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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Slice Of Sicilia


Octopi, wet and salt-soaked, lay sprawled out on a paper-lined table. It was Saturday morning at the Vucciria market in Palermo and I smelled this street before I saw it.

Alessandro and I rented a white Fiat Panda back in Catania, on the opposite side of the island. (The man who sold us the car was nameless, wore black eyeliner, and was adamant that the blinking oil light meant absolutely nothing. We paid cash.) It had been six days and this was our last excursion.

We chose Sicily as our spring break destination due to its proximity to the equator and our quest for sunlight. Paris is gorgeous with a 100% chance of overcast. Plus, despite the fact that “dialect”, or regional varieties of the Italian language, are still spoken all over the country, everyone understands proper Italian. If Ale got tired of translating, he never told me.


It is so important to visit the street markets when you go abroad. In general, the European market is not only a place to buy food. It also serves as a community bulletin board: a place to meet and discuss with the producer who has selected these items for you, to socialize and exchange information with friends, and to experience the noise, smells, and visual excitement of it all.

In Palermo, you’d need to lock yourself in your hostel not to notice the Vucciria. Vendors are armed with megaphones, tiny vehicles, and good food. They skirt the medieval streets, barking about their deals to anyone who will listen. They probably only stop for lunch.

For me, the first challenge when I visit a new place is to blend in. As Ale and I meandered the wares underneath the colored tarpaulins, I felt a weird tension. My bulky camera, slung over my left shoulder, screamed tourist. The separation was more pronounced here than elsewhere in Sicily, perhaps because of Palermo’s rough local culture. Once I stopped to tuck it into my backpack, people finally started talking to me. I kept my mouth shut and my hands to myself.


The atmosphere changed every few seconds. A pocket of air for the blood oranges, as big as my head. A whiff of fresh Mediterranean catch, so many types of fish that even Ale couldn’t name them all. A bar where the coffee was way, way more pungent than all the spilled beer. We decided to eat our way through the sprawl. Breakfast blended into lunch as we savored a cow kidney sandwich, some deep-fried squid, two cannoli stuffed with pistachio ricotta, etc. We even found lemon granita, the sno-cone of Sicily, to wash it all down.

Palermintian markets are vastly different from their Parisian counterparts. They are louder. There is more haggling involved. When you bump into another shopper and apologize, they just shrug and say it’s inevitable, it’s chaos. And it’s true, it’s a beautiful chaos, indeed.

Perhaps the best part of our tasting spree was the panini. In Italy, (provided you speak Italian) you can go into any deli and ask the butcher to please make you a sandwich. Of course, you’ll wait at least 20 minutes. Of course, it will be worth it. For you’re in the land of the freshest meat, the stinkiest cheese, and the softest bread you’ll ever gnaw on. The dude will literally take an entire pig’s thigh to the band saw. He’ll do it gracefully and you’ll just stand there in awe of this beautiful country.

We were munching on arancini when the Vucciria spit us out into the Piazza San Domenico. It was only 4:15, so we headed for the sea.



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

french heart

To be French at Heart, but American in Spirit

(photo by

At a recent soirée de fléchettes, a French friend asked me what kind of music I like. In all our conversations, we had never discussed anything so personal. Mostly, we discuss French and American culture / language as seen through the eyes of the other- myself being the other for French and my French friends being the outsider for American culture and the English language. I was caught a little off guard as I knew the answer would expose my American spirit. There’s nothing wrong with an American spirit; it’s just not very French and I didn’t want to show it to my French friend as I thought it might change his opinion of me. But if you can’t be honest with your friends, with whom can you be honest? So I started running down my short list (I’m not the biggest consumer of music) of artists starting with my favorite. I explained to Mathieu, my French friend, that I love angry music because I’m American in spirit. He didn’t believe me saying that I am French at heart.

Now the annoying, but convenient at times, thing about this dart bar is that the music gets pretty loud after 9 pm. I guess the clock must have struck nine o’clock because it got too loud to casually converse so we went back to playing darts. I don’t remember if I even won or lost that night. But I do remember our conversation. It got me thinking what it means to be French at heart and American in spirit. Is there really a difference and if there is, can two opposites thrive within the same being? To get my answer, I started thinking about my Paris study abroad experience.

p2(I went back here to find my answers. Photo by Derya Senol

When I went to Paris, I was a young punk rocker who loved the darker things in life- hair color, clothes, music. I loved the rawness of unnecessary anger. There is something freeing about embracing and loving this extremely primal emotion. It’s this anger and willingness to jump into battle which I think really epitomizes American culture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love America and in many respects Americans are a benevolent and compassionate people. But we have an unhealthy and insatiable love of anger and violence. Don’t believe me? Just turn on the TV, pick up any smash hit book (can you say Hunger Games or Gone Girl?), or listen to the songs on the radio. Violence and anger are so engrained into our culture, it’s in our DNA. We love to hate it and hate to love it.

When I was trying to explain how I am American in spirit to Mathieu in that dart bar, I was thinking of that anger. The same anger that I hear and rejoice in when I jam out to an Eminem CD in my morning commute. I wouldn’t consider myself an angry person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to think angry sometimes. It’s just an emotion like happiness or sadness. It’s healthy to address it in music or in fantasy, just not reality. Going back to my time in France, I found out that the French have a different relationship with anger and violence than Americans. It’s not to say that the French don’t have anger or violent crimes; it’s just that they don’t idolize them in the way that Americans do.

These themes are not so readily found in French music, movies, and books. When I think of French culture, I think of Vanessa Paradis’ 80s tube (hit song) Joe le taxi and the film La moustache. I think of a people who would prefer to talk it out rather than pull out their fists as if it’s the Wild West or the OK corrale. But the American spirit isn’t just violent and angry; it’s also over the top and inventive. A perfect example of this can be found in Victor Hugo’s Around the World in 80 Days. There’s a scene when the French main character is on a train which is about to go over a cliff due to a missing bridge. The passengers are all discussing how to stop the train and get to the other side when the American passenger gives his opinion. His suggestion? To increase the speed of the train so that it jumps over the cliff. It was completely over the top and very American which M. Hugo points out in the book. It worked by the way! Another example of this aspect of the American spirit is when I was in Tatie’s apartment and noticed there was no fire escape. When I asked what we would do in case of a fire, she said we call the fire dept and wait. My American spirit was immediately concocting up Spider Man-esque ways of escape. To sit and wait in a burning building may be French, but it’s not American.

american spirit(The embodiment of the American spirit. Photo by

Once I figured out what it meant to be American in spirit (which I still totally am), I contemplated what it meant to be French at heart. What I was able to conclude is that to be French at heart means that you have a different outlook on life. It means that you value good friends and relationships (over good food of course!); that you think, talk, rethink, and re-talk everything through (instead of using your fists) to solve a problem; that even when things are going good, you’re thinking of ways that they can be better; and that you appreciate beauty in all its uniqueness. In that way, I’m very French at heart. But keep this in mind, If we’re having a deep discussion over a great meal about the issues of life, I’ll politely disagree with you while envisioning a more over the top way of handling the issue in my head. I may be French at heart, but I’m still American in spirit.