Chapter 6 – A Dark Season Descends
It had only been only a month, but it felt like Nikki had been with us forever. I couldn’t believe she was standing there with that giant green backpack towering over her, girded for a trip alone. I knew I would probably never see her again. Hell, maybe I didn’t even want to. The failure already hurt badly enough, what if I screwed it up yet again? The door hissed closed, and the bus rumbled out of sight down the tiny street spewing exhaust. I sighed, shivered, and pulled my knit cap down more tightly. I looked up at the swirling clouds extinguishing our brilliant summer.
Giovanni added to my gloom by telling me I’d better figure out where I was going to live right away, subito, because I’d need to start gathering firewood before the rains. I’d also need to figure out where to get water. I asked around and got a few suggestions. None seemed great. I could stay in Mick and Veronika’s broken down circus bus. I could stay with Artilio, who was desperate for companionship. Or I could try Casa de Oscar.
Oscar was a German whose unoccupied Sicilian getaway,about ten minutes’ walk from Artilio’s, was in good shape. I was sure Artilio would enjoy being able to keep his eye on me there, noting when I came and went without visiting and when I had a cozy fire going without inviting him over for a card game. Giovanni had told me about the place, Oscar was cool and wouldn’t mind my staying there. I plundered some other abandoned houses for supplies, found some usable chairs, pots, and pans, and dragged them up the hill to Oscar’s. The place didn’t have much in it except dirt, but at least it had a solid roof. I spent an afternoon stirring up clouds of dust as I swept the place out. Over the next few days I returned, gathering dead wood from the surrounding hillsides to store in the magasin or barn next to the house. It was arduous work in the blazing heat, which had mysteriously returned.
At one point, as I was dragging a branch across the parched valley floor, I stepped next to a nondescript hole in the ground. A black snake shot out, hissing with open jaws. I hurled myself back in shock, and my hat flew off and landed next to the hole. It might have been funny if it had landed on the snake. My heart raced as I checked my jeans for puncture wounds. I didn’t see any obvious ones. , Would I still die if I’d just been grazed by its fangs? Or maybe — my mind took a fanciful turn – it might just get me high?
This serpente hovered over its hole for a few more seconds, threatening and hissing like a cobra. Then it disappeared. I used a stick to retrieve my hat, rolled an old tire over, and propped it, against a dried thistle bush, next to the hole. I didn’t want to stumble on that spot again. Jesus, what a fucking place this was. In my opinion the snakes could have it.
After a few days I did start to feel pretty good about my accomplishments. The house was taking shape, and people were suggesting ways I might be able to get (a.k.a. steal) water and electricity from the Comune city government. Then Artilio burst my bubble, grumbling that I couldn’t keep all that wood I’d collected in the magasin, as Oscar had sold it to someone else. Crap. I put off taking all the wood back out. That night I went to Girasol, flopped down, and listened to music. In the evening, before dark, I headed to Marlies and Felippe’s. I always looked forward to getting to their place. The challenging trip over and under barbed wire, through a marsh, up steep clay gulley sides, and through passing goat, pig, or cattle herds was always worth it. Each part of the trip was etched into my mind and felt like an achievement. The last leg was the easiest, past another old farmhouse abandoned by the hippies, up a rutted but gentle road through an almond orchard, and winding among boulders and eucalyptus trees following the lights to the house.
Marlies and Felippe were unfailingly friendly, always offering food, drink, and conversation. Marlies told me she’d heard that Oscar’s whole property had been sold, which made me panic even more. I called Giovanni, and he contradicted that. To get to the bottom of it, Marlies called Oscar in Germany. Apparently the house was still available, and Marlies put in kind words for me. I was relieved, and we had a nice talk. She also offered me a precious bath. She translated the instructions on the German dandruff shampoo I had conveniently brought along just in case this opportunity arose. After that refreshing interlude, as my hair dried, we talked at the kitchen table over a bottle of wine. The conversation turned to travel and friendship. She had translated for me many times, so I was glad to return the favor by interpreting English slang in a postcard from a Canadian who had recently passed by on his mission to walk to India. Marlies mused that if you travel, you give up making a place of your own. That was a depressing thought, but I didn’t dwell on it. Marlies and Felippe always put me in a good mood. Reaching their house after a dark and difficult trip from dysfunctional Girasol felt like paradise.
Marlies had been playing an Irish music CD. My dad always talked of our Scottish and Irish ancestry, and he played the Clancy Brothers’ traditional music for us as kids. I wondered if maybe, instead of Sicily, I should be staying in Ireland for a year. I actually had roots there. Plus there would be girls I could actually speak to besides Carol.
Exhibiting my morbid fascinations, I led the conversation with Marlies to Germany in World War II and concentration camps. I’d heard about Jews who forgot how to speak German right after the war. When visiting Dachau, Marlies could feel that something horrible had taken place. To her, Germans would always seem cold and dangerous, with an unassailable sense of superiority. She was defensive about her own German ancestry. She wasn’t pure German — she was half Polish, a people who had also suffered much. However, her dad was embarrassed by his Polish heritage when he was around Germans. My dad had mixed feelings about his heritage too. He had taught himself to stop “speaking Southern” when he left Tennessee for a Northern college.
During the next few days, I shuttled between Girasol, Artilio’s, and Oscar’s. I found companionship with a couple of guys from up North who were futon-surfing in the area. I ate their food, smoked their joints, and let them help me gather wood. I figured they kind of owed it to me since they were imposing on my solitude at Girasol. Artilio wanted me to bring them by, ostensibly so he would recognize them and not think they were robbers. Artilio had also been bugging me with tales of men who were made cornuto, or cuckolds, by their women. He showed me the symbol for such men, holding his fist to his forehead, with index and pinkie fingers extended in what I knew back home as the heavy metal “sign of the devil.” Here, those horns growing out of your head meant your wife had made a goat out of you. It was a nonverbal insult you could throw at someone. Artilio not-too-subtly hinted that Carol was making me known as a cornuto thanks to her dalliance with Giovanni.
I headed to town one day, sneaking quietly past Artilio’s so I wouldn’t have to stop for another lecture about robbers and cuckolds. I scored a ride with a friendly fellow in one of the ubiquitous tiny three-wheeled trucks. It was very intimate in the cab, but I didn’t sense any funny business. It was different in town, though, when I ran into Fier. He invited me to one of his favorite out-of-the-way lunch spots.
Fier had always maintained an air of mystery, even if he tried to seem normal. Carol and I joked that the only thing to fear was Fier himself. Following him on a mission could lead you through God knew what twists and turns. He was a tall thin Jewish Dutchman, tanned despite wearing a traditional Sicilian hat to try to fit in with the locals. He spoke fluent Italian and Sicilian, but with the distinctive guttural accent that made him sound like Mike Meyers as Goldmember. He told stories of being in the cut-throat Amsterdam drug trade. My favorite was about a guy who cheated his gang out of a deal. The poor fellow was found with his man parts cut off and sewed into his mouth. That was the event that had convinced Fier to get out and do some traveling. He ended up liking Sicily the best. I never quite understood why, if he was fleeing the underworld of Amsterdam, he chose Sicily, the capital of the underworld.
I bought into Fier’s promise of an undiscovered jewel of Sicilian lunch specials. We entered the Trattoria Salus through an unmarked door. Fier led us to a table with some of his “friends.” The bar was full of grizzled men in berretta caps who eyed us as we walked across the room. A waiter brought us fresh bread and a bottomless bowl of the softest, juiciest, most flavorful black olives I had ever tasted. The flesh slid right off the pits, like perfectly-roasted chicken off the bone. I forgot my hesitations about the place as I savored this fantastic feast. Fier was catching up with his buddies, and I was making conversation as best I could.
Some of his pals started buying us drinks, which seemed nice enough. They played cards for beers and started a rock-paper-scissors type drinking game called “Capo, Godfather, drinker.” One fellow drew his chair uncomfortably close, and started to say a lot of things I couldn’t understand. As Fier translated, the guy proceeded to play with the hair around my shoulders. When I dodged out of the way, he reached for my ass. Fier said the guy had thought I was girl at first, but then he figured I must be gay, a pupozzo. He wanted me to come out to his farm where we could have some privacy! This wasn’t the kind of action I’d been hoping to find. I felt more surprised and amused than threatened though, and I tried to convince the guy I was, in fact, straight. I pointed out that plenty of young Italian hetero men had long hair as well. But he was unconvinced, and just said lo so, he could tell. At that point I’d had my fill of olives, wine, and sexual advances. I convinced Fier that we should bid them a buon giorno, and leave them alone with their malfunctioning gay-dar.
Fier had more mysterious errands to run, so we split up and I walked to the Plaza Cascino café. I hoped to see Carol, since she frequented this place. But no luck. I watched cute girls, however, and actually talked to one in Doc Martens. She was holding up the bus to Catania, much to the chagrin of the gesticulating driver. Marinella’s sister finally brought the bag she’d been waiting for. It seemed pointless to get her number, though, when I didn’t even have a phone. I went on to some errands and shopped at the corner grocery store. I loved how far my dollars seemed to stretch when magically changed into red, blue, and purple Lira. Maybe this place would be all right after all.
Sicilians left the olive groves in droves. I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for those left behind. My great- great-aunt Nicoletta was so lonely after her parents and her sister Catarina left for New York. She had no children of her own, and once terrified my grandmother when she came to visit in America. Nicoletta figured she would just snatch one of her sister’s kids before she hopped back on the boat to Sicily. She had chosen my grandmother Nettie, since they had the same name and red hair. It would look like they were mother and daughter. Plus her sister had three kids, it was only polite to share. Maybe she wouldn’t even notice one missing.
Her plan didn’t work. She pulled Nettie one way and her mother and sisters pulled the other, and Grandma stayed in New York. Nicoletta returned to Sicily where her father joined her just before he died. So her closest family ended up being her husband’s family in Menfi, where he was from.
My plans for a family were being torn asunder too. I felt Giovanni and I would never have sex again. We’d never be alone again, and never have our Sicilian baby together. He was sending me away so he could be with his other women. I’d never see Rob again. I’d never see Nikki again. I’d never be happy. Never, never, never… I’ve never taken change very well.
In order to deal with my new self-imposed anxieties, I had to fixate on something. I decided to give more thought to whether it might be right to have a baby with Giovanni, even if he didn’t want to be together. It turned out he liked the idea, or at least what it took to make the baby. He also wanted a piece of himself to live on forever, a bit narcissistic, perhaps? He liked the fact that I would take this piece of him to his dream land, America, where he wouldn’t have to be responsible for it. For some reason I actually considered this possibility. It must have been my total rejection of Rob and his “I never want kids” mantra.
When Giovanni dropped me at my new home, with Ulla, we kissed in the car as if I were leaving for America that very day.
“This is ridiculous. We’ll see each other at least once a week,” he pointed out.
“You promise?” I was like a desperate war widow on the train platform.
“Yes. I’d let you stay at my house all year if it were bigger.”
“Really? What about your other women? Your lupo solitario life?”
“Insoma.” An Italian phrase that meant oh yeah, that, that’s just the way it is. It really meant “end of conversation.”
Giovanni helped me unload my bags into the basement. He briefly chatted with Ulla then gave us both a kiss goodbye. I sadly watched his tall, skinny blue-jeaned body disappear.
Ulla distracted me from my sadness with dinner. It was the first time I had ever tried a portabello mushroom. I was never into mushrooms before, but this big, grilled, juicy portabello with olive oil was so simple, so amazingly delicious.
That evening I played Battleship with the boys. I wanted to feel a part of the family. Carlo, Ulla’s Roman husband, was kind and asked getting-to-know-you questions. He suggested I take Giovanni to America, since he never went anywhere.
That week, I asked everyone I knew about the baby question. Annabella suggested we just practice. Ulla said to go for it. I would learn that she was a bad influence when it came to big life questions. Aunt Kay called with the surprising news that she was coming to Italy to bring me on a tour of the mainland. My mother would join us as we toured Sicily. Kay had dreamt of someone in the family having a baby. I told her that was a weird coincidence, since I was considering it. She gave her blessing and promised to convince my mom to support me too, if it happened.
So Giovanni and I had the official family blessing. Was it a sign? Was the dream saying we should have a baby? Was this our destiny?
Even Rob said we should, mainly because he was glad to be off the hook. Or maybe because he was tired of hearing me obsess about it.
I was lonely in the hills of Ulla’s back yard. No Giovanni. No Rob. No Nikki. What was I to do? Of course I liked hanging out with Ulla and Carlo and walking in the hills and valleys. I even learned the shortcut to the Roman villa where all the tour buses dropped off tourists to see the town’s big attraction, which was reputedly one of the best Roman ruins on Earth. During those long walks I decided I wanted a real love story, like the one that had flourished between Carlo and Ulla for twenty years. Maybe Giovanni and I weren’t ever going to be that, and Rob? I wasn’t sure.
Looking out over the green-brown hills and olive trees, seeing the hawks circling overhead, I remembered this was what I had come to Sicily for. I didn’t come to fall in love or have a baby. I came to find my roots and learn Italian. I felt much more at ease as I watched the sunset, and I realized I simply needed to relax. I picked and ate some figs and prickly pears, then went back inside alone.
Without Carol I was struggling to figure out where to live and what to do with my life. Should I even stay in Sicily? I tried to make more friends, and I accepted an invitation to a birthday get-together at a place called Parco Rosso. I got a ride with Marlies and Felippe. We left the city by an unfamiliar road past a multi-story concrete building that looked unfinished and abandoned. This was to have been the brand new state-of-the-art hospital for Piazza Armerina, but, like so many projects in Sicily, funds had mysteriously disappeared halfway through construction. It lay in wait like a sleeping beauty, perhaps it would arise one day far in the future. Nobody was holding their breath for the prince.
When I arrived at the party, I met the parents of the birthday boy, Nils. Hilda and her boyfriend Kai were part of the German expatriate community in Valle Perfetta, over the ridge from Girasol in the opposite direction from Oscar’s. I was happy to see Carol was at the party too, and we joined the kids on the playground. We climbed the monkey bars and sat on the seesaw to talk. She proposed that our friend Annabella could be the “father” to her kids by Giovanni, and they could raise them in Oscar’s house. It took me a second to realize she was joking, at least partly.
Annabella was a short but fiery alternachick from Trieste, in far Northeast Italy, a city that Italy and Austria had battled over for centuries. She was in her twenties, like us, with dreadlocks and combat boots and a cute round face. She had wormed her way into everyone’s hearts after dumping Mick and making up with Veronika. I noticed she didn’t shave her legs, but they were usually covered by long johns or leggings. Even Marlies’ eleven-year-old son Diego commented “Che cullo!” one day when she walked by, “great butt!” I heard Mick comment that, compared to Annabella, Veronika gave head like a sack of potatoes. What a guy.
Parco Rosso was a pleasant spot among the eucalyptus trees, next to an old train station. Although I hadn’t brought anything to contribute, I swallowed my guilt and dug into the potluck food. There were twenty or thirty adults and kids and plenty of excitement. Diego was a bundle of writhing, bounding energy, hanging from trees and jumping off the jungle gym. Ulla almost fainted when he cut his head and dripped blood everywhere. But she recovered and offered to take him for stitches. The rest of us pressed on, eating and drinking until past dark.
At the dessert table, we partook of almond cookies and huge persimmons that surprised me by having no seeds. When Ulla returned with a sewn-up Diego, she suggested I talk with Hilda about a small house that might be available near her. Apparently one of her neighbors, Helmut, had built a new house. The small original stone farmhouse he had squatted in years earlier was empty now, except when his ex-wife came from Germany on holidays. This would become a big detail, but it didn’t seem so at the time. I chatted with Hilda, who said it sounded like a good idea. I would be much safer and more comfortable with neighbors and electricity, Strom. I liked the sound of the German word, like power lines being strummed by the current. Hilda promised to talk to Helmut about it. And heck, with my blond hair and blue eyes, I’d fit right in. This would be great – I could be in Sicily while Carol learned her family’s culture and language and be immersed in my family’s culture and language, German.
The party broke up. Ulla carted Carol back off to domestic servitude, and I felt an ache in my chest as I watched them putter off. I partly wished I could go too, back to Carol’s arms, back to a comfortable house with soft sheets and running water. But Annabella and I hitched with Hilda to Valle Perfetta. In the moonlight we trudged over the ancient rocky hill back to Girasol. Our Northern futon-surfing buddies came by too. Someone pulled out rolling papers, and a big night of drifting spinelli smoke began.
In the morning, the cats had shit on the carpet. I left it for the Northerners, who put sawdust on the turds before cleaning them up. For lack of a better plan, I headed back to town. I needed a routine, like Carol had. I discovered that sometimes it was easier to walk backwards up the hills, using different muscle groups and breaking up the tedium. No doubt the locals were watching, and thinking God knows what about this pazzo stranieri, crazy foreigner. When I reached Bar Charlotte, an hour or so later, I found Jean, the traveling German artisan Carol had told me about. He had been cruising around at various market days and fairs in Italy, braiding hair in the current fashion. I got a panini and beer with him, and we sat and talked in the park. Jean was a sweetheart, and amusing to look at. Tall and gaunt with a big smile, he wore a headband. He also wore a black and white scarf, in the Arabic style, usually over striped or Hawaiian shirts with acid washed jeans. Afterwards he bought me coffee, and I kicked myself for forgetting to thank him. Typical.
While writing some postcards, I thought about my cousin Theresa back home. She was half Sicilian-American herself. Maybe I should be more like her. Get a master’s degree, get a respectable job, and be able to afford shorter but more frequent trips to Europe. Maybe that was better than this protracted morass of boredom and self-pity.
That night, I dreamt that even my arch-conservative dad had succumbed to the ancient temptations of the Mediterranean. I found him frolicking in the surf with some beautiful young Italians. I was glad he could finally follow his dreams, unrestricted by social convention. It also gave me hope for when I got old. I was shocked that he had actually broken up with Mom, though, after enduring years of their arguments. I joined Dad and the others swimming for a while, but then someone pointed out all the stinging nettles in the water, which had turned from blue to brown. It was no longer the Mediterranean. It had morphed into the Chesapeake Bay. The fun and freedom were over. I awoke and realized that I really should make the most of all this. I couldn’t just give up and go back home.
I settled into a routine to try to stay sane. Mornings would find me breakfasting on bread and jam with Ulla and Carlo, and listening to them nag Samuele about one thing or another. They wanted him to make more friends at middle school. It struck me as a pretty tall order; I remembered my unpleasant experiences with peers that age. Then I’d write in my journal or pen letters to friends, take a walk, or hang out around the house. At lunch I always worried that I wasn’t being enough help, and I was anxious that I was bothering Carlo. But Ulla said, “Just ignore him, he’s a grumpy 40-something man, like all of them – men that is.”
Carlo cooked, and, basically, I could only boil water to his satisfaction. I was, however, good at washing the dishes and cleaning up. I learned quickly that you can’t cook for an Italian. Determining which sauce goes with which pasta and what meat is appropriate for the second course is an exact science. I did learn how to properly clean the lettuce for salad, which we served as the last course, but I couldn’t be trusted to add the salt or olive oil.
I’d catch a ride back in town with Carlo or Ulla when one of them re-opened their jewelry store for the afternoon. The other stayed home with the kids – those lucky Italian students finish school at 1:00 p.m. I’d go to the palestre, the gym owned and operated by Giovanni’s Nikki-chasing brother, Fabio. I would use the muscle machines. Sometimes I’d drop by to see if Giovanni was at his apartment, which usually caused me to miss my ride home. But Giovanni was glad to bring me back, after an intimate reunion.
On the weekends, Ulla’s friends would come over for long Sunday lunches and discussions. Or we’d go to one of the hippie parties or someone else’s house for lunch. I liked getting to know Ulla and Carlo, but my identity around town was still wrapped up in Giovanni. More of his friends suggested I take him to America, or warned me that he never fell in love and slept with every woman he could get his hands on. Maybe it was a mistake to continue hanging out with his friends.
One Thursday morning, when I went into town for the market, I actually had time between errands to walk around and enjoy all the sights and sounds. I loved hearing the men yelling about their fruit and clothing for sale. A few gypsies offered good fortune if I gave them money. I almost did, but I decided to let fate run its course without bribery.
I rang up to Giovanni’s. He let me in, but he was getting dressed for work and seemed distracted. I panicked — maybe our relationship was crumbling. With so much time on my hands, I was over-analyzing everything.
Looking out the window, I noticed that Giovanni had a direct view of the cathedral on the hill. I looked down and saw a tourist. It was Rob. I was ecstatic to see him, because I’d heard from Artilio that Rob had moved all the way to Aidone, a town that’s famous for the Greek ruins of Morgantina. As picky as Rob was, maybe the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina just wasn’t ancient enough for him. I said goodbye to Giovanni, ran down to the street, and gave Rob a huge hug. I’d thought I would never see him again, and my guilt over having abandoned him had overwhelmed me.
To hell with getting back to Ulla’s to do my work that day. I accompanied Rob on his trek back to Girasol. We made the obligatory stop at Artilio’s, after concurring with what everyone had said that his information contained gaps either from his old age, drug use, or other unidentified sources. When Rob had discussed the Gulf War with Artilio, the old man had bemoaned how terrible it was that Palestine had attacked Turkey. When Rob had tried to correct him, Artilio looked at him as if he were the dumbest American from a whole continent full of ignoramuses.
Artilio’s information might have been unreliable, but you could trust that his food would be good. His menu had changed to a more wintery dish. Instead of the summer tomato sauce on bocatini pasta followed by chicken which he’d cooked in the sauce, Artilio now served meatballs. I think it was the first time I had actually eaten a meatball in Italy.
I asked Artilio what he thought of destiny. In his low grumbly voice he said, “Non lo credi,” I don’t believe in it. Then with an accusatory finger only an old Sicilian could properly point, he added, “You believe only because you are afraid of death.”
Of course I was afraid of death. Who wasn’t? Apparently the older this man got, the less afraid of it he was. He had lived his life. He’d had his destiny. He’d shared a life with his wife and nursed her while she was sick. He had watched her die.
After thanking him for lunch, and for his interesting opinions and advice, we headed on to Girasol, where Rob was staying. When we opened the door, I was appalled by Rob’s lack of housekeeping.
“Rob, you sure left a huge mess.”
Rob looked hurt, and tried to pass the buck.
“Dumb cats,” he said, looking at the books and bags strewn on the floor. Rob had joined Mick in detesting all the kittens being born.
Then Rob looked around for a moment and grew silent. “Where is the stereo?”
“Oh my God, Girasol has been robbed!” I screamed.
We couldn’t believe it. In such a seemingly isolated and innocent place? How did they know Mick and Veronika were gone? That Rob was here alone the night before? They must have assumed whoever lived here had gone to the Thursday market. Who was it? That scumbag Enzo who’d said I could fuck him in his car or get left in the middle of nowhere? Or was it some other evil shepherd?
We cleaned up as best we could, then went up the hill to Marlies’s house to report the crime. They told us not to worry, the place had been robbed many times. I wished I had known that while my passport was stored there all summer. Annabella was there too, and she seemed less understanding. She was pissed that this had happened while she and Rob were supposed to be watching the place.
I spent a nervous night at Girasol, and the next morning I danced around, celebrating surviving the night. Singing to myself was novel since, with no ‘70s music blasting from the stereo, the place was quiet for the first time. As I jumped and pranced, I landed, barefoot, in cat shit. Those cats were not getting any more popular. The place was full of shit, so I can’t just blame the cats. The sacks of rice were full of mouse shit. Mick and Veronika’s undiapered two year old, who had no real potty to be trained on, had left shit and piss everywhere. They must have been able to mellow out and accept it all with the help of the pot plant they had growing on the windowsill.
The morning of the robbery, I had headed to Giovanni’s in hopes that he’d let me take a shower. As I walked over to his apartment complex, Carol ran down to see me. I was surprised at the long hug she gave me. Being out there in the wilderness, I hadn’t seen her in what felt like weeks. It was great to be back together, if only as friends.
Since she was so excited to see me, I let her keep thinking I had come looking for her. I was pleased that she had missed me enough to hike all the way out to Girasol, and I was glad to have her company when we discovered the crime.
Panicking, I ran to where I had hidden my camera and travelers’ checks. I felt triumphant, but a bit self-centered, when I found that all my stuff was safe and untouched where I had hidden it, under the children’s toys. The burglars had opened my backpack and looked in, but apparently they hadn’t seen anything they wanted.
When Annabella found out, she was fuming. I got stressed, and my eczema started flaring up. I really wished I’d taken that shower at Giovanni’s. Instead, I washed my hair in the sink, which felt good enough. I went upstairs to cuddle and talk with Carol in the loft, but when we started to fall asleep she sent me downstairs.
After the cat’s generous gift was wiped clean from my bare foot, I bid goodbye to the never mellow residence and caught a ride to town with one of Artilio’s neighbors. Giovanni accepted me in his place for the day and wasn’t rushed for work or anything this time.
The church bells chimed eight times, somewhere in town, and I knew I had missed my ride back to Ulla’s. Giovanni finished and relaxed, claiming he was “morto,” dead, but that “il sesso e bello,” sex is beautiful. A common thought in Sicily.
I spent the night. The next morning I was woken up by the buzz of the doorbell, and Mick rushed in like a tornado demanding to borrow a radio. Since he’d returned to Girasol to find the stereo gone, they were dying without any music. I finally made it back to Ulla’s, and, when I apologized for my absence, she told me not to worry. She understood I was a young wanderer, out and about with my lovers. She was always so cool. She joked that she hoped I wasn’t suffering too much with all my intrigues. I had amused her with my stories, including tales of dating cowboys, back home, with their crazy ideas about living in trailers and raising “varmints” together. It was comforting being back in the safety of Carlo and Ulla’s, and I hoped Rob would be O.K. in the Wild West side of the neighborhood.
Annabella had already gone when I finally dragged myself out of bed at Girasol. She’d left a note saying she had planted the garden and was heading to town. It was raining and muddy out. Hell, she was up and at ‘em before 9 am, in this weather? If the dictatorship of the proletariat ever did take hold in Italy, Annabella might just be the one to lead it. Carol and I arose at a more leisurely pace. Then, to my chagrin, she, too, insisted on leaving for town in the rain. Left alone again, I filled the time by writing letters to my family and painting.
Annabella returned in late afternoon, disrupting my reverie. But I was glad she might relieve me of having to stay alone at night after the burglary. Sicily had seemed depressing to me before, but not dangerous. I gladly helped her plant lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage seeds. Though it had stopped raining, it was still cold. With the help of a cool-looking leather jacket with a broken zipper, borrowed from inside the house, it wasn’t such bad work. As darkness fell, she hiked over to Marlies and Felipe’s to discuss plans for the Christmas program they wanted to put on this season. Naturally, I was alone again.
I survived the night with no visit from criminal elements and happily breakfasted on Melba toast and jam. I had proudly bought those at the supermarket days before. Somehow that little act of self-determination seemed huge to me. On previous visits to the market, I’d followed Annabella around like a whipped puppy dog.
I fed the chickens and watered the plants, and I was looking forward to doing some painting. I had just set up my pallet when I heard people crunching through the fallen leaves. I went outside to see who it was. Unfortunately, Mick, Veronika, and the kids were back. Their car had run out of fuel on the paved road last night, and they had slept there rather than fumbling back, with kids and gear, in the dark. Mick was in a foul mood, and the peace of my tranquil morning evaporated. Like Veronika, I tiptoed around, trying to chill Mick out, rather than risking his wrath. I offered to help carry diesel from the nonfunctioning circus truck to the car. But first I was in the unenviable position of having to break the news of the burglary.
As soon as I did, Mick ran to the stereo shelf, as if I’d made the story up. As he cursed and the children looked at him with wide eyes, Veronika explained that they’d also had 300,000 lira (about $200) stolen from their car while on the road. Hell of a streak of luck. Of course, I was afraid they would blame me for not watching the place well enough. I felt a twinge of guilt when Mick refused my help carrying diesel to the car, so I offered to babysit instead. Mick was always glad to be unburdened of the kids, so he accepted.
The kids led me into the nuccioli, hazelnut tree grove, further than I’d been before. They were very excited about it, but my neck hurt from bending down to look for hazelnuts. Sabine cracked them open with rocks, I followed suit and gave some to Hans, who was too small to open his own. Many of them seemed rotten or fermented. Sabine made a big show of disgust at these and spat them out, but Hans relished them. I was afraid we’d be late for lunch, but somehow I didn’t worry about them losing their appetite filling up on rotten nuts.
When we returned, Veronika had made an elaborate lasagna-like dish. It was baked pasta with egg and cheese; I was in awe of someone making such a complicated meal. Just boiling spaghetti and making sauce seemed daunting to me. I did the dishes, then the kids begged to continue the walk, and I conceded. I would take them up to Oscar’s, so I could pick up Mick’s saw which I’d left there. I worried he might notice it missing and didn’t want to be blamed for it getting stolen too.
I was apprehensive as we headed up there, perhaps it had become the thieves’ den. Sabine knew a back way, and we trudged I was apprehensive as we headed up there, perhaps it had become the thieves’ den. Sabine knew a back way, and we trudged up the hill. It was a challenge helping the children, and their dolls, up the dry river gullies. On the road I saw Annabella and some others approaching in the distance. I was feeling antisocial, so I thought it would be a fun game to hide in an old house, with the kids, and spy on them as they passed by. After the sound of conversation had died away, we took a cow path the rest of the way.
Oscar’s showed no sign of burglars. I grabbed the saw, as the kids looked around curiously, and we headed back by way of Artilio’s. He was in his garden of trees, but again I suggested that we be play spies and avoid him. Our stealthy mission completed, the exhausted kids and I trudged back to Girasol in time for me to help prepare dinner. I helped cut veggies for a salad to go with the pasta and boiled potatoes. This time Annabella didn’t volunteer to clean up afterwards. I wondered if she was testing me – I took the bait and did the cleaning.
The next evening Veronika worked on crafting a new puppet. I looked forward to one of Mick’s meticulously-crafted spinellis, not considering that he might be tired of sharing his stash with me. I did worry that maybe I was beginning to like smoking this stuff too much.
When I mentioned possibly living in Valle Perfetta, Veronika went off. She set down her puppet head so she could add gestures to her speech about how conservative the people were there. They refused to be seen naked, and my potential landlord, Helmut, had been too embarrassed to let his children have friends over until they got a “real” indoor toilet. This was especially ironic since he used to be an ascetic Hare Krishna. Then there was the couple who spoiled their Great Dane, Attila, by treating him like the child they’d never had. They would rush him off to the vet if it had “just the slightest bit of liquid shit.” Now that they finally had a baby, Veronika continued, the poor neglected dog had turned bitter and psychotic, a danger to anybody who visited the hilly German area.
Despite her warnings, the next day I braved up the hill past Marlies and Felipe’s to Valle Perfetta. Wiping sweat from my brow as I reached the Valle Perfetta road, I met Hilda bringing her kids home from school. They lived in a charming little house they had restored. It was a wood, stone, and glass construction with a very open feeling and heartbreakingly quaint paths and gardens around it. Hilda was usually pleasant and had an oversized smile for such a slight woman. She dressed colorfully, spoke English nearly perfectly, as did all the Germans, and usually kept her straight shoulder-length brown hair pulled back from her tanned face in a tiny ponytail. Her partner, Kai, was in his late 30’s or early 40’s, like Hilda and most of the foreign community. He had long, thinning scraggly blond hair, a deeply lined face, and a sinewy, muscular body. He was outgoing and warm, always animated and enthusiastic. I heard he was a recovered heroin addict. I could hardly imagine that, judging by his work ethic now. He loved to stay busy and was always planning new additions to his house, clearing new fields, building new tool sheds, and most importantly, fermenting new batches of wine.
Their children, Georg, seven, and Pia, celebrating her sixth birthday, were forces of nature. Wild children, they seemed to have been cherished and indulged so much they felt like they owned the world. Carol didn’t like them much, as the first time she’d met them, Georg had kicked her. I tried to tolerate them, and it was kind of cute the way they pronounced my name “Rop.”
Pia showed me the path to Helmut’s. He was asleep, and his Sicilian wife, Lea, said to come back in an hour. So I went down the ridge to Fier’s house. It didn’t occur to me until later how ironic it was that a Jew with a number instead of a name — “fear” being how the number four is pronounced in German — was living amongst Germans. But Fier didn’t seem to have a problem with it; he lived happily in his quaint stone house. It was similar to Girasol and Oscar’s, but smaller, and he had arranged with the absentee landowner to stay there as a caretaker. One door faced the path from the house that might be mine, and an outdoor sink and storage area sat in front of the door. The tiled ground floor had windows facing down the terraced hill, and a ground floor had windows facing down the terraced hill, and a table and chairs sat next to a wood stove. A rough-hewn ladder led up to a loft for a sleeping area. That day, Fier wasn’t there to let me in.
I made myself as comfortable as I could, lying on the hard bench outside his place. I stared at the clouds swirling above and bemoaned the complexity of my fate. I wished I had the self-determination and confidence Carol seemed to have. I started to hope she was having a bad time! I was falling victim to this Stockholm-effect brainwashing. I wanted to be angry at her, but I was scared. What if she was the best I could ever hope for? Perhaps someone as damaged and weird as me wouldn’t find anyone ever again.
Maybe I belonged back in Minnesota, after all, but not as her puppy dog. Maybe I needed to find my own place when we moved back there. Hell, maybe I should try having multiple partners here in Sicily like Giovanni. It would be a good experiment for Minnesota if I went back with Carol. I should call her more often, but that would mean more hikes to the phone at Marlies and Felipe’s, just to risk interrupting her sex with Giovanni. What the hell was I doing with my life? Was I capable of living alone? Or even living with others? Would I ever be able to manage anything “normal” people do, besides eating and shitting?
I kicked up some intriguing sandstones. Appropriately enough, given all the recent conversations about sex, my stone struck me as an ancient fertility idol. It had three distinct sections for head, torso, and legs, like the famous prehistoric Venus of Willendorf. At the bottom of the torso, a long bump seemed to suggest a penis.
I had read that most stone-age civilizations were matrilineal rather than male-centered, because it wasn’t until the rise of agriculture that men took control. But this stone reminded me of the Roman port cities, where penis-shaped arrows pointed the way for the emperor’s sailors to find the whore houses. Leave it to Italy to have been phalocentric forever. I marveled at this stone and tried to feel scientific rather than queer as I rubbed dirt off its phallic area. Was this really an ancient artifact which had worked its way to the surface at the exact moment in history for me to find it? A messenger totem inspiring me to virility and masculinity? Or just a random chunk of rock? This Sicilian mysticism was getting to me.
Fier never showed, so after the allotted time seemed to have passed, I headed back and found Helmut awake. We sat and talked — I mostly listened — and they invited me to stay for dinner. It was bread, cold cuts, and hot sauce, and it was fine by me!
At first, Helmut said he might give me a three-week trial period to see how I fit in there. He talked authoritatively about many things. Like Carol’s host Carlo, he was making a good living as a jewelry vendor. But he told me of his rough early days as a young hippie when he barely had enough to eat. Helmut was thin and bald. He counseled me to eat a variety of foods, because he was sure that a vitamin deficiency, caused by his long poverty diet of bread and pasta, had led to the loss of his hair. I nodded and promised I would take care of my hair. After more wine and stories, he thought I seemed amenable and tranquilo enough, so no trial period was necessary. Sure I could stay there, no problem! I felt I had won the lotto. By then it was late and dark, so he offered to let me sleep over rather than stumble back to Girasol under the clouded moon. This all looked very promising.
When I woke up, Helmut had gone. His wife said he left at six each day, and I was glad I wasn’t him. I went outside and around to the bathroom. One of the house rules, Helmut had told me, was that everyone, male and female alike, must pee sitting down. I forgot that until it was too late, and hoped my aim was good enough that Helmut wouldn’t notice. Lea offered me breakfast, which was the same ham and salami we’d had for dinner with soft cheese, honey, and toasted bread. She also gave me tea and a cup of coconut yogurt, which was new to Sicily. It was new to me, too. I tried to converse, but it felt awkward. I helped clean the table, but worried I’d break some house rule and do it wrong. She took me to see where I’d be living.
There were actually two small one-room houses I could use, plus a small “bath” shed with no bath. None of these buildings had locks or keys. They all technically belonged to Helmut’s ex-wife. Lea tested the water, which turned on fine at the outdoor sink of the main house. As for a bathroom, there was what Veronika poetically called a “shit pit,” one terrace below, covered by a board. A few scant bushes provided some privacy, but, luckily, no one passed by very often. The electricity also worked fine – in each building one bare bulb hung from a wire. I was excited by so many amenities. The main house had a quaint wood-burning stove, as well as a four-burner attachment, called a bombola, which could be hooked up to a propane tank. The word’s similarity to ‘bomb’ didn’t make me feel too comfortable.
The main house was quaint, built of stone with a red tile roof, and it backed into the hillside. Pastel psychedelic patterns adorned the plastered walls inside. Windows stretched along the front and the side facing Hilda’s. That would give me a chance to hide if I saw Georg and Pia approaching. There was a piano, a rope-frame bed and mattress, and plenty of dust and dead bugs to clean out. It looked like paradise.
After bidding good day to Lea, I stopped at Hilda’s on my way back to Girasol, feeling good. No one was home, so I sat on their garden bench. It was peaceful. Looking up at the enfolding Sicilian hills, I finally felt a sense of belonging. Somehow I was above the fray now. I could have my place for free and do whatever I felt like for a year, living off my savings. I wouldn’t have to work like everyone else, farmers, shepherds, fire-juggling street performers, jewelry sellers, and taxi drivers.
In the morning at Girasol, Annabella snapped, “You know, when you’re not doing anything, you could be cleaning up or putting on some tea!” I had worried I might be in trouble when I told her I fed the chickens and she seemed underwhelmed. So I swept and cleaned up. She was probably right, but I just didn’t feel like doing it. A big baby, I guess. We talked about the problem of living with your parents too long – she said you turn out spoiled, like me. That pissed me off, but she might be right. Chastened, I tried to be helpful all day. I hoed soil in the garden, sacrificing the painting time I’d hoped to have.
Around lunchtime I happened to lift the lid of the wooden trunk in which Mick and Veronika stored their rice. The rice, which was not in bags, was a foot deep in the trunk. It was fun to run my hand through and play with. Then I noticed something odd. Interspersed with the white rice were occasional black flecks. At first I assumed they were bad grains of rice. But upon closer inspection, I realized what they were. I had lived in a small apartment, growing up, with my family of five squeezed into two bedrooms. The only pets we had were goldfish, gerbils, and mice. What I was seeing in the rice bin was unmistakably rodent poop.
Annabella was, at the moment, boiling some of it to go with dinner. I started to get a bit queasy and pointed out my discovery to her. “Well, it doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “They just eat the same thing you do, so it’s natural!” I was speechless at this logic. I didn’t say anything else about it, but I didn’t eat any of the rice either. Instead I managed to sufficiently pull myself together to make some couscous. It turned out delicious. I let her eat mouse poop in peace. I wondered if maybe Annabella was right about one thing. Perhaps the energy you put into things does karmically come back to you. But when you cook a big dinner, there are so many dishes waiting for you in the morning!
The next day, Mick returned and said they didn’t need any help with the kids. I figured it was due to the spicy potato salad incident. I took the chance to escape and lugged all my belongings to the supposedly uptight community of Valle Perfetta. Scattered clouds passed overhead as I wended through the cow paths and boulders. The scenery inspired me to write some poems. It was also a nice excuse to take breaks from carrying all my crap.
When I got to Helmut’s empty house, I dropped my stuff and took a nap. I wasn’t all that physically tired, but I was depressed. I’d always hated change. Afterwards I stopped at Helmut’s. He was at work, but Lea offered me delicious cabbage and carrot soup. I hung out a while and called Carol on their phone, used their precious indoor bathroom, and read to their and carrot soup. I hung out a while and called Carol on their phone, used their precious indoor bathroom, and read to their daughter in Italian and my roughly-pronounced German. I borrowed a saw to cut some wood, and then ran into Georg and Pia as they returned from school. They insisted that I come with them to gather chestnuts and figs, which we shared.
Back at what I would now call my house, I rifled through my stuff and found a book of matches. I gathered some sticks, started a cozy fire in the wood stove, and settled in for my first evening.