Chapter 4 – Will the Real Sicily Please Stand Up?
Finally, to accommodate both our interests, Carol planned a trip to the province of Agrigento, her family’s old home, which also boasted Greek temples and quiet beaches.
Before we left on our trip, Carol had something she wanted to talk to me about. Walking through the town’s medieval streets, she led me to a bench in the park. She said she hoped I wouldn’t hate her, but since we had been apart for six weeks, and I hadn’t written or called often, she’d been so bored and lonely she’d let herself be seduced by a Sicilian. She wanted to try to be just with him. I was surprised but also, somehow, relieved. Traveling for a year seemed to open up so many possibilities that the way we’d huddled together in the cold and dysfunction of Minnesota no longer seemed relevant.
Carol’s resolve to be a serial monogamist didn’t last too long though. We began renewing our physical acquaintance shortly thereafter in the free-love atmosphere of Girasol’s quilted blankets. Giovanni and I would have to learn to share.
Annabella drove us to town for our bus. We quickly said goodbye, and I hustled Rob along so we wouldn’t miss it. We bickered all the way. He hated to be rushed.
How can he be so irrational? You can’t expect to sleep all day when you are a world traveler. How else are we supposed to catch the only bus of the day?
We sat and pouted and wondered why it was so hard for us.
After a few miles of torched grass and medieval café colored towns peering down on us over the tall hills, we calmed down a bit. We vowed to try to respect each other’s communication styles. The bus stopped at the train station in Catania, so I said hello to my new barista friend Massimo, who served me another of my beloved granita di mandorla drinks. I just couldn’t seem to get enough of all the almond flavored concoctions in Sicily. Annabella told me that in Ayurvedic medicine, almonds were believed to increase your self control and calm your mind. I certainly could use more of those qualities here.
Giuseppe and Flaminio didn’t make us wait too long. They were just as friendly to Rob as they were to me. Or at least I thought so. Later Rob said he never really liked Giuseppe and felt it was mutual. More manly competition and jealousy games?
Giuseppe, Flaminio, and Deborah drove us up the mountains to give us a tourist’s view of the beach at Naxos and of Taormina, the town on the hill above. The view of Etna, with her constant volcanic steam, was gorgeous. Postcards always show the cliff diving into the Mediteranean and Etna cautiously watching through her clouds in the distance.Past Taormina we reached the town of Milo where we planned to spend the night at Giuseppe’s vacation home. Milo lies halfway up the mountain, I assume in lava distance from the volcano. Instead we found the weekend renters still there. It was past their checkout time, but they rudely let us know they didn’t intend to leave. I guess they didn’t mind not being invited back next season. No problem, Giuseppe’s family had another vacation home on the beach at Naxos. We were a bit surprised at this opulence. All of these houses were only thirty minutes, at most, from their big city home in Catania. What did they need to vacation from so badly? We didn’t realize the Sicilian tradition of “getting out to the country.”
We met and talked with Giuseppe’s parents, then went out to listen to the waves and see the stars up above. There they were, still arranged in the constellation patterns laid out by the Greeks, from this very area, 3,000 years before. Night fishermen ventured out in their bright blue and yellow boats to hunt down swordfish with the unfair advantage of spotlights. Yellow lights reflecting on the water as the fishers peer in for their prey. The waves swishing around the boat and gently smashing into the sand. The sea quiets for the night as the tourists move to night clubs instead which now stood empty with the summer rush back in school.
More friends joined us for pizza. Naxos was a tourist play area, like Daytona, but with much more class. There were discotheques, pizzerias, souvenir shops, and video arcades. The Sicilian boys laughed and played a nearly pornographic video game, leaving Deborah and me rolling our eyes. But in the back of the arcade was a platform filled by six trampolines, surrounded by wooden walkways. Giuseppe paid for our admittance and then proceeded to hurl himself from one trampoline to the next. I was laughing so hard it hurt as he flew through the air flailing his arms wildly. I climbed up and started jumping myself, so high that I feared losing the pizza I had just eaten. They couldn’t talk me into jumping from one trampoline to another – I was too worried about landing on the ground. Giuseppe jumped higher and farther than anyone. It was obvious he was the leader, always planning and suggesting what we should do next. I didn’t mind following along, for a change.
The next morning we all slept in and woke up casually. It felt like beach week again – the D.C. area after-high-school graduation ritual, a beach house full of people my age just being But Rob and I had to head on to Agrigento, and our friends had respectable jobs at banks and other branches of the bureaucracy. We made time for a quick brioche breakfast with sweet cream panna and a last dip at the beach. We threw sand at each other, screaming and laughing. I loved spending time with them. Pure fun and no drama whatsoever.
They dropped us off at the bus station in Catania. Rob waited while I ran next door to the train depot to compare times and prices. I discovered that it was cheaper to get to Papa Pete’s birthplace, Menfi, by train. And since I was alone, a Sicilian man discovered me. He started talking, and at one point he said he was 40. When I looked at his big belly, I almost laughed thinking I was actually sleeping with a guy his age. Of course, being a man, and a Sicilian one at that, this guy was hoping for the same luck as Giovanni. I distinctly mentioned my “boyfriend,” and I was almost surprised that it worked. Unlike Giovanni, this guy gave up and conveniently said he had to go.
When I went back to the bench where Rob was guarding our backpacks, the first thing I said was, “Rob, give me a big kiss.”
He obliged but immediately said, “Who are you trying to avoid?” I must have clearly taught him about horny Sicilian men.
The train ride was a disaster; a two-hour trip turned into five. We stopped at every run-down station which looked like it hadn’t been used since the last century, when Papa Pete had left this country. So this is why the train was so cheap. Yet, I enjoyed seeing the grapevines and hills on the way to my ancestral land. Since it took so long, we knew we couldn’t make it to Menfi that day, so we got off at the city of Agrigento and planned to catch the bus connection the next day.
My guide book told us about a cheap hotel within a few blocks. We walked by beige buildings and churches and checked into the hotel to drop off our heavy packs. Rob was grumpy, but he perked up when we passed a building protected by sandbags and soldiers. It must have been another government building under siege by the Mafia. Always the war geek, Rob admired the guards’ submachine guns and jaunty Robin Hood-style feathered hats. He learned that they were Alpini troops, and he shared this information with me, finding an indifferent audience.
We still had a little bit of time, that afternoon, before the temples closed. Hopping a local bus to the Greek remains outside of town, Rob hurried through the temples so fast he shocked me. He was a sloth when it was time to wake up and get on a bus or train, but he raced through sightseeing, suddenly in a hurry. I told him he must have misunderstood me and thought that we were going to the Greek Olympics rather than the temples. We got to watch the red glow of the sunset fade over the temples and darkness fill them before the security guards prodded us out at closing time.
We promptly caught the wrong bus back to town, so I went into a police station to ask directions. What a hot Carabinieri I found at the desk, chiseled chin, blue eyes for a change, contrasted to his typical Italian black curly hair. In a uniform, he seemed like a stereotypical Italian Stallion. He took my breath away. He told me he was from Milan and didn’t like Sicily – this was not the right thing to say to me, but I’d let Mr. Blue Eyes’ distaste for my favorite island slide. After some small talk, he offered to meet me at my hotel that night.
When we finally found the hotel, we also found a blond girl, at the door, wearing shorts and smoking a cigarette. Her dirty blond hair didn’t seem like the pure German type. Her casual clothes appeared more the less fashionable of our continent versus this one. And her thighs had meat on them unlike the European women who somehow pulled off a no fat diet, or at least that’s what their bodies looked like. We paused for a moment.
“Look, Rob. A tourist like us. I bet she’s American.”
“How do you know?”
“The way she’s dressed, her blond hair.”
We just shrugged and walked past her to our room and went out again to eat some spaghetti at a nearby trattoria. I never understood the difference between a trattoria and a restaurant. They looked the same to me – you sit down and a waiter serves you food.
When we returned, the blond with the shorts and muscular legs was there again. Everything about her screamed she was from our neck of the world.
“Should we ask her?” Rob dared me.
“What if we offend her? Maybe she’s British or Italian. “What should we speak?”
“Ask her if she speaks English, in Italian?”
So I walked over and tried, “Scusa, parli inglese?”
“Sorry, I don’t speak Italian.”
“Are you American?”
I looked over at Rob — we had offended her.
“Oh. I’m Carol and this is Rob. We’re from the states. Washington DC.”
“Vancouver. I’m Nikki. Am I ever glad to meet you guys. I haven’t spoken in three days!” She was warming up to us. What a relief.
“What are you doing here in Sicily?”
“I’m a nanny in Rome. They told me how pretty Sicily is, but I’ve been traveling for days, and no one speaks English here. I didn’t learn as much Italian as I’d expected, being with the baby. ”
That’s how we started a new threesome, me, Rob, and Nikki. Now the odds were on Rob’s side.
Normally I would’ve been thrilled to see some ancient Greek temples. But after a tiring day of traveling across the whole island, Carol’s enforced tourism didn’t put me in the best of moods. I felt worse when I realized I had lost Carol amongst the temples. She had wandered off to get us some ice cream, and then the great adventurer couldn’t find me. She ate my ice cream too, since it was melting, and now she felt like a pig. And I felt like a jerk.
My spirits picked up when we met a young girl named Nikki back at the hotel. I assumed she was tired of jokes about the Prince song, so I restrained myself. She had a tan that made my easily burned skin jealous, plus blond streaked hair, a perky button nose, and a cute Canadian accent. She was the first North American woman besides Carol I’d seen in over a month. And I was too shy and tired to talk to her. Carol wasn’t though.
Nikki’s room was cheaper without a shower, so we let her use ours. I was fostering some hopes, but nothing happened. What was I expecting, some scene from a porn movie? We should get to know her first. The water squeaked on, there were sounds of lathering, and Nikki finally emerged, flanked by clouds of steam. She patted her dripping hair with a towel, her skin warm and pink. She said thanks and, in her shorts, tank top and sport sandals, left for her room. Carol and I joked about who might seduce her first.
Nikki told us that some hot carabinieri came to her room earlier and she had no idea why. She was a little worried but figured all her papers were in order. I laughed. He had come earlier than he had promised, looking for me. The reception desk had sent him to Nikki by mistake. I guess any North American would do.
The three of us strolled around the old town together. Rob ducked into an alley to pee since there were no bathrooms around. Just then a car pulled up, with faces I recognized from the police station.
“Nicole! Carol!” It was the carabinieri’s friends. He had sent them on patrol to look for us. When Rob emerged from the alley, zipping up his fly, they were probably disappointed he wasn’t another girl. We all piled into the Fiat, and they drove us to see the temple skyline. As we walked to the temples, they told me that the police officer had lied – he was married and had lived in Sicily his whole life! Oh well. At least we got to see the temples again, in a different light. Even if they were, according to the bilingual sign, “clos – id.” I was starting to learn how little English Sicilians knew, and how annoying it was when they tried to speak it. They seemed to feel they were brilliant linguists when they managed one mispronounced word. When Rob, Nikki, and I spoke English, they had to butt in with, “Whats? Whats?” I wanted to yell “That word doesn’t exist!” At least it was the perfect environment to learn Italian, unlike Rome and Florence which were so flooded with foreign students there was no one to speak Italian to.
That evening I was hoping to get drunk and see what might happen with Nikki, but no luck. We couldn’t find any bars open late, in our neighborhood, or even shops that sold wine or Moretti beer. As we walked around, Carol met up with some local guys she knew – she seemed to know people everywhere! They turned out to be friends of some Rico Suave guy from the Carabinieri station that she’d made a date with. Sheesh. I wasn’t too happy when Carol decided we should take them up on an offer of a ride around town. We made it back to the hotel later, and though I liked the temples, I was glad to leave town the next day. Carol talked Nikki into joining us on the next leg of our adventure, further down the coast to her family’s old hometown of Menfi.
Papa Pete looms large in the family oral history. Mom always told stories of him bringing her to Coney Island. Aunt Kay, who escaped to California in the ‘60s and has been in therapy ever since, swears he is the only member of her dysfunctional family about whom she has good memories. She remembers the ice pops he bought. They had to keep pushing them up and lick them fast before they melted. Mom remembers going upstairs in the row house where Papa Pete and Grandma Grace lived. She sat on his lap while he dipped his bread into his egg yolk and shared it with her. She felt smug since she knew it was against her mother’s anorexic rules to eat egg yolk. Mom was born a rebel.
When she was pregnant with my older sister, the whole family was excited. But Papa Pete told her he was dying and would never meet his great=grandchild. Mom shrugged it off since he always said he was dying. This time his Sicilian superstition was true. He left this world in the spring, and my sister came into it that summer.
With all this history, I was nervous on the bus to Menfi. I was finally going to see the homeland. What would it be like? What would I feel? Would I sense more connection with Papa Pete? Would I feel more Italian? Would I know who I really was? I slept to calm my anxieties. First I said a prayer to tell Papa Pete I was back in his hometown and maybe he could get to know me now.
We arrived in Menfi by bus, having learned our lesson about the train, and strode across the litter-strewn cobblestone piazza. A homeless guy asked us for money, and I joked that he was Carol’s last living relative there. At the lone open café, we had a lunch of arancini, peas and veggies deep fried with sauce inside a teardrop-shaped ball of rice. A delectable treat for just due mile lire, about a buck fifty. Locals with dark sunlined faces under beretta caps stared at us, the rare stranieri. Carol charmed them with tales of her relatives from Menfi.
Carol found a phone to call the agritourist hotel, and in half an hour we were being whisked away from the beautiful beach into farm country. The proprietor was a woman of around 70 in the black mourning clothes of a widow, which were traditionally worn for ten years. Some Sicilians bemoaned the fading of this tradition – these days, younger women only wore black for several weeks. The owner told us the rules, gave us keys, and showed us our studio room on the ground floor, under the family’s quarters. It was furnished with a large bed, a cot, and a small kitchen. The bed was large enough for three; that was a good sign. I thought the water smelled funny, but the girls didn’t seem to notice or care about it. We showered, ate some bread and olives offered by our hosts, and settled in for our stay.
On our first full day in Menfi, I went to work. Rosa drove me into town and pointed me to the Casa de Commune, the City Hall. She introduced me to a fellow named Paulo who seemed to know everything about the town. I told him I was looking for documents about my great-grandfather and any family that may have been left behind. He told me to come back after he’d had time to look up the information.
I wandered around the town and couldn’t help taking photo after photo of houses destroyed in the 1968 earthquake. I was just aghast that, decades later, they still hadn’t been demolished or rebuilt. It was a big clue to the corruption of the Mafia and the inefficient bureaucracy of southern Italy.
I wandered around town and into the supermarket where I started a conversation with anyone I found, the cashier, the seafood vendor. My walk took me to the town cemetery, and I looked for “Marino” on the stones. I hadn’t realized what a common last name it was. I should have known, since Grandpa Joe used to joke, after he moved to Florida, that quarterback Dan Marino was his son.
Across from the cemetery was a flower shop. The twenty-two-year-old clerk gave me flowers since I was so “bella.” No matter where you turn in Sicily, there is a man ready to flirt, or to pounce.
I got lost trying to find Rosa’s office since all the streets looked the same. Luckily, it was a tiny town and I was the only American walking around in shorts and sneakers, so Rosa drove around and found me. We went back for lunch. It happened that it was Rob’s birthday, so I re-gifted the flowers. I couldn’t identify a flower out of a line up so when I gave them to Rob he said, “Aren’t these calla lilies, like they use for the dead?”
“Well, you are one day closer to death!”
I admitted that I got them near the cemetery, and was thankful that Rob had a dark sense of humor. We enjoyed Nikki’s version of Roman spaghetti, and I put a candle in a plastic-wrapped krumpkin, the only cake-type thing I could find at the grocery store. We sang in Italian, “Tanti auguri a ti.” He enjoyed the attention and the Kit Kat candy bar I’d found in town, a taste of home.
After our leisurely lunch, it was time for Rosa and me to get back to work. We went to the town hall and found Paulo with an old tome. He opened it right to the name “Pietro Marino.” I couldn’t believe that I was looking at my great grandfather’s birth certificate, handwritten over one hundred years ago. From there, Paulo showed me his siblings’ certificates too. Wow, the whole family was at our fingertips. I was so happy one moment but disappointed the next. Paulo informed me that none of these people or their descendents were in town. I could’ve saved myself the heartbreak by asking my mother, who could have told me that all of his family followed him to New York.
In desperation I asked,
“Are there any distant cousins?”
Paulo didn’t think so. They gave me a cultural lesson on how real relatives are those people you have contact and intimacy with; Rosa said half of her family won’t even talk to each other. I figured I’d just create a new family in Sicily with nice families like Rosa’s. That night they did feel like family as they invited us up to the porch for dinner and gave Rob a real cake. Rob liked them because they were impressed with the slides he’d brought of his paintings, Sicilians seemed to love the arts. Rob was the typical artist visiting Italy, except he was nowhere near the famous museums on the mainland.
Without much else to do, we hitched and hiked to the beach, almost three miles away. I had been raised not to pick up hitchhikers and felt rather uncomfortable on the other side of things.
Since it was early September, most of the tourists who had made it this far had already left. We had a white stretch of beach all to ourselves. It was fortunate that we’d brought snacks, since all of the restaurants and bars on the small strip were closed. After picking a spot for our blankets, Nikki and Carol looked around. The coast was literally clear, so they dropped their shorts, ripped their bikini tops off, and ran into the waves. I enjoyed the sight but was deathly afraid. Was something really going to happen with us three? What should I do? What if I screwed it up? The pressure was too much.
I was shy but eventually joined in. I waded into the warm blue water and body-surfed the waves until I ran aground and got sand in the Speedos that our Catanian friends had given me. I made a goofy show of shaking it out. Horsing around intimidated me, for fear of seeming creepy and being rebuffed. I splashed around with them a while, then retreated to shore. Shaking off excess water, I sat on our blanket and dried in the luxurious sun. Nikki and Carol finally came back, but by then I was starting to worry about harmful rays. I picked up my book and travel journal and strode off to the safe shade of some small trees at the edge of the beach. Carol seemed incredulous, but Nikki just shrugged it off, sat back, and put on her sunglasses. As the blinding sun kept moving, I had to change position and eventually ended up backed against the peeling wall of a house amongst some shrubs. I disturbed an ant colony, and six-legged explorers were soon crawling over me and my things. They were followed by some eight-legged predators. Why did I have to be such a weirdo? I toughed it out for a while, out of principle. Fortunately Nikki and Carol decided to leave after a bit, wanting to look for some lunch, the elusive pranzo. After hiking the long road up the cliff, we finally found a lonely shop and got some sodas and ice cream cups from a bored clerk. For hitchhiking, Carol suggested I keep my back turned to passing cars. She figured drivers might more readily pick us up if they just saw my long hair and thought we were all women.
Carol informed me that, surprising as it might seem, Sicilian men were actually much more restrained with women than their compatriots in the rest of the country. Men here could never be sure if a woman might be the love interest of some Mafioso, and copping a feel might lead to losing more than just your hand. Which of course meant that tourist women were fair game.
The next day we did it all again. This time we got a ride in a comfortable air-conditioned tourist bus on its way to a beach-front hotel. We told the driver he looked like Neil Diamond with his sideburns and sunglasses, and he seemed to approve. He was very personable, especially with the girls. He gave Carol tips about the hotel complex. As there were few foreigners around who weren’t staying at the hotel, we easily passed as guests and used their pool and hot tubs. Nikki and Carol had brought a boom box, and they gave the bus driver a thank you show of American line dancing to one of Nikki’s country-western mixes. I wished I were so free spirited.
After enjoying the hotel’s amenities, we slipped down to the beach. Being a military history buff, I was ecstatic to find an old concrete machine gun bunker, left over from World War II. It was filled with rocks, so I could only pose for pictures in front of it; I grabbed a piece of driftwood to hold as a pretend gun. This bunker had probably never seen action, at least not the warlike type. General Patton’s invasion of Sicily had come, several miles down the coast, at the industrial seaport of Gela. Another of Carol’s illicit escapades, with a motorcycle-riding rogue named Lucio, had also taken place there. But I would learn about that later.
At this quiet beach, near sunset, a couple of guys came trotting by on shiny black horses, kicking up hoof-fulls of sand. They were strikingly dressed in white with tall black riding boots. Jesus, I thought, could these Italians stop being so debonair? I could see Carol and Nikki practically swooning over them, and if they stopped, I didn’t stand a chance. Fortune was on my side, however, and they just glanced over then trotted on. I was relieved that they didn’t offer to take the ladies off my hands for a little jaunt on horseback. I needed to get my A-game going.
Behind us, in a fenced-in area, a lonely donkey stared at us. I picked some beach grass to feed him, trying to judge which would be the tastiest strands. I gave him some sympathetic words and a scratch on the nose. Carol loved the forlorn beast, it reminded her of her great-granddad Papa Pete’s stories of the wild Sicilian donkeys. She found meaning everywhere. It was my birthday, so I tried to count my blessings. On a Mediterranean beach with two naked coeds! The future was still alive with possibility. The three of us took turns burying each other in the sand, and I exercised my artistic license to sculpt huge breasts for them. They returned the favor and fitted me out with an impressive sand phallus. The feel of their hands caressing the warm sand above me was delicious.
After a swim, we packed up and headed back to our hotel. Along the quiet roads, under the violet evening clouds, we plucked succulent grapes from the vineyards. A thin moon rose in the cooling air over the hills. This did seem to be an idyll after all. Maybe I wouldn’t stay frustrated forever.
To pass time on our long walk, I made up lyrics for songs I knew, Weird Al style. I kicked it off with my version of Confederate Railroads’ “Queen of Memphis”:
“I saw donkeys – dancing by the water. I saw temples – left here by the Greeks. That blue Mediterranean was my witness – the night I fell in love with the Queen of Menfi.”
The girls loved it.
The night seemed full of promise. A car even came along, and we were offered a ride the rest of the way. But we got held up for quite a while as a shepherd led an endless flock of sheep across the road in front of us. Carol hopped out to take pictures of this priceless cultural event.
Our time in Menfi was simple – start walking to the beach, catch a ride, enjoy the waves and sand, and hitch a ride home. I loved the distraction from worrying about Giovanni. Every ride we took was a different adventure. One time a trucker picked us up as we tried to go, on the Autostrada, to the “big” city of Sciacca. We loved his huge truck but he seemed to switch gears way more often than necessary, and each time he accidentally touched my knee. Eventually he gave up even that pretense and just started grabbing. I told Rob and Nikki, in English, that we had to get out. The driver kept groping me even as we made our escape. We laughed until we realized we were stuck on the Autostrada with cars zooming by at 70 miles per hour. Another truck finally stopped, and we warily got in, deciding that, from then on, Rob would be the one to sit next to the driver. Ironically, in the second truck we didn’t have to worry – the driver only had one arm.
Our beach life was pure fun. Nikki and I skinny-dipped whenever we could, and we hid Rob’s Speedo so he’d have to. I don’t think he minded being nude with us in the water, but he hurriedly dressed whenever people walked by or rode by on a horse. It was obvious to Nikki and me how different Rob was from Sicilian men. He worried about being naked in front of strangers and always wanted to respect women and not offend anybody. So different from the ugly old, fat Italian men who just assumed you wanted them.
When we made it to town, to check out the small weekly market, we found out we already knew half the town from catching all those rides. I was happy to feel at home in my family’s original hometown. After all of the naked swims and soaking up the “magical” air of Sicily, Rob and I figured we could really have a threesome with Nikki. Maybe crazy dreams did come true here. We both liked Nikki. She was pretty, energetic, and easy to get along with.
We were in the midst of a game of strip poker. Nikki already gotten us to our bare bones. Rob and I looked at each other, our hopes were up but I couldn’t see if any other part of him was. Our kinky plans seemed to be going great when I heard Rosa’s mother calling my name from upstairs.
“Che?!” I was annoyed. What the fuck could they want? They continued yelling even though I kept saying I was busy. It was as if I were a teenager whacking off in his room. They wouldn’t quit, so I got dressed and went up.
They said I had a phone call from the United States. Oh, that. It was my conscience calling, better known as my sister, the doctor. She’d gotten my number from Mom, who had informed her that I wasn’t taking the antibiotics for my UTI or PID or whatever disease I might’ve had. Here I was, in Sicily, struggling to find family, but my family 4,000 miles across the ocean had somehow tracked me down to lecture me on taking my medicine!
It did make sense. My sister said I could get a permanent infection, infertility, or death. Fine. I’ll take the dumb pills. I hung up wishing I had never told Mom or given her this number. But I did want babies someday, and I didn’t want to meet Papa Pete in the great beyond yet.
Unfortunately, my prescription was back across the island in Piazza Armerina.
After a few days, Carol’s huge libido lost its battle with her Catholic/Jewish guilt. She was going to return to Piazza Armerina to take her pills. With a good natured wink, she urged Nikki and me to continue our adventure while the weather held. It sounded like a good idea to me. Without Carol to monopolize Nikki with her blinding supernova of personality, maybe I could make some inroads. Carol wished me luck.
So our vacation plans were ruined. I hurriedly tried to finish my family hunt. Rosa drove me fifteen kilometers into Santa Margherita de Belice, home of the other half of my family. Was it just coincidence that my grandpa, Joe Marino, met and married my grandma, Nettie Rabito, in New York City, while their parents were from neighboring towns in Sicily?
Unlike Paulo, in Menfi, the man at the City Hall of Santa Margherita had the mentality of an Italian postal worker – frustrated that you imposed on them to actually do their job. I came in with a smile asking about Catarina’s side of the family, the Cotones,and without even looking up at me he explained that those people are from Sciacca instead. Had I just been punched in the face? I didn’t see his hand just the top of his balding hair as he continued to pretend to work on paperwork. I know she was from Santa Margherita, that’s what my living sources had said (my Aunt Jo back in Florida). It was her mother. She knew. I knew.
I pleaded that I had come all the way from the US, could he please just look? With a sigh he stood up, opened some files across the room, and managed to find Papa Nick’s birth certificate in a long black book. He showed me the page for two seconds. Then he snapped it shut and refiled it before I got to read it. Molto grazie, jerk.
Since Rosa had some work to do there, I had time to walk around and check out the other town of my great-grandparents origins – the Cottones and the Rabitos families. This town also had ruins of the 1968 earthquake left for decay in the elements. One churches glory days could still be seen like a Greek temple eroding in the winds. It also was like any Sicilian small towns, sidewalks, cobblestone, stores.
I wandered into a tile store, attracted to the traditional ceramic patterns. I was shocked to learn that the woman who worked there just happened to be named Nella Rabito! Could she be a relative? Maybe Sicily had a way of working things out after all, you just had to give in and go with the flow. But in another twist, Nella called her mother and learned that their great-great-grandfather was not, in fact, Gaspare Rabito, Papa Nick’s father, who stayed in Sicily. So then we weren’t related, right? Nella was kind enough to tell me where some other Rabitos lived around town.
I knocked on the door of one of the Rabito residences. A tall, crow looking elderly lady, in the required widow black, answered with a “What do you want?” I think I killed her with my answer, that I was looking for my relatives. “Why do you want to know them? What do you want from me?”
I tried to warn her that I just wanted to meet relatives. No, I did not want money. I didn’t want any land. I had no cruel intentions. It was just American curiosity of my roots. I had been warned that some Sicilians were suspicious, untrusting, conditioned to questions everyone. From the days of the evil eye or all the family feuds, but I didn’t dare mention my secret desire to mooch off of new found relatives all year – but I had hippies in Piazza Armerina for lodging instead. I was told most Sicilians had lost their suspicions except the elder one I was currently standing in front of.
As I walked through the old lady’s door to the curb, a car pulled up. Nella honked the horn and waved exuberantly. Apparently, she called her father who confirmed that yes, their great grandfather’s uncle was named Gaspare. Her blond hair flying exceitedly, she told me we could be family. This Gaspare had gone to Argentina to work for a while just like my great great grandfather Gaspare. So, maybe we were related after all!
I jumped into the passenger side and she whisked me to meet her mother and father. They gave me hugs and kisses and welcomed me into her home. The mother had on an apron and wore short, black hair. Nela’s blond may have been natural Sicilian roots or dyed but it looked good either way. The father looked like a typical Sicilian from the movies – 60s, brown hair shagging over his head, white shirt. Very friendly and liberal with the family and town history.
We talked about their family and how so many relatives had gone to Argentina to work in the silver mines around the turn of the 19th century. Argento is even the Italian word for silver, because the country is so famous for it. Yet something wasn’t matching up. The Gaspare Rabito in their family was a generation off from my great-great-grandfather. I figured it must not be a match after all. They didn’t care either way. I was learning that Sicilians weren’t interested in genealogy. My American veins were pumping hard with the desire to find family and the old country, but these people had never left or known anything about a distant romantic land.
After thanking them and receiving hugs goodbye, Nella drove me to meet their cousin, Antonio Rabito, who ran a press factory. He was tall and lingering over me. Shaking my hand like any other customer that comes through. He was sucking on a toothpick and explained the family history as if he was selling me on that week’s prices at the factory.
They were pressing olive oil and wine at the time. Nella and her parents wanted to introduce us since he was the one who knew the family history best. What he said sounded familiar, like my family story – the Rabitos were originally “Rabbit’s who came from England.” I was excited. So we were family. Antonio wasn’t fazed by that news at all. But that and a lira got me a cup of coffee. He took me out for a quick espresso before he drove off.
Antonio said we were so distantly related that it didn’t matter, and there was no contact now anyway. With that cheerful thought, he went back to work, and I sat there, slumped, at the coffee bar. Left with my thoughts and dreams dashed of some tear filled happy reunion with the home countries’ relatives. The bartender must have seen my sighs and asked, “Where are you from?”
“The United States”.
“What are you doing in Santa Margherita?”
“My great grandparents were born here.”
“Wow, I would love to have relatives in America. I think we have some cousins in New York. How old are you?”
He was more interested in getting to know me than my “relatives” were.
Papa Nick Rabito and Catarina Cottone brought most of their family with them when they left Sicily. Yet they left a relative behind as caretaker to watch over the family’s plot of farmland and small house. During the 1940’s, legal paperwork flew back and forth over the ocean as my aunts and grandmother fought over the land. The caretaker had died, and his immediate family claimed that the land was now theirs since he had worked and lived on it for almost 50 years. I don’t know why my family thought they should try to reclaim property they had never even seen. We lost the case, and my mother warned me that I should never try to find family in Santa Margherita de Belice because they were still mad at us. They would assume we wanted the land back, and they might try to kill us. Luckily, right before I left, Great-Aunt Jo assured me that was all bull. No one would care now. She was right – Sicily had changed. It was much more modern, and perhaps more apathetic. Killing, curses, and family feuds are becoming a thing of the past.
I had lost the fight with my sister about taking my pills, though. And I was cursing myself for leaving my prescription back in Piazza Armerina. There had been plenty of room in my backpack for that little slip of paper. Now I had to spend the day schlepping on three buses, by myself, and end my “vacation” early. Rob would get to sleep with Nikki, and I wouldn’t.