18. A Tale of Two Worlds: Amsterdam and Sicilia

The American part of me always feels like I’m getting away with something when it’s time for vacation.  I can’t decide whether that’s a healthy feeling or not.  It’s no secret that Europeans allow themselves more vacation than Americans. In Italy especially, vacation time is just as important as any other basic human right. In typical Italian fashion, everyone except those in the tourism industry take vacation during the same period of the year, July and August. One might point out that if everyone takes vacation at the same time that this could create chaos for businesses and the general logistics of the country. If Italy were to respond to such allegations (which it wouldn’t…) it would probably sound something like “Well… yes, but the weather is nice now… and we’ll get back to work in September.”

To be truthful, I did get away with something this summer. I left Siena one week before the program was actually over. Marianna had an important conference in Wales and she couldn’t take Sean with her because Sean is not quite conference-ready yet. So, I went up to Amsterdam. My colleagues in Siena have been wonderful in accommodating for our family’s needs as we’re strewn about Europe. Grazie mille…

So the summer vacation started out with Dad-week in Amsterdam. One might imagine some kind of reckless, male-bonding scenario where father and son wander about without clothing, eating raw meat and doughnuts and never taking showers. If things were up to Sean, the scene may have actually resembled something like that with a bit more of a focus on cars and trucks. In reality, it turns out that there’s a lot to be said for acting civilized and keeping some structure to the day, especially when it comes to spending a week alone with a two-year-old.

Beleive it or not, this kiddie pool in Oosterpark, Amsterdam is free!

Of course, there were some deviations from the norm. We watched youtube videos about bears and sharks and other dangerous animals that may or may not get the official Mom-seal-of-approval. There was lots of swimming which was a tactical decision as being in water has the magic powers of tiring children out (as well as adults). We had a few picnics, 20160721_171957 again tactical. Running between bites is better than just sitting in a chair. I failed to foresee the running AND chewing issue… Live and learn… We also ate a lot of ice cream, because… it’s ice cream. My own memories of being alone at home with my Dad often involve cooking tacos. Manchester tacos always involve deep-frying corn tortillas before using them for tacos. I remember times when we ate at least ten of those each. I chose not to expose Sean to the powers of boiling oil this time around. For that and many other activities we’ll have to wait until Marianna’s next conferences.

When Marianna came back, we packed our bags and headed to Sicily for two weeks. Marianna’s sister is married to a Sicilian from the southern town of Siracusa and his parents found a group of houses on the beach for IMG-20160725-WA0024all of us. In total, 12 adults and 5 little kids between relatives, sisters, brothers and grandparents descended upon the island.

I write a lot about the differences between Siena and Amsterdam and I’ve said before that the two places couldn’t be more different. Sicily and other parts of southern Italy may just be farther down the line on the difference spectrum than Siena. Or maybe it’s that the differences are… well, different.

This happened everyday…..

There are the obvious differences that anyone can see. In Sicily, there is a striking absence of clouds (especially I July) compared to The Netherlands. The turquoise Mediterranean sea that gently massages the countless beaches along Sicily’s coasts is other-worldly when compared to the wind-whipped, brown, churning North Sea that threatens to flood The Netherlands. And then there are the things like trash all over the place in Sicily and strange bridges that aren’t connected to any roads and don’t actually appear to cross over anything that needs to be crossed over. In comparison things like that make Amsterdam look like the apex of civilization (which… in some ways, I might argue that it is… that’s for another time though).

Basking in the endless sun, one wonderful meal after another, the idea of potential kept creeping into my mind when comparing the two places. On one hand, you have Sicily (and so many other places in Italy) that have a seemingly enormous amount of natural potential. The weather is great. There is history that you can actually touch that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Parts of Sicily were fundamental for both the Greeks and then the Romans in the heights of their respective reigns in the Mediterranean. Fruit and vegetables grow all year round. The locals have spent thousands of years perfecting recipes that use the bounty offered on the island. Etna, Sicily’s volcano is actually rather polite as far as volcanoes go, in the sense that it doesn’t spew lava all over people. It does however create an ecosystem around its base that is perfect for all kinds of unique things to grow. Some of Italy’s most important wines come from the volcano-enriched soil. The locals have a reputation for being warm-hearted and gregarious.

Sure, Amsterdam’s food trucks are pretty and hip, but none of them can hold a candle to the food at “Antonio’s” in Siracusa. He was food truckin’ waaaaay before it was cool.

Then, on the other hand, you look the Natural potential of Amsterdam. It’s a swamp that is below sea level. Summer isn’t actually something that’s guaranteed every year. Food grows best in greenhouses with artificial sunlight. The Dutch are not renowned for their culinary history and some might complain that they are a bit rigid (this is not my experience, but maybe that’s because I’m American and used to following rules, being punctual, and going to bed at a reasonable time).

Surprisingly, somehow it’s Amsterdam, and not Palermo, Catania, or any other city in Sicily that has been able to create one of Europe’s most desirable cities. How is this even possible? Well, it’s a complicated question that I’m probably not even fully qualified to answer so I’ll just lend a personal observation.

Maybe the fact that Amsterdam doesn’t have a whole lot going for it as far as natural potential is the very reason that it is so successful. The people in Amsterdam learned how to create potential. By having to work extra-hard as a community to simply keep the city from drowning, Amsterdammers have been harnessing the powers of collaboration and innovation for so long that that they now innately possess an anything-is-possible attitude, that is hard to find among Sicilians. For decades now the threat of flood is less likely (see previous blog post about this) and the people in Amsterdam have been able to re-focus their efforts and attitude on making a nice city even better.

Sean enjoying Siracusa. See that cathedral in the background? It used to be a Greek temple and those columns on the bottom are original!

This isn’t to say that Sicilians are not innovative or industrious.   They are and it is a wonderful place that I would recommend visiting at least once in your life. Don’t be scared by Hollywood’s portrayal of the Mafia. While the mafia is a tragic reality, it’s way behind the scenes, and as a tourist, you’re much safer (sadly) in Sicily than you are in any major city in the US.

Contrary to the Dutch in Amsterdam, Sicilians haven’t had to organize and battle common enemies like weather and the sea, rather they have been dealing with human factors like foreign conquerors for hundreds of years and subsequent corruption. It’s not easy for them to unite as a group for a common goal like building dams to stop water. For centuries they’ve had to focus on their own individual place in society and fight to make a safe space for their families. Here are some links for things to watch/read about Sicily if you really want to understand its current situation.

To read:
A very academic point of view
A pretty good blog post
A promotional site
To Watch
I Cento Passi

Again, these are just my opinions but I guess that the biggest difference that I see is the difference between innovation for individual purposes and innovation as a community. However, I might be completely blowing the importance

Who needs a flatscreen TV?

of innovation out of proportion. Maybe innovation is overrated. Maybe the Sicilians are actually the wise ones. Instead of working themselves to the bone to make pretty parks and put on festival after festival, they’re just enjoying what they already have. Either way, we’re pretty lucky to be able to enjoy the best of everywhere.


Here’s a video.  It’s mostly kids, because who want to see boring adults?


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