As we approached the car, a group of elderly men passed by, ogling Stephanie. One of them muttered, "Poi si stupiscono se gli uomini si sfasano," which translates, ‘they get surprised if men lose their senses.’
"You see!" Stephanie shrieked, "I told you, this is Sicily. A woman can't walk around the streets half naked here." Half naked seemed a bit of an exaggeration. "You're wearing a dress over your bikini, what are you worrying about?" I chuckled, as we climbed into the car. "Licata is a sea-side town; everyone is walking around half naked."
I had come to Sicily for Ferragosto; one of Italy’s biggest holiday celebrations. The name originates from the Latin Feriae Augusti (August Holidays), a feast established by Emperor Augustus, intended to connect all the major holidays in August. After the long, hard harvest period the peasant folk deserved a break, and no doubt the festivities also served the Emperor's self-promotion agenda. Around 4oo years later, the Christians hijacked the party and started celebrating it as Assumption day–the day the Virgin Mary was elevated into heaven. However, what most people don't know is that the Fascists really popularised it by setting up "People's Trains of Ferragosto". Mussolini discounted train tickets, putting the seaside holiday in reach of less affluent folk–modern day peasants. And like Augustus served his self-promotion agenda. My agenda was far less ambitious; take a Ryanair flight (People's Planes of Ferragosto) to Sicily, and while people carried the Virgin Mary through the streets and danced around bonfires, I would try to experience the seven deadly sins in Sicily.
Stephanie's scanty attire had given my cause a significant boost. Following her into a patisserie, aptly named Moulin Rouge, I caught a glimpse of what had caused the old man to "lose his senses"–her 'sundress' was more of a long shirt than a dress. We were lucky the old guy hadn’t had a heart attack. While she hugged and kissed the store owners, I pretended to be a passing tourist; God forbid they mistook me for her pimp. Our experience with lust complete, it was time to get Stephanie home before we tarnished her family's good name. She must have been thinking the same thing, "Carry the cake properly, one hand underneath,” she snapped as we left the store. "At least let's have them thinking I found a nice guy in London."
Our villa, perched on the hill overlooking the beach, was the perfect place for dolce far nulla, the Italian term for chilling. In the pursuit of sloth, we took dolce far nulla to a new level. Typically, our daily routine began with coffee on the balcony, followed by brioche stuffed with gelato, while enjoying the airy sea view. After breakfast, we’d hit Mollarella Beach, ground zero for dolce far nulla for Licatese and tourists alike. Like most Italian beaches, this crescent shaped beach has the typical Lido setup– row-upon-row of deck chairs and umbrellas. From the comfort of my deck chair–Molly's Lido, row 4, umbrella 5, I was able to observe the social mood of the beach–North African refugees peddling sunglasses and waterproof iPhone covers, holidaymakers in animated conversation, and teens recovering from the previous night's antics.
Occasionally we'd venture into the ocean for a swim, but I had grown attached to my deck chair and saw no reason to overexert myself. Around noon, before the heat of the day became unbearable, we’d retreat to the villa for lunch; devouring bowls of homemade pasta and whatever else Stephanie's mum had cooked up for us.
In Sicily, food is a constant topic of conversation and the central focus of daily life. I should have realised this on my first night when we joined Stephanie's friends for 'drinks and snacks'. Drinks and snacks? It looked like the table had been set for Augustus himself–pizza, arancini, cake, watermelon, gelato, wine, and food I had never seen before. “What are those?” I asked pointing at what looked like a deep fried sandwich. “Mozzarella in Carrozza,” Stephanie responded. “It translates mozzarella in a carriage. You place mozzarella between two slices of bread, dip it in batter and fry it. Here, try one,” she said cutting a carriage in half and handing me a slice. I eyed the Sicilian version of a toasted sandwich suspiciously before taking a bite. As I chewed, the creamy mozzarella melted in my mouth. I had come in search of gluttony and found heaven in a fried sandwich, “More please Steph!"
Being a committed sinner, I was worried that the energy required to experience the other six sins would interfere with aspirations for sloth. However, as I began my descent into gluttony, I realised these two transgressions go hand-in-hand. I could only hope the other five sins would manifest themselves during bouts of sloth and gluttony.
Sicily forms part of the Mezzogiorno; the hot, dry southern part of Italy, a region wracked by earthquake and eruption. So, when someone suggested a trip to nearby Ragusa, a city destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, I jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps I would discover wrath in Ragusa. As fortune would have it, our party insisted on taking the children's train ride through the city. Along the trip, a metallic voice related how, for centuries, the people of Ragusa had bickered over who was the rightful patron saint of the city. People argued; they built churches dedicated to saints; they probably even killed one another. Ultimately, they incurred the wrath of God, who sent an earthquake to level the city. But the citizens of Ragusa were undeterred, and the feud continued with more churches building.
Finding wrath had left me exhausted, I was in need of an Aperitif, so we make our way to Cala del Re. This sheltered beach, nearby our villa has only one Lido. It's the perfect spot for a sundowner, and, as it turns out, owned by Stephanie's childhood friend Serafino. I couldn't help wondering if 'un amico degli amici' (a friend-of-friends) had played a role in some of the beachfront properties in Licata. For centuries, Sicily was ruled by a long line of foreign invaders; the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the French and Spanish. The residents of this island were forced to form groups to protect themselves from the often-hostile occupying forces. Stephanie showed me small streets, specifically built that way so that residents could fling furniture from the windows, thereby barricading street entrances to invading forces. Anyway, these groups, which later became known as clans or families, developed their own system of justice and retribution, carrying out their actions in secret. However, the clans evolved into small private armies, the mafia. They began to get greedy, taking advantage of the frequently violent, chaotic conditions in Sicily and extorted protection money from landowners. From here, the Sicilian Mafia and greed emerged.
It’s not long before the conversation turns to the property in front of our villa. Stephanie had attempted to purchase it, but the owner refused to sell. “He can’t do anything with it!” she tells Serafino, “His only option was to sell to me. Now the land is worthless.” Italian municipal law, like most regulations in Italy, can be like navigating a minefield without a map. In this scenario, the owner had the opportunity to have the property zoned for building. However, for reasons only known to him, he didn't take the opportunity. Now, his only option was to sell the property to a neighbour with land zoned for building–Stephanie. She had made him a good offer, but he turned her down. Apparently, her plan to combine it with her land and sink a pool had rubbed his pride up the wrong way. How could he sell to a successful woman? A woman who wants to use his property to build a pool. Instead, he now accepts 10 Euros a month from Serafino to let his horses graze on the land. Without having to lift my ass out of the chair, disrupting my evening sloth, I had discovered Sicilian pride.
I had been in Licata for five days. In that time I had become terrified of going anywhere near a scale. At the rate we were eating, I must have packed on a kilo a day. I found myself becoming envious of how the Sicilians managed to eat so much and remain slim; to maintain la bella figura. Most often associated with dressing well and taking pride in how one looks, la bella figura is everywhere in Italian life, especially southern Italy. But it goes deeper. It also means acting appropriately, being aware of the proper nuances of Italian society. I observed this first hand while dining at La Madia–one of Sicily's few 2 Michelin star restaurants. Men had turned into peacocks, admiring themselves in the bathroom mirror, flashing a dazzling smile at the girl walking into the room, and all the time maintaining a self-satisfied smirk. Italians believe that practising la bella figura enhances beauty and peace in life. Sitting at the table, I wondered if I could achieve la bella figura with two poignant touches of vanity; a shaved head to disguise the approaching baldness, and a dark shirt to hide the belly developing from gluttony. Outside the restaurant, I discovered the truth. Andrea, who had persuaded me to trust him with my dinner order–a seemingly endless procession of seafood dishes and two desserts–stretched his arms toward the night sky and still wearing his smirk, announced, "Thank God I did that 12-kilometer run before coming for dinner."