"I had arrived in Sicily only a few hours earlier, and on the drive to dinner I would break more laws than I had violated during any prior twenty minutes of my life. Indeed, I could always say that I was an innocent straniero merely following a lawless guide in Valeria, the waif with the brick-sized monogrammed Dolce & Gabbana belt buckle and the ever-singing telefonino, who greeted me at Azienda Agricola COS, which I’d chosen as my first stop in Sicily for all noble reasons. I was here because—more than two and a half decades after its founding by a group of university friends—COS had become a thriving symbol of the new Sicily. Its wines were fashionably sipped in cosmopolitan capitals the world over, and COS was considered on the cutting edge of the growing and wholesome natural wine movement. Indigenous grape varietals were farmed biodynamically (using herbal tea treatments and a few practices that resembled alchemy tied to the phases of the moon) and wines were produced with naturally occurring yeasts found in grapes and with minimal added sulfur (sulfites). More than that—burnishing COS’s authenticity credentials—the winery had been fermenting some of its wines not in wood barrels or steel or cement vats but in clay amphorae, a process reminiscent of the Greeks who had first settled Sicily; and therefore it elevated my role here to something like an epicurean archaeologist.
Of course, I wouldn’t have to explain my behavior to anyone, because this was Sicily. And in Sicily, life’s little laws and sense of order—let’s call them “constraints”—tend to have a need to be not so much broken as simply ignored. I had spent a couple of hours driving from the new, sleek, glass and lava stone Catania airport across the Sicilian countryside, and I felt as though I were the only person on the road enslaved by inconveniences such as wearing a seat belt and observing the lanes marked on the pavement. As a bright afternoon sun and cornflower blue sky faded to night, I’d driven through the randomness of olive groves and stands of eucalyptus that abutted cinderblock housing complexes and junkyards. I’d passed through seas of densely packed citrus trees—arranged with no apparent design and now weighted down with blood-red oranges that dropped into the road only to be splattered by speeding traffic.
It was night when I pulled up COS’s entry road outside Vittoria, and with the help of dim entry lights I could make out the mix of old and new buildings that formed the COS winery and agriturismo where I would be spending the next couple of nights. Sitting at right angles at the end of the drive lined with olive trees and lavender was a pair of centuries-old buildings with pale pistachio shutters and tiled roofs. In the taller of the two buildings—a two-story villa with pretty stone balconies and iron balustrades—I noticed the glow of office lights and human activity.
Inside the door of the office was Valeria, a sprite of a woman in her twenties standing talking into her telefonino as her free hand fluttered and waved, with her fingers signing their own soliloquy. She recognized me with a raised eyebrow and a quick nod and went back to her business. Her blonde-and-brown-streaked hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she wore a current version of the Italian youth fashion uniform: baggy pants with enough pockets to move multiple telefonini every waking hour of the day, hooded sweatshirt, flat sneakers, and that polished steel belt buckle.
“Ciao, ciao, ciao,” she said into the phone what seemed more than a dozen times.
“Va bene?” she asked, and introduced herself. I shook her outstretched hand and skipped the details about being lost on my first evening at the wheel in the Sicilian interior. “Va bene,” I responded. Valeria and a woman colleague, who’d appeared next to her, began discussing the most pressing matter that evening: my dinner.
The nearby pizzeria was closed. But there was a seafood restaurant about twenty minutes away in Scoglitti where one eats well, they said. I asked if getting there was complicated.
“No, è facile”—easy. Valeria said this with such confidence I almost believed her. She volunteered to draw out the route. To make things even easier, she said, I could follow her to the restaurant around eight, as she lived nearby. She showed me to my room across the courtyard and up a flight of stairs.
An hour later, I found Valeria in the office, where she gave me a hand-drawn map—a series of circles, lines, and arrows. She went over the directions slowly. It all meant nothing to me.
“Va bene,” I said.
Valeria must have picked up something tentative in my voice, because she looked me in the eye and asked if I was sure I understood. I responded with a non-è-problema shrug. Valeria grabbed her telefonino and the car keys that dangled from a long cord, and thus began my first lesson in how to drive like a Sicilian.
Which is where the lawbreaking started."
To read a longer excerpt or to purchase Palmento, visit http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Palmento,674633.aspx. Visit our holiday sale page to find out how to save 25% off your book order.