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HER WORLD

U.S. expat with a Sicilian soul

Author Mary Taylor Simeti fell in love with Italy's isle in the '60s and hasn't looked back.

January 15, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

THE biographical reference book "Contemporary Authors" describes Mary Taylor Simeti as "co-owner and co-manager of a farm in western Sicily that produces grapes, olives and wheat," and then "writer," almost as an afterthought.

Actually, she is the author of several books, including "Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food" and "Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes From a Sicilian Girlhood" (written with Maria Grammatico), which are about cooking and eating in Sicily. "Travels With a Medieval Queen" traces a journey across Europe made by Sicilian Queen Constance in the 12th century. My favorite, "On Persephone's Island," chronicles a year of life on the widely misunderstood island at the toe of the Italian boot.

When Simeti went there to do social work after finishing college in the early '60s, Sicily was Europe's sickly stepchild -- impoverished, illiterate, crime-ridden, the Mafia's lair. But there she met her husband, Tonino, a professor, and found her future as wife and mother, and now as grandmother, scholar, traveler, gardener, cook and, of course, Sicilian farmer.

"On Persephone's Island" reflects her quandaries as an expatriate American, caught between two worlds, and her gradually deepening understanding of the island where she unexpectedly landed, of its seasons and fruits, its people and places, its history and art.

But since she wrote the book in the 1980s, things have changed. Sicily has superhighways and tourists. Government crackdowns have begun to liberate the island from the tyranny of the Mafia. And if Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is reelected next spring, the island's geographical isolation will likely be ended by the construction of a bridge across the Straits of Messina, connecting Sicily to mainland Italy by road.

I wanted to know what life on Sicily is like now, so I recently interviewed Simeti by phone.

First off, I have to ask about the bridge. Are you in favor of it?

There's nothing good to say about it. It's on a fault line. The highway from Naples to Reggio Calabria, where it would be built, is in shambles. It would cost an incredible amount of money and is simply not essential. The European Union environmental committee has called a halt to the plans because there hasn't been a safety impact study.

Your life in Sicily seems remarkable. How did it all come about?

I was a medieval history major [at Radcliffe College] and wrote my thesis on Sicily. By the time I graduated, my mother had taken a job in Florence, where I spent the summer before I graduated. She and I went to Puglia in August, my first trip south of Rome. There were no tourists in Puglia then. I was absolutely bowled over by the color and light and by the kindness of the people.

After college I wanted to get a job in development work, but I didn't want to join the Peace Corps because I didn't want to represent anyone other than myself. When I found out I could work for Danilo Dolci in Sicily, I jumped.

He was an amazing, complicated person, a northern Italian [activist] who went to Sicily in the '50s, when it was still desperately poor, and was shocked. He and Carlo Levi [an Italian writer and artist who died in 1975] are credited with opening the eyes of northern Italians and Europeans about conditions there. Dolci's most brilliant intuition was that the situation was so frozen that chipping away at it by working with individuals wouldn't help. He wanted to shake things up.

At the time, the Mafia controlled big, private wells and sold water to make money. It opposed the construction of dams because they would flood land owned by people in power. But Dolci organized hunger strikes and mobilized the population, and dams were built. He showed people what concerted social action could do.

Then you met your husband and decided to stay. That must have been hard. Did you ever go back to the States?

At first, I rarely went back to the U.S. In those days, cheap tickets were hard to come by. And I was conflicted about a lot of things. I had made a jump and was trying hard not to look back.

People have lots of preconceptions about Sicily -- that it's poor, hard to get around, in ruins and, above all, dangerous. Are any of them true?

The roads here are very good. You can take the autostrada across the island from Trapani to Catania in three hours. And the kind of desperate poverty there once was isn't anymore -- except in limited areas of the big cities.

The historical center of Palermo, for example, is a mixture of deteriorating houses and palaces. Some of the bomb damage from World War II has only recently been repaired. But restoration is going on there. Churches and palaces are being turned into concert spaces. Now it's quite fashionable.

There is very little violent crime, and none of it is directed at tourists. Oh yes, there are purse-snatchings. But if you're sensible, if you leave your passport at the hotel and don't carry around big sums of money, I really don't think you'll have a problem.

What are some of your favorite places to see?

The big [Greek] temple at Segesta is at the top of my list. When I first went, there were no fences [around it]. We used to have picnics under a full moon. The temple sits all by itself on the saddle of a hill.

Then there is the mosaic [Monreale Cathedral], of course, and the historic center of Palermo. The Kalsa district is the most renovated now.

What foods should travelers try?

Maybe a pasta dish with eggplant, zucchini or cauliflower.... You also have to have almond cakes or cannoli. Sicilian pastries are very sweet. And ice cream is a Sicilian passion; when the [hot, humid] sirocco [wind] blows, you know why. They make it with milk and starch instead of eggs and cream, so it's smoother and lighter that most ice cream.

Susan Spano also writes "Postcards From Paris," which can be read at latimes.com/susanspano.

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