New Year's Eve in Sicily by Musetta Joyce © 2013
Sicilians love fireworks, as indeed do most Italians, particularly in the south, Naples being the most frenetic. During the 2012-2013 New Year's Eve celebrations two people were killed and five hundred injured by fireworks in their own homes. For, although, using funds from door to door collections, the major firework displays occur during the celebration of local saints' feste following the processions, the main explosion of coloured sparks occurs on New Year's Eve from private houses. Because this is the night when practically every home with a balcony vies with one another for quality and quantity of the giocchi di fuoco (fire games), and every year children die or suffer serious injuries.
Which was why, back in the Eighties, the government banned the sale of the most popular dangerous varieties of fireworks. In our small town we had never bothered to buy any but one year we were invited to spend the festa evening with my in-laws in Messina.
When we reached their top floor flat we found everyone disconsolate. The kitchen had an air of frigidity. La Mamma was sitting in a corner busy crocheting, tight-lipped and glassy-eyed. Her daughter was even busier, polishing the spotless wall tiles with an air of martyrdom. The men and the children were glumly watching telly, and, to my relief, there was no stink of pesce stocco (dried cod) cooking. In fact there was no sign of festive food at all.
'What the hell is the matter with you all?' My husband looked at his mother in alarm.
'The party is going to be a flop! What are our neighbours going to think? They all have managed to get their supply of fireworks and we have none. Che figura!'
'So, how come they managed to buy them if they're illegal now?'
'There's the black market. They're selling them on the quiet down the road.'
'So? If they can be bought, then we can buy them. Come on kids, get your coats on again.'
'But surely if they're dangerous …' I began to object.'
'They're not a bit dangerous if they're handled with care. Don't be such a spoil-sport. Come on.'
I knew there was no use arguing with the favourite son intent on pleasing his mother, so off we went down the five flights of stairs, along the busy streets and down a dark and narrow lane to a low building where there was already a queue of eager customers. Except that they weren't really queuing, as this is not the custom in Sicily; they were jostling one another to get served. The children and I stood aside and let himself get on with the bargaining. I noticed him being shoved by a burly guy just before he got served and I heard him giving out, but only when we found ourselves surrounded by a gang of nasty looking individuals did I start to get scared.
'Come on outside,' shouted the one who had been shoving, 'You're not going to get away with insulting me!'
'Can't you see that I'm with my wife and children? What the heck is the matter with you?'
They were shouting at one another too rapidly in the Sicilian dialect for me to understand and I was getting more and more frantic. My daughter started to cry. The pals of the guy who had shoved - and was now fondling a knife - were closing in. The other customers stood apart, unwilling to take sides. I grabbed the children in panic, not knowing what to do. Then suddenly there was an eerie silence.
'What did you say? Who did you say your cousin was again?'
'"Saucer Eyes". We even have the same surname.'
'You are "Saucer Eyes" cousin?'
'Yes. First cousin actually.'
'Why didn't you say so before?' The knife disappeared. 'Come on, let me buy you a drink!'
'Ah no, thanks all the same. We have to be getting back.'
'Just one little drink? I wouldn't want your cousin to think badly of me.'
'He won't. I promise. But we'll be on our way now, thanks very much all the same. Arrivederci a tutti!'
We hurried away with my husband clutching the fireworks in a plastic bag. We practically ran most of the way back.
'That's the last time I'm going to risk my life for bloody fireworks!' my husband gasped once we got inside. 'Here, we've brought the panetone (cake) and the spumante (bubbly wine) too. What's for supper?'
'Well, we have lentils of course, cooking away there, but not much else except some nuts and dried figs.'
You have to eat lentils as soon as possible after midnight on New Year's Eve if you want to have a prosperous year. It's also obligatory to avoid meat and to eat lots of fish on Chistmas Eve and on New Year's Eve.
'No fish? Well, it's too late to get any now. We'll go and get some focaccia (a kind of pizza with greenery) to eat while we're playing cards.' Off we went again, this time in the car, down to the port where there was a late night tavola calda.
When we parked near the harbour we saw a small crowd huddled around the edge of the waterfront and, as we watched we saw a tiny cinquecento (Fiat car) being lifted out of the water.
'Hey, looks like someone had decided that another year would have been too much to live through.'
'Forget the bloody focaccia,' I groaned. 'Let's get out of here before we see any more.'
Back we went empty handed. We all munched nuts and chewed on figs while watching the guests on telly eat their cenone of every kind of fish: smoked salmon, prawns, squid, octopus, cod and so on and, particularly in Messina and Venice, the most appreciated of all – stockfish: cod from Norway dried and preserved in salt; it requires lengthy soaking before cooking, both processes releasing the most obnoxious stink. As midnight struck we popped the bubbly in tune with the telly presenters, wished one another Buon Anno and crowded onto the balcony to let off the fireworks. I kept the (protesting) children at a safe distance while the rest of the family were thrilled with the dazzle and the whooshing noises. The brother-in-law made great cracking sounds with his leather belt and a couple of neighbours shot their guns to make up for the lack of explosions. The bombetti that we had bought had to be thrown to the ground to explode, which was a bit disappointing, as I had expected to see coloured sparklers at least. Those that didn't explode would be dangerous for children to find.
'For goodness sake check that they've all gone off!' I shouted amid the chaos. We dunked chunks of panetone (a kind of barmbrack) into the spumante and made our New Year's resolutions. Then we attacked the lentils.
Was it worth the hassle? 'So, who's this cousin with the big eyes anyway?' I asked when we were safely in bed. 'I dread to think what would have happened if you hadn't name-dropped.'
'"Saucer eyes"? He was at our wedding, don't you remember? He was only a teenager at the time. His parents doted on him, spoiled him to bits, as he was the first son after several girls. He got so used to getting anything he wanted that when he grew up he became the leader of a gang of delinquents.'
'That innocent looking lad is part of the Mafia?'
'Not quite. The really powerful mafia isn't in Messina; it's in Palermo. However, he's in jail at the moment and manages to control his gang from behind bars. They say that when he gets out he'll not live long. Too many enemies.'
'Hmm, I never thought I'd be relieved to be related to a member of the mini-mafia. I can see how raccomandazione (knowing the right people) can come in handy. Well, one thing I've realised this evening: I'm damned glad we're not living in the city. I might give out at times about the limitations of our little town, but I sure am glad of the peace and quiet. No prizes for my resolution for next year and all future New Year's Eves: No More Fireworks!'
From a work in progress on life in Sicily by Musetta Joyce