Pronounced The Same in Sicilian

Taormina in the morning and a lovely tiny Italian car
Taormina in the morning and a lovely tiny Italian car. xenotar

Italians have a definite pecking order and the lower you go on the boot, well—the lower you go. The reason I love New York City so feverishly is because of the incredible diversity of cultures that live and thrive here. So I shamefully admit that I arrived in Sicily with a few stereotypes packed in my baggage.

For mainland Italians, Sicily is its own thing—a world unto itself with its own rules and its own language.

Nana, who was usually only critical of people who ate mayonnaise, often expressed her distaste for the Sicilian language. "Iddu and kiddu," she said mocking the way Siclians would say lui and lei. "That's not Italian. They're not Italian." In keeping with this notion, she had a sister-in-law she referred to as "La Siciliana," and a neighbor who was "La Siciliana next door."

It's true that Sicily is far different than its extended Italian family. To be Sicilian is to be Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, German, Spanish, French, Spanish again, English, Spanish one more time and finally, Italian. Sicily is still easing into the last one.

My Florentine friends had also done their best to color my view of Sicily with thoughts of the mafia and earthquakes and volcanoes. They blamed Sicilians for perpetuating negative qualities often attributed to Italians like bad temper and body hair.

One friend who often bragged that he was a twelfth generation Florentine went so far as to say that Sicilian culture had nothing at all in common with Italian culture.

"Well, then I guess that Sicilian men aren't mammoni?" I said teasingly. After all, this was a man who carried a photo of his mother in his wallet but not a picture of his fidanzata of 10 years.

"Italian men love their mothers," he replied matter-of-factly. "But, how do you know this word?" Not only had the word mammoni migrated to America, but the idea of the mamma's boy was one of the most pervasive Italian stereotypes.

Soon, I forgot all this because Sicily was a giant pumice stone that smoothed off all the rough edges of traveling. In every city I visited, I walked into the very best of circumstances. I swam in the perfect turquoise sea at Taormina that reflected snow-capped Mount Etna. In Siracusa, I watched a string orchestra perform at twilight on the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. In Catania, I walked the passeggiata with a group of college students who gave me an informal tour of the city's Baroque churches. Even intimidating Palermo was a feast for the senses with its glittering gold mosaics, bustling markets and everywhere—gelato stuffed inside a fresh brioche and eaten like a sandwich.

After almost a year in Italy, I had had no real romance to speak of and Sicilian men were so strikingly handsome. Not only is the Sicilian language infused with influences from island's many conquerors but so are the good looks of its people. Somehow, I needed to manifest Sicily into a real person and he came in the form of a waiter named Calogero.

Not only did he have a most Sicilian name, (as my Milanese language tutor would say, "You cannot even go in Milano with a name like Calogero"), but he had a profile that came straight from a Greek vase painting. So when he asked me to stay for a drink after the restaurant closed, I agreed.

We shared some wine, and to my surprise, spoke for over an hour in freely-flowing Italian. Calogero inched his chair closer to mine so as to speak softly into my ear. He whispered a string of Sicilian words, the only discernible one being beddu, which was Sicilian for bella. Suddenly, his cell phone erupted with song, breaking the spell of sweet Sicilian being spoken into my ear, as he scrambled into the pockets of his too tight pants to answer it.

"Pronto," he said while holding my gaze. Hearing the voice on the other end, he extended his perfect Greek chin above the mouthpiece and whispered, "Aspetta—è mia madre."

After a stream of far less romantic sounding Sicilian, he closed the phone, smiling sheepishly as he said, "She is worried that I am out too late and is waiting for me to arrive at home before going to sleep.

Now, you are going to tell your friends in Florence that Sicilian men are such mammoni?"

About the Author: Danielle Oteri shares her experiences navigating Southern Italy with all of its linguistic and cultural quirks.