Somewhere in the northeast quarter of Sicily, as we rounded a bend by a grand but incidental rail bridge, we spotted a roadside fruit and vegetable stall. Always keen to embrace the autentica esperienza Siciliana, we veered onto the shoulder of the road and parked the car. Another couple had the same idea and were ordering supplies as I scanned good road trip options. Apples, red and yellow, were obvious picks but what I was most keen to investigate was the oval shaped, mango looking fruit that was strangely familiar yet completely foreign.
I realised that we’d been driving passed them all day. I heard the Sicilian vendor repeat a word that sounded a lot like ‘figidinja’ as I eavesdropped for any words that might give me a hint of its flavour. As the woman sampled the fruit that had been peeled and presented to her, I enquired ‘dolce o acida?’. ‘Dolce, dolce,’ she replied as they proceeded to order a kilogram of those ninja fruit. I figured a couple ought to answer the question and picked up one or two to see if I could get any sense of how ripe might feel.
The vendor gesticulated as if to say ‘get your hands of my fruit’ and pointed to another box to the ones I’d been handling while blurting out a sentence that made no sense to me at all. Undeterred, I grabbed two from the box as he lunged to take them off me and delicately put them in a bag with the handful of apples I’d bought.
Having paid the kindly, weathered, slightly feisty vendor, I walked back to the car, inexplicably wiping my mouth as I went.
_ _ _ _
The fichi d’India is completely unrelated to the fig with a birthplace in Mexico, not India. Perhaps similar to the Chinese Gooseberry, the misnomer somehow stuck. It’s the fruit of the cactus – in particular, the Opuntia ficus-indica variety (and that’s where the name steps in). In Sicily, they go by a couple of other names: Agostani and Il Bastardino (the ‘Big Bastard’). In other parts in the world, they go by the name prickly pear. They’re not a pear either, but they seem to suffer some identity isues.
For centuries in Sicily, cactuses (ok, cacti if you like) have been used as a militant fenceline on the borders of properties, dividing one parcel of land from the next. An upside of the vicious border was the luscious and profitable regional fruit they yielded – sweet red and green varieties about the size of a small mango.
The apocryphal though entirely likely story goes that as a result of a feud between two neighbours, one neighbour sought revenge. Perhaps it was a border dispute, it’s hard to know, but in an era which predated machine guns and bloodshed, he plotted a crafted revenge. In the dead of night, the jilted fella took to the other neighbour’s cactus plantation, cutting off the flowers on every plant through the night to decimate the season’s crop.
Well, so he thought. What came to light in the wake of the neighbour’s act of revenge, never known until then, was that a cactus denuded of its first flowering, will have a second one more bountiful than the first. Better still, this second flowering (coming in August – queue name number two!) produces a more hefty version of the fruit. You guessed it, Il Bastardino.
It turns out that when bitterness drives you to selfish, harmful acts of revenge, you’re usually the biggest loser in the transaction. The neighbour received widespread acclaim for his brilliance in cultivating his Big Bastards and found himself enshrined in some version of history.
Bitterness is a killer. The revenge that it often generates has a habit of poisoning the giver and wounding the receiver. It grows like cancer – a big bastard with the dumb, malignant power to be pandemic across people. The catalyst isn’t always a big deal, but the monster it births is plenty big.
Paul encourages the Philippians to ‘live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.’
While there’ll always be catalysts that incite bitterness, Paul knows of its capacity to disease a people. He wants none of it because he knows that unity runs out the front door as bitterness sneaks in the back. And it defiles many.
You may never struggle with bitterness. Or maybe you will. Paul knows that cultivating the pure, sweet, pleasing to hold fruit of the soul that is yielded from a life founded on Jesus will be attractive to all. Bitterness? It’s just a killer of many, many things. But mainly you. A big bastard that you need to grab by the scruff of the neck and put to death. You may want to put on gloves before you do that.
_ _ _ _ _
This cautionary tale has a sting in the, well, lots of places. It turns out prickly pear is one of the few names for the fruit that isn’t a misnomer.
Approaching the car with my bag of fruit, I was suddenly struck by what felt like a covering of splinters on my hands and even my lips. Not generating the sort of pain that would cause you to shriek in agony, more like walking across a very long, large backyard of prickles with no way home but to get to the other side.
I hopped in the car with an annoyed “ouch”. As Fi asked what was wrong, I began a sentence with “I feel like…” but it quickly morphed into a series of mild moans of pain.
In the strong afternoon sun, she saw it first. Unfortunately not before inspecting the fichi d’India herself.
“Oh, you’re covered. Your hands are covered with all these little splinters. Like, 5-10 in a patch. And everywhere.”
I interrupted with “my mouth, my mouth”. My little moment of mouth-wiping on the way back to the car served to spread the pain further abroad.
It would take a couple of hours with tweezers and a couple of days of occasional winces and more tweezering until the painful moments dissipated.
I’m going to take an outrageous guess that the undecipherable mouthful of Italian that the supposedly feisty vendor blurted out was something like this: “Don’t touch that fruit, never touch the fruit, it’s covered in fine prickles, and they won’t kill you, but they will hurt you. Handle them carefully because the fruit is sweet but when handled badly, it will ruin your day. Learn that lesson slowly, and it could ruin your life!”.
Changing the name of the fruit doesn’t change its capacity for pain.
That roadside vendor was far wiser than I imagined.