For many third-generation Sicilian Americans, concepts of the “old country” are vague and it is often hard to get any real information about your ancestry. My family was no different, as none of my blood relatives have been to Sicily, let alone our hometown of Terrasini. In fact most of my community can trace at least one ancestor to this small village west of Palermo and those lucky enough to go has said wonderful things about the place. Therefore during my backpacking trip through Europe in 2001 my girlfriend (whose family also hails from this town) and myself vowed to visit. And while we only visited for a day, it was an experience of a lifetime.
Terrasini lies just southwest of the Palermo airport, more of a suburb these days due to urban sprawl. A twenty-minute bus ride through Palermo’s famous traffic added some excitement to the short trip. However I imagine it was quite different the donkey-cart ride to the big city when my ancestors lived in the area over one hundred years ago. This coast is a juxtaposition of sand and sea – the vibrant blue of the Mediterranean contrasting the stark colors of Sicily’s scorched earth. A small sign leads the traffic into the heart of the Village and it was at this point that for the first time on my trip I felt like I was home.
The main square is dominated by the village church and is lined by orange trees, cafes and clubs. The little town has become quite the nighttime hangout for Palermo’s youth but the nightlife did not interest me on this trip as I imagined my great-great grandparents being here. The other streets near the sea are also beautifully lined with flowering trees, oranges and palms. Aloe cactus and Fichi d’India (prickly pear cactus) hug the rocky coast adding to the desert oasis feel that I get in Sicily.
The overall impression of the place is sheer paradise with the fruits of the earth as well as the sea so close by. I recall thinking how could my family leave such an idyllic place? The answer was simple as they were literally starving in a once isolated village at a time before modern irrigation and fertilizer. I tried to imagine their plight during the oppressive summer months when drought would set in. It must certainly have been a very hard existence to feel the need to leave everything behind and start a new life across the ocean.
However not everyone left for America, as you walk around the area the names on the monuments and business are all very familiar in my hometown. In fact by pure chance we bumped into distant cousins of mine in front of the family bar. Through broken Italian we introduced ourselves and soon had a mini family reunion, including some complementary gelato from the family’s seaside restaurant. But my favorite culinary experience in Terrasini was trying the local wine: a deep golden color with a high alcohol content and with a flavor that embraced the arid Sirocco winds as well as the salt of the sea. A perfect drink to accompany the local anchovy or tuna dishes.
However the sun was going down by this point and the traffic into the town was increasing for the night activities. Sadly it was time to go, the last bus to Palermo waiting on the corner. We took with us many photos and even more wonderful memories that transcended the mere day-trip. Terrasini is a small town but to us it was the center of the universe. More importantly it filled my grandparents with pride that I was able to visit the homeland that they have never seen and sadly, never will.
By Justin Demetri
Festival Photos courtesy of Piero Trupiano
For More Information:
General Sicily Site: www.sicilian.net
Official Terrasini Page: www.terrasini.com