This photo is noteworthy as it shows our final real Italian meal, a lunch in Zafferana, on the flanks of Mt Etna.  We had just spent the morning hiking among the cones and craters of the 2002 eruption, which rearranged the volcano’s northeastern ridgeline and took out some tourist buildings and a chairlift or two.  The summit and it’s crater were off limits on this day due to very high winds and clouds, which make it impossible to scout the toxic gasses leaking from the crater. OK by us – we had a great time.

Our final Sicilian dinner, that night in Catania, was a total dud and I will spare you the details. One of several moments over the last 12 hours there that led Alex or me to mutter, “I can’t wait to get out of Italy.”

Number one eating highlight from Sicily was a surprise epic lunch at Taverna Di Bacco in Palazzo Acreidi. Alex found it, literally the only place open during the Sicilian version of siesta, and the chef told her over the phone he’d stay open for us. This led to a two-hour onslaught of deliciousness and gluttony: antipasti, gnocchi, salsicha, ravioli con funghi, steak, and roast pork skewers stuffed with cheese and other things. Everyone knows that taking photos of food at restaurants is lame but maybe we probably should have done it here.

The strong second-place finisher was Agriturismo Leone, a mountaintop farmhouse outside of Noto. Family-run: mom cooked and served, dad cleaned, and their son’s pack-and-play was in the dining room with us. Again, an epic, this time without a menu.  They just started bringing it out once we sat down: a massive round of antipasti, gnocchi and ravioli, and a killer grilled meat sampler to top it all off.  Until the two rounds of dessert.

The girls in Ragusa, our home town for our week in Southern Sicily. Our house for the week was about 10 minutes out of town, toward the beach. It was a very, very quiet spot and I think that silence may have contributed to our first notable lull in morale on the trip. We had just left my mom and dad behind in Rome, and some members of our party were less than thrilled by the prospect of resuming church tours and homeschooling. Homesickness happened. There was likely also some trepidation at what lies ahead on our itinerary (we finished that lunch in Zafferana with our first round of anti-malaria pills). Whatever the case, Alex and I responded appropriately with constructive and wholesome bribery: lots of gelato, golf, cooking classes, and epic meals. One last blast of Western Civ before we head for the Subcontinent.

Our back yard in Ragusa.

The Greek necropolis at Akrai (v close to Taverna di Bacco if you want to do both in a day!)

Earlier in October, we departed Seville after three weeks of successfully acclimating ourselves to the great city. We each felt very comfortable there, getting to know the streets and plazas and markets etc. On that final morning, Coco and Holly and I got in a taxi to head to the airport, and we took off through the now-familiar Alameda de Hercules, our home for those weeks.  I began typing a thank-you-and-goodbye email to our host, and looked up from my phone a few moments later to completely alien surroundings.  I didn’t recognize the streets or buildings one bit.  Two realizations hit me: one, there is so much to Seville that I still don’t know and two, we’re moving on.

We are doing the same today, but the scope feels a bit grander. We could do Europe for months and still only scratch the surface. We’ll all be back, inshallah, and now it is time to change continents. Our flights go Catania to Rome to Abu Dabhi to Delhi. Two different Alitalia people rolled their eyes and murmured to themselves in Italian when they saw our itinerary and four kids (apparently the birth rate in super-Catholic Italy has dropped significantly and four kids is now unheard of). Thank God, Allah, Jupiter, Vishnu, and Jerry that we’ll be met at the Delhi airport by a very eager hostess Sarah Koch.  It will be an adventure for sure.

Playing Hooky, But Not Really

As we were planning the trip, people often asked, “What are you going to do about school for the kids?”  One answer is that we’re homeschooling them.  We follow an extensive and sometimes grueling curriculum designed and, thankfully graded, by the Calvert School in Baltimore.  The Calvert curriculum is substantive and rigorous, more so than we expected and sometimes more than we would like.  The kids have worked really hard and learned a lot, as have we! Overall, I’m glad we’re doing it.

But there have been times when the Calvert schoolwork seems to overwhelm our travels, and not only because of all of the books we have to lug around.

Case in point, we just finished a week at an agriturismo near Ragusa Ibla in Sicily.

Quite and peaceful, it seemed like a great place to knock out a lot of Calvert lessons. A few days into our stay, however, Brendan and I realized we were spending almost all of our time, and a large share of everyone’s mental energy (and patience), stuck inside the farm, looking at books about the world, rather than actually seeing it. Was this really the point of paying all of that money for all those plane tickets?

Not so much.  So we decided to put the schoolbooks away for awhile and play hooky for the rest of the week.

The first day, it was hooky for real.  The boys golfed and the girls played in the Mediterranean. Pretty nice.

After that though, we spent the rest of the week reminding ourselves about our most important educational methods for the year. At the top of that list?  Meeting and learning from the amazing people who live and work in the places we’ve visit.

Like Sicilian chef and businessman, Lele Torisso of Siracusa, who showed the girls their first yellow fin tuna.

Our Mount Etna guide, Fabio Cannove, who schooled Brendan and me on the three different types of volcanic eruptions and kept all of us laughing.

Giuseppe Coco of Zafferana, who taught Coco where saffron comes from and proudly described all of the beautiful produce that grows in the Catanian soil made so fertile by centuries of volcanic ash.

And Signore Mario, our charming host and a true gentleman farmer in Ragusa.

Of course, this method of learning began before we arrived in Sicily list. When we met…

Maria Lingusa of Pompeii, who has studied architecture all over the world, including in our home, Washington DC.

Our wonderful friend, Yussuf Amzil, surfer extraordinaire, who introduced us to the Moroccan waves and its small, coastal villages, like the one where he grew up, with six older sisters, the son of a fisherman.

Lahcen from Imlil, who introduced us to our first donkey (we’d meet many in the coming months), guided us through the beautiful High Atlas, and introduced us to his beautiful family.

Kamal Chaoui of Bhalil, who left Morocco as a young man to work as an engineer in Germany and France but has now returned to help grow the economy of this beautiful mountain town, including by promoting the work of local artists.

Filip, who showed us a “very traditional” Portugal and whose tough tactics helped Brendan, William, and me reach a new level in surfing.

Domenico, originally of South Jersey now of Rome, who toured us through the tastes of the Trastevere and whose newphew, coincidentally, was a year below William on Team Maryland.

And Katja Hansel, who made the Vatican and St. Peters come alive for the kids and the rest of us.

This list leaves many off.  I don’t have nearly enough data on my dwindling Italian SIM card to describe all of the wonderful people we’ve met. People who’ve helped us learn something new or unexpected, something we might have never known if we’d stayed put in our comfortable status quo.  We’re grateful to them all.
Off now to Delhi, via Abu Dhabi, where we can’t wait to visit the Kochs, of Chevy Chase.  It will be so nice to be with good friends as we begin our 6 week adventure in India, and learn a bit about ex pat life in the subcontinent while we’re at it.

Wheels up. Ciao ciao for now.  Alex

Leaving the Boot!

Visiting Sicily has long been on my bucket list.  It’s one of the very first places I tagged as must-go when Brendan and I started planning The Trip. In fact, our visits to Rome and Pompeii were tacked on mostly because we were coming to Sicily anyway.  (Also, because when we first told William about our round-the-world plans, and he pushed back hard, one of the few complaints we could address was, “And we’re not even going to, like, Rome or anything.”)
So now we’re on our way to what they call Sitalia, taking the car ferry from the toe of the boot, Villa San Giovanni to the busy Sicilian port of Messina.  The Mediterranean gusts are intense (see funky hair styles in the pictures above) and everyone is speaking Italian (few tourists this time of year).  Yet, somehow, all I can think of is the Steamship Authority journey to MVY.

The similarities are striking: the grumpy crewmen, you wish you could join after work for a beer; the gas fume wafts, as you navigate kids between car bumpers to the steep stairs to the deck; even an overpriced snack bar, though this one has arancini (Sicilian rice balls) instead of clam chowder.

I love that ferry to the Vineyard and all the memories and feelings it invokes. This journey is a bit different.  So excited this part of the trip has finally come, but there’s also a sliver of “will it live up?” trepidation.  That is natural, I suppose, anytime one approaches a bucket list item–this being my first, I don’t know for sure.  For now, I’ll put that trepidation aside and just enjoy the ferry boat reminiscence, a very well done arancini, and of course some pretty sweet views.