Happy Hour, Italian-Style

It’s the Bohemian retreat you’ve always wanted to visit. Our delightful friends, Stathis and Elettra, have invited us to spend our Sicilian week at their house, and the house is as interesting and hospitable as the hosts. On the desk where I’m writing this, a small Yoda stares across my computer at an eight-inch-high Eiffel tower. Nearby, a lava lamp presides benignly over a miniature zen garden that hasn’t been raked in weeks, and is now home to a large cowrie shell and a lavender silk rose. Elettra is an artist, and her colorful paintings decorate every room, paired with movie posters, photos of her all over Europe, and hand-lettered quotes. A huge mural of an idealized Sicilian landscape (trees, gentle hills, and a waterfall into a pristine aquamarine Mediterranean) dominates the balcony. Their library, too, is eclectic, multil-lingual, and fascinating. An Italian version of The Little Prince shares the shelves with a Greek cookbook, a large coffee table book on Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ursula LeGuin’s handbook on writing. Or anyway, that’s what I’ve pulled down as interesting reading so far.

Elettra, who comes from Sicily, met Stathis, a Greek, when they were both going to school in Florence. And that’s also where we met them both, in a bizarre twist on our fetish for international outsourcing. Stathis and Elettra took us out for dinner at Pizza Man, which, despite its unauthentic name, actually is the best pizzeria in Florence. We found out that we have a lot in common: mostly that we’re interested in other people and other cultures, and like to travel around to see them. Or move around. They recently went to Spain, and were so delighted with it that they’re thinking of moving there. It’s nice to know that we’re not the only ones for whom vacations tend to become house-hunting trips.

Stathis and Elettra have been inviting us to Sicily since before they moved here themselves. Most recently, when our plans to move to Tunisia were almost derailed by the sudden and unexpected success of popular revolutionary movement, we had considered stopping in, at least until things in Tunisia calmed down. So when our Tunisian visas were running out and we needed to step outside the Tunisian border to reset them, we were thrilled that they were still willing to have us.

They live in Agrigento, a beautiful, laid-back city on the southern side of the island of Sicily. It began as an important Greek colony, and the Greek influence is still obvious in many of the street names. The Romans and Carthaginians fought over it for centuries. Empedocles, one of the most fascinating people I remember from my days as a college philosophy major, was born here. I loved Empedocles for a few reasons. First, he originated the artistically and intellectually beautiful hypothesis that all matter is composed of the four archetypal elements of earth, air, fire and water. Second, he explained earthly phenomena as being caused by the action of Love (which attracts matter together) and Strife (which separates matter), which I found extremely poetic. Finally, he is supposed to have died by throwing himself into Mt. Etna. Further heightening his mysterious fascination for me, his Oriental-sounding beliefs (he also preached reincarnation) have led to legends that he visited the lands of the Magi. Why not? In any case, the Agrigentans love him, and have named both a port and an underwater volcano (as well as various streets and things in the city) after him.

Luigi Pirandello, the Italian forerunner to the Theater of the Absurd, was also an Agrigentan. The city itself has a lovely cobblestoned interior, which we visited last night with Stathis and Elettra. Tony was very pleased when they offered to introduce us to the Italian practice of aperitivo, since he’s only been Italian for two years, and is still working on being authentic. We sat down at an outside cafe with tables in the middle of a cobblestone street. One of the chairs at our table was a wicker pendulum swing. The children took turns in it first, but when our drinks came, I installed them in solider seats and took possession of the swing. Our friends had wine, the children had juice, and we had a non-alcoholic aperitivo that tasted like a mixture of coca cola and grapefruit. Interesting, and not bad, especially with the food, which comes included in the price of a drink. An aperitivo is sort of like a mini-buffet. Ours had salami, artistically filled deviled eggs, strong olives, sun-dried tomatoes (a Sicilian specialty), boconcini (little balls of fresh mozarella), chocolate and parmesan sandwiches (weird, but good), etc. Being a teetotaler, I’ve never done Happy Hour in the United States, and can’t really comment authoritatively on the differences. In Italy, aperitivo doesn’t include reduced prices on drinks. In fact, the drinks cost more than normal (although they include the buffet), and people only drink one. The emphasis (as usual, in Italy) is on talking, socializing, and enjoying really good food. For a more extensive explanation of aperitivo, see this delightful article.

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