When I hear “Sicily”, two synonymous things automatically spring to my mind: “The Godfather” and the mafia. But Sicily is far more than the clichéd images the media has permanently impressed in my head.
As I flew into the airport* in Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, I was struck by the view outside my window: an island with a mountainous landscape with cities tucked in between its valleys. The land was green and fertile. The Sicily I had in my mind would soon be displaced by the Sicily I would come to know.
When I first started dating my light-eyed, blond-haired Italian-American husband, I used to marvel at the red hair that would emerge when his beard grew out. He did not look like the “typical” Italian-Americans I was used to growing up with in New York City.
“Are you sure you don’t have some Irish in you?” I used to ask him.
“As far as I can tell, all of my family comes from Italy.”
“What kind of Italian are you?! I’ve never met a fair-skinned, light-eyed Sicilian in my life!” I exclaimed.
“Sicily was invaded and conquered by so many people,” he patiently explained and then eventually mused, “Maybe I have some Viking blood in me…”
“Vikings?! In Sicily?! You can’t be serious.” Suddenly, an image of an overdressed Viking in his fur vest and helmet sweating in the Mediterranean sun popped into my head.
It all makes sense if you stop to think about it. Examine a map and you’ll see that Sicily is at the epicenter of the Mediterranean Sea, which was a major conduit for exchange and trade between various people, tribes, and empires. And here I thought globalization was a contemporary phenomenon!! The one who controls the sea, controls the economy. And the one who controls the economy has access to power. Get my drift? Control Sicily, control a strategic location within a busy superhighway of trading routes in the Mediterranean.
The indigenous people of the island, known as Sicels, were eventually greeted by the Greeks in the 8th century BC followed by the Pheonicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Lombards (these last three were Germanic tribes), the Arabs, the Normans of northern France (here’s where the Vikings entered the scene since the Normans were apparently descended from the Vikings as well as the Franks, Romans, and Celts), the Hohenstaufen (German kings), the Spanish, and the Bourbons. All of these groups ruled Sicily before the unification of the Italian states in the middle of the 19th century.
Present-day Sicily and its people represent hundreds of years of intermingled cultures. This mixing is most palpable in the island’s art and architecture, language, religion, and food. It is not uncommon to visit a former theater built by the Greeks that was later converted into an amphitheater by the Romans or a church that was previously a mosque.
So if you happen to meet a red-haired Sicilian one day, don’t question it. Just think Norman…or better yet, think Viking.
* Alright, fine. The airport in Palermo is called Falcone-Borsellino in memory of two prominent anti-mafia judges who were murdered by the mafia in 1992. ::sigh:: Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in…