Sexual Abuse and Cohousing and Intentional Communities

“There is always sexual abuse in Intentional Communities”  One of my former neighbors casually said that repeating what a friend who had grown up in an IC had told him.  My thought was, “Hell No. Not on my watch. And not for my kids.”  So, I have formed a group that discusses the issue and shares resources, and support, for all types of Intentional Communities so it won’t be the norm.  It has been almost a year since the group formed and it has expanded my knowledge. It is not just an issue for children, but adults also have issues of harrasment and sexual misconduct in Intional Communities. If you’d like to join our group, which meets quarterly, just send a comment.

But this morning  I couldn’t fall back to sleep remembering some of the things I’ve learned and reflecting on my experience as a child.  

Every summer I would spend a month at my grandparents house by the beach. My grandpa’s sister, Aunt May, would have the family gather on the sand to watch the distant fireworks on Fourth of July. She would pack the sweetest picnic of potato salad, sandwiches, and fruit in tupperware.  No wonder the beach is so comforting to me.

Her granddaughter, Kay, would visit in the summer too. We became fast friends as cousins. Most of my cousins are the ages of my siblings – at least ten years older. So I was happy to have one cousin my age.  One night, Kay told me a secret. She was 13 and I was 12. She was worried about the family reunion the following day. We would be meeting with way distant cousins that I’d never met before. She said that the summer before, one of those cousins, Tee, in his mid 20s, had touched her in a way he shouldn’t have.

Even at 12 I knew to be afraid of that. That I was at risk of molestation. I knew that certain body parts should not be touched. I also knew to be grateful for her heads up.

So the next day we avoided Tee. One time Kay and I were playing cards and he came up to us and asked if we wanted to take a drive. We both said no. If Kay hadn’t warned me I would have said yes. Months earlier I was visiting at my Dad’s house for a month at another beach town.  A cousin that was about 14 years older than me invited me for a drive. We drove around the California hills and it was fun for me.  As an adult I now see that I would have expected the same from Tee – an innocent drive and getting to know a cousin. Predators take advantage of a child’s innocence and past positive experiences. Now I am even more grateful for Kay since without her warning I would have said yes and going for a drive would not have been a positive memory.

Later at the reunion, Kay and I were loading up on the buffet-like supply of food when Tee said to us girls, “Why don’t one of you girls give your cousin a hug?”  I kept my head down and loaded up on more food and said, “No thanks. I’m getting some food here.”  Kay also said no but then her Grandmother spoke up, “Come on, Kay, give him a hug.” Now my poor bestie cousin was trapped. She went over and it was the most awkward hug I have ever seen in my life. She was tense and tried to stay as far away from him as possible.

Kay had told me that she told her mother about it but not her grandmother.  LUckily that was the end of that day and I never saw Tee again.  I know he went to jail at least once and currently is imprisoned. He became a piano teacher and was caught molesting children.

So, it reminds me of living in an intentional community. One fact I learned in my research – I did a presentation to my community to help prevent and protect children, is that children tell other children. That’s what Kay did. She told me.  Her mother knew but not her grandmother so that’s how she ended up in that awful hug.

In cohousing, what if some neighbors know that someone is suspicious but not others?  

If Kay’s mother had told more people. If she had told the police maybe Tee would have been stopped earlier before who knows how many children were hurt.  I don’t blame them. Most of us don’t know how to deal with this and assume it’s a one time thing.  That’s why it is important for intentional communities to discuss it and discuss it and research it and keep working on it. What do you have to lose?  If you don’t, the children and the whole community has a lot to lose.

Here is a wonderful resource for individuals and communities:

https://www.stopitnow.org/

Posted in bad behavior and bullies of any age, beach life, other blogs and websites, parenting, privacy, sexual abuse, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Slap and Cohousing

I wrote this months ago way before the Slap that was heard around the world at the Oscars 2022. The Slap is a novel and it was made into a TV series in it’s homeland of Australian and then into a show in the US – with a few of the original actors.

It is an excellent series to watch before moving into cohousing. It’s more about family, economics, class divide but it touches on an issue that happens a lot in cohousing – behavior of the children, response or lack thereof from the parents, and response and effects on everyone else and their children.

As the title suggests, there is a slap.  One family, Rosie and her artist alcoholic husband are raising a child, Hugo, as their equals.  No time outs.  No limits.  At a huge family gathering, that child destroys property and then swings a bat at the other children. One father slaps the child. Then the whole story unfolds. How each party responds.

Rosie and her husband end up suing the father for abusing their child. They are trying to blame the father for all the problems though the child is out of control and gets kicked out of preschool for their wild behavior.  In the Australian version, he hits his babysitter and insults a man walking by.  

It is interesting to watch each version since the American version is so American. Has a moral lesson (the judge tells Rosie and her husband that they n eed to teach their child and have some limits) and Americans won’t touch the abortiion issue on TV (usually) and ends with an almost 100% happy ending.

As far as cohousing, it begs the question of what to do if someone wants to step in and correct a child. And you don’t like how they choose to do it? I’d say most would disagree with slapping the child and that’s’ part of the book’s themes.  But when you move into an intentional community, there is a bit of an assumption that you realize what one person does affects everyone (or you hope so) and I always thought it’d be nice to have a village help raise your child. But in my village, they’d rather hide away with their curtains closed than step in and and figure out what’s best for the kids. I was working under the assumption that if it was my child, I’d like someone to protect them.  I was wrong but then again, I did the best thing and moved my kids out of there and now they are safe again.

Does a neighbor have the right to punish your child?  That’s one of the many questions in the book. Is a slap too far? What does it say about the slapper? The child? The parents of that child? And for this story, how it has ripples across their family/community.

Posted in bad behavior and bullies of any age, control and decision making in cohousing, movies about neighbors or community, parenting, sexual abuse, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Questions before you buy into a cohousing

I may have posted this already but I found some other questions so here it is again. Some are for the community to you, some may be good for yourself, and some are important to ask them.

You can’t really screen or stop people from buying or renting a house in cohousing due to fair housing laws (which are necessary) but if you could ask a few things and get to know someone and how they may or may not do in the community, Diana Leaf Christian  (in her books) found some questions for us.  Intentional communities who share property or have a different set of rules than cohousing, they can screen and have potential members go through steps up to about a year before they become a full fledged member.

Here are some of those questions:

  1. What makes you want to live here?
  2. What experience do you have in group living?
  3. What is your relationship like with your family?
  4. What have you accomplished in your life that you feel proud of?
  5. What are your pet peeves, things around the house that might really annoy you?
  6. What do you think other people might find irritating or hard to live with about you?
  7. Where are you on the neat and clean vs. cluttered scale?
  8. If you are feeling frustrated or upset with someone how do you decide whether or not to bring it up with them
  9. Are you willing to make efforts to resolve interpersonal conflicts?
  10. Can you tell us some about your mental health history?
  11. What do you want us to know about you?
  12. How have you supported yourself financially?
  13. Can you describe some of your long-term relationships?
  14. What was your experience in high school or college?
  15. Do you have a significant love and/or family relationship now? How long have you been together? Do you plan to live together in the community?
  16. Will you be able to meet our labor and financial requirements? how?

Diana says that the past can show us patterns in a person’s life but people do change and you can ask them how they have.  She gives examples of people who seem to have red flags but are honest and work with the community on how to deal with the issues and have become great members.  She also says not to make the screening process so strict that you wouldn’t have made it in if you had to go through it as a founder.

Some good questions a potential member asked me which led to some fun truths.(They had lived in a cohousing before, so they knew)

  1. Most cohousing are obsessed with organic gardening, is that true here too?
  2. When was the last time you had a big laugh living there and/or with your neighbors?
  3. Do they take everything so seriously?
  4. Are there lingering disagreements and resentments?  Are there war zones?

I would also add:

  1. Can you say no and everything be okay? Is it a safe place to go against the crowd?
  2. When was the last time the conflict management team? How did it go? Is it used often?
  3. How is conflict dealt with?
  4. Have you used an outside mediator? What did you learn?
  5. How do you balance remembering your past and welcoming new members?
Posted in living in community, moving in and out of cohousing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tiger King, Elizabeth Holmes (The Drop Out), Narcissists and Me

I’ve been obsessed about narcissists recently – I wonder why?  But they do come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve heard that we are all a bit narcissistic but some take it way over the edge. I feel like our coho was ruined by a few narcissists, or at least people acted like ones at the time.  I also read that business cultures are created by the worse behavior they allow to happen. Our community went pretty low in acceptable behavior, and in my opinion, villainized me for trying to stop it and not even trying to forgive me if they felt I went about it the wrong way.

 Here is what I found in an article about the Tiger King in Psychology Today:

“The narcissist has to appear all-knowing, all-powerful, and always in control because this was their survival skill for how powerless they felt in the past. Self-esteem in children is directly related to parental warmth. In this case, the parent, however, is more interested in their child being “the best.” Warmth and love are conditional, and the child’s sense of self is related to accomplishments.”

Interesting.  Still seems like most Intentional Communities who love to arm chair diagnose people’s childhoods but this Psychology Today so it probably has more research behind it and fascinating why they become who they are.

Another article I found was :

Is Elizabeth Holmes a narcissist? Corey steg below:

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/03/226401/elizabeth-holmes-narcissistic-boss-personality-traits

They wrote ”Narcissists do silent treatment and won’t get involved in conflict resolution and cause problems and trap people and then toss them away”

It sounds like the people in my community who gave me the silent treatment, even after an outsider mediator tried to help the place.  And one person I asked to talk to about something they said in the meditation and they said no. Then later I felt badly for telling a new person moving in that they said no when I thought part of IC living was to talk through conflicts you’ve been named in. Then they said no again about talking about the first no to talking and then no to talking with a mediator about the no to talking the first time. So, this No, No, No Nanette sounds more “narcissist” above – not interested in conflict resolution.  But also, someone else pointed out in my former community that those that do say no get to walk away feeling like a martyr.

Posted in bad behavior and bullies of any age, control and decision making in cohousing, other blogs and websites, psychopathy, narcissicism, and personality disorders in cohousing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review of Commune Living – The Notes from the Nethers

Notes from the Nethers  by Sandra Eugster

I read this book last year, a memoir of living on a commune. Since then, I have read Communities Magazines and in their first issues from the 70s and 80s. It was fun to see actual notes from the Nethers. It was a school and small commune formed by the author’s mother.  Here are the quotes that stood out to me.

From Page 157

“I see that I should have blocked consensus – that my voice was not mine alone, but was a voice for the whole group, as evidenced by our inability to actually eat the pigs. In trying to straddle, in trying to hold to my own convictions, bolstered by my own private protest, without becoming the focus of resentment or conflict or disagreement, I thought iIhad found the perfect solution, when in fact, it did no one any good least of all the pigs.”

It reminds me of how hard consensus is and how resentments do appear if you go against the crowd. For her, it was worse, she was a child.

From Page 195

One member of the commune got caught avoiding the Vietnam War and was sent to jail.  She said, “We tried sending him care packages, but life being what it was, immediate, absorbing and fast moving, we didn’t keep it up very long….There was a division of opinion about whether we were leading the revolution by keeping everyone out of the war, or copping out by not protesting more directly.”

I like this because it shows how busy you get living in an IC and the attitude most seem to have – we are changing the world, when in fact they are not. Plus, reading about communes make me realize that most were formed just to avoid mainstream society and the war. Not really needed nowadays.

From Page 252-3

They had a rat problem in the house. They went on and on proposing solutions and having consensus meetings. It is a hilarious description.  It made me laugh.  She sums it up by saying, “The rats won.  They eventually became a part of life – something we all hated, but with which we had to make peace.”

So true. All the consensus and pretending to care what everyone thinks usually means most things don’t get taken care of at all.  

From Page 285

“Why was she being so damned even-handed anyway? She was my mother and I had asked for her protection and help. Suddenly my bulldozer mother is too discreet to be direct?”

This breaks my heart. I’ve seen it – a leader of a school or association forgets they also have to take care of their own children. I see they want to be fair. I also have seen the care free life of parents where they outright neglect their children, especially in ICs.

From Page 308

“College was in a word, agony. Although i was vaguely interested I could not focus on the weather of academic learning offered to me. I could not wrest my anxious attention away from survival – real concerns. How do you talk to people?”

Growing up in an isolated commune with people coming and going (still happens today even in cohousing), she grew anxious and super shy. 

From Page 312

She is not too happy about her commune experiences and reflects:

“Sometimes I am angry and disbelieving that my dad just rolled over and let my mother do as she pleased. Wasn’t he, a professor, worried about my education? Didn’t he of all people know the hazards of my mother’s disdain for convention? Perhaps if he had stood up more to her I could have stood up more to him…..Oddly I am many things opposite to what I would expect from one who spent formative years on a  commune and I am reminded of the dialectic, how one extreme breeds the other. I am private and reserved to a fault present document notwithstanding which makes it hard for people to know me. I am ruthlessly disciplined, finding it no problem to regiment myself for work or pastime. I am deeply counter – dependent. It is very hard for me to let go of a fundamental, hard-won self-sufficiency. This is problematic in that it resonates more with my need to think that I am fundamentally self sufficient than the fact that I am…And finally, i am crushingly over-responsible, with one glaring exception” (she doesn’t visit her mother much)

And on Page 317

She cringes when thinks she would try raising her kid like she was

“The margin between freedom and endangerment is slim. I am very aware of how fortunate I was to have had eight years in conventional circumstances before being thrust into less protected ones. Although Nethers was hard and confusing, I had absorbed enough structure to ultimately be able to integrate the lack of it. Fanaticism of any kind is cruel and the counterculture had its full share of fanatics. The wish to return to innocence came with the thought that by removing the barriers between adult and child, the children could be the bridge back to innocence. But the force of nature goes in the other direction, and many children lose their innocence devastatingly early. I often think I was fortunate not to have been molested. But in a sense I was. My exposure to sexual matters was premature, as was my close contact wth extreme human peculiarities and ultimately the harsh reality of adults  doindgwhat was right for themselves as opposed ot their charges. Perhaps much of my self-protectiveness comes from a  too-early understanding of this ruthless human tendency for each to look after him or herself.”

This is the nightmare I realized at cohousing. Some adults forget to parent and protect their kids.  I hope this book helped with the author’s healing.

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Another One Bites the Dust

I keep thinking about the perfect cohousing. The one that lives up to the hype. This will be your last home (and that’s how many people think as they design their houses and communities).  They are almost 10 years old and only two units have re-sold because the Grim Reaper came to get the residents.

Like I’ve said, cohousing is luck of the draw and mine is out of luck. Another one bites the dust. A family that, again, didn’t even last a year. It looked for sure they’d stay forever and enjoy their golden years in cohousing. However, an application for the peace corps submitted before COVID was finally accepted, so they are gone. I get that – I had planned to travel the world. The part I don’t understand is why they are selling their home.  On one hand I do get it – it’s a great market to sell and don’t want the hassle while overseas.  Yet it goes against the cohousing philosophy that this is supposed to be our forever home. I guess it’s just not worth it to them to rent out and return. They’ll end their peace corps life and maybe find another cohousing community or another life.  

That’s the second household that has left my previous cohousing cause the sacrifices or reality just wasn’t worth it.  The good news for me is that it makes me feel much better. For the longest time I felt rejected from the group but the truth is, I was the first to reject them and move out (one person already decided to leave before me just cause it wasn’t their thing but I”m the one who ran out hair on fire- get me out of here!).  It reminded me of the radio station I worked at and loved. One woman was hired there in the sales department and left after one day saying she hated it so much it felt like her hair was on fire. The next day the sales assistant dressed up a balloon with hair on fire colors to represent her departure. I couldn’t imagine why she would leave such an amazing opportunity to work in radio.  Now I feel the same of cohousing – I had to go, not for me. Others still think it’s the cat’s meow (the four or five households that are still there from the get go and the one that was love bombed after I left and the new owners coming in with hope in every pore).

In my community, it doesn’t work out for everyone, or many. But maybe, someday, that will change.  I asked one person who left if they would talk about it and they said “I think it’s really not necessary to disclose things that happened in the past at ______”

That’s one way we didn’t fit – me and my coho. . I believe in ruminating in what happened in the past and the present.  I know that cultures matter and I was so excited to be there from the get go to form that culture.  Yet, the culture was forming as a place that doesn’t like to look back, look forward, or look at anything. Just have some sort of Stepford Wives existence where everything is okay and Don’t talk about Bruno (aka me) or deal with real issues. So I looked around and said I”m out and, I think, the effects are being felt by others who come, and leave.

Posted in marketing in cohousing, moving in and out of cohousing, privacy, selling house, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Strangers in Sicily last two chapters – 16 and 17

Chapter 16 – Argento (silver)  in Agrigento

Me and my Sicilian family with home made pizza

    In Agrigento province we found the silver lining, the Fedoro Argento, to our clouded situation. Nella and her fiancée, Benedetto, picked us up in Santa Margherita. Pleasantly surprised, Benedetto couldn’t wait to ask, “Carol!  Rob!  What are you doing here?”

“You said you couldn’t make it!” Nella was dying with curiosity about our sudden appearance back in town.

“Well, we had a problem with some Germans back in Piazza Armerina.”

“Ah, Tedeschi.”

That’s all anyone ever needed to hear. I hadn’t realized that most of the continent had never really forgiven the Germans, those pesky Tedeschi, for the war. Now the Germans didn’t invade their countries with tanks, but they were rude tourists. I guess the Jews will always be thought of as stingy, and Germans will never be forgiven for their superior, conquering mentality.  

We lucked out that not only was it time for the Labor Day festivities, but also for Santa Margherita’s town festival. Like Piazza Armerina’s unique August festival reenacting the Norman “liberation,” Santa Margherita has jousting and horse races up and down Main Street on their town’s holiday.  

We walked down the long race course.  Every ten minutes a new group of horses hurtled by. It was the most efficient and fastest thing I’d ever seen Sicilians organize. People of all ages walked around and socialized. Men had their betting cards, and children watched the horses in awe. The railings surrounding the course strained under the weight of observers climbing to get a view. It was a wall of Sicilian butts a mile long.

I loved strolling around with Nella and Benedetto, running into more people I knew. They seemed like real friends. Whenever sad thoughts of Piazza Armerina came up, I reminded myself I was lucky to be here seeing this amazing festival. This was the real reason I came to Sicily, to get to know towns like this, the towns of my ancestors. Not to hang out with people who were more foreign to Sicily than I was. 

We enjoyed their hospitality for days.Unlike in Piazza Armerina, where people just waved and went on their way, friends invited us for pranza. We got free breakfast coffee and croissants just for being among the few Americans to visit. We played chess and cards and giggled at porn magazines left by construction workers at the hotel. It was like a Sicilian puppet angel had swooped down and rescued me from hell.

On May Day, Benedetto drove us to his co-worker’s house in the country. In this socialist-leaning country, it is a tradition for all of a company’s workers to gather for a picnic. They don’t just take a three-day weekend and head the hell out of town as we individualistic Americans do.

At the sprawling farm, the women were busy making pasta from scratch. They mixed the dough precisely then pushed it through metal pasta cutters. Since the men’s job was to ”supervise,” they gathered to ask about the U.S. After entertaining them with stories of life across the ocean, Rob went off with them to play scopa. The women didn’t seem to get much time off on this so-called holiday. No one else seemed bothered by the injustice and absurdity of it.

     I watched the ladies cooking tomato sauce on the cufinaro, the open fire, and putting the pasta out to dry. Trying to decipher their particular Sicilian dialect was a new challenge.  I started kicking myself – I should have stayed here all year and learned the true dialect of my ancestors! I would have had real friends like the Rabitos, who welcomed us even though we didn’t seem to be related.  

Maybe my questions had gotten some people thinking. A heated discussion broke out between the women in the kitchen and the men standing around by the door. They argued about gender roles and marriage, and I was afraid their hand gestures would fling tomato sauce everywhere. By the time they had blown off their steam, the water was boiling outside. The women tossed the dried pasta into the steaming cauldron. 

When it was cooked to al dente perfection, a few minutes later, the women threw the pasta in a mountainous pile on a wooden table outside, as if feeding pigs at a trough. The men closed in as the sauce was ladled generously over the noodles.  At that point they pounced, lowering their faces to the table and shoveling the food greedily into their mouths. They only needed forks, no plates, so I suppose they were saving the women some clean-up. 

 I had to snap some pictures of this scene. But as soon as I pulled out my camera, both women and men hurried over to implore me never show the pictures to anyone – they didn’t want people to think Sicilians were crude.  I just thought it looked cute.  

*Rob*

 The rambling farm had a view of vineyards rolling to the sea. Guests were segregated by sex. After we men spent an afternoon at long tables drinking wine, eating antipasti, and playing cards, the women wiped the sweat from their brows and prepared to feed us. They dumped a cauldron of homemade sauce on top of the hand-cut pasta they had piled on a table, and they stood back as the men dove in. Some men used forks, and others just shoved their faces into the food. I was game to try it myself. But just as I twirled a strand of noodles around my fork, a couple of women ran up and handed me a plate full of pasta.  They insisted that, as a guest, I didn’t have to eat like these “animale.” It was easier to eat from the plate, but I felt a bit emasculated. It was bad enough that, here in this conservative part of the country, my long hair was quite a spectacle. It reminded me of how I’d felt at Fier’s Trattoria when his friends had tried to feel me up and sweet talk me into coming out to their farm. Fortunately, nothing like that happened this time.  I had arrived with a woman, so maybe I was O.K.

The sauce was exquisitely spiced, and the pasta had a texture no machine could match. It was followed by salsiccia and trinche di maiale, a pork salad. For dessert there was a fruit called nespola. They were like orange plums with multiple seeds, and they were pleasantly sweet-tart. We also had fried dough treats called “svingeres.” The women were finally done cooking, and they had a short break to join in some fun before they had to begin cleaning up.

There was a round of tug-of-war games, and then a bonfire toward sunset. The bonfire seemed charming until they threw on bagfuls of plates and other trash, polluting the air with the smell of burning plastic. I needed a discanzo, so I snuck into Bennedetto’s car to try to sleep, but the kids discovered me.  They kept banging on the windows and making funny faces. I gave up and returned to socialize. 

*Carol*

The families gathered to sit, in a circle, in the shade.  Men took turns singing a verse, and everyone else joined the chorus. We sang one ribald Sicilian song after another.  The unofficial Sicilian motto “Eat, sleep, and dot dot dot” popped into my mind again. Sex was always a popular theme here. This was acceptable within strict bounds. However, there were children present.  When a little boy dared to try out a newly-learned sex word, he was chased, screaming, across the property by his switch-bearing father. 

On the way home, Bennedetto explained that nespola, in addition to being a fruit, was a substitute swear word, like ”darn” instead of ”damn.” I wasn’t sure if he was just being informative, or politely saying that Rob was swearing too much.  We blamed the wine and dirty songs.

After all this holiday food and fun, I wasn’t ready to go back to the stresses of Piazza. Nella and Benedetto had deposited us at the hotel without any mention of further activities, so I figured we’d won out our welcome. I wanted to stay anyway.  I rationalized that I would have a chance to do more research in the town’s books. The family who ran the hotel had become our friends too. They spoke English with perfect London accents; they’d grown up in London in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I tried not to let it remind me of Mick.

The last time I had ventured into the mists of Santa Margherita’s past, the town records had led me back to the 1700s.  But I had never found a real connection to the present. There was only one lead left to investigate, Gaspare Rabito’s daughter, Angela. When Gaspare went to Argentina seeking argento, he returned to find his wife, my great- great-grandmother, dead.  No one knows or remembers how she died, but I assume it was some romantic 1800’s type of death, such as diphtheria or faint nerves. The rest of the family sent their two sons to a horrible orphanage, not that there were any good orphanages in those days.

Gaspare rescued my great-grandfather, Papa Nick, and his brother, Uncle Andrew, from the orphanage, and then he remarried and had two daughters. Angela was one of them, and she was the last hope that I clung to. But I couldn’t find any records of her in the commune, city hall. Finally, it dawned on me – I needed to go to church.

 I was praying for a breakthrough in my family history mystery, not going for mass. I waited for the church to open, but no one came. A suspicious neighbor looked at me sitting out there, and an old man appeared.  He didn’t seem happy to help me, but he did anyway. He led me to the church records room and dug out the appropriate books. We found Angela’s baptism record.  Then I asked him to look twenty years ahead. Again he balked and sighed. What the hell did he have to do that was more interesting than helping a crazy foreign woman rifle through the library?  Soon we had located the next volume, and I learned the details of Angela’s marriage. The name of the lucky groom was Giuseppe Giambalvo. I was a lucky one that day too. 

Afternoon closing time had crept up, so I went for a cappuccino at a bar called appropriately “Coffee House.” Nina and Tito Rabito were there. Small town. They introduced me to all their friends and called me “parenti,” family. I was flattered, even though l knew there was no evidence we were related. They figured we must be connected somehow, and why sweat the details? 

The commune, city hall, opened after discanzo, and I stormed in, armed with new information. I had the name of the man my great- great-half-aunt married. Could this be the missing piece? Could I find my family? After searching all year, I had only two weeks left on the island. Could this two weeks be as momentous as last summer, when I’d first been led astray by Giovanni? Maybe I could make it right after all.

The counter woman was busy with the usual piles of Italian bureaucratic paperwork, but she agreed to spare one minute to look up information about Giuseppe Giambalvo. He married Angela in 1923. I asked if they had any children. She flipped pages.  My minute was ticking away. I began to worry as she kept looking in the books, just grunting occasionally. Finally, after an eternity seemed to have passed, and several decades had flipped by in the book, she found him. Gioaccino Giambalvo, born in 1925. She pointed out the name, and I had to fight not to jump for joy. 

“I know him,” she said flatly.  

“What, you know him?!”  I was incredulous that my search might come to its end so easily.  

“Yes. Do you want me to call?”
Si si si!  He’s my relative!”

She actually knew my living relative. I couldn’t believe it. This Gioaccino Giambalvo was my family. We had found him. He was alive, and the clerk knew him. She called and said they’d be right over to pick me up.

I’d never waited so expectantly in all my life.  I had a long time to savor the anticipation. They seemed to take forever.  After half an hour, I finally called Rob at the hotel, and he had time to stroll over and meet me. Finally a woman named Catarina came with her brother, Giuseppe. Giuseppe looked familiar.  They both looked confused. They had just gotten a bizarre call from the commune saying “please come pick up your American family.”

I shook their hands with a grin splitting my face.  

“I met you in the café today. You are related to Nina and Tito Rabito.” Giuseppe said.

“No, we’re just friends,” I corrected him, “You and I, we are actually 

related.”  They looked skeptical, but they agreed to take us home to meet Gioaccino, their father. Part of the problem was that I had been looking for Rabitos, when I should have listened to the curse about the family having only girls. The Rabito name had been lost through marriage.

I didn’t think it was possible, but old Gioaccino looked even less excited to see me than his children had been.

 “You’re too young to know my mother. You must be mistaken.”  Clearly he didn’t understand how this research thing worked. 

“I’m not mistaken! I’m 100% sure! I just saw the birth certificate.And the marriage certificate. Your mother was my great-grandfather’s half sister! Of course I couldn’t have known her, and I never even met Papa Nick, but my mother knew them. I know the stories. I’ve researched all the history!”

I spent all afternoon trying to convince him. Everyone he spoke of, I knew.  He even showed me a picture he had in his collection of Papa Nick with my grandmother and Aunt Jo. 

 “That’s my grandmother! I knew her – I wasn’t too young to know her. That’s my Aunt Jo.”  I pointed to Rob and myself. “We visited her before we came to Sicily.”

He still wasn’t buying it. This Sicilian skepticism ran deep. His stubbornness even began to make me doubt myself.  But we had to be related! Why else would he have a picture of my grandmother? They had sent it from America. The more enthusiastic I became, the more doubtful they grew. Why did the one family who was actually mine have to second guess me, when all the other Rabitos embraced me as family?  This island was so mixed up.

I asked if I could have copies of their photos. Catarina dismissed me with a laugh, 

“My father is very possessive of his photos.”  

This stonewalling was going to drive me crazy. After much friendly exertion, I finally managed to crack their defensive exterior. They started to warm up. Gioaccino brought out  more photo albums. These featured family members who had emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1960’s, and others who’d gone to Venezuela. 

I told him about all the Rabitos we had met who claimed us as family. He confirmed that none of them were my relatives. But he mentioned that another person we had befriended was related to me. That was Andrea Randazzo. Andrea had taken Mom, Aunt Kay, and me out to meet his aunt in December. She had moved me almost to tears with her resemblance to my grandmother. It turned out my gut feeling had been right all along! She was my grandmother’s first cousin. I couldn’t wait to tell Andrea. I couldn’t wait to call Mom and Aunt Kay.  

I finally won Gioaccino over when I mentioned that my grandmother had been a nurse. That clinched it for him, as they had heard lots of stories of her nursing work. Although they finally accepted that we were family, it didn’t earn us an invitation for dinner. I didn’t mind. I left feeling high. I had found my family. I’d achieved my dream. God must have had a plan – all that horror in Piazza had driven me back to Santa Margherita, where I’d finally found our relatives. God sure had some strange plans, but they seemed to work. I should never have doubted the Creator of the Universe.  

I was feeling so lucky that I decided to try Menfi again.  The next day, I was still on a roll.  I found some relatives of another aunt who had missed the boat to America. Catarina’s sister, Nicoletta, had stayed and married a man from Menfi. They never had children, but I met their gaggle of friendly great-nieces and -nephews. Sicily was really opening up to me.  These relatives were in their 40’s, and one of their teenage sons thought it was so cool to have American family visiting. He kept offering us candy, and it felt rude to decline, so we coasted on a sugar high.  

They remembered Poor Aunt Nicoletta. She was bubbly and fun and had always wanted kids, but she was never able to have any.  I certainly hoped that wouldn’t be my story with Rob. I thought it best not to mention that she’d tried to steal my grandmother. 

We women talked and talked, and it grew later and later.  Rob and I worried we might have to hitch back to Santa Margherita that night. Finally we told them we had to go, and they dropped us off, in the dark, near the autostrada. It was scary enough in the daytime, now it was deadly. Fortunately the gods were still smiling, and we caught a safe ride back. No buses connected the towns of my ancestors – they were almost as isolated from each other as we Americans had become from Sicily. 

I was in no rush to get back to Piazza Armerina, ever.  But, unfortunately, all my stuff was there. Days passed, in Santa Margherita, with more homemade pizza and heart-warming hospitality at country houses. Andrea warmed up to the idea that we were actually blood relatives, and he yelled out, “more Coca Cola for my cousin, Carol!” We danced tarantella and had a great time.  

We met Catarina and Giaoccino, one day, at the cemetery, and he proudly told us he was a metal artist and had fashioned the iron gates. It was beautiful work – he had that artistic streak my grandmother and cousins had inherited. He apologized for the newly-laid sidewalk leading up to the gates – some thoughtless shepherd had led his goats through the wet cement, which had preserved their hoof prints.  

Giaoccino asked me to show him where Gaspare Rabito’s grave was, so I went right to it. He was finally impressed by my detective skills. He showed me where his mother, Angela Rabito, was buried. They didn’t look too strangely at me when I did a grave rubbing. They invited me over for pranza, where I enjoyed more stories of the family on this side of the ocean. Giaoccino said I was distantly related to Nella Rabito’s family. Now, with just days left on the island, I was making real progress.

*Rob*

    Our escape to Santa Margherita was a godsend. Carol was making great leaps with her genealogy, and her newfound family was showing us the time of our lives. The kids wanted us to sign their scrapbooks, and I made a little drawing featuring the “Ponte di Brookolino,” the Brooklyn Bridge. I stretched it all the way across the ocean to connect Sicily with America.  Everyone here had stories of relatives who had “gone to live in Brooklyn.”  

At one party we met a cousin of Carol’s who happened to be a lawyer for the Mafia. But we didn’t see any suspicious characters in pin-striped suits and fedoras. One of the meal’s courses was buckets full of grilled silvery sardines. A beaming Andrea showed us his patch of fava beans next to the house – growing your own fava is a mark of pride on the island. 

Trying our luck back in Menfi, I had more bittersweet memories of my time at the beach with Nikki. Carol dug up yet more relatives she’d overlooked the summer before. One sweet old lady told us of her brother who had fought for Mussolini, in North Africa, in World War II.  He was captured and shipped all the way to Alabama to be housed in a POW camp. She said it was one of the best times of his life – he got to drink all the Coca Cola he wanted. Mussolini couldn’t top that.    

Curious about the war, I asked our young guide if he had heard any other stories passed down from the elders. Germans certainly didn’t like it when the subject came up, but Italians were more open. Giuseppe didn’t know much, but he mentioned that local farmers were still sometimes killed by landmines laid during the war. He said the war ended sometime around “mille novecento cinquanta,” 1950, so his facts might have been suspect.  Of course, with the destruction and poverty lingering after 1945, I could see how Italians might have felt the war hadn’t ended.

    In the next days, we were whisked off to the seaside town of Sciacca, and then to the bustling city of Marsala.  We saw cathedrals and art and history museums.  I was excited to see an ancient Punic warship that the tourist guides talked about.  I had planned to go there with Nikki until I got on her nerves and we aborted our trip. I was expecting a menacing Greek trireme, but the “ship” looked like an overturned section of rotted roof.  I probably would have annoyed Nikki more with my disappointment about that. 

I enjoyed the Arazi, or tapestry museum, more. It depicted Roman life as seen through medieval eyes. On our outings, Nella and Bennedetto Rabito were the first Sicilians to actually try to teach us some of their own mysterious language. I learned such important terms as “un gran incaniata,” which sounded to me like “a grand canyon.” It meant a steep hill, which was what their tiny Fiat was struggling to carry us up as they explained this.  A very pragmatic language, Sicilian. 

    We were having a grand time, and I worried things might be too good to be true. I called back to Valle Perfetta and checked in with Lea. Relief filled me when I learned they hadn’t burned all our stuff. She actually seemed cordial and said, surprisingly, that Helmut was looking forward to our return! He hoped Carol could start babysitting for them as she had done with Carlo and Ulla. It sounded like it might not be an option, but a requirement of our continued residence.   

After a week or so, we were ready to try our luck back in Piazza.  We had a plan.  Rather than hang around, in shame, as Helmut’s indentured servants, we would leave Sicily by the middle of May.  That gave us two weeks to tie up loose ends and say our goodbyes. Carol had talked to a family she knew in France, and that would be our next destination. It was thrilling to have an escape plan, and it was also sad. 

Chapter 17 – Better Late than Never

me and the grapes of Sicily

*Carol*

It was time to leave the Belice Valley of Agrigento, my ancestral land. I tried to get a good night’s sleep before our journey, but I couldn’t – my mind was awash with worry and anger about all that had gone down in Germanville. Rob and I bickered over it; he wasn’t half as hurt as I was. Of course I was the one who got suckered into writing the actual note to Helmut’s ex, so I got most of the blame. And Rob wasn’t hearing racial slurs against his pure white-bread background. He actually wanted to compensate Helmut for our time in his house by giving him a gift! Unbelievable! 

In the morning we had our last espresso at Café Gatopardo in Santa Margherita. We caught a ride to the autostrada with one of the Rabitos we’d met in my mad search. He was so friendly and excited that we were relatives, I didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t. 

He dropped us off outside of Sciacca, and soon a bus to Agrigento came rumbling by. We connected to a bus for Caltanisetta, and another one for the three-hour ride to Piazza Armerina. The long trip allowed plenty of time for my fears to grow. I didn’t know what to expect. Did the whole town still envision me wearing a scarlet J or yellow star for my shame?

We rang up to Giovanni’s, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me. I was cautious. I gave him the standard hello kisses on the cheeks, then went over to the kitchen and put in the video Aunt Kay had sent in a care package. I zoned out in front of the television, watching real American T.V.for a change. Giovanni, with all the wisdom of his 39 years, got into a deep discussion with Rob about growing old. Again, Rob forgave so much faster than I did. He never seemed to understand my pain.

Giovanni agreed to help me move out of Rob’s and back to Ulla’s. That was part of the escape plan.  I just couldn’t face Germanville ever again. We drove up to Valle Perfetta, which was deceptively inviting with its green flower-speckled fields. I breathed a sigh of relief that we didn’t run into any neighbors.  I hoped I would never see any of them again. Packing was easy, as we hadn’t even unpacked much in the first place. The hard part was carrying it all up the hill to the road.  No wonder Rob had felt that moving a heavy bombola for the gas stove was such a big deal. 

We stuffed Giovanni’s station wagon full – it felt like leaving for college all over again. Rob and I leaned against the car and hugged, watching as the sun cast late afternoon gold over the hills. Giovanni slouched against the hood and lit the inevitable cigarette. We reminisced, and then we left Rob behind as there wasn’t enough room at Ulla’s. Rob also insisted on his insane plan to say goodbye to everyone. Why was he cowering to these people who’d hurt me so much? Didn’t he care about me? The person he would spend the rest of his life with? Instead he worried about saving face with people he would never see again. 

Giovanni and I got along great in the car, talking and laughing. We dropped by Ulla’s store to see if we really could bring everything over. She said it would be fine, and I could stay until I left the country. We had a little time before she’d be home so, being in Sicily, we detoured to Giovanni’s country house.  

Just to keep it interesting, we went upstairs to where Rob had slept. We tried some acrobatic positions, which I knew he must have learned from some other woman. I had my guess as to which one – he had once let slip that a friend of his was a very flexible dancer. Life with the lone promiscuous wolf.

Ulla gave me a suspicious glance when we arrived at her house late. I lied and said I’d forgotten something. Giovanni blew my attempt at cover by shaking my hand and saying “good one.”  Ulla laughed and, we knew she knew. She was just so accepting — it was amazing. Annabella was there too. She gave me a long bear hug. I was so relieved to still have a few friends left.

*Rob*

Carol drove off with Giovanni, and I stayed in Valle Perfetta one last day. I hoped to smooth things over with the neighbors a bit and meditate on my time there. As if warning us we were no longer welcome, a fierce storm blew through the Valle that night. Tiles shifted on the roof and blew onto the path below. I worried that the whole roof might fly off or collapse on me. The power flickered on and off as I tried to block out the howls with the radio. I made it through a sleep-deprived night and checked on the laundry I’d left hanging on the clothesline under the roof awning. I touched one sock to determine if it was still soaked. I wrenched my hand away in pain as it gave me a sharp electric shock. In the wind and rain, the house’s electric wires had come in contact with the clothesline. Branches were lying everywhere. I grabbed one to poke at my underwear and socks to free them from the wires.  The place seemed ominously booby trapped now. I could almost imagine the ghostly voice from The Amityville Horror telling me “Get Out!!” 

I replaced some of the roof tiles which hadn’t shattered, finished packing, and started my last long hike to town. 

*Carol*

It wasn’t so bad being back in Piazza after all. I should have known the storm wouldn’t last. I met Rob in town the next day, and he told me the fine folks in Germanville didn’t want things to end badly. They suggested we come over for dinner or throw a party. But bad feelings bubbled up in my mind, and I wasn’t ready to reconcile. I just wanted to leave it all behind.  How could I throw a festive party after all this? I had shared myself once with everyone, by throwing last fall’s Jewish New Year party, only to get burned. I couldn’t fathom partying with people I now detested.

Having Rob nag me to patch things up with the Germans was bad enough. The effort it took to pack and send all my things home, through the horrible Italian post office, made it worse. I managed to cram all the stuff I had accumulated during the year – books on Sicily, preserved foods, ceramics, and various trinkets – into five giant packages that strained the packing tape.  The customer disservice agent who’d yelled at me for writing too much lost her mind when she saw my load of boxes. She threw up her arms and flatly refused to take them. ”Come back in the afternoon and bother someone else.”

So I tried again later. The frowning fellow at the desk was slightly friendlier, but still overwhelmed by my packages. He kept letting other customers cut ahead of me, as they supposedly had simpler transactions to make. He wasn’t very happy when I mentioned the morning woman had dumped this on him. I managed to stay calm by reading what everyone in my alma mater was doing – Mom had forwarded me the college alumni magazine. Oh look, Moonbeam made assistant VP at an environmental non-profit.  Jasmin got married and moved to Kenya. Never again would I read one of those magazines so thoroughly. By the time the boxes were ready to go back to the US, on the slow boat no less, it had taken five hours. At UPS back in America, I had been able to send five packages in ten minutes. Although it was sad to be leaving the magical island, I was reminded that their post office would eventually drive me out anyway.  

May brought summer heat and Sahara winds thick with desert sand. It was the infamous Sirocco wind, another omen from the sky.

Thinking I should check the stars, I called Aunt Kay and tapped into her mystical astrological knowledge. She told me not to worry about Germanville. She said, “Consider the source.”  She wasn’t impressed with the dirty hippies and their toilet-less “shit hole” lifestyles.

But everyone in Piazza was saying we shouldn’t leave without some resolution. So, bravely, I hiked back toward Valle Perfetta with Rob.

We paid Artilio a visit.  He was in good spirits, and he offered us his summer season dish again. The pasta sauce was filled with fennel and spinach and everything else green he could find. His comforting advice was that all the problems in Germanville were my fault. Not because of the note, but because I had refused his offer to live with him all year. He smiled mischievously. I laughed. This blame I could handle.

We talked to Veronika at Girasol. She accompanied us up to Germanville. Was she going to play the intermediary?  The closer we got, the more nervous I became. We ran into Hilda’s husband, Kai, first, and he greeted me with two kisses on the cheeks. He seemed hurt that we hadn’t come for a party they’d had the night before. Hilda’s parents were in town, and her dad had told stories of the war. Right, like I would have loved to hear those Nazi stories? Were all the men in Sicily completely clueless about my feelings?

As we walked by their kids, Pia threw a plant at me and  Georg kicked me. It was the same greeting they’d given me the first time I met them the summer before. I knew it wasn’t because of the falling out and all the recent gossip. It was just the usual bad parenting.

I wanted to talk to Hilda, face to face, and explain my side of the story. But she brushed us off, saying she was busy with her parents visiting. So I brooded outside our old love nest while Rob went to talk to Helmut. I wasn’t about to go that far in my efforts at reconciliation. I had never really talked to him before, so why bother now?

I sat at the scene of the hate crime. As I thought things over again, my anger flamed back to life. I had come out here to try to apologize and make things better, and Hilda didn’t even have time for me. They all seemed much more comfortable with passive aggression and indirectness. 

Rob finally came back. He had only talked with Lea, because Helmut was gone again. It was always impossible to catch him, and even if he was home, he seemed too grumpy to talk to. That’s what had started this whole mess. 

On our way back to town, we stopped at Hilda’s again, and I just went for it.

“Hil, I’m so sorry about the note.” It was now “the note” heard around the world.  

“It’s over with, we already forgot about it. Just think next time.” That was her cold response.

“I just wish someone here had told me there was a problem with it instead of having to hear rumors that people called me a stingy Jew.”

“Rumors are stupid. Besides, you have to admit, Giovanni and Mick were just joking.”

It didn’t feel like a joke to me. Come to think of it, all year I’d heard jokes about Jews. “Jews came to a house looking for room to stay, and the resident responded, ’Sorry, but there’s no room in our oven.’” – as in the concentration camps ovens for burning people. If this was European humor, it was lost on me.

I wasn’t finished with Hilda yet. “But none of this would have happened if someone had just told us.  We were here all day, and I had to hear about the whole problem from Giovanni and Mick in town.”

“I didn’t see you. I would have told you. I always tell people,” Hilda declared.

I was shocked to hear this, and I wondered if I should point out this blatant lie. She had definitely seen me.  She had ignored me, but she’d hugged Rob to welcome him back. What was going on? Was history being rewritten? They were almost as bad as Holocaust deniers. As I stood there, paralyzed by my rage, Hilda changed the subject. She was treating me like it was all a ridiculous farce. I’d never felt so unacknowledged before. I was the crazy one, “making a big deal out of nothing.” I thought of my activist friends on the indigenous reservation who said, about the U.S. genocide of Native Americans, “No victim, no crime.”

Thankfully, we soon left. There was no closure. It only made things worse. On our walk back, I started to cry again. I felt so alone. No one knew how I felt. Not even Rob. I hated the way it had come between us. No one understood that it wasn’t a joke to me after six million people of my ethnicity had been killed by the Germans. Everyone wanted to have me throw a “Hurray, the Jews are dead, let’s joke about it” party and be done with the whole note controversy. They just wanted to shut me up. 

When we got to Hannah and Dino’s, Hannah noticed my tear-streaked face. I told her how the “apology” went. She was shocked.  She said at least I did my part. At least I was in the clear with her.  

Rob and I walked all the way through town and out the other side, and we finally reached our new place to stay, Giovanni’s country house. There wasn’t enough room at Ulla’s for both of us, and Rob insisted on being with me. At least he was trying to be supportive. The fun days there with Nikki seemed like years ago.  Now I felt like we were refugees, and I hated it.   I just wanted to forget all that had happened, and all the horrible people involved.

*Rob*

    Staying at Giovanni’s country place was a pleasant flashback. Seeing the mock-medieval architecture, hearing the hum of the crotchety water pump, and smelling the musty mattresses, I missed Nikki all over again. I thought I was over her. But we had plenty of other things to occupy our minds. 

Carol didn’t want to see anyone from Valle Perfetta, and she didn’t approve of me going to make peace with them. But I felt bad, and I snuck out one day, with wine and pastries, to thank them for help and friendship throughout the year.

It didn’t go smoothly. I knocked cautiously at Hilda’s door and didn’t hear anything, so I let myself in, as I had often done before. This time I caught Hilda putting a towel on after getting out of the bathtub. Arrgh. She had a nice figure, though.  

    To try to make up for this new infraction, I tagged along with Kai to help with another chore. He was hauling logs from his property to the local lumber center. He hoped he could sell the wood, but the kid working there told him, “The only thing the boss pays for is pompetta.” Translation: blowjobs. 

Lord Kai got in the kid’s face and suggested that they’d better pay him something for the trouble of bringing the load down here and back. This didn’t go over well, and the kid asked us why the hell we didn’t just go back to whatever country we came from. Kai matter-of-factly told him he lived here, but I was going home to America soon enough. As if the kid cared. He just looked at me like I was crazy and asked why anyone would possibly want to come to Sicily, when America was so much better. I just smiled and shrugged. Then I went back to Valle Perfetta with an irritated Kai.

A yellow haziness had been gathering in the sky for several days. At times it was so dense it blurred the sun, and cast the landscape in a dusky light. As we unloaded Kai’s trailer, he explained that this was the result of the Sirocco winds. Blowing in from North Africa in the spring, they brought fine sand and dust which clung to the air. It was said to be an ill omen, often bringing health problems and arousing passions, good and bad. It was an evil eye in the sky that no gypsy hand could protect against. It fit well with Carol’s fears of a springtime curse. 

Kai suggested I stop by for dinner that night, as he was having the neighbors over. I said I doubted I could make it, as I’d have to get in touch with Carol. He shrugged and said well, another time would be O.K. too. I didn’t mention that I would never be able to talk Carol into it. As I was about to leave the Valle, Georg and Pia ran up to me crying, “Rop! Rop!”  With a grin revealing his missing tooth, Georg shoved a bouquet of wildflowers they had picked into my arms. I just shook my head in disbelief. Hugs, kisses, and flowers for me, and kicks and criticisms for Carol. 

    When I stopped by Girasol, Veronika twisted my arm to throw the big going-away party everyone was pushing for. It would have been a nice idea under better circumstances. When I got to town, Giovanni said Carol was out with one of her motorcycle-driving boy-toys. Great. I worried she had figured out I had gone back to evil Germanville and was doing this to spite me. Or maybe she was making the farewell rounds of her old lovers and suitors. Either way, it was uncomfortable.

Our last week wasn’t entirely unpleasant, though. Giovanni borrowed his brother’s Jeep and drove me, Carol, and Annabella to an ancient site he thought we would enjoy. Called Montagna di Marzo, March Mountain, it was the ruins of a pre-Greek city. It rested on a hilltop that I had gazed upon, from across the floor of the valley, all year. We stopped at what he said was a “sacrificial altar,” where, like in Malta, we posed for goofy photos. Annabella snapped away as Giovanni and I held Carol down, pretending to defile her in various pagan ways. 

    As we bumped the Jeep up the unpaved road to the top, the scene started to look grim.  It hadn’t been visible from Valle Perfetta, but here we could see the scars on the plundered hilltop. Giovanni explained that not much formal archeological digging had been done here. Though it was theoretically a protected site, locals had come up with bulldozers and plowed through the earth, hoping to uncover gold. What they left behind was a crushed and jumbled chapter of history, now lost forever.  We kicked through the rubble and gazed down the hillside, through the waving grass, and across the valley. I mentally time-traveled, as I had so often done here, to robed traders and spear-wielding warriors traversing the plain. I sank into the sounds of lost tongues and noises of the market in the old city, as wind or spirits whistled around us.

    I collected a few fragments of pottery amongst the broken bricks – the most interesting was a handle of something like a teacup. It was stained in the brown hue I recognized from history books on Etruscan art. I held this precious object in my hand, between thumb and fingers, envisioning its original owners doing the same about 3,000 years earlier. I felt a dizzy sense of vertigo, as if staring down a well 3,000 feet deep. I debated the ethics of bringing it with me. I didn’t want to be another plunderer. But if I didn’t, I would be leaving it for the bulldozers to crush into dust. I remembered a small statue that Pierro the beggar had once tried to sell me, claiming it was ancient and very valuable. Was it?  Maybe I should have given him ten bucks for it just to turn it over to the local authorities. Were there any local authorities?

Carol and I made the rounds of our friends for goodbye meals. Marlies and Felippe had an ordinary going-away lunch for us, no guilt trips, no arm twisting, no spark of being involved in the gossip up the hill.  Marlies provided the fish and eggs, and we made the batter and fried them up while she went to pick up Felipe from Parco Rosso.   He was selling trinkets at a vendor’s table. At Parco Rosso I had first talked to Hilda about living amongst the Germans, seven long months ago. After eating, I presented Marlies and Felipe with a painting I had finished at Giovanni’s country castle.  The oil paint was still bagnato, wet, I warned him. With a big smile he grabbed it carefully by the edges and hung it on a wall.  I was honored. 

Our final lunch at Artilio’s was emotional, as we all knew he might not be around the next time we came to Sicily.  I think I actually saw tears in his eyes for the first time, and it was not from the irritating Sirocco dust.  

I gave Artilio a painting too. It was one of the landscapes I’d done of blooming mandorlo trees. I figured he would appreciate a more traditional composition rather than my usual pop art. He praised us for coming to see him, unlike that cornuto Olondese, the “Dutch cuckold,” Fier, who had just disappeared from the island.   

I had a farewell gifts for Annabella, too. I unveiled it at a pizza party at Giovanni’s castle. In another pleasant return to last summer, we tossed and cooked our own pizzas in the outdoor wood-fired brick oven. As Giovanni stoked the fire and chatted with Annabella, Carol and I prepared the toppings in the kitchen.  We came out with trays overflowing with tempting prosciutto, piselli, uove, carcioffi, funghi, and other toppings. Giovanni thanked us, in typical fashion, by joking that we had taken so long Carol must have been giving me a hand job in the bathroom. 

In the painting I’d made for Annabella, I’d tried to include elements of her stay in Sicily. It featured Greek temples from a wine bottle label, set on a hill overlooking cows from a milk carton. In the foreground a hand holding a mystical tarot-like Scopa card emerged from the subterranean fires of Etna. It was a veiled portent of things to come. Giovanni was jealous and said my renderings were quasi ezzato, almost exactly perfect. 

In a stroke of good fortune, just before we left, I ran into an old crush, the girl in combat boots. She seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her.  Finally, by the end of my stay here, I was sufficiently over my Anglo-Saxon hang-ups to give a beautiful girl a warm kiss on the cheeks to say hello. Her olive skin was soft and smelled like flowers.  

    Standing close, in our matching black boots, we eagerly talked.  I could tell she was disappointed when I said I was heading home to America.  I had never tried to get her phone number or pursue anything with her, since she always had this mysterious boyfriend at school in Catania.  I should have known better, I suppose. That really didn’t stop people here. Maybe I had seen too many gangster movies – I didn’t want to wake up one night with a sack over my head, carried off by her boyfriend and his thug friends for a thrashing. 

I looked into her shining brown eyes.  She brushed a strand of hair from my face and tucked it tenderly behind my ear.  We kissed on the cheeks again, and I briefly took her hands. “Ci vediamo dopo,” she said hopefully, we’ll see each other again. 

*Carol*  

    I managed to push the drama of the note from my mind as we made our final arrangements to leave the country. In town, we said goodbye to the people we still considered friends. I was nervous about going to Bar Charlotte since the Germans always went there. But I found Marlies and Felipe instead, and they invited us to lunch. Marlies said it was great to have met us and we had brought “colors” into her life.  Felipe joked that we were “stronzos,” shits for not coming over for lunch more often throughout the year. Time just slips away. I would’ve liked to, especially considering all the times I’d felt deserted at lunchtime.  After all the times I was left standing in the street, I never wanted to hear the parting phrase “bon pranzo” again.

At the bank I exchanged my money for lira for the last time. I thanked the teller for his help all year during my “long vacation.”  I visited some of my Lions Club friends and said goodbye to the dentist family who had hosted me the previous summer. I may have been bored to distraction, but they were good people.

Giovanni and I found ourselves alone at his apartment again. Rob was in Germanville, still trying to make peace, which pissed me off. Giovanni and I took advantage of the time alone, it could be our last.

The buzzer rang as we were finishing up. We ignored it.  Giovanni looked out, a few minutes later, and saw Rob heading down the street into town. 

Mi dispiace,” Giovanni said, “I feel bad.” He wondered if he should pick Rob up.

“Why?”  I asked.

“Usually I don’t care about the other man, but I really like Rob. He’s a friend.”

“I’m glad you became friends. Don’t worry about it.  He’s into the competition thing.”

Giovanni laughed.

I tidied up and left to do more errands. I met Ettore, dressed in leather and still handsome. He added a new twist to the common greeting of two kisses on the cheeks. He put his hands on my waist, so it felt more like a real kiss. Interesting.

He whisked me off to the Wild West Bar on his motorcycle, and we started, innocently enough, eating sandwiches.The waitress was off duty. She was the slutty, skinny, frizzy-haired woman with whom Giovanni had suggested a ménage. She was making out with a soldier in the seat next to us. Ettore suggested we stop watching and follow their example. I was nervous. I liked him, but this was supposed to be a goodbye, not the beginning of a new adventure.

I decided to get out of the situation, and I had him bring me back to Giovanni’s. Rob had returned. He told me about his final mission to Valle Perfetta. I was hurt, but I tried to accept it. He was his own person, and he had to do what he felt was right. Lasciare pedere. Let it be lost.

The next day I ventured near Germanville, but I never crossed into it again. We visited Dino, Hannah, and Annabella, who had found a place nearby. We ate at Girasol one last time, as the moon crept up over the hill. Then I had to rush back to make phone calls to arrange the rest of our trip through Europe. Rob called it a Blitzkrieg tour, but I preferred “whirlwind.” I wasn’t ready for World War II jokes.

  Veronika offered me a ride to town in their rickety car.  Her children burst into tears as we said goodbye, because they thought Veronika was leaving them for America. Poor little sweethearts. We managed to put them at ease, but it was a heart-rending scene. They irked Mick, of course. The last words I heard from him were, “What the fuck.”

The next day Rob, Giovanni, Annabella, and I had a great time in the country.  We went to another hippie’s house where a lama from Tibet was talking. I wasn’t really into it, but at least the meditation was relaxing.  

We strolled in the countryside, and we ended up sitting under a mulberry tree, reminiscing and joking. It was really sweet – the four of us, old friends. 

When the sun started fading, we headed back to the house where everyone was singing along with a guitar player. I talked to the lama. He spoke perfect English and had traveled in the U.S.  We bid buona sera to all the guru’s followers and left. 

We went back to Giovanni’s. He seemed to be sinking into depression. 

“Why are you leaving?” he asked quietly.

I was touched that the superficial lupo was so sad to see me go. He thought I should stay in Sicily a few more weeks, rather than traveling Europe. I didn’t try to explain to him how much his Jewish comment had hurt me and my lingering pain over it and the whole note mess. Plus it took so much time and money to get to Europe that I wanted to see all my friends from my previous travels before I left. I had an intuition that this would be my last big overseas adventure for a long time.

After pizza and toasted marshmallows, Giovanni entertained us with tales of all the odd travelers and hippies who had passed through since the commune began. It must have been eye-opening for him to grow up near them in otherwise-isolated Sicily.  He’d probably slept with a bunch of them too, but I tried not to focus on that. Something had pulled me to the right spot to lay my backpack, the summer before, in this land of weary travelers.   

There was sadness in the air. While Rob was in the shower, Giovanni massaged my back. But I promised myself I’d be good from now on – we would never sleep together again.  

The next day I visited Ulla. Her parents were there, so the house was filled with conversations in Danish.  This place that had once seemed so comforting and familiar now felt very strange.  We gave Emiliano a private puppet show to cheer him up, since he was feeling sick. After lunch, I gave them all big hugs and two-kiss goodbyes. Carlo was sweet and said they would miss us a lot.  He took the necklace from his neck and attached it around mine.  It was a figurine of an Indian Goddess of Prosperity.  I was touched.  

We said “Addio,” which felt sadly final compared to “ciao,” see you later.  I fought back tears as Giovanni drove us away.

Back at his country house, Rob and I gathered our heavy backpacks.  

While Rob was putting his stuff in the car, I leaned down to Giovanni who was picking up some of my stuff. 

Dame un bacio,” I said.

We French kissed in last-minute desperation. Then we hugged and just held each other. We were quiet and sad. Then he punctured the sentiment of the moment, whispering in my ear his usual joking “vai fungulo.”  

We filled up Giovanni’s car with another college-worthy load of stuff. Another life chapter was ending, or beginning.

We got to Piazza Armerina’s bus plaza just as the bus pulled up. I ran inside the bar to buy our tickets. Giovanni helped put our stuff in the luggage compartment underneath, joking about how heavy it was.  He and Rob hugged, and then Rob got on the bus.

I looked deep into Giovanni’s light brown eyes. I froze the moment in my mind, knowing it would be the last. Neither of us knew what to say at a moment like this.  

I finally came out with, “Thank you for all the rides and help, and so much more …” 

But I couldn’t say more for fear of crying. I touched his arm. The bus driver honked so I gave Giovanni a big hug and two kisses on the cheek and stepped on board. Giovanni stayed to watch us go, and we waved. I couldn’t hold back my tears any more — they crashed down as I watched him walk, bowlegged as always, back to his green station wagon. I couldn’t believe I had to say goodbye. I was surprised that I was so sad to leave him.  We both waved until he was out of sight. Rob didn’t see me crying.  I was silent and hid the tears under the dark Italian sunglasses I had bought the first week I arrived.  

We passed the plaza where I’d bought them and the plaza with the winter market. Next we passed the bar where the frizzy-haired waitress was probably making out with some new guy. The old men in hunting caps who Ulla claimed were Mafia drifted by.  Finally, we went under the monstrously ugly autostrada overpass.  Goodbye, Piazza Armerina. Goodbye, my Sicilian life. I clandestinely wiped my face and got myself together. Rob and I began to talk. He was happy to leave for new adventures. He planned to see more family in other parts of Germany. We were splitting up for our trip, heading for different destinations.  But this time we’d be safe – I’d be with friends in Northern Italy and Austria, not with Sicilian wolves. We would meet up again in France. Then we’d go back to Minnesota to live happily forever after.

We had one last goodbye, in Catania, the entrance port city where our whole Sicilian adventure had begun. I said goodbye to my spasamante Massimo at the train station bar where he worked. Giuseppe, Deborah, and Flaminio met us there, and they thought it quaint that I had befriended a lowly barista. I loved them, but their class consciousness was showing.

We ate pizza and were quieter than usual.  

The train was coming. I kissed everyone goodbye on the cheeks. Flamino and Deborah helped load our stuff on the train.  We gave them all another round of kisses, and it was hard to say goodbye to such sweet friends. We stuck our heads out the window to talk until the train whistle blew. They waved handkerchiefs, showing us the traditional way to say goodbye. When the train took off, the whole platform cheered for their loved ones. It was a communal event, like Europeans clapping when a pilot brings his plane safely to the ground. I had never heard such partings at a train station before, it seemed a coincidence that it happened on our last train ride in Sicily. I bid farewell to Sicilia and stayed awake long enough to see the moon rise over the sea.  Then I watched the island’s lights fade as we drifted away on the ferry. Sicilia was gone now. Addio Sicilia

    *Rob*

Our departure from Piazza was quiet. No crowd of friends tearfully hugged us and begged us to stay. It was just the usual wait for a bus in the overcast town square. Giovanni was there, and I could tell he — at least — would miss us. He felt trapped by his life in Sicily, but with his family ties he would never leave. Who could beat a free apartment, even if it was in the same building as one’s mother and siblings? He had a decent job, and it seemed that only real economic or political desperation caused people to migrate.  

Giovanni mused wistfully about what great opportunities lay ahead of us, back in the mystical land of America. He would miss the horizons that his first American girlfriend had opened up for him. He might have married her. Might have moved to America and had the child he’d always thought he wanted “someday.” But his roots in Sicily were too deep.

I was grateful I had won, I had gotten Carol back.  But I was also thankful for Giovanni’s help over the year, all the rides, places to stay, and advice on women from the world-wizened ”Lupo Solitario.”  We might not have left on the best of terms with all of the Piazza community, but who were we to question fate?  If not for the big blow-up, we wouldn’t have made it back to Santa Margherita di Belice.  We never would have achieved Carol’s dream of finding her true family.     

Our Catanian friends treated us to the going-away spectacle we had missed in Piazza. Giuseppe, Deborah, and Flaminio took us out for dinner then gave us an emotional send-off.  They yelled and waved, gestured with handkerchiefs, and ran after the train until they reached the end of the platform and could go no further. We took our seats to the click-clack and sway of the rails. I tried to gaze into Carol’s eyes but was blocked by the shield of her dark glasses.  We each looked inward instead, turning over the lessons of our year, staring silently across the sea. 

            ** Carol **

I always find it ironic that I went to Sicily to find my Italian roots but came back feeling much more in touch with my Jewish ancestors on my dad’s side.  I also have an optimistic faith that everything happens for a reason and the whole tragedy got me what I really wanted – to find my long lost ancestors.

A few years later we returned and saw all the main characters again. I even hugged some of them from Germanville and instantly forgave them. I don’t know how it worked – time and lots of talking about it in the states with other Jewish people. 

Just like I always wanted, we stayed with family in Agrigento.  My aunt Kay has even gone back a few times and once for a wedding. They think of us as family too and called on Facebook once when they heard of wildfires in California and worried for Kay’s survival. 

I learned a lot about Sicily and realized I love having that in my background but I am American through and through. My ancestors choose to leave and start anew somewhere. I do the same. Take risks. Go somewhere unfamiliar. I also have the values and mannerisms of every other American.  I’ll always love Sicily and now my children hear stories of our adventures there and are curious to visit themselves. Now I have many friends and family to tell them to go say “ciao” to.

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Strangers in Sicily Chapters 14 and 15

A nightmare for me and what I naively thought couldn’t happen in cohousing until I was proven very wrong. Conflict avoidance always hurts someone

Chapter 14 – Island Hopping

Rob and I on the phone. Ok, it was Malta but makes you think of the British Isles

*Rob*

Leaving our Sicilian affairs in Carol’s capable hands, I traced the path of Sicily’s Norman conquerors back to England.  Immigration and customs agents grilled me at Heathrow. An American who had supposedly been living in Italy, but had no passport stamps to prove it? Didn’t they know how inefficient Italian bureaucracy was? They couldn’t find any contraband on me.  They seemed more concerned about natives of recent British colonies, like the Pakistanis in line behind me, than about citizens of older colonies like America. They let me pass into the country.

I headed for the Manchester train. I was meeting my friend Abby from last summer’s “work camp” in Germany. When I’d first arrived in Europe, I’d worked with her, for a few weeks, at the volunteer job in Glucksberg, where an institute for alternative architecture and energy was being built. When we took breaks on the Black Sea beaches, I tried not to stare as Abby and the other girls whisked off their bikini tops, catching rays with their perfect, perky breasts. I loved Europe. 

Everyone invited each other to visit after camp. Abby didn’t seem too happy that I was taking her up on it now. It wasn’t spring break like in Germany. It was finals week, and she was overwhelmed with schoolwork. She warned me that she couldn’t show me around. That was fine. I just wanted a roof to stay under.     

Abby gave me a map and sent me off to Manchester to explore whatever there was to see in this bleak industrial town. I was excited to soak up whatever feelings I could conjure there, as I waxed romantic about the city that produced musical greats like the Happy Mondays and Morrissey.  Everyone I told about my love of the Smiths rolled their eyes, embarrassed. They liked techno.  

Exhausting the possibilities of “Madchester,” I hopped the train to Liverpool for the Magical Mystery Tour. It was magical how everyone sounded like the Beatles! The tour started in an overblown “museum” full of Beatles pictures and a nonstop Beatles soundtrack. Music continued on the bus as we headed into city traffic. I was disappointed that the bus was nondescript, not painted as a psychedelic tribute. But I soon realized that was a good thing. At several stops, locals were so tired of tourists that they yelled, gestured, and told us to F-off.  At least that’s how I interpreted the angry slang.   

We saw John’s art school, the lads’ childhood homes, and the hospitals where they were delivered. As we passed through Penny Lane, the excited tour guide yelled that we should look quickly, John Lennon’s first wife’s second cousin was crossing the street!     

The sign at the entrance of Strawberry Fields was almost completely covered with graffiti.  I had a Japanese tourist take a picture of me playing air guitar in front of it anyway. 

At the end of the day, I stopped for a beer at what claimed to be the Cavern Club.  The city fathers had actually torn down the original club in a fit of 1970’s urban renewal. A subway stop was supposed to have been built there, but the train never came.  So eventually the city rebuilt the club. All the walls and doors in the alley were tagged with messages from visiting fans. It made for interesting reading since cleaning crews couldn’t paint over them as fast as they accumulated.

I would have liked to see more in England, like my old hero Ozzy Osbourne’s hometown, Birmingham – maybe they had a Diary of a Bat-Eating Madman tour? But Carol expected me on the Emerald Isle.  

*Carol*

Now it was a new month, and I was in a new country. I’d flown to London alone then wandered the city by myself.  I had a bad track record when I was left alone. I went to one of the museums and noticed all the beautiful paintings were made by Italians. They sure were good at art and love.  

    There is an artistic streak in my family. For the longest time I didn’t think I had that creativity. I can’t paint or draw like my grandmother and cousins, who have careers in cartooning and illustrating childrens’ books.  My grandmother spent hours painting on her porch at their Florida winter house, or sketching me when I spent the summer on Long Island. Once she even sculpted my head. I loved the attention.  Now that she’s gone, it’s nice to have her paintings, especially the ones she made just for me. It’s like I still have a part of her with me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that most people in Sicily had a knack for painting, and at least one amazing artwork in everyone’s home was created by a family member.

I was a loyal friend and shopped for the groceries and books Mick wanted since he hadn’t been home in years. I was rescued from my loneliness at the hostel, where I had two polite Australian roommates. But the next morning I had to find my own way to the airport. Rob found me in the waiting area for our flight to Dublin. 

“How was the Beatles tour?” I asked.

Grooooo-vy!”  He was still enjoying his fantasy world of the ‘60s.

“Did you talk to Helmut?” he asked.

“No,” I sighed. “He’s never around. I just left a note.”

“About the firewood?” 

“Yes.”

“And the bombola?”

“Yes, I told her to leave some money if all the gas was used up since it was so hard for you to get it up there. Stop worrying, we’re on vacation!”

“What did you do while I was gone?”

“Same old same old. It’s Sicily. Look, it’s time to board.”

I wondered if Rob knew I meant the same old hook-ups with Giovanni.

We stayed at the youth hostel in Dublin and wandered around the city. It was weird to be in a country where we both had ancestors.  The Genealogical Center was well established but difficult to use, plus you had to pay!  Formerly a poor island like Sicily, from which everyone emigrated, Ireland had built a whole industry around genealogical research.  They sold trinkets with family symbols, coats of arms posters, and a variety of Irish Pride items.  It was so different from Sicily, where people thought I might as well have been looking for my ancestors from Mars. I lost interest in finding family in Ireland and enjoyed the pub music instead.

*Rob*

Flames ripped through the night of April 7th, 1915, as a German torpedo took down the passenger ship Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. We happened to be there just in time for the anniversary of that event. Among the passengers who died was art patron Hugh Lane. We visited the gallery named in his honor, and I was enthralled. Carol couldn’t get the reminder of German brutality out of her head.  

Venturing further back in history, we lingered over the ancient Celtic gold at the National Museum, where it had been brought from the peat bogs. For the rest of the trip, I kept an eye out for anything glittering when we passed marshes. Whether left by Celts or leprechauns, it would be fine with me.  

Carol started feeling sick, maybe adjusting from the Mediterranean climate. I ventured out on my own and strolled the River Liffey. Like the Seine in Paris and the Tiber in Rome, the river was completely walled in with streets called “quays” on either side. It was more like a canal than a river, but it was still scenic, and I envisioned possible paintings. The Guinness brewery beckoned from the hill beyond, and I wished I had time to stop there for a taste. But I was trying to find the Modern Art museum. One fellow told me “mind yourself,” because I would be passing through some sketchy neighborhoods.   

I finally found the place, close to closing time. I hurried through the many rooms of art both traditional and new. I slowed down to chat with a couple of fetching female guards.  They finally kicked me out when it was time to unplug the video installations. I kicked myself for not asking if they’d join me for a pint somewhere.

As I left, a gang of youths came down the street behind me.  I tried not to look too nervous as I glanced back to check them out. I noticed the “leader” of the pack was in front, flipping a coin in the air as he walked.  My heart rate increased.  I hoped to make it to the main road before they caught up with me.  After a couple of blocks, the group turned off onto a side street. I coasted down from my adrenaline rush.  Visions of A Clockwork Orange had been dancing in my head. Had the leader been tossing his coin to decide “heads,” we jump this tourist, or “tails,” we turn to get a beer? I seemed to have lucked out, at least in my imagination.

Nights bustled in Dublin.  In Sicily everyone seemed to have hidden artistic talent, but here they were incredible musicians. Every pub had people unpacking violins, mandolins, banjos, and flutes from various-shaped cases. Someone at one table would start a traditional song, and the whole bar would join in with instruments and vocals! I was astonished and proud of my Irish ancestry. I was even able to join in, as my dad had played Clancy Brothers records for us as kids.   

The city had another musical surprise in store. One of our hostel mates had an extra ticket to the Bob Dylan show. She was a dreadlocked American who had gotten pregnant during her travels.  I think Carol was jealous that she wasn’t pregnant from her travels too. This woman was in Ireland to collect “Bog Oak,” pieces of acid-blackened ancient wood which she carved and sold – they were reputed to have mystical pagan powers. I guess if you couldn’t get bog gold, this would have to do.

 It was interesting that both Dylan and Robbie Robertson were on tour at the same time, and I got to see them both. I wondered if they ran into each other along the way and talked about old times, like when they were nearly booed offstage, in 1966, in these very British Isles. The show I got into didn’t feature just Dylan though. Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell were on the bill too. For twelve pounds, that seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse. They performed fantastic sets, Dylan doing all his greats like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” I danced all night.   It was a fitting final night in the 

    On the bus rides around the island, I was amused to notice a ring of white on the bushes surrounding every field we passed. It was wool ripped off local sheep that got too close to the blackberry vines. It seemed like a lot of valuable wool being lost, but no one seemed concerned enough to dig it out from the thorns. It was not the American attitude of using up every last bit of a resource, but maybe they would need low-paid immigrants to do such odious work.

    Offaly featured a fantastic bed and breakfast, quite a step up from our normal style, but there wasn’t a hostel in town.  Rifling through the phone book, trying to find a place to stay, I called a couple of “Public Houses” thinking they might be hostels. The surprised bartender on the other end set me straight – these were just “pubs.” Silly yank.

    We called a cab for the festival. All the way the driver ranted about Ireland’s drinking problem and his struggles in A.A.  He complained about the festival, saying he hated picking up drunks. That dampened my mood a bit, as we had arranged for him to pick us up again afterwards. I fought the temptation to have a delicious Guinness, lest our cabbie smell it on me when he picked us up. 

    Soon we were mulling over our Irish experiences on the flight back to Sicily. The British Airways stewardesses amazed me in their short plaid skirts and blouses straight out of the ‘60s.  The plane felt like a time capsule. Returning to Sicily seemed equally unreal. I was also nervous about the head cold I’d been nursing. I worried that my ear drums would explode.  I asked one of the air hostesses if they had any decongestants, but they only had aspirin. I popped those just in case. As the plane descended, the pressure in my head turned to shooting pain that no amount of frantic gum-chewing or head-smacking seemed to cure. By the time we landed I was ready to scream, sure the POP of an eardrum would be the last sound I ever heard.  I soon discovered returning to Sicily was going to be a pain in more ways than one.

*Carol*

    Papa Nick didn’t settle well into New York.  He missed the homeland so much he gave up and returned to Sicily with Catarina. This was before they had children, he could be impetuous. He even opened a new store, but he spent too much time hunting in the hills and his business went under. So back to the US they went.  I could have been born and raised in Sicily, if not for those rascally rabbits. I had to return to the motherland to burrow down to my own roots.

Our return to Sicily coincided with the second coming of Aunt Kay. We met her at the familiar Jolly Hotel in Palermo, rented a car, and drove to Gibellina. Pepino was stunned to see Aunt Kay. Wanting it to be a surprise, she hadn’t warned him she was coming. She was pleased with his reaction, but Pepino’s mother wasn’t. She had caught wind of his interest in this older American woman and heartily disapproved. Like all good Italian mothers, she wanted to keep her little prince close to home, not lose him across the ocean. There are even Italian therapists specializing in helping men cut their umbilical links to mama, so they can have happier marriages. 

 For Pepino, being from a small backwater Sicilian town, it was even worse. His mother had discovered the photos Aunt Kay had sent and ripped them up, so Aunt Kay had brought new copies. I gave up trying to call him at home, where his mother lived, and called the restaurant where he worked. Forbidden love. How romantic. That’s why they were so into each other despite the obvious mismatch.

The long Lenten season had passed. Holy Week processions began. We started in the West Coast city of Trapani for their famous Good Friday celebration. Left over from the days of Spanish rule, the procession featured brotherhoods of men carrying religious floats. Other men, in robes and hoods, passed between the giant stations-of-the-cross. For Americans this had unpleasant associations with the Klan.

We capped off the day of scary hooded men with an even gloomier evening in Santa Margherita. Their Good Friday procession was more of a funeral than a celebration.  Participants carried a glass tomb enclosing a ceramic Jesus. No one smiled. I didn’t understand any of it since I didn’t grow up Catholic.

The next day it poured. Aunt Kay said that every Good Saturday has bad weather. It almost made her mystical New Age mind reconsider Christianity.

Pepino had to work each day then drive half an hour to our hotel in Castelvetrano.  We chose that town because it was the largest in the area and had a more posh hotel.  It was still only three stars, though, so Aunt Kay didn’t find it up to her standards.  She trashed it, on the last night, by pouring champagne down Pepino’s back. I tried to get off translation duty by 10:00 each night. Fortunately my language skills weren’t needed for the communicating they were doing by that hour. 

Easter Sunday dawned bright in Castelvetrano. We woke up early and walked to the old town center. The crowd swelled. We were almost overcome by the smell of mothballs from all the spring suits taken out for the first time in a year. Rob was worried we might insult the town by being underdressed in our jeans and his fruit-vendor’s hat. I told him he worried too much about offending people, he should just be himself.

 Our clue that festivities had begun came when a group of men jogged by pushing a cart full of angel statues. Three times they passed through the parting crowds. Then another group ran by with a Jesus statue. Another passed us from the other direction carrying Mary. Each group lifted up their saint and ran towards each other.  The statues met ecstatically in the middle of the square, jumping up and down along with the angels. A band joined in this joyous celebration of resurrection. Finally Jesus and all the other figurines turned towards a small stage to hear the town priest say a few words.

We visited our friends in Santa Margherita. We feasted on salsiccias and sang songs again with Andrea’s family and our non-related Rabito friends. We saw Nella Rabito of the Menfi tile shop and met her charming fiancée, Bennedetto. They invited us for the Labor Day holiday, but we sadly declined. We had to get ready to leave Sicily in a few weeks, and we assumed this would be our final goodbye to the Belice Valley. We planned to spend our last weeks in Piazza Armerina saying goodbye to the dear friends we’d made there. I believed I’d leave the country never having found my true relatives in Santa Margherita.

*Rob*

Touring Santa Margherita and the Belice Valley, I was impressed by the various ways communities in the region had rebuilt after the earthquake of 1968. My own Uncle Gaspar’s hometown, Santa Ninfa, simply packed down all the rubble, along with whoever was still inside, and built a new town over it. It was the no-frills, pragmatic response my uncle might have had. Uncle Gaspar espoused other efficiency measures like shooting prisoners in the town square to deter crime. 

Unlike Santa Ninfa, Santa Margherita decided to leave the ruins alone. They just built a new town right next to them. It was eerie to be walking down a living street and suddenly enter a ghost town. We peered up stairways blocked by collapsed stone walls. Were there still skeletons up there? The old cathedral’s art and architecture were still affecting, even without a roof.

 The most creative approach was by the town of Gibellina, which had a modern art-loving mayor. He hired artist Alberto Burri to make something out of the destruction. Burri cleared the streets, having the rubble bulldozed into piles within the original footprints of the buildings. Concrete blocks were poured on top of the debris and painted white. The result was a maze of perfectly preserved streets, with five-foot tall concrete blocks as markers where buildings had stood. I thought it was brilliant, but it was controversial at the time. People pointed out that the money could have helped in more concrete ways than concrete art.   Burri was also from the mainland, which always brought suspicion.  

The new town of Gibellina Nuova was constructed, fifteen miles away, with a modern art museum at its center. The collection — which was open by appointment only — sat, as quiet as a tomb, anticipating the rare tourist.    

With a few days to spare, we hired a donkey-riding guide to show us the cave paintings at Levanzo. Carol liked seeing the art work of her great-great-great-times-a-million ancestors. She joked that even these cave-dwelling great-grandparents could draw better than she could. We also paid our respects to the Greek temple of Segesta, preserved as well as those of Agrigento but tucked inland amongst deep gorges.  

After a last five-star meal at the Hotel Villa Iglea in Palermo, Aunt Kay was back off to Las Vegas. After all our travel and translation, Carol and I vegged out with cable TV.  When the news turned to a depressing new terrorist attack, we decided to carpe more diem and distract ourselves with other sights while Helmut’s ex was still at “my” house.

I went to the infamous Palermo catacombs, which had been too creepy for the Carol and Kay. Hundreds of mummified corpses, dressed up in their death-day finest, were seated in chairs or propped next to one another as if in a casual family photo. The saddest were the tiny infants and toddlers, in delicate fading lace or suits with short pants. It was horrifying and fascinating. Palermo’s well-to-do had paid large sums for the honor of being buried and preserved under this particular church.  Luckily our tour group was large, so there was safety in numbers in this land of the dead. I bought some morbid postcards for my Victorian-loving sister and headed back to meet Carol.

*Carol*

There was no way Rob was dragging me to the corpse museum.  I went to the puppet theater instead, and I was thrilled to find it was actually open this time.

A stout Sicilian woman blocked the door until I handed over dieci mila lira. Once I was inside, the colors screamed out to me and my anticipation kicked into overdrive. I would finally get to see a real Sicilian puppet show like I had seen in pictures. This theater had passed from generation to generation in the same Palermo family. I studied the paintings on the huge stage and the giant canvas flaps. More tourists trickled in. The startling clang of a hand-cranked piano, operated by the ticket lady, announced the start of the show. Backstage the cast stomped their feet twice to tell her when to stop so they could deliver their lines. The puppets were tall, about 2 feet and Langley – just like Giovani. Plus, they could move in all kinds of ways. Sometimes you caught flashes of the puppeteers’ hands, but it didn’t detract from the illusion. 

I worried I wouldn’t like the battles and stereotypical chivalry, all that manly stuff. But the artistry saved it for me.  The puppet heads were actually designed to split open and fall off! There was lots of noise and excitement as Ruggero, the hero, slew the dragon and even more when he killed the villain.  A winged devil swooped down to take the hapless evil-doer’s body away.  

After all this exertion, Ruggero fell asleep snoring.  Suspenseful music started to build, and my heart leapt as a second villain crept across stage and killed him! Such Sicilian fatalism. No good deed goes unpunished. Angels flew down to take poor Ruggero away. A smaller puppet came out to wrap up the show and thank us for coming. He bent over to present us his backside. Upon it, a sign read “fine.”  The End. 

 It was one of the best shows I’d seen in my life. Rob was waiting at the door when I emerged. I was heartbroken that he had missed the performance, and I breathlessly told him all about it. I succeeded in making him regret that, instead of getting such a lively performance, he’d seen a bunch of dead people. 

I couldn’t wait to go home to Germanville.  I imagined our last few weeks would be perfect, with goodwill replacing all the drama of previous months. On the way we stopped at Cefalu, whose beauty everyone had praised. We stayed with another friend of Rob’s from the German work camp. Her mother normally rented out the upstairs apartment, but we got it for free. It was a wonderful few days of lounging around, looking out over the calm sea. We never saw the clouds brewing for the coming storm. 

*Rob*

Cefalu was a beautiful interlude before the tempest. It was Aliester Crowley’s adopted home until he and his Tarot cards were kicked out by Mussolini. I’d met Daniela the summer before, at the German volunteer camp, and she’d helped me practice Italian.  She was thin and frenetic, with frizzy red hair that seemed electrified by her energy. She had a pet chick that was just as adorable and lively as she was. It peeped and hopped all over the house, and we tried not to step on it. I didn’t mind too much when it jumped on the kitchen table to poop on me as we ate. 

Daniela took us to party with her friends in town, and her mom showed us their orchards where we picked and feasted on blood oranges. After this pleasantness, we headed back for what awaited us in Piazza. 

    At the beginning of our trip, after unsuccessfully trying to talk to Helmut, I’d left a few days ahead of Carol. At the airport, before I caught my flight, I called Giovanni’s. I hoped to catch Carol and clear up some details about what she should discuss with Helmut. I also wanted to clarify what she should clean to ensure that we’d leave the place in good condition for Helmut’s ex-wife. I had to leave a message with Giovanni.  Through a series of mistranslations, miscommunications, and missed opportunities, Carol ended up leaving a note for his ex-wife. It was the fuse for a great explosion. 

Chapter 15 – You Can Never Go Back Home

Chi toca More – who touches dies. A sign used in my family to protect fridge items but in this chapter I touch the third rail

*Carol*

There is something called collective grief.

 As a child, I didn’t even know my dad’s family was Jewish.  It was kept hidden, like the rest of their past. My grandfather was born near Minsk in the Ukraine, and moved to New York, around 1900, at age five. His and my grandmother’s families must have been escaping pogroms. All they would tell me is that the past doesn’t matter. But does it?

We didn’t have any direct relatives left in Europe during World War II. But my Aunt Peggy married a man named Lou. We were told never to ask Uncle Lou about the number etched into his arm.  Never ask about his wife and children who were killed in Auschwitz. But we knew. We knew there must have been unimaginable pain.

I’d always thought of him when I heard about the Holocaust in school and when Rob and I went to see Schindler’s List before we left for Italy. I was so furious after that movie that I couldn’t talk. Rob didn’t understand. Was it collective grief?

We arrived home late on Sunday night, and Giovanni was nowhere to be found. Our bags were heavy, so we rang up one of Giovanni’s brothers to ask for a place to store them while we hiked home. It was a moonless night, and our flashlight died on us. The wind was howling and spooky. Clouds threatened. Was it an omen telling us not to return?

We didn’t make it back. It was too dark, clouds loomed ominously, and the wind was too strong. We heeded the warning and found shelter. We pounded on Artilio’s metal door. 

 Rubbing his eyes, he said sure, it was fine to sleep there. In fact, he insisted that we stay there for the rest of our time in Piazza. Did he know something? Or was this his usual desperate plea for company?

In the morning he served us breakfast, chicken and pasta. He only knew or cared how to cook two things: his summer and winter meal.  We continued to Girasol. Veronika seemed distant.  Mick didn’t care to hear all our stories about his home country, and he showed no interest in the things we’d gotten him. That seemed even stranger.

Finally we made it to Rob’s cabin. Just as we’d feared, it was empty. The food, the radio, and even the pillows and blankets were gone.  

Hilda walked by. She didn’t greet me at all, but she gave Rob a hug “hello.” I asked her if we could catch a ride, to get our stuff, when she went to get her kids from school. She shook her finger and said no. A friend was picking up the kids. I shrugged and told Rob I’d walk back and see what I could carry from town.

I went to Giovanni’s.  When I rang up he said, “Come on up, Scemmo.” 

I asked why he was calling me the “shamed one” or stupid one.

“Oh, just for fun.”

He called his brother at work so I could get my stuff.  We waited and waited. He didn’t show. For fun, we tried to break into his apartment. No luck. The door wouldn’t budge.

Giovanni called his brother again and was told he had to make a delivery to another town and wouldn’t be back until 8:30.  I had to wait for Mick, too. He’d promised me a ride home since he wanted his books and baked beans from the U.K. Apparently he had worked up some interest in our trip after all.

I took advantage of my time there and had a shower. When I came out, Giovanni was up to his old tricks.  He was a little less suave, though. He just said, “Let’s fuck.” I shouldn’t have taught him English words like that.

After we were done, I put away the unused condoms. He asked to borrow one again. 

“No, they are my last ones.”

“Stingy Hebrea”  

“What?!”

“Stingy Jew.”

I couldn’t believe he was calling me that.

“Why would you say that?”

“A little bird told me a story. It said that you asked the woman who owns the house for money for using the bombola.  Is that true?”

“Yes. How did you know?”
“That wasn’t very nice. It is her house.”
I hadn’t thought about it. “Rob was the one worried about it!” I explained. “He paid for the bombola and didn’t get chance to talk to her husband about it.”

“You shouldn’t have done it.”

“You’re right. It was rude. But how did you hear?”

“In a bar.”

“It’s one thing for me to make a mistake, but another for people to talk about it.” 

 I trailed off. I was choking with tears. Luckily, the phone rang, and Giovanni got up to answer it. Tears rolled down my face onto his pillow. I couldn’t believe it. I felt horrible. It was obnoxious of us to ask for money and worry about the food and wood when it was her house. But why did he call me Jew?  Were the Germans calling me that? How could they? They had killed over 6 million of us. Did they still hate us? Did my mistake have to be blamed on half of my ethnicity? Besides, it was Rob who’d been worried about the stuff. I’d just passed along the message. Now everyone was going to remember me for this and for being accused of robbing Artilio. Great. The whole year came down to these horrible events.

And why did Giovanni want to fuck me? Me, such a reprehensible stingy person? Was I just a subhuman to be used?  I was feeling truly fucked. 

The doorbell rang, and Giovanni got up. I wiped away my tears and met Mick at the door.

“I’m so stoned,” was his greeting. 

Great, he was my ride home.

“Mick,” I said with as much composure as possible, “Is it true that everyone is talking about this bombola thing?”

“Yeah, but it’s more of a joke. That was really Jewish of you though. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen people kicked out, but it’s not that serious.”

There was that word again: Jewish. It went with stingy. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Everyone must be saying that. After I had made a Rosh Hashanah dinner for everyone and shared the Jewish side of myself with them all. I was proud even though I knew so little about the faith and even less the culture.  I’d come came to find my Italian roots, and I was being burned for my Jewish ones. I snuck into the bathroom and sobbed while Mick and Giovanni argued politics, oblivious to my meltdown.

Was being Jewish part of the joke Mick mentioned? It was terrifying to think of Germans making jokes at the expense of Jews. And, ironically, it had been Rob’s idea to ask about money for the gas and wood – he was of German descent! Why was I the one being punished? Hilda had hugged him, and she obviously blamed me.

All I could think about was Uncle Lou and what the Germans had done to him and his family. My collective wounds were cut open. I felt God had abandoned me. Why was this happening?  Why now, when I was about to leave Sicily with wonderful memories? Why now, on the last night of Passover?

It was also the 50th anniversary of Italy’s freedom from fascism and German occupation. The Americans had saved them. Who would save me from the latest German attack?  

I felt trapped. I wanted to leave but had nowhere to go.  Giovanni and Mick were blocking the phone. I couldn’t talk to them about it. They wouldn’t understand, and they didn’t seem to care. I slipped out of the bathroom and out of the apartment without them noticing. I visited Giovanni’s other brother, Fabio.  

“Ciao, Fabio. Do you have a key to your brother Aldo’s apartment?”

“No, but I could call him.”

“Thank you. My stuff is in there.”
“He told me about that. Sit down. I’ll call.”

I was left alone while he made the call. My thoughts and tears came back.  Fabio brought me the phone, but I couldn’t talk. He was left holding the phone, confused.

“I don’t know,” he told his brother.  “She can’t talk. She’s crying.”

He handed me some paper towels. This was yet another sparse bachelor apartment. 

“Try, Carol, try.”

He handed me the phone.

“Aldo?”

“Carol, piccola, what’s wrong?”

“It’s something horrible. It’s not you.  It’s racism.  Some people said some horrible things.”

“Was it here in Piazza?”
“Si.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it. Everyone is ignorant here.”

I managed a laugh. “It was foreigners. Hippies. Germans.”

“Ah, Yes, the Germans.  Don’t worry. They were stupid. Don’t worry about it.”

Aldo told me Fabio could drive to work and get his key.  Then we hung up.

“Are you okay?” Fabio asked.
“Better. Thanks.”

“Was it Giovanni? Mick?”
“No, they just told me about it.”

“I’ll be right back. You just sit here. Is the T.V. too loud?”
“No, it’s fine. Thanks.” I laughed between my sobs. He was

being so sweet. Fabio walked out but left the door open.  I heard someone come in. I thought it was Fabio returning, but it was Mick.

“Whoa. You are in crisis!” he said. 

I cried some more.

“I told you, don’t worry about it. Just throw a festa,” Fabio said.

“I feel awful, but I don’t know who to apologize to.” I said. “So many people know about it, and everyone is joking about me being Jewish.”

“No, no, no. It’s gone too far. Stop thinking like that.  That’s not true,” Mick said. 

I sobbed some more.

“I’d hug you but I’m not that type,” Mick said. That made me laugh. It was so true. He also said he wouldn’t tell anyone about my big breakdown here. That’s where the truth stopped.

Fabio came back with the key. I went into Aldo’s and found the books and beans for Mick. He was so thankful that he did give me a hug.  

“I’ve asked so many people to get me this stuff, and no one ever has. You are the first.”

Maybe I wasn’t so self-centered and greedy after all. Mick gave me the promised ride home, and I expected to find Rob as upset as I was. Instead, I found him blissfully ignorant. He had visited everyone in Germanville. They had all welcomed him back warmly and hadn’t mentioned a word about it. They all blamed me and me alone – the Jew. It didn’t occur to them that Rob was the one who bought the bombola and chopped the wood, and that they were mostly his concern.

  When I told Rob everything our neighbors hadn’t deemed worthy of mentioning, he hugged me. He didn’t seem to understand the crisis going on inside me. I cried myself to sleep.  I couldn’t sleep well, and I woke up crying.

I tried to write in my diary to make myself feel better. All I could write was “Help,” not directed to anyone in particular. Not even God. But again, I didn’t have many options.  I put on my jacket and walked out the door. Rob stopped me fearfully, “Are you coming back?”  

“Yes,” I assured him. Had he put me on suicide watch?

Walking past the houses in Valle Perfetta made me sick.  Images of shaved heads on starving bodies filled my mind. I had never experienced overt racism before. I’d never known how awful it felt. All I could see were their past crimes.

I kept walking and enjoyed hearing the Sicilian shepherd and his wife yelling at each other, like they always did.  Hearing Sicilian was comforting. German made me want to vomit.  It was no wonder Israeli Kibbutz won’t allow German-speaking volunteers. There are memories held in languages.

I turned to a rock for comfort, sitting down to cry. I gave God one last chance. I prayed. Then I lay down in the grass and tried to sleep it all away. I jealously saw a hawk pass over me and sweep across the valley. Why couldn’t I just fly away?  I wanted to escape.

*Rob*

When we returned to Piazza after our trip to Ireland, we found everyone acting weird.  The Germans in Valle Perfetta wouldn’t look me in the eye.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and no one offered to explain. Helmut did grumble something about how the sheets we left on the bed were “sporchissimo,” disgusting. That was embarrassing. I’d thought Carol would change them. Oh well.     

    When Carol returned, in tears, from Giovanni’s and clued me in, I was horrified. Carol’s note to Helmut’s ex-wife had come across as selfish, rude, and ungrateful. She had suggested that Helmut’s ex-wife leave us ten or fifteen thousand lira for using the gas in our bombola, after we had been allowed to stay there free for half a year. She also mentioned that if they used our borrowed radio, they needed to be careful not to touch the loose wires in the back or they might get a shock. Carol intended this as a helpful warning, but it was taken as “And don’t touch our radio!”  She further insulted the woman by saying that she should feel free to use whatever produce was left in the storage trunk. Hilda later said it was “a bunch of rotten, sprouting potatoes!”  We also had a bottle of soy sauce I hadn’t returned to Lea.  It was a social disaster.  

After Giovanni had called Carol a stingy Hebrew, Mick fanned the flames by joking about her Jewishness. I recalled a party at Hilda’s where Fier had proudly made his coin-sized pancakes for everyone. Mick joked that they were “Jewish” pancakes because of their stingy size. Fier smiled enigmatically.  Carol pointed out that it was yet another insult to think that all Jews were alike, that if you could joke with one, it was O.K. with any Jewish person.  

I didn’t know what we should do. The Valle Perfetta community had always seemed hypercritical in its expectations, and this faux pas seemed almost insurmountable. Carol wanted to give up and never see them again — if they felt the same way about Jews that Mick and Giovanni did, given that they were German, it was unforgivable. I made the rounds of the neighbors, alone, to get a better understanding of what had happened and see what could be done.  

    Veronika frowned as she said ciao. She launched into me about the stupid note Carol had left. Being German, she didn’t like Carol crying anti-Semitism.  She also guilt-tripped me about becoming a part of the community and carelessly disappearing to travel for so long. She half-joked that her cats were having to babysit each other these days. Apparently I had been delinquent in my child and pet care services. 

    Helmut reamed me out the worst. I explained that I’d only meant his ex might consider hooking up a new bombola if necessary, since it was hard for me to carry from town. I didn’t want her to leave us money for it. But he wasn’t having it. I tried to ask if we could still stay, and he just shrugged disgustedly and said “Fai come tu vuoi,” do what you want. I headed to Hilda’s. 

    I tried to apologize and explain the situation to her too, but the result wasn’t much better. I told her how hurt Carol was that the Germans here had started the anti-Jewish comments we’d heard from Giovanni and Mick.  Her eyes widened with shock, and she yelled, “WIR SIND NICHT FASCISTEN!!” (We are not fascists!)  I backed out as gracefully as I could, relieved that Kai wasn’t there to attack me too. 

*Carol*

    I felt more tranquilo after my prayer walk, but as I headed back to Germanville, my mood sank. I began to cry again. I saw Hilda and Kai near the path, so gave them a wide berth, taking another path. When I got back, I asked Rob if there were any neighbors around. He said no. I collapsed on the bed, bawling.

“I can’t stand it here anymore. They make me want to puke!”

Rob held me and listened. After a while I calmed down. Rob left, promising to talk to the neighbors, and it seemed like he was gone forever. My thoughts kept racing. Rob came back and told me about being bawled out. He had tried to explain our perspective, and at least Hilda seemed to cut him some slack. She said maybe we were just young and stupid.  

Hilda seemed truly shocked by the allegations of racism.  She claimed, given their history, they would never say that. She also told Rob she had heard about my breakdown at Giovani’s from Veronika. So much for Mick’s vow of silence. Why hadn’t anyone told Rob? Or talked to me? Especially now that they knew I had heard about it and perceived it as anti-Semitism? 

     As Rob recounted all this, my blood started boiling. Why should I kiss their feet? The day we had returned, they’d just smiled coldly without telling me they were snickering behind my back.  They should’ve known that if you limit your communication with someone to rumors, bad things happen. My anger reverted to tears. Why did I always have to cry when I got mad?

 My fury grew again upon learning that Helmut had wanted to kick us out long ago. We were both shocked at this news from Hilda. Was it over the stupid misunderstanding about the dresser?    Helmut had barely mentioned to Rob that we should put the dresser back. He was actually thinking of booting us out over it? I couldn’t believe these people were so passive aggressive. Maybe that was the only option left to Germans, since they had abused their privilege of being aggressive-aggressive. We thought Helmut had taken the pillows and blankets to wash for us, but apparently he didn’t intend to bring them back.  

It seemed useless for Rob to talk to Helmut. Helmut had joked that Rob was paranoid whenever he apologetically asked to borrow a tool or something. Now we knew Rob wasn’t the crazy one after all. We were getting burned for things we had borrowed or used.

In the morning, I raced out of Valle Perfetta. I felt like that hawk I’d envied – I was escaping. I wasn’t stopping in Piazza Armerina. Rob and I planned to meet that night, across the island in my family province of Agrigento. We’d take them up on their warm offer of a Labor Day picnic after all. Labor Day was the first of May – this is how a good socialist country celebrates May Day.

 Rob spread the word that we were going to let things cool down and figure out how to proceed. At that point I didn’t give a damn about saying polite goodbyes to anyone. 

I did slip into Ulla’s store before hopping on the bus. I almost cried with relief to finally find someone who understood and sympathized. Ulla still was a true friend. It didn’t hurt that she already hated Helmut for his plots against her jewelry business. It wasn’t just us. That Toilet Guy had a past.

The great thing about being a traveler is you can get the hell out of town. I didn’t have to stay and throw an ass-kissing festa. Fuck Germanville. I checked into our favorite cheap hotel in Agrigento and looked for a movie theater where I could escape from reality even further. That part didn’t quite work out, since only Outbreak was playing. All the disease and death just reminded me of the Holocaust. Next time I’d stick to a comedy, or a book.

Leaving the theater was worse – the streets were totally empty except for a few pockets of men who watched me. I walked quickly, my heart pounding. Everything in the past few days had made me paranoid. Some men even called out to me, which scared me more.

Finally, I got to the hotel, and Rob was there; he was on time for once. I fell into his arms and breathed a sigh of relief.

Rob was in a good mood despite our neighbors and so-called friends tearing him “four new assholes.” Helmut and Lea had unloaded their whole list of grievances on him when he went to try to make things right. Rob took the whole ridiculous affair in stride, but I started shaking uncontrollably as we talked about it. I cried myself to sleep and woke up still upset. Would I ever get over this trauma?

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Strangers in Sicily Chapter 13

An interesting chapter number since bad things start to happen which later re-surface in my experience at cohousing. Dog attacks and lack of communication. Enjoy:

Chapter 13 – People are Strange When You’re Stranieri 

me washing clothes at Rob’s house

*Carol*

Once, when I was a kid, I made my grandmother, Nettie, blow her top. She never thought other people were good enough for her children and grandchildren. I would spend all summer with my grandparents at their house on Long Island. But Nettie complained that my best friend down the lane was not good enough for me. Like an idiot, or at least a clueless kid, I mentioned it to my friend. She told her mom who, in turn, called Grandma in a rage. Grandma was mortified. How could I have said that – how could I have betrayed her? “Don’t you know that blood is thicker than water?” she demanded. I had never heard the expression before, but it seemed to make sense. You really could only rely on your family, so they’d better be trustworthy.  Was I?

Giovanni managed to keep his hands off me when I joined him for lunch at his apartment. It started to rain that evening, so I pushed my luck and I asked if I could stay over. He said no, another “friend” was stopping by. I was almost surprised that I didn’t feel jealous. I just accepted the situation and walked home in the rain. 

I stopped by Artilio’s and hoped he might warm me up with his wood stove and company. Instead he acted strangely cold. He said he was sad. Someone had stolen his wallet, full of the month’s pension money. I tried to commiserate with him, but I must not have done a good job.

Later, at Girasol, Mick told me  Artilio thought Rob and I had made off with his money.  

“What?!”  

“Well, you went traveling right after you had lunch at his house.”
“We always have lunch at his house! And we always travel!”
“Rob was sitting right at the chair where Artilio hung his jacket.”
“So?”

“The wallet was in the pocket.”
“But Rob wouldn’t steal!”  

Or would he? If I had changed so much in Sicily that I could cheat, could Rob, with his money anxiety, stoop to thievery?

Questions enveloped the whole hillside. We had both saved our money to come to Europe, and Rob was using what was left of his college fund. We didn’t need to steal. We wouldn’t want to.  I hated everyone thinking we could do this. Maybe they thought we stole the stereo and chainsaw from Girasol last fall, too. It became obvious that, even after all these months, no one really knew us. We weren’t like family.

Before we’d left for the Mardi Gras parade in Acireale, we had stopped at Artilio’s. Mick and Veronika were there too, along with another Italian guy. I mentioned this to Mick, but he said oh no, that Italian guy couldn’t have done it. He had lived in the hills with them for a year. But we’d been living there almost a year too. What was the difference?

Soaked by rain and swimming in doubt, I finally made it to Valle Perfetta. I told Rob about the intrigue. He seemed to be living in a bubble in his hill house. None of the Germans had mentioned that everyone wondered if we were thieves.  We were both stumped as to how to fix this mess.

We put our troubles out of our minds for a while by taking baths in the big black tub. Then we romantically scrubbed our clothes in it, made love, and fell asleep. It was a nice Sicilian life, baths, sleep, and …  

The next day we went to town together. Rob was taking a German class. I thought that was silly since he could learn it by talking to his neighbors, the same way I was learning Italian. I had no patience for anyone else’s ideas.

Rob left me alone at Giovanni’s. It was not a great idea, but he trusted me. Giovanni asked for a massage, but I didn’t feel like giving him one. I just wanted sex. When I suggested that, he didn’t need much convincing.

I was glad to have him as a lover again, but it felt distant. Besides, we had to do it quickly since Rob’s class wouldn’t last that long. The buzzer rang, and we shuffled up to get dressed. It wasn’t Rob, but I had already showered so Giovanni’s scent would be off me.  

We did some Sicilian waiting. When would Rob finally come? Giovanni had to make a phone call for work, and I felt bored. What had I done? I was lonely and sad. I just wanted Rob now. I didn’t want to hide things from him.

*Rob*

I didn’t want any more fights with Carol.  I had finally broken down and gotten a new blade for my saw, so I wouldn’t be grumpy about meeting her wood needs. I was in hippie hillbilly heaven, cutting through dried branches like butter. Then I loaned it to a guy visiting Hilda from Germany, and in a couple of days he brought it back to me completely rusted! I was pissed and wondered if this was some kind of joke. I furiously attacked it with sandpaper, hoping to salvage it. 

Bummed and looking for some escape, I tried using the thin paper from some airmail stationary as rolling papers for the tobacco Fier had given me. I wished he had given me some of his jealously-guarded weed. I tried to lighten my mood by head-banging around listening to mix tapes a friend had sent me, and then I worked on some cartoons. That helped. Another saw blade would only be about $5 anyway, so why was I so uptight? I indulged myself and actually heated the water I would use to wash the soot and dirt off my face that night.  

The weather was getting nice so, inspired by what I’d seen in the Palermo museum, I decided to do some plein air painting.

  I wanted to capture the delicacy of the almond blooms, the muted moss on the sunlit rocks, and the weathered arms of the prickly pear cacti. I hiked up to Dino and Hannah’s place to paint their great hilltop view. I didn’t get to paint, though. Dino and Hannah’s dogs kept coming too close for comfort. I knew they were probably fine domesticated creatures. But Dino had complained about a stray dog that had decided to join them in their domestic life.  Every time Dino saw him, he threw rocks to chase him away. It didn’t seem to be working. 

The sun disappeared behind some gathering clouds, which seemed ominous. Without the light, the scene was drained of life anyway, so I ceded the day to the dogs. I dusted off my jeans, gathered my gear, and retreated down the road under the watchful eye of the stray. 

Dino and Hannah squeezed us into their French Deux Chevaux, later that night, for the party du jour. Carol had felt slighted by Hilda, who’d promised to find us a ride but hadn’t. Dino put us at ease, offering puffs of his spinelli. I declined, wary that his liver ailment might be contagious. He claimed he couldn’t drink any more due to the condition, but, apparently, light drugs were fine. Arriving in Aidone, we navigated by moonlight down the path from the parking area to the house. To our delight we were there just in time for salsiccias! As we bit through the skins of the small fennel-inflected sausages, the spurts of delectable juice sent us scurrying for napkins.   

The rest of the night wasn’t so much fun. Jack was there, still gloomy over Fier’s departure. He was totally ubriaccho, drunk, staggering around and ranting that we were all hypocrites for one reason or another.  

Artilio was there too, and unusually surly. He almost slapped the camera out of my hand when I tried to take pictures of him with the others. I was oblivious to his hostility, until Mick and Veronika pulled me aside and reminded me Artilio still thought I stole his money. He even launched into obnoxious drunken songs about it! It was ridiculous and funny, but it sent Carol hurtling toward the deep end. Disillusionment with Sicily was welling up inside her again, like lava under Etna.

 The next day, in an unusually passive-aggressive way, Carol suggested performing a puppet show about the situation.   If people wouldn’t believe us, maybe they would believe puppets.  We learned that Jack had headed off to Bologna after the party, which seemed suspicious and might take some of the heat off us.  I felt bad for Jack though. I had always liked him – he was one of my band of misfits.

    The old adage that March came in like a lion certainly fit here. Beyond the interpersonal drama, the weather took a ferocious turn.  A storm blew into the Valle sending battering rains against my windows, rattling the old glass.  Trees were ripped from the earth, and the landscape was strewn with an oddly pretty layer of flower petals and eucalyptus bark that smelled of potpourri.  

I managed to make it to town for my German class.  Afterwards I stopped at the farmacia. I needed a laxativo, which was embarrassing since the shop was crowded. Artilio had probably been griping all over town. So now everyone would know that the blond hippie with lice was also a constipated thief.

My landlord’s wife, Lea, stopped by one cheerful sunny day between storms. Carol and I were having lunch. I offered her tea, and we made pleasant small talk. Lea’s little daughter was adorable. Then Lea noticed a large gold barrette in Carol’s hair.  She asked if that was one of Helmut’s. Carol said yes, she found it in the lower house Helmut said we could use. Carol had figured he must not need them, so she’d borrowed a couple when we dragged the dressers from that house to ours. Lea’s friendliness faded. 

Sa, questi si vendi bene,” she said. They’re good sellers.  I had been concerned when Carol wanted to plunder the lower house — I’d never touched it. But I’d figured she was the people-person, so she must know what was appropriate. Carol didn’t take the barrette out of her hair, which would have been my people-pleasing instinct.  Now not only did Artilio think we were thieves, it looked like we were stealing from Helmut too. Great. 

*Carol*

Although Artilio was pissed at us, we were stuck with him in Mick and Veronika’s car on the way home from the Aidone party.  It was normal for him to be drunk, but at this party his jack-o-lantern grin was scarier than ever. Crammed in next to Rob and me, he scowled that we would probably use the children on our laps as cover while we picked his pockets again. He launched into an angry song, and then he lunged forward from the back seat. We watched in horror as he tried to grab the wheel as if to crash the car.  We veered off the road and smashed through ruts and rocks. Mick somehow managed to keep control, probably because he was used to such chaos in his life. We made it back onto the road, and we were just catching our breath when I saw an owl fly across our path. Back home, that would be a bad omen.  

A nearly comatose Artilio wasn’t the only thing we dropped off at his house. The exhaust pipe fell off the car there, too.  Our little off-road adventure had probably pushed it to the breaking point. Mick drove on, undeterred.  Keeping the driver’s door open, he was able to reach his long arm far enough under the car to hold onto the exhaust system while flying around the dark cliffside road.  With this superhuman feat, the ride that would never end finally concluded. 

We helped Mick and Veronika trundle children and goods inside their house. We were about to say goodbye when Veronika said she wanted to talk to us. I felt like a child waiting to be punished.

She put her daughter to bed in the loft. Her little girl was already asleep from the car ride — I wondered how anyone could sleep through that. When Veronika came down, she wanted to talk about the Artilio situation again. I felt like crying and hated being one of the accused. At first she seemed to be trying to put us at ease, explaining that Artilio tended to get carried away about things. But she  didn’t let us off the hook as suspects. In my mind the real suspect was the other Italian guy who had been at lunch with Artilio. But Mick wouldn’t consider him because he had lived in the valley for a year, and Artilio didn’t suspect him because he was a friendly guy who’d actually talked to him. One of Artilio’s key pieces of “evidence” was that Rob didn’t look him in the eyes enough. 

     Mick and Veronika were uncomfortable, since Artilio only trusted them now and was unburdening himself on them. His door, which had always been open and welcoming to guests, was now slammed shut to visitors. Hoping to smooth over the crisis as soon as possible, they’d even scrounged up some money for him, but it hadn’t seemed to work. We must have looked even more guilty since we hadn’t offered to help Artilio as Mick and Veronika had. But we always felt so poor. In truth, we’d been a bit stingy with the modest sum we’d brought to last us a year abroad. We couldn’t work legally in Europe, and we didn’t look that hard for illegal work.

How could we prove our innocence?  It even made me doubt Rob. Could he actually steal? 

Mick asked me again about how I got to Sicily in the first place.

“I worked as a waitress at the reservation’s casino. I also worked at a non-profit and never took a day off from either of them.  I worked seven days a week, got the cheapest car, bought little food, and saved $5000.”

I tried to make myself sound very virtuous.

“And you, Rob?”

“I had some money saved from living at home after college. And there was some left from the college fund my grandparents set up for me.”

This interrogation was silly, but the best was yet to come.

“So then, you’re not CIA?”

“What?!”  

How could Mick seriously consider that? Why would the CIA send us to this dinky town in the middle of Sicily? Are only Americans accused of such preposterous things? Are Russians accused of being KGB? The whole world was full of misunderstandings, criminals, and intrigues.  This wasn’t the Sicilian experience I wanted. 

We trudged home after our pep talk/interrogation, hopeless and depressed. Rob saw one flash of a silver lining – it was a good lesson prompting him to be less shy, to get over his timidezza, because apparently his failure to look people in the eye caused suspicion.

The next morning I still felt hopeless. There was nothing we could do to solve this mystery. The rest of our time in Piazza would be clouded. I did the only thing I could. I prayed. I rarely did that, but in this superstitious land, why not give it a try?  I went up a hill looking over the German valley and sat down to beseech God. I begged my Higher Power, Great Spirit, or whoever would listen, to somehow help us. I doubted there was a way out, but I tried.

And a miracle happened. Somebody up there was listening, and my prayer was answered. The next day we heard the good news.  Dino had happened to go to Catania, and he saw some people who knew the Italian guy who had been at Artilio’s. Apparently he had come back from Piazza flush with cash, bragging about having stolen the old man’s money. I should have never doubted God.  I was ecstatic that suspicion of us had been lifted, and the rest of our time in Piazza Armerina would be smooth sailing. Or so I thought.

Wave upon wave of immigrants arrived in America. Those who were once the underdogs rose to the top of the pack and put the newcomers in their place. As Italians came into German neighborhoods, Germans left and moved elsewhere. When my great-grandmother, Catarina, and her sister-in-law walked to their seamstress’s shop, Germans threw stones at them, yelling “green horns!”

I wanted to thank Dino for finding out the truth. I hiked up to his house alone since Rob was busy with the endless task of cutting firewood. When I reached Dino and Hannah’s long gravel drive, the unwanted stray who had taken up residence bounded over and snapped at me. Dino didn’t trust this dog, and neither did I.  A minute later he was joined by Dino and Hannah’s supposedly nice domestic dogs.  

I inched closer to the house, but they circled closer and closer. They soon had me surrounded at close range, and I couldn’t go any closer to the house for fear of enraging them.  I couldn’t run back either, because I knew dogs love to a chase terrified prey. I was trapped. I tried to inch closer to the house, using my backpack as a shield. It didn’t work, and the creature I’d believe to be the nicest of the dogs ripped at my bag and nipped my leg. Now I was terrified. I knew I would be eaten alive.

I yelled “Dino!” With each scream and each terrified step, the dogs felt my fear and ramped up their growling and barking.  I felt helpless. No one was coming to help me. All I could do was keep screaming for Dino and Hannah over the rising din of the wolfpack. Frozen with fear, I just wanted to give up and lie down. I started crying.

I heard Dino yell, and stones thudded around me. He had heard the dogs’ ruckus and my scream. He walked me, shaking, into the house. At that point I was sobbing uncontrollably. I barely even noticed that Giovanni was there, fixing their TV.  

Che successo?” Dino asked. “What happened?”  

I calmed down a little. Hannah apologized for the dogs and gave me some tissues. She said she couldn’t understand how her nice dogs could do that. But we all knew. It was just like fascism – once the leader took charge and made cruelty acceptable, it gave the formerly timid followers a chance to taste power. 

Dino called me brava for bravely walking through the wall of dogs. I was just glad I’d survived and he’d finally heard me.  First Dino had saved us from the wrath of Artilio, and now he’d saved me from the dogs. What would have happened if he hadn’t heard me or wasn’t home? I tried not to obsess about the what-if’s. Maybe God was still looking out for me.

They gave me lunch, and Giovanni offered me a ride to town.  At his place I watched a movie, based on a Sicilian woman’s book called “Voglio Pantalone” (I want pants), about oppression of women. Giovanni went out to run some “errands.” I didn’t care if he was going to hook up some wires or hook up with some woman. I was empowered by the movie, and I felt proud of surviving my run-ins with the lone wolves and wolfpacks of the world. 

When Giovanni returned I told him I was going to walk home.  He suggested that I wait for a ride with Marlies, so we could have some time together. We fooled around until she called with the news that she couldn’t pick me up after all.  So now we had time for proper sex. It was a marathon session, but compared to my intimacy with Rob, something was lacking. It was just sex, clinical and technical, like one of his electrical repair jobs.  Put this piece there, screw this in, and then flip the switch.  

Afterwards, we cuddled and listened to music.  I almost liked that more than the sex. It was comforting, like the “old times” of months before. But I was nagged by the knowledge that my real love was at home in the hills, waiting for me.

                *Rob*

While Carol was gone, Pia stopped by and invited us to Hans’s birthday party that afternoon. She had written a note in case we weren’t home, and I asked to see it. In an endearing childhood script it simply said, “Alle 4 mangiamo la torta!” (At four we eat cake!) I worried because I didn’t have a present.  But then I thought what the hell, I’d practice positive thinking again. I tried to put out of my mind how they talked about Fier behind his back. I had made it through winter here and would soon be safely back in America surrounded by modern conveniences. I could risk not pleasing everybody. I savored the freedom to leave, to move on. I further congratulated myself that art was a good career choice. I could do it anywhere.  

The party turned out to be enjoyable, and Pia and Hans didn’t beat me up too much. There was great chocolate, cookies, and M & M cakes. There was plenty for all because, for some reason, Veronika and her two children were the only other guests.  I played a strange form of badminton with Hans in the new playroom Kai had added to the house. Pia showed me the dollhouse she had been working on. They had some toy food for the dollhouse, which caught my eye since I used to make similar things for my own sister’s dolls. I noticed the turkey on the dollhouse dining room table was black. I joked that Hans had burnt it, and they all howled.  

I was back at the house later when Helmut stopped by. He wasn’t there to offer me furniture or food this time. “Senti, Rob,” he started in a lecturing tone. “Listen.” He let me know he wasn’t happy with all the changes since Carol had moved in. I had left the small lower house mostly untouched, but Carol had wanted to use the dressers. I took all of Helmut’s jewelry out of the dressers and put them, in grocery bags, on the floor. Now Helmut wanted the dressers returned and everything put back the way it was. I cringed, remembering that Carol worried that March was always a bad month for her. I hoped this wasn’t a sign. 

When Carol finally returned the next day, I was playing cards with Hans and Pia. She wanted me to herself, so she gave them cookies and ushered them on their way. As they left, Hans said, “O.K., you two go to bed now!”  We were a bit scandalized by the thoughts this 7-year-old was entertaining. Who knew, maybe he and Pia snuck out to spy on us some evenings, the little scamps.  

Carol whipped up a gorgonzola artichoke pasta, as carcioffi were in season now. All the vendors had bagfuls of artichokes for a couple of dollars each. Always on the move, Carol was back in town by evening for a meeting at Carlo and Ulla’s. They were discussing the upcoming “Woodstick” festival, and everyone who was anyone in the hippie community was there. I tried not to feel negligent or unimportant in not attending.  

 Carol returned, smiling, and described how Giovanni had really stepped in it. Apparently Ulla needed my dog poop collection services. Giovanni had washed off his shoe with a hose outside the house, and to the people inside it sounded like he was taking a record-length piss. Every moment that Giovanni applied water to the sole of his shoes, the listeners convulsed with stoned laughter.  

On a heavier note, Carol reported that Mick was bullying people. Bullying and manipulation were his specialties. He had tried to force Hannah to use her property as the festival parking lot, among other things. Carol was surprised that the usually sweet Veronika had joined in the arm twisting. But after her stern lecture about the Artilio affair, I wasn’t shocked.

*Carol*

I was impressed by how everyone came together to plan Woodstick.  Although the commune had broken up years ago, the community could still come together for something like this. The hippies were a motley bunch. They mostly still lived off the land, supplemented by irregular jobs vending or performing at fairs. Rob and I fit in pretty well. We didn’t have jobs, but we found plenty of projects. 

Our latest project was in the works. Inspired by our successful performances at the Carnival party, we planned to use the puppets Marlies and Veronika had hand crafted to perform shows around town. 

Emiliano’s preschool turned out to be our first and only gig. The teacher said the students didn’t understand much of our Italian, but they enjoyed the puppets hitting each other. She gave us enough money for coffee. That was the sum total of the money I earned as an immigrant overstaying a tourist visa.

My next scheme to avoid boredom involved an environmental group. I wanted them to sponsor my presentation about Native Americans and the environment. Organizing with Italians was always an adventure. First we planned a meeting to decide when to meet. The second meeting was at a bar, where, over espresso, we discussed the third meeting.  There we would really get down to business. At the third meeting, no one showed up. 

I ended up taking a passagiatta around town with the leader of the group, who showed me places I should put up flyers for the event. He said the poster should emphasize that a bella ragazza Americana – a pretty American girl – would be giving the talk.  Ah, the subtlety of Italian marketing.   

To prepare for my presentation, I had to brave the dogs at Dino’s again. I wanted Hannah’s help translating some Native American quotes into Italian. Rob came with me, this time, for protection. We told Dino we would be coming, so Hannah tied up her dogs to deprive Cujo of his pack. Rob held a large white flag he’d made from a sheet to attract Hannah’s attention. I also had some old bread crusts so any strays could eat them instead of me.  As a back-up line of defense, we stuffed a backpack with rocks and sticks.  

Instead of taking the driveway, which passed around a bluff and out of sight on its way to the house, we walked through the fields and waved the flag. The stray dog dutifully came sniffing around. I froze. Rob reminded me of the bread. I threw some at the dog. At first he jumped, scared, expecting rocks. But after realizing we were showering him with kindness, or at least protection money, he happily wolfed it down it and went away. I marveled that all I needed to save my life was some stale bread.  I guess it really was the staff of life. 

*Rob*

Carol polished her presentation, with Hannah’s help, and we plastered the town with posters I had designed. On the day of the presentation, she got a ride into town early, but I couldn’t be roused.  Carol scowled when I promised to hitch a ride in and make it on time. I ended up in the back of a passing Ape. It was driven by one of the Vallone’s other colorful residents, a Sicilian backwoods bumpkin. Reaching town, he pulled over by a dumpster and grabbed a bag of garbage that was next to me in the truck bed. He launched it like a basketball and hooted when it went in, following it with a mouthful of viscous spit.  

Mick cornered me at Bar Charlotte and urged me to paint signs and park cars for Woodstick.  I told him Carol and I were planning to leave before Woodstick. He asked a different favor. When I got home, could I send him  some English language books, like novels by Tom Robbins, which were hard to get here? Relieved to be off the hook as festival parking lot attendant, I gladly agreed.

 I met a nervous Carol at Giovanni’s. She urged me to see her new favorite film, I Would Prefer Pants.  As we watched, Giovanni nonchalantly mentioned that Carol had left a turd floating in the toilet. Horrified, she went to check. Giovanni gave me a mischievous smile and quickly swapped the tape in the VCR with a Tracy Lords porn flick.

Carol came back wondering why Giovanni had lied. She saw we’d turned the T.V. off. 

“Rob! Why aren’t you watching the movie? It’s so good!”

She marched over to the VCR and pushed play. Her jaw dropped as genitals flashed on the screen.  

“What is THIS?!” 

Giovanni replied, with a straight face, that this was a documentary showing how modern Sicilian girls live. Carol’s libido won out over her feminism, and she joined our laughter.

Soon it was time to get serious, and we headed to the local meeting hall of “La Rete” political party (“The Net,” known for wanting to round up the Mafia). That was the spot she had found to give her Native American talk, and I hoped the Cosa Nostra wouldn’t choose this moment to get their revenge on the party. Although I’d papered the town with my magnificent posters, only about fifteen people came. Most of them were people we knew. Ulla and her kids were there, and little Emiliano joined the show by yelling out corrections to Carol’s pronunciations.

Non!  E speZiale, non speSHiali!!”

 Afterwards, a bald man with a cyst invited us to a private club upstairs. I was curious to see it since a local artist I knew had been hired to paint murals there. Carol wished more people had come and worried that her Italian was embarrassing, but everyone congratulated her on a great effort. She’d even raised eight big American dollars for the environmental organization on the reservation, which she dutifully sent home. 

We spent several days riding ups and downs. Carol tried some new recipes, which I savored, like lentil and fennel pasta al forno and egg-breaded lentil burgers with potato and onion inside. We were fitting right in with our vegetarian neighbors.  I was helping Hilda in her garden in trade for vegetables. I was surprised when Carol got upset that I wasn’t spending more time painting. I had been spending so much time with Hilda that she’d started talking to me in German. I was flattered, but also intimidated. It was so much harsher sounding than Italian, and I was more afraid of messing it up.  

When I stopped by Girasol on my way to German class, Mick asked me in German what I had learned so far. I said in mock triumph, “Ich heise ROB!” (“My name is Rob”). He and Veronika convulsed with laughter, as I’d intended, but somehow it felt like they were laughing at me. After hiking and hitching all the way to town, I saw a little note tacked to the school door saying class was cancelled. Argh.  At least I got lunch at Carlo and Ulla’s after finding them at their shop.   

I met up with Carol who had taken her own trip to town.  She’d taken a slightly different route and passed a power line pole on which was printed Chi Tocca Muore, “whoever touches dies.” Carol had been looking for just such a pole the whole time we had been here. It was a phrase her family had always joked about because of its double meaning. In addition to the electrocution warning, it meant that touching a Sicilian’s daughter could get you fitted for cement shoes. Her family also used it to protect leftovers in the fridge. Carol snapped pictures to send to everyone back home. 

She gave me surprising news — we would be treated to the triumphant Return of Aunt Kay!  Kay had decided her therapist could go to hell and thrown her vow of celibacy to the Scirroco wind. Her long-distance relationship with Pepino the waiter had blossomed, thanks to Carol’s translations, and Kay was coming back to consummate it. She would arrive in April. We braced ourselves for another whirlwind of high class adventure.  

The end of March also meant Veronika’s birthday celebration. As reggae beats throbbed, everyone descended on Girasol with potluck dishes and cakes. Carol and I had brought coleslaw she’d made, and Artilio had brought a pile of wild spinach frittatas. They were gritty with sand, but no one complained. Hell, at Girasol people would eat mouse shit and not mind, as I had learned from Annabella. 

Artilio apologized to Carol and me for accusing me of stealing. He said he was just so beside himself since, in all the years he’d kept an open door for people, this had never happened before. Carol looked like she was about to cry, Artilio’s speech was so moving!

 Mick told me later that poor Artilio had brought a lot of these troubles upon himself.  Earlier that spring, Artilio had been proud of trying a lucrative new crop in his garden, cannabis. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut and was soon whispering to everyone about his new get-rich-quick scheme.   Then, just as his precious plants had started to bud, they’d disappeared. Rubato! Robbed! Cut down in their prime. He couldn’t report it to the authorities, and he had only his blabbing to blame.  

Roasted salsiccias were a high point of Veronika’s party, but we managed to miss them by getting there late. There were plenty of side dishes left. Mick and Felipe were in high spirits, pretending to defend the cake table from thieves by wielding a pair of hammers. 

They later put on an informal burlesque and started stripping. I gave Carol a mille lira note which she put down Felipe’s pants. Felipe paid it forward and put it down Giovanni’s faded jeans when he walked in. At the same moment, Carol was putting another bill down Mick’s unzipped pants. Even the world-weary Giovanni was a bit shocked.

After Giovanni arrived, Mick vented his anger that Woodstick wasn’t going to happen after all. It was due to lack of help, he said, looking pointedly at Giovanni. But Mick soon got back into the festive spirit, zipping up his fly and telling stories of old times. Like the night Artilio got so drunk that he pissed all over Sabine’s Barbie dolls, which had been having a tea party outside. When Carol laughed at this, Mick said she sounded like an “old auntie,” which, to my surprise, she liked.  

Speaking of aunts, Carol had arranged for us to take a trip to the British Isles while we waited for the return of Aunt Kay.   We needed to do something while Helmut’s ex wife used my house over the two-week Easter vacation. It was a compromise Carol had made with me since I’d been thinking about going to Germany to delve into my family history. I had ancestors from Britain and Ireland as well, and these were places Carol preferred to see.  Besides, her great-grandmother was of Irish descent even if she had “lowered herself” to marry a Sicilian.

Mick was thrilled we were going to his homeland, and he wanted to give us a long list of stuff to bring back for him.  His mood contrasted starkly with mine, and he commented that I didn’t seem thrilled to be going to England.  Carol was upset with me and huffed that I shouldn’t come if I didn’t want to.  She could have stayed at Carlo and Ulla’s while I traveled, but she didn’t want to be alone in Sicily, and I didn’t want to plan a trip myself. She had also been feeling sick for a few days, annoying me –yet again — by thinking she might be pregnant.  Wonderful. I tried to act more enthusiastic when we told more people our plans.  

I had one more night of German class. Carol stopped making fun of me for taking the class after she dropped by once and saw how cute the teacher was. She was curvaceous, not like most of the stick-thin Italian women Giovanni lusted after and Carol detested. Carol gave me the green light to invite the teacher out with us, to see what might happen. But I thought the teacher was from Catania, and I doubted she’d drive all the way out to Piazza to hang out with us.  

After the final class, one of my classmates clued me in that our teacher actually lived in Piazza. Unemployment was bad in Sicily, but not so bad that someone would drive hours from Catania to teach a Continuing Ed class in the middle of the island. It was totally different from our overextended suburbs in Washington DC. I agonized over whether I should run back upstairs and desperately ask for her number. Maybe I’d just see her in town. 

*Carol*

Hilda invited us for a dinner of baked macaroni with cauliflower, smothered in homemade tomato sauce and ricotta. She also served homemade beer-yeast bread and “cotton apple” sauce for dessert. Our landlord, Helmut, came over and started talking to her in German. He barely said hello to us before reminding us that we had to remove the dresser we had hauled up to our house.

We offered to do the dinner dishes. But the pile we found in the kitchen seemed like it had been piling up for a week.  We washed them, but I felt used – we were like servants doing the dishes while Hilda and Helmet sat in the living room and  left us out of their conversation being spoken in their native tongue of German.  

All winter Rob had obsessed about his precious firewood. Now he made me worry about it too. He wanted to confirm that Helmut would really cut wood for his ex, so she wouldn’t use up all of ours. He was also concerned about how much gas she would use in the little bombola tank that he’d had a hard time finding and hauling up the mountain to use as a stove. In our flurry of activity to plan our trip to England, we weren’t thinking straight.

Before our forced vacation, Rob went to talk to Helmut twice but never found him home. Rob was leaving for England first to visit some friends, so he handed the task to me. Helmut wasn’t around when I tried to find him either, so I left a note for his ex-wife in our cabin. I got bored being away from Rob for even a couple of days. I knew the danger that boredom poses to relationships in Sicily. I distracted myself with packing and cleaning. I looked around the house and kept finding things to worry about, adding them to the note for Helmut’s ex.

“Please don’t use the wood, but use the wood your ex-husband will cut for you. Rob is worried about how much gas is left in the bombola. Help yourself to our food. Be careful with the back of the radio, the wires are exposed and can cause electric shock,” I nitpicked. I should have known better, but what else was there to do?  Well, there was always “dot dot dot.”

Giovanni showed up to rescue me from myself. I didn’t feel any guilt — I was excited by the forbidden act of cheating in Rob’s own bed. We didn’t bother to put the curtains up. As we travelled our own erotic peaks and valleys, we had a great view of the peaks and valleys across this mischievous land.

Giovanni brought me down to earth again on the ride to his apartment. I was furious when he asked to borrow some of my good made-in-the-USA condoms. He hated condoms. But there was a new woman he wanted to sleep with, and she was “iffy.” 

“I’m not giving you a condom to sleep with another woman. That’s a preposterous idea!” I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to help him cheat on me.

“But she could have a disease.”

“Then don’t sleep with her! If she’s diseased, that’s your responsibility. Don’t bum off of me!”

I was bitter. Rob wasn’t upset if I slept with Giovanni, but he worried that I’d catch something and share it. Now Giovanni was putting us all in jeopardy, again.

“You’re stingy,” was Giovanni’s reply.  These words would echo and take monstrous shape while we traveled in blissful ignorance. 

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Strangers in Sicily Chapters 10, 11, 12

Chapter 10 – The End of an Era

Aunt Kay, me, and Mom at the property our family fought over for some reason

*CAROL*

After Christmas, I was off again. Not that I wanted to be.  But I was going with the flow, and this time the flow was Mom and Aunt Kay dragging me on their tour of the island. We started in Siracusa, which was lovely enough. We stayed in another fancy hotel with a fantastic view of the sea, but I ended up in bed with a cold for days.

The new year promised to start off tranquilo, which is what I’d hoped for. I wanted to leave the drama and conflict of the past year far behind. We settled into Taormina a day before the year’s end. Mom and I stayed at a reasonable two-star hotel, parting ways with Aunt Kay, who insisted on the nicest one possible. She chose the San Domenico, a five-star hotel that had once been an austere monastery. 

My Catanian pals, Flaminio and Giuseppe, met us around noon at our hotel, and we walked to Aunt Kay’s palazzo. It was a treat for them, since people can only enter the San Domenico as patrons or their guests. They had lived near Taormina all their lives, but they had never walked through the doors of this exclusive inn.   

In a change of roles, I gave them a tour of something on the island. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed while looking out at Etna from one side, then the roiling sea on the other. We peeked into all the open rooms and strolled in the palm gardens. Our final destination was a Trattoria for lunch. 

 Flaminio and Giuseppe loved meeting my mom and aunt, who insisted on treating us to the meal. They were such sweet guys, and I felt truly lucky that I had met them during my incarceration with a boring host family.  

That night’s New Year’s dinner at the San Domenico was the most elegant I’d ever eaten. Course after course: lobster soup, pasta, and steak with lemon sherbet between courses. The sherbet seemed weird until Aunt Kay explained its pallet-cleansing benefits. It was great to try all the foods, but otherwise it was just an over-decorated, boring dinner with my family. I missed Rob. 

To make it worse, at the table next to us was a couple from Germany who appeared to be in their 50’s. The man got on his knee and proposed to the woman with a huge ring. They were having a real celebration, and I couldn’t help wishing it was Rob popping me the question. I’d even settle for a smaller ring.

At midnight we threw streamers, blew horns, and raised champagne toasts like the people at all the other tables.  I excused myself to the patio to seek distraction in the fireworks.  A band played decent Latin music, but I was frustrated by having no one to dance with. I hung in there until the servers finally passed around the good fortune meal of lentils and pork. My lucky red Roman underwear was firmly in place too. Hoping I had placated the Fates for a new year of good fortune, I bid everyone a good night and went to pull the covers over my head.  

*ROB*

New Year’s Eve.  Only a few days had passed since Carol had left on her trip with Kay and Marilyn, but it seemed like ages.  Despite the difficult readjustment to rustic life, I was beginning to enjoy my solitude again. I began to think I had made a mistake getting back together with garrulous Carol. I told myself that as soon as she got back from her trip, I would have to tell her I just wanted to be friends after all, it didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t “in love” with her. Ah shit, what an asshole.   But better an honest asshole than a deceitful one, right?  

I lay in bed debating all this until afternoon. Fier disturbed my reverie, stopping by to see if I wanted to head to town with him. I declined. I gave him some money to bring me back a loaf of bread. My old one had gotten so dried out I had to pretend I was eating crackers.  

That night, I enjoyed the feeling of being an impartial witness, as if outside of time. I watched fireworks erupt simultaneously over five cities and towns. The whole province was bursting to life. I told myself that this was better than being drunk and stoned at some stupid party. 

I awoke, in the New Year, to a silent morning. Even the industrious Germans were sleeping in for a change. I tried to fight off sadness by writing in my journal, then clearing vines and thorn bushes outside.

I hadn’t built a fire all day. I’d just bundled up and tried to conserve wood.  After dark I finally broke down and lit a fire, and I wrote a letter to Nikki. I scratched at red welts on my ankles and other places. Was it bugs or allergies? I wondered if this Sicilian life had lost its romance. But I wanted to survive here, and I wished for the hopeful rays of spring to come soon.   

*CAROL*

In Palermo Aunt Kay and Mom started re-enacting the conflicts of their childhood. Kay complained about Mom’s afternoon naps.

 “I’m paying too much to sleep through the afternoon!” 

 Mom, in return, called Aunt Kay a bitch. I tried to maintain the peace by keeping them distracted with sightseeing.  We visited the Cathedral, various churches, the Art Galleria, and even Pizzeria Elvis.  The Fontagna di Vergona made our list too, the Fountain of Shame. It may have caused a blush in the 18th century, but it seemed hardly shameful to me – it was just a few nudes frolicking with some animals.  

My favorite spot was the Museum of Ethnography, where I got to see the horse drawn carts Papa Pete had told my mom about.  They are true Sicilian works of art. The carriages were decorated with detailed paintings of everyday Sicilian life of long ago. I felt close to my Sicilian roots again, even as I wanted distance from my mom and aunt.         

The museum also featured puppets, another famous Sicilian form of art.  The knights and princesses were mostly made of metal and dated back to the Middle Ages. It made me want to see an actual puppet show, but the Palermo puppet theater had strange hours. I would have to wait. The last museum exhibit was dedicated to the old Sicilian belief in black magic. All modern Sicilians insist no one believes in evil eyes and curses anymore, but it is still woven into their culture.

I was feeling cursed myself. I missed Rob with a miserable angst and ache like when we were apart the summer before. But this time I felt bad for what had happened. I suffered thinking of my cheating and swore I never would have done it if I’d known I’d feel so guilty. And I was afraid I would do it again.    

I knew I had to stop these thoughts. Pining for Rob had, ironically, gotten me in trouble with Giovanni in the first place. I didn’t want to be lonely and miserable again. I didn’t know how I could survive three weeks without Rob, traveling around Sicily in the wet and cold with the older generation was hardly energizing. Mom and Kay looked at one tourist site, then napped all afternoon and ate and drank too much at night. I needed an evil-eye trinket to escape this curse.

**Rob **

The next day it was back to hauling water, sawing wood, and gardening with Fier and Kai. Fier had cut down a whole dead fruit tree near Kai’s land, and he enlisted me to help drag the damn thing all the way back uphill to saw. I had the questionable help of a rusty hacksaw, which Fier suggested I polish with sandpaper.  Neither of us seemed willing to fork out money to buy a new blade. After all that work, at least I got a share of the wood.  

I hadn’t stocked up on food in several days. I ate canned tuna and a makeshift salad from a head of lettuce that was rotting on the outside, but still edible in the middle. I also had Christmas packages from home, with cookies and even some priceless, indestructible Twinkies.

While I was trimming some hazelnut bushes one afternoon, a branch slapped me in the face and cut my nose. I flew into a rage at the difficulty of this life, at being thrust back out here to fend for myself after a tormenting taste of the good life with Carol’s family. Meanwhile she was off for high-class fun with Marilyn and Kay. 

Figuring I deserved another taste of that life myself, I stormed back to the house and popped open my last bottle of wine. I stormed off into the trees and down the hill, heading nowhere in particular. I guzzled the tingly intoxicant, distracting myself by exploring animal trails through the eroded terraces. Trying to get in touch with my own druidic roots, I communed with a stand of ancient cypresses as I drained the bottle.  

  Eventually I headed uphill to home. Calmer now, I worked on some art.  Fier came around. We went out for another unique pastime, a wild spinach hunt. He and Veronika had taught me how to spot the vegetable, and I actually found it exciting, like a childhood Easter egg hunt. I felt quite resourceful being able to spot the delectable leafy green hiding amongst all the weeds and inedibles. I had been raised on brownish-green canned spinach, so it was eye-opening to see it in its bright green wild state.  Here was a way of living off the land that didn’t require hoeing and planting, watering or weeding. I saw that I’d be much happier as a hunter-gatherer. I remembered something I’d read about cavemen only “working” a couple of hours a day. I thought it unfortunate that humanity had developed agriculture and started down the twisted trail to civilization.

As a bonus, our expedition also produced a couple of wild fennel plants. They would give a subtle licorice touch to our cooking. Fier snitched a leek from Hilda’s garden, and  we combined it with his potatoes and Veronika’s eggs to make frittatas. It took a while, but the result was worth it. 

“A frittata is one of the best things that can happen to a person,” Fier happily proclaimed.   

Fier and I got domestic. I whipped up a pasta dish. He made  small delicate pancakes with sprinkled sugar on top. We shared sugary tea and several rounds of Scopa. I felt like I was settling back in here – maybe this country life wasn’t all bad.  The wood we had so painstakingly sawed crackled pleasantly in his iron stove.  

I let him tell me how I should rearrange the rest of my house, in addition to the spices in my kitchen area. It was weird. I realized that if Carol, Annabella, or another woman had tried to tell me how I should do things, I would have been defensive. But from Fier, I didn’t mind. At least not too much.  Plus, my house seemed much more pleasant after he’d had his way with it.  

I was sure Kai would joke that Fier needed mother Hilda less now that he was married to me. But I didn’t mind.  I was happy here. 

*CAROL*

A lifeline was thrown to me after several desperate days with Mom and Kay. My complaints must have made it through my mom’s stubborn skull, because she suggested I call Rob and invite him to meet us when we returned to Palermo. I was ecstatic. I left a message with Helmut, the Valle Perfetta Toilet Master. He also happened to be the only one with a phone. I asked him to tell Rob to meet me at the hotel in Palermo the following Saturday. It was only a few days away. I could breathe again.

We rented a car, and I drove us all the way to Agrigento.  Rental establishments in Sicily didn’t offer automatics, and I was the only one who’d learned to drive a stick thanks to my rez-o-wreck car in Minnesota. I had never driven in Sicily and was nervous, rightfully so. But I did know a few tricks. First, parking tickets are rarely given out since the police never know whether the car owner has paid off the police with Mafia money.  Second, a red or green light is just a suggestion. I’d seen drivers sit at a green light, to have a cigarette and a conversation, or speed right through a red light. I didn’t know how hard it would be to actually attempt the roads. The drivers went anywhere at any time, so the whole thing was a big guessing game. It was also pouring rain, and I sometimes felt like I was steering a boat through the huge puddles. At least the autostrada was smooth sailing until we hit the small, curvy roads into Santa Margherita.  

Superstition once ruled Sicily.  Sicilians still hold grudges, but once upon a time they placed magical curses on people. Many symbols are still sold, as necklaces, to ward off the evil eye – the cornuto hand sign and red devil horn are common examples. Legend has it that once upon a time, a member of my family crossed someone else. The details are murky, but apparently a curse was placed upon us. No boys would ever be born, and the family name would be lost forever.  

We don’t know how real the curse was, but its results are irrefutable. Papa Nick and his brother Andrew were the last boys born to our family in Sicily. Papa Pete had a final boy, my grandfather Joe. But Joe only had two daughters, with one of Papa Nick’s three daughters. Aunt Kay never wanted kids, and my mom’s kids all bore her husband’s last name. So we are no longer Rabito, Marino, Cottone, or Adamo. I only stuck Marino at the end of my name so people wouldn’t look at me funny when I told them I was Italian.

My great-great-grandfather, Gaspare Rabito, left Santa Margherita. He left his wife, Rosalia, and their two sons behind in Sicily to labor in the Argentinean sliver mines. He stayed there a year. What he didn’t know was that a few months after he left, his wife died. No one remembers the cause of her death. I assume it was some 1880’s pre-antibiotic disease. Her family sent a letter by boat, but Gaspare boarded his own ship for home before the letter arrived. When he returned to Sicily, he was shocked to find his wife dead and his sons in an orphanage. Had he been cursed for scorning the island?  He vowed never to leave Sicily again.

In Santa Margherita I got back on task. With few tourist sites to schlep les grand dames to, I could concentrate on reviving my search for relatives. I hoped they would be less annoying than my mom and aunt had become.  

I started by walking through the black metal gates of the town cemetery. It was like a horror film, cold and alone in the howling wind with the sound of a baby crying and yet no houses around. I told myself it must be a cat.  

Hunching over to keep my notepad dry, I scribbled down the names of all the Rabitos, Cottones, and Adamos, hoping some of them were my family. One grave had interesting possibilities – it was for a Gaspare Rabito. The dates of his birth and death were around the time my great-great-grandfather lived. Could this be the real Gaspare Rabito, my Gaspare Rabito?  “Will the real Gaspare Rabito please stand up?”  I thought to myself, but then I realized I didn’t really wish for that in this creepy graveyard. The stone even had an engraved photo of him. I took a picture of it, and then I made a hasty retreat to the land of the living.  If there were any vestiges of the supernatural spirit world left in Sicily, this sure seemed a likely place to bump into them.    

I found Mom and Aunt Kay back in the hotel, and we ate at Café Gattopardo. Parts of the movie Gattopardo, The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster, were filmed in Santa Margherita, and they wear the fact with pride. A few towns away lay the shooting location for the film Cinema Paradiso. I thought it was cool that this backwater Agrigento province had somehow made it on the Hollywood map. Years later I learned there was also a connection to Star Wars. The final episode’s dramatic climax, where Anakin completes his journey to the dark side, was enhanced by a real exploding volcano, Sicily’s own Etna. I wondered what strings George Lukas had to pull to get that to happen – maybe he had to grease the palms of the god Vulcan himself.  

We thought we were safe speaking English, but we were surprised to discover half the café was listening in on our conversation. This had been the poorest part of Sicily for over a century, and people had emigrated in droves. Those who remained all seemed to have some cousin or relative in America, and they had learned English to keep in touch with them. Why hadn’t my family kept up with their Sicialian relatives?  Was it the fighting over property, or something more?

My search that day brought me to the door of another Rabito. Her name was Tita. She seemed a lot warmer than the people I had met when I’d come alone in the fall.  Maybe they were more at ease with Mom and Aunt Kay around, since they were the same generation. It seemed logical to Sicilians that Marilyn and Kay would be asking questions about my great-grandparents, since they had actually known them. I seemed too young to have all this information. They really didn’t understand the concept of research.

  But still no luck. There was no Gaspare Rabito in their family.  Tita’s mother kept telling her to “hush” and not say anything. She didn’t like all the questions about family names and stories.  She was an old woman in a widow’s black, full of suspicion about outsiders. She seemed convinced we wanted to steal or claim something. Tita apologized for her mother’s old-fashioned paranoia.

It was disappointing we weren’t related, but Tita liked us so much she invited us for pizza that evening. It began a wonderful cross-generational friendship. Tita and her husband Tito (both nicknames, I assume) invited their best friends Andrea and Maria Randazzo, because Andrea had studied in New York. He took over translating for my mother and aunt because he assumed I still didn’t know much Italian. I was so relieved to have the help. Everyone got along great. 

I was so happy to be in Santa Margherita. The people were oddly friendly.  I was never allowed to pay at a café – someone would always buy my coffee because I was “Americana.” I kicked myself for not staying here for months instead of Piazza Armerina. But I did like my nice hippie friends there.

It took a few attempts to get into the old courthouse, but when I did, they let me look through books at my leisure. After previous rushed visits, I was so thrilled with this stroke of luck that I didn’t leave for hours even to use the bathroom. I opened book after dust-filled book, reading, with awe, the hand-written records about my family. I was in heaven. 

I found birth records for Catarina (my great grandmother), Gaspare (her husband, Papa Nick’s father), and Papa Nick’s own brother Andrea. I even found a birth record for their half-sister. I kept researching – each birth certificate recorded the name and age of the parents, so I looked them up too. I went as far back as the books would go.  I couldn’t believe I had found my relatives as far back as 1760! 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t free to concentrate on family research. My living family demanded more tourist expeditions. I took them to the town of Gibellina. I had read that this town took a unique approach to the destruction in the wake of the 1968 earthquake. Instead of just letting everything sit in rubble for 25 years, as they did in Santa Margherita and Menfi, they built a modern art museum and used the debris to create geometrical sculptures. Our first stop was the pizzeria. That was my family: tour, eat, drink, and sleep. Not so different than the Sicilian motto of “eat, sleep, and …”

A year ago, Aunt Kay had been in love, but he wouldn’t marry her. They were living together and had a decent relationship, but she felt used. Her therapist decided the best prescription was celibacy. I wished her good luck with that in Italy, and my skepticism was proved right.

We were the only customers in the little pizzeria, and Aunt Kay noticed the waiter giving her the eye. I turned to take a look at him. He was my age!  Tall, blond, and cute, even with his big Roman nose. I told Aunt Kay she was mistaken. He really must be looking at me. Alas, she was right; my ego had led me astray.

They flirted, and she asked him to show us the town’s sculptures. The rest of the afternoon this fellow, Pepino, showed us around town, and we got to know him. He was sweet. Born and raised in Sicily, he had never set foot outside the island. He owned the pizzeria with a friend. It was doing well, though we probably hurt his business a bit since he closed early to show us around.

We left Gibellina before dark so I wouldn’t have to navigate the curvy little roads at night. We stopped to see Nella Rabito and her parents at their tile store. She remembered me from the summer and took us out for sweets. They were enamored with the older generation I had brought with me. I got to ask them more about their family history, and they were more cooperative this time. According to my growing notes, it seemed like they actually could be our distant cousins. Our last day in the region, we drove to Menfi and looked up Nicoletta Cottone. She was Catarina’s sister, who had stayed behind, childless, after her failed attempt to kidnap my grandma.  Good old Paulo at the Comune, courthouse found her birth and marriage records. We knew she had married a man in Menfi and had no recorded children.  We looked for her grave at the cemetery.  We found it, but there was no engraved photo like the one I’d found for Gaspare Rabito. Prospects for finding relatives in Menfi looked dim.  

Then two older Sicilian women wearing black mourning clothes arrived in the cemetery, looking at us suspiciously. When they saw Aunt Kay making a grave rubbing of Nicoletta’s stone, they asked us what we were doing. We told them we were “famiglia,” and they smiled and warmed up to us. Sicilian cemeteries don’t need pit bulls or guards, they’ve got grandmas.  

Our last night in Santa Margherita, we made and cooked pizzas at Andrea Randazzo’s house with his wife, Maria. Nina and Tito Rabito were there, too, with their gaggle of kids. They weren’t related to us, but by now we had all become best friends.  It was how I’d imagined my Sicilian life would be, rolling pizzas rather than joints, children running around speaking in Sicilian rather than German, my mom and aunt joining our friends singing songs like “Che sera sera.”

In the middle of the pizza making, Andrea stopped rolling dough.

“Did you say your family names are Rabito, Cottone and Adamo?”
“Yes,” my mother said.

“My aunt Maria is named Adamo.” He wiped dough on his forehead.

Could this be? Could we be related? There was only one way to find out. He washed the flour from his hands and drove us out to meet her.

It took only one look to see she was an exact copy of my grandmother. Same eyes, same red hair, same fair skin. I almost cried, it reminded me how much I missed my grandmother. I knew we must be related. She was sweet but stubborn, insisting that the facts just didn’t add up. 

“My great Grandmother, Caterina, is your cousin.  Her daughter, Nettie, my grandmother looks just like you.”

“no.  It can’t be. I don’t know them.”

“You couldn’t know them.  They moved across the ocean.  And Caterina, was born in the 1800s.”

“Too long ago.”

“yes, but..”  I insisted. She wasn’t interested.  It was true; according to my notes, we didn’t seem to be related. Something was wrong. But how could we not be related, when she looked just like my grandmother Nettie!  We thanked her, and she reprimanded Andrea for not staying longer.  

“A mother waits nine months for her child to be born, and all you can give me is five minutes?”  

He told us she’d been like a mother to him since she never had any children of her own. What was the deal with all the barren aunts in Sicily? Was that my destiny too? Maybe that’s why I was baby crazy with Giovanni the month before – some subconscious fear of my destiny.

We went back to their country house and ate tons of pizza.  Carloads more of their family arrived, and we burst into song together – English, Italian and Sicilian verses rang out all night. They even played an accordion. Andrea performed a heart-rendingly instrumental, slow song as we said goodbye. I almost cried even though I knew I would have to come back. My quest to solve the family puzzle was not complete.

Adding to the challenges of driving in Sicily, the next day it snowed. I was dumbstruck to see that in this hot desert climate, but the mountains were high enough. Fortunately driving to Palermo was fine on the autostrada, thanks to my having spent a winter driving in Minnesota. I just worried about the other motorists. They weren’t accustomed to driving in snow, and Italian drivers are lunatics in the best of circumstances.  But my spirits were high as I looked forward to seeing Rob again. Hopefully the Master of the Toilet had given him the message!   

*ROB*

January snows came to Sicily.  I’d never imagined that, living on a volcanic island in the middle of the Mediterranean, I would get a taste of Minnesota. It was freezing, and I just wanted to stay in by my cozy wood fire. But Helmut and his family passed by, and I started to freak out thinking I would get in trouble for not working hard enough. I bundled up and went out to move some piles of weeds that I had pulled; I was afraid they might be unsightly. Helmut came back and, to my relief, gave me the go-ahead to burn the piles if I wanted – they were going out of town and wouldn’t be bothered by the smoke which loved to engulf their house. But now my piles were covered with snow.

Georg and Pia were screaming, having a snowball fight down the path. I had the urge to join them, but thought better of it.  Soon enough they came closer, pelting my house with snowballs and then bursting inside. Red-faced Georg had an armful of snow and threatened to dump it in the pot of pasta I was cooking. I convinced him to put it in a jar for me instead. As I contemplated the white landscape, from my kitchen table, Helmut stopped by again. Fear came anew. But I was pleasantly surprised — he had just come to offer me some furniture which he’d recently replaced. I needed to stop assuming I was always guilty of something.  

When I went with him to get the chairs, Lea offered me wine, and I ended up staying for dinner. How unexpected! I dove into the batter-fried cauliflower, carrots, and fennel and cheese-filled pasta. I wasn’t completely at ease, though. They talked about friction between Helmut and Carlo, his competitor in the jewelry trade. Helmut was trying to get his wholesaler to stop selling to Carlo. He and Lea knew Carol was living at Carlo’s house, and I felt like a double agent they were plying for information.  But their home was so pleasant, with a cute little girl and a new baby. I began to muse on the idyllic nature of family life rather than the cutthroat world of business. Maybe it would be good to settle down, with Carol, in Minnesota and raise a family after all. 

    Feeling neighborly I stopped at Girasol the next afternoon.   Bad idea. Mick was in a furor about his stereotypically bad British teeth. The dentist had told him he would need a series of painful operations to keep them from all rotting away. He complained that he had used the tooth money he’d saved up to pay for truck repairs. I sensed he was angling for me to loan him some cash, and I felt pangs of guilt for not wanting to. Mick grumped that he didn’t want to eat the artichokes, potatoes, or salad that Veronika made, because his teeth hurt. The couple fought, and it was a generally unpleasant evening.  

But rather than making my escape in the dark, I let them talk me into staying the night to babysit the next day. Mick and Veronika arose at an ungodly hour and were gone by seven. They were allowing plenty of time for a trip to Palermo, so they could drive slowly. The car’s tires were out of alignment, and it kept blowing fuses. They forgot that they were going to take the dog, Tavinella, along. So as had happened many times before, just when I thought I had some peace and quiet, they unexpectedly returned.   I’d snuck upstairs to sleep late in their bed, instead of on the floor. They were in and out soon enough, and I savored being left behind under the cozy covers. I recalled fondly the childhood comfort of watching Dad pull on his galoshes to go to work in foul weather, while we kids got to stay in our cozy apartment and play. Maybe Annabella had a point about my privileged upbringing after all. At least until we grew to a family of five in two bedrooms.

Happiness was delivered a few days later when Fier handed me a phone message from Carol, which had been handed to him by Lea. Carol was telling me about the Palermo hotel where she would be staying with Aunt Kay and Marilyn the next weekend.  I didn’t really give a shit about that. But then I saw she was inviting me to come stay with them, on Marilyn’s tab! Thrilled at the chance to live the high life once again, I floated through the rest of the week with a new joie de vivre.  

    On the appointed day, I missed my ride to town. Not to be deterred, I slung on my backpack and trudged through the fresh snow to Girasol. I hoped to catch a ride there. No one was home except Tavinella. I didn’t want to head back to Valle Perfetta, especially since I had just struggled through a new electric fence that some pastore, shepherd, had strung up. I decided to hell with it, I’d just walk to town. 

Passing Artilio’s I looked to see if he was around. When I heard the gruff sound of “Minchia!” (Cock!) coming from the trees, I knew he was.  In a minute Artilio emerged and invited me up for coffee.  We talked, and he gave me some  home-dried figs to give Carol and her family. When I actually gave them to the ladies in Palermo, their gratitude was tempered by the maggots we found burrowing in the fruit. It’s the thought that counts. But Artilio didn’t think of giving me and the maggots a ride to town, that day, on his Vespa. 

Chapter  11 –  A Honeymoon of Sorts  

The beautiful Sicilian Cart in Agrigento’s parade and festival of almonds

*CAROL*

    My great- great-grandfather, Gaspare, had a rough time with letters sent across the ocean. He never received the one sent to him in Argentina telling him his wife would not be alive to greet him when he returned to Sicily. Years later an argument led him to vow never to speak to his sons. A typical Sicilian way to deal with conflict. He relented on his deathbed, but the letter about his illness made the crossing too late. The letters from his sons, offering reconciliation, arrived after he had passed, leaving a sad ”what if?”

Mom, Aunt Kay, and I returned to Palermo, and I searched the hotel lobby. No Rob. I collapsed, in my own room, into a depth of gloom – no Rob, no hope. Did he not receive my own attempt at communication?

There was a knock on the door. I opened it and slammed a surprised Rob into the wall with a huge hug. He had saved me! I was no longer a bored tour guide to two quarreling grand dames. I was now with the love of my life – my future.

It had almost become the disaster I’d feared – that he wouldn’t come and didn’t really want me back. Through various translations, he’d  misunderstood the phone message I’d left with Helmut. At first he thought I wanted him to call Palermo, rather than come, on the 15th of January. I could have died – I felt I couldn’t be without him for one more day. I was so grateful he took the chance of coming to the hotel instead.

Yet part of my fear remained. We sat close together, but he seemed distant.  When I asked if he’d missed me, he just said, “Yeah.” 

“Were my letters too mushy?”

“Yeah.”  That cold word again.  

“Don’t worry about it.” I brushed it off.  “I’ve been hanging out with Mom and Aunt Kay who’re always fighting and are boring in the way they travel, so I just write too much. I think too much.”

“But you’re always changing your mind. And I think you love me too much.” These weren’t quite the words of passion I’d hoped for.

“I’ve been in relationships where the other person loves me more. It’s no big deal.” 

Inside I wanted to cry. I had ruined it again by running off and traveling, leaving him on his own.  

We gloomily watched Beverly Hills Cop 3 on TV, so at least we began to laugh a little. Ironically we were staying at Hotel Jolly. Ordering steak dinners from room service helped our mood quite a bit — they were juicy and done just right.

We cuddled as we fell asleep. In the morning, we emerged from our gloom long enough to try some sexercise in bed, inspired by cheesy cable porn flicks. The housekeeper knocked and opened the door but, Thank God, she didn’t peek around the corner. It was an awkward situation that Giovanni would have been proud of.   Maybe she did see us, and that’s why she left so quickly. I assumed she knew it was a hazard of a hotel job, especially in Sicily.

*ROB*

The bus from Piazza Armerina took me to a lonely train depot. Its forlorn faded red was still striking against the pale green of the empty valley. I waited an hour for a rickety train composed of one engine and one car. A winter storm was dusting the hills by the time I reached Palermo. Snow on the palm trees here looked even more surreal than in the hills of Piazza Armerina. In this second storm, snow actually covered the grass. It had felt odd to see white covering fields that were still bright green from fall rains. Here the landscape greened in the autumn and browned in the dry summer — it was the opposite of what I’d known back home.

I found the bus to the hotel, but I ended up riding the entire route twice until I figured out where to get off. I had the opportunity to see many depressing neighborhoods of apartments with peeling paint on the way to my four-star digs.

Carol!! It was fantastic to see her after my arduous journey across the island. She was even happier to see me.  We had some catching up to do. 

 I got the full fancy hotel dining experience. I felt like a grunge rock star, strolling in among the fancy linen tablecloths in my dusty combat boots, torn jeans, and long hair.  This was the high life. We ordered full-course meals in the expansive (and expensive) dining room with high-columned ceilings and draped windows. For days we indulged in antipasti, stuffed pastas, tender vitello veal steaks, insalata mista, and my favorite, the dessert cart. I could get used to life in this tourist cocoon. But my waistband might not. We worked it off by walking all over town to take in the sights.

Carol was excited to show me a church which seemed to prove a psychic connection between us. I had written to her about a dream I’d had about a “super baroque” church, crammed with angel sculptures, paintings, and other décor. She had visited this particular church the same day I had the dream. It didn’t really look the same as in my dream, but I tried not to burst her bubble.  

*CAROL*

I was so happy with Rob that I begged Mom to let him come with us on the next leg of our journey, to the island of Malta. It would be a vacation from my vacation – no translation needed since English is spoken there, and mellow Rob would help cool the family bickering. Mom agreed. We flew off to Malta and another fancy hotel. To me, it felt like a honeymoon.

We’d chosen Malta because Gaspare Rabito briefly lived there in the early 20th century. Times were tough in Sicily back then (when weren’t they?) and he had gone to nearby Malta looking for work. To us, Malta felt more like England than a Mediterranean island. They drove on the left side, and red phone booths dotted the streets. The people, however, were dark and Semitic, speaking an Arabic-related language as well as English.

Rob and I acted like normal honeymooners and spent much of our valuable tourist time in the bedroom. Many film crews came to Malta, and our hotel was fancy enough for them to stay in. We saw sets from Robin Williams’s Popeye and visited sites later used in Game of Thrones. A pirate movie with Geena Davis was being shot offshore. Aunt Kay befriended the animal trainer who provided the monkey on her back. He told Kay he’d brought an extra monkey along so the simian actor wouldn’t be lonely. I started calling Rob my monkey.

The best parts of Malta were the sheer cliffs along the shore and Calypso’s cave. There I grabbed Rob, reenacting Calypso stealing Odysseus to be her love slave. Rob joked, “Your cave or mine?” I saw the charm in his humor again. It was quite a change from the previous summer, when I’d thought his fig leaf joke was so stupid.

*ROB*

If I could keep a grip, holding onto Carol’s coattails had its privileges. After a few swank days in Palermo, I found myself high in the sky, marveling at Etna poking through the clouds beneath us.  

Reaching Malta I was surprised to find it even dryer and more barren than Sicily. I felt like I was in North Africa.  Formerly a British fortress island, along with Gibraltar, it had anchored Britain’s hold on the Mediterranean. Like Sicily, it had suffered a parade of rulers through the ages.  I was glad to see historical sites besides churches for a change. We visited the British war museum, medieval armories, and a torture museum which sent a traumatized Kay running out screaming. 

Yecch!!  That is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen!”  

Carol and I stopped in a bookstore, excited to buy English language materials for the first time in months.  Kay wanted to visit the church of the patron saint of marriage, but appropriately enough for her, it was closed. Our cabbie drove back to the hotel in his giant ‘70s car. The car’s suspension swayed like a boat as he sped and swerved down the street, dodging pedestrians. Poor Aunt Kay was almost as shaken up by that as she was by the medieval torture.   

We struck “caveman” poses for photos in the prehistoric temples dotting the island. Somehow tiny Malta had been a hotbed of ancient worship, temples were everywhere. The locals were so blasé about them that they had actually allowed one to be incorporated into the décor of a hotel complex. You could take a dip in the pool and then catch some rays on a sacrificial altar next door. Or grab a soda at the bar to enjoy in the cool shade of a burial chamber. 

We visited the supposed site of “Calypso’s cave” from Homer’s Odyssey. It was odd that the entrance was through a door in someone’s basement. It seemed more of a damp unfinished cellar than a mythological site. We were handed candles to take in.  

In Greek legend, Calypso was a nymph who tricked and entrapped the hero Odysseus in the cave. Zeus himself had to intercede to get him out, but not before he gave Calypso two children, Nausithous and Nausinous. Nauseated was how I felt when I thought about being trapped by a woman. Carol had her mom document the moment on film, and the candlelight created a veneer of romance. 

  Back at the hotel, Marilyn, Kay and I had cocktails in the bar. I noticed a stunning girl with ringlets of long black hair falling around her china white face. She was staring at me, and I would have loved to talk to her. But she was with her family, and I was with mine. I tried to distract myself with peanuts and cheese crackers. I was disappointed that they were stale. 

Finally the day arrived for our triumphant return to Sicily.  The cabbie regaled us with the saga of his dad’s death and his own near-death experience, when he’d seen a lighted door.  Just what you want to hear as you board a plane with a daredevil Alitalia pilot.  

I was the only one searched by the submachine gun-toting guards back in Palermo. I had set off their metal detector, but I explained that it was the steel-toed boots, my scarpi di fero.  They took the occasion to rifle through my bags looking for drugs, but they found only Preparation H.

*CAROL*

I’d enjoyed our Maltese flight of passion, but I was excited to get back “home” to Sicily.  While waiting for Aunt Kay’s many bags at the luggage claim, Rob and I spoke to two policemen with a drug-sniffing, bomb-sniffing, Hippie-sniffing, some sort of sniffing dog. The dog peed on the floor, and Rob and I were shocked that no one seemed fazed. Was this just part of the job for dogs? Who cleaned it up? Wasn’t someone supposed to walk the dog outside to do that? I chalked it up as another crazy Southern Italian thing. 

Speaking of crazy Italians, we hadn’t seen the last of Aunt Kay’s admirers, Pepino, from Gibellina. Kay had sent him a postcard, with my help, explaining she’d be back on his island for one day before leaving forever. He took that as an invitation. As we rested at Jolly Hotel, I got a call that some man was waiting in the lobby. The minute I saw him, I called up to Aunt Kay and coyly said I had a gift for her.

It was the perfect set-up for a romance, but somehow Aunt Kay wasn’t that into him any more. She was taking her vow of celibacy seriously, like a good therapy patient. The three of us took a walk through the carnival across the street which had been left up after the holiday season. It was awkward enough without me having to translate. When we returned to  the lobby, she wanted me to tell Pepino that they were not compatible, and that she was celibate.  

I hate breaking up with people myself, but having to do it for your aunt?  

Aunt Kay started by being polite.

 “Thank you for coming to visit me,” she told him, “I appreciate the gesture.”

 “Voglio vedere a ti!” he responded, in earnest.

“What did he say?” Aunt Kay asked.

“He said he wants to see you.”

“Yes, but we are not compatible. I am on a different path of life right now. My therapist and I have agreed that I mustn’t see anyone until I get my aura and spiritual-physical-mental path in order.”

I translated that word for word as best I could. His backwoods Sicilian nature came to light. He looked at me in bewilderment. Aunt Kay was pure new age. Pepino was all country hormones. I was fighting not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but I had to play it straight.

“I’m sorry, she just doesn’t want to sleep with you.” I dumbed it down for him.

Pecado,” he said with a sly grin, “A shame.” He had more up his sleeve. As they said goodbye, he tried to explore her clothing. She laughed politely and pulled away. Goodbye Pepino.

The next morning Aunt Kay and Mom flew off. Poof, like magical travel fairies, they were gone – Rob and I went back into econobus mode and headed to Piazza. Of course there was no direct route, even though Piazza is in the very center of the island and should be simple to reach from everywhere. There is a word for “simple” in Italian, but it is not looked upon highly. We had to take a bus all the way from Palermo, in the west, to Catania, on the East coast, then another one back to the middle of the island. Even if we had a car, unseen hurdles might keep us from returning easily. Roads closed for indefinite construction? Lost sheep herds? Who knows, it’s Sicily. 

What would our next phase on the island be like? We made it to Piazza and stopped at Giovanni’s for our backlog of mail. He was happy to see us. I kept my distance and my cool. When Rob used the bathroom, Giovanni tried to get physical, but I dodged his hands and kept talking. As he had many times before, he told me to “fangulo,” fuck off. This promised to be an easier break-up than the one I had to facilitate for Aunt Kay.

I left with my letters and my integrity. We caught a ride home with Carlo, and Rob stayed over. We stayed up all night telling Ulla our adventures, and she laughed at my family drama.  She loved hearing my stories so much that I never seemed to get any about her own family in return. Maybe she preferred it that way.

The next morning sadness welled up in me as I unpacked.  Rob was headed back to his Germanville bachelor pad. We hadn’t even gotten to christen our triumphant return to Piazza with wild sex yet – now I might not see him for weeks! 

*ROB*

On the way back from Palermo, our views of the mountains were great. General Patton had rushed his army along that route to cut off the retreating fascist forces at Messina. Thinking of the good war always kept me in good spirits. But Carol bummed me out trying to convince me to bicycle across the US when we got home. What was with this woman? She could never be still.  If she wasn’t on a train or plane or bus or cycle, she didn’t seem happy. It made me think of a story her mom had told.

Marilyn and her husband had already had the two kids they’d planned. They were using two or three forms of contraception, just to make sure things stayed that way. Somehow, Carol didn’t get the message. She managed to be conceived anyway. She was on a mission. It was a metaphor for her gung-ho attitude to life.  In addition, Marilyn continued, Carol had been born a “blue baby.”  She was deprived of oxygen due to the umbilical cord being wrapped three times around her neck.  Carol joked that the cord got wrapped more times with each retelling. Baby Carol had overcome that hurdle, too, and continued her headlong lunge into life. Her family always teased her that her crazy behavior might be due to a touch of fetal brain damage.

I found this a telling contrast to my own birth legend. My parents had tried unsuccessfully for almost ten years to conceive, consulting a myriad of doctors and specialists. They had just about given up. My mom worked as a secretary, her bosses loved her and figured she would be a career woman. But one final medical procedure did the trick, and I was finally cajoled into being.  My hesitance and procrastination seemed to echo throughout my life, just as “damn the torpedoes” seemed to be Carol’s battle cry.  

Back in Piazza, Carol lured me to her place with talk of dinner. I also helped her make Rice Crispy treats, which the kids had never seen. Carlo said I could stay through the weekend.  Ulla clarified that, in the future, I’d have to bring some food, money, or do some work when I came over. Fair enough.   

Sunday morning I was put to work collecting wood for a barbeque. The cold wind cut right through the knit hat I’d bought at the market. I felt Sicilian wearing it, as many market vendors sported the same style. It had a facemask which could be lifted up over a little brim when not needed. Today the mask was in use.  

By afternoon it had warmed up a little, and Carlo built a fire and nursed the coals in the barbeque pit. He was cooking a special holiday meat called castrato, from a castrated goat. It sounded bad but tasted fantastic in its sweet-salty marinade.   It was the centerpiece of a party for some visiting friends and a great last day for me there. 

Monday came and I luxuriated in a final hot bath. Before I left, Ulla gave me the special mission of picking up dog shit around the yard. The kids were home sick from school, so I played cards and other games with them. They especially enjoyed learning the bluffing game “Bullshit!”  When I got to town, I proudly mailed off a package of cartoons I had been working on, hoping they might be bought by a syndicate. Newspaper, not mob. Oh hell, whoever would pay.

Returning to my rustic life of weed pulling, I found myself listening to a tape of country music I’d borrowed from Carol.  The family-value themes made me think more favorably of raising kids with Carol. That shocked me. But I’d let her show me other experiences in life, why not children? I wondered whether I was suffering the Sicily effect, going crazy from perching on unstable volcanic layers and from the ancient history suffusing the land.

*CAROL*

    My gentle great-grandmother, Catarina, is remembered fondly in my family.  She was in love with a man, but as her mother lay dying in the strange foreign land of America, she made Catarina promise to marry someone they knew well, her second cousin, Papa Nick. Catarina solemnly honored this deathbed request, and ever since the family has wished she had been less compliant. Papa Nick was horrible to her.

Catarina ended her days in a mental institution. Back then women were considered hysterical when a lifetime of living with an abuser and cheater took its toll. I feel sorry for her, but we all learned an important lesson – ignore deathbed promises!

I felt I might go crazy, myself, being stuck alone at Ulla’s.  The boys argued, and then their parents argued about how to discipline them. I felt the phantom of Rob’s presence on my bed in the cold, dark basement. I also dreaded escaping into town where I felt like a wandering reject. No one invited me to eat at their houses. They just wished me a “buon pranzo” and went on their way. I was a lost soul drifting through a ghost town during discanzo. I couldn’t take warm respite at Giovanni’s anymore. I wondered if I could survive for four more months.

I was happiest at Rob’s. I finally made it out there after a few days, and he made me a simple but filling lunch. He was getting pretty good at rustic Sicilian cooking. I helped him chop wood, or rather cut it with a thin rusty saw. His pile contained mostly sticks and small branches. It was enough for him, but he worried about Easter vacation. That’s when his landlord Helmut’s ex-wife would return from Germany to kick him out for two weeks.  Would she use up all the wood Rob had spent hours gathering and sawing? Or would the kind toilet-and-phone-sharing Helmut keep his word and cut his ex her own wood pile?

We had barely settled back into life at Piazza Armerina when it was time to leave again. Almond season had arrived, and with it the almond festival. It was centered in my ancestral province of Agrigento, so I just had to go. I grabbed Rob, and once again we hopped on a bus. I must have still been in a daze after all the travel with Mom and Aunt Kay. I realized, too late, that the bus we were on wasn’t going to stop in Agrigento. The driver had a solution though – he suggested we get out and hitchhike!  Travel was so ridiculously convoluted on the island that even transit professionals thought hitching was a better option.

He dumped us on the autostrada. We were in shock – traffic was so loud and fast and dangerous. Not even the polizia stopped to help us. Motorists zoomed by, taking their hands off the wheel to give us the swirling Italian “what the hell?” gesture.  Finally a decent fellow picked us up and brought us as far as Caltanisetta, with no roving hands. There we were able to catch a better bus. 

In Agrigento, there was more disappointment. Due to our travel delays, we didn’t catch as much of that day’s festivities as I’d hoped. Of the folkloric dancers from all over the world, we only saw the French and Romanians. And plenty of annoying American tourists.

But the last day made up for it. The main street was packed with tourists, but we found a spot to watch the parade. It was led by marching bands, followed by all the folk dancers from Romania, Spain, Poland, Greece, Armenia, Israel, Morocco, France, Brazil and Italy. I loved them all and I felt like my life was flashing by me – all the different cultures I’d been a part of, and music I’d danced to. 

Then came the fabled Sicilian carts. I screamed with excitement. Catching them in action was a world away from seeing them embalmed in the Palermo museum. They were more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. Through the crowds I could see a long line of big, colorful puffs above the horses. The fluffy plumes, held high on the horses’ heads, capped their ornate costumes.  Even their blinders were decorated, and puppet scenes were painted on their blankets. The brightly painted wagons rolled crookedly down the cobbled street.  Performers riding in the carts wore traditional garb and played flutes, tambourines, and accordions. I was ecstatic – this must’ve been what my ancestors witnessed during festivals.  Was this what Papa Pete heard and saw?

*ROB*

    Carol loved travel, and she adored festivals. The Festa di Mandorla in Fiore, the celebration of almond trees blooming on the island, was a must-see. It seemed everyone we knew was there too, either selling their crafts or performing. We were glad to see Ulla, Marlies and Felippe, and Jean. It seemed like we had brought Piazza Armerina with us, instead of running away again.  I was relieved I didn’t find Helmut’s booth. He might think that if I had money to travel so much, I should be paying him rent.  We watched the folk dances of numerous nations and feasted on fair food of ricotta rolls, sausages, and roasted caramel nuts, The weather had even warmed up enough to enjoy some gelato.

Walking back to the templi, we took a winding path down switchback streets with steep concrete retaining walls. I tried to decipher the layers of advertisements plastered there.  Italians didn’t seem familiar with the concept of “litter.” They figured it was someone else’s job to clean up the stuff they tossed from their cars.  Perhaps it was an attitude honed under years of socialist policies. Properly disposing of your own garbage would mean taking away jobs from street cleaners! The trash provided me with artistic inspiration, so I didn’t mind. I picked up interesting candy wrappers, to study Italian graphic design, and shoved them into a plastic bag in my backpack. 

    As we approached the temple complex entrance, the tourist crowds thickened. Kids with sticky faces swarmed a gelato stand.  We decided to pay our entry fee rather than sneaking over the fence.  Carol teased me about my Olympic dash through the temples last time. Now I was more inclined to linger and meditate. We made our way past the eroded statue of some reclining god and past the ancient mystics’ catacombs dotted with gnarled olive trees. We reached the temples, the stunning ruins backdropped by soft blue sky. Stopping at the first one, I tried to form an image in my head of how these must once have looked. I saw robed Greeks offering incense-burning prayers and a procession of trireme ships rowing over the horizon and into safe harbor. In the agora below, crowds delighted as sailors disgorged their goods from Egyptus and Asia. 

Carol told me there were more surviving Greek ruins in Sicily than in Greece itself.  The colony of Trinacria, Greek for Three-Sided Land, was just one of Sicily’s many incarnations. It had been conquered by just about everyone and made a part of many empires. They say that’s why the Sicilians are so insular and downtrodden. I could identify.  

    For now, I was being swept along by Carol the Great, in her quest to conquer the world. This had its perks. I smiled at  numerous attractive young female tourists. But I had no realistic expectation of actually meeting any – if things were meant to be, they would happen effortlessly. Was that just a rationalization for being lazy and scared?  

We took plenty of pictures, imbibed a last view of the mystical Middle Sea, and then embarked on our long trek back to the hostel. I wished I’d been sensible and worn my tennis shoes instead of my steel-toed scarpi di ferro. I’d thought they’d make me look more bohemian than touristy.

Carol howled in ecstacy when she learned that a Native American musical performance was concluding the festival. She worked the phones frantically, parlaying our Minnesota reservation connections into tickets. She got through to poet John Trudell, who had been involved in the 1970’s American Indian Movement. He talked to his manager, and we were in.

The manager was a tall thin brunette from Rome. Carol whipped out a package of canoli and other Sicilian sweets for her to give John and other performers. She could stand to put on a little weight. The manager thanked us and told us what to tell the door staff to get in. We also scored a veal lunch at the hotel. I would have preferred prunes, given the impaired state of my digestion. 

In the meantime, I was inspired by the art expo featured in the hotel lobby. The suspicious eyes of a hotel detective followed me.  But rather than picturing myself as a criminal, I imagined I might be mistaken for a rocker associated with the tour. Robbie Robertson, formerly of Bob Dylan’s band, was performing tonight after all. I had just learned of his Mohawk tribal descent, and hoped I might get to meet him.

At show time, we were seated just rows from the auditorium’s stage, next to a beautiful journalist from Milan.  Carol struck up a conversation and was excited to hear that the reporter’s sister wanted to visit a reservation. 

The show was moving. We got emotional having a bit of Minnesota “Indian country” transported to us in Sicily! It was impossible to take our eyes off Buffy St. Marie and John Trudell.  I was excited to see Robbie Robertson and the eagle dance, hoop dance, and ghost dance performed by the American Indian Dance Theater. We had been to a number of powwows in Minnesota, but these performances seemed more professional and elaborate. Robbie Robertson’s transformation was a bit amusing. At Giovanni’s we had watched the documentary “The Last Waltz” about the Band.  At one point, the band members joked that when they were first recruited to back up Dylan, the manager told them, “you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra!” Apparently, these days, Robbie was taking a more spiritual approach to things.  

We hoped to get into the after party. But as the lights came up, a studly pony-tailed guard with a nametag labeled “Guido” started hassling us to get out. 

 “Quick!” Carol coached me, “hide in the bathroom!”  

I didn’t like the illicitness of it, but it worked. Carol sweet-talked her way into the post-show press conference and retrieved me when the coast was clear.  

After the reporters’ questions and pictures, Carol chatted up John Trudell and his manager. They’d really enjoyed the sweets she’d brought. I shamelessly raided the snack trays provided by the hospitality staff and asked John to sign my program.   

“Who should I make it out to?” he asked.

“To Custer,” I said, to which he looked at me with raised eyebrows. Carol quickly explained about the nickname I was jokingly given on the White Earth reservation because of my hair.  Smiling with relief, John said,”Yeah, they give good nicknames up there, don’t they?”  

Carol offered any help she could provide, either in Italy or back home, and we took our leave. I was stunned by her schmoozing skills. She was definitely a force to be reckoned with.

 The bus home connected in Caltanissetta. It was the first time I had made it to the hilltop town that looked so magical in the Valle Grande sunset. But up close it just seemed like a dirty bus stop. 

We had time to kill, so we stopped in a bar and Carol struck up a conversation with a table of young ladies. Carol was hopeful because a couple of them had set off her “gay-dar,” and she was desperate to find out more about the secretive world of Sicilian homosexuality. As we discussed relationships and dating with the ladies, they gave me an instructive aphorism about life and love in Sicily – “la timidezza non functiona,” shyness doesn’t work. That was the last thing I needed to hear, especially after the guilt Carol had instilled in me about how men push women around.   

Carol didn’t manage to extract any lesbian secrets from the women, but she had fun trying. Our bus ride resumed.

*Carol*

By the time we got to Piazza, I was dying to use the bathroom. I left Rob in the park with our bags and went to take a dump at Giovanni’s. I took the opportunity to finally dump Giovanni as well.

“Are you mad at me?” I asked him cautiously. 

“No. Are you mad at me?” 

“Sometimes.”
“Vai fangulo.”

“I mean because I don’t want to be amantes anymore. Sometimes after a breakup, people feel angry.”

“You’re such a bambina.”

“Giovanni!” I tried to get him to take me seriously. I should have known he never would.

Pecado. We were good together.”

“Yeah, but I want intimacy. I want it to mean something.  I hope someday you will find one woman to settle down with.”

“There is no need to justify what you are doing.  I’ve told you – I’m a Lupo Solitario.”

“Well, I’m happy with Rob now.”
Augori.” Congratulations.

It was pointless. He’d always treat me like a child. He’d always be inconsiderate of others’ needs and feelings. Maybe I shouldn’t bother hoping he’d change. Fortunately he followed through on his offer to drive us to Ulla’s, and on the way he was his normal funny self. Everything seemed like it’d be okay. We could be friends. I should have known better.

Chapter 13- Romance Languages

Strangers in Sicily pelting each other with plastic hammers for Carnival

After his return from Argentina, Gaspare Rabito took a second wife who gave him two daughters. One was named Nicoletta Rabito, like Catarina’s sister and my grandmother. No wonder this research was so difficult. Couldn’t Sicilians try something a little less traditional and come up with some new names?  Ah, but ”nothing ever changes in Sicily.” 

So this Nicoletta was the sister who went to live with her half brother, Papa Nick. She worked as a seamstress and made good money. Both Papa Nick and Uncle Andrew asked for some of it to buy furniture for their barber shops. They kept borrowing more and more and never paid her back. The worst part was her beauty, as many suitors came by Papa Nick’s store asking to see her. He turned them away. Some say he didn’t want to lose his cash cow to marriage. She finally married Vicenze Alonzo and escaped to Connecticut, far away from her brothers. All the way back in Santa Margherita, in Sicily, Gaspare Rabito heard about his sons chasing her away and vowed never to talk to them again. In those days, before cross-continental phones, that meant no longer responding to their letters.

Valentine’s Day arrived. I wanted to make it special for Rob and me. I thought we’d be together the rest of our lives, but we planned to live in Minnesota. So this would be our last chance to have an outdoor picnic in the middle of February.

Cute Emiliano helped me cook, as always. At least once a week I taught him how to bake some tasty treat from back home. Today, we made a coconut cream pie since Rob had recently been craving that American diner delicacy. For the meal I made Sicilian tuna salad, which had pickles, olives, carrots and onions. I even bought some bacio “kiss” chocolates.

I had sent Rob into town on a made up errand so I could surprise him when he came home, with Carlo, at lunchtime. He surprised me with flowers. He had even bought me some bacio.  I knew we were perfect for each other. We thought alike.

Ulla and Carlo seemed to like having us around. They hugged more when Rob and I were together. Maybe they wanted to recapture their young love. Or maybe it was just mandatory for the holiday.  Though they liked us, Ulla had recently asked me to help with expenses. That freaked me out. I didn’t have much money left, and I’d never really budgeted for paying rent. In reality, looking back, I was such a cheapskate. She only asked for eight dollars a week. But that translated to 12,000 lira, which sounded like a lot. I thought I had to find somewhere else to live.

Rob didn’t know what was going on when I told him we were going out on Valentine’s. He was still clueless as we walked, through the forest, towards the Roman mosaic tourist attraction.  I shepherded him, as usual. He finally caught on when we stopped in the shade of an olive tree and I put a blanket down. It was beautiful having a romantic picnic in a Sicilian olive grove.  

Strolling by the Roman mosaics, afterward, I called Pepino the waiter in Gibellina to wish him a happy Valentine’s from Aunt Kay. Somehow I had been roped into translating for her again, even though she’d left over a month ago.

We walked back and babysat so Ulla and Carlo could take their turn celebrating the love holiday. I helped Samuele with his English homework, and Rob played with Emiliano. I thought we made a good team. 

*ROB*

On Valentine’s Day Carol sent me to town, so I stopped to see if Fiametta was working at the art store. I was bummed that she wasn’t. I picked up some sweets and flowers for Carol, and then I stopped in the music store to order Robbie Robertson’s new Native American-inspired CD for her. The shop owner asked me with serious face, “Are you from the hippie community?” I wasn’t sure if he was just making conversation or hoping to score some drugs. 

  I found Carol dressed and made up, looking stunning. Her surprise picnic was sweet, but the sky started to drizzle on us.  Heading back by way of the Roman villa, we ran into a carful of clean-cut Americans. We assumed they had come from the base in Sigonella. But they had actually flown in from an aircraft carrier!  They said they were from DC, and it was weird for me to hear my hometown manner of speech again.  They were silent about what they did for a living — were they CIA? Might my dad, working in the intelligence community, have pulled strings to have me followed? I forced a smile at that ridiculous idea. It was ridiculous, right?

Although I was being oppressed by my own thoughts, winter wasn’t being too oppressive. Picnic rain was better than snow, and there were plenty of holiday celebrations to distract everyone until summer returned. Next up was Carnival. Since Italians don’t celebrate Halloween, this was their costume time.  It made me smile to see the Sicilian children wearing their Minnie Mouse and Power Rangers outfits all week, as their parents humorlessly dragged them through all their normal daily activities.  Ariel the mermaid stood in line at the supermarket, and an elephant sat in the dentist’s waiting room.

I beat back my fear of Italian healthcare and made a dental appointment. The dentist was part of the host family  who had bored Carol to death last summer. And I was going to let her bore into my teeth. She grabbed a tube of white paste and promptly applied it to the wrong tooth. She told me this was a temporary measure; I should return for a real filling. My fears flooded in.  I didn’t make a second appointment.

 I was able to take my mind off my teeth with the first party of the Carnival season. Ulla fried up some special lemon-flavored sweets which I couldn’t stop eating, even if they were bad for my teeth. Carol and I were going to be General Custer and an Indian maiden for the costume party, but Carol decided that was unethical. We brainstormed and decided that, due to our divergent natures, we should go with yin and yang. I cut out cardboard symbols to pin on our shirts. Carol wore all black, and me all white. Ulla gave us matching face paint. I fashioned a paper beak for Ulla’s bird costume and some other accouterments for the boys. I got all mushy thinking I was bound to have kids someday and would relish reliving all my favorite childhood things like Halloween. Maybe this life with Carol made sense after all.  

  Marlies and Felippe were hosting, and guests brought dish after dish of vegetarian potluck foods and sweets.  I dug into the potato salad, corn, and beans. Carol and I had arrived with Ulla the Bird, Carlo the Pirate, Samuele the Vampire, and Emiliano the Prince. Hilda turned up as a gypsy fortune teller, and Kai arrived, with lederhosen and a walking stick, as an old man of the mountain. Larry the crazy cabbie was an Indian, and his shy wife, appropriately, was a cat. Giovanni, who arrived late, wasn’t in costume. He was just the usual wolf. 

The multilingual conversations, food, wine, and a fat spinelli were wonderfully overstimulating. Adding to the mayhem, Carol suggested we perform a puppet show for the kids, using Veronika’s handmade puppets. We had cries for encores. Carol finally quit when her little nemesis, Georg, got to be too much.  Predictably, he threw things at the stage and then reached through the curtain to grab Carol’s hair.  She was incredulous at his violent behavior in front of his parents — Hilda and Kai — who, yet again, said nothing.

Stuffing her anger, Carol took a ride with me, Hilda, and her kids back to Valle Perfetta. I wished them a merry “Schlaffen Zie gut!”  (“sleep well”) as they dropped us off. I immediately worried I’d made unforgivable German grammatical mistakes and that I should have used the informal verb. But, overall, it seemed like a successful night of partying. 

As the weather warmed and the landscape greened, I painted more and more outside. I wasn’t familiar with oil paints, but acrylics weren’t available in Piazza. The Sicilians were too old-fashioned for that. Where else but in Italy to follow in the footsteps of the masters? It was challenging and, at times, I wished I had a better camera so I could be a photographer instead.  

The mandorlo almond trees graced the hills with their white and pink flowers.  They created a fantasy Dr. Seuss feel, like a landscape of trufula trees. A rainbow of wildflowers burst on the hillsides: red, orange, blue, yellow, lavender, and white, a dizzying array of blooms. And it was natural, unlike the mixed flower seeds tossed along the shoulders of American highways by beautification crews. The resurging fields woke up the mice, which rustled through my roof tiles. Further up the food chain hawks abounded, perched on fences and trees. I was ecstatic to be able to wear just a t-shirt again. 

Carol seemed to be making herself at home in Valle Perfetta. I was afraid she was borrowing too many things from Hilda. I didn’t mind too much, if it meant she was cooking for me.   

*Carol*

After several nights at Rob’s, I just came out with it. I asked if I could move in with him. He looked surprised for a second, and then he said that would be fine. I don’t think he knew all he was in for. I immediately dove into an extreme home makeover. I dusted, swept, scrubbed, and organized the whole house. I can’t say reorganized, since I couldn’t see any organization to begin with. Rob made pancakes. It seemed fair enough.

I retrieved a few things from Ulla’s, and we started getting into a routine. Putting blankets out to air daily, doing dishes, visiting neighbors. Life finally seemed calm. I was happy with Rob. Valle Perfetta seemed nice enough – Hippie neighbors, dry rolling rocky Sicilian hills. At parties everyone spoke German, but I talked to Helmut’s wife, Lea, who turned out to be from mainland Italy. She seemed more outgoing and friendly than the Germans who seemed to be content sticking together.   Everything seemed to be going so smoothly. A few days later Rob was in a grumpy mood again, so I left him at the hippie bar in town and did errands on my own. I stopped by Ulla’s store, but I couldn’t muster the courage to tell her I wanted to move out for good. She just called me her figlia escapata, her lost daughter, since I was never around. Then I went to Giovanni’s to get my mail. Danger.

“Here is a gift.” I handed him a bag of dead batteries so he could recycle them.

“I’m really touched. It is such a sweet gift. I have seriously never had such a gift before.”

He made me laugh.  We could be friends after all.

“Where’s Rob?”
“I left him at the bar. He’s on my nerves. So grumpy.”

“Ah, yes. Love is difficult. There are the most beautiful and the ugliest of moments.”

“Well I gotta go, so I gotta go.” I pointed to the bathroom. Giovanni’s apartment had become a post office and rest stop for me. But for Giovanni it was still his lair.

When I came out of the bathroom, he said I looked sexy. He approached as if to hug me. I quickly folded my hands over my chest. He asked why. I let him have it.

I told him the thousands of reasons we couldn’t be together. I told him how awful he made me feel when he praised skinnier women. How he never took me seriously. How he’d ignored me throughout December. How he was so rude on Christmas Eve, having a woman up here when he claimed he was just having a family night.

“Now, wait a minute!” he protested. “There was no woman here. It 

was family.  Just ask my brother Fabio.”

Right, like your brother wouldn’t help cover your ass? “Then why did you say it was special friends?”
“To get rid of you.”
“Oh.” 

I felt terrible. Had it been a mistake to rearrange my whole life over a misunderstanding?  As soon as I’d let my guard down for a second, he moved in. He slipped behind me on the chair and started playing with my hair. Alarms went off in my head. I had always melted when he did that.

“We are so good together,” he whispered in my ear.  “We know each others’ bodies. Remember that time we …”

“Okay!”  

I jumped up. I wasn’t sure if I was disgusted by him or by myself for feeling tempted.  

“We’ll just have to forget the whole thing,” I recovered.  “You’re a lupo, a wolf, and you never felt anything for me.”  

“That’s not true!” He shot up, accidentally knocking down his chari.  “I never said I loved you, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel anything. Ti voiglo bene.  I like you.”

He was putting on the charm again. I was so frustrated. I grabbed my things and stormed out of the apartment.  His shouts echoed in the stairwell behind me,

 “It’d only take ten minutes! Then we could forget the whole thing!”

 Unbelievable.  

I escaped to the German Hippie Hills and made a Mexican meal. We took it over to share with Hilda and Kai. They were friendly and loved the exotic food. Georg didn’t kick me, and Pia didn’t pull my hair. It was a good evening, except that Rob got depressed again. I took a walk. All I could think of was Giovanni.

To take a break from Rob’s moods, the next day I went to Ulla’s. I was finally going to tell her I was moving out. She was surprised, but she understood about Rob and me being “amanti.”  We had a nice heart to heart. I asked her what she would do if she were tempted, being happily married and all. I figured she’d dealt with this before and had done the right thing. I should’ve known. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or Minnesota, as the case may be.

“I go for it,” was her Italian-style response.
What?!

This was not what I’d expected to hear. I thought she would shake me back to reality, reminding me that I loved Rob and shouldn’t cheat, ever again.  What was wrong with this island?

“Sure. It’s natural,” she insisted.

“Have you done it? Had affairs on Carlo?”
“Yes. A few times. It was good and exactly what I wanted.”
“Didn’t it cause problems?”
“No. Carlo had one too, at least once that I know of.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around this crazy concept. Is cheating only a dilemma back in the US? I went to bed wondering if maybe it was natural. Or was that only in Italy?  Should I cheat on Rob again? I loved him and wanted to be with him the rest of my life. Could my arms still fit around another, too?  After all, it wasn’t like Rob had ever opposed the idea.

In the morning, Carlo asked if I was really leaving. I said I was. He seemed sad. How sweet. And to think I’d always assumed I annoyed him, since I could never get the pasta-boiling time right. Ulla just called it “grumpy 30-something man syndrome.”  Maybe Rob, in his 20s, suffered from early onset of the condition.

***

 The great god Alpheus was pursuing a girl named Arethusa. She wasn’t interested, but she couldn’t get rid of him. In desperation she turned herself into a fresh water spring, thinking that would do the trick. Instead, the god turned himself into a river and flowed under the Ionian Sea to intercept her.  Now the Fountain of Arethusa flows at the point where the two bodies of water meet. It’s in the Sicilian city of Syracusa, marked by a statue that looks strangely similar to the one at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Was my tortured relationship with Giovanni also fated to last forever, even if an ocean separated us?

*Rob*

With Carol in Valle Perfetta, things were changing.  She took over Fier’s role, bringing order to my life. Her confident hand guided me in house cleaning, rearranging, and decorating.  Accustomed to the cozier conditions at Carlo and Ulla’s, she was less tolerant of the Spartan nature of my country life. She kept the stove fire burning around the clock, so I had to find and cut more wood. She was deathly afraid of catching a cold. I was surprised that a tough go-getter like Carol had a fragile side..  

We were also imposing on the neighbors for more rides to town now, and we were heavier cargo.  Carol wasn’t shy about asking people for favors, like cooking supplies and equipment.  The neighbors, in return, felt we should be doing more for them.  Larry the cabbie asked if I would tutor his son in English, which I didn’t mind. He was a sweet kid, and he probably taught me more German and Italian than I taught him English. 

 But the tourist opportunities wouldn’t let up.  The famous Mardi Gras, or Martedi Grasso, parade in Acireale was another must-see on Carol’s endless list. We caught the train in Catania, stopping at “elephant plaza” on the way. We paid our respects to the creature’s manhood as we licked gelati and scarfed down holiday marzipan treats.

Swarms of travelers, mostly young people, filled the train.  We got cheesy eggplant arancini at a bar, and then took a giro around town. Weaving through the crowds, we noticed that many people had bought plastic noise-making hammers from the numerous vendors.  A war of squeaking hammer-attacks raged, and this seemed like a great way to flirt. I was excited when a gang of girls ran by and bopped me on the head. I spied a cute young lady dressed as an Indian maiden, and I tapped her. Next thing I knew a swarm of other “Indians” in moccasins and head-dresses had descended on me, flailing away with their hammers. Carol thought it was hilarious that “Custer” was getting ambushed, so she whipped out her camera and started snapping to preserve my moment of embarrassment.  

We spotted a German woman we’d met at one of the hippie parties. As we walked and talked to her, she spied a wallet that someone had dropped. She bent down and was just about to grab it when it launched up into the air. It was a joke on a string. The crowd around us roared with laughter. Carol and I exchanged smiles of surprise and relief, glad we hadn’t fallen for the gag.

We sat on a park bench and watched some young guys playing accordions while others danced the traditional tarantella. Each time Carol raised her camera to snap a picture, they froze.  I figured they probably wanted money for pictures. Carol was getting tired and discouraged. It seemed the parade would never start; we were faced with more interminable Italian waiting. I was shocked to hear her suggest that we actually head home. It was so unusual for her to give up on something – was I a bad influence on her? Fortunately, we heard the parade finally starting.

Finding a good corner to watch from, we readied our hammers to bop people on the floats driving by. There were all sorts of garish vehicles with colored lights flashing in the fading light.  My favorite was a thirty-foot-tall demon with flaming eyes and arms that waved menacingly over the crowd. It was like something from the Ozzy Osbourne shows of my youth.   

We met some Americans from the Sigonella air base, but seeing other US citizens wasn’t nearly as novel to them as it was to us. Meanwhile the arms race on the parade route was building.  In addition to the hammering, revelers were now throwing confetti at one another. One crazy confetti vendor almost choked Carol to death. Her big mouth was open in a laugh, and she unexpectedly got hit in the face with a fistful of the paper, which went right down her throat. After gagging it up, she wrapped a scarf around her mouth to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.  The seller felt so bad that he became our personal arms dealer for a while, giving us free confetti and using his own stash on people who threatened to bombard us.   

Heading back to the train afterwards, we got ambushed with whipped cream.  You never knew when you’d get hit by some secret weapon here.  Despite the mess, I was sorry to leave as it got dark. It seemed like the party might get wilder. Carol started making plans with some fellow tourists she’d just met, Fred and Geraldine from France, Elga from Austria, and Katarina from Switzerland.  

We decided to get a ride with them to a hostel in Siracusa.  The place was run by a couple of young guys, who let Carol and me sleep in the same room.  That was unusual for a hostel.  Perhaps they hoped to listen in from their office next door?  Or maybe that was just my paranoia again. At least these guys didn’t seem like CIA agents sent by my dad. 

                                            *Carol*

On our Martedi Grasso trip, I made plans to escape from Sicily. I took the opportunity to have big city travel agents arrange my flight home in a few months. Since I was under 26, I had been able to buy an open-ended ticket for a stay of up to a year. I chose the last possible da y, June 12, to fly out of Paris. I was sad since it was two weeks earlier than I had originally planned, but I knew how many life-changing events could transpire in two weeks, and I had to make it home in time for a friend’s lesbian wedding. 

After the parade, I could brag that I’d probably hit some Mafia boss on the head with a hammer. Yet for all the crazy sex they have in Sicily, no one showed off any body parts like in New Orleans. Rob was getting creamed with hammers. I was a little jealous that so many girls wanted to get his attention. But since getting hit on meant getting hit, I was glad he received most of the attention.

 I had already seen Syracusa, so after our night there I left Rob to travel with our new tourist friends. I headed back for more trouble in Piazza. I got off the bus and went straight to Giovanni’s. We chatted, and I thought we could keep it at that. Then he started messaging my neck, and it felt so good I let him rub more. It got erotic but I didn’t let it turn into sex, so I figured that was okay. I was staying in control. It was fun to have our naughty little secret. I stayed over but held my ground.  

The next evening he dropped me off in Valle Perfetta, and I warmed up a bath. I had to wash his scent off me.  Rob soon returned from Syracusa. We swapped tales of our adventures, minus my massage with benefits from Giovanni.  

“Hmm,” he said, “I’m surprised Giovanni didn’t put any moves on you.” I pointed at the big water basin I had borrowed from Hilda to take Rob’s attention from my reddening cheeks.  

“I made a bath for you. Better wash off that travel dirt before the water gets cold!”  I was playing it so cool.

*Rob*

I didn’t share all my travel stories with Carol.  I had developed a crush on Katarina, the Swiss woman in the group at Siracusa. I got my hopes up when she and I went, alone, to see the cathedral of San Giorgio. I looked up at its impressive spires and down at her attractive figure.  

Bellisima, non?” she asked. “Isn’t it beautiful?”  I wanted to say “Come tu,” “like you.”  But I couldn’t muster the courage. I started to feel angry and frustrated as I had with Nikki.  I wondered if it was a mistake to be shacking up with a woman, since I could never seem to have fun around them. 

My desire for Katarina kept smoldering as we continued our tour. We visited the “Ear of Dionysius.” Around 400 BCE the tyrant Dionysius supposedly tortured his prisoners in a cave with acoustic properties that amplified their anguished cries. I felt tortured by my feelings, as well as by the sight of a tour group of exquisite young French ladies.

    Next we visited the Greek outdoor theaters, then the towns of Noto and Ragusa. Noto was noted for being baroque. I took in its overloaded architecture as I loaded up on calzones and arancinis.

Ragusa was ridiculously picturesque, perched on two hills connected by a medieval stone bridge.  We walked down one hill and trudged up another to see the famous blue-windowed cathedral.  Inside, monstrous foot-wide candles were surreal leftovers from some holy procession.  

Modica came next; its church has the tallest central bell tower in Sicily. I was amused by how much my hosts valued such obscure facts. The town’s winding medieval streets were challenging to navigate. As we rounded one corner, Fred had to screech on the brakes, sending us lurching in our seats.  He had almost driven down a flight of stairs! 

Fred said he knew a great seafood place, and we headed on a long drive to the coast. The meal was worth the drive, with good pasta, rice, shrimp, calamari, and a main course of whole fish.  My enjoyment was dampened by worrying how much this extravagant feast was going to cost. The gang kindly covered my share of the bill, which was only about twenty bucks. The wine flowed, and we talked and laughed. I teased Elga for thinking the Mississippi River ran through Washington, DC. Someone in Georgetown had told her that, no doubt as a joke.  

I started to get jealous when some of Fred’s Sicilian acquaintances started turning on the charm with Elga and Katarina. I felt outclassed by their nice clothes, cologne, and smooth Italian ways. As one fellow praised the bounty of the Mediterranean, I tried desperately to undercut him. I mentioned that the travel doctor I’d seen told me the Mediterranean was so polluted I shouldn’t eat anything from it. He scoffed and said even if that was so, it was inappropriate to mention at the dinner table. I felt put in my place, probably rightly so.  

On the drive back, I tried to sleep even though the others were having a lively conversation. I worried because Fred had seemed tipsy as we left the place. But the return ride went smoothly and even seemed shorter. Hitting the hostel bed after such exhausting touring and eating was one of the most enjoyable sensations I had ever felt. Even if Katarina wasn’t in bed with me.

    At breakfast the next morning, I chatted with a British traveler.  I mentioned that his cup of tea was probably healthier than my cup of coffee. He said a recent study suggested tea causes arthritis and kidney stones.   But he shrugged and said he was too addicted to stop. It sounded like the kind of pessimism I was familiar with.  

But this morning I felt good. I noticed Katarina enjoying the bowl of cherry preserves on the table.  I teased her about being , since yesterday she said she didn’t like the cherry jam.  She laughed and explained that she liked cherry preserves fresh, not from a plastic restaurant container. She seemed impressed that I had been paying attention to her likes and dislikes. It seemed to raise my worth in her eyes.  

We headed toward Piazza Armerina to see the mosaics. We stopped at Caltagirone for its famous Stairs of Santa Maria del Monte, inlaid with the decorative tiles the town is known for.  Fortunately Fred didn’t try to drive down them. A more interesting sight, for me, lay across an old bridge. I pointed out the beauty of the rust-stained metal siding of a decaying apartment building. Fred thought that was funny, and we launched into a discussion of modern art. He told a story about Picasso. Apparently once a waiter was about to pick up a napkin Picasso had doodled on while eating. Pablo turned and snatched the napkin, saying he would be the only one to profit from his art. This story was supposed to illustrate how selfish Picasso was, but I wished people were grabbing for my used napkins. 

Back on the road to Piazza, we had more engaging talk. I told Katarina that she made German sound like a romance language.  I thought that was pretty clever, and she seemed to like it.  

 After they saw the Roman Villa, I wanted them to meet my friends, but I couldn’t get an answer on Giovanni’s or Ulla’s phone. My companions offered to drive me home, not knowing what they were getting into. I fretted that we would end things on a bad note.  

I was leading them way out into the countryside, risking their dinner plans back in Syracusa. They joked that I seemed to live “nowhere.”  I let them drop me off at the top of the hill, we said farewells, and they sped off.  

When I got home, Carol had made me a warm meal and a bath.  What an amazing surprise to come home to!

But we were hardly living happily ever after. One day, following a big lunch at Hilda’s, I felt like taking a discanzo.  I had gardened with her all morning. Carol urged me to cut more wood, instead, so she could keep burning it. I made a half-hearted attempt with my dull saw blade. I muttered under my breath until Carol hissed, “Oh, forget it!” and stomped off to visit the neighbors. I felt like a jerk and worried that if this friction kept up she might leave me for good. I tried to distract myself by chopping out yet another terrace full of Scotch broom weeds.  

As I was lost in my thoughts and working amongst the shrubs, Kai snuck up behind me. I practically took flight in surprise when he started talking. He laughed and asked, “Hast du geshrukt?!” – Did I scare you? Something in his tone made me think it was unmanly to be taken by surprise. I tried not to worry about whether he was insulting me. He had come to tell me the neighbors, a couple of hills, over were having their own Martedi costume Grasso party.  He said his car was full, but Dino and Hannah, up the hill, had offered Carol and me a ride. 

 Carol returned around sunset, much to my relief. She seemed to have gotten over her anger about the wood. We reprised our yin and yang costumes and headed to Dino and Hannah’s with the help of my trusty flashlight. The cheap batteries I’d just bought at the market, predictably, died halfway there. We fumbled on through the moonless darkness.

   Dino was looking dapper in a pin-striped suit and fedora, playing a mafia don. Hannah was dressed as a little girl with braids. Hannah was the daughter of the hostess of the party.  They had come to Sicily together, years ago, from England, as part of what was supposed to be a worldwide mother-daughter odyssey. Instead, her mother made it as far as Italy, fell in love with an Italian Buddhist, and stayed.  

When I reached the party, I got a rude shock. Each guest had to pay 15,000 lira to get in!  I thought it was just a friendly potluck, although we hadn’t brought anything. But at least the entry fee entitled each of us to a plate of food.  Annabella was there in a cow-themed costume, as she had been living and working on a Swiss cow farm in Aidone. It wasn’t sexy, but it was clever, a Viking helmet with horns, a pitchfork, and hay sticking out of her overalls along with a tail.  

There was a DJ, and Carol and Annabella jumped around and line-danced, having a great time. I was jealous they weren’t grumpy like me. At one point Carol disappeared into the bathroom with Annabella. While at other times I might have fantasized that they were making out, tonight I figured they must be sneaking off to bitch about me.  When they emerged, Carol explained that Annabella had needed help getting her costume off and on. I was relieved, and my mood started to lift when I realized how petty I was being.  

I also learned that the admission price included limitless refills of food! So after stuffing my face some more, I was finally ready to burn some calories dancing. By that time, there weren’t too many others in the dance room. One guy was flailing around like a madman, and I briefly wondered if he was gay. I’d caught myself slipping into a judgmental Sicilian frame of mind.  This was kind of hypocritical after being annoyed by being mistaken for a gay drug dealer.  

The other person dancing was a woman in a skin-tight black cat suit. Mee-yow! She took a break and leaned against the wall, but I was too intimidated to think of something to say to her.  Ah well. My life felt unfair. It was so difficult for me to connect with women, while outgoing Annabella and Carol blabbed on about all their common interests, like being bi. And something told me Carol was fooling around with Giovanni again. I figured I had only my “timidezza” to blame for my failures.  

We got a ride back with Lea and Helmut, who was in a critical mood.  After Carol sounded off with some of her theories on Sicilian culture, he responded, “You shouldn’t think so much!”  

March arrived with indisputable proof that summer was just around the corner.  Old Artilio changed his menu to the warm weather pasta that would be a staple until autumn. He made shorter noodles and used the wild vegetables coming into season.  

The climate was changing. Fier shocked us by announcing he was moving back to Holland. I felt wistful myself, after all the gardening, cooking, and card playing we had done together. Did he lose hope after losing me to Carol?

Carol and I were in town on Sunday evening and joined the passagiata. Tonight, the whole town seemed to be out, as if there were a street fair. Everyone was dressed to impress, mingling and talking with neighbors. It was especially fun to see the old couples strolling about: leather-skinned men in sport jackets and hats and stout wives in high heels and stockings. It made me appreciate anew the charms of this island.  

  We strolled all the way out of town and decided to head to Carlo and Ulla’s. We peeled and ate mandarins along the way.  A fog settled in and cast a romantic Victorian veil across the countryside.  Only the occasional pair of car headlights approached and passed through the mist. We talked about the intricacies of open relationships.  

Carol admitted she was thinking of sleeping with Giovanni again. She also wanted to socialize with lesbians. She said all this would give me more time alone to paint! This open relationship idea seemed rather one-sided. But after a dinner of saffron rice with nuts, wine, and a few puffs of Ulla’s spinelli, we drifted off to sleep without a fight. 

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