Born and raised — and now raising his own family — in Sicily, Alfio weaves his passion for southern Italy into every tour he leads. He is also a born storyteller, as our interview shows…
What was it like growing up in Sicily, and how would that be different from being raised in, say, Florence or Rome?
Italy as a modern nation is an accident, a geographical coincidence! We Italians are, above all, united by our own contradictions and diversities.
In general, the farther north you go in Italy, the cooler family relationships are going to be. Being raised way down in Sicily — where everything is either tragedy or comedy, and where passionate family bonds are more baroque than the architecture — is certainly different from being raised in Rome or Florence.
My parents each come from families of eight children. So I grew up with lots of relatives around, most living within a few blocks of each other. Looking back, the most precious memories I cherish from my childhood are connected with holidays, like Christmas, Easter, and Assumption (Ferragosto). The extended family would all get together for never-ending lunches and dinners at these long, long tables covered with all kinds of traditional food. Everybody was happy and talking so loud that no one could possibly hear a thing. It all went on for days.
I especially remember the feast of I Morti — or "I Motti" as we say in Sicilian — that took place on November 2. Like the Spanish tradition, during the night between All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day the souls of dead family relatives would return to hide gifts for the children everywhere in the house. So, as you can imagine, my brothers and I would wake up that morning as soon as we could and start hunting for gifts. And Mom was always making sure we found them all. For a kid, it was the thrill of the year. The parade started right after, so my buddies and I would all rush outdoors to see who could show off the best gift. That was the era when Sergio Leone's movies were at their peak of popularity, so very often (thanks to our fathers) our gifts included cowboy hats, American Indian costumes, toy rifles, pistols, bows and arrows, and bicycles to serve as horses. It was like being in a kid version of a spaghetti western movie! Our parade was like a crazy carnival, with the entire neighborhood dressed like the Village People! These things were not happening to kids growing up in Rome or Florence. Not even in Naples could you find such a tradition.
As an adult, what were you doing before you became a guide, and what made you decide to make this change in your life?
I was a post-doc researcher at the University of Catania in Sicily, in food science and technology. After winning the 2002 first prize in the nation for the best PhD thesis in biotechnologies, and after working hard for many years in a lab, I just realized that somehow along the road I had lost my passion for this work. I had to face reality and admit that I couldn't stay with a career I didn't like for the rest of my life. So I just quit. A few years earlier, I had fallen in love with photography as a hobby. I thought I might become a professional photographer (and took some courses in the US), but I discovered that even National Geographic photographers do weddings to pay the bills! A friend of mine told me that Rick Steves was looking for Italian guides, so I flew myself to Seattle. Things went well, and 10 days later I was assisting on a Best of Italy tour, to begin learning the ropes. Eventually, I became Rick's first native Italian tour leader. I have been really happy with it ever since. I can't help it — I'm just loving it!
Have Americans on your tours had misconceptions about Sicily and Sicilians?
TV and movies often portray Sicilians as being short; and maybe having black thick hair, darker, skin and sporting mustaches. But, for the past 3,000 years Sicily has been the stepping stone between Europe and Africa, east and west, and it's been controlled by 17 different nations and empires. So you'll find tall, blue-eyed, blond or red-haired "pure" Sicilians. I'm not blond myself, but I'm 6' 4", have hazel eyes, and my family in Sicily goes back a long way.
Is it true that Sicilians wanted to be annexed by the United States?
Sicilian independence is a complicated, but pretty recent, story.
When Italy finally became unified in 1861 — only 150 years ago — almost two thirds of the money that formed the treasury came from the south of Italy. But the King, Victor Emanuel II, was from a French-speaking family in the far northwest corner of Italy, right at the border with France. So the south was just as exploited and neglected under Italian rule as it had been under foreign rule. Things got even worse after World War I and the rise of fascism, which was also a northern Italian movement.
So, when Italy entered World War II on the side of the Nazis, for many Sicilians it was the last straw. In 1942, Andrea Finocchiaro Aprile founded the CIS: Committee for the Independence of Sicily. A year later, heavy damage and chaos from the allied invasion of Sicily radicalized this group into the more active MIS: Movement for the Independence of Sicily. The MIS formed its own "Volunteer Army for the Independence of Sicily," and had many armed clashes with the Italian carabinieri. (A local "Robin Hood" bandit named Salvatore Giuliano was running his own little war against the authorities, and it was he — not any official group — who wrote to President Truman asking for Sicily to be considered as the 49th state.)
The truth is, early in World War II, the idea of liberating an independent Sicily from fascist Italy was popular among American and British leaders. But, once all of Italy was taken from the Nazis in 1945, there was no strategic reason for such a thing. And the promise of a democratic Italian government — combined with a lot of disunity within MIS — took the passion out of the independence movement.
What's the strangest question you have been asked while guiding?
Three years ago, just at the very beginning of a Best of Sicily tour, right after introducing myself to my new tour members, one of them raised his hand and very politely asked me: "What? Did you say your name is...'Mafio'?"
Here's what Alfio won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"Alfio was, by far, one of the best Rick Steves guides I've ever encountered — and this was my fifth tour. His personality is so well-suited to that of group leader, with a combination of kindness, good humor, patience, knowledge, and a passion for Sicily that infused the entire trip with excitement and fun!"
— Harrie in Wilmington, DE