Sicily has many ancient remains. They reminded me of something I learned in Turkey: If you have seen one Greek ruin, you have not seen them all.
The guides often mentioned the architectural style of a temple, and I wondered why of all the many things that might be learned, my generation of grade school students had to learn the distinguishing marks of a Doric, Ionic, or Estonian, or whatever, column. What things did we not learn as a result? Why was this considered important instead of, for example, more about Greek government, science, or literature? When I raised this to some fellow travelers, the conversation morphed into a discussion of the decline of civics teaching. Surely understanding the basic structure of our government is more important than distinguishing fluting on old pillars.
The Romans often built on top of Greek structures, frequently changing a Greek theater into a Roman amphitheater. I learned the distinction between a theater and an amphitheater. Now I am looking for ways, which turn out to be few, of casually dropping my new knowledge into a conversation.
The Greek theater in Taormina is striking. Taormina is a mountainside resort town. The theater, carved out of the mountain, is a short walk from Taormina’s center. The Greek architecture kept the area behind the stage open. The Romans enclosed the entire structure. Open on one side, it could not be used for gladiatorial contests; the wild animals and the combatants could escape, and thus the difference between a partially open Greek theater and a completely enclosed Roman amphitheater. Part of the Roman addition behind the stage has fallen in Taormina, and the existing structure resembles the original Greek theater. When sitting in the ancient seats, one gets a view that the theater-goers had twenty centuries ago. It is beautiful. You look out at the Ionian Sea (extra credit: where is the Ionian Sea? Where is the Tyrrhenian Sea?) with Mt. Etna.
The remains of another Greek theater were twenty-six centuries old. My mind can’t really comprehend that, and perhaps that is why I thought that even if I waited centuries, I still couldn’t afford seats I wanted to Hamilton.
Mt. Etna is visible from the main square of Taormina. I saw it at dusk. Steam regularly escapes the volcano, and with the setting sun, the vapor took on a soft pinkish color as if a benevolent fire were causing the glow.
It rained one night while we were in Taormina. The next day the upper tier of Mt. Etna was covered in snow—a beautiful sight, as the first snowfall often is (but not the too-early one we got when I returned home.)
We went part way up Mt. Etna and walked around a crater that had been produced by volcanic activity but was no longer a vent for the volcano. The ground was covered in black, volcanic rock, which we could collect. I filled a pocket with stones and pebbles even though I can’t imagine what I am going to do with them.
The crater was a nearly perfect bowl, perhaps thirty yards across and deep. Somehow this made me think about Italy and Sicily’s present economic difficulties. They can use more revenue. Italy’s debt-to-GDP ratio has soared, giving concerns to other members of the European Union. I suggested to travelers and guides that the crater be asphalted over and used for international skateboarding contests. This could raise much needed revenue. No one else thought that this was a good idea.
An ancient bowl in a museum depicted men drinking. A guide informed us that such gatherings were stag affairs. I thought that Greek society might have produced more offspring and lasted longer if women had attended the drinking parties.
I smiled every time by the frequent use by our guide of the term, “Mama Mia!”
I had known before going to Sicily that we Americans misuse the word by saying, “Give me a panini.” Panini is plural, and we ought to say, “May I have a panino, please?” In Sicily, I realized that we also misused “cannoli,” which, too, is plural. We should say, “I would like a cannolo.” (I ate many delicious cannoli on my trip, one cannolo at a time.) The guide pointed out that we misused “biscotti” in same way. I replied that biscuit meant something different in England and America, and that what the English call a biscuit, we call a cookie. The guide inquired what a biscuit was in the United States, and as I started to explain, her eyes lit up and she said, “Like Bisquick!” To my surprise, she had grown up with that American product.
(continued November 26)