5 September 2019

A Week in Sicily (Part 1)

... with a 10-month-old

By In Travels and other stories

Day 1: The trip to Avola, Sicily

I wake up in the morning with a feeling of dread so intense it takes a few seconds for my brain to register where the dread is coming from. And then the sharp realisation hits … I am to take a plane in a few, short hours, ALONE, with my 10-month-old son.

It is not a long trip. Two and a half hours from Milan to Catania. But then there is the car hire pick-up, baby car-seat fitting (I read somewhere the car-hire people don’t help with fitting the baby seat so as not to be liable), driving a manual on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in the land of maniacal driving, finding the accommodation in a small town through narrow streets and then finding a lady named Carmela who might ‘speak a bit of English’, finding a supermarket to buy baby food, finding dinner for myself before 6 p.m. in a country where dinner at that hour is sacrilegious … and on goes the list of reasons to never get out of bed and pretend I never made this most stupid of plans, EVER.

A few hours later I have Baby G. strapped to me, my backpack on my back and a fold-up travel pram slung over my shoulder, and I am waving goodbye to all the help I could have had as we head towards the not-at-all uncivilised Ryanair priority queue. I take a deep breath and with that I stop being a mamma and become a Project Manager. If I carve up this beast of a week into manageable chunks, I’ll be right, I tell myself.

The flight is fine. There is ‘teddy’ – a highly unhygienic toxic rag of an elephant Baby G. likes to suck on when he sleeps – and a range of Italian baby ‘crack’: baby biscuits, pureed Parmesan and pureed prosciutto. Baby G. looks out the window in excitement as our plane hovers over the olive-tree flecked terracotta earth beneath us.

I discover early-on that being alone with a baby makes me a target for lovely people, and very soon I have a German family helping me to gather our luggage and get Baby G. in the pram. Task 1 of the project is complete.

Next I wander around in circles for a while before finding the car rental lot. I muster my best Italian and give my name. I will unashamedly admit that I paid a little extra to upgrade from a manual to an automatic … there were too many terrifying factors already and dealing with gears on the wrong side while handing out baby crack over my shoulder was a thought too difficult to bear.

The nice car rental man sees I am completely dysfunctional when it comes to fitting the car seat and just takes over, eliminating #3 Scary Thing on my list of scary things. Baby G. is placed safely in the seat and promptly handed teddy, while I take deep breaths and try to remember that I can drive, that I am a responsible grown-up person, and that even if I drive 40 km an hour in the slow lane for the entire trip, no-one will care (heavily blocking out all stereotypes of Sicily here).

Away we went in our shiny black VW Golf at 40 km an hour. Baby steps to the end of the airport carpark, baby steps to the main road, baby steps to the tollway entrance, baby steps to the slow lane of the tollway. I had made it. If only I could have stayed on the tollway forever and never gotten off.

With Baby G. staring wide-eyed from the back seat, we sat in half-built petrol station with a frayed sign announcing an impending opening and watched a YouTube clip on how to locate the lights. I noticed a black car full of serious-looking men parked a few metres away and thought, no they are not mafioso, they are simply trying to work out how their own vehicle works. New model cars are confusing with all their buttons and such …

I got us back on the road and to Avola we went, listening to Radio Deejay and me starting to feel a little calmer about this madness.

Avola is a beautiful little town in the south-east of Sicily, with extremely narrow streets that will made me sit up straight in my rental car and thank the heavens for taking that Skilled Drivers course when I was a new driver.

But then there was a tunnel – a long, dark mother of a tunnel – and this car was so full of gadgets that I couldn’t find the headlight switch. After about three of these I thought it best to pull over at the next exit and get to know my vehicle.

With every sensor going nutso and my fastest ever three-point turn to get us from the main street and into the car park, I made it to our accommodation. There would be no day trips, no leaving this town. I wasn’t moving the car again! Carmela didn’t speak much English as it turned out, but she was a gorgeous lady who showed us around the giant property owned by my friend, Erica, and her family. After being shown around and silently feeling like hugging this woman because I HAD FOUND HER, she left and we were alone. Baby G. was promptly placed in the pram and off we went to the supermarket.

Because I’m a bit daft sometimes, we went to the supermarket NOT closest to us, and so I lugged bottled water, milk and food on my back and in every nook of the pram, back to the hotel. Because I’m also a bit adventurous and like to take the alternative path always, we managed to wander past a full-Sicilian wedding entourage, pick up our first batch of arancini and cannoli from the wonderful Rosticceria, Tavola Calda, Gastronomia “Le Delizie” di Papa Giuseppina (try saying that fast!) and take in a magnificent sunset in the piazza. After getting Baby G. off to sleep, I sat down to arancini and wine and Indovina l’età  (‘Guess My Age’), an appallingly addictive game show, and felt relief and the slightest feeling of gratitude start to seep in.

Day 2: Avola

Sounds of laughter from the baby dome at the foot the baroque bed woke me. I lay there for a few seconds feeling already overwhelmed by the day stretching before me. The day before had been incredible … and incredibly challenging. I decided on a much easier day today. And no moving of the vehicle!

After a leisurely breakfast, play and morning nap, we headed out into the town to explore. Our beautiful 19th century guest house was right in the centre of town. Erica Monello, of the family Monello who own Esagono Monello, had told me many times of the town that she held dear to her heart. We met in Melbourne through work and became friends, talking about Sicily and specifically, Avola, many a time. I felt privileged to be in her home and explore her town as her friend from a city so very far away.

Avola has a magnificent piazza in which Baby G. and I enjoyed sweet Sicilian delights and eavesdropped on conversations around us in one of its cafes. We wandered in and around the cobbled streets and into boutiques. I spoke with many a vendor and introduced Baby G., with the exchanges always ending in laughter and confusion when language walls were hit. The fruiterer asked me three times if Baby G. was a boy or girl, in dialect I might add, to which I kept answering ‘his father is Italian’ in some form of Italian.

Cannoli to die for.

Although a little chilly for a swim, the nearby beaches were calling, and we spent the afternoon playing in the sand and dipping baby’s feet in the Mediterranean for the first time. Somewhere out there was Greece.

We headed back via the rosticceria for m’pnate, arancini and other savoury dinner goods … soooo cheap and so delicious. There was one other quick stop before nostra casa: Dejavu bar, for aperitivo and chippies for Mamma and some pane di casa pieces for Baby G. I won’t lie; a solo lady trying to hoist a pram over the 90s-era steps leading into a bar for happy hour with a baby drew some strange looks, but I was promptly helped by an older man named Enzo and served a giant Aperol spritz and crisps within moments. Happy hour indeed!

I saw Enzo about town a few times after that. He would give me a friendly nod each time and wave to Baby G. I imagined he was one of the town’s elders, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of folk and overseeing ‘matters’. Or maybe he was just a nice, retired man having a harmless drink with his mate and helping an odd ‘straniera’ with her child up the steps to get her alcoholic fix.

Courage is required at the local supermarket.

By Day 2 I had concluded that although my imagination was running wild with backstories about the various locals I had encountered, they were in truth, some of the loveliest people I had met.

Day 3: Noto

The Aperol Spritz and a good hour of ‘Guess My Age’ ensured I slept very soundly. I woke up confident, ready to take that sad, misunderstood vehicle out for a spin in the countryside. It was day trip time!

Fortunately Avola is located close to a plethora of natural wonders and historical must-sees, so my country drive would only be a 10-minute commute to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Noto, famed for its baroque architecture, romantic alleyways and the nero d’avola served in its bars and restaurants.

Baby G. was notified that his mamma was going to extract the vehicle ever-so-carefully and take him to a town with even narrower streets, if that was even possible. He gave me nothing. I packed us into the car, punched ‘Noto car park’ into Google Maps and started the engine. Drawing a deep breath, I looked into the rear-view mirror to see two big brown eyes staring back at me intently. ‘I got this, baby’, I proclaimed, then proceeded with what I think was a 10-point turn to get us out of there.

Once on the main road I let myself smile a tiny bit. We were having an adventure, just the two of us, in the middle of nowhere! The thought thrilled and absolutely terrified me, so I moved on from this millisecond of smugness very quickly. Once I made it to the car park, successfully retrieved a ticket and parked the beast, I let out a little sigh of relief. We had made it 10 minutes down the road!

Erica had suggested that we lunch at Cantina Modica di San Giovani, a homey trattoria of little caves and wooden beams giving the feeling of dining in a basement cellar; apt because the family behind this cantina, the Modica family, own 300 hectares of farmland just outside of Noto from which they produce award-winning olive oils and of course, Nero d’Avola.

The cantina wasn’t too busy when we arrived and given the no high-chair situation (not uncommon in these parts), I asked in my best Italian if it would be OK to park the passegino at the table, so that I could comfortably eat and keep Baby G. seated in his pram. The waiter gave me an uncertain look, but agreed. I ordered a plate of crumbed sardines and a sparkling variety of the famous house wine, while my hot date settled on Italy’s finest carrot puree with chunks of house-made bread. The sardines were delectable; the wine even more so.

We farewelled our waiter, whom I gave an especially wide smile to, as if to say ‘I pulled off a fancy lunch alone with a baby, you skeptic you’. Baby G. was placed back in his reclined pram and given teddy, and with a cloth placed over him bumped along to sleep as I hauled his pram over the cobblestones. It worked, and I took a lovely 2-hour stroll around the town, stopping for a gelato at a stand outside the famed Caffe Sicilia and imagining myself living in this breathtaking town with all of its edible glories.

However, at this point I began to notice a great many posters featuring photos of deceased people and the respective anniversaries of their deaths. They seemed ominous mementos. Once Baby G. awoke he was out of the pram and crawling around the base of the imposing Monumento ai Caduti nella Grande Guerra, a WWI commemoration statue. I hooked up the trusty baby carrier to my chest and placed him inside, dumping the pram in the car to walk him around the streets of magnificent Noto; climbing all her glorious stairs, marvelling at her marbled Basilica and trying all of her pastries.

Ominous deceased-person wall poster

We returned to the car a happy duo. Then this mamma then realised she had lost her parking ticket and my mood suddenly changed. I thought I must have dropped it when returning the pram to the car, or when I opened my wallet to buy the fiftieth pastry. However it happened, it was gone, and now I was going to have to speak to someone somehow and try not to pay an exorbitant amount to get us out of there.

I called a number written on the ticket machine and a male voice answered. I asked my standard do you speak English in Italian question (he didn’t), then got a few words out before I became flustered and upset and said something crazy like ‘lost mio biglietto … I can’t find it. Io have un bebe, solo’. He told me to get in my car and to the gate within two minutes, push the buzzer and he would let me out. I unstrapped Baby G. and got him into the car in record time, pushed all the buttons required to start the beast and successfully got us out of there. Then my phone began ringing and it was him. I freaked out, lost Google Maps from my phone and made a wrong turn, ending up on the narrowest street OF MY LIFE and missing parked cars by millimetres. I channelled Jason Bourne and the Marky Mark character in The Italian Job, weaving around and around the narrow streets of Noto, unable to find a way out and almost running over a black cat. The phone kept ringing and I started to panic. Perhaps he wanted the money I owed him. Maybe Car Park Man was onto me and knew people who knew people who would find me … and make me ‘pay’. Perhaps he had had something to do with all of those ‘dear departed’ posters on the walls.

Before I actually hit something, I found a place to pull over and brought the car to a sudden stop. I took a deep breath and looked in the rear-view mirror. Those big brown eyes were staring back at me and in his little voice, he let out a ‘hi’. All was right in the world again. With Google Maps guiding me, I got us back to the safety of our casa in Avola and just in time for a little stroll to pick up my usual dinner goods from the rosticceria.

I was buzzing with fact that I, lunatic mother of a small helpless child, had made it through a day trip alone with him in foreign lands and survived, happily. Sicily was my oyster, or sardine, or something!

Selection of local dinner goods for one.

PRACTICALS

Avola and Noto are located on the east coast of Sicily, Italy. Both accessible by car, bus or train from Catania airport.

Accommodation
Avola: All you need to know about the beautiful Esagono Monello is at this link:
https://www.esagonomonello.it/en

1 Comment
  1. Xenia Mylonas 7 September 2019

    This is amazing my girl! What a brilliant story not mention what an adventure. I throughly enjoyed reading this.
    You truly amaze me with your courage. Love you 💜

    Reply

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