All Things Italy March 2023 Is the Jet Lag Worth It?

March 18, 2023 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Sunrise over the sea at Siracusa, Sicily, March 1. Rising at this hour, around 7, and to this beauty, is more feasible for me than arising in the dark.

Dear Friends (& new subscribers–welcome!):

Earlier this month, five days after my return flight from Italy to the US, I was able stay in bed until 7 a.m., rather than pop up wide-eyed at 4. The pre-dawn rising on prior mornings followed early evenings, when I turned off the light long before before 9 p.m. It was a long week of early mornings and very early bedtime as my body adjusted to jet lag! 

Being out of sync with the world around me for a week raised questions of the travel our technology allows. We know the flights are not good for the earth. And yet we continue to travel. Reflecting on the end of my five-week sojourn in Italy, I ask myself about the value of such transatlantic adventures. To what end? 

Ralph Walso Emerson asked something similar after he returned from his first trip to Europe. He wrote in “Self-Reliance” of desires to travel in order to escape or “lose . . . sadness.” He considered the effort “a fool’s paradise.” Italy, England, and Egypt, in particular, he noted as “idols” of travelers and encouraged American artists not to “follow the Past and the Distant.” Instead, they should consider what is nearby and within. Emerson was onto something. But he was perhaps also an introverted type, more inclined to the pen than to people. 

Emerson’s younger contemporary, Margaret Fuller, also a leader of the Transcendentalist movement, experienced travel to Europe in a different way. For her it was a fulfillment of experiences she’d only imagined, prompted by her broad reading in European literature. She imagined new people, new cultures, new ideas. Europe—and Rome, specifically—was for her not merely a place of past cultures and civilizations about which she’d read. Instead, it contained crosscurrents of contemporary culture. When Fuller arrived in England in 1846, as a nanny for the Spring family and as a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, she met revolutionaries exiled from Italy, such as Giuseppe Mazzini. Fuller’s time on the continent similarly brought her in touch with other advocates for change—such as George Sand in France. She had her finger on the pulse of movers and shakers for social change. 

Engraved portrait of American writer and editor Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). From a frontispiece for Woman in the Nineteenth Century (from Wikimedia Commons)

But Fuller also witnessed Americans as they responded to other cultures.  Drawing from Emersonian ideals, she wrote in her January 1, 1848, dispatch of three “species” of American travelers.

First, there were those who traveled to “spend” and “indulge” themselves in “fashionable clothes” and “good foreign cookery”–in order to show off and gain “importance at home.” Then there was the “conceited,” ignorant and bumbling “Jonathan” type. These folks asserted “that the frogs in one of our swamps make much finer” music than that of an antique European violin. They considered everything at home newer, simpler, and more natural—and therefore better than its counterpart abroad.

But the ideal third type opened themselves to learn from their experiences.

This type of traveler–with a “thinking mind”–would be an American nonetheless, an identity unable to be shed. However, the traveler would be changed in a positive way by experiencing “thought and culture” abroad, even while becoming “more American.”

Ideas from Margaret Fuller’s January 1, 1848, New-York Tribune Dispatch

Fuller considered insights while abroad essential to personal and social improvement. Distinct from Emerson, she considered these international interactions part of a “dialectical and cosmopolitan approach to culture and politics.” Such dialogue might deconstruct oppositional and hierarchical boundaries essential to social change.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Fuller and Emerson, judged harshly Fuller’s time abroad. That she would “fill up her experience in all directions” and “try all things” led to her demise, he suggested in his notebook entry of April 3, 1858. (Fuller died tragically in a shipwreck as she returned to New York with her Italian partner, Giovanni d’Ossoli, and their young child. You can read more about Fuller and her time in Italy here.)

Fuller Ossoli memorial stone at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, noting her relatively short life, 1810-1850 (photo from Creative Commons)

What did Hawthorne do, instead, while he lived in Italy? Judge quite negatively the Italian culture, as well as Fullert. He hoped that it would not bewitch his daughter Una as it had “poor Margaret.” Hawthorne went home to write The Marble Faun, his least engaging and last novel, based on his experiences in Rome and Tuscany. In it, his American characters went home happy that they had escaped Italy unscathed. 

I have carried these author’s ideas along with me as I have journeyed to Italy during the last decade. (The ideas above are also in the introductory pages of Engaging Italy, which you can download as a free excerpt from SUNY Press here.) I’ve asked myself often, when will the newness wear off? When will this love affair with Italy be over? What demons am I trying to escape in the US?

I must confess that I don’t yet have all the answers. I do see truths in Emerson’s view. And yet I also see truths in Fuller’s. Interacting with new places, settings, scenes, and people may help us deal with those demons deep within us. Travel is not always escape–especially if we reflect on the interactions in order to consider ourselves and our relationships.

So, to answer the question initially posed, is the jet lag worth it? My answer is–certainly! I have no regrets about the super-stimulation and relaxation from work I received while in Rome and Sicily. They both feed my current writing and a view of my position in the world. Yes, the travel meant I paid the price of weird waking and sleeping rhythms due to jet lag. The rest of this newsletter is devoted to a few glimpses of the return on investment. I hope you take something away from reading it.

Sicily before Spring & Summer 

As I headed into Sicily at the end of February, my goals were to revisit friends from my Fulbright months in 2009 and to see some new sights. I also wanted a vacation from writing, with my husband along. Unable to leave professional tasks completely behind, I also planned to visits to spots popular with 19th-century Grand Tour travelers, which my husband and I had not yet seen. Most of these would be in and around Palermo. 

Sicily offered all I had hoped.  

What is it about Sicily, exactly, that draws travelers?  Even before the HBO series White Lotus brought fame, I knew of the beauty of towns like Taormina, the passion of the people, and the land enriched by Mt. Etna’s eruptions.

Volcanic Mt. Etna reigns over towns like Taormina. This view from the Greek theater includes the newer town nestled on the hillside.

The volcanic soil offers abundant harvests of grain and grapes, fruits and vegetables, all under the looming eye of the active cone. The sun often shines brightly in January and February—and even more so in March. Or, the skies can suddenly become gray, as the sirocco delivers wind, rain, and sand from northern Africa. (Tunis is fewer than 150 miles from Marsala).  

Seen on the street outside a produce vendor’s shop in Palermo

All of these add up to a small world of sensations that greet travelers when they arrive. A week or more is best. Shorter stays don’t do justice to the island, whose three parts provide diverse experiences. 

For our trip to the island—my husband’s second and my third—we opted to spend half our time in the east and south and half in the west and on the northern coast. We both were a bit saddened as we mapped our itinerary and faced the reality of how little distance we could cover (and enjoy) within one week. On the bright side, that allowed us to make plans for a “next trip.”’ 

The Festa di Sant’Agata

Early in February I broke away from the American Academy in Rome for a weekend in Sicily. The plan was to meet my friend Anne Boyd Rioux, an author who was at Catania’s Cummari, a residence for female travelers. I’d told Anne about the Festa di Sant’Agata, one of the largest festivals in the world, and suggested she extend her stay so that I could join her for these high-energy days. 

You can read Anne’s experiences of the festival in her February 27 newsletter. And, you can read a bit of what I’ve written about Sant’Agata if you scroll down through the first part of this February 2021 newsletter. In short, the festival celebrates the third century virgin from Catania who was martyred when she refused marriage to a non-Christian. Her breasts were cut off in the process. Here are a few fresh photos from my time with Anne and the festival: 

Anne Boyd Rioux and I at Taormina in early February. Note the bright light!

Two memorable moments distinguished this year from my last Agatha Experience: 

watching the festival fireworks at a rooftop gathering, sponsored by a group of advocates for family planning
attending part of Sunday morning mass at the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, also known as the duomo

For the first event, live music provided by young adults (the soloist was only 18!) and a couple spontaneously starting in with a folk dance, renewed my faith in youth, music, and local traditions to create community. 

After this exhilarating evening, I arose early to attend mass at the cathedral, where Agatha’s remains are housed in an ornate silver sarcophagus for all but this time of year, when the sarcophagus is brought out and paraded around the city, followed by the candelore representing the city’s longstanding guilds.

Candelore in Piazza del Duomo before Sunday morning mass

Advised by women at my lodging to arrive early—perhaps an hour in advance—so that I wouldn’t have to stand for the entire service, I did so. Nonetheless, when I entered the few unreserved seats at the rear of the cathedral were already taken. Sigh. I steeled myself for tired legs.

I moved forward in a side aisle, prepared to stand for the next two hours, but at least closer to the front and to Agatha’s remains in the silver coffin. As the time passed, crowds pressed inward. The mass was not starting on time, and the standing crowd saw that the reserved seats stood empty, roped off and carefully guarded by groomed and uniformed ushers.

The sea of empty seats seen from the front side aisle of the Cathedral of St. Agatha. The silver sarcophagus which will exit the building later stands at the right side of the apse.

The agitation among the standing participants was, um, palpable and audible. Many were old and feeble. The crowd pushed inward toward the sea of empty seats.

The woman behind me, who had been yelling for people to stop pushing her back, suddenly fell flat. She had passed out. The crowd around opened up briefly in shock and then closed in again as every onlooker (save me) offered suggestions. “Raise her legs. Stand back to allow air. Fan her face.” All these exclamations were in Italian, of course. A team of medics soon arrived, did their duties, and, of course, gave this woman a seat. Soon after, several of the older and more feeble were also granted access to the roped off seats, and the mass started with all the pomp and circumstance expected of such an event.

I remained about twenty minutes more—enough to decide I wanted to exit before the hoards stampeded the Piazza del Duomo when the mass concluded. But while exiting I had to snap a few photos of the piles of flowers and the parents lifting children to see the silver sarcophagus. I was reminded of our Christmas season—specifically, parents taking their children to see Santa Claus, or a nativity scene, or a pageant—even if they don’t believe all that’s represented, or if their beliefs are not what they once were. We tend to pass along traditions. Such cultural events are loaded with memories. Even as as they change, some rich residue remains.

Vacation Week in early March

Revisiting Catania with my husband almost a month after this festival, I found the city center almost deserted when we arrived on Sunday afternoon. With the nice weather though, as the rest time morphed into the evening passeggiata hour, the crowds began to appear. Soon we were swept up to enjoy our evening stroll with others on the magnificent Via Etnea. As the name suggests, this broad streets extends from the Piazza Duomo near the doors of the old city by the pescheria, or fish market, up the gradual incline toward the foot of Etna’s rising slopes. Now a pedestrian-only area for a long stretch, the street buzzes every evening with people out to stroll, to have coffee or a gelato, or to buy some new shoes or some simple pharmacy item. Our week on the island began this way. We continued the tradition every evening, although in different locales. 

My husband wanted to cycle, but I insisted the season was too early. Our compromise–hiking or walking every day. One day we drove to the small town of Castelmola, with its medieval castle ruins, high above Taoramina. From there we hiked down, through the halfway point of the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca. Exploring Taormina did not take long, since we had visited the Greek theater and the town before. We are not big shoppers, and it was too early for lunch. So we hiked back up, arriving for a lovely lunch at the Antico Caffè San Giorgio, almost the only eatery open in the off season.

We’d already had mid-morning coffee and biscotti here before the hike–and decided then that a return for lunch on the rooftop terrazzo would not be a bad choice. After a variety of bruschetta, we opted for pasta alla Norma (with eggplant and tomato sauce) and pasta with pistachio and cream sauce–both regional specialties.

Our Tuesday walk was around Siracusa. More specifically, we walked from the small island of Ortigia and our boutique hotel Gutkowski to the archeological museum and back. On a previous trip to Siracusa, when we’d visited two “must sees”–the Greek theater and the Ear of Dionysius–the museum was closed. On this visit we learned through our tour of it a bit of Paolo Orsi’s 19th-century excavations throughout the region and more of the various peoples and cultures of the island. Additionally, the extensive artifacts shine light on the circle of St. Lucia, the patron saint of Siracusa, and other Christians from roughly 300 through the early 500s CE.

The jewel of Siracusa’s museum: a sarcophagus from the 4th century (late Constantinian era)

The next day our walk was around Ortigia itself, visiting the Cathedral which incorporates elements of the Greek temple originally on the site and celebrates St. Lucia. We also admired preschool children singing and playing games in the piazza –likely to keep themselves warm on this chilly morning.

We were also awed by the massive fig trees around the Fountain of Arethsusa, the spring of fresh water just a few feet from the salty sea. This spring has fed the imagination for centuries. Ancient Greek authors, such as Virgil, and US writers of the nineteenth century, such as Herman Melville and Catharine Maria Sedgwick, have referred to its mythical qualities.  

From Siracusa we headed north and west to Palermo, with a stop inland at San Cataldo, near Caltinissetta, to visit a dear friend. This friend, as Sicilians do, insisted on a delicious lunch, dessert and coffee. How could we say no? This friend also continually tells us of the overlooked values of living in the beauty of Sicily’s inner highlands. The seaside coastal regions with their larger cities are within easy reach, he explains. Certainly, these two towns seem much more affluent than several of the coastal ones. But they are colder as well and, for someone who wants an easy walk or cycle to the beach—a bit distant from the water! 

Palermo held the beauty of which we’d been told. The historic center was not as expansive as we imagined. But the architecture, with its mosaics and Arabic influences on the royal and religious buildings, exceeded what we imagined.  

Since this newsletter has gone on far too long, and with much of the feel of a too-long family slideshow, I’m going to share Palermo details and pictures next month . . . .

Watching and Reading about Italy: What about Lidia Poët?

Last month I suggested that I might watch more of HBO’s White Lotus, Season 2, which is set in Sicily. But I have not ventured beyond the free Episode 1. I did, however, visit Taormina (twice!) and saw the resort where it is set.

More interesting is that three people, within a 24-hour span, asked whether I’d seen the new Netflix series set in 19th-century Torino: The Law According to Lidia Poët. Now I can respond that the answer is yes. I’m four episodes in to this Sherlock Holmes-type show. My response at this point—mixed. I like listening to the language and seeing the costumes and domestic décor. I like watching Matilda di Angelis’s (the star’s) style. As a person interested in historical accuracy, I’m bugged by some of the anachronistic elements, including Lidia’s not-quite-right bicycle and some of the language–contemporary colloquialisms. (You can read a Town and Country review by Emily Burack on the historical sources of this series here.)

Lidia Poët (1855-1949), the source of the new Netflix series about a female lawyer in Turin in the 1880s

But I’d love to have you share your thoughts about it with me. One Torinese friend says it is like Enola Holmes. She refers to it as carina–cute. Perhaps that’s the best one-word response. And, I must admit, sometimes a cute show is all that I need to entertain me.

Until next month, I’ll close this newsletter with some of the usual remarks, about Engaging Italy and upcoming events. Meanwhile, best wishes for the rest of March and a welcome of la primavera!

Engaging Italy Updates

Hardcover copies of Engaging Italy

Honoring Women’s History Month, SUNY Press is offering a 40% sale coupon for appropriate titles, which include Engaging Italy. Through March 31, 2023, Engaging Italy is available for the lowest price ever through this link! Paperbacks are just a little more than $20 with this discount. E-versions are also available. Use the coupon code XWHM23 at check out.

Talks and Trips 

This month I’m finishing up a Writing for Regeneration workshop with my co-facilitator Dr. Deborah Cox. Deborah and I have benefited from our participation in this group and look forward to setting up another.

I’m also refining plans for a small group trip to Italy in June. Our focus is on “Saints, Martyrs, and Mystics,” with time in Rome, Siena, and Assisi (along with some stops in other sites in route). This trip is set—but if you’re interested in being part of another thematic trip, please let me know. Thanks to those of you who have reached out about a literary trip. You’re on my list!

As always, I enjoy hearing from those of you planning individual or family trips. I’m happy to be of help. Please, keep reaching out to let me share my love of All Things Italy!

Etta Madden