THE BLOG
02/12/2014 09:13 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

A Stolen Springtime Day in Sicily

"Noi abbiamo rubato la giornata." -- "We have stolen the day.

The Italian language and (in addition) the Sicilian dialect are full of colorful images that enhance and bring life to the mere words. Spring has sprung here in Ortigia, with the flowers exploding and the sea reflecting the deep azure blue of the sky and the white clouds hovering. 'Tis, of course, the season of Carnival ("mardi gras"), the springtime celebration of life and the last gasp before the onset of Lent and the abstinence often required or at least acknowledged. Carnival is celebrated enthusiastically in Italy, and many towns have huge, raucous and all-consuming revelries. Venice, of course, is well-known for its gaudy Carnival masks, the wonderful disguise available to all. In Sicily, the beautiful Baroque town of Acireale proudly promises "The Best Carnival in Sicily"; for two weeks, huge floats parade around the city on a regular basis and the entire population of Acireale (and many more) join the grand street party. I was lucky enough to go to Acireale to see the floats being made, with about two weeks to go until Carnival begins. The joy was seeing the preparations and the wonderful floats ("chariots," say the Italians, showing some of the history of the event) "up close and personal" without the huge crowds that pack the streets during Carnival.

Giuseppina, who teaches English at an Art Institute in Siracusa, took me to Acireale to check in on some of her students who are spending three days helping the Carnival artists get the floats ready. We went to a large warehouse/garage facility where many floats are in, hopefully, in the final days of creation. The floats are intricate, gorgeous, audacious, surreal and extreme. Most of the floats, I learned, are based on political satire, often with a dose of weird fairy tale thrown in!

The artists have been working on these floats since May, and the inspiration and execution of these complicated masterpieces is now gearing up to full speed, with the possibility of sleepless nights ahead, in order to be ready for the first of many wild parades and parties. The puppets are each made of papier mache, then wired for lights and painted and given their personalities in all possible ways. The details are just incredible, with moving parts and bawdy gestures and sexual and political overtones throughout. The artists are now painting and repairing and seeking perfection everywhere. When a piece is completed, they wrap it for protection until the final day. Giuseppina's students donned their coveralls and painted and painted and painted. Apparently the whole town gets involved in the creative process, with everyone contributing their time, energy and money as needed. The big float I had the best view of is a commentary on the political and economic climate in Italy, showing the euro flying away on its own wings, the "ordinary guy" losing all he owns because of taxes, the bankers and politicians controlling it all... amazing...

The second part of our "stolen day" was a ride through Acireale and along the sea to Aci Tressa for a seaside seafood lunch. Since this whole area of Sicily sits in the shadow of Mt Etna, huge black lava deposits abound, and the coast is sharply rocky and rugged. This area of the coast is actually called the "Riviera dei Ciclopi," so named because of the legend of the blinded Cyclops (one-eyed, like Mt Etna!) throwing boulders at Ulysses and thus creating the many little rocky islands rising dramatically from the sea.

We shared an antipasti of local fishes (little bites of about 12 specialties, not all of which i understood, but all of which I tried to taste) and then we had pasta courses -- with sea urchin for Giuseppina and with clams for me. Wow!

So -- we stole the day away from reality, with joy and gratitude... life is good.