States an ancient riddle: “La mamma di Chitichitossa aveva pila, carni e ossa; a figghia di Chitichitossa non aveva ni pila ni carni e ni ossa”. It means: “The mother of Chitichitossa had hair, flesh and bones; the daughter of Chitichitossa had no hair, meats and no bones”.
Who is Chitichitossa?
For those who had not guessed Chitichitossa represented the hen.
I have travelled Sicily far and wide and found really amazing Sicilian people, trades and life stories. “I am the charcoal-burner”, said Santo Zappalà, class 1932. “Sugnu un po’ sciancato” (“I’m a bit cripple”). “Listen, Mr. Santo,” I said, “I know that those of your generation up to thirty years old used to play around and then go to work. Is it true?”.
It was my initial classic, provocative question.
Zappalà remained puzzled, but then, realizing the provocation, he replied: “At the age of nine my father bought a donkey and climbed into the mountains to make coal! Do you understand? At nine years old!!!”
Certainly these ancient works were complicated and hard, so much to perform, as to explain… and therefore I will not explain. “The charcoal-burner was earning three times more of what the vineyard cultivated”, Zappalà told me.
“We slept in the mountains and in the morning people were waiting for us with open arms”.
“Do you often think of that period?” I asked.
“No, they were very sad times.”
Another encounter, another job.
“I am the Nivarolo”, (the snow-searcher) said Giuseppe Turrisi, born in 1926. And I, as usual: “And up until thirty years old you played around and then started to work?”.
Turrisi looked at me astounded, sighed and shouted: “At the age of eight I went to work!!!”
And he explained:”We used to leave early in the morning to find the snow and then we kept it in a ditch. After that we used to beat it to make it pretty hard and we used to put chestnuts leaves on top. Then we took it in blocks, daily, and we went down with the mules! We were the ancient refrigerators”, he said laughing.
On top of mount Etna there are many caves of lava flow that once were the factories for these nivaroli. And one of the most exciting is Grotta dei Ladroni (The Cave of the Thieves), at 2000 meters of altitude.
“When the refrigerators arrived, in the 50’s America was over for us and hunger came”, added Santo Zappalà.
I’ve been around a dozens of little towns to investigate the ancient trades and many times the elders waited for me, arranged in a circle, in the communal room, or at a house, or in the square. “Let’s see who’s next,” I would say. “You, come here. What’s your name? “
“Antonio Mazzaglia”, one answered.
“When did you start working? At 35?”
“But what are you, crazy? I was ten years old. I used to carry the Ginestra (a typical plant of this area) from mount Etna to Catania, to the bakers. The bread made with the Ginestra, inside the wood-burning oven, had a peculiar flavour. But today nobody does it anymore. “
“And you became rich, then”.
“I starved, what money, nothing! Me and my mule”.
“What was the name of this mule?”
“At the time of the war they also recalled the mules, did you know? Vito got the postcard to start in the infantry”, Mr. Mazzaglia said with a laughter.
“Are you kidding me?”
“No! They took Vito to Greece”.
“Have you ever been stopped by a bandit?”
“And why he had to stop me, to do what? He could steal my misery”.
How many weird things I’ve heard in my life going after Sicilian people!
Meanwhile another old man intervened, Benedict Burgio, class ’29: “I sold the licorice that I took from underground. There was so much hunger in those days, that I stole the carub from the Scecco (donkey). “
After that, in Bagheria (the town of Giuseppe Tornatore), I met Giuseppe Ducato, of 1928. “I painted carts, ( called carretto)” he said, when he used to do that job. “The cart is our symbol for excellence, more than the cannoli and Cassata”.
He was an artist of those colorful trasportation of locomotion, coloured of yellow, red, and blue… “The reasons to draw are endless,” he explained, showing me some.
“That is a temple of the valley of the temples, that is Rinaldo fighting a Saracen, that is St. John of the Hermits… And according to the painting of the cart was distinguished it’s owner. If there were drawn scenes of operas you could tell he was a great character. The Carters had them paint the characters of the Opera dei Pupi (puppet opera)”.
I was often invited for lunch with the generosity and simplicity that distinguishes our people, the Sicilian people.
In Villarosa, in the heart of the island, I met a miner: “My name is Cassaro Emilio, I was born in Villarosa 1.4.1932. I was the solfataio (sulphate searcher) of a family of Sulfatai. “
The sulphar mines: how much poverty, death and fatigue still hides the wrecks of those caves today. So many emigrants worked there. And many of them have escaped not only from Sicily, but also from that tremendous experience.
And there I have told you a little of Sicily of the past.