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The story of Marettimari who went fishing in Alaska

THE HISTORY OF SICILY

At the end of the 19th century, life on Marettimo was hard. In truth, it had always been so, but as the fin di siècle loomed, the inhabitants of the most remote and isolated island of the Egadi archipelago were close to starvation.

No one seems to remember exactly how it happened or who was first, but around the beginning of the 20th century, a small group of islanders decided they had no choice but to leave Marettimo and seek their fortune elsewhere. They didn’t just go to Palermo, however, and neither did they choose the north of Italy...Instead, they travelled almost 9,000km to the freezing wilds of Alaska.

There, on the other side of the world, in an environment that could scarcely have been more different from their sunny Mediterranean island, the adventurers from Marettimo were soon putting their fishing expertise to good use in the salmon-rich estuaries and rivers of the USA’s most northerly state. The local Alaskan bears were about to get a run for their honey!

Word arrived back in Marettimo that though the work was hard and the weather was inhospitably cold, the money in Alaska was good. Fathers sent for sons and uncles for nephews and soon a large proportion of the island's male population had slung their hooks and re-cast them in far-off waters. Women and children mostly remained on Marettimo, keeping the home fires burning with wood bought with the money their distant menfolk sent home.

But the salmon-fishing season in Alaska was short, hard and remunerative only to a certain extent. The cold Sicilians headed south to warmer climes, settling (again no one quite remembers how or why) in Monterey, California. Over the course of the 20th century entire families arrived there from Marettimo in search of a better life. They fished for sea bass, tuna and giant squid in the vast Pacific for most of the year, but never missed their 2-month appointment with the salmon in Alaska.

Soon the population of Marettimari in California dwarfed that of Marettimo itself. More and more money was sent home, allowing those who had remained to build comfortable houses and fund small businesses. Indeed, the village of Marettimo we see today, along with the fishing boats that bob in its harbours, were largely built and bought with 'American' money.

...the village of Marettimo we see today, along with the fishing boats that bob in its harbours, were largely built and bought with 'American' money.

The migratory flow was not all one way, however. 65-year-old Peter, whose parents left Marettimo when he was ten, returned to his native island after over 50 years of American life. His son remained in Monterey, but his daughter happened to fall in love with a young Marettimare and moved back, lock, stock and barrel, to her grandparents’ homeland. Despite the excellent quality of life, the financial rewards and the Californian comforts of Monterey, Peter's story is not uncommon and a significant part of the island’s population today is made of up 'Americans'. Some arrive back just in time to die, many others spend all their retirement years there, enjoying the quiet life of their spiritual home, fishing (because they can never give that up!) and making up for lost time. With an irony that is not lost on the locals, this atavistic urge to return home is not dissimilar to that of the salmon that the Marettimari travelled so far to catch!

Still today, many Marettimari, such as Franco “Il Pirata”, owner of one of the island’s restaurants,   commute from their Mediterranean home to Alaska for the salmon-fishing season. Their journey is not entirely motivated by financial gain, however: part fishermen, part pilgrims, by making the trip, they ensure the continuation of a tradition and pay homage to their forefathers, who sacrificed so much to keep Marettimo alive.

 

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