Connecting generations, Sicilian style
It’s Global Intergenerational Week. And as luck would have it I’m in the middle of a research trip (a Churchill Fellowship) learning from people connecting generations with a specific focus on rural communities. As my overnight train wound its way slowly from Palermo in Sicily to Florence in Northern Italy earlier this week I reflected on the people I had met over the month I spent in Sicily and what they told me about their generational connections. Here are 9 initial and incomplete reflections with many more to come in the weeks and months ahead.
1. Many of my Northern European pals and colleagues questioned why I was going to Sicily — their general impression is that Sicilian’s intergenerational connections are “hunky dory”. But (as ever) the reality isn’t straightforward. Italy has the fastest ageing population in Europe. Its rural areas, especially in the south, are demographically depleted after decades of migration of young people to cities and abroad in search of work. This has left towns like Mussomeli in central Sicily with a concentration of older people living longer as the economy struggles and fewer younger people and fulsome family units are on hand to support.
2. To this end Mussomeli — where I was lucky enough to spend 12 days — is one of a growing number of rural towns who’ve used the €1 home scheme to attract foreigners to invest in the place in return for characterful and dilapidated properties with stunning views. Danny McCubbin — an Aussie-turned-Brit-turned-Italian — arrived in 2019 drawn by the opportunity to bag himself a €1 euro house but decided to call this place home after falling hard for the town and its people (check him out in The Guardian last weekend). He set up The Good Kitchen in the town originally to provide ‘meals-on-wheels’ to anyone in the town who wanted them until he came to see…
3. … it is physical gathering spaces for relationships and community that rural communities like Mussomeli are dearly in need of (more on why below). So that’s what he has built with people from across the town including Calogera a Nonna (grandma) and retired pasticceria chef, Frank the owner of the town’s photography studio and Laura who is many things including one of the most beautifully put together people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting — the definion of “bella figura”. After 2 years The Good Kitchen is growing into a place where people of different ages, nationalities, interests and backgrounds all come to connect over cooking classes, community meals, women’s circles and much more.
4. Sicily’s rural transport infrastructure leaves rather a lot to be desired which impacts the ways in which people connect in familiar and surprising ways. Buses to nearby towns are few and far between, half built roads scatter the hills (relics of decades of corruption) and the roads that do exist are potholed obstacle courses. So the car is king here and over the years Mussomeli’s central Piazza Umberto had become a glorified car park. The narrow steep lanes that wind their way around town were once spaces and places for conversation and connection but can feel like rat runs for cars zooming in and out of the centre of town. Change is on the horizon as the town looks forward to the completion of EU funded work to transform the piazza to an open, car-free public space. The Good Kitchen sitting on one edge of this piazza places it squarely(!) in the middle of the action and Danny has big plans to fill it with long tables for community meals to celebrate the piazza’s opening later this summer.
5. Sicily is a place of ritual — both religious and secular. From the uniformed youth groups handing out olive branches on Palm Sunday to the family meals on rural ‘campagnas’ (farms) and The Good Kitchen’s Sunday meal for anyone in the town who fancies lunch and company. Catholicism once offered the mainstay of rituals for connection and community but as religious fervour falters for some (it still has a strong hold for many!) the need for new spaces for connection and community is rising but in a place full of century-old tradition it’s not a straightforward endeavour as Danny can attest to.
6. Despite the many decades of migration taking younger people away from the town for work it’s a sign that ‘something has gone wrong if an older person goes to a care home’ — said one of the board members of The Good Kitchen. Multigenerational family households are commonplace, so too are the members of a family all living in different houses across the same town. Care in the home for young and old alike is still a top priority.
7. This ‘family first’ approach to care is just one part of a wider web of the customs, standards and behaviours that make up Sicilian pride. In many senses this is of course a good thing — it offers strong, reliable safety nets for many (whilst others experience it as “claustrophic”). When those webs of relationships fail due to migration, bad luck or errant family members, Sicilians are extremely unlikely to accept, or let alone ask for, a helping hand. This means that Danny and The Good Kitchen’s relationships with people who might benefit from a helping hand (in the form of food or company and connection) develop slowly and respectfully. It’s only through trust and meaningful relationships that The Good Kitchen can offer what it can to people who might need meals or company — this is something that Danny expects will take many years to develop fully. For the kitchen to become part of Mussomeli’s fabric it must win the trust of the town with its consistency.
8. Despite the generational fractures I didn’t hear from anyone I met in Mussomeli (or across Sicily) that the intergenerational strains are reverberating through their political or cultural life in quite the same way as it feels in the UK. Intergenerational wealth transfer between generations is strong with families seeing it not as a sign of weakness but a sign of strength that older family members can support younger generations to buy property, cultivate farm land and live in the family home for as long as is needed. One explanation to this was offered by a staff member at a youth charity in Mussomeli: “our generations had it out already over the mafia, that experience offered us solidarity and connection we’re still enjoying”.
9. Lots of what I’ve described in this blog seems (to me at least) to be enabled in part by a culture and its people who are good at downing tools, slowing down and stopping. The rhythm of daily life involves lunch together at home during the ’siesta’ period of 1–3pm. The weekly rhythm of family life includes meals and intergenerational caring routines which often take priority over work commitments. The annual rhythm of family vacations and using the excuse of religious holidays to gather together (even when Catholicism means less than it once did to one group of friends I chatted to at Trapani’s easter procession). This seems to me not just a matter of ‘having more time’, but a matter of being a priority for most people I met.
I’m posting more regularly on Instagram @ionaflawrence if you want to follow along as I go.
Armed with an inter-rail pass and some patchy language skills (thanks Duolingo) — my route from here is roughly as follows:
- Florence, Italy: 25th — 30th April
- Bologna, Italy: 30th April — 3rd May
- Padua, Italy: 3rd — 7th May
- Vienna, Austria: 7th — 15th May
- Heidelberg, Germany: 16th — 19th May
- Cologne, Germany: 19th — 22nd May
- Deventer, Netherlands: 22nd — 25th May
I’ll finish with a reminder of 3 questions I’ve asked before:
- Do you know folks who are working to bridge generational divides — especially (but not only!) across Italy, Austria, Germany or the Netherlands?
- Do you bridge generational divides? Even if I’m not (currently) visiting your place, I’d love to meet virtually.
- Do you fancy grabbing lunch, going for a walk or just having a chat about anything we have in common — I’m interested loads of things including in the health of civil society, how we attend to endings in nonprofits, and walking in beautiful places (you can find out a bit more about me on my website here).
Anything else? I’d love to hear from you: email@example.com.