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A Teen's View


Olivia Sielaff

(Sept & Oct, 2010) St. Augustine once wrote, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." Venturing to another country and immersing yourself in foreign culture can be a life-changing experience. It can also be a learning experience where you not only fill the pages in your passport booklets with stamps, but also fill the pages of your life with the beautiful cultures of our world.

I would say that I’ve been very lucky to have already begun to enrich my life with travel. Besides going to a few states here in America, and taking a family vacation to Canada, I was able to travel to Italy when I was eight and then to Ireland when I was ten. Both of these foreign excursions opened my eyes to see how big and diverse our world is. However, the most unparalleled trip I have taken so far is when I went back to Italy, but this time for a different purpose. In October of 2008, my mom, aunt, grandmother, and I were able to take an unforgettable two-week trip to Rome, Italy and then to Sicily, where my great-grandparents had emigrated.

The first week of our journey was occupied in the Eternal City – Rome. Being in Europe, we couldn’t just by-pass Rome and head straight for Sicily. Plus my mom and I wanted to see Rome again and give my aunt and grandma the chance to see the famous city. While staying at a bed-and-breakfast, which had a spectacular view of the Vatican, we casually toured Rome. Making up our own agenda, we had a whole week to re-visit some landmarks and tour other sights we did not see the first time.

Now, if you’ve ever traveled with women before, you know that we don’t pack lightly. So it was in this case. At the airport, our tall, slick-haired Italian taxi driver tried in vain to stuff four very large and cumbersome suitcases and carry-ons, plus us four passengers, into his very compact car. Throwing up his arms and exclaiming "Momma mia!" in slight embarrassment, our driver realized we needed a larger car. Thankfully, he somehow found a bit larger car. But even then I had to sit on my mom’s lap while two of our suitcases were stacked up in the backseat with us. This was going to be an eventful trip.

After settling into our B&B, which was only a few blocks from the Vatican, we were ready to sightsee! The first day found us a few hundred feet under ground in the dank catacombs that are a labyrinth of burial chambers. In the catacombs it was as if we stepped back in time because everything (even the frescos) were preserved so well. The next day we marveled at the antiquated ruins of the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum that have stood a long test of time. One aspect that I found fascinating is that in the Roman Forum the Temple of Romulus still has it’s original bronze doors from the 4th century! Just the history and architecture behind all the ruins was intriguing.

Another day, after seeing the Pantheon, we were determined to visit the Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, we became lost along the way, mostly due to the confusing narrow streets, and were wandering for at least an hour. Thankfully, we eventually made it to the Trevi Fountain, tossed in a few coins for good luck, and ate some gelati to treat ourselves.

Later that day we were strolling on Via Del Corso, window-shopping world-renowned designers. Just window-shopping. Even though we had been walking all day and I had blisters on my feet, I found the strength in me to catch a glimpse of the latest fashions of Louis Vuitton and Gucci.

Also during our trip we pilgrimaged to numerous churches including all four of Rome’s major basilica’s: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul outside the Walls. Each of these four basilicas boasts something different and beautiful. St. Peter’s (The Vatican) is the largest Christian church in the world and is home to Michelangelo’s statue The Pieta; St. John Lateran is the pope’s official church; Santa Maria Maggiore’s ceiling is covered in gold from Christopher Columbus’s expeditions; and St. Paul outside the Walls gets it’s name from being located outside Vatican City’s walls. Each church we visited was unique and so ornate that I could have stayed in them for hours just marveling at their beauty and art, which gave glory to the Creator.

Of course I can’t forget to mention the authentic Italian cuisine! I mostly ate pasta or pizza, but it was so delicious. All of the food, especially the gelati and Italian sweets, was satisfying without being heavy. And for practically every meal, we dined alfresco. It was amusing to watch the pigeons waddle around our tables and under our seats! Yet it was so delightful to watch Italian life go by while having dinner under the stars!

However, our week in Rome went by too quickly and we had to leave to spend the following week in Sicily. Going back to Rome a second time, I saw many familiar sights, but also discovered many new and interesting landmarks. The history was intriguing, the food was delectable, the fashions were fresh, and the people were amiable. I was actually a bit melancholy when we had to leave the Eternal City because it began to feel like a second-home to me. Yet I know I will go back someday. So saying ‘Ciao’ to Rome and turning a new page in our ‘world book’ (as St. Augustine put it), we headed off to say ‘Bonjourno’ to Sicily and the adventures awaiting us there!

When our time came to leave Rome for Sicily, we packed our bags and readied ourselves for an eight-hour train ride down the Amalfi Coast. Our goal was to bring my Sicilian grandmother back to her parents’ homeland to experience the culture and explore the town where our family’s heritage began. The train ride from Rome to Sicily was not what we had expected. It took a terribly long time and there was no food available. However, it was exciting when the entire train was loaded onto a ferryboat and transported from the tip of Italy to the edge of Sicily. Eventually we arrived in Sicily more than ready to partake in the second half of our journey.

As we quickly hustled off the train in Messina, we were immediately welcomed by two of our distant relatives, Sicilian natives, who let us stay with them in Milazzo. We expected them to know very little English; on the contrary, they spoke English very well. And throughout the rest of the week, we only had to use a dictionary a few times.

The atmosphere in Sicily was a bit different than in Rome. Every town had a distinct charm, the people were much more relaxed, and their lifestyle was unhurried. While walking along the bay, we would see a group of old, weather-beaten fishermen selling their catch of the day in between smoking cigars and playing cards. There would be carts with the freshest fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish on the sidewalk; in fact, one fisherman was selling a whole swordfish he had caught! Also there weren’t nearly as many tourists in Sicily, so we felt more like locals than foreigners.

At every meal we feasted on authentic, home-cooked, Sicilian cuisine. Our hosts made almost every meal for us, which were always more than one course. One night in particular, we were stuffed from just finishing a four-course meal, when we were presented with the most mouth-watering dessert they called Baba. Each of us was persuaded to eat what seemed like a small pound cake drenched in rum and topped with whipped cream and fruit. It would have been rude to refuse the Sicilians’ food, and so we graciously, and with much difficulty, consumed the dessert.

That entire week the husband and wife duo escorted us all around Milazzo, showed us famous landmarks, including a centuries-old castle, and brought us to all their favorite markets and bakeries. One evening, our hosts drove us to a beautiful little town called Taormina. They didn’t tell us much about the town, but their excitement to show us indicated that we were in for treat. Taormina, like many Sicilian towns, was built on a mountainside overlooking the water. Once we reached the top, it was as if we were in an enchanted city. Stucco buildings with ivy-covered balconies flanked the narrow cobblestone streets. Every so often, to the left and right were even narrower side streets winding up or down hiding a restaurant or small shop. Since it was evening, the whole town glittered with street lamps illuminating store windows chockfull of artwork, little trinkets, ceramics, and clothes. People were dining alfresco and couples were strolling hand-in-hand. Even though many people were there, the town was still peaceful. The best word to describe it that comes to mind is magical! For us, Taormina fulfilled the epitome of a romantic Italian town.

Finally, on the second-to-last day of our trip, we drove to Santo Stefano di Camastra, the town of my great-grandparents and our family’s beginnings. Santo Stefano di Camastra is known it’s beautiful ceramics. After all, it’s called the ‘City of Ceramics’. Everywhere we walked there were large, decorated ceramic tiles on the sidewalks and buildings, and even a town map painted on ceramics. The streets were lined with ceramic shops displaying their colorful masterpieces. Spending over an hour in one family-owned shop, we couldn’t get enough of the beautiful artwork and talent put into the pieces. Also, Santo Stefano is situated on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, which offers breathtaking views of the water. We absorbed every view, street, building, and person in that town so we would never forget them. My grandmother could now put a picture to certain buildings or streets that her parents used to talk about.

The climax of our trip occurred when we stumbled upon a war memorial in the town square. The memorial was a four-sided stone pillar with a bronze statue of a soldier on top. On the bottom sides of the pillar were inscribed the last names of dozens of local Sicilian soldiers who fought in the World Wars. One of the names was my grandmothers’ maiden name. We never imagined we would find such a treasure as this. To think that my families’ name is proudly displayed still in its hometown is extraordinary and truly beautiful!

There is something inspiring and remarkable when you are able to walk where your ancestors did only a few decades ago; to visit the country, the town, where your family originated from; and to experience the culture that is deeply-rooted within your heritage.

Being able to travel back to my great-grandparents’ country and hometown to experience first-hand my Sicilian roots was an event I will not soon forget. I have learned to embrace my heritage and be ever grateful for my entire families’ past, present, and future.

Read other articles by Olivia Sielaff