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Carmelina Ricciardello celebrates Sicily
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Carmelina Ricciardello celebrates Sicily
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Carmelina Ricciardello celebrates Sicily
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"Just trust that a drop in the ocean is better than nothing."
2 April 2010

Carmelina Ricciardello celebrates Sicily

Interview by Kate Bezar
Carmelina Ricciardello, 'The Maintenance Man'

Kate Bezar on Carmelina Ricciardello

Carmelina Ricciardello is almost singlehandedly trying to preserve the traditional Sicilian way of life. Sicilian-born, but Australian-raised, she has never forgotten her real roots and the Sicily of her childhood. Every year, small Sicilian villages lose more and more of their young people because of the lack of local opportunities.

Carmelina wants to change that by bringing more visitors to the towns and showing them the ‘real’ Sicily, the ‘slow’ Sicily; introducing them to the local goat-herder, giving them a taste of freshly-pressed olive oil and having them stay in some of the otherwise empty houses. It’s a long way from Western Australia where the rest of her family remain, but it’s where she feels most at home.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

CARMELINA RICCIARDELLO: I feel like I’m this tiny little person in this tiny little village, so I was surprised when you said you wanted to write about me. I don’t feel like it’s anything special.

KATE BEZAR: Perhaps you don’t feel like you’re special, but you must realise that what you’re doing is special?

It just feels to me like I’m doing something I believe in. When you’re doing it, it’s a lot of hard work and sometimes you think you’re never going to reach anywhere. You’re so involved in it, you really don’t think about anything except getting on with what you’re doing. You don’t step back to look at it, or stop to analyse what it is to the outside, especially since I don’t feel like I’ve yet achieved what I’d like to. I think when it’s progressed, then maybe I can look back …

Do you know where you want it to go or when you’d consider that it has been successful?

In a way, I must say, when you start from nothing, every little thing … I’ve been here for three years working very hard and now I’m starting to set up a committee in the village to help promote the village and bring employment here because 70 percent of people here don’t have work – it’s horrible. When I got 48 people signing up wanting to be involved in the committee, I thought that was special and overwhelming … that people want to be involved in what I’m doing. Why don’t you ask me a question? I have a mind that races around different things and I’m probably not very good for an interview!

It’d be good if you could just explain what it is that you’re trying to do.

I’m trying to promote this village, Sant’Ambrogio, because in Sicily, a lot of these little villages have been abandoned. Twenty years ago, there were 1,500 people in this village. There’s 250 now. That’s typical of many other villages in Sicily. Parts of the coastline have been intensely developed, but they’ve forgotten about these little villages where the real Sicilian life happens.

So there’s nothing to keep young people here, there’s a lot of unemployment, and there are a lot of empty houses. I thought it’d be good to bring people to the village, rent them the houses and get some income into the local restaurants and bars. I also want to develop some of the old traditions. I set up an art project with the school in Cefalù whereby they’ll come and do art pieces for the village; sculptures, ceramics, you know … We also have an olive oil press in the village and when we get a committee going, we might be able to get some funds to get the press going again. I’d love to have an oil press and culture centre so the young people have an opportunity to get together. A lot of Sicilians have got Degrees – and 80% go to university because their parents have come from poverty and farming and their whole aim is to educate their children. But, when their children are educated, there’s no employment for them, so they have to go away. At the moment I have two people working for me; one from the university – she’s still studying tourism – and the other has finished. I want to give these people practical work, to sit with me and get some real practice when tourists come, instead of having a Degree without any practice. Really, my aim is to create a product which the young people could run themselves. It’s a long term thing. Also, ecologically, I’m trying to teach people about the environment. Like, I get ecological cleaning products all the way from the mainland and put them in the houses I rent out for the people to use. There’s also a shepherd up behind the village and I’ve done some goat-herding with him. I take walking groups to visit him because my main thing has always been walking tours. It’s all about the type of tourism where people feel that they are truly experiencing something. There’s this local area which I love, but all of Sicily needs tourism which has some sense, some purpose, rather than just ‘mass tourism’. My aim is to really share the money with the locals and involve them, more so than business people, because I think a lot goes on in the business world here that’s not always clear …

That’s probably an understatement! [Both laugh]

I don’t want to make too much of it, but when people vote in Sicily, it’s not for what they want, it’s because they owe politicians favours, they owe them votes. It’s still a world where who you know gets you somewhere. There’s the Sicilian way … You’ve got to know its history. Sicilians have lost their spirit because there have been so many invasions … You know things aren’t going to work. Sometimes there’s no logic as to why they don’t work, if they do, it’s a bonus. If they don’t, you go back the next day and try again. We still deal with humans and Sicilians are very passionate! As a race we’re very warm, but at the same time if there’s something negative, we express it and there’s no balance between the two at times. You go to the post office and you’re scared the lady’s going to scream at you. One time I had a parcel that took me a month to send. I was going in every week because they didn’t have the right document. In three post offices they didn’t have the right document. You just have to say, “OK, I’m sorry, when should I come back?” There are people here who are 38 years-old who have never worked because they only want to get a State job, like in the civil service, but they don’t know anybody so they can’t get one. They’re 38 years-old, they’ve been engaged for ten years, and are living at home with their parents because they just don’t trust that if you go into private enterprise you’ll get paid regularly. They fear that businesses may go bankrupt as the people don’t always have the money to pay for services. That’s why there’s no huge enterprise here … there are only little businesses that can’t afford to pay their employees’ tax contributions and therefore they won’t get a pension at the end of their working life. People here just work to eat and to provide for their families.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

How long have you been back in Sicily?

Overall I’ve been living in Sicily for three years now. I actually came back 16 years ago, thinking I would come to live here, but I knew that I couldn’t. Sicily has always been my passion and I left it with tears in my eyes, but I left because I thought that I could learn something and come back and be more of an asset to Sicily. That’s what my dream has always been – to go away and learn, and live, and then come back as an intermediary.

I see myself as working between the locals and the tourists, or the locals and what’s happening outside. I have a broader vision and that’s to connect visitors with the locals here. You see, I was born here and lived here until I was seven. We didn’t even realise it at the time, but we lived in total poverty. I even had my tonsils out with no anesthetic; we all just lined up and were strapped to a chair! My family all lived in one room and I never even had my own bed until we got to Australia.

Why did your parents leave? Was it to escape that degree of poverty?

Well my father actually left for Australia a month before I was born. He left my mother with my sister who was two years old, my other sister who was one and me who hadn’t yet been born. We lived in a little village and my grandmother lived on the mountain behind the village. She said to my mother, “When you get the labour pains put a white sheet out the window and I’ll come down the mountain to help.” It’s another life. He came back after three years, when I was three, and my mother fell pregnant again, although she lost that child at birth. They couldn’t live like that and after seven years away, my father realised that he needed to bring us over to Australia. So my mother, who was then seven months pregnant, because my father had visited us again [laughs], and us three girls all got on the boat and sailed for three weeks to Perth, not knowing where the hell we were going! My mother brought a chest of food with her, including alcohol to make homemade liqueurs.

The drug and alcohol squad was constantly at or house to check on us. Then, unfortunately, six months after we’d arrived in Australia, my father was killed in an accident. We couldn’t speak any English so we had to start washing plates for a living … My oldest sister was ten, my other sister was nine and my brother was four months, so we had to help my mother go and wash plates in the evenings and then we worked after school and learnt English. We had to help my mother because she couldn’t speak the language. We didn’t even know what the police were saying when they came to tell us about my father. People have destinies in life, we have our path. When you’re young, you can’t change that, you have to go with it and do your best. If anything, we were just pleased to get work. To us, work and money was important.

Like every other migrant, if you can get work then you can survive.

Absolutely. So if you were seven when you left, that’s old enough to have memories of Sicily …

I remembered everything about Sicily and when I eventually came back I automatically felt part of it, more than I did in Australia. There’s something about me that still feels my roots here … Maybe my character’s such that I can relate to the earthiness more. Here, life is expressed.

Your everyday life is more compact and it means people, not going to an office in a car. Here you meet people going to the bar or local mini-market. It’s more simplistic, but even in its simplicity there is stress. For people here, the stress in that simplicity is not having enough money.

At home in Australia did you speak Sicilian, so that when you came back …?

We’d only spoken Sicilian, which is still used, but not to a great degree – in my village it’s just the older people who speak Sicilian – so I had to learn Italian, actually. I did a little bit of schooling in Italy.

What did you study in Australia?

Nothing [bells start tolling]. Sorry, I’m right near the church. My mother thinks I go to church! The bells ring at prayer time. Mass must be on soon. Anyway, we had no opportunity to study because we were the providers for the family. My sisters and I went to work to provide for Mum and my brother. We had no education. I’ve always been keen to learn. I am curious … so I’ve read, even though Mum, in her old-fashioned way, thinks I should be reading magazines, not books! I’ve had no education except for my life and my curiosity.

More than enough.

Yeah, but when you go out in the world people have their different ways of comparing you. I felt it especially when I worked with the English because they’re very much into their education system and I felt inferior. Without a ‘proper’ education, you never think you know enough and in a way it’s a blessing because then you never stop learning. The beauty of not having an education is that there’s nothing to prove that you know enough, you haven’t done an exam ….

When did you manage to get back to Sicily for the first time after leaving?

I came to visit my family in Sicily with my brother for about three weeks in 1985. That was the first time, and we were just touring. I came home and I decided I wanted to leave Australia to learn more. I was involved with food and had my own catering business, but I left it thinking I wanted to learn more about Italian food and just get away from the security blanket of being surrounded by people I knew. I just wanted to travel on my own. So, 16 years ago when I was 36 – I’m 53 now – I left Australia and I came back to Sicily. I was here for six weeks. I loved it. I would walk around in Sicily and every day I would admire and appreciate its beauty and just that feeling – or that sense – that there’s something that connects me to it. It’s actually quite brutal in a way here; the landscape can be harsh, but it can be beautiful. I think for me it reflects life; life is a bit of everything, it’s not just beauty.

There’s something about being able to live in harshness, it’s also part of life, for me, anyway. But, as much as I loved Sicily, I knew I needed to go away and then come back. So I just packed my bags and decided to go somewhere I’d never been and I ended up in the snow in the Dolomites. I could only afford, from Harrods in London, a notebook which cost me one pound, so I took that on the train and did the east coast of Italy, stopping at all the stations that were important. I’d get out and ask people for recipes, people on the train would give me recipes and they all went in my notebook.

What were you going to do with them?

My idea was to go back to Australia and open a restaurant and have all these lovely recipes from local Italians. Food has always been one of my passions. I had the names of some great restaurants. I’d go to them, but couldn’t spend any money so I’d just sit there on my own and in Italy, it’s not so good being on your own; they think that someone must be coming to join you at any time … Have you been to Italy?

Yes, on my own, so I know exactly what you mean. I haven’t been further south than Florence though.

Oh, no! Well you know where to come if you come to Sicily! Australia’s an amazing place, but it’s quite isolated. Here in Europe you’re connected and exposed to so many different people …

You learn, just by traveling. It’s who you meet along the way that you gain a lot of understanding from.

I feel that in Australia, because you don’t have that exchange of people, when you come overseas you are constantly meeting different people. When I arrived in London before coming to Sicily, it was my birthday and I was on my own. I felt like a little crumb in the middle of London. I decided to go and buy myself a cup of tea at the Ritz, which I spilled everywhere, because I wasn’t used to such elegance! I couldn’t afford biscuits, or anything. You’ve never experienced anything until you come to Europe – well, for me, anyway. Here, so much happens – good and bad. So, I had different experiences in Italy and I went to live up north in Tuscany and, now finally, I’m doing what I want to do.

What were you doing during that time?

In the north of Italy I was involved in tourism in hotels and ski resorts. Then I moved to Tuscany. All this time I was doing walking tours which helped me to learn, a lot. It was great in me gaining knowledge, and hard because I was very naive of it all – I didn’t know what flowers … what birds … the history. The English are much more well-read and know history far better. They’re also big walkers and a lot of the people I worked with were English, so I had to get up in the morning to read and write.

I know you’ve also spent time in Africa and the Middle East. How did that all fit in?

I went to Gabon (Central Africa) four or five years ago as a consultant on eco-tourism for the European Community. I’m always challenging myself in life, I think. Always wanting more experience and understanding. To be able to help people is my main thing. I just learn things to be able to share them with other people, not impose them. So when I went to Gabon to teach eco-tourism, I felt a bit strange. I really appreciate tradition and I didn’t want to change things, but I knew their life was changing. I felt I just needed to present this knowledge and if they wanted to use it, then they could and if not, that was fine too. Then, two years ago I went to help my friend with the Abraham Path Initiative. He is trying to capture where Abraham walked from Turkey to Jerusalem into a special route of cultural tourism. It’s a project that’s going to take years, but there was an American group who wanted to do it a couple of years ago and he asked me to help guide them. I’ve been interested in the Middle East myself and had visited Jordan and Syria. Then last year, I was asked to help build a school in the Sinai Desert for the Bedouin. The project is with the Makhad Trust which is going to help them sustain themselves. You see, in Sharm El Sheikh, where the big tourist places are, there are so many hotels that the water level in the desert has gone right down, so the nomads are no longer free to just wander around and are having to settle down more. What they’re trying to do with this project is to build a school under tents, which will be opened with a camel festival. They’re going to invite all the tribes from around the area to this school. It’s lovely to be involved in different projects through people I know.

When did you realise that you’d learned enough and that it was time to move back to Sicily?

It was a gradual process, just destiny somehow. I decided to come and live in this village and I ended up starting to think that there was something I could do here. I was ready to settle and come back to my roots. It was just a feeling of where I wanted to be so I rented a house in this village and everything came about.

There was something strong in me that told me I need to be here, even though it’s not easy here.

It’s hard because I’m on my own. Even though the people around me are very respectful and caring, it’s hard work to continue … No, it’s not hard to continue believing in what you do, because I do believe in it, but the way you live here requires you to accept and take things slowly and to know that things will take time to work. Also, the way you handle people requires a great deal of respect. I’ve gained the respect of the locals which was important.

Was there any resistance to you at first?

No they’ve always been nice to me, I think because they relate to work and all I’ve done here is work, without benefitting personally from it. That’s gained their trust. With everyone who’s come before, it’s been about what’s been in it for them. I’ve gone to see officials; administration officers, town planners, and I’ve asked for things for the village and they’ve been surprised. I went to the mayor and said, “I don’t know anyone important, but I want you to know me. I’m not asking for any money because there isn’t any, I just want to know how you can help me.” For them, it’s such a strange concept that I’m not there to say, “I want this” or, “I’ll give you this, if you give me that.” I think people can see I’ve proven my sincerity and that I’m not here for myself. The hard work I do is because I believe in something. So yes, people are very respectful towards me and I hear voices coming back, saying nice things.

In the past three years or so, have there been any times when you’ve thought that you couldn’t continue?

There have been a lot of times when you’re so tired and you’re going to bed exhausted and waking up still exhausted and you’re wondering: is it me, or do they really want this? I’d have meetings and I’d say, “As far as I’m concerned I’m not here to push this, if you don’t want this I can walk away from it” and then they start to say, “Oh no, no, we really want this.”

It’s where you see yourself being for a while longer?

I think that I’d love to. It’s hard when you really believe in something, to give it up. Whenever you do feel like that, something small happens … Like when the young people in the village came to my door and asked me if I could find a room for them to meet in and play cards. I was in tears that the young people of the village actually came to me. When you get so involved, when do you walk away? I’ll go as far as I can with this and just trust that a drop in the ocean is better than nothing you try. The problem in the past, here in Sicily, is that there are a lot of people who want power and people do things to benefit themselves, but I don’t want any power. I can walk away from this, and maybe they won’t even remember my name, but it doesn’t matter. I’m here because I like it here and I think that by trying to promote the place, locals can benefit from it too and their children can get employment and to believe in something … The best film you can go and see if you want to understand what it’s like here is Baaria by the same director [Giuseppe Tornatore] as Cinema Paradiso. It talks about Sicily over the last 50 years. The set for the film was built in Tunisia – it cost 25 million Euros to do it there – but the town it talks about, Baaria, is only 50 km from where I live and has been ridden with mafia. At the end of this film, you see that, over the course of 50 years and three generations, nothing’s changed … it’s even worse. There was an article about it and about how at the end a son said to his father, “How can the town planner give permission to build houses when he’s blind?” and you see this guy who’s blind passing his hands over a map ‘reading’ it, when someone comes along and puts an envelope full of money in his pocket. It doesn’t really matter whether he has eyesight or not, that’s irrelevant when you’re town planning there. Things can change, it’s just that people have to do it, it won’t happen on its own.

You’re in an amazing position to be able to translate your general passion for traditional, indigenous culture, into a very personal project. It’s one thing to go and help the Bedouin keep their culture, but you’re able to do the same thing in a place and for a people who mean so much to you.

It is, it is. It’s so frustrating when you walk up the street and the people don’t know if they’ll be working from one day to another. I know people in Australia and England and they’re worried that they can’t afford a second week of holidays, you know … People forget. I’m not saying there’s no poverty in Australia and England, there’s poverty in any country, but man has gone beyond just providing food for himself to providing luxuries. At least, if all I can do is say that at the end of it I’ve tried and I’ve tried with my heart … I have great respect for where I was born and the people around me. They’re very, very important in my life. It’s real for me.

Do you maintain any ties back to Australia?

Well, I’ve still got my mother there.

She’s still alive?

She’s 75. There’s also my sister, my nieces … everyone’s there. I’m here on my own, apart from my older aunties, my father’s family. I’ve been on my own all this time here.

Does your family back home think you’re crazy?

Yeah, they do, because people tend to take the easy way. I always think that the easy way is good in the sense that you don’t get stressed, but if it’s easy then there’s no problem, is there? If you go somewhere to help someone, it’s because there’s a problem, so it’s going to be hard. My mother thinks I think of other people too much, but you’re either like that, or you’re not. I also look after the cats here in the village and have had them sterilised because everything’s important, even the animals. I’ve also planted plants, had rubbish bins made and I’m going to fix the seats It’s all the little things.

Did you ever have any children of your own?

No. I was married years ago, but he was the first man I met. We were brought up very traditionally and once we arrived in Australia we were much more closed in because the Australian people were seen as being very independent, with loose women. We weren’t allowed to go out with boys, so the first man, I married. Perhaps the divorce was when I started to get more freedom in my life … I feel like I’ve lived in so many different worlds and now I’ve come back to the one I was born in, but with a different understanding. I don’t feel any different to my neighbours here, it’s just that I have knowledge of different things. So what? We lead a very simple life. My neighbours here invite me to watch a TV program with them and we talk about nothing, but that’s fine. It’s about the affection given.

Sometimes it’s nicer when you don’t have to be too intellectual and can just speak with your heart.

I feel that people are really affectionate towards me here and we have conversations about a lot of things and we care for each other.

You’re truly part of a community and you all need each other. That must be something very special – it’s rare.

Even in that, human nature has jealousy and envy and all, but at the end of the day, if somebody doesn’t get out of bed, someone will know it here. If someone’s died, they ring the bells in a different way so that we know and we all come out to see who’s died. It would be illegal to leave an old person by herself, they always have to have someone; a grown-up grandchild or a daughter, to look after them. There is great respect for the elderly and for children.

Well, hopefully when people come to visit you there and you introduce them to that way of life, some might rub off.

It happens naturally. It’s amazing. The people who have come here from Northern Europe, England, we shared a lot, both ways … It’s amazing the people who are attracted to the village indirectly, because they haven’t been here before. There’s a lot of exchange that goes on for them, and for me. It’s lovely to meet so many people from all over the world. They walk away from here and all you have is a memory of something special you’ve shared.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Carmelina Ricciardello, 'The Maintenance Man'

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