Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Trip to Sicily With a Jersey Girl

Places like Sciacca and Calamonachi have well preserved their native culture. So why have we Americans struggled to do the same?

“Finally,” my new wife Marissa said to me as we walked through Sciacca’s Piazza Scandaliato on the first night of our honeymoon, “a place where my nose doesn’t stick out.”

My wife’s nose is beautiful, but I understood what she meant. Here in the Sicilian province of Agrigento, where the bodies and souls of her ancestors had been nourished for centuries, she was for the first time surrounded by people who not only resembled her, but who also shared with her an instinctive bond that seemed to reach beyond culture into what one might call genetic memory.

After a long red-eye flight from JFK to Palermo (with a brief layover in Zurich), we picked up our tiny, diesel-powered Ford Focus from the rental desk and drove an hour and a half from the northern to the southern coast of Sicily. I hadn’t intended on renting a car, but Sicily’s transportation infrastructure is not terribly well developed, nor is Agrigento a priority for most tourists. Driving was the easiest (perhaps the only) way there. At first, I was worried about converting miles to kilometers in my head, but I quickly realized that nobody obeyed the speed limits anyway. Going 100 in a 40 was commonplace.

The rugged, rural landscape—an arid tapestry of mountains, olive plantations, villages, and ruins—will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Godfather. So familiar, in fact, that I imagine it took very little effort for Coppola to keep anachronisms out of the frame as he filmed his 1940s period piece in 1970s Sicily. It probably wouldn’t have been too much harder if he’d filmed it in 2019. Not much changes in Sicily.

That fact probably explains why Sicily has the lowest Human Development Index rating of any of Italy’s 21 provinces, but it also lends it a certain charm. Most of my international travel has been to big cities like Rome and Paris that balance carefully preserved antiquity with the sleek modernity of the 21st-century metropolis. Even fairytale cities like Bruges and Venice are kept in artificial states of tourist-friendly temporal suspension by UNESCO regulations and strict building codes. Sciacca feels equally old, but more organically so. The impression is not of a city holding back modernity by main force, but of one in which people simply can’t be bothered to tear anything down or build anything new. They seem to genuinely like things they way they are.

Chain restaurants are entirely absent, the few new buildings I saw were built of simple concrete and retained the old style (though not to the extent that they seemed to be trying to fool tourists), and people still live in apartments built into the city walls that Count Roger I erected after liberating Sicily from Islamic rule in 1091. Centuries-old ruins that show no signs of any attempt at preservation dot the mostly bare hillside that drops steeply from the foot of the wall to the port below. In one disused 15th-century church, marked only by a simple plaque, an artist exhibited his new paintings next to what remained of the church’s 600-year-old frescoes.

This stubborn and skeptical attitude toward progress is a defining characteristic that Sicilians willingly acknowledge, whatever their feelings towards it. Many natives take advantage of the European Union’s free movement policies and emigrate to pursue careers in globalized European capitals, but some later return home, seeking a slower-paced lifestyle. With so many visible reminders of history and so little change comes a peaceful, anti-utopian attitude that can only be found in such “backward” places.

A drive of around 30 minutes took Marissa and me to the village of Calamonachi (population 1,300) where we met her relative Vito (who lives and works in Madrid but had returned home for the festival of San Vincenzo Ferreri, the patron of Calamonachi). Vito showed us the olive plantation he inherited when his father died in April and told us of his plans to continue producing olive oil on a small scale. He also explained that his father’s ancestors had worked the land for centuries as feudal tenants before coming to own some of it after the unified Italian government instituted land reform. As the dust of the family land coated my feet, my inner Wendell Berry screamed at me to abandon my life in America and grow olives in Sicily. (We did meet a Canadian man who spends two months each year in Sciacca and manages to break even on his airfare and living expenses by growing olives, so perhaps someday I can have my cake and eat it too.)

Vito also introduced us to his Aunt Franca, who speaks not a single word of English. Marissa’s great-grandfather Carmelo came through Ellis Island in 1907, but despite three generations of separation, a few of the details lined up. Franca’s house smelled just like Marissa’s grandmother’s, and Franca collected the same kinds of trinkets as my mother-in-law. Each time we sat down to a meal in Sciacca, Marissa marveled at how her mother and grandmother had made the same sorts of dishes for her when she was growing up in New Jersey. Apparently some of that Sicilian refusal to change lives on in Sicilian Americans.

As Marissa reconnected with a culture from which she had never been truly disconnected, I felt a sense of impoverishment. According to the amateur genealogists in my family, my roots are mostly French with a sprinkling of Scotch-Irish. Yet I’ve been to Paris and felt no sense of special kinship with either the place or the people, and I doubt visiting an unspoiled French village would yield a different result. My family has not preserved a culinary or cultural link to any old country. A few aspects of my accent and dialect might be sufficient to mark me as a denizen of Western Pennsylvania, but beyond that, I’m a generic white American.

In America, as Robert Frost tells us, “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” and perhaps it was our zeal to create a shining, ahistorical city on a hill free of the stifling European past that led us to abandon our various heritages. Jingoistic paranoia, with its rage against “hyphenated Americans” who refused to subsume themselves into the American national project, also played a role in this process, almost entirely eradicating the particularism of the German-American community during World War I. The cultural self-impoverishment of American whites left us vulnerable to the utopian excesses into which the Enlightenment ideals of our founding documents can easily devolve. By trading our particular national and regional traditions for the ever-expanding category of “whiteness,” we created an American identity that was entirely future-oriented and therefore amenable to a totalizing progressivist politics. This move can also explain the feelings of white guilt currently fashionable among self-deprecating liberals. It’s easy to reject an “identity” that is little more than a thin, artificial abstraction with nothing to anchor it in the hearts of those who now sneer at it.

My French ancestry is a piece of trivia; Marissa’s Italian ancestry is an identity. Despite all the right-wing rage, hyphenated Americanism (in the sense of retaining at least some aspects of the culture of one’s home country) is an authentically conservative attitude, and its abandonment was a grave misstep. For almost 250 years, we’ve been living like American Adams, newly created in our very own Eden and pursuing our Manifest Destiny. But as T.S. Eliot reminds us, “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time.” Only a well-rooted people with a strong sense of culture can resist the creeping totalitarianism of the modern state, and America (except perhaps in a few small pockets) has no such culture of its own. If we want a past that can protect us from the encroachment of an engineered utopian future, we’ll need to find it (at least for now and at least in part) on other shores.

It is only that deep, rich sense of history and culture that prevents politics and progress from becoming all in all and makes places like Sciacca and Calamonachi possible. At one point in our conversation, Vito launched into an explanation of how Sicily was passed from the Phoenicians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Ostrogoths to the Byzantines to the Arabs to the Anjevins to the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors to the Aragonese, and so on. “For the last 200 years, it’s been the Italians,” Vito said, “We’ll see who’s next.”

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.