Panoramic terrace at Balestrate, Sicily, Italy with a sculpture by Francis Giglio

A Stranger in My Country – Judith Cannavo

Image: Panoramic terrace at Balestrate, Sicily, Italy with a sculpture by Francis Giglio


My grandfather, Angelo Cannavo, was born May 10, 1886.  I was born May 10, 1951.  My grandfather left Casalvecchio (ME), Sicily in 1921 for the United States of America.   I left the US on January 19, 2022 and arrived in Balestrate (PA), Sicily on January 20, 2022.

And so begins my life in Sicily approximately 100 years after Grandpa left.  Friends and family have asked, “Why?” and my response is, “Why not?”

For those of you who know me, you know I love an adventure.  And this certainly is an adventure!  I have only a glimpse at the life my grandfather endured upon his arrival in the US — language barrier, different customs, a different way of living.  Grandpa spoke no English upon his arrival. Although my grandparents spoke Sicilian when I was growing up and I studied Italian in school, landing here without a working knowledge of the language has been interesting.  Thankfully, Google translate has helped me and I am becoming a pro at Charades.

As a bit of background, my husband passed away in 2006 and, in July 2019, I was released by my oncologist after a 5-year bout with cancer.  At that time, I decided that it was full speed ahead with my dream of living in Sicily.  I researched the process of confirming my Italian citizenship, learned that I was eligible, and started gathering those documents.  I told the law firm with which I was working that, as soon as I could, I would retire and move to Sicily.  My boss said, “Should I put that on the calendar?”  And I said, “In pen!”  When I had nearly all the necessary documents for my citizenship, I sold my house in May 2021 and, in October 2021, I traveled to Sicily to look for a place to live. 

Why Balestrate?  I have dear friends who were born and raised in this area.  Their families moved to San Pedro, CA when they were in high school. They divide their time between their home here and their home in San Pedro.  I was a guest in their Balestrate home last fall. Pasquale is originally from Terrasini, Rosalia is originally from Trappetto, but they bought a home here in Balestrate, primarily because of the wide, long beaches.  And this is where I decided to settle.  Balestrate has about 6,000 full-time residents; however, in summer, the population swells to 20 – 30,000 due to the beach-loving Europeans and Australians.

 Life is incredibly slow here in this small seaside paese where I have settled. All the stores shut down between 12:30 – 1:00 pm and re-open around 4:30 – 5:00.  They stay open until about 8:00 – 8:30 pm.  What does everyone do during that break?  Go home, eat lunch, rest, clean the house, take a walk.  Dinner is at 8, 9, or 10:00pm.  And I am learning something new every day.  For example, at the produce stand, you don’t touch the produce or fruit; the owner or assistant picks your items, puts it in a plastic bag, tallies up what you owe, gives you a receipt which you take to the cashier, pay, and you return to the assistant to fetch your goods.  On two occasions, I have walked off without my goods primarily because I had other packages in my hands and wasn’t paying attention.  When I returned, the cashier was all smiles and was very kind.  Me?  Incredibly embarrassed!

Balestrate is just the right size for me. There are no monuments, museums, or other tourist-y attractions.  The people who live here are just people going about their everyday business. When I want to visit a museum or other attraction, I hop on the bus to Palermo.  In the fall, we visited Segesta (the site of a near perfect Greek temple and theater), Castellamare del Golfo, Alcamo, Partinico, Trappetto, Terrasini, Cinisi, Cefalu, and other nearby towns.  I picked olives during the olive harvest at Rosalia’s aunt’s country home and saw and heard sheep being herded.  Daily, I listen to church bells ring on the quarter hour, listen to the fishmonger peddling his wares in the early morning, and hear the loud cries of a produce man advertising his oranges, celery, broccoli, etc., on Monday morning as the outdoor mercato is opening across the street from my home.  And I enjoy the silence on Sundays.

If I feel like it, I visit one of my two favorite coffee bars a few blocks away.  That usually happens on my way back from the small “supermarket” a half-mile down the street.  The market has 3-4 butchers, a cheese section, and just enough pasta, canned goods, and frozen foods to qualify as a “supermarket.” 

Dealing with the Italian government and its crazy bureaucratic ways hasn’t become problematic – yet!   I know the government can and will be crazy but I am also learning the virtue of patience, in a big way.

One overwhelming truth I have learned is that relationships are of the utmost importance.  And, in this small town, memories are long. I brought my two cats with me so I have become a regular customer at the pet store in town.  When I bought a 10 kilo bag of cat litter, the one owner offered to drive me home!  Such courtesies are commonplace here.  After visiting one bakery a few times, the attendant offered me two freshly baked cookies free of charge.  Maybe because I stick out as the “americana,” one of the coffee bar servers saw me walking and yelled, “Buon giorno, signora,” after visiting her workplace a handful of times.  There’s a gentleman who roasted chestnuts at the corner who also recognized me (who can resist fresh roasted chestnuts?!) at another coffee bar.  We exchanged pleasantries and when I went to pay for my coffee, the attendant told me that Vincenzo, the chestnut guy, had already paid my bill.  The perks of living in a small town and patronizing the folks who work here! And similar stories go on and on.  On the other hand, a realtor with whom I was working refused to show me a listing that I brought to his attention.  Why?  He didn’t/doesn’t like the listing realtor!

The other major thing I’ve learned?  These people live in, on, and are “of the land.”  Their sustenance comes from the land but, more importantly, their personalities are “of the land.”  They’re basic folk who acknowledge and develop relationships, treasure the seasons, tend the gardens, olive groves and vineyards, reap what they have grown or caught in the sea, and share their bounty.  These are not braggadocious individuals; they’re (at least in my limited experience) honest, hard-working, kind, generous, attentive, and overwhelmingly willing to help this “americana.”  

Back to the question, “Why?”  I love learning. I want to learn about my heritage, and I want to learn about my grandparents’ way of life.  I couldn’t delve into those subjects while vacationing; I had to jump all the way in!  And so here I am among incredibly kind, understanding, patient people who are putting up with my terrible choices of verb tenses and my Google translate vocabulary.  I can’t wait to become an Italian citizen (which will happen in a few months) so I can say, “Thank you, Grandpa, for this privilege.”  Only then will I not be a stranger in my own country.

Con affetti!

PS:  I closed on my house after I wrote this article — finally!  Because of some missteps on the seller’s part, closing was delayed for three weeks.  Avanti adesso!