It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and for centuries it was the most important island in the pre-Columbian world. It's blessed with a wealth of natural beauty, agricultural abundance, rich history, and more impressive monuments than most countries have. Yet when they're asked about their island, Sicilians tend to sigh, then sarcastically chuckle that "We are an island with a special statute" -- ironically alluding to the fact that nothing has really changed since the Italian government granted Sicily semi-autonomous status in 1946.

The mainland, reached in 20 minutes by ferry, seems a world away: The wealth and the bustling industries of northern Italy are a stark contrast to Sicily's seemingly lackadaisical status quo and stunted economic growth, and that's not even considering the Mafia, which has always infiltrated the island's economy; even though the crime syndicate has been decimated in the last few years, it is a leviathan always ready to spring back into action.

Sicily is a land that has always yearned for independence from something or someone throughout the centuries, and this feeling comes across tangibly in the reactions of its own people who, when asked if they're Italian, will automatically retort, "We're not Italian, we're Sicilian." But what actually defines "Sicilian" is intriguing: Mix Greek, Teutonic, Berber, Norman, and Iberian together, shake well, and you'll have a unique bloodline that was a melting pot centuries ago. This extraordinary mix of genes and heritages is blended in just about everything: Food, architecture, landscapes, customs, and traditions. As one expat living here puts it: "You might not ever understand Sicily if you weren't born here, yet if it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it."

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