Our Sicilian interlude in Catania was a back-to-the-future experience.

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From the conclusion of last year’s pirate-for-mayor campaign to this foggy post-election Sunday in late November, 2016, I’ve been a bum.

Not a lazy bum, mind you, because my strange pro-bono life has been active, if unremunerated. After 25 years of trench warfare in business, there has been a sabbatical of sorts, with time to reflect. It must come to an end soon, and the process of grieving already has started.

Temporarily freed from the necessity of analyzing spread sheets to amuse villainous bankers (among other distasteful self-abnegating human tricks one must perform in the service of capitalism), those sectors of my mind as yet operating functionally after all these years of high living seem intent on disgorging a steady stream of personal interests and fascinations submerged during the NABC era.

Among these are volcanoes, which led directly to our decision to skip American-style Thanksgiving for an Italian respite in Catania, Sicily, and proximity to Mt. Etna. We’ve returned from the journey, and I find myself contemplating vexing questions:

  • Why has it taken me 27 years to return to Italy?
  • In 31 years of European travel, how could I have ignored Sicily?
  • Now that Italy possesses as many as 1,000 craft breweries, does any other European country honor cultural hedonism to such a wonderful extent?

In Catania last week, we lived like it was 1987, when I was fortunate to spend two weeks of early summer enchantment in the hill towns of central Italy, managing to eat, drink and sleep on a budget while absorbing art, architecture and ambiance … and sacrificing very little of what passes for modernity. It was glorious.

My last previous visit to Italy came in 1989, in Rome and Pisa. Precisely because it was a more hurried itinerary, the impression of timelessness wasn’t as vivid. Later, owing primarily to beer geography, the focus shifted northward. I haven’t gotten close to the Mediterranean in 16 years. It’s a regrettable omission.

At the moment, I must confess to being overwhelmed by the Catania experience. Honestly, there was at least one moment each day when a feeling of gratitude and thankfulness gripped me, and I was on the verge of falling to my knees and shedding a few joyful tears.

Being a good disciple of Northern European restraint, I kept it together and refrained, but maybe next time, the flood gates will be breached, because plate tectonics might explain more than Mt. Etna’s looming volcanic presence. Shift happens in one’s own consciousness, and it’s happening right now with me. I’ve no idea where it leads, and that’s the best part.

Following are two books that explain the whys and wherefores of Italy. The links are an introduction, not a conclusion, rather like the swirling inside of my noggin. First, published in 1964, and previously read prior to my first Italian visit in 1985, Luigi Barzini’s book remains a go-to.

The Italians: A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals, by Luigi Barzini

In this consummate portrait of the Italian people, bestselling author, publisher, journalist, and politician Luigi Barzini delves deeply into the Italian national character, discovering both its great qualities and its imperfections. Barzini is startlingly frank as he examines “the two Italies”: the one that created and nurtured such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.” Deeply ambivalent, Barzini approaches his task with a combination of love, hate, disillusion, and affectionate paternalism, resulting in a completely original, thoughtful, and probing picture of his countrymen.

More recently, in his book The Italians, John Hooper supplies an update, perhaps striking a more topical note with Americans.

All the more reason for taking a second look, which is exactly what John Hooper, a veteran British journalist who covers Italy for The Economist, has done. It is fitting that the dust jacket on his version of “The Italians” features a graphic depiction of a cup of espresso; like the beverage, his book is brisk, bracing and to the point. While it stands up well enough as an independent work, it is even more useful as a kind of updated appendix to the Barzini original, taking in subsequent economic, social and political developments such as the collapse of traditional Italian communism, integration into the euro bloc and the rise of the flamboyant right-wing demagogue Silvio Berlusconi, which Luigi did not live to see.

There’ll be more photos as I sort through three cameras, and a bit of writing once thoughts are organized. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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