What a fantasy to house sit in Sicily for a month. We couldn’t believe our luck – from the picturesque French Alps to postcard-worthy Sicily? But! Send away your images of soaking up the Sicilian sun on the beach. Our house sit lasted from mid-January to mid-February, so although we were in one of the warmest parts of Europe at that time, it was still the coldest part of the year by far. Despite the chill and occasional dampness, our month in Sicily did turn out to be a fairy tale, with all the twists and turns that those tales often provide.
Our host Judy picked us up from the train station the evening of our arrival. We had spent roughly ten hours on the train from Pompei (see From North to South: Traversing Italy) and were quite ready to be at our destination. As Judy drove us through the countryside cloaked in darkness, we learned a bit about the family whose home and pets we would be watching. Judy and Jonathan were British expats, a theme we saw developing in our house sitting gigs. Judy was originally from South Africa before she moved to the United Kingdom, where she met and married Jonathan. When the two of them retired, they decided to buy a house in Sicily. Judy lived in the Sicilian villa full time, whereas Jonathan split his time between sunny Sicily and the drizzly UK. As he puts it, he’s one of the “old boys” and can’t live without a good pub. That had originally been Judy’s plan too, but she loved her new Sicilian lifestyle too much to spend part of the year away. And I can’t blame her.
We approached the house at the end of a long driveway to the sound of barking dogs. We weren’t able to see much of our surroundings due to the fact it was night, and a dark one at that. We saw enough to get familiar with the house, however, and meet the plethora of animals that would be our family for the next few weeks.
Cleo looked perfectly fierce at first glance. She looked like a leaner version of a German Shepherd, mixed with some typical Sicilian street dog. Slightly skittish, Cleo would bark and cower if you so much as wore a hat when you walked through a doorway (and Jonathan often liked to tease her in such a fashion). However, once she knew it was you, she was all love. Milou was a medium-sized, wiry haired terrier that just begged for attention. She was quite jealous if Cleo got any pets and she did not, and would insert herself in between you and Cleo if it meant she could get some affection. A terrier through and through, we had to keep toys away from her because she would simply destroy them. If she thought you were hiding one somewhere, she’d yip and wag her tail in the direction of the supposed hiding place. Perhaps our favorite thing to do with Milou was fill the water bowls with the hose. She would attack the water coming out of the hose quite viciously, ending up completely soaked and completely satisfied. Clayton usually ended up just as wet as she did, but in his words, it was worth it.
Jai and Rani were both Siamese cats. Rani was tiny, distinguished, and perfectly lady-like. Where Rani was subtle, Jai was not. Jai was a glutton for attention, and followed us everywhere we went, constantly getting underfoot and meowing loudly at us to pick him up. When we did so, he would purr furiously and gaze out past our shoulders with his eyes half-closed in contentment. Those eyes were stunning, a deep blue framed by his lashes that were impossible to say no to.
Chindit was the old boy of the group. A large Burmese grey cat, Chindit would spend his days vacantly starting into the fire in the wood stove, his nose mere millimeters from the burning hot glass. However if either of us made any minuscule movement in the direction of the kitchen, Chindit would magically transport himself there before us in his quest for food. Despite his vacant staring, constant napping, and persistent gluttony, Chindit oozed character and melted our hearts.
Two feral cats, Nettle and Bimbo, were also under our care. Slightly more wild, they rarely made an appearance outside of meal times. Being the coldest month of the year, we probably saw them more than usual since they huddled up in the master bedroom for warmth. I have to admit, Nettle drove me nuts at mealtimes with her caterwauling. I could never serve food fast enough for her. Bimbo was so named for her less than admirable intelligence, though I never had a problem with her. She was sweet enough, especially compared with the incessantly whiny Nettle.
Finally, there were several chickens to provide us with fresh eggs, though I can’t really speak to their personalities much. But they did seem to enjoy the wild sorrel we chucked into their enclosure every now and again.
The house itself was a set of repurposed farm outbuildings, located on the outskirts of the small village of Testa dell’Acqua. It stood on a hill overlooking the Sicilian countryside, and on a clear day you could see the sea. It was composed of several rooms all in a row. The only way to get across the villa was to either go through other rooms or go outside onto the patio. The kitchen was only accessible from the patio, which meant on chilly evenings it was a mad dash to get pasta to the dining room on the other side without it cooling too much. The rooms themselves were elegant and airy, with tall white walls covered in decorations from all different parts of the world. I assume that this openness is most welcome in the stifling heat of the summer months – Sicilian homes are definitely built for summer heat.
On our first evening, a thunderstorm rolled in from across the sea and lightning lit up the entire sky. Though there were no windows facing the south, we had plenty of opportunities to see the crackling lightning as we hustled across the patio to get between the bathroom on one side of the house and our bedroom on the other. We’d experience several brutal storms during our stay, with one wind storm so severe that it would knock out power for several hours as well as two small trees in the yard. Sicilian winters can sneak up on you.
We had arrived to the house sit early so that we could spend a few days with our hosts before they left on their vacation to India. We would have time to learn how to take care of all the animals, and also how to run errands and deal with any emergencies that would come up. This gave us plenty of time to get to know our hosts and meet some new friends in the area.
Jonathan, Judy’s husband, was quite the character. Gregarious and inquisitive, he was an expert conversationalist. He shared with us his fascinating family history, which given his tendency to pull our legs, we initially thought was a joke but turned out to be quite true. Jonathan’s father, Bertold Wiesner, was a renowned scientist that pioneered the field of artificial insemination. He and his wife successfully inseminated hundreds upon hundreds of women, and because the idea of donating sperm was rather foreign in those days, Bertold Wiesner used his own. This means that he is considered to be the man with the second most children in the world. After some DNA testing, Jonathan has 28 half-siblings confirmed, but it is suspected that he has up to 600. As an only child, I can’t even begin to imagine.
On our first full day, Jonathan drove us down the mountain to one of their favorite beaches to take the dogs, Cleo and Milou. We all hopped into the Fiat Panda, which was essentially a box with wheels. Cleo knew exactly where we were headed and her slobbering impatience made for a very noisy ride. Down at the beach, we let the dogs run free and we enjoyed the sound of the waves and fresh air. Several gallon jugs littered the beach – old water or cooking oil containers, most likely. Jonathan told us that these came from the refugee boats that came to shore. They either used for water during the journey or were tied to the side of the boats to keep them afloat. Grabbing one of the jugs, Jonathan filled it with a bit of sand to give it some heft then tossed it out into the sea. To our surprise, Milou raced after it and dove into the cold waves, swimming furiously to retrieve it. This was a favorite game of hers, though the effort it took would soon tire her out. Cleo wasn’t keen on diving into the sea, so at the end of our walk Jonathan took a stick and dug a bit in the sand. Cleo, her curiosity piqued, took over and began to dig with intense purpose, the only reward being her exhaustion.
That evening, Judy and Jonathan invited their local friends to meet us so that we would have lifelines in case anything went wrong. We went to the pizza restaurant in town, which was only open several nights a week. The pizza was delicious and cheap and the jugs of wine flowed freely, and Clayton and I got to bond with Christine and Tim, who we would end up doing a lot of local sightseeing with in the weeks to come. On our way home, we stopped to dole out all our pizza crusts to the wild dogs in the streets.
The little town of Testa dell’Acqua was charming despite its small size. Although it technically has a population of over two hundred residents, the town felt mostly empty each time we passed through. Only a handful of citizens could be seen walking the streets, popping in and out of the tiny grocers, or having a smoke outside the local pub. Still, the citizens that we did meet were warm and welcoming despite not speaking a word of English. The one exception to the language barrier was Maria, who worked in the bakery. Maria spoke some English and was happy to practice with us the few times we came in to buy some fresh bread.
The butcher was our favorite village stop. The small shop was always bursting with activity as locals came in to get fresh meat and gossip. Jonathan had warned us that if we were behind two or even just one person in line, we had to be prepared to wait up to an hour. A consummate jokester, we assumed that he was exaggerating. Perhaps he was, but not by much. Luckily, we enjoyed listening to the bubbling Sicilian language fly past our ear, and we adopted the Sicilian practice of never being in a hurry for anything. The butcher would give us a warm smile whenever we came in, and was patient as we pointed at meats and attempted to order in our stumbling Italian. He laughed heartily when we order 200 kilograms of sausage instead of grams, sharing the joke with others who came in after us. His wife kindly explained to us the difference between the two ricotta cheeses in front of us – one came from an animal that went “moo” and the other from one that went “baa”. Of course, a visit to the butcher was incomplete without buying a bottle of wine. The butcher’s neighbor made wine in his backyard, and the butcher then sold the wine in reused 2L water bottles from the back of his shop. The butcher would head into the back and call out if red or white was available. Each 2L bottle cost a whopping 1 or 2 euros. It was perhaps the freshest wine I will ever drink, and I enjoyed several glasses a day with our meals. Several glasses is something I would never be able to handle back in the States, but the wine was so much lighter in Sicily, and had no where near the same alcohol content. It was refreshing and tasted of Sicily with each sip.
We got our staples from two small grocers in the village, though they didn’t have the largest of stocks. Fresh produce was available from a truck that stopped in the village square every Monday between 11 and 11:20am. We only managed to catch him once on all our weeks there, sometimes running into our friend Christine who informed us we’d just missed him. Sicilian produce in general was bursting with flavor and ripeness, unparalleled to anything we’d seen or would see in our travels. Though we often missed the produce truck in Testa, we’d supplant our stock with occasional trips to the grocery stores in the larger towns nearby or our very own backyard. The villa we were staying at was flush with citrus trees – orange, lemon, grapefruit, kumquat… And it was the perfect time of year as they all were beginning to ripen. Plucking fresh oranges, we’d have freshly squeezed orange juice each morning, and we made orange, lemon, and fennel salads to go with our plethora of pasta dishes. The property also boasted a grove of olive trees that had provided the villa with liters and liters of the freshest, brightest olive oil Clayton and I have ever tasted. It was a lovely pale green that actually tasted of olives, and makes us despair at the supermarket olive oil we must stoop to now.
Once our hosts had left, we fell into a daily routine interrupted only by days of sightseeing and alas, emergencies. Clayton fed the dogs each morning, and their luxurious diets consisted of kibble mixed with cooked pasta and carrots (how Italian!) and fresh meat from the butchers. While he handled the ravenous dogs, I handled the screaming herd of cats. Come feeding time, it was as if these spoiled cats had never had a meal in their lives. At least, that’s what they tried to tell me. The cats would wail and cry at the top of their lungs, and get in my way so much I would have to keep gently pushing them out of the way to get their food served. Of course, each cat had a different diet, and some had medications, so it was a tricky business getting all the bowls prepared and to the right cats while I was harassed left and right. Once all the bowls were down, I had to watch them like a hawk to insure that the second one was done, that one got kicked out so they didn’t start stealing food from whichever cat hadn’t finished. Although it took a lot of patience, I adored these cats, so any exasperation on my part was coupled with affection.
Usually, Clayton and I would go out for some reason or another each day. The dogs wouldn’t stay in the house while we were out, and their habit was to hop into the backseat of the Panda while we took out the other car. We’d open the trunk and they’d jump in, and usually we’d find them still there when we returned much later. On our way out, we always had to stop to feed Gina. Gina was the neighbor’s donkey, consigned to a field after complaints that she was wandering through the town center and being a general nuisance. Our host Judy felt awful that Gina was spending her days in a small field, and even got Jonathan and a friend to build a shelter for Gina to have a dry space (though we never did see her use it). We’d bring Gina snacks every day, usually carrots that we could buy by the bagful from a father and son that sold them out of the back of their car in the village. If we were passing empty-handed, as we usually were when we came back from country walks, we’d at least pluck handfuls of wild fennel and sorrel to let her munch on.
Every now and then, we’d take the dogs on short walks across the countryside. These were especially beautiful when the sky was clear and we could see all the way across the hills to the glimmering sea. Cleo and Milou would race ahead, but usually wouldn’t get too far away from us. Clayton and I would carefully make our way down the rocky path that wended in between old stone fences. It wasn’t the easiest walk due to the boulders and rocks, but it gave us fresh air and an excuse to explore hidden Sicily. At one point in the walk we’d pass ancient cave tombs, evidently not an uncommon occurrence in the hills of Sicily. These walks were typically without upset, though one time Cleo did bolt after a wild dog and she was gone for quite a while, to our dismay. She did eventually make her way back to us, completely winded and quite pleased with herself. We were not amused.
Once the sun set, we could be found nestled back in the villa. The January nights and oftentimes the days were chillier than I would have liked. Clayton was the master at maintaining the fire in the wood stove in the living area, and we made good use of gas heaters left behind by our hosts. Once I figured out how to work the timed water heater and we replaced the gas tanks in the heaters, we had few problems staying warm. And eating copious amounts of pasta helped.
Pasta! I’ve been waiting patiently for many blog posts now to regale one of Italy’s most famous dishes, and indeed, my favorite food in the world. I’ve always loved pasta and it’s been my go-to comfort dish, but I spent weeks in Sicily taking my pasta to the next level. Perusing the many Italian and Sicilian cookbooks in the villa, Clayton and I made a different pasta dish almost every night. (Though by the end, we couldn’t help but begin repeating our favorites). Between the fresh produce from the markets, succulent Sicilian meats from the local butcher, and the olive oil from the back garden, it will be difficult to ever replicate the delicious flavors and textures we created in Sicily, but there are at least some ground rules to take anywhere. These are rules I live by, and any pasta maker should live by these too.
First, salt your pasta water. Read the instructions on your typical box of pasta, laugh, then throw it out. The water you cook your pasta in should have enough salt in it to taste like sea water. Second, al dente is king. Pasta should be cooked “to the tooth” and give a nice bite back when chewed. Finally, your pasta shape should match your sauce. Meaty, chunky sauces need nooks and crannies in noodles to hide in, whereas smooth sauces work better with longer noodles like linguine or spaghetti. Although not a pasta trick specifically, we got into the habit of warming our plates before serving so that the pasta wouldn’t get cold too quickly, a tip learned from our friend Antonia in Northern Ireland. Our absolute favorite pasta dishes ended up being Carbonara and a Wild Fennel and Sausage Ragu. Clayton would go pick the wild fennel from the hillside, and we’d get the sausage from the butcher (by gram, not kilogram!). It was magical that we got to watch the sausage meat getting ground just before we bought it. No wonder it was so good.
Between lazy days on the patio soaking up the sun, sightseeing trips with good company, and cozy evenings with cats on our laps, it’s easy to think that the house sitting life is all luxury. However, when you are taking care of so many animals, there is always a chance that an emergency will happen. And unfortunately, tragedy did strike during our stay in Sicily. This isn’t always an easy job.
Chindit wasn’t expected to last through our house sit. Several days before we arrived, Chindit started having seizures. Our hosts warned us about them, and said the vet wasn’t sure what was causing them, but as Chindit was well into his 20s, he could be on his way out. They apologized for leaving us with him in this state, though the medication he was on seemed to be working so far. Jonathan drove us to the vet and showed us where to fill prescriptions (eventually – the vet had moved offices and we had to go back to the pharmacy twice since we had the wrong prescription) so we’d be prepared if anything happened. And it’s lucky that he did, though unexpectedly, Chindit turned out to be just fine, and is still kicking to this day as of this posting. After a seizure the evening of our arrival, he didn’t have any further issues for the entirety of our stay. However, about halfway through our stay, Rani stopped eating.
Rani was the tiny Siamese cat, who was already suffering from chronic asthma. When she stopped eating, we quickly became concerned, and contacted our hosts who told us to go to the vet after the weekend if she kept refusing food. However, that night, Rani was violently ill, and we ended up making an emergency appointment for the next morning. The vet was in Palazzolo, one of the larger towns in the area. We combined the trip with picking up the Fiat Panda that we had dropped off at the mechanic several days earlier to get a new radiator, one of the tasks that needed to be done during the house sit. The veterinary clinic itself was modern and clean, and the vet was fantastic. He only spoke halting English, but we were able to get across what was going on. Rani was severely dehydrated and had a bacterial infection. We had to give her more medication, including an IV drip twice a day. We then had to spend the next hour looking for a pharmacy open on the weekend that would get us what we needed. Unfortunately, the Panda was, as I mentioned, basically a box with wheels. Palazzollo may be quaintly tucked into a hillside, but this means the narrow cobbled streets were quite steep in places. Driving in that boxy car over the cobblestones with Rani yowling in the backseat was a very trying experience, and we were ridden with guilt for putting Rani through it.
Over the next two days, Clayton and I did everything we could to keep Rani alive. But any energy she had left, she put into fighting us. She refused to drink, refused to eat. I would mix some of her wet food with water and put it into a syringe to try and get it in her mouth, but she’d fight and spit out any and all attempts. We would wrap her gently in a towel so she couldn’t escape as we put in the IV. We got quite good at tag-teaming giving a cat an IV, but after numerous feeding attempts our arms were covered in scratches and we were at our wits end. Conferring with our hosts, we decided to admit Rani to the vet for overnight care. We were just too far out of our depths.
When we returned two days later for an update, the vet informed us that Rani had gone into kidney failure and passed away the day before. We’d experienced the worst rain and wind storm of our stay that day, and I like to believe that the earth was crying for Rani. We were devastated, but we also knew that Rani was at peace again. We gently placed her and her carrier in the back of the car and headed home. Incredibly, we got stuck behind a Sicilian funeral procession. A crowd of mourners dressed in black and a hearse bursting with floral arrangements blocked the road, and as we slowly crept behind, I chose to think that this was also somehow for Rani.
We buried Rani that evening in the garden, per the direction of our hosts. We made sure that the other animals got to say their goodbyes so they could understand that Rani was gone. It was emotional, and not something Clayton or I ever want to repeat. We picked some wildflowers for Rani to have with her and said a prayer to send her on her way.
This was every house sitters worst nightmare, and we were lucky in that our hosts were incredibly understanding. They were sad to lose Rani, of course, but knew that we did all we could to save her.
Our hosts eventually returned to a clean home and gently spoiled animals (albeit one less cat). We greeted them with pasta dinners and heard their tales of India, which got us excited for our next chapter in the subcontinent. We shared our Sicilian experiences with them, and mourned the loss of Rani together. We’d only known Rani a few weeks, but we felt her loss deeply. And when we had to say goodbye to all the animals at the end of our house sit, we were profoundly saddened. These animals had become friends, even a little family. We were off to new adventures across the planet in India, but all I wanted to do was hug Jai for one more minute, give Chindit one more treat, and rub Milou’s belly one last time. For now, however, it was time to bid the western world adieu and leave everything that was familiar behind. It was time for India.
This post is dedicated to Rani, as well as poor little Milou, who was bitten by a viper several weeks after our departure and was unable to recover. May they have the coziest wood fire to snuggle up in front of in paradise. Hug your pets tightly and give them an extra treat in their memories.