by Lucy McCauley
My family and I spent the better part of 2008 in Tübingen, southern Germany, where my husband, Charles, was on sabbatical. As I struggled with getting to know a new culture, place, and language, I learned that German has several words, in fact, for the verb “to know.” Like Spanish speakers, among other people, Germans use a different word if they’re talking about knowing a person (kennen), for example, as opposed to knowing a fact (wissen).
But it wasn’t until near the end of our stay abroad, my language skills increasing little by little, that I learned yet another German nuance of “to know.” Begreifen means to “grasp” something, to take hold of it—to understand, comprehend, embrace it. Significantly for me,begreifen is sometimes how Germans speak about knowing a place—of coming to know it intimately, beyond where maps will take you, beyond the things that guidebooks can indicate. Yet it can also be understood as a way of letting ourselves be grasped by the possibilities of a moment, of being formed and informed by what we encounter.
By the time we left Tübingen, I realized I had come to know our temporary home, in thebegreifen sense, by many means. I knew it through walks with my daughter, Hannah, who turned five there and attended a German kindergarten for seven months. One of our after-school rituals in that picturesque little university town was to visit the sheep and goats housed in a fenced-in shed nearby. We would save up our bread all week to feed them (that is, until the “Bitte Nicht Füttern!” sign appeared on the gate…oops!). Or sometimes we’d climb high to the top of the wide green hill near our house and sit on a bench, gazing at the town below. We’d take turns picking out our house, our friends’ houses, the steeple of the church in the Altstadt (old city).
But I also came to know Tübingen through our friends Karin and Rolf, who would take us with them into the Altstadt for the ritual of Saturday shopping, introducing us to their favorite cafés and vendors in the market square. We’d inevitably bump into other Tübingers who would be out too, walking the cobbled streets, all of us trying to get our shopping done by 2 p.m. when everything shut down for the weekend. Karin also helped me to know Germany through food, eating and cooking always according to season and what was available in the open-air Friday market. With her I learned to prepare homemade potato salad, wurst andspätzle, and the particularly rich brand of kuchen (cake) that only Germans can concoct. Meanwhile, Rolf took it upon himself to instruct me in the intricacies of the German language while plying me with dark German chocolate.
Later, when our friend Christian presented Charles and me with bikes to use during our visit, suddenly I came to know Tübingen in a wholly new way. I was free at last to traverse the red bike lane on the sidewalk, moving swiftly past the gardens and ancient buildings of Tübingen, the wind billowing my skirt.
As I peeled back the layers of the town, its people, and language bit by bit, it struck me that this kind of “knowing,” of grasping the nature of a place in the begreifen sense, is exactly what the stories in Travelers’ Tales books uniquely describe.
When James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger started their press in the early ’90s, there was little else like Travelers’ Tales on bookstore shelves (apart from a few standalone, single-author travelogues). Among the maps and guidebooks that could tell you where to stay, what to do, and how much it would cost, the would-be traveler found little that offered a sense of the places themselves—of what it would actually feel like to be there, to take hold of and be embraced by the myriad possibilities therein. But then Travelers’ Tales came along, with its books of personal essays collected by country and, later, by topics such as nature, humor, spirituality, and women’s writing. These books helped revive a lost art—the travel story—which had gone virtually uncelebrated in the English language since the nineteenth century and the spate of travelogues inspired by American and British ventures abroad during the Grand Tour era.
This year’s Best Women’s Travel Writing marks my fifth year as editor of the series, and fifteen years since I began work on my first anthology for Travelers’ Tales (Spain, published in 1995). One of my favorite aspects of the job is doing events at bookstores each year with some of the authors from these volumes. I love reading with these women and interacting with live audiences, usually filled with travelers with fascinating tales of their own. Over the years, as I’ve listened to and read women’s travel stories, I’ve come across tales that quite literally changed my life and the way I approach the world.
I heard, for example, a story about a woman volunteering on an archaeological dig, and I felt emboldened to try it too, in Turkey. I read about women traveling alone with their children and felt encouraged to do the same, starting the year my daughter was born. I became so inspired reading stories of women going on spiritual pilgrimages that I eventually walked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. And when I faced some difficulties in my relationships, I remembered stories I’d heard about women who traveled as a way to heal from emotional pain, and soon found myself hitting the road.
So when at bookstore readings I sometimes get the question, Why a women‘s travel book?—the answer is clear: As a woman, especially one who often travels alone, I think there is value in learning about how other women move in the world. How do we use our wisdom, strength, and vitality to navigate new territory? And how do we handle the vulnerability we might occasionally feel where, in the same situation, a man likely wouldn’t? From reading stories of women’s wild and adventurous spirits, of their acts of daring, I draw inspiration and the courage to try new things.
A friend once told me that reading the stories in these books is like getting to eavesdrop on other women’s conversations, vicariously enjoying the juicy details and learning from the nuggets of wisdom. I’d like to invite you now to listen in on the stories of travel in this collection, ranging from the rhapsodic to the humorous and the harrowing: to learn, for example, how Alexis Wolff came to know South Africa through the purchase of a pet chicken; how Jenny Williams connected with Kenya through a game of soccer; how at Easter Island Catherine Watson struggled with a desire to go native and never leave; and how Nancy Vala Michaels spent two weeks following the bends of the Mississippi River and her own inner compass.
May the stories in this book set you on a path toward your own experience of begreifen, of traveling in a way that allows you to truly know a place, to gain a sense of it, and become transformed by it.
by Faith Adiele
A few years ago when my travel memoir was released in paperback, a San Francisco bookshop invited me to return to do a follow-up reading. I’d been touring steadily ever since the hardcover had come out sixteen months earlier, so by then I was tired of hearing my own voice (and suspected that others might be as well). As an excerpt from the book had just been reprinted in that year’s The Best Women’s Travel Writing, I proposed a group reading of local contributors instead. The good folks at Travelers’ Tales circulated the idea in the Bay Area, and after a round of enthusiastic emails, three other writers signed on. I planned to come to town early so that we could all meet beforehand for drinks.
Our meeting at a bar across from the bookstore was like a reunion of old friends. Perhaps it was because we are already members of the same “club”—virtual neighbors in an anthology, sisters in the Travelers’ Tales family. Or perhaps it was because we instantly recognized each other as sister travelers/writers, recognized that both writing and traveling can be solitary ventures and adventures that (ironically) isolate us from kindred spirits. We hadn’t traveled to the same places or in the same way or for the same reasons, but we recognized each other nonetheless. And when the time came to cross the street for the reading, we lingered, reluctant to break up our new community.
A nice group of friends and strangers had turned up that summer evening, and I watched them listen to the three readers. The audience was so attentive and well behaved that I thought of my Nigerian family. It amuses them how we Americans go to public spaces to sit quietly next to each other like little islands, motionless, hands in our laps, peering intently ahead. Any connection we feel is likely to be with the performer alone, directed in a straight line from our seat to the podium or stage. As I listened, I pondered if and how I could bend that line and spark an instant community like the one we’d formed in the bar across the street, not unlike those that spring up among travelers on the road. (And frankly, since the audience had already sat through three readings and mine was supposed to be the longest, I figured I’d better do something drastic if I had the slightest chance of holding their attention!)
When I took the podium, I asked myself what question would I most like to be asked by a stranger. It came to me. And so I suggested that folks get up, approach someone they didn’t know, and share their favorite place in the world. To my amazement (and probably because they weren’t my students) they did. They gave little trills of surprised laughter, glanced around brightly, hopped up from their seats, and really did it. In fact, they wouldn’t stop doing it! Long after my little icebreaker had served my own selfish purposes, people leaned in towards each other, the room buzzing with laughter and exclamations and chatter. Clearly I had tapped into something with the idea of a favorite place, and clearly such places came with every writer’s dream—details.
As I wandered among the pairs, eavesdropping under the guise of “facilitating,” I overheard snippets of everything I love most about travel writing: here were setting and story; there were characters and culture; strangers confessed personal histories to each other, colored with image and emotion. It reminded me of Don George’s definition of the genre in his Salon.com “Wanderlust” column: “At its best, travel writing is extraordinarily complex and fulfilling—encompassing person and place; history, art and culture; food and philosophy; essay and reportage.” I’m always telling my writing students that studying travel literature can teach them everything they need to know about good writing in general (and that in the process they will get the added bonus of becoming better readers and world citizens).
And why not? Can’t it be argued that literature begins with The Odyssey, the departure from the familiar, the real and metaphorical voyage through hardship, the return home? The first time I heard the story, I recognized it: the arc was satisfying; it made sense. In “Against Travel Writing,” Robyn Davidson puts it beautifully: “The metaphor of the journey is embedded in the very way we conceive of life—movement from birth to death, from this world to the next, from ignorance to wisdom.” The minute I read this statement, I was relieved. At last I understood why every story I write, be it a spiritual coming of age in the Thai forest or an investigation into family history in Nigeria and Finland or a meditation on the terrors of public speaking for O Magazine, felt to me like a travel tale. Not necessarily the kind of travel where you venture out from the safety of home armed with nothing more than a Swiss army knife and tampons, or the kind where you wander into a remote village that’s never seen anything quite like you and stand surrounded in the plaza, or the kind where you spew the contents of your stomach onto the ground and have your sense of self shaken to the core in the process. But travel perhaps as Frances Mayes puts it: “journeys when the traveler is moved from one psychic space to another.” Or as Susan Orlean says: “getting lost…losing yourself in a place and a moment…feeling yourself lifted out of your ordinary life into something new.”
Then, not unlike with travel, along with recognition and relief came fear. How pathetic and limiting as a writer to have only one story! Once the word was out about Faith’s single plot, assignments would dry up! But again a woman traveler/writer came to my aid—Mary Morris paraphrasing writer and critic John Gardner in her classic New York Times piece on women’s travel writing: “[T]here are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.” Her argument was that for years women have been “denied the journey, we were left with only one plot to our lives—to await the stranger.” And so, as a result, our travel writing has been more about people, less about place. According to Morris, “Women need and want to be connected, to be joined to other human beings. We don’t easily go off alone into the wild, to the North Pole or in search of elusive beasts.”
Now, some twenty years after she wrote that, the stories in this rich collection—perhaps Travelers’ Tales’ most diverse yet—make clear that we certainly do. Women do go off easily and alone into the wild, to the North Pole and Antarctica, to Easter Island and Ethiopia, to Albania and Laos, in search of elusive beasts of all sorts. (And then, yes, we gather in bars and bookshops afterwards to connect with other women—and men—around the journey.) But even if “male travel” is adventure and hardship, and “female travel” is connecting to others, that’s fine by me. I believe that the best travel writing—by anybody—combines both, the interior journey with external quest, the yin and the yang. And though, as a woman, I do still have to consider my personal safety, I also have to consider my race and nationality and economic status, both when traveling and when writing about it. As Jamaica Kincaid has said, “The travel writer: She is not a refugee. Refugees don’t do that, write travel narratives. No, they don’t. It is the Travel Writer who does that.”
Many of us, who travel because we care about the world, share Kincaid’s ambivalence about what our travel does to that world. How do we negotiate the politics of tourism and travel responsibly? How do we negotiate the politics of who gets to travel, that is, who gets to look and then paint the picture for those who cannot? How do we describe foreign worlds when it could be argued that the imperialist origins of travel taint the very language we use to talk about difference?
I, for one, relish the challenge. Travel writing seduces, and for that reason I believe it is potentially the most subversive and most important of literatures. Friends and family imagine a glamorous life of drinks with tiny umbrellas by the pool. Literary critics tend to dismiss it. And yet, if done properly, it’s a literary bait-and-switch, the political detail of journalism and the social detail of history wrapped in the drama of fiction and the lyricism of poetry. An entire world in its beauty and ugliness, its triumphs and failures, goes down easily. If done properly, travel writing forces us into someone else’s eyes, gives us the context to understand what we’re seeing, and adds a bit more to our understanding of the world. We emerge changed, perhaps ready at the slightest suggestion from a stranger in a bookstore to open ourselves up, recognize others, form community.
Faith Adiele is the author of Meeting Faith
, a travel memoir about becoming Thailand’s first black Buddhist nun, which received the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir of 2004; writer/narrator/subject of My Journey Home
, a documentary film aired on PBS about growing up with a Nordic-American single mother and then traveling to Nigeria as an adult to find her father and siblings; and lead editor of the international anthology, Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology
. She is a contributor to O Magazine
, and her travel essays and memoirs have been widely published and anthologized. The recipient of numerous awards, including fifteen artist residencies in four countries, a UNESCO International Artists Bursary, Best American Essays
shortlist, and the Millennium Award fromCreative Nonfiction
, she currently resides in Pittsburgh, where she is Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. Her current project is Twins: Growing Up Nigerian/Nordic/American
, a social/cultural memoir that will complete the story begun in the PBS documentary.
by Natalie Galli
Artichokes, goat meat, bread sublime enough to raise the dead—it must be Easter in Sicily.
While back in the States the day before Easter they were soaking eggs in pastel pink, yellow, green, and blue baths, we were rolling into the small Sicilian town of Partanna to see the Crucifixion up close. We found parking on a street with the enticing name Via Circeo—that powerful witch—and walked the curving roadway past a bakery, a tobacconist, a grocery. Drifting through the green plastic strands which shielded a doorway floated the distinct presence of cheese—maybe bel paese or taleggio—pungent, clean, and salty.
“I love this, Maia,” I enthused to my cousin once removed. “At home, everything comes sealed in plastic.” Here foods were properly worshipped, displayed on marble stands, their holy essences sifting through the air. Here, the cheese stood alone.
A sign read Macelleria—butcher store. Oh-oh. We were eyeball to glazed eyeball, face to muzzle with twelve furry baby goats, killed and hung in a row along the outside wall, their abdomens split open, intestines stolen away.
“I capretti, ” Maia informed me. “Eaten at Easter time.”
“We don’t see this at home,” I stammered. They were hanging by their necks, for Christ’s sake. Their delicate hoofs dangled, purplish-gray, little feet of Pan. And their heads, with tiny budding horns.
“It makes the meat more tender. We eat them only once a year.” Maia kept up her steady clip along the street. “Ehh, cara mia, one way or another, animals are killed so that we can eat. It’s just that way.”
“I know, but…”
We’d turned into a crowded piazza where an outdoor stage had been erected. Loudspeakers blasted a warped recording of a Handel oratorio to get us in a melodramatic mood. Two palm fronds like green parentheses framed the Doric-columned facade at stage rear. Whitewashed walls reflected brilliant morning light. The sound grew more and more distorted each time the piece played, three, four, five times on a loop. Everyone milled around and chattered, the adults and the kids using hand gestures. I laughed aloud at a three-year-old looking up at her parents and protesting something with both her hands flying.
“The play we will see derives from secular theater originally performed in the street: the annunciation, the birth of Gesu, or in this case, the tribunal,” explained Maia.
“Mm-hmm. I’m grateful that you are such a historian.”
“Historian, boh. I have lived my whole life here, naturally I take an interest in the past.”
Eventually Il Spettacolo began. The cast of dozens, young men, mimed the action while a booming, disembodied voice narrated. Jeering Hebrews in floor-length woven robes, headdresses and sandals; glowering Roman guards wearing metal breastplates and helmets; the Jerusalemites straining to listen, brows wrinkled, then loudly protesting; the Apostles huddling to one side. Pontius Pilate delivered his speech, stabbing the stage with his spear, gold robes glistening in the sun. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana pounded from the speakers.
Jesus appeared, manacled, dressed in a white robe, long blond hair, head lowered. They condemned him. The stage crowd showed no mercy, shrieking, hurling styrofoam rocks which bounced off his chest. Some spectators cried out, “Traitors, traitors!” Kids ran around playing tag. The guards stripped off Christ’s robe to reveal him pasty and naked except for a demure white loincloth. They tied his wrists to the wall and two henchmen came forward to whip him. His body snapped with each lash. During one spasm the blond wig flew off, exposing the actor’s close-cropped black hair. Oh Christ. The audience guffawed. Maia shot me a bemused look. Jesus continued to recoil with each blow, enduring this new humiliation. A pre-recorded rooster crowed three times. An extra in a red costume climbed down off the stage, retrieved the wig from outstretched hands and rushed over to fit it back on him.
They pushed the Crown of Thorns onto his head, which began dripping stage blood. ECCE HOMO. He groaned, heaved the full weight of the cross on his shoulder and began to drag it, haltingly, out of the square. Mary Magdalene followed close behind, nearly horizontal with grief. The stage crowd formed a line after him. Electronic cymbals crashed.
“He carries the Cross and Life. He carries the Cross and Suffering. He carries the Cross and Humanity,” intoned the tremulous narrator.
We filed after the procession out of the piazza down a long path, which truly seemed dispirited, the powdery earth having no color to it. We ended up on a broad field, littered everywhere with trash. At a distance we could see the action continuing on a hillside. Halfway up the slope two crosses had already been erected, two figures pre-crucified—not statues, but men—and between them, blond Jesus was being nailed to the cross. The hammering went on and on.
“They’re not using real spikes, are they?”
“No, we would never actually crucify anyone. What a notion!” Maia gaped at me.
“They do in the Philippines,” I countered. “I read it somewhere.”
“Well, maybe there, but here, it is an honor to simply share in the pain, to relive the agony of the Savior,” she whispered, “in a metaphorical sense.”
For long, excruciating minutes Gesu Cristo leaned at forty-five degrees while his tormentors struggled to keep the cross from tipping over. Next to me a mother unwrapped a prosciutto sandwich and handed it to her child. He grabbed it and, never taking his eyes off the Passion, sank his teeth in. Finally they hoisted the crucifix vertically. The crowd murmured, the music swelled. Maia motioned to another part of the hill where Judas hung by his neck from a tree. Shrubs hid his feet. The loudspeaker droned on. Picnics were produced all around, salami sliced with pocketknives, olives chewed and pits spit out, the lazy hiss as Arancina bottle tops were unstoppered.
Maia shifted from one foot to the other. “Would you like to stay a little longer?” She shielded her eyes from the sun.
“What happens next?”
“He doesn’t die till three. They will remain crucified on the hillside all afternoon, until a certain time tonight when the body will be taken down, and placed in a secret cave in the mountain.”
“Let’s go then, shall we?”
“Oh-kay.” She enjoyed using the popular American expression.
While returning to the square, two actors in Hebrew costumes passed us, nonchalantly carrying a huge cross back to the stage. To props? They didn’t struggle at all with its weight, for it was made of balsa wood. They passed so close that a splinter snagged a wool thread in Maia’s jacket and I carefully unhooked her while the Hebrews held still, apologizing to the signora, chatting in Sicilian. A Roman guard on a motorcycle buzzed by with his skirts flapping, spraying us with dust from the road. We returned down Circe’s street of the goats. I kept my eyes fixed on the sidewalk when we passed the butcher’s.
Two days later, Pasquetta, Little Easter, dawned delicate pink, dainty as the inside of a seashell. Our final day of itinerary had us heading west for the hills to a festivity at a monastery, San Martino delle Scale. The outskirts of Palermo fell away; stone buildings here and there dotted the road. So when I spotted way up near a rocky summit a zigzag of new buildings—chunky boxes—teetering, I pointed.
Maia shook her head. “A government housing development. No one lives there. They haven’t completed it and they won’t.”
She hesitated. “Mafia.”
“They look strange, wrong.”
“Oh yes. They are.”
“They don’t fit.”
“They’re out of scale. Weird.”
“Why would anyone want to live in such a place? So hard to get to up there.”
“No one would.”
“But then why build it?”
She rubbed her thumb and fingers together, a muscle in her jaw pulsing. Maybe I’d get the hang of not asking upsetting questions one of these days. The twisting road dipped into a pine forest. Wisps of bluish smoke floated through the trees.
“Look. Do you see?”
“A forest fire?”
“Not at all. It’s picnickers stoking fires to roast artichokes, another of our traditions. Hours are required to prepare the coals, to heat them red hot, to let them cool to white before burying the carcioffi.”
Wow, getting up in the dark to do a choke justice, now that’s devotion. “I’ve tasted them cooked so many different ways, but never from underground.”
“Then you shall, today.”
“Primo dug a pit?”
“Primo has the day off. We’ll be eating out today.”
Maia left the car next to a cream-colored stone wall which enclosed the monastery. We followed a path alongside, her walking shoes clacking against the caked earth. As if someone had suddenly turned on the volume, we rounded a bend and came upon a slew of folkdancers, singers, musicians in a clearing. Accordions bellowed, tambourines shimmied, mouth harps twanged. Someone kept spinning a painted vase high into the air and catching it, again and again.
“What does the vase signify?”
Maia gave it some thought. “Happiness,” she finally replied.
Compared to the somberness of the previous celebrations, this was all gaiety and frolic. The resurrection had occurred, the weight lifted, Lent ended, and vases flew. We heard a song about a donkey—Lu me’ Sciccareddu—each time the singer heehawed the audience went wild. I had a little donkey, very dear, and then they killed him, my poor donkey. What a beautiful voice he had, like a great tenor, donkey of my heart, how can I ever forget you?
The dancers cavorted along the road we’d followed, beckoning us onlookers toward a piazza where a brass band and blastula-like bunches of red and yellow balloons bobbed in the breeze. Antique wooden horse carts painted in every bright color—the famous carretti siciliani that my grandmother of course had a two-inch version of on her windowsill—stood in a circle. The workhorses, all gussied up in magenta and green plumes, mirrored cloth, tassels and fringes, stamped and shook their heads, ringing little bells, raring to go. We moved in closer. Scenes of fierce battles and angelic visitations, dragons and steeds, paisleys and dots and portraits of saints, crowded every inch.
“Look underneath, Natalia, at Hell.” Carved devils, monsters with dangling tongues, winged beasts clung below.
“Fantastic.” I bent down to see the detail up close. Hell had no vacancy. Creatures jammed every possible spot.
The drivers, wearing black caps and red pompons at their throats, cracked their whips and the wheels began to creak. Children in day-glo parkas, pinned in next to their grandfathers, peered over the sides. One cart, festooned with wildflowers and shafts of rye, carried a cage of songbirds and a wooden wine cask. A man following behind turned the spigot to dispense white wine into plastic cups a little bigger than thimbles, which he offered to everyone. “Made at home,” he smiled. “Good for the stomach. Don’t refuse it.”
Maia licked her lips. “Buono, no?”
And powerful as all get out, especially at 11:30 in the morning. The cart circled around again. We each accepted another thimbleful. This one went straight to the brain. All daytime wine drinking had to stop tomorrow, I affirmed. The circle being of modest size and the cask being full, we had a few more refills.
A priest wearing black-rimmed glasses clambered onto the cart, blessed the birdcage, reached inside and grabbed a few frantic, petite birds. He released them to the sky. They chirped deliriously and fluttered above our heads. He clutched another wriggling handful, and more birds swirled up into the sunshine. The crowd let out a cheer.
“I want to show you the Benedictine Abbey,” Maia announced. I followed her lethargically, heated up from five tablespoons of super-concentrate. Mass was in progress. Maia motioned that we squeeze in along the back wall onto the dark wooden benches. The congregation, mostly women, mumbled in response to the hypnotic Latin. Then a Gregorian chant, which fell and rose like a tide, reverberated from wall to wall. I sat marinating in the Gregorian scale, trying to decide whether it was more major key with a minor overlay, or minor with major. Or neither. Could there be such a key, neither major nor minor? “Only Gregory knows for sure,” I may have mentioned to the vibrating atmosphere.
Maia nodded along, hands folded, but then suddenly turned to me. “Time to eat.”
The smell of something baked had swung out into the piazza like secular incense. Good thing we nabbed the last empty table at the trattoria.
“Cameriere,” Maia raised her hand to a waiter squeezing by with three steaming plates of pasta balanced on each forearm. “A half liter of red wine, please.”
“I’ve already had enough vino, Maia. Really, I’m kind of drunkish.”
“Don’t worry about it. Drink what you wish, if you wish, when you wish.”
Pasquetta frolickers and all their relatives jammed three dozen tables which the waiter worked alone. After forty days of Lent, they were starving and clamoring for his attention. Feed us. Feed us now.
Even my stoic cousin sighed in relief when he finally showed up with the carafe and wineglass stems laced upside-down between his fingers, and leaned down to be heard over the din. “We offer holiday specialties today. Capretto. Carcioffo. Pasta al Forno San Martino.”
“Baby goat for each of us, and an artichoke to share?”
I shook my head, trying to prevent the sight in front of the butcher store two days ago from returning.
“It’s traditional today,” she lobbied, “you’ll like it.”
No goat. Never goat! I nearly hollered into the racket. “I’m sure it’s delicious, but an artichoke is what I’ll have. The kind roasted underground, right?”
“Certainly. My brother-in-law and I stayed up last night making the pit. As a matter of fact, he’s still out there overseeing the operation. No first plates to begin with for you ladies? No pastas?”
No, but Maia pleaded for some bread before he raced off. We were grateful, desperate really, when he slid a plate of rounded rolls onto the table. My cousin grabbed one, tore it open. The crust cracked defiantly, curls of steam exhaled.
“Crunchy,” I broke open a roll. Its dough, stretchy, gave way, smooth and moist, flecked with bran.
“Perhaps you didn’t know that Sicily played breadbasket to the Roman Empire.”
“That’s amazing. I did not.” Two thousand years later the basket hadn’t emptied, Sicily kept giving of herself. Two thousand years later the bread kept breathing, body and soul.
“Here,” Maia urged, “have a little to wet your throat while we wait. Salute.”
“Cin-cin.” I took a sip against better judgment, then bit into the crust. Golden durum semolina grown on the broad breast of the island’s interior, flung into last summer’s air to separate out the chaff, and ground between meter-wide stones; bubbly yeast kept teeming since Roman times; sea salt in sacks hauled by painted carts from the Tyrrhenian shore; water caught in a ceramic jug from the always splashing monastery spring—I tasted these immediate ingredients. How could a dough kneaded from them not effortlessly grow? Punched down—large and little gasps of air imprisoned inside—would it not triple in volume? Beaten down again, yea vanquished, would it not rise a second, a third time? Brushed with oil of olives from sacred groves, would it not meet its mysterious destiny—raw to cooked, matter to spirit—sealed inside the fiery oven, the rock rolled into place? Snatched at the right instant from that infernal heat, would it not thrust forth, to be borne triumphant on platters by monks (who had just completed their morning prayers, thus imparting a heightened spiritual zest to the loaves) through gardens respiring with spiky rosemary under the morning sun, and be delivered unto the trattoria’s back door wrapped in cloth? And here kept warm next to the oven, guarded near Vesta’s sacred flame. This much you could—I did—taste in one mouthful. Everything alive. If a bite could bind a person to a place—to ensure becoming a part of it—this one bound me to the island. I was here for the duration. The reverse of Persephone, committed to hell because of the six pomegranate seeds she chewed, we bit into morsels of paradise.
“My carcioffo is probably still in the ground, down the mountain, miles away,” I yawned behind my hand.
Maia was lost in studying the noisy room around us, consummate observer, anthropologist, cultural attaché to her own paesani. Every table had ordered before we did, and seated a full clan. Generations were crammed together, parents force-feeding toddlers, teenagers wolfing down pasta by the spoon and forkful, sleeping babies cradled by grandparents, everyone gabbing, laughing, eating, swallowing. The waiter oiled around the floor, delivering plates and platters, more bottles of water and wine. More bread and beer, bowls and bills.
So if artichokes took hours to roast, the brother-in-law, equipped with walkie-talkie, was probably just loading the baskets with the last of the blessed thistles onto a sciccareddu‘s back right now. I relaxed into my chair with more vino. Treat the donkey well, give him a handful of hay and a drink from a trough, sing him the donkey song, and take your time because, man, those tenors were tiny beasts of burden. I could wait—we had Bread and Wine. An excellent sacramental appetizer. An old favorite. A meal really. A religion. I refilled Maia’s glass and added a few centimeters to my own.
The waiter was nowhere in the dining room. I took another roll, broke through the crackly crust stratas, pulled at the elastic, steamy dough, probed and pinched the warm mass. There must be a technical name for the meeting of crust and dough, brown and white, a baking term for the realm between exterior and interior…the body and spirit…the dead to the living.
“You know, both my sisters have an allergy to wheat. Can you imagine life without bread?” I asked, my mouth full.
“Why? What happens to them?”
“Oh, they get sleepy, lethargic, yawn a lot. I’m so lucky to have escaped it.”
“I should say.” She drained the carafe.
“They even get disoriented.” I kept chewing.
The waiter stood over us with plates, trying to remember who ordered what: sacrificial kid goat and the huge vegetable, like a baked green crown. The capretto smelled sort of barbecued.
“Buon appetito, ladies.”
I loosened the first outer charred leaf off the subterranean globe—rounded like a basilica dome—and nibbled its meatiness, bittersweet and mineral. Though seared in a mini-inferno, it hadn’t given up any moist ghost. I plucked my way through complexity, spiraling in, the marinade of lemon and olive oil, mint, crushed garlic yielding up.
“Fabulous! So delicious I can’t tell you.”
“Would you care to taste the meat?”
“No, no. I’ve got this.”
We savored without conversing, the best way to manage in such a loud room. A person achieves something engaging with an artichoke. Does any other vegetable in the world have a built-in goal? Leaf, leaf, leaf, leaf, leaf, leaf, leaf, thicker to thinner, exterior to interior, then the prize of the huge heart. All those roasting hours made this apotheosis. At the end I was just sated, full of Sicily’s generous fruits. When the waiter set our bill down I grabbed it, but my cousin fixed me with a no-nonsense look and demanded the slip.
“Maia, you must stop treating me as a guest, or for sure I’ll get on your nerves very quickly.”
“We have to eat.”
“Exactly, and here’s my contribution to that effort.”
“I don’t want to hear another word about it,” she stood, brushed the crumbs off her lap and firmly pulled the slip from my fingers. The woman was not to be messed with.
We crossed the empty piazza, strewn with plastic winecups, peanut shells, shreds of burst balloons and horse manure, and circled the cream-colored monastery walls to her Fiat. We were well on our way down to Palermo, past the Mafia-Nightmare architecture up on the crest when a herd of goats—leaping, stumbling, tripping and glorious—filled the road. The unruly carpet of fur and horns that maaa-ed insisted upon right of way. Maia turned off the motor and nodded. She knew the score.
Natalie Galli’s articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
and The Berkeley Monthly
. Her memoir, Three-Cornered Island
, details her search for Franca Viola, the first woman in Sicilian history to publicly refuse the tradition of coercive marriage. Ciao Meow
, her children’s book about a freewheeling cat, boasts illustrations by her sister. Look for her contributions in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007
and 2008, Travelers’ Tales Italy
, andItaly: a Love Story
. She lives in San Rafael, California.
About the Editor
Lucy McCauley’s travel essays have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The Los Angeles Times, Fast Company Magazine, Harvard Review, Science & Spirit, and Salon.com. She is series editor of the annual Best Women’s Travel Writing, and editor of three other Travelers’ Tales anthologies—Spain, Women in the Wild, and A Woman’s Path(coedited with Amy G. Carlson and Jennifer Leo). In addition, she has written case studies in Latin America for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and now works as a developmental editor for publishers such as Harvard Business School Press. She lives with her husband, Charles Bambach, and their daughter, Hannah, in Dallas—with frequent returns to Boston.