This is the story of a suprising and beautiful journey on the footsteps of Antonio Pidone. A man who could not leave Sicily for the « New World » with his wife back in the 19th century. Amy Mosher Araya, great granddaughter of Antonio tells us what happened to her when she first entered « her Sicilian hometown ». Nicosia, second largest city of the province of Enna, is located in between Catania and Palermo, standing on a huge rock like many other sicilian towns.
« Il toppolino », moniker of the original Fiat Cinquecento, perfect car for Nicosia’s streets.
Much like the layering of stones strategically forming homes folding like clay colored ribbons among the fertile green hills, the spirit of Nicosia is a blend of magic and warmth – a testiment of humans and nature holding each other tightly among the sky. Tightly turning streets shift themselves around buildings and the once brilliantly decorated facades still hold a regal charm that speaks of the pride and care by which generations of inhabitants have adorned their home and above all, their churches.
Despite a steep decline in population over the past hundred years, Nicosia remains a place where history and identity hold a great importance. Nicosia can be said to be a forgotten mountain town hovering above the island of Sicily – forgotten by those who have left and perhaps, those who still may leave to descend to a flatter more convenient world. But our journey to Nicosia wasn’t just to explore a place off the beaten path, but to retrace the steps of those before. We planned to visit Nicosia in hopes of finding more information about my family. They were, until the moment we came to this bellybutton of Sicily, just abstract superheroes. The only thing we knew of my ancestors were in old timey photos, pictures of strikingly beautiful people with sincere eyes and passed down stories like Greek tragedies of strength and loss. Most of all, I wanted to find answers to questions, to fit missing pieces into the puzzle of our family mythology.
A view of Nicosia from the top of one of its mounts (photos by Amy Mosher Araya, 2014)
Our initial goal was to research my great-great grandfather, Antonio Pidone. Of the photos and stories we had, he was absent, the only one who we couldn’t trace to the family journey to New York. We knew that his wife, his daughters and other family members had made the journey to New York in the late 1800’s but he was a ghost among all the information. It was difficult to imagine a woman, his wife – making the harsh and courageous journey to Ellis Island with her daughters without a man, her husband, by her side. The assumption, the only obvious idea was that he must have died in Sicily, which made sense as to why these women would leave their home in search of a life elsewhere. One could imagine, at the time, that a life without a man would have been doubly difficult, given the need for self sustainence in an already challenging environment as Nicosia must have been at the time.
« I felt a light filling through me and a slight push on my back, like a mother easing a child to the first day of school. »
Living in Switzerland and beginning to trace our family roots, it was one of the biggest questions. What had happened to dear Antonio Pidone and now we were close enough to find out? I won’t go into the immediate exhale I had when we landed in Catania. I saw the faces of relatives from New York all around and the laughing language that filled the airport took me back to the home of my grandparents. The moment we walked out of the airport into the sun and light wind, I felt a light filling through me and a slight push on my back, like a mother easing a child to the first day of school, an adventure that will propel you, albeit gently, into another world, another part of myself.
We drove from Taormina to Nicosia. The drive like a steady hover, climbing gently and slowly twisting around an ever present green garbed volcano. Lush, technicolor pastures and giant rocks dropped into formed houses like an ancient form of Tetris guided us slowly further through an ethereal and seemingly untouched homage to the strength and beauty of natures creative side. As villages became less and less present, sheep and suspicious looking donkeys watched as we finally left the gaze of Etna ascended further still.
Some of the most spectacular homes are built in the rock of Nicosia’s mountains.
The hills of the area are almost mountains and each large mound holds a village, where rounded tops becomes angular. The closer you get to these places, the realization of age, beauty and engineering is striking. Entering up into Nicosia, there is a sense of movement and as we wind tightly between pedestrians, cars, sharp turns and vibrant village life, I am glad my husband is driving. There is too much to look at for me to keep my eyes focused on the road.
« Lots of Pidones »
We park the car. And go into a cafe. It’s like walking into an old movie. Checkerboard floors and shiny nouveau elegance sparkling clean to the approval level of my grandmother, which is high. The man behind the bar is the spitting image of my brother and I’m starting to feel giddy knowing that we are undoubtedly, after all the planning and prep, in the right place. He speaks to me, asks me where I am from. « Americana, I say, New York ». « No, he says laughing, Nicosiana. » And with that, I am recounting, in a horrible mix of broken Italian, Spanish and some English, our completely disorganized and dreamy mission here in Nicosia. « Lots of Antonio Pidones, lots of Pidones, » he laughs. And we find out that it is true. It seems everyone is or was or knows a Pidone. Which is both hopeful and complicating. Because with all these Pidones, it seems, not one is related to our Pidone. But, we figure, our mission is, like Nicosia, layered with lives and names and faces and above all reconnecting with the place that part of my family, for so many generations, called home.
As our day went on we began to understand just how warm, inviting and dedicated people here are their town, family and culture. The flight of many Nicosiani has become a bright thread weaved into the already rich history of the town itself. Everyone we spoke to had stories of relatives who had left and everyone gave us ideas on how to go further with our search. Above all, the happiness that they expressed to see that we returned with interest in learning more about where we came from seemed to touch everyone quite poignantly and we were consistently welcomed into conversations, into homes and to our delight, to moments with temporary strangers sharing espressos and fresh cannolis.
« We started to walk around the city, climbing, always climbing through neighborhoods neat and vibrant with sounds and the smell of my own grandmothers kitchen. »
Making a homebase in Felice’s hotel, we started out the next day to explore the town and gather more information. It was Friday and the town hall was closed. At first we were truly disappointed – but of course, I should have planned that visit for a time when they were sure to be open. We started to walk around the city, climbing, always climbing through neighborhoods neat and vibrant with sounds and the smell of my own grandmothers kitchen. If there is one way to know where you come from, it surely must be when you recognize the odors that echo in the recipes I have learned from my family. It was an almost drunken realization to hear this strong nicosiani form of italian and smell the lentil soup that I grew up with, now the same that my son knows so well, and be brought back to my own childhood memories of a place so far from here- and yet so very similar.
We stopped in a dollar store to look around and for a moment I didn’t believe my ears. I could hear French being spoken and I turned to see my husband, who is French, speaking to the shop owners. The pair, a brother and sister, had lived with their parents for a few years in Paris and were so happy to use their French – and it made it far easier for us to talk and learn about the town, the people and so enough, with laughter and smiles and a wealth of ideas that they had for our search, we were re-energized to continue. As we left, they came around the counter to say goodbye with full bodied hugs and kisses- it was a feeling that I haven’t felt since leaving my own family in New York – the enveloping arms and tight squeeze that could only make you feel loved.
Books from the 1840’s or even before. They were all held by the local Church.
After leaving with a renewed energy and drive, we drove up to the cemetary. Leaving the city and climbing up into a small forest we saw the clean marble lines decorated in flowers, photos and pristinely cared for. The graves like an elegant apartment building with neatly formal pictures of each resident, lovingly remembered and we heard a voice coming closer to us. As we turned, we saw the smiling face of Gianfranco, who became focused and serious once we explained our story. Like an investigator from a televison series, Gianfranco went directly into action, pulling us into a small room filled with large, ancient books and began pulling these books off the shelves and piling them on the table between us. Books from the 1840’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, written with precision and a decorative beauty that doesn’t exist anymore in penmanship. He stayed with us, turning page after page for hours, searching through the wealth of Pidones and noting his own ancestors as we scoured the names, occupations and deaths in the volumes of books. But we found nothing that could correspond to our own Antonio Pidone. Three hours and our dear Gianfranco sat and spoke and laughed and shared so much with us, it was becoming a shared mission now, one began to connect us with others in Nicosia and starting to sew us together. « Try Sperlinga, » he said, so we decided that we would.
The next day, blue sky and warm air, we set off to Sperlinga cemetary. Smaller, more rugged and obviously lacking the considerate touch of Gianfranco, the graves here still held the framed oval photos illustrating the loved ones behind the names. These faces, though surely related directly to the inhabitants of Nicosia, were stoic and sturdy – showing the effect of hard working people outside of the city and tied to the land. Pidone’s all over, but again, not our Antonio Pidone, so we continued to drive and explore and I began to lose hope. Let’s just take a break and enjoy the drive, the sights and the day, my husband and son said. And they were absolutely right! As we drove we saw small, rounded doorways chisled into the mountains and green pastures that seemed to go on forever until the bright periwinkle skies. We can stop and take a walk whenever you want, my husband said, it will do us good to get out and stretch our legs. As he said this a huge rock mountain came into view, cathedral like with a giant cross atop the stone point. Let’s walk to that, I said and so we parked on the side of the road and set off along an overgrown cowpath with nobody, not a soul, around.
Guided gently through the streets
As we started closer to the mountain the cowpath disappeared to a small trail, obviously unused for ages and surrounded by wildflowers and grass. We began to see small structures made out of the same large stones that dotted the countryside and it appeared that they were made into crude benches, tables or perhaps even a sort of alter, though clearly they hadn’t been visited for a very long time. As we came upon the bottom of the stone, not a mountain as we had seen but still many meters high and very impressive, we found two almost perfectly formed circles carved into the bottom of the rock – wells that held water and beside them, simply sculpted steps leading to a door made of wood slats and sagging into the arched doorway that lead into the heart of the stone we had seen from afar. There was an air of magic around this space. We had found, without meaning to, something that had been carefully created out of nature and had served a purpose that while obviously practical also carried something spiritual and special in its presence. I was dizzy with this feeling, quite similiar to the feeling I had at the airport, it was as if we were guided gently through the streets that my family once inhabited to this hidden and forgotten spot and now, with a door sagging into the stone, we were on the verge of something magical.
« A framed view if immense beauty »
« You open it », I said to David, who happily pushed, carefully easing his strength against the wood and we saw sunlight flooding into a domed space – a warm welcome into the unknown. As we entered, we saw small uneven windows and shelves carved into the walls, the space empty but for an old map left dusty on the floor. Directly across from the entryway, another arched doorway, this one naked and open to an incredible view across the green hills dotted with huge rocks and covered in trees and wild flowers – a framed view of such immense beauty that it was almost unreal.
It was amazing and the three of us we overwhelmed with the logistics that seemed so simple and spontaneous and yet led us to a place so completely ethereal and intense. I, of course, began to cry with emotion, it is part of my charm when words don’t suffice and I asked my husband if he thought this journey, this discovery was a sign from my family, my ancestors that after all the questions we came with were left still unanswered, if perhaps this was a ray of encouragement that we were on the right path. If there is anything I know about myself, my family, it’s that we can be pretty mischieveous and it was almost as if we were sent on a bizarre kind of treasure hunt of significant places that would have kept our precious ghosts thoroughly entertained throughout our adventures. Of course, David said softly, this is certainly something to this place.
Going back to her roots, which in Amy’s case means Nicodia, home of the great-grandpa.
I just wish I had a sign, some kind of affirmation of it, I responded and sat down on the floor to take it all in. Now, as with most stories, this request for « a sign » is often an intro to a shocking coincidence, a magical happening or the like. While I can’t really say that it is the case here, necessarily, I do know that as I sat down on the stone floor, I felt tired, a bit confused and I put my hand to the floor to keep stable. As I did, I felt something long and strange between my fingers and found two long porcupine quills. What can we make of that? There were no others but perhaps the sweet animal had found refuge in the same space we did. There is surely a simple explanation. But I had felt, immediately, that those two long spikes were a gift, a nod to clarify just what we had discovered and who was sharing that journey with us. It was a boost of hope, we may not have the concrete answers, but we have been given a tour that paperwork can’t describe and that was, I was learning, far more precious.
Nicosia by night, magic of the lights that cover every single streets of the old town-center.
We spent quite some time there and eventually decided to head back to Nicosia for our last night there. We spent time eating in a restaurant, slow noisy and filling the space with wine until we were tipsy and relaxed. We headed to a small bar across from our hotel and had a drink, then two and spoke with many Nicosiani who were interested in our journey, responding with a list of Pidones they knew or family that they had in the US, Australia and Europe. The night got late quickly and as we picked ourselves up to head back to the hotel, my husband spotted a creperie just next to the hotel. Now of course, my husband, being a proud and slightly drunk Breton, insisted on having a crepe and though I was tired I was happy to prolong the inevitable departure from Nicosia so we walked into the creperie, crowded with just five of us in there and as is customary in Nicosia, conversations started and flowed easily immediately. The other couple in there asked where we were from and what we were doing in Nicosia and by now we had gotten our story down to a concise and clear explanation, which was useful.
« Take the receipt and keep it as a souvenir of Nicosia » says the Chef of the creperie.
Of course this introduction brought about yet another discussion about Pidones and at this point, the Chef had began listening, affirming what we had found out the first day – « there are many Pidones here in Nicosia. » We laughed and continued our conversation with the couple and the Chef, gathered David’s crepe and as we readied ourselves to pay, the Chef looked at us and kindly said, it’s free! Well, that was so nice and I thanked him and took some coins out to at least give him a tip, when he said, “but wait, take the receipt and keep it as a souvenir of Nicosia. » « Ok » I said and took the small white paper he printed out and put in my hand. « CREPERIE ANTONIO PIDONE » was printed largely in bold letters and as I realized what I was seeing, as per usual, my eyes started watering and I was completely overcome with emotion. It was the perfect ending to our trip, of course he was named Antonio PIdone and of course he wasn’t OUR Antonio PIdone, but then again, in a sense, everyone here in Nicosia was him. He was everywhere, he had been at one time so there must still be part of him around especially where we least expect it and especially, given our family’s mischieveous and encouraging nature when we least expect it. We hugged, we kissed and we hugged again. David and I went outside, the night now late enough to be quiet and as he ate his crepe, my tears came back, joyful, relieved and as I sat there wet faced and smiling, the carabinieri passed by slowly, looking our way and with the realization of what they saw, a woman crying beside an obviously not Sicilian man, they stopped and voiced out the window, is there a problem? They asked with a relaxed interest and I looked at them and said, « troppo emozioni! Grazie! Va bene! » And off they were. And it made sense, this answer – perhaps as much for them as it did for me. In this big little town, with its stone houses winding up and down, there is such abundance; of life, its difficulty, its beauty, its resiliance, its magic and above the strong, heady mix of emotions that Nicosia beholds.
Luigi, the shepherd Mareddru Muzzicato and Amy met in the Nicosian mountain.
So as you walk through the elegant and tired streets, look through the windows at the faces of the people who live there. The ancient regalness and quick expressiveness that shows echoes the landscape around. Somehow, time and space hasn’t washed that from my face, nor from my blood and I am wonderfully happy about that. And as we now prepare ourselves for our third trip to nicosia in 5 years, we look forward to seeing familiar faces and returning to the spaces, smells and sounds that welcomed us back as prodigal children. And just like my Nicosiani grandmother would have done, once they get you in their loving and strong arms, they won’t let go. And I am very thankful for that.