Failure has a smell. Of burnt synapses, of dick jokes, and wet ashes.

Why, why, why can’t I get Sicily right?

I love Sicily. It’s beautiful. It’s old. It’s Italy, but it’s not. I like the people—proudly mixed up, preyed upon by generations of invaders and a nearly ubiquitous fraternal organization that makes even the simplest transaction—like getting fruit to market—complicated. Sicilian food is exactly everything I love: the cuttlefish-stained pasta, street meat, inky wines, oily fishes. And for some reason, though I don’t speak Italian, I understand nearly every word in Sicily.

But two shows in Sicily and both times I end up somehow missing the point.

I end up an outsider looking in. Wanting nothing more complicated than a bowl of pasta, a crust of bread, a view—on an island loaded with all those things—I seem always to end up on a pitching boat, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with some well-intentioned local throwing dead seafood in my general direction.

Maybe it’s from painful experience that Sicilians have come to believe that most visitors want only the Godfather Tour: a bus ride up a mountain to see the church where Mikey married Apollonia, every perfect little trattoria and cafe playing the soundtrack to guess which film over and over and over. It would drive anyone to madness. If the American TV crew wants an authentic fishing scene, throwing dead fish into the water will only make it better, right? No. In my case—exhausted, burnt, seasick—I pretty much melted down and spent the rest of my time in the country trying to reconstruct my personality from memory.

It is the perfectly imperfect place: one magnificent island after another and yet our shared cultural understanding of Sicily seems hopelessly affected by the movies we grew up with. It is my fault, not theirs, that I continue to miss the point of Sicily. Of all the places in the world, with all the difficult places I’ve been, it would seem that Sicily would be easy to get “right.”

It wasn’t.

It’s a good show, well made. But a personal failure. Like a girl you love but just can’t find a way to tell her.

The fault is my own—for what kind of idiot could EVER be miserable in Sicily?


This field note was originally published on Bourdain’s Tumblr feed on Oct. 11, 2013.