Per la mia famiglia a Gratteri.
I dedicate this my warm and loving Sicilian family in Gratteri, who couldn’t have been kinder to me on my two visits. And were nice enough not to mention that I changed husbands in between the two. (It’s possible that they didn’t notice.)
Family legend holds that my first language was Sicilian. I don’t know if that’s true or not; only one surviving aunt would know; i should ask her. But my non-English-speaking grandmother spent so much time with us that I had to learn to communicate with her. And since I was a precocious child who figured out early that my parents (for whom English was a second language) would speak Sicilian if they were talking about things they didn’t want us kids to know, well, I learned to understand the language very young.
Because I was ALWAYS curious: yellow, blue and every color in between.
Growing up, Sicilian was referred to as a dialect. My father took what he called “pure Italian” in college and spoke both. But a few years ago, I read that Sicilian has certain earmarks that qualify it as a language distinctly different from Italian, not simply a dialect. Actually, it has its own dialects.
Whatever. All I know is that when I hear it, I feel enveloped in a familiar warm quilt and when I hear it, as I did every day a couple years ago in Sicily, it’s music to my ears. La musica. The soundtrack to my childhood.
When I visited with my mother’s family in Gratteri, Sicily 18 months ago, I was able to use a few Sicilian words in conversation. When I said picciridda, which means little girl, it was a word I heard my grandmother use all the time. “That’s a Sicilian word!” they said to me, excited, (in Sicilian). “Si,” I said. “La mia nonna… (my grandmother)….” My Sicilian family had no way of knowing that I grew up hearing the language every single day of my life until I went away to college at 18. But everyone who spoke it to me is gone now, the years have passed and the language got buried in my subconscious.
Until a friend told me about an Italian TV show called Il Commissario Montalbano (Inspector Montalbano). It’s about a homicide detective in Sicilia, but really, to us, it’s about the Sicilian culture. I had to subscribe to an international channel to get it, as PBS stopped running episodes a couple years ago. Since M. is also of Sicilian descent, he and I both fell in love with the show and have been watching it almost every single day–our aim is to go through the couple dozen shows in the series. It’s a real commitment, too, because each episode is almost two hours long. I think there are 30 of them.
But, see, we KNOW these Sicilian characters, many of them so very humorous: their mannerisms, their expressions, their language. We grew up with them. I love hearing them talk, watching them gesticulate. It’s familiar and homey. My basic Sicilian vocabulary has begun to return, and even though the show has English subtitles, I’m understanding a little more each week without subtitles. I know enough Sicilian to see that the subtitled translations aren’t exactly as I knew the words growing up. Judging from comments I’ve seen on YouTube, others agree with me. The language is earthy and bawdy, even, but the translations don’t reflect as much of that as there is in real life. I love getting that part of my life back, that connection with my heritage.
All of the secondary characters are Sicilian regional theatre actors, and as one of the non-Sicilian main actors said in an interview (link later), “These actors are profoundly Sicilian–either they were born there or they’ve performed the plays of great and even minor Sicilian playwrights. You just have to look at closeups and you feel and smell the taste of Sicily.” It’s true. And the Italian actors talk about how much the Sicilian actors make them laugh–I think he’s talking about their ability to laugh at themselves and see irony in situations–laughter is a big part of my culture and that humor thing, well, I think I inherited it. i hope you view these links below, because you’ll see just what I mean. Some of the characters are just hilarious–and they’re just being themselves.
I must confess that sometimes I run the show in the background while I do something else, just to hear the familiar sound of my childhood in my house now.
It’s the little things, too, that I love hearing. For example, the title of this post refers to one. Montalbano answers the phone a lot on the show, and it cracks me up, every time. I don’t know why, maybe it’s his delivery, but it does: “Pronto! Montalbano sono!” (Hello, it’s Montalbano.)
So let me introduce you to Il Commissario and some of the unique aspects of this crazy show.
Meet smokin’ hot (at least when he smolders like that) Salvo Montalbano, a police detective in a fictional Sicilian town called Vigata. (Exteriors are actually Ragusa, which is a real town.) He bucks authority, solves crimes and has a beautiful Sicilian heart. He’s engaged to lovely blonde Livia, who lives and works in Bologna, Italy. And although she comes to visit him, he doesn’t visit her, because he’s so busy fighting crime. But also because he’s, well, totally and unabashedly self-centered. Like most Sicilian men. She’s said more than once that although she knows he’s selfish, she’s still madly in love with him. As a Sicilian man, he takes this as his due, of course.
Now, Salvo tries really hard to be faithful. But at some point in the series, he starts, well, getting himself some “strange.” But somehow, after he beds them, these women end up the victims of murders. I don’t think it’s coincidental; the audience loves Livia and wouldn’t want some of this strange around longer term. I know I don’t. I’m happy to have them killed off. Although Salvo has a platonic friend, Ingrid.There’s sexual tension between them, but that’s all. Still, they have such a delightful relationship that I rather like her for him. I’m rooting for Ingrid, long-term, and I’ve got 15 years worth of episodes to find out what happens. Shhh! No spoilers, even if you know!
Now, Sicilian men, are real men. They’re a hirsute bunch and wouldn’t think of waxing or removing their body hair–they wear it proudly, open shirted. But of course, Salvo shaves his head because otherwise he’d be bald. Shaved head is a good look for him. Balding? Not so much. And then, there’s that slightly unshaven face. So manly!
Sadly, Sicilian men aren’t known for their height and apparently, neither is Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Salvo. I’ve never really liked short men, and to make matters worse, the Inspector is also bow-legged. Extremely bow-legged. Zingaretti isn’t even 5’4″, but we don’t notice that on the show, because the other actors are also short. Clearly, Il Commissaro Montalbano is an acting bonanza for short Sicilian actors, which is to say MOST Sicilian actors. Imagine — an entire show populated by short actors playing regular sized cops! Those few characters who seem “tall” are probably about 5’6 or 5’7″.
Of course, Sicilian men may not be tall, but they are large and in charge in other ways. If you know what I mean. So there are compensations.
The language, itself, can sound rather like lazy Italian spoken very dramatically. Years ago I was boning up on my Italian and speaking it with an acquaintance who was native Italian. He told me that I was speaking it too dramatically and I sounded like a southern Italian.
It was not a compliment. But of course, I took it as one: Forza Sicilia! (That’s Sicily’s rallying cry: Sicilian strength!)
In fact, many Italians (especially northern Italians) view Sicilians as uneducated peasants. That’s what my grandparents were, and M’s grandparents also. Still, it’s true that spoken Sicilian is loud and dramatic. It’s how the language was spoken in my home and I remember my grandmother and mother sounding like they were really going at it, when actually, it was merely a conversation. The rising and falling cadences, inflections and yes, volume, were just part of it. And I tend to do that now with English, because it’s what conversations in my home sounded like. It sounds like I’m arguing, but I’m not. Even Riley has taken on that trait in his barking. We call him Mussolini. But that’s another story.
Speaking of dramatic and loud, an upset Sicilian is something to behold. SERIOUSLY loud and dramatic. And I’ve got video to show you a bit of it.
So here’s one tiny taste of the show and what the language sounds like. It’s short. Like Montalbano.
The show is populated with humorous characters and some are played very broadly, on purpose. We love those characters even more for their silliness, even the buffoon, Caterella, who is made out to be a silly, hysterical aide and then turns out to be the computer genius for the department.
Zingarelli as Montalbano. A manly man. Yeah, he can be hot. i mean, so what if he’s short if he smolders like this?
Gazing moodily out to sea, solving crimes. This is his gorgeous patio, where Montalbano has morning caffe. He’s always eating meals prepared by his housekeeper here, overlooking the sea. We wonder how he can afford to live so well, given that he is a clean cop.
If you’d like to learn a little more about the show’s characters from show excerpts that are truly hilarious, even if you don’t know Sicilian, and interviews with the actors, here’s a YouTube about them.
We feel really lucky to have found a way to keep our culture a part of daily life. And the channel we watch it on via Roku, MHz, has several other Sicilian TV shows, as well. We’ll be checking those out when we finish all Montalbano shows. There’s also a series called Young Montalbano that we’d like to try. There’s no end to the Sicilian delights available on this channel for $7.99 a month. All things come full circle, don’t they? We’ll probably watch this stuff for the rest of our lives.
You’ll have to excuse me now. I’ve got some shows to watch!
How about you? What reminders of your family and childhood do you have?