Patti Chiari - Of Greeks and Tombola

| Thu, 12/24/2009 - 09:30

Words by Pat Eggleton

Have you ever visited somewhere and had an eerie, though not unpleasant, feeling that you had been there before, though you knew that you hadn’t? It has happened to me several times in Sicily when I have visited Greek sites. Yes, I know that I’m an incurable romantic, that what I read as a child comes into play and that the imagination can do strange things, but I still maintain that the first time I saw Agrigento and its breathtaking Valley of the Temples, I felt as if I’d “come home”.

And one Christmas, walking among the ruins of Greek houses in Selinunte, my Sicilian friend Irma and I experienced a truly telepathic moment. It is not unnatural that our thoughts that day should have turned to the women who had inhabited those small spaces, but how strange that we looked at each other and uttered exactly the same Italian words at exactly the same moment:

“Tante donne, tanti sogni…” [“So many women, so many dreams…”]

In that instant – not that I needed convincing – I was more certain than ever that Sicily was the place for me!

I can’t tell you that my life here is an unending round of feasts in the sun or that there aren’t low moments just as there would be anywhere else but I can tell you that experiences like the one at Selinunte are so inspiring that you forget any problems that beset you.

There are less spectacular, but equally uplifting, moments in everyday life, too. When I need something to make my heart sing I go and gaze at our lovely Baroque Duomo di San Giorgio or, at this time of year, I take myself down to Modica Bassa for another look at the presepe [crib] in the Church of Santa Maria di Betlemme.
The crib was made in 1882 and is of terracotta.
It has 66 figurines and all but the Holy Family are depicted as Sicilian countrymen and women, which I’m sure, even today, helps children to identify with the Nativity scene. This is an example of the Sicilian genius for making complicated concepts simple and I admire and am touched by it.

When I first came to Sicily, I didn’t really understand the Italian love of card games and tombola following a feast, especially at Christmas and New Year.
But I do now: these games are convivial, as they are played around a table; any number of people of any age can play; and the games’ fascination may date back to a time when we believed that our fate was inextricably linked to numbers. So forget the Play Station after a long, Sicilian Christmas lunch!

Instead, out come the number cards and the little bag or container of numbers. Some of the number cards are so old that they have lost the tiny plastic “shutters” that you use to cover your numbers as they are called. So we do what the grandparents did in their youth: we eat mandarins and use the peel to cover the numbers.
A game takes ages to set up, for first everyone has to be seated and then they all find reasons to get up again. Next there is a noisy debate over who will “call”, then another over the stakes.
The amount for the pot has to be worked out, then everyone has to decide how many cards they want and, most importantly, whether they want their “lucky” card so there is much reminiscing about the last time they won and then they have to locate the card.

Finally we are ready and we are going to play! The caller is in fine voice, the mandarin peel is doing its duty but the trouble is that no one is listening so the caller has to repeat everything at lest three times and every now and then someone will ask if a certain number has been called.

This entails the meticulous checking of every number previously called so people get up and wander about or go for a walk outside so it may be half an hour before we get started again. I take much pleasure in the inventive names for the various numbers. Some may refer to a family member as in “l’età dello zio Marco” [“Uncle Marco’s age”] whilst others have religious overtones such as “l’età di Gesù” [Christ’s age] – 33 or “Natale” for 25. My personal favourite is “le pantofole del Papa” [“the Pope’s slippers”] for 88.

A game of tombola can go on until the early hours but it will be punctuated by pauses for the partaking of panettone or chocolates, some interesting gossip and much good-natured ribbing. And when I look around at the happy faces of young and old, I know that a game of tombola has raised my spirits again this year.

Buon Natale a tutti!