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
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.