Finding Roots In Mazara Del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo is a town on the southwest tip of Sicily. It is a vibrant coastal community that is one of the larger cities in Sicily, with pretty areas like the church vista shown above. When we visited yesterday, however, we weren’t in town to sightsee, but to find some touchstones of the family history of the Sicilian CEO (aka Chuck Pisciotta). Like many Americans, the CEO’s roots trace back to Italy and Sicily.

Our Mission to Mazara had four goals: to find the birthplace of the CEO’s father, to find city hall, where the CEO’s grandfather is listed on a roster of the town’s mayors, and to find the burial sites of the CEO’s grandmother and grandfather. We quickly accomplished our first objective. We knew the building where the CEO’s father was born had been sold by the family decades ago and been converted to a restaurant called the Cafe Garibaldi. We found it, and that is the CEO and his lovely wife, the Landscape Artist, in the photo above in front of the former family homestead. Unfortunately, finding city hall was surprisingly elusive, and we spent hours wandering the central area of town, being given conflicting directions by Google Maps and friendly locals and fruitlessly searching for the right building. After repeated failures, we decided to cross City Hall off the list and head to the cemetery.

The Mazara town cemetery is some distance from the town center and in an interesting place in its own right. It’s enormous—not a surprise in a town that has been in existence for hundreds of years—and includes in-ground burial plots, family burial chapels, and vaults set into long walls, like the ones shown above. Many of the vaults include pictures of the deceased whose remains are inside, as shown in the photo above. We were told that the use of photos is common in Sicilian and Italian cemeteries.

Each wall contains hundreds of burial vaults, and there were dozens of rows of walls, as shown in the photos above and below. When we arrived, we had no idea where the vaults for the CEO’s nonno and nonna were located, and trying to find the right vault in the array of thousands of potential locations seemed like a hopeless task.

Fortunately, the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were able to enlist the help of one of the cemetery caretakers and examine ledgers in a storage area, where they found information about the location of Giulio Pisciotta, the CEO’s grandfather. That is the CEO posed next to the vault in the photo below. Regrettably, we could not locate the vault for the CEO’s nonna, because we didn’t have precise information about her date of death. Still, we accomplished two of our four tasks, and any baseball player will tell you that a .500 average is pretty darned good.

But this day of roots celebration was not over. The CEO had mentioned to the driver who picked us up at the airport on our arrival in Sicily that he would be visiting Mazara del Vallo to find these family connections. By fortunate coincidence, the driver’s parents have a house in town, near one of the nice beaches. Amazingly, the driver’s parents, who we had never met, invited our entire party to dinner as their home. When we arrived last night we were treated to a magical and unforgettable evening by the parents and two of their friends. That is the energetic and outgoing friend at the head of the table in the photo below.

The parents and their friends set a long table in the courtyard and plied us with more food, wine, and beer than you can possibly imagine. Although they did not speak much English, their friendliness and warmth spoke louder than words—and the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were there to translate and break the language barrier.

The meal started with pizza, olives, cheese, shrimp, and fabulous fried sardine and rice balls, then moved to couscous—a delicious nod to the Arabic influence on Sicilian culture—with mussels, shrimp, and freshly caught branzino, which the friend proudly displayed in the photo above. You dole out the couscous, which our hosts dished out liberally, ladle on some tasty broth, and then add the fish on top. It was excellent.

And the hits kept coming, and coming. After the couscous, we had some of the famous red shrimp that had been caught that morning in the waters surrounding Mazara del Vallo, which had been grilled and delicately spiced. Then it was on to fresh cherries—to keep the digestive processes going, the friend explained—and finally a huge platter of cannoli, shown in the photo below.

We munched on the cannoli, which were crisp and not too sweet, with cherries at each end. And just when we thought the parade of fantastic food had finally stopped, our hosts brought out a gelato cake made especially for the Sicilian CEO, as shown in the photo below. Our hosts explained that the cool and creamy gelato would further assist our bellies in processing the enormous meal. The gelato cake was, of course, delicious.

Our hosts also brought out a bottle of champagne, which the CEO deftly opened, and we toasted our meal and our new friends. As I drank my glass of champagne I reflected with amazement on the incredible generosity of these fine people, who invited a throng of previously unknown people who could not speak their language to their home, invested the time and money to prepare a magnificent meal with a special personalized gelato cake, and fed us until we were full to bursting. And I emphasize, again, that before last night none of us had ever met our hosts. It was an astonishing, awesome display of open-hearted kindness and magnanimity.

We should have known, however, that our hosts weren’t quite done. They insisted that the CEO board the back of a rickshaw-like bicycle for a ride around the courtyard. As the evening ended we stood in the gloaming, exchanging hugs and kisses and cheek-to-cheek goodbyes with our newfound friends, thanking them for an evening will live all long remember. What an extraordinary night!

Begging Door-To-Door

Last Sunday Kish and I were getting ready to take the dogs for a walk when there was a knock at the door.  We opened our front door to find a teenage girl and her mother, both unknown to us, on the doorstep.

The girl explained that they were members of a nearby church.  She said she was collecting money so she could go to a church camp this summer, which was her “dream.”  She said she would be participating in a 5K walk, held up a generic sign-in sheet, and asked if we would sponsor her.  We gave her $5.  All the time, her mother stood there, beaming.

This incident left a sour taste in my mouth.  The girl and her mother didn’t look impoverished; they appeared to be average, well-fed, middle-class Americans.  They weren’t trying to raise money for a charity or a school or group activity.  Instead, they were just going door-to-door, asking complete strangers for a hand-out so the girl could go to camp in a few months.

This used to be called “begging.”  The 5K and the sign-up sheet were just a fig leaf for a naked appeal for cash.

Perhaps I’m just not a very charitable person.  Perhaps I should focus on the fact that we and our neighbors gave hard-earned money to these strangers to help them out.  Perhaps the girl will now go through life believing that Americans are decent, generous people who lend a hand when you are in need.

However, I wonder, instead, whether we have really come to the point where parents not only allow their kids to solicit donations for personal items door-to-door, but also participate in the process?  Could this girl not get a job to pay for her dream, or hold a garage sale, or save for a few months to cover the cost of the camp?  Couldn’t the family make a few sacrifices to pay her way?

This young girl probably collected more money from our neighborhood than she would from 10 hours of work at a minimum wage job.  What kind of message is she getting?