A Holiday with History (and Heart)

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I have an almost overactive appreciation for the sentimental. Because of this, the holiday my family and I went on over this Christmas was more than just your average summer trip. For a number of years, I have longed to see Europe and in particular to visit Paris, and I got to do this. But more poignantly, I spent Christmas with my Sicilian relatives in the small rural village where my grandfather and his family originate from.

Ferla is a small mountain village not unlike most rural Sicilian towns – perched precariously on the top of a hill and looking like the entire neighbourhood could just slide down into the valley at any moment. Currently there are around 2,500 people living in Ferla, all of whom it can be assumed would frequent one of the town’s EIGHT churches. And I mean CHURCHES. Europe knows how to do old stuff, and these are no small local chapels.

One of the town's churches, decorated for Christmas.
One of the town’s churches, decorated for Christmas.

The buildings vary in colour and size but line the narrow streets in a way that also suggests an impending, Jenga-style collapse. Much of the town is heritage-listed, so whilst the houses have been maintained and updated, the facades have not been touched. This is true of the small corner block where my great-grandparents’ house is – a building now used as a sort of weekender by my great aunt.

The small coffee shop/bakery/bar on the corner is surrounded daily by small, Sicilian men who stand in small, Sicilian groups and have not-so-small, Sicilian conversations for hours on end – disappearing only at around 1pm (a man’s got to eat, right?) and appearing again in the evening to resume the day’s business. What exactly is discussed in these huddles remains a mystery to us, but our overactive imaginations flicked immediately to quotes from The Godfather. This is about as much action as the main street sees, except around Easter when an ancient tradition is still carried out; a procession in which parishioners representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus make their way from opposite ends of town to meet in the centre and embrace – the reunion of the Mother and her risen Son. Apparently, the entire town (all 2,500; eight-parishes-worth of them) packs the street to watch the ceremony; except those who are privileged enough to have a balcony overlooking the main road.

The balconies themselves are part of the character of the place. The majority of the houses are taller than they are wide; any additional room stretching upwards instead of outwards. There is a joke that some of the streets are so narrow, neighbours from across the road could almost shake hands with each other if they were both standing on their balconies.

This neighbourly atmosphere was something we got to experience first-hand. I should specify at this point that none of my family speak Italian. My grandparents were there and they do speak Italian (or Sicilian, which is almost a language unto itself), but it is not always possible to translate everything that is being said in real-time. One day my parents, sister and I accompanied my grandparents as they ‘went visiting’. Our first port of call was the house of a distant relative (by marriage) of my grandfather, Margarita. Entire conversations were held that we understood exactly nothing of, but the language of hospitality was enough to get us through as plastic plates of biscuits were produced from cupboards and cups of tea and coffee were shared around. We didn’t stay long at Margarita’s house, mainly because her friend Carmela (who, I may add, was at Margarita’s at the same time we were) wanted us to ‘visit’ her as well. So we trudged exactly two metres across the street and repeated the process there.

I’m a sucker for scenery and there were stunning views to spare all around Sicily, but the most rewarding part of it was the time I spent with my grandfather, seeing the sights with his commentary and hearing his stories of growing up in Ferla. Hearing tales of him scaring donkeys as their sleeping passengers returned home in the evenings, so that the donkeys would stop abruptly and their riders would go flying off the front of them. Imagining him learning to run the track down the valley from Ferla and up the hill to the village on the opposing side, quicker than the buggies and donkeys could drive around. Seeing the street block shared by three buildings; the primary school, a church and between them, the local jail. With his stories, the town became much more than just another holiday destination. I finally put a visual to the name that I’ve heard of all my life, and I found myself feeling somewhat attached to it even in those few days.

Now that’s what I call a family holiday.

From left to right: the church, the jail, the school.
From left to right: the church, the jail, the school.

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