Written by: Landon Elmore
We walk into the butcher to get ground beef for dinner. My friend Caleb asks, “Ground beef?”, the butcher has no idea. I quickly get out my phone and use google translate, “Terra manzo?” The butcher thinks for a second, “Ahh, si!” We got steak…
This was day one of three weeks in Caccamo, a small hillside town nestled in the mountains of Sicily. After college, my friend Caleb and I took a five week trip to Italy, three of which were in Caccamo. We were two of probably ten people who could hold a conversation in English, and of course we knew no Italian. After our encounter with the butcher, and several other similar interactions that first day, we didn’t exactly see our experience there getting much easier.
Apart from the language barrier, we looked and dressed much different from the locals. It was clear to us that people didn’t think we belonged there. Everywhere we went we would get looks as if we were walking around naked. We pretty much kept to ourselves the first week, not really knowing how to meet people our age and almost hesitant to even try.
We went to a bar right below our apartment, where we had met the owner, and knew he spoke some English. Ww had been there for about thirty minutes and he asked us why we were there. We told him that we didn’t know anyone or know where else to go. He immediately took us to his car and drove us the bar that young people hang out at in town. Caleb and I got a drink and kind of stood to the side just to survey the bar. Once again, we quickly sensed that everyone was both very curious and a little unnerved about our presence. After about fifteen minutes we were about to accept the reality and leave, when a guy with crude English came up and introduced himself as “Vince”. He took us over to his friends, who didn’t speak English, and started to talk to us. At the end of the night he invited us to come watch soccer with him the next day. That was the single best thing that happened to us on the entire trip. That pivotal moment was the turning point in our time in Caccamo that made our trip truly special and unforgettable.
Over the next two weeks, we hung out with Vince and his friends almost every day. They took us to play soccer with them, took us to local festivals, and even had an impromptu party at midnight when they found out it was Caleb’s birthday. As people began to see us more and more, especially spending time with other locals, they seemed to welcome us. It turns out that most of them were just as nervous as we were, and just needed to see that were weren’t so different after all.
Contrary to what I previously believed, Sicily is a very poor region. The overall unemployment rate is around twenty percent and the youth unemployment rate is right at forty percent, each over four times that of the United States. Many parents move to other European or North American countries in search of jobs to provide money for their children. This leaves the kids growing up with grandparents, family members, or friends. On our last night together in Caccamo, Vince shared something that I’ll never forget. He told us that the one thing he envy’s about living in the U.S. is that we give aid to those who don’t have jobs or money, because in Italy there is no help. Government benefits is something most of us often take for granted. Many view it as a flawed system that people just take advantage of. But Vince wasn’t looking to cheat the system. He was just looking for a better life. He truly viewed America as the land of opportunity, the opportunities that are so easy for us to fail to recognize.
When I got home and it was time to start looking for a job, I thought about what Vince had said. So I decided to go into social work, so that I could make a difference in people’s lives like his. I recently got a job in the Department of Social Services as a benefits provider. Vince doesn’t know it, but his acceptance and generosity made an impact in my life, and I’d like to pay it forward.