and dump the water when you are flushing for #2…” This reminded me of being in Africa—we didn’t have the flush toilets—they were “manual,” i.e., fill up a bucket and dump it to make things go down. Well, at Nina’s house, this worked to some degree, but I’m not sure I ever got it exactly right. I’ll just allow you to imagine the rest of the story.

It’s just the loveliness of staying with “family” you hardly know and their discovery of your little embarrassments in your personal habits. But, the final point of this little essay is that travel does strange things to our bodies.

Part 4, The Rest of the Family

Dad and Julian have 3 surviving first cousins in Palazzo Adriano, Sicily and one who lives in northern Italy, near Milan. My Grandfather, Giuseppe Parrino, immigrated to the United States in 1920. He (and my Grandmother Mary Parrino) only returned once to the family home in 1930 and my father, Vincent Parrino at age 7, was able to go for that single visit. In 1959, Grandpa Giuseppe’s son Julian, my uncle, also visited Palazzo Adriano. Thanks to his efforts, we had a sketchy family tree which Julian had developed subsequent to his visit. The remaining American and Sicilian families hadn’t had any contact from 1959 until 2002 when seven of us (me, Bill, Joe, Sarah, Ben, Steve and Mary Lou) visited Palazzo Adriano.

Antonia (Nina) Parrino Vaiana (see the photo above), born October 13, 1943. She married Pino Vaiana (who died at an early age) in 1962 and had two children, Maria Francesca, born 1976 and Nicola, the groom, born 1974.

Nicola and Maria Francesca are both delightful.  Nicola, the groom for the wedding we attended is about 36 years old.  Right now, he's working for the Red Cross in Palermo.  He takes calls and provides services to those in need.  Palermo is quite a distance, so as I understood it, he is doing some kind of shift work or flexitime so that he doesn't have to drive every day.  Nicola is a dear, so sweet and nice and exhibited the pride of a groom as he talked about his bachelor’s party.  He was pretty excited about the wedding and was having a lot of fun.  At times, I found Nicola a little bit difficult to understand, probably because of his accent, and perhaps he was speaking Sicilian.

Photo of Nicola.

My Dad had maintained that they speak Sicilian, not Italian, there.  My Italian teacher also said that they likely speak a dialect, very common in Italy depending on region.  I verified that they mostly speak Sicilian this trip by asking the cousins directly.  I noticed that when they speak amongst themselves, it's just about impossible to understand them, although many times I could get the gist.  During previous trips, I had assumed that it was because they were speaking quickly, using slang that we didn't "get," just as we native speakers of English do when we speak among ourselves.  However, this time I noted, after an animated conversation between or among themselves, one of them would turn to us and patiently speak in Italian so that we could understand the subject.  Mary's spoken Italian is better than mine, but she thought I understood better than she.  I believe this is because I am used to listening and understanding Spanish, both by watching television, listening to the radio, and of course, in conversing with my students.  At any rate, I could usually get the general topic, but for any details, we were totally lost while they spoke Sicilian. 

This leads me to Maria Francesca, Nina's daughter.  She's 33 years old and last year received her PhD in Early Childhood Education and is hoping for a job in Palermo, but jobs are very difficult to get.  She is smart, vivacious and full of personality.  She served as our Italian mentor as she would slowly articulate and teach us (as we taught her a few words of English which she is studying on her own). Maria Francesca says she was named after her two grandmothers--she's tiny, cute, smart and fun.  She is so devoted to her mother; this is quite obvious in their interactions.  Clearly, Maria Francesca loves life.

Photo of Maria
Francesca before the Wedding.
Maria Francesca before the Wedding

Maria Francesca is engaged to Ignacio, who seems very nice.  He works for the Highway department in the signage department, but got totally lost and turned around when he drove us from Sciacca (location of the wedding and reception) to Palazzo Adriano, the family home.  We kidded him a bit.  No wonder Mary and I took a wrong turn when we finally left Palazzo for Palermo.

From Mary:

Sandra (the bride) is even more beautiful than when we first met, full of concern for us and for our families. Very un-selfish in her graceful appreciation for our family photo album, family tree and old letters. Very happy. Delighted with her new apartment. She will be a lovely wife for Nicola. Indulges us by speaking some English. Quite moved when she opened the card with our gift of 250 euros from the American Parrinos.

Photo of Sandra before the Wedding.
Sandra before the Wedding

Giovanni diGiovanni is a first cousin. He is married to Giuseppa. Giovanni is SO happy to see us, 81 years old and VERY interested in the family tree, old, documents, etc. Tried hard to translate, figure out the copies of hand-written documents some of which were from the early 1800’s. Giuseppa said our visits were always too short, but Sue said: First time = 1 afternoon; second time = 2 days; this time = 4 days. Giuseppa said “next time a month!” And we all laughed. Sue is good with humor in other languages. They say our Italian is better this time, but Sue says “siamo gemelle;” -- Mary and I are twins: she helps me; I help her, and we do. Sue has a large vocabulary! And I have better conjugation of the verbs. Also, we are understanding about ½ and translating for each other, for example, inside the church. Maria Francesca explained things, festivals, rembrances, and Sue translated.

Photo of Giovanni
and Giuseppa at the Wedding.
Giovanni and Giuseppa at the Wedding

From Sue re: Giovanni: He’s the cousin I first had contact with when we visited in 2002. He’s married to Giuseppa, also just a dear; they never had children.  They absolutely love us...the Parrino family in the U.S., and I think they are very proud that we were the first they contacted.  Why did I choose to contact Giovanni?  Julian had been there in 1959, and when our first trip to Sicily was planned in 2002, I thought..."OK, I'm going to my Grandfather's town...I've seen photos of both my Dad (age 7) and my Uncle Julian (age 30 or so) at the plaza in front of the fountains...I've seen these fountains in the movie Cinema Paradiso...but what happens when I'm actually there...we stand there and wonder???"  So, I asked Uncle Julian--would there be anyone left??  And, he said, maybe Giovanni, he would be about my age.  I sent a letter to Giovanni diGiovanni, Palazzo Adriano, Sicily and explained who I was and that we were coming to Sicily.  A couple of weeks later, I received a wonderfully kind letter in English saying "we are so honored that our American cousins remember us here in Palazzo Adriano...we would love to meet you..." and so, off we went to Sicily and spent an afternoon with the cousins.

Unfortunately, my Italian "wanes" when I'm not there so I'm not as good a correspondent as I should be with Giovanni.  He wrote a letter to Mary, my sister, before we went to Italy and said he struggles with communication--he doesn't have a computer and his handwriting is getting difficult.  When we were there, I had taken copies of some "old papers" which my Grandmother had gotten in Palazzo.  The originals of these papers are fragile and deteriorating.  The writing is in "olde" Italian and the scrolly-script is akin to calligraphy.  Anyway, the earliest of the copies I took this time to Palazzo was dated 1819 and mentions Vincenzo Parrino.  Giovanni spent a lot of time trying to read these papers.  The referenced oldest one, Giovanni said, was a "last will and testament."  Since my great grandfather wasn't even born then, Giovanni guessed that this must be referring to a great-great grandfather or even another Vincenzo Parrino.  The other papers, one of which was notarized, was a copy of financial documents.  He said that our great grandfather Vincenzo Parrino was very involved in the development of P.A., including the main piazza, the fountains, the park which is a tribute to the Albanians, many of whom died before coming to Palazzo, and other famous buildings.  He said Vincenzo was very smart and he kept good records of all expenditures so that the projects couldn't be questioned. Some of the papers documented expenses for construction projects.

Photo of Maria
and husband Angelo.
Maria and husband Angelo

Maria is the third first cousin of my Dad and my Uncle Julian (or Giulio as they call him).  She is Giovanni’s sister and is married to Angelo. Maria’s two daughters are Lidia and Angela. Lidia is a favorite because she keeps in touch more than anyone. She tends to call at both Easter and Christmas just to check on everyone here and to give us news of Palazzo Adriano. When I leave P.A., my Italian goes to "niente," nothing in a short period of time, so I can usually say a few words, then I struggle just to say everyone is well here and how are they there? So far as I know, Lidia never married, at least no one has said anything on that subject and we haven’t asked. She has no children and is a nurse at the local hospital and she says she is going to retire in 4 years. She is blond and very pretty, and vivacious. Lidia is very devoted to her mother Maria, lives next door to her and helps her with everything.

Photo of Lidia.

Photo of Angela, husband Michele, son Agosto and his girlfriend Giussi.
Angela, husband Michele, son Agosto and his girlfriend Giussi

Angela is Lidia’s sister. Angela is married to Michele and they have two sons, one of whom we met this time, Augusto and his fiancé Giussi. Both father and son work in Palermo in some kind of police capacity. We get the impression that Michele is of some "rank," so he’s good to have in the family. Angela has asked us to come to stay with them a couple of times…she says they have a very large house. The second son, Claudio, was not at the wedding and we haven’t met him.

Photo of Nicolo and Rosalba.  Photo of Laura and Salvatore.
Nicolo and Rosalba                     Laura and Salvatore                    

There are two other second cousins in Palazzo Adriano, nephews of Giovanni and Maria, sons of their sister Antonina diGiovanni (who is deceased), Nicolo and Salvatore Masaraccia. Their Dad was not of the same family as our great grandmother, Antonina Masaraccia even though they shared the same name. Salvatore is a physician, OB/GYN and is married to beautiful Laura; they have two children, Alessandro and Nina. Nicolo, a police officer in Palazzo Adriano, is married to darling, kind Rosalba; they have two children, Tomasso and Elenora.

Part 5, Getting to Palazzo Adriano

Photo of Sue
and Maria Francesca at the Palazzo Adriano fountain.
Sue and Maria Francesca
at the Palazzo Adriano fountain in the central piazza;
our Grandfather lived behind the building you can see in the background.

On the brink of our flight to Palermo, because we were only going to be gone four nights, I had a suggestion for Mary…why don’t we take only one roller bag?  We can divide our clothes into…those we need for Sicily and leave those we have already dirtied or need when we get back from Rome?  We would still take our own backpacks with our cosmetics, reading material, gifts for the family, etc., but we would cut down on what we had to deal with on this short trip.  Mary jumped right on this idea of cutting down and said… “I CAN travel like a European…”  So we did.  We used my roller bag and left her roller bag at the Hotel Cortina's reception area in Rome.  They had no problem keeping some of our stuff since we were re-checking in after a few days.  This turned out to be a good decision, because when we returned to Rome, our bag didn’t find its way to our flight's bag retrieval carousel. But, because we had left a bag at our hotel, we had clean clothes for the next 24+ hours until the errant bag was finally delivered.

The Easy Jet flight was great—big jet, nice service (but you had to pay to get a non-alcoholic drink or snacks); surprisingly, no charge for our one checked bag.  Got to Palermo without a hitch … until we got to the car rental agency (Europcar, which Bill and I had used on 2 previous trips).  The only slight problem was that I THOUGHT I’d booked two drivers (me and Mary) and full insurance, but NO, not true.  I’d only paid for the basic car.  Yes, they had that right—a 4 door, stick shift diesel.  In fact, it was a beautiful little Lancia.  But, no extra driver was included nor insurance.  To insure us to the max, it was 150 euros (I’d only paid 159 to reserve the car) and if we wanted more than one driver, it would have been more per day…trying to argue in my limited Italian led to a conversation in English.  Well, you booked the car over the Easy Jet website, and this is what we have, said the agent…if you have a problem, you must talk with them.  Is there an agent here in Palermo?  No, not at this airport…so we paid the money, and off we went.

Driving through Palermo is not fun.  I’ve never had to do this before (always relying on my wonderful husband who has driven me and others in Sicily, Italy, Turkey, Mexico, all those places where driving is difficult).  I wasn’t looking forward to this prospect and all of my fears were confirmed.  Well, I can’t say that…because we made it without a scratch, but wow, this was not my idea of a vacation because it’s so stressful. I don't know what was tighter, my white knuckles or my jaw as I drove.

Through Palermo, you are on an “autostrada,” one imagines a big highway like the “Valley Highway” through Denver.  NOT.  Instead, it’s an “access” highway, meaning that it’s two lane, which they make into 4 or 5 lanes.  Cars followed me within inches of my bumper, flashing their lights trying to get me to move faster even though I was driving 100 kilometers per hour in an 80 zone…I finally found a big truck and followed him, with enough space so that cars and motorcycles could get in between and zoom around.  When he pulled off, I found another big truck.  After an hour or so of teeth-clenched driving, we’d passed the metropolitan area of Palermo.  I told Mary I needed a break.  Let’s look for a gas station on the right side of the highway (don’t want to do a left and a left—let’s be like UPS!!).  Finally, we found a gas station in a little town called Bolognetta—we needed lunch!  After all, by this time, it was around 4:00 p.m.

Adjacent to the gas station was a “restaurant,” more like a deli/bakery/café/tourist souvenirs place.  We started to order and the wife’s owner of the restaurant started speaking English to us, clarifying our order to her staff—Mary and I wanted to share a panino (sandwich), each have a diet coke, then a luscious Sicilian cannolo and a coffee after the lunch.  As we were feasting on our cannolo, Mary suggested that we call Nina to let her know where we were and when we would be arriving.  Mary said she would use her phone card.  She went to the desk to ask if she could do this using their phone and they reluctantly agreed, but as it turned out, the card didn’t work.  I told Mary, no problem, I will call on my cell phone when we are finished.  In the meantime, as we were eating, talking to each other, the staff in Italian, asking about the phone card, etc., a man kept “eye-ing” me.  Every time I looked around, we made very quick eye contact—I noticed he was looking at me, but never held the contact, just looked away and so did I.  He was about my age or a little younger, balding, nicely dressed.  Mary and I were nicely dressed too...

So, anyway, I stepped outside the restaurant, called Nina on my cell, and talked with Maria Francesca, told her where we were and about when we would arrive.  Before leaving, Mary and I went to make a potty stop prior to hitting the road.  I texted Bill (we made it through Palermo!!).  The man who was glancing at me walked right in front of us we were leaving—no words were exchanged.  He got into his car (which I didn’t really pay any attention to) and we got into our car.  The end, finito, I thought.

I pulled onto the highway and there was very, very little traffic.  About 10 minutes into our trip, a car was right on my bumper flashing his lights.  Knowing this was not unusual, I thought, I’m in his way.  But, there wasn’t much traffic—why wasn’t he passing???  Well, the road was a bit wind-y…I asked Mary to look in her rearview side mirror—could that be the guy in the restaurant?  (She’d noticed too.)  No, she said, the driver has other people in the car, looks like a guy driver with a wife in the passenger seat.  This didn’t connect at all.  Soon, the car backed off a bit, but I was still annoyed that he was still following and he’d been so close with lights flashing…now, one would think I would have noticed what car “the guy” had gotten into at the restaurant, but I didn’t.  I was just wanting a nice quiet drive to Palazzo Adriano—I’d made it through the difficult part, Palermo…

All of a sudden I saw a sign for a turn off!!!  In this case, a turn-off is about a 100 yards long and merely allows vehicles a stopping point, on & off.   I thought “ecco!!” Dad had taught me to pull over and let a car pass when he's following too close. This gave me the perfect opportunity to get out of this guy’s way, so I pulled off slowly.  The car slowed down and was paralleling me on the highway in terms of speed.  I decided to stop so he would proceed.  He stopped at the end of the pull-off, not blocking my way, but he still stopped.  He got out of his car (and, YES, it was the guy from the restaurant!) and came toward our car…I had no fear or feeling of trepidation.  He walked up to my window, which I rolled down and offered his hand (which I took with my left hand with my big gold wedding ring) and he said… "are you having a problem??”  and I said, “no I’m just a little nervous driving in Sicily…” I smiled and said “are you Sicilian?”  Yes, he said, and where are you going… "Palazzo Adriano," I said…  “Are you staying at a hotel, can we meet tomorrow?” he said.  And Mary said “we are staying with our cousins!  We are going to a wedding…”  And I said “we are going to our cousin's wedding on Saturday…all is well, no problem.”  OK, he said, and again offered his hand.  “Buon Viaggio…have a nice stay in Sicily."

Well, off he went and that WAS the last of him.  Mary and I thought this was just hilarious, some old guy falling in love with some old woman at a gas station!  Hahahahahahahaha.  We laughed about this all the way to Palazzo.  I suppose my ego was being stroked.  And, Mary didn’t help—she kept saying “you handled that situation so well, with humor and kindness…it’s great that you can joke with people in Italian…that guy was in love with you!”  Yes, I was sure full of myself! 

We got to Nina’s about 6:00 p.m. to total Sicilian chaos.   After many kisses, hugs, greetings, small talk, etc., they wanted to know how the drive went, so I told the story.  Luckily, Mary helped me with the past tense because I was nervous and rusty in speaking Italian.  Well, the family had an absolute “fit,” and were alarmed as I stumbled through the description of the event with the man.  After much discussion in Sicilian (and I mean loud, boisterous, hands waving, etc), they turned to us and they warned us in Italian that he was probably looking for money and could have been dangerous.  They told us we shouldn’t have stopped and that we should have called their version of “911” and immediately called the police, and of course, we didn’t have any idea of the emergency number.  We had taken it as a funny and cute story.  In telling it numerous times, both to cousins who are police officers and to my Sicilian and my American families, I’ve decided what we did was probably really stupid and could have been fraught with problems.  Did you get the license number?  No.  Do you have a description of the car.  No.  Can you describe him?  No. 

Two women traveling together is probably a rare situation.  Two women making a couple of phone calls is rare.  Two women speaking some Italian, obviously Americans, is rare.  Two women in a Lancia is rare.  This says “money.”   In thinking about it a bit, there are a few possibilities:  1)  it was innocent; he was just making sure we were “ok.”  But why did he take my hand twice??  Why did he ask about meeting on Saturday?  2) he was a “porco” (dirty old man) and thought we were on the make…perhaps women of a lower class traveling together!  3)  he was “in love” and hopeful  4) he was wanting to rip us off but he chickened out.  (He was nervous as he approached us—I noticed a little shake to his voice and a little tick near his mouth.)  After all is said and done, God was watching out for our safety.  But, I suppose I would guess that #1 and #3 are the best answers to the incident.  At the last telling of the story, this time to Lidia who is a real firecracker, she said “you should have told him you were going to Corleone and that you have PROTECTION.”  What a hoot!!

All I know is…the family wouldn’t let us TOUCH the car once we got to Palazzo Adriano and made sure they telephonically “followed” us to and through Palermo on our trip back to the airport.  We could have hired a taxi driver for less than the cost of the car!!!  The joke was definitely on me...and luckily it didn't come to anything dangerous.

Part 6, The Wedding

First, it is hard for me to imagine that Nina as the Mother of the Groom would offer to have houseguests in the couple of days before the wedding, but she approached our hospitality with warm, grace and ease. Meals were simple but lovingly prepared. She said at least 1,000 times “…a posto?” meaning, “everything OK?” Of course, certo!

We arrived early Thursday evening and there was a parade of visitors from then until we departed for the wedding. Some came to see us, but most were there to greet the groom, to leave off wedding gifts (money), to see Nina or Maria Francesca or to meet or spend time with us, except for the family whom we know, I had the impression that the other visitors saw us as somewhat of an oddity—they were interested and curious.

On the Friday night before the Saturday wedding, we were treated to a visit to the hair salon so that the 4 of us (Nina, Maria Francesca, Mary and I) could get our hair professionally shampooed and “done.” The shop owners, a husband and wife, worked like dogs to make us look beautiful. We were there until at least 11:00 p.m. This was Nina’s treat, and greatly appreciated. Our hair looked spectacular! A real Italian "do!" When we arrived back at the house, it was time for a little snack before bedtime. Mangia, mangia!

We were told that we had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to get our makeup done, but ultimately, they let us sleep til about 7:00 and we did our own while they were getting theirs done. The photographer arrived at about 9:00 and took many shots of Nicola and the family and a few photos of Mary and me. Then, Nina hosted a small reception, coffee and sweets for neighbors and family who stopped by. Again, I was incredulous that she would “have time” to be so hospitable.

The Wedding Invitation:

Matrimonio che sara celebrato nella Basilica di San Calogere al Monte in Sciacca (Agrigento Province), 6 Giunio, 10:30, Nicola Vaiana and Sandra Glaviano. Dopo la ceremonia, Ristorante Reggia di Kokalos, C. da Carbone, Sciacca.

If you can decipher the above, on the invitation, the wedding time was listed as 10:30 a.m. At 9:30, I asked when we would be leaving since I knew that Mary and I were to ride with Nicola and Nina, in their car to the coast, which would take a good 45 minutes. I also asked how Giovanni and Giuseppa were getting to the wedding and could I drive them. No, no, no, you must come with us and don’t worry about the time. In fact, I don’t think we left for the wedding until at least 10:00 and Nicola took a leisurely drive. They said, “we don’t want to be there before the guests!” Of course!! It was a long, windy road and Mary was on the verge of carsickness, but the scenery was beautiful. And, once everyone was there and seated, there was another delay—the organist had forgotten, so we had to wait an extra 15 minutes.

Photo of Sandra
and Nicola at the wedding reception.
Sandra and Nicola at the wedding reception

One learns when one travels. I wasn’t sure what proper attire would be for the wedding. It was to start in the morning, which would normally mean more casual than an evening wedding. I had a beautiful black dress, but I was reluctant to wear it – doesn’t “black mean mourning?” So, I find a very cute multi-colored aqua and green dress on sale at Macy’s—“ecco! This is it!,” but then started having doubts. Mary had a medium blue linen dress & I told her I thought that would be perfect, but would she ask Maria Francesca via e-mail whether there were inappropriate colors? No, came the reply, whatever you wear will be fine. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw Nina’s, then Maria Francesca’s dress for the wedding day. Black and navy blue. Once we got to the wedding, I realized that dark colors are what one wears…I stood out like a sore thumb, Mary not as much. Should have brought my black dress as a back-up. Oh well, they knew we were the Americane!

Photo of Sue and Mary
 before the wedding.
Sue and Mary before the wedding in their bright dresses!

At the wedding and reception, unfortunately Giovanni and Giuseppa were not seated close to us.  They wanted to be with Mary and me, but we were seated at the head table with Nina, Maria Francesa and Ignacio at the reception.  Giuseppa mentioned it, first to us (Mary and I) at the reception, and then to Nina the next day (in our presence).  Mary and I felt somewhat uncomfortable since in some respects this mightn’t have happened had we not been there and had so much attention. We tried to make it up to them the next day by visiting their home and they treated us to the best cannoli we had ever eaten.

From Mary:

Ignazio drove us to the reception, which was at a restaurant with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean Sea.  It had an outdoor area for hors d’ouevres and white wine.  We stood near to Lidia and Angela and Maria.  The food and wine (champagne?) were delicious.  A young man nearby told us in English about a special food being prepared in a booth near to where we were standing, which was native to Palazzo Adriano, and I cannot remember what it was.  He had spent a summer in London, and spoke English very well.  It was so good to talk to him!! The line to the booth was long, and soon we were ushered inside, so I gave up trying to taste the very rare and special meat of some sort. A multi- course meal of primarily fish and seafood, in a large room with many round tables seating approximately 8 per table, was next on the agenda.  There were approximately 24 male waiters, each with a red rose, striding up to Sandra, and handing them to her where she stood near the head table before the meal was served.  They then began bringing plates of the several courses of oysters, octopus, and perhaps five other fishes during the course of the meal.  Later, some Italian friends in Wyoming told me that there is some significance to seven fishes served at a banquet.  Sue had been innocently questioned the night before, as to her preferences, and was served a meal of carpaccio (raw beef) and other meats, as I recall.  They were trying to accommodate her, and it was sweet of them to serve her the beef-based meal without even asking.   The white wine, cold water, plentiful food and wonderful, happy celebration were very memorable!

After the meal, Sue and I ventured out to the crowd, the round table where Laura and Salvatore were sitting, and we visited by asking how many years they’d been married and the ages of their children, as well as their ages.  Then we talked with Nicolo and Rosalba and Angela and Michele. This was the time in which we gathered a great deal of information (dates of birth, marriages, deaths, etc.) from all of the cousins at their various tables at the reception.  It was very successful, as they were all in one place!  These conversations were all done in Italian, remember, and we were getting better and better at it as time went on.  Sue took a lot of beautiful pictures of everyone at this time.

Next, we were leaving the large reception room, and we had a small espresso with Giovanni and Giuseppa on our way outside.  The coffee bar was right there on the way out, and Giovanni treated us to an espresso! Sue took the great picture of them which is here on the website!  .

We were ushered outside to await the cutting of the cake, and were given several little dessert-type cakes and sweets while we waited.  Soon, Nicola and Sandra were handing out small cloth bags to each guest, and thanking them individually for coming.  The bags had candied almonds inside, and were called “confetti”.  The cake never did get cut or served, apparently because there was another wedding reception on the way, and we had run out of time.  Later, Sandra’s mom and several others carried cake layers to their cars as we waited to leave.  This wedding reception seemed to be a very expensive one.  There might have been over two hundred guests, each with a multi-course meal, wine, hors d’ouevres, sweets, a huge cake, confetti, many waiters and roses.  It seemed there were a lot of fresh flowers which decorated the banquet room.  It seemed to be an expensive wedding, but then prices may be lower there.  

Photo of Family
and friends at the outdoor reception.
Family and friends at the outdoor reception

As Sue said, perhaps this is why they wait until they are in their thirties to marry—so that they can save up for the cost of the wedding.  Judging from the ages of Salvatore and Nicolo’, his brother, their marriages and children, they all waited until their thirties, also.  I have also been noticing the small sizes of the families. Maria, age 83, has two daughters, Lidia and Angela, born in the 1950s.  Nina, age 65, has two children, Nicola and Maria Francesca.  Salvatore and Nicolo’, each born in the 1970s, have two children.  There are 4 remaining brothers-in-law to Nina, who is widowed, for a total of 5 boys.  Therefore, in the elder Vaiana household there were at least 5 boys in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and therefore perhaps other families have more children.  (Nina was an only child.)

This brings me to another interesting phenomenon, the Roman Catholic faith.  Sue and I attended the wedding mass on Saturday, mass again on Sunday in Palazzo Adriano with Maria Francesca, and we said prayers in churches in Rome when we visited them.  Maria Francesca was my sweet helper during the Sunday evening mass, showing me in the missal where we were, and prompting me when to recite. Everything was in Italian, but I could understand some of the priest's homily!  I told Sue later, “Boy, Catholics sure know how to worship.”  The reverence is so important, and yet so lacking, in some other churches. The expectation that you behave and dress in a respectful manner is also wonderful.  Maria Francesca loves her church!  She had taken us inside on the Friday before, to show us everything inside and to describe the festivals that occur.     Lidia and Maria Francesca took us to mass four years ago, and Lidia seems to be Maria Francesca’s church companion.   I very much enjoyed the holy, reverent worship services as always when I worship with my sister Sue.  We had gone together a year earlier in Springfield, MO, and afterward I felt I had been in God’s presence!  Indeed, I had been!!

Photo of Mary
resting after speaking 14 hours of Italian.
Mary after speaking 14 hours of Italian on wedding day.

Back to Sue:

And so, yes, Sandra, the bride, is a lovely young woman.  Imagine a 4 year engagement!  But then, they probably had to scrimp and save for the fabulous wedding and honeymoon which they enjoyed.  Sandra is educated, is a teacher and knows just a bit of English.  She was very warm toward Mary and me, in fact, toward everyone.  She is very gracious in every way.  When we were invited to visit Nicola's and Sandra's new apartment which is right above Nina's, there was little furniture except for the bedroom.  She carefully placed the rosary we had brought her which had been blessed by the Pope just a few days before, in their bedroom on her nightstand.  When I asked about children the night before their wedding, she sensibly said, "well, first we must be married."

Photo of Bride
and Groom at the Altar.
Bride and Groom at the Altar

Part 7, Final Notes

Back in Rome, a postcard from Mary to Joe (she is the tiniest writer I’ve ever met!):

June 8, 2009, Dear Joe, Beth, lovely Sarah, sweet Ben: We are resting in our room in Rome after a difficult (but safe!) day. Sue drove from P.A. to Palermo airport safely around all curves and other cars in Palermo came w/in inches of us, of course. She drove famously!!! We returned the car w/no damage. Got on our Easy Jet & flew to Rome; bag was lost but all is well bec Sue had us leave 1 bag here at Hotel Cortina & only ½ our clo’s are miss’g. The only remaining bag had a pink ribbon on it, & we think a husband had retrieved the wrong bag for his wife—Sue’s had a pink “dew rag” on it. The visit was one where we were loved & hugged & treated like queens. Nina is like G’ma Parrino, cook’g for us accommodat’g us, even taught us to make biscotti & tagilatti—a noodle that she made by hand w/flour & water& rolled & rolled out by hand yesterday after the WEDDING, day before yesterday in Sciacca – 2 hrs a way, very beautiful & rich w/appetizers, main meal, wine, water, dolce, us at one of the head tables! (for which we felt humbled). Italians & Sicilians look at yr. face & smile & send “auguri” to all& then kiss you on both cheeks. Lillo, Nina’s bro-in-law thru Pino saw Beth’s photo in the album & said “Siciliana?” because of her Turco name & looks. Love, Mary

Whew! There was barely room for an address!

On our last day in Rome, we visited the Parthenon again, totally splendiferous! It was being restored and cleaned on our last visit 4 years ago, but it was glorious this time. We went to a very small restaurant nearby and struck up a conversation with a young couple. I asked for a recommendation for a choice for lunch and we sat and talked with them for over an hour in our broken Italian, but by this time, we were doing fine, just making lots of mistakes!

We also found that ½ block from our hotel, there was an opera performance with over 20 arias. The performers were professional and we ended up making friends in line and sitting in the front row with some very nice Europeans (he was an executive with Proctor and Gamble, and I ended up buying some stock the next day. “Hey, Bill, help!”).

Of course, there was some gift shopping and we also visited the national museum of sculpture and the Church of St. Maria Maggiore, both located very close to our hotel.

Some things we learned on this trip:

  • We were able to “fill in” some blanks on the family tree, some names, but especially dates of birth and some death dates.

  • They have problems finding jobs there due to illegal Romanian immigration. Despite Maria Francesca's high level of education, it is very difficult for her to find a job in Sicily. If she went to the mainland of Italy, she could find work.

  • There are few computers, but cell phones for calling and texting are ubiquitous.

  • Nina keeps the little store going and sells 40-60 gas bombs per month.

  • Nina owns the floor above Nicola and Sandra (4th floor) and the people pay rent.

  • There was an election while we were there and Nina and M.F. voted on Sunday. We accompanied them to the polls. Their favorite candidate was at the wedding reception for Nicola and Sandra as was the Mayor of Palazzo with whom we spoke.

  • Lidia is a nurse at the hospital and has kept her job, but the OB/GYN department has closed, so Salvatore practices in Corleone.

  • The relatives commented several times that Mary and Joe look alike and Julia and I look alike, also that I look like Annette.

  • As Dad said, lots of Sicilian was spoken. They loved it when we used “yaminini,” let’s go. Mom (Dorothy) had taught us that and we told them!

  • Nina used cake flower and a special levening in her biscotti not available in the U.S.

  • They use diminutives a lot, for example, Giovanino, Vincenino, Ste-vey, Bill-ey

  • When marrying, the woman keeps her maiden name, adds “In,” then her husband’s name. So, Maria’s name is Maria diGiovanni In Vacante (Vacante being Angelo’s family name). When a woman is widowed, the “In” becomes a different preposition, darn, I didn’t write it down.

  • Mary taught me the value of using phone cards, which was a boon, saving us a lot of money and allowing us to call husbands, children, parents and friends. She got the basic instructions at the hotel as to how to use the phone and she quoted, “Rick (Steves) says, you have to let the phone know who’s boss.” She was much more successful than I was in getting the darn thing to work, but it was cheap!

From Mary:

One more brief observation. We spoke with many people about politics, religion and opinions about the United States, both in our travels and with the family. It was educational for me listen to folks and hear their views.  It broadened my perspective!  I am glad Sue took me to Italy and Sicily and was the primary decision maker, because I had an absolutely fantastic time!  I will never forget this trip!


Sue and Mary

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