Sant'AgataImage from Trimondi Viaggi

There’s still an hour to go before the start of the concert and fireworks that mark the end of day one of the Festa di Sant’Agata, but we can’t even get close at the moment. We backtrack and try another road: same story. This time we persevere. The view will be better from this corner – we hope. The crush of people gets tighter and tighter as we funnel into ever smaller spaces. I begin to lose all sense of where my body finishes and others begin.


The Festa this year holds a double significance for me. Although I’ve been in Italy since 2009, before Catania I’d never stayed in one place for longer than 10 months. To see important benchmarks like this come round for a second time gives me a feeling of security. It’s ironic, because compared to last year my situation is precarious, with no cushy teaching contract to keep the money coming in every month.


The silence after the cannon fire is total and eerie. It’s the second time this morning that I’ve been woken up by it, the first being a couple of hours ago, when the procession of candles left Piazza Stesicoro. Then, it was early and I went straight back to sleep. This time, I lie awake in bed listening to the quiet. The absence of sound is just as absorbing as – maybe more than – its presence. My ears concentrate on what’s missing. What would I usually hear? Cars on Via Sangiuliano. People walking and talking underneath the front windows. Church bells. The general bustle of mid-morning in the centro storico.

Right now, there’s none of that.


The ambulance crew elbow their way back through the crowd, against the tide, faces red and elbows flailing as they try to drag some people to safety. The crowd is doing its best to part for them, but there are just too many people. Kate yells in my ear, ‘I’m going to follow them!” I consider going too and then decide that I’ve come too far to go back now. She disappears from behind me and I feel myself being vacuumed back into the stream of people, Deanna ahead of me. The sinous mass into which we have been absorbed comes to a halt, but, like seaweed in a current, we continue to sway from side to side. Deanna’s shoulders are hitting the bottom of my ribs and behind me I can feel someone’s arm moving slowly up and across and down my back. I turn my head to give him a piece of my mind, but close my mouth as I realise that, red-faced and sweltering, he’s just trying to remove his coat.


When I opened my window this morning and the sleep-stuffy odour of unaired bedroom was replaced with the sweet, burnt-sugar scent of caramel and toasted nuts from outside it was all I could do not to run downstairs in my pajamas and grab myself a bag of fresh, still warm, torrone to whisk back to bed with me and crunch down with coffee. There was talk this year that the City Council wouldn’t be allowing the outdoor market, whether due to cashflow or public order reasons it wasn’t clear. At least not to me. At the last minute, however, it was all put back on.


A woman tries to exit the crowd, handbag held high. Ineffectually she whines, “scusate.” She claims that the woman following her doesn’t feel well, and keeps issuing instructions over her shoulder to ‘just breathe’, but she doesn’t look sick to me. Not like the kid in front of me, who’s half the height of anyone around him and close to being crushed. I notice his eyelashes first, thick and beautiful, drooping down his cheeks. Minutes later his dad tries to heft him up onto his shoulders but the boy is limp and unresponsive. Uncle, down below, mouths a question at the boy, who can barely shake his head in reply. The next moment his eyes have rolled back in his head and he’s dropped like a stone. His head falls, heavy and uncontrolled, and unthinking I catch and support it as mamma or zia or whoever the woman is with the family desperately tries to pour water into his mouth. It’s too late. He’s unconscious and the water dribbles out of the sides of his blue-lipped mouth.


The other day I was going to cook up polpette for lunch, but was interrupted in the nick of time by Clem and her mum whirling into the kitchen with bags from the fish market. Within ten minutes Clem’s cousin had arrived and within half an hour we were sitting down to a feast. We tucked into black-shelled mussels with softly chewy bright orange hearts, which sent up a smell of the sea from the simple garlic and parsley sauce that surrounded them. Then there were tiny, thumbnail-sized baby squidlets, tossed in flour and chucked into sizzling olive oil, scooped straight from the pan to a serving dish and onto the table. As if this weren’t enough, there were sweeter-than-sweet pale pink prawns from which we sucked the olive-oily pan juices before peeling them with our fingers and popping them into our mouths as conversational punctuation points.


Papà cradles his unconscious son, head lolling, in his arms. A quick-thinking stranger assesses the situation and barges his way through the previously impassable roiling mass of people as a kind of icebreaker, yelling that there’s a child in trouble and everyone needs to get out of the way NOW. Within moments the boy is at the ambulance being revived.


We sit around the table in the icy kitchen in our scarves and jumpers, devouring seafood and chatting about everything and nothing. As we do so, I look around the table and offer up a personal prayer to Sant’Agata: thank you for letting me be a part of your city.


Tomorrow (5 February) is World Nutella Day. If you’re a fan of Italy’s favourite gooey treat (or even if you’re not – we don’t discriminate), don’t forget to check out my recipe for mille feuille with nutella, honeyed orange cream and clementine at Quasi Siciliana.

Buon appetito!

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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3 Responses to Moments

  1. Deanna says:

    Awesome camera work bedda!
    Deanna´s last post ..My carbohydrate baby

  2. karen says:

    That was magical…brings back memories of my own experiences with the festival. It is unlike anything else I have experienced. Good to hear there was an ambulance nearby for the little boy. Frightening!

  3. Karen: I’m still a bit dazed by the whole experience, 3 days on. I was here for the festival last year, but didn’t see half so much of it – certainly I didn’t pick up on the scale of emotion last year. Seeing grown men emerging from the Duomo in tears on the morning of the 6th really brought it home to me how important this is to so many people. Powerful stuff.

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