A family trip changed my mind about healthy travel
Dessert for breakfast, happiness for dinner.
Welcome to This Trip Changed My Life, where we spotlight the ways (good, bad, and everything in between) that travel has impacted the people we’re most inspired by.
I first visited Sicily when I was 13 years old, and while my memory of that trip is spotty, what I do remember with vivid detail is the food.
Sicily was everything I wanted it to be: endless plates of fresh pasta, liter-sized Coca-Cola bottles filled with homemade wine, lush trees overflowing with fresh citrus and olives, Vespa rides through vineyards with my cousin Silvana, and food so good you felt it wasn’t possible to really live this way, every day.
We had granita with whipped cream and brioche for breakfast, and my little sister almost fainted with excitement—dessert for breakfast? It seemed sacrilegious.
We had granita with whipped cream and brioche for breakfast, and my little sister almost fainted with excitement.
My mother’s parents emigrated from Sicily in the 1950s to upstate New York. Stories of the “old country” loomed large in my childhood. There was the one about my Nonna (AKA my grandmother) visiting the nuns in her village each day to learn how to sew, or the time my mother went back as a child and had to sleep on a dirt floor with her grandmother…and the chickens.
My Nonno (my grandfather) and Nonna both came from a small village called Grava. The town, which to this day only has 110 habitants, sits nestled in a hill, with Mount Etna in the distance and a crumbling fortress atop the next hill over. Taormina, with the Greek Theater and posh hotels, is a 40-minute drive away. While my grandfather’s family left for America, my mother’s family stayed in Grava, and it was her family that we went to visit.
When I finally returned this past winter—more than 15 years later–I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was the old country really as beautiful as I remembered? (It was.) Was there really that much food? (Yes.) And if so, would I have to roll myself back to New York? (Yes again.)
We arrived in January and stayed for a week at my great-aunt’s house. In typical Sicilian fashion, all of my relatives live in one house: My great-aunt Barbara is on the bottom level, and her two children, Sarina and Peppino, each have apartments on the upper levels with their families. When Sarina’s daughter got married, they built her a house next door. Family is serious business in Sicily.
“Don’t you eat like this at home?” they would ask. “No,” we quietly replied. “We most certainly do not.”
Every day the family gathers at Peppino’s apartment at 1 p.m. for a pasta lunch cooked by aunt Barbara. My Sicilian relatives grow almost all the food they consume on their property. They raise goats, chickens, and pigs—though meat is more a delicacy than a daily staple. They make their own pasta, wine, olive oil, bread, and cheese, and know exactly where the remainder of their meal is grown or sourced. They finish off each meal with a bowl of fresh fruit—tangerines, figs, oranges, and pears…really, whatever is in season at the time. All of this is part of their daily routine.
Coming from New York City, where fresh produce often feels like a luxury, I couldn’t get enough. Each time we oohed and ahhed over the food, my relatives were both heartened and appreciative, but also confused. “Don’t you eat like this at home?” they would ask. “No,” we quietly replied. “We most certainly do not.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—this abundance, I was struck by how healthy and grounded my relatives were. Growing up in a country that seems to constantly suggest carbs and dairy are “the enemy,” it was an important reminder that health doesn’t only come in the form of kale salads or green juices; it’s also eating what brings you joy in moderation, taking the time to cook with fresh ingredients, and sitting at a proper table for a meal surrounded by friends and family you love.
Moreover, in this modern age of wellness, travel and food can seem at odds with each other. On the one hand, you want to indulge and eat the local cuisine, but you’re also trying to keep your shit together and drink the little green powder packets you slipped into your suitcase. For me, my trip to Sicily debunked a lot of that thinking.
In this modern age of wellness, travel and food can seem at odds with each other.
There was no yoga studio within 30 miles of my family’s home, no juice shops nearby, and I’m fairly confident none of my cousins had ever heard of an adaptogen. Yet they seemed to have life pretty well figured out.
Simply put, they were healthy and they were happy.
I have yet to find a way to move to Sicily, but since returning from my trip, I’ve tried to find ways to bring back some of the magic to my life here in Brooklyn. I strive to remember that it’s quality over quantity; that meals surrounded by family and friends are the best meals, and connecting with nature helps me feel grounded and calm in this crazy city.
Sometimes it seems we’re constantly looking for shortcuts—how can I do just a little bit more, a little more quickly—but if the old country taught me anything, it’s that for many of the most important things in life, there are no shortcuts. To get the things worth having and a life full of meaning, you need to spend the time and give yourself the space to take care of yourself and one another.
And yes, maybe have granita for breakfast every now and again.
Johanna Peet is the founder of Peet Rivko, a Brooklyn-based non-toxic skin-care brand.