BJJ Globetrotting - Sicily

BJJ Globetrotting - Sicily 

A few years back, Danish jiujitsu practitioner Christian Graugart took us on a journey around the world through his blog and subsequent book the BJJ Globetrotter (Download here for free). Beyond doing the around-the-world journey himslef, Christian set about creating something much greater than himself when he came back: a community of jiujitsu enthusiasts who just want to meet, train and be groovy. Membership is easy and always free. These are the BJJ Globetrotters.

The BJJ Globetrotters evolved, and continues to evolve, into many things over the years. One such facet that has really picked up speed is an alternative to couch-surfing, with a BJJ twist: Matsurfing. Knowing I had the Easter Break coming up soon, I contacted a few Globetrotters who, on Matsuring, had said they'd be prepared to have someone crash their couch (or mat, I wasn't fussy) and I was lucky to hear back from a couple. Even luckier, that I ended up picking up the contact and flying to see Mr Ruben Stabile (From Matside BJJ - Palermo) in Palermo, Sicily. To fit other commitments, I needed to fly on Friday the 7th of April and, unfortunately, there were no flights to Palermo from London that day, but I could fly to Catania, also on Sicily, and take a connecting bus. I thought to myself, "It's a Mediterranean island. How big could it possibly be?! It'll be fine".

Hmmm. The only reasonably priced flight is from Luton. But, it's at a reasonable hour. "How hard could it be?! It'll be fine"

A taxi to Blackfriars station at 4am followed by a train to Luton Park then a shuttle to Luton Airport later, I hadn't even left London! Luckily, it was a super smooth trip all around and I arrived in at Catania Airport on time and relatively fresh.

After a fashionable (30 min) delay, the bus from Catania to Palermo arrived. I asked the driver how long the drive was going to be and he informed me with a big smile: 2 hours and 40 minutes. 

Globetrotting Advice: transits and choice of airports matter. Luckily I had no hurry to go anywhere so the additional 3hrs+ where simply spent taking in the Sicilian countryside and glorious sun. I genuinely don't think I've ever seen so many luscious orange trees. 

Once at the end of the coach line, I waited a few minutes before my contact there, Ruben, showed up. We'd never met before but we recognised each other from social media etc. He's a very passionate practitioner and coach of Jiujitsu and dedicates every possible moment of his free time (away from his girlfriend and university studies in law) to improving his and his students' Jiujitsu. We had a long talk, as Jiujitsu people eventually do, about how we started in the art and what we love about it and, after he took me to what is arguable the best ice cream experience I've ever had, then we slowly made our way to the gym.

First day of rolling
We attended the freestyle wrestling, taught by an aging but very champion Mr Fabio Vitrano, son of wrestling Olympian Mr Carlo Vitrano, after which Ruben handed the mat over to me to teach. I had earlier quizzed him on what he may want me to teach but he left it all in my hands, so I taught my favourite attacks and set ups from the closed guard, namely the overhook game. 

One of my bodybuilding heroes: Ray Mentzer 

My brothers in arm(bar)s
What happened after that was my favourite part of Jiujitsu: post-training socialising. Ruben, Andrea, Luca, Martina and I all went for pizza. I was having pizza with Italians in Italy!

They kept feeding me different local specialties and every time they giggled and insisted I taste it, I knew it was something was odd but luckily I like offal etc. Much food and one large beer later, we headed back to the house for a much deserved rest. 

Bjj globetrotting in Sicily
Day 2

I woke up naturally from the beautiful Sicilian sun shining through the windows in Ruben's living room where I was sleeping. My head was tired. My body was aching but my heart was happy and, did I mention that, the sun was shining?

Say "Cheese!"

The pasta isle was amazing

Did you know if you mix cream, coconut and pistachio you get heaven?
Before parting with the group last night we talked about a Jiujitsu session at noon. I can't wait but first, some yoga in the sun to set the tone for the rest of the day. And what is a morning in Italy without cannoli?

Body limbered up, fed and caffeinated, it was time to hit the road. 

"Ruben, can I wear these (Bad Boy) grappling shorts in town?"
"Si no problem, if you want. You are a tourist"
"Haha. Wait...ok I change them now"

Italian / Sicilian time is a phenomenon to behold. 

Me: "What time does the session start?"
Ruben: "12 o'clock"

12.30...we're still in the changing room chatting about techniques. Some are in gis. Some in gi pants. Some still just chilling ;) eventually we headed to the mat and people got on with their own stretch and mobility routine. 

When everyone was nice and loose we set the timer for 5 minute rounds and I wanted to go with everyone (there were 6 is us, myself included) twice so more or less 50 min of rolling later, I gathered everyone and showed a few fundamental weight distribution principles with examples from the half guard, side mount, closed guard and even from the grips while standing. Ruben's obviously a good teacher so they will always have good access to more and more techniques but I wanted to give them a taster of how a technique can look the same from the outside yet feel completely different when applied to the opponent instead of simply performed on them. They all seemed to like the material and after another half hour of drilling, we finally made our way to the changing rooms. 

A few of the guys went their separate way but Luca, Ruben and I made our way to Ruben's car to drop our stuff and walk to town. Ruben had asked earlier if I fancied a long walk and with glorious sun being out I wasn't going to waste such an opportunity. 3 hours of walking later, I had seen most of Palermo's city centre and consumed the best arancini (2 flavours) ever and a large lemon granita topped with strawberry!

Back at the house, Ruben threw all our dirty gis in his giant washing machine and went for a nap. I wish I was a nap-person, but I've never been. Instead I read another chapter or two from Christian's book. It felt fitting. 

At 9pm Ruben is talking about food. The words "pizza" and "quattro stagioni" were used and I don't take these words lightly and, luckily, neither do Sicilians. 

This is when Ruben says: "OK. It is now 10.30. Let go see the night life of Palermo!"

Ruben, Cristiano (Ruben's cousin) and I arrive at the square where we'd been earlier that morning but this time it was heaving full of people. Teens, young adults and even a few families. Everyone was there, standing in the square chatting, drinking and socialising. Even the police were there but to be fair they looked really bored. 

By about 11.30 the whole troop had gathered and 15 strong of us started walking through the crowds to a favoured corner of the city with nice bar with great prices and quick service. We bought a few beers and went back outside to drink and mingle and while my Italian is very rusty, I could understand parts of the Jiujitsu-centric conversations, or at least ask Ruben to fill in the gaps, but come 2am, the theme of the night changed back to "let's see what else we can make Liam do!"

Did you know that, after a couple of drinks, Italians crave a kebab-like meal like most of us but their version, the delicious Stigghiola, is made from marinated grilled intestines? I didn't! Nancy disappeared into the near by restaurant and came back with small dish, steaming with a charcoal-grilled flavour. She offered me one of the tiny forks and the whole grouped struggled to hold back their giggles while I took the first bite and practically cheered as I let out my approving "nomnom Bellissimo!" The Stigghiola and the tiny forks were passed around, almost as some type of ritualistic horn of mead passed between Vikings. If Palermitans like you, they welcome you with open arms, and it felts great to be with friends at 3 in the morning. 

Boy am I glad we're sleeping late tomorrow.

Can you see the size of that pizza? That bottle of beer next to it is a large 500ml!

Bjj globetrotting  in Sicily
Day 3

Woke up at 11.30 and with no training to rush to, I lazed in bed for another hour before getting up, ready and after 15 minutes of yoga I was restless and ready to discover what the day had to offer. I checked google maps and noticed there were a few shops not too far so I got changed and let myself out for a walk.

I've always found grocery shopping on foreign countries fascinating because I know shop layouts are never haphazard. Shelves are arranged and stocked for particular purposes and that must reflect and cater for the needs and demands of the locals, or they'd simply take their business elsewhere so I, as a non-local find it interesting to see where things are, what they're next to and how big of a variety stores have of various "everyday" items. I was, for instance, impressed but not surprised by the size of the pasta isle at the local Carrefour near Ruben's. I was, however, blown away by the nut-spread isle: limited edition Nutella? Pistachio butter? Damn!

As Ruben and I drove around the cute towns of Castellammare and Scopello, listening to a great soundtrack of music from out childhood like Insane in the Membrane by Cyprus Hill

I have seen beaches, both big and small, to feast my eyes on and cute little marinas. Speaking of feasting, Scopello has this thing called pane cunzato and while you'd be forgiven to think it's a sandwich. It's not. It's a phenomenon!

We talked and talked. It's amazing how universal the human experience is. We had both seen our hometowns change over the years since we moved away and we both love our sisters dearly. We both had a strong passion for Jiujitsu and what it can do to someone's life and both hated martial arts politics.

Before I knew it, I was in his mom's country house helping move a bedside unit out and marveling over the grand oil paintings his sister had made in her teens. We got to the garage and saw her old Vespa he used to use to disappear into the mountain or to the beach when he was cutting class. Did you know you could for nine people on one Vespa? Me neither but now I can't stop picturing it in my head!

Anyway. Big day awaits tomorrow, but it can't beat today.

Bjj globetrotting  in Sicily
Day 4

I'm getting used to being awakened by the bright sun rays shining on me. 8.30 rise to accommodate a guest, Moritz, who was a blue belt visiting from Palermo from Austria. I had packed my gi last night so I just needed to wash my face, brush my teeth and jump in the car with Ruben who, unlike me, is no major fan of the sun or going anywhere at 9 in the morning!

Thanks to traffic, when we arrived at the gym, Moritz was already there and in his gi. A quick change and the small group had assembled: Moritz, Ruben, Claudio and I did around an hour of 5 minute rounds. Moritz had great technical understanding of the game and I couldn't help but think about how rubbish I was as a blue belt. I literally had no game to speak of. I had learnt the lockdown - whip up - old school sweep from half guard ala Eddie Bravo and had OK pressure from side control. That was kind of it. Here I was rolling with this kid who had a very clear understanding of how to grip, weaken, pressure and pass the guard and had a sequence of attacks from side control and mount. Crisp techniques. Very impressive. After sparring, I gave him a few pointers I thought he should play around with (directed pressure from side control, head positioning...etc.)

Next on the agenda was walking along the gorgeous beach of Mondello, where I'd take a picture with my BJJ Globetrotters gi for a competition they're running followed by swimming in the Mediterranean. While the water wasn't warm, the experience was incredibly refreshing and I must have swom for quite sometime. Once our, I was dry within minutes from walking in the mild sun.

Ruben fired the question, as he pointed at a mountain:
"Do you want to get to the top?" 
"Of course!"

As a rule, if I get an opportunity to experience something like this, no matter how tired, I never want to say no.

Driving up what Ruben refereed to as Villa Favorita he asked me a very direct question:
"What do you think this long road in the forest is famous for?"
"No idea. What?"
"Jogging and prostitutes!" 

As we laughed and laughed, we drove past a group of joggers on the right and a professional woman on the right. More laughs!

We climbed up all the way to the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia.

The panoramic view of Palermo was my strongest indication of how truly large the city is. I had no idea prior to this visit that Palermo was as big as it was. over 600,000 people live here. That's bigger than Gothenburg or Manchester.

I couldn't help but feel so lucky that I was here. Such a beautiful part of the world and Ruben was gracious enough to show it to me and tell me about its history. Soon it was time to hop back in the car and get back to the gym for the last training session of the day and of my wonderful visit to Sicily.

Many familiar faces had showed up to the session and while it she couldn't attend the session itself, one of my new friends had brought us very fresh cannoli and even came to give me a hug and wish me a safe journey home. How I will miss these wonderful and friendly people.

Bjj globetrotting  in Sicily: Arrivederci 

Flying back from Catania? Well let's leave the house at
5am to catch the coach from Palermo

The beautiful Mediterranean sunrise   

There's still so much more to see in the greater Palermo area, and far more in the rest of Sicily but I was never there to be a tourist. I couch-surfed in an apartment with local Palermitans, grocery-shopped where no one spoke English and partied and mingled with the locals using English, my five words or so of Italian, plenty of hand gestures and Google Translate and I'm proud to call these people my friends. Thank you to Christian for opening my eyes to this great mode of travelling and meeting people and I'm happy to say that Ruben will be visiting London in the coming weeks for some training. I can't wait to show him around, take him training and have him stay here with us for a couple of days.
Hazelnut covered cannoli and a freshly made cappuccino
Jiujitsu is often quoted to be more than a sport or a martial art, but a way of life. I don't know what that's supposed to mean, but I know that it does provide a unique opportunity to meet and interact with like-minded people around the world, if you let it. I've made a ton of friends in Sicily, and I can't wait to see them again soon.

It's about carving a life.



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